Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: January, 2021

The Last Cartridges (1897)

This early short film from Georges Méliès lacks any camera trickery or stage magic, and might even be mistaken by a modern viewer as a docu-drama, or recreation of an event from history for educational purposes. A bit of investigation shows it to be even more interesting.

The stage is set as a proscenium-style arch, appearing to depict the upper-floor interior of a partially-ruined dwelling. Several men in tattered and unmatched uniforms enter from a window via a ladder and they run about with guns, firing out the window at an unseen opposition. One of the combatants is Méliès, who appears to be wearing a fez. Some of the men ascend another ladder at stage right, apparently taking to the rooftop. Smoke indicates when they fire, and also traces bullets flying in from outside. At one point, a puff of smoke suggests the explosion of a mortar shell in their midst, and one of the men falls over. He is assisted away from the battle to the rear of the room, and at the end of the footage a nun comes in to see to him.

The original painting.

This movie is one of the relatively few examples of a film reproduction of a painting, using the addition of motion to bring to life an image that people were already familiar with. Of course, such movies quickly went out of fashion with the addition of longer narratives, and filmmakers more often turned to literary sources or stage plays for inspiration, but this is a great early example of a director “thinking visually” instead of trying to bring visuals to pre-existing words. In this case, the picture is an 1873 painting by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville depicting a battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This movie was produced in 1897, so most of the adults in the French audience remembered the war, and those too young to remember surely had learned about it in school or from their parents. The painting and the movie are intended to show the determined patriotism of the defenders, the hardships they had endured, and to give the French an opportunity to celebrate their nation despite  crushing defeat by German forces. The one thing that is missing for us today is the color, which really makes the film seem ineffective next to the painting, but apparently this occurred to someone else; according to “The Silent Era” a remake of this movie at Lumière may have been the first to have been hand-painted, which became a standard for Méliès films in later years. Alas, I have not found any recreation or preservation of the original color version.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 1 min, 11 secs

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

Hard Luck (1921)

Buster Keaton claimed the biggest laugh of his career was from the finale of this movie, which was lost for many years, but can now be seen restored. It still has laughs, though that final scene may be a bit less comfortable for a modern audience.

Buster plays a down on his luck young man who decides to commit suicide after losing his job and his girl. He tries lying in front of a streetcar, but it stops in front of him, then changes direction and proceeds up the line. He tries cutting a rope to cause a safe being hauled up the side of a building to fall on him, but it misses. He tries hanging himself from a tree branch, but just falls out of the tree with the rope wrapped around him. Pursued by two cops for his antics, he tries jumping on a streetcar, but it again reaches the end of the line and returns him to the police. He jumps through an open window to avoid them, and in his new environs he finds a bottle marked “poison” which he rapidly consumes, however it really contains whiskey – the waiter who had marked it poison was just trying to keep his stash to himself. He joins a table of men discussing the need for an adventurer to bring in an armadillo for the zoo. Bolstered by the whiskey, he volunteers. Read the rest of this entry »

Charlie’s White Elephant (1916)

This animated short exploits Charlie Chaplin’s image, but due to the different standards of copyright at the time, he probably made no money off it. It also includes a character named “Fatty” who appears to represent Roscoe Arbuckle.

The movie shows a relatively barren landscape, with Charlie walking up to a house with a large window, a stand of trees in the background and what looks like a fern in the foreground. He addresses a woman inside the house, asking her to marry him. She replies that she will – if he can bring her a white elephant. He shrugs and wanders off and Fatty now emerges from behind the house, asking the girl if she has forgotten him. She replies again that she will belong to whoever brings her a white elephant. Charlie now wanders the bleak countryside, looking high and low for a white elephant, but they don’t seem to be indigenous to this region. Fatty follows him to keep an eye on his progress.

Eventually Charlie happens upon a circus, represented by tents in the foreground and background, and he spies an elephant snoozing on the ground, This one is not white, however, it seems to be a mottled grey shade. Undeterred, Charlie wakes the beast and yanks on its tail, resulting in his being thrown. He chases the elephant up and down the landscape, and eventually drags it by the trunk back to his home, Fatty still following at a discreet distance. Charlie brings out a pail of paint and a brush, and he paints the elephant white. While he goes off to get the girl, Fatty comes up with another pail and kicks the elephant several times and pulls its tail. Charlie and the girl climb to the roof of his house to see the elephant, and Fatty continues agitating it, until he splashes it with orange paint, which causes the girl to lift Charlie by the seat of his pants, twirl him around her head, and throw him at the elephant. The elephant sits on Fatty. The end.

This very simplistic movie seems to have been intended mostly to entertain very small children, who would recognize Chaplin from his well-known live action movies, and would be able to follow the simple, almost fairy tale plot. I actually think the detail on Charlie is a bit better than in some of the other Charlie cartoons we’ve seen, for example “Charlie on the Windmill,” or maybe we just have a better-preserved print with more close-ups here. It’s sort of interesting that they chose to use “Fatty” as his adversary; Arbuckle and Chaplin had been in a couple of shorts together in 1914, but he was never an established “villain” the way Mack Swain was. Presumably, the producers of this little movie thought that Arbuckle was more recognizable than Swain, although he’s not as easy to represent in an avatar as Chaplin (or Swain, for that matter). The girl just seems to be a generic love interest, not one of Chaplin’s co-stars at Keystone or elsewhere.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

By Right of Birth (1921)

Only a fragment of this feature survives today, and it isn’t much to judge the whole by. It was produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first production company owned and operated by African Americans, which makes it an important piece of history nonetheless.

The footage consists of a few disconnected scenes, most of which are themselves incomplete. The first shows a young woman sitting on the steps, reading a letter from a boyfriend who is away at war – she suspects him of “flirting with some chili queen” according to the intertitles. Another snippet shows a man offering to do “detective work” for another man in an office (the second man is either white or quite pale-skinned, it’s hard to tell). We then see the first man on a country road with a false mustache and a telegram-delivery man’s hat on his head. He complains that his “dogs are sure hot,” and we see smoke rising from his feet in an insert shot. The next scene is somewhat more complete, and involves a young woman being thrown from a horse, which is then recovered by a nearby fisherman, who we learn is named Jones. They don’t speak much, but we get a sense of a spark of romance between the two, and of the class distance that separates them. Then we see a white man on the phone with a white woman (possibly his wife?). The intertitle tells us they are conspiring to get a lease from “a girl,” tricking her into giving her signature. Another scene shows us a note which proves that they have gotten the wrong girl’s signature later on. A mother and two daughters are shown reading an eviction note. The mother appears to be signing over her life insurance when the young girl from the riding scene comes into the office, and they obviously recognize one another, though they are surprised to meet. She introduces her as “Mother” Agnes to the attorney, her father, who thanks her for helping his daughter. A white man walks into the room, and that’s all the footage we have.

Watching this, it’s hard not to try to guess what the rest of the story looked like. Because it’s the longest piece, I kind of want the story between Jones and the riding girl to be at the center of the story, but it seems to involve some kind of real estate scam, possibly against the horseback rider, and Jones doesn’t seem to come back into it again. I’m also unclear about the “detective” – was he also out looking for the girl no one can find? Who for? Was he on the side of the scammers, or some kind of good guy? The title makes me suspect that this is one of those stories, common in the early twentieth century, in which a poor girl discovers that she is actually an heiress, who has been raised in secrecy and without any knowledge of her status and now must claim her title in order to get what she deserves. But that is no more than a guess.

With so little to judge from, it’s hard to make any clear statements about the value of the Lincoln Motion Pictue Company and its artists. Certainly everything here is in focus and logically edited. It’s framed reasonably well, not relying on stagey standards and proscenium sets, and the camera operator is comfortable using close-ups. It seems like every shot has an intertitle, which seems like a lot of titles for the time, but that may just be because the titles happen to be what survived. Having the titles does give us a bit more information about what’s going on than we would get without them. The detective serves as comedy relief, but avoids the more flagrant stereotypes of Black humor we saw in the works of the Ebony Film Company, at least in these scenes. In this movie, it seems as if African Americans move in all levels of society – from a poor old mother, to an attorney and his daughter, to whatever dubious status the detective may have (is he really a delivery boy or is that just a disguise?), to a man who fishes in a stream (is this his profession or just recreation for him?). They do not live in an all-Black world, and the whites we see seem to plot and scheme against them. It would be great if someday the rest of this film is recovered.

Director: Harry Gant

Camera: Harry Gant

Starring: Clarence Brooks, Anita Thompson, Lew Meehan

Run Time: About 4 Min (surviving)

You can watch it (what there is): here.

Getting Acquainted (1914)

This late-period Keystone short from Charlie Chaplin is a somewhat more-sophisticated take on the many “park comedies” he made there; one which emphasizes situation over slapstick. While it’s no major breakthrough, it does pre-sage the work he would soon be starting at Essanay in 1915.

As the movie begins, Charlie is on a bench next to Phyllis Allen. They appear to be a couple, and Charlie seems to be less than enthusiastic about her company, plugging his ears as she speaks at one point. This whole take is done in a rather close two-shot that only shows the upper halves of their bodies – almost innovative for Keystone at the time. An intertitle tells us that Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett are also a married couple “taking some air” together, and they seem much happier, at least until Joe Bordeaux pulls up in a fancy automobile. Mack offers to help him crank it to get started again, but Mabel seems annoyed that he wanders off while Joe just laughs at his efforts to turn the immobile crank. Meanwhile, Phyllis has dozed off, and Charlie tries his luck with Cecile Arnold when she wanders up, but she walks off slightly offended when he seems to pay too close attention to her backside, and quickly runs to the side of her husband, Glen Cavender, who is made up as a Turk and sticks Charlie with a small dagger to drive him off. Charlie now finds Mabel standing unprotected while Mack is busy with the car, and he does his best to make her acquaintance. He does a trick with a thread, pretending to have it balanced on his nose, so that she will get close enough that he can give her a kiss, which results in his getting slapped. She calls Mack over when he won’t go away, but distracted Mack just “introduces” them so that now Charlie feels like he has a license to go on annoying her.

Joe eventually gets his car started and offers Mack a ride, leaving poor Mabel in the hands of lecherous Charlie. In desperation, she calls out for the police, which brings out Edgar Kennedy, in the guise of a Keystone Kop. Edgar chases Charlie through the bushes, back to Mabel and over to where the Turk still lurks, until Charlie is finally able to evade all of the cast for a while in a bush. Meanwhile, Joe lets Mack off and he finds Phyllis, sitting alone under the tree. He takes an interest in her, being just about as obnoxious about it as Charlie was to Mabel. She now calls out for help, making Edgar think that he’s located Charlie, but when he sees Mack, he assumes he’s got the wrong bird and goes on looking until Phyllis sets him straight. Now both Mack and Charlie are trying to evade Edgar, while still occasionally hitting on Mabel, Phyllis, or Cecile when the opportunity arises.

Mabel finds her way over to Phyllis and the two of them, relieved to be in better company than the annoying men, start chatting and telling each other about their husbands (what would Alison Bechdel say?). Charlie sits next to Phyllis, not noticing Mabel at first, and when she introduces them, another there is yelling and soon Charlie is on the run again when Edgar sees him with Phyllis and assumes he is “mashing” on her as well. Mack now finds Mabel and the two of them briefly commiserate until she tries to introduce her new friend, Phyllis. Mack tries to explain himself to Mabel, until Edgar, having lost Charlie, sees him and once again a chase is on. Mack and Charlie hide out in the bushes until Edgar finds them and clocks each of them on the noggin with his billy club. He hauls them past the ladies, who now come over and vouch for their husbands, then he walks off and attacks a young man on a park bench with another girl, apparently just because he’s gone crazy from hunting all these letches. Phyllis hauls Charlie off by the ear and Mabel and Mack laugh at them.

With this movie, I have completed all the reviews of Charlie’s first year in movies, a project I started back in 2014 (Chaplinfilmbyfilm got it done much quicker – but he didn’t have every other 100-year-old movie to contend with as well!). Of the “park comedies” he made, this is among the funniest, and it’s largely because the predictable plot plays out so well and because of the clever use of editing to keep us moving among the couples and their situations rapidly enough that it never gets old. As I suggested, the closer camera in this movie also allows for more intimacy with the characters and gags (like the thread) that might not work with the audience at a distance. It’s interesting to see Mabel Normand and Chaplin working together, despite their earlier differences, with him firmly in the director’s chair, but being quite generous to her as an actor – she gets at least as many laughs as he does.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Phyllis Allen, Edgar Kennedy, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavender, Cecile Arnold, Harry McCoy

Run Time: 14 Min

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

The Boat (1921)

The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.

The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.

There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.

At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.

The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there.  Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though,  the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.

We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.

After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.

Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).

Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Shot in the Excitement (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone stars Al St. John in an a-typical sympathetic role and uses a familiar story of two country bumpkins vying for the interests of one girl, but escalates to extreme speed and violence before the end. A rather unusual entry in Keystone’s catalog, this holds up in interesting ways today.

The film begins by introducing “the Daughter” (Alice Howell), who is busy whitewashing a fence with her father (Josef Swickard). We then see Al, introduced as “A Suitor” by the intertitles, and carrying a small gift. She eagerly abandons her work to rush over and see him, just as a second suitor (Rube Miller, who is also credited as director) walks up with a small bouquet of flowers for her. He is on the wrong side of the fence, however, and gets an eyeful of whitewash from the father when he tries peeking through a knothole. He then locates Alice and Al, and decides to frighten them by dangling a rubber spider overhead. They interrupt their smooching in shock, but then Al pokes his finger through another knothole, once again getting Rube in the eye. When he tries sticking his finger through, Alice grabs it and bites it, holding him in place long enough for Al to drop a rock on his head. Rube tries throwing a bigger rock over the fence, but winds up hitting Alice, of course. Rube now climbs over the fence and starts fighting with Al, in the process hitting both Alice and her father. The father chases Rube up a ladder and onto a rooftop, where he tries again to hit Al by throwing rainwater and other found objects, but never manages to hit his actual target. Al finds a shotgun and tries to shoot Rube, but only hits the father’s backside, knocking him off the roof. Dad now shoots Rube off the roof, throwing both boys off his property and telling them to keep away from his daughter.

Dejected, Al and Rube head to a nearby park. Al finds a park bench, where he could have a rendezvous with Alice, and Rube finds an old cannon, conveniently pointed at the park bench. He gets some gunpowder together and loads it up, then sets up an elaborate booby trap, placing a triggering device beneath the legs of the bench, so that the cannon will fire when Al sits down. He sends a confederate to give Al a note, ostensibly from Alice, telling him to meet her at the bench. There is a bit of comedic tension, as it looks like Al will sit several times while examining the note, but suddenly Alice walks up and distracts him. Now Rube, concerned that she will sit in the “hot” seat, intervenes, but Al quickly kicks him away. They fight while Alice cheers, until Al knocks Rube out with a rock, causing him to fall back on the bench. The cannonball flies over him and knocks over a couple of nearby Keystone Kops, then flies past Alice and starts chasing her father. Rube manages to launch a second cannonball, which now pursues Al and Alice. Now the Kops come over to arrest him and a wild three-way chase ensues, ending with Rube falling down a cliff, being arrested and everyone being knocked down when the cannonballs finally explode against the cliffside.

The most exciting part of this movie is the chase sequence at the end, which is worthy of a Road Runner cartoon for its silliness and implied violence. The editing between three simultaneous, inter-locked chases works perfectly to ramp of the crescendo of chaotic wildness. Everyone falls over several times. Cannonballs turn around and change direction in order to pursue their quarry. Alice and Al refuse to let go of one another. I would bet that in a theater, this last two and a half minutes would have people laughing so hard their sides hurt. The characterizations are interesting also. Rube’s character reminds me of Al in “Mabel and Fatty Adrift,” although he seems not to want to extend his revenge to killing Alice, she is just collateral damage in trying to take out Al. Al’s character is more like the sort of thing his cousin Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle would specialize in, except Al’s more frenetic in his amorous intentions. Alice Howell is the big success – a somewhat “funny-looking” girl, she is part of the joke as we wonder how desperate these two yokels must be to fight over her. And she is great with the falls, hits, and other physicality. While some people may be put off by the cartoon violence, for my money, this is one of the funnier Keystone comedies.

Director: Rube Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Al St. John, Alice Howell, Rube Miller, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.