Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2020

A Western Redemption (1911)

A Broncho Billy Western starring Gilbert M. Anderson that allows him to play a bad man who sees the light and goes straight, not for the first time. Interestingly, this is a rare case in which a bandit is shown in relation to his parents.

An intertitle informs us that a member of the notorious car barn gang has been apprehended and spilled the beans, and we witness the results as Broncho Billy (Identified in interititles as “Tom”) is arrested at his breakfast table in front of his parents. Shortly thereafter, his dad is fired from his job and his mother receives an eviction letter. Polite society doesn’t want the relatives of a criminal around. Years later, Billy has been released and we see him wearing cowboy gear and rolling a cigarette while talking to a cohort. Said cohort watches the stagecoach from a distance and follows it into town when it delivers a cash box to a general store. The proprietor helps a guard to set up a place to sleep next to it and the man beds down. Billy and his buddy take a couple shots of whiskey for courage and ride into town together. They put on masks and hold up the guard, tying him up and taking the key to the cash box. The other criminal goes into the sleeping quarters and holds up the proprietor. He finds a photo of Billy’s parents and realizes that is who they are robbing, deciding to conceal this from Billy. He rejoins Billy and the two ride off with sacks of loot. The second man insists that they divvy up the loot back at the hideout and each man goes his own way. Billy eventually finds a familiar pocket watch in his share, and concludes what has happened. He chases the man down and finds him sleeping by the side of the trail. The two fight, and Billy gets his guns on him before the other can draw. He holds him at gunpoint and makes him ride back to town. He brings him and the loot to the sheriff, confessing the crime and turning his partner in. They are handcuffed together and taken to a cell. A final shot shows Billy, years later, at the supper table in prayer with his aged parents, the father saying grace.

This is a pretty straightforward example of its series. It makes no effort to tie Anderson’s character in to other Broncho Billy storylines, and doesn’t even refer to him as “Billy.” It uses forward-facing intertitles that telegraph the action before you see it, in some cases spoiling or confusing the story by coming too soon before what they announce. The camera is stationary and generally at medium shot or further from the action (we can’t always see the actors’ feet, at least). Some shots are held for a very long time, even though not that much is happening – given the short run time I was surprised at how much of the guard getting ready for bed was shown. Still, Anderson tries to maximize the drama and sympathy we develop for his character in a short time, suggesting that he has a kind of code or sense of responsibility despite his villainous career. It does seem like the partner could have insisted on keeping everything he stole from the parents, giving Billy a bigger share of the payroll and prevented him discovering the watch, but I suppose it also represents how greedy he was that he didn’t do that (and it would have ruined the story).

Director: Gilbert .M. Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Arthur Mackley, Julia Mackley, John B O’Brien, Brinsley Shaw, Harry Todd, Augustus Carney

Run Time: 16 Min

I have not been able  to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Children Digging for Clams (1895)

This very short film by Auguste and Louis Lumière is typical of their early films demonstrating daily life in motion. It provides a bit of a look at the world of 125 years ago, though mostly leaving you wanting to see more.

A dozen or so children are in a tide pool, using a variety of devices to try to locate clams. Fairly little actual digging takes place; the more prominent children are using something like a spaghetti strainer on a stick to strain through the watery sand and try to pick out larger objects. Some of the older children are paying more attention to the camera than to their ostensible work, though the little ones remain intent on finding clams. A group of adults, mostly women, stands in the background watching. All of the women are dressed in full-length dresses with feather hats, making me wonder if it was a cold day at the beach or if this was just how everyone in France dressed for a day on the beach at the time. The children (mostly girls) have hiked up their skirts in order to wade in the tide pool, and one or two little boys are in short pants. All of them, apart from one very small toddler, are also wearing hats, probably to protect from the sun. Early on in the movie, a mule-drawn cart passes by in the background, filled with children who are enjoying the ride. I get the impression that this represents middle-class children’s entertainment, not the tasks of hard-working French children who hunt clams for a living.

Director: August Lumière

Camera: August Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Two Knights of Vaudeville (1915)

With race very much in the headlines at this moment, it seems like a good time to go back and look at a bit of of African American film history. This short comedy was released by the Ebony Film Company, a Chicago studio formed specifically to create black-cast films.

The movie begins by showing a white man walking out of a theater presenting vaudeville, accidentally dropping the tickets he has just purchased. Shortly  thereafter, our stars (Jimmy Marshall and Frank Montgomery) find them lying on the sidewalk. They are overjoyed – they can go to the theater tonight! They rush off to invite a girl (Florence McClain) to join them. The white man walks back onto the screen, scowling and looking down at the ground. The trio walks back to Florence’s house and decides to meet there later, but they should dress up first for their night on the town. The two men look rather uncomfortable in their collars, but Florence does them proud.

They go to the theater, where a white doorman looks hesitant to admit them at first, but it turns out that they can go in, they just can’t bring a black dog that tried to sneak in with them. They take up a position in a box right near the front of the stage as a performer is singing. She ends as our heroes take up their position in the box, and is followed by a “Bending Girl” – more or less a contortionist, though all we see her do is a few cartwheels. The protagonists are fascinated, and also quite loud in their applause and boisterous in their occasional emulations of what they watch. Next up is a juggler, doing sort of a Chaplinesque drunk act, and they enjoy his antics even more. Unfortunately, the little dog now manages to run up to them, causing the juggler to drop all of his balls and the protagonists to burst into raucous laughter. One of our heroes, trying to emulate his dexterity with his some balls, drops one onto the stage and has to run after it, at the same time as his friend drops his hat over the side and they both wind up on stage. The men are escorted out of the theater, and the women joins them in front.

Not to be discouraged so easily, they now decide to put on their own vaudeville show, a “real show.” This show has an all-black audience, and is set up in a large hall with folding chairs. The two “knights” are the stars, although they warm up the audience with a singer, who the audience does not appreciate. When one audience member throws an apple core, it knocks “her” wig  off, and we see that it is a balding man in a dress. The big act, though, is the “Wurs & Wurst” acrobats. They attempt various tumbles, getting a somewhat mixed reaction from the audience. A prankster in the audience now starts throwing flour, and some of the ladies leave. The acrobats bring out a barrel for their next trick, but when one drops it on the other, he hurls it into the audience and precipitates complete pandemonium. The final shot shows the two knights in the wreckage of barrels and benches.

When I chose to watch this, I was under the impression that “Ebony Films” was a black-owned studio, and that we’d be getting a chance to see a slice of African American history and humor, but that is sadly not the case. Ebony Films did make movies with all-black casts, intended to be screened before black audiences, but it was white-owned this film was bought from another white-owned company, and accordingly much of the humor we see here meets the expectations and stereotypes typical in other comedy of the time, including eye-rolling, eye-popping, and intertitles and signs with “funny” bad English. Still, because it was intended for African American audiences, it does avoid some of the worst offenses, and a few observations on race and inequality seem to sneak in, perhaps added by the cast themselves, or perhaps simply more obvious to a modern viewer. For example, the moment where it appears that the knights and their girl will not be admitted to the theater must have felt familiar to their black audiences, and the fact that it is the little black dog that is turned away, can be seen as a comment on how African Americans were treated like dogs in white society. In general, the way the protagonists behave shows that they are in an unfamiliar and unfriendly environment, and they are duly ejected despite having legitimate (if dubiously obtained) tickets for their seats. The visual difference between the knights isolated in their box at the white theater, and the communal seating of all people together at the homebrew vaudeville also says something about the difference in cultural expectations. Even with the harsh criticism and thrown vegetables, that world seems friendlier and more comfortable than the one which they had previously been in.

The movie isn’t especially advanced, nor especially bad, by the technical standards of 1915. There are insert shots of the tickets, the editing is clean and advances the story effectively, and we see multiple angles of scenes, rather than the camera being locked down until a performance is complete. Much of our experience of the white vaudeville, especially the contortionist, is demonstrated through reaction shots of the principals, while there is more inter-cutting between audience and performers in the black vaudeville, creating another visual contrast. It’s essentially equal in production value to the work Charlie Chaplin was doing for Essanay, another Chicago company, at the time. It’s safe to say that Charlie was getting paid a lot better than these actors, however.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Jimmy Marshall, Frank Montgomery, Florence McClain, Bert Murphy

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.