Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: August, 2017

A Visit to Los Angeles (1916)

In anticipation of my coming visit to Hollywood later this week for Cinecon, I thought I’d check out this old depiction of the city from 101 years ago. Produced by the still-young Ford Motor Company, it’s part travelogue, part advertisement, with an emphasis on the effects and benefits of the automobile on a major Western city.

The movie begins, after a pompous Intertitle, with a panorama of the downtown area taken from the top of a tall building. This would have been pretty exciting for an audience that didn’t get to the tops of skyscrapers very often, and it gives us a good view of the range of architecture that was present at the time. We then cut to the Hall of Records and the Old Court House, which combine monumental size with gothic style fairly effectively. I was surprised by the number of windows on the Hall of Records – at least it looked like you could work with plenty of light in there! We then turn to “Broadway, in the heart of the business section.” We see a crowded street from above (possibly it’s the same vantage as the first shot, simply tilted downward more extremely). Here, we see streetcars and automobiles vying for space on the crowded streets as pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross against traffic that rarely stops. The next shot is of Clune’s Auditorium, which seems to be an imposing structure across the street from a small park. The next shot shows “Central Park,” again from above, but this appears to be a more carefully manicured park than the one in the previous shot. It  is also crowded with people, like its namesake in Manhattan. After a brief panorama, we cut to a ground-level shot of the park, and people pack the pathways, many stopping to sit and smoke at a fountain. Notable in these shots are what appear to be electric streetlamps on the sides of the paths. Now we cut to a street-level shot of a large department store. The Intertitles point out the window boxes with plants visible at every level. The next cut takes us to what looks like a train station, though no Intertitle gives us context here. Now we see Angel’s Flight Inclined Railway, which I didn’t know was so old, as well as the tunnel under the hill that allows you to bypass it. Then a quick pan of the University of California (UCLA), which probably didn’t have a film program at the time. Then California Hospital, which is virtually indistinguishable from the University.

Now, we travel to Chinatown, where we see the only unpaved streets in the movie, and buildings constructed mostly of wood rather than stone. No autos are in evidence, and these are the least crowded streets we’ve seen in the whole movie. A few jabs at the obscurity of Chinese ideograms serves as the segue to a visit to the Old Plaza and the Mexican section of the city (never mind that the whole city had been Mexican within living memory!). Men with long mustaches and heavy suits lounge and stare languidly at the camera in a park. We also see the Plaza Church where the “Mexican population” is said to worship.

We return to the theme of automobiles with a shot of the North Hill Street “double barreled” tunnel, which seems to consist of one barrel for cars, one for streetcars. Then we see a large Masonic temple, before returning to the automotive theme with a view of Broadway in fast motion, the emphasis on the busy traffic. A single policeman in the center of a street  crossing directs what seems like impossibly fast and incessant traffic. Somehow pedestrians occasionally make it safely to the other side. We then see this same corner at regular speed, and get the sense that traffic moves infuriatingly slowly. In perhaps the oddest section, we now see large pipes that are part of the elaborate (and expensive) system of bringing water to the desert community. For scale, a human figure walks on one of the pipes. Then, they show a man driving a Ford car on one of the pipes, to demonstrate how large they really are! Speaking of cars, we now get to see the oil fields of Los Angeles, where a variety of derricks are pumping up the precious liquid in vast quantities. We are told that many industries have shifted from coal-burning plants to oil-burning. Finally, a shot of “bungalows” (actually, quite large houses) from the back of a car demonstrates the thrill of driving in LA. Men wear heavy coats in what seems to be the heat of a California day, and carry papers as they leave their bungalows for work.

This movie is pretty basic, so far as travel films go, but it shows off a lot of LA from a period when it was just beginning to boom as a city. The film industry would have been a going concern already by 1916, but this movie has no interest in that, choosing to emphasize downtown architecture, crowded city streets, ethnic neighborhoods, pipelines, automobiles and oil. Those last two can be seen as particular interests of its production company, so no great surprise perhaps. But one would think that movie audiences would be obvious targets for movies about movie-making. Perhaps no one at Ford thought so, or perhaps the distance to the studios from the locations where this movie was shot made it not worthwhile to them. Anyway, the result is that we see a lot of the old LA that the movie companies tended not to document so well, and the result is interesting if not always terribly entertaining.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch the first two minutes for free: here. Those with University affiliations may be able to access the file via their libraries. Worldcat link: here.

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Down to Earth (1917)

In this movie, also known as “The Optimist,” Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his belief in an active, outdoorsy lifestyle as the cure to society’s woes. He co-wrote the story, along with Anita Loos, who had worked with Fairbanks on “His Picture in the Papers” and “Wild and Woolly.”

The movie begins with Doug, who plays a character named Bill Gaynor (but might as well be called Doug Fairbanks), in college. He’s captain of the football team and in love with Ethyl Forsythe (Eileen Percy). He proposes to her, but she feels they lack common interests – he’s into sports, she’s into society affairs. Besides, she’s found another fellow, Charlie Riddle (Charles K. Gerrard). So, Doug goes off on a world tour to “forget” her. We see him mountain climbing, leading an African safari and riding the range. This healthy lifestyle is contrasted with the decadent parties that Ethyl and Charlie attend. One of them involves a fountain of champagne with dancing girls rising from the middle of the table that reminded me of “Metropolis.” Anyway, the pace of constant partying wears Ethyl down and one day, she collapses with a hangover. She is whisked off to a sanitarium and her engagement to Charlie is postponed, and someone thinks to send Doug a letter out at the ranch.

Doug comes racing back to see her, of course, and isn’t impressed by what he finds at the sanitarium. A bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs are coddled and enabled in their fantasies of illness. The windows are kept shut and there is no fresh air or exercise for anyone. After a brief visit with Ethyl, he goes to give the chief doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a piece of his mind. The doctor explains that efforts to really cure the wealthy are in vain, but a man gets rich allowing them to believe they are sick. Since he’s only in it for the money, he is amenable when Doug offers to “buy” his patients from him. He takes the honest doctor who works their into his confidence, and they devise a plan to kidnap them and bring them to a more healthful environment.

The plan is simple (sort of). They inform everyone that there is a smallpox scare and the sanitarium will be quarantined. But, Doug offers to sneak them out of the quarantine aboard his yacht, bound for New York. Instead of New York, he takes them to a small deserted island and forces them to “rough it” for two months. Actually, it isn’t really a deserted island, it’s an area near a place called “Palm Grove,” evidently in California (the film was really shot at Yosemite), but Doug dresses up one of the sailors from the yacht as a “Wild Man from Waukeegan” and stations him to guard the pass that would allow the socialites to discover the ruse. Anyway, Doug enforces a strict regime of exercise, which the castaways have to endure to eat, since he’s the only one with the wherewithal to catch fish and collect edible mushrooms and berries. The exercise regime is designed to reverse bad behaviors – an alcoholic has to drink two quarts of water before breakfast, a gloomy gus has to laugh like a hyena, and Charlie has to act as janitor. Charlie retains his selfish ways even after arriving – he tries to steal Doug’s and the doctor’s food on the first day, and ultimately he finds out that Palm Grove is nearby and makes an escape.

Charlie hooks up with a friend at Palm Grove who has a good idea. The reason he’s losing Ethyl to Doug is because Doug has used “Cave Man” tactics, so he should be a “Cave Man” too. The two of them will kidnap Ethyl and that will make her come around. The plan fails, of course, when Doug isn’t napping when the rest of the camp is, and he beats Charlie and his friend with one hand tied behind his back (literally). He swims out to the rowboat where Ethyl was drifting away and confesses to the ruse. She admits that she figured it out a while ago, and the two are happily united.

Overall, this is a pretty standard Fairbanks film, and it definitely speaks to his personal feelings about modern America – the health of the country is threatened by a kind of selfish decadence that ignores what made it strong in the first place. I would imagine that this message resonated well with audiences across the country at the time. It’s worth noting that the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe also saw a rise of various health movements that emphasized more “natural” living as well, so this was in the air. I think the story could have been improved by adding an element of real danger, as Loos and Fairbanks did in “Wild and Woolly.” Some kind of real threat – an actual wild man, a local tribe, a gang of smugglers that used this location – could have increased the tension in the third act, which otherwise seems a bit lame. Seeing Doug beat his foe one-handed is impressive, but it also emphasizes the inequity of the situation – he’s never really challenged or put at risk, everything comes to him much too easily. This might be what Americans, getting ready to see real fighting in the First World War, wanted for entertainment at the time, but it doesn’t result in as satisfying a movie as this might have been. I did get some laughs, though, especially from the hypochondriacs and their reactions to the situation, and Fairbanks is as charming as ever.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Charles K. Gerrard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Herbert Standing

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max the Heartbreaker (1917)

Max Linder stars as Max Linder, who dates two pretty American tourists only to create complications for himself. Again, the style of droll humor contrasts interestingly with the more overt slapstick of the era.

The movie begins with a close-up on the two female leads, accompanied by a short poem that relates to the French title (“Max Between Two Fires”), then an Intertitle informs us that Max is traveling “incognito” to Switzerland. We see shots of the Riviera, with Max watching the two girls feeding the birds. He tries to join them, but they break into laughter when they recognize him. He looks annoyed and leaves. The next day they send a note apologizing and inviting him to meet them at a specific time and place with a white carnation. He has his “revenge” by substituting a red carnation instead. For some reason, this insults them and they leave, then he sends an apologetic note…I forget how many times this goes back and forth, but eventually they meet and talk and seem to get along well. They all spend the next day together seeing the sights. There’s an odd bit I don’t quite get in which one of the girls sneaks off and substitutes a woman with painted dark skin and wild hair (a gypsy?) for herself, surprising Max when he turns to kiss (?) her. Max is so startled  that he almost trips over a pig. It’s sort of like the routine from “What Happened in the Tunnel,” but less clear.

We now see Max, in medium-close shot, looking at pictures of the girls, kissing them, but apparently unable to choose. He brings two bunches of flowers over with identical notes, and manages to hide the extra one each time and give the right bunch to the right girl. He also makes dates with each of them, at different times. He goes horseback riding with the lighter-haired girl and on a moonlit rowing excursion with the darker-haired girl. The next day, the two girls are walking around kissing their pictures of Max when they run into one another. They tease each other a bit for being in love, then agree to show each other the man of their heart. Their playfulness gives way to anger, then tears, when they both realize the other has been seeing Max. Soon they decide upon a plan for revenge. They allow Max to overhear them planning to have a duel over him. He arrives before the appointed time and climbs a convenient tree to watch the carnage from above. The girls go through the motions of the duel, but at the last minute, one of them points her gun in the air and fires into the tree! Max falls out and runs away, holding his scorched bottom.

I’m going a bit backward with Linder – recently I reviewed his last movie at Essanay, and this time I’m reviewing a movie he made in France before contracting with them. It’s not a romp like “Max in a Taxi,” but it’s probably funnier than the description above makes it sound. Linder is very good at improvising little bits of “business” and he’s particularly amusing when he flirts with one of the girls. The girls are also funny when they mimic each other’s reaction to his advances and betrayal. The review in the Moving Picture World says “Some scenes in the doctor’s office are quite funny,” but I never saw any doctor’s office – either this is an error or there’s something missing from the surviving print.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

August 1917

The First World War continues to be a major change agent in the world, but the Century News for August, 1917, emphasizes militarization and revolt more than actual military actions. Here are some of the headlines people saw in their newspapers 100 years ago:

Dunning, after completing the first successful moving carrier landing

World War I

Squadron Commander E.H. Dunning lands his aircraft on the ship HMS Furious in Scapa Flow, Orkney on August 2. He is killed 5 days later during another landing on the ship.

Social Unrest

The Green Corn Rebellion, an armed uprising by several hundred farmers against the WWI draft, takes place on August 2-3 in central Oklahoma.

A general strike begins in Spain on August 10; it is smashed after 3 days with 70 left dead, hundreds of wounded and 2,000 arrests.

Military

The New York Guard is founded on August 3 as the state defense force of New York State.

The Military Service Act is passed in the Canadian House of Commons, giving the Government of Canada the right to conscript men into the army.

Diplomacy

Republic of China declares war on Germany and Austria-Hungary on August 14.

Arts

One of English literature’s important meetings takes place on August 17 when Wilfred Owen introduces himself to Siegfried Sassoon at the Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

Disasters

The Great Thessaloniki Fire of 1917 in Greece destroys 32% of the city, leaving 70,000 individuals homeless.

Film

Golden Rule Kate, a drama western starring Louise Glaum released August 12.

His Wedding Night, a ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle / Buster Keaton short released August 20.

The Little American, starring Mary Pickford; directed by Cecil B. DeMille released August 27.

Straight Shooting, directed by John Ford released August 27.

Births

Earl Cameron, actor (appeared on “Doctor Who” and “The Prisoner”) born August 8.

Mel Ferrer, actor (in “Brannigan” and “The Hands of Orlac”) born August 25

Minor Announcement – Letterboxd

For years now, I’ve semi-seriously joked about starting “a second blog” for all the movies I watch that aren’t part of the Century Film Project. Believe it or not, the majority of my viewing time and expertise is not really devoted to 100 year old movies! But one blog is a lot of work to keep up, and it has begun to look unlikely that I’ll be able to manage two before retirement.

I do write short reviews, however, of every movie I’ve seen twice. I’ve been doing that for over five years, and my “review” folder has over 1500 such reviews stored up. I recently learned about the “Letterboxd” social media service that lets film buffs track their viewing and share reviews. This looks like a lot less work than trying to build an entire new blog! So, I’ve gone ahead and opened a profile and started putting my reviews there.

If you’re curious what my “normal” taste in film looks like, you can check out my profile here. If you use Letterboxd, follow me to see the reviews as I share them, and also to track my first-time views (sans reviews) as they happen in real time!

The Christmas Dream (1900)

Georges Méliès displays the holiday spirit with this fanciful and homely short film. Impressive for the period in its number of setups, it is surprisingly devoid of the special effects that one expects from Méliès.

The opening scene, which may be incomplete, shows children being tucked into a four-poster bed in a room decorated with noble crests and a fireplace. The servant that tucks them in is in Renaissance-era clothing, and she sits down to read aloud from a book. The image then fades to a stage, and a bearded man in a crown hustles people off the stage to prepare for a dance number. First, there is a kind of parade in which a coach is wheeled behind a minstrel, and what appears to be a giant toy rabbit hitting a drum. Then some clowns come onto the stage and perform a dance. One of them loses his shoe, and the rest of the performers dance around it, including dancing girls and a ballerina. Finally, the clown leads another dance and retrieves his shoe, but in doing so, his hat falls off. The crowned man returns and shoos everyone offstage, grabbing the clown by the neck. The next shot shows the snow-covered rooftops of a small town. Angels flit from one roof to another, dropping presents down the chimneys. Next we see the interior of a church, where a man supervises some children pulling on the bell ropes. Some well-dressed citizens come in and shake the snow off their clothes, removing their cloaks and proceeding into the chapel. The next shot shows the bell, constructed of wooden flats but given the illusion of reality by perspective painting and a separate clapper that swings opposite to the bell. Doves fly around the bell tower and a man with a lantern climbs up at the end of the shot.

The next scenes show well-dressed people going in to a feast, first from an exterior street shot (actually a standard proscenium stage dressed as a street), then from inside the hall. The rich people walk past some beggars in the snow and ignore them. One of them comes inside the hall, and he is generously invited to join the feast by the lord of the manor, although the servants don’t want to admit him. This happy scene fades out again and back to the bedroom from the beginning of the movie, where the children are waking up to find presents at the fireplace. Grownups come into the room and see them at play, bringing more toys for them. The final shot shows angels dancing in a snowy heaven.

It’s interesting that Méliès stayed away from his usual trick film effects, especially people appearing and disappearing. There’s a brief image of a transparent angel at the end of the shot with the rooftops, which may also be an incomplete scene, but apart from that there is no camera trickery, just some dissolves from one scene to the next. I wonder if Méliès was trying to achieve a more reverential or serious tone with this film, maintaining a respect for the holiday rather than the fantastic and whimsical approach of his trick films. He certainly did go to (at least) his usual effort on the props and costumes, and the number of setups alone make this a “big budget” film by 1900 standards. It seems to be lacking a clear plot, but I also wonder if the story of the rich man and the beggar might be from a source that French children would recognize. In general, it seems to be more interested in capturing the mood of Christmas than in telling a story, and one imagines that it pleased the children who got to see it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Max in a Taxi (1917)

In this short film, Max Linder plays “Max,” a rich swell who gets himself into trouble drinking, then proceeds to get into even more trouble trying to get out of trouble! Linder’s physical comedy skills are on full display, but the situational aspects of the movie are what make it work.

The movie begins with Max very drunk. He and a friend have various mishaps in trying to get home. Eventually max hitches a horse to a carriage to drive them home – only he’s so drunk that he hitches it so that it’s facing the carriage. Fortunately, the horse is good at following orders, so it just trots backwards with the carriage attached. Max has further pratfalls as he bids his friend goodnight at the door and tries to go upstairs. At one point, he falls out a second-story window backward and lands on his friend as he walks out the door! Finally he makes it up the stairs to encounter a stern-looking older man in his room. I presume this is Max’s father or rich uncle or whoever supplies the money he lives on. He obviously disapproves of Max’s state, and he tosses him out with no further support.

This is not, in fact, a taxi.

Max walks the street for days, still in the finery he wore for his night of partying, but unable to come up with any money for food or other survival needs. He resolves to kill himself and tries and fails to do so in several amusing ways. He lies down in front of a train, but the train switches tracks at the last minute. He tries hanging himself, but the rope breaks. Now Max discovers an invitation in his pocket for a party at a wealthy woman’s house that very day. He rushes over there, fakes his way in past the butler, and dances up a storm, somewhat flustering the hostess. Soon, he gets to the main purpose of his visit – a large table stacked with pastries and treats. He sends the butler away so he can chow down, stuffing several into his mouth at a time. However, the hostess now brings her young daughter (Martha Mansfield) over to meet him. He’s nearly as interested in her as in the sweets, and she takes him out on the dance floor with his mouth full. He eventually comes up with the expedient of getting rid of the many cream puffs jammed into his mouth by hiding them in the piano. For some reason, he also throws a cat in after them, and of course that ruins the music. Max manages to stay sober and makes a graceful departure, shaking hands with the butler instead of giving a tip since he’s broke.

The next day, he spends his last two pennies to buy a paper and look at the want ads. He applies for a job driving a taxi, even though he doesn’t know how to drive a car. He gets a short lesson from his new employer by pretending he’s not familiar with “this model,” and gets the car a few blocks away from the station before parking it. Soon, the two ladies from the party walk up. He doesn’t want to admit he’s driving a cab for money, so he puts his top hat back on and tells them he’s just waiting for the chauffeur. They wait for a while but get bored and leave him to nap in the car. When they return, he tries to start the car, but it starts going on its own. Soon, Max is riding the driverless car on the hood, while the two women sit in the back. It hits a telephone pole and is destroyed. The women are alright, but they clothes and hair are ruined. They look for Max in the wreckage, but he has been thrown onto the telephone wires, where he does a few tumbles for the audience.

This is a taxi, but Max isn’t in it.

I’ve been somewhat remiss, up to now, in not reviewing a Max Linder movie. It’s not that I was unaware of him, or thought he was unimportant, or don’t like him. It’s just that there’s always so much to review, and until now I hadn’t gotten to it (I’ve still only reviewed one movie by Harold Lloyd, who’s actually my personal favorite of the silent clowns, so this isn’t entirely a matter of favoritism). This one seems like a good starting point, but note that Linder had been doing “Max” films for ten years already when it came out. Charlie Chaplin fans will see some similarities between the opening of this movie and Charlie’s “One A.M.” from the previous year. Chaplin was influenced by Linder’s work, and later honored him as “the professor” who had taught him the art of comedy. This movie was actually a bit of a collaboration between them, as it was shot in Hollywood and Linder met Chaplin and spoke with him about shooting it while it was in progress. There’s a lot of difference between Linder’s on-screen persona and Chaplin’s, though. When Chaplin played the “drunken swell” (as opposed to the Little Tramp), his comedy was almost entirely physical, and what little we see of the character is largely unsympathetic. Max’s “swell” is certainly dissolute and libertine, but he has a definite charm and sympathy. His character is aware of social expectations, and as a result gets into humorous situations when he doesn’t have the money people expect him to have.

Linder had recently moved to the USA from France and joined Essanay, who hoped to replace the recently departed Chaplin and make a profitable series of “Max” films. This was the third of those, and apparently the most successful, but it wasn’t enough to justify his salary, and the failing studio canceled the contract. Linder’s career went into a decline afterward, although he did make more films and film appearances periodically until his death in 1925. We still have quite a few of them to enjoy, and I trust this will not be his last appearance in this project.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Arthur Reeves

Cast: Max Linder, Martha Mansfield, Mathilde Comont, Ernest Maupain

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Magic Book (1900)

This typical trick film by Georges Méliès plays on the theme of still images coming to life that mirrors the miracle of motion pictures and would be seen again in such movies as “The Hilarious Posters” and “The Living Playing Cards.” A minimal plot is woven around what appears to be a filmed performance of a magic show; just what we would want and expect from Méliès.

A proscenium-style set is decorated to be a kind of fantasy workshop, with clocks, a skeleton, a desk, and a very large bookstand at center stage. Méliès walks onto the set from a door at the rear, dressed in a beard and a bald cap, with wild hair springing out below the cap. He gives a bow to the audience and indicates the bookstand, then pulls a book fully as tall as himself from somewhere offscreen, carrying it over and putting it on the stand. The book’s title (in both French and English) is “Le Livre Magique/The Magical Book.” He opens the book, revealing a picture of a clown-like figure on the first page. He dances and gestures and the drawing comes to life, a man in a similar costume emerging and the page now appearing blank. The clown imitates the dance Méliès just gave, then goes to the side of the stage. Méliès turns the page, revealing pictures of Harlequin and Pierrot, and the process is repeated, with Méliès acting out a bit of physical business, bringing each figure to life, and the figures imitating his movements before going to one side, where they interact like old friends meeting unexpectedly.

The next page shows a young woman and an old man. When Méliès pulls the young woman from the page, all of the clowns respond with obvious interest, so I guess this represents Columbine. She does a ballerina dance and Méliès separates her from the clowns, but they soon run across the stage to fall at her feet once again. Now he animates the old man. The old man fights the clowns, one at a time, making it possible for Méliès to return them to the book. Pierrot, however, sneaks off while Méliès is distracted finding the right page, and Méliès returns all of the others to the book without noticing. He then discovers the blank page and looks around, easily finding Pierrot hiding next to the bookstand. He grabs Pierrot and forces him into the book, closing the cover, but Pierrot does not turn into a drawing, he tries to fight his way out of the pages. When Méliès tries to force the cover shut, he again hops out of the book onto the stage. After appearing and disappearing a couple of times, he is again thrust at the book, and this time becomes a drawing once again. Méliès bows, but the book falls on top of him. He disappears and reappears at the rear door, bowing once again for his performance. Then he picks up the book and walks offstage.

While this is a relatively simple film, in terms of effects and story, there are a couple of interesting aspects. One is the use of both French and English on the cover of the book, suggesting that Méliès was already aware by 1900 that much of his audience was English-speaking (and probably largely American). The other thing that stood out to me was the use of the familiar Harlequinade characters as a kind of theatrical/cinematic shorthand to give more depth to characters who could as easily have been generic clowns or nameless figures. In that sense, it’s interesting that it’s Pierrot, and not Harlequin, who almost gets the best of Méliès at the end. He’s usually the loser in this comic drama, but perhaps Méliès had a soft spot for him.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.