Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: July, 2019

Waiting at the Church (1906)

This Nickelodeon release from Edison Studios uses a popular song as the source for its story, which would have cued exhibitors what music to play for accompaniment, and perhaps encouraged audiences to sing along. Director Edwin S. Porter takes the simple premise to develop a comedic “chase film,” similar to others we’ve seen in the course of this project.

The movie begins with a shot of a man, sitting on a public bench, reading a newspaper. He is joined by a young woman who appears interested in making contact, although he tries to ignore her until she drops something from her purse. Then he gallantly recovers it for her and makes his introduction, and soon the two are strolling arm in arm, the camera panning to follow their action. The next scene shows the two of them at another bench before a lake in a park, flirting affectionately, and the man falls to his knee in the traditional pose for proposal. She responds enthusiastically, and several kisses are rapidly exchanged. The next shot is of the woman alone in a hammock, kissing a photograph repeatedly. A fantasy wedding appears in a double-exposure floating above the woman, but it disappears as the hammock unexpectedly collapses, causing her to crash to the ground. The man suddenly runs up to help her at this moment. The next shot is a medium shot of the man getting ready before a mirror. He fixes a collar on his shirt and fixes his hair with brush and comb, before putting on a jacket and top hat.

The next shot shows a group of children, ranging in age from about 3 to 10, standing in a circle tossing a ball. The man in his top hat is seen leaning out of a window of the house, but he withdraws before they see him. When one child throws the ball out of range, all of the children run off camera to chase it, and now the man comes out of the window and climbs out, running out to the street. The kids, seeing him make an escape, pursue him, the elder child running to the house to get her mother first. The next series of shots are out comedy chase. The man is running with a line of kids (and a wife) running after him, first down a suburban street, the across an open field, then through a columned pavilion, and finally up to the edge of some water, into which he splashes, the mother catching him here and dragging him off by the ear. One running gag is that the smallest child is unable to keep up, and so is always seen dawdling at the end of the line of pursuers. The final shot shows the woman from the original narrative, now dressed as a bride and standing on the stairs of a church, when a man in a messenger’s outfit walks up and gives her a note. She pays him by pulling some coins from her stocking and an insert of the note gives the punch line: “Can’t get away to marry you today. My wife won’t let me.”

While the joke may seem a bit lame today, audiences of the time probably appreciated it – the closing line comes from the chorus of the song, so it didn’t surprise so much as verify the humor they had been enjoying since the beginning of the film. The actress playing the jilted bride is Victoria Vesta, the music hall singer who had popularized the song. The camera movement, double-exposure, and mid-shot were all fairly advanced filmmaking techniques at the time, so this wasn’t necessarily a low-value production. It looked to me as if most of the locations used were pretty close together – the bench in the opening shot has columns behind it that look a lot like the pavilion, and the body of water he splashes into at the end could easily be the same lake we saw in the background of the proposal – but there are quite a lot of camera set ups for the period, and it looked to me as if the church was in some very different part of the city from the suburban homes we see when the man makes his escape. Porter had made a number of similar movies, perhaps the classic today being “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns,” but comedy chases were a staple of the time, because they allowed movement and action along with humor, and didn’t require much dialog or explanation once they were underway.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victoria Vesta, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 9 Min

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

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Back Stage (1919)

Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle team up again for this short from Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation. Keaton has a very prominent co-starring role in this, although Arbuckle is still the center of attention.

Like a lot of these two-reel Comique shorts, this movie is divided into two very short story lines. True to the title, the first focuses on the backstage antics of a small theater troupe, while the second shows a performance, disrupted by hecklers. The movie begins by showing two men (Buster and Al St. John) re-arranging furniture in what seems to be a small bedroom. Suddenly, they grab hold of the flats that serve as the side walls and move them, then the backdrop is raised into the ceiling, showing that we have been looking at a set. Arbuckle is now seen, pulling the rope that lifts the backdrop. This sets the stage for the many sight-gags we’ll be seeing throughout. An intertitle informs us that Arbuckle is in charge of the theatrical company, and we see him outside the theater, trying to paste up a new poster for a coming attraction, but a small child takes an interest in his work and keeps getting in the way. Arbuckle finally pastes him to the wall to keep him out of trouble. He then tears him down and sends him on his way, pasting a bit of poster to his bottom to hide where his pants were torn in the process. When he’s done, the sign advertises a famous star, but the sliding door to the theater obscures half the message when left open, and the remaining text appears to promote a stripper. Inside, Keaton is dealing with a touchy star who insists on having a dressing room with a star over it. Once he’s inside, Keaton pulls the string that moves the star over another dressing room.

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Life of a Cowboy (1906)

For this Independence Day post, I’m reviewing a quintessentially American film – one which its director, Edwin S. Porter, believed was “the first filmed Western” (evidently “The Great Train Robbery” didn’t count). It makes use of familiar tropes of Western stage plays and Wild West shows to present its story.

It begins in a saloon, the “Big Horn” (named for a steer skull prominently hanging over the bar). An old Indian comes into the saloon, wobbling a bit, and is turned away by the white bartender. Now, an identifiable bad guy with a black hat comes in and orders a drink, taking it over to the Indian, but an Indian squaw runs up and knocks the glass away before he can take a drink. A generic white good guy in a white hat runs in and stops the bad guy from hurting her, then enforces his departure with his six-gun. He leaves, and some rather odd folks come in. One, identifiable by his Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap and portly girth, evidently represents an English tourist. There is also a skinnier man and a woman with him. Five cowboys on horseback soon enter and entertain themselves by shooting off guns and making the tourist “dance” ala “The Great Train Robbery.” They ride up to the bar and take some drinks, occasionally firing off a gun for good measure.

The next scene takes place on a dirt-covered street outside the hotel. A stagecoach drives up and disgorges the Englishman and his companions. The skinny Englishman is dragged out of the coach by some cowboys and playfully flogged with a saddle. The good guy from the first scene embraces the woman, pushing the bad guy aside when he shows an interest. Then we cut to a scene on a local ranch, where the local cowboys are showing off their lassoing skills to the newcomers. The portly Englishman gets too close, and is dragged around the yard before the main entertainment begins: a woman rides past the lasso artist and he ropes first her, and then her horse as they pass by. We now cut back to the dirt road and watch as the stage coach departs, and the bad guy jumps on a horse and follows, cutting to a side road at top speed.

The bad guy is soon seen to have rounded up some Indian allies, and they chase the stage, eventually overtaking it and wounding the driver. The woman is put on a horse by the bad guy and Englishmen are forced to walk. The stage driver is able to get to the good guy, who rounds up a posse to go after them. There is another chase and several Indians are shot as the good guy and his team liberate the prisoners. At last, evidently free from peril, the good guy and his girl sit by some trees, but the bad guy sneaks up on them, followed by a lone figure. Just as he is about to shoot the good guy in the back, the figure shoots him from behind and we see that it is the Indian girl from the first scene. The good guy thanks her and kisses his girl.

At 17 minutes, this is a fairly long movie for 1906, and it’s not easy to follow the action. I made use of a synopsis, provided to exhibitors by Edison, to make sense of it, and in the theater an exhibitor would most likely have narrated the action for the audience. That synopsis refers to the bad guy as “a Mexican greaser,” but since there is no racial coding that would be obvious to a modern audience, I avoided that term. I did go ahead and refer to the Native Americans in the movie as “Indians,” because their costumes will be recognized by anyone today. They represent several stereotypes, but at least there is some complexity among them: the old man is a drunk, the young squaw is a tragic hero, and most of the younger men are generic thugs. They do a lot of the better stunts, and my guess is that they worked on Wild West shows in real life, where falling off horses and shooting off guns for an audience paid well. The lassoing sequence also comes straight from the Wild West shows (including the comedy of the “rube” getting dragged around), while the reference to the “Big Horn” saloon is from the stage version of “The Squaw Man,” later to be filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, among others.

The movie, like many from this period, relies heavily and fast moving action and chases, along with bits of slapstick comic relief, to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t come across as being as exciting or innovative as “The Great Train Robbery,” but Porter is correct in that it more clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Old West, as understood by film audiences then and now. Porter had gotten proficient at shooting a standard chase sequence at this time, and the use of camera pans allows us to follow the action, but the sequential editing limits the suspense of these scenes, and makes for a less exciting experience than later Westerns would provide.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter and/or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 17 Min, 21 secs

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet.  If you do, please comment.