Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: November, 2015

A Woman (1915)

Doesn't look like rain...

Doesn’t look like rain…

Charlie Chaplin’s classic Keystone formula of “A girl, a park, and a policeman” gets his more sophisticated Essanay treatment, before taking a sudden turn into cross-dressing and gender bending relationships. This may have been one of the movies Sime Silverman thought was “dirty” or “vulgar,” but for slapstick fans, it’s hard to top.

 

This begins with a happy family in the park – father (Charles Inslee), mother (Marta Golden), and grown daughter (Edna Purviance), gently snoozing in the shade of a tree. Mother snores, so father can’t sleep, and thus is awake when a pretty girl (Margie Reiger) walks by and waves. Father pursues her, and she shows an interest, even though he’s clearly married. He goes to get them sodas from a nearby vendor, and along comes the “Little Tramp,” walking over garden hoses and thinking that it’s raining. He takes an interest in the girl, who is as happy with one guy as another. Then the father hits him with a bottle and chases him off. There are more escapades, and for a while the father is blindfolded in a game of “hide and seek,” giving Charlie an opportunity for revenge and to push his adversary into the lake. He then finds Edna and mother and, away from the father, is able to impress them enough to get an invitation back to the home. He does his little “tea party” routine for them and is getting into their good graces when father comes home. He’s ready to put his best foot forward, but Inslee recognizes him and a fight breaks out, during which Charlie’s pants are torn off, revealing typical striped comic long johns. He runs upstairs, looking for clothes, and comes across a dummy in a white dress. A lightbulb goes off over his head. With Edna’s help, Charlie is able to get into the dress and some decent shoes (and shave his famous moustache). He again begins a flirtation with the father and the father’s friend (Billy Armstrong), and tricks the two of them into kissing one another. Finally, the father figures it out, but Chaplin promises to keep everything from his wife in exchange for his blessing to see Edna. It looks like all is well, but Inslee has the last laugh.

Woman1Apparently, this was the last time Chaplin appeared in drag. I’ve talked about one of the other examples in “The Masquerader” and there’s also “A Busy Day,” which I haven’t gotten to, yet. In those terms, I think he did better in “A Masquerader,” where I had to watch twice to figure out that it was him. However, this movie works better overall than that one, in part because Chaplin really does take some time to be sympathetic and lovable, as opposed to just flirtatious and violent. I think this is one of the best “park” sequences I’ve seen – and Chaplin’s character really does show a decided duality between his behavior toward the boorish father versus the pleasant mother and daughter. He’s really only in drag for the final three minutes of the movie, although he does flirt with mistaken-gender identity during the blind-man’s-bluff routine. Other comedians (notably Fatty Arbuckle and Julian Eltinge) got a lot more mileage out of gender-bending than Charlie did, and I don’t get the feeling that he was entirely comfortable with it, but it’s worth seeing him do it to the best of his ability.

Woman2Technically, this movie is at the standard we’ve come to expect in Essanay comedies of the time. This movie comes about halfway through his contract with Essanay, and like others of the period, makes good use of close-ups, tight editing, and realistic lighting. The action is fast paced and highly reliant on timing, and Charlie pulls off some very nice stunts and good uses of his cane as a weapon or prop.

Woman3Director: Charles Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Marta Golden, Margie Reiger

Run Time: 26 Min

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

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Work (1915)

In this Charlie Chaplin short from Essanay, Chaplin returns to a somewhat more nuanced, sympathetic performance while still sticking to the familiar tropes of slapstick: violence, revenge, flirtation, and people slipping and falling down.

Work1We are introduced to a family of husband (Billy Armstrong), wife (Marta Golden), and maid (Edna Purviance), who are expecting contractors to come and finish the wall-paper-hanging in their rather cramped-looking mansion. The husband is annoyed because he can’t go into the living room (everything is being boxed up for the work to be done) and his breakfast is late). The wife is still in her bedclothes, and she and the maid work hard at getting things ready before the arrival of the contractors. These, we see, are Charlie Chaplin and his boss Charles Inslee, who is “driving” Chaplin as a kind of rickshaw-rider with all of their equipment piled into an oversized cart. After several near-misses with streetcars, Charlie manages to get the contraption up the hill to the house. Then, of course, they proceed to ruin the room they are meant to be working on, getting glue and paper everywhere. Meanwhile, Charlie flirts with the maid and tells her his sad life story. Then, he wrecks her room as well for good measure. Now, a mysterious fop (Leo White) shows up and presents flowers to the wife, who tries to cover for him, claiming he’s one of the workers. The husband, still suspicious finds the flowers with Charlie and goes for his gun. He shoots wildly, chasing the gigolo around the house until he hits a gas line and makes the oven explode. The household is covered in rubble, Charlie decided to hide out in the oven.

Work4My own reaction to this movie, which came out after “By the Sea,” is that it was a bit of a step back towards the sympathy and subtlety of “The Tramp,” while still full of classic slapstick gags. The situation of workers in the domestic setting is a classic one for physical comedy, and has been done dozens of times. The situation is inherently invasive, and often while the work proceeds, one’s house begins to look like a disaster zone and one wonders if it will ever be put right. Opportunities for physical mishaps abound. Many of us live in fear of having contractors like these, and that’s part of where the everyman humor of the situation is so recognizable. One good bit that stood out to me was when the wife realized that she had left the good silver out in the room where Charlie & Charlie are working, and rushes in to put it in the safe. They look at each other, and take out their pocket watches, carefully placing them in Chaplin’s pocket and then sealing it shut with a safety pin. A great working-class comeuppance to middle class snobbery. The sequence in which Inslee drives Chaplin like a mule has also been suggested to have class war implications vis-à-vis management and labor.

Work2This time I’d also like to take a moment to look at contemporary reactions. This quote is from Variety, review by Sime Silverman: “This Essanay release of the Charlie Chaplin picture for this week is Work in two reels. It is the usual Chaplin work of late, mussy, messy, and dirty. Chaplin has found that the public will stand for his picture comedy of the worst kind, and he is giving them the worst kind, although as an excellent pantomimist, with a reserve of decent comedy, Chaplin must have decided the time to put his other brand upon the screen is when his present style of ‘humor’ shall have ceased to be in demand. The Censor Board is passing matter in the Chaplin films that could not possibly get by in other pictures. Never anything dirtier was placed upon the screen than Chaplin’s ‘Tramp,’ and while this may have been objected to by the censors, it merely taught Chaplin what to avoid and how far to go. Work, however, is not nearly so offensive excepting that it is disgusting at many points, but since the audience will laugh there is no real cause for complaint.” That’s quite the review! Incidentally, Silverman continued to review Chaplin in this vein, but gradually mellowed and came to admit that some of his work was good.

Dirty? Disgusting?

Dirty? Disgusting?

Because I’d read the review, I kept an eye out for “dirty” and “disgusting” parts to the film. It is dirty, in the sense that a lot of people get slapped with glue or get some other kind of mess on them. But disgusting? Like I said, the wife runs around in her nightgown and she seems to have a lover who visits in the middle of the day. Oh, and Chaplin sits on a bed with Edna while telling her of his tough life. I guess that could be disgusting? I don’t know, I’m trying to understand the mores of the time, but I’m not sure I quite get why the Censor Board had let something unusual pass here, compared to the racy melodramas of Cecil B. DeMille, for example.

Work3

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Marta Golden, Leo White

Run Time: 29 Min

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

His Regeneration (1915)

His_Regeneration_posterThis one-reel drama from Essanay stars co-owner G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and features a brief cameo by Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp,” which makes it an odd sort of a bird to review. At first I thought it might be intended as a kind of spoof of “Regeneration” by Raoul Walsh, but that film came several months after this one, so that’s not a likely explanation. Besides, most of it isn’t very funny (the Chaplin footage excepted).

Charlie: Whose hand am I holding?

Charlie: Whose hand am I holding?

The movie begins in a pawn shop, where the decidedly unregenerate G.M. Anderson sells some presumably ill-gotten jewelry to a proprietor of indeterminate “foreign” origin (I can’t decide whether he’s Jewish or Chinese). Then the action shifts to a dance hall/nightclub that appears to stratify its clientele. On the lower level, rough working class-types brawl and enjoy Apache dancing with their molls, while in the balcony, higher-class customers spectate at a safe distance. The Little Tramp show up at the lower level and tries to chat up a girl with a large, muscular boyfriend, gets caught up in the violent whirlwind of the dance floor, then tries to take a breath at a table before being drawn back into the flurry of dancing. Now Anderson shows up and sits with a girl dressed like Cleopatra whose boyfriend is off getting drinks. He gives her a stolen watch and then fights with the boyfriend when he comes back, to the animated interest of the balcony crew. Their amusement turns to horror when, after Anderson wins, the boyfriend pulls out a gun and shoots him. One of their number (Marguerite Clayton) rushes down to dress the wound and pour alcohol from a nearby glass over it. She turns him over to the police when they arrive.

Why does the Queen of the Nile need a wristwatch?

Why does the Queen of the Nile need a wristwatch?

Anderson, who was obviously the victim in this case, is soon on the streets again, and he breaks into a fancy home with his partner (Lee Willard). While his buddy is opening the safe, Anderson cases the place and finds Marguerite sleeping in her bedroom. He is torn by his obligations to his partner and the girl who may have saved his life. He goes back downstairs and tries to get Lee to put back the jewels he has taken from the safe. Of course, they end up fighting, and eventually Anderson has to shoot his friend to stop him from taking the jewels. That wakes up Marguerite and the neighbors and soon the cops are called. When Marguerite finds him with a gun over his dead pal’s body, he gives her back the jewels and explains what happened. She takes the gun and hides him in the kitchen, claiming that she found and shot a lone burglar when the police arrive. He appreciates what she’s done and leaves a note saying that he’ll “try to make good.”

His Regeneration2Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to develop a full story about the regeneration of a man’s spirit, and this movie takes time out for a comedy interlude that adds nothing to the story, so it doesn’t hold up all that well as a drama. What it does have in its favor is good acting by both leads, a very stylish period dance hall, and a good appearance by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, who is only on the screen for a minute or two, probably pleased audiences more than any other part of the movie. It is also tightly edited, and moves quickly through the storyline without a lot of repetition or over-emphasis of simple matters. There are no intertitles, apart from the close-up on the note at the end, so that we can see that the regeneration is complete. Both Anderson and Marguerite also get close-ups, and we can see the dilemma work itself out in his face at the end. Still, I’m not sure that the moral of this story really works: were these jewels really worth a man’s life and does Marguerite really owe Anderson his freedom at the end? Will he stay regenerate or has he merely learned that some rich people are good and you shouldn’t steal from them that treat you right? I expect a bit more by the standards of 1915.

Director: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lee Willard, Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd Bacon, Belle Mitchell

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

By the Sea (1915)

By_the_Sea_(1915_film)_posterWith this one-reel comedy made at Essanay, Charlie Chaplin returned to the plotless violence of his Keystone work, right after finishing his opus “The Tramp,” which had showed how much more he could do with the character. Although this may be a slight disappointment for those who want Charlie to take himself seriously as an artist, it is nevertheless a strong example of his powerful physical comedy and capacity for clowning.

A blustery day.

A blustery day.

On a windy day at a seaside resort, the “Little Tramp” has wisely tied his hat to a string so he won’t lose it. Unfortunately, another tourist (Billy Armstrong, who I mistook for Ben Turpin at first) has thought of the same thing, and their strings get hopelessly tangled. After a few pratfalls and mix-ups, Chaplin destroys the other man’s hat, precipitating a fight. They manage to make up after a policeman intervenes and the two knock out the cop and go off for ice cream (the ice cream clerk is Snub Pollard). Then another fight breaks out over who should pay, and of course both ice cream cones are smashed into faces. This brings big Bud Jamison into the scene, as an unintentional ice cream casualty. His wife is Edna Purviance, and of course Charlie takes advantage of opportunities to flirt with her. For once, she is not all that responsive and eventually Bud comes over to chase Charlie, who then finds Billy’s wife sitting alone and tries to flirt with her as well. The other two men discover what is happening and insert themselves on the bench between Charlie and his love-interests. Charlie tips over the bench and everyone falls over. The end.

Edna's not having it.

Edna’s not having it.

Even by Chaplin one-reel standards, this is not very sophisticated stuff, but I had a good time watching it and was glad it didn’t overstay its welcome. I laughed quite a bit, especially during the “hat fight,” when it was clear that neither man would be able to walk away with his own hat without the strings tangling again. This is a very “simple” effect that worked really well – if the strings had accidentally become untangled during a take, the whole thing would have been ruined. I’m inclined to believe that the wind was real, not an effect, and it even seems possible that a windy day at the beach was the inspiration for the whole film, which was shot, we are told, at Ocean Front Walk and Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice, California (remember that the first “Little Tramp” movie, “Kid Auto Races,” also used a Venice location). Billy Armstrong acquitted himself well in this movie, at least as well as any of Charlie’s usual foils, and Bud Jamison is clearly comfortable in the comic “big man” role at this point. I’ve compared him in the past to Mack Swain, but I think I’ve now seen more of Jamison in this role than Swain, it’s just that Swain was in “The Gold Rush” and hence became famous. The major technical difference between this and the Keystone period, is the frequent use of close-ups, especially on Chaplin, which does make it seem a bit “warmer” in tone.This movie demonstrates that Charlie didn’t “grow up” overnight, but kept experimenting in the slapstick style through his early development.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Billy Armstrong, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Snub Pollard, Ernest Van Pelt

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Richard III (Kino Video DVD, 1912, 2001)

richardIII-kinoDVDWorldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/49274041

I recently reviewed the feature-length film, but I wanted to also post a few words about the DVD. I bought my copy direct from Kino Video, but it appears that quite a few libraries still carry it, for those interested in pursuing Interlibrary Loan.

Unlike many of the DVDs I’ve reviewed, this is not a collection, but simply a single film released as a DVD with some features. I wish they had managed to include a few other short samples of silent Shakespeare movies, but there are some compensating features. The case is attractive and includes all the basic information you need, and there is a one-page insert with the chapter list on one side, and a brief essay by Douglas Brode explaining the significance of the film on the other. The disc includes a seventeen-minute documentary discussing the preservation and discovery of “Richard III,” a bit of history of Shakespeare on the silent and talkie screen, and some of the available production information about this film. There is also a reproduction of a short (written) interview with Frederick Warde on the disc, which, for once, I was able to read on my screen. I still wish they had reproduced this text in a booklet instead of digitally, but it works.

The movie itself is nicely preserved and restored, with tinting clear and visible, and many good sharp images. Perhaps the biggest feature is the new score, by Ennio Morricone, the fellow who gave us the unforgettable music from “The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly,” and many other great films. Morricone took the movie very seriously, and adds a decidedly dark tone, even to scenes where the ominous situation might not be clear to the audience. Often, he anticipates events, as when Richard visits the aging king in his cell. The actors give no sign of the danger this brings, but the score clearly highlights it from the moment Richard enters the Tower. Some may find this heavy-handed, but I thought that Morricone’s score added greatly to the experience. Richard III is a dark play, after all, and his score keeps that as a focus, where many silent film scores will lapse into jaunty rhythms unexpectedly, disturbing the mood of a movie.

Civil War Films of the Silent Era (1913, 1915, 2000)

Civil War FilmsWorldcat link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/45711746

This collection of Thomas H. Ince films, sorted by a common theme, may be out of print today from Image Entertainment, but was easy enough for me to procure through Interlibrary Loan. It contains three of the movies I’ve reviewed recently: “The Coward,” “The Drummer of the 8th,” and “Granddad,” and pretty much nothing else. No special features, no commentary, not even a booklet with an essay about Ince and his work, at least none in the edition I got. Just the movies, plain and simple. The menu pages have electronic music turned up way too high (much higher in volume than on the movies themselves), and there are chapter menus, at least. The music is created by Eric Beheim and “his electronic Cotton Creek Orchestra,” and it has most of the themes you’d expect for Civil War movies. It’s not outstanding, like a score by Jon Mirsalis, but it is intentional and fits the action, unlike some silent scores where someone just drops a needle and goes for a coffee break. Overall, I recommend this collection as of historical interest, especially for those who think Griffith was the be-all and end-all of silent Civil War drama.

November 1915

The news roundup is late this month, because November is always a somewhat hectic month for me. Still, I think it’s nice to take a look at the items from the headlines of 100 years ago as we proceed through the year cinematically. November 1915 may be one of the most important months in the history of film, especially American film, so get ready for some pretty interesting entries.

Songwriter and labor leader Joe Hill, executed Nov 19, 1915

Songwriter and labor leader Joe Hill, executed Nov 19, 1915

World War I:

The Fourth Battle of the Isonzo between Italian and Austrian forces begins November 10 with an attack by the Italian 2nd Army. The Italians gain some ground, but not their ultimate objectives, while the Austrians are forced to request help from their German allies, not officially at war with Italy at this time.

Also on November 10, the Central Powers initiate the Battle of Kosovo, pushing the Serbians back to Albania.

Labor:

Labor activist and early member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”), Joe Hill is executed on November 19, for a murder he likely didn’t commit. His final letter to fellow organizer Bill Haywood states, “Don’t waste any time in mourning. Organize.”

KKK:

On Thanksgiving Night, November 24, William J Simmons and fifteen charter members re-found the Ku Klux Klan atop Stone Mountain in Georgia. This tiny group would be the nucleus of a powerful political movement to re-claim control of American society by native-born white, protestant men.

Science:

Albert Einstein first presents his General Theory of Relativity to the Prussian Academy of Sciences on November 25.

Film:

The Triangle Film Corporation built and opened a theater in Massillon, Ohio on November 23. This theater is still standing, and is believed to be the oldest purpose-built movie theater still in operation today.

Several important films were released this month, including:

Carmen” by Raoul Walsh, starring Theda Bara.

Carmen” by Cecil B. DeMille, starring Geraldine Farrar. Both “Carmens” are released Nov 1.

The Lamb” first starring role for Douglas Fairbanks receives its nationwide release Nov 7.

Madame Butterfly” directed by Sidney Olcott and starring Mary Pickford is released Nov 7.

The Raven” starring Henry B. Walthall as Edgar Allen Poe is released Nov 8.

The episodes “The Severed Head” and “The Deadly Ring” of the serial “Les Vampires” by Louis Feuillade are both released Nov 13.

Inspiration” (Nov 18), which included total female nudity (note that “Hypocrites” also did so, much earlier in the year).

A Night in the Show” (Nov 20), this would be the last un-cut movie Charlie Chaplin did at Essanay Studios before leaving for Mutual (“Burlesque on Carmen” was released in a mutilated form by the studio and not restored for many years).

Martyrs of the Alamo” (Nov 21), produced by D.W. Griffith, directed by Christy Cabanne.

Whew! film fans must have had really full calendars this month!

Richard III (1912)

Richard_III_1912_PosterMy closest friends know that I’ve recently become a fan of “Good Tickle Brain,” a web-comic/blog done by a fellow librarian in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her particular obsession isn’t early/silent film, however, it’s Shakespeare, and she draws wonderful versions of the canonical plays using stick figures. Reading it got me excited to watch another silent version of Shakespeare, this time a version of my personal favorite play, the one which serves as the model for all super-villains and baddies, Richard III. It’s been my favorite ever since the Ian McKellen version hit the theaters in the early 90s.

See how my sword weeps for the poor king's death!

See how my sword weeps for the poor king’s death!

In this version, the movie begins with its star, Frederick Warde, out of costume, standing before a curtain and bowing, to give the full sense of a theatrical experience. There is then a fairly lengthy Dramatis Personae, which was very rare (almost unheard-of) in 1912. The movie actually begins by re-capping some of the action from 3 Henry VI, in which the Lancasters are overthrown and the new Yorkist dynasty taking their place. Richard goes to the cell holding the previous king and stabs him, then steps out to wave as his brother Edward marches into town, and goes back in to stab the dead king a few more times so we know he’s bad. Richard then intercepts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son (also killed by Richard), on the way to the funeral and coerces her into marrying him. Once Edward is installed as king, Richard forges evidence that his other brother Clarence is plotting to kill Edward’s children, then hires some murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower of London. The strain of being responsible for his brother’s death does Edward in, and now the young princes are called in and Richard is made Lord Protector. He sends his crony Buckingham into the city to stir up support and a multitude of citizens show up at Richard’s gate, demanding that he accept the crown. He pretends to be reluctant, but accepts. After his installment, he has the princes arrested and put in the Tower, then sends the same murderers to snuff them out. Meanwhile, he kills his own wife and tries to woo Elizabeth, the young daughter of Edward (so, Richard’s niece, actually), whose brothers he just had killed. Her mom puts a stop to that by writing to the heroic Richmond (played by co-director James Keane), and asking him to bring an army to overthrow the “tyrant” Richard. They show up, most of Richard’s friends abandon him and he loses the battle. England, presumably, becomes a happier place henceforth. The movie closes as the star once again bows at the end.

Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?

Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?

This movie, which is reportedly the oldest completely surviving American feature-length film, was obviously intended to be a “prestige picture” in a time when most “flickers” were looked down on as inferior art if art at all, and many production companies were more concerned about grinding out numerous short films than in making quality cinema. Its star apparently had hoped that the movie would be such a hit that he could work on making movies for the rest of his career, and not have to appear on stage every night, or tour around the country with productions. It didn’t quite work out that way, because he was called on by the studio to travel with the film and offer some narration and readings from the play for the audiences who went to see it. This movie doesn’t seem to have had the impact that “Birth of a Nation” would have a few years later in terms of people praising it as a cultural success or new direction in filmmaking. My guess is that it didn’t turn make a big enough profit to keep the company making features and hiring big-name actors. Warde himself did appear in a 1916 movie production of “King Lear,” so this wasn’t the death of his career, but it doesn’t seem to have launched anything big right away.

Will you enforce me to a world of cares?

Will you enforce me to a world of cares?

As I said, this is based on my favorite Shakespeare play, so I was probably predisposed to like it no matter what.  I did have one major pet peeve, which no one else would probably care about: they changed Richard from “Duke of Gloucester” to “Duke of Gloster,” in the Intertitles, probably to make it more phonetic to a mass audience. It’s reasonably technically advanced for 1912, including camera pans, interesting angles, and relatively fast-paced editing. There are no close-ups at all, and the majority of shots are in long shots that show the actors’ full bodies, sometimes cutting off their feet. Edits within scenes only happen when a character moves from one room to another (as in the killing of Henry VI, or the scene where Richard accepts the crown). There is tinting used to establish mood and time of day. I found the angles of the sets somewhat interesting, especially within the Tower of London, where I would even say that the walls anticipated the Expressionism of a decade later. Unlike many American films, but more typical of the French, the camera was often at a 30-45 degree angle to the walls, but apparently one of the directors called in for this movie was from France, so that may explain the style. Some parts of the play are cut (which is almost always the case with Shakespeare) and there are times when it would be hard to follow without knowing the play. For example, the Intertitles inform us that Richard refuses to pay Buckingham for his assistance, but what we see is Richard getting mad at Buckingham – from the context of the play I know that’s because Buckingham refuses to condone the murder of the princes, but an audience without that knowledge would be lost. Still, given the limitations of trying to perform Shakespeare without dialogue, I’d rate this a pretty good effort, one that I’m glad still survives.

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Directors: James Keane, André Calmettes

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Frederick Warde, James Keane, George Moss, Carey Lee

Run Time: 59 Min

I have not found this movie for free online. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

Over the Top (1915)

Over the TopSixty seven years before “Fitzcarraldo,” a small automobile club tried something similar – using ropes to haul a car over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Subtitled, “A Battle with the Elements,” this film documents their efforts, or at least purports to document them. I say “purports to” because some of the shots are clearly staged, suggesting at least re-creations of the actual events, although it does seem to me that the film crew genuinely accompanied the car on its trans-montane journey.

Over the Top1The film begins with the explanation that the Reno Commercial Club is offering a trophy for the first car to travel from San Francisco to Reno on the newly-opened road. We see a city street, a shiny new Buick, and three clean-cut strapping young men, departing on the journey. At first, the trip seems dusty and bumpy, but not too bad, and we get some nice travel footage of the mountains and quaint mining towns with wooden sidewalks. Then, things take a turn as we reach a level below the snow line where the road has largely turned into “bottomless” mud. Those young men don’t seem so clean anymore. Soon, every shot depicts two of them helping to push the car and take up slack on the ropes attached to trees and stumps that are being used to winch the vehicle along. What kind of road is this! It looks like a far more “extreme” sport than a simple drive in the country. The boys take time to scale a pole and plant some flags, and also set up camp near the summit to cook dinner, so there’s not much sense of urgency – maybe they’re the only ones in this race. They do finally make it across, and down into the valley, where they can speed along at a decent clip, arriving in Reno and receiving their trophy. I thought the Commercial Club should buy them a new car, they really tore up the old one on the crossing!

Plenty of time for leisure activities.

Plenty of time for leisure activities.

As I’ve suggested, the “documentary” aspect of this movie is at least a bit staged. Nearly every shot begins with the cameraman in front of the car, so they must have frequently stopped to give him time to get into position and set up. Presumably, the rest of the time, he rode in the fourth seat in that car, but of course we never see that. There are some simple pans, but not a lot of camera movement, and few close-ups on the men are shown – the emphasis is always the car and its position vis-à-vis the elements. I wonder if the Commercial Club hoped that this movie would increase travel to Reno – the message seems to be that it’s a pretty inaccessible place, for adventurers only.

All for this?

All for this?

Cast & Crew Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please inform us in the comments.

Granddad (1913)

This is one more movie made by Thomas H. Ince during the years that saw the fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War, and once again, I find comparisons to D.W. Griffith are hard to avoid. In this case, however, although the movie includes some Civil War battle footage, it is in essence a social examination more akin to “The House of Darkness” or “A Corner in Wheat” than to “Birth of a Nation.” Even here, I find Ince’s subtlety and humanity to be superior in some ways to Griffith’s approach, although it may be the case that Griffith was the more technically adept.

Granddad1Our story begins here with a little girl (Mildred Harris) who lives with her old grandfather (J. Barney Sherry). Their mutual love for one another is obvious, although the old man does like a nip from his bottle now and again. One day, they receive a letter from her father (Frank Borzage) telling them that he’s bringing home a new “mother” for Mildred and tells granddad to hide the bottle, because she’s a church woman. Mildred thinks of a good hiding place and granddad goes out to the bar to celebrate. When he comes home to meet his new daughter-in-law, she immediately smells it on his breath and shows that she does NOT approve. Eventually, she finds the bottle and confers with her blue-nosed friends, who assure her that such a man should not be allowed to influence a young girl. So, she confronts the old man and warns him to leave, despite her husband’s protests of the debt he owes his father. Granddad sneaks out during the night, leaving a note to assure Mildred he’ll find work on a farm and not to worry about him.

GranddadAll does not go well, however, and granddad ends up in a work house, although he keeps sending letters home talking about the fresh air and good food of farm life. One day, Mildred’s step mom sends her out with a group of social reformers to visit the poor house. Of course, she recognizes one of the laborers as her grandfather. They exchange very affectionate greetings and she goes back to tell her parents what has happened. Meanwhile, a mysterious retired Confederate Colonel (William Desmond Taylor) has shown up in town, looking for “Jabez Burr,” the Union man who saved his life. That’s granddad, of course, and the Colonel proceeds to give us a thrilling flashback of his battle experiences and encounter with the Yankee who saved his life. Mildred’s father is finally shamed into bringing his father home, but it’s too late, the harsh life of the poorhouse has made him ill. He dies and a final epilogue assures us he was buried with military honors and his minor faults forgotten.

More Ince-ian combat.

More Ince-ian combat.

Whereas Griffith would have told this story by making each character iconic, and the entire situation would have had a heavy-handed message (probably unnecessarily enunciated in beginning and closing Intertitles), the Ince approach is far more individual and subtle. Although he relies on much the same kind of female busy-body as an antagonist, one never gets the idea that he has created a caricature. The mother acts out of what she thinks are the best interests of the family, she simply doesn’t understand the consequences of her act, nor look far enough to see the complex and decent person she is choosing to label a harmful drunk. Each of the characters, except perhaps the Colonel, is sketched out with enough detail for us to see them as individuals, rather than representatives of some segment of society.

Granddad2That said, I find some aspects of Ince’s directing (or possibly Jay Hunt’s – I couldn’t verify which of them actually directed here) and producing not quite up to snuff. For one thing, characters frequently go out of their way to E-NUN-CI-ATE so that we can (hopefully) lip-read their words. I find that slows down the pace and makes the acting look silly, as when Mildred says “I KNOW. THE CLOCK,” to make sure we know her hiding place for the whiskey. Speaking of Mildred, I fear that Ince, or someone at the company, was trying a little too hard to make her into the new Mary Pickford (like they needed a new one). She’s got a short version of Mary’s wig, she’s made up like Mary, and at times she seems to be quite consciously imitating Mary’s mannerisms. But, sorry to say, she’s not Mary. I found this a bit distracting, where I think I would have enjoyed a more natural performance from her. In general, I find Ince’s movies a little slow, even for a century ago. He edits and cross-cuts well enough, but he tends to hold shots longer than Griffith or some of his contemporaries, and scenes play out longer than they need to. Nevertheless, I did find this movie, as well as the others I’ve looked at recently, to be emotionally affecting and well written. Where Griffith seems to have worked out a lot of his problems in the editing room, Ince may have been the better scenarist and planner, and that makes the movies memorable and interesting.

Director: Thomas H. Ince or Jay Hunt

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mildred Harris, J. Barney Sherry, Frank Borzage, William Desmond Taylor

Run Time: 29 Min

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