Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: May, 2018

May 1918

There’s a lot going on in this month’s headlines. Here’s a sampling of what the world was experiencing 100 years ago. In addition to “the war” proper, we’ve now got independence movements turning into outright Civil War in various parts of what had been the Russian Empire, including Finland, Ukraine, Armenia, and Georgia.

World War I:

British troops capture Kirkuk, in Iraq, on May 7.

German troops seize Rostov, Ukraine, on May 8.

The British Royal Navy conducts the Second Ostend Raid on May 9, an unsuccessful attempt to sea off U-Boat access to the base there.

The Battle of Kaniv: German forces in Ukraine manage to rout the Polish II Corps on May 10-11, despite heavy losses.

Germany launches its largest and last air raid of World War I against Great Britain on May 20, killing 49 people.

German forces launched the third stage of their offensive against the Allies on the Western Front with Operation Blücher-Yorck, beginning with the attack on Aisne River in France on May 27. Taking advantage of thinly spread out defenses, the Germans advanced through a 40 km (25 mi) gap in the Allied line, punched through eight Allied divisions between Reims and Soissons, and gained another 15 km to the Vesle River by nightfall

British troops at the River Aisne, May 27, 1918.

Finnish Civil War:

The Battle of Lahti ends on May 1. Together with German forces, Finnish Whites defeat the Red Guard.

Word of the Vyborg Massacre (began April 28), reaches White Guard commander Mannerheim on May 2, who immediately orders it halted. By the time it has ceased, 360-420 Finnish Red Guards and Russians have been killed.

The Battle of Ahvenkoski ends May 5 with the surrender of Red forces there, assuring that Finland will not join the new USSR.

The Civil War ends with the capture of the Russian-held Fort Ino on May 15.

Russian Civil War:

The Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic is abolished May 26; Georgia declares its independence as the Democratic Republic of Georgia.

Armenia and Azerbaijan declare their independence as the First Republic of Armenia and the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic respectively on May 28.

Law:

The US Congress passes the Sedition Act on May 16, opening the door to the coming wave of repression during the Red Scare.

Women in Canada (excluding Quebec) are granted the right to vote on May 24.

Canadian Suffragettes, 1915

Crime:

Hazel Turner, a black farmer in Georgia, is lynched on May 16. When his widow threatens the vigilantes with arrest, she and her unborn child are also murdered on May 19. No one is ever charged with either crime.

Axeman of New Orleans: on May 22, Joseph Maggio, an Italian grocer in New Orleans, and his wife Catherine, were murdered in their own home while sleeping. The killer cut both of their throats with a razor and bludgeoned them with an axe. Joseph survived long enough to be found by his brothers to report the attack. It set off a string of similar murders that terrorized the city until 1919 when the murder spree stopped. None of the serial murders have been solved

Diplomacy:

Nicaragua declares war on the Central Powers, May 6.

Costa Rica declares war on Germany, May 23.

Statue of lynching victim Mary Turner.

Business:

General Motors acquires the Chevrolet Motor Company on May 2, thus securing one of its signature brands for the next century.

The United States Post Office establishes Air Mail service between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, beginning May 15.

Conspiracy Theory:

The first of the Sisson Documents, alleging to prove that Germany had conspired with Bolsheviks to bring about the end of the war, is released on May 9. (The documents are later proved to be forgeries).

Sports:

The Kentucky Derby is won by Exterminator, with jockey Willie Knapp, on May 11.

Film:

M’Liss,” starring Mary Pickford, released May 5.

Huck and Tom,” starring Mary’s brother Jack Pickford, released May 13.

Old Wives for New,” directed by Cecil B. DeMille, released May 19.

Bound in Morocco,” starring Douglas Fairbanks, released May 28.

Births:

June Duprez, actress (in “And Then There Were None” and “Calcutta”), born May 14.

John Dall, actor (in “Rope” and “Gun Crazy”), born May 26.

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United Snakes of America (1917)

This short propaganda film from the Ford Motor Company represents an interesting moment in American corporate history. It is also an example of the crossover between film and the newspaper “political cartoon,” in which the animation becomes part of the commentary.

The film consists of a slow reveal, in which the cartoon is drawn for us piece by piece. At first we see blocks labeled “Army” and “Navy,” to either side of the screen, and the heads of figures representing those groups are added afterwards. Then, in the center of the screen, Uncle Sam is painstakingly drawn, apparently in the midst of some conflict, but parts of him remain blank. Finally, reasons for these blanks become clear, as serpents are drawn coiled around Uncle Sam and the two military figures, filling in the areas we could not see before. These serpents are labeled with various internal enemies, including “food speculator,” “pro-German press,” “strike,” and “people’s council,” as well as (more surprisingly) “senator,” “congressman,” and “clergeman” (sic). The whole scene is labeled “The United Snakes of America (The Copper Heads).”

Parsing a dated political cartoon can be harder than we think. When this film came out, the United States was newly committed to participation in the First World War. What is mostly going on here is that Ford is identifying various groups seen to be undermining the war effort and implying that their actions are betrayals of American soldiers and the country as a whole. That’s easy enough to understand, but some of the specifics have since become obscure. The term “Copperheads” refers to a faction of Democratic congressmen who wanted to negotiate for peace with the Confederacy during the Civil War. Ford is suggesting that the current crop of un-patriotic opponents of the war are of the same ilk (the Civil War took place in the 1860s, so this is similar to someone calling their enemies “hippies” today). Some of the groups identified are familiar – people almost always blame congress when the government doesn’t act quickly enough, and since this comes from a major corporation it’s no surprise to see labor (represented as “Strike”) represented as an enemy of American strength. The “People’s Council of America for Democracy and the Terms of Peace” was a pacifist organization active during the time, and “food speculators” were commonly accused of taking advantage of food shortages in Europe to get rich at the expense of people’s suffering (“war profiteers” would soon follow, and some would accuse Ford himself of being one). The one I’m least certain about is “clergeman,” which I assume to be a misspelling of “clergymen” and would be a criticism of Christian ministers who spoke against warfare, I guess, unless it’s the name of an individual lost to time. Its position, next to “Senator” made me think that perhaps Ford was calling out a “Senator Clergeman” at first, but now I think not.

Henry Ford was of course a famous industrialist and also very politically active. He would become associated with various far-right causes, through his paper “The Dearborn Independent” and is perhaps most noted today for being directly involved in distributing and promoting the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in English. This cartoon is relatively mild compared with some of what the “Dearborn Independent” would later publish. Ironically, the Ford Foundation, founded by Henry and his son Edsel in 1936, today supports a variety of progressive cultural institutions through grants and has been accused by the John Birch Society of being part of the left-wing conspiracy that dominates the US.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 80 secs

I have not been able to locate this film for free viewing on the Internet. If you know where it is, please comment.

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

An American in the Making (1913)

This short industrial safety film was produced for US Steel by Thanhauser, and contains some unusual narrative elements, some of which are hinted at in the title. Obviously intended to speak to new immigrants and unskilled laborers, part of the purpose was to reassure them that their employer cared about them and their aspirations.

The movie begins in the “old country,” where a young peasant (Harry Benham) receives a letter from a brother in America, who has saved enough money to get him passage to come to the USA. We see him at work in the field, and then he is called into the house by his aging parents who show him a letter written in a non-English (apparently Slavic) language. The next we know, he is arriving on Ellis Island, an awkward insert shot showing him with a tag pinned to his jacket identifying him for the customs officials. He walks out into the streets of New York and to Pennsylvania Station, still with the tag attached, and rides to Gary, Indiana, the “model workers’ city” established by US Steel. His brother meets him at the train and removes the tag from his jacket. They go into the city and the brother steers him away from a saloon and to the impressive edifice of the YMCA for off-hours entertainment.

Soon, he is at work, and we see safety signs in four languages, at least two of which are Eastern European. At this point the fictional narrative essentially grinds to a halt as the film strives to demonstrate various safety precautions and devices used on the job. We see a “universal symbol of danger” (in black and white it is a dark circle on white paper; I assume it’s meant to be red), a device for safely derailing oncoming trains when someone is working on the line, safety goggles, a guard for a table saw, and a large hand-protecting device that resembles a catcher’s mitt. We now see a variety of safety badges that workers can earn on the job. Then we see some depictions of the steelmaking process: large cauldrons with molten metal, a blast furnace, and crucibles pouring the lava-like substance into molds. It’s very visually dramatic, but loses both the thread of the story and any awareness of safety.

How do you work with this thing on?

Finally, we return to our immigrant hero, who is taking company-sponsored English classes. He is excelling, and his diligence has caught the attention of the pretty young teacher (Ethyle Cooke). She lets him walk her home and in the next scene we discover that they are happily married with a child, living in a pleasant suburban home on his fine wages (we don’t know whether she still works, one tends to assume not). Their son goes to a “model school” and plays in a playground built by the company. The movie ends with their smiling faces showing how a foreigner has found happiness in his new land.

Is this thing safe?

It’s pretty hard to make a safety film with an interesting story, but Thanhauser gave it a shot, and wound up making two movies that don’t hang together very well. The narrative part of the story demonstrates how a sober, hard-working young man from another country can assimilate in the United States, when encouraged by a benevolent employer like US Steel. The second movie is basically a series of safety demonstrations, in which the protagonist of the first film plays at best a supporting role, and is forgotten completely for some of the time. It’s interesting how much of the movie was shot on location, and that many of the unpaid “extras” stare openly at the camera or the performers. Part of the intention probably was to show off Gary and its pleasant working and living conditions.

The oddest part of the narrative for me was the ending, which seems to imply that there are enough single female schoolteachers in America to supply wives for all of the workers, and that an educated native-born woman would be readily available to an unskilled immigrant laborer. I had found myself wondering only moments before this sequence started what the prospects for meeting women in the apparently all-male society of Gary were like at the time, and the rather outlandish resolution only emphasized this further. I tend to think that the writers at Thanhauser found themselves written into a corner and did their best to fight their way out of it, but it only works with considerable suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s nice to see a movie from this period that seems to celebrate the “melting pot” concept rather than expressing xenophobia about immigration.

Director: Carl Gregory

Camera: Carl Gregory

Starring: Harry Benham, Ethyle Cooke, Leland Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.