Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: June, 2022

Sky Scrapers of New York City from the North River (1903)

This short from Edison is a classic Panorama of lower Manhattan, taken from a moving boat. Movies like this were old hat by 1903, but apparently there was still enough of a market to justify another one.

Skyscrapers from the North River1

The image begins with the camera facing a pier, with a tugboat steaming across the screen in the opposite direction to the motion of the camera. We pass a docked steamship and the next pier – clearly labeled “Pier 13.” Once we get past this pier, a bit of the city can be seen in the distance, although by modern standards these buildings are hardly “skyscrapers.” As get proceed further, there is a docked ferry (very similar in design to current ones), and now some taller buildings come into view. According to the Library of Congress’s summary, these include the Syndicate Building, Trinity Church, and the Surety Building. We pass a docked freighter and another tugboat steams through the frame. At this point the buildings in the background at tall enough to reach about 4/5 of the top of the frame, so they are impressively tall. A building marked “Babbitt” is a soap factory, according to LoC. Piers 4 and 5 are labelled “Pennsylvania Railroad,” and several barges, evidently intended to carry railroad cars, are piled nearby. The buildings here are somewhat shorter, but large. LoC identifies two as the Bowling Green Building and the Whitehall Building. Piers 2 and three are marked “Lehigh Valley,” and a very tall building (taller than the frame) sits next to #2. Pier One is Pennsylvania Railroad again, but it is followed by “New Pier 1,” which is owned by the United Fruit Company. LoC tells us that the next pier is Pier A, and that the boat marked “Patrol” is a police vessel. Now the Battery comes into view, and we see the Fireboat House and Castle Garden, which was an aquarium at the time, as we pass along the park’s edge. The camera shows Battery Park’s waterfront and begins to turn away from Manhattan at the end.

Skyscrapers from the North River

I was a bit confused by the designation “North River” when I first saw this, expecting it would show the northern part of Manhattan, but it actually shows the southern. The low pier numbers kind of gave it away, even before I recognized the Battery. Edison’s catalog doesn’t give the kind of detail about the location that you might expect; it only mentions the aquarium. Their emphasis is on the “beautiful stereoscopic effect of the sky-scrapers,” by which I suppose they meant that you could see the nearer objects moving faster than those further away (?). Stereoscopy normally refers to systems like Viewmaster, where a 3D effect is produced by showing different images to the left and right eyes, but so far as I know, no such technology was in use for motion picture film at the time. The film overall is probably of greatest interest to architectural and maritime historians and history buffs.

Director: Unknown

Camera: James Blair Smith

Run Time: 3 Min, 38 secs

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

The Mollycoddle (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.

Mollycoddle-1920

This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.

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Fantasmagorie (1908)

This early work from Gaumont is among the first animated movies I have discovered during this project, though, as with the early works of Windsor McCay, it includes live-action images of the illustrator and follows a stream-of-consciousness storyline.

Fantasmagorie

The first image is of the illustrator’s hand, drawing an odd little character I’m going to call “the clown.” He has a pointy hat, baggy pants, and an “x” on his shirt. Otherwise, he is basically a stick figure. When he first appears, he is hanging from a beam, but he pulls this down to show a screen, with a fat character in a top hat inside. The fat character sits in a chair facing a movie screen, with the clown in the seat before him. The clown turns into a spider and swings away on a strand of web. Then a lady comes into the theater with a large hat adorned with enormous flowers. She sits in front of the fat man and he cannot see. He starts pulling flowers off the hat, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference. He rips a hole in a wall (or maybe it’s a tent flap) and hurls most of the hat through it, choosing to pull the last piece off and sit on it. He then lights a cigar and the clown reappears inside of a bubble he blows. The clown expands to enormous size and pushes everyone else off the screen, then he shrinks down and gets inside a box. The fat man comes back and puts a weight on top, but the clown bursts out and pokes him with his pointy hat. Suddenly the fat man is replaced by an old man in a chair and the clown steals his hat, snagging it on a fishhook. It turns into a blob-shape, then suddenly is a giant, sword-wielding soldier, who attacks the clown who now has a candle instead of a fishing rod. The clown puts the sword in the candlestick holder and it becomes a potted plant. Somehow, the clown’s nose is now attached to the end of the plant and he is lifted into the air as it rapidly grows. His head is pulled off his body and flung into the hands of another character, who treats it like a balloon. The clown’s body reclaims the head and the new character turns into a cannon that also looks like a giant bottle, pointing and the clown. It pulls the clown inside rather than shooting him and then opens up as the petals of a flower, revealing the clown inside. It then turns into a long snake-like object which is revealed as the trunk of an elephant, and the clown tries to ride the elephant. The elephant turns into a building and the clown opens the door and goes inside, just as a policeman walk up. The policeman locks the door, but the clown leaps out of the second-story window, breaking into pieces when he hits the ground. The animator’s hands reappear, and he puts the clown back together. The clown gets up and blows on a trumpet, which causes his pants to blow up like a balloon and he flies off, finally landing on the back of a horse.

Fantasmagorie1

All of that happens in less than two minutes! There’s not much time to make sense of it all, this is really more of a quick whimsical experiment in animation than an attempt to create a narrative. Still, certain aspects of cartoon narration are here – slapstick and violent comedy, for example, and taking advantage of the fact that drawn characters can magically transform or be dismembered and put back together again. I was reminded of the Sennett/Griffith collaboration “Those Awful Hats” by the sequence in the movie theater. All of the action takes place against a black background and most of the characters are stick-figure sketches, which probably made re-drawing them quickly an easier task. Apparently there were two other Gaumont animated releases that I haven’t come – it’s possible they have been lost. It appears that this proved to be too much work for the amount of entertainment it provided and they gave it up after that until better animation technology was developed.

Director: Emile Cohl

Run Time: 1 min, 15secs

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