Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: August, 2015

The Birth of a Nation, Part VIII

Birth_of_a_Nation_Poster_-_SeattleWhen I started this year, it was my intention to map out a series of 12 articles on the release of D.W. Griffith’s nationalist epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Each would cover a different aspect of the film and the whole would be a cohesive essay on the movie. Because of the claimed importance of the movie, it seemed like dedicating the whole year to its study was justified

Having reached August, however, I don’t find that I have all that much more to say about it. Here’s a quick summary of what I learned so far this year:

  • I don’t much care for the movie, either in terms of content or artistry.
  • It was a runaway smash hit and was praised to the sky at the time, by filmgoers, by critics, and by other directors.
  • Film historians have credited it with all kinds of amazing innovations, most of which had been developed much earlier, and will bend over backward to defend its content, ignoring flagrant racism with lame excuses like “that’s how things were then,” or, perhaps worse, will deliberately cover up its actual message.
  • Its release and distribution is directly linked to the rise of the second Klan in America.
  • D.W. Griffith agreed with its message and either couldn’t understand or refused to believe that it promoted divisiveness and hate in the country.

GriffithDWAnd while we’re on the subject of Griffith, here’s what I’m seeing:

  • He was a good, perhaps great director, but not the superhero he gets made out to be.
  • He is consistently credited with innovations (like the close-up, the fade-out, etc) that others did first and he appears to have accepted that credit while alive, either deliberately or mistakenly muddying the historical record.
  • His best work, and certainly his most innovative/original, was done while working in short format at Biograph. He never seems to have learned how to tell longer stories well, even though he desperately wanted to the whole time.
  • His most important contributions seem to have been in the field of editing, specifically in terms of showing simultaneous action across space. He was not the first to do this, either, however he did develop techniques that made it far more effective. In the best examples, such as “An Unseen Enemy,” cross-cutting makes the whole story work.

AlalogosmallThere’s just one more piece to all of this I want to talk about, and it’s the hardest one for me to approach: the question of censorship. I’m a librarian, and I’m therefore professionally dedicated to combating censorship in all forms. Even apart from that, I’ve always been one to fall on the side of “freedom of speech at any cost.” Certainly I would not want to see it become illegal or impossible for people to see “The Birth of a Nation” today – there’s too much to be learned from it. Honestly, I think if more people saw it, we’d have a better chance of getting a re-evaluation of its historical significance and meaning.

NaacplogoBut, what about back then? The NAACP fought hard battles to keep the movie from opening in various cities, and I’m very grateful to them for doing so. If they hadn’t spoken up, there would be no evidence that, yes, in fact people at that time did find this movie offensive, and their wishes were conveniently ignored. The “it was just that way back then” narrative would succeed. How else could they have made their point known except by trying to censor it? They could have (and did) try the route of “counter-speech,” making their own movies to show the value and worth of African Americans, or correcting the record on the Civil War. But, none of them even came close to capturing the popular imagination the way “Birth of a Nation” did. It’s easy to talk about counter-speech being the best way to fight hate speech, but the reality is that you don’t just make a blockbuster because you happen have the moral high ground or the truth on your side. It takes money, professional connections, artistic skills and distribution infrastructure, which are not easy to come by. In the end, the NAACP lost most of its battles, or won them technically, but still were unable to enforce their wins. “Birth of a Nation” was released all over the country, but not without a fight, and that fight remains part of the historical record.

Birth of a Nation7Am I saying that the world would be a better place if “Birth of a Nation” had not been released, or had been restricted to a clandestine release? I don’t think so. It would have been nice if the 20s KKK had not had access to such a powerful recruiting tool, but there probably wasn’t any way to stop that. The fact that the movie was released, and that it became such a runaway hit that nearly everyone in film agreed it was brilliant for generations is, in fact, an important reflection of the times. I’m grateful to the NAACP, not because they wanted to suppress speech, but because they used their campaign to remind Americans then and now that there was more than one side to the story. Even a campaign for censorship is itself a form of speech, and deserves to be listened to as much for what it says as for what it tries to stop others from saying.

Birth of a NationWhat disappoints me about modern historians and classic film fans is that they simply shrug off these complexities and accept the dominant narrative as the only one. “Classic” movies in America are generally defined as being those made during the period when the fewest non-white people were on the screen, and those that were there had the most stereotyped roles. This is something that needs to be challenged. Enjoying or studying old movies shouldn’t entail accepting the ideology of the period in which they were made without question. It’s possible for Griffith to have been both an innovator and a racist. The world is a complicated place, and understanding it requires a willingness to be honest about your evidence, and keep asking new questions, and, most of all, being ready to change your mind.

That’s all I have to say about this movie for now. The last question, how I’m going to handle it in terms of the “Century Awards,” I leave for next month.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913)

Inside of the White Slave Traffic

This move was an early example of a combination exploitation-and-message-picture. Ostensibly produced by a sociologist (who thanks “Every Sociologist from Atlantic to Pacific” in the opening credits), it claims to portray the actual daily lives of pimps and prostitutes, drawing audiences in with the promise of salacious (but actually absent) details. This would be an approach taken by exploitation producers to avoid censorship for at least the next 70 years.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic1Most of this story centers around Annie, who is a “good girl, who works hard” in a sweatshop, but it begins with a short prologue about Mary, a woman already caught up in prostitution. Mary is George, the procurer’s, “best girl.” She gets arrested and George goes to court with a mouthpiece to bail her out. Then, George meets Annie and takes her out for drinks, spiking them. When Annie wakes up at his apartment, she is horrified, and runs home, where her father throws her out for having lost her purity. She goes back to George, who takes her to a phony preacher and pretends to marry her. He then puts her up “with friends” while he pretends to look for a job. Soon, he sells her to one of his associates for $300, and he takes her to New Orleans, where he makes it clear what she is expected to do. She keeps the money she makes for herself and runs away to Denver and later Houston, where no one will give her a job because of “the system.” So, she returns to her new pimp, and agrees to try working, but, as soon as she meets a man on the street, a cop chases him off and arrests her. She is “rehabilitated” and works at a department store for a while, but she gets tired of her low pay and returns to her pimp, who puts her back to work. She fantasizes about her former happy family life, but returns to harsh reality. When she dies, she is buried in a potter’s field with no name on her gravestone marker.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic2In fairness, the surviving print of this movie is incomplete, so some of the inconsistencies and jumps in the storyline above should be forgiven. Still, it seems like an awfully inefficient model for organized crime. In the footage we see, her pimp pays $300 for her (worth at least $5000 in today’s money, or a lot more depending on how you measure it), but he only makes a few dollars off her before she is arrested. Meanwhile, he has to pay for telegrams to Houston, Denver, and throughout “the system,” apparently. Criminals like this wouldn’t stay in business very long. It seems to me they would need to have a more effective means of convincing her to work for them than the elaborate plot about faking a marriage and giving her free room and board for weeks or months as well. Finally, as I suggested above, there is nothing at all racy about the content, even by the standards of movies at the time. “Trilby” and “Carmen” showed more skin, and those women did a much better job of implying their availability than the uptight Annie and Mary ever do. They take off their hats in a couple of scenes, but that’s about as far as they go.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic4

As sexy as it gets.

Still, there are some interesting things about this movie. Most of it is shot in the standard “square” format on cramped sound stages with painted flats in the background (you’ll laugh out loud at the attempt at painting perspective on the Dept. Store flat). However, there are brief glimpses of city streets from the period that are fascinating. Some of these are unmistakably New York (watch for the “ell” trains), and the ones ostensibly in Denver are definitely in a rugged Western city with dirt sidewalks and cow hands roving around. The background characters are not extras, they are real people of the time, and their fashions and appearances are informative. As usual at the time, however, these shots are annoyingly brief, requiring you to pause to really examine them. The editing structure has few surprises, but there is a kind of leisurely cross-cutting when Annie tries to find work against the resistance of “the system.” There’s also a handy glossary on criminal slang of the period, which probably includes a couple of accurate entries, if only by accident.

Gillette probably wasn't happy about this association.

Gillette probably wasn’t happy about this association.

Also interesting are the takeaways of the message. The big sin that the movie points out is the “out of my house” rule that the father enforces when Annie comes home after being out all night. The other point that is made is the double standard of arresting the prostitute while just shooing off the John. The producer or the Sociologist involved is trying to make the point that prostitution is not a moral failing, but a result of social conditions that could be changed by society. It’s not an especially sophisticated presentation of that argument, but it is a good representation of the Progressivist influence on motion pictures of the time.

Director: Frank Beal

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Edwin Carewe, Virginia Mann, Jean Thomas

Run Time: 28 Min, 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Redman’s View (1909)

Red_Man's_ViewThis film is sometimes held up (mistakenly, I would say, for reasons I’ll discuss below) in contrast to “The Birth of a Nation,” to argue that D.W. Griffith wasn’t really racist after all, he was simply misunderstood. It is among the movies he directed in his first year at Biograph and it does demonstrate his belief that the movies could be used to tell serious stories with messages. Even though he was to rebel against the short format for movies, is also demonstrates his ability to work effectively within that form.

Red Mans ViewIn the beginning of the film, a young Native American couple meets by the riverside. He shyly proposes to her and she shyly accepts (all in pantomime). When they return to their tribe, the young man is faced with a horrible choice between her or his father. A group of plundering white men suddenly arrive and insists that everyone leave the land. He protests that his father is to old and ill to move, and for a moment it looks like there will be a confrontation, but then the white men get ahold of his bride and keep her hostage. Reluctantly, the tribe begins their exodus. Whenever they stop to rest, suddenly the white men are there with guns drawn, telling them to keep moving. The girl tries to take advantage of this to escape, but is recaptured. Finally, the old man dies and a ritual is held to honor him. The young man returns to the camp to free his wife, but they are caught again. The white men appear ready to kill them both, but one white man stops the others and sends them on their way. They have lost their land, but they are together.

Red Mans View2Although Griffith tried hard to make this a powerful experience, there are a couple of flaws in this film. First, our sense of time and place is very ambiguous. We get the impression of a long trek (and even are given to understand that the natives reach the Pacific Ocean), but they never seem to be more than short walking distance from the white men’s camp, which never changes. At times it seems we are seeing simultaneous events cross-edited but then characters from one thread turn up in the other – as when the girl attempts her escape to be caught by the same men who are harassing her husband. The other problem is inherent in trying to make a silent movie about people suffering from walking. A lot of the movie is just shots of the Native Americans walking slowly across the screen, with sad expressions on their faces. It’d be hard to make this work with dialogue, but without it, it makes 15 minutes seem long. On the plus side, the New Jersey Palisades stand in nicely for the bleak yet unspoiled landscape Griffith wants us to believe of the West.

Red Mans View1So, doesn’t making a pro-Native American movie clear Griffith of the charge of racism? Well, not exactly, although it does complicate it a bit. This movie is steeped in the imagery of the “Noble Savage,” and the tragic-but-inevitable side of Manifest Destiny. In claiming to give us “The Point of View of the Red Man,” Griffith presumes to speak for numerous cultures, and he lumps them neatly together into a classic stereotype, albeit one less negative than that of “Gus,” the lustful African American. And, of course, he uses only white actors to portray them, although admittedly it would have been hard to find genuine Western Native Americans on 14th Street in New York, let alone good actors of that background. This is generally a less offensive movie than “Birth,” but that doesn’t make it un-biased.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Owen Moore, Kate Bruce, Arthur V. Johnson, Henry Lehrman, Lottie Pickford

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music)

In the Park (1915)

In_the_Park_(poster)This Charlie Chaplin film returns to the three critical Keystone elements of “a girl, a park, and a policeman.” In fact, it seems so much like a deliberate send-up of Chaplin’s work at Keystone studios that I wonder whether someone at Essanay asked him to make a movie “like” the ones that had launched his popularity. Charlie wanders around a park, running into various people and getting into fights or stealing from them, but the most important are Edna Purviance and Bud Jamison, a couple out in the park because Edna the nursemaid has brought her infant charges out for some sun. Charlie manages to flirt with Edna, then, after stealing a purse from a fellow vagrant thief, sells it to Bud, only to take it back and give it to Edna as a gift. At various points, we get the classic three-frame editing in which characters in frame one throw bricks at someone in frame two, who ducks and allows the brick to sail into frame three and hit someone. The policeman eventually locates the purse’s original owner but Charlie first diverts blame to Jamison, then boots both of them into the lake.

In_the_Park_(1915)Because this movie so closely resembles its Keystone models, there’s not a lot of chance to Charlie to develop his character here. Still, his “Little Tramp” comes across as somewhat more sympathetic simply due to the less frenetic pace of the film. As he steals the purse from an unconscious Jamison at one point, he makes a kind of shrugging movement with his body that seems to say “I know it’s wrong, but what can I do?” This kind of defines the direction he’s taking the character this year. He seems to genuinely enjoy his exchanges with Edna, and also evinces a kind of shy surprise when she is responsive to his advances. Other characters get more chance to elaborate as well, particularly an “elegant masher” played by Leo White, who is romancing the original owner of the purse, and vows to commit suicide when she loses interest in him after the theft. The “suicide” may have helped inspire Harold Lloyd when he made “Haunted Spooks” (see Harold’s idea of funny suicide in this gif at Movies Silently).

In_The_Park_(Charlie_Chaplin)Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Ernest van Pelt.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Champion (1915)

Champion_1915Movies and boxing have gone together since the birth of American cinema. Boxing also lends itself to precisely the kind of physical comedy associated with slapstick, so it’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin returned to the theme more than once in his career. The first time was in “The Knockout,” which is really a Fatty Arbuckle film that Charlie appeared in as a supporting character, but because of his higher name value, it tends to be associated with Charlie instead (See Silentology for another discussion of “The Knockout”). Less than a year later, and at another studio, Charlie made his first appearance as a headliner in a boxing comedy.

Champion1Slightly longer, “The Champion” has a somewhat simpler plot than “The Knockout.” We open on Charlie with a pet bulldog, apparently down on his heels, but sharing a hot dog with his companion. A bit later, Charlie finds a “good luck” horseshoe just as he passes Spike Dugan’s (Ernest van Pelt) training quarters, which is advertising for a boxing partner “who can take a punch.” After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion, Bob Uppercut, played by Bud Jamison, who still seems to me to be filling Mack Swain’s shoes. A gambler (Leo White) wants Charlie to throw the fight, but Charlie knocks him out and takes his money anyway. He and the trainer’s daughter (Edna Purviance, once again, who seems to be dressing as a boy to sneak into the fights as Minta Durfee did in “The Knockout”) meet and fall in love. At the big fight, Ben Turpin takes on Charlie’s former role as the referee, and winds up getting hit about as often as the fighters. Broncho Billy Anderson, co-owner of Essanay Studios, is rumored to be in the fight audience, but I didn’t spot him based on the one Broncho Billy movie I’ve been able to see so far.

Champion2The opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.


Shall we dance?

In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.

ChampionDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Ernest van Pelt, Broncho Billy Anderson, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)

This is one of the major contenders for the title of “first motion picture” and is, in fact, the subject of a recent documentary called “The First Film” which you can read about here. I’m not really concerned with the claim, but I suspect that it will top my “Films by Year” list for some time to come (unless someone discovers something even older!). Whatever the decision on that debate, it is a moving picture that is well past its century mark, and thus deserving of a place on this blog. It is very short, but undeniably captures movement. The image is much clearer than in the “Monkeyshines” experiments, although I’m not certain if that’s because Louis Le Prince made a better camera than Edison’s lab, or if it’s just been better preserved. In any event, Le Prince made the more interesting image by virtue of shooting outside in his garden, rather than in a sterile studio space, and by capturing several people moving in his very first image. Especially noteworthy are the women; women would be rather alien to the Black Maria at first, and even after they were admitted, were usually there as some kind of spectacle, ala Annie Oakley or Annabelle Moore. These women are, like those seen in Lumière films, simply natural women, dressed as they would on any day, moving in mostly normal ways. I say mostly normal, because if you pay attention, you’ll see that one of them is walking backwards. I have no idea why that should be the case, either she was told to do that or else she tried to have a little joke at the expense of the inventor – you see, Louis, your movies run backward! Back to the drawing board…

Director: Louis Le Prince

Camera: Louis Le Prince

Cast: Adolphe Le Prince, Harriet Hartley, Joseph Whitley, Sarah Whitley

Run Time: 2 seconds

You can watch it at the top of this page or, if that link breaks, here.

A Night Out (1915)

Night OutThis is one of the early films Charlie Chaplin made at Essanay Studios during his year there after he left Keystone. It has many of the familiar elements from Keystone – men with silly facial hair, women who seem to enjoy flirting with transients, a dull-witted policeman, a large jealous husband, hotels and bar rooms, and a world populated with people with a propensity for solving problems with physical violence – but has more measured timing and use of the individual gags, plus a much longer run time than most of the shorts he did there.

Night Out4To the degree that there is a plot, it concerns Charlie and his drinking buddy Ben Turpin, who apparently are out on the town for a while before the movie starts because by the time it does they are both staggering drunk. They make their way to a restaurant, where they get into fights with various patrons and ultimately are thrown out by the large headwaiter (played by Bud Jamison, who is doing his best to be Mack Swain). The two pals decide to get a room and sleep it off, and, after multiple pratfalls, Ben Turpin winds up in his bed, and Charlie winds up in a room with Edna Purviance (this was her first appearance in a Chaplin film, but they would work and sleep together for the next eight years). Then her husband comes home, and, of course, it’s Bud Jamison! So, Charlie packs up his pajamas and goes to another hotel, but he’s too drunk to sign the register and winds up on a park bench. Turpin wakes up alone and the desk clerk insists he pay since Charlie already left. He finds Charlie on the park bench, who replies to his request for rent money with several blows to the head with a brick. Meanwhile, some issue has come up at the original hotel with the headwaiter that involves holes being cut in his handkerchiefs, so they move to the second hotel. Now, Charlie heads back there and goes through an elaborate getting-ready-for-bed ritual that involves throwing his trousers out the window and spreading toothpaste on his slippers. Meanwhile, Edna has been playing with a dog in her room (across from Charlie’s, of course) and the dog runs under Charlie’s bed, where she follows it. Charlie comes out and discovers a girl under his bed, to some apparent glee, until she says something about her husband coming back and he looks out the door and sees Jamison again. They try to sneak her back into the room, but it’s no good, Charlie is caught and chased, and winds up going out a window. Ultimately, Turpin finds him again and they fight, ending with Charlie getting drenched in a bathtub.

Night Out1I’m not sure if it was just me or if Charlie was still getting used to the longer format, but this movie felt more like three or four short movies stitched together than like a cohesive longer plot. At about six minutes in, I had laughed at least as many times as I have at any Keystone, but I was already feeling like it could wrap up and be fine. At fourteen minutes in (the length of the average one-reeler), I was really ready for it to be done. By the end, it seemed actually too long, even though the gags and the falls were entirely up to snuff. One thing Charlie did do was take the time to elaborate some of his gags, which he wouldn’t have done at the faster pace. For example there’s a sequence in the hotel room where Charlie has drunkenly confused the phone with a water dispenser, and keeps trying to pour into his cup from it. That’s the sort of little touch that rarely made it into a Keystone. On the whole, though, it isn’t up to the level of later “feature-length” work like “Burlesque on Carmen,” nor even the sustained zaniness of “The Tramp.” If you like Keystone Chaplin well enough to sit still for half an hour, then this will work for you, maybe even better than watching three Keystones would, but it still seemed to me to be a bit rough around the edges.

Night Out2Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel Normand – Pretty, but no Damsel

MabelNormand_with_round_mirrorThe years 1895-1915, which coincide with the emergence of cinema as a serious industry, were a mixed period in the history of women. Women in most countries did not have the vote. Women of certain classes were expected to squeeze themselves into tortuous corsets. Working women (and there were many) were paid a pittance compared to men. Very few women held positions of traditional authority – politicians, business owners, financiers, police enforcers, priests, doctors, lawyers, University professors – all these professions were overwhelmingly male and in some cases restricted to men. On the other hand, women were beginning to raise their voices – and to be heard – in regard to some of these very problems. Movements for women’s suffrage existed in nearly every Western nation, and, beginning with New Zealand in 1894, were beginning to win that right. Women were becoming prominent leaders in middle class political and religious social reform movements, such as temperance and progressivism, as well. Women in many countries now had the right to own property and businesses separate from their husbands, and women’s education was expanding as well. Some women were finding niches in society where they could express themselves, even though creativity was still perceived as primarily a “male” privilege.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

The new industry of film making was a niche that offered opportunities to non-traditional groups, in part because the traditions prevalent in more established industries were not already set in place. The engineers who originally experimented on moving pictures at Edison and Lumière were primarily white and male, although in the US there was more class mobility in this field, however it wasn’t long before the movies started to be more inclusive. In France, Alice Guy-Blaché became one of the first directors as early as 1896. In the United States, movie production became a reliable source of income for many newer immigrant groups, especially Jews, who had less interest in preserving traditional hierarchies. Some women were able to find positions of creative expression and authority within this niche.

MabelnormandportraitMabel Normand was one of these women. Born in the 1890s, she had grown up with the growth of media’s importance in American society. She was at first a professional model, and her remarkable looks could well have netted her a profitable career in that arena had she so chosen. But, she found herself working at Biograph studios under D.W. Griffith in 1911, and, while there, she met a handsome young actor with a pronounced sense of humor: Mack Sennett, who within a year would be running his own studio, and making a name for himself as “the king of comedy.” He took most of Biograph’s funniest comedians with him, and he also took Mabel Normand. Sennett and Normand had an on-again-off-again romance throughout the rest of her lifetime, though they never married. At Keystone, the still-teenage Normand began to hone her comedic talents and her athletic abilities (vital to slapstick). Her good looks made her popular with audiences and it wasn’t long before “Mabel” movies were a staple of the studio. By the time she was twenty, she was either directing or co-directing movies.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

I have to say “either or” because for every single movie I can find that one source says Normand was the director, I can find at least one source that claims it was co-directed by a man, usually Sennett or Charlie Chaplin, sometimes another Keystone star like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. There is no one Century Film I can point to and say with certainty, “this is a Mabel Normand movie.” As a critic of the Auteur Theory, I suppose that shouldn’t bother me, but in this case I’d like to be able to find an example. In general, the movies she made can be described as “standard Keystones.” They have fast-paced movement, irreverence, farcical situations and violence and outrageous characters. They also lack camera movement, innovative editing techniques, believable plots and character development. Some people love Keystone movies, others (a lot of others, nowadays) hate them. I can’t say that Mabel’s movies will change anyone’s mind one way or the other.

Mabel_Normand1I can say how much I enjoy watching her work as a comedienne. I was fortunate, quite early in this project, to discover the work of Mabel Normand, in “Mabel at the Wheel,” a movie mostly remembered today for having Charlie Chaplin in it, but one which Normand directed (possibly with help from Sennett) and also starred in. I hadn’t really heard of Normand at that time, although I’d come across her name once or twice, and I delighted with this film. Chaplin is good as the villain, but in this case Mabel really carries the film. She is pretty, spunky, determined, competent and, most of all, funny. I started to take notice of her from that moment, and I’ve reviewed quite a number of her movies since then. Some are better than others, but I’ve always enjoyed seeing Mabel again.

Mabel_at_the_WheelInterestingly, Charlie Chaplin wrote about the production of “Mabel at the Wheel” in his autobiography. He says he resented being asked to be directed by Normand, emphasizing her youth. Well, Charlie himself was only 24, and had about three years less experience in movies at the time, so this seems pretty diva-ish of him in retrospect, or else sexist. I think he was aware of this when he wrote this in seventies, and he tries to be very generous to Normand in the rest of the book. He talks about their close friendship and future collaborations, and suggests that they “should” have been lovers, although it never happened. All of this was unfortunately lost when the book was turned into the movie “Chaplin” starring Robert Downey, Jr. When the making of “Mabel at the Wheel” is shown, Marisa Tomei plays Normand as shrewish ditz, obviously only directing because her boyfriend is the producer, one of the oldest stereotypes in Hollywood. The scene goes so far as to recreate “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” with Tomei/Normand as the victim, showing that she understood so little about movies as to be taken in by the oldest slapstick joke in the medium. The scene is insulting to one of cinema’s female pioneers, and isn’t even true to Charlie’s generally positive portrayal of her.

Mabel's Strange PredicamentIt’s too bad, because most of the people who saw that movie probably never saw the “real” Mabel Normand in a movie (I’ll bet Tomei never had, either). I think she was one of the best assets Keystone Studios ever had, and she was certainly Sennett’s loyalest headliner. Most of the others, from Arbuckle to Chaplin to Lloyd, went elsewhere in search of more creative freedom, and, in most cases, more money. Sennett eventually gave Normand her own production company to oversee, in spite of their rocky relationship, and she went right on making movies until her career was destroyed by scandal a few years before her early death in 1930. This blog only covers up to 1915 (for now), however, so I’m going to avoid describing those tragedies. Mabel may have occasionally played the part of a damsel in distress for laughs, but as a director and comedienne she was beyond rescuing. This essay has been my contribution to the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, held by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. Be sure to check out the other excellent entries and the other empowered ladies of the event!


Trilby (1915)

Trilby2Director Maurice Tourneur, who charmed us in 1914 with “The Wishing Ring” and thrilled us in February with “Alias Jimmy Valentine” returns in September, 1915 with this very different movie. No doubt Tourneur, influenced by the success of “The Birth of a Nation” in attracting a higher class of filmgoer to theaters, was wanted to try more upscale source material in hope of the same result. For this, he chose George du Maurier’s most famous gothic novel, about a bohemian model under the spell of a diabolical hypnotist. Trilby3

The story begins with Trilby, played by Clara Kimball Young (who had been in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hearts in Exile”), who is young, carefree, and the center of the artist’s scene in Paris. She hangs out with a group of bachelor-artists and meets Svengali, a musician who plays weirdly entrancing music, played by Wilton Lackaye, who had played the role famously on stage. She sings an old folk tune for them and demonstrates her tone-deafness, but Svengali sees something in her, and all the boys are in love with her. Especially Billie, who now undertakes to paint her, and with time the two of them fall in love. Billie has a momentary fit when he sees her posing nude for an art class (we don’t see anything, but we get the idea), but then he comes back and begs forgiveness. Their wedding is on. But, the evil Svengali has already gotten his hooks into Trilby; one day when she was suffering from “neuralgia,” he hypnotized the pain away and now she is under his power. He makes her write a note breaking things off with Billie, but then lets her go to the wedding party anyway. He sneaks in to her room while Billie and the others are celebrating, and hypnotizes her into coming with him and leaving the note. Much later, Billie and his friends hear about a famous “Mrs. Svengali” who is coming to town to sing. Apparently she has taken the world by storm. They go to the theater, and of course it is Trilby! Billie swoons and stumbles out of the theater. Trilby’s singing is perfect, but her personality is suppressed. Then, Svengali has a heart attack while she is on stage and the spell is broken. Trilby is booed off the stage, having lost her voice, but rushes back to the arms of Billie.

Not a great-quality image.

Not a great-quality image.

The print I watched of this movie was not perfect, but it was still possible to make out some of Tourneur’s famous lighting effects, particularly in the love scenes with Trilby and Billie. The camera is static and the pacing is slower than a lot of the movies of this period, but there is still good use of editing within scenes and cross-cutting to build drama, as in the scene where the identity of Madame Svengali is exposed. We get a few close-ups, mostly of Trilby early in the film.

Some women look better in men's jackets

Some women look better in men’s jackets

Although Svengali is the character that gets talked about, I thought Clara Kimball Young’s depiction of Trilby was more critical to the picture. She starts out vivacious and seemingly blasé – when she comes into the room with the painters and Svengali, she declines a chair and climbs onto the piano, a close-up reveals that she is only wearing one shoe (horrors! a visible ankle!). In these scenes, she is often wearing a man’s jacket or other masculine clothing, suggesting that she just threw something on to cover up before going out. She’s not by any means a flapper, though, the style remains decidedly 19th-Century bohemian. Then, as she falls in love with Billie, we see a more tender, serious side of her come out. She isn’t playing all the time, although she sometimes still shows her wild side. Her clothing becomes more feminine. Finally, as Svengali’s slave, she seems to lose her personality altogether. She wears what he wants her to wear – generally flowy gowns like something from ancient Greece. Kimball Young handles all three roles excellently.

du Maurier's own depiction of Svengali. No anti-Semitism here at all, right?

du Maurier’s own depiction of Svengali. No anti-Semitism here at all, right?

As a final note, yes, the role of Svengali is inevitably linked with anti-Semitism. Lackaye plays him with an obviously fake crooked nose and an unruly black beard, evoking traditional Jewish caricatures. I won’t excuse this, but it appears to me that Tourneur’s interest here was not in perpetrating anti-Semitic propaganda. Svengali is presented here as an evil Jew, but not necessarily a representative of all Jews. Of course, an audience with a predisposition toward anti-Semitism might well take it that way, showing that what you bring with you to the movies always influences what you take away as well.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Clara Kimball Young, Wilton Lackaye, Chester Barnett

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this for free on the Internet. If you know where it can be seen, please comment below.

Mabel and Fatty Viewing the World’s Fair at San Francisco (1915)

Mabel and Fatty Worlds Fair SF1I completely understand if you thought this was a repetition of yesterday’s post. It took me a minute to sort out the difference between these two movies, as well. Although they’re playing on the same theme, however, they are actually very different films. This is signaled by the opening title card where the typical Keystone words “farce comedy” have been replaced by “educational.” Audiences were warned – this is not the funny romp we got in San Diego.

Mabel and Fatty Worlds Fair SF

Instead, what we see is Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand very much out-of-character, behaving like two V.I.P.’s giving live coverage to a public event. In fact, they remind me of the hosts of the annual Macy’s “Thanksgiving Day Parade” television coverage. They clown a bit, but just enough to give a bit of relief to the pageantry of the World’s Fair. First, we see the Battleship Oregon, which had served during the Spanish-American War and had not yet become a floating museum in Portland. During the Second World War, the navy would reclaim her for scrap, but at this time she was still known as the “Bulldog of the Navy.” Next, we get various Bay-view panaromas of the pavilions and buildings constructed for the fair. Now Fatty meets Madame Ernestine Schumann-Henk aboard ship; she is a famous opera singer, and she rapidly claps her hand over Fatty’s mouth when he “warbles” for her. More footage of the sights of the Fair and San Francisco is followed by a meeting with the Mayor, James Rolph, Jr. He magnanimously writes them a card giving permission to “take pictures anywhere in the fair.” Then they proceed to the “Prison ship” Success, where various instruments of torture are on display, including an iron maiden, which seems an unlikely thing to take on a sea voyage. Mabel gets into the maiden, to try it out, and Fatty almost closes the door on her. Finally, we are treated to a very nice shot of the fairgrounds lit up at night, with a “captive aeroplane” ride dominating the landscape.

Mabel and Fatty Worlds Fair2

While this movie is far less entertaining than the comedy in San Diego, it is interesting historically. Obviously, Keystone felt that their two biggest stars, plus the extravagance of the fair itself, could carry the film without a comedy plotline. The scene with the mayor may offer a hint as to why this happened – getting permission to shoot just might not have been as simple as it was at the earlier fair. Or, someone at Keystone may have felt that sending a camera crew 400 miles to San Francisco (as opposed to 100 miles to San Diego), warranted a less risky approach. What will interest people is the footage of post-Earthquake-recovery SF. Some of the buildings of the World’s Fair still stand and even serve as tourist attractions, including the “new” City Hall we see under construction on Market Street. Various views will be familiar to San Franciscans today, although the sheer size and elaborateness of the event outdoes the current waterfront. The early jitney cabs may be of interest to aficionados of classic cars, and the ships to naval historians. All in all, this is a more “interesting,” less exciting movie.

Director: Mabel Normand

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand

Run Time: 15 Min 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.