Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2016

Movie Nights in 1916

For this “context” post, I want to look at how exhibitors showed movies, and hence how audiences saw them, at the time under study. I’m not arguing that this is how these movies “should” be seen, or that there’s something wrong with us watching them today on cell phones, or high-definition TVs with Blu-Ray, or with modern music, or whatever. We live in the present, and the only way we can interact with the past is through that filter. Still, when asking ourselves questions about the past, like why a given movie was popular or why people in the forties thought silent comedies were “supposed” to run super-fast, it can be helpful to know something about how movies were seen in their original runs.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

I’ve already written some articles about the transition from Nickelodeons to movie palaces. Read the rest of this entry »

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks seems to be channeling his inner Ford Sterling in this unusually broad comedy of drug abuse and seaside hijinks. He plays the detective Coke Ennyday, an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes, who must investigate an opium-smuggling ring – rather like calling in a cat to investigate a tuna fish theft!

Mystery_of_the_Leaping_FishThe movie begins with Coke Ennyday at home, in his dressing-gown. His clock says “Dope, Drinks, Sleep, Eats” on it. Coke goes ahead and shoots up, and his servant prepares an elaborate drink in the chemical laboratory. Before he can continue with this elaborate schedule, however, a man from the secret service arrives with a job. They’ve discovered a man “rolling in wealth, without any visible means of support” living in “Short Beach” and they want Ennyday to investigate. He needs to take another injection and blow cocaine all over the place before agreeing to the job. After the police constable leaves, he gets up to prepare for going out, removing his dressing gown and revealing the bandolier of syringes beneath. He dressed in matching checkered pants, deerstalker cap, and overcoat and goes out to a checkered car to drive to Short Beach.

Mystery of the Leaping FishThe man “rolling in wealth” meanwhile gets out of bed with some difficulty – he’s buried in dollar notes, and his house is cluttered with the stuff. He tells his servant to “press out a bundle of money” and also gets ready for his day of work. He runs a seaside bath house that rents swimsuits and “leaping fish” (actually inflatable fish that can be used as flotation devices). One of his employees is Bessie Love, known for some reason (ahem!) as the fish-blower. His other employees are swarthy men in yellowface, one of whom demands the fish-blower as payment for his ongoing silence about the real source of the wealthy man’s income. Shortly after he arrives, Ennyday sees the fish-blower in peril in the water, and dives in to save her, winding up face down in the muck. She manages to rescue him with an injection and he finds out about the leaping fish. He rents one to pursue some men (called “Japs” in the intertitles) he saw bringing something in from a boat out at sea. Smugglers!

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1Ennyday’s fish isn’t fast enough, so he injects it with coke and catches up to the smugglers. When they bring in their leaping fish to the bath house, he watches from the rafters (after a typically acrobatic leap) as they pull opium out of the fish. Now he’s onto them! They wrap up the opium and the fish-blower in blankets and head out to a laundry, but Ennyday manages to secure one of their cans of opium and takes it orally, which has the effect of hopping him up even more than all his cocaine. Now he runs out after them and finds the gang in a Chinese laundromat. He fights the gang, bouncing around in his drugged-out state and injecting them one at a time so that they are unable to resist. The fish-blower has managed to beat up her assailant and just needs Ennyday to open the door and let her out the room they locked her in. The police arrive with a Black Maria and take the gang in. Ennyday has saved the day! The movie ends with a brief epilogue showing the script being rejected by the scenario editor.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish2This is easily the wackiest comedy I’ve seen from Douglas Fairbanks. It’s almost a Keystone in its anarchic wildness and satire, and it uses Fairbanks’s acrobatics and physique only slightly. It also has some pretty unfortunate portrayals of Asians, pretty clearly played by white men. The part that will really stand out to modern viewers is its comedic use of drugs, something we associate with much later comedy (think of Cheech and Chong, Richard Pryor, etc.). Drug prohibition was still a fairly new concept and of course there was no Hays Code prohibiting the depiction of drug use at the time, but this is still a very unusual approach to a 1916 comedy. Even Griffith’s depiction of “Dopacoke” wasn’t used for “vulgar” comedic purposes! Apparently Fairbanks himself later regretted making  the movie, and it later became a kind of cult hit. Personally, I didn’t think Fairbanks was all that good in the movie, which really needed someone of the caliber of Sterling or Chaplin to pull off the bizarre material. Fairbanks is a bit too much the all-American nice guy for this kind of satire.

The other reason this movie is notable is that it was apparently written or re-written by Tod Browning, who later went on to direct some of Lon Chaney’s best-known movies, as well as the sound pictures “Dracula” and “Freaks.” Christy Cabanne (who would also work with Bela Lugosi during the sound period) was the original director, but was apparently fired during production and replaced with John Emerson, who brought Browning aboard.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: John W. Leezer

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Allan Sears, Tom Wilson, William Lowery

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music), or you can rent it online from Flicker Alley at Vimeo: here.

The Game-Keeper’s Son (1906)

Alternate Title: La fils du garde-chasse

Alice Guy makes a daring shift from comedy to drama in this short, which may be one of the first “revenge movies.” It shows the complexity that audiences were beginning to expect as the Nickelodeon era progressed, but also tests the limits of that complexity in a short format.

Game Keepers SonThe movie opens on the front yard of a typical rural household. The father sits at a table with a glass of wine and a small child plays with his (the father’s) rifle. Then the elder son, perhaps nine or ten, takes the gun away from him and cleans it for his father. The father finishes up his wine, totally unconcerned about either child’s handling the weapon, and then prepares for his day at work. Finally, he takes the rifle, and as he does the elder son asks if he can come along. The man decides he is too young and tells him to stay home, but the boy follows him secretly. Next, we see two men hunting in the woods, dressed in ragged clothes, clearly local poachers. Each shoots his gun and they run over to collect their game. Now the man from the previous scene (who is the game-keeper) comes running out of the brush, chasing them offscreen. For a little while, the movie follows a fairly standard chase format, where the pursued run across the screen, followed by their pursuer (and then the son, who in one instance picks up the gun his father has dropped but leaves his hat). But, then, the men cross a ravine which is traversed by a plank, and the second one turns the plank, allowing it to fall into the ravine. When the father runs into the shot, he is looking at the poachers, not at his feet, and he also falls into the chasm. His son stops in time, having seen his father plunge out of sight.

Game Keepers Son1Now, the tone of the movie changes. What had seemed a fairly light-hearted chase through the woods has become tragic. The boy runs home and tells his mother and little brother what has happened. While they are grieving together, the poachers, still lost in the woods, stumble upon the hut of the grieving family. Only the eldest son sees (the others are covering their faces and weeping), and he once again picks up the gun and gives chase. The poachers, however, think they have made a clean getaway and return to town, where they stop in a café and order wine. Fairly soon they begin to bicker among themselves. The son hides beneath a table until they are fully engaged with one another and then springs out with a knife, attempting to stab one of them. He is unsuccessful but the ruckus convinces the waitress to summon the police. They hold one of the poachers and run, with the boy, in pursuit of the other. We get another short chase sequence, but soon the poacher comes to that same ravine from the other side. This time, the boy shoves him, and he falls to his doom. The police quickly arrive and shake his hand.

Game Keepers Son2This movie is a bit startling, and I suspect that’s at least partly intentional. The simple set up and chase at the beginning makes you expect a comedy, or at most a fairly conventional action picture, and the sudden death of the father in the middle leaves you groping for a resolution. Up until the end, I kept expecting him to come back, having somehow survived the fall. It just seemed like that kind of a movie. But, it’s not. In the end, the boy still has no father and the death of the second poacher seems a rather extreme punishment for running away from a game keeper. Admittedly he caused the man’s death, but all they really meant to do, so far as I could see, was inhibit his pursuit. That the police would congratulate this seems all the more chilling. Still, I have to assume that this, as well as the child’s handling of a gun, was taken to be appropriate in context at the time. That context isn’t just the difference in attitude between today and 1906, but also the standards of a rural community, living we assume in a traditional manner where the eldest son has certain rights and responsibilities, even at quite a young age. I won’t say that I liked this film as much as some of the fun comedies I’ve been reviewing lately, but it did force me to think a bit. It’s also reasonably sophisticated for the time – where the chase scenes seem set up to be formulaic, Guy throws narrative surprises at us and keeps the movie from falling into obvious ruts.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Ocean Studies (1906)

Alternate Title: Effets de mer

It’s odd to find this simple series of shots of the ocean amidst the movies Alice Guy put out in 1906 – it feels like a reversion to the simple experiments from the “Age of Attractions.” I do suspect that this was also a bit of an experiment, but from what we have, it’s hard to rate its success.

Ocean Studies

We see three images of the ocean breaking against rocks at the shore, edited together in sequence. The first is so close that it could almost be a river. The second is a slow pan back and forth along the coast – this gives us the clearest perspective of the location. And the final image appears to be a reversal of the first, again focusing on the rocks without the horizon visible. The movie includes no human figures or narrative of any kind.

I’m inclined to read this as an attempt at “visual poetry,” but it’s hard to say. For one thing, as it stands, we have the images, but there could have been more to this movie. Possibly Guy released it with narration, which would have been read aloud as it ran by an exhibitor. Or, possibly this wasn’t even intended for release – maybe she was testing a new camera or taking shots she intended to use later in some other way, but they were found in Gaumont’s cellars and included in this set. The title “Ocean Studies,” made me expect something scientific, but as soon as I saw it I realized they meant “study” as a painter would use the term: a study of the ocean. It’s worth noting that by this time Guy had brought on a new assistant, Louis Feuillade, who would write “manifestos” of film as art and try some interesting work along those lines as well, so it’s possible that he influenced this anomalous movie as well.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Consequences of Feminism (1906)

Alternate Title: Les Résultats du féminisme

This role-reversal comedy from Alice Guy may surprise modern viewers with its perspective on gender. Even the title seems like something far more recent than 110 years ago, and yet it survives as a commentary from an earlier age.

Consequences of FeminismThe movie begins by showing a group of men in a small room together, all apparently working on sewing hats. We notice that the men have longer hair than is usual for the period, and some of them are wearing flowers in their hair. They move effeminately, with hands extended and graceful steps. A woman comes into the room, dressed more or less normally for the period. She apparently wants to buy a hat and one of the men gets a hatbox out for her, but while she is waiting, she checks out the men and pinches one of them on the cheek. The man selected to carry the hatbox gets up and smears cream on his face in front of the mirror, then delicately picks up the hatbox and minces out the door. The next scene shows him walking on the street (a set, unfortunately, not one of Guy’s shots of contemporary Paris) past a café. A woman is at an outdoor table and sees the man, and gets up and comes over to him, trying to force a kiss. Another woman, seeing him harassed in this manner, comes over and breaks it up, the offers her arm to escort the helpless man away. This woman leads the man to a park bench, convinces him to put down the hatbox and sit with her, and now she tries to take advantage of him. While he struggles, two other men walk by, look and see what is happening, and quickly run away from the scene.

Consequences of Feminism1Next, we see the man at home. A woman lounges in a chair reading a newspaper while he sits at a sewing machine and another man does the dusting. The woman and the other man leave, but the man from before seems to be waiting for something. He takes out a photograph and kisses it, then he answers the door and the woman from the previous scene comes in and kisses him. She leads him to the couch and gets on her knees. The man seems overcome with emotion, but insists on writing a note before going out. The next scene shows the two of them in a hotel room, the woman ardently trying to show her affection while the man seems to have second thoughts. She starts to take his clothes off eagerly, and he faints. She runs to get him some water.

Now, we cut to a bunch of women in a bar. Some of them are reading newspapers, others are gathered around a table. A woman comes in wearing pioneer-clothing and carrying a gun. She is greeted heartily by the other women, who pour her a drink and pound her on the back. Now a man comes in, carrying a laundry basket with linen, and tries to ask her a question. The other women grab the items out of the basket and throw them around the room, laughing at his distress. He flees the scene in terror. Another man comes in, leading two small children and goes to the woman sitting in the corner, she chases them out as well. Now the women close the bar door to prevent all these male intrusions on their domain. At last, we see the women from the hotel sitting at the outdoor café as various men with baby carriages stroll by. The men begin to congregate, comparing their children and chatting. Finally, the man from the hotel walks by with several children in tow. One of them runs over to the woman, and the man pleads with her for his honor. She rejects him and all the other men band together in support of their wronged comrade. When the man slaps the woman, all the men gather round and shame her for taking advantage of his weakness. Then they march into the bar en masse and drive the women out, taking over and drinking to their hearts’ content.

Consequences of Feminism2It’s very tempting to over-analyze this film, to read more into it than Guy likely intended, in light of modern politics and perspectives on the history of gender and sexuality. Let’s back off for a moment and recall that she was trying to make something that would entertain her audience, most of whom would be presumed to be male. She probably knew that most would read this as a vicious parody of feminism’s aspirations to put women in men’s place and vice versa. No doubt she intended that it would be read that way, and made the women strong and the men weak to suggest that this reversal was “unnatural” and comical. But, it’s hard to avoid realizing that what she is doing here is commenting on the inferior position women had to tolerate at the time. By making men the objects of sexual harassment and exploitation, she forces her male audience to see how unpleasant it is, and how few choices women have when confronted with it. Moreover, by showing the men at the end banding together for their rights, she has (inadvertently? Subversively? It’s hard to be sure) validated feminism as a tactic and suggested its necessity.

Girl Power!

Girl Power!

The other thing that stands out about this movie is all of the signals the men put out regarding sexuality, which a modern audience reads as their being “flaming” or openly gay. Gay men existed at this time, of course, but they were far less open, even in liberal France, and again it’s hard to know how much we are “reading backward” when we interpret their behavior in this manner. Obviously, Guy was making them as feminine as possible to show her future dystopia in which men and women have traded places. Did she hire female impersonators as actors? That would make the longer hair and obvious facility with feminine roles more logical. Certainly, there were cabarets by 1906 in which this sort of thing went on, but I don’t know whether Guy would have had access. It’s possible that she used wigs and directed “straight” male actors until she got what she wanted.

Whatever the case, this is a very unusual film for the period, and one of the few Guy made that really speaks to her being a woman in a largely male industry.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy  or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Truth Behind the Ape Man (1906)

Alternate Title: La vérité sur l’homme-singe

Another of Alice Guy’s bizarre late-period French comedies, this one doesn’t use a lot of trickery but does include some interesting inter-cutting and close-ups. Perhaps not as innovative or surprising as “The Drunken Mattress,” it’s still good fun.

Truth About the Ape Man Read the rest of this entry »

June 1916

This is a somewhat thin month for news, apart from the Russian Front and the Arab Revolt (as if that’s not enough!), but I’ve found a few facts to give us a sense of the context of the period. We’re around the halfway point of World War One now, the US is still not involved but it will be a hot issue in the coming election. Film production continues to shift West, but there’s still plenty of work in the New York/Forth Lee area going on.

General Alexei Brusilov

General Alexei Brusilov

World War One:

The Brusilov Offensive, the height of Russian operations in the war, begins on June 4 with their breaking through Austro-Hungarian lines. There will be half a million casualties on the Russian side and at least twice that many suffered by the Central Powers, leaving the Austro-Hungarian Army effectively crippled. It may be seen as a Pyrrhic victory, however, because the Russian Empire could never mount another major attack after its losses, either.

The HMS Hampshire sinks on June 5 having hit a mine off the Orkney Islands, Scotland, with Lord Kitchener aboard.

Diplomacy: Speaking at an allied economic summit, Etienne Clementel argues that the Blockade should be the beginning of economic cooperation among Entente partners, aimed at excluding Germany from their markets after the war.

T.E. Lawrence

T.E. Lawrence

Uprisings: The Arab Revolt begins against the Ottoman Empire to create a single unified Arab state spanning from Aleppo to Aden, and is formally declared by Hussein bin Ali, Sharif of Mecca on June 10. He will be assisted by British officer Captain T.E. Lawrence, AKA “Lawrence of Arabia.”

Youth Organizations: U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signs a bill on June 15 incorporating the Boy Scouts of America.

Culture: Opening of the Cleveland Museum of Art, June 16.

Births:

Irwen Allen, producer (made “The Poseidon Adventure” and TV’s “Lost in Space”) June 12; Dorothy McGuire, actress (in “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Friendly Persuasion”), June 14; Irene Worth, actress (known for “Orders to Kill” and “Deathtrap”) June 23.

Deaths

Actor Page Peters (who appeared with Blanche Sweet in “The Warrens of Virginia“) dies in a swimming accident June 22, in Hermosa Beach, California.

The Dreyfus Affair (1899)

Dreyfus NewsIn a series of short movies, Georges Méliès depicted one of the major political events in French history while it was still ongoing, a scandal involving a Jewish man framed for espionage. This unusual set of films broke many conventions of film at the time, but set the stage for new developments and suggested ways in which cinema could be used artistically in the future.

Dreyfus AffairOf the original eleven films shot for this series, nine still exist. In the first, “Dreyfus Court Martial – The Arrest of Dreyfus,” we see various French officers crowded around a desk. Finally, one sits and signs a piece of paper, copying out what is dictated to him by another. The dictating man becomes agitated, and offers the other (Dreyfus) a gun, to kill himself if he is guilty, but Dreyfus refuses. The other men in the room lead him out. Read the rest of this entry »

Treasures from American Film Archives: 50 Preserved Films (1895-1985, 2000)

Worldcat Link for Inter-Library Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/45184522

Released by: Image Entertainment

Treasures from American Film ArchivesAlthough it’s out of print, a number of libraries (738, according to Worldcat) have at least one or two volumes on their shelves, and used copies turn up on the internet as well. This is a really wonderful collection of rare American movies that are held in a variety of archives and film collections across the country. I’ve used them for a few recent reviews (“Hell’s Hinges,” “The Dog Factory,” and “Snow White”) and there will be others in coming months and years. The movies are truly diverse, and only a few are readily available elsewhere. The quality is very good, with restored Intertitles and tinting on a number of the longer movies. Not all of the films are silent, but many are, and these are accompanied by piano scores from Martin Marks, who does quite well and occasionally sneaks another instrument in where needed. The whole thing comes with a really excellent informational booklet that discusses each film’s historical context, the music, and the preservation, as well as further sources of information. There’s also an index by archive and contact information for the archives. Indeed, this is one of the most “archives-friendly” collections you’ll ever find, because it includes a brief description of each collection as a bonus feature with every movie! I got a kick out of the fact that it described both of the libraries my parents worked at as well as the Anthology Film Archives in New York, where I have attended a few screenings.

I mentioned the diversity of the films. In addition to the usual narrative dramas and comedies, whose titles you may know, there are also more obscure/ephemeral types of film represented. These include newsreels, army education/propaganda films, amateur and home movies, and art films. One that stands out is John Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro,” a propaganda film that was never shown because army brass felt it was anti-war (Huston reputedly replied that if he ever made a movie that was for war, he should be taken out and shot). Also exciting is the government-produced movie about the Berlin Wall, made to be shown to audiences in the Soviet Bloc but actually illegal to screen for Americans during the Cold War, lest the government propagandize their own citizens. A poignant moment comes with home movie footage of Japanese American communities in the late 1920s, and similarly touching is footage of some of the stars of the “Negro Leagues” warming up for a ball game. But, really, each of these movies is a gem, and the collection as whole lives up to its claim to be a treasure trove.

The Parrish Priest’s Christmas (1906)

Alternate Title: Le Noël de Monsieur le curé

This fluffy little Christmas story from Alice Guy probably exemplifies why some speak of early Gaumont as “moralist” (although the later Fantômas series argues against this!). It speaks of a simple faith that overcomes poverty and hardship.

Parrish Priests Christmas1We see a Priest at home; on his wall a calendar tells us it is Dec. 23. He opens a book and an insert shot lets us see that he is reading about Christmas and the Nativity. He is suddenly overcome with an inspiration and summons his housekeeper. He reminds her of the coming holiday, and they go through his current budget to see if there is money for a special display. His purse has only a few small coins, so he resolves to go out into the community and raise funds. His first stop is the home of some simple peasants. They turn out their pockets as well; they have no money, either. But, they are eager to contribute something and the wife gets a basket full of eggs. The Priest happily agrees, but then can’t figure out a way to carry the basket safely, in addition to his hat and cane, so the woman comes along with him. Now they stop at the shop of a wealthy merchant, and he and the Priest talk for a while. The merchant wants to sell the Priest a large statue of an infant, but the Priest asks if he has anything smaller. Looking disappointed, the merchant finds a smaller infant doll. The Priest gets out his meager coins and the merchant looks dubious. The Priest calls in the woman and she offers the basket of eggs. Now the merchant is dismissive – he won’t accept barter and he’s not interested in giving charity to the church. The Priest and the peasant woman leave. The next scene shows them setting up the nave of the church. They have put out a cradle in front of the statue of the Madonna and put straw in it to represent the manger, but there is no baby Jesus, the congregation will have to use their imaginations for that. When the Mass is performed, suddenly two angels appear on the altar, and one places a baby into the cradle. All of the congregation and the Priest show their thanks for this miracle.

Parrish Priests Christmas2Unlike the many American Christmas movies I reviewed last year, this is a thoroughly religious Christmas movie, tied to a specific faith and its rituals. This probably limited its appeal for foreign distribution, although it is a well-made and touching story. The moral of the story – that the poor people are willing to donate even though they have little to offer while the rich merchant is too stingy – would work well enough in American progressivist pictures, but many Protestants would object to the idolatry and symbolism of the end. Almost certainly, it would be rejected in the Baptist south. From a French point of view, however, it probably works, and this seems to confirm the surprising trend away from English translations in these movies at this time. Guy continues to improve her technique, as the use of the insert shot, the measured acting, and the careful pacing of this thoughtful movie all show. There are no Intertitles (at least, none that have survived in the print I saw), but the story is told in a way that allows the viewer to sort things out with minimal work. You don’t necessarily know at first what the Priest wants money for, but it works itself out logically by the time he’s at the merchant’s shop. This movie seems to be a good representative of the style Guy established as she became more confident and less imitative.

Guy's first insert?

Guy’s first insert?

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.