Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: February, 2016

Best Editing 1915

When you come right down to it, a movie is like a big jigsaw puzzle that only makes sense if you have all the pieces in the right place. Beyond building the narrative, a good editor can heighten emotion, create tension, or point out key aspects of the story to the audience which are invisible to the characters. While the basics of editing were already in place, the flowering of the feature film in 1915 gave editors a chance to really show their stuff – producers and directors finally began to learn that no one wanted to sit still for 90 minutes while a series of un-edited scenes were displayed by a static camera.

The candidates this year are among the best of this new breed. In “The Coward,” editing is used to complicate the story of a young man who flees from battle and later redeems himself, one tense scene inter-cutting as he hides in a box while enemy officers discuss battle plans. “The Italian,” which came out at the beginning of the year, already used editing to show tension as the main character runs home to try to save his baby while the wife cradles his sick child. “Hypocrites” edits between dual plotlines to show the cruelty of self-serving and dishonest people. In “The Golden Chance” we see several complex sequences in which Cecil B. DeMille brings out his characters’ conflicts and motivations. Finally, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” uses established techniques of editing to produce a tense crime drama with a race-to-save-a-life at the ending.

The nominees for Best Editing in 1915 are…

  1. The Coward
  2. The Italian
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Golden Chance
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is… “The Italian!”

George_Beban_(The_Italian)It surprised me to find after a year of great editing that I returned to a movie I watched back in 2014 for this award, but I feel that the editing of this movie contributes greatly to its success. George Beban’s close-up symbolizes the drama and how dynamically it unfolds – but it would be meaningless without all the other shots before and after that make up a story.

Best Stunts 1915

I’ve gone ahead and broken the rules for this year, because after the initial nominations were in, I saw an excellent example of stuntwork from 1915. So, there are six nominees this year. Oh well, that’s what happens when you run a major awards event from your apartment.

Stunts don’t normally get the official recognition they deserve, and correcting that was one of the reasons for me starting the Century Awards in the first place. Now that all the performers involved are long dead, let’s acknowledge their physical prowess and risk-taking. The great thing about early film is that so many of the stunts were done by the stars themselves.

Again this year, we see a predominance of slapstick, in the form of Charlie Chaplin and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle on the slate of nominees. Chaplin’s “Work” includes some tricky business with a giant wheelbarrow and the gradual destruction of the home he’s supposed to be renovating. He shows us more fancy footwork in “The Champion,” in which several other actors (and a little dog) get into the boxing ring and show off their timing and agility. The Chaplin short “By the Sea” shows off comic timing in a tough situation when Chaplin and co-star Billy Armstrong get their hats tangled up in the wind. Arbuckle also had several good movies this year, but I thought the outstanding example was “Fatty’s Faithful Fido,” which also included the acrobatics of Al St. John and the ladder-climbing abilities of Luke the dog. Apart from those, we also had some action movies this year; as in “The Lamb” where Douglas Fairbanks gives us a taste of what would become his forte, while in “Regeneration” the villain manages some impressive hand-over-hand work on a clothesline.

The nominees for Best Stuntwork of 1915 are…

  1. Work
  2. The Lamb
  3. The Champion
  4. Regeneration
  5. By the Sea
  6. Fatty’s Faithful Fido

And the winner is…”Fatty’s Faithful Fido!”

Careful up there, Al!

Careful up there, Al!

Ultimately, I was most impressed by the sheer number of stunts pulled out for this movie, which came out only days before Chaplin’s “The Champion” and parallels it to some degree. They’re both good, and both involve dogs, which made it a tough call, but ultimately between Luke and Al St. John I felt that the shorter film was actually the more impressive.

Best Production Design 1915

Set design can be overlooked as an important element in constructing an illusion, but when it’s done badly, you notice immediately. Filmmakers coming from a theatrical tradition suddenly had the power to create much more convincing stages for their players to act on – but also suffered from the fact that the conventional stage doesn’t look as good on screen as in person. Audiences became more demanding, and the cost and skill involved in making a movie set went up correspondingly.

In 1915, a high bar was already place for production designers, and the movies nominated for best production design reflect this. “Young Romance,” in addition to taking advantage of the natural scenery of a Long Island resort, used set design to show the parallels and contrasts in the two leads’ paths and highlight their meeting. Evgeni Bauer, himself a former set designer, contributed two movies to our list. In “Daydreams,” we get a sense of an urban Russian bourgeoisie from long ago, both from outdoor and indoor shots, while “Children of the Age” shows a more decadent, or glamorous, variation on the theme by emphasizing garden parties and romantic rendezvous. In “The Cheat,” we see a similar world in an American context, often by night and with long shadows. Finally, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” shows us fascinating labyrinthine bank vaults and decaying urban tenements.

The nominees for Best Production Design for 1915 are…

  1. Young Romance
  2. Daydreams
  3. Children of the Age
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is…”Children of the Age!”

Children of the AgeBauer’s unique eye for mise-en-scène gives us a fascinating world of contrasts: from the simple home of the working man to the backlit greenhouse where his wife and her future lover meet. While the others were all worth celebrating, this was finally my favorite.

Best Costume Design 1915

The clothing we wear affects how others see us and how we see ourselves. An actor’s body language and character can be directly influenced by their outfit, and time periods are established for the audience at least as much through clothing as through scenery. The movies selected for this year’s award for costume design all reflect the importance of this art to the motion pictures.

In “Trilby,” a bohemian subculture is established through clothing, and the development of the main character is shown through her wardrobe changes. In the “Les Vampires” episode called “The Deadly Ring” exotic costumes contrast with the day-to-day norms of Parisian culture. Theda Bara got to display some of the hottest fashions of 1915 in “A Fool There Was.” The Civil War era comes alive in the costumes of “The Coward.” And, although it is remembered today for the innovation of female nudity, the diverse costumes of Lois Weber’sHypocrites” help establish the archetypal nature of its characters.

The nominees for Best Costume Design of 1915 are…

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites

And the winner is…”The Deadly Ring!”

Deadly RingAs with last year, when I gave the award to Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” outfit, again I chose what must be seen as one of the most iconic images of 1915 cinema, the famous bat-suit worn by Stacia Naperkowska for her brief and fatal dance sequence. While the other costumes in this movie owe a great deal to its “Fantômas” predecessor, the glamorous evening clothes of Jean Ayme and the Grand Inquisitor’s understated but official costume also earn a mention.

Best Makeup/Hairstyling 1915

Hello everyone and welcome to the Century Awards! As with last year, my plan is to post one award per hour, building up to the Best Picture of 1915 late tonight. So, get ready, here we go!

Actors and actresses always want to look their best under the camera’s unforgiving eye. In some cases, they even may want to take on an appearance not their own, to put on a mask that convinces the audience they are a different age, color, race, or even sex, than the really are. That’s where the magic of makeup and hairstyling comes into play. While we often don’t have records of the names of these artists from this period, we can still honor their legacy by choosing the best of the best.

This year’s nominees include everything from crime serials to comedies to dramatic narratives. In “The Deadly Ring,” a chapter of “Les Vampires,” the art of deception is used by several characters to appear as others, and we also see Stacia Napierkowska transform into a bat. In “A Woman,” the clowning Charlie Chaplin assumes the fairer sex in a clever deception to get closer to the girl of his dreams. “A Fool There Was” features some of the most famous appearances of the alluring Vamp, Theda Bara. In “Trilby,” the handsome Wilton Lackaye reproduces his stage role and becomes the diabolical Svengali. Finally, Charlie Chaplin again deceives an audience into thinking he’s two separate men in “A Night in the Show,” which also features the outrageous makeup of several of his Essanay comedy comrades.

The nominees for Best Makeup/Hairstyling for 1915 are…

  1. The Deadly Ring
  2. A Woman
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. Trilby
  5. A Night in the Show

And the winner is…”A Night in the Show!”

Night_in_the_Show_(poster)This year, I felt that Charlie Chaplin more or less had to take it. Throughout his movies, he’s demonstrated an understanding of how makeup transforms actors and enhances their performance. In “A Night in the Show” he manages to be two very different characters, surrounded by a crew of other bizarre folks, largely due to makeup and hair.

Blogathons!

In an attempt to keep expanding my readership, I have decided to get back into the Blogathon circuit. As of now, I am signed up for three upcoming blogathons:

Blogathon Marathon StarsFirst up, in March, we have the Marathon Stars Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood and The Wonderful Word of Cinema. I’ll be writing about Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Book BannerNext will be the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by two of my favorite blogs, Speakeasy and Now Voyaging. For this one I’m writing about “Sherlock Holmes” (1916).

Blogathon Words Words WordsLast but not least, will be the official CMBA Spring blogathon: “Words! Words! Words!” I’m pretty excited, because that was the topic I proposed, and it won the election (incidentally, the title is a quote from “Dracula” (1931) not “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)). For this one, I’m writing about “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1916).

He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

A lot has been made of this “dark” comedy by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which definitely has a more sophisticated tone than most of the work he did for Keystone Studios. However, it does manage to remain silly and even resort to slapstick for laughs, even as it plumbs the depths of spousal jealousy in a far more serious way than the usual “park comedy.”

He Did and He DidntIn this movie, Fatty and Mabel Normand are once again a couple, as they were often in the teens. This time, however, they are wealthy enough to have servants, and we are introduced to them as they struggle into their evening clothes. Fatty has a good deal of trouble with his collar and tie, and Mabel needs help with her zipper. Despite what has been written about the somber tone of the movie, this sequence establishes it as a comedy, with people confronted by day-to-day problems, but making it worse by getting more frustrated as they go. Next, we meet Jack (William Jefferson), who apparently grew up with Mabel. He produces a picture from “when they were sweethearts” – apparently when Mabel was in her tweens. Fatty is obviously uncomfortable with the newcomer, and he becomes so disturbed that he rips the photograph when Jack is not present. He then realizes what he’s done and apologizes to Mabel, but we know the issue is far from settled.

He Did and He Didnt1As it happens, a pair of burglars (Al St. John and Joe Bordeaux) are casing the place for potential robbery. Joe even comes in and goes through the motions of having a checkup, in order to get a chance to see where the safe is kept. Fatty catches him snooping and throws him out. Then it’s time for dinner. The dinner consists of lobster, and an Intertitle reminds us that eating bad lobster may have unfortunate effects, while the camera shows Fatty becoming increasingly concerned about Jack and Mabel. The thieves make a phone call to the house, calling Fatty across town for a housecall, believing that will leave the loot undefended. He is suspicious, and not at all eager to leave his wife alone with Jack, but nevertheless goes. Bordeaux and St. John enter the house unobserved. Now the action follows Jack, who is no dummy, and plans to stay away from Mabel while Fatty is away to keep the peace. To his surprise, Mabel comes to him in her nightclothes, and leans in close, seeming to intend to initiate romance. She whispers in his ear that there’s someone in her room, and he goes to investigate, finding a robber. Now the classic slapstick Keystone chase begins in earnest, with St. John showing off his athletic talents and his rubbery lanky body to the fullest as Jefferson chases him, firing a revolver wildly around the house. By the time Fatty returns, he has chased the robbers out, dropped his revolver, and tucked an unconscious Mabel in bed. Of course, that last is what Fatty finds on return from a phony address, and he shoots Jack and strangles his wife…

Or does he? We now see Jack and Fatty, waking up each alone in his room, suffering the effects of eating bad lobster.

He Did and He Didnt2There’s no denying that the subject matter here is not as light as most slapstick comedies, but I do think a bit too much is sometimes read into that. Possibly Arbuckle wanted to make a dark film, or at least a genuine melodrama, but his bosses at Keystone wouldn’t allow it. The ending obviously undermines the horror of seeing him kill innocent people, but more than that we have considerable high-energy slapstick and deliberate humor. The dinner is the sequence that is “darkest” to me, with the fewest interruptions for laughs, and it displays the competence of Elgin Lessley, who I believe was working with Arbuckle for the first time, in placing strategic shadows to enhance the mood. Another Lessley shot I appreciated was one in which the burglar comes into a dark room, with the only lighting source being the hallway behind him – usually Keystone houses are floodlit throughout. The DVD I watched had two versions, one with color tinting used to heighten the mood, based on the original release instructions. The color also added to the sense of artistry and deliberation of the film. We also see more close-ups in this movie, particularly of the brooding Fatty as he watches his wife with her old friend.

Elgin Lessley on set for "He Did and He Didn't"

Elgin Lessley on set for “He Did and He Didn’t”

This is interesting stuff, but it winds up being anomalous in a movie that can’t quite decide if it’s dark or light. “Silent Volume” has an interpretation of this film that suggests Fatty was demonstrating the horror of an abusive relationship, but this seems to me to be a very modern interpretation, not something that a comedian would have invented then. If anything, Fatty may be showing his real nature accidentally, not acting, in this movie. In previous cases, what he does here largely came off as cute, and his baby face still undermines the sense of him as a bad guy. It’s important to remember that spouses hitting one another and being controlling is a staple of slapstick, and we’ve seen it between this couple many times. Normally, this doesn’t extend to strangulation, but up to that point the movie only strays slightly off the established patterns of previous shorts. I’m inclined to read it as an experiment that failed, though perhaps your mileage will vary.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, William Jefferson, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, b&w) or here (with music and tinting).

Charlie on the Windmill (1915)

This early cartoon, apparently by the team that created Felix the Cat, shows Charlie Chaplin as the established international figure he is now known as. But is it really from 1915? The evidence is unclear.

Charlie on the WindmillThis is just a fragment of less than two minutes of film. What we see, mostly, is a very large windmill going around and around with a tiny figure clinging to one of the sails. When it stops, with him at the top, a fat man on the ground blows a big wind and makes it turn around a couple more times. Then it stops again, and we get a close enough shot to see the cartoon version of Charlie’s “Little Tramp.” He gives his signature shrug, and several other familiar body movements, while the fat man, now joined by a woman, throws bricks at him! All of them miss, but when the man throws a bicycle, it knocks Charlie off. That’s all we have. Read the rest of this entry »

When Love Took Wings (1915)

This one-reel comedy from Keystone is basically a riff on the classic “elopement” plotline of “Leading Lizzie Astray” and especially “Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life,” but with the addition of an escape by airplane to add to the excitement. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directed and stars in this tribute to chaos and high-speed vehicle chases.

WhenLoveTookWings1915-01The story begins in a kitchen, with Minta Durfee and Joe Bordeaux working together and Joe occasionally hitting her father (Frank Hayes) by accident. Minta has an odd Mary Pickford-like wig on that doesn’t quite seem to fit. Finally, Joe works up the courage to ask for her hand in marriage. Read the rest of this entry »

Queen of Spades (1916)

About a year ago, I reviewed a 1910 Russian film of the same name by Pyotr Chardynin. This movie is surprisingly different, although that may result from the sources: this movie is based directly on the novel by Pushkin, while the earlier one is an adaptation of the opera by Tchaikovsky (itself based on the novel). Apart from that, the greater length of this version allows for a more complete telling of the story, which is more lightly sketched in the other version.

Queen_of_Spades_(1916_film)Ivan Mosjoukine is German, a young soldier from a good family with little money. Each night, while his comrades stay up and gamble, he watches them play cards, fascinated. When asked why he doesn’t join their games, he replies “I am not in a position to risk the essential in the hope of acquiring the superfluous.” At dinner, his friend tells him about his Aunt, the Countess (played in flashback by Tamara Duvan), who also does not play cards. When she was a young woman, she went to Paris and lost a great deal of money to the Duc d’Orleans. He insisted upon her paying up, although she couldn’t afford it. In desperation, she turned to the Count Saint-Germain (played by Nikolai Panov), the famed occultist and alchemist. He assured her that she didn’t need money, she just needed the secret to winning at cards, which he gave to her. She then asked for a return match and won all she had lost back and more. Her nephew cannot understand why she refuses to use her power still.

Queen of Spades1916German becomes obsessed with the idea of learning the Countess’s secret. He cannot sleep, so he walks the streets of St. Petersburg, eventually coming across the Countess’s house and seeing her going out for the evening with her young ward, Lizaveta (played by Vera Orlova). An idea strikes him: he spends his days hanging around outside the house, apparently mooning over Lizaveta. He passes her love notes whenever she comes outside of the house. She is smitten by the handsome and earnest young man, and eventually lets him know how he can sneak into the house while the two ladies are out at a ball. When they get home, Lizaveta waits eagerly in her room, but German goes to the old woman and demands her secret. She won’t speak, so he pulls out a revolver. On seeing it, the Countess promptly dies. Finally, German goes to Lizaveta and tells her the Countess is dead. That’s the last we see of Lizaveta in this version. Now German goes home and broods, when he is visited by a vision of the Countess. She tells him a sequence of three cards that always wins: three, seven, ace. Now he knows the secret! He arranges for his friend to get him into a gambling night run by “Chekalinskii,” a Moscow high-roller. He arrives and makes his bet on the three, winning a substantial amount from the house. The next night, he come in and bets on the seven, winning again. When he comes in for the third night, he is sure he has won, until Chekalinskii says “my ace beats your queen.” German looks at the Queen of Spades in his hand and sees the face of the Countess. He has lost, and he goes mad, winding up in a lunatic asylum, hallucinating about cards.

Whoa! Got enough Maybelline on there, Ivan?

Whoa! Got enough Maybelline on there, Ivan?

The direction of this by Yakov Protazanov is more stylized and varied in technique than the 1910 version, though in the end the pacing doesn’t work as well for me as the original. We get Ivan Mozzhukine’s tormented performance, which is good, as all his work is, but frankly it doesn’t have enough of an arc to hold my interest: he’s obsessed by cards at the beginning, and he’s still obsessed in the end. It doesn’t help that for some reason he wears heavy eye-liner that makes him look like an early Goth or Bowie fan. The most obvious difference in plot is the lack of a scene where Lizaveta kills herself when she realizes that German never loved her, but just used her to get to the Countess. That may be an addition Tchaikovsky threw in – it does seem quite operatic. In any case, that made the 1910 version seem like more of a tragic romance to me – perhaps German does love her but thinks he needs the money in order to “deserve” her. Here, German’s just a jerk, even if he is a driven, intense and at times fascinating jerk. Mozzhukine’s intensity in this film reminds me of Conrad Veidt in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” or of Lon Chaney as the armless man in “The Unknown.” I’m sure it’s pure coincidence that this ends with an identical scene to “Natural Born Gambler” in which a person plays cards with himself in prison.

Queen of Spades 1916 1Protazanov seems to have had a bigger budget for extras, sets, and costumes, but not really enough imagination to keep the story moving forward as easily as the shorter film. What really stood out for me was the clear delineation between the main story in post-Napoleonic Russia and the flashback to pre-Revolutionary France. The accuracy in costumes is vital to this division, as well as some wise elements of set design (lots of mirrors to represent Versailles, for example). Some elements of the production could be said to prefigure Expressionism, as the set design and use of backlighting comments to some degree on the subjective state of the characters. The best camera move comes at the end, a long backward tracking shot as German approaches the gambling table for the final time. That said, Protazanov sticks mostly to square-shaped sets with exits and entrances, and minimal camera movement in very long takes.

Director: Yakov Protazanov

Camera: Evegni Slavinsky

Cast: Ivan Mosjoukine, Vera Orlova, Tamara Duvan, Nikolai Panov, Pavel Pavlov, Yelizaveta Shebueva

Run Time: 1 hr, 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here.