Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: February, 2017

Turning the Tables (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that shows that the very basic humor established in “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “The Lone Fisherman” continued to have its appeal even after seven or eight years of cinematic development.

turning-the-tables

We see a small watering hole, with a sign that reads “No swimming allowed in this lake.” Two shirtless boys are frolicking in it, and soon another little crowd of boys runs up and starts stripping down to their shorts to jump in. Not long afterward, a policeman (distinguishable because of his hard cap and billy club) runs up and yells. All of the boys climb out of the lake to what seems to be a stream of abuse from the angry policeman. Finally, having taken enough, they push him into the water. While he blusters and drips in the water, they gather up their clothes and run off. The policeman climbs out of the water to pursue.

Although 1903 saw the release of a number of relatively sophisticated films from Edison, incorporating editing, multiple angles, and complete narratives, there were still dozens of releases that year that followed the established formulae. In this case, we have a variation on a theme that is as old as the movies themselves: the young miscreants getting the better of the adult authority figure, only to be pursued (and presumably punished) by that authority. The policeman’s uniform is very simplistic in this example, more suggesting a sketch of a costume than the full thing, which makes me wonder if this movie was even planned out very much in advance.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Scrap in Black and White (1903)

This short from Edison shows us something about race and children, but it may be hard to pin down exactly what that message is. From the ending punch line (forgive the pun), it appears to be intended as a comedy, although I’m not sure how funny it is.

scrap-in-black-and-white

An impromptu boxing ring has been rigged up in a park or backyard, and two boys of perhaps 10 to 12 years of age sit in chairs on either side. One is black, the other white, and they seem to be evenly matched in terms of height and musculature. White adults serve as referees and supporters, and there is another white child sitting on the grass as an audience. The two boys begin to fight, and after a short time the white boy goes down and the referee begins to count. He gets up before the count is over and the fight continues until the bell. Then the boys go to their corners and are fanned with towels. The white boy drinks from a water bottle, while the black boy drinks from a bucket. They get up and begin fighting again, winding up in an embrace, and they both go down. The men throw buckets of water on both of them, and then laugh heartily, when they get up wet and walk out of the ring.

Michelle Wallace, who has written about race in early film, gives a short intro to this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD. She says that it raises some questions about the racial order, since “the black boy is allowed to win.” The problem with that (and I suspect she hadn’t seen the movie immediately before making that comment), is that neither boy actually wins, the fight is called on account of the ending joke. In fact, it looks to me as if the white boy “takes a dive” on instruction from the adults during the part where he is briefly counted over. Prior to that, he is fighting much harder and gets in what look like real hits, while the black boy merely taps his opponent occasionally and seems not to know how to box. I would agree that there is no clear racial hierarchy imposed on this film, however. The children appear to be equals, for the purposes of this simulated boxing match, and they both wind up equally humiliated by the adults’ joke. Unlike movies like “Watermelon Contest,” the point of this does not seem to dehumanize the black subject, which is interesting, although I have no explanation of why they wanted a white and a black fighter, instead of two white children, for this movie.

Director: Unkown

Camera: A.C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 11 secs

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

Best Picture 1916

And now we come to the big award, the one that describes what the most “important” movie was of the year. In my not-terribly-humble opinion, of course. Here we see what movie really stands out 100 years after its release as the one to see by future generations. As with all these awards, I’m not necessarily saying “this is what would have won if there had been an Academy Awards ceremony in 1916,” I’m saying what it looks like from the current context. In that sense, these awards are more for the future than the past. In my first year, I chose “Cabiria,” the epic spectacle of Giovanni Pastrone (who also won Best Director). Last year, it was “The Cheat,” a story of betrayal and sexual dominance contrasted with racial intolerance, directed by this year’s Best Director, Cecil B. DeMille.

This year, the nominations range from the well-known to the obscure. Probably the best known movie of 1916 (and a likely winner then, despite its lack of box office profitability), is D.W. Griffith’s immense spectacle “Intolerance.” This movie has a lot in common with “Cabiria,” particularly in the massive sets used to re-create ancient Babylon. Also well known in its day was “Hell’s Hinges,” the apocalyptic Western starring this year’s Best Actor, William S. Hart. Hart & co. burned down an entire Western town to make this grand story of revenge come to life. Far more obscure, and even unreleased in its own day, we also have “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” by Marion E. Wong, who took home an award for Best Supporting Actress. While it has some technical flaws, this independent movie gives a unique look at Asian American immigrant life from the perspective of the immigrants themselves. The first British production on the list is “East Is East,” a consideration of the class system and the importance of knowing yourself which garnered several nominations, but no actual awards in other categories. Perhaps the whole could be better than its parts, as the movie is entertaining and enjoyable. “A Life for a Life,” directed by past Best Director Evgeni Bauer, won its star, Vera Kholodnaia, the Best Actress award. It depicts a tragedy on a grand scale as a woman marries for convenience, despite being in love with another man. Cecil B. DeMille took home this year’s Best Director award for his work on “Joan the Woman” as well as having directed the Best Picture of 1915. Can he secure both slots with this depiction of the life of the French saint and nationalist? The one contribution from Germany is the serialHomunculus” which comes to us in incomplete form today, but is still viewable as a reasonably complete narrative. This was one of the first movies of the period that I ever saw, and its story of a man created by science who discovers he cannot love or be loved has stayed with more for more than a decade. Actor William Gillette brought “Sherlock Holmes” to the screen for the first time, with the authorization of Arthur Conan Doyle, after a successful stage run in the role. This movie was lost for many years, but its influence on later portrayals of the great detective cannot be denied. One of the runaway hits of the UK this year was the documentary “The Battle of the Somme,” which won an easy category as Best Documentary since that was the only one I saw this year. But, it is such a powerful and influential depiction of such an important historical event that I had to include it for consideration as Best Picture as well. One more William S. Hart movie made the list, even though “Return of Draw Egan” didn’t win in any other categories, and had few nominations. Still, it is another example of how this early film star pioneered the tropes that would become familiar in Westerns for a century, as the bad man turns good for the love of a woman and cleans up a town of desperados.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1916 are:

  1. “Intolerance”
  2. “Hell’s Hinges”
  3. “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. “East Is East”
  5. “A Life for a Life”
  6. “Joan the Woman”
  7. “Homunculus”
  8. “Sherlock Holmes”
  9. “The Battle of the Somme”
  10. “The Return of Draw Egan”

And the winner is…”The Battle of the Somme!”

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

I’m breaking Academy rules by even considering a documentary in this category, but to me the best picture is the best picture, regardless of its genre or methods. Admitting that there are other movies on the list that could be argued for, in terms of scale, directing, box office success, or critical acclaim, I really felt that for a modern audience the chance to witness World War I as it happened is too significant to be ignored. All of the movies on the above list have stayed with me since I viewed them, but “Battle of the Somme” had the strongest impact. So, for this year at least, a British documentary trumps all of Hollywood’s finest product.

Thanks to everyone for reading and liking!

Best Director 1916

The director’s craft developed over the years of early film at a remarkable pace, so that directors working in 1916 had already achieved a high standard of sophistication and ability. Directors had already come to see themselves as creative artists, as being responsible for coordinating the technical talents of their crew into a single vision They were also the one objective eye watching over the actors, coaching them when performances gave too much or too little. Directors might even see themselves as the final “author” or authority on a film, even though the producers often used economic power to make decisions beyond the control of the directors who worked for them. In this category, we assess the artistic talent of the directors of the year 1916.

Evgeni Bauer was last year’s winner, and his movie “A Life for a Life” has been honored this year with multiple nominations. It shows his talent for mise-en-scène and working in multiple dimensions, and also made a major star of its lead actress, Vera Kholodnaia, this years Century Award winner for Best Actress. His countryman Yakov Protazonov is less well-remembered today, but contributed an interesting entry with “Queen of Spades.” This is the second (known) take on the famous Pushkin story in film, and deals interestingly with the transition between time periods in alternating flashback and “modern” storylines. First-time director Marion E. Wong directed her own screenplay in “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” a story about Asian American immigrants told from their side that still seems original and interesting a hundred years later. She showed her talent for sensitive storytelling as well as good instincts for the cinematic art in this long lost film. Cecil B. DeMille has yet to take home a Century Award, although he’s been nominated each year since I started. His depiction of the life of Joan of Arc in “Joan the Woman” shows how far he’s come in the time since he gave us “The Squaw Man” as his freshman effort. Finally, Charles Swickard and William S. Hart co-directed Hart’s highly effective vehicle, “Hell’s Hinges.” Hart took home the award for Best Actor on that one, can he also manage to win as half a director?

The nominees for Best Director of 1916 are:

  1. Evgeni Bauer, for “A Life for a Life”
  2. Yakov Protazonov, for “Queen of Spades”
  3. Marion E. Wong, for “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. Cecil B. DeMille, for “Joan the Woman”
  5. Charles Swickard and William S. Hart, for “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…Cecil B. DeMille!

joan-the-woman2

I think DeMille’s work is among the best that Hollywood offered in this period. Last year, although he didn’t win the director award, his movie “The Cheat” won as Best Picture, not least due to his direction. Today, DeMille is mostly remembered for grand spectacles like “The Ten Commandments,” but he tried a little of everything in his early years, and that’s part of how he became such an effective showman. In “Joan the Woman,” he fictionalizes enough of the story to hold human interest in a person few can really identify with – a saint and a martyr. The movie is enormously effective and displays the skill he quickly honed by jumping right into feature production in 1914.

Best Leading Actress 1916

The nineteen-teens was an era of memorable female images on the screen. Whether they were Vamps, Divas, or Damsels, whether exotic, matronly or sweetly pretty, women were the focus of much of the camera’s gaze. Coming out of the nineteenth century, when women were covered up with heavy garments in the West, the development of cinema in the early twentieth seemed to offer increasing opportunity for women to become visually distinctive, and in a silent medium visual distinctiveness was the key to fame and prestige. Actresses with leading parts seized that opportunity to display their talents in the new visual medium.

The women up for Century Awards in this category each gives a performance that goes beyond spectacle, however. Vera Kholodnaia became  tremendous super-star in Russia, in part for her role in “A Life for a Life,” in which she portrays the tragic character of a woman who marries a man she does not love as part of a “deal” between her lover and her mother. Florence Turner is more down to earth in “East Is East” in her role as a working-class orphan who inherits a fortune and gives it away to find true happiness in herself. Former opera singer Geraldine Farrar shows that her success in “Carmen” was not a one-time achievement by taking on the unlikely role of a teenage saint in “Joan the Woman.” Marguerite Clark would later influence Walt Disney’s vision of a fairy tale princess in her turn as “Snow White.” And Violet Wong stars as the much put-upon young bride in an unhappy marriage in “The Curse of Quon Gwon.”

The nominees for best actress in a leading role are:

  1. Vera Kholodnaia, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Florence Turner, in “East Is East”
  3. Geraldine Farrar, in “Joan the Woman”
  4. Marguerite Clark, in “Snow White”
  5. Violet Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

And the winner is…Vera Kholodnaia!

Uh oh, columns!

Vera Kholodnaia had worked with Evgeni Bauer several times by 1916, including in them movie “Children of the Age,” which I discussed two years ago. And, although she had already earned recognition as a major star by this time, it was “A Life for a Life” that was her biggest success, resulting in her being dubbed “the Queen of the Screen.” And she truly shows her ability as a silent film Diva in this movie, as she goes from innocence, to happiness in newfound love, to betrayal and tragedy. In a real life tragedy, she would survive the Russian Revolution by only two years, but her funeral in 1919 was one of the biggest events of that year. We can honor her work now with a Century Award and still look forward to any more surviving pictures she did in the short years remaining to her.

Best Leading Actor 1916

Screen actors in the silent era had to learn to communicate their inner worlds effectively without the use of dialog. In an era in which showing emotions was still somewhat suspect in men, they needed to have visible feelings – yet still retain a “manly” self-control to be seen as heroic. Silent film actors learned to show power and control while still sharing what their character was going through, a talent that is often over-looked by audiences accustomed to different styles of acting.

This year, a number of performances showed that strength in different ways. In “Sherlock Holmes,” William Gillette gave the world its first authorized screen appearance of the brilliant detective, and established tropes with his gestures and facial expressions that would inform future generations. Charlie Chaplin, the one comedian in this year’s nominees, brought a pathos and depth to his familiar “Little Tramp” character by giving him a more serious romantic involvement in “The Vagabond.” As the title character in “Homunculus,” Olaf Fønss expressed frustration and genius side by side. The character arc of Henry Edwards in “East Is East” takes him from youth and poverty to comfortable middle age, all the while maintaining his deep feelings for the girl next door. Finally, William S. Hart gives a powerful performance as a man who transforms from rowdy gunslinger to defender of decency in “Hell’s Hinges.”

The nominees for best actor in a leading role for 1916 are:

  1. William Gillette, in “Sherlock Holmes”
  2. Charlie Chaplin, in “The Vagabond”
  3. Olaf Fønss, in “Homonculus”
  4. Henry Edwards, in “East Is East”
  5. William S. Hart, in “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…William S. Hart!

Hells Hinges3

I felt that the quiet dignity and authenticity that Hart brought to his Western tough-guy put this movie into a category over and above the typical genre picture of the day. Hart is always in control, yet you know when something is going on inside of him. He demonstrates love-at-first-sight through the simple act of removing his hat before the lady when she arrives. He shows his boiling anger at seeing the church burn by hardening his eyes a little, so that the menace from him is palpable. There are multiple close-ups in the film, any of which could be an iconic image of the American West. For me, this was the performance of 1916.

Best Supporting Actor 1916

Actors in supporting roles can get lost in the shuffle. As bartenders, passerby, butlers, drivers, or other background extras, we are likely to think of them as simply part of the scenery. Sometimes, however, a “character” actor brings something special to his part, something that makes him stand out as integral to the story, or as a high point of the movie itself. These are the actors considered in this category.

In 1916, I saw a mix of comedic parts and villains who seemed worthy of mention as supporting actors. Al St. John takes his energetic jealousy to the point of bizarre psychopathy as the foil of “Fatty and Mabel Adrift.” Eric Campbell is more of a straight-man or a victim opposite Charlie Chaplin in “The Count.” Marcel Levésque may seem like a sidekick, but his romantic comedy sub-plot is possibly the most interesting part of “The Bloody Wedding,” the final chapter in the serialLes Vampires.” On the more serious side, Robert McKim was a convincing Western bad guy in the sophisticated William S. Hart vehicle “Return of Draw Egan,” and Ernest Maupin was the first to bring Professor Moriarty to film audiences in “Sherlock Holmes.”

The nominees for best supporting actor for 1916 are:

  1. Al St. John, in “Fatty and Mabel Adrift”
  2. Robert McKim, in “Return of Draw Egan”
  3. Eric Campbell, in “The Count”
  4. Marcel Levésque, in “The Bloody Wedding”
  5. Ernest Maupain, in “Sherlock Holmes”

And the winner is…Marcel Levésque!

A jealous suitor.

A jealous suitor.

Levésque was up last year as well, but lost his award to Sessue Hayakawa. His entry this year was stronger, a case of the “supporting” character being more powerful and exciting than the ostensible lead. He practically saved “Les Vampires” for me, which never got to be as much fun as “Fantômas,” despite the presence of him and Musidora. I’m looking forward this year to seeing how he fairs in the remainder of “Judex!”

Best Supporting Actress 1916

Women were an important part of silent movie history, often stepping outside of the “traditional” roles to become involved in writing, production, and even directing. Historian James Card emphasized the depth of female characters on the screen as well – he often found that the women in this period are more interesting than the men. Not only as stars, but also as supporting character, female parts often gave their actors a chance to stretch and grow as artists.

This year, the women in supporting roles varied from heroines to mothers to villains, and even villainous mothers. Lidiia Koroneva’s role as a mother in “A Life for a Life” is non-traditional, in that she is a successful businesswoman whose decisions regarding inheritance and favoritism inform the rest of the plot. In “Return of Draw Egan,” Louise Glaum brings vivaciousness and brazenness to her role as a femme fatale. Constance Talmadge has a more positive approach, but no less energy, in her part as “The Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s spectacle “Intolerance.” Appearing in her own movie, “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” director Marion E. Wong also makes a complex villain as the traditional mother-in-law of an immigrant girl torn between past and present. And Musidora was the iconic Irma Vep in “Les Vampires,”  going through multiple costume changes and misadventures during the course of “The Lord of Thunder.”

The Nominees for Best Supporting Actress of 1916 are:

  1. Lidiia Koroneva, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Louise Glaum, in “Return of Draw Egan”
  3. Constance Talmadge, in “Intolerance”
  4. Marion E. Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  5. Musidora, in “The Lord of Thunder”

And the winner is…Marion E. Wong for “The Curse of Quon Gown!”

What's that on your shoulder, son?

All of the nominees were good this year, but I felt that first time actor-director Wong deserved recognition for the subtlety and strength of her performance. Because the movie was never released, she never became the star she could have been, but a century later she can still be celebrated as one of the best actresses of her era.

Best Screenplay 1916

Movies begin with a story of some kind. Although the silent cinema as an art form transcends the written word to include visual artistry, acting and pantomime, editing and forms of structure that no static medium can reproduce, it begins with an idea, and that idea is most often and most effectively a written script. Although films were often improvised in the earliest days, and still sometimes at studios like the “fun factory” of Keystone, by 1916 most critically and commercially successful films (especially features) had detailed scripts written in advance. This category recognizes the importance of that writing as a source of great filmmaking.

This year, the screenplays up for consideration range include many original screenplays, only a few with adaptations from other sources. The original story for “East Is East” was highly influential on later British movie plots, setting up a young orphan who suddenly inherits a fortune who has to discover her true class loyalties. Another original story, “Hell’s Hinges” pushes the limits of the traditional Western to a new extreme of darkness and apocalypticism. “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” another original story, gives a truly unique view of Asian-American life that unfortunately would not become influential on American cinema, in part because it failed to achieve distribution during the lifetime of its creator, Marian E. Wong. The Russian movie “A Life for a Life” is based on a French novel and shows the ongoing fascination of the movie-going classes of that time with romance and tragedy. Finally, the screenplay for Cecil B. DeMille’s historical epic, “Joan the Woman” takes liberties with the biography of Joan of Arc to create a highly entertaining version of that tale.

The nominees for best screenplay of 1916 are:

  1. East Is East
  2. Hell’s Hinges
  3. The Curse of Quon Gwon
  4. A Life for A Life
  5. Joan the Woman

And the winner is…“The Curse of Quon Gwon!”

Curse of Quon Gwon3

This sensitive and moving story never got the chance for recognition during its own time, but a hundred years later we can see it as a truly unique example of independent filmmaking. Although it has its heroes and villains, the screenplay avoids caricaturing its characters and gives each a clear, believable motivation. It fits to some degree into the “lost girl” narratives that were common at the time, but takes the situation in a new direction by bringing in the clash between traditional values and modernity in the context of the immigrant experience. Truly an excellent screenplay, carried out well by its freshman director.

Best Visual Effects 1916

Movies are often seen as the most “realistic” of art forms, since photography captures light as it is, rather than allowing the artist to create the image from their mind, as in painting or sculpture. But, we all know that movies have always tricked our eyes with special effects, to make the unreal or even impossible appear to happen before our very eyes. By 1916, filmmakers had moved beyond the early style of “trick films” whose limited plots centered entirely around effects, to complex storylines with effects woven in to enhance the fantasy or escape that was now at the center of attention.

The first filmed version of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” involved building a mockup of the Nautilus, and even more impressively the development of new techniques for filming underwater. Director Louis Feuillade shows what he had learned in his apprenticeship under Alice Guy with recovery of body thrown from a moving train in “The Spectre” (an episode of the serialLes Vampires”) and also gives us his patented triple-split-screen to represent a phone conversation and the space between the speakers. The movie “The Devil’s Needle” enters into the realm of fantasy in showing the hallucinations of a heroin addict. In the serial “Homunculus,” visual effects are used to illustrate the creation of an artificial man, and some of the powers he exhibits. “The Mysterious Shadow,” the first official episode of the “Judex” serial, shows the secret base of the hero of that story, and also the disinterment and revival of a corpse.

The nominees for best visual effects of 1916 are:

  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  2. The Spectre (Les Vampires)
  3. The Devil’s Needle
  4. Homunculus
  5. The Mysterious Shadow (Judex)

And the winner is…“20,000 Leagues under the Sea!”

20000 Leagues Under the Sea1

This was a pretty easy one. Out of the movies I saw last year, nothing matched this science fiction tale in terms of visual effects. Certainly, the other movies had their moments, but none of them really offered anything new: split screen, double images, fade outs, trick props, lighting effects had all been done before. But, googly-eyed octopuses aside, Universal really took out all the stops for this production. Judging by its record at the box office, this early adventure movie paid off as well. According to Moving Picture World, it played at one picture palace for over eight weeks, something that nearly never happened in the high turnover of early film.