Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Century Awards

Best Picture 1915

And so the time comes to announce the best of the best. The movie of 1915 which will live for one hundred years and be so honored as the highest achievement of the motion picture art for that year. This year was an undeniable turning-point in the American film industry. Where last year, they contributed a mere four candidates to the list of nominees for best picture (losing in the end to the Italian “Cabiria”), this year we have no less than seven choices from the USA.

And among those American features, we find three contributed by the same director: Cecil B. DeMille. Whichever film takes away the award, there’s no denying that Mr. DeMille, with only two years experience in the industry, has made his mark. His film “The Cheat” has already taken away an award for Sessue Hayakawa in a supporting role and earned many other nominations. “The Golden Chance” was largely overlooked by the Century Academy, although its story of a woman tempted to dishonor herself for money has much in common with the previous one, plus some impressive editing and acting. And his version of “Carmen” with Geraldine Farrar shows his ability to adapt classic material to the new medium. Another American, Raoul Walsh, got off to a promising start this year with the groundbreaking gangster picture “Regeneration,” another name that we’ve heard quite a few times this evening, although it did not win in any of the categories it was up for so far. Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer took home the statue for best director this year after losing out to Giovanni Pastrone of Italy last year. Will one of his movies be selected as the best? This year his offerings included “Children of the Age,” this year’s winner for production design, and more significantly the haunting Turgenev adaptation “After Death,” which won him best director as well as getting best leading actor for star Vitold Polonsky. Charlie Chaplin, who this year as last has taken home only the minor award of best makeup, sees one of his famous slapstick comedies, “The Bank” on the list as well. Can the “Little Tramp” earn the artistic recognition of the century? Frenchman Maurice Tourneur came to Fort Lee, New Jersey, still a major film producing center, just last year and gave us the outstanding “Wishing Ring.” This year his “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” once again a multiple nominee but non-winner, is among our considerations. Fellow countryman Louis Feuillade may have stayed at home, but that didn’t stop him from turning out another bizarre and clever crime serial, one episode of which, “The Deadly Ring,” has taken the prize for best costumes and now stands for best picture. Finally, the winner of best screenplay and best editing, “The Italian,” rounds out our selection of excellent movies from the previous 100 years. Which will be the winner?

The Nominees for Century Award for Best Picture are…

  1. Regeneration
  2. Children of the Age
  3. After Death
  4. The Cheat
  5. Golden Chance
  6. Carmen
  7. The Bank
  8. The Deadly Ring
  9. Alias Jimmy Valentine
  10. The Italian

And the winner is…”The Cheat!”

Cheat_FilmPosterAs with last year, I didn’t have to work too hard to come up with this one. All I had to do was look back and see which movie really stood out as the one I’m going to come back to and want to see again. It may have been “second best” in a number of the single categories – writing, directing, cinematography, etc – but when you put it all together it beats the winners in each single category and comes out as a solid, memorable whole.

And with that, I’m done once again for another year! Thank you all for reading! I look forward to seeing as many good films from 1916!

Best Director 1915

Like the captain of a ship, the film director has ultimate responsibility for what happens on his set. Our captain may be taking orders from higher up (the producer) or attempting to steer the craft according to another’s plan (the screenwriter), but he or she is the one that has to go down with the ship when it sinks, and who sails with it into glory when it succeeds. While the cast and crew each may contribute their own special talents to the finished product, it is the director that coordinates their efforts and looks at the “big picture” or whole.

The nominees for best director for 1915 include names that will be recognized by film fans 100 years later. Cecil B. DeMille, although later remembered largely for large-scale spectacles and biblical epics, got his start with melodramatic romances like “The Cheat,” an excellent investigation of a woman’s dishonor. Raoul Walsh’s later contributions to the gangster and crime drama genres were pre-saged by his movie “Regeneration,” about the redemption of a hardened criminal through love. The Russian Evgeni Bauer would die before the Bolsheviks took power, then dwell in obscurity for decades, but the re-discovery of films like “After Death,” a Gothic twist on a Turgenev story about frustrated lovers, would assure his place in film history. Maurice Tourneur is largely known for stylistic fantasy and fairy tales, but he also took a turn looking at crime and redemption in “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” a movie which mixes his advanced lighting techniques along with the stark images of the real Sing Sing prison in New York. Finally, Charlie Chaplin, whose work would be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences many years later, gets a nomination for his maturing skills in “The Bank,” a movie which combines his established balletic slapstick talents with a sense of pathos and sympathy.

The nominees for Best Director of 1915 are:

  1. Cecil B. DeMille for “The Cheat
  2. Raoul Walsh for “Regeneration
  3. Evgeni Bauer for “After Death
  4. Maurice Tourneur for “Alias Jimmy Valentine
  5. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank

And the winner is…Evgeni Bauer for “After Death!”

After_DeathAs good as our American directors are getting by 1915, I still felt that Bauer’s approach was the most advanced and exciting of the year. The movie blew me away when I first saw it, it seemed to be ten years ahead of everything else, and it still stands out due to its careful characterization, free-roaming camera, fascinating lighting choices, and use of mise-en-scène, one of Bauer’s specialties. Russian critics at the time gave Bauer a hard time for his “cluttered” sets and for changing the narrative of the sacred Turgenev, but for a modern viewer, this is a visual and emotional treat. What looked “busy” to them is almost reassuring compared to the starkness of early film, and the story works for film, whatever its origins might have been. One hundred years later, I’m happy to honor Bauer for his achievement.

Best Leading Actress 1915

Today, we are accustomed to thinking of the “leading role” for actresses of the classic era as being the chief romantic interest for the male star. Women, we are told, were consigned to simply being objects of men’s attentions, not agents of their own interests. Well, folks who think that way might be surprised by the strong, often dominating, women in the movies of the silent era. Men often seem to be the objects of their whims, weaknesses, designs, and errors.

I hope it will surprise no one that none of this year’s nominees gave their performances while tied to train tracks. Clara Kimball Young as “Trilby” is perhaps the most victimized of our women, but she is no simple damsel – at the beginning she displays a free, bohemian attitude to life, all the more strongly contrasted with her submissiveness once under the thrall of Svengali. Anna Q. Nelson is ultimately the love interest for Rockliffe Fellowes in “Regeneration,” but she is much more, being a society woman who also transforms from being flippant and irresponsible to devoted to improving her world, and as such becomes the inspiration for a “bad” man to find the good in himself. Vera Kholodnaia began her rise to fame portraying a good wife tempted into bad behavior by wealth and excitement in “Children of the Age,” whose eventual fall drags her hapless husband along helplessly. Fanny Ward is similarly tempted by greed in “The Cheat,” and while she may be the victim for Sessue Hayakawa, ultimately it is her actions that decide the fate of her own husband, accused of trying to kill the villain. In one of the classic roles for strong women, Geraldine Farrar brought life to “Carmen” for director Cecil B. DeMille after a famous run of stage performances, showing the free and open attitude to sex of that character as well as her duplicity and selfishness. Finally, the Italian diva Francesca Bertini takes on a tragic role as a woman caught between the violent man she truly loves and the official who uses his position to take her honor in “Assunta Spina.”

The nominees for Best Leading Actress of 1915 are…

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina

And the winner is…Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby!”

Some women look better in men's jackets

Some women look better in men’s jackets

I’ll be honest, this wasn’t what I expected. But, when I went back and looked at all of the performances, I realized how impressive what Young did here really is. Where most of our lead characters travel through an arc – often towards tragedy – Trilby actually has to show two separate transformations. First, she comes on strong, almost like Carmen, but with a bit more of an artistic flair, then she changes as she falls in love with Billie, becoming a softer, more controlled personality. And finally, she gives us the soulless robot of Svengali. Her development is fascinating, and more complex than the others, great though each of them was in her own way.

Best Leading Actor 1915

Some say that when you act, you put on a mask and pretend to be what you are not. There’s a counter-theory, however, that really good acting comes from the ability to take off masks and show sides of yourself that no one knew were there – maybe even including yourself. We all have many characters within ourselves, and an accomplished actor works from within to bring out their best performances.

This year’s nominees for best actor in a leading role all went beyond the simple process of masking themselves to find inspiration from life and their own emotions, and brought that to a screen audience that was newly interested in understanding the feelings of the characters on the screen. Henry B. Walthall gave a tortured performance as Edgar Allan Poe in “The Raven,” showing how he suffered as a writer and as the husband of his much-younger cousin. Charlie Chaplin reached deep inside himself to bring pathos and believability to his long-standing “Little Tramp” role in “The Bank.” Rockliffe Fellowes brought both the hardened criminal and the repentant sinner to life from Owen Kildare’s book for “Regeneration.” George Beban brought out of himself the struggles of an immigrant in an unfriendly new world for “The Italian.” And finally, Vitold Polonsky gave a haunting vision of a man who spurns his true love and must live with the consequences in “After Death.”

The nominees for best Leading Actor for 1915 are…

  1. Henry B. Walthall for “The Raven
  2. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank
  3. Rockliffe Fellowes for “Regeneration
  4. George Beban for “The Italian
  5. Vitold Polonsky for “After Death

And the winner of the Century Award is…Vitold Polonsky in “After Death!” The key to Polonsky’s performance is precisely his own suppressed passion and his inability to communicate his emotions. In that sense. Polonsky is playing against his own feelings in this role, but still has to transmit the feelings he dare not show to the audience – while also showing his own frustration and inability to understand them! In that sense, his performance goes beyond the more straightforward, if also powerful, examples of his competition in this category. Polonsky’s performance is nuanced to a degree still rare today, and nearly unheard of at the time.

Best Supporting Actor 1915

A character is defined as “a person in a narrative work” which when portrayed in theater or cinema “involves the illusion of being a human person.” Actors play characters of all types, but sometimes there is a great opportunity to give an illusion that reaches an audience, even from the secondary position of a supporting character. Male actors have a wide range of possibilities, from sidekicks to villains, fathers to sons, and nearly all possible professions, to create that human illusion and help to bring a story to life.

This year, quite a number of our candidates for Best Supporting Actor had the signature pleasure of portraying a villain. Wilton Lackaye brought his stage characterization of Svengali in “Trilby” to the screen to general acclaim. Roy Daugherty also played a familiar role in “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw” – he portrayed the Western outlaw he had been in real life before director-star Marshall Bill Tilghman caught up with him. In the role of Skinny, William Sheer goes from henchman to bitter enemy of the protagonist of “Regeneration” and gives a powerfully frightening performance that will influence crime movies for decades. And Sessue Hayakawa presents a genuinely terrifying vision of greed, lust, and arrogance combined for his memorable role in “The Cheat.” Our one non-villain, Marcel Levésque as Mazamette in the “Les Vampires” serial, still hobnobs with a criminal gang, even if it is only to help out the brave but bland reporter Guérande.

The nominees for best actor in a supporting role are…

  1. Wilton Lackaye for “Trilby
  2. Marcel Levésque for “The Deadly Ring
  3. William Sheer for “Regeneration
  4. Roy Daugherty for “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw
  5. Sessue Hayakawa for “The Cheat

And the Century Award goes to…Sessue Hayakawa!

Sessue Hayakawa.

Sessue Hayakawa.

There were some really great villains in the movies I watched in 2015, but none made the same impression as Hayakawa in “The Cheat.” When he believes he has Fanny Ward in his power, his assurance and cold desire for her is chilling, while when he finds that she intends to “cheat” him, his rage comes through the screen in waves of intimidation and frustrated power. At every moment of the movie, he is constantly in character and believable, even when his emotions are at a high pitch that would lead many into overacting. This was the only possible choice for best supporting actor in the end, much as I did enjoy all of those nominated.

Best Supporting Actress 1915

Sometimes, the best performance in a movie doesn’t come from the star, but from one of the “other” actors, someone who takes what many would see as a “small role” and makes it their own, taking the opportunity to really demonstrate mastery of the craft of acting whatever the circumstances. Actresses in supporting roles make up the feminine world in which the leads move and interact, from mothers to sisters, from mistresses to rivals, from shop girls to heads of State, if a woman can do it, an actress can play it. And when they excel in their parts, whatever they may be, they can be honored after one hundred years with a Century Award.

Louis Feuillade’s work “Les Vampires” has produced two outstanding female performances in supporting roles. First, Musidora in “The Red Cryptogram” appears as the villainous, almost androgynous Irma Vep, whose name is an anagram for a her sinister gang. Second, we also get consideration of a very different Frenchwoman in Delphine Renot (identified at imdb as Florense Simoni), who plays the hero’s mother, but proves to be a hero of her own as she engineers her own escape! Another strong mother appears in “The Lamb” in which Kate Toncray attempts to shield her son from the undignified results of his longing for adventure and toughness. Marta Golden also is matriarch of her own house, one which is soon to be demolished by the antics of Charlie Chaplin in “Work,” but she shows her timing and ability along with his usual cohorts from Essanay. One more mother, Gertrude Claire, must walk a fine line in “The Coward” as her mother’s love for a son who has failed is put to the test when her husband also take up arms to save the family name.

The nominations for “Best Actress in a Supporting Role” for 1915 are

  1. Musidora for “The Red Cryptogram
  2. Kate Toncray for “The Lamb
  3. Marta Golden for “Work
  4. Gertrude Claire for “The Coward
  5. Delphine Renot or Florense Simoni for “The Red Cryptogram

And the winner is…Renot/Simoni for “The Red Cryptogram!”

Who is this woman?

Who is this woman?

Despite the historical uncertainty about her identity, this role shone through this series as among its most fascinating parts. While we expect the male hero to take the risks and save the lives, here we see an older woman take on the role of super-sleuth and kill a man with a poisoned pen in order to escape from the dire clutches of a gang known as the Vampires. She gives us a different view of what the women of the teens could accomplish for themselves and thus walks away with the award.

Best Screenplay 1915

“Words, words, more words!” In “Sunset Boulevard,” the former silent actress Norma Desmond accuses writers of “making a rope with words and strangling this business,” but even in the silent years, what was written on the page presaged what would be seen on the screen. Writers are the true creators in cinema – the ones who originate the ideas that everyone else tries to live up to or adapt to their own approaches and talents. Then as now, a good story, well told in words, sets the stage for a great film. Some of our candidates for Best Screenplay are adaptations of other works, while others are “original” – to the degree that movies ever are.

Charlie Chaplin used many of his old tricks, gags, and bits of business to make up his original screenplay for “The Bank,” a comic fantasy that turns to sympathy and gives his “Little Tramp” an opportunity to shine. Carl Harbaugh collaborated with Raoul Walsh to adapt Owen Frawley Kildare’s short autobiography to an epic story of a man’s moral salvation and the loss of the woman he loved in “Regeneration.” Thomas H. Ince and C. Gardner Sullivan emphasized the importance of their screenplay for “The Italian” by including an introduction in which star George Beban opens the book and reads it. The Russian M. Mikhailov provided a taut storyline of love and trust betrayed in “Children of the Age,” which develops realistically in a surprisingly short time. Finally, Hector Turnbull and Jeanie MacPherson turned in a powerful story of a woman who nearly sells her virtue out of pride and the husband who tries to rescue her from a smooth and charming villain with “The Cheat.”

The nominees for Best Screenplay of 1915 are

  1. The Bank
  2. Regeneration
  3. The Italian
  4. Children of the Age
  5. The Cheat

And the winner is…”The Italian!”

C._Gardner_Sullivan

Screenwriter C. Gardner Sullivan

There were many great candidates this year, but when I looked back and asked myself, “which of these do I remember for the story, rather than images or acting,” the answer came through clearly. The story of a man coming to America full of hope, only to find hardship, crime, and injustice remains iconic, and has to be seen as bold for the time. While some elements will seem melodramatic or predictable to modern audiences, that’s largely because of the impact this movie had on later filmmaking practices.

Best Visual Effects 1915

Whereas cinematography refers to the straight use of the camera to create an image, many images are created through the use of other devices, or by using a camera in ways not necessarily intended by its originators. The story goes that Georges Méliès “invented” visual effects by accident. He was on the street, filming traffic as it passed when the film jammed. He continued shooting after clearing the jam. When he played back the footage, a bus had turned into a hearse, and a man into a woman, because of the elapsed time between the shots. Whether this is exactly true or not, filmmakers have been using cameras ever since to distort time and reality.

By 1915, visual effects had become part and parcel of many films, and were used to display either supernatural, psychological, or spectacular events. In “Regeneration,” filmmaker Raoul Walsh gave us a tremendous ferry fire, tinted with color to emphasize the drama. Similarly, John H. Collins, working at the under-rated Edison Studios, re-created the Triangle Shirtwaist fire as a plot element in his “Children of Eve.” Wladislaw Starevich made the entire First World War into an allegory with animals fighting through stop-motion animation in “Lily of Belgium.” In “Hypocrites,” director Lois Weber showed the “Naked Truth” as a transparent nude woman. Finally, the Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer creates a Gothic psychological drama through the effects in “After Death.”

The nominees for Best Visual Effects (includes animation) of 1915 are…

  1. Regeneration
  2. Lily of Belgium
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Children of Eve
  5. After Death

And the winner is…”Lily of Belgium!”

Lily1While it’s a pretty predictable propaganda movie, this war of beetles against frogs and pine cones holds up today as a technical achievement of early classical silent cinema. The bad guy beetles are especially individualized and interesting, with beer steins, cars, and cannon designed for their use. And, as strange as it is to see pine cones are warriors, they make fascinating characters as well. Starevich once again established his supremacy at visual effects in 1915.

Best Cinematography 1915

Capturing images on the screen is where the entire concept of movies begins. What we really respond to in watching a film is simply light, nothing more. The skill required to manipulate light and objects to create images that will impact an audience is tremendous, and often overlooked in the industry. Great cameramen are artists, at least as much as great directors, and accomplished technicians as well.

The year 1915 encouraged the growth of this art form, even as the increasing popularity feature-length movies raised the narrative level of the medium. In “Young Romance,” cameraman Walter Stradling combined striking exteriors with highly deliberate interior shots that show a sense of mise-en-scène rarely seen in American cinema to this time. By contrast, in “The ItalianJoseph H. August creates a stark vision of an urban world of tenements and gangsters, although the opening sequence in the old country also shows a nostalgic romanticism. Russian cinematographer Boris Zavlev, with “Daydreams,” once again merits recognition for his “free” camera which isn’t afraid to move both with and counter to actors in order to place the audience more convincingly inside their world, rather than looking at it from a distance. Back in the USA, Alvin Wyckoff gives us both intimate views of the emotional world of the characters in “The Cheat” and considerable use of contrast and shadows to define the darkening world they inhabit. No doubt this night film style will be picked up and used again in the future. The artistic use of light and shadow is also strong in the crime picture by Maurice Tourneur, “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” which includes some very original angles and unusual images indeed.

The nominees for Best Cinematography for 1915 are

  1. Young Romance
  2. The Italian
  3. Daydreams
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is…Boris Zavlev for “Daydreams!”

Daydreams1This year we did see American cinematographers start to break out of the confines of earlier years of production, but the Russians still surpassed them. “Daydreams” feels like a movie from the 20s, not the mid-teens, and a lot of that is due to Zavlev’s freely mobile camera. While last year’s winner, “Silent Witnesses” almost won by default, this year “Daydreams” had tough competition but still managed to pull ahead of the pack. The use of a complex tracking shot to show a character’s change of decision and the effective filming of a stage performance that includes the audience without making them into performers themselves are two great examples of what made Russian cinema the artistic leader it was at the time.

Best Editing 1915

When you come right down to it, a movie is like a big jigsaw puzzle that only makes sense if you have all the pieces in the right place. Beyond building the narrative, a good editor can heighten emotion, create tension, or point out key aspects of the story to the audience which are invisible to the characters. While the basics of editing were already in place, the flowering of the feature film in 1915 gave editors a chance to really show their stuff – producers and directors finally began to learn that no one wanted to sit still for 90 minutes while a series of un-edited scenes were displayed by a static camera.

The candidates this year are among the best of this new breed. In “The Coward,” editing is used to complicate the story of a young man who flees from battle and later redeems himself, one tense scene inter-cutting as he hides in a box while enemy officers discuss battle plans. “The Italian,” which came out at the beginning of the year, already used editing to show tension as the main character runs home to try to save his baby while the wife cradles his sick child. “Hypocrites” edits between dual plotlines to show the cruelty of self-serving and dishonest people. In “The Golden Chance” we see several complex sequences in which Cecil B. DeMille brings out his characters’ conflicts and motivations. Finally, “Alias Jimmy Valentine” uses established techniques of editing to produce a tense crime drama with a race-to-save-a-life at the ending.

The nominees for Best Editing in 1915 are…

  1. The Coward
  2. The Italian
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Golden Chance
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

And the winner is… “The Italian!”

George_Beban_(The_Italian)It surprised me to find after a year of great editing that I returned to a movie I watched back in 2014 for this award, but I feel that the editing of this movie contributes greatly to its success. George Beban’s close-up symbolizes the drama and how dynamically it unfolds – but it would be meaningless without all the other shots before and after that make up a story.