Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: July, 2019

Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

This two-reel comedy from Keystone shows Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as he was still honing his craft, though he tries out some gags that would be put to better use in later movies. True to the Keystone spirit, it is fast-paced and incoherent.

 

The movie begins similarly to the later movie “Out West,” with Fatty riding the roof of a train, only to be abandoned in the middle of a Western desert with no apparent resources. In this case, Slim Summerville comes along to kick him off the train, and unfortunately that’s his only appearance. Fatty spots Minnie-He-Haw (played by Minnie Devereaux), a Native American woman of about Fatty’s own girth. He decides to pretend to be dying of thirst to get her help, and she calls over some braves from a nearby camp to drag him home. Of course, since she’s now “saved his life,” she expects him to show his appreciation by marrying her. She takes him into her teepee and there’s a bit of funny business about the challenge of kissing when both have such large bellies. Then Minnie goes out to announce her betrothal to the tribe, and Fatty spots Minta Durfee having trouble with her horse nearby. He sneaks over to help her out and when Minnie finds out, the “green-eyed monster” takes over and she drags him back to a feast in their honor. Fatty eats a little and then either becomes ill or fakes it and makes another attempt at a getaway.

Minta rides into town up to the saloon and tells her father (Josef Swickard) about her adventures. He defends her from a funny drunk played by Harry McCoy, who does some good stunts, getting tossed around a bit. She then goes over to the corner to prepare dinner on a convenient stove. Fatty now arrives and also heads to the saloon and pushes McCoy down before spotting Minta and eating most of her dinner. McCoy tries to start another fight and gets shoved again, but now Swickland sees what’s going on and gets out his gun. At the same time, Minnie, also armed, shows up in town looking for Fatty. Swickard tells Fatty to keep away from Minta and shoots at his feet to make him dance, which is so amusing all the local cowhands join in. When he runs outside, Minnie is shooting at him also, so he runs back inside to further gunfire. After this has gone on awhile he runs out of town, winding up back at the Indian camp, where the Indians tie him to a stake and start a fire to punish him for his betrayal of Minnie. Minnie has a change of heart and frees him, but again he uses the opportunity to escape, and now the whole tribe mounts horses to pursue him. He evades them by crossing a skinny rope bridge that won’t hold the horses, but now they fire arrows at him. Several hit him in the behind and he runs off into the distance as the image irises in to indicate the end.

As we might expect from Keystone, the movie is short on plot and big on excesses, and your capacity to enjoy it depends on your comfort with Native American stereotypes and jokes at the expense of fat people. At least Minnie-He-Haw is a person with her own motivations, which is more than some Western dramas were managing at the time. Devereaux definitely fits right in to the madcap atmosphere at Keystone, even if she isn’t wearing bizarre facial hair, and plays her role with gusto. Arbuckle is also committed, even if we don’t get many of his famous stunts, and his run across the rope bridge looks genuinely hazardous. It was fun spotting various Keystone regulars in their Western garb, given a break from always playing cops. I sort of wanted Fatty and Minnie to end up together, but I suppose a mixed-race marriage would have been controversial in a comedy at the time.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minnie Devereaux, Minta Durfee, Slim Summerville, Josef Swickard, Harry McCoy, Frank Hayes, Edward Dillon.

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Kiriki, Japanese Acrobats (1907)

This short movie by Segundo de Chomón demonstrates his easy facility with the trick film. While much of his work is compared to (or even confused with) that of Georges Méliès, I can honestly say I’ve not seen another movie that looks like this one.

A group of actors walks out onto a bare stage with a black background with a bamboo frame around the sides and top. They are a mixed-age and –gender group, all wearing Japanese-style clothing and imitative hairstyles (the men and boys have shaved “bald wigs” on to represent a chonmage). An edit brings them to about the point of a mid-shot so you can get a look at them, then the camera cuts and they begin their act, climbing on top of one another, and sometimes using poles to hold each other up. The end result is usually a symmetrical pattern of human bodies in an apparently impossible position. How was it done?

I was able to spot the trick in his trick film right away, but I’m not sure how obvious it would have been to an audience in 1907. After the edit, we are not actually looking at people standing on a stage anymore, but rather at people lying on their backs with the camera positioned above them, and they pretend to be “climbing” each other when they are really rolling/crawling on the floor. One of the reasons for the simple stage decoration was that it made it easier to match the two shots so that the audience wouldn’t notice the difference. Camera angles were still a fairly new concept in 1907, and audiences were accustomed to static cameras using proscenium-style framing to establish a stage for all of the action to take place in, so this might have seemed quite impressive, even if it is a somewhat simplistic, plotless film for the Nickelodeon Era.

Director: Segundo de Chomón

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Talion Punishment (1906)

This short fantasy film from Pathé shows the definite influence of Georges Méliès, but is especially interesting because of the innovative color process used. No doubt it was a thrill for audiences of the time.

The movie begins on a stage dressed as a forest, with colorful flowers and trees placed about the set. Two young women in shorts are holding butterfly nets and examining the trees for insects, and a male butterfly collector enters reading a book and carrying a net and other gear. He hands each of them some lunch from his basket, then goes on about chasing insects, exiting the stage. A couple of slightly-oversized butterflies swoop around, evidently on strings, settling on flowers, but when the girls try to catch them, they suddenly turn into fairy-women in costumes with wings and bare legs. The fairy women lead the girls off stage and two gigantic green crickets hop on stage, also apparently moved by invisible strings from over head. The girls return, but now the human women have been transformed into insect fairies as well – one is a bee, the other might be a dragonfly. They dance with the butterfly fairies, exiting when the male lepidopterist returns. He is holding a (normal-sized) butterfly in his hand triumphantly. He sets down his gear and takes out a magnifying glass, to examine his prize. The film cuts to a close-up, framed in a circle like that of the glass, on a fabric reproduction of a butterfly, beautifully colored. Several more of these follow, each one flapping its wings helplessly under the glass.

Now the two giant crickets return, and they turn into women in cricket costumes (bare legs again), and each seizes the man by an arm. The other insect women return and the dragonfly-girl accuses him, pointing at all of the gear strewn about the forest. They all form a conga line, with him in the front, and dance off stage. The scene now cuts to a stage dressed as a cave, a bust of Pan or Satan to one side, and a new insect fairy takes up a station behind a rock like a judge’s bench. The man is thrown to the floor and the fairy women all point to him in accusation. His gear is displayed and the judge fairy hands one of the cricket women a large pin. A large toadstool is brought out and the man is made to lie on his back on top of it. The cricket woman hammers the pin through his stomach and the camera angle changes to show him from above, penetrated by the pin and flapping his arms helplessly like the butterflies. The scene goes back to the stage view again and the judge fairy signals for mercy. The pin is removed, and the man is released, still holding his stomach from the pain. He snaps his butterfly net in two, signaling that he has learned his lesson. He and the two girls (now human again) are led away and the fairies cause the remaining gear to burst into flames, then create a colorful tableau for the camera.

The color process used here was stencil-color, which Pathé-Freres introduced a few years before. Instead of hand-coloring each frame (as Méliès did), they used a stencil for each frame to block out the colors and then effectively silk-screened the film strips at high speed. It still sounds like a lot of work, and isn’t perfect – I noticed that the giant pin changed color as it moved past the colored parts of the background, for example. Still, it does allow for better consistency than I’ve seen in most hand-painted films, and this example is quite lovely. The use of editing to show different camera angles is reasonably sophisticated for 1906. The real surprise of the film, however, is the graphic nature of the punishment the man endures. Although he survives, it struck me as pretty strong stuff for a movie no doubt targeting children, and it suggests that the filmmakers really did find butterfly collecting a bit sadistic and wanted to condemn it.

Director: Gaston Velle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Fernand Rivers

Run Time: 4 Min, 13 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

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.