Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: December, 2017

Trial Marriages (1907)

This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.

A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.

The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.

For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.

In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.

The real Elsie Clews Parsons

Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.

The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.

Director: Francis J. Marion

Camera: Billy W. Bitzer

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Advertisements

The Dying Swan (1917)

With some sadness, I return once more to the work of Evgeni Bauer, who I discovered early in the first year of this project. This movie, which was one of the last he made, will likely be the last one I will review – unless I discover one I hadn’t known was available, or unless new discoveries are made in Russia.

The movie begins with a somewhat somber “meet cute,” in which a young man (Vitold Polonski) looking for a lost dog asks a young woman (Vera Karalli) if she has seen it. She turns away and does not answer, but her father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) comes over and explains that she is mute. The young couple are introduced as Gizella and Viktor, but they make no further contact at this time. Later, we learn that Gizella is a dancer, and that her “soul” is dancing, but she is deeply sad that she couldn’t speak to the young man. They soon see one another again on a forest path while she is picking flowers and he is out for a walk. When she sees him, she stumbles and falls, turning an ankle. He helps her back to her house, thus learning where she lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1901)

Similar to “Kansas Saloon Smashers,” this is another comedy short from Edison about the militant prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, this movie uses gender-role reversal to lampoon her efforts. Here, we get a peek into what critics thought of her home life – and it turned out to have more truth than they may have realized.

A wide-angle shot of a proscenium-style set shows a domestic middle-class bedroom, decorated with a needlepoint proclaiming “What Is a Home without a Mother?” and two rather creepy-looking portraits of the husband and wife. The husband, a man with a long beard, jumps out of bed in his nightshirt, and picks up a baby from a crib. Evidently, the baby is crying and its mother is nowhere to be seen. The man checks the baby’s diaper, then begins strolling about the room rocking the child to sleep. In the process, he steps on a tack. Just as he puts the baby back in  its crib, an older boy crawls out of the bed, also crying. This child the father disciplines with a quick spanking, turning him over his knee for a couple of quick pats, then rudely pushing him back into the bed. Now the hapless husband paces about the room, bemoaning the absence of his wife. He picks up a newspaper and grows even more angry – presumably it is filled with tales of Mrs. Nation’s exploits. He throws it into the fire. The baby is still not asleep, so now he gives it its bottle, and this reminds him of his own bottle: a bottle of whiskey secreted under a pillow. He retrieves it and starts to drink with pleasure, when suddenly Mrs. Nation arrives unexpectedly. She grabs the bottle and throws it out the door, then turns Mr. Nation over her knee and spanks him, just as he had done to their son only moments earlier.

The humor of this movie is mostly based on the idea that a politically active woman is by definition neglecting her wifely duties, and that a weak man will be dominated by a strong woman, creating an unnatural and thereby funny situation (Mr. Nation is smaller than his wife). It’s all the more ironic in that Carrie Nation only returns from her “manly” political work in order to assert her dominance over her tippling husband. None of this is likely to get a lot of laughs today, but what is somewhat funny is that the real Mr. Nation, a retired minister, did in fact sue his wife for divorce on similar grounds only a few months after this film. He wasn’t taking care of children (Carrie’s only daughter, from a previous marriage, was a grown woman), but he did complain that she neglected the housework and wouldn’t let him drink! I thought that the depiction of child-rearing in the film was interesting: apparently the best way to get a child to sleep was to give him a couple of smacks on the bottom. I doubt if Dr. Spock would endorse this.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901)

This short film from Edison gives a comic reproduction of then-recent prohibitionist activity in the Mid-West.  Although her name is not mentioned in the title, it is clearly a film about Carrie Nation.

We see a proscenium-style wide-shot of the front of a bar, with various characters approaching the bartender to purchase drinks. There is a working-class woman, who buys a “growler” in a bucket, a friendly policeman, who buys and drinks a whiskey, and an Irish caricature, who carries a sod shovel and smokes a pipe. Suddenly, a group of women in black dresses and bonnets rush in with hatchets, smashing bottles of liquor. One of them grabs the “growler” the Irishman was buying and throws it on him, then she runs behind the bar and smashes the mirror. She is then sprayed by the bartender with his seltzer bottle, and the tide of the battle turns as the policeman returns to escort the women out of the bar. They leave, but the policeman slips on the beer and falls. The bartender also slips right as the film ends.

The Real Carrie Nation with a hatchet.

Carrie Nation was able to carry out her attacks on Kansas saloons in part because State law stated that they should not exist. She would be arrested for disturbing the peace, but released after a day because of the difficulty associated with prosecuting her for doing what the police were supposed to do already. The eastern Edison crew that worked on this movie don’t seem to have been terribly sympathetic, the cop we see drinking seems to be a nice fellow, and the prohibitionists are out of control and ultimately defeated with a seltzer spritzer. Still, it was a smart move, dramatizing events that were widely spoken about among the classes of people that were watching movies at the time. This movie was likely adapted both for individual kinetoscope viewing and for screening at venues that had projectors. It’s a pretty simple shoot, but note that the smashing of the mirror is accomplished with a jump cut, similar to the effects that Georges Méliès was now famous for. The narrator on the “Treasures” disc this is included with suggests that the women are played by men: if so, I couldn’t tell, but it’s true that women were pretty scarce at the early Edison shoots.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Little Princess* (1917)

The classic tale of a young scamp in a snooty all-girls school is given the star treatment by Mary Pickford in this movie. Pickford had made her name playing girls well below her actual age, and here she really stretches things, pretending to be a child of only 10 or 11.

As the story opens, Mary, as Sara Crewe, is still in India, hiding in an urn and spying on her father (played by Norman Kerry) as he decides to move back to Britain after years of service in the colonial forces. She is opposed to the idea, being accustomed to a privileged life of servants and a large house, but children don’t get to make those decisions for themselves. She is enrolled in the Minchin boarding school for girls, where she is very shy and uncertain at first, and this is perceived as standoff-ish, which, along with the vast wealth her father provides for her comforts, earns her the nickname of “little Princess” from the other students.

Read the rest of this entry »