Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2018

Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

This actuality short from Edison depicts part of the wave of immigration that hit US shores in the early Twentieth Century, forever changing the face of the country. It’s a bit longer – and involves more shots – than earlier Lumiére documents of people disembarking boats and trains, but doesn’t really surpass them in narrative.

The first shot shows a ferry carrying people to Ellis Island from the docks where their ships put in at New York harbor. The ferry is clearly full of many people, but it looks comfortable and clean, possibly better than the conditions many had sailed over with. As it draws past, we read the name of the company, “Wm Myers.” The second shot is taken directly in front of the gangplank, so that we see the first departures off the boat coming right at the camera. They are carrying their bags, and seem intent on getting where they are going. This shot is rapidly replaced by a shot at a 30-45 degree angle, allowing the passengers to pass in front of the camera over more time. This lets us get a look at their clothes and condition. The first to pass appear to be wearing middle-class Western clothes, but they are soon followed by a number of girls with scarves over their hair, looking more like Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidic). We see a lot of women, in varying clothing, some carrying babies or accompanied by children. Although most are carrying bags or luggage of some kind, none appears to have a lot of possessions, and we rarely see a family with both an identifiable mother and father together, although both men and women pass by individually.

Ellis Island was a port of entry for a tremendous number of immigrants from various parts of Europe from 1892 until the late 1920s, when restrictions on immigration reduced the influx, and it remained in operation until 1954. It appears to me that the cameraman chose groups of “exotic”-looking immigrants for his subject, although each ferry would have brought over people from a variety of ships and locations, so this probably wasn’t difficult. There doesn’t seem to have been a political motivation for this movie – the passengers are not depicted as particularly threatening or as especially noble, they’re just people. The Edison cameraman was probably aware that Ellis Island was a “famous” location in New York and was taking advantage of its familiarity to produce a film with some potential for sales. In that sense, it becomes a valuable document of the country as “a nation of immigrants,” and a simple connection with history. Many of the people reading this blog probably had ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, and this allows us to see a part of what they experienced. It’s interesting that, compared to other movies taken in public places at the time, there seems to be less interest in the camera, although a few of the passengers do stare very hard at this contraption of their New World as they walk past.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown aspiring immigrants

Run Time: 2 Min, 5 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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How He Missed His Train (1900)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès plays on themes of transformation and frustration we’ve seen from him before. Once again, he shows his proficiency with effects and presents a whimsical acting style.

A man (Méliès, with a wig and false mustache) rises from bed and prepares to put on his clothes. He seems to be in a bourgeois apartment or possibly a nice hotel room, and there is a large picture window behind him, with a painted backdrop depicting Paris from an upper-story window. The man begins to pull on his vest, but suddenly there is an edit and he is pulling his trousers over his arm. He hits himself on the head, perhaps thinking he needs some coffee, and starts to put on the pants, but as soon as he gets one leg up to his knee, they suddenly become a shirt. He tries this several times, with the pants turning into a coat, vest, or a shirt each time he starts to put them on. Finally, he throws this garment to the ground and starts to pull on a boot, only to find that he has his hat on his foot. He puts the hat on his head and it becomes a boot again. With that, he gives up and climbs back into bed.

I’ve said that cinema is the realm of dream, and this movie reminds me of anxiety dreams I’ve had, especially when I’m stressed out about catching something like a plane (or train) the next morning. The film is really just another variation on the theme of “The Bewitched Inn,” in which a traveler is prevented by supernatural occurrences from being able to relax, but there’s a ring of truth to it, that somehow the simplest of tasks becomes impossible when you have a deadline to meet. Méliès is particularly amusing in this one-man show, seeming bemused by his absent-mindedness at first, then determined to overcome the difficulties, and finally resigned to sleep in.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

April 1918

For our Century News in April, things are deceptively “stable” on the Western Front and in Russia/the new USSR. A Germany rapidly depleted of resources like food and ammunition continues its desperate Spring Offensive, achieving territorial gains, but little strategic advantage. While the Bolsheviks can now claim to be the officially recognized government of the former Russian Empire, their territory remains in dispute, and new regions are breaking off and claiming independence each month, and “white” officers are in revolt against the Red Army. Events in Europe and Russian territory continue to shape a volatile future for the world in 1918.

General Erich Ludendorff

World War I:

General Erich Ludendorff calls off Operation Michael, the first of the Spring Offensive operations, on April 5, after failing to capture Amiens.

The Fourth Battle of Ypres takes place from April 7-29 with a German assault. Another extension of the Spring Offensive, it too failed to achieve its objectives and was called off.

The Zeebrugge Raid and First Ostend Raid, attempts by the British Royal Navy to seal off the German U-boat base takes place April 23. Both raids are ultimately unsuccessful, but emphasize German vulnerability to naval blockade.

The Second Transjordan attack on Shunet Nimrin and Es Salt launched on April 30 by units of the Egyptian Expeditionary Force ends on 4 May with their withdrawal back to the Jordan Valley.

Military Administration:

The Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service in Britain are merged on April 1 to form the Royal Air Force, the first autonomous Air Force in the world.

Sālote Tupou III of Tonga

Political Leadership:

Sālote succeeds as Queen of Tonga on April 5; she will remain on the throne until her death in 1965.

Geopolitics:

Union of Bessarabia with Romania: Bessarabia votes on April 9 to become part of the Kingdom of Romania.

Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia declare their independence from Russia on April 22 as the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic.

Social Unrest:

Conscription Crisis of 1918 in Ireland: a general strike is held April 23 against conscription.

Film:

A Dog’s Life,” starring Charlie Chaplin, released April 14.

Deaths:

Manfred von Richthofen, “The Red Baron”, the war’s most successful fighter pilot, dies on April 21 in combat at Morlancourt Ridge near the Somme River.

Gavrilo Princip, assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, dies April 28 in Terezin, Austria-Hungary, after three years in prison.

Lavr Kornilov is killed fighting against Bolshevik forces outside Ekaterinodar.

Births:

Anne Shirley, actress (in “Anne of Green Gables” and “Stella Dallas”), born April 17.

William Holden, actor (in “Picnic” and “Sunset Boulevard”), born April 17.

Toil and Tyranny (1915)

This short movie was released by Pathé as episode twelve of their series “Who Pays?” but I saw it alone and am reviewing it as a single film. The series was not linked by characters or situation, but thematically by examining problems of the time, and this one takes on the highly topical subject of labor disputes in the timber industry.

The movie begins by introducing its actors through “living credits” – each actor is depicted on a stage in costume, standing beneath a big question mark. I suspect that the question mark was a part of the “Who Pays?” branding, but unlike other credits of this nature, the actors just look out at the audience and bow, rather than depicting their characters in any way. The action begins by showing us David Powers, the “Lumber King” (Daniel Gilfether) at work in his office. He calls in his foreman, Jake Snyder, who is described as a “petty tyrant” and tells him that the unpredictable price of lumber requires that he get his shipment off as quickly as possible. “Don’t spare your men,” he advises. One of those men is Karl Hurd (Henry King), who “has known nothing but toil his whole life.” He makes the mistake of sitting down to rest soon after the conference between his bosses, and Jake decides to make an example of him. Karl fights back, however, and the fight escalates until Jake hits him on the head with a 2-by-4. The fight is observed by Powers, and by Perry Travis (Edward J. Brady), his “ruthless legal adviser,” who comments that violence is the only language the workers understand. Karl’s fellow workers carry him home, where a sickly-looking wife does piecework to help make ends meet, and a little girl plays with a single doll. A doctor makes a house call to inform Karl and his wife that he will need “several weeks” of bedrest before he can work again. The doctor refuses to accept payment from the poor family.

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Eight Girls in a Barrel (1900)

This short film from Georges Méliès is an example of a “trick film” with only one trick (or a one-trick-film). Méliès continues to demonstrate considerably technical skill, but the many actors on the set push the limit of his ability to mask his edits.

The film shows a proscenium-style set, representing a stage. Méliès, dressed in a toga, leads eight young women, also in classical attire, onto the stage. Before him is a barrel, and a platform with a short staircase. He lifts the barrel and turns it to show the audience that it is empty, and also that it has a solid wood bottom. He places it on the platform just below the stairs, then takes the hand of the first young lady to assist her in climbing the stairs. She climbs up, then steps into the barrels and lowers herself in. Méliès gestures and a jump cut occurs before he leads the next young woman in. Soon, all eight have “disappeared” into the barrel. As a finale, after Méliès walks offstage, he suddenly pokes his head out from inside the barrel.

This film is very simple and predictable, modern audiences wouldn’t even recognize it as a “narrative;” it is simply the depiction of a single magic trick. But, in making multiple people disappear, Méliès has once again stretched his own boundaries, and with reasonable success. The problem is that having so many people on the stage, it is easy to see where the edits happen by watching them jump in the background. Méliès himself is more practiced – he is generally leaning over the barrel at the critical instant, so it is hard to see him move. But, in the early stages of the movie there are four or more other, who don’t always succeed in holding their pose between shots. Doubtless few audience members in 1900 were alarmed by this, it was still very new, and I’d bet a good percentage of his audience hadn’t ever seen anything like it, except for the die-hard fans at the Robert Houdin Theater.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

 

The Crime of Carelessness (1912)

Released by Edison three years before “Children of Eve,” this movie also exploits public interest in industrial accidents generated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Unlike that movie, it also attempts to shift the blame for such accidents away from the owners and managers, and to the workers themselves.

The movie begins by showing an on-site inspector who discovers a pile of materials blocking an emergency exit door. He points this out to the owner (Bigelow Cooper), and begins to write up a citation, but the owner apparently talks him out of it. No money changes hands, and there is plenty of open space visible on a nearby wall, so maybe he has simply promised to move the offending objects. The next scene introduces the “lovers,” Hilda (Mabel Trunnelle) and Tom (Barry O’Moore), who are workers in the plant. When they kiss, the owner and inspector discreetly turn their backs for a moment. A shot follows showing “the day’s work over,” which appears to have been inspired by the famous Lumière shortWorkers Leaving the Factory,” and then we see Hilda and Tom celebrating their engagement with Hilda’s family. The family also discreetly leaves them alone after Hilda has a chance to show off her ring.

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