Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2016

The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man (1898)

Working inside a studio, Alice Guy presents us with a simple narrative comedy that indicates the style of humor that would be common in film for many years. Set in a park, with a wily beggar and a policeman as antagonist, it sets the stage for much later work of Charlie Chaplin and others.

Turn of the Century Blind ManOur “blind man” sits on a bench with his dog, playing a pipe. When some passing pedestrians drop coins in his cup, he looks at them closely before thanking his benefactors. Now a policeman comes along and chases him off. Moments later, a weary pedestrian sits on the bench and reads from a magazine, quickly dropping off to sleep. The beggar comes back and finds him, trading hats and stealing his watch, also leaving the sign and the dog with the sleeping man. Now, the policeman returns and thinks there is another fake blind beggar, so he shakes the man awake and chases him as well, at which point the entire cast comes on stage to laugh at his misfortune.

Alice Guy

Alice Guy

This film’s title in French is “L’Aveugle fin de siècle.” I point that out because there is a difference between how we read “turn-of-the-Century” today and what “fin de siècle” meant then We don’t use the term “turn-of-the-Century” to refer to the period around 1999-2001, when our most recent Century began, so the term has a kind of quaint, dated feel for a modern viewer. However, “fin de siècle” which was used at the end of the nineteenth century really implied something “modern” to the people at that time: a “turn-of-the-Century” blind man was one who was different to the blind men of simpler, more innocent times. As we see in this instance, he isn’t necessarily blind at all. The other interesting aspect of this movie is its shooting location. The “park” backdrop makes it entirely obvious that this was shot indoors, apparently on a theatrical stage. This is also how Méliès was working at the time, but where he devised beautiful and imaginative backdrops, these appear to be generic stage backdrops, possibly used for vaudeville acts. No effort is made at creating realism, although it would seem simple enough to have shot the whole thing in a real park. One final note is that comedies at this time often provided what I think of as “visual laugh tracks” by showing people laughing at the funny part.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

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The Broncho Billy Marathon

Blogathon Marathon StarsFor this “Marathon Star Blogathon” post, I’m going to binge-watch several of Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s movies, and write about him as I go. Don’t worry, each film will get it’s own individual review in the weeks to come; in accordance with the rules of this blogathon tonight I’ll be focusing on Anderson himself and what I learn by looking at so much of him at once. Incidentally, a year or so back I watched another one: “Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress,” and I have also watched “His Regeneration” before, in connection with my many reviews of Charlie Chaplin.

OK, here we go…

Making of Broncho BillyFirst up, “The Making of Broncho Billy” (1913). The DVD I bought has a nice brief introduction to the star, reminding us that he was born “Max Aronson,” a Jewish man from Arkansas, and that he finagled a job as “Max Anderson” on “The Great Train Robbery” working for Edwin S. Porter. Supposedly, his horse threw him and he never was in any of the chase scenes, since he couldn’t ride. After founding Essanay, his own production company, with George K. Spoor, he went on to make over 350 films, mostly Westerns. Anyway, this film is a kind of “origin story” for Broncho Billy, although of course there had been many movies made before it. Anderson shows up in a Western town wearing Eastern clothes (he looks sort of like a young D.W. Griffith) and is mercilessly mocked by the local cowhands. When he tries to fight one in a bar, he learns that he must learn to shoot to gain their respect. We see him attempt shooting a bottle in his Eastern garb, but he can’t hit the side of a barn until he puts on a Stetson hat and cowboy shirt. After he confronts one of the bullies, he rides to the sheriff for protection as an angry mob comes after him, but the surviving bully just wants to shake his hand. Anderson is good in this, changing his body language and his acting style as he goes from the victim to the tough guy. Read the rest of this entry »

Serpentine Dance with Mme. Bob Walter (1897)

In the course of this project, I’ve reviewed a number of serpentine dances, from at least three countries. They were popular subjects with early filmmakers because they emphasized hypnotic movement, could be shown to almost any musical accompaniment, and could be “looped” to play for extended periods with no obvious beginning or ending.

Serpentine DanceThis Serpentine dance goes on longer than a minute (almost two) which is a pretty good run for the time. The dancer smiles and seems to enjoy herself, although one doesn’t get a strong sense of “professionalism” from her movements or her demeanor. At one point near the middle, a good portion of her leg is visible, which may have been an added attraction for male viewers.

Serpentine Dance1Watching this, the first thing I wondered is whether it was also released with hand-painted color. The version I have is in black and white, which is much less striking than the color serpentine dances I’ve seen. Still, for audiences of the day, seeking the thrill of moving pictures in and of itself, this would probably have been all that was needed. French Wikipedia seems to mention a dispute over the authorship, but since I can’t read French I cannot comment on it.

Director: Alice Guy (so far as I know)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: “Mme. Bob Walter”

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

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

Bathing in a Stream (1897)

This short film from Alice Guy‘s first year working at Gaumont makes a nice follow-up to yesterday’s film. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been shot on the same day, or even within a few minutes of one another.

This time, we see a group of boys in striped swimming trunks, climbing on some rocks in a stream. There is a dog with them, and all of them, human and cainine, seem happy for the cool water, suggesting a very hot day and a respite for the bathers. The boys splash each other, scamper over the rocks, and occasionally tug their suits back into place.

Bathing in a StreamThe swimsuits, again, seem very revealing for the nineteenth century, and one wonders if women would ordinarily be able to see such a spectacle. In that sense, Alice may be showing us a rare un-fettered example of the “female gaze” at male semi-nudity. There is an older man in the background, also in trunks, and he may have been the victim of these boys in “The Fisherman at the Stream.” If so, Alice has at least thought to re-position her camera, in order to make it less obvious that these are the same streams, which is more than Edison’s filmmaker’s thought to do when making fake newsreels of the Spanish-American War a year later. What the movie reminds me of the most, however, is the Lumière film “La Mer” which I reviewed last summer. It shows the innocence of childhood play, and also the freedom of summertime, just as that movie does, but in a different way.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Aice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

The Fisherman at the Stream (1897)

To begin my project of reviewing the films of Alice Guy (I’m sticking to her maiden name because all the movies I plan to review predate her marriage to Herbert Blaché), I give you a very short movie of the nineteenth century. Coming one year after “The Cabbage Fairy,” this shows less fantasy and imagination, but no less whimsy.

Fisherman at the StreamA single frame shows us a man sitting on a rock with a fishing pole. Some nearly-naked young boys are climbing on rocks behind him, apparently with the intention of taking a refreshing swim. Suddenly, one of them gives the fisherman a shove off the rock. Soaking wet and fuming, the man chases the boy and gives him a short spanking, before his colleagues rescue him and dunk the poor fisherman once again.

This is far from an original film, being basically the same plot as Lumière’s “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and even moreso “The Lone Fisherman” from Edison Studios. It’s basically the oldest gag in cinema – someone is minding their own business until a prankster dunks them or sprays them with water. In that sense, Guy is showing her business sense by giving audiences what they wanted with this movie, more than her creativity. This was probably easy and inexpensive to shoot and required little or no fore-planning. I recently learned from The Blonde at the Film that if someone is dunked, “you have to mention a cleansing Baptism – it’s a rule of subtextual analysis,” so, OK, I’m mentioning it, but frankly I think this is more about how inconvenient it is to get wet in your clothes.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, probably Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Happy Birthday

Today is the second anniversary of the day I launched this blog, for what that is worth. It started out, really, as a place to record the movies I watched in a side-project of my daily movie viewing, and blossomed and sprang into something bigger and more serious. The point, always, in watching 100-year-old movies has been for me to learn more about early film history. In other words, I do this exactly because of what I don’t know, rather than to show off what I do know. I’ve learned a lot, but there’s still an awful lot more for me to learn. If you’ve come with me this far, I hope you’re enjoying the ride.

BirthdayCakeAnyway, this hobby has finally gotten serious enough that I’ve decided to professionalize it a little. I’ve now gone ahead and bought “centuryfilmproject.org” as a domain name, instead of taking the free hosting WordPress offers. Hopefully, the transition will be smooth and all the old links will work, but we’ll see. Speaking of link-rot, I’ve noticed lately that some of my early posts no longer connect to working videos. I’m not going to put a lot of time into fixing this – my advice is if you’re looking for one that you can’t get to, just put “title of film” “year of film” into Google and press the “video” option at the top of the result page. But, if you feel like letting me know about one you’ve found, comment and I’ll change the link as well.

For this year, in addition to looking at as many 1916 films as possible, I’m going to focus a lot on France. France was the first major film making nation, and I’ve only scratched the surface of French film so far. To kick this off, I’ll be looking at the short films of Alice Guy for the next month or more, but also anticipate more from Méliès, Feuillade, Lumière, and others. Before long, I hope my list of French movies starts to rival those I’ve reviewed from the US!

La Marseillaise (1907)

This is another early French experiment in sound cinema, this time using their stirring national anthem as the subject matter. Evidently, problems with amplification of the soundtrack prevented this method, developed by Georges Mendel, from catching on, but it remains a fascinating example of the struggle to add a second sense to the silver screen.

La MarseillaiseThere’s really no plot to this movie, what we see is a cannon with a French flag leaning against it and a painted set in the rear. Opera singer Jean Noté walks out onto the set and stirringly sings “La Marseillaise” – well, not really. In fact, the film was shot with him lip-synching to his pre-recorded phonograph record of the song, and he simply moves for the camera while the song plays. Noté gestures emphatically throughout the performance and ends with a patriotic salute. Fans of the 1938 French film or even the scene from Casablanca will not fail to be moved.

La Marseillaise1Unlike in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” inventor Georges Mendel had worked out a mechanism for synching the phonograph playback to the projector, taking the pressure for synchronization off the hands of the projectionist. For me, the effect of the movie is greater as well, because I don’t need to understand French to enjoy the music. It’s interesting to think about the position of France in the world at this time, before being laid low by the First World War, with a still-flourishing global empire that largely was not in rebellion. By the same token, at this time the French cinema dominated the world (somewhat more than two-thirds of the films shown in American nickelodeons were of French origin at this time), and had not yet begun its decline in importance. It therefore makes sense that experiments in sound would be made in film’s first nation, and that they should be as proudly nationalist as this offering.

Director: Georges Mendel

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Jean Noté

Run Time: 2 Min 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Waiters’ Ball (1916)

This short for TriangleKeystone stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his real-life nephew Al St. John as rivals, in this case, not for a girl’s heart, but for a suit of clothes. The competition is no less riotous and ridiculous for the change of prize.

Waiters BallThe setting is a short-order eatery where Al is a waiter and Fatty is the cook. There are signs on the wall saying “Not responsible for chewing gum under the table” and “Take your own hat – the other fellow needs his.” The customers are regularly abused and ignored. Fatty pours soup and coffee from the same urn, and once again does his famous pancake flip – with his feet, with a broom, with anything at hand. Al is apparently sweet on the cashier (Corinne Parquet) and shows her an ad for “The Waiters’ Ball,” due to take place that evening. At first she is thrilled, but then she shows him the line stating “Full Dress Required.” Does he have a formal suit? Al’s face falls; no, he doesn’t. But, he promises to come up with something. There are several comic sequences that do nothing to further the plot, including an old man with a foot in a cast that keeps getting stepped on, a “broom war” between Fatty and Al that starts out with the dusting-into-the-next-room routine we saw Charlie Chaplin do in “The Bank,” a limburger cheese order that tries to crawl away on its own, and a very active leaping fish that Fatty needs to get into a pot of boiling water.

Waiters'_Ball_1916Finally, the dry cleaning man arrives, with Fatty’s suit and the owner’s (Kate Price) dress. Fatty shows how excited he is to be going to the ball, but this gives Al an idea. He starts a fight and chases Fatty with a knife. When he has Fatty cornered in a barrel, he sticks the knife in, finishing off his foe once and for all. “This act suits him,” the Intertitles tells us, and Al takes Fatty’s suit and leaves. Then Fatty climbs out of the barrel, holding a head of lettuce with a knife jammed into it. He used this to survive Al’s attack. When he discovers his suit missing, he decides to put on Kate’s dress and go after Al. The next scene shows Fatty in full drag, making quite a hit at the party. He seems at first to be enjoying herself so much, that he’s forgotten about finding her suit. But, then he sees Al, in ridiculously oversized clothes, drinking at the bar from a ridiculously oversized glass. Suddenly, it’s on! The two of them begin a twirling fight, Fatty hanging on to Al’s jacket while ill-fitting clothes fly off of each of them. It ends with the two of them in their underwear, a Keystone Cop taking them in with barrels covering their nudity.

Waiters Ball1The DVD commentary on my copy of this said that this is a “truncated version,” suggesting that we might be missing some of the more relevant material. As it is, most of the movie is just gags at the diner, and only about the last four minutes is at the eponymous ball. A lot of those gags have been used before: I spotted at least two other Chaplin bits besides the dueling sweeping routine, and the commentators kept referencing Arbuckle’s “The Cook,” which I haven’t seen. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny: the fish sequence is particularly good, and Alice Lake has a good part as a female customer who keeps sitting at the wrong table. The cinematography is by Elgin Lessley, who did some interesting work for Arbuckle in “He Did and He Didn’t,” but seems more pedestrian here. It’s also of note that Triangle had bought out Keystone at this point in time, and was putting out Keystone comedies with its own label. Mack Sennett would stay on for another year before starting “Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation” in 1917.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Corinne Parquet, Kate Price, Alice Lake, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (Intertitles have been translated to Russian).

March 1916

While the Battle of Verdun continues to grind on in Europe, American newspapers this month would be more focused on the nearby Mexican Revolution, which once again spills across the border and brings US intervention. The Century News this month focuses on these events and also some beginnings that will impact the future.

World War One: On March 24, the Channel ferry S.S. Sussex is torpedoed by a German submarine, with a loss of fifty lives. The US protests in strong terms, with President Woodrow Wilson threatening to end diplomatic relations with Germany. Although no Americans were lost in this attack, the US public is still highly inflamed from the previous year’s Lusitania sinking. The Kaiser comes to fear possible US intervention in the war, and in May will issue the “Sussex Pledge,” which dials back “Unrestricted Submarine Warfare” to placate American public opinion.

VillaUncleSamBerrymanCartoonMexican Revolution:

The Battle of Columbus (New Mexico) occurs on March 8-9, as revolutionary leader Pancho Villa leads a raiding force of about 500 men across the border, probably to secure food and supplies for his troops. He encounters a much stronger force than anticipated, and despite initial success due to surprise, his forces are beaten back. An estimated 90 Mexican soldiers are killed or wounded, to 8 US soldiers and 10 civilians.

Pancho Villa Expedition: In response to the above attacks, and to rumors of atrocities by Villa’s men against American citizens in the press, on March 14 President Woodrow Wilson orders a force of 12,000 men, later joined by additional forces under the command of General John J. Pershing, to pursue and capture Pancho Villa. Although the pursuit undeniably inconveniences the revolutionary cause, Villa is able to evade pursuit and continue his activities.

Pancho Villa

Pancho Villa

Politics: Yuan Shikai, who had claimed the throne of China in November, abdicates on March 22 and the ever-fragile Republic of China is restored.

Industry: The Bayerischen Motoren Werke (BMW) is founded on March 7 in Germany.

Society: J.R.R. Tolkien marries Edith Bratt on March 22.

Births: Actress Mercedes McCambridge (later in “Touch of Evil” and “All the King’s Men”), March 17; actor Sterling Hayden (who appeared in “The Killing” and “Dr. Strangelove,” both by Stanley Kubrick), March 26.

Reggie Mixes In (1916)

This early feature starring Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his continuing development of his screen persona after “The Lamb” and his ability as both an actor and an acrobat. Produced by D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Film Company and directed by longtime Griffith associate and repeat Fairbanks director W. Christy Cabanne, it also shows the adaptation of the “gangster movie” to Fairbanks’s particular mix of action and comedy.

Reggie_Mixes_In1Fairbanks begins the movie, as he does in “The Lamb” (and the later “Wild and Woolly”) as a young, athletic, and handsome heir to a fortune with no particular ambitions in life. We see him sleeping in till noon and being harassed by his butler (who he calls “Old Pickleface”) to get up for breakfast. Once out of bed, he leaps over a table and does headstands, just to make sure we know he can. He takes a call from his girlfriend, a very posh-looking Alma Rubens, under his blanket in bed. She’s coming over for a party later, which motivates him to get dressed for company. At the party, she flirts with another man, but doesn’t accept his proposal for marriage, to Doug’s relief. Doug then proposes, and she accepts – Intertitles tell us that she was always more interested in his money – and he seems to have second thoughts.

Later, Doug and Old Pickleface are out for a drive and find a waif in the gutter who says she’s “losted.” Charmed, Doug pulls her aboard the car and drives her to her tenement home. We see him play with the child and try to break up a domestic squabble before he sees the girl of his dreams come down the stairs. It’s Bessie Love (still a teenager at the time), who is dancing at a place called “Gallagher’s” for pay. Of course, Doug decides he’s going to need to pay a visit, and he’s smart enough to dress down a bit to make the right impression. Despite this, he drags Old Pickleface along, maybe for moral support. They manage to get served, after Doug stops being polite and pounds his fist on the bar, and they meet the bouncer, who decides they’re OK. Tony, the head of the gas house gang (William Lowry), comes in and demonstrates his ability to push patrons around, and the bouncer talks tough but takes no action. When Tony tries to make a move on Bessie, she shows more interest in getting to know Doug at first. But when Tony roughs up the bouncer and another gangster fires his gun, Doug leaps up to hide in chandelier, and Bessie concludes that he’s chicken. He proves her wrong later by chasing the gangsters away when they try to strongarm Bessie into a car. After this display, the owner of the dance hall hires Doug to be his new bouncer, now he has an excuse to come by every night and get to know Bessie.

Reggie_Mixes_In_(1916)_1He gets a good reputation at the bar for keeping order, and is able to fend off several efforts by the gang to put him out of the way. In one case, Doug climbs the front of a building to leap down on his assailant in an alley. Meanwhile, his Aunt is of course worried about the company he’s keeping and his neglect of his regular social calendar. He comes to a costume ball with his old crowd, dressed up as a bouncer from a dance hall, and gets complimented on his originality when he shows off the dance moves he’s learned on the job. He again sees Alma with her boyfriend, and now he gets the picture and shuns her company. She sends him a note remonstrating against his neglect, which Doug foolishly leaves on a table for Bessie to find. The gangsters make another play for her and when he intervenes, Tony challenges him to a one-on-one fight in a locked room, instructing his sidekick to scrag Doug with a “gat” should he fail, The fight involves several chairs thrown out windows and broken tables, and Doug gets his clothes torn up, but emerges a victor. Before the other gangster can shoot him, the owner shuts off the lights and Doug escapes with Bessie out a broken window. The police raid the joint and presumably take several gangsters into custody.

Finally, Doug has to figure out how to marry the girl he loves. He arranges to send a false note telling her she has inherited $100,000 so that she’ll come to a party at his Aunt’s house. He meets her outside in his bouncer clothes and asks if she would marry him and leave all this wealth behind. She says yes. Then, he sneaks into the house and puts on his tuxedo. While Bessie is trying to get out to meet her sweetheart the Aunt says “You must meet my nephew, Reggie.” Now she sees him in his real clothes and true element, and he knows that she’d marry him whether he had money or not. They live, as we assume, happily ever after, once Doug explains that she isn’t really an heiress.

Reggie_Mixes_InThis movie has somewhat more of Fairbanks’s signature stuntwork and fighting than “The Lamb” did – presumably audiences were coming to expect it by now. I particularly enjoy his penchant for going up (chandeliers, buildings) when people expect him to run or fight. He obviously enjoys his acrobatics, he always has a gleeful smile on his face when he gets to do one of these moves. The story here is pretty contrived, and even for 1916, the characters and situations are cliché. The fact that it’s at least half comedic makes up for this to some degree. I was surprised by the sparseness of the sets, particularly in the “rich” setting of Reggie’s Aunt’s mansion, and there are very few camera movements or other creative uses of the space. It didn’t help that the print I saw was old and washed out. There are a lot of close-ups, however, and we see good use of inter-cutting at moments of emotional impact, as when Bessie finds Alma’s love note. Perhaps not a major contribution to the cinematic art, this is a good piece of light entertainment with a talented performer at its center.

Director: W. Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, William Lowry, Joseph Singleton, Tom Wilson, Allan Sears

Run Time: 45 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments.