Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: April, 2019

Cartoons on Tour (1915)

This short from Edison is another very basic animated cartoon – with a live action wrap-around story – from the silent era. Most of the animated sequences are devoted to low humor and slapstick, although the final animated sequence is meant to be uplifting, or at least charming, by comparison.

The movie begins by establishing a young country girl (Maxine Brown) who is waiting on her porch with a comic book for her lover to take her and elope. Her father (William Chalfin) comes out to say good day on his way about some errand and she hides the letter and the marriage license in the comic book. Then, she begins to read, which takes us into the world of the “Animated Grouch Chasers” comic and “The Tales of Silas Bunkum.” Here, a group of rural rubes is sitting around telling tall tales, establishing a second wrap-around story. One tells of a time when he was stranded on a desert island with nothing but a snuff box. We see him take a pinch and sneeze, then he comes upon an elephant who is crying for some reason. The farmer offers the elephant some snuff and it sneezes so hard that it blows him onto the deck of a passing ship. We come out of the story-within-a-story to see the farmer’s companions knock him off his perch for lying. “Folks don’t beleive [sic] nuthin’ no more,” he complains. We now come back to the live-action world to find the girl laughing hysterically at the cartoon.

Now the beau (Johnnie Walker) arrives in his car, but he’s having mechanical problems. The girl manages to locate the problem by putting her hand on the motor at random, and the two are off. The soon overtake her father, and they offer him a ride, without saying where they are going. They give him the comic book to distract him. He reads about “The Kelly Kids’ Kite.” This is another animated sequence in which a small child is given a kite string to hold, only to be pulled high into the air and suffer an encounter with an aggressive bird. There’s an unfortunate caricature of an African American child in this one, which I won’t go into, but the end result is the child losing his grip, but his petticoats open up like a parachute and allow him to land safely in a bale of hay before being chased off by the farmer whose sleep he disturbed. Once they arrive at the pastor’s the father continues to read “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland.” This story involves a misbehaving child-sized husband with a much larger, domineering wife. As the story opens, he’s using a telescope to ogle a bathing woman, but his wife puts a stop to that and holds him in her lap. Mr.s Hicks now dozes off and we see his dreams. He finds the fountain of youth and takes a swim, apparently becoming a baby about the age of the child in the previous film (though with a mustache). He runs away from a frog and steals a bottle from another child before finding a pretty woman and climbing into her lap. Of course, as he goes to give her a kiss he wakes up and finds himself kissing his own wife. The father finds this the funniest comic he’s read so far.

However, now he finds the letter and realizes why the car has been parked in front of a minister’s house so long, and he runs in to remonstrate with the now-wedded couple. They put him at ease by showing him a final comic, “The Pleasure of Being a Grandpa,” which depicts an old man dozing and dreaming of bouncing a little one on his knee. This brings the family together, reconciled.

This movie closely resembles the work of Winsor McCay, and there are some indications that the creator, Raoul Barré, may have deliberately been cribbing from McCay. For one thing, there’s the proximity of the title “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland” to McCay’s famous comic “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” For another, there’s the elephant, which dances in a manner very similar to “Gertie the Dinosaur,” released the previous year. At any rate, the similar style is partly due to the sparse backgrounds, a result of the labor-intensive methods of creating animation in those days before cels had been invented. The movie overall works well enough, but the live action is visually uninspired and wouldn’t be any big deal in terms of plot or acting in 1915. It’s mostly a showcase for the animation, which would have been impressive at the time, even though it looks primitive today.

Director: Raoul Barré

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Maxine Brown, Johnnie Walker, William Chalfin

Run Time: 11 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Legend of Ponchinella (1907)

This early short from Max Linder demonstrates a very different style to what would become his established routine in later movies, seeming to draw from the work of Georges Méliès, as well as French folklore, for its inspiration. Rather than his usual fussy modern aristocrat, Max plays a fairy tale hero in this one.

The movie begins with a series of shots of Max, in Harlequin costume, leading a group of short masked people (probably intended to represent elves, dwarves, or goblins) through various medieval settings. Real locations are used for this, no doubt genuine castles and other ancient landscapes in France that were briefly closed off so that the costumed actors could appear to exist in some timeless period. The small band climbs a stairwell and enters a room, causing smoke somehow to start billowing up from the floor, then they all run off screen. The next scene is preceded by the intertitle “Harlequin rescues his love.” We see a group of well-dressed people surrounding a girl on a short pedestal. She moves in a mechanical way, turning and bowing to the people in the room, to their evident delight. Suddenly the smoke enters the room and all of the aristocrats flee, leaving the clockwork girl alone. She stumbles and collapses from her perch.

The room now transforms from a nice, well-appointed space to a ruin. Now Max enters and finds her in pieces on the floor. He gathers up the pieces of the girl and stuffs them into a sack and carries her away. The next shot shows Max, still with the sack, some distance from the smoking wreck of a castle. He uses a magic wand to create a bridge across a chasm and escape the wreckage. He brings the sack to a beautiful fountain and with a wave of the wand, brings the girl back to life. She now moves in a natural manner, embracing Harlequin and walking off with him. The final scene is called “Harlequin Triumphant” and it involves a series of fairy dances, in a set that closely resembles a Méliès movie, even to the point of having a face like a large moon presiding over the proceedings.

It’s important to realize that when this movie came out, Méliès was one of the most important and successful filmmakers in the world, and that much of the movies coming out imitated or outright stole from him. This is at least somewhat original, more of a homage than a rip-off, though it’s not really what we think of when we think of Max Linder. We hardly see Max’s face at all – most of the scenes are tableaux in proscenium-style sets in long shot. There is one rather lengthy pan as Max and his fairies move through the streets, but Max is always shown at full-figure, never in close-up. The use of actual castle locations is what gives the movie its distinctiveness, although most of the action takes place in sets like the one used for the final fairy dance. I believe that the final fountain where Harlequin resurrects his girlfriend may be at Versailles – possibly a good part of the movie was shot there. In all, it’s an amusing entry in French cinematic history, though not very representative of the work of Linder.

Director: Albert Capellani, Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 7 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Triple Trouble (1918)

This is sort of a “fake” Charlie Chaplin movie, but one which nevertheless stars Charlie Chaplin! In 1918, years after losing the star to Mutual, Essanay, his sophomore studio, stitched together this “new” film from footage he left at the studio (some already released), adding some material directed by his co-star Leo White and releasing it to a Chaplin-hungry public that didn’t know any better.

The movie begins with a random close-up of Charlie with a cigar in his mouth, but the plot begins when we see “Colonel A. Nutt,” who is building a new type of “wireless explosive.” The wartime origin of this new footage influences this plotline, which involves a spy ring led by diplomats from “Pretzelstrasse” (Leo White is the lead agent). Meanwhile, Charlie is introduced as the new janitor in the Nutt House, and there’s some good otherwise unreleased footage of his antics in the kitchen with cook Billy Armstrong and flirting with maid Edna Purviance. Charlie empties most of the food the cook has prepared into the dustbin and then proceeds to strew garbage all over the place by carrying it on his back, even dumping it on poor Edna. We see Leo White at a fence and the dustbin appears over the edge, making it seem that Charlie is dumping the remainder of the trash on him! (Close attention reveals that Charlie has four arms in this scene). Edna and Charlie get into a fight in the kitchen, but the wet rag she throws at him flies into adjoining rooms, hitting Billy and Leo instead, so they blame one another and then get into a fight as well. Soon, Billy figures out where the rag came from and goes to punish Edna, only to find himself confronted by Charlie’s wrath (a boot to the rear). The Colonel finds Leo in bad spirits after his confrontation, and ejects the man without hearing him out.

Charlie now heads to a doss house to spend the night, having completed his dubious day’s work. Charlie has various comic adventures there – lighting a man’s toes on fire, conking a loud-singing drunk over the head with a bottle, and outsmarting a thief who comes in to rob the vagrants. Meanwhile, a pickpocket (Billy Armstrong in different clothes) tries to hold up Leo White and is recruited into the scheme to rob the Nutts. A nearby policeman overhears the plan and calls in other officers, busy playing craps in an abandoned lot. They rush to the Nutt House, where they explain that they are on the trail of a large crime, and occupy the living room. A riot breaks out in the dosshouse and Charlie is forced to flee, ending up with Billy, who talks him into joining the robbery of the Nutt House. The cops are all still there; lying around, smoking, waiting for something to happen. Pandemonium breaks out when the pickpocket enters the house, and amid the chaos, Colonel Nutt’s explosive device is detonated, blowing all of the cops skyward. In the aftermath, the pickpocket is buried in a heap of rubble and Charlie is seen poking his head out of the kitchen stove.

While this is far from Charlie’s best movie (or even his movie, really), it is kind of fun from a historical view to try to figure out which scenes were made when. A good portion of it (especially the dosshouse) was used in the Flicker Alley release of “Police,” and may have been shot for that movie. Or, it may have been shot for “Life,” an incomplete semi-autobiographical project Chaplin worked on at Essanay. Certainly the “janitor” sequences come from this source. Other parts, with Leo White and the “Pretzelstrasse,” were shot afterwards directed by White, and inter-cut with the Chaplin footage to appear to be part of the same movie. Some of this is laughably unsuccessful. The final explosion and head-in-stove sequence is straight from “Work.” The result of this piecemeal story engineering is a rather disjointed film which at times feels more like an anthology of very short shorts than a coherent film. The parts which include Chaplin, however, are up to his usual standards in terms of physical comedy and there are at least a few laughs to be found here. I particularly enjoy the early scenes of Charlie as a hapless janitor in a wealthy home, operating within the Upstairs/Downstairs world of the servants.

Chaplin himself was “Not Amused,” however. He sent a telegram to the “Moving Picture World” informing them of the dubious nature of the movie and asking that false advertising for it be “stamped out.” However, having already lost a legal battle to prevent Essanay from releasing the extended version of “Burlesque on Carmen,” he kept his criticism to the trades this time. Essanay defended their right to re-cut Chaplin footage and present it as “new.” After all, no one had seen this movie before, had they? It was largely academic, because it was out by this time and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It entered the public domain since Chaplin never reissued it with an original score, and thus it actually may have had more releases since that time than many of his early Essanays. It remains a part of his legacy, though decidedly a part he never could control.

Director: Charlie Chaplin.Leo White

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Bud Jamison, Albert Austin, Snub Pollard, Wesley Ruggles

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Takes a Bath (1910)

Max Linder is back with another comedy of errors. This time, he finds a simple matter of hygiene to be beyond his abilities.

We see Max at a store, purchasing a fancy new bathtub. He shows how thrilled he is to have something so elegant in which to wash himself. He takes it out to the street and tries to hail a taxi, but when the cab driver sees the tub, he abruptly drives on. Max is forced to lug the thing home on his back. He manages this, however, and soon after arriving, decides to fill it. There’s one problem – his apartment building has a single shared spigot, out in the hallway. He finds that the small containers he has will take forever to fill the tub, when filled up one at a time and brought back into the apartment, so he has the bright idea of bringing the tub out to the spigot and filling it right there. Then, when he tries to move it back into his apartment, he finds it much too heavy to push.

Not one to let a small thing stand in the way of achieving his goal, Max gets his soap and towel, then strips down and gets into the tub right there in the stairway. Everything is going fine until a neighbor walks by. Max tries to hide by sinking under the water, but of course, the neighbor notices the tub on the stairway landing and investigates, ultimately calling in the manager, then the police. Max tries to shoo them away by splashing them, but this simply results in his (and the tub’s) being hauled down to court. He tries the same tactics on the magistrate with as little success. When they try dumping Max and his water out, he rolls the tub over and scrambles out with it on his back like a turtle’s shell! He’s soon being pursued this way by police and the inevitable little dog.

Once again, this comedy follows the basic plot of Max eagerly anticipating some simple pleasure, only to be thwarted at every turn and ultimately humiliated and ruined. It’s quite funny, although it’s hard to imagine that any apartment house would provide no other way to get running water than a spigot in a common hallway. How was Max bathing before this? Maybe he’s a new tenant. The scenes of Linder in the tub made me think of Alice Guy films from around the same time, like “The Drunken Mattress” and “The Rolling Bed.” No doubt Linder was also familiar with these films when he made this one.

Director: Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 7 Min, 45secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Lightning Sketches (1907)

This very short film from Vitagraph beats Windsor McCay to the punch by several years in his claim to be the “first animator” – though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were even earlier examples. It serves as an example of developing film techniques in America as the Nickelodeon Era was beginning.

The screen shows a large pad of artist’s paper, hung up on a wall before the camera. J. Stuart Blackton appears on the left side and writes the word “coon,” then rapidly transforms the letters into a caricature of a black man. All of the action is undercranked, to make Blackton’s movements appear rapid when played at normal speed. He now writes the word “Cohen” on the paper next to the first cartoon, and transforms these letters into a caricature of a Jewish man. The paper is rolled up and removed in animation, but we do not see the hands of the person doing it. Next, a bald man comes out and takes a seat before the paper, and Blackton sketches him, giving him a cigar at the end and then adding it to the caricature. A few animated puffs of smoke are visible coming out of the drawn cigar. This paper is also rolled up and removed in animation. Now, Blackton sketches a glass, a bottle labeled “Medoc” and a spritzer bottle, then he departs the screen and the bottle is animated to pour into the glass, followed by a spritz of soda, which causes the glass to overflow. This paper is torn apart in animation and the film ends.

Although there’s only a few seconds worth of animation between the papers getting rolled up and the pouring of the bottle, this was probably a pretty exciting film for an audience of 1907. Even the speeded-up action qualifies as an “effect” and seems to have been done to emphasize Blackton’s ability to work quickly, without mistakes. The unfortunate racial stereotyping at the beginning was probably meant to be humorous and not offensive, though it hasn’t aged well. It was interesting how he integrated the letters into images of people’s faces, it was just an unfortunate choice of words to use to demonstrate this. Blackton barely looks at the bald man as he sketches him – the point of having him “sit” for the picture seems to be so that the audience can see how accurate Blackton’s portrayal is. The final animation of the wine and the spritzer bottle is the climax, and by modern standards it wouldn’t amount to much, but it may have fascinated audiences to see a moving drawing at the time.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Is Stuck Up (1910)

This is another short comedy from Max Linder for Pathé Studios. It has a similar narrative structure to our last Linder film, “Max Learns to Skate,” but takes place in the more familiar bourgeois setting of Paris shops and homes.

Max is invited to dine with a young lady by his “future father-in-law.” We see Max in his apartment putting the finishing touches on his preparations, looking dapper as ever and quite excited to be going out. He twirls his cane and heads out the door. Along the way, however, he stops at a butcher’s shop. The butcher is having difficulty with flies, so has set out several pieces of flypaper. Max steps on one as he approaches the counter. The butcher runs off screen briefly to retrieve a parcel for Max, presumably a pastry that he will bring to the luncheon date. As he begins to leave, however, he notices the flypaper on his shoe. Unable to shake it off, he sits in a chair to allow the butcher to pull it off for him, but in the process he sits on another piece. As this is removed, he puts his elbow on yet another piece, which goes with him out the door. At his destination, the young lady is still getting dressed, and is having some difficulty zipping up her dress, even with her mother’s help. Max arrives and hands over the pastry, only now noticing the piece of flypaper on his elbow. In removing it, he gets glue on both his hands and once more on his shoe, and he tries to conceal this, making it impossible for him to be of service to the young lady. He lingers briefly in the living room, fighting it out with the flypaper, before joining the family at the table for the meal. Now everything sticks to Max. His napkin, fork, glass, even the carpet are all snares he falls into. When he offers to pass a plate to his host, his difficulties reach their peak; the plate is finally destroyed and the two come to blows. On his way out the door, he once again collides with the same butcher, and is seen at the end in tears, covered in glue, paper, and baked goods.

As with “Max Learns to Skate,” we watch Max descend from happy and confident, through frustrated and discouraged, to desperate and crying. Once again, the effect is good comedy, although in this case he is a bit less sympathetic (we get the feeling he’s not really interested in the girl, but rather in the father’s money). I was surprised by the number of camera set ups and the use of insert shots to show Max’s stickiness, but when I first watched it, the print claimed the movie was made in 1906. However, it appears that this version, at any rate, really comes from 1910, which makes this less surprising (actually it’s a bit simplistic for 1910). Like many films of the time, it may have been a remake of an effort from a few years earlier. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed watching Max go through his routine, which uses subtle physical cues to illustrate his changing mood and heighten the humor of the situation.

Director: Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder, Gabrielle Lange

Run Time: 6 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.