Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)
This late-period movie from Edison Studios seems to be an attempt at copying D.W. Griffith’s success with “social message” films, but winds up going in a surprising direction. It makes good use of New York locations to contrast urban poverty with natural, outdoor settings.
We see a busy New York street corner. A boy in rags is selling newspapers – or trying to, but no one seems to want one. We see wealthy-looking people come and go, businesspeople, workers, all hurrying to get where they are going, but no one buys a paper. The boy looks increasingly discouraged as time goes by. Finally, a woman with a little girl walks up to the corner. The woman isn’t interested in a paper, but the daughter feels sorry for the boy. She convinces her mother to give him a coin as a hand-out. The boy gratefully accepts and goes home. At home, his grandmother, who is drinking out of a flask, scolds him for not selling more papers. He tries to put the coin in a jacket pocket for later, but she catches him and takes it, presumably to buy more booze.
In the next scene, we see a minister hard at work at the Fresh Air Fund. He hands out stack of tickets to various women for them to distribute – each is good for a ride on a train to a picnic event. The boy gets up early Saturday morning to redeem one of these tickets, though it’s not at all clear how he got it. He meets up with the picnic party and is taken in hand by one of the young women volunteers. He rides out to a nice waterfront park, the like of which he’s never seen before, and runs on green grass and eats a good meal. The minister leads everyone in prayer before the food is broken out. After the meal, he hears a fairy tale about a boy who meets fairies and is carried in a boat to “the land beyond sunset.” When everyone gets ready to go back to the city in the afternoon, the boy hides and stays in the park, then he walks down to the beach. He finds an old rowboat and casts off. The final scenes show him afloat in his boat, drifting towards the sunset.
Oddly enough, this movie was made with the cooperation of the Fresh Air Fund, presumably to promote the charitable work they did with New York slum children, although the end seems to suggest that they routinely abandon kids in the park! The end sounds rather grim – this poor kid is either going to drown, starve, or die of thirst out there in this ratty rowboat – yet, it has a strangely positive, or at least melancholy, feeling, in part because of the lovely framing of the shot of the sunset. I’d love to know who the cinematographer was for this, but perhaps director Harold M. Shaw conceived it. As I suggested above, the city shots are also quite memorable, and the whole piece is one of contrasting images. The kid in this movie reminded me of Jackie Coogan (who wasn’t born until 1914), and I thought did very well in showing his feelings through body language. The park footage was shot near Long Island Sound in the Bronx, so the whole production was done close to home for relatively cheap. It’s a poetic little film from a largely ignored (at this point in time anyway) studio.
Starring: Bigelow Cooper
Run Time: 12 Min, 30 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).