Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: September, 2015

The House of Darkness (1913)

House_of_Darkness_(1913)1It’s not quite October, when I continue my history of horror films, and this short by D.W Griffith isn’t quite a horror movie. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to measure the development of horror as a genre, because early filmmakers appear to have been reluctant about overtly trying to frighten audiences, even though in other areas the public was quite willing to be frightened. By the time Griffith made “The Avenging Conscience” in 1914, he seems to have been willing to take the plunge, but with this movie – not exactly. I’m still tagging it as part of the horror fest, though, in part because of the title, and in part because it has certain parallels with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the movie with which most traditional histories of the horror movie begin.

House of Darkness2The movie is structured much like other progressivist message pictures we’ve seen from Griffith, beginning with a generalized problem and then closing in on a more intimate and personal storyline. In this case, the opening Intertitle assures us of a happy ending: this is the story of “how the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music.” It begins, however, with a side story of a woman who suffers from mental disease, believing her baby is still alive when it is actually dead. The next sequence makes no sense to me at all – I actually wonder if it was shot for another movie. A clerk in an office seems distraught, then a young child with a doll comes in and he gives her some money (folding money, which would be a big deal in 1913). Then he breaks down and starts weeping and his co-workers gather around him. We don’t see him again. Next, we are taken to an asylum for the insane, where a doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and a nurse (Claire McDowell) carry on an accelerated romance and are wed. In the courtyard of the same asylum, a fight breaks out between two lunatics. Finally, an inmate (Charles Hill Mailes) emerges as the center of the action, as he breaks and runs, apparently meaning to escape. The attendants catch him when he stops to listen to Lillian Gish playing the piano. Once he is away from the music, however, his violent tendencies take over and he breaks and runs. Soon there are many attendants in pursuit, but he eludes them and manages to wrest a gun from some passers-by he accosts. Now he makes his way to the home of the doctor, where the nurse/wife is alone with a cat. He breaks in and threatens to kill her, but when she accidentally hits the keys of a piano, the man stops short. Now she soothes him by playing a tune, and the attendants and her husband show up to take him back to the hospital. In the most improbable sequence of an improbable movie, we now see Mailes “cured” of his malady by repeat sessions of “music therapy” in which McDowell plays the piano for him until he is rational again.

House_of_Darkness_(1913)The movie has a lot of problems, which I have to suspect Griffith would have been conscious of by this time. Really, it needs more than one reel for this story to unfold and be at all believable, and Griffith was campaigning for longer films at this time, so that fits. But, the bizarre sequence with the character who never returns is more likely an afterthought or an error of some kind, perhaps Griffith’s mistake, perhaps of other provenance. The premise calls for a more horrific treatment as well, if we saw the world, as in “Caligari” through the eyes of the madman, the illogic of it might well seem more appropriate. While it may have foreshadowed, or even inspired that film, it also resembles a 1904 Biograph comedy, “The Escaped Lunatic,” which also involves a chase after a mentally ill asylum escapee who stops and starts at unpredictable moments. It is quite possible that Griffith was familiar with this movie and decided (or was ordered) to try remaking it as a drama, which could explain some of its weaknesses.

House of DarknessNot to say that the movie is a total failure. There are some good parts. The acting, especially by McDowell and Mailes, is top-notch. Some of Billy Bitzer’s camerawork is fairly daring – notably a shot mirroring the famous one in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” in which actors approach the camera until they are in extreme close-up. In this case, Mailes “sneaks” toward the camera, at times concealing himself behind palm trees, until he emerges in very close range from behind the nearest of them, staring maniacally into space. Bitzer was unable to keep him in focus during the approach (adjusting focal length in the middle of a shot simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the time), but he did manage to set the lens to focus on him at this most frightening final moment. There are also good close-ups of the cat and of hands playing the piano. Griffith makes use of the editing techniques he was known for, especially cross-cutting, to keep the tension high as the pursuit advances. Finally, this is one of those silent movies where the soundtrack makes or breaks it, and the score by Sidney Jill Lehman on the Flicker Alley DVD-on-demand release is perfect for it.

House of Darkness1Director: DW Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 15 Min

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

Advertisements

A Jitney Elopement (1915)

Jitney_Elopement_(poster)Released only days before “The Tramp,” this Essanay comedy starring Charlie Chaplin seems to show him starting to get his bearings after a few middling efforts at the new studio. While it may not – quite – be classic on the same level as the better-known release, it definitely shows both his developing directorial talents and his natural comedic ability.

Jitney Elopement2Frequent co-star Edna Purviance is in a quandary. Her father is determined to marry her to an impoverished French nobleman (who appears in the Intertitles as “Count Chloride du Lime” or sometimes “de Lime”). She secretly loves Charlie, though it is unclear how the two met, and requests him to “rescue” her. He immediately goes to the front door and tells the butler to announce him as the Count! This is enough to get him a free drink and an opportunity to swipe cigars, and then the father invites him to dine with him and his daughter. At this point things start going wrong. Charlie clearly lacks the social graces, accidentally puts a sugar cube in his soup, eats beans off the edge of his knife, and has a very difficult time cutting his meat. As coffee is served, the “real” Count (who looks every bit the imposter as well) turns up, and the father angrily turns Charlie out. The Count takes Edna out to the park to try to woo her despite her obvious lack of enthusiasm, and Charlie finds them there. A slapstick running battle now breaks out, involving Charlie, the Count, Edna’s father, and two dopey policemen who jump out of the bushes at a comic moment. Having emerged more or less victorious, Charlie takes Edna down to the road and makes off with her and the Count’s car (the “Jitney” of the title). The father and Count pursue in another vehicle, and another madcap chase begins. It ends with one car going into the Bay, and the lovers kissing discreetly in the land-bound survivor.

Jitney ElopementThis movie was shot in San Francisco, and the park used is recognizably Golden Gate. During the car chase, anyone who has been to the beach at Golden Gate will recognize the windmills seen in the background of the car chase. What’s more fascinating is the dirt roads, apparently in that same vicinity, and the paucity of buildings alongside them. This is less than ten years after the 1906 Earthquake, of course, but I don’t think the under-developed look is due to lack of reconstruction. It appears that the area was still sparsely populated at this time. The Jitney is today mostly associated with early motorized taxicab operations, but this one appears to belong to the Count as a personal-use vehicle. Much of the humor of the chase comes from Charlie’s needing to get out and crank it up every now and again.

Jitney Elopement1Technically, the movie again confirms the development of Chaplin’s standards after he left Keystone studios. The camera is frequently placed much closer, so that the audience can plainly see Charlie’s and the other actor’s faces, not necessarily their full bodies. In fact, the camera is closer throughout much of this movie than in “The Birth of a Nation” or other 1915 movies praised for their innovations. The editing is also particularly good, and keeps the high speed chase working well. Cutaways sometimes make use of reaction shots, as when the two cops attempt to stop the Jitney by holding a rope across its path and are dragged behind it. We see most of this through Charlie’s reactions, only catching the beginning and end of the action. The scene of the dinner reminds me of gags Charlie would use later, for example in “The Gold Rush” (there are no dancing bread rolls, however). Edna isn’t quite up to Mabel Normand’s level as a leading lady, for me, though. She mostly looks on as Charlie and her father fight, and only seems to follow Charlie’s lead rather than taking action for herself.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Ernest Van Pelt, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Bud Jamison

Run Time: 26 Min

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

The Birth of a Nation, Part IX

Last month, I felt that I didn’t have a lot more to say about “The Birth of a Nation.” This month I find that I do have a few things to add, but we’re still winding down the series.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

First, Woodrow Wilson: Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently posted a debunking of the dual myth that BoaN was “the first movie screened at the White House” as well as “the first feature film” that is generally very good and covers most of the important ground. I think she goes a little too far in suggesting that the movie was screened to consider censoring its potentially divisive content (the source she referred me to on this didn’t back her up, and there was no precedent giving the President the power to censor movies), but the important points are correct: “Cabiria” had been shown at the White House the previous summer, Wilson agreed somewhat reluctantly to the screening on the condition that there be NO publicity about it (a promise that D.W. Griffith never intended to keep), and he certainly did NOT call it “history writ in lightning” or whatever.

Thomas Dixon

Thomas Dixon

Lest we be accused of being overly fair to Wilson, however, there are a few other points to make here. First of all, he was an old school chum of Thomas Dixon, the author of the play “The Clansman,” and it appears he approved the screening as a favor to his buddy. Dixon, let’s remember, was the driving force behind the racist content of “The Birth of a Nation” (William K. Everson claims the play was even more racist than the movie, if such a thing is imaginable), and was a true believer in the heroism of the KKK and the justifiability of slavery. In his discussion of the correspondence between them, which continued during the Wilson presidency, Dick Lehr mentions no instance of Wilson confronting or even chiding Dixon for his views. Furthermore, it was at Wilson’s instigation that Jim Crow segregation was introduced in the Post Office and other federal agencies, to Dixon’s outspoken approval. All of which is to say that, whatever the conditions and significance of the White House screening, Wilson was every bit as much integrated into the predominant racist culture of his time as others who, unlike him, openly praised the film.

GriffithDWSecond, a bit more on the origin of the Griffith Myth. I’ve been reading Seductive Cinema by James Card, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon about film studies in general, and Griffith-worship is among his peeves. On pages 32-34 of this book, he talks about an ad that Griffith took out in the New York Dramatic Mirror in December, 1913, less than two months after he departed from Biograph. Griffith used this opportunity to proclaim himself “[p]roducer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing Motion Picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.” This is pretty much what his fans still say about him today, but it’s interesting that anyone would have accepted it at the time. Card points out that “[i]n 1913, filmgoers were unaware of the names of any motion picture directors.” In other words, he was the first to proclaim himself a genius, and people went along with it because they didn’t know any better.

DW_Griiffith2But, I think there’s even more going on. In July 1915, while “The Birth of a Nation” was on top of the world, setting new standards for monetary and critical success, Maurice Tourneur gave an interview to the New York Clipper in which he was asked who was the greatest director of the time, and he quickly and unequivocally named Griffith. When I read it, it broke my heart a little. Here was the director of “Alias Jimmy Valentine” and “The Wishing Ring” praising a man whose talent was clearly inferior! It’s as if Ridley Scott said that Joel Schumacher was his favorite director. I think there’s a kind of strategy at work, however. By taking out that ad, Griffith had put directors into the public spotlight. A director who wanted to be taken “seriously” had to affirm his genius, because that was the best way to affirm by proxy that directors were important figures in filmmaking. Between the ad and the runaway success of “Birth of a Nation,” it was career suicide to say anything else at that time. Griffith’s supremacy was now an entrenched myth, which would last a century or more.

The Female of the Species (1912)

Female of the SpeciesThis is one of the better of the one-reelers D.W. Griffith directed for Biograph. Shot in California, it takes good advantage of the scenery and also of three female leads, who refrain from any frolicking in this one to give powerful melodramatic performances. It struck me that the story is something of a reversal of the “Three Godfathers,” which of course wouldn’t be made for another 36 years (or at least 4 years, to speak of the original).

Female of the Species2The few survivors of a mining camp in the desert consist of a miner (Charles West), his wife (Claire McDowell), her sister (Mary Pickford), and an “Other Woman” (Dorothy Bernard). Although everyone’s mind should be firmly fixed on survival, Charles is focused on getting rid of his wife in order to harass Dorothy. Claire catches them, and blames Dorothy, ignoring the fact that she clearly isn’t interested. In the ensuing struggle, Charles is killed. Mary and Claire bury the man and scowl at the woman. The trek across the desert continues, but the situation grows increasingly tense and Claire makes a point of brandishing guns and axes, preventing Dorothy from getting any sleep at night. Meanwhile, an Indian family of mother, father, and papoose are struggling across the same desert. The squaw falls down from thirst, and the father is killed trying to steal water from some white men. The baby is alone, screaming in the desert. Our trio stumbles across it, and find their humanity reawakened by its helpless innocence. Old grudges are forgotten as they cooperate to keep it alive in the harsh environment.

Not really Mary's film.

Not really Mary’s film.

I found this to be a very effective telling of an emotionally charged story in a short running time. The acting makes a lot of it work. Claire McDowell chews the scenery with her desire for revenge, and Dorothy Bernard shows the hurt of being wrongly accused alongside the terror of being in a hopeless situation. Mary Pickford, surprisingly, winds up with little to do but sneer alongside her sister, but this obviously wasn’t her movie. Griffith uses close-ups occasionally, mostly on Dorothy, who is most frequently seen in isolation at any range, to emphasize how she is separated from her companions. Night is more implied than shown, and at times people appear to be lying down to rest in mid-day (which you might do in the desert, anyway: it’s better to move at night). The bleakness of the desert is shown clearly, and a cruel wind whips the foliage and the girls’ clothes and blankets. I also found the score on the DVD, by Zoran Borisavljevic, to be very affecting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an online edition with this music, so you’ll have to provide some sad, thoughtful music of your own.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Claire McDowell, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Bernard

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Also: Check out the review at Silentology for a different view.

September 1915

The Battle of Loos

The Battle of Loos

The news in September continues to focus on the War in Europe, although we have a few other notable events there and elsewhere to talk about.

War News:

Battle of Loos: British forces begin an attack on the French city of Loos, September 25. New Army units are put into the battle, and the British use poison gas for the first time in this attack. Although it ultimately succeeds in October, the cost is high and the British are unable to press the attack. Losses on this first day of attack come because of failure to cut barbed wire prior to the advance and failure to bombard machine gun emplacements with clear views of the open fields across which British units advanced.

Air war: A Zeppelin raid destroys a London building on September 8, demonstrating the ability of Germany to bring the war home, even across the English Channel.

Serbian Army Private Radoje Lutovac shoots down an enemy plane on September 30, being the first in history to destroy an aircraft with surface-to-air fire

War Machines: The first prototype military tank is tested by the British on September 6.

Other News:

Politics: Dissident socialists gather in Switzerland to hold the Zimmerwald Conference, from September 5 to 8. Among the participants and authors of the “Zimmerwald Manifesto” is V.I Lenin, future leader of the USSR. The conferees affirmed the continuation of class struggle and the repudiation of the “civil peace” of reformist social democrats, with War itself declared to be an outgrowth of imperialism and colonialism in the interests of the ruling classes.

Toys: The first Raggedy Ann doll is patented on September 7. The doll will later become the star of a popular series of children’s books by Johnny Gruelle, an opponent of vaccination, and later become a symbol of the anti-vaccination movement.

Transportation: The Pennsylvania Railroad begins electrified commuter rail service on September 11 between Paoli and Philadelphia, using overhead AC trolley wires for power.

Film: A nitrate fire on September 11 at Famous Players in New York destroys several completed but unreleased silent films which are later remade. When film stock was made of nitrate, such fires were common and extremely difficult to handle – nitrate continues to burn when fully immersed in water. The use of nitrate has resulted in the loss of many films from the silent era.

Born: Jack Buetel, Sept 5, actor whose films would include “The Outlaw” and “Best of the Badmen;” Edmond O’Brien, Sept 10, actor appearing in “Seven Days in May” and “DOA;” and Douglas Kennedy, Sept 14, actor who was in “Invaders from Mars” and the “Steve Donovan, Western Marshall” TV series.

His New Job (1915)

His_New_JobFor his first movie at Essanay studios, Charlie Chaplin decided to lampoon Keystone Studios and have a bit of an in-joke for his fans with the title. He was already being paid better, given more creative freedom, and working in a longer format, but apparently the cold weather of Chicago in January didn’t agree with him, and he soon relocated back to California to resume working there.

His_New_Job1In this movie, Charlie shows up for “open auditions at Lodestone studios,” looking for extra work. He flirts with an aspiring actress, feuds with the (male) production assistant organizing the interviews, and knocks out fellow-extra-wannabe Ben Turpin several times. He manages to get hired, in spite of some amusing confusion with the studio head’s hearing aid, and goes over to the set, spoiling a shot. To get rid of him, the director sends him over to work with the carpenter, leading to the usual physical comedy with board and mallets, etc. Then the director fires one of the uniformed actors and tells Charlie to get a costume. He can’t find one, so he borrows one from the absent star’s dressing room. Then he proceeds to foul up several scenes, bending his sword out of shape, nearly knocking over the set, and tearing the female star’s dress. Finally, the star shows up and find him in his costume, leading to a Keystone-style confrontation with him, the carpenter, the director, Ben Turpin, and Charlie. Guess who wins?

His New Job1As we might expect, this first effort in an unfamiliar studio is lighter than the better work Charlie would go on to during 1915, but it already shows some improvements. Charlie’s character is still quick to violence and mayhem, but he’s already developing that playful shrug that would become his sympathetic gesture. The gags are better developed and there’s a bit more running humor involved. Still, it’s not much above “The Masquerader” or “A Film Johnnie,” and lacks some of the hooks that make those films so memorable (like cross-dressing and seeing the inner workings of Keystone studios). There are some interesting tracking shots, mostly used to take the audience “into” the scenes Charlie is ostensibly shooting from behind the camera, and one tracking-backward shot to follow him and the female lead as they walk up-set. There are no real close-ups, and we don’t even get a good look at Turpin’s trademark crossed-eyes. The editing is pretty standard for the time as well, with just a bit of cross-cutting to get characters into the same scene together. Apparently, Gloria Swanson auditioned for the film (she would have been just fifteen at the time), but Charlie wasn’t impressed, so she was relegated to playing a typist in the background.

His New JobDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Robert Bolder, Gloria Swanson

Run Time: 30 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music, but 10 minutes short)

The Girl and Her Trust (1912)

Girl and Her Trust3

…or are you just happy to see me?

This Biograph short is another “rescue” movie in the vein of “An Unseen Enemy,” and may actually be the more exciting to modern audiences, although it was made earlier and lacks the star talent of the Gish sisters. Director D.W. Griffith packs considerable suspense into a short time span on a limited budget.

Girl and Her Trust1Here, Dorothy Bernard (who we just saw in “For His Son,” and was also in “His Trust”) stars as a plucky young telegraph operator who seems to have several “gentleman callers” who stop by at the telegraph office. The first, a yokel, she dismisses politely, but she shows more interest in the Express Agent (played by Wilfred Lucas), though she chides him for thinking he needs to get out the office revolver when a cash box containing $2000 comes in. When the train comes in, it also carries two tramps (one played by Edwin August), who plan to steal the box! Dorothy locks herself into her office and refuses to give up the key, sending a wire to the next station calling for help. She scares the tramps by faking a gunshot and they decide to take the box and break into it later. They haul it to a railroad handcar and prepare to leave, but the girl runs out to stop them. They beat her and take her along for the ride. Now the tension builds and the locomotive, carrying Wilfred, races after them, both vehicles on the same track. The train rolls to a stop as the tramps leap off, but they are recovered and so is the money. Dorothy and Wilfred ride together on the locomotive’s cow-catcher, sharing a sandwich and, apparently, continuing to bicker.

What? I'm not helping any tramps.

What? I’m not helping any tramps.

Griffith puts cross-cutting to full use here, and in general develops the story visually with minimal intertitles. Actually, where titles do come in, they tend to be disappointments: I had imagined an elaborate SOS from the girl’s furiously bouncing telegraph fingers, but the title card says all it says is “HELP…TRAMPS…QUICK.” At any rate, while the “girl” in this picture is ultimately a damsel in distress, she is not above taking action for herself. First, she engineers her own salvation through her knowledge of technology and Morse code. Second, she comes up with a clever way to fire off a bullet with no gun, hammering a pair of scissors into the primer (I have no idea if this would work, or be safe, in real life, but it looked good on film). Finally, even though she has no way to stop the thieves, she bravely runs out of her safe office to try to stop them from stealing the money. The one criticism one might make is that there is obviously no way the handcart is going to outrun a locomotive, so the ending is a foregone conclusion, but the tension is heightened by the fact that the girl is on board the cart, and the men on the train have no way to know this, and so might smash into it with the locomotive. On the whole, I find this one of Griffith’s better efforts.

Girl and Her Trust

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Dorothy Bernard, Wilfred Lucas, Edwin August, Charles West, Walter Long

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (with odd music) or here (better music)

For His Son (1912)

This is another of D.W. Griffith’s progressivist message pictures, made well into his career at Biograph studios, at a time when he was itching to use longer formats and express film as an artistic medium, but was constrained by his budgets and production schedule. The specifics of the story may appear a bit silly to modern audiences, but to best understand it we should keep our attention focused on the broader moral message of the piece, which is a critique of both over-indulgence of children by parents and of greed for profits that causes blindness to the harm that is caused in money-making.

For His Son2A middle-aged doctor (Charles Hill Mailes) has a wastrel son (Charles West) who keeps spending his allowance faster than the old doc can earn it. The doctor comes up with a get-rich-quick scheme: he’ll just mix in some of his therapeutic cocaine with a soda pop and make a mint! It works like a charm, and pretty soon drugstores all over town are carrying “Dopakoke,” the new soft drink sensation. The doctor has plenty of money to give his son now, and also to expand operations, hiring a PR man and a secretary (Dorothy Bernard), as well as quite a number of Dopakoke-loaders for all the trucks. The secretary tries Dopakoke, and decides it’s all right, even after she learns the secret ingredient. West and his cronies go out to a drugstore and decide to try it too; soon he is stealing from dad’s cocaine stash to spice up his sodas. West pays a call on his fiancée (Blanche Sweet), who detects that something is wrong when he starts showing off his track marks (apparently he has upgraded to injection now). When Blanche throws him out, he elopes with secretary so that they can shack up in a seedy room and indulge their true passion. Before long, they’re fighting over the needle until West makes like Sid Vicious and only now does his father learn his mistake.

For His SonAs goofy as the story may appear to us today, it is true that for some time (while it was still legal to do so), the Coca-Cola recipe did have some quantity of cocaine in it, and there was concern that its addictive properties might be transferred to the soda. Evidence suggests that by 1912, so little of the drug was present that it was probably negligible (and not as bad for you as all that sugar), but Griffith can’t fairly be faulted for not knowing that. What he attempted to do was to show the horrors of drug addiction in a movie long before this became an accepted genre of film, and, as I’ve suggested above, to speak to more universal moral concerns. As with his other shorts, the movie is an effectively intimate look at human beings affected by a broader social problem. The photography is fairly standard, once again being limited to small studio spaces and an occasional exterior of a doorway, and the large cast is at times cramped into small areas, but the editing is lively enough to keep the story moving forward. There may be a few unintended laughs in this one, but it’s still worth a look.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Charles Hill Mailes, Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Dorothy Bernard, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 14 Min, 40 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911)

In my opinion, D.W. Griffith was most effective in showing intimate vignettes in short format. Even when he wanted to deal with big issues, as is the case here, and in “A Corner in Wheat,” it is the human side of the story that compels. This movie was meant as a progressivist statement about the treatment of old people without families, and it works because it remains very much grounded in a personal story.

What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_OldThe story begins with a doctor making a house call at the home of an old carpenter. His wife is suffering illness, and the doctor prescribes fresh air, which is lacking in their urban tenement. The old man leaves for work, determined to earn enough to get his wife to the country as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the new foreman is looking for people to lay off, and he decides to cull the oldest workers first, replacing them in their jobs with brawny younger men. The carpenter protests, but is sent out into the street, where he seeks work to no avail, finding that employers value youth over his years of experience. His wife takes a turn for the worse as the money (and food) runs out, so he tries stealing food from what looks to be the kitchen of a restaurant at night. He is caught and held in jail, and tells his sad story in night court, to the disdain of the lawyers and bailiffs who have heard it all before. But the judge, who must be an ancestor of Harry Anderson, sends a cop over to the old man’s house to check on the wife. The cop reports that she doesn’t look good, and the judge pays for the stolen groceries, releases the would-be thief, and arranges for a doctor to attend her in the middle of the night! Sadly, all of this charity is wasted, for when they arrive they find the old woman dead, and the old man hurls the stolen food on the ground in rage and despair.

What Shall We Do with Our OldThis movie is very simple and kept within a low budget by shooting almost entirely on small sets with artificial lighting. The night scenes are not lit differently to the day, we only know the time from the intertitles. Unlike many films of this period, there are rather a lot of intertitles, suggesting the limitations Griffith was discovering in telling stories with visuals only. The “AB” of American Biograph is prominently placed in the old couple’s apartment, but not in any of the other interior shots. Fairly little editing technique is shown, but during the critical scenes of the man’s stealing and arrest, there are cross-cut edits back to the old woman in her bed, to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The concept of the protagonist desperately needing to get food to a sick family member, only to be arrested and detained would be re-used more effectively in “The Italian” four years later. This is nevertheless an emotionally effective film, and a good example of how much could be done with so little at the time. Notably, Griffith makes no effort to answer the film’s question, but simply poses the callous standards of modern urban society as problem to be considered, seeming to favor the kind of smaller community where people would be expected to look out for each other as an alternative.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: W. Christie Miller, Claire McDowell, George Nichols, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Cinecon 51

CineconFolks who were paying attention probably noticed that last weekend, I was in Los Angeles, attending the 51st Cinecon Film Festival. They were kind enough to show three Century Films, which I reviewed on the spot, but I also wanted to talk about the festival more generally. It was held at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and there were a block of rooms reserved at cut rate in the Loews Hollywood Hotel, which also housed the dealer rooms.

Blind-husbands-1919-movieposterFor my first visit to Hollywood this was a good location and a good time. I was able to see a number of touristy-historical locations by walking, and visited others by using the subway. The festival included a walking tour (hosted by John Bengtson of Silent Locations), a slide show stills of deleted scenes from Harold Lloyd movies, and author signings by film historians and writers. The movies were roughly split between silent and sound (I enjoyed the silents more, for the most part). Standouts included von Stroheim’s “Blind Husbands” (1919), Mary Pickford in “M’Liss,” (1918), Douglas Fairbanks in “Wild and Woolly” (1917), and the Harold Lloyd feature “The Kid Brother” (1927). Interesting sound pictures included “The Studio Murder Mystery” (1929) and Laurel and Hardy in “Jitterbugs” (1943). There was also a documentary about the Champion Studio of Fort Lee, New Jersey that would bring tears to any classic film fan’s eyes.

Jitterbugs_1943I don’t want to write an extensive critique, I just want to emphasize that I had a good time and this is a worthwhile festival for readers of my blog to attend. So, I’m going to emphasize the positive with…

Why Every Classic Film Fan Should Consider Going to Cinecon

Everyone on the Internet these days is crazy about lists, right? Well, I’m going to list the best things about the Cinecon Film Festival. This gives you almost a whole year to make up your mind about attending Cinecon 52!

  1. Movies you can’t see otherwise: I think one reason a lot of the classic film community winds up missing it is that they look at the roster of films, and they’ve only heard of one or two titles, but that’s exactly the point. Rather than showing movies you’ve already seen a hundred times, Cinecon seeks out the most difficult titles, the ones you didn’t know you needed to see. They announce them later than some of us would like to make our travel plans, too, but take the chance and register before you know for sure – you’re bound to be pleased.
  2. The opportunity to learn: Instead of having your already massive trivia knowledge confirmed, why not take a chance to find something new out? In addition to movies you wouldn’t have watched otherwise, there are special educational programs, such as John Bengtson’s tour of silent Hollywood and the fascinating set of stills from deleted scenes in Harold Lloyd movies that preceded “The Kid Brother.” The chance to hear erudite film scholars and preservationists introduce several of the films was also thrilling.
  3. These are the good guys: Cinecon is a nonprofit made up of classic film enthusiasts, preservationists, scholars, and others, not a bloated media mega-corporation engaging in dubious copyright tactics to ensure a stranglehold on classic filmdom. Support the good guys.
  4. Networking: Everyone at this festival is interested in knowing what it is you do. A lot of them are doing cool stuff, also. Talk to your neighbors, find out what brought them to Cinecon. Chances are you’ll learn something, and you might even gain a fan in the process.
  5. C’mon, silent/early sound movies in Hollywood! What better way to connect with the history you write and read about, and watch unfold on the screen, than to be right there where it happened, and to re-live it the way audiences of the time experienced it. It’s almost like having a time machine on hand.