Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: October, 2016

October 1916

As usual, I lead off this installment of the Century News with updates from the Western Front, although there’s a good range of other news in the headlines this month.

World War I:

The Battle of Le Transloy begins on October 1. This is the last offensive attempted by the Fourth Army of the British Expeditionary Force in the Battle of the Somme.

Also on October first, the British Reserve Army initiates the Battle of the Ancre Heights to press successes in another region of the Somme.

The French initiate the First Offensive Battle of Verdun on October 20. This attack is the beginning of a German defeat in Verdun.

Ethiopian artist's rendering of the Battle of Segale

Ethiopian artist’s rendering of the Battle of Segale

Civil War:

The Battle of Segale is fought on October 27 in Ethiopia, providing a victory for the new Empress Zewditu against forces loyal to Iyasu V, her uncrowned rival.

Sports:

In the United States, the “most lopsided game in the history of college football” occurs on October 7, when Georgia Tech beats Cumberland with a score of 222 to nothing.

Politics:

Nonviolent activist Hipólito Yrigoyen is elected President of Argentina on October 12. His regime is hampered by a highly oppositional political class, which controls parliament, and he resorts to extra-constitutional means through declaring a “state of emergency” to enact measures in many provinces.

Education:

Perm State University, today one of the oldest universities in the Ural region is founded in Russia on October 14.

Health:

Margaret Sanger opens the first birth control clinic in the US on October 16, a forerunner “Planned Parenthood.” Sanger will be arrested nine days later for distributing contraceptives.

Terrorism:

Assassination of Count Karl von Stürgkh, Minister-President of Austria by Friedrich Adler. Adler was a socialist who defended his act as one of revolutionary necessity at his trial. His party, which endorses Austria’s involvement in the war, repudiates his actions.

PawnshopFilm:

The Pawnshop” starring Charlie Chaplin, released October 2.

Return of Drew Egan” starring William S. Hart, released October 15.

A Daughter of the Gods,” reputed to be the first movie with a one million dollar budget, released and allegedly the first movie with a nude scene by a major actress (Annette Kellerman), released October 17.

Died:

Henry Woodruff, who had starred in the movies “A Beckoning Flame” and “A Man and His Mate,” October 6, from Bright’s Disease.

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The Corpse’s Escape (1916)

Alternate Titles: Les vampires: L’évasion du mort, The Dead Man’s Escape

This chapter of “Les Vampires” continues the cycle of capture-and-escape without doing much to advance the storyline, although it includes some references to earlier work of Feuillade and his mentor, Alice Guy-Blaché. The title as well as the plot seem to flirt with horror tropes, without actually becoming a horror film as we would understand the concept now.

corpses-escapeAt the end of the last movie, the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé) and Irma Vep (Musidora) had managed to elude capture and rob the spoils of their “colleague” Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), while he was arrested. At the outset of this episode, Moréno is being interrogated by the magistrate when he produces a pill and announces that he’d rather die than go to prison. He takes the pill, and a doctor pronounces him dead without an examination after hearing the magistrate describe what happened. The “body” is moved to a holding cell until the morgue attendants can come pick it up, and of course Moréno gets up and cold-cocks a guard in order to escape.

The heroic Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is up late at night watering his plants when he sees Moréno and his lackeys go into a nearby warehouse. He has the presence of mind to take a piece of clay to make a mold of the lock of that warehouse, just in case he ever wants to sneak around in there. Meanwhile, the intrepid, tepid Philippe Guérande (played by, yawn, Édouard Mathé) pauses in his writeup of the escape to look out the window, and is suddenly hooked around the neck and pulled down to the street below, where a gang of Vampires put him into a wicker basket with a Gaumont symbol on the side. He waits until they place the basket near some stairs, then tips it over and tumbles down to another street, where some good Samaritan passers-by open it and free him. He discovers the name of the costume company that rented the basket on another side, away from the Gaumont symbol.

corpses-escape1In investigating that company, he finds that the basket was rented by a Baron de Mortesalgues, yet another alias of the Grand Vampire. Unfortunately, Moréno was also present at the costume company, since he needed some phony police uniforms for another heist, and he takes advantage of the opportunity to nab Guérande and drags him back to the warehouse. He tells Guérande that he’ll let him go if he gives him a way to get revenge on the Grand Vampire for stealing his stolen loot, and Guérande tells him the Baron’s identity. Once Moréno leaves, Guérande is quickly rescued by Mazamette.

The Baron is having a big society do for his “niece,” who is actually Irma Vep. They dose the guests with sleeping gas and emerge with other members of the Vampires in full costume to loot their wallets and jewels. However, Moréno is able to jump on top of the getaway car and throws the luggage containing the loot off the roof, then jumps off himself, and goes back to collect it all. Mazamette visits Guérande and accuses him of being “too honest,” (after flirting shamelessly with the maid – careful Mazamette, we know you have a wife and children!) but Guérande shows him a quote about focusing on the end result and Mazamette agrees to continue the fight.

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

Good thing we wore masks so none of these sleeping people can identify us!

The beginning of this episode was like a less-interesting version of “The Murderous Corpse” with Moréno substituting for Fantômas. Even the prison set is identical. I’m not sure why it was necessary to bring in a second master criminal for this series – perhaps because the hero was too bland? It seems to distract from focusing on the Vampires, and this episode has far too little of Musidora as a result. We do get a good amount of Mazamette, however, which is a consolation, and I love the little pantomime Lévesque performs to make certain we understand that he’s copied the key. The sequence with Guérande in the basket reminded me of “The Drunken Mattress” and other surreal comedies by Alice Guy where a person is trapped in an inanimate object which seems to develop a life and personality of its own.

Obligatory-but-admittedly-silly-logic-department: In this movie, we are led to believe that the Grand Vampire can convince half of the wealthy people in Paris to attend a party for his alias’s “niece.” Either he has somehow found time to build an identity and attend social functions for years in order to lure them to his home and rob them of whatever they brought with them (really a pretty petty theft) OR he was able to con them just by putting the word “Baron” before a name. Also, in this movie, we see Guérande pulled down from his apartment one story to the ground below, but in “The Red Cryptogram” we saw Musidora and the Grand Vampire escape out that same window to the rooftops of Paris, quite a bit higher up than a single story. Which is it?

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Jean Aymé, Fernand Herrmann

Run Time: 38 Min

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

The Mysterious Knight (1899)

Alternate Title: Le Chevalier Mystère

I’m including this short film from Georges Méliès in my “history of horror” this year, although it is mostly a typical “trick film” with a light-hearted, non-frightening tone, because it does include a somewhat unusual treatment of a head. Whether intended as horror or not, I’m tempted to see it as a kind of predecessor to “Re-Animator” and other movies with animated heads.

mysterious-knightWe see a typical Méliès proscenium-style set, this time dressed to suggest a medieval castle. There is a sword on the wall, as well as an owl. In front of the wall is an easel with a chalkboard on it, and Méliès himself appears in a wig and a costume suggesting an off-duty knight. He draws a woman’s head on the board, then reaches out and pulls it off the board. When he places it on a bottle on the table, it comes to life and begins speaking or perhaps singing. Méliès crawls under the table, to demonstrate to the audience that there is nothing underneath the head. He impales it on the sword(!) and it continues speaking with no apparent discomfort. He then puts it on a tripod and wraps a blanket around the legs of the tripod. When he removes the blanket, the whole woman has appeared. She takes his hand and bows to the audience. He then waves a fan at her and she slowly fades out. He makes her appear once again on the table, then removes her head and throws it back onto the chalkboard, where it becomes a drawing again.

Again, this movie isn’t intended to be all that frightening, but the bit about impaling a talking head on a sword struck me as rather creepy nonetheless. The movies of Méliès often draw upon popular conceptions of magic, which have certain occult overtones, however innocent and playful they may be. I was impressed by the effects in this film, which we have to remember are all done in-camera, and particularly the fade out of a single person while the rest of the image remained steady struck me as impressive for the time. Méliès had done many trick films with people and objects appearing and disappearing at this point, of course, but the interactions between himself and the head are more effective here than many of the effects he did up to this point. There are no noticeable jump cuts, although when Méliès holds the head it quite obviously turns into a mannequin’s head, and he holds it so that the face does not look at the camera to make this less obvious.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Homunculus (1916)

I want to apologize to my readers for the unexpected delay in posting. I had planned to review this film shortly after my discussion of Part 4 of “Les Vampires,” based on my memory of a partial viewing I had at New York’s Museum of Modern Art around the year 2000. I don’t usually do that, but my understanding was that prints were so rare that I wasn’t likely to get another viewing. But, when I started researching to write the article, I found that there is an incomplete (but longer than what I saw before) version on the Internet! Obviously, I had to take the time to look at it and update my notes.

homunculus_-_teil_6_1917_filmplakat“Homunculus” was a serial released in Germany at the height of the First World War, and it’s a pretty remarkable movie. Its lead actor, the Dane Olaf Fønss, was reputedly paid more for this film than any actor in Germany had received so far. It fully realizes the technical and artistic potential of cinema’s achievements at this time, despite the fact that it was produced during a period of extreme budget limitations on European film making. It also happens to be a ripping good story.

homunculusThe story is that a group of scientists, led by a Professor Ortmann, produce a living human child using scientific processes – a “homunculus.” This creature is human in every way, except that he cannot experience love. He does experience all other emotions, however, apparently including considerable frustration that he cannot experience love. The professor raises him as his son, not telling him who and what he is, until he reaches the age of 25, when he discovers the truth for himself. He now learns that women have a propensity for loving him, although he cannot return this feeling. This results in various tragic situations, wherein he drives young women to suicide. His frustration with the situation causes him to declare a war against humanity, vowing to spread fear and terror. He goes to a Middle Eastern society and is able to use “superhuman abilities” to cure the local Prince, but soon the locals decide that he must be in league with the devil and pursue him. There is a woman in love with him here, as well, but there is also a dog that gets killed by the crowd, which upsets him rather a lot for a man who doesn’t feel love.

homunculus3When he returns to Germany, he becomes involved with a large company on its board of directors, due once again to his remarkable skill. He uses his influence to create increasingly oppressive working conditions for the laborers. Then, at night, he dresses as a worker and rouses the workers to revolt with stirring speeches against the bosses. Thus, he creates the conditions for increasing chaos and strife. Along the way, a young worker girl finds out who he is and what he is doing, and even though she opposes him, she falls in love with him as well. According to the German Wikipedia entry, he plans to use her to breed a new race of humans, although this didn’t happen in either version I saw.

I also only know the ending from reading about it: apparently Dr. Ortmann creates another Homunculus to destroy him. After this one grows up (another 22 years), there is a climactic clash in the mountains, in which Homunculus is destroyed and an avalanche crushes his leagues of human followers.

homunculus4I’m going to go slightly out on a limb and declare that “Homunculus” can be seen as an early example of Expressionism in German film. It’s not as visually creative as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it operates in a world where feelings and emotions determine outcomes and actions, and it uses light and shadow to display the characters’ inner worlds. It didn’t invent Expressionism, which was already a movement in painting and drama before it came to the screen. There’s also a lost 1915 version of “Der Golem,” which, for all I know, may have been even more Expressionist than Homunculus. However, this movie definitely plays with themes that we will see associated with Expressionism repeatedly when we get a few years further into this project: The “created man” or Homunculus, which comes up in “Der Golem,” in variations on “Frankenstein,” and in “Metropolis,” and the “dopplegänger” or double, which we’ve already seen in “Der Student von Prague” and will see again in Caligari’s dual identity and again in “Metropolis.”

homunculus5The creation sequence for “Homunculus” may have been more influential, in fact, on later versions of “Frankenstein” than was the 1910 Edison version. This one shows classic white-coated scientists in a laboratory with bubbling beakers and electrical equipment. The actual device they take the baby out of looks sort of like a glass art deco statue – but it also is slightly reminiscent of the coiled devices you see scattered around the 1931 lab. Interestingly, both versions of the movie I have seen frequently flashback to the creation sequence – but I don’t know for certain whether these versions have been re-edited from the original serial. Homunculus’s look is also somewhat prescient of F.W. Murnau’s Mephistopheles, although he also reminds me of Sarek, from “Star Trek.” He wears a cape a lot of the time, like later vampires would, at least after Bela Lugosi. I think Fønss does an excellent job with the role; though perhaps his performance will be too overwrought for some tastes, I find the intensity and violence he displays to be fairly compelling, and appropriate for a villain in an Expressionist horror film.

homunculus2The thing that really stood out to me when I watched this years ago is the way it seems to predict Adolf Hitler: a man who simultaneously whips up class resentment and encourages the repression that causes it, who seems to be incapable of love and declares war against the world, yet who has the ability to charm followers (and women) and gain access to the wheels of power. Certain aspects of Homunculus’s slogans seem to prefigure fascist hardline positions: “The globe will tremble under the wrath of the people.” Today, I think what this really reflects is the horror of the First World War and the degree to which two years of trench warfare was traumatizing the German people and its culture and politics, even at this time. If you really come right down to it, there are as many differences between Homunculus and Hitler as there are similarities – it’s just that a brutal and charismatic leader seemed more possible in Germany by this time than ever before, and the filmmakers have tapped into that current.

Director: Otto Rippert

Camera: Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Olaf Fønss, Friedrich Kühne, Mechthildis Thein, Lore Rückert

Run Time: 6 hrs (total, 6 episodes), just over an hour available.

You can watch as much of it as I’ve seen for free: here.

The Spectre (1916)

It’s October once again, and with that I continue my history of horror. I covered all of the 1915 episodes of “Les Vampires” last year at this time, and so now I continue with the episodes released in 1916. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a horror film, since the vampires in it are just a gang of ordinary master criminals, but since the imagery and atmosphere has been influential in the horror genre since then, I include it for consideration at this time of year. Hang on to your hats, as usual the plot is ridiculously complex!

Like, who's this chick?

This episode begins by introducing us to yet another of the alter-egos of the Grand Vampire (Jean Aymé), a successful real estate agent by the name of Treps. One day a new client, a businessman named Juan-José Moréno (Fernand Herrmann), comes to his office and requests an apartment with a safe. This arouses Treps’s greed, and he and Irma Vep (Musidora) break into the safe by way of a connecting door in the wall from the adjoining apartment. All they find, however, is a satchel full of the same type of black costume the vampires use during criminal activities. They conclude that he is a “colleague” and put the satchel back.

specterMusidora is meanwhile working for a bank under the alias of Juliet Berteaux. She learns of an upcoming transfer of 300,000 francs to be carried out by a “carefree” man named Metadier who likes to watch Gaumont films in the evenings. However, should Metadier be unable to perform his duties, she will be the substitute. So, she and the Grand Vampire attack Metadier on the train on the way home from the movies and kill him with a hatpin, dumping his body from the moving train. The next day, as she goes to get the money, suddenly the “specter” of Metadier walks in and takes it! The Grand Vampire follows him, but he escapes down a manhole.

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

In addition to Irma Vep, apparently Gomez Addams works at this bank

When the intrepid but largely ineffectual Philipe Guérande (Edouard Mathé) learns of the theft, he goes to the bank office in disguise and recognizes Musidora. He is able to learn her alias and address, and has his agent Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) distract the maid so that he can sneak in. Musidora and the Grand Vampire, saddened at their failed heist, decide to look in Moréno’s safe to see if he’s had any success. They are startled when the body of Metadier falls out and even more surprised to find the 300,000 francs! Guérande now arrives and tries to take them captive, but of course the maid hits him on the head and they easily escape with the money. He wakes up and calls the police just before Moréno returns to find his safe broken into. Guérande holds Moréno and learns the true story: he was casing a villa for a robbery when he found the body of Metadier on the tracks, and found the note authorizing him to take the money. He then took the corpse home with him, disguised himself as Metadier and stole the envelope. Guérande hands him over to the police.

specter2Once again, the plot advances with no obvious resolution in sight: the Vampires killed a man and bungled a job, but still wound up with the money and Guérande is no closer to apprehending them. I liked this episode, though, because we got a lot of Musidora and not too much Guérande, although there wasn’t enough Mazamette for my taste. My usual logical criticism of the plot: it seems like the Vampires have to spend an awful lot of time working straight jobs in order to arrange their devious crimes. How exactly does one become a “successful real estate agent” when one only has a few days a month not wearing some other disguise? I think director Louis Feuillade handles the pacing and story complexity well. I’ve read some criticism recently that claims Feuillade always edited sequentially and never made use of inter-cutting between scenes. While that may be technically true, he does use cross-cutting here to show simultaneous actions in the adjoining apartments (maybe this could be seen as a single scene), and there’s good use of close-ups, location shots in Paris, and establishing shots that set up interiors. Also, he uses his triple-split-screen effect again to demonstrate a phone conversation, as he did in “The Dwarf.” Watching a Feuillade crime serial feels sort of like coming home: I more or less re-started this project when I watched “Fantômas” in 2014.

specter3Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Jean Aymé, Musidora, Fernand Herrmann, Eduoard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque

Run Time: 40 Min

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