Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2018

June 1918

The news round-up this month is a bit deceptive, because a lot of the important historical events of this month weren’t heavily covered at the time. The biggest event really is the escalation of the “Spanish Flu” to a pandemic, but no one knew in June that it would ultimately kill more people than the First World War. The Bolsheviks weren’t advertising the fact that they had begun killing off the Romanov royal family, either. And, the important document the British government sent to the Syrians, assuring them of the principle of national self-determination would have significant influence on the Treaty of Versailles, although it received little publicity at the time. Sometimes, we don’t know what the most significant events of our times are until we can look back at them with some perspective.

 

World War One:

The Battle of Belleau Wood begins June 1. The U.S. Army 2nd Infantry Division deployed troops, including the 5th and 6th Marine Regiments, to hold Belleau Wood near the Marne River in France after the towns of Château-Thierry and Vaux fell to the Germans.

Allied counterattacks in the Third Battle of the Aisne on June 3 halted the German advance at the Marne River. Allied casualties were massive at 127,000, including 98,000 French casualties and 29,000 British casualties. Germany suffered slightly more with 130,000 casualties

The Austro-Hungarian dreadnought battleship SMS Szent István is sunk on June 10 by two Italian MAS motor torpedo boats, off the Dalmatian coast.

The first airplane bombing raid by an American unit in France is carried out June 12.

Grand Duke Michael of Russia

Russian Revolution:

Grand Duke Michael of Russia is murdered on June 12, thereby becoming the first of the Romanovs to be murdered by the Bolsheviks.

World Health:

The “Spanish ‘flu” becomes pandemic. Over 30 million people die in the following 6 months.

Disasters:

RMS Kenilworth Castle, one of the Union-Castle Line steamships, collides with her escort destroyer HMS Rival on June 4 while trying to avoid her other escort, the cruiser HMS Kent.

Astronomy:

V603 Aquilae, the brightest nova observed since Kepler’s of 1604, is discovered June 8.

Diplomacy:

The Declaration to the Seven, a British government response to a memorandum issued anonymously by seven Syrian notables after the Balfour Declaration and the Sykes-Picot Agreement became known, is published June 16. It assures Arabs of the British government’s support of the principle of national self-determination after the war is over.

Crime:

Suspects in the Chicago Restaurant Poisonings are arrested on June 22, and more than 100 waiters are taken into custody, for poisoning restaurant customers with a lethal powder called Mickey Finn.

Film:

Marion Davies produced and starred in her second feature film Cecilia of the Pink Roses, released through Select Pictures on June 2.

Theda Bara starred in the silent drama Under the Yoke, released June 9, which became noteworthy in its controversy in later years for its depiction of Filipinos and the one-sided view of American occupation in the Philippines.

Born:

Robert Preston (actor, in “The Music Man” and “Victor/Victoria”) June 8.

Jane Bryan (actress, in “Kid Galahad” and “Brother Rat”) June 11.

Ellen Liiger (Estonian actress, known for the film adaptation of Karge meri) June 26.

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What Is Home without the Boarder? (1901)

Alternate Title: La Maison tranquille, The Quiet House

A typical short comedy from Georges Méliès, but without any camera trickery in this case. The gleeful anarchy of this piece pre-sages later developments in silent slapstick comedy.

A proscenium-style set has been divided horizontally between two stages. In the lower one, a couple in dark clothes has dinner in an orderly bourgeois dining room. In the upper stage, three men in their bedclothes dance and play musical instruments. The men upstairs kick a hole in the floor/ceiling and steal wine from the table of the couple, who run out in fear. Then, one of the trouble-makers (Méliès) jumps down into the room and sends the turkey up to his flat-mates to eat. He covers himself in a sheet and simulates an elephant, terrifying the landlady when she comes back to investigate. He returns to the upstairs space in time to help his comrades defend their territory when a policeman is summoned. The policeman is pelted, first with powder and wine, then with a mattress and other pieces of furniture the men have to hand. When he, the landlord, and landlady finally retreat, the men jump downstairs and dance around, piling furniture against the door to stop any further intrusions of their chaotic fun. The movie ends with them victorious.

In this movie, Méliès utilizes several comedy tropes that would later be exploited by Charlie Chaplin and other famous silent comedians: celebrating confrontation with authority (the landlord and police), emphasis on fast action, escalation of violence and absurdity in rejection of social rules. All of these elements make for a very funny film, and the comedians who would later embrace them understood, as Méliès did the way this kind of chaos allows a release for people living in a highly structured modern society. On another level, this kind of comedy reflects the hidden fear of moderns that the veneer of social behavior can be dismissed as soon as one (or in this case three) member rejects it and that society will be helpless to contain them without their voluntary surrender. The ironic title in both languages suggests a degree of identification with the landlords, who have taken in boarders to benefit themselves economically, only to find that their comforts are threatened by this very arrangement. At any rate, the whole piece is great fun, and a measure of what Méliès could achieve without any magical effects.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Bud’s Recruit (1918)

This two-reel narrative was produced as a “positive” film for young people, by a philanthropist concerned about the state of youth in America. It uses the theme of patriotism and the war effort to deliver a message about the innate decency of American boys.

The opening title explains this as a “Judge Brown Story,” but the judge is nowhere to be seen in this movie, so I’ll talk about him a little after going through my synopsis. The movie proper begins by introducing us to “Bud” (Wallis Brennan), a young man who likes to dress up in uniforms and play army games. He blows on his bugle and various other boys from the neighborhood rush over to line up for drilling. A couple of smaller children come up to ask if they can join in, and Bud takes them to a tree where he has marked the minimum height for participation. One makes it, the other does not. Then, that smaller boy gets the idea of standing on a rock, and Bud lets him in, not fooled, but appreciating the boy’s spunk. He gives the little boy a drum to beat while everyone marches. It isn’t long before he loses interest in all the hard walking and sits down under a tree with a puppy. When Bud finds out, he sentences the child to death for desertion, so the boy runs away quickly while the rest of the recruits fire their wooden guns at his back. The boy runs to his mother, who takes on the regiment with a frying pan and routs them, meanwhile beating the stuffing out of a dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm II that they set up for target practice.

Meanwhile, we meet “Reggie” (Robert Gordon), who is Bud’s older brother and has no interest in things military. He sits around in the backyard smoking and drinking lemonade served to him by an African American butler. His girlfriend Edith (Ruth Hampton) is reading  the paper and learns that Reggie’s draft number is so low that there’s no chance he will be called up to serve, which is a relief to them both, as well as to Reggie and Bud’s mom, herself involved with pacifist meetings. Bud objects to the lack of patriotism and is sent to his room without dinner, but he says it’s fine because it’s a “meatless day” anyway. In his room, he puts up various recruiting posters and looks at them longingly. We learn that Edith’s sister also has a beau, who signed up for service because he wasn’t going to be drafted, setting up a new pressure on Reggie to demonstrate his manliness. Reggie goes to the bedroom he shares with Bud and takes down the recruitment poster from the wall, but Bud draws a line with chalk across the middle of the room – one side is for patriots, the other for cowards like Reggie.

The next day, Bud leads a counter-protest of his boys when Reggie and mom attend a peace meeting in the living room. They carry a sign that says “We Want Peace – After We Lick Em!” Edith, apparently finding this more amusing than the dull speeches inside, picks up an American flag and joins the march. Reggie is led back inside by his mother, making him seem all the more dominated and infantilized. That night, while Reggie sleeps, Bud reads a newspaper story about German air raids that kill women and children, and he resolves to take action. If Reggie won’t volunteer to fight, he can dress up as Reggie and sign up himself in his brother’s name! He puts on a false mustache and swipes a pair of Reggie’s glasses and some of his clothes, and heads down to a Recruiting Office. The soldier there looks like he would pretty much sign up any boy who said he wanted to join, whether he dressed up or not – he doesn’t even apply Bud’s “tree test” to see how tall he is.

The news comes out in the local paper’s “honor roll” of volunteer soldiers. Reggie is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list, but before he finds out a soldier shakes his hand on the street and Edith’s sister sneaks up and kisses him! Edith now seems quite proud of Reggie, but mom is still deeply concerned. Then Reggie goes up to his room and shows Bud the article. He spots his glasses in Bud’s pocket and puts two and two together. The two brothers get into a fight, with Bud coming out on top and ordering Reggie to leave town so that he (Bud) can go through with his plan and join the army. Reggie says “uncle” and agrees. In the next scene, he’s at a train station, but of course there are recruitment posters there and he starts having second thoughts. Bud dresses up to report for duty, but he is met at the base by Reggie, who can’t let his kid brother do his duty for him. Bud seems astonished at first, but he smiles and runs off to tell Edith and his family the news. Everyone runs down to the base to see Reggie in his new uniform, and the servant sums up the situation, saying he “always knowed that boy had red, white, and blue blood in his veins.”

Classic movie fans will generally be familiar with Father Edward J. Flanagan and “Boys Town,” but they may not have realized how many similar projects there were in the United States at the time. This movie was made by the “Boy City Film Co.,” a project of Judge Willis Brown who did indeed run a chain of so-called “boy cities” across the nation. The Boy City Film Company produced a series of films to promote clean entertainment, of which this was the first. Most of them evidently did feature the Judge himself as a dispenser of wisdom and resolver of disputes, but this first movie only features him in a still photo as a prop. These movies are mostly lost, and would probably be entirely forgotten, except that the Judge was able to find a rather promising young man named King Vidor to direct them. This is not his first film (in fact he had been directing since 1913), but it is by far the earliest one I’ve ever seen. Given the heavy-handed intentions and presumably limited budget, it is a very effective movie, especially in terms of its comedy. The boy actors are charming, and always seem to give the adults a run for their money. Vidor seems to have internalized Judge Willis’s belief that boys “do not need to be saved,” and are naturally inclined towards goodness and decency, even when adults around them behave questionably. The movie comes across as innocently naïve, where it could have easily been foolish or preachy, which I believe is a testament to Vidor’s subtlety and sensitivity, more than to strength of the script itself.

Director: King Vidor

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Wallis Brennan, Robert Gordon, Ruth Hampton, Mildred Davis

Run Time: 26 Min

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

100% American (1918)

Mary Pickford stars in this promotional film for the Fourth Liberty Bond during World War I. While it’s predictably preachy, the film does take advantage of its star’s charms and gives a brief narrative to hold the audience’s interest while arguing that it needs to “do without” in order to support the war effort.

Pickford is introduced a “Mayme,” a typical young American woman who likes to indulge in the pleasures of an affluent society. The story begins with her and a girlfriend or roommate at an amusement park, dazzled by all kinds of opportunities for meaningless consumption and fun. They are distracted by a man giving a speech – possibly a barker for some new attraction. He turns out to be a “four minute man” – a public speaker drumming up support for buying war bonds. At the climax of his speech, he points at the camera and asks, “What are you giving right now?” A reversal shows Mayme reacting to this question. Evidently she feels guilty for not doing enough. She and her friend continue along the boardwalk and Mayme window shops longingly, but resists the urge to go into a store and buy new clothes. Then she and her friend go to a soda shop. While her friend eats ice cream, Mayme orders water. Finally, she walks home alone to save car fare.

The next scene comes on “bond day.” Mayme stands in a line of people, ready to buy their war bonds. She has saved up a sizable wad of bills, but she gets nervous when an ugly man takes an interest in her, and she stashes the loot. When she reaches the head of the line, she looks in her purse and can’t find the money – she’s already forgotten that she hid it – and she accuses the ugly man of robbing her. A policeman comes over to shake him down and meanwhile, Mayme finds the money, buy her bond, and makes a hasty retreat after correcting her mistake.

The movie now looks forward to “after the war” when Mayme is qualified to go to a “100% American” dance with soldiers and other bond-holders. Her fashionable friend cannot attend this event, because she failed to buy bonds. But, Mayme has pity on her and lets her take her bond. After she leaves, Mayme collapses in remorse that she can’t even go to the celebration. Then, Mayme’s soldier boyfriend comes home. He has bought two bonds, so that they can still go together. The final scene is a live-action political cartoon, in which Kaiser Wilhelm II is suspended from falling into “the soup” on a thin high wire labeled “Hindenburg Line.” He tries to retreat from France to Germany, but is weighted down by various burdens, with labels like “brute force” and “clown prince.” Mayme takes out a baseball labeled “Fourth Liberty Bond” and knocks him off the wire, simulating the kinds of amusements she forsook at the beginning of the film. Then she points to the camera and suggests that, “Your’s may be the bond to knock him off his perch!”

By 1918, Mary Pickford was possibly the biggest star in the world (easily in the top five, at any rate). Her support of liberty bonds was well known, and she donated a considerable amount of her valuable (and expensive!) time to public appearances in support of them. There’s an irony to the title of this film, however, since she was in fact a Canadian citizen! Her home country had been fighting for almost four years by the time any American troops showed up, and perhaps that was the reason for her urgency in trying to get the war over as quickly as possible. Of course, she had already starred in “The Little American” and was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” so audiences probably didn’t see this as a big problem. She was an actress playing a role, and in this case that role was of a patriotic American girl who sacrifices her immediate pleasures for the sake of the war effort. Unfortunately, the concept of “100% American” would be used after the war to hound immigrants and leftists during the “Red Scare.”

Feet!

This sort of short propaganda film doesn’t show off the best in film making technique of the time, but there are some interesting bits. The reversal to Pickford after the four minute man breaks the fourth wall is particularly well executed in terms of editing, and handled very quickly, to keep the emotional verisimilitude high. There are a number of insert shots of Mayme’s fashionable shoes, perhaps to establish her as a person given to extravagance, or perhaps in the interest of titillating the male audience, as shoes and feet seem to have been a big deal since the days of “What Demoralized the Barber Shop” and “The Gay Shoe Clerk.” I found the final “cartoon” interesting as well, since it involved so many different ideas being integrated into a single image.

Director: Arthur Rosson

Camera: Hugh McClung, Glen MacWilliams

Starring: Mary Pickford, Loretta Blake, Monte Blue, Henry Bergman

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.