Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

The Dancing Midget (1902)

A simple trick film in which Georges Méliès combines the conventions of the stage magic show with the effects of cinema to produce a brief piece of entertainment. Once again, he shows that he was quite willing to milk a technique and concept for all it was worth.

A standard proscenium-style set is established, with the backdrop painted as a tunnel leading away from the audience with a large black area in the center. Méliès enters from stage right, dressed as a slightly comical variety of a standard magician. He waves his cape and an assistant appears, dressed in a servant’s livery and wig. He pulls six eggs from the mouth of the servant, an act which seems to amuse the man greatly, and then breaks each in succession into his hat. He stirs up the hat’s contents and dumps a great deal of confetti out of it onto his assistant’s head. Then, he produces a much larger egg from the hat, about the size of an ostrich egg. He places it onto the table and gestures, causing it first to grow, then to burst and reveal a tiny ballerina inside. She dances on the table for a while. Then the magician brings her up to full size, and puts the assistant into a crate, placing his cape over the ballerina. He pulls up the cape, and – voila! – the two have changed places. He now  kicks the servant off the stage and departs with the ballerina down the tunnel.

I’ve come to recognize that when there’s a large black space in the center of a Méliès set, it means that something will be shown in double-exposure within that space. I wonder if his contemporary audiences ever caught on? Anyway, I liked Méliès’s somewhat frenetic performance here, and was surprised by the comparably under-stated behavior of the assistant. Usually, that would be the more comedic role, with an expectation that he would try to kiss the ballerina at some point. The trick at the center of the film is not especially new, nor are the various appearances and disappearances used to support it. Still, it is another fine example of the many short films Méliès produced during his brief but prolific career.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Seine Flood (1910)

This short piece of photojournalism documents a largely forgotten natural disaster, when the Seine river burst its banks and displaced as many as 150,000 Parisians. As a surviving example of actuality film, it gives the modern viewer a glimpse into a disturbance in everyday life of the past century.

The movie consists of several shots of the city of Paris during the days of the flooding. Quite a few shots show us the Seine itself, usually flowing under bridges which are only a few feet from being inundated. As a foreign viewer has no context to know how high the river normally is, however, this is perhaps not as dramatic as the film makers had hoped. We also see a mobile pumping machine, a pipe that is pouring water from the streets beck into the river, and a bit of an industrial dockyard that appears to be quite swamped. The more dramatic images, however, are of wet streets and a partially-submerged park. In some places, we see boards have been set up so that people can get to the bakery for their daily loaf of bread without being soaked to the knees. In another, we see a man pulling a small rowboat, apparently carrying commuters in place of a trolley. There are two horses, valiantly pulling carriages through streets covered in at least a foot of water. There are few intertitles, and where they occur, they mostly identify locations: “The Island Club Courbevoie,” “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” “Molineaux Raliroad Drain Dumps,” “Paris Rue Felicien David Taken by Boat.”

Most of the shots are understandably taken in wide angle, and they tend to show panoramas of the scenes they convey. In some cases, the camera is static, but more often it moves from left to right, allowing us to see the extent of damage or water in a given place. The final shot is taken from a moving boat, essentially a tracking shot of the street. Sullen Parisians look at the camera while being filmed, or else they go about their business. The real interest of this movie is mainly the opportunity to see what Paris looked like at the time. The buildings, clothing styles, and even the lamp posts retain an old-world look, as if the movie could have been taken decades earlier. The only sign of an internal-combustion engine is the pump, and that seems to have been drawn to its position by horsepower. People travel either by boat, by foot, or horse-drawn carriage, although this probably reflects the result of the disaster, rather than the norm of a European city of the time.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 26 secs

I have been unable to find this film available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Colonel’s Shower-Bath (1902)

This short piece of slapstick from Georges Méliès demonstrates that even as late as 1902 (the year he put out “A Trip to the Moon”), he wasn’t only making fantasy films and special effects. In fact, he wasn’t even always at the cutting edge of innovation – this movie seems at least five years behind the times.

A proscenium-style stage has been set up to depict a guarded gate in a European city. There are several soldiers on duty, although only one paces out his watch. Others sit, slouch, or mill around nearby. Above them, a scaffold has been set up for some painters who are re-painting the arch over the gate. Suddenly, the man on duty rushes over and alerts his comrades: the colonel is coming! All of them snap to attention, and one shorter fellow, who seemingly was taking a nap, rushes out of the guard station still trying to get his sword back into its scabbard. The colonel arrives, a distinguished older gentleman with an elaborate mustache. He berates the guards a bit for their slovenly appearance, then notices the painters and briefly speaks with one. That one climbs up the ladder to the scaffold with a bucket of paint while the colonel sits on a stool beneath the scaffold. The painter slips, and dumps the white paint all over the colonel, to the great amusement of the troops. The colonel rages at everyone.

There’s not a lot to this movie, although the backdrop and costumes are quite good. The short fellow continues to slouch throughout the colonel’s tirade, and maintains a very un-military appearance overall, which sort of makes him the star of the movie. Later slapstick stars like Keaton and Chaplin would take similar advantage of the audience’s identification with the short fellow who could never make good. But, really, it’s a simple joke you can see coming a mile away. Even Edison was putting out better stuff by this time, although of course the bulk of any film program at this time was not the highest-quality material.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Automatic Moving Company (1911)

This short film from Pathé demonstrates considerable skill in animation, as well as a touching imaginative approach that rivals Georges Méliès in the realm of the trick film. It still seems somewhat novel today, and must have been even more so at the time.

The movie begins with a brief glimpse of the only human actor in the whole story. We see a postman approach a door and push a letter through the mail slot. The camera then cuts to the interior of the building, where the letter floats across the room and onto a desk. A letter opener, moving by itself, opens the letter and an insert shot shows it to us. A client has written to the “Automatic Moving Company” to request a move, including a new address. A ledger book opens itself and a pen makes a notation. We now cut to a gate, from which a moving cart emerges, with no horses to pull it. It pulls in up to a door, and a series of furniture extracts itself and moves into the door. We follow the furniture up the stairs and into a bedroom, where the bed constructs itself and various pieces of furniture arrange themselves in appropriate positions in the room. Moving crates come in and pictures, linens, and clothing all emerge and tidily put themselves into place. This continues as we see a dining room put itself together, and a kitchen, including anew stove, sets itself up. When one plate falls to the ground and breaks, a broom and dustpan move into position and clean it up. One side table seems to tease a lamp, moving from one side of a table to another until it finally allows the lamp to climb on top and then takes up a position. At the end, one of the moving trunks hides under a table until a large trunk comes and pulls it out with a rope. They stop on the stairs and retreat, allowing the piano to come in, before departing the scene. We see all of the moving trunks load themselves back onto the back of the cart, the doors to the cart close, and it pulls away, the job now complete.

Most of this movie is in wide shot, allowing us to see the entire room, but a couple of insert shots give us a closer view of details, and this allows us to see that the moving objects are in fact miniatures, presumably moving about miniaturized sets on the scale of a doll house. Nevertheless, the illusion is mostly very convincing, and considering the amount of work that had to go into stop motion animation at the time, it was an impressive investment for a small film that was only expected a brief theatrical run before oblivion. Interestingly, the letter indicates that the client lives in “Kalamazoo, Mich,” although everything about the movie looks French, including the moving cart which clearly has French words on it, and appears to be from Nice. Possibly America was associated with modernity and high-technology, or possibly the name “Kalamazoo” sounded exotic to the film makers, and therefore magical. I particularly liked the way certain objects were invested with personality, like the playful side table and the reluctant moving trunk.

Director: Romeo Bosetti

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (mostly animated objects)

Run Time: 4 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dwarf and the Giant (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès shows that even after he had mastered longer forms of storytelling (as in “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella”) he continued to make simple trick films and experiment with effects. Here, forced perspective is used to achieve gigantism and a split screen allows twinning.

A standard proscenium-style stage is established by the camera; in this case the backdrop is painted to appear as if a long tunnel approaches the stage. Méliès approaches from the rear of the set, as if he has just walked down this corridor, wearing a toga. He pulls off the toga to reveal modern clothing and bows. Suddenly, a second figure pulls itself from him, and there are two Méliès on the stage. This new one is slightly shorter than the original, which he emphasizes by squatting down a bit, and the other Méliès makes fun of him. Then he pulls on a hair on top of his own head and seems to grow, magically to a new height, nearly filling the screen. He laughs at the shorter version of himself and drops confetti on its head. Then he shrinks down again and the two images re-combine for a moment, before splitting off and giving one another the raspberry before exiting the stage.

Méliès had used forced perspective more dramatically earlier in “The Man with the Rubber Head,” but the effect here seems simpler, done almost offhandedly, as if he has become more comfortable with the technique. Of course, the growth effect was achieved here by running the same film through the camera twice, with the background masked off and the camera moving closer to the actor to make him become bigger on screen, which is not a simple matter at all. At less than a minute in length, this was a pretty short movie for 1901, but there was so much demand for new content from him by now that he could make almost anything, and of course he also could use it between acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. Combined with other movies, as it would be in a period program, it’s a nice enough distraction.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 55 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

This movie is an unabashed remake of Georges Méliès beloved classic “A Trip to the Moon,” although with a shorter run time and a smaller cast and (evidently) budget. It nonetheless does preserve bits of Segundo de Chomón’s signature wit and gentle charm.

The movie consists of a series of discrete shots, each set up as a tableau within a proscenium-style stage area. The first shot shows a group of “scientists” or explorers, is a garden at night, the moon hanging overhead. One, who is kitted out in a classic wizard’s robe and cap, lectures at them and gestures to the moon. The others appear skeptical at his message. However, they follow him off stage after a bit of pantomime. The next shot shows the wizard/scientist’s observatory, with a large telescope in the background. The wizard shows his fellows the elaborate equations he has worked out on the chalkboard, then turns the chalkboard over to reveal a screen on which an animated image of a capsule flying between Earth and Moon appears. The others appear to congratulate him, and then follow him off this stage to the next scene.

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Fatty’s Suitless Day (1914)

Also released as: Fatty’s Magic Pants

This early work from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle while he was working for Mack Sennett doesn’t have a lot of originality, but it provides plenty of chaotic Keystone anarchy, and puts its star to good use. Crude, but effective in its way.

Fatty is talking to co-star (and his real-life wife) Minta Durfee about an ad in the newspaper. A “Grand Benefit Dance” is to be held that evening, and Minta is eager to go. Minta gives a brief demonstration of her ability to tango, and Fatty does a sort of imitation of her moves. At this point a rival, played by Harry McCoy, walks up carrying fancy-dress evening clothes. He points out to Fatty that he won’t be able to get in, because the ad reads “Strictly Full Dress.” Fatty responds with violence, knocking Harry out, which results in Minta hitting Fatty. There’s a bit more slapstick violence until a Keystone Cop (Slim Summerville) walks up and chases Harry off, throwing his clothes after him. Fatty slinks home and asks his mom to loan him 50 cents so he can hire some clothes, but she responds by bopping him on the ear. Fortunately, Harry lives next door, so Fatty just steals his clothes off the clothes line after he washes them (presumably because of the beating they took during the fight). Of course, they don’t fit, but Fatty fakes things up by drawing buttons on a towel to make it look like the shirt goes all the way down.

Where’s My Pants?

Harry can’t figure out where his clothes went, but he goes down to the dance anyway while Fatty escorts Minta. They dance up a storm, although Fatty’s antics threaten to expose his last-minute alterations. The go into another room for punch, but Harry has sneaked in here, and he recognizes his own suit on Fatty. He sneaks up behind him with a pin and loosens an already-straining seam on Fatty’s pants, then attaches a string to make sure they rip when he gets up. Fatty and Minta have a brief chat with another guest (I think this might be Charley Chase), and suddenly Fatty is pants-less! He runs about in panic while Minta and Charley laugh. He tries hiding behind the punch table, but a waiter comes in and moves it, and soon he is exposed before the whole ball. Now Harry grabs his jacket as well, and Fatty realizes what’s up. He tries to fight Harry, but Harry has a gun. He chases Fatty about the dance hall, causing more chaos along the way. Finally, Fatty escapes out the window, into the clutches of Officer Slim, who puts a barrel on Fatty in the classic method of concealing indecency, then hits him repeatedly with his billy club.

It’s Arbuckle’s physicality that really makes this movie work, from his assaults on Harry, to his pratfalls, to his tango dancing, to his running around in a panic, the movie hinges on well-timed, fast movement from the big man, and he’s fully up to it. Apart from Harry falling down once or twice, and Minta hitting Fatty, none of the other actors really even get a chance to keep up. The filming is standard Keystone, with locked-down cameras at wide shot establishing stages for the actors to work on, and the only editing is occasionally between stages, to show clothes being thrown or stolen or ripped off Fatty’s body. Fatty’s trick with the towel is hard to describe, and doesn’t seem like it would work at all in reality, but it sort of looks OK on camera, given the quality of the print and the camera’s distance from the actor. Given the set-up, I was expecting to see Fatty in drag again, as in “The Waiter’s Ball,” but this was at least different from that movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Harry McCoy, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel, Fatty and the Law (1915)

Alternate Titles: “Fatty’s Spooning Days,” “Fatty, Mable and the Law.”

This short from Keystone stars two of its biggest stars after (as well as before) the departure of Charlie Chaplin: Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Both are at the top of their game, but the movie suffers from Keystone’s slap-dash approach to plot.

Fatty and Mabel are married at the beginning of the film, but Fatty is flirting with the maid, triggering a bout of violence from Mabel. Another couple is established in essentially the same situation: here the husband is played by Harry Gribbon and the wife by Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real-life spouse). Both couples decide to patch things up by a trip to the park. They each sit on benches beneath signs that say “No Spooning Allowed.” Minta goes for an ice cream, leaving Harry alone, and Fatty spots her and soon ditches Mabel. Mabel and Harry strike up a flirtation as do Minta and Fatty. Now, a Keystone Cop in a tree spots the couples through a telescope and summons cops to arrest them (one is Arbuckle’s cousin Al St. John). Mabel and Harry manage to evade them, but Minta and Fatty are nicked. After some shenanigans with the cops in a crowded holding cell, each calls their respective maids and leaves a message from jail. The spouses rush to spring them, also taking the opportunity to shame them for their bad behavior, but when they see one another, they behave so awkwardly as to give away their own indiscretions. The entire group squabbles until the cop from the tree comes out and glowers at them, causing them to run for cover, one at a time.

The plot centers around an understanding of the concept of “spooning,” which has I believe fallen out of fashion. Most people today think of it either as a sexual position, or as its equivalent in cuddling – most spooning is done naked, and wouldn’t have been appropriate in a commercially released film in 1915. However, what we see the couples arrested for here is just sitting side by side, snuggling a bit, or in the case of Harry and Mabel, walking alongside holding hands. I think there is a deliberate implication of “soliciting” here that adult audiences would recognize, but which is suppressed by the use of the more innocent-sounding word. That’s also part of the humor, if I’m following it right. At any rate, this is a fairly typical Keystone domestic/situational comedy, in which the spouses are equally guilty of philandering, and get caught and shamed for their actions. It never really descends into the kind of chaos we would expect in a full-on slapstick movie, but the cast, especially the cops, get bits of physical comedy. Mabel is especially funny when she beats up on Fatty in the beginning of the film.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Gribbon, Minta Durfee, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavendar, Josef Swickard, Alice Davenport, Frank Hayes

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

This two-reel comedy from Keystone shows Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as he was still honing his craft, though he tries out some gags that would be put to better use in later movies. True to the Keystone spirit, it is fast-paced and incoherent.

 

The movie begins similarly to the later movie “Out West,” with Fatty riding the roof of a train, only to be abandoned in the middle of a Western desert with no apparent resources. In this case, Slim Summerville comes along to kick him off the train, and unfortunately that’s his only appearance. Fatty spots Minnie-He-Haw (played by Minnie Devereaux), a Native American woman of about Fatty’s own girth. He decides to pretend to be dying of thirst to get her help, and she calls over some braves from a nearby camp to drag him home. Of course, since she’s now “saved his life,” she expects him to show his appreciation by marrying her. She takes him into her teepee and there’s a bit of funny business about the challenge of kissing when both have such large bellies. Then Minnie goes out to announce her betrothal to the tribe, and Fatty spots Minta Durfee having trouble with her horse nearby. He sneaks over to help her out and when Minnie finds out, the “green-eyed monster” takes over and she drags him back to a feast in their honor. Fatty eats a little and then either becomes ill or fakes it and makes another attempt at a getaway.

Minta rides into town up to the saloon and tells her father (Josef Swickard) about her adventures. He defends her from a funny drunk played by Harry McCoy, who does some good stunts, getting tossed around a bit. She then goes over to the corner to prepare dinner on a convenient stove. Fatty now arrives and also heads to the saloon and pushes McCoy down before spotting Minta and eating most of her dinner. McCoy tries to start another fight and gets shoved again, but now Swickland sees what’s going on and gets out his gun. At the same time, Minnie, also armed, shows up in town looking for Fatty. Swickard tells Fatty to keep away from Minta and shoots at his feet to make him dance, which is so amusing all the local cowhands join in. When he runs outside, Minnie is shooting at him also, so he runs back inside to further gunfire. After this has gone on awhile he runs out of town, winding up back at the Indian camp, where the Indians tie him to a stake and start a fire to punish him for his betrayal of Minnie. Minnie has a change of heart and frees him, but again he uses the opportunity to escape, and now the whole tribe mounts horses to pursue him. He evades them by crossing a skinny rope bridge that won’t hold the horses, but now they fire arrows at him. Several hit him in the behind and he runs off into the distance as the image irises in to indicate the end.

As we might expect from Keystone, the movie is short on plot and big on excesses, and your capacity to enjoy it depends on your comfort with Native American stereotypes and jokes at the expense of fat people. At least Minnie-He-Haw is a person with her own motivations, which is more than some Western dramas were managing at the time. Devereaux definitely fits right in to the madcap atmosphere at Keystone, even if she isn’t wearing bizarre facial hair, and plays her role with gusto. Arbuckle is also committed, even if we don’t get many of his famous stunts, and his run across the rope bridge looks genuinely hazardous. It was fun spotting various Keystone regulars in their Western garb, given a break from always playing cops. I sort of wanted Fatty and Minnie to end up together, but I suppose a mixed-race marriage would have been controversial in a comedy at the time.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minnie Devereaux, Minta Durfee, Slim Summerville, Josef Swickard, Harry McCoy, Frank Hayes, Edward Dillon.

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Kiriki, Japanese Acrobats (1907)

This short movie by Segundo de Chomón demonstrates his easy facility with the trick film. While much of his work is compared to (or even confused with) that of Georges Méliès, I can honestly say I’ve not seen another movie that looks like this one.

A group of actors walks out onto a bare stage with a black background with a bamboo frame around the sides and top. They are a mixed-age and –gender group, all wearing Japanese-style clothing and imitative hairstyles (the men and boys have shaved “bald wigs” on to represent a chonmage). An edit brings them to about the point of a mid-shot so you can get a look at them, then the camera cuts and they begin their act, climbing on top of one another, and sometimes using poles to hold each other up. The end result is usually a symmetrical pattern of human bodies in an apparently impossible position. How was it done?

I was able to spot the trick in his trick film right away, but I’m not sure how obvious it would have been to an audience in 1907. After the edit, we are not actually looking at people standing on a stage anymore, but rather at people lying on their backs with the camera positioned above them, and they pretend to be “climbing” each other when they are really rolling/crawling on the floor. One of the reasons for the simple stage decoration was that it made it easier to match the two shots so that the audience wouldn’t notice the difference. Camera angles were still a fairly new concept in 1907, and audiences were accustomed to static cameras using proscenium-style framing to establish a stage for all of the action to take place in, so this might have seemed quite impressive, even if it is a somewhat simplistic, plotless film for the Nickelodeon Era.

Director: Segundo de Chomón

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.