Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: January, 2018

Max Wants a Divorce (1917)

One of three movies Max Linder made at Essanay before that studio’s final demise, this movie shows his talents and charm effectively, but apparently was not a hit with audiences of the time. Possibly its “European” themes of divorce, infidelity and jealousy did not sit well with Americans, but I found it a lot of fun.

As the movie begins, Max is cuddling with a girl (Martha Mansfield) still in a bridal veil from their recent marriage. The honeymoon comes to a rapid end, however, when a maid comes in to deliver Max a letter from a lawyer telling him that he stands to inherit three million dollars if he is single on his upcoming birthday. He quickly realizes that it will be in both his and his bride’s interest if they can get a divorce, but her response is to smash various vases and other breakable objects when he proposes it, most of them by throwing them at Max himself. He calms her down by promising to buy a string of pearls and to re-marry her as soon as the money is secured. Then they have to work out a plan to establish “grounds” for the divorce. He tells her that he will seduce a woman of her choosing, and she can send in a detective to catch them in the act.

Max and his wife go out to a very stylish dance and she proposes a large, older woman as his target, but Max vetoes this and chooses a young blonde (Francine Larrimore) instead. His efforts to woo her are interrupted by bursts of his wife’s jealousy, including her throwing a pastry in his face. He manages to get rid of her long enough to at least get the young lady’s phone number. He and his wife secure an apartment for the rendezvous, and she hires a detective over the phone, confusing him slightly when she checks with Max to confirm the time of the affair. He calls from home, once again incurring the jealousy of his wife who interrupts the phone call as well, but she agrees to meet him there. Meanwhile, an “experimental psychologist (Ernest Maupain), driven from his residence by noise complaints from the neighbors, takes on the apartment across the hall. He arranges to have various lunatics come and meet him there, including a man who thinks he’s a car, a butterfly catcher, and a “ballet master” (the last is played by Leo White).

On the night of the date, Max’s wife decides she can’t bear to let this happen outside of her sight, so she puts on a silly disguise and pretends to be a maid. Each time Max and the girl start canoodling, she comes into the room and asks if they need anything. The girl gets more and more uncomfortable, but Max insists she stay until five. The detective goes into the wrong apartment and is put in the room with the “loonies.” Finally, Max, the mistress, and the wife get into a roaring argument, which gets the psychiatrist’s attendants to investigate, and they wind up getting thrown into the loony bin as well. Finally, Max winds up with a large “diva” (Mathilde Comont) and the detective takes notes for his wife. Exhausted, Max and wife return home, where they are greeted by the maid with a new letter. The lawyer apologizes for his mistake, the terms of the will state that he must be married, not single, in order to inherit. Oops!

This movie is a very good example of Linder’s more sophisticated, situational comedy style, and confirms once again that slapstick was not the only form of humor known to the early silent screen. While not as urbane and witty as an Ernst Lubitsch film, it reminded me a bit of his style. I was surprised at the quality of the cinematography, including silhouettes, clever lighting, and many close-ups. This is unusually sophisticated filmmaking for a 2-reel comedy of the time. In terms of acting, the wife’s jealousy was very over-the-top, however. I think a Lubitsch character would have chosen to get even by finding a lover of her own, rather than constantly undermining her own interests by making it harder for Max to come up with grounds for the divorce. I was also surprised when the detective pulled out a notepad rather than a camera to “catch” Max in the act – technological assumptions were different in those days, obviously! The highpoint of the humor, though, is all of the chaos the various “crazy” characters create. The fellow pretending to be a car was a riot, and the “ballet master” managed to be wonderfully incompetent in his constant pirouettes and leaps. Not especially sensitive (or realistic) in terms of its handling of mental illness, this movie manages to be quite funny as a result.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Arthur Reeves

Starring: Max Linder, Martha Mansfield, Francine Larrimore, Ernest Maupain, Leo White, Helen Ferguson, Mathilde Comont

Run Time: 27 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Century Award Nominations 1917

The Academy Award nominations were announced last night, and for the first time since I started this blog, the Century Awards are a day late and a dollar short. Why a dollar short, you ask? Well, because I simply have to confess this time around that I did not see a representative sample of the most important surviving movies of 1917 to really make a fair judgment. With that in mind, I’ll still go ahead and nominate films I did see this past year. One other note: although Oscars night has traditionally been one of the biggest hit-days for this blog, it is also exhausting to try to post all of the awards on a single day. This year, I plan to scatter the awards out over February and leading up to the big reveal on the 4th of March. Now, without further ado, here are my nominations:

 

Best Documentary

Canadian Official War Films

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Fear

Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

Little Princess

Max in a Taxi

Best Costumes

Poor Little Rich Girl

The Tragic Mill (Judex)

A Modern Musketeer

Wild and Woolly

Best Production Design

Easy Street

The Dying Swan

The Immigrant

Wild and Woolly

The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

Best Stunts

A Modern Musketeer

Wild and Woolly

Teddy at the Throttle

The Adventurer

The Rough House

Best Editing

The Tragic Mill

A Modern Musketeer

Little Princess

Poor Little Rich Girl

Best Cinematography

The Dying Swan

A Man There Was

Fear

Poor Little Rich Girl

Best Visual Effects

Fear

The Dying Swan

The Little American

The Fantastic Dog Pack

Best Screenplay

A Man There Was

The Dying Swan

Poor Little Rich Girl

Little Princess

Polly Redhead

Best Supporting Actress

ZaSu Pitts in Little Princess

Musidora in The Atonement (Judex)

Gertrude Astor in Polly Redhead

May Emory in Teddy at the Throttle

Best Supporting Actor

Buster Keaton in the Rough House

Eric Campbell in Easy Street

Conrad Veidt in Fear

René Poyen in The Licorice Kid (Judex)

Tully Marshall in A Modern Musketeer

Best Leading Actor

Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant

Douglas Fairbanks in A Modern Musketeer

Victor Sjöström in A Man There Was

Andrej Gromov in The Dying Swan

René Cresté in Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

Best Leading Actress

Yvette Andréyor in Jacqueline’s Heart (Judex)

Mary Pickford in Poor Little Rich Girl

Edna Purviance in The Immigrant

Gloria Swanson in Teddy at the Throttle

Vera Karalli in The Dying Swan

Best Director

Evgeni Bauer for The Dying Swan

Charlie Chaplin for Easy Street

Louis Feuillade for The Woman in Black (Judex)

Maurice Tourneur for Little Princess

Victor Sjöström for A Man There Was

Best Picture

The Dying Swan

A Man There Was

Poor Little Rich Girl

Little Princess

Easy Street

The Immigrant

Fear

A Modern Musketeer

The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

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

The Hazards of Helen, episode 13 (1915)

Alternate (episode) Title: Escape on the Fast Freight

This episode of what the long-running movie serial displays Helen Holmes at the height of her powers as “Helen,” a plucky telegrapher who winds up saving the day – again. If reports are accurate, she was also an uncredited director, making this an even more important piece of the history of women in film.

This movie begins with Helen at work. She receives and decodes a message, then gets up and pulls a switch that brings a locomotive to a halt in the station outside. As she accepts a large strongbox of money from the conductor, two shifty-looking tramps look on. They are thrown off the train by a man with a badge, who then comes over and assists Helen with the cart carrying the money box. They get it into her office, but neglect to bring the receipt, which the tramps find, learning that there’s $1500 in the office. Helen and the sheriff are unable to get the large box into her safe, so they leave it on the floor. As soon as the sheriff leaves, the tramps rush in with a gun. A rather complex cross-cut sequence begins with the sheriff outside, the tramps in the office, and Helen inside of a closet, where the tramps have shoved her after securing the room. They find the key and open the box, but Helen starts shouting for help. The sheriff doesn’t hear, but he does hear the gunshot that the tramps respond with. Helen, we see, has ducked just in time. Whew!

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Shark Monroe (1918)

This rare William S. Hart feature was shown at Cinecon in 2017. He plays pretty much his usual Western anti-hero character, but transported in this case to the wilds of Alaska.

Shark Monroe (Hart), owner of a sealing vessel, agrees to take Marjorie Hilton (Katherine MacDonald) and her brother Webster (George A. McDaniel) to Skagway, provided Webster works his own passage. Webster is a drunk whom Monroe hopes to reform, but his sister sees Monroe as a bully who pushes Webster too hard. Monroe, of course, falls for her in a big way. Bert Sprotte is the typical grizzled bro-mantic sidekick with a soft heart, called “Onion” McNab. Marjorie falls into the power of Big Baxter (Joseph Singleton), a notorious character of the Alaskan coast (the intertitles tell us he is responsible for the ruin of half the women in Alaska), and agrees to marry him. Shark appears and, while his men hold the wedding party at gunpoint, marries and runs off with Marjorie. At the end of two weeks he agrees to safely return her to Baxter’s camp, revealing that the preacher who “married” them was actually a fake. Webster and Baxter arrive, however, and to restore the young man confidence Shark allows Webster to beat him in a fist fight. Later, after overhearing Baxter lie about him, Shark kills Baxter with one blow, and Marjorie finally realizes that her heart has been his all along.

According to the introduction given at Cinecon, this movie was set in Alaska because the studio could no longer find enough men to do stunt-riding during the war (all of them had enlisted), and so a story was needed that wouldn’t require any horses. There are some good dog-sleigh scenes. A number of silent films have kidnappings that turn into romances, often with some implication that the girl “learns what’s good for her” because of the man’s caveman tactics, but in this case it is played somewhat more realistically. Marjorie resents Shark for what he does and refuses even to speak to him, and only comes around after being released unharmed (and, it appears from the script, un-raped). In this case it seems more that Hart’s character uses the only tactics he can understand, only to realize when they didn’t work that he needs to prove himself in another way. Otherwise, the romance is very similar to what we saw in “The Return of Draw Egan,” with Hart pining for the girl and her horrified at his lack of civilized manners, complicated by his “tough love” approach to her brother.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Katherine MacDonald, Joseph Singleton, George A. MacDaniel, Bert Sprotte

Run Time: 50 Min

I have been unable to find this movie on the Internet for free. If you do, please comment.

On to Washington (1913)

This short clip of newsreel footage gives us a look at a significant event in women’s history – a march on Washington that culminated on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

The movie begins with a title card that tells us that 14 “suffragettes” will march from Newark, New Jersey to Washington DC, then shows a series of shots of the march – which appears to have attracted many more than 14 individuals, including many men. We also get a two-shot of the leaders of the march: Rosalie Jones and Elizabeth Freeman. Jones wears a heavy cloak and carries a large walking stick. One shot begins by showing a police escort on horseback, and it’s not clear how many of the people marching are involved, sympathetic, curious, or even hostile to the intent of the march, though no unruliness is depicted. One man waves awkwardly at the camera, possibly indicating a wish not to be photographed (or possibly saying, “hi, Ma!”). It ends suddenly, and might be incomplete.

The event shown here is really the kickoff of the march in Newark, so we don’t see the nation’s capitol or the reported 5000 marchers that turned out on March 3, the day of Wilson’s inauguration. This event represents a shift in American suffrage tactics from attempts to win the vote state-by-state to a national strategy. The two women shown represent the alliance between “respectable” wealthy women (Jones) and working-class activists with a more hard line approach (Freeman). There were counter-protestors, as well as politicians and pundits who spoke against them, but the march was seen as effective in raising awareness and sympathy. Wilson at the time was cautiously supportive of women’s right to vote, but he only really came out in favor after the First World War.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Rosalie Jones, Elizabeth Freeman

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912)

This short film from Edison was actually shot in England and used local locations to create a comedy that was “ripped from the headlines” of the United Kingdom. It manages to address a thorny topic while walking a fine line in terms of not offending viewers of different perspectives, but it may undermine its own humor by walking on eggshells.

The movie begins by introducing our protagonist – a man who is strongly opposed to votes for women. His day begins at the breakfast table with a newspaper, and that paper informs him of the recent activism of suffragettes who have smashed windows, attacked a member of Parliament, and chained themselves to fences to make their case. He gestures broadly to demonstrate his displeasure in this situation and in the process upends a tea tray carried in by his young and pretty maid. He blames her for the accident, but his wife smooths things over a bit. As he gets ready to go, we see how absent-minded and dependent upon his wife he is. She gently helps him remember to take off the napkin tucked into his shirt, find the monocle that has fallen behind his back, and discover the gloves tucked into his hat before leaving the house. Appropriately prepared, he now goes out into the London streets.

The scene shifts to show a woman tacking up a “votes for women” sign to a tree. As soon as she leaves, two boys come up and remove it, then wait for a victim, who is of course our hapless protagonist. The smaller boy distracts him while the older one tacks the sign to his back. He walks off with a sign proclaiming the opposite of his beliefs visible to everyone behind him. His first encounter is in fact an anti-suffrage meeting. A group of men who are just as enraged about recent events as he is are spilling out onto the street, and he tries to engage them in discussion, but the ones behind him see the sign and attack him, he runs off pursued by these erstwhile allies, and then stops to remonstrate with them in front of a news shop. Finally, he picks up his cane to defend himself, but he misses his attackers and inadvertently smashes the windows of the shop. He then runs away, now pursued by the men as well as the police.

He manages to evade pursuit somewhere near the Houses of Parliament, and leans over a railing to rest. But, when he gets up, it turns out that the chain of his stopwatch has caught and he is now “chained to the palings.” Of course, two passing policemen see his sign and take him for a protestor. They extract him in an effort to secure his arrest. At this moment, a group of marching women approaches, and sees what they take to be an ally in distress. They rush over and assault the policemen, freeing our hero and removing him from the scene. They try to convince him to join in, but he is still flustered and confused about the whole affair. Finally, one of them removes the sign from his back and shows it to him. He rushes off, humiliated.

Now he returns to his happy home. But the maid has seen him while he was with the mob of suffragettes, and takes him to be sympathetic to their cause. She puts a large sign, rolled up, just below his bar. He goes to fix a much-needed drink to calm his nerves, but the sign comes unrolled just as his wife walks in. She sees the sign and takes his drink away – evidently he’s had too much already!

Since this movie is shot in England, it makes sense that the term “suffragette” is used instead of “suffragist,” but it’s worth noting that the producers intended it for an American audience, who would have read in the papers about the much more strident activism of women’s advocates in that country. Women really were smashing windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest there, but this movie makes fun of their opposition more than the women themselves. The hero of the movie is the ridiculous one, and the suffragettes appear as comparably sympathetic, especially the maid, who is young and pretty as opposed to mannish or old. This is emphasized by the very broad acting our hero displays as well, although for 1912, even in comedy, this has to be read as a bit too strong. I tend to see it as further evidence of the degree to which Edison directors failed to keep up with the changing standards of cinema, although there’s a nice insert shot of the watch chain when the man gets trapped. The film does avoid stereotyping feminists, but it also steers clear of endorsing them, seeming to be trying  to walk a kind of middle-line that leaves it with fairly little to do but laugh at the Mr. Magoo-ish foolishness of its star. Absent-minded people are funny enough, I suppose, but they don’t offer a lot of originality in comedy, even in 1912.

Director: Ashley Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Marc McDermott, Miriam Nesbitt, Ethel Browning

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Lively Affair (1912)

This short anti-suffragist movie claims to show what life will be like if women get the vote. It uses gender stereotypes to suggest an upside-down world of role reversal, but the men get the last laugh.

The movie opens by showing several women, mostly wearing pants or bloomers, who are going to “a Suffragette Club meeting.” One tells a delivery man, “my husband keeps house now. Give him those bills.” Another steals a child’s bicycle in order to get to the meeting on time. Another leaves her husband in charge of a screaming baby. The ladies gather in a private residence and quickly begin a card game. Because of the stolen bike, a policeman goes to investigate the meeting. He sees the women gambling, drinking, and fighting over the outcome of a hand where someone apparently cheated. The situation is degenerating into a riot, when one of the women pulls the hair of another, pulling off a long braid and hitting her with it. The policeman rushes in to put a stop to the disorder, but is quickly overwhelmed by the violent women and tossed outside. He calls for reinforcements, and with two other men is able to arrest the suffragists. They are taken to jail, and their husbands are called. The husbands, free from their domineering wives, immediately go to a beer garden to celebrate. They then go down to the jail drunk, to parade in front of the women’s cell laughing at them. The final shots show the men in a line facing the camera, all laughing uncontrollably, then reverses to show the women behind bars and weeping.

This movie makes a fascinating contrast with “The Consequences of Feminism.” There, Alice Guy, a woman, takes the same basic theme but turns it on its head, showing that if men and women were reversed, men would have to suffer the indignities women face, and thereby making a feminist argument for equality. Here, a different (probably male) director simply argues that feminism will lead to an unnatural situation of women trying to be masculine and failing, while men are feminized. Both movies are played for laughs, but the laughs come for different reasons. This movie is missing part of the beginning, so I won’t judge it too harshly in terms of plotting, but the overall quality of filmmaking is rather weak for 1912. There is some jerky cross-cutting during the fight-and-arrest sequence, but for the most part forward-facing intertitles announce the action before it comes, and the actors perform on a proscenium-style set with no camera movement. Some of the shots of the baby crying are at least in close-up. I also found it interesting that this evidently American film used the British term “suffragette.” The term in the USA was usually “suffragist,” but maybe that wasn’t always so.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mabel Van Buren, Lucie K. Villa

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.