Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: February, 2017

Best Cinematography 1916

Moving pictures are, in essence, a form of photography, even though the art form rapidly expanded to include narrative, editing, and acting as well. In order for those pieces to work however, they need to have good images to create them. The person running the camera is responsible for those images, and this is the category that honors those people. Camerawork was always a highly technical process, and many cinematographers have regarded themselves as artists only second, or incidentally, to their technical skill. But don’t let that fool you – their eyes see the world in a different way, and when they succeed in showing that to us, we experience their art at its best.

In 1916, there were some great examples of the art and craft of cinematography. Eugene Gaudio has been credited with the first underwater photography in a feature film for his work on “20,000 Leagues under the Sea.” Elgin Lessley managed a surprisingly moody lighting style for the dark “Fatty” Arbuckle vehicle “He Did and He Didn’t.” In his autobiography, Billy Bitzer describes the unique challenges of working on the elaborate production of “Intolerance,” including setting up one of them most complex crane shots of the day. Joseph H. August uses camera angles to isolate the anti-hero of “Hell’s Hinges,” as well as effective pans that take advantage of the lonesomeness of the Western setting. And, although “German Expressionism” is still a few years away, Carl Hoffman may have created the visual prototype in the serial “Homunculus.”

The nominees for best cinematography in 1916 are:

  1. Eugene Gaudio, for “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”
  2. Elgin Lessley, for “He Did and He Didn’t”
  3. Billy Bitzer, for “Intolerance”
  4. Joseph H. August, for “Hell’s Hinges”
  5. Carl Hoffmann, for “Homunculus”

homunculus_-_teil_6_1917_filmplakat

And the winner is…Carl Hoffman, for “Homunuculus!”

This was another of the tough choices, because I can’t deny that all of the possible selections was influential in some way or another in the years to come, but I felt that “Homunculus” was the most ahead of its time. Note that we don’t even have a complete copy available for viewing, so making the call becomes that much harder, although of course with movies this old that is par for the course. From what we do have, the “creation” scenes in “Homunculus” stand out as being some of the most creative images on 1916, and surely harbingers of what we would see in 1919 and later.

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Best Editing 1916

Even before Sergei Eisenstein introduced his “theory of montage,” it was obvious to filmmakers that audiences reacted not only to images on the screen, but to their sequence and juxtaposition. Georges Méliès, who made some of the earliest movies, created “magical” effects by snipping together two pieces of film of the same scene, so that people and objects could appear and disappear. In the ensuing years, subtleties of narration, simultaneous action, and characters thoughts came to be represented through editing. Edwin S. Porter and D.W. Griffith are specific filmmakers who made notable advances in editing, but each year, we find some remarkable examples in unexpected places.

In 1916, editing was used in movies in a variety of ways. D.W. Griffith attempted to “parallel” four different storylines in “Intolerance,” at times implying “simultaneous” actions that were separated by centuries. In “East IsEast,” we see parallel editing to heighten our concern over whether an orphan girl will be located in time to receive her inheritance. Douglas Fairbanks is treated to some fast cutting in “His Picture in the Papers,” during a chase scene and a plot to crash a railroad car full of vegetarian food products. Documentary footage was given creative editing in “The Battle of the Somme,” allowing a combination of real and staged footage to reproduce one of the bloodiest battles of World War I. And, in “The Bloody Wedding,” an episode of “Les Vampires,” Louis Feuillade used some surprising cross-cutting between an assassin and his victim to draw out a very tense scene.

The nominees for best editing of 1916 are:

  1. Intolerance
  2. East Is East
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. The Battle of the Somme
  5. The Bloody Wedding

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

I've seen this a hundred times.

While all of the nominees this year were good, and I have to admit that “Intolerance” was an especially influential movie on later editing techniques, I really felt that the best editing I saw was in this movie about the bravery of British troops under duress. By creating footage that shows the progress of the battle from planning and preparation, through operations and aftermath, the filmmakers made a narrative without having direct control over the script in advance. This wasn’t the case in the earlier “actuality” films of the era, where a few clips are assembled to show a location in detail or a couple of stars (like Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle) running around at an important event. The editing of “The Battle of the Somme” is what allows it to become a powerful human document of the past.

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.

Egyptian Fakir with Dancing Monkey (1903)

This short film from Edison is a good example of the use of cinema to bring exotic locations and sights to the eyes of people who had limited opportunities for travel. Directed by A.C. Abadie, who we saw as an actor in “What Happened on Twenty Third Street,” it also displays the odd effect of putting a musical event onto silent film.

egyptian-fakirThe camera is low to the ground, and gives us a view of a bearded man with a turban squatting on the ground. Near the man is a goat. The man plays a drum, and in front of him is a monkey, attached by a string to his master. The monkey wears a little costume that includes a fez and pants which are covered in little bells. It shimmies and dances in time to the drumming, in order to make the bells ring. It also holds a long stick in its tail. At one point, it stands on its head. At another, it hops across the ground. Finally, the man puts down his drum and picks up a stick like the one the monkey has, and they “duel” with the sticks as he continues to sing, presumably beating out the time by hitting their sticks together rhythmically. There is a jump cut at the end, after which another man in Middle Eastern garb joins the “fakir” and stares into the camera.

I’m not certain whether this movie was shot in Egypt, but the illusion that it may have been is fairly complete – the only foliage we see are palm fronds, and there is no indication that it was shot in a studio or a convenient part of New York. It seems like without the singing, or the sounds of the bells and the sticks, we must be missing a lot of the impact of the performance. However, from a visual standpoint it certainly gives the viewer a look at something that would be out of the ordinary for early-twentieth century Americans, and the monkey’s trained responses to the music are impressive. The monkey has its back to the camera during almost the whole film, but it is still entertaining.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown man and monkey

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Oh Doctor (1917)

This comedy directed by and starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle is also an early vehicle for Buster Keaton, who plays his spoiled and immature son. While a bit rough around the edges, there is some good physical and situational comedy here.

oh-doctorThe movie begins with Arbuckle and his family arriving at the racetrack in their car. Arbuckle puts down an anchor when he parks, and abuses Junior every time he tries to speak. Shortly thereafter, the Vamp (Alice Mann) drives up with her beau, Al St. John. Al gets his jacket caught in the door of the cab and is dragged through a mud puddle as a result. Meanwhile, Alice flirts with Arbuckle, who we now learn is a doctor who needs cash. He tricks his wife into letting him sit near the Vamp, and overhears Al getting a “hot tip” on a horse, so he bets all his money on it. Of course, the horse is a dud and runs the wrong way. His wife is very angry at him for losing their money, and they go home while Buster laughs about “the funny horse that ran the wrong way.”

oh-doctor2The Vamp and Al now formulate a plan to get the expensive necklace they saw Arbuckle’s wife wearing. She calls him and says she has swallowed  can of shoe polish, so Arbuckle agrees to make a house call. Along the way, he sees a man selling a “miracle soap” that will prevent all illness. Worried about losing business, Arbuckle sets his car on automatic and sends it plowing through the crowd, then hands out business cards to the injured spectators. He whistles and the car obediently returns like a dog. Then, he finally goes to the Vamp’s apartment, where he fixes martinis for both of them from the supplies in his doctor’s bag.

oh-doctor1Meanwhile, Al has appeared at Arbuckle’s house pretending to be a patient, and is able to steal the necklace from around the wife’s neck without her noticing. Buster sees him getting away, though, and follows him back to the Vamp’s apartment, calling his mother and letting her know what has happened. Now, Al and the Vamp have to get Arbuckle out of the house, so they send him to a bookie with another hot tip. He puts in the bet, but then goes back. There is a series of comedic close-encounters as Al avoids Arbuckle, Arbuckle avoids his wife, and the wife tries to get back her necklace. Then Arbuckle finds a police uniform in the kitchen and puts on a false mustache, using it to intimidate Al and retrieve the necklace. At this point, Buster shows up with several more policemen, and Arbuckle bluffs his way past them by pretending to arrest his wife. Then he tries to collect his winnings from the bookie, but they all run away at the sight of his uniform. He takes his money anyway, but his wife gets the last word.

oh-doctor4Contrary to his “Old Stoney Face” standard of later years, Keaton in this movie emotes with powerful facial expressions, laughing uproariously and bawling at the slightest provocation. The comedy is a bit more “situational” than most of what we associate with Keaton and Arbuckle, but they both get in plenty of pratfalls as well. Keaton, in particular, does an impressive tumble backwards over a table to land comfortably in a chair. I suspect that Arbuckle (who directed) had told him to cry so frequently, thinking that it would be good comedy, but I found that it made the relationship seem more abusive and less funny. Overall, I wouldn’t rate this as the best work either actor has done: I spent a lot of it waiting to see what Keaton or Al St. John would come up with next. The biggest laugh Arbuckle got from me was when he started handing out business cards to the people he had injured.

oh-doctor3This year marks the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton’s entry into film comedy, and this blog post marks my entry into the “Buster Keaton Blogathon,” which has been running now for three years. For the next few years, we’ll be able to track Keaton’s development, as we have with Chaplin over the past few. He definitely showed physical ability and screen presence right from the moment he got started, even if he honed and refined his talent as he gained experience. I’m looking forward to getting to know Buster as this project develops.

Now go  check out the other entries in the Blogathon!

buster-blogathon-the-third-1-copyDirector: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Mann

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is a famous early movie by Edwin S. Porter, released earlier in the same year as “The Great Train Robbery.” It is one of the best-known examples of early editing structure, and gives us an opportunity to discuss the development of cinema beyond the single-shot film to the multi-shot narrative, and how this concept has changed over time.

lifeofanamericanfiremanThe first shot in this movie is an interesting trick shot, or special effect. A fireman is seen dozing at work, and over his shoulder is an image of his dream. He is dreaming about a woman putting a small child to bed (perhaps his own wife and child). The next shot is a close-up on a street-corner fire alarm. An anonymous hand opens the case and pulls the alarm. Then we cut to an image of the bunks inside the firehouse, with all of the firemen sleeping. They wake up to the alarm, and then leap out of bed, put on boots and trousers, and slide down the pole to the stables below. We see each one mount the pole and disappear in turn. Then we cut to the stable, and watch as each man slides down the pole in the center of the screen, and runs over to mount the wagon he will ride. Once they are all aboard, the ropes before the horses are taken down, and they race across the screen. Next we see the exterior of the firehouse, and watch as each wagon bolts out the doors and runs onto the street. We cut to another street corner, and watch the fire trucks race by, while crowds of spectators gather to watch them. There are two such shots in sequence, and each one allows each wagon to rush by, the second panning to follow them. This pan ends at the burning house, where we see the fire fighters preparing their hoses.

lifeofanamericanfireman2Now, the scene cuts to the interior of the house, which looks like the same bedroom in the man’s dream from the opening. Smoke is billowing into the room, and the woman and child sleep on the bed. She gets up and runs to the window, screaming for help, then collapses back on the bed. A fire fighter breaks down the door with his axe and runs in. He tears down the curtains and breaks the window open. A ladder appears at the window, and he picks up the unconscious woman, carrying her to it and climbing out on the ladder. A moment later he (or another fire fighter) reappears on the ladder and runs to pick up the sleeping child, taking her out the same way. Now two fire fighters enter from the ladder, wielding a hose, which they spray liberally around the room. The final shot reproduces this last sequence of events, but does so from outside the house (the same shot as the end of the pan, above). A fire fighter enters the burning house from the first floor at about the same moment as the woman appears in the window above. Others set up the ladder from below, and still more train their hose on the house, spraying water in through the open door and windows. Meanwhile, the first fire fighter carries the woman down the ladder and revives her, then runs back to the ladder to recover the child. Finally, the men with the hose climb the ladder, having put out the fire in other parts of the house.

lifeofanamericanfireman1This film s famous for showing Porter’s developing understanding of editing, being a great example of a narrative created by inter-linking shots sequentially. For many years, it was also controversial, because there were two versions – one which followed the sequence I have just described, and another which cross-cut the scenes outside and inside to create a more “modern” style of storytelling. It is pretty well established now that this version is correct: first we see the rescue played out in entirety from inside the house, then we see the entire sequence again from the other perspective. This lines up with audience expectations of the time. People would quite probably have been confused by parallel editing, not being used to seeing shots inter-cut at the time. This gives us a chance to talk a bit about how this whole idea of stitching shots together came about in the first place. The old narrative was that certain “genius” directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter “invented” it. Actually, this isn’t really true. As we have seen in this project, for many years a “film” equaled a single shot of relatively fixed length, that played out some kind of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But often they had related themes, fire fighting being a classic example. So, what various ingenious exhibitors started doing was to create narratives by showing related films in sequence, with their own narration filling in names of characters, etc. So, perhaps you would see “A Morning Alarm” followed by “The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy” and then “Firemen Rescuing Men and Women” while a narrator told you that this was all footage of the same fire. This is where Porter and Méliès (whose “A Trip to the Moon” was a multi-shot film from the previous year) got the idea to make longer movies out of a series of shots. It also explains why they did not cut within their shots – this would have broken the established logic of narrative at the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with James H. White and/or George S. Fleming)

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughn, James H. White

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here.