Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: November, 2017

November 1917

It’s practically the end of the month, and I’m only now getting around to an installment of the Century News! Part of the reason I’ve hesitated this month is that so much happened, and it is so momentous, that it’s almost impossible to approach. The second Russian Revolution that started the Russian Civil War and ultimately created the USSR would transform history on nearly all levels. Most relevant for this blog: it would wind up having a huge impact on cinema history, leading to the rise of montage and directors like Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. More immediately, however, it meant a sudden collapse of the thriving Russian film industry as the blockade prevented new film stock from entering the country and many of the actors and producers went into exile. One thing that this project has discovered is that pre-revolutionary Russian cinema cannot be dismissed as “backwards” or “bourgeois.” Personally, I regard Evgeni Bauer as a genius equal or perhaps even superior to Eisenstein (though there are many who would disagree). Certainly, Soviet cinema never produced an actor of the stature of Ivan Mosjoukine.

It’s hard to discuss this period also without thinking of present-day politics. The rapture over the “Fall of the Soviet Union” has largely given way to fears over a new Russian superpower and its influence on the West. I’d rather avoid making any definite statements about how this is or will play out (that’s not the topic of this blog), but maybe some insights can be gleaned by thinking about how Russian history has played out on the world stage over the course of the past century. Here are some headlines that might start that process.

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Fat and Lean Wrestling Match (1900)

Alternate Title: Nouvelles Luttes Extravagantes

A fairly typical example of Georges Méliès-style slapstick with special effects, this short film has rather gruesome comedy. No doubt in the years before cartoons, it would have been very popular with children.

The movie begins with a kind of tease, as we see two women in leotards on the proscenium-style set right after the title. It’s a bit confusing, however, because neither woman is noticeably fatter than the other. They take a bow and suddenly their clothes have become traditional 19th-century female garb. Then they walk off-stage and grab sheets, which they wrap around themselves. When they pull off the sheets, they have transformed into two men in leotards. These two men, who also seem about equal in weight, now begin to fight. One grabs the other, who turns into a doll, and thrashes him about, throwing him to the ground. He transforms back into a man while his opponent takes a bow and proceeds to pull off the other man’s head, arms and legs (now he’s a doll). The victor takes his bow and puts the first man back together again, allowing him to come back to life. Then each man pulls his female counterpart onto the stage from behind the back of the other. The men toss the ladies into the air, causing them to disappear, and then dance off the stage together.

Now is when the title finally makes sense, because two men in particularly comical wrestling get-up appear to fight, and one is fat, the other thin. The thin man tries to grapple his opponent, but he cannot budge the fat man due to his great bulk. The fat man lies on top of the thin man, flattening him out completely. He turns his back on his defeated opponent, who suddenly comes back to life and kicks him in the rear, causing the fat man to fly into the air. When he comes back down, both men are knocked to the floor, but the thin man leaps on the fat man’s belly, causing him to explode into various dismembered parts, similar to the man in the first fight. The thin man takes his bow and departs, but the fat man’s pieces slowly reassemble themselves. The fat man stands up and gestures angrily in the direction of his departed vanquisher.

Interestingly, the write up in the Star Films catalog describes only the second part of the film, suggesting that the distributor didn’t know what to make of the title either. Apparently something like “Burlesque Wrestling Matches” didn’t occur to anyone as an alternative. The French title means something closer to “New Wrestling Extravagances” or “New Extravagant Wrestling.” The other thing that’s interesting about this film is that I don’t think we see Méliès himself as any of these characters – although he’s not in every one of his early movies, he’s in an awful lot of them. By the standards of some of these movies, the special effects are fairly minimal. It’s the madcap pacing that makes this one work, more than mystery of his visual fantasy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

One of Mary Pickford’s most successful features at the time, this was directed by Maurice Tourneur – or, perhaps, co-directed by him, given the power Mary wielded on the set – and written by her friend Frances Marion. It’s probably not her most accessible movie today, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s a valuable insight into what made her a superstar for her era.

The movie starts out by introducing its title character, 10-year-old Gwendolyn, played by Pickford (I’ll address that later, just accept it for now). It is immediately established that she is “rich” in wealth, but “poor” in love. Her parents neglect her and leave her with unsympathetic and strict servants in charge. The scene is set for us with highly stylized intertitles that show a small girl in an enormous room, with toys but no companions. Then Gwen comes skipping onto the scene, only to be confronted by two stern-looking butlers. She sees some children skating outside the window and smiles happily, but a servant comes over to slam it down. She begs her mother (Madlaine Traverse) to give her a minute, but her mother is rushing off somewhere and says maybe they can talk to-morrow. Gwen asks, “Why is it that my to-morrows never come?”

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Aeroplane Flight and Wreck (1910)

This movie was probably used for stock footage many times in years to come in those movies mocking early efforts to achieve air travel. An inventor demonstrates his new aircraft to the camera, but the title spoils the ending for us.

The movie stars one “M. Cody,” who is presumably the inventor of the biplane we see displayed. He arrives by horse and carriage and pulls the huge biplane out of its hanger by hand (evidently it doesn’t weigh that much). He and his assistants check over the motor and try to get the propeller started. We cut to a shot of the propeller at full speed, then back to a long shot of the men pushing the machine out onto the field into position for takeoff. Cody puts on goggles and gloves and gets into the seat. Then the plane begins its long taxi down the field (seen from multiple camera positions). It bounces along a bit, but never achieves flight before tipping over and crashing nose-first into the ground. The camera lingers on the wreckage.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the most frequent “old movie footage” on television was images of people with wings strapped to their backs or sitting in bizarre contraptions of one kind of another that were supposedly early attempts to fly. I suspect that most of them were filmed solely for comedic effect. This movie does look like a more convincing piece of newsreel footage, although the editing and camera angles suggest that there was a good deal of preparation put into it. Cody seems to be alright at the end, but the wooden structure of the plane has suffered quite a bit of damage from the impact. It’s important to remember that by 1910, powered flight was already accomplished, but, like the motion pictures, it was still a wide-open field of pioneers and experimenters. This fellow’s model didn’t work out, but he may have learned something useful in the attempt.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: M. Cody

Run Time: 4 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908)

For my contribution to the “Food in Film”  Blogathon, I’m taking  a look at an early example of a typical gender-bending situational comedy: one in which a man is left to his own devices and has to perform “women’s work” for himself, including shopping for food and cooking. Max Linder runs with this premise in this Nickelodeon-Era comedy.

Unhappy home life.

The movie begins with Max having a meal with his wife. Max reads the paper and ignores her. She seems bored and agitated. She tries to speak to him and he ignores her until she snatches the paper away. He demands it back and she gives it to him but begins crying. Max puts his fingers in his ears. This causes her to get up, throw her napkin down and stalk across the room, to where she puts on her hat, takes her coat and leaves. Max gets up and dances a jig, then reads his paper.

The next scene begins with the intertitle “back to mother” and we see the wife enter a room and meet another woman who gestures with sympathetic horror. Then the intertitle says “washing the dishes.” We are back with Max, who has finished his paper. He gathers things from the table on a tray, pouring unfinished glasses of wine back into the decanter. As he piles up more and more of the service, it becomes increasingly awkward or him, and soon he is embracing the tray to keep it all from spilling off. He walks delicately into the kitchen, putting the tray on a cutting board, and brings over a basin of water. We cut now to a closer shot of Max gingerly wiping off the dirty dishes with a dripping brush. It finally occurs to him to put on some gloves, but he is just as delicate with the dirty items when he is wearing them. When he tries to wash a bottle, he can’t figure out how to get the brush inside to scrub. Finally, he takes the whole tray down to the street, where there is a hose in a bucket and he sprays all of his dirty dishes with the hose. Satisfied, he now returns to the kitchen, but he’s not paying attention when he tries to put the tray on the cutting board and it drops, all of the now “clean” dishes shattering on the floor. He sweeps them up with a broom, but then loses interest and leaves in annoyance.

Eeeww!

The next scene is labeled “the market” and it calls attention to the fact that men at this time were not expected to act as consumers. Max is in his silk hat and a topcoat and he approaches the front of a grocer’s, where a woman immediately comes out to serve him. She piles various goods on him and takes his money, but he has no bag or other method to hold his purchases, so once again he stands awkwardly embracing the items. He walks off, but as he reaches the corner he sees a young lady of his acquaintance, so he puts some of his haul behind him and holds the rest behind his back as he speaks to her. A street kid sees the goods he has left on the ground and snatches them, running off, and Max immediately pursues, which reduces his lady friend to laughter. Max catches the kid after a short chase and throws his carrots at him before retrieving his other groceries, all of which have now been on the ground at least once. Picking things up, he of course loses his hat, and there is quite a challenge getting his load back under control.

The next scene is “cooking dinner” and it is the real crux of this movie’s relevance to this blogathon. Max brings all his goods into the kitchen, still wearing his silk hat. He tries to move the basin of water but winds up spilling it all over. He takes off some of his fancy outer clothing and puts on an apron. Then he takes out a large bird for cooking and begins to pluck it. The camera once again switches to a closer angle, and indeed we seem to be in a completely different room as we watch Max’s half-hearted effort to pluck the bird. He takes out some scissors and snips off pieces of the wing, but the bird seems half-prepared at best when he puts it in the pot. He breaks an egg with a knife and drops it in, but most of the shell goes in with the edible part and he tries to scrape it out. He throws in various vegetables and peels a potato over the pot (so most of the peel goes in as well). He pours a copious amount of wine over the pot and sprinkles some spice. Then he lights a match and starts the fire underneath the pot, and makes a show of stirring the mixture. Then he seems to forget about it as he starts polishing a shoe right there on the counter. He spills most of the shoe polish and tries to spoon it back into the bottle, then he remembers his meal and stirs it with the same spoon. He tastes it and adds some more pepper, which makes him sneeze the pot off of the oven.

Clueless in the kitchen.

The next scene is labeled “Housekeeping.” Max comes into the bedroom and starts to undress, but he notices that the bed is a mess, he moves mattresses and sheets around, generally making the bed lumpier than before and them climbs in with most of his clothes on. The next morning Max cannot find his favorite tie. He gets out of bed and puts on a collar, then he starts looking in every possible place, including the bed, the dresser, and under the bed. Each place he looks, he throws the neatly folded contents on the ground, then moves on. He begins tearing up the drawers in the study and the sitting room, even looking inside potted plants. The house is rapidly becoming a disaster area, and this only reaches new extremes when he topples a secretary. Now his wife and her mother arrive to find him in the wreckage and he pleads with her to return to him.

The trope of the reversal of gender roles was a common one in comedy, right up to the Golden Age of television: “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones” and many others would use it decades after this. Max Linder probably didn’t invent the idea: in the nineteenth century gender determined the division of labor to an enormous degree, which would lend powerful comedic possibilities for use on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere. What this movie emphasizes for us is that even seemingly simple tasks like shopping and clearing the table (never mind the more obvious cases of cooking and washing dishes) were imagined as beyond the capacity of a man. The grocer’s is an alien environment for Max, and he daren’t allow a young lady friend to see him carting groceries. Food, in short, was entirely a woman’s domain, from the conception to the aftermath. All a man knew how to do was hold a knife and fork. That said, it struck me that Max was very “French” in his failed attempt at cooking – he even thought to use some seasoning on the bird, something which escapes first-time cooks today!

This has been my contribution to the “Food in Film” blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to head over and check out the other entries!

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass (1898)

This short film from Edison depicts a piece of an important historical event – the Klondike Gold Rush – as it was seen by news consumers at the time. By 1898, location shooting made it possible to see bits of news events in motion, rather than just as still images in the paper.

What we see is a winding trail from the point of view of a camera placed behind a bush, just off the trail. The pack train approaches us, led by a man on a horse, with several heavily-laden mules following. The train continues for some time, alternating a series of mules with a man on a horse every few seconds. The pack train does not finish passing the camera before the film runs out; it seems to continue forever. Towards the end, a man appears atop a rock to the left side of the trail, looking down at the train, and seems to interact with the men on horseback.

The Chilkoot Pass was a critical artery connecting people to the Klondike, and at times it was filled with streams of gold-seeking migrants. Some very famous images of this event were used or reproduced in later movies, such as “The Gold Rush” (1924) starring Charlie Chaplin. However, this image is fairly dark and blurry (possibly it just hasn’t aged well) and is otherwise unfamiliar. Perhaps it inspired gold fever in some viewers, who decided to try their luck in the Klondike, but it really shows how much competition there already was there by the time the movie was released.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

New York: Broadway at Union Square (1896)

This imagery of the 14th Street area that would soon become a hub for the American film industry was actually taken for the French film company Lumière, who had sent out “stringers” with cameras all over the world to get exotic and exciting footage. What is perhaps most exciting today is that the area still looks familiar.

The camera is set up across from the park, apparently facing Fourteenth Street from somewhat north, and angled slightly to the East. We can see two buildings (one is under construction) and the edge of a third on the left hand side of the screen. Buildings to stage right are obscured by trees. There is a corner (15th street, if my geography is correct) with a lamppost visible, and streetcar tracks wind around that corner There are several people visible at this corner, including a policeman and a man in a different uniform, possibly a streetcar conductor. We see a streetcar wheel around the corner as the policeman directs pedestrian traffic. Once it is gone, a large number of men and women in various kinds of clothing cross the street. Wagons pulled by horses go by and other streetcars travel up the street without turning at the corner.  The man in the other uniform sometimes appears to assist in conducting pedestrians safely across the street. At the end, the policeman, the conductor, and another man all stare at the camera as another streetcar goes by.

I always enjoy seeing these early movies of the city I grew up in. The scenes are both familiar and unfamiliar. At the time of this movie, Emma Goldman had not yet given her anti-war speech at Union Square, but it was obviously a thriving and busy part of the city. This is one of the most active of the early Lumière pictures, with something going on in nearly every part of the frame, and you have to watch it a few times to catch everything. This is a great movie to contrast with the films shot in Paris by the Lumières, both in terms of the fashions, and the bustle of New York as compared with the often leisurely pace of Parisians.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.