The Thieving Hand (1908)
This odd little short from Vitagraph has a kind of reputation as a (pre-)Surrealist masterpiece. It does involve the use of trick photography to bring an arm to life, but how does it look from a modern viewpoint?
We see a one-armed man begging on the street. He is selling pencils or some other time-honored item to get handouts. He sells to a man in an expensive-looking coat and the man walks away. Shortly thereafter, the beggar notices something on the ground and picks it up – it seems to be a ring or small piece of jewelry. He runs after the man and catches him in front of his house. The man is very grateful to get back his ring and starts to reach for another handout, but thinks better of it. He takes the beggar to a shop called “limbs” and buys him a new arm! The shopkeeper demonstrates that the arm works by winding it up on the display case. It moves by itself (actually a jump cut has allowed it to be replaced by the arm of an actor hiding behind the case). The shopkeeper attaches the new arm and cranks it up for the beggar. The beggar is thrilled, but doesn’t seem to notice the arm stealing from his benefactor. When the shopkeeper notices, he takes back his goods and sends them on their way. The beggar scolds his new arm.
The beggar goes back to his corner and continues trying to sell pencils. While he does so, his new arm flails about and grabs things off of each passerby while the beggar distracts them with the pencils in his other hand. Several come back, annoyed, and take back their possessions. Finally, returns the arm to the shop, but when the shopkeeper puts it in the window, it steals a bunch of rings and goes back to the beggar! The shopkeeper discovers the theft and has a policeman arrest the beggar. Once in jail, he meets a one-armed convict who recognizes that it is his arm. He returns the arm, and the convict now has back his thieving hand – no doubt his main means of labor.
As I suggested above, this film stands out by its very weirdness, and seems reminiscent of some of Alice Guy’s more bizarre comedies, like “The Drunken Mattress” or “The Truth Behind the Ape Man” in which the animate and inanimate world become blurred for comic effect. It’s pretty pedestrian, really, in terms of camera-work, editing, and effects, but it feels new because we’ve never seen this particular story before, although it might fit into the strange world of “Felix the Cat” or another of the wilder cartoon series. There’s an interesting irony to the fact that the beggar is rewarded for his honesty with a gift that makes him appear dishonest, and even gets him arrested. There’s also an element to this movie that makes me think of David Cronenberg, a Canadian director whose horror films often explore invasions or mutations of the body. A hand acting of its own volition is right up his alley. This is a good memorable movie from the early Nickeloden Era, when American film makers were just starting to think about their possibilities.
Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Starring: Paul Panzer
Run Time: 6 Min
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).
I quite like this one because it is so weird and amusing. You’re right – it feels new because we haven’t really seen this story before.
It would have been thrilling to see this in person when it was first released.
Yes, I like that there are these bizarre comedies in the early period – just because! I’ll bet this sort of thing was popular with kids, too.