Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2016

The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ (1906)

This rather ambitious film from Alice Guy probably qualifies as a “feature,” although it is only just over half an hour long. Certainly it is the longest connected series of scenes I’ve seen from Guy, and as such may represent her “masterpiece” so far as cinema history is concerned.

The movie is a chronological series of single-set scenes from the life of Jesus, as described in the Bible and also in popular Catholic myth. It begins with Mary and Joseph being turned away at the inn (we actually see others refused by the same innkeeper, which suggests that the inn was genuinely full), and then chased off the streets by a Centurion on horseback. Then we see the traditional Catholic nativity scene, with Magi and gifts and what appear to be their entourages coming and paying homage to the newborn child. The next scenes concern Jesus’s activities as an adult. We see the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus healing a sick woman, and a couple of other minor stories, but not the ones I tend to think of as the most important. There’s no loaves and fishes, for example, nor do we see Lazarus raised from the dead, nor the money changers expelled from the Temple.

Birth Life Death of ChristThe bulk of the film, however, concerns Jesus’s betrayal and Crucifixion. There is a very good reproduction of the Last Supper, followed by the kiss and capture of Jesus by roman soldiers. There is then a fairly elaborate trial scene and the scene of Pontius Pilate asking the people to forgive Jesus (this scene always makes me think of “The Life of Brian”). Finally, we see Jesus hauling his cross through the streets, and each of the Stations of the Cross is portrayed. Christ reaches Golgotha, and is nailed to the cross (alone; there are two empty crosses nearby). Eventually, a roman soldier sticks a spear in his side, and he is taken down and his body is laid to rest in a cave. We then see the inside of the cave, and some angels appear, and eventually his image rises from the coffin and appears to ascend toward heaven. Now we cut back to the outside and see some believers come to investigate, they enter and see the empty tomb (this is the only use of intercutting in the film).

Birth Life Death of Christ1The first thing I have to comment on about this film is the sets. Most of Guy’s short films have been lacking in this area, especially when compared to the artistic and whimsical sets used by Georges Méliès at the same time. In this case, she hired two production designers (Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset and Henri Ménessier), who obviously put real time into the sets, especially for Pilate’s throne room and the Last Supper scene. Ménessier also did the costumes, which are quite good. Wikipedia claims that “300 extras” were used for this movie, but the size of the sets makes this appear unlikely: I saw no more than thirty on the screen at any one time, and that was only for the most elaborate scenes. The only way it could add up to 300 is if every single scene used an entirely different set of actors. For most scenes, the camera is stationary, although there are cases in which the camera pans, often to track Jesus as he crosses an especially large set. The editing is generally quite pedestrian, except in the case of the Ascension. That is the only real special effect as well.

Sure it looks good, but how are we going to fit 300 people on this set?

Sure it looks good, but how are we going to fit 300 people on this set?

Given that this movie came out three years after “The Great Train Robbery” and four after “A Trip to the Moon,” it can hardly be considered a major cinematic event, but it is a good example of an early feature film. It also falls into the category of the “Passion Play,” which has had an interesting history in film, especially in the United States. Passion plays are often objected to by Protestant church groups, seen as “trivializing” or secularizing a sacred event. However, in the late 1890s, several Passion Play films were successfully released, without significant protest, because they portrayed European traditions and were accompanied by lectures about “foreign” cultures. Guy may have been counting on that to make this movie a success in the US, which as I’ve noted before was an important market for Gaumont by this time. This may have informed her choices about which parts of Christ’s life to show, or it’s possible that these represent the scenes considered most important in Catholic France at the time. Certainly the focus on his death, rather than his deeds, seems very Catholic to me.

Birth Life Death of Christ3Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 33 Min

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

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Three American Beauties (1906)

Like the more recent film “American Beauty,” this patriotic art film from Edison Studios takes advantage of the fact that one of the lovelier varieties of rose is called an “American Beauty.” Ironically, this rose was originally bred in France, but wound up usurped by its American popularity which sort of reminds me of film history itself.

Three American BeautiesThe movie consists of three hand-tinted images. First, a rose, second, a young woman, and third, a flag. At the end of the movie, the flag is replaced with a field of stars. The images are connected by means of fades, something that was still quite exciting in 1906. Still, the movie is quite short, and I wonder if it wasn’t shown repeatedly, to get the point across. Perhaps the pianist could accompany with the National Anthem or another patriotic song and get the audience to stand up during the screening.

Directed by: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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

The Lonedale Operator (1911)

This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.

No, I probably won't need it!

No, I probably won’t need it!

Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.

Competant and capable.

Competant and capable.

Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.

Lonedale Operator3So, while it’s maybe not so innovative as is suggested, it is a good example of what could be done with established technique, and I’m even willing to grant that in terms of editing it was better than what most audiences were seeing up to then. Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Dell Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, Wilfred Lucas, W. Chrystie Miller, Charles West.

Run Time: 17 Min

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

Dog Factory (1904)

This movie is a reversal on a common theme that started out with the Lumière brothers in the earliest days of cinema. Here, it is done by director Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Film Company in the year following his dramatic success with “The Great Train Robbery.”

Dog FactoryThe stage is hung with loops of sausage, each of which is labeled with the name of a dog (“spaniel,” “setter,” “pointer,” etc). At the center is a large box which is labeled “Patent DOG Transformator.” Two men attend the machine. Various characters come in with dogs, and have them reduced to sausages, to make sure we understand how it works (this is typical from the Lumière, Guy, and other versions). Next, a series of funny characters come in without dogs, and the men at the machine select a loop of sausage to add to the machine, and – voila! – a dog of the type chosen appears. The dogs are matched to the personality of their owners, ie a very proper lady receives a neatly groomed terrier, while a foppish gent takes a spaniel. At the end, a ruffian comes in and gets a bulldog, but he’s not tough enough, so the men create a “fighting bull” and the scene devolves into chaos between the dogs and the humans fighting each other.

Dog Factory1A couple of interesting points, here. Several of the previous movies suggested that sausages were made out of dogs and other unsavory items, but this is the first to suggest that they can be turned back into dogs if not eaten first. It seems like a better movie for dog-lovers, for sure! The original catalog entry says that the men running the machine are “Germans,” which may represent a prejudice of the time about Germans’ eating habits (like jokes today about Koreans ostensibly eating dogs), or it just may be because Germans eat sausage and are associated with mechanical inventiveness.

Animals in Film blogathonThis has been my contribution to the “Animals in Film” Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Dog lovers, and animal lovers of all sorts should head over and check out the other posts!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

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

Félix Mayol Performs “White Lilacs” (1905)

Alternate Title: Félix Mayol, lilas-blanc

My final Félix Mayol phonoscène by Alice Guy portrays one of his most popular songs. He sings and dances a bit, working in lip-synch with a prerecorded gramophone record.

Felix Mayol White Lilacs

Once again, Mayol enters the stage in long-shot and the camera remains stationary for the length of his song. We get no color or close-ups this time. The curtain is the same: especially sharp-eyed viewers may have noticed that it is adorned with white lilacs, and that Mayol has one in his buttonhole as well. This time, I can spot the Gaumont symbol way down in the lower-right corner. Presumably, it was there for the other movies as well, but the cinematographer failed to get it in the frame.

White Lilacs” is a love song, told more or less from the woman’s perspective, with a tragic ending (the woman chooses a man who doesn’t love her over one who does). Apparently Mayol suggested the idea to the songwriter, Théodore Botrel, because they were his favorite flower and he wanted it to be his signature song. Apart from phonoscènes, Mayol didn’t have many screen appearances until the advent of “Talkies,” but he did a number of French talking pictures in the 1930s. He would die in October, 1941, in what was then Vichy France, the collaborationist regime with the Nazi occupation force.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Félix Mayol

Run  Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Félix Mayol Performs “The Trottins Polka” (1905)

This is another of the short sound-on-disc phonoscènes that Alice Guy shot with Félix Mayol. It fits in neatly with the others I’ve looked at this week, but has some distinctions from last night’s entry.

Felix Mayol Trottins PolkaOnce again, Mayol walks onto the stage and sings. This time, the image is black and white, and the camera is set back to give us a full-shot of the actor, including some of the studio floor. This latter is probably because, unlike in “Indiscreet Questions,” Mayol does do a bit of a dance here, and needed more room to move around on camera. This was clearly shot in the same session; even the curtain is identical to last night’s film. His hair is also identical – apparently it was part of his act, as caricatured in the poster below:

Felix Mayol PosterI thought at first that the “polka” might mean that this song would make fun of Germans, but if these lyrics are correct, it doesn’t seem to be the case. In fact, it seems to be a song about the culture of young boys who hang around railroad stations hoping to pick up tips for helping to cart luggage for tourists. Given that Mayol was apparently gay, and that young boys at railroad stations sometimes make money in less savory fashions, this song may have a certain racy implication as well. As before, Mayol communicates the humor of the song with subtlety, and only suggests, rather than making anything obvious.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Félix Mayol

Run Time: 2 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Félix Mayol Performs “Indiscreet Questions” (1905)

Alternate Title: Félix Mayol, Questions Indiscrète

This is another of Alice Guy’s sound-on-disc releases. It is shot in a somewhat different (perhaps more “modern) fashion, but is essentially just a static performance of a song by a known performer.

Felix Mayol Indiscreet QuestionsOnce again, a singer walks onto a small stage and performs a single tune for us. In this case, the backdrop is a curtain, and the performer is shot in mid-shot, from the waist up. We never see his feet or the floor of the stage. The more intimate distance allows us to see his handsome face and expressions more clearly. He does not move around or dance, however, because the tight shot doesn’t give him room. This time, there is no Gaumont logo visible in the background. The image is in color, which looks to me not like hand-tinting, but some form of early two-color process.

Felix_MayolHaving read up a bit more on Phonoscènes, I am beginning to understand that they are not “sound” films in the sense of having the sound and action recorded at the same time, but rather an early form of lip-synch. In the case of “Alice Guy Records a Phonoscène,” that large sound device I saw her playing with actually was a gramophone, not a recorder. This does make more sense, but I believe that in the case of “Cyrano” we may have heard live sound recorded experimentally; the “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” definitely does have it.

The performance does strike me as more modern, even without movement or cutting, and that’s largely due to the camera angle. It somewhat reminded me of the old “Lawrence Welk Show,” with the fancy curtain backdrop. Being able to see the actor’s face makes a huge difference. I’d noticed with Dranem and Polin that they seemed to close their eyes while they sang, but with Mayol I could be sure. This might have been because of the bright studio lights, or maybe it was just the style at the time. The song appears to be rather suggestive, but unlike the broad comedy of the other singers, Mayol handles it with occasional smiles and winks, which would have been harder to catch at a distance.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Félix Mayol

Run Time: 2 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Dranem Performs “Five O’ Clock Tea” (1905)

Alternate Title: Dranem, Five OClock Tea

This short sound-on-disc movie from Alice Guy is very similar to the Dranem film I discussed yesterday, even the backdrop is the same. The slight changes, however, may tell us something about ourselves in the modern world, as well as offering insights into the past.

Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?

Ministry of Silly Walks, anyone?

As with “The True Jiu Jitsu,” Dranem walks out onto the small stage and performs a song. He has changed wardrobe slightly: his ponytail is gone, his hat is in a British fashion and he carries a walking-stick. Given the title and the getup, I immediately knew that this song was about the British, and would be making fun of middle-class propriety and the persistence of Victorian values into the Twentieth Century. His body language and movements reflect the change in stereotype – where before his motions were jerky and short, often tending towards bowing or withdrawal, here there are haughty and broad, displaying the concept of British arrogance.

DranemOne wonders whether Dranem made his career on lampooning other nationalities, or is it just that these are the examples that happen to have survived. Anyway, my own reaction to a Frenchman mocking the British are rather different to when he mocked the Chinese. Partly, from my familiarity with the culture, I know that he’s making fun of a lot of the same things that British comics would in later years (think “Monty Python”). But, there’s always that question of power as well – while the French were a colonial power and the Chinese were at this time colonized, the British were if anything leaders in the colonial game. Still, it’s a reminder of the very human nature of making fun of what is unfamiliar to us, the question of what kinds of humor are or are not acceptable in different times and places, and the difficulty humans have in accepting one another without judging.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Starring: Armand Dranem

Run Time: 3 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Dranem Performs “The True Jiu-Jitsu” (1905)

Alternate Title: Dranem, Le Vrais Jiu-Jitsu

This is another short sound-disc movie from Alice Guy which features a singer. In this case, the singer is Armand Dranem, often just called by the stage name “Dranem” (which is a reversal of his birth last name, Menard), who was a rising star in France at the time.

Dranem Jiu Jitsu

What we see is quite familiar by now: a small stage with a backdrop and the singer walks out and begins his song. In this case, the backdrop is sort of abstract – it reminded me at first of the sea floor, but after a while I decided that the floating shapes were not actually fish. Dranem himself is somewhat non-descript and closely resembles Polin, in fact. The song he performs, and his attire, however, would be more acceptable in 1900’s comedy than today. He wears a long ponytail and is dressed up to resemble an Asian, specifically a Chinese man. I did not look up the lyrics this time, because I got the idea without them: he is making fun of Chinese accents and people. Probably a big hit at the time, it doesn’t seem that funny to me now.

Dranem was a music hall singer whose comedy songs were very popular in France, and he went on to do a number of movies, the best-known of which may be “Monsieur Albert” (1932), in which he has a small part. He didn’t do much during the silent period, apart from these phonoscènes, but made money from stage and audio performances before becoming in-demand at sound studios.

Keen-eyed observers will note the “Gaumont” logo on the lower right, again much smaller than its counterparts in American films of the time.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Dranem

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Century Tweets?

Cook and Rillys Trained RoosterI have never quite figured out Twitter, for one reason and another, nor gotten into it. But, I started an account some years ago that I never used. Of late, I’ve been thinking about ways to “boost the signal” of this blog, and looking at what other film bloggers do, I’ve come to realize that Twitter is an important tool. This blog started out being read mostly by my facebook friends, but as it has picked up more people who don’t know me, it’s become important to give them a way to keep up with the posts. Also, from my point of view, this may be a better way to track what’s going on in the film history world than just using my WordPress reader and occasional checkins at the CMBA webpage. Assuming I learn how it works, that is.

 

Therefore, I announce the launch of @CenturyFilmProj  !!!

 

Feel free to follow me there if interested.