Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: August, 2015

Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition (1915)

Fatty and Mabel at San DiegoThis Keystone short came early in 1915, just after Charlie Chaplin left the company to join Essanay. Interestingly, it resembles a more ambitious version of “Kid Auto Races at Venice,” his first “Little Tramp” release, in that it is a slapstick comedy shot on location at a major public event, using the backdrop of crowds and spectacle to boost the apparent production costs. It is both more and less successful than its predecessor, inasmuch as the comedy storyline is much better developed, but it lacks the innate charm of Chaplin simply doing his routines in front of a camera and a crowd.

 Fatty and Mabel at San Diego1

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Mabel Normand are visiting the Panama-California Exposition in Balboa Park, in San Diego, California. They are apparently a couple, and do not behave like celebrities in this movie. At the opening parade, they fail to keep behind the lines erected to keep spectators out of the street, resulting in a Keystone Cop’s chasing them and battling them, which only causes more chaos. Then, they go for a ride on what seems to be a self-driven roller-coaster car with no roller coaster. They stop at an exhibit that promises to show “how movies are made” and Mabel gets off to gawk at some footage of the Keystone Labs. Fatty, meanwhile runs into another young woman (Minta Durfee, his real-life wife), and pursues her with his kiddy-car, which leads to more pratfalls. Mabel is annoyed when she can’t find him and gives him what-for, when he tries to pretend he was innocently watching the Hula dancers at the Hawaiian exhibit. After that, Fatty decides that he will go see the Hula dancers, and we see him whooping it up in the audience. Mabel decides to sneak in the other way and “catch him in the act,” but winds up at the stage door. Then she gets the clever idea of wearing a veil and going out to do a truly hilarious dance looking sort of like a shapeless sack wearing a veil. Fatty is aroused and joins her on stage, but when he removes the veil, she knocks him over again. He runs out, finding Minta has brought her husband along to get back at him, and more chaos ensues. Ultimately, the Keystone Cops are called in and several people are knocked into a very showy fountain.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

It should be obvious that this was a much less improvised movie than “Kid Auto Races” was, and in fact some parts (for example the whole sequence in the Hawaiian pavillion) were almost certainly shot at the studio and edited in. Nevertheless, it is an effective example of a Keystone comedy and it is more visually interesting by virtue of the location. When Fatty and Mabel are in front of crowds, those crowds are paying attention to them, and obviously enjoying themselves, although they don’t appear to look at the camera. For the fountain sequence, we can see large crowds that are being kept at a distance from the main action, showing that Keystone had the ability to shut down parts of the event for filming. No doubt this was very short and impromptu, not a question of getting a license and city police cooperation as is done today. Both Normand and Arbuckle are at the top of their game, and the other Keystone players also acquit themselves well. Towards the end, for no apparent reason, a fellow dressed as Chaplin suddenly shows up – probably because audiences were still clamoring for him even though he’d moved on.

Wait, who's this guy?

Wait, who’s this guy?

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 10 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

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Bangville Police (1913)

I hope Lea, over at Silentology, will forgive me from piggy-backing on her review, but she inspired me to watch the movie and now I have to write about it! You should all go check out her blog, either before or after you read my article tonight. Bangville Police

First, for those of you too lazy to read her summary, here’s the basics: Mabel Normand is a young girl living on a farm with her hayseed father and salt-of-the-earth mother. She longs for a newborn calf to make the place more homey. When she hears strange noises in the barn, she sees two men lurking in the shadows and panics. She runs back to the house and calls the sheriff, who’s sound asleep in bed. He fires off some rounds to attract the attention of the local volunteer deputies and sends them off to investigate. Meanwhile, Mabel’s mom has tried to enter the house, but Mabel thinks she’s a burglar and keeps her out. Mom thinks Mabel must be held hostage by burglars and goes off to get dad, all the while Mabel keeps screaming into the phone and the sheriff thinks it must be an Indian attack or a serial killer or something. So, he rounds up every able-bodied man and the police force’s one vehicle (an old roadster like something out of the “Wacky Races”) and rushes to the rescue. Sort of. Actually, the car is much slower than the men running and it ultimately breaks down in a cloud of smoke. Meanwhile, mom and pop have so terrified Mabel that she takes the phone and hides in a closet, after barricading the door. They manage to break through and find Mabel, apparently unharmed. The police show up and appear ready to arrest pop for open-carrying his pistol, but then everyone is charmed by the newborn calf in the barn. The end. All of this, by the way, is communicated in pantomime and just two short Intertitles.

Bangville Police2 Now, this movie gets a lot of attention because of its early use of the “Keystone Kops” (or “Cops”), but that’s only incidental. Only a couple of the volunteers and the sheriff himself have any traditional accoutrements of office, the rest are just yokels with shovels, pitchforks, and rifles. The more “traditional” Keystone Kops movies, like “Fatty Joins the Force,” always take place in urban environments, and they exploit the police-as-authority-figure trope to humorous effect. This one barely scratches that surface. Forgive me, but I think something else is at work here.

Look familiar?

Look familiar?

And, I think I know what it is. Longtime readers who were paying attention might have thought the plot outline sounded…familiar. To spell it out: It’s a very close parody of “The Unseen Enemy” by D.W. Griffith. Mabel Normand even mocks Dorothy Gish’s facial expressions in some shots, and camera set-ups are clear parallels. It should be noted that “The Unseen Enemy” triggered a series of imitations, some even by Griffith himself, including “Death’s Marathon.” Even audiences who hadn’t seen Griffith’s 1912 movie would be familiar by now with the story: a young girl, trapped alone in a house, uses the telephone to summon help, while a race to rescue her is intercut with her increasing peril. Director Henry Lehrman (mostly remembered today for not appreciating Charlie Chaplin’s talents) brilliantly turned that whole concept on its head, and used very different camera- and editing-styles from normal to make the satire work. The close-up was generally reserved for opening and closing shots at Keystone, but he needed it in the middle here. Cross-cutting rarely interrupted the story for more than a few seconds, but he needed to draw out the humorous tension of Mabel trapped by her parents while establishing the characters of the titular law enforcers. Even the car, which is now seen as the most traditionally “Keystone Kop” element in the picture, is there because it is part of the parody; unlike the original, it is slow and unreliable. Note that Lehrman, as well as Mack Sennett the producer, had gotten their start working as actors for Griffith at Biograph.

How about now?

How about now?

An_Unseen_Enemy

The one thing I can’t explain is the whole bit with the calf. Wouldn’t a farm girl know if her cow is pregnant? And who are those two guys in the barn? They didn’t look like vets to me, and I certainly didn’t see them deliver the calf. None of this seems to have anything to do with Griffith, I guess it’s just there because they needed an ending.

Director: Henry Lerhman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Fred Mace, Raymond Hatton, Edgar Kennedy, Ford Sterling, Al St. John, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Inferno (1911)

Inferno_1911_filmThis Italian production shows both the sophisticated level that special effects had reached in Europe and the appetite of audiences for feature-length films on serious topics. In some ways, it remains grounded in the limitations of early 1910’s cinema – no close-ups (except Lucifer at the very end), predictable camera angles, limited camera movement, etc, but in others it demonstrates remarkable originality and willingness to experiment. In fact, I would say that the subject matter of Dante’s Inferno does not lend itself to a more traditional narrative approach, and it may well be that the movie is better for its “flaws,” better for trying an experimental structure than it would have been ten years later following the “rules” of “film grammar.”

Inferno2The story is known to anyone familiar with classic literature: Dante describes being taken on a tour of Hell by the spirit of Virgil, who, as a Pagan is barred from Heaven and lives so to speak in the “up-scale suburbs” of Hell. This has been interpreted as Dante using his powers as a poet to do the impossible (go to Hell and return to tell the tale) and Virgil represents the spirit of Italian or Roman poetry upon whose shoulders he stands. At any rate, most of what they do is look at tormented souls in the various “circles” or levels of Hell. Once in a while, Dante sees someone he knew in life, or has heard of, and asks them to tell their story. More frequently, Virgil and Dante are challenged by one or more of the demons whose job it is to tormented the fallen souls, and Virgil authoritatively makes them stand aside. We see Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the gate to Hell, the burning walls of Dis, the river Acheron, the serpent Geryon, the giant Antaeus, and Lucifer himself at the end.

Inferno-_1911,_plutoAs I’ve suggested, each of these scenes plays out in a more-or-less theatrical format, with the camera defining a “stage” for the players to act on. However, within that framework, there’s some interesting creativity. Because of the concept of Hell as a vertical hierarchy, the outdoor shots are generally done on sloping hills or mountainsides (easy enough to find in Italy!). This in itself gives a different kind of geography to the “stages” I’m talking about. In general, the stages are large enough to fit a good number of naked extras as tormented souls. Many shots have twenty or more people visible, which is highly unusual for the time. We also get a kind of close-up, when Dante focuses his attention on a single soul, there will be a “jump cut” and we suddenly see Virgil, Dante, and the individual soul in a three-shot (still large enough to see them from head to toe). In that sense, this is one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of editing within scenes, rather than between them, although I think D.W. Griffith had done it already. Another narrative device, familiar to us today but quite new then, is the flashback, in which souls describe to Dante how they reached their sorry fate, and we cut to a dramatization of what they describe. The one camera movement I caught was a backward tracking shot to reveal a particular condemned soul.

Inferno1The special effects may be based on the work of Méliès, but are in general in advance of his techniques, and far in advance of his imitators in the USA. Several matte shots are done, at least two of which required three or more separate shots to be integrated. One impressive example of this was the carnal sinners being blown about by the winds of Hell. We also see a couple of examples of stop-motion transformations as sinners are turned into lizards and other animals. And there are tricky matte shots in which leprous souls are missing legs or arms, or even carry their own heads about. Several characters are made to fly, presumably through the use of wires, and these shots look consistently good as well. There are a number of shots in Dis where actors are fairly close to (real) flames, and I found myself worrying about their long robes catching fire. A number of “Giants” are created through simple forced perspective, yet it works because the filmmakers are careful not to break the illusion (and because they don’t use multiple shots).

Inferno-_1911,_cainaThat’s not to say that everything is executed perfectly. For one thing, there are way too many Intertitles, more and longer than I’ve seen in any movie from this period. This was probably necessary because without the context of being told what was happening in each new scene before it begins, audiences would probably have been scratching their heads at the surrealistic grandeur. Still, it cuts into the pacing and makes it a slower experience to watch. In the shot where the souls are boarding the ship over Acheron, at one point Dante and Virgil are blocking our view of the action, which could have been avoided with a POV-edit, but it didn’t occur to them. Some of the “monsters” are a bit ridiculous-looking as well, particularly the fluffy Cerberus and the “black mastiffs” which look like perfectly friendly dogs.

InfernoStill, this was a bold project whose producers demonstrated a faith that cinema was a new kind of art form that could be used to show things that otherwise could only be imagined. They based the imagery on the illustrations of Gustav Dore for an older edition of the Divine Comedy, and on the whole their work paid off. Apparently it was a huge financial success and was successful in getting audiences to pay raised ticket prices in the era of Nickelodeons in the US. It remains an impressive document in the development of film history.

Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro

Camera: Emilio Roncarolo

Starring: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano

Run Time: 1 Hour, 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Water Nymph (1912)

Water Nymph

This was one of the two first movies ever released by Keystone studios – it was released along with “Cohen Collects a Debt” as a split-reel, or a type of early double-feature. It was directed by Mack Sennett and prefigures the Sennett Bathing Beauties that he would later feature to save the studio after Charlie Chaplin and other major talents had left. Mabel Normand has the title role as a young woman who is dating Sennett and wants to get in good with his parents. Mack’s advice is that she go to the beach and “vamp” his dad, who is apparently something of a wolf. Dad is Ford Sterling, who actually carries pretty much all of the comedy in this short. True to form, he flirts outrageously with Mabel, all the while being annoyed by some young guy who won’t leave either of them alone. Mabel gets into a very 1912 swimsuit – absolutely no flesh revealed, apart from forearms, but it does outline her figure, and Ford gets into something utterly ridiculous. There are a couple of dives off a pier, and then they return to the club where Ford discovers his wife got tired of waiting and left. All the better, he thinks, until Mack and mom come up and introduce Mabel as his girl. Ford does his patented “curses, foiled again” bit.

 Water Nymph1

The film is light on slapstick and heavy on situational comedy. The print I was able to see didn’t make faces very clear, but you can tell that Ford’s expressions are key to a lot of the humor. Mack plays everything very broadly, but doesn’t have the natural comedic body language of Sterling. Mabel, on the other hand, is mostly there to look pretty, which she does, but we only see minor flashes of her talent as a comedienne. Her best bits come when scheming with Mack how to fool his dad. Sennett, or his cameraman, economize on setups and editing. Mostly we see everything in a limited number of shots, with the actors generally framed from the waist up. I don’t think we ever cut between two simultaneous events – each shot follows the last one sequentially – except at the very end we see Mack laughing at his father from just out of view at the club.

Alternate Title: “The Beach Flirt”

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Gus Pixley

Run Time: 7 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

A Little Hero (1913)

Little HeroCould this Keystone short have been the inspiration for Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons? Mabel Normand is a young woman with lots of pets: a cat, a dog, and a bird in the cage. She’s very affectionate with her dog, and also pays a lot of attention to the bird, while the cat sits quietly on the couch, apparently happy to sleep undisturbed. Then she goes out, and the cat soon starts stalking the caged creature. The dog, seeing what’s coming, runs off to get some “friends” – a trio of much larger dogs – to chase the cat away from the bird’s cage. Mabel comes home to find the cage knocked over, the dog on the table, and the cat nowhere around. Somehow, she puts it together (I’d have scolded the dog for knocking over the birdcage, but never mind), and hugs her little hero.

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

What’s remarkable in this film is their ability to use the animal actors so effectively to tell a story, when it’s clear that none of them are the kind of trained “stage animal” we’re used to seeing on screen (Lassie, Rusty, Boomer, etc). The cat, in particular, is being completely natural in its behavior, and the bird is genuinely terrified. The dogs don’t have much to do but run around, but they stay in shot and look determined (probably to get a tasty treat offscreen!). Given Mack Sennett’s frugal shooting ratios, we have to assume that there weren’t many “bad takes” and that someone had simply figured out how best to use the resources at hand.

A natural star.

A natural star.

The Internet has some conflicting credits for this film, Some sources say Mack Sennett directed, some say George Nichols, who made some of Chaplin’s Keystone movies. The Silent Era splits the difference and says it could have been either. More perplexingly, some sources give additional human cast members, including Harold Lloyd. The only way this is possible is if there’s lost footage on the version I saw, because Mabel is definitely the only human I saw. It seems unlikely, because the story itself is complete, anything added would be superfluous. Still,I could imagine an opening scene where Harold gives Mabel the bird and tells her to take care of it for the weekend or something. Until I find another version, I’m sticking with the story that Mabel did a solo here.

Director: Mack Sennett or George Nichols (or both)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Pepper the cat, Teddy the dog

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

August 1915

House wrecked in the 1915 Galveston Hurricane

House wrecked in the 1915 Galveston Hurricane

The First World War continues to rage…if you think I sound like a broken record saying that every month in my news roundups, imagine what it was like reading the papers in 1915 (of course, no one called it the ”first” anything at the time). Worse, imagine being in the trenches or battlefields of the war itself. Casualties in the first year were high because both sides were learning about defensive measures in the new forms of warfare created by industrial technology, and soldiers who had served for this entire year had probably seen the majority of the comrades they entered with killed or wounded by now. Outside of the battle zones, however, life went on…

World War: The Battle of Sari Bair rages from August 6th to the 21st. This is an effort by the Allies to link up their forces in Gallipolli, which ultimately fails, leaving the front lines static. The Allies lose approximately 20,000 soldiers, the Turks 12,000 in the fighting.

Diplomacy: On August 16, the Allies promise territorial gains to the Kingdom of Serbia in case of victory. These promises will ultimately conflict with Wilson’s Fourteen Points and the concepts of national sovereignty under which the League of Nations is founded.

Hate Crimes: Leo Frank is lynched in Georgia on August 17th for the alleged murder of a 13-year-old girl. Frank is Jewish and the case draws attention both to anti-Semitism and the prevalence of mob justice in the United States. Possibly inspired by D.W. Griffth’s “The Birth of a Nation,” prominent businessman Tom Watson writes to local papers that “a new Ku Klux Klan may have to be organized” to seek justice. Three months later, William J Simmons does revive the Klan in Atlanta.

Disasters: On August 5, Galveston Texas, still in recovery from having been wiped off the map by a powerful hurricane in 1900, is once again devastated by a storm. The new seawall does prevent local deaths and damage, but across the seaboard damages are assessed at $50 million and 275 dead.

Sports: Jimmy Lavender pitches a no-hitter, August 31, for the Chicago Cubs against the New York Giants.

Born: Gary Merrill, August 2 (acted in “A Blueprint for Murder” and “All About Eve”), Signe Hasso, August 15 (appeared in “Heaven Can Wait” and “The House on 92nd Street”), Ingrid Bergman, August 29 (star of “Gaslight” and “Casablanca”).

Children of the Age (1915)

I stumbled across this Evgeni Bauer film while looking for media on “Child of the Big City” – someone has uploaded an Italian translation to Wikimedia Commons with the wrong title in English and Russian! Lucky for me, because it means I get to watch more Bauer.

 Children of the Age1

This is a shorter movie than would be considered “feature-length” today, although at the time it would have counted as long enough to take seriously. Like many of Bauer’s films, it explores the conflict of class and intimate relationships. This time, we get Vera Kholodnaia (later in “A Life for a Life” and “The Woman Who Invented Love”), later to be known as “The Queen of the Screen” in Russia, as the starring victim. She plays a lower-middle class housewife whose husband (Ivan Gorskij) has a job as a bank clerk and who has a very small baby at home. They can afford a maid, showing us that they aren’t truly working class, but their apartment is small and Vera has to sew and do other household chores. One day while she is shopping in a fascinatingly Russian-looking shopping mall, she runs into an old school friend who apparently has married up or come into an inheritance, because she can afford a chauffeured car. She gives Vera a ride home and they talk of old times. The husband returns, and eyes the car suspiciously, then agrees to meet the friend and his wife at a garden party.

 Children of the Age

At the garden party, a libertine older man (Arsenii Bibikov, who we saw before in “Child of the Big City” and “The Peasants’ Lot”) takes notice of Vera and finagles an introduction. He gives her champagne and begins a flirtation, to which Vera is politely responsive. Probably she’s flattered at the attention, but we have no sense that she means to cross the line, and as soon as her husband arrives, she leaves with him. Arsenii is not satisfied, however, and encourages the friend to bring her around more often. Vera does begin to come along to more “society” events, while the husband waits at home in a gloomy room, his worst suspicions haunting him. Arsenii then comes up with the expedient of having the husband fired from his job. Now the situation is increasingly grim, and Vera, who continues to resist any improprieties, is becoming dependent upon Arsenii. Finally, he manages to trap her in his car, and gives her a long, sustained kiss before the fade-out. Vera returns home disheveled with a look of shock on her face, and begins mechanically to pack her things. Evidently she’s going away for the weekend, over her husband’s protestations. While she’s away, he gets summoned for what he seems to hope is a job interview. Turns out it’s Arsenii, who offers him money to leave his wife. The husband responds by trying to kill Arsenii, and it requires two burly servants to throw him out. During this distraction, Vera and the friend have returned to her house and made off with the baby. The husband writes a goodbye note and shoots himself.

Children of the Age2As with “Twilight of a Woman’s Soul” and other Bauer melodramas, we get something different to what we expect in a Western movie here. The husband may seem to be the “leading man,” but he’s utterly helpless and ineffective throughout the film. Vera is the real star, and even though she ultimately loses, her battle between the temptation to aspire towards a classier life and remain loyal to her vows is a dramatic journey that gives her considerable work to demonstrate each emotion as she feels it. The version I found of this had no Intertitles, although I suspect that there were some originally which were not preserved. The movie works well enough despite this, and it is largely due to Vera’s performance, combined with Bauer’s direction and the typically excellent camerawork of Boris Zavelev. Interestingly, where he usually avoids 90-degree angles, a lot of the scenes in Vera’s apartment are shot dead-on, as if to emphasize the cramped space and lack of opportunity it offers. Some of the shots in the garden party also are framed at 90-degrees to the wall, but with the actors off-center, and the table at this party juts into the middle of the screen like a dock at a bay, making it hard to see the individuals seated there, even as we see the chaos of their merriment. There are a lot of close-ups in this movie as well, even for a Bauer film, suggesting the importance of intimacy with the characters. Bauer’s usually cluttered sets are reserved for the more up-scale locations, while the apartment is appropriately spare.

In all, this was a satisfying view, although I wish the Intertitles had been preserved and I hope to see it in higher definition someday.

Alternate Titles: Deti Veka, Дети века, Children of the Century

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Vera Kholodnaia, Ivan Gorskij, Arsenii Bibikov, S. Rassatov

Run Time: 37 Min, 30 seconds

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