Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2016

Cyrano de Bergerac (1900)

This very early experiment in sound film captures dialogue and also has color – making it a fairly impressive technical achievement for 1900. It would still be some time before all of the technical issues would be resolved, leading to synchronized sound and Technicolor for feature-length films by the late 1920s, but this movie shows that the industry was already looking forward to such techniques at a very early date.

Cyrano_de_Bergerac_(short_1900)The scene reproduced is the famous “duel” scene from Cyrano de Bergerac by Rostand. In this scene, a foppish upstart in a hotel challenges the great Cyrano (played here by Benoit Constant Coquelin) to a duel, and Cyrano, bored by the whole vulgar display, composes a poem as he duels, ending the poem at the moment he scores a hit on his opponent. The fighting is highly formalized fencing, as shown here, not the swashbuckling action that fans of the later version with Jose Ferrer, which makes more sense in light of Cyrano’s reciting as the duel proceeds. He wears rich-looking but fairly drab brown clothes, while the opponent has flourishes of bright green and yellow on his clothes, making him more dynamic in the picture. I was surprised that there was no sound of clanging swords, only the dialogue was recorded.

CyranoApparently, the technique used here required the sound to be recorded on a wax cylinder, which was not synched in any way to the sound, so the projectionist had to try to crank at the right speed to get the words to come out at the right time. It’s easy to see why that technology wasn’t a tremendous success. Also, the color in this movie looks like hand-painted frames to me, which was no great innovation in 1900 (Méliès had been doing it for years, and Edison had tried it as well). It’s worth noting that the play was still quite new at this time (1897), so this wasn’t necessarily familiar material for all audiences, although of course having the spoken dialogue by Cyrano would help contextualize the scene for them. This also emphasizes the more “nationalist” nature of sound cinema – I don’t speak French, there are no subtitles provided, and I didn’t understand a word, whereas I can usually follow a silent foreign film without help.

Director: Clément Maurice

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Benoit Constant Coquelin

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty’s Plucky Pup (1915)

This movie is one of the more “typical” Keystones that Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for the studio. He’s far less likeable in this movie, although in the end, Luke the Dog does show up to save his girlfriend.

Fattys Plucky PupFatty lives with his hard-working mother (Phyllis Allen), who begins this movie by waking him, seemingly long after her working day has begun. Fatty grouses at her and stays in bed, lighting a cigarette and immediately dozing off, starting a fire on the bedsheets. Fatty does wake up and realize the situation, but his response is to leisurely walk into the kitchen and get a small cup of water. When this doesn’t work, he seems to lose interest, and moves on to other things, like combing his hair. Then, his mother comes in and sees the fire, she rushes out to get a bucket and winds up dumping it on him, because he’s too stupid to move aside. Then, once the fire is out, he tries to take the clean laundry out the yard to hang, but instead dumps it in the mud. He becomes a tad more likeable in saving Luke the Dog from Al St. John, the dogcatcher. It’s not clear to me whether Luke and Fatty are supposed to have a prior relationship, or if this is where they meet in this narrative. He also has a cute scene with the girl next door (Josephine Stevens as “Lizzie”) where they talk through a hole in the fence.

Fattys Plucky Pup1In the second reel, Fatty, Lizzie, mom and Luke go to the amusement park, and Fatty encounters Edgar Kennedy running a shell game, with Joe Bordeaux as a shill. Fatty, being an idiot, is taken in by the oldest con in the world, but then retrieves his losses by pointing a fake gun at them. To exact revenge, they kidnap Lizzie with the help of the embittered dog catchers, and take her to an abandoned shack, where they tie her to a post with a gun attached to a timer pointed at her head. Plucky pup Luke follows the crooks, chasing the dogcatchers onto the roof of a shack, and is able to warn Fatty in time to perform the last-minute rescue, with the help of the Keystone Cops. In the closing shot Fatty, Lizzie and Luke embrace in a joint kiss (and lick).

Fattys Plucky Pup2It’s probably obvious that I find Arbuckle pretty unsympathetic in this movie, and maybe it was partly because I was pretty burnt out on his Keystone comedies by the time I got to it. He’s kind to dogs, and at least makes some effort to save his girlfriend, but otherwise in this movie he’s a lazy burden on his poor mother, and even a hazard to have around. The other contrivance here is the contraption the crooks set up in order to have Lizzie shot at 3:00 PM, which is basically a variant on the girl tied to the sawmill conveyor or to the train tracks. As usual, it’s done here for exaggerated comic effect, but even in that context, it’s a cliché by 1915. This was a one-reel idea stretched out to two reels, in my opinion.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Josephine Stevens, Phyllis Allen, Joe Bordeaux, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Wilful Way (1915)

This typical Keystone “park comedy” with Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle adds to its visual interest by including a variety of amusement park attractions, and uses many of the best players in a cast that never lets up on zaniness.

Mabels Willful WayIt begins with Mabel out with her parents, obviously not having a good time. She sits at a table in a large dining hall with music that she mimes to us is too loud. Her father (Glen Cavender) seems to enjoy it, but her mother (Alice Davenport) is enjoying onions for lunch, making the other two hold their noses. Mabel runs away from the table at the first opportunity. Meanwhile, Fatty and his friend Edgar Kennedy have shown up and are following any unattatched young woman until Joe Bordeaux, the cop, takes an interest in them. Fatty relives some of his routine with a water fountain as seen in “Fatty’s Chance Acquaintance” and then sprays Joe in the face. After they get away, they see Mabel trying to scam some sweets off a ice cream man (Bobby Dunn), and fight over the opportunity to be her savior. Fatty wins, then steals a large coin from the cash register to pay. He and Mabel feed most of their ice cream cones to a bear in the zoo (very bad behavior, nowadays), and Fatty even manages to feed it some peanuts from his mouth! Meanwhile, Edgar Kennedy has stumbled across a baseball throwing game, with a man in very obvious (and offensive) blackface as the target. He starts throwing balls with all his might when Glen wanders up, now on the hunt for his daughter. This turns into a chase, then a battle between the two men with their canes. Edgar runs off to the merry-go-round and the chase escalates and Glen tries to catch up to his fast-moving horse, but winds up getting kicked in the pants every time Edgar comes around. Edgar makes his escape by leaping off and leaving the old man pursuing the empty horse.

Mabels Willful Way1Fatty and Mabel are now enjoying a giant slide with mats. They are knocked down by, or knock down, several other riders, including our old friend Joe the cop. This leads to a fight in which Mabel leaves Fatty and runs to Edgar, resting on a bench. They go off to play another amusement park game, while Alice takes a rest at another nearby bench, putting her umbrella up against the sun. Fatty picks some flowers, and mistakes her for Mabel (this would have made a lot more sense if they had been wearing the same dress, but oh well) and tries to kiss her. She, outraged, leaps up and starts flailing with her umbrella. Now Mabel sees her father and tries to introduce him to Edgar, which predictably does not go well, after their fight, which now breaks out anew. Fatty dusts the old man off and sympathizes with him, earning a new “introduction” to his daughter, and of course Mabel’s mom walks up and recognizes him, leading to more violence. After Fatty is chased off, he and Edgar swear off women before being chased by Joe the cop, and Mabel’s parents turn her over for a spanking.

Mabels Wilful WayThis is another movie whose direction seems to be attributed to either Mabel, Mack, or Roscoe, depending on who you ask. My go-to authority, “The Silent Era” weighs in on Arbuckle’s side, and it’s probably right, but I do have a theory that might explain the confusion. Unlike a lot of the other “park comedies” from Keystone I’ve reviewed, this one obviously took place in a location away from the Sennett studios, and it may have been a spontaneous decision to grab some actors and cameras and go there, without even a script. In that situation, and with different actors performing in groups in different parts of the park, the duties might have been split, depending on who was available at the moment. The ending strikes me as something that was dreamed up on the spot, not a planned resolution. About that ending: I suppose that the spanking of a grown woman (Mabel would have been 22 at the time) is another example of “vulgarity” in early slapstick – certainly it would have its titillating side for some members of the audience. It’s still surprising enough to get a laugh out of me, although really all Mabel did wrong was to get bored hanging out with her parents.

Director: Mabel Normand or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle/Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle”, Mabel Normand, Edgar Kennedy, Alice Davenport, Glen Cavender, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John.

Run Time: 13 Min

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