Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2016

Polin Performs “The Anatomy of a Draftee” (1905)

Alternate Title: Polin, L’Anatomie du conscrit

This is another short sound-disc movie from Alice Guy, in which a singer performs his then-well-known song in front of the camera. Both the film and the necessary disc have survived, so we get to see it in synchronized sound, twenty two years before “The Jazz Singer” would change the game forever.

Polin AnatomieOnce again, the action takes place on a small stage, with an obvious backdrop – in this case, a well-manicured park is painted onto the curtain. One interesting fact: the Gaumont symbol appears, rather small on my screen, over to the left of Polin’s shoulder. Polin sings his song with many typical hand-gestures. Even without the words, it is clearly a comedic performance from his body language. Looking up the lyrics and google-translating them, I was able to confirm that this is a slightly racy song from the perspective of a common soldier who does not understand the word “anatomy” when he hears an officer use it in reference to him. This seems typical of the style of music one would expect to hear in Vaudeville theaters at the time.

The appearance of the logo is interesting, because Gaumont has been much less aggressive about this than Edison or Biograph were. Putting the logo on the screen was generally an attempt to discourage pirating, sort of like putting a watermark on photographs or DVDs today. Although it would probably be bigger on a large screen, this is still a much more subtle example than what the US companies were doing. Also worth considering is that, unlike silent films or sound shorts with familiar themes like La Marseillaise and Cyrano de Bergerac, this would have a very limited market outside of France.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Polin

Run Time: 2 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The False Magistrate (1914)

Fantomas_1916A master criminal is helped to escape from prison by the very man who has been hunting him down and then uses his powers of disguise to become a respectable representative of law and order while his foe languishes behind bars. This final installment in the famed serial by Louis Feuillade is an exercise in reversals, deception, and brilliantly tortured logic.

At the beginning of the movie, Fantômas is incarcerated in a Belgian prison at Louvain, but that doesn’t stop his gang from robbing a Marquis who tries to sell his wife’s jewels. The gang gets away with the jewels and the proposed payment, an amount totaling 500,000 francs. Juve is convinced that Fantômas will remain a menace until he is caught by the French police and executed for his crimes, so he hatches a plan to help Fantômas escape! He visits Belgium in the guise of an Austrian inspector of prisons and smuggles in a prison guard’s uniform for him to wear, then takes his place while Fantômas lets himself out of the prison. Read the rest of this entry »

Saharet, Bolero (1905)

Alternate Title: Saharet Performs the Bolero

This is another short dance film from Alice Guy. These movies seem to have made up a good amount of her product, at least to judge from what had survived.

Saharet BoleroWhat we see is a typical stage with a Spanish patio backdrop and performers in hand-tinted Spanish dress. A pair, male and female, dance in the center of the stage, and some female supporting dancers twirl around them and occasionally move to center stage. The central woman begins quite demurely, and becomes more energetic as the dance progresses.

The Bolero is a dance from Latin America, which apparently first broke out in Cuba and became popular in other countries. Here, we see it performed by “Madame Saharet,” an Australian dancer who had made her name on Broadway in 1897, and toured Europe several times. She would go on to make several films in Germany before the War, and her future husband would be arrested by the British for carrying pro-German literature across national lines in 1916. I have no information about her dance partner, nor any of the supporting dancers. I wonder, from having seen some of Guy’s sound experiments, whether this was originally a “phonoscène” for which the sound disc is now lost. It might explain the ongoing interest in simple dance movies into the 1900’s if they were being presented with synch-sound, or it might just be that audiences were excited by the exotic costumes and dances.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Saharet, Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

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

Alice Guy Films a Phonoscène (1905)

Alternate Titles: Alice Guy films a “Phonoscène” in the Studio at Buttes-Chaumont, Paris; Alice Guy tourne une phonoscène sur le théâtre de pose des Buttes-Chaumont

This is an early behind-the-scenes film documentary, showing audiences how movies are made. It demonstrates to some degree the more elaborate equipment needed for sound versus silent film.

Alice Guy Films a PhonsceneWe see a film studio from a camera that is set behind the camera which is used to film the actors. The set is brightly lit and includes a variety of actors, apparently preparing to give a large-scale song and dance performance. The crew is visible, but they are mostly silhouettes against the brightly-lit stage. Alice Guy is in the center of the screen, to begin with, but she too is just a silhouette. The camera pans to show all of the equipment. To the left is the movie camera, and on its right is a smaller camera, probably a still camera, the next object is a large table with old-fashioned trumpets (as from a gramophone machine) poking out at the top – presumably this is the sound-recording device. The camera pans past it to show a large reflector, which is at least partly responsible for bouncing all that light onto the performers. It pans back left, but not quite far enough to see the movie camera. The action begins onstage, and during the performance, Guy turns and adjusts some settings on the sound-recorder. At one point, the still photographer picks up his tripod and moves the camera, no doubt making a good deal of noise as he sets it down. Evidently they hadn’t yet invented “quiet on the set!”

It’s always interesting for a film buff to see how films are made, and even more so for a film historian to see the differences in how they were made in an earlier period to how they would be made later. The sound-recorder seems to have no microphone other than those trumpets, which are a good distance from the performers in this case, so you can see how hard it would be to get good sound, especially in a noisy location. Alice Guy was apparently an advocate of sound film from a very early date, and tried several different technologies to get it to work. What we see here is an example of the production of a sound-disc film, such as the “Trained Rooster” we saw earlier in the week. Ironically, the documentary of the filming has no sound, of course, so what we see is a silent depiction of the shooting of a sound film. Alison McMahan, in her book Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema uses this clip to argue that Guy was more decidedly a “director” as we understand it today than others of that time, although to me it looks like she is more interested in the sound than in managing the performance. In any event, the division of labor is clear at this stage, and perhaps especially so on a sound film.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Alice Guy, unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no sound on original).

Cake Walk Performed by Cirque Nouveau (1905)

Alternate Title: Le Cake Walk du Nouveau Cirque

Another very short dance film by Alice Guy, in this case so short that I question whether the entire film has survived. Nonetheless, it does provide some possible insight into the entertainment interests in France at the time.

Cake Walk Nouveau CirqueFor the first few seconds, a black man and woman dance together on a stage. After a jump cut, they are joined by several more people, some adults, some children, mostly black but some white, who dance in a sort of line like a conga line together. It cuts off with them dancing.

This movie is only thirty seconds long. In her early days, Alice Guy was working with strips of film about the same length as that used by the Lumière brothers: about 50 seconds to a minute, depending how fast it is projected. More recently, we’ve seen movies from 2 minutes to five or more, but never less. I strongly suspect that this movie is just a surviving clip from a longer dance sequence.

Cake Walk Nouveau Cirque1When I first saw the dancers, I thought I was seeing white people in blackface, which was certainly common at the time. It was the presence of the children that first made me question this. You can see their arms, which are the same color as their faces, which no one ever seems to think of doing in a blackface performance. This made me re-watch the film a couple of times and try to see the adults more clearly. It’s actually hard to tell, but I think these may be black people. Either way, the cake walk is a kind of co-optation by white culture of a traditionally black dance. As I understand it, it originated on Southern slave plantations as a kind of parody of “refined” white ballroom dances, and was eventually incorporated into minstrel shows, mocking black people for dancing funny while missing the original intention. In France, it wouldn’t surprise me if it was taken as a kind of exotic, American import, as jazz would later be. One thing I will say is that it makes the cake walk look like fun!

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (incomplete).

Cook & Rilly’s Trained Rooster (1905)

Alternate Title: Le Coq dressé de Cook et Rilly

Well, this is a movie in which a rooster sits on a stool and crows. That’s it.

If it were a silent film, that would be pretty darn silly. However, it’s an early experiment with synch-sound recording, for which, happily, the sound disc still survives. There are actually thousands of such movies, and quite probably thousands of such discs, but in general they have not been reunited, which is too bad, because neither element would work alone.

Cook and Rillys Trained RoosterAdmittedly, even with sound, this is a pretty boring film, and I’d bet it wasn’t intended for commercial distribution, just as a test to show that the system worked. One thing it got me thinking about is the sound that roosters make. In English, we are told from a young age that roosters say, “cock-a-doodle-doo.” I have never heard a rooster say this, however. To me, their call sounds more like, “Er-Er-ER!-Errr…”, with the emphasis unfailingly on that third syllable and the final one trailing off. I have no idea where this silliness about “cock-a-doodle-doo” comes from.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Starring: A rooster

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

May 1916

As the First World War in Europe has progressed, I’ve kept apace of the battlefield and diplomatic news via these monthly Century News updates. This month, I’d like to turn a bit toward a focus on the home front and how populations were responding to the ongoing hardships of the War. In Germany, the Allied Blockade had long meant that vital supplies were cut off. In October of 1915, a series of “butter riots” exploded in Berlin and other major cities, as poor citizens became convinced that farmers were hoarding and over-pricing their wares. By May of 1916, food demonstrations were common events.


Karl Liebknecht

Politics: On May 1, International Workers Day, Karl Liebknecht, the only German Socialist Member of Parliament to have voted against extending War Bonds in December, 1914, gives a memorable speech at a large anti-war demonstration. Liebknecht is subsequently arrested and jailed.

Protests: Australian newspapers report on May 15th about a supposed food riot of over 1000 people, mostly women, in Berlin. While this number sounds inflated, it is notable that there had been riots of this size in the previous year and it is possible that the May Day protests have been conflated with a food riot.

Government: The German Bundesrat creates the Kriegsernährungsamt (KEA) or War Food Office on May 22nd to control food distribution and pricing. Responding to demands from urban citizens to guarantee adequate food supplies reach the cities, this office will be reorganized as “a food dictatorship” by General Paul von Hindenburg and represents the increasing centralization of the country under his joint control with General Erich Ludendorff.

By Bone, Muirhead (artist), The War Office  from the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain

By Bone, Muirhead (artist), The War Office. From the collections of the Imperial War Museums., Public Domain

Propaganda: Sir Muirhead Bone is recruited in May to become the first official British War Artist. He will be sent to France in time to cover the Battle of the Somme in 150 drawings.

Interventions: The United States invades the Dominican Republic on May 16. This follows efforts to protect the US embassy and legation after a coup by former Secretary of War Desiderio Arias and escalation of the situation by Rear Admiral William B. Caperton, Commander of Naval Forces in the Caribbean.

Diplomacy: On May 16, Britain and France secretly conclude the Sykes-Picot Agreement, which proposed division of the Ottoman Empire into smaller nation-states in the Middle East and is seen as the source of much conflict there to this day.

Warfare: The Battle of Jutland, the only major naval battle of World War I, begins on May 31 when the German Navy attempts a raid intending to draw out a portion of the British North Seas fleet and destroy it. Unfortunately for them, the British have decoded the plan and respond by sending a large-scale force to destroy the German High Seas Fleet.

Floorwalker_(poster)Films: Release of “The Floorwalker” on May 15, Charlie Chaplin’s first film since leaving Essanay for Mutual and his first new movie of the year.

Births: Glenn Ford (actor, in “Gilda” and “The Big Heat”), born May 1; Adriana Caselotti (singer, voice of Snow White in Disney’s “Snow White”), born May 16.

Hell’s Hinges (1916)

Hell's_HingesI’ve been looking forward to seeing a Western starring William S. Hart for some time now, and today I got my chance, with this famous entry from 100 years ago. Hart is famous for being the “darker” “anti-hero” alternative to Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, but does this movie stand up to the hype?

The story begins by introducing us to Clara Williams and Jack Standing, who are brother and sister. Jack has been trained for the clergy at the instigation of “a devout and love-blinded mother,” although he is unsuited for the job. His sister, it seems, is made of sterner stuff, but, of course, she’s a girl so never mind. The church fathers decide that Jack could never stand up to “the trials and temptations” of a city parish, so they decide to send him to the countryside. Jack, with visions of worshipful señoritas dancing in his head, agrees to go and sister offers to come along to help him get established. Unfortunately, the town they send him to, Placer Center, is a wild frontier town, with just a small contingent of church-goers, derisively known as the “Pettycoat Brigade.” Most of the town spends its time drinking, gambling, whoring, brawling, and especially shooting at each other. You’d think the population would rapidly diminish. Read the rest of this entry »

At the Floral Ball (1900)

Alternate Title: Au bal de Flore

Another short dance movie by Alice Guy, this one actually credits the dancers and includes hand-tinting. I’m not certain if this made it into “The Celluloid Closet,” but it is definitely an early example of same-sex romance on screen.

At the Floral BallWe see two women dancing – one is in a rather low-cut dress and the other is in 18th-century men’s clothing. They dance for a while and then a chair appears on the stage and the female-dressed woman sits down, apparently overheated. She signals the “man” to come over to her, and she shyly approaches, then sits on her lap and begins kissing her arm, Gomez-Addams-style, working her way up toward her face. The woman, sitting at a lower level, stops this before it goes any further than her elbow, but the two remain embracing in apparent rapture.

At the Floral Ball1A pretty racy ending for 1900! As I say (and indicate below) these dancers/romancers are identified by name in the title card, and they look to me like the Columbine and Harlequin from the previous short. This suggests that they were part of an all-female dance troupe, and perhaps well-known in Paris or elsewhere. How did audiences of the time respond to two women showing such affection? Presumably Guy and her superiors at Gaumont felt it would be accepted, and possibly the fact that one of them is dressed in men’s clothes makes it OK, just as the audience for “Turn-of-the-Century Surgery” accepts the doll as the character of the knocked-out patient, despite its “unrealism.” Perhaps it would have been less acceptable at the time for a man to kiss a woman on stage, because of the assumption that he would be aroused, whereas a woman theoretically could not be (recall the strong reactions to “The Kiss”).

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Lally and Julyett of the Olympia

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The End of an Era

I interrupt my regularly scheduled posting to bring you this tragic announcement:

Today, I discovered something which seems to have passed unnoticed by the Classic Film community. I tried to visit a page on the site “The Silent Era” which has been my go-to for reliable information about the early years of film. I found the following message:

Silent Era“Silent Era has discontinued publication. Thank you for your readership and support.”

This is a major catastrophe for everyone interested in film history. The Silent Era had been the best curated site for silent film information, details of home video releases, and maintaining a living list of “Top 100+” silent films. To me, it was indispensable, and now it is gone. None of the links are live, and attempts to visit the sub-pages result in an Error 404. I can still access the old information by way of the Wayback Machine on archive.org (this is why I am an archive.org donor!), but it isn’t going to be maintained and updated. I do hope that some way will be found to archive the site fully and sustain it for historical purposes, but for now, all we have is this very sad word of adieu.

Soapbox moment: This is why it is important to establish sustainable models for funding and maintaining our cultural heritage on the Internet. Far too much of this sort of thing is being done on a private or “hobby” basis, and without public support, any part of it can disappear without warning. The Library of Congress should be running a site at least as good if not better than The Silent Era, in line with its mission to “ensure long-term, uninterrupted access to the intellectual content” of our nation. We need one for global film preservation and access as well. It’s time to get serious about digital preservation, curation, and access, and this is why!

Beyond that I’d just like to say a word of thanks to Carl Bennett and all of the writers who did contribute their time and expertise to The Silent Era. The Silent Era is over, let’s hope that what comes next is just as good.