Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2016

April 1916

Depiction of the James Caird arriving at South Georgia Island

Depiction of the James Caird arriving at South Georgia Island

A lot of the news this month is war news. Millions have already died, and millions more will die, in the conflict already being called “The Great War” or “The World War” on battlefields in Europe and elsewhere. In addition to that, rationing, privation, and even the formation of compulsory labor battalions has become a part of the lives of the millions more civilians among the combatant nations. The poor in the larger cities are hit especially hard – in Berlin there were riots over inadequate food and uncontrolled prices in Autumn in 1915 – but farmers also suffer as governments enforce price-controls on their products but not on necessities they need to produce them. A stationary front in the West meant that many thousands of Frenchmen and Belgians now had lived under occupation for a year and a half, while the highly mobile frontline in the East meant that some areas changed hands regularly. Within these areas, resistance movements grew up which often meant harsh reprisals against populations seen as supporting them, with collaborators now at risk of being attacked by their own people. Meanwhile, another kind of resistance is brewing in Ireland…

Specific news for the month of April includes

World War One

Egypt: The Egyptian Expeditionary Force, under the United Kingdom, begins the occupation of the Sinai Peninsula to drive out Ottoman (Turkish) forces on April 11. This action protects the Suez Canal and the power of the British Navy to travel via the Mediterranean to points in their Eastern empire.

China: The troop ship SS Hsin-Yu capsizes with a loss of over 1000 lives, April 22.

France: The Germans make one of the largest-scale attacks using chemical weapons near Hulluch on April 27 and again on April 29, although winds on this second date push the gas back towards their own lines, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides.

Iraq: The Siege of Kut ends with British forces surrendering to the Ottomans on April 29. With inadequate food supplies, the garrison and civilians there had been near starvation, surrounded by enemy forces since December. Their commanding officer, Charles Townshend, would sit out the war in relative security while thousands of his men were killed in forced labor or from disease caused by the starvation, and later denied that there had been any mistreatment of British soldiers by the Ottomans.

Diplomacy: Almost a year after the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, President Woodrow Wilson issues a warning to Germany not to continue unrestricted submarine warfare.

Easter Rising:

Ireland: Timed to coincide with Easter Week, a coalition of Irish Republican groups stages a major rebellion to demand home rule, deferred by British Parliament until after the War ends. The rising begins on April 25 and continues until its suppression by superior British Army forces on April 29, leaving 500 dead and 2600 wounded – the majority are citizens with no direct ties to the rebellion.

Sports: The first game at Weeghman Park (now known as Wrigley Field), Chicago, April 20. The Cubs beat the Cincinnati Reds.

Exploration: In Antarctica, Ernest Shackleton and five companions board the lifeboat James Caird on April 24, making for South Georgia Island in search of rescue after the sinking of the Endurance. While they will make the island May 10, they are unable to reach any of the whaling communities and several survivors must make a difficult overland journey, the first to cross the island successfully.

Births: Gregory Peck, actor (“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Boys from Brazil”), April 5; Vic Perrin, actor (radio, “Gunsmoke”, television, “The Outer Limits:” “control voice” ), April 26.

The Matrimaniac (1916)

Matrimaniac2This short comedy feature stars Douglas Fairbanks in the kind of vehicle he would be known for before he reinvented himself as an action-adventure star. It’s a movie that emphasizes situation for its silliness, but still allows Doug to show off his physical prowess in stunts and derring-do.

MatrimaniacDoug Fairbanks is determined to get married. Lucky for him, Constance Talmadge (sister of Norma) is just as interested in marrying him. Unlucky for him, her father has already picked another suitor (Clyde E. Hopkins) and has her licked in her room. So, it’s up to Doug to come up with an increasingly wacky elopement scheme and escape with her. Much of this movie plays like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” with Doug and a preacher (Fred Warren) trying to catch up by any means they can with the train Constance with Constance and the would-be-son-in-law. They wind up on a railway cart, a burro, and finally another train before they get there, but then they have to avoid the “officers of the court” who Dad has called in to serve an injunction to stop the wedding! This movie has all of the elements of the later 1930s “screwball comedies,” including mistaken identities, people getting thrown in jail for the wrong reasons, and plenty of fast talking deal-making, plus Fairbanks’s remarkable athletic abilities, to make for a great silent situation comedy.

No time to get dressed, this is a wedding!

No time to get dressed, this is a wedding!

Fairbanks, avoiding the court officers, climbs up the side of a jailhouse, leaps from one rooftop to another, and also climbs along some telephone wires, performing a bit of a high-wire act up there. Actually, we saw Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle do something similar in “Fatty’s Tintype Tangle” last year – and, if nothing else the camera angle in that one made it clear that he really was high above the ground. Fairbanks is rather less athletic on the wires than Arbuckle was, and from what we see, the whole thing might’ve been faked. What definitely isn’t faked is some scenes which involve him and the preacher being thrown off, jumping onto, or climbing underneath (!) moving trains. Having had some experience train-hopping, I know how dangerous this is, and it would not have been possible to fake it at the time. Doug’s lucky to have kept all his appendages intact.

NOT her boyfriend.

NOT her boyfriend.

Constance Talmadge also acquits herself well in this movie as a somewhat spoiled rich girl who’s used to getting her own way. Some of her best parts come when she’s cutting down the man daddy wants her to marry. When he’s checking them into a hotel, intending to hold Constance until she changes her mind, the clerk asks, “And is this your fiancé?” To which Constance responds, “What, that?” The look on her face is deliciously chilly. She can also be somewhat domineering toward Doug. After going to some lengths to change clothes with a maid and escape the hotel, she arrives at the jail and find he isn’t there (he’s busy leaping from rooftops a block or so away). She declares that he can come get her when he’s ready, and stalks back to her hotel room! I was sort of hoping that the maid and the faux beaux would get together in the end – they both seemed like such easy-going people by comparison.

Matrimaniac5What really makes this, and other Fairbanks comedies, work, is that Doug is so obviously enjoying every minute of it. I recommend it as a change of pace from slapstick comedies, or to demonstrate to your friends that not all silent comedians were constantly hitting one another. I actually think I may have laughed out loud at this at least as many times, if not more, than the last Chaplin film I watched – and that’s saying something!

Matrimaniac3Director: Paul Powell

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Constance Talmadge, Clyde E. Hopkins, Fred Warren

Run Time: 45 Min

I have not found this available for free on the Internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

The Landlady (1900)

Alternate Title: La Concierge

This is another simple comedy from Alice Guy’s period as a director for Gaumont Studios. It reminds me both of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” for being a typical joke about someone getting doused, but also “The Burglars,” because the setting is so obviously French, despite the lack of an elaborate set or location shoot.

LandladyWe see the front of a building and a middle-aged woman is sweeping the stoop. Behind her is a sign reading “Concierge” and a rope to ring the doorbell. A well-dressed man comes up to her and they haggle over money, he leaves and she takes a snort of snuff. Then she goes inside for a moment and some kids run up. They yank the doorbell and run away. The lady comes out to find no one, and shakes her fist. Then she goes back inside. The man returns and yanks the doorbell as well, and she throws a bucket of water over him, thinking he is the prankster. Then the kids rush onto the set and start laughing, and some adult extras also arrive and laugh, providing a kind of laugh-track to give the audience someone to laugh along with.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Dance of the Seasons: Winter, Snow Dance (1900)

Alternate Title: Danse des saisons: L’Hiver, danse de la neige

Based solely on the title, I’m guessing that this comes from a set of four movies with dancers representing each of the seasons. However, this is the only one included on the Gaumont DVD of Alice Guy’s work, and possibly it is the only one that has survived.

Danse_des_saisons

What we see is a small stage with flakes drifting down from above to simulate snow. A woman with an odd headpiece with a fur stole attached dances in the center of the screen, seeming to mimic the fluttering of the snowflakes and perhaps suggesting shivers with her small, quick movements. She moves about the stage and flaps the stole with her arms. It seems to me as if by 1900 audiences would be demanding a bit more than a one-minute dance, but perhaps if this was shown with narration and the other three pieces of the film, it would seem a bit more sophisticated. The dancer’s legs are bare, which might have brought some attention from the gentlemen (it didn’t take much in 1900).

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

Blogathon Words Words WordsThis is my contribution to the CMBA Spring Blogathon “Words…Words…Words.” Funny enough, this idea for a blogathon started with me, with the idea that we often focus too much on directors, and not on writers, when reviewing, analyzing, or discussing classic film. Then, lo and behold, I chose a movie to write about that was written and directed by the same fellow, Stuart Paton, who had a busy career at Universal (formerly IMP), but never got much recognition. This may in fact be his best-known movie, although he kept working until 1938.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea1As the story begins, a strange giant sea creature has been rampaging the seas. The American naval ship Abraham Lincoln is sent to investigate, and Professor Arronax (Dan Hanlon), from France, is invited along. He brings his daughter (Edna Pendleton), who rapidly becomes interested in Ned Land (Curtis Benton), the “famous harpoonist,” aboard ship. The ship is rammed by “the creature” which turns out to be the Nautilus, the fantastic submarine of the enigmatic Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar, who looks vaguely like an East Indian Santa Claus), and “Rudderless, the ‘Abraham Lincoln’ drifts on.” Nemo rescues all of the named characters and takes them prisoner. After they pledge not to escape, Nemo shows them the wonders of the underwater world, and even takes them hunting on the sea floor. When a pearl diver is caught in the clutches of a giant octopus, Nemo sends Ned Land and his Lieutenant out to rescue him.

20000 Leagues Under the SeaMeanwhile, soldiers in a runaway Union Army Balloon are marooned on a mysterious island not far from the submarine. They find a wild girl living alone on the island (“a child of nature” played by Jane Gail). Nemo sees the castaways and sends them a present: a chest full of various necessities they will need to survive. One of the soldiers manages to coax the wild girl to live in his shelter, which he chastely guards from outside while she sleeps, stopping one of the other soldiers from attacking her. He also convinces her to trade her leopard-skin one-piece for men’s clothing.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea4Suddenly, the yacht of Charles Denver (William Welsh) arrives at the island. A former Indian colonial officer, he has been haunted by the ghost of a woman (Princess Daaker) that he attacked years ago; she stabbed herself rather than submit to him. He fled with her young daughter and then abandoned the child on the island. The long-tormented Denver has returned to see what became of her. The wild girl meanwhile relates the story of how she came to the island to the nice soldier. Denver quickly becomes disoriented and lost.

20,000_Leagues_under_the_SeaAn evil Union soldier schemes and with help from surprisingly compliant yacht crewmen kidnaps the wild girl onto Denver’s yacht. Another soldier swims aboard to rescue her. Denver is shocked to find her in his cabin. At the same time, Nemo discovers that the yacht belongs to Denver, the enemy he has been seeking all these years. The Nautilus destroys the yacht with a torpedo, but the girl and her rescuer are saved from the water by Captain Nemo. In elaborate flashback scenes to India, Nemo reveals that he is Prince Daaker, and that he created the Nautilus to seek revenge on Charles Denver. He is overjoyed to discover that the abandoned wild girl is his long-lost daughter, but his emotion is such that he expires. His loyal crew bury him at the ocean bottom. They disband and the Nautilus is left to drift to its own watery grave.

20,000_Leagues_under_the_Sea1Anyone who has read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” will immediately notice that this plotline adds a great deal to that story. The source of most of it is Verne’s “Mysterious Island,” which served as a kind of sequel to “20,000 Leagues” and solved the mystery of Captain Nemo’s origin. By combining the two, writer-director Stuart Paton has given the audience a much more complete story, but he has added a number of expensive action sequences and cluttered the screen with more characters than we can keep track of. He has made matters worse by introducing two female characters, neither in the original books, apparently as love interests, although the romantic storylines are never paid off. It would have been quite shocking in the America of “The Birth of a Nation” had the Indian wild girl ended up married to the heroic white Union soldier, but we do not get that resolution here. I suspect it was cut for being too controversial.

Who are all these people?

Who are all these people?

OK, so it’s a busy storyline with a lot of characters, many of whom never even get the dignity of names, but does it remain true to Jules Verne? I would have to say yes, overall. Verne spent many pages of his novel describing the undersea wonders that Arronax was permitted to see through the “crystalline window” of the Nautilus, and, enamored of their new “underwater photography” techniques, the cameramen at Universal also linger on corals, sharks, and schools of fish. Actually, the camera never went into the water, but a system of watertight tubes and mirrors allowed the camera to shoot reflected images of underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters. For 1916, this looks great, as do the diving suits the characters wear during their external ventures, with rather compact oxygen tanks attached.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea3These convincing effects were further complimented by a genuine full-scale submarine, painted to resemble the Nautilus as described by Verne. It’s not as exotic as the later Disney version (itself based on illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou), but it is clearly a functioning vessel, as is the Abraham Lincoln and most shots we see of Denver’s yacht; few if any miniatures are substituted for the ships. During the flashback sequence, we see an impressive palace and enormous city gates which dwarf the extras scrambling beneath them. In fact, the one effect that is disappointing is the octopus, which is just plain goofy-looking.

Director's note: don't put googly eyes on your scary monster.

Director’s note: don’t put googly eyes on your scary monster.

All those effects apparently cost quite a bit, rather more than the still independent Universal Film Manufacturing Company could really afford. This was to be their big money release, and should have been a big hit, but it wound up costing so much that they couldn’t recoup the expenses. This may have partly contributed to Paton’s later bad reputation as a director. The reviews at the time, to judge at least from “Moving Picture World” were fairly kind, and particularly enthusiastic about the underwater photography (including, to my surprise, the octopus!). The reviewer was somewhat mixed on the acting, and a bit left-handed about the directing (“Stuart Paton…has been confronted by many difficult problems and, in the main, has solved them with much skill”). To us today this movie remains an impressive technical achievement from a century ago, but maybe not the most compelling version of the imaginative tale ever told.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea6Director: Stuart Paton

Camera: Eugene Gaudio

Starring: Allen Holubar, William Welsh, Jane Gail, Edna Pendleton, Dan Hanlon, Curtis Benton

Run Time: 1 Hr, 40 Min

You can see it for free: here (no music) or here (bad music. Don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Sherlock Holmes (1916)

This is my contribution to the “Beyond the Cover” blogathon, hosted by my friends at Speakeasy and Now Voyaging. Don’t forget to check out all the other entries in this very literary classic movie event!

Sherlock_HolmesLong believed lost, this early adaptation of the great detective was produced while Arthur Conan Doyle was still alive and writing. There’s no denying that William Gillette, the star of the film, had a lasting impact on the way Holmes would be performed for the next century, but the film was lost for much of that time, until rediscovered and released to new audiences about a year ago. Now it’s our chance to take a look at this seminal re-imagining of a literary figure for the silver screen. (Fair warning for those new to my blog: there will be spoilers. This is the price of reading about 100 year old films – they’ve been spoiled like crazy by now). Read the rest of this entry »

At the Photographer’s (1900)

Alternate Title: Chez le photographe

Once again, we have a film by Alice Guy that resembles something I’ve seen before. In this case, however, Guy’s version is earlier than the others I’ve found, so it’s possible it originated with her.

At the PhotographersA photographer is setting up his gear to take portraits when a customer comes in, carrying a large plant. The cameraman makes him set it down beside him, then sits him in the chair before the camera. Just as he’s ready to snap the photo, the man leans over and picks up the plant. The photographer tries again, but once again the client moves at the critical moment. This continues until the two men come to blows, smashing the photographer’s equipment.

A very basic form of comedy is to set up an expected action and then suddenly defer or delay it. The angrier or more frustrated the person anticipating the action gets, the more the audience is inclined to laugh to let off tension. Certainly Alice Guy wasn’t the first to discover this, but she does use the basic concept nicely in the short run time of this movie. The other version of this that I’ve seen is “The Photographer’s Mischance” by Georges Méliès, but I believe there are Edison and Biograph variations as well, which just goes to prove what I’ve said before: in the early days of film, filmmakers copies one another shamelessly.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Automated Hat Maker and Sausage Grinder (1900)

Alternate Title: “Chapellerie et charcuterie automatique”

This film is another example of Alice Guy taking an old idea and modifying it to make it a little distinctive. It’s not particularly original, but it was more or less what audiences were expecting in the “Age of Attractions.”

Automatic Hat Maker and Sausage GrinderWhat we see is two men in front of a large machine with two dispensing trays. One man goes off screen and brings various live animals – I saw a chicken, a dog, and what I think were a rabbit and a cat – and he puts them into the machine through an opening at the top. Then he adds some powders (spices? Flour? I’m not certain) and pours water in through a funnel. Then the other man turns the crank while he goes around to the front. The first man removes sausage from the first dispenser, while hats pour out of the second into a basket. He puts the sausage aside and tries on some of the hats.

There’s quite a bit of history behind this movie. In 1895, the Lumière brothers released “The Mechanical Butcher,” which some claim as the “first science fiction film.” In it, a pig is put into one side of a large box and an array of sausages removed from the other. Early filmmakers being quite ready to copy a good idea, this was followed by releases from George Albert Smith (“Making Sausages,” 1897), the Biograph Company (“The Sausage Machine,” 1897), and Edison Studios (“Fun in a Butcher Shop, 1901 and “Dog Factory,” 1904). In that context, Guy was really just keeping up with the Joneses by making a similar film. The “hat” part is, so far as I know, completely original. I can’t help but wonder if all these movies reflect a certain uneasiness on the part of consumers regarding the industrial processes by which food was being produced and their lack of certainty about the quality of ingredients.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Naked Hands (1916)

Alternate Title:Humanity

This movie apparently took several years to get to the screen and may not exist in complete form today, although at half an hour long, I find it one of the most developed of the movies Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson made in his career as a Western star. As with “Broncho Billy’s Sentence,” the story is written to allow Billy to display the full range of human emotions, but the longer run time makes this appear more natural and convincing.

Naked HandsThe movie opens on Ruth Saville, who plays Billy’s wife. We are told she is an “Eastern flower” transplanted to an environment that doesn’t agree with her. We see the her framed against the empty rolling hills of Western California, and understand that she needs more company than the wilderness provides. Her old school chum (Rodney Hildebrand) is out for a visit, however. When Billy arrives home to find them talking together, Rodney suggests that he go out and look for gold on his property – he represents an Eastern mining concern that can make him rich. Billy goes out while Rodney continues to pressure Ruth to come back East with him, and he spends days scrabbling at rocks with no success. Finally, he does strike gold and rushes into town to buy finery and things Ruth would like in their shed, but it’s too late – Ruth has left with Rodney. Billy refuses to take revenge, and in a state of deep shock, he sets fire to the shed and all of his possessions. With his house burning in the background, he bids the adulterous couple go on their way – condemning them to each other’s weakness.

Naked Hands1The mine, however, continues to be prosperous, and with nothing else in his life, Billy proceeds to get rich on it. In the meantime, Rodney has set Ruth up in the city as his mistress – he has a wife already and never had any intention of giving her anything but money for her affection. With nowhere else to turn, Ruth accepts it, but she’s no happier here than she was in the West. Billy is now living with servants and a mansion – but he still allows his dog to jump up on the desk. As a new wealthy man in town he is invited to a dinner party with other men of wealth. Of course, when he arrives, the house turns out to be Rodney’s, and he refuses to dine with a lowdown snake. Rodney tries to save face with his chums by bragging about stealing Billy’s girl, which sets him off: “if you ever speak disrespectfully of her or any harm comes to her – I’ll finish you with my naked hands!” Ruth as we know is suffering from her mistake, and she finally decides to kill herself, first writing a note asking Billy to come to her. She ends up in the hospital, and Billy does come, arriving in time to be the last thing she sees on Earth. They play a touching scene at her deathbed, surrounded by doctors and nurses, and of course Billy forgives her. She dies as he kisses her.

Naked Hands2Now Billy is overcome with the desire for revenge, and to make his threat come true. He goes at once to the home of Rodney, where a butler in terrible blackface lets him in and shows him to his master. Billy and Rodney fight, Rodney tries to get a gun, then tries to run, and finally starts throwing anything he can get his hands on to try to stop Billy, smashing up his own house in the process. The fight is prolonged, and intercut with Rodney’s wife and butler trying to break down the door to get in, finally, they do and a tiny child runs in as Billy closes his hands on the throat of his nemesis: “Please don’t hurt my daddy.” Billy suddenly becomes aware of what he is doing and backs off in horror, while the family tries to revive Rodney. Billy collects his hat and coat and leaves them in the shambles of the living room.

Naked Hands3Again, I think it is Anderson’s acting that carries this movie, although compared with the shorts I’ve reviewed up to now, it is well-shot and edited, and we do get somewhat more interesting performances from the supporting cast, especially Rodney Hildebrand. I also liked how the visuals contrasted the openness of the West with the closed and sometimes claustrophobic spaces of the East. While the West is empty and spacious, the “city” is crowded with things and people. There are minimal close-ups, so Anderson must show his feelings in a big way that sometimes seems to overwhelm the moment. When he backs off from fighting Rodney at the end, for example, his stunned look and frozen body language seems to drag out the situation rather than resolve it, although we do understand how horrified he is by his own actions. That fight includes probably the best stunts I’ve seen in any Broncho Billy movie, perhaps he’d taken advantage of over a year of having Charlie Chaplin as an employee to pick up a few tricks. In some ways, this was probably the masterpiece of his career, and it does deserve a look by any fan of silent Westerns. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it in the same category with the best work being done by DeMille, Chaplin, and others in Hollywood by this time, and it may be that Broncho Billy’s day ended about when it needed to so that others could advance the art past his level.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Ruth Saville, Rodney Hildebrand, Harry Todd, Lee Willard

Run Time: 30 Min

I have not found this movie on the Internet for free. If you can, please comment below.

Avenue de l’Opera (1900)

When I first watched this one-minute film, I was inclined the think it was a mistake: someone had found a print that was reversed from the original and made the whole appear to run backward. Since my copy came without comment or explanatory note for this, it just reminded me that projectionists in the early years had to freedom to roll films forwards or backwards, fast or slow, at their own discretion.

What we see is a nicely framed image of a bustling Parisian street, which may well still be recognizable to the jet set as the Avenue de l’Opera, built in the 19th century to be a major thoroughfare and cultural center. The thing is, all the traffic and the people are going backwards. As if it weren’t obvious enough, the Gaumont release I watched plays the music backwards as well.

Avenue de lOperaWe’re so used to seeing movies shown in reverse now that it just seems weird to make a point out of it, but from what I’ve been able to find out about this movie, this is how it was intended to be released. Again, I find it hard to believe that audiences hadn’t already seen this, as a result of projectionists running films backward (when I was little and they showed us movies in 16mm at school, this was what we all clamored for), but it’s just possible that it was still rare enough to be a novelty in 1900.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (Possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 57 secs

You can watch it for free: here.