Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Century Awards

Best Editing 1917

The newest part of the “new art” of film was the power it gave to tell a story through editing. From the ability to compress long expanses of time to the power to heighten tension through simultaneous action in different places, to the power to redirect an audience’s attention through an insert shot, to the use of cuts within a scene to signal changes in perspective or internal experiences of a character, it was a whole new toolbox in narrative construction. Directors, writers, and editors were already exploring the possibilities of that toolbox by 1917, having come a long way from the days when edits were used mainly for “trick films” by making things appear and disappear.

The films nominated for best editing this year show a sophistication that was almost unheard-of five years earlier, but which an increasingly film-literate audience now took largely for granted. Louis Feuillade has been steadily improving his editing skills since the early days of “Fantômas,” and with “The Tragic Mill” he is able to heighten suspense effectively without dragging it out through the use of cross-cutting. The pacing of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “A Modern Musketeer” confirms that star’s famous penchant for “pep” as well as the editing talents of director Allen Dwan. Mary Pickford is the star of two of our nominees this year. In the first, “Little Princess,” director Marshall Neilan uses two distinct editing styles: one slow and stagey, for the main story, and one faster and clipped, for the “Ali Baba” story-within-a-story. Meanwhile, in “Poor Little Rich Girl,” despite his complaints about the scene, Maurice Tourneur turns in a remarkably edited mud fight, that necessitated several set-ups and re-takes. Rumor has it that Mary may have contributed to the editing process as well – Tourneur was mostly known for lighting more than editing.

The nominees for best editing of 1917 are:

  1. The Tragic Mill
  2. A Modern Musketeer
  3. Little Princess
  4. Poor Little Rich Girl

And the winner is…“A Modern Musketeer!”

The energy level of this movie exceeded anything I’d seen from Fairbanks – at his worst a pretty peppy guy – and a lot of this is a credit to the editing. He leaps from one scene to the next, always seeming ready to perform physical stunts or athletics at a moment’s notice. A stagier production couldn’t have pulled this off. We see Doug as D’Artagnan, fighting the good fight with swords, Doug roughing up a whole speakeasy of toughs, the cyclone in which Doug’s character was born, and Doug scaling a church tower – all before the real plot has even gotten going! It could be difficult at best to follow all that action, but the editing handles it deftly and the audience is carried along with each thrill. As a result, “A Modern Musketeer” feels like a thoroughly modern movie, even 100 years later, and that is a testament to its success.

Best Stunts 1917

Silent movies remain famous for their outrageous physicality and for the chances their stars took in production. The truth is that stunt people were used even from the very early days (no one really did “all of their own stunts”), but certain actors, like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, were remarkable athletes in their own rights and did do some pretty amazing stuff onscreen. In the real world of the Academy Awards, we don’t have an award honoring the best stunts seen in movies, but one of the benefits of the Century Awards is that I can rectify that and honor the work of these long-dead daredevils.

The aforementioned Fairbanks had established his style of athletic, all-American comedy by this point, and we have two examples of his work from 1917 on the roster of nominations. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he’s at pains to prove that chivalry isn’t dead to the girl of his dreams. Probably his best stunt here comes at the beginning, when he scales a church steeple bare-handed, but most people remember his handstand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon better (that was probably totally safe, but it looks death-defying!). In “Wild and Woolly,” he’s a Western-obsessed Easterner who tries to fight off the baddies single-handed when the townsfolk replace his bullets with blanks. In that one, we see him hanging to the rafters while kicking his way through the ceiling to get to some live rounds! Stunts involving trains always impress me as a former train-hopper, and we get some pretty risky-looking scenes in “Teddy at the Throttle” with Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon. Charlie Chaplin is in fine form as usual in “The Adventurer,” and he does some interesting stunts both in the water (where he rescues Edna Purviance and more reluctantly Eric Campbell as well), and in a two-story mansion in a manic chase sequence. And newcomer to the screen Buster Keaton showed off some of the prowess that would make him the king of comic stunts in the years to come in “The Rough House,” along with veteran Roscoe Arbuckle. “Fatty” sets fire to his bedroom, he and Buster both slip around a wet floor, and Buster gets hung up on a fence wearing an oversize policeman’s uniform.

The nominees for Best Stunts in 1917 are…

  1. A Modern Musketeer
  2. Wild and Woolly
  3. Teddy at the Throttle
  4. The Adventurer
  5. The Rough House

And the winner is…”A Modern Musketeer!”

I’ll be honest, I was tempted to go with Keaton this year, and “The Rough House” genuinely was one of the funniest movies I watched (see it if you haven’t), but Fairbanks did outdo himself this time around. I have no doubt that Buster will be returning to this category in future years. “A Modern Musketeer” however, really gives Doug a chance to show off everything he can do, from climbing sheer surfaces to swordplay to leaping over people to smashing up rooms in brawls. Some other actors show some pretty good moves in the “cyclone” scene depicting his character’s birth as well. The only problem the movie has is maintaining all of this frenetic action and still managing to get across a plot! It does slow down a bit in the second reel, but only to end with a suspenseful abduction-and-rescue.

Best Production Design 1917

In this world of virtual environments, the silent era often seems like a much more “solid” filmic world. In the early days, of course, directors working in spare studio spaces often asked audiences to “imagine” that a blank space was actually a jail cell, that a wooden box was a walk-in freezer, or that an obviously painted mirror had been smashed, but by 1917, these tricks were things of the past. Sets were built that sometimes dwarfed the actors, and put them into a space that they could believe as much as the audiences did. This category gives us a chance to honor some of the work that went into those productions.

I didn’t see any overwhelming set design in 1917 such as we saw in “Intolerance” the previous year, but some pretty impressive examples came up nonetheless. An underground base for a superhero was imagined in the “Judex” serial as displayed in “The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge.” Charlie Chaplin had an entire urban street environment constructed for “Easy Street,” incorporating gas lamps, second story windows, and trapdoors for hiding anarchist plots. Chaplin again did impressive work on “The Immigrant,” devising a ship set that swayed back and forth to emphasize the harshness (and comic potential) of sea travel. For the Douglas Fairbanks movie “Wild and Woolly,” an entire Western-style town is transformed from its “modern” form to an “Old West” parody of itself. And in Evgeni Bauer’s final film, “The Dying Swan,” he once again introduces his audience to a cinematic space with three complete dimensions, giving us opera stages, a mad artist’s studios, and the realm of the idle rich to play in.

The nominees for best production design of 1917 are:

  1. Easy Street
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Immigrant
  4. Wild and Woolly
  5. The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

And the winner is…“Easy Street!”

I felt that Chaplin’s dedication to creating an entire street for the purposes of a comedy short surpassed anything else I saw in production design this year. It probably facilitated his (and his cast’s) ability to experiment and improvise that they weren’t restricted in terms of angles or movement by the boundaries of a standard set of flats, or the limitations of location-shooting, where unforgiving reality has to be contended with. The street is instantly recognizable, and yet also anonymous: it could be in any large city of that period, in the US, UK, or elsewhere. It places the viewer into a fantasy world of urban blight and dark comedy. I felt it had to be honored as a great achievement.

Best Costume Design 1917

As with makeup and hair, we’re seeing costumes becoming increasingly sophisticated throughout the film industry as time goes by as well. In the earliest years, actors wore whatever they had at hand, and only for period dramas was there much effort to raid the wardrobes of theatrical companies. But, as Charlie Chaplin proved in 1914, having the right clothes on can make all the difference for a character in any time and place. Stars and character actors found that costume was especially important in the silent cinema, when all information about their characters had to be transmitted visually.

This year, Douglas Fairbanks shows up in two of our nominations. In “Wild and Woolly,” he plays a Western-obsessed Easterner, who convinces a whole town in Arizona to stage a kind of Wild West LARP session for him to get his father to build a railroad. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he plays a similar role, this time obsessed with the works of Alexandre Dumas, and the movie begins with him in an elaborate swashbuckler getup. Mary Pickford was always very conscious of her clothes, but as the rambunctious title character in “A Poor Little Rich Girl,” she transformed into a little girl who dresses up as a little boy as well. The “Judex” serial also gave a wonderful example of the use of costume to transform, perhaps inventing the first costumed super hero in its lead character, and his stylish cape and hat are put to excellent use in “The Tragic Mill,” which also sees Musidora in a bathing suit!

The nominees for best costumes of 1917 are:

  1. Poor Little Rich Girl
  2. The Tragic Mill (Judex)
  3. A Modern Musketeer
  4. Wild and Woolly

And the winner is…

“The Tragic Mill!”

While it’s not as iconic as Charlie’s “little tramp” outfit, the “Judex” costume influenced early heroes like the Shadow and Batman, whose dark sensibilities seem to have come back into fashion with audiences of the twenty first century.  Judex looks particularly striking as he navigates a motor boat down a river in his cape and hat, on his way to rescue his beloved Jacqueline from the clutches of the baddies, and we also see him take off his “Vallieres” disguise and become his secret identity in this episode.

Best Makeup and Hairstyling 1917

Makeup and hair styles of the movies both reflect, and to some degree determine, the styles of the day. As we move into the Silent Classical Era, the importance of the close-up and the growing star system assures an increased focus on having actors who look “just right” for their roles. Not only for beautiful leading ladies, but also for villains and those in comic roles, having just the right makeup and hair helps to create a character that audiences will respond to and remember after the flickering on the screen is over.

This year the nominees run the gamut from comedy to crime to horror to family fare. Max Linder nearly always had the perfect look of an upper-class dandy, and the hair and makeup for “Max in A Taxi” supports him and the characters who populate his bizarre world. In “FearConrad Veidt becomes a mysterious Hindu magician who haunts a foolish European art collector. “Love’s Forgiveness,” the climactic finale of the serial “Judex,” uses makeup and hair to show the trials our characters have survived, and that they can still come off looking stylish and beautiful (even in death!). Mary Pickford always had her trademark locks, but in “Little Princess” we see this attention to grooming extended to a host of other characters as well as some unusual examples of makeup and hair for the “Forty Thieves” fantasy sequence.

The nominees for best makeup and hairstyling of 1917 are:

  1. Fear
  2. Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)
  3. Little Princess
  4. Max in a Taxi

Read the rest of this entry »

Best Documentary 1917

The first category in this year’s Century Awards has no real surprises. There was only one documentary up for consideration, and its topic was pretty predictable as well. The era when audiences would respond to everyday events depicted on film was over, and documentarians had to look for subjects that an audience increasingly accustomed to the self-contained narrative of the feature film would respond to. The biggest event of the day was of course the World War, and this was the source of last year’s winner as well as our own.

The nominee for Best Documentary of 1917 is:

  1. Canadian Official War Films

And the winner is:

Canadian Official War Films!

Today, this collection of documentary footage from France serves to remind us that the largest country on the North American continent was involved in the war in Europe from the very beginning, and that war is a serious business. Even without any graphic footage of combat or its results, the grim attitude of the men depicted speaks to hardship and deprivation. The creators of this film also came up with very clever and exciting animation for maps to show the changing tides of war. Methods like this would become even more sophisticated in movies about the Second World War.

Note that while this is the first time the best documentary has come from Canada, they also brought us “In The Land of the Headhunters,” the closest thing to a documentary I saw in 1914. This is fitting for a nation that would lead in documentary filmmaking later in the twentieth century, thanks to the support of the National Film Board of Canada (founded in 1939).

Century Award Nominations 1917

The Academy Award nominations were announced last night, and for the first time since I started this blog, the Century Awards are a day late and a dollar short. Why a dollar short, you ask? Well, because I simply have to confess this time around that I did not see a representative sample of the most important surviving movies of 1917 to really make a fair judgment. With that in mind, I’ll still go ahead and nominate films I did see this past year. One other note: although Oscars night has traditionally been one of the biggest hit-days for this blog, it is also exhausting to try to post all of the awards on a single day. This year, I plan to scatter the awards out over February and leading up to the big reveal on the 4th of March. Now, without further ado, here are my nominations:

 

Best Documentary

Canadian Official War Films

Best Makeup and Hairstyling

Fear

Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

Little Princess

Max in a Taxi

Best Costumes

Poor Little Rich Girl

The Tragic Mill (Judex)

A Modern Musketeer

Wild and Woolly

Best Production Design

Easy Street

The Dying Swan

The Immigrant

Wild and Woolly

The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

Best Stunts

A Modern Musketeer

Wild and Woolly

Teddy at the Throttle

The Adventurer

The Rough House

Best Editing

The Tragic Mill

A Modern Musketeer

Little Princess

Poor Little Rich Girl

Best Cinematography

The Dying Swan

A Man There Was

Fear

Poor Little Rich Girl

Best Visual Effects

Fear

The Dying Swan

The Little American

The Fantastic Dog Pack

Best Screenplay

A Man There Was

The Dying Swan

Poor Little Rich Girl

Little Princess

Polly Redhead

Best Supporting Actress

ZaSu Pitts in Little Princess

Musidora in The Atonement (Judex)

Gertrude Astor in Polly Redhead

May Emory in Teddy at the Throttle

Best Supporting Actor

Buster Keaton in the Rough House

Eric Campbell in Easy Street

Conrad Veidt in Fear

René Poyen in The Licorice Kid (Judex)

Tully Marshall in A Modern Musketeer

Best Leading Actor

Charlie Chaplin in The Immigrant

Douglas Fairbanks in A Modern Musketeer

Victor Sjöström in A Man There Was

Andrej Gromov in The Dying Swan

René Cresté in Love’s Forgiveness (Judex)

Best Leading Actress

Yvette Andréyor in Jacqueline’s Heart (Judex)

Mary Pickford in Poor Little Rich Girl

Edna Purviance in The Immigrant

Gloria Swanson in Teddy at the Throttle

Vera Karalli in The Dying Swan

Best Director

Evgeni Bauer for The Dying Swan

Charlie Chaplin for Easy Street

Louis Feuillade for The Woman in Black (Judex)

Maurice Tourneur for Little Princess

Victor Sjöström for A Man There Was

Best Picture

The Dying Swan

A Man There Was

Poor Little Rich Girl

Little Princess

Easy Street

The Immigrant

Fear

A Modern Musketeer

Best Picture 1916

And now we come to the big award, the one that describes what the most “important” movie was of the year. In my not-terribly-humble opinion, of course. Here we see what movie really stands out 100 years after its release as the one to see by future generations. As with all these awards, I’m not necessarily saying “this is what would have won if there had been an Academy Awards ceremony in 1916,” I’m saying what it looks like from the current context. In that sense, these awards are more for the future than the past. In my first year, I chose “Cabiria,” the epic spectacle of Giovanni Pastrone (who also won Best Director). Last year, it was “The Cheat,” a story of betrayal and sexual dominance contrasted with racial intolerance, directed by this year’s Best Director, Cecil B. DeMille.

This year, the nominations range from the well-known to the obscure. Probably the best known movie of 1916 (and a likely winner then, despite its lack of box office profitability), is D.W. Griffith’s immense spectacle “Intolerance.” This movie has a lot in common with “Cabiria,” particularly in the massive sets used to re-create ancient Babylon. Also well known in its day was “Hell’s Hinges,” the apocalyptic Western starring this year’s Best Actor, William S. Hart. Hart & co. burned down an entire Western town to make this grand story of revenge come to life. Far more obscure, and even unreleased in its own day, we also have “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” by Marion E. Wong, who took home an award for Best Supporting Actress. While it has some technical flaws, this independent movie gives a unique look at Asian American immigrant life from the perspective of the immigrants themselves. The first British production on the list is “East Is East,” a consideration of the class system and the importance of knowing yourself which garnered several nominations, but no actual awards in other categories. Perhaps the whole could be better than its parts, as the movie is entertaining and enjoyable. “A Life for a Life,” directed by past Best Director Evgeni Bauer, won its star, Vera Kholodnaia, the Best Actress award. It depicts a tragedy on a grand scale as a woman marries for convenience, despite being in love with another man. Cecil B. DeMille took home this year’s Best Director award for his work on “Joan the Woman” as well as having directed the Best Picture of 1915. Can he secure both slots with this depiction of the life of the French saint and nationalist? The one contribution from Germany is the serialHomunculus” which comes to us in incomplete form today, but is still viewable as a reasonably complete narrative. This was one of the first movies of the period that I ever saw, and its story of a man created by science who discovers he cannot love or be loved has stayed with more for more than a decade. Actor William Gillette brought “Sherlock Holmes” to the screen for the first time, with the authorization of Arthur Conan Doyle, after a successful stage run in the role. This movie was lost for many years, but its influence on later portrayals of the great detective cannot be denied. One of the runaway hits of the UK this year was the documentary “The Battle of the Somme,” which won an easy category as Best Documentary since that was the only one I saw this year. But, it is such a powerful and influential depiction of such an important historical event that I had to include it for consideration as Best Picture as well. One more William S. Hart movie made the list, even though “Return of Draw Egan” didn’t win in any other categories, and had few nominations. Still, it is another example of how this early film star pioneered the tropes that would become familiar in Westerns for a century, as the bad man turns good for the love of a woman and cleans up a town of desperados.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1916 are:

  1. “Intolerance”
  2. “Hell’s Hinges”
  3. “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. “East Is East”
  5. “A Life for a Life”
  6. “Joan the Woman”
  7. “Homunculus”
  8. “Sherlock Holmes”
  9. “The Battle of the Somme”
  10. “The Return of Draw Egan”

And the winner is…”The Battle of the Somme!”

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

I’m breaking Academy rules by even considering a documentary in this category, but to me the best picture is the best picture, regardless of its genre or methods. Admitting that there are other movies on the list that could be argued for, in terms of scale, directing, box office success, or critical acclaim, I really felt that for a modern audience the chance to witness World War I as it happened is too significant to be ignored. All of the movies on the above list have stayed with me since I viewed them, but “Battle of the Somme” had the strongest impact. So, for this year at least, a British documentary trumps all of Hollywood’s finest product.

Thanks to everyone for reading and liking!

Best Director 1916

The director’s craft developed over the years of early film at a remarkable pace, so that directors working in 1916 had already achieved a high standard of sophistication and ability. Directors had already come to see themselves as creative artists, as being responsible for coordinating the technical talents of their crew into a single vision They were also the one objective eye watching over the actors, coaching them when performances gave too much or too little. Directors might even see themselves as the final “author” or authority on a film, even though the producers often used economic power to make decisions beyond the control of the directors who worked for them. In this category, we assess the artistic talent of the directors of the year 1916.

Evgeni Bauer was last year’s winner, and his movie “A Life for a Life” has been honored this year with multiple nominations. It shows his talent for mise-en-scène and working in multiple dimensions, and also made a major star of its lead actress, Vera Kholodnaia, this years Century Award winner for Best Actress. His countryman Yakov Protazonov is less well-remembered today, but contributed an interesting entry with “Queen of Spades.” This is the second (known) take on the famous Pushkin story in film, and deals interestingly with the transition between time periods in alternating flashback and “modern” storylines. First-time director Marion E. Wong directed her own screenplay in “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” a story about Asian American immigrants told from their side that still seems original and interesting a hundred years later. She showed her talent for sensitive storytelling as well as good instincts for the cinematic art in this long lost film. Cecil B. DeMille has yet to take home a Century Award, although he’s been nominated each year since I started. His depiction of the life of Joan of Arc in “Joan the Woman” shows how far he’s come in the time since he gave us “The Squaw Man” as his freshman effort. Finally, Charles Swickard and William S. Hart co-directed Hart’s highly effective vehicle, “Hell’s Hinges.” Hart took home the award for Best Actor on that one, can he also manage to win as half a director?

The nominees for Best Director of 1916 are:

  1. Evgeni Bauer, for “A Life for a Life”
  2. Yakov Protazonov, for “Queen of Spades”
  3. Marion E. Wong, for “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. Cecil B. DeMille, for “Joan the Woman”
  5. Charles Swickard and William S. Hart, for “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…Cecil B. DeMille!

joan-the-woman2

I think DeMille’s work is among the best that Hollywood offered in this period. Last year, although he didn’t win the director award, his movie “The Cheat” won as Best Picture, not least due to his direction. Today, DeMille is mostly remembered for grand spectacles like “The Ten Commandments,” but he tried a little of everything in his early years, and that’s part of how he became such an effective showman. In “Joan the Woman,” he fictionalizes enough of the story to hold human interest in a person few can really identify with – a saint and a martyr. The movie is enormously effective and displays the skill he quickly honed by jumping right into feature production in 1914.

Best Leading Actress 1916

The nineteen-teens was an era of memorable female images on the screen. Whether they were Vamps, Divas, or Damsels, whether exotic, matronly or sweetly pretty, women were the focus of much of the camera’s gaze. Coming out of the nineteenth century, when women were covered up with heavy garments in the West, the development of cinema in the early twentieth seemed to offer increasing opportunity for women to become visually distinctive, and in a silent medium visual distinctiveness was the key to fame and prestige. Actresses with leading parts seized that opportunity to display their talents in the new visual medium.

The women up for Century Awards in this category each gives a performance that goes beyond spectacle, however. Vera Kholodnaia became  tremendous super-star in Russia, in part for her role in “A Life for a Life,” in which she portrays the tragic character of a woman who marries a man she does not love as part of a “deal” between her lover and her mother. Florence Turner is more down to earth in “East Is East” in her role as a working-class orphan who inherits a fortune and gives it away to find true happiness in herself. Former opera singer Geraldine Farrar shows that her success in “Carmen” was not a one-time achievement by taking on the unlikely role of a teenage saint in “Joan the Woman.” Marguerite Clark would later influence Walt Disney’s vision of a fairy tale princess in her turn as “Snow White.” And Violet Wong stars as the much put-upon young bride in an unhappy marriage in “The Curse of Quon Gwon.”

The nominees for best actress in a leading role are:

  1. Vera Kholodnaia, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Florence Turner, in “East Is East”
  3. Geraldine Farrar, in “Joan the Woman”
  4. Marguerite Clark, in “Snow White”
  5. Violet Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

And the winner is…Vera Kholodnaia!

Uh oh, columns!

Vera Kholodnaia had worked with Evgeni Bauer several times by 1916, including in them movie “Children of the Age,” which I discussed two years ago. And, although she had already earned recognition as a major star by this time, it was “A Life for a Life” that was her biggest success, resulting in her being dubbed “the Queen of the Screen.” And she truly shows her ability as a silent film Diva in this movie, as she goes from innocence, to happiness in newfound love, to betrayal and tragedy. In a real life tragedy, she would survive the Russian Revolution by only two years, but her funeral in 1919 was one of the biggest events of that year. We can honor her work now with a Century Award and still look forward to any more surviving pictures she did in the short years remaining to her.