Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

Robinson Crusoe (1902)

Another multi-scene interpretation of classic literature, this movie was released by Georges Méliès in the same year as “A Trip to the Moon.” It also deals with questions of colonialism, but where others have found traces of a critical approach in the former film, here it seems little has changed since Daniel Defoe’s day.

Robinson_Crusoe

The movie begins with a depiction of Crusoe’s ship crashing, but surviving prints have very little of this – a brief flash of a man slumped over a rocky cliff, a wrecked ship in the background traces the impression lightly, though the Star Films catalog suggests we should see more of his struggle to survive. The next scene shows Robinson (Méliès) poling upriver in a raft laden with salvaged items, such as a barrel (the catalog suggests an entire scene is lost, in which we see him building the raft). Another scene shows him looting the wreck of the ship before all of it breaks up and drifts away. He locates survivors – a cat and a dog – who will be his first companions on the island. The next scene shows him atop a peak on the island’s mountainous terrain, lighting a signal fir to try to hail a passing ship. The ship sails by without stopping, however. (Once again, the catalog suggests something is missing, since two signaling scenes are listed). Now, Robinson, resigned to living long-term on the island, is shown hard at the labor of building a hut to shelter himself and his animals.

Robinson Crusoe1

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The Drawing Lesson (1903)

Another short trick film by Georges Méliès, this movie demands a bit more of the audience (or perhaps a live narrator) than some of the simpler films of earlier years. We see familiar themes and effects, taken to a somewhat more complex level than before.

Drawing Lesson

The movie begins with a proscenium-style set that depicts a garden with an ornamental colonnade in the background. A man in 18th-century-style clothing carries an easel out onto the stage and gestures his approval of the scene, then tries to signal someone to follow him. When they do not, he goes back offstage in search of them. Now a new individual (this seems to be played by Méliès) comes onstage and appears to be planning a prank on the first. He transforms a barrel into a pedestal, then adds a woman piece by piece, transforming a ball or balloon for the head, a handkerchief for the torso, and a coat for the legs. She stands in a pose as if she were a statue – a natural part of the scene. The first man returns with a class of art students, mostly in wigs and upper-class dress. They spread out on the ground and begin drawing the scene, while the man (evidently an instructor), walks around and inspects their work. Now the statue comes to life and steals his hat, then causes him to fall over, transforming in the process into an elaborate fountain and spraying water all over him. He pulls out an umbrella and kicks, while the class continues to sketch the scene.

Drawing Lesson1

The Star Film catalog describes the art instructor and the art students as if they were clearly identifiable characters, but watching without any narration or intertitles, a modern audience has to piece this together as the story progresses. It also identifies the location as “the gardens at Versailles,” which makes sense if you’ve been there or know about it, but probably wasn’t intuitive even to any non-French audience of the day. The main theme, however, of a caricatured authority figure getting his comeuppance at the hands of a random prankster with magical powers, is pretty much the essence of comedy cinema at the time and for years to come. The only special effects used here are substitution splices and the division of the lady into parts through multiple exposure, but Méliès shows how much his technique has improved since the early days with the precision of this process, which probably would have simply been a single splice, rather than three, in earlier years.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

My Wife’s Relations (1922)

Buster Keaton winds up married by accident and has to navigate a family of in-laws from Hell in this short comedy from 1922. Will he survive this bizarre situation?

My Wifes Relations

The movie begins with Buster pulling taffy for a living at a candy store in a large urban area. An intertitle emphasizes the many languages spoken in such places (relevant to the plot) and tells us he is a young artist (completely irrelevant). The scene cuts to a young Polish couple, calling a Justice of the Peace to request a wedding ceremony, to be performed in their native language. He concurs, saying, “I speak no other language.” Buster gets into a confrontation with a postman, accidentally hitting him with the taffy pull and provoking him to throw a bottle at him, which smashes a window. Buster runs away, but trips over a large woman (Kate Price). Kate grabs him and sees the window, and the Justice of the Peace inspecting it (turns out it was his window) and draws the conclusion that Buster is responsible, so hauls him back over to the scene of the crime. The Justice of the Peace assumes they are the couple who called and begins the wedding ceremony. Since neither side knows what the other is saying, soon Kate and Buster are hitched. Read the rest of this entry »

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls (1913)

This short from G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson doesn’t show a lot of progress over the simple Western stories he’d been telling for years now. The appeal is his folksy charm and good nature, and the opportunity to imagine adventure in the Wild West for a few minutes.

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls1

The movie begins by showing us Billy and his relationship to the two “Western Girls” of the title – Irene and Evelyn Courtney, played by Bess Sankey and Evelyn Selbie, respectively. They run the general store for their father (Lloyd Ingraham), who is disabled, and Irene seems to be sweet on Billy. The general store being the main postal exchange for the area, the stagecoach delivers a large bag of money there, presumably the payroll for a local mine, military outpost, or other operation. This is observed by gang leader Fred Church, who goes to his hombres’ camp in the wilderness, and brings them back to rob the store. This leads to a situation reminiscent of “An Unseen Enemy” in which the two girls are locked in a room while the bad guys try to break in. Evelyn takes the gold, sneaks out the window and rides off on her horse. A chase through the forest is handled with stationary camera, tight shots, and unclear geography, but somehow results in Billy seeing the girl’s plight and shooting the bad man just as he would have grabbed the gold. A posse comes out of nowhere to apprehend the men and help the girl. The movie ends with Billy together with Irene

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls

It’s understandable if Gil Anderson wasn’t quite up to matching D. W. Griffith’s suspense during the break-in and ride to escape, but you would think that ten years after appearing in “The Great Train Robbery,” he could stage a Western chase scene with a bit more deftness. It’s totally unclear why Evelyn gets off her horse and starts running through the brush, how all three bandits managed to get together and chase her after only Fred saw her ride off, or how other people somehow stumble into the same place at the fortuitous moment. I chalk it up to producing dozens of these movies each year, and wanting to give audiences just enough plot to keep them interested for a quarter of an hour, with no expectation that they (or anyone) would re-watch or analyze them carefully. Anderson still comes across as the classic genial Western hero, and it’s fascinating how the women in his movies never look made-up or glamorous, just like the plain women one would expect to find living on the range.

Director: G.M “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy Anderson, Bess Sankey, Evelyn Selbie, Lloyd Ingraham, Fred Church, Victor Potel, Harry Todd

Run Time: 10 Min, 13 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Cops (1922)

This simple two-reel short confirms Buster Keaton’s genius before he had moved on to the production of comedy features later in the twenties. While limited in terms of plot and character, it takes the basic concept of the chase, a staple of film since the beginning, and “runs with it” (pun intended) for all it’s worth.

Cops_1922_poster

The movie begins by establishing its simple premise – Keaton speaks to a girl (Virginia Fox) through bars, as if in prison. Then, she turns and walks away from him, and the new angle shows that he is standing at the gate to her home, and that she is on the grounds of a large estate. She tells him in an intertitle that in order to marry her, he will need to be successful in business. And thus, Buster is set into motion. A short distance away, he sees a man (Joe Roberts) hailing a taxi. He accidentally drops a large wad of money. Buster retrieves it and, rather than steal it, offers it back to the man, expecting a reward. The man ignores him and seems annoyed. He then tries to help the man to the taxi, still hoping for a tip, but each effort he makes backfires and the man is tripped and becomes increasingly angry. When the taxi pulls away, Keaton starts counting the money he has lifted during the scuffle. The man, however, realizes the money is gone and has the taxi return, grabbing it from Keaton’s hand in motion. He gets only the wallet, so the taxi turns around again and this time he gets out, ready to confront Buster, but Buster just gets into the cab from the other side and drives off. Only now do we see the man’s badge, indicating that Buster has just had his first run-in with the law.

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Policeman’s Parade – Chicago (1897)

One of several films shot for the Lumière brothers by a photographer abroad, this depicts a parade taking place in the USA. It gives us a chance to consider why it, and so many similar films, were made at the time.

Policeman's Parade Chicago

Typical of a Lumière film, this is a 50 second clip taken from a stationary camera at a roughly 30-degree-angle to the line of approach. In the background is a large building with arched windows, bartizans, and possibly stained glass above the main entryway, calling to mind a cathedral, armory, or castle of some kind, but which may be a stylized police station. Policemen in uniform march past in the foreground, carrying night sticks, in ranks of four, divided into groups of 24 each, escorted on the far side by a man in a different hat (presumably their superior officer). All of them are white, and nearly all have moustaches. At the very end of the movie, we see a horse-and-buggy that is part of the parade, and it is possible that there are more of these to follow.

Policeman's Parade Chicago1

Who let this hippy into the parade?

Some years back, when I watched the DVD collection “The Lumière Brothers’ First Films,” I recall how amused the narrator, Bertrand Tavernier, was by the overwhelming majority of these men being moustached, and that he referred to one that was not as “a rebel.” What is odder to us today is the fact that every one of these officers is a white men; women and African Americans were presumably excluded from the force entirely, and I’d be curious to know what percent were of Irish descent. What also stands out to us now is that they are wearing the tall rounded hats that today we associate with “Keystone Kops,” although that style was already a bit antiquated twenty years after this when those movies were made.

If you do an exhaustive study of early film, you’re going to end up watching a lot of parades. It gets pretty tedious, actually, even with a lot of the movies less than two or three minutes in length. Early actuality filmmakers relied on parades because they needed to demonstrate motion, parades were scheduled in advance and you knew where to place your camera, and they had at least a modicum of civic or cultural interest. To us today, disconnected from the events of the time and no longer excited about the simple fact of moving pictures, it’s hard to maintain the level of interest that contemporary audiences had, or were assumed to have. This one at least allows some insight into the demography and style of a major urban police force.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Blacksmith (1922)

Another two-reel short from Buster Keaton that emphasizes his ability to come up with a seemingly endless string of gags around a given them, this movie is surprisingly plotless, even compared to his early work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Enjoy the laughs, but don’t look for a lot of coherence, from this one.

The opening introduces Buster, a blacksmith’s assistant, in poetic intertitles that contrast with the images shown. We are told that the “village smithy” stands under a “spreading chestnut tree,” to see Buster posing beneath a remarkably tall palm tree – essentially a pole with a tuft on top. A line about “the muscles of his brawny arms” is followed by Keaton flexing, then popping the balloon that swells beneath his sleeve. When children look in at him doing his work, the boss (Joe Roberts) comes along and chases them off. He then finds Buster is using the smithy flame to heat up his breakfast. Using tongs to hold the plate, Buster tries to pretend to be working by hammering at the anvil, but shatters the plate and ruins his meal. Then, Buster does several pratfalls involving a hot horseshoe, fresh out of the forge. He burns each of his feet in turn and then his behind, putting each into the bucket of water to cool them and, of course, producing steam. Soon, his boss tells him to bring a large hammer out to the front, where he is working on a wagon wheel. He brings two, but they disappear, sucked up to the huge horseshoe that serves as their shop’s sign – in fact a huge horseshoe magnet. When the wagon wheel disappears the same way, the larger man begins to abuse him, which attracts the attention of the local sheriff, who loses his star and gun in the same way. Now the sheriff calls over his four deputies and they take the blacksmith into custody, with considerable difficulty as the huge man fights back. Buster inadvertently helps them when he sees where ll of the missing bits of metal have gone and climbs up to the magnet, bring it and all of its gains down upon his boss and stunning him.

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Gussle’s Day of Rest (1915)

This Mack Sennett “park comedy” stars Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney in a role about as close to the “Little Tramp” as possible. Although by 1915, Charlie had begun making more sympathetic movies about his character, Syd is still definitely in the earlier mode of funny-because-he’s-so-bad.

Gussles Day of Rest

The movie begins with Gussle (Syd) and his wife (Phyllis Allen) at the boardwalk, looking out into the ocean. A boy approaches Gussle and offers to sell him a newspaper. Gussle agrees, but has no money on him, so he cadges some from his wife. He sees that she keeps her change in a stocking, and sticks the end of it (the part with the coins) into his pocket, then uses a pair of scissors to snip off the part that is in her hand. When Nancy sees this, he tries to accuse the salesboy, but she is onto him. They then pass by a bar, and Gussle tries to go in, but wifey stops him. The go into a park, standing on the road, and squabble for a while until Gussle is suddenly hit from behind by a car and knocked over. The driver of that car (Slim Summerville) was distracted by his passenger (Cecile Arnold), and soon Gussle is, too. Now, Gussle and his wife squabble with Slim and Gussle pushes the car back with his foot a couple of times, causing it to careen wildly in reverse, but Slim drives back to the scene each time. Phyliis faints from all the exertion, but somehow manages to wake up to hit Gussle each time he shows too much interest in Cecile or takes a swig of the whiskey offered to help wake her up.

Gussles Day of Rest1

Gussle and Phyllis continue their day in the park, eventually snoozing under a tree together. Gussle wakes up first and blows cigar smoke into her open mouth, then puts a balloon in it. He distracts her when she awakes, annoyed, by calling her attention to the birds singing, then takes out a slingshot and starts trying to shoot them down. His aim is apparently poor, however; both he and his wife wind up getting a round in the eye when they return to earth. Slim and Cecile, meanwhile, have set up a picnic, which Gussle crashes, evidently with Cecile’s approval. Gussle somehow gets a fork stuck in his behind, which takes a good deal of effort on the part of Slim and Cecile to withdraw.

Gussles Day of Rest2

Annoyed by Gussle’s interloping, Slim tries to enlist the aid of Gussle’s wife, but she thinks he’s a masher when he wakes her up, and she knocks him down. Soon, Gussle and Slim are fighting, and Cecile takes a powder. Then Phyllis joins in and soon is fighting Cecile as well. Phyllis chases Gussle, who knocks a zookeeper into the pen with a leopard. This gives Gussle the good idea of doing the same thing with his wife, then going back to collect Cecile. A cop (Edward F. Cline) takes an interest, and Gussle sends Cecile away, then distracts him by sashaying around the well until he can hit him with his own billy club. With Phyllis and Slim in pursuit, Gussle puts Cecile in the car, but he can’t get it to start. Finally, it starts just in time to run over the cop, who hits Slim when he gets up again. The end is a high-speed chase with Gussle and Cecile in the car and the others on foot. Cecile’s gestures show us the car is out of control and Gussle swerves all over the road. They crash into a construction site where dynamite is being used, and an explosion dumps dirt all over the car. Gussle pokes his head out of the dirt, but there’s no sign of Cecile. He digs down until he finds her hair, then tugs at it and it comes off – revealing itself as a wig and the top of her head as bald. Gussle puts the wig back and pushes the dirt over it. The end.

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It’s typical enough of the genre, but without whatever the magic was that made Charlie transcend it. Certain scenes, such as the cigar-smoke sequence and the fork in the behind, have the feeling of being ad-libbed comedy of the sort Charlie excelled at, but which just falls flat in Syd’s hands. There are more close-ups than you might expect for a 1915 movie, but the quality of the existing prints makes it hard to appreciate. Syd seems to play “innocent” a lot, fluttering his eyelashes and tilting his head to the side, but his cuteness doesn’t make up for the unlikability of his character. It was funny to spot Buster Keaton‘s future co-director, Edward Cline, in the role of the cop. Here, he’s a typical hot-headed Keystone Kop, which is kind of needed to distract us from Syd’s performance. Like a lot of two-reelers, the movie is divided into a “part one” and “part two,” but without any clear division between them. On the whole, it seems to me that cutting it down to a single reel would have been the best way to make it funnier.

Director: F. Richard Jones

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Slim Summerville, Cecile Arnold, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 20 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (complete, with a terrible soundtrack), or here (incomplete, worse quality print, but better music).

The Electric House (1922)

Another Buster Keaton short from one hundred years ago, this movie gave him an opportunity to show off his love of gadgets and labor-saving devices.

Electric_House_1921

The movie begins by showing a graduation ceremony from a college. In the front row are Buster, a girl, and a fellow with a pugilist’s face (Steve Murphy), who is really an electrical engineer. A mishap causes them to exchange diplomas accidentally, so when the President of the college (Joe Roberts) announces his need for an electrician to wire his house, the engineer hands him a degree in cosmetics and hairdressing. He is rejected, and Buster, whose degree was supposed to be in Botany, gets the job instead. Seeing the President’s attractive young daughter (Virginia Fox), Buster takes the job and departs with them before the engineer can figure out the mistake. The family quickly departs on vacation and leaves Buster to study a manual on electrical engineering and take care of the job.

Electric House

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The Pest (1922)

A young Stanley Laurel (sans Hardy) stars in this two-reel comedy directed by G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. Not as far out as a Mack Sennett, nor as refined as the work of Keaton or other recognized geniuses, it still has a few laughs and some interest for us today.

Pest

Laurel plays a “book agent” according to the credits, which seems to mean a man who goes door-to-door selling biographies of Napoleon. As the movie opens, he is going on at some length about the merits of reading up on the great man to a potential customer who has little to say in response. A man comes out from behind the gate they are standing in front of and moves his hands about oddly, then leads the “customer” inside, revealing to the audience (and Laurel) the fact that this is an institution for the “deaf and dumb.” An older woman (Joy Winthrop) comes out and Laurel makes rather more convincing sign language at her as she stares uncomprehendingly, then she starts talking a mile a minute, making it impossible for Stanley to get a word in edgewise. He tries to get away from this pest, but she follows, running surprisingly fast for a woman in a dress that doesn’t allow for much leg movement (a dolly shot follows them from the back of a car or truck, to allow the chase to go as far as possible in the street).

Pest03

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