Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: December, 2015

A Winter Straw Ride (1906)

Winter Straw Ride1With December progressing apace, it’s time I come back to my seasonally-oriented movie reviews. This one depicts outdoor activities of an earlier generation and seems a lot more fun than “A Holiday Pageant at Home.”

Winter Straw Ride2Two horse-drawn sleds are loaded up in front of a stationary camera. The first seems to contain younger girls, the second is apparently grown women; possibly the pupils and teachers of an all-girls school are going on a sleigh ride before the school holidays. The succeeding shots show the two teams of horses approaching the camera as the sleighs dash over the snow. In one shot, a group of boys pelt the riders with snowballs. The sleighs cross a bridge and the girls wave at the camera. They enter a field and one of them tips over when going through a snowbank, and every gets out to right it, with some assistance from nearby onlookers, then they are off again! The next scene shows the girls and women chasing a group of men and boys. They catch an older man that looks like Teddy Roosevelt and smush his face in the snow, then continue the pursuit. The rest of the film is the boys running and the girls pursuing them. At one point, they all slide down a snowbank, until it collapses under their weight, revealing that there was no hill underneath, it had been piled up by the wind. Finally, in the last scene, the boys come to a steep ravine they cannot climb out of. The girls and women catch up and the chase devolves into a massive snowball fight.

Walk softly and carry a big snowball, Teddy.

Walk softly and carry a big snowball, Teddy.

I was ready for a cup of hot cocoa after I watched this one! It was made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company, presumably shot somewhere in New Jersey during the winter months. The snow doesn’t look that thick on the roads in some places, which may explain why they went into the fields. I don’t quite get why they abandoned the “straw ride” theme to run after boys for half of the movie, but Porter seems to have been fond of using the “chase” format to give some plot to his largely storyless vignettes. There is little camera movement, although the camera does pan a little as the sleighs go by and one critical pan takes place when they catch the man in the snow, and all editing is simply to put one scene after the other. Close-ups are essentially incidental, as the subjects run past the camera. Everyone in the movie seems to be having a good time, and when we can make out faces, they are smiling and laughing. This bit of snow sport seems much more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas than the rigid Victorian world of “Holiday Pageant” to me.

Winter Straw RideDirector: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 6 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (No music, good image) or here (with music, poorer quality image).

Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

Barney Oldfields Race for Life3

One of the thinnest plotlines in history seems to have introduced one of the most lasting impressions about silent film. This Keystone short has been cited time and again to support a premise that drives silent movie fans up the wall.

Barney Oldfields Race for LifeThis movie begins with Mack Sennett in the same bumpkin costume that he later used in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career.” He gives Mabel Normand a flower and they shyly smooch under a tree. This all seems to make villainous Ford Sterling inexplicably mad, and as soon as he can get Mabel alone, he tries to steal a kiss, which is rebuffed. He only gets angrier, and calls in his two goons to grab Mabel and drag her off to the railroad tracks, where they find chain and fasten her to the tracks with a railroad spike. Then, they take the convenient handcar to the nearest station and commandeer an engine (apparently just waiting for a train to do the job for them wasn’t good enough).

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Ford gets angry with one of his associates when he asks to be paid and knocks him out. When the goon wakes up, he tells the railroad workers what’s going on and they inform Mack. Then, world-renowned racecar driver Barney Oldfield drives up and Mack informs him of Mabel’s peril. And the race is on! The car and the train speed toward the same location, but Oldfield’s expert driving assures the Mack will be able to rescue the damsel just in time. Meanwhile, a group of five policemen have taken the handcar to try to apprehend Sterling. Sterling, foiled by his inability to kill Mabel, takes out his gun and shoots all five. He tries to kill himself, but he’s out of bullets, so resorts to strangling himself to death (!).

Barney Oldfields Race for Life1This movie is a patently thin veneer hung over a thrilling chase and a lot of silly satire. Ford Sterling takes his mustache-twirling villain role to unheard-of extremes, climaxing with his own bizarre suicide when thwarted. When he so easily kills the five policemen, the question is immediately raised why he didn’t just shoot Mabel in the first place when she refused him a kiss, but that wouldn’t make for a thrilling movie, just a psychotic act of violence. Trying to crush her with a steam engine is clearly more cinematic. The chase itself includes some impressive photography for 1913, including tracking shots from the hand car, the engine, and the car, as well as from other vehicles just in front of or beside them. The shot where Sennett pulls Mabel off the tracks just in the nick of time appears to have been a double-exposure, and on the print I’ve seen it looks very dark and high-contrast, suggesting that the cinematographers couldn’t manage it with the finesse of Georges Méliès. Oldfield seems to have no interest in even trying to act, his only job is to drive a fast car, and he does that fine, letting Sennett do all the emoting. I suppose the five guys who get shot are technically “Keystone Cops” (they’re men in police uniforms in a Keystone movie), but they don’t do any of the characteristic antics one associates with that name.

Barney Oldfields Race for Life2Although Fritzi at Movies Silently has already covered this in detail, I need to say a few words about the girl-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks thing. Yes, this is a silent movie in which it did happen. No, it wasn’t all that common of a theme. Apparently, it was a trope in Victorian Theater, because you could build suspense by having off-stage train whistles without having to actually show a train. Whatever the case, this example is clearly satire – the situation is outrageous on purpose and being played up as ridiculous, as Sterling’s performance emphasizes. It wasn’t something silent audiences wanted or thought of as serious drama. I found it sort of a disappointing role for Mabel Normand (after all I said about her NOT being a “damsel”), she sort of sits there and weeps instead of taking charge of the situation, but it was hardly representative of her career, either. I’d say this movie doesn’t hold up that well, and isn’t even of great historical interest, inasmuch as it seems to lead people to false conclusions.

Wikipedia calls this a "screen shot" from the movie. I think it's actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Wikipedia calls this a “screen shot” from the movie. I think it’s actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Lee Bartholomew and Walter Wright

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield, Al St. John, Hank Mann

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913)

Mack Sennett combines several older comedic tropes in this film to produce a rollicking, and, I would say, unusually sophisticated comedy short for Keystone.

Mabels Dramatic Career1Mack himself plays the bumpkin star of the movie. He is in love with the maid (Mabel Normand) his mother (Alice Davenport) has hired as help in their rural homestead, and he gives her a ring. Mother does not approve, and lets him know when she catches them together, and she chases Mabel off to her work in the kitchen. Then, a classy “girl from the city” (Virginia Kirtley) comes to visit (it’s never clear what relationship she has to the family, or why she’s staying with them). Mack suddenly shows more interest in her, to mother’s approval and Mabel’s horror. Mack asks for his ring back and Mabel takes out her anger on the interloper, resulting in her being fired. She heads for the city, to begin her life anew. Once that’s all settled, Mack asks the girl from the city for her hand, and she laughs at him. He looks longingly at a picture of Mabel, finally aware of what he’s lost.

Mabels Dramatic Career2In the city, Mabel happens upon a “Kinome-tograph” studio, where Ford Sterling is strangling a girl on a bed for the camera. Mabel tries to get a job. The producer and director don’t think much of her pantomime skills, but Ford seems interested. He convinces them to hire her. Now, an intertitle tells us that some years have passed, and Mack’s bumpkin character is paying a visit to the city. He passes by a Nickelodeon, and sees Mabel’s picture on a poster. He decides to pay a nickel and go inside. He watches the movie, and becomes increasingly excited when Mabel appears on the screen! The man sitting next to him (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), tries to calm him down, but he doesn’t quite seem to understand the difference between film and reality. This becomes critical when Ford Sterling, in the role of a bad guy, threatens Mabel and does begins to strangle her. Mack pull out his gun and starts shooting at the screen, dispersing the audience, as well as the projectionist and piano player.

Mabels Dramatic Career3Now, Mack is out for revenge: “That villain must die.” He goes in search of the man he saw on the screen, and happens to peek in a window and find his apartment. But, there are three small children there! Then, Mabel comes out and kisses Ford. Evidently they are married and happy together. Mack, unsure what to do, points his gun anyway, but an upstairs neighbor prevents tragedy by dumping out the dirty dishwater on his head.

Mabels Dramatic Career4I love any movie from this period that shows us the interior of a Nickelodeon. This one has a lot in common, visually, with “Those Awful Hats,” which Mack Sennett appeared in for Biograph a few years earlier. But, the bumpkin-in-a-theater trope goes back further, to Edison films from the early twentieth century. By 1902, we had “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show,” in which a yokel from the sticks confuses images on the screen with reality, and that is what Sennett is playing on here, only with a much more complex storyline and better characterization. It also resembles the 1913 film by  Louis FeuilladeTragic Error,” only with the tragedy averted. This Nickelodeon includes a projector’s booth, a relatively new innovation at the time (often required to be fireproof by newer fire codes that were trying to prevent deadly nitrate fires), and a female pianist at the front of the house. I thought it was also interesting that Mabel first signs up for a “Kinome-tograph” job, suggesting that the first part of the movie takes place before the Nickelodeon era.

Mabels Dramatic CareerThis movie actually makes better use of close-ups than most Keystones of the next couple of years, making me wonder if Sennett was trying for a more upscale production. Arbuckle is sort of wasted here, just playing off Sennett’s outrageous behavior, but you can already see his potential (he would be paired with Mabel many times in the future), and Sterling is surprisingly understated, especially in the final scene with Mabel. During the hiring sequence, we got the impression that his intentions were less than noble, but I was surprised that Sterling and Mabel are shown married with children as well – rarely do slapstick comedies allow their characters to progress in a relationship. I did feel that the first part of the movie dragged a bit, in comparison to the sequence in the city, but it sets the stage and gives us a chance to know the characters, which is part of what makes the second part work. This is one of my favorite Sennett-directed pictures so far.

Mabel's_Dramatic_Career_1913Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Virginia Kirtley, Alice Davenport, Ford Sterling, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Fox Trot Finesse (1915)

The Slapstick Encyclopedia” makes much of the more “refined” approach to comedy evinced by this movie, and its stars, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. The Drews eschewed slapstick in favor of situational comedy, much as John Bunny had before them. I haven’t found many surviving examples of their work, but here we have one to work from and consider, released in October of 1915, after many of Chaplin’s great but “vulgarEssanay comedies of that year.

Fox Trot Finesse3Here, Sidney plays Ferdie Crosby and Lucile (his second wife) plays Eva, Mrs. Crosby. Eva is young and sprightly, and in love with the Fox Trot, but Ferdie is middle aged and likes peace and quiet. His happiness is the more challenged by the fact that Eva’s mother (Ethel Lee, as “Mrs. U. Newitt”) is staying with them indefinitely. In order to get away from her, Ferdie gives in to his wife’s demands and dances the nights away, but he’s very tired and stiff the next day. Finally, mother-in-law leaves, called away because of a birth in the family. Now, Ferdie put his plan into action, and fakes an ankle injury. His wife is sympathetic, pampering him and giving him foot rubs, and he puts on a great show of being terribly disappointed at not being able to Fox Trot.

Fox Trot FinesseHis wife, however, is no dummy. Although Ferdie makes a point of going about on horribly mis-sized crutches, she spots him tossing them aside on his way to work and skipping happily down the street. Now, he’s in for it! Eva writes to her mother, telling her that Ferdie is injured and needs another nurse, she can’t handle it all by herself. Ferdie panics, and tells his wife that it’s all been a joke, tearing up the letter to mother-in-law.

Fox Trot Finesse1Maybe I’m setting him up here, but let’s have a look at what Sidney Drew said about his own work just 2 years later, in Moving Picture World: “Humorous action does not mean gross horse-play. It does not mean that the characters dash madly into scenes, trip over matches, and fall out of the scene again. In our own comedies, Mrs. Drew and myself work to appeal to the mind as well as the eye, but to appeal to the mind through the eye.” Quite a claim! But, does “Fox Trot Finesse” have much to offer the mind (or the eye through the mind)? I’d have to say not really. It’s a plot worthy of “The Flintstones,” not some highly refined observational humor. OK, no one gets hit with a brick, and people don’t “dash madly into scenes,” (although the constantly Fox-Trotting wife does add some physical comedy), but this is hardly sophisticated stuff: a husband tricks his wife and she uses the mother-in-law to get even.

Fox Trot Finesse2I note that where the “Slapstick Encyclopedia” describes the Drews’ comedy, it uses the term “refined drawing-room style,” and this may be the real key. This is not a comedian who plays a tramp, or a bumpkin, or some other lowly member of society, this is a comedian who appears as a comfortably middle-class burgher, making fun of the mores of that class. He works in an office and they even have servants. And that’s what makes this “refined,” or at least not “vulgar,” the fact that it takes place in the “normal” world of the white middle class, and not on its fringes where Keystone and other studios focused. I was surprised by Drew’s look, actually he reminded me of D.W. Griffith in slightly later years. He was, as it happens, 27 years older than his wife in reality, so the focus on May-December romance as a source of dilemma and humor makes sense. Lucile and he worked together on the scripts, and at least by her account it was an equitable collaboration. Certainly, in this instance she comes off looking like the smart one, even if her obsession with Fox Trot is a bit bizarre.

Director: Sidney Drew

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Also, read the review at “Movies Silently” for another view.

A Holiday Pageant at Home (1901)

Holiday Pageant at HomeThis December, I thought I’d take a look at some “Seasonal” movies from a century ago, alongside my ongoing run of slapstick movies. This is the first of those, and is among the oldest documents of Christmas-relevant material on film.

Overflowing with merriment.

Overflowing with merriment.

This appears to be home movie footage of a family with five children, who put on a “show” for the audience (perhaps presumed to be distant family members who will want to see the children in action). There are four scenes, each of which takes place in an identically-framed section of the living room of a comfortably middle-class home. In the first, titled “a few days before Christmas,” the mother is hard at work writing and the children “help” by reading in chairs nearby. Father comes home and gives everyone a hug, then looks with approval at the script. The next scene is “Christmas Eve – the prologue” and here two of the girls sing a song and coordinate a kind of simple dance while mother and father look on. Scene three is “The Play.” Here, two of the older children, dressed as adults, berate a smaller girl until an even smaller boy in cowboy costume arrives and threatens them with a gun and a bowie knife! There is a brief chase (which the little girl applauds) and the big kids fall to their knees and pray for mercy. The last scene is “The Author’s Reward,” in which the mother is sewing (again) until father comes in and gives her a kiss. I’m not sure which of them is the author.

You kids are WAY off script!

You kids are WAY off script!

On the whole, I found this a rather depressing image of family life of the period. There are few smiles, and the kids sometimes look downright miserable. When the mother watches the two girls singing and dancing, it mostly seems to be with disapproval, except once in a while when they manage a coordinated movement, and she turns to look at father, who smiles. Mother’s life seems to consist of hours of drudgery paid with occasional fleeting moments of affection from her husband. The fact that this is a silent movie tends to accentuate the idea that “children are to be seen and not heard,” and it’s hard to tell what the kids make of most of it. The climactic “play” is also bizarre – what do cowboys rescuing little girls have to do with Christmas, exactly?

Director/camera/cast: Unknown (perhaps mercifully)

Run Time: 4 Min 30 secs

I have not been able to find this for free on the internet. The only evidence of its existence is its entry at imdb. If you find a link to it, please let me know in the comments.

Alkali Ike’s Auto (1911)

Cars were still a pretty new invention in 1911, especially in the more rural areas of the United States. Film was also pretty new, but with the boom of Nickelodeons opening across the country, more people of different backgrounds were going to the movies and demanding more content they could enjoy. This movie, like a number of others I’ve looked at, shows how film as a medium exploited the fascination with speed and technology in general.

Alkali Ikes AutoAlkali Ike (Augustus Carney) is a fairly typical rural “bumpkin” character – the type of Village Idiot that cityfolk think is typical of the sticks and that rural folks recognize as belonging to the neighbors. In this movie, he has a counterpart or rival, the taller “Mustang Pete” (Harry Todd). The object of their competition is a woman named Betty Brown (Margaret Joslin). First, they both try to help her with her dishes, but she is annoyed by their constant squabbling over who will dry the next dish, which sometimes leads to their pulling their guns on one another. They try to “cooperate” in carrying the basin of water, but actually their fighting over who will carry it results in Betty getting splashed with dirty dishwater. Next, Ike wants to take her for a horseback ride, but Pete wins by showing up in a horse and carriage. Betty goes off with him, and Ike, despondent, leads his horses to the general store. Now a stranger drives up in an automobile. The audience is tipped that the car is in bad shape when the store owner refuses to buy at any price, but Ike misses this key bit of information and offers to trade his horses for the car. The stranger, no doubt happy to have a reliable means of transportation to get out of this backwater, accepts, and gives Ike brief instructions on driving.

Alkali Ikes Auto1Now Pete and Betty ride up in their horse & carriage. Betty is excited to be offered a ride in a horseless carriage, and climbs aboard with Ike, who drives it through town and knocks over a post in front of the store. Betty is patient, however, and he does keep it on the road for a while, before ominous steam starts coming from under the cap. The car stops, and the steam turns into a spray of water aimed at Betty. Ike gets out to look and see what he can do about it, then the car starts up on its own, tearing down the hill with Betty aboard. The car crashes at the end of the ride, and Betty is pitched across the hood into the mud. She is furious when Ike catches up and grabs him by the throat.

Alkali Ikes Auto2There are a number of interesting things about this movie. One is that Betty is not at all the typical love-object, or even any sort of movie farm girl, but rather a large, matronly type, physically larger than either of the male suitors. My initial assumption (based on my familiarity with the genre combined with my own prejudices) was that she was a wealthy widow that the men wanted to marry for land and/or money. However, the Intertitles never say any such thing. Maybe her appearance is part of the comedy, or maybe it was assumed that she was the sort of person a bumpkin would be attracted to. The movie as a whole is pretty typical of the pre-Keystone comedies of the time. We get no close-ups on anyone, relying on broad physical gestures and costume to tell us what we need to know about character and motivation. Editing is limited, usually just linking one sequence to the next rather than allowing for intercutting between scenes, and the slapstick action is mostly tame by comparison to a Keystone movie.

Alkali Ikes Auto3Carney was a well-known Essanay player, and apparently this movie was one of their biggest hit releases for 1911, leading to a remake in 1913. He and Mustang Pete would appear in a number of future shorts together as well. In 1914 Carney would go to Universal in search of higher pay as “Universal Ike,” sans Pete. Another successful series of shorts was released, but Carney still demanded more money until Universal terminated his contract and most of his career. His friend Christy Cabanne occasionally gave him supporting roles after that, as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in which he was a soldier. By 1916, he was out of film altogether, and he died in 1920.

Alkali Ikes Auto4Director: Billy Anderson or, possibly, E. Mason Hopper

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Augustus Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, John B. O’Brien

Run Time: 11 Min

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

The Bank (1915)

With “The Tramp,” it seemed Charlie Chaplin turned a corner in his comic career. With this Essanay short movie, he finally seems committed to the new direction. His character is more sympathetic and less intentionally violent, he is still clumsy and awkward, but more lovable, and where he does use violence, it is mostly in self-defense or in a good cause.

Bank_(1915_film)Charlie arrives at a bank in “Little Tramp” get up. It seems as though he is someone of importance, as he moves confidently through this space usually restricted to those in power. He reaches a giant safe and opens the door, to reveal a mop, bucket, and janitor’s uniform. At last, we understand his position in the institution. He goes to “work” mopping floors, in the process hitting employees and customers with his mop several times. His mop drips into a stovepipe hat of a wealthy customer which has been left on the floor while he sits in an easy chair. The man yells at Charlie to stop, and he politely hands him his hat…the owner puts it on and receives a deluge of dirty, soapy water. Charlie proceeds to get into a competition with his fellow janitor (Billy Armstrong), one cleaning the president’s outer office, the other the inner. They continually sweep their junk from one side to the other until there is a massive mess, made all the worse when Charlie turns a fan so it blows sheets of paper from the president’s desk to the floor.

Bank1Meanwhile, stenographer Edna Purviance arrives and she is carrying a wrapped gift and a flower. Charlie gets nosy and finds it is addressed to “Charles.” The lovely young secretary is in love with him! We soon learn that this is wrong, there is a teller named “Charles” (Carl Stockdale) whom Edna loves. Charlie rushes out to get her a bouquet of flowers, leaving a note on her desk. She thinks it’s from her Charles, of course, and thanks him, but he denies sending them. He looks at the note and tells her it’s from the janitor. She then throws away Charlie’s flowers while he watches from outside the office door. Heartbroken, Charlie heads downstairs to engage in a little more slapstick competition with Armstrong, then goes to the janitors’ station and clutches what remains of the flowers as he naps. Suddenly, a gang of robbers enters the bank, threatening all the workers and demanding to be let in to the vault. The others comply, and just as the bandits are going to force Edna into the vault, Charlie awakens and goes into action. Using all his slapstick kicks and trips, he turns the tables on the robbers, knocking two of them into the safe and closing it. Then, carrying the fainted Edna over his shoulder, he disarms the other bank robbers and saves the day. Edna awakes and kisses him…And suddenly he awakes and finds himself kissing his mop. It has all been a dream, and he kicks his sad little flowers away to symbolize moving on.

BankMuch has been made about the use of close-ups in this movie, and especially the close-up of Charlie as he watches Edna tear up his note and throw his flowers in the garbage. I don’t actually think there are more close-ups here than in previous Essanay comedies shot by Harry Ensign, or closer ones, or technically “better” ones. The difference is in Charlie’s acting. He’s finally figured out the power that the close-up gives to allow an actor to share a complex series of emotions with an audience, to make them really identify with the character and feel what he is feeling. Maybe because he was directing himself, he was able to “get” this before most other actors or directors did. You see some hints of it with Griffith and Gish, for example, but more often in the context of a simpler emotion such as fear or ecstasy. Charlie lets his face play out a scene here, something I don’t think I’ve seen another actor do up to this point.

Bank2The fantasy sequence makes a very interesting contrast to “The Tramp” as well, where Charlie actually does save Edna and her father from robbers, but loses her anyway. In both cases, the audience gets to enjoy the sense of heroism from the character they now sympathize with. Whereas in Charlie’s “park” movies, his violence is random and hard to justify, here he is able to use physical comedy and violence in a cause we feel comfortable with – these characters clearly deserve what they get. In both cases, this adds to the suffering we feel when his “reward” is taken away from him. Note that the assumption of receiving love as a “reward” for heroic acts takes the human agency away from the female character in this situation, making her an object of love rather than a participant – and it’s a familiar narrative in fairy tales, novels, and many other cultural forms. But Chaplin-as-director returns that agency to the woman, forcing Chaplin-as-Tramp (and the audience) to accept her power, however painful that misdirection may be for him (and us). Misdirection is now the key to both Charlie’s comedy (as in the opening, where we think Charlie is in charge of the bank, but discover him to be the janitor) and his more “tragic” or serious acting.

Bank3As a final note, it’s interesting that in this movie Charlie spends most of the running time out of his familiar costume, wearing a reasonably well-fitted uniform as a janitor. We’ve become so used to the iconic look that he doesn’t need to rely on it anymore. His mustache is enough to signal us to his persona, and it is the consistent thread that carries us through here, as it is in the “Burlesque on Carmen.”

Director: Charles Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Charles Inslee, Billy Armstrong, Carl Stockdale

Run Time: 26 Min

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