Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: July, 2016

The Devil’s Needle (1916)

This release from D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts company reflects his concern with progressive social issues, although it comes across to us today in a similar spirit to “Reefer Madness” and other anti-drug propaganda movies. The version we have today was a re-release for 1923 audiences, which changed character names and other details through new Intertitles.

Devils NeedleBecause of the changes, I’m going to refer to the characters in the film by the names of the actors who played them. Director Chester Withey has followed his mentor’s lead in making the characters more like “types” than individuals in any event. Norma Talmadge, working before she became a big star, plays a model who is caught up in a sort of four-way love triangle (“love trapezoid?”) with her boss, a lanky painter played by Tully Marshall, the daughter of one of his patrons, played by Marguerite Marsh, and her suitor, Howard Gaye, who of course works for her father, F.A. Turner. Norma wants to marry Tully, but he’s infatuated with Marguerite, who is decidedly uninterested in Howard, and apparently willing to consider an marrying artist just to get out of doing what her father wants her to. This whole situation is complicated by the fact that Norma has picked up a habit that involves buying little packages of powder from a shady guy in a cap and sticking herself with needles.

Devils Needle1 Read the rest of this entry »

A Morning Bath (1896)

This short film from Edison raises some issues about race in the nineteenth century, even though the content is in no way offensive to us today. It’s a reminder that all films have to be understood in context, and that context doesn’t necessarily excuse anything.

The movie is, simply, a woman bathing a baby in a washbasin, as women throughout the US did at the time. The baby is covered in soap suds (and crying), while the woman is looking off-screen, smiling somewhat nervously, for much of the picture, apparently receiving directions from men off-camera. None of this would be especially remarkable, except that the woman and child are African-American; so far as I can recall this is the earliest image of an African American woman on film.

Morning BathThe first interesting point about this movie is technical: although it seems to have been shot in a studio, presumably the Black Maria, this movie is shot against a white backdrop instead of the black backdrop usually used at the Black Maria. This “technical” issue, however, is probably related to race as well – a dark-skinned person would tend to fade into the background with a dark backdrop, especially with the quality of film available at the time, so they needed to use a lighter one. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had to shoot this a few times before they figured that out. The question this raises is, why use an African American for this role at all (especially given that it was pretty rare)? The answer seems to be indicated in the Maguire & Baucus Catalog, which states that “This is a clear and distinct picture in which the contrast between the complexion of the bather and the white soapsuds is strongly marked.” The contrast was exactly what the movie was filmed to demonstrate. It’s worth noting that the Library of Congress has excised offensive words from both this entry and a description from the Edison catalog – giving a sense of how the advertising for this film was handled, and presumably, the live narration that usually would accompany it. Thus, it is overly simplistic to think of this as a movie about an everyday event which happens to showcase diversity – the reasoning behind the film and its presentation was explicitly racist – although for us today this context is obscure.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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

Mess Call (1896)

This early actuality short from Edison shows American soldiers at their mealtime. This is one of the first “location” movies made at Edison – most of what came before this was shot in or near to the Black Maria studio on Edison property.

Mess CallWhat I like about this movie is the very individual personalities of the soldiers that comes through. While some are carrying coffee or trays of food, many seem to be more interested in the camera than in their rations. One fellow is clearly “mugging” and trying to stay in frame as long as possible, and others will wave or make quick movements to get noticed as they pass through. Most of them seem like typical soldiers – good natured, very young and a bit full of themselves, but charming nonetheless. A couple of officers, distinguishable because they are wearing swords, pass through quickly at the beginning, but seem to pay little attention to the men or the camera, but some guys with non-commissioned rank (stripes on their uniforms) join in the fun. By the end of the movie, more people are watching the camera than not.

I wonder how many of the families of these servicemen saw and recognized their loved ones through this movie. This is the sort of homey way that Americans might like to think of “their boys” in uniform – not necessarily as effective fighting men or efficient parade-ground marchers, but as naïve and lovable, perhaps even somewhat undisciplined. This may have been part of the point of making the film, to demonstrate how the motion picture could bring people to life over a distance. For us today, it connects us with ordinary people of the past in a more intimate manner than reading about them or seeing a still image could. The title is also the title of a piece of music that is normally played by bugle to signal meal time in military camps.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown American soldiers

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatima, Muscle Dancer (1896)

One of the short dance movies produced by the Edison company, this one evidently produced some controversy in the nineteenth century. An odd visual feature raises questions of censorship, but is it just a mistake?

Fatima Muscle DancerWe see a stage with a pastoral backdrop. The dancer is framed somewhat close for the period (we can’t see her feet, but her facial features are fairly clear). Her “muscle” dance appears to be a standard belly dance, but it is often referred to as a “coochie-coochie dance” in contemporary discussions of the movie. About forty seconds into the film, two odd gate-like artifacts appear on the film, blocking our view of the dancer, who continues her dance until the movie ends.

Fatima Muscle Dancer1I can’t figure out if those two “fences” were imposed on the film purposely, by Edison or some other agency, in order to deliberately obstruct our view of the “vulgar” dance. It could be that they are meant to “protect” viewers from seeing too much, though as far as I can tell the dance is no more objectionable after they appear than before. It’s also possible that something is wrong with the existing print, and that they were unintentional, or that something went wrong with the filming, like an obstruction in the gate of the camera.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Fatima

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here (with annoying yellow subtitles. Sorry, it’s the best one I could find).

Princess Nicotine (1909)

This fascinating short from Vitagraph shows a very innovative approach to trick photography and allows more direct interaction between actors than double exposure would have. Director J. Stuart Blackton brings a fantasy to life that has elements of Guy and Méliès, while also displaying a distinctly American style.

Nicotine PrincessA man is in a room, preparing to smoke his pipe. Suddenly, he drowses off and falls asleep. While he is asleep two tiny figures appear among his smoking accoutrements – one a small child and the other, a grown woman, both in fairy costumes. They appear to be only a few inches tall. There is an edit, and we see them at closer range, moving among the oversized implements. The woman gets into the cigar box, and the child hides in the pipe, putting tobacco over herself in the process. The man wakes up and starts smoking his pipe, but he notices something strange. He shakes it out and the child tumbles out happily (apparently unconcerned that she was almost burnt up!). She and the woman dance on the table for a bit, and the man smokes and tries to trap them in the cigar box. When he looks inside, all he finds is a flower, but when he removes it, the child is there smoking a cigarette. Then, he gets up and leaves. Now, there is an animated sequence which shows the matches arranging themselves and then a cigar rolls itself out of leaves and tobacco. The man walks into what looks like a different room and finds the cigar, lighting it and also breaking a bottle that holds one of the fairies. He begins smoking and blows the smoke at the fairy, which seems to annoy her. She builds a bonfire out of the remaining matches, and he extinguishes it with a spritzer bottle. He then uses the spritzer to spray the fairy off of the table.

Nicotine Princess1As the DVD notes observe, there is a wealth of material here for a dedicated Freudian – even if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I alluded to the special effects, which were managed by shooting the women in a mirror at a distance that made it appear that they were small and on the table, rather than using double exposure and having to shoot everything twice. Keeping that technique in mind, this is a very interesting performance. I think the “different room” continuity confusion was a result of the trickiness of these effects: on a second viewing I noticed that most of the background was replaced with a black curtain starting just before the animated sequence. Possibly they were having difficulty getting the effects to show up against the original backdrop. For the insert shots, we see the fairies interacting with large props (a barrel-sized pipe bowl, and matchsticks the size of their legs, etc). I’ve seen claims that the first time this was done was for the movie “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), but here’s an earlier example and there may be more.  The editing structure is relatively sophisticated, not just stringing together scenes, but allowing us to change our perspective on the action as it develops. The movie owes something to the French, in terms of its effects and overall tone, but there’s something quite unique in the subject matter and the ambiguous attitude towards smoking and tiny women.

Alternate Title: Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Tony Gaudio

Starring: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette

Run Time: 5 Min

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

Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine” (1898)

This short from Georges Méliès exploits the Spanish-American War by pretending to recreate its cause. While not a convincing actuality for modern viewers (and possibly not even for contemporaries), it again shows the technical creativity Méliès brought to his early work.

Divers at Work on the Wreck of the MaineThe camera shows a backdrop painted to look like a ship with a hole in its hull, fishes swim in the foreground and three men in old fashioned diving suits are visible at center stage. The divers occasionally attach some flotsam to a rope and it is hauled up, out of view. One of the divers now produces a mannequin, representing the corpse of a drowned sailor, from the wreckage, and this is also tied to a rope and hauled up. As the scene ends, one of the divers climbs onto a rope ladder and begins to climb upward awkwardly.

The impressive part of this illusion is the fish swimming in the foreground, which at first I thought were on strings, but closer examination (and Wikipedia) has convinced me that Méliès placed a fish tank between the camera and the actors. This actually gives the scene a depth-effect not often seen in early movies which tend to be very two dimensional. The big question is whether this movie was actually accepted by contemporary audiences as a “real” document of the ocean floor or if they knew it was a re-creation, which is hard to say. It’s more convincing than some of Méliès reenactments, for example “The Surrender of Tournavos” which seems very obviously a staged action scene, but I suspect that few people believed Méliès had really gone all the way to the Caribbean to shoot underwater. The “corpse” should have given it away at least, it is quite clearly a dummy. Still, this is a nice example of creativity and showmanship from the nineteenth century.

Alternate Titles: Visit sous-marine du Maine, Divers at Work on a Wreck Under Sea

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Starring: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Projection in 1916 and the Great Frame Rate Debate

I’ve deliberately avoided talking about “frame rates” and the “correct” speed of silent films on this blog, and for good reason – it’s a very contentious subject, and also quite technical, but looking at the history of presentation will give us some insight. My layman’s version goes like this: After sound film came in, all projectors were motorized and set to run at 24 frames-per-second (although some could be slowed down to lower settings, 24 was the standard for sound). This was pretty fast, compared to earlier standards, but projectionists with no experience would occasionally screen silents (especially Charlie Chaplin) during the sound period, and it would run fast. By the 1960s, everyone had forgotten what movies used to look like, and they came to think that silent movies had always looked fast and jerky. But then, someone found an old copy of Moving Picture World that said that the “official” standard during the silent era was 16 frames-per-second. New projectors were built for specialists who wanted to study films at their “original” speed, and silent movies slowed to a crawl. A new problem was discovered: at that speed, movies have a noticeable “flicker” effect as the eye catches the light between frames. Some film historians assumed that silent audiences were used to that, and just accepted it.


Lumiere projecting with the Cinematographe

But wait! Along comes James Card, William Everson, and a few other collector-historians who were old enough to remember the silent days. They were darn sure that the movies they saw of Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow when they were children didn’t flicker, and they sure didn’t crawl along like molasses on a cold day in January. They suggested that going back to 24 frames-per-second was a better standard. Who was right?

Well, this gets tricky, like I said, but let’s start with one fact that I deliberately left out of this: until the transition to sound, most cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, not motorized. By the end of the silent era, motorized projectors were coming in, but the camera was hand-cranked until the day it had to be synched with sound. In other words, different cameramen and different projectionists did different things, no matter what their “standards” said. It also appears that there was a kind of frame-rate-race between the two professions for much of the period, so the real standard changed over time. This goes back to that issue of exhibitors not really respecting the producers’ wishes in terms of their movies: sometimes, instead of cutting a film, they just told the projectionist to speed up. This was apparently very common, and camera operators began to fight against it by speeding up as well, which led the projectionists to go even faster, and so on. Tests made at the time by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers confirmed this, and they revised their standards upward occasionally, though they were in general conservative about it. Billy Bitzer, for example, was actually timed at right around 16 frames-per-second, so that’s a perfectly reasonable rate for screening “Intolerance,” but other cameramen went a lot faster.

Projector BioscopeSo, here’s one conclusion I draw from all of this: those folks in the 60s may not have been so far off after all. Probably most early movies weren’t run at 24 fps, but it happened some of the time, and fast was much more common than slow. This is probably why there wasn’t that much protest during the occasional Chaplin revival in the 1930s and 40s. A lot of people did remember him moving fast.

A Bell & Howell projector

A Bell & Howell projector

But, so what? Do we have to watch a jerky, speeded-up film just because that’s what people did then? Do we have to sit in uncomfortable folding chairs because that’s what a Nickelodeon usually had? Is it “cheating” to watch a Chaplin movie on your phone? Is it not fair to watch “Intolerance” in a building that lacks a sumptuous lobby and a live stage performance? My real conclusion is that frame rate was pretty much subjective in the pre-automated era, so we should be equally subjective now: go with what looks good. Often, that probably will be about 24 fps, as Card and others advocated, but with earlier movies it probably needs to be slower, and there are probably a few that look better at an even faster rate. This needs to be audience-subjective. We don’t usually get a choice what rate to watch a movie nowadays (the recent “Phantom of the Opera” release from Kino Classics is an exception), and so we leave it to experts to decide for us. On most of the high-quality releases we get today, the action looks natural at whatever speed the distributor has chosen, and I have yet to see a silent film festival that really messed up the speed of a silent movie, so this debate is largely academic anyway. I only mention it because there are people out there who get really het up about it, but then there are people who can’t hear Chaplin’s name without reflexively saying “Keaton was funnier,” and who wants to be friends with them?

The Curse of Quon Gwon (1916)

Once upon a time, an enterprising Chinese-American businesswoman named Marion E. Wong set out to make a feature film, using friends and family members for her cast. After two advance screenings, the movie languished in her basement for fifty years before she gave it to a relative, and then it was another 39 years before it was restored and digitized in 2007. Now it is available, and serves as a document of a culture that was rarely captured on film at the time and even more rarely in charge of its own narrative when it was.

Curse of Quon Gwon3I cannot give a detailed summary of the movie, because some of it is lost, importantly including the Intertitles that would explain much of the relationships and action on the screen. The basic story is timeless enough, however, that we can follow it in broad outline: a young Chinese American girl (Violet Wong, real-life sister-in-law of the director) with Western ideas marries into a very traditional family and is driven out by her scornful in-laws. The movie opens as the groom gives a statue of a household god to his mother, who seems to lecture him about the old ways. We see a good deal of the build-up to the marriage, in which the girl and her betrothed have tea together in what will be her bedroom, and she pokes good-natured fun at some of the traditional accoutrements of the ceremony, including a pair of oddly-balanced slippers for the bride, and a dangly headpiece for the groom. We also see her efforts to get along with her future mother-in-law, who seems quite formal, but not unfriendly at this stage. There is a scene I couldn’t follow in which she speaks to her husband in an outdoor setting, and suddenly breaks down crying (I’m guessing that he’s telling her he must go away for a while, based on what happens next). Then we see what seems to be the tail end of the wedding ceremony, demonstrating that she has learned to walk in the awkward slippers.

Curse of Quon Gwon2In the next sequence, the husband is missing, but there is a new element: Now Marion Wong appears as the “villain,” evidently a sister-in-law or other relative living in the same house. She takes Violet’s baby away and the mother-in-;aw gestures for her to leave after a confrontation, offering her a knife to commit suicide. I think Violet is being accused of neglecting her baby, since what seems to be a doctor comes to look at the child in a later scene. Violet goes out into the rain and seems to be ready to slash her wrists, but suddenly throws down the knife and wanders out into the wilderness. There is an odd scene in which she cuddles a lamb, appearing no worse for the wear after sleeping outside in the rain. Then we return to the house, where the husband returns and learns what has happened. He cries for his loss and confronts Marion with her cruelty. Then Violet turns up at the door again, and her takes her in and comforts her. Marion, realizing that her plot has failed, plunges the dagger into her own heart. At the end, Violet produces the household god and pays homage to it, suggesting that all the turmoil was due to her disrespect at the beginning, and that the tragic events since then have helped her to accept traditional ways.

What's that on your shoulder, son?

What’s that on your shoulder, son?

I wasn’t sure what to expect from an non-studio film from this period but I was pretty impressed, especially by the filming and editing techniques. Most beginning filmmakers, especially at this early time, don’t give themselves enough “coverage” to show a scene from multiple angles, get close-ups and establishing shots, etc., but Marion and her crew did quite well. It was, in fact, less “stagey” and static than a lot of professionally-made films at the time, and demonstrates a good grasp of so-called “film grammar” with a liberal amount of different angles and shots. Scenes sometimes end with an iris-in, especially for strong emotional moments. One particularly good shot shows Violet at her mirror, with her face perfectly framed by the mirror as she works on her complicated braids. That’s not to say there are no mistakes – one scene had a distracting reflection that kept hitting the leading man’s shoulder, and a couple of edits have a sort of “hiccup” effect where we see the last few frames before the cut were repeated. And, of course, some of the footage is less than perfectly intact, so it’s hard to know how good it was meant to be.

Curse of Quon Gwon1It’s a pity that audiences of 1916 missed out on this movie. I suspect that Ms. Wong discovered that distribution was more difficult and expensive an investment than she’d anticipated, and gave up when she realized she probably wouldn’t make her money back trying to do it independently. It remains however as a document of a truly under-represented segment of American culture from a time period that tends to look disturbingly white when only the most popular images are seen.

Alternate Title: The Curse of Quon Gwon: When the Far East Mingles with the West

Director: Marion E. Wong

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Marion E. Wong, Violet Wong, Harvey Soohoo.

Run Time: 35 Min (surviving print)

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

After the Ball (1897)

This is a rather shocking early short by Georges Méliès which shows “simulated” nudity, as well as more actual flesh than one expects in 1897! Intentionally or otherwise, Méliès proves to be a pioneer in the area of erotic fantasy as well as the child-friendly fairy tales for which he is remembered.

Apres_le_bal_(Star_Film_128,_1897)We see a set of what seems to be an upper class lady’s bedroom, decorated with rococo flourishes. A woman in an elaborate ballroom dress is center stage and another woman, dressed as a maid, accompanies her. The maid assists the lady in removing the dress, her slip, a corset and stockings, finally resulting in a bodystocking intended to simulate nudity. The woman faces the wall and steps into a tub and the maid pours water over her (actually it looks more like black powder, but this was probably to keep the bodystocking dry) from a pitcher. The maid covers her in a towel and the two exit stage left.

This movie stars Méliès’s future wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, who would marry him almost thirty years after this movie was made, in 1926. At the time, Méliès was married to Eugénie Génin, the mother of his children, so this may be the first “scandal” in film history as well. The movie is clearly a “strip show” – nothing happens except for a woman removing her clothes – and there is no attempt to disguise this by framing it in terms of a plot device. It’s worth noting that the nude female form was an accepted subject in painting and other visual arts (and the male nude had made a bit of a comeback with the re-discovery of the Ancient Greeks in the 19th century), so Méliès may have been thinking of this as an area where cinema could become more sophisticated by emulating those art forms. The woman is both mature and rubenesque, as opposed to the very young, skinny women that would be more popular in US movies in later eras, and this seems appropriate to the time and place. I have to assume that the film was not a tremendous success, because none of the other surviving Méliès films repeats the experiment, and it may be that he had difficulty in exporting it to countries that were less tolerant of French morality.

Alternate Title: Après le bal, “After the Ball, the Bath”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Starring: Jehanne d’Alcy, Jane Brady

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Between Calais and Dover (1897)

This short comedy from Georges Méliès demonstrates his developing ability to use the camera to create illusionary settings. In this case, a ship in bad weather is recreated through set design and use of the camera.

Between Calais and DoverWe see a set made to suggest the upper deck of a small craft. It rocks back and forth, and the passengers tumble about. Some retreat to the interior, a woman to the left side of the stage gets sick into a basket or bowl, and the captain steadfastly clings to the railing as he rides it out. One man in center stage is still trying to get the steward to bring drinks and a meal. His table topples over before the food arrives, but he rights it and the steward unsteadily delivers the order. The man begins to eat and drink when an especially strong wave bowls him into the table. Finally, everyone on deck decides it’s time to go below.

The big question, that I was unable to answer for certain after repeated viewings, is: Did Méliès rock the set back and forth or simply the camera? It would be more innovative and clever to realize that you could achieve the same effect by rocking the camera, but Wikipedia simply says he used “a special articulated platform,” which sounds more like the set was on a platform, but I’m not certain. If you pay attention, you’ll see that the table falling over, the motions of the open door, etc appear to be managed by the actors themselves – nothing seems to fall over by itself, so it could be the camera, but I can’t be sure without more research. The “First Wizard of Cinema” DVD describes this as “actuality/reenactment,” but to my mind it is neither. It is clearly a scene created in a false environment for entertainment purposes, which is why I’m calling it a comedy. It is conceivable that it was intended to reenact a recent news-worthy storm, but without the original narration, we’ll never know. The fellow who grabs our attention is again played by Méliès himself, once again showing off his great screen presence: his checked suit is padded to make him look fatter and he wears a deerstalker cap, apparently not an homage to Sherlock Holmes but perhaps intended to make him look more English. Note that the ship has a prominent label reading “Robert-Houdin/Star Lines.” Star Films was the name of the company Méliès created to distribute his movies, and the Robert-Houdin was the theater in Paris where he exhibited them.

Alternate Titles: Entre Calais et Douvres, Between Dover and Calais

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georgette Méliès, Joseph Grapinet

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.