Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: November, 2015

The Drummer of the 8th (1913)

Drummer of the 8th2This is another Civil War drama made during the 50th anniversary of that conflict, but pre-dates “The Birth of a Nation” by almost two years. Director Thomas Ince, working for the New York Motion Picture Company at the time, chose a decidedly “dark” message for this movie, in contrast to the usually uplifting tone of war movies at the time.

Drummer of the 8thTo be sure, it opens conventionally enough, showing how the advent of the war disrupts a seemingly idyllic family unit (Northern, in this case, but the sides could be changed with no particular impact on the story). In addition to the usual tearful farewell, when the eldest son Jack marches off with his infantry unit, however, we also get a secret night-time departure when the younger son Billy (played by diminutive Cyril Gardner, who was fourteen at the time, but looks younger) sneaks off to enlist as a drummer boy. The two young men serve for the next two years, separated by the circumstances of war. When Jack is due to return home, he writes of his inability to locate Billy. We then follow Billy as he bravely grabs a fallen man’s rifle during a battle, is captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp, the escapes, being wounded in the shoulder on his way out. Billy hides in the Confederate headquarters tent, and is able to overhear the plans for an attack. Of course, he rushes back to his unit (again being wounded in the leg along the way) and gives his report. Unfortunately, all the blood he left in his hiding place gives him away, so the Confederates change their plan and his intelligence causes the Union to lose the battle. Before that, he wrote home that he would be returning with honors and asked that his favorite meal be prepared for his return. His sister and brother go to meet the train, and are confused why there is no sign of him. We then see Union pallbearers unload a small coffin and bear it to the home. They knock, and Billy’s mother comes out to be confronted by the body of her long lost son.

Drummer of the 8th1Ince was pretty daring to put out such a dark storyline in 1913, and it’s lucky that this film has survived, because it makes such a stark contrast with the movies of D. W. Griffith and others who used the Civil War as a springboard for their ideas. It has a structural similarity to the Ince-produced feature, “The Coward,” but in that story the fearful character is redeemed by delivering covertly gained information, while in this version a brave lad is killed because of doing exactly the same thing. There are several short battle scenes in this movie, most of which rely on fairly close-angle shots to give a sense of a larger battlefield, but I found them effective if not spectacular. A similar tactic give the impression of a crowded railroad station at the end with relatively few extras. Ince makes good use of close-ups in a few places, especially to show us Billy in hiding and wounded (the clarity of the blood on his shirt is a striking contrast to the way such things would be handled in later “classic era” movies). The intercutting of the two boys’ stories, and that of the family on the homefront, is less magisterial – at times it is difficult to understand what Ince wants us to focus on – but no less innovative.

Director: Thomas H. Ince

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Cyril Gardner, Mildred Harris, Frank Borzage

Run Time: 28 Min

I found two edited versions of it online: here (cut to one reel) and here (more complete, but without the original intertitles).

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The Coward (1915)

Given that this Civil War drama came out in November, 1915, it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be made to “The Birth of a Nation.” The Silent Era even goes so far as to say that this movie, produced by Thomas Ince and directed by Reginald Barker (the same team that gave us “The Italian” at the beginning of the year) was “made to capitalize on the success of” the better-known D.W. Griffith production. Maybe, but it’s worth noting that Ince had already produced several other Civil War movies in recent years, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of that conflict, and that plot-wise, it owes very little to the Griffith spectacular.

cowardThe story centers around the Virginia family of one retired Col. Winslow (Frank Keenan). Winslow had sent a letter offering his own services, and that of his son, to the authorities on hearing of the outbreak of war, but receives a reply stating that they cannot accept such a sacrifice from a man of his advanced years. This leaves his son, Frank (Charles Ray), who is out in the park looking at birdies with his girlfriend when all of his friends rush off to enlist. The girl drags him to the recruiting office, but he bolts before signing up. Apparently, he has a crushing fear that he might be a coward, and so tries to avoid situations that might put his courage to the test. When his dad finds out, he is furious, and forces the boy to sign up, threatening him with a revolver and reminding him of the family name. The first night he is on patrol, Frank panics at the sound of a cow crashing through the fields, and loses his gun before almost blundering into the Union patrol. He hides in a freezing-cold river and manages to evade capture, then runs home, where his (black-face) servants feed him and put him to bed. Of course, dad finds out that he deserted his post and is deeply shamed. His response? “The name of private Winslow is on their rolls, and someone must answer,” he tells his wife before going off to take Frank’s place as a private in the Confederate Army (you’d think someone would notice that Frank got really old overnight, but whatever).

Coward_(1915_film)When the Union army takes over the town, they commandeer the Winslow place as a headquarters. Frank again panics and hides in the attic, while his mother and servants have to feed and otherwise serve the officers and men. The officers discuss their tactical situation while Frank listens from the attic, discovering that they have a weakness in their center which cannot be built up for at least 24 hours, but will be fine so long as the South does not attack during that time. Frank is suddenly seized with patriotism and decides to bring this information to his compatriots at arms. He attacks a guard and steals his uniform and weapons, then breaks into the conference room, taking the map and cleverly escaping by shooting out the candles, then hiding under the table while all the officers run around like ninnies in the dark. He steals a horse and makes a break for the Confederate lines, with a squad of soldiers on his heels. His father is on patrol, and, seeing a Union soldier dashing toward their lines, shoots him at a distance. He falls back into the freezing river, but makes his way in toward camp. When he is captured by Confederate soldiers (he’s still in Union Blues, remember), he insists on seeing the Commanding Officer and gives his information. An attack is ordered and a bloody battle follows, in which his father proves his courage by taking the flag when the current flag bearer runs away, continuing to fire his pistol while waving it. The battle is victorious, but Frank, wounded by his father’s bullet, lies inconsolable in bed. The officer he reported to orders “private Winslow” to come see his son, but he insists he has no son until he learns that Frank is responsible for the victory Finally, the old soldier takes his wounded son in his arms and weeps.

Shuddup, Meathead!

Shuddup, Meathead!

Now, this movie shares some of the problems of “Birth of a Nation.” For example, it is based in an understanding that its audience will sympathize with the “lost cause” of the South and romanticism of Southern concepts of honor and family duty. Modern audiences will be more alarmed by the use of blackface for the servants – the maid is passably like Hattie McDaniel, but the butler looks like Archie Bunker in the episode of “All in the Family” when he participated in a Minstrel Show. But, unlike “Birth,” this movie is not a glorification of the Southern cause nor a deliberate distortion of the history of its occupation. It is a character study of one young man’s fear – he could as easily have been fighting for the other side without making any changes in the story. The Union officers are not rapacious fiends; they treat the civilians with respect even though it is clearly a burden for them to have their house commandeered. The code of honor which requires such brutality from the father is not being held up as a noble ideal, it is rather the premise within which Frank must work out his psychological drama.

Coward2The movie is at its best dealing with these psychological questions. Barker makes frequent use of close-ups to show us the turmoil of father and son, and also intercuts with close-ups (for example on the father’s pistol when he forces his son to enlist) that escalate the drama. This is not surprising, since he made such good use of close-ups in “The Italian.” On the other hand, the battle sequences are nowhere near as effective as those in “Birth,” mostly they consist of a lot of smoke and people running around; very little of the drama is worked out in the action scenes. The pursuit of Frank on horseback is somewhat more effectively done, however. Much of the movie seemed slow to me, often when it was very obvious what the emotional moment was we had to wait for several visual exchanges between the actors and an intertitle before we could move on to the next situation. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the tension this generated, I did find it emotionally satisfying at the end to see the two men reconciled. I couldn’t help thinking, however, about the defeat they were bound to share in coming years, and wondering whether Frank had actually extended the bloody conflict by bravely causing the Union setback.

Director: Reginald Barker

Camera: Joseph H. August, Robert S. Newhard

Cast: Frank Keenan, Charles Ray, Gertrude Claire, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 1 hour, 17 Min

I cannot find this movie for free on the Internet, if you find it, please let us know in the comments.

The Dwarf (1912)

Dwarf1This short movie by Louis Feuillade is included as a bonus with the release of Fantômas by Kino. It represents one of his “Life as It Is” movies, which were early attempts at film realism, as defined by one of his manifestos on film.

DwarfThe movie begins with several Intertitles, which explain to us that a new play, “The Virgin of Corinth,” has become a tremendous critical and popular hit, and at its performance, when the audience calls for the author, the management displays a card explaining that the script was submitted anonymously, and that no one knows the author by face or by name. The next morning, we see the beautiful star of the piece (Suzanne Grandais) arise and read all the positive notices about herself and the mysterious writer. Then, we see another person (Delphin, whose name means “dolphin”) reading the same reviews: but he is a man of perhaps only four feet in height. He lives with his mother (Renée Carl), and dreams of his love for Suzanne, but he knows she would reject him. Suddenly, he gets an inspiration to use the high technology of the telephone to call her. If she only hears his voice, she will fall in love with his words, and perhaps someday overcome her reaction to his true size. He calls her, she is thrilled to receive a call from so talented an artist, and the moreso since he maintains anonymity in the world. We see a group of (female) telephone operators listening in on the call – to judge by their faces, it gets pretty hot. Suzanne has connections, however, and is able to discover the address of her mysterious caller. She goes to visit him, and meets his mother. Renée tells her son of his visitor, and he swallows his fears and goes out to meet her. The response, of course, is crushing. Suzanne laughs at him openly, and at herself for being so easily fooled. Renée tells her to leave, and tries to console her son, knowing that a mother’s love is no substitute for the love he has lost.

Pretty cool for 1912.

Pretty cool for 1912.

While the movie is largely typical in style for its time, there are some interesting aspects to it. Perhaps the most exciting for me was the use of a split screen to demonstrate the telephone call – a tactic that remains in use today. Feuillade handles it by dividing the screen into three segments: with Delphin on one side and Suzanne (in her bed – racy stuff!) on the other. In the middle is a shot of the Champs-Élysées facing toward the Arc de Triomph, seeming to signify that “Paris” stands between the two telephone sweethearts. I’m not going to say that this is the “first” time a split screen was used to show a telephone call – quite possibly I’ve seen other examples already – but it is a very interesting use of the concept, and seemingly original to Feuillade. Apart from this is the very fact that the little person is used not for comedy or to emphasize his “strangeness” as in a freak show, but with sympathy and as a tragic figure, a brilliant artist trapped inside a body that the world cannot appreciate. Even in much later years, shorter actors would still be playing monsters and clowns rather than protagonists of serious story lines. Finally, I found it amusing that the cliché of the snoopy telephone operator had been established so soon after the introduction of telephone technology. I think this is one of the better “Life as It Is” movies that I’ve seen from Feuillade, and I’m glad it was included on the disc, reminding audiences that he did much more than crime serials.

Alternate Titles: Le Nain

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Georges Guérin

Cast: Delphin, Renée Carl, Suzanne Grandais

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it (in two parts) here and here.

Les Vampires Index

Deadly RingI have created this page to act as an index for reviews of the serial “Les Vampires.”