Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: September, 2015

Children of Eve (1915)

Children of EveBy the end of 1915, the Edison Company had lost its position of prominence in the film industry, and crushing losses in legal battles had guaranteed that it could no longer benefit from the work of others. Nevertheless, it still continued to release movies like this one, no longer innovating and inspiring others, but following trends established by others in the field. Apparently, it was hoped that by making “message” pictures such as this one, they could be perceived as artistic leaders if not industry chiefs. The result in fact was less box office popularity and the final decline of the studio.

a swinging joint

a swinging joint

“Children of Eve” begins by showing us the meeting of Henry Clay Madison (played by Robert Conness), a studious young man, and his flophouse neighbor, Flossie, a dancer at the Follies. Madison tries to reform Flossie (Nellie Grant), and, in doing so, falls in love with her. She returns his feelings, but fears that she will end up dragging him to her level if they marry. So, she departs, just as Madison is beginning to find some success in business. As it happens, she delivers a baby girl and dies after leaving him, and he takes on his brother’s (?) child as an adoptive son. The son (played by Robert Walker), Bert, is raised in luxury, while the daughter (Viola Dana, the real star of the movie, who went on to do “Blue Jeans” and “Naughty Nanette”), Fifty-Fifty Mamie, lives in poverty, unknown and unacknowledged by her father. She makes her living through cheap cons and winning dance contests, while he takes an interest in social reform, urging his now jaded father to reconsider his child labor practices. They meet when Mamie tries to hide out in the reform office after stealing a large feathery thing from a cart. Paralleling his father’s course, he tries to reform her and falls in love, and Mamie stays up all night with a sick woman and starts reading the Bible, showing her interest. Her real turning point comes when an old cohort shoots a policeman, and Mamie refuses to give him shelter. Meanwhile, Bert gets a fever and yells out her name. Madison affirms his belief in the moral lesson in the note Flossie wrote so long ago, and encourages Mamie to leave Bert as Flossie left him. Mamie is recruited to investigate labor conditions at Madison’s factory, but while she is there a fire breaks out and children are killed by smoke inhalation before the fire fighters can get to them. Mamie is dragged out, unconscious, and given little chance to survive. Madison discovers the old picture of her mother and learns, too late, that this was his daughter. Bert arrives just in time for Mamie to die in his arms.

Children of Eve2

The central theme of this movie was the dangers of child labor and poor working conditions, and the fire scene was based on the famous Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, which was still a major scandal at the time. Due to lack of fire escapes and a locked shopfloor, hundreds of women and young girls were trapped in a burning building, with 146 deaths resulting. The director, John Collins, wrote the scene to evoke that event, and tied it in to a message of reform and Christian charity. However, the plot winds up being both overcomplicated and predictable at the same time, and the story never quite seems to come together. In a lot of ways, the movie is reminiscent of Raoul Walsh’s “Regeneration,” of the same year, but it never manages to be as visually or narratively compelling.

Children of Eve3

Technically, I’d rate the movie as middling for 1915. There are close-ups, cross-cutting, and some camera movement, but most of the movie suffers from being shot on small sets at 90-degree angles, with “stagey” action. Unfortunately, little of the movie was shot in the streets of New York, which were still close to the Edison home base, and most exteriors just show doorways. There are some good exterior scenes on the rooftops when the cop and the crook have their shootout, and also some visually interesting shots on a large set representing the dance hall. The windows of each tenement apartment look out onto painted flats, but at least the cinematographers thought to have a different view for each one, and also used lighting on these flats to show night- and daytime. The “big scene” of the factory fire is reasonably suspenseful, but doesn’t show any really new or exciting footage – it could almost be Edison’s “Life of an American Fireman,” with better editing.

Director: John H. Collins

Screenplay: John H. Collins

Camera: John Arnold, Ned Van Buren

Starring: Viola Dana, Robert Conness, Nellie Grant, Robert Walker, Tom Blake

Run Time: 1hr 14 Min

I have been unable to find a reliable copy for free on the Internet. If you know where one can be seen, please say so in the comments.

The Son’s Return (1909)

Cinecon pulled a surprise on me and screened a bonus Century Film, in a beautifully remastered print. I appreciate this, but it was screened right before the 1918 Mary Pickford vehicle, “M’Liss,” so I hope I don’t get the plots of those movies confused.

Sons Return“The Son’s Return” is an early Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, who I think took on a rather too complicated story for his still-developing skills. Imdb identifies the source as “a novel” by Guy de Maupassant, but the short list of his novels on wikipedia includes nothing that looks like French for “The Son’s Return,” so I can’t confirm that. Pickford’s role is actually comparatively minor, though for some reason the movie begins with her frolicking through sunlit glades of flowers. Griffith was into girls frolicking, we know that. Then we are introduced to Charles West, her sweetie, who is the real center of the narrative. His parents are running an inn in New England that isn’t doing well, but he has decided to move to the city and seek his fortune. He does remarkably well, apparently getting a job on Wall Street or in a major bank, and he stays for five years, apparently forgetting his rural roots, and growing a beard. One day, a letter from Mary comes, telling him that his parents are on the verge of bankruptcy, so he announces to his boss that he’s taking some unplanned time off, and takes a train to town. No one (including his parents) recognizes him with his beard and expensive clothes, and he decides to “surprise” everyone by pretending to be a stranger and checking in to the inn. The landlord is threatening to turn the parents out into the street any day, and when this big-spending stranger shows up passes out fully clothed in his hotel room, they decide to take desperate measures. They club him and steal his wallet, only to decide that he’s dead after a cursory check of his pulse. Then they find the locket with the mother’s picture that demonstrates his identity. Grief- and terror-stricken, they dump the body and run back to the inn. Now Mary comes along and finds the “body,” which acts like it has a terrible hangover. Mary, who recognizes him at once, calls a doctor and the police, assuming that he’s been the victim of highwaymen. The parents decide they cannot live with their crime and show up to turn themselves in, but of course their son forgives them when they fall on their knees.

Sons Return1This isn’t necessarily a bad storyline for a movie, and it might even have worked in short format, given Griffith’s later skills, but it was a bit ambitious for 1909. The biggest problem is the suspension of disbelief that a man’s parents can’t recognize him after only five years because he has grown a beard. Even my extremely near-sighted mother never had this problem, even when I was dying my hair and cutting it in punk rock fashions. He needed a bit more of a disguise. It’s also unclear why he chooses to sleep in his clothes, and the question of day/night is never adequately settled by Billy Bitzer’s photography. When the parents sneak up to the room, they make a point of taking a candle, suggesting that it is night, but there is no attempt to show this through lighting (aside from which, there is a plainly visible burning candle in the room already when they enter, so the second one was unnecessary). The parents presumably dump the body at night, but when Mary walks up a minute later, it appears to be daytime – which is both an editing issue and a lighting one. Editing the whole story more tightly might have heightened the tension and also made it easier to ignore the other problems, but no doubt Griffith was still learning how to do this.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Edwin August

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Darling of the CSA (1912)

It turns out that not just D.W. Griffith was making movies about the Civil War during the early teens. The Kalem company produced a series of them between 1911 and 1915, which includes this tautly-edited short.

Anna Q. Nilsson

Anna Q. Nilsson

Anna Q. Nilsson, who appeared as Marie Deering in “Regeneration” three years later, is the title character, Agnes Lane, a daring spy for the South during the Civil War. She delivers an important message regarding an attack on a Yankee fort, then infiltrates the fort and turns herself in, only to change into a Union soldier’s clothes and escape with more confidential information. The Confederate soldiers love her, and treat her with respect, despite her un-ladylike profession. During the attack, morale appears to flag, but she sneaks out a message that she has been captured by the Yankees and is due to be executed, urging the boys to greater heroism. As they capture the fort, she again infiltrates and pretends to be grateful to her “rescuers.”

DarlingoftheCSAThe simple story is told with cross-cutting and fairly rapid editing for the time, although I didn’t find the action scenes as compelling as their Biograph counterparts. Several times, corpses on the battlefield move or react to being stepped on, showing that no one thought to substitute dummies for actors between the shots. I was interested in the camera angles chosen, which were often 45 degrees to walls or tent sides, suggesting that the cinematographer was thinking outside of the usual box. Nilsson, in addition to her cross-dressing scene, undergoes several wardrobe changes: at first we see her in a lady’s riding outfit, but during the battle she wears the white of a nurse. Care seems to have been taken to get the period costumes right, nothing looks like the early twentieth century in this movie. Although Kalem had a Hollywood studio at this time for shooting Westerns, I suspect that this movie was made closer to the New York headquarters, based on the appearance of backgrounds and foliage.

Although the movie fits into the general trend of nostalgia for the “lost cause” of the South, there is no explicit political or racial message in the film, The Yankees are not shown as “bad,” they are simply enemy soldiers, to be overcome at any cost. This also means that Nilsson’s heroism is not countered by any compelling villainy, which probably only works because the movie is so short.

This review has been another movie I was able to see in the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood thanks to Cinecon.

Directed by: Sidney Olcott and Kenean Buel

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Anna Q. Nilsson, Henry Hallam

Run Time: 10 Min

I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please tell me about it in the comments.

Red Saunders’ Sacrifice (1912)

Clara Williams

Clara Williams

There’s surprisingly little gunplay in this Western short from Lubin. We do, however, get three-way cross-cutting and melodramatic romance story worthy of D.W. Griffith. Mary, played by Clara Williams (who we’ve seen in “The Italian” and who went on to star in “Hell’s Hinges”), meets a charming and very clean-shaven “outlaw” near her frontier home. The “outlaw” in question is the eponymous Red Saunders, played by Edgar Jones, who made quite a few Westerns at Lubin, most of which are now lost. To me, he looks more like a Mountie than an outlaw. When Mary’s house catches fire, he takes her and her aging mother in at his mountain hideaway, but then mom falls sick and he must go fetch a doctor. At first reluctant, knowing that he’s a wanted man and will be spotted in town, his inner decency gets the better of him and he goes for the doctor. He makes the mistake of asking the local deputy where he can find a doctor, and the deputy interrupts the sheriff, who’s busy reminiscing about a lost love, to tell him there’s an outlaw in town. The doctor tries to capture Red for the bounty, but Red disarms him and forces him to return to the cabin. The doctor quickly ascertains that the woman has been dead for hours and there was no reason to get a doctor in the first place. Red gives him back his gun and sends him on his way while Mary grieves. Now the sheriff and the deputy ride up, having tracked the doctor to the mountains. The sheriff bushwhacks Red and handcuffs him, but he does stop long enough to hear Mary’s story. When he goes into the death room, he recognizes the corpse – it’s the woman he was pining over in the earlier scene. Mary is his daughter! The three talk things out and the sheriff takes off the handcuffs and gives Red back his gun on his word of honor that he’ll turn himself in. Red serves his time and returns to marry Mary.

Red Saunders SacrificeOn the whole, I found this a pretty typical Western for its day, well-made, but nothing really special. Clara Williams is the best actor in the piece, although the doctor and the deputy are both satisfyingly oily and untrustworthy. The whole bit with the sheriff mooning over his memorabilia makes no sense until we get to the denouement. Edgar Jones, as I’ve mentioned above, just doesn’t come across as a desperado or a fugitive, although he’s a handsome enough side of beef for a Western hero. Tinting was used for the scene with the burning cabin, and we get an interesting close-up on the deputy and the wanted poster to make sure we know it’s Red they’re after – never mind the improbability of reproducing photographs of a random outlaw on posters in the 1860s. The cross-cutting I mentioned gives us Mary fretting over her dead mother while Red gets the doctor and the deputy and sheriff pursue. It’s not a tense sequence (we already know mom’s dead), but it is effective in terms of moving the story forward. There is some lush countryside footage, presumably taken near Lubin’s Philadelphia headquarters, but all made up to be passably Western.

Director Francis J Grandon

Director Francis J Grandon

One final note: I saw this movie screened with a live audience at the Cinecon film festival in Los Angeles. I mention this because my readers might be interested in Cinecon (I’ll do a more complete writeup of the festival when it’s over) and also because it has affected my review process. Normally, I’ll watch a short at least twice before writing it up, features I go back to key scenes for. Since this was a live screening, it means I had no such opportunities, so any errors that took place can be chalked up to a failing memory.

Director: Francis J. Grandon

Camera: unknown

Starring: Edgar Jones, Clara Williams

Run Time: 10 Min

I cannot find this to watch for free on the Internet. If you find it, please let me know in the comments.