Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: December, 2016

The Danger Girl (1916)

This short from Keystone is the first Gloria Swanson movie I’ve reviewed for this blog. It’s probably not the sort of thing most people think of when they think of Gloria, but it does demonstrate her versatility and comfort in front of the camera.

danger-girlThe movie begins with a quarrel between Myrtle Lind and Bobby Vernon. Myrtle’s in a rather unflattering Mary Pickford-style wig, which I guess signals us that she’s a “good” girl. Bobby quickly falls into the orbit of “bad” girl Helen Bray, who may be deliberately imitating (or parodying) Theda Bara’s performance in “A Fool There Was.” She’s going riding, and invites Bobby along after brushing off “Last Season’s Suitor” (A. Edward Sutherland).  Gloria shows up driving recklessly with her brother Reggie Morris (for some reason known throughout as “Honey Boy”). Reggie is hoping to hook up with the danger girl, and Gloria develops an interest in Bobby when he helps her change a tire. When all the men start gravitating to the danger girl at a party, Gloria decides to take matters into her own hands by dressing as a man and distracting her. Myrtle ends up with Reggie, once the danger girl is no longer in play, but Gloria has to avoid the attacks of Last Season’s Suitor until Bobby drives a bus through the plate-glass window of the café they’re at and rescues her. Finally, all the “good” people are happily paired up.

danger-girl1This movie is a bit hard to keep up with, in part because the prints I was able to find were of poor quality, so it’s hard to tell actors apart, but in part because the characters don’t have enough personality or back story to identify with. The danger girl is distinctive, and once Gloria’s in her masculine attire, she’s easy to track, but the others seem quite interchangeable. I’m still not 100% sure I kept the division between Myrtle and Gloria straight before the “drag” sequence, and I gave up even trying to tell Reggie from Last Year’s Suitor, although Bobby Vernon is generally recognizable.

danger-girl2For a Keystone comedy, I was a bit surprised at the “adult” approach to comedy for the first two-thirds of the movie, although once we get to the café the Mack Sennett chaos does kick into gear. The theme of women in “masculine” attire goes a bit beyond just the explicit drag sequence: the danger girl’s riding outfit includes pants and a blazer, giving her a “hard” look, and Gloria puts on overalls when she has to work on her car. I suspect this was titillating to a 1916 audience, who didn’t often see women in pants. Some of the most interesting scenes involve Gloria in the “male” domain of a saloon, where she has to figure out how to stand at the bar, and avoid being groped by a fat drunk.  We do get some basic camera movement and reasonably sophisticated editing, certainly if one compares this to the Keystone Chaplins of 1914, but it was hardly cutting-edge in production values.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Helen Bray, Myrtle Lind, A. Edward Sutherland, Reggie Morris, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 20 Min

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

Advertisements

Più forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913)

Alternate Titles: Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes, Sterker dan Sherlock Holmes.

This Italian short trick film is a slapstick chase-comedy in the style of Alice Guy and other directors of earlier decades. The name of Holmes is only invoked to bring in the concept of crime and pursuit, the movie has nothing to do with the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmesThe movie begins with a man reading a magazine, while his wife peacefully dozes next to him at the table. An over-the-shoulder shot is cut in to reveal illustrations of a cop and a robber in the magazine, then the man also slumps to sleep, dropping the magazine to the floor. Two figures emerge from the magazine, by use of double exposure: One is the burglar from the illustration, and the other is a copy of the sleeping man, now dressed as the cop. He gathers up his hat and gun while the transparent burglar beckons to him from the fireplace. The burglar disappears, and the policeman pulls back a curtain, revealing an opening to the outside. In the next shot, he pursues the burglar through what looks like a thick forest, but might be simply his backyard (a fence is visible in the lower left of the screen). He fires his gun and waves his nightstick. The next shot shows us a lake, with the two figures running towards it from the opposite side. They leap in and swim towards the camera, fully clothed. About halfway, the burglar again becomes transparent through double exposure, and appears to walk on his hands across the surface of the water. He does some cartwheels to tease the cop, who is still struggling along through the water. Finally, he vanishes and appears on a bridge.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes1 Read the rest of this entry »

Plans and Blogathons for a New Year

I did my retrospective on 2016/1916, and now it’s time to start looking ahead to the future! Next year will be 1917, an exciting year for Century News and for movies! In some ways, I think of 1917 as the first “normal” year of American movie-making. It’s not a groundbreaking year that introduces new techniques or standards, nor is it dominated by a single name or talent, it’s just a year when hundreds of new features were produced and marketed. While seeing a movie from 1914 is something of an accomplishment, lots of classic film buffs have seen (or at least heard of) one or two from 1917.

This year, the Academy Awards are scheduled for February 26th, so that’s the day I’ll be posting my Century Awards for 1916. Be sure to tune in and see how your favorites did. The nominations come out on January 24, so there’s hardly any time at all for me to catch up on everything I missed this year!

With the new year looming, I’ve also started to put my name in the ring for some blogathons. Here’s what I’m planning:

O Canada BannerOn February 3, I’ll be taking part in the “Oh! Canada” blogathon, sponsored by two of my favorite blogs, Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. I’m signed up to discuss “Canadian Official War Films” from the First World War. Canada was for almost three years my adopted home, so I’m happy to get a chance to discuss their contribution to history and the history of film.

buster-blogathon-the-third-1-copy1917 marks the beginning of the career of the third member of the “Big Three” slapstick comedians (Chaplin and Lloyd are already working), and I’m excited to participate in the “Third Annual Buster Keaton Blogathon” sponsored by Silentology on February 19. For that, I plan to review “Oh, Doctor!” one of the movies he made with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

Looking forward to an exciting year of movies in 1917!

A Century in Review 1916-2016

Intolerance_(1916)_-_Nazarene_-_He_Who_Is_Without_SinA lot of blogs do some kind of year-end wrap up at this point in the year, but for this blog that actually means thinking about two years at the same time: this year and the one a hundred years ago.

1916 was a rough year for a lot of people, especially in Europe. The First World War had gone from an exciting adventure to a horrendous meat grinder of death, and there was no end in sight. Each new attack on the Western Front meant the sacrifice of thousands, and there was no visible movement of the battle lines. For most of the year, men were fighting in Verdun, only to find themselves in December in approximately their original positions, and from July to November, the Battle of the Somme raged with only minor gains for the Allies. Each of these battles cost the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

Meanwhile, the home front was beginning to suffer the effects of war as well. In Germany, the allied blockade was having the effect of creating severe food shortages, which resulted in riots in several cities, especially Berlin, and the imposition of food rationing through the creation of a military office with absolute power over civilian affairs. Contrary to later perceptions of socialist agitation against the military, this move was widely embraced by the working classes, who saw rationing as a way to create equity between the rich and poor in food distribution. Rationing may have helped with front-line morale as well: it was hard for soldiers to feel good about fighting for their homeland when they knew their own families faced deprivation.

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

In Russia, the domestic situation was moving from bad to worse to intolerable. The front here was not a stable line, but quite mobile, with advances and retreats of hundreds of miles. That’s fine for a cavalry officer, but it meant a great deal of marching for soldiers who were often sent to the lines without proper footwear. Equipment of all kinds was lacking: including guns. Russian soldiers were advised to take weapons from the dead during battle in order to defend themselves. Moreover, the nation’s casualties (including POWs) now numbered in the millions.

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

Political agitation, which had been relatively quiet since the beginning of the war, started up again in earnest in 1916, with mutinies, strikes, and street demonstrations in most major cities. Russia was also suffering from food shortages, particularly in Petrograd. Even those who had money for bread often could not find it, or waited in lines for hours to get it (reportedly there were housewives who spent up to 40 hours a week on line). The Czar was warned by his senate (the Duma) and his security forces that open revolution was a real possibility by November of 1916. It came only weeks after the New Year.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

The USA has managed to avoid war, even re-electing President Woodrow Wilson with a slogan of “he kept us out of war.” Neutrality in World War One would not survive another year, of course, but it allowed many in the US to prosper from sales of industrial goods to Europe in 1916. The American film industry has been a major beneficiary of the decline in European productivity, and American films are finally beginning to make inroads into European distribution chains. While the distant war in Europe may seem remote or even beneficial to some Americans, a more immediate concern is the ongoing revolution in Mexico, which has spilled across the border repeatedly, and led to 12,000 troops being sent by Wilson to pursue Pancho Villa – a military intervention that brings the US to the brink of outright war with Mexico. The US also occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916, continuing an aggressive interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Intolerance BabylonThis year has no huge breakout film on the scale of “The Birth of a Nation,” although most historians agree that D.W. Griffith’sIntolerance” had a good run and was seen by many of the same people that made “Birth” a huge hit. It still lost money, primarily because it cost so much more to make. The next-highest grossing film is reported to be “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But the name on most people’s lips this year is Charlie Chaplin, who is now the highest-paid movie star, working at Mutual for $670,000, with a signing bonus that nearly brought it to a million. He has finally gained the freedom to slow down his production schedule and is taking more time on each new release, which technically sets him behind on his contractual requirements by the end of the year, but Mutual is still raking in plenty from his work. Others are also benefitting from his lag in production: a huge number of “Chaplin imitators” or derivative acts are filling the void with their own shorts of varying quality, including a fellow calling himself “Lonesome Luke” that is actually a young Harold Lloyd. A new face on the scene this year is Douglas Fairbanks, whose good-natured all-American athleticism is being used to create a new kind of comedy that also finds strong audience approval. He and Chaplin will be friends and allies in years to come.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Although European film production is down, there are still significant contributions from European studios. The first documentary to see major box office success is “The Battle of the Somme,” released in Britain with the support of the War Office. Germany makes one of its first forays into Expressionism with the serial “Homunculus,” about a man created by science who lacks the ability to feel love. And, although Louis Feuillade is by this time serving on the Western Front, Gaumont Studios manages to profit from late release of his crime-serial follow-ups to “Fantômas:” “Les Vampires,” which runs from the end of 1915 into the early part of the year, and “Judex,” which had been shot years earlier but sees the first episode released in the last week of 1916. Finally, Evgeni Bauer gave us his column-filled drama “A Life for a Life,” which launched its star, Vera Kholodnaia, to celebrity status.

My blog remains a relatively less-popular film blog – I guess the topic and approach is a bit esoteric compared to the usual classic film blog. I’m up about 5000 hits from last year, which falls slightly short of doubling my total for 2015. I’m holding steady with about 120 followers, and I only occasionally get more than one “like” on a post. Only a few people comment, but those that do tend to come back and comment again. My impression is that I have a small cadre of dedicated readers, but not a lot of mass appeal, and I’m fine with that. I am backing off a bit (as some have probably noticed) from doing daily posts. I like doing a short movie every day when I can, and one “feature” or at least more in-depth post a week, but the simple fact is that it takes a little too much of my time away from other activities. I’m also writing fewer “context” posts, apart from my monthly Century News roundups.

I’m aware that my blog is somewhat less research-heavy than some other blogs, especially those focused on the silent era. I generally write my impressions of the movies I watch without doing a lot of background research, in part because I’m interested in what the movies themselves convey as sources. I typically avoid, in particular, reading other reviews of movies I’m discussing until after I’ve posted, because it’s all too easy to be influenced by the perceptions of others. Sometimes that means I get stuff wrong, but that’s a hazard of studying a period for which a large proportion of the primary sources are lost, and I try at least to admit when I’m writing from a position of ignorance.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_luneThe reason I started this blog was unusual: it wasn’t because I knew a whole lot about early film, it was because I wanted to learn more. In that sense, this blog is a huge success. My first posts were under 250 words (one reason daily posting was no big deal), but now it’s hard for me to write less than 500. That’s because I know more, so I see more in every movie I review. I’ve gained an appreciation for movies from this period far beyond just knowledge as well – coming back to “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador” really demonstrated that to me recently. When I watched it in 2012, I barely understood what I was seeing, whereas now watching it is a rich experience. I’ve discovered viewing-muscles I never knew I had as I’ve done this workout. So, that’s a win, and as long as it’s true, there will be every reason to continue this project.

The Mysterious Shadow (1916)

This is the first official episode of “Judex,” the first having been mere “prologue.” This one would make very little sense without it the other, however, so I’d be inclined to call it episode 2.

judex-mysterious-shadowThe story picks up shortly after the engagement party at which the banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) unexpectedly died after taking a sip of wine. His daughter Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), who is completely innocent and ignorant of the crimes he has committed, is grief-stricken, but now Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque), the detective Favraux hired, shows her the threatening notes that he had received, which explicitly accuse him of theft and murder. She checks with her father’s secretary and learns that it is all true. Then, to add to her stress, a new note arrives that explicitly enumerates the crimes the mysterious “Judex” holds Favraux responsible for. She decides that she cannot keep a fortune earned dishonestly, and makes arrangements to give it all to the Bureau of Public Assistance. Since the Viscount (Georges Flateau) had only wanted to marry her for her money, she releases him from their engagement. She puts her son, Little Jean (Olinda Mano) in the care of trustworthy servants, dismissing the others (including Musidora), and seeking work to support herself and to send money for his education.

Judex strikes a pose.

Judex strikes a pose.

Before she can leave the now-empty mansion, however, she receives an unexpected phone call. The voice on the other end sounds like her father, and he begs for her forgiveness. Jacqueline thinks she must be going mad, and goes out into the street alone, but we shift scenes to the recent past and an explanation. For now we first see the shadowy Judex (René Cresté) with a gang of grave robbers, retrieving the body of the deceased and taking it to an underground catacomb. Jude is tall and slender, and wears a hat and a long cape, looking somewhat like the Shadow, although his face is visible. His base is “the underground passages of Chateau Rouge.” He revives the “dead” man, revealing that the poison in the drink only gave the appearance of death, and forces the man to call his daughter and beg forgiveness.

judex-mysterious-shadow2Next, we see Little Jean, apparently enjoying helping out with chores on the farm he now lives on with the former servants, and receiving a letter in which his mother tells him about the work she has taken on, tutoring English and music. He tucks the letter lovingly into his blouse. Then, we see Jacqueline at her work, still wearing the black clothing of grief, and fending off the advances of an overly amorous employer. Said employer, it transpires, is buddies with Moralés (Jean Devalde) and Musidora, and he tells them of his infatuation. They advise him to let them abduct the woman of his dreams, possibly because they connect her with the disappearing heiress, whose whereabouts the papers are speculating about, or maybe just because they are criminal types who think that way. As they present the plan, they can capture her and then allow him to rescue her. Judex, however, is watching over Jacqueline, and sends her two white doves, which he instructs her to release if she ever needs his assistance.

judex-mysterious-shadow3This episode isn’t really a complete story, nor is it a “cliffhanger” the way serial episodes would be in years to come. It still seems to be taking its time in setting up situations without actually developing them very much. We now know that Jacqueline’s father is still alive, and in the custody of Judex, but it isn’t clear what justice Judex plans to enact on him. We know about the kidnapping plot, but haven’t seen it put into action. Also, we know that Jacqueline is effectively in hiding, but it’s not really clear what the bad guys want with her since she no longer has a fortune. We do get our first look at the title character and his home base, which is really just a room with various technical gadgets and a sliding panel, but it does fire the imagination that he has this underground chamber with apparently more secret rooms attached. In the background lurks Judex’s brother, played by Édouard Mathé, the bland star of “Les Vampires.” He seems more suited to his sidekick role, here. Sadly, we haven’t seen any more of Lévesque, who was really the saving grace of “Les Vampires.” I hope we aren’t done with him.

judex-posterThe photography in this episode is a bit less mobile than in the prologue, and we spend less time in close-up, and there are longer waits between edits, making  this one seem a bit slower than the previous one although it is ten minutes shorter. There is, however, some nice tinting on the night scenes. The scene of the retrieval of the banker’s body is tinted red, I assume to give the impression of torchlight, or perhaps to heighten the mood a bit, and Jacqueline’s race into the unknown is tinted blue. This adds some visual interest to the story, but we’re still just getting started.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti and Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Yvette Andréyor, Louis Leubas, Marcel Lévesque, Olinda Mano, Édouard Mathé, Georges Flateau, Musidora, Jean Devalde

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Judex – Prologue (1916)

Another crime serial from Louis Feuillade, this one has the remarkable twist of making the masked mastermind into a force of good! This first episode only really sets up the premise, but it is effective at drawing the viewer in to what promises to be a good ride.

judex-posterBefore I talk about the movie itself, let’s talk about the date. I generally date the movies I review by the year of release, which is usually the same year they are shot, or in the case of movies shot at the end of the year, sometimes the year after. In this case, Feuillade made this movie and “Les Vampires” more or less simultaneously in 1914, then went off to serve in World War One. Gaumont Studios released “Les Vampires” beginning at the end of 1915 and running through early 1916, then finally released the first episode of “Judex” in December, 1916, but most of the episodes weren’t seen until 1917. As a result, you may find it listed in different places as a 1916 movie, a 1917 movie, or even a 1914 movie! I’m going to stick to my tradition of reviewing the episodes separately, and dating them according to which year they were actually released. Note, that this means that only this episode and the next one qualify as nominees for the 1916 Century Awards.

judexOK, let’s get on with the movie. The home video version begins with a lengthy credit sequence that I suspect did not exist at the time of original release. More common would have been an introduction to the cast of characters through short clips showing them in action (as with “Fantômas” and “Child of the Paris”), and that would have made it a lot easier to keep track of all of these character names. I kept recognizing actors from other Gaumont productions, but then not being able to remember who they are supposed to be. Imdb will be my friend in reviewing this series! We are quickly introduced to several characters once the movie does begin: There is Favraux, the banker (Louis Leubas), Robert Moralés (Jean Devalde) and Diana Monti (Musidora), who hope to blackmail the banker, and Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), the banker’s innocent daughter who is engaged to the impoverished Vicomte de la Rochefontaine (Georges Flateau). Musidora manages to infiltrate the premises by getting a job as the governess to Jean (Olinda Mano), Jacqueline’s son presumably by an earlier marriage.

judex1One day, a tramp (Gaston Michel) shows up at the gate demanding to speak with Favraux. He is an old man who was swindled by Favraux, then sent to prison for 20 years when he embezzled to try to get out of financial difficulties. His wife has died, and now he hears rumors that his son is involved with crime as well, and he blames Favraux for all of it. Favraux, predictably, tells him to go away, and then less predictably runs him over in a car on the road a few minutes later (actually, his chauffeur runs him over, but Favraux is in the car). Soon, he receives a threatening letter signed only “Judex” (Latin for “judge”), which informs him he must turn over half his fortune to charity or die. Since the letter appeared mysteriously on his desk without anyone seeing who delivered it, Favraux is understandably concerned.

judex2So, he hires a private investigator named Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque, who “Les Vampires” fans will remember as the wonderful Mazamette). Cocantin has only just inherited the detective business from his father, and there’s some amusing business between him and his employee, who clearly feels that Daddy was better-suited for the job. Cocantin doesn’t do much to prove himself, skulking around in bushes, but avoiding eavesdropping while his employer makes time with the governess, and failing to figure out how a second threatening note manages to mysteriously appear on the premises. At the dinner to celebrate Jacqueline’s engagement, Favraux makes a toast, sips his wine, and promptly drops dead. Cocantin is now uncertain whether or not he should reveal the existence of the letters (!).

Only seconds to live.

Only seconds to live.

It’s a little too early for me to say how I feel about this series so far. I found “Les Vampires,” on the whole, a bit uneven compared to “Fantômas,” although it had its good aspects, including Mazamette, Musidora, and some very memorable visuals and outrageous crimes. It seems like silent fans always end up picking a “favorite” Feuillade serial, and I wouldn’t be surprised if “Fantômas” remains unbowed in that position for me. But, I am excited to see a new one from him, to see how this plays out, and to see how Bout-de-Zan makes an appearance. Some people credit “Judex” with inventing the whole “caped crusader” concept that led to Batman, the Shadow, and other superhero vigilantes, so this could be an important piece of nerd history.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: Louis Leubas, Jean Devalde, Musidora, Yvette Andréyor, Georges Flateau, Olinda Mano, Gaston Michel, Marcel Lévesque, Édouard Mathé

Run Time: 36 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912)

This short movie has relatively little to do with the Arthur Conan Doyle character, and is more intended for children and those fond of cute dogs than mystery fans. Despite an overall lighthearted tone, it has some elements in common with later crime serials, such as “Fantômas.”

canine_sherlock_holmes_1912A bank robbery is shown that involves the use of poison pins attached to coins that cause a clerk to collapse while the robbers hold the customers at bay with guns. They threaten the survivors, telling them that an object they are leaving behind is a bomb they can detonate with “wireless wave” if anyone moves. The clerk now calls in famous detective Hawkshaw, who bears a passing resemblance to Sherlock Holmes, though he seems to favor a cigar rather than a pipe. Hawkshaw swings into action by going out to the theater, but his dog Spot is able to use scent and track the robbers to their home, which he infiltrates by pretending to be hit by a car outside the door, and the woman with the robbers brings him in and cuddles him and gives him a saucer of water or milk to drink. As soon as he’s been left alone in the room, he starts to gather incriminating evidence from the wastebasket and the desktop, and finds a set of keys. He somehow gets out of the house without being let out by a person and runs back to Hawkshaw.

Spot's big moment

Spot’s big moment

Hawkshaw uses the address on a torn envelope Spot has brought him to track the robbers to their lair, although it’s not clear how he knows that they are guilty of anything. He uses the keys to get in, and sneaks up behind a robber, quickly disarming him, but he is overwhelmed when more robbers come into the room. However, during the struggle, he holds down a robber with one hand and writes a note to the police with the other! So, Spot quickly runs off to the police station, where several officers dressed like Keystone Kops read the note that Hawkshaw has written informing them to raid the place. They swoop in and pick up the robbers and recover the money. Once again, inspector Hawkshaw has saved the day! Hopefully, Spot gets a doggy treat, at least.

Hold still while I write!

Hold still while I write!

I wasn’t too impressed with this movie, overall, and in terms of “animal movies,” I would put it far behind “A Little Hero” in entertainment value. For one thing, the human actors are clearly inferior to Mabel Normand, which partly explains why their names have been lost to history. The dog is cute enough, but not really as impressive in his performance as the dog in that movie, let alone the awesome cat actor. The best “acting” he does is his pretense of injury, which he drags out for quite a while, but the humans have to be awful dumb not to notice that he lacks any bruises or breaks, especially when they pick him up and bring him inside. Also – what did Hawkshaw expect to accomplish by going to confront the robbers alone? Why did he write a note to the police while in physical conflict, but not bring them along in the first place? And why did he go to the theater when he was supposed to be investigating a serious crime? Obviously, a man who would go nowhere without canine support. But, the criminals don’t make much more sense: what possible advantage is there to knocking out a clerk with a complicated poisoned coin when you’re going to hold everyone up with guns in the first place? It’s a typically Feuillade-ian piece of surreal logic.

Director: Stuart Kinder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Urbanora

Run Time: 15 Min

I have not found this for free on the Internet. It is included on the Flicker Alley release of Sherlock Holmes (1916) on DVD. If you find it available for free, please comment.

Sherlock Baffled (1900)

Alternate Title: Sherlock Holmes Baffled

This is a short trick film from Biograph that closely follows the formula created for such comedies by Georges Méliès. It is notable for being the first known instance of the character of Sherlock Holmes portrayed in film, and has even been suggested as the “first detective film.”

sherlock_holmes_baffledA man in the black clothing of a conventional burglar is putting objects into a bag in a small room with a table. Another man in a dressing gown enters (presumably this is Holmes) and puts his hand on the burglar’s shoulder. The burglar disappears. Holmes seems to lose interest in the mystery and sits down to light a cigar. The cigar gives off a large puff of smoke, and at the same moment, the burglar reappears in front of Holmes. Holmes pursues him and even fires a revolver at him, but the burglar disappears and reappears in different parts of the room, evading capture or injury. When he seems to have disappeared for good, Holmes picks up the sack and begins to leave the room, but suddenly the sack disappears and appears in the hands of the burglar, crouched in the open window. The burglar waves goodbye and departs with the loot, and Holmes throws up his hands in defeat.

This movie won’t do much for most fans of Sherlock Holmes, and the name was probably used for simple name-recognition purposes (the William Gillette play had recently opened in New York), rather than as an intentional homage. Holmes is essentially a clown and a victim here, not the brilliant detective of the stories. This movie was actually not shown in theaters, but released in the “peep show” coin-operated Mutoscope format for arcades in May of 1900. It closely follows the formula of such Méliès films as “The Magician,” wherein the protagonist is plagued by an appearing and disappearing nuisance. Director Arthur Marvin handles this reasonably competently, but without the agility and style of Méliès, unfortunately.

Director: Arthur Marvin

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Cinderella (1899)

Alternate Title: Cendrillon

Georges Méliès provides this version of the classic fairy tale in one of his most ambitious nineteenth-century productions. It includes five different camera set-ups and, according to the Star Films Catalog, “thirty five” extras, all on a typically small stage.

cinderella-1899The movie starts a little abruptly, with Cinderella in the kitchen begging to be allowed to go to the ball, but her step-sisters leave and slam the door in her face. She mopes around a bit and then her fairy godmother appears and turns various household pests into servants for her and a pumpkin into a coach. Then she gives her a gown to wear, and Cinderella climbs into the coach (right there in the kitchen!) and drives off, though the godmother stops her to warn her to be back before midnight. She disappears through a trap door in the floor. The next scene shows the ballroom, with lots of nobles dancing elegantly together. The Prince sits to one side on his throne and takes little interest until Cinderella arrives. Then he steps onto the floor with her and they dance while the other guests watch. Suddenly a clock appears on the floor and shows that it is midnight, and Cinderella tries to leave, but the Prince detains her. Then a funny gnome-like creature hops out of the clock, holding up another clock-face, and Cinderella tries again to leave, but before she can make it, the fairy godmother appears and causes her dress to become rags again. She flees in humiliation while the nobles laugh, but the prince picks up one of her shoes that has been left behind. The next scene is in her bedroom, and she has a nightmare involving clocks and the gnome, all dancing about to taunt her. Then she is with her sisters again, and they are apparently ordering her to get to work, when the Prince comes in to try the shoe on everyone. Of course, he tries the sisters first, and it won’t fit, then Cinderella, and it does and the fairy godmother restores her dress and the Prince and Cinderella leave together. Now the scene shifts to outside the palace, and a crowd of people gathers to watch the wedding procession as it passes. There are soldiers, peasants, nobles, a priest, and the King and Queen as well as the happy couple. The onlookers give a dance in their honor and they are joined by a ballerina who performs. At the end, the backdrop is lifted to show the Prince, Cinderella, and the rest of the wedding party on their thrones.

cinderella1-1899In the early years of cinema, certain stories were made and remade ad infinitum. This is now the third version of this story to be reviewed on the Century Film Project (the others starred Florence LaBadie and Mary Pickford). It is a somewhat unusual take on the tale, especially since the ball is over before half of the movie’s run time has completed! Actually, a lot of what follows struck me as padding, especially the dance at the end. It seems like more time could have been spent at the beginning establishing Cinderella’s life of drudgery, and less time celebrating her wedding, though the clock nightmare was interesting. I’m not 100% certain whether the surviving copy is complete, either – perhaps there was more of the cruel step-sisters in the original. One interesting thing about the Flicker Alley print is that we get about 30 seconds of hand-painted color at the beginning, which is truly lovely, although it goes away all too quickly. I really wanted to see the ball in color, and the final dance might have been more interesting with it as well. For Méliès, this was a fairly mature production: he uses special effects in showing the magic and telling the story, but they are not the point of the film, and he links the several different scenes well with basic editing. It was probably one of the most expensive movies he had made at the time as well – just in terms of all the sets he had to build alone. For once, we have some reasonably reliable cast information. Jeanne d’Alcy, who played the queen mother, was later to be Méliès’s wife, and has appeared uncredited in a number of his other movies.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mlle Barral, Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bleuette Bernon

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Gaumont Treasures (1897-1913)

gaumont-treasuresLink to Worldcat for Interlibrary Loan: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/429915190

It’s been quite a while since I’ve reviewed a DVD collection of Century Films, although for quite some time I’ve been reviewing the individual movies in this one. It consists of three discs, each with a different filmmaker from the pioneering days of the French film industry. The discs feature the work of Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, respectively. The vast majority of these movies are shorts, and all of them are rare outside of this collection. Each has been cleaned up and presented in the highest available quality, given new English-language intertitles, and is accompanied by appropriate non-distracting music.

Cabbage FairyThe movies give a great perspective on the development of cinema. Anyone only familiar with the “usual suspects” of early film (Méliès, Porter, Griffith) will receive a wonderful education as to what was going on at the same time as the more well-known pioneers. The Guy disc includes some commentary that helps contextualize her work, while the Perret and Feuillade discs both have short documentaries about their work. For Guy, we get over 60 of her short movies, including a good number of sound experiments and “The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ,” a 33-minute featurette. For Feuillade, there are 13 films, representing a great range of his work, far beyond the crime serials he is mostly remembered for now, with dramas, film-poems, light comedies, and historical reenactments. Perret is represented with two longer pieces, “The Child of Paris” and “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador.”

Bout_de_Zan ElephantIt’s a little disappointing, after having so many movies from Feuillade and especially Guy, to wrap up with only two samples of Perret, especially since the documentary shows clips from at least a half a dozen others, but it does make sense in terms of run time. Because the other filmmakers worked in short and very-short formats, the length of each disc is about the same. It does leave you wanting to see more of Perret, though, and hopefully someday I will. The other criticism I have is that the index for the Guy disc is hard to navigate, so that if you want to examine each film independently (as I did), you spend a lot of time wading through pages of movies you’ve already seen.

mystere-des-roches-kadorThese are really minor criticisms, however, of a really lovely collection. Vital viewing for any Century Film fan.