Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: January, 2016

Censorship in 1916

There is a lot of confusion today over what “censorship” means, much of which I think is because the word itself has fallen out of fashion and become an accusation rather than a useful description of anything. One hundred years ago, people who felt that they had the ability to judge what other people should read, watch, or experience were far less shy about calling openly for censorship, and this kept things more honest. Today they call for “ratings systems” and laws for the “protection of children” (how could anyone be against protecting children?), which makes it all much more slippery.

CensoredNo industry wants to be restricted from doing business as freely as possible, and in a capitalist society censorship ultimately means placing restrictions of some kind on the ability of cultural industries to sell their wares. Whereas the publishing industry was an established force in the early twentieth century, the embryonic motion picture industry had less power, prestige, and legal protection. As a new technology, it was ripe for criticism from all quarters. People really weren’t sure what the long-term results of exposure to moving images would be (any more than they are today about the long-term effects of texting or the internet). Would children’s eyesight be damaged? Would their literacy suffer? Would they lose respect for parental authority? Would they all become criminals? No one knew, but some were willing to suggest the most dire of possible consequences.

Of course the motion picture industry didn’t take all this lying down, small and new though it was at the time. Motion picture exhibitors, distributors, and producers were making money hand over fist and they used some of that money to protect their own interests by forming associations and leagues dedicated to fighting motion picture censorship. One of their strongest allies was the magazine Moving Picture World, which I frequently cite in my reviews. The Moving Picture World was created as a news magazine for exhibitors, the owners of nickelodeons and movie palaces (and chains of such venues), so that they could keep up with trends in the industry, hot new titles, and technical advances. It also became a strong advocate against censorship, as we can see from this editorial page from the first issue of 1916 (click on it to blow it up so you can read it), where it talks about censorship at the local, State, and federal levels:

MPW EditorialIt opens with concerns about local censorship in Oregon, my state of residence. I regret that it doesn’t specify the towns it mentions: one in which local exhibitors called for censorship to forestall worse censorship and one in which “young girls” comprised the censor board. Still, it exemplifies the frustration distributors had to feel when faced with different standards of censorship for each town where they wanted to sell their product. This also led to multiple different re-edited and re-cut versions of each film being distributed, infuriating the creators and confusing historians to this day. In a later paragraph, news about an exhibitors’ convention in New York is an entry to a call for visible opposition to State-wide censorship bills soon to be introduced in Albany. One of these bills would close all movie theaters on Sunday, one of the most profitable days for exhibitors, but also a contested day because of its association with church-going. In speaking about the “modern Sunday,” the editor means the secularization of leisure time, still an important issue at the time. The editorial ends with a petition against Federal Censorship, and by encouraging readers to find “citizens who are not in any way connected with the motion picture industry” to sign it. While dealing with local and State censorship is egregious, the MPW claims that Federal Censorship would “drive not hundreds, but thousands of exhibitors out of business.”

What they aren’t mentioning in all of this is the critical Supreme Court decision of the previous year. On February 23, 1915, the case Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was resolved in the State of Ohio’s favor. Ohio had set up a State Censorship Board in 1913, and Mutual, sick of having to re-cut films for each and every state they sold to, took them to court. In the decision, the Court stated, “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.”

SCOTUS-oldsenateThis is really important: so far as the highest court in the land was concerned, motion pictures had no free speech protections. This remained the case until the decision was overturned in 1952. So, during pretty much the whole “studio era” or what is now often called the “Classic” or “Golden Age” of Hollywood, movies could be legally censored by governmental organs. Which has a lot to do with what was produced and why, but we can get into more of that history as this project continues. For now, I want to look at some aspects of the court’s decision.

The biggest distinction they’re making is that films are businesses, and not therefore “part of the press…or organs of public opinion.” This is at least as bizarre to me (but also the reverse) as the Citizen’s United decision that spending money is the same thing as free speech. For some reason, the fact that newspapers are profitable businesses is completely ignored. They are elevated to a public good, treated as something apart from the business interests, as if they were publically-funded institutions like libraries or the post office, which by this interpretation would also presumably qualify for free speech protection. It’s unclear how the Court found this distinction between “press” and “business” in the Constitution in the first place, but the implications are staggering. Apart from this, they are ignoring (probably because Mutual’s lawyers never brought it up) the existence of documentaries and newsreels, which would become an important “organ of public opinion” within a few years, and had also been seen as the major purpose of motion pictures by many (including the Lumière Brothers and J.P. Chalmers, the author of the article for Moving Picture World) just a few years before.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThere’s another aspect to all of this, which is the question of “movies as an art form.” While directors, actors, and others were arguing fervently that cinema should be taken seriously as a new art form, this doesn’t seem to have even entered into the conversation. Again, I believe this is because the lawyers for Mutual didn’t broach it. It says something about how the industry’s leaders saw themselves: they presented themselves to the Court as a business, and the Court responded in kind. Talk about “art” was all very well for the rubes, but they didn’t expect the idea to be taken seriously at a higher level, is how I read this.

A different decision by the Court a year earlier would have meant a very different editorial for January, 1916. Instead of calling for greater organization to fight hundreds of local censorship ordinances, the focus would have been on clarifying the constitutional limits of government interest in free expression and in local cases that still had not been resolved. The question of film as an “organ of public opinion” or an art form could have been taken more seriously, becoming a matter for serious, high-level discussion, rather than semi-serious ad copy. And, I would say, the growing dominance of the United States film industry would have been a more positive thing, as more creative and innovative product might have become available to inspire artists all over the world. But, history is the study of what did happen, not what didn’t, and from here we study an era in which censorship was an accepted fact of movie making life in the United States.

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A Life for a Life (1916)

Alternate Titles: Zhiznt zo zhizn, A Tear for Every Drop of Blood, Za kozhduiu slezu po kople krovi, The Rival Sisters, Sestry sopernitsy.

Once again I return to Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer, and again I find his work masterful and fascinating. This film also established one of Russia’s most important film stars, Vera Kholodaia, as a major artistic phenomenon.

Life for a LifeThe story is of two sisters, one adopted, who are raised by their very successful single mother. She runs a factory, spending most of her waking hours working, in order to secure the family’s fortune. The adopted daughter, Nata (memorably played by Vera Kholodnaia, who was in “Children of the Age” and a 1914 version of “Anna Karenina”) is a little older, and quite beautiful, but it’s understood that she will not inherit, the money will go to Musia, the younger, less attractive natural daughter of the capitalist mom (Lidiia Koreneva). The young girls are social butterflies, going to dances, parties, and other events, where the men of course regard them as possible prey. Enter Prince Bartinskii (Vitol’d Polonskii), a scoundrel who gambles heavily and has enormous debts. He starts hanging around Nata and they fall in love. He confers with a friend (Ivan Perestiani, who became a director after the revolution, making “The Suram Fortress” and “Three Lives”) about his financial situation, and the friend points out that he needs a rich wife to help him get out of debt and continue his extravagant lifestyle. Nata is not the girl for him, whatever his feelings. But the friend suggests a solution, he is willing to make the sacrifice and marry the lovely Nata for him, if he will marry Musia. Then, the affair can continue, and the Prince will have the money he needs. And so it is done, and the setup for a multi-way tragedy is established.

Life for a Life3This may have been one of the first attempts in Russia to make a “blockbuster” big-budget hit movie, and it was apparently successful with audiences and critics. Based on a French novel by Georges Ohnet, it was not a nationalist epic, along the lines of “The Birth of a Nation” or “Defense of Savastapol.” Instead, it is a romantic story of bourgeois relationships being fouled by aristocratic greed and corruption, an interesting theme for pre-revolutionary Russia. Bauer took advantage of his increased budget by hiring extras and building large, ornate sets. Apparently his use of columns in the background was mocked in the press at the time and seen as an attempt to imitate “foreign” influences. I would agree that there are a lot of them – one in almost every shot, and in one scene a mirror serves to double one of them in case actors should happen to step in front of it. But, I don’t know why this would be seen as “foreign.” Bauer’s set designs generally tended to be busy, and he liked to give the eye more to look at than people; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen columns in other movies by him, I just wasn’t looking for them at the time. Furthermore, I can’t think of a foreign director of the time who used them so much.

Uh oh, columns!

Uh oh, columns!

This movie apparently made Kholodnaia into a major Russian star, earning her the title of “Queen of the Screen,” and she is certainly the one to watch in this movie. She expresses love, joy, guilt, shame, horror, and terrible sadness, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other, but without over-acting, and all the while remaining the focal point of the film. The mom is actually pretty good too – in many ways she’s the real victim here – as is Perestiani. Polonskii and Koreneva have less to do – he mostly looks shifty and smarmy and she just looks stupidly injured. The scene where her mother advises her not to marry the prince is the height of melodramatic pantomime.

Life for a Life2

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Ol’ga Rakhmanova, Lidiia Koreneva, Vera Kholodnaia, Vitol’d Polonskii, Ivan Perestiani

Run Time: 1hr 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here (42 Min version)

Playing Cards (Alternate) (1896)

This remake may be the first example of colorization of a previously-made film. However, unlike Ted Turner, the Lumière Brothers did not take a “classic” black & white movie and add color, they re-shot the whole thing and added color! Try doing that with the opening sequence to the “Wizard of Oz,” Ted!

Playing CardsAs in the original “Card Party” we see a group of three men sitting around a table, playing cards. One of them is wearing a green cap or beret and the other has a green vest. A woman in a colorful dress sits behind them, apparently kibitzing, and she is the one served wine by the maid. As the men continue their playing, she pours out several glasses of wine for them, and the one nearest her is distracted from the game to take the glass of wine. Another man stands in the background, watching the game and also passing out the glasses once the woman has finished pouring.

When I watch this, I find that my attention is on the woman for most of the movie. It could be her pink checked dress that distracts me, but I find her actions more visually interesting than those of the men, engrossed as they are in a game that I don’t know and can’t follow. The question of “what will happen with the wine” is more compelling to me than “who’s winning the game.” The colors are somewhat subdued, suggesting either deterioration or a two-color process. The colors are also limited only to certain garments, no attempt was made to hand-color the entire scene. I have compared this to the original, but I’ve been unable to identify any of the actors as being the same men, so I’m not sure who’s in this, but the Lumières often used neighbors and family members for their movies.

Director: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Arrival of a Train (Alternate) (1896)

Again, this is a Lumière remake of one of their best-known films. As with “Leaving the Factory” there is more than enough information to make it clear that this is not a simply “re-take” done at the same time as the better-known “Train Coming into a Station,” but it also isn’t meant to be an entirely different film.

Arrival of a TrainHere, the camera is set quite far back on the platform, and the train travels across the screen at an angle away from it, toward the right corner. We only see a few seconds of the train in motion before the doors open and people flood out onto the platform. The crowd passes by the camera, and we see rows of people as they go by, making this similar to watch to “Leaving the Factory,” which also shows crowds of people as they pass. The people we see are mostly men, mostly middle-aged, and mostly well-dressed. As in “Leaving the Factory,” everyone wears a hat. Many of the men have mustaches, some have beards, and only a few younger men are clean-shaven. The women are consistently above forty five, while the men’s ages vary greatly. From the way people are dressed, it appears that this is winter – we see many overcoats and furs. Again, many people look at the camera, although no one stops to stare at it (they’d probably get knocked over by the crowd behind!).

Arrival of a Train1There is a well-known story that when the original “Arrival” was screened, people panicked, fainted, or ran away from the screen, fearful of being crushed by the moving train. It is tempting to suggest that this is the reason why the Lumières remade it with the camera at a more discreet distance, but unfortunately the current consensus is that this story is a myth. It’s still conceivable that they were trying for a less “dramatic” effect by moving the camera and emphasizing the crowd, rather than the train itself. Or, it could be that they couldn’t get permission to use the close position because this station was so much busier than La Ciotat, where the first one was filmed, and they needed to keep back from the crowd of passengers departing. At any rate, the two films make an interesting contrast and show the difference that can be achieved through a very small change in camera angle.

Director: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Leaving the Factory (Alternate) (1896)

When I read that there were “alternate versions” of some of the famous Lumière films shown at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, I figured we were talking about re-takes, where the Lumières just made back-up copies for safety. It turns out that they were closer to being re-makes, with completely new set-ups and locations in some cases, as in this one.

Leaving the FactoryThe film itself is, as usual, fifty seconds of workers leaving a factory gate. But, it is distinctly different from the original, which was shot in front of the Lumières’ own workshop, and showed mostly women leaving, as well as (famously) a dog and a horse cart. Here, nearly every figure is male, many of them have bicycles, and the setting is distinctly different. This is not a simple re-framing of the Lumière factory, it appears to be an entirely different factory (at minimum, it is a different exit to their factory), with different workers in the shot.

As we expect from early film, many of the subjects look at the camera with interest. Some even stop and stare, although only for a few seconds each, perhaps because the cameraman instructed them to move out of shot, or because the crowd hurried them on. A couple of women do pass through the shot (apparently walking along the street from some other origin), and the men remove their hats as they pass. Most of the men are in work clothes, but these seem very formal compared to modern dress, and everyone wears a hat or a cap. One man pushes a wheeled basket that could be (?) a pram.

Leaving the Factory1It’s interesting to speculate as to why Lumière chose to remake this movie. Perhaps the response to the first was so positive that they felt the need to provide more versions. Perhaps their limited ability to duplicate meant that they needed extra movies for distribution purposes. Perhaps they wanted to see how it worked under different lighting conditions or there was something of interest to them about the location. Or, perhaps they were simply shooting anything they could think of at the time, to get the most use out of the new camera possible.

Director: Auguste and Louis Lumière

Camera: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Alice in Wonderland (1915)

Alice in Wonderland4This was (at least) the third version of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s fantasy to be brought to the screen in the silent era, and it would be followed by many more versions, good and bad, in years to come. I suspect that the print that is readily available today is incomplete, but as always we have to judge based on what evidence we can find.

Alice in WonderlandAlice (played by Viola Savoy, who is a bit too old for the part, in my opinion) is established in her “normal” world, with her mother and older sister. Her mother is working in the kitchen making tarts, and Alice drops some playing cards on the floor. Then her sister takes her outside, and she sees a rabbit, a cat in a tree, an owl, and a pig. Then she lies down for her nap. As soon as she “enters Dreamland” the white rabbit appears and beckons for her to follow. She follows him down a rabbit hole and up to a set of doors, and a mouse tells her how to get through to the garden on the other side. Once through, she joins an animals’ convention, but she scares them away, bragging about her cat’s ability to chase mice and birds. Then she finds the rabbit at his house, goes inside and finds his fan and gloves, but he has already rushed off to the Duchess. Next she meets the caterpillar on his mushroom, and he has her recite “You Are Old, Father William,” which we see acted out by people in funny costume.

Alice in Wonderland3Alice arrives at the Duchess’s house just in time to see the arrival of an invitation to the Queen’s Croquet Game. She meets the Duchess, whose cook is overly fond of pepper and is making everyone sneeze. When the Duchess’s baby sneezes, she beats him, but Alice takes the child away, and it turns into a pig. She then meets the Cheshire Cat, who appears and disappears several times until his body disappears, leaving his grinning head behind. Now, she enters the Queen’s garden and sees low-ranking cards (the gardeners) painting white roses red. The Queen arrives and orders them to be executed, but Alice joins her for croquet. The cards serve as arches, the ball is a hedgehog, and the mallets are flamingos. Alice does well, but the Queen orders her beheaded, then loses all control and orders the headsman to behead everybody. Alice escapes in the confusion, and the Queen takes her to meet the Gryffon and the Mock Turtle, who show her the Lobster’s Quadrille. Finally, she returns to the Queen’s Court in time to see the Knave tried for stealing tarts. She cries, “You’re nothing but a pack of cards!”and awakes in the garden with her sister.

Alice in Wonderland2Overall, this movie doesn’t live up to the high standards of 1915, but since it was released in January, we have to give it some slack. The camera doesn’t move, there are no close-ups, and the only real editing that takes place is between narration of the “Father William” poem and its depiction. Otherwise, cuts only happen when the action moves to a new location, but that does happen quite frequently, giving it a sense of motion above that of many similar movies. Its production standards are similar to the “Ozfilms of 1914, and while the effects aren’t as good, the costumes are better, it sticks closely to its source material and tells its story more effectively than those films did. The still image at the “Silent Era’s” page for this movie shows the mad tea party, but this doesn’t occur in the version I was able to watch, suggesting that it may have been longer originally. Viola Savoy is quite grown-up and is actually taller than some of the adult actors, while I’ve always felt that Alice is meant to be a young girl. In general, however, this should please fans of the book and of early cinema.

Alice in Wonderland1Note: I am considering adding this movie to the nominations for “best costumes” of 1915 in the Century Awards. Please comment if you have any thoughts about this, or other categories it should be considered for.

Director: W.W. Young

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Viola Savoy, Herbert Rice

Run  Time: 42 Min

You can watch it for free: here (scroll to the bottom of the page)

The Rink (1916)

Rink5In one of his funniest movies of 1916, Charlie Chaplin again draws on old themes to provide a jumping-off point to demonstrate his developing talents. He also brings his audience into two worlds of his character, providing depth even without the level of sympathy seen in “The Vagabond” or “The Bank.”

RinkThe movie opens with an indescribably cute sequence of a kitten playing on a sleeping man, waking him up by swatting at a toy on a string, which is held by Edna Purviance (more evidence that funny cat videos predate the Internet). The man is her father, but we don’t learn anything else about their relationship because the scene shifts to a restaurant, where Charlie is dressed up and working as a waiter. Eric Campbell, as a customer, asks for the check and Charlie determines what he has eaten by looking at the food he spilled on himself (every item costs $1, which seems like a lot for the time). He pays, Charlie counts out his change and then takes it all as his tip. Eric gives chase, but Charlie hides behind other customers. Charlie has several funny run-ins with fellow waiter John Rand, largely because he refuses to abide by the doors marked “In” and “Out” to the kitchen. Rand winds up serving a customer a dish with a rag and floor scrubber on it, due to one of these mishaps. Charlie also gets food on him and on the cook (played by Albert Austin). There is one great bit where the manager (Frank J Coleman) tries to catch Charlie in the act, but due to his creative use of the In/Out doors and some fancy editing, he consistently misses him.

Rink_(poster)After all this goes on for a while, Charlie opens up a stove and pulls out his “Little Tramp” outfit. He changes from the well-fitting waiter’s uniform into his usual tight vest and bowler. Then he goes to lunch (the manager warns him to come back on time). Now he goes to a skating rink, where he bypasses the admission fee and flirts with a girl on a bench. He gets some skates and goes onto the floor, where Eric Armstrong is now trying to flirt with Edna, despite his lack of skill at skating. It turns out that Charlie is very good at skating and skates circles around Eric, impressing Edna. He also causes mayhem at the rink, causing fights and tripping people, but always looking innocent when the bouncer-type fellow arrives. Eric winds up falling down several times and Edna invites Charlie to her “skating party” later that evening.

Rink1We now learn that Eric Armstrong is married to a large woman played by a man (Harry Bergman). They apparently both like to flirt with others, but don’t tell each other about this. She has gotten invited to the party by flirting with Edna’s father, and Eric crashes to flirt with Edna. They are both horrified when they see one another, and even more so when Charlie shows up! He, once again, uses his skating prowess to cause chaos, running into people and knocking over Mrs. Stout and falling on top of her repeatedly. Eventually, the situation becomes so crazy that the police are called, but Charlie continues to escape them by skating skillfully around them. Finally, he is chased by the police and most of the guests out into the street, and escapes by hooking his cane into a passing car and being pulled along on his skates.

Rink2Skating had been a popular topic for comedies since very early in moving picture history. In fact the first picture made by Charlie’s former employer  Essanay Studios was “An Awful Skate” (1907) starring Ben Turpin, and I understand that this movie was based upon a French predecessor. Putting people on wheels makes them move faster and unpredictably, so it makes sense, and of course there are always opportunities for crashing and falling down, the essences of physical comedy. This is the first time Charlie has used the concept, and he shows off his control at all times, even when he pretends to be trying catch himself or falling.

Rink3I’ve talked about a lot of aspects of Charlie’s work up to now, and I’d like to focus a bit on class this time. It is well-known that Charlie grew up in poverty in the class-conscious society of Victorian England. He made the movies he made largely for the working classes, who he knew needed entertainment, not “reform” or preaching at. There’s an interesting aspect in this film, and in a number of others that he made, which I haven’t seen discussed before. Here, he starts out as a waiter, in a working world where he obviously is not in charge, but the narrative also follows him into his private life. We also saw this in “Caught in a Cabaret” and with Bud Jamison’s character in “A Night Out,” who is also a waiter that Charlie later encounters in his personal world at a hotel. I think there’s something subtly subversive in this. Usually, a character with a menial job in a movie is just that: a menial. They don’t break out of that role or become human, they are just there to serve a purpose. Charlie reminds us that these people (his people) have real lives outside of their work roles. Sometimes, they imitate people of higher classes, as Charlie does in “Caught in a Cabaret” or here, where the Intertitles tell us he is announced at the party as “Sir Cecil Seltzer.” I won’t say that he was the only slapstick actor who ever did this, but I haven’t run across it being done by others yet, so I’m willing to call it one of his themes, probably one of the reasons he was so popular with working class audiences.

Rink4With this movie, I’m caught up on all of Chaplin’s work in 1915 and 1916, at some point hopefully later this year I can finish off my reviews of his 1914 year at Keystone Studios.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Armstrong, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, John Rand, Frank J. Coleman, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Pawnshop (1916)

PawnshopA fun piece that Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual late in 1916, this one puts an emphasis on running gags and longer vignettes, with the central plot taking a backseat. It has similarities to a number of earlier Chaplins, including “Work,” “The Bank,” and “The Floorwalker.”

Pawnshop_Lobby_Card,_1916Charlie is an assistant in a pawnshop, run by an older man in wearing a skullcap (kippah, yarmulke, or taqiyah). He is sent to do some dusting and winds up making a bigger mess and getting into a fight with his co-worker (John Rand). He goes outside with a large ladder to clean the sign over the shop, and winds up hurting Rand several more times, and running afoul of a local cop. Once he and Rand have avoided the cop, they begin fighting again, to the dismay of Edna Purviance, the shopkeeper’s daughter. Charlie pretends to be hurt and gets her sympathy, but the shopkeeper wants him fired. He has a change of heart and lets him stay. Several customers come in, in succession. First, an old man (Wesley Ruggles) tells a tale of woe and hardship and how he must pawn his dead wife’s wedding ring. Charlie feels sorry for him and offers five dollars, but only has a ten. The man pulls out a huge wad of bills to make change. Another customer is a thief (Eric Campbell), who persuades the shopkeeper to show him all of the fancy jewelry he keeps in the safe. Then, a man (Albert Austin) shows Charlie an alarm clock he wants to pawn. Charlie can’t get it to work, so he dismantles it piece by piece in front of the man, then sweeps the mess into his hat and gives it back to the man. After he leaves, the thief tries to hold up the store with a gun, but Charlie is hiding behind him and knocks him on the head, saving the day.

Pawnshop1Although there is some good stuff in this movie, a lot of it feels recycled, such as the bit about Charlie using his slapstick skills to stop a robbery and the cleaning sequence which is very similar to “The Bank.” One brief gag I didn’t mention was a quick re-do of the opening to “The Bank,” where Charlie opens a safe and takes out his workclothes. This, time, about halfway through, he goes to a safe, quickly turns the combination seemingly at random, and takes out his lunch. It isn’t as funny or surprising this time. My favorite parts were the whole ladder sequence and the scenes where Charlie is “helping” (or being bilked by) the customers. His character is less “innocent” and likeable than in “The Vagabond,” for example, but one still sees him as sympathetic – he’s a victim of circumstances and it’s hard to blame him if he wants to get back at some of the people who mistreat him. The romance between him and Edna is decidedly downplayed in this movie.

Pawnshop2Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, John Rand, Albert Austin, Eric Cambell, Henry Bergman

 Run Time: 24 Min

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

Behind the Screen (1916)

As with “A Film Johnny,” and “His New Job,” this Charlie Chapin short from Mutual Film takes us inside a film production studio for laughs. It starts off innocently enough, but escalates the mayhem throughout, reaching a point almost unseen, even in the original Keystone comedies that gave Chaplin his start.

Behind the ScreenThe movie begins with Edna Purviance on a film set, asking someone (possibly an Assistant Director), “Can I be an actress, please?” The answer is, predictably, no, and the camera holds on her face long enough for us to feel her disappointment Then we are introduced to the stagehand (Eric Campbell) and his assistant (Charlie). The assistant does all the work, while Eric sits and naps. Every time he walks past the camera tripod, Charlie manages to hook it with his foot and bring the camera crashing to the ground. He nearly knocks over a large column on the set (a gag taken from “His New Job,” but done better here). After a particularly grueling task of moving a dozen chairs and a piano, Charlie sits down for a moment and the stagehand and Assistant Director accuse him of loafing. During lunch break, Eric eats an enormous amount of food, while Charlie only seems to have a few pieces of bread. His neighbor (Albert Austin) eats green onions and breathes on Charlie, leading him to put on a prop helmet from a suit of armor. Albert throws the onions into the helmet. Charlie does a drumming routine with some drumsticks and all of the plates from his boss’s meal. When the Assistant Director finds all of the stagehands passed out from food coma after lunch, he wakes them up and they strike. Eric and Charlie refuse to join the strike and Edna gets the bright idea of dressing as a boy so she can be a stagehand.

Behind the Screen1The Assistant Director thanks the few strikebreakers for staying on, and puts them to work. Charlie’s first job is to pull a lever that opens a trap door after a gun is fired. He keeps missing the cue and pulling it when actors or crew members are standing on the door, sometimes closing it while they are trying to climb out of the pit, trapping their heads or extremities between the doors. Soon, the actors all have black eyes and bruises from falling into the pit on top of one another. The Assistant Director’s pants are split when he tries to pull someone out of the pit, and he asks Edna to repair them, to her horror. Charlie, meanwhile has figured out that Edna is a girl, and a pretty one at that, and kisses her, causing Eric to mock him mercilessly, presumably for being gay. A costume drama is being filmed by the “dramatic department” right next to a set where the “comedic department” is testing a “new idea – one character throws a pie at a character, who ducks, then throws a pie back at the first one. Eric and Charlie are called in to help test this innovation, with the result that pies fly into the throne room of the dramatic piece. Meanwhile, the strikers are cooking up a dynamite plot to blow up the studio. With everyone distracted by the mounting pie fight, they are able to sneak in, placing the dynamite under the trapdoors and kidnap Edna along the way. When Charlie finds Edna in danger, he rescues her, knocking the striker and incidentally his boss into the pit. The dynamite goes off, and Charlie and Edna kiss.

Behind the Screen2This movie is a return to the most madcap variety of Chaplin movie, with much of it being based around chases or violence, and few pauses for character development or sympathy. I was actually quite disappointed that Edna’s character never got to act – her sad face at the beginning of the film is the best acting we see here. The ending reminded me of “Dough & Dynamite,” one of the most violent of the Keystone movies. A number of the gags here are from earlier movies, but often expanded upon or improved. Charlie does a wonderful “dance move” each time he pulls the lever for the trap door, which adds to our anticipation of the comedic result.

Behind_the_ScreenA good bit of this movie centers around a pie-fight, something that we haven’t seen much of to date in this project, unless we count the single pie-in-the-face that Ben Turpin took eight years earlier in “Mr. Flip.” Still, Charlie’s placement of it ironically as an “invention” at this time demonstrates that it was already a recognized trope. My first thought was that perhaps it was something established by clowns in 19th Century circuses, and that may be so, but here Charlie clearly places it in the “comedic department” of a movie studio, suggesting that he is making fun of contemporary examples, perhaps from Keystone or Essanay, his former employers. There is no doubt that Fritzi, at “Movies Silently,” is right to point out that not all silent comedies had pie fights, but the evidence is strong that there were more of them than I’ve seen so far.

Behind the Screen3The reviewer for Moving Picture World said: “While this Chaplin effort will doubtless evoke much laughter from a certain class of audience, it is not one to be strongly recommended. There is throughout a distinct vein of vulgarity which is unnecessary, even in slapstick comedy. A great deal of comedy is intended to be extracted from a pie-slinging episode which occurs during the rehearsal of a couple of scenes in a moving picture studio.” This time, I think I can understand some of this reaction. The emphasis on the splitting of the man’s pants, his showing his bottom to a girl (Edna) and the subsequent gay-joke would all seem to be pushing the envelope for 1916. There are several other moments where butts are, as it were, the butt of a joke or gag, and I suspect that this is the sort of thing that middle class audiences reacted against in slapstick at the time. Certainly, this is not a “refined” piece of comedy, whether we’d really be offended by its “vulgarity” or not today, but is intended to be simplistic mayhem, done with artful timing and physical skill.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Lloyd Bacon, John Rand, Wesley Ruggles, Leo White

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Count (1916)

Count3Charlie Chaplin continues his run of Mutual shorts with this simple piece that harks back to “A Jitney Elopement” and other romantic comedies of the slapstick variety. He gets some wonderful bits of business into the spare plotline.

CountAt the beginning of the movie, Charlie is working as a tailor’s apprentice, taking the measurements of a lady customer. His measurements are confused by the lady’s failure to stand straight, by the tape measure getting caught on a dummy, and by his own imprecise units. The tailor (Eric Campbell) notices what he is doing and comes over to take charge. Charlie, not sure what to do, tries some ironing, only to burn holes in several pairs of pants. When the tailor finishes with the customer, he comes over and fires him. Charlie asks for his pay, but the tailor forcibly ejects him. After he’s gone, the tailor discovers a letter from Count Broko (Leo White) in one of the ruined pants, declining an invitation to meet the eligible Miss Moneybags (Edna Purviance) at a party. This gives the tailor the idea to dress up as the Count and make a good match.

Count1Meanwhile, Charlie has gone to the servants’ entrance of a mansion, looking for handouts. The friendly and flirtatious cook offers him a sandwich with smelly cheese, which is the occasion for some humorous bits as Charlie tries to figure out what the smell is. Then the butler shows up for his lunch. Charlie hides in a basket, but the cook throws the cheese in after him, so he keeps throwing it out. The butler leaves when the doorbell rings, but Charlie’s escape is prevented by an amorous policeman, also interested in the cook, so he dives into the dumbwaiter and goes upstairs, where he runs into the tailor, disguised as Count Broko. Charlie could give the game away, so the tailor offers to bring him in on the scam as his secretary. Then, when the butler arrives to announce the Count, Charlie claims to be him and announces the tailor as his secretary. They go to dinner, Charlie on Edna’s arm and Eric on her mother’s. The dinner includes such classic bits as Charlie stopping Eric’s noisy soup slurping in order to converse with Edna and some hilarious watermelon-eating. After dinner, Charlie and Eric compete for Edna’s attention, with Charlie generally getting the upper hand by tricking Eric. Charlie’s one problem is that he keeps running into the jealous cook, and he is briefly distracted by a woman in a revealing gypsy costume. Then, the real Count Broko arrives, and real mayhem breaks out, with a full-on Keystone-style chase ensuing. Charlie escapes, Eric is arrested, and the Count is covered in clam dip.

Count2This movie once again takes advantage of the comedy trope that penniless aristocrats were always seeking the daughters of nouveau-riche families and vice-versa. This has come up more than a few times now in the Chaplin oeuvre. Chaplin initiates much of the violence and pranks in this movie, but he seems justified because of his previous ill-treatment by the tailor. He doesn’t wind up getting the girl, but he doesn’t seem to be genuinely interested in her, either, just in keeping her away from Eric Campbell. Whether this is out of revenge or in her interests is hard to say. I liked the food business especially in this movie: the smelly cheese, the watermelon, and even some of the after-dinner aperitifs were integrated into the humor. The cheese bit once again shows how silent films used visual cues to include the audience’s other senses, something we saw done with sound in “The Vagabond.”

Count4

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance

Run Time: 24 Min

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