Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Best Stunts 1916

Stuntwork is dangerous and has generally been underpaid and under-appreciated in movies. To this day, there is no category for “best stunts” in the Oscars, even though stunt workers continue to put their bodies and lives on the line for the movies that are made. I suspect this is for two reasons: 1) In the digital age, it is increasingly difficult to tell a good stunt from a good effect and 2) Giving an award for stuntwork might encourage producers and stunt workers to take extreme risks to get an award. Neither one applies to movies from 100 years ago, so the Century Awards does include the category.

The other great thing about this category is that it gives us an opportunity to better appreciate different categories of film. In areas like cinematography and screenplay, comedies, and especially short comedies, often get short shrift. But, they tend to shine in the “stunts” category. And, in 1916, stunts and comedy combined in the talents of one man especially: Douglas Fairbanks. He features in four of the six nominees in this category, and each time his work is decisive in the nomination. In “The Matrimaniac,” Doug scales walls and leaps onto moving railroad trains to secure his true love. In “Flirting with Fate,” he’s leaping up fire escapes and climbing trees to escape the hit man he hired to kill himself. In “His Picture in the Papers,” Fairbanks swims the ocean, fights a goat, and boxes to redeem himself as heir to a health food empire. And, we see him again in “Reggie Mixes in,” a parody of the gangster genre, in which he leaps from a window after a classic knock-down-drag-out fight. But, Douglas Fairbanks wasn’t the only one in stunts in 1916. We also have “The Poison Man,” an episode of “Les Vampires” in which we see different actors scaling buildings, leaping on top of moving trains, and fighting each other. Finally, there’s that other master of physical comedy, Charlie Chaplin, who donned roller skates and literally skated circles around the rest of his cast in “The Rink.”

The nominees for best stunts of 1916 are

  1. The Matrimaniac
  2. Flirting with Fate
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. Reggie Mixes In
  5. The Poison Man
  6. The Rink

And the winner is…“The Matrimaniac!”

Matrimaniac5

This was one of the tougher choices I had this year. Each of the nominees had really impressive stunts, and in my reviews I mentioned that several of them had placed the actors at considerable risk. But, I felt that Fairbanks had to get credit for essentially inventing a new style of visual comedy in 1915 and perfecting it in 1916, and that this was the best example of that style and of his physicality as an actor from that year. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing Fairbanks in future awards, and even that a rivalry between him and Chaplin may become a recurring theme.

Best Production Design 1916

In the silent era, production design reached monumental proportions. Before the development of advanced special effects that could allow actors to appear to be in outer space, Outer Mongolia, or anywhere a screenwriter could imagine, you pretty much had to build a space that looked like where your story was set. In the very early days, it was sufficient to paint a nice backdrop, but directors got increasingly ambitious, and money got poured into the sets. Soon, we had whole cityscapes, as in 1914’s “Cabiria,” and a number of the candidates for this year’s award.

In “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith took a cue from “Cabiria” and even borrowed some of the style in order to reproduce the city of Babylon before its fall, and also used production design to transport actors and audiences to Biblical Judea, Early Modern France, and the factory towns of the contemporary USA. For “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” the designers built a mock-up submarine as well as the gates to an Indian city and other exotic locations. The set for “One A.M.” simply reproduces a modest apartment, but that apartment provides a complex series of traps and snares for Charlie Chaplin’s funny drunk character to run afoul of. In “Joan the Woman” director Cecil B. DeMille recreates 15th Century France, including castles, keeps, and hamlets. And in “The Captive God” star William S. Hart has an early Mesoamerican city to act in – including pyramids, altars, and complex stepped housing units.

The nominees for best production design of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. 20,000 Leagues under the Sea
  3. One A.M.
  4. Joan the Woman
  5. The Captive God

And the winner is…Intolerance!

Intolerance Babylon

This was pretty much a given. The sets for “Intolerance” are so huge and iconic that they continue to produce gasps from audiences. They are also a good part of the reason that Griffith was never going to make his money back on the film, no matter how well it did at the box office. Today, we can see a reproduction of a part of this set in the heart of Hollywood, at the Hollywood Highland Mall, now one of the most recognizable features of the area, almost as symbolic as the “Hollywood” sign itself. I can think of no greater tribute to what may be the most successful example of production design in history.

Best Costume Design 1916

While we often talk about films in terms of photography and acting, what often stands out most clearly in memory about a movie is the style or idiosyncrasy of the clothing. Whether it’s Charlie Chaplin in the “Little Tramp” outfit or the Stormtroopers in Star Wars, costume often offers an instantly recognizable code for a character’s persona and position. When new and exciting costumes are created for the screen, new icons or symbols can be added to the repertoire of human imagination.

Intolerance” depicts four different ages of history, in part through creative use of costume, perhaps most memorably in the “Babylonian Story,” but also in the French and Judean stories. In “Curse of Quon Gwon,” traditional Chinese attire is sensitively mixed with Westernized clothing to help drive a story of the conflicts inherent in the immigrant experience. Russian actors contrast their own history with that of France in “Queen of Spades,” in part through nineteenth century costume. In “Sherlock Holmes,” actor/director William Gillette preserved an iconic look for the world’s most famous detective by filming his theatrical interpretation of Holmes. And Cecil B. DeMille recreates fifteenth century France with the assistance of well-chosen clothes in “Joan the Woman.”

The nominees for best costume design of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. Curse of Quon Gwon
  3. Queen of Spades
  4. Sherlock Holmes
  5. Joan the Woman

And the winner is…”Intolerance!”

Intolerance_(1916)_-_2

I must admit I went back and forth on this quite a bit. Arguably, “Sherlock Holmes” should win for the same reasons “Kid Auto Races” did in 1914 – because when you want to dress up as Sherlock Holmes for Halloween, you turn right to the look William Gillette invented. But, he created that look on stage, which makes the actual design of costumes for the movie a derivation. Then there was “Curse of Quon Gwon,” which, to my mind, has some of the loveliest costumes of all time. However one suspects that a lot of them were just ordinary clothes for the actors involved. Besides, there was the sheer scope of “Intolerance” to take into account: rather than just a handful of actors costumed convincingly to represent another era or culture, there are hundreds in some shots. And, while I think that some writers have over-rated D.W. Griffith’s historical research, there’s no denying that the costumes are memorable and effective. I had to go with this choice this time out.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 1916

As the close-up becomes an increasingly important piece of filmic vocabulary, the faces and hair of performers are increasingly visible and important aspects of what audiences see and go to movies for. At a minimum, good makeup is necessary to be certain that the camera’s eye sees the performer at his or her best, but hair and makeup can also transform a beauty to a monster, or vice versa. Our selections this year emphasize such extreme transformations.

In “Intolerance,” director D.W. Griffith uses exotic makeup and hairstyles to evoke distant ages, and more subtle styles to show more contemporary periods as he ambitiously travels through time to show the effects of human prejudice through the ages. The Russian production “Queen of Spades” shows us two grand periods in French history, and puts actor Ivan Mosjukine under considerable makeup to create his character of an obsessed soldier. In “Waiters’ Ball,” Roscoe Arbuckle shows that a little change in hair and makeup can make a baby-faced man into a woman, and Gloria Swanson goes the opposite direction in “The Danger Girl.” Finally, the characters of “Snow White” help to create a fairy tale environment with makeup and hairstyles that include an evil witch, a beautiful queen, and, of course, seven children playing grownup dwarves.

The nominees for best makeup and hairstyling of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. Queen of Spades
  3. Waiters Ball
  4. The Danger Girl
  5. Snow White

And the winner is…“Intolerance!”

Intolerance_(film)

Although the work on all of these films is impressive, there’s no denying that the scope and attention to detail in this massive superproduction put it in a class by itself. The Babylonian Story, in particular, features some particularly striking and creative makeup and hairstyles. But, in the French Story and the Judean story, a similar amount of attention (if not as much originality) shines through, and the understated work on the Modern Story makes it a perfect contrast with the other three. While we all know Griffith is not my favorite director, I have to honor him and his crew for what they accomplished here.

Best Documentary 1916

Hello everyone, and welcome to the Century Awards! This year, as in years past, I’ll be posting a winner every hour up to approximately the time the “real” Academy announces the Best Picture for 2016, coinciding with the Century Award for Best Picture of 1916.

I said in my nominations announcement that this category was a “gimme,” since I only saw one documentary this year, but it’s so good I felt it deserved to be honored with a Century Award. Thus, I announce the not-at-all-surprising winner:

“The Battle of the Somme”

Battle of the Somme-film

This movie represents the best traditions of actuality filmmaking, adapted to a new era and one of the most important human events of its period. The Battle of the Somme was a devastating attack on French soil that claimed nearly a million lives and contributed to the attrition of the German army, although it was by no means a decisive Allied victory. British people, eager to see for themselves the struggle of their friends and relatives abroad, flocked to the movie, which also had a highly successful international release at a time when the British film industry was largely stagnant. While some scenes are obviously staged, and in general the photographers restricted to “safe” areas for filming, it is nonetheless a thrilling document of the First World War.