Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: December, 2016

December 1916

After more than two years of bitter fighting and mass slaughter, there will be no Christmas Truce on the front lines of World War I this year. The war is grinding on with no end in sight, although in general the Allies seem to be coming out ahead of the Central Powers in one battle after another. No one knows for sure, but the war still has almost two more years to go before Armistice. This month’s roundup of headlines mostly reflects the ongoing massacre in Europe. On the lighter side of entertainment, Christmas, 1916, seems to have been a great day to spend in a movie theater!

Soldiers in a trench at Verdun

Soldiers in a trench at Verdun

World War I:

On December 13, an avalanche on Mount Marmolada crushes an Austrian barracks, killing approximate 100 soldiers. An estimated 9000 men will be lost to avalanches in the Dolomites this December.

The Battle of Verdun ends in France with German troops defeated on December 18.

El Arish occupied by the British Empire Desert Column during advance across the Sinai Peninsula on December 21.

The Desert Column captures the Ottoman garrison during the Battle of Magdhaba on December 23.

A Sopwith Camel.

A Sopwith Camel.

Technology:

The British Sopwith Camel aircraft makes its maiden flight on December 22.

Youth:

Robert Baden-Powell gives the first public display of the new Wolf Cub section of Scouting December 16 at Caxton Hall, Westminster.

Insurrection:

The criminal Humberto Gómez and thirty seven mercenaries seize Arauca in Colombia December 30 and declare the Republic of Arauca. The action is largely an act of revenge on the police commissioner, who is killed in the raid.

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

Assassinations:

The mystic Grigori Rasputin is murdered in Saint Petersburg on December 31 (December 17 by the Russian Old Style calendar).

Disasters:

The Hampton Terrace Hotel in North Augusta, South Carolina, one of the largest and most luxurious hotels in the United States at the time, burns to the ground on December 31.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea1Film:

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” is released December 24. It is estimated to be the second-highest grossing movie of the year, after “Intolerance.”

The Americano,” starring Douglas Fairbanks, is released December 24.

Joan the Woman,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, is released December 25.

Snow White,” starring Marguerite Clark, is released December 25. Walt Disney will later cite this film as an inspiration for the animated version.

Kirk Douglas

Kirk Douglas

Births:

Kirk Douglas (actor, known for “Spartacus” and the later “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”) born December 9.

Betty Grable (actress, who was in “Down Argentine Way” and “How to Marry a Millionaire,” and numerous World War II pinups) born December 18.

Roy Ward Baker (director, who made “Five Million Years to Earth” and “The Vampire Lovers”) born December 19.

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The Child of Paris (1913)

Alternate Title: L’enfant de Paris

This feature film from Gaumont Studios came out while Louis Feuillade was in the midst of his brilliant serial Fantômas, but comes from a very different director, Léonce Perret, who also gave us “Les mystere des roches de Kador” in the previous year. In style and plot, this is a much more lyrical storyline than the anarchic crime serials Feuillade was working on at the time, but it bears some similarity to earlier work he did at Gaumont.

child-of-parisThe movie begins by introducing the major characters in close-up, some with clips we will see later in the film. There is a surprising number of them, and it’s unlikely that many will stand out as we wait a half hour or more for them to be introduced, although the fact that the only female character introduced is a small child (played by Suzanne Privat) is noticeable. As the story begins, that child is happily ensconced in a loving middle-class home, with a father, a mother, an uncle and an affectionate nanny. Then, the father, a captain in the army (Émile Keppens), is summoned to duty in one of the Moroccan Crises, leaving the care of his wife and child in the hands of his brother. There are some very stagey battle scenes, but for the most part we find out about his exploits through a series of telegrams sent back home, where the child continues to play happily and eagerly runs up every time there is news of daddy.

Moroccans Attack

Moroccans Attack

Eventually, of course, the dreaded telegram comes informing them that the father has been killed in action, and that his body has not been recovered. The mother, who had moments before been frolicking with the daughter and a large ball, suddenly collapses with grief. Despite various concoctions prescribed to her by a “psychiatrist” (including morphine and ether!), she also dies. Now the child is an orphan, though her uncle does his best to console her. Then he, too, is called up, and has no choice but to instruct the nanny to deposit the child in a boarding school. She is miserable there: the other students pick on her and make her a “scapegoat” for their bad behavior, and the teachers are cruel and unsympathetic. Naturally, she runs away one night when everyone is asleep.

Excluded.

Excluded.

Now she is alone and defenseless on the streets of Paris. Perhaps she is looking for her home, but she has no idea how to get there. After hours of wandering the streets, she collapses from exhaustion, exposed to the elements on a street corner. She is found by an unseemly fellow known as “The Graduate” (Louis Leubas), who proceeds to take her rings and an identifying necklace while she sleeps. He is about to leave with his booty, when he seems to have second thoughts. He picks up the girl and takes her to a drunken cobbler (Marc Gérard), who takes her in and puts her to bed in a small loft-space or cupboard with no real mattress. She has to share this space with Bosco (Maurice Legranée), the hunchbacked assistant to the cobbler, who has soft, effeminate features and seems to fall in love with the little girl as soon as he sees her. The cobbler is cruel to her and refuses to give her bread if she doesn’t work hard enough, but Bosco waits until he passes out drunk and sneaks food in to her.

The nanny has not been idle. She goes to the police and initiates a search for the missing child, blaming the school for her disappearance, but the police can do nothing. Now she gets a sudden telegram from the father – he’s alive after all! We see newspaper stories telling us that he was assisted by a “sympathetic Moroccan woman” and hidden until he could return to France. He has heard about his wife’s death, but looks forward to seeing his daughter again. There is a triumphal ticker-tape parade for his return, during which he learns the truth. He seems completely deflated. Why did he bother to live, if everything was to be taken from him?

child-of-paris4Now the Graduate figures out that he’s on to something. He recognizes the officer’s name from the identification medal he pawned, and writes out a ransom note to the captain and arranges to meet him with a gang of “associates” on hand. Although the captain does bring a pistol (he’s no fool), he is forced to write a check for 50,000 francs. The Graduate takes this money and goes to the cobbler, offering him 100 francs to get the child back. The cobbler is thrilled – think of all the wine he can buy with 100 francs! – and willingly surrenders the child. Bosco is suspicious, sure that the Graduate is up to no good, and so he follows them, then reports the location of the meeting to the police.

The father and child are thrilled to see one another, but the Graduate isn’t willing to end his little game. He now demands an additional 50,000 francs. The father reluctantly begins to write the check, but suddenly the gang clobbers him and ties him up. Now the police rush in and begin making arrests. They find the father and release him from his bonds, but the Graduate has snuck off with the child.

child-of-paris5Familiar with the ineffectiveness of the police, Bosco writes a note to the father informing him that he will conduct his own investigation. He trails the Graduate to a train bound for Nice and sees him take a cab from the station. Then, alone and penniless in a strange city, he finds a place to sleep under a tree in a park. The next day he awakens dirty and hungry. While he ponders his next move, a rich woman gives him a coin. He runs after her to return it, protesting that he is not a beggar. The woman is so charmed that she takes out a 100-franc note and forces it on him. This is enough money for Bosco to get cleaned up, buy new clothes, rent a hotel room, have a sumptuous breakfast and send a telegram to the father, letting him know where he is and what he has found.

Now he finds the cabby he saw drive off with the Graduate and pays him to take him to the villa where the child is hidden. He sneaks in and breaks down the locked door to her room, then spirits her back to the hotel without being detected. He sends word to the police as to the Graduate’s whereabouts, and they catch him climbing over the wall of the villa, following Bosco’s trail of broken branches. The daughter is returned to her home and the captain adopts Bosco as a reward for reuniting his family.

Middle-class comfort.

Middle-class comfort.

I found this a very interesting and charming film. It was also surprisingly long for 1913. Most of the movies I’ve seen from before 1915 are an hour or less, a few just a bit longer. This one clocked in at over two hours. That could be partly due to the decision to run it at 16 frames per second, “standard silent speed” for this video release (see my article on frame rates for more detail). Even running it at 18fps would have reduced the run time by 12.5% or about fifteen minutes. I can’t say that anything looked painfully slow, although the action scenes in Morocco and occasionally a horse running seemed a bit slower than “normal.”

This movie also has a surprising amount of opening credits for 1913. I suspect that these have been added by Kino or Gaumont for this 2009 release, and were not included in the original print. Giving any credits was unusual at the time, but these give not only a lengthy list of actors and the director, but also the screenplay, art direction, and cinematographer. The reason this matters is that the list of actors here differs from what is given on imdb. Here, actor René Navarre (known for “Fantômas”) is billed as “Chief of Police.” He does not appear as one of the actors shown in close-up, however, and I wasn’t sure I spotted him. He could have been the fellow who informed the nanny that the police were giving up the search, but that’s a pretty minor role. Imdb doesn’t list him at all for the movie, so it could be a mistake, although I would regard Kino as more authoritative than imdb. Imdb also fails to list the cinematographer.

The narrative struck me as somewhat unconventional. At first, I thought I was seeing a domestic drama, with a focus on the relationships among the adults, then it shifted to kind of a “Little Princess” storyline, and then suddenly the focus was on the Paris underworld. As we moved through these stories, the “star” of the show changed too: at first it seemed to be the captain, then the child, and finally Bosco. I actually somewhat enjoyed the way the protagonist changed during the course of the film, making it feel like we got the chance to meet new characters and get to know them as the story progressed. The one part of the narrative that didn’t work for me was the Graduate’s taking the child to Nice and locking her in a villa. What was his motivation for doing this? The only way he could make money by kidnapping her was to sell her back to the father, who was in Paris. Keeping her just meant added expenses and risk for him, with no clear benefit, and hauling her off to another city served no apparent purpose.

The squlaor of poverty

The squalor of poverty

Now, although I’ve complained about the Nice sequence in terms of the Graduate’s motivations, it does allow Perret to make some interesting observations about class in French society. When Bosco takes his 100 franc note to a café and asks for service, the waiter chases him off because of his dirty clothes, ignoring the money. Bosco has to buy a new suit before he can get service. He also makes a big deal out of the soft hotel bed – which is unlike any he’s ever slept on, and there seems to be a moment when he reflects sadly that the child had been used to such luxury before she fell into the Graduate’s hands (I could be reading that in myself, no title card cues us as to what he is thinking). In a way, much of this movie is about the tragedy of a child losing her middle class comforts, and about how the basic decency of Bosco allows him to move from poverty toward a more “normal” middle class existence. For that reason, I think the sequence in Nice was important to the narrative, I just don’t think it was set up properly.

There’s an interesting bit in a newspaper clipping during the father’s military service about how the Moroccans have “advisors” with “strong German accents. This reflects the tensions between Germany and France even in the years before World War I, and the fact that they were already in undeclared/indirect conflict repeatedly during the final years.

Great lighting

Great lighting

Most of the movie is edited in sequence, with each scene playing out before moving on to the next one, although there is some cross-cutting in the sequences when Bosco follows the Graduate and calls in the police. The real strength of the movie, however, is the photography by Georges Specht. There are a number of interesting backlit scenes, as well as some shots which are much darker than we usually see in movies from the time, including the “dark” themed crime movies of Louis Feuillade. The use of mise-en-scene establishes the contrast between the comfortable and opulent home of the family, and the squalid conditions of the cobbler and his underworld associates. I found it to be a technical as well as a narrative success.

Director: Léonce Perret

Camera: Georges Specht

Starring: Suzanne Privat, Émile Keppens, Louis Leubas, Marc Gérard, Maurice Lagrenée, possibly René Navarre

Run Time: 2 hrs, 4 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Mysterious Portrait

Alternate Title: Le Portrait mystérieux

This short trick film from Georges Méliès displays his fascination with twinning and also is I believe the first of several of his films in which paintings come to life.

mysterious-portraitMéliès enters a stage with a large empty picture frame in the center, set against a backdrop crowded with posters. He walks through the frame to demonstrate that it is a three-dimensional object, with nothing inside of it. Then he walks offstage and rolls up the backdrop, revealing another one with what looks like the courtyard of a castle on it. He places a canvas inside the frame and a stool on the front of it. He gestures and suddenly a second image of him appears inside the frame, sitting on the stool. The two Méliès interact with each other and imitate one another. Then the Méliès outside the frame gestures again and the one inside becomes blurry and disappears. The remaining one walks behind the frame again, then comes out to take a bow.

Although this movie builds on the multiple exposure effect used for “The Four Troublesome Heads,” the really exciting innovation for me was the fade used to make the portrait-Méliès disappear. I believe it is the first example of a fade in cinema, or one of the first at any rate. I was completely baffled as to why he changes the backdrop until I realized that the first backdrop shows posters for other acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. That first part of the movie was intended as a kind of advertising to the audience about other things to come and see. Méliès would use this promotional idea again in the movie “The Hilarious Posters” (1905), in which the ads themselves come to life.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Conjuror (1899)

Alternate Titles: L’impressionist fin de siècle, An Up-to-Date Conjuror, A Turn-of-the-Century Illusionist.

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is another display of his attempts to recreate a magic act on the screen, using the benefits of special effects to produce wonders. It is fast paced and largely plotless.

conjurorAt the beginning, Méliès, in a magician’s costume, is positioning a full-sized mannequin of a woman on a table. He quickly brings her to life. She jumps down, bows, and dances a bit, then Méliès seats her in a chair and covers her shoulders with a shawl or blanket. He picks up a large basket or tube and places it on the table. He then covers her with the blanket and removes it with a flourish, making her disappear. Then he pulls up the tube on the table and she is revealed to be underneath. He picks her up and suddenly she turns into confetti, which he sprinkles about liberally. He puts the tube back on the table and covers himself with the blanket, disappearing and then appearing beneath the tube, which he removes himself. He leaps down from the table, turning into the woman in the process. She climbs up onto the table and jumps down, turning into Méliès. He now turns a tumble, disappears, and appears at stage left. He sits on the table and disappears again, this time in a puff of smoke.

The speed of the substitution splices gives this movie a kind of insane rhythm. Nothing is as it seems – or not for very long. Motion is the only constant. In less than sixty seconds, we see at least eight special effects. I think this gives this movie a manic pace not equaled by his earlier work. The woman in this movie seems familiar to me, after watching so many other Méliès films. She doesn’t seem to be ID’d anywhere, so I’m assuming it isn’t Méliès’s wife, but she does seem to have been a frequent co-star.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Day of Silents (1916)

I always like to do a quick writeup when I attend a festival or event where Century Films are shown, and yesterday I flew to San Francisco for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’sA Day of Silents” at the Castro Theater. There were six blocks of movies on the schedule, all with live musical accompaniment, and all worth seeing in themselves. There was also a book signing and a vendors’ room, conveniently located on the mezzanine level of the Castro. Overall, the event was well-managed and professional, although maybe a bit more “serious” in tone than some of the other festivals I’ve attended.

day-of-silentsThe only true Century Films to screen yesterday were the opening block of Chaplin shorts from Essanay Studios. They showed “His New Job,” “The Champion,” and “A Night in the Show,” all of which I’ve reviewed before (follow the links). In fact, they used the recent digital restorations from Blackhawk films prepared by Flicker Alley, which is exactly the prints I watched on DVD for the reviews, so there was nothing new to me. However, as I’ve long known, silent comedy always benefits from the presence of a live audience, and this was no exception. The experience was boosted by the attendance of my ten-year-old nephew Kai, who laughed and bounced in his seat throughout.

anders_als_die_andern_1919_posterOther close-to-100-year old movies included “Anders als die Andern” (“Different from the Others”) and a collection of Pathé newsclips, some of which dated as far back as 1910. “Different” was a social-reform movie made in Germany to oppose Paragraph 175 of the legal code, which made “active” homosexuality a crime. I’ll be reviewing it in 2019. The Pathé collection (1910-1925) included images from the First World War, the Mexican Revolution, and the soon-to-begin Russian Revolution, as well as uprisings in Ireland and South Africa. Anyone who thinks of the Silent Era as some kind of “simpler time” should look at these clips and think again (they didn’t even include footage of the massive KKK March on Washington in 1925).

strike

A striking image from “Strike”

The movies from the twenties were “So This is Paris” (1926), “Strike” (1925), “The Last Command” (1928) and “Sadie Thompson” (1928). Of these, special mention should go to the Alloy Orchestra for providing an appropriately bombastic score for Sergei Eisenstein’s first feature film. I generally find Eisenstein to be heavy-handed and awkward, despite his great reputation, but with the right music, the images can become an exciting ride. This was a case, for me, of the music being better than the movie. I should also mention Donald Sosin, who gave us piano scores for most of the other movies that fit the pictures nicely.

Generally, the SFSFF manages to happen at a time when I’m too busy with grading to travel, but this one-day jaunt to San Francisco was a pleasant diversion at the end of an academic term. I hope there will be more like this in the future.