Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

Broncho Billy’s Gratefulness (1913)

One of many Westerns made by Gibert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson during the Nickelodeon Era, this short shows him once again living by a personal code that is higher than any law.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness

As the movie begins, there is a series of edited shots of a Western family in a peaceful domestic setting and Broncho Billy, evidently suffering distress as he walks down the street and knocks on the door. The man (Brinsley Shaw) finds him at the doorstep and the wife (Evelyn Selbie) puts him in bed and gives him blankets. Brinsley goes to find a doctor (Victor Potel) and they nurse him back to health. Soon, he is back at the saloon with his compadres. When Brinsley goes off, leaving his wife alone, another man (Fred Church), dressed as a “city slicker” comes over and talks to her. She spurns him, but he hopes that his money will persuade her to change her attitude. She continues to resist, and he forces a kiss upon her. When she tells her husband, he rides out and finds the man, shooting him as he mounts his horse.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness1

The man is alive, however, with just a wound to the shoulder and soon is telling the sheriff (Harry Todd) who shot him. The sheriff soon arrives with a posse and arrests the husband, tearing him from the arms of his wife. The wife rushes to find Billy, who, unselfishly if foolishly, rides to the rescue and holds up the posse, freeing the husband to ride off. He joins the wife and the two ride away together into Mexico. Billy holds the posse in place at gunpoint, lighting up a cigarette and sharing it with the men. An intertitle tells us “Time has passed” and we see Billy approach the sheriff at his office and offer him his gun. The sheriff waves it off and the two start a conversation, although the outcome remains a bit unclear.

Broncho Billys Gratefulness2

This one feels a bit rushed, especially at the end. It’s important to realize that Essanay and Anderson were putting out dozens of these movies each year (something on the order of 300 in a six-year period), and the short format didn’t leave time for careful plot development in the best of cases. It’s possible that there’s missing footage or an intertitle that would explain the ending a bit better, but it’s also possible that an audience, knowing that the man Brinsley shot was a scalawag, would accept the simple logic that Billy should not be punished for his actions, which in the end harmed no one. Anderson’s acting at the beginning when he is sick is extremely exaggerated, the sort that makes sure no one can miss his distress, even without dialogue or intertitles to explain it. Similarly, Fred Church and Evelyn Selbie take their scene to rather melodramatic heights, considering that all that is at stake is a kiss. Brinsley is more stoic about his response, which may be better acting or it may be to show the unemotional way in which a Western male goes about “taking care of business” under the circumstances. The most exciting thing about the movie is the regular use of intercutting, right from the first moment, to establish simultaneous action and maintain suspense. For 1913, this is pretty standard, however.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church, Harry Todd, Victor Potel

Run Time: 14 Min, 20 secs

I have not been able to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Reaching for the Moon (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks dips a toe into swashbuckling and costume drama in this early farce, but the overall message doesn’t really seem to agree with his real-life attitudes. What kind of fun does he have in store for us here?

Reaching_for_the_Moon_(1917)

The movie begins with a metaphorical image of Doug, on top of a tall ladder, reaching for an illuminated crescent moon, clearly out of reach. Assuming that there are no tricks here, his precarious balance on the top step may be one of the most dangerous stunts of the movie. We learn from intertitles that his character has the outlandish name of Alexis Caesar Napoleon Brown, but I’ll probably keep calling him “Doug” because that’s how I always think of him, whatever role he plays. He believes in a system of wish-fulfillment based on visualization, and he aspires to rub shoulders with nobility and have the ears of Kings. In reality, however, he is a minor clerk at a firm that makes buttons. Apparently his mother was a refugee from the kingdom of Vulgaria, and he suspects that he may be part of the royal lineage. He goes to see his girl (Eileen Percy), and enthuses at her about how his visualizations will make their dreams come true, though she advises him to start small and work his way up to the bigger dreams. It is fairly clear that her dream is simply to be with Doug, and that she understands the book he recommends to her better than he does.

Reaching for the Moon1

Doug focuses his efforts on a meeting with the Prince of Contraria, who is conveniently in town at the time. He manages to insinuate himself into a table at a posh restaurant close to the Prince, but is unable to afford any of the high-priced items on the menu. His constant staring and attempts to get himself noticed make the Prince’s companions suspect he may be a spy. Meanwhile, they ignore the real spies at a further table. He continues to daydream and see if he can find a way to meet the Prince, but without success. Soon, his distraction leads to his losing his job, since he doesn’t put enough time into his regular duties any more. He goes home and throws himself on his bed in despair.

Reaching for the Moon2

Shortly after, one of the dignitaries from Contraria shows up at his door, pursued by the spies. He knocks and Doug wakes up to let him in. The man demands to know his name and appears astounded when he hears it and that his mother was Vulgarian. The man compares a photo in his pocket to the picture of Doug’s mother and states that he is the only living heir to the throne of Vulgaria. He promises to take Doug to his kingdom, despite the efforts of assassins employed by Black Boris (Frank Campeau) to stop him. Doug momentarily thinks about his girl, but decides he can catch up with her later, after he has been installed. The assassins see him and follow the car to the dock, where Doug and his entourage board a vessel to Vulgaria. Doug looks forward to the good life, rich food, and sea air, but it turns out he has to stay in hiding from the assassins and can only eat tinned food to avoid being poisoned. He can’t even talk, because the assassins have bugged his stateroom, and to remove the bug would alert them that they have been detected.

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In Vulgaria, things only get worse, as his parade is interrupted by several assassination attempts. It is here that Doug is finally able to put his physical skills to use, as he leaps from horses and canal boats, climbs sheer walls and runs along rooftops while dodging bullets. He also fights some assassins hand to hand, putting in a good show for himself. Finally, he drops from a ceiling trapdoor into the midst of his cabinet, who are relieved to find him alive. He learns that he is betrothed to the Princess Valentina, and aging dowager from Contraria. But he agrees to remain for the good of his people, and eventually Black Boris challenges him to a duel. In this movie, Doug seems to be untrained in swordsmanship, and despite a few good moves, he is quickly forced to back down. Soon, he is sent flying down a steep precipice. It becomes steeper and steeper until Alexis falls out of his bed at home, discovering that the whole sequence has been a dream.

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Doug rushes over to his girl, only to see her with another man. It turns out that the man is a realtor, who is selling her a small suburban home in New Jersey, which she hopes to share with Doug – her dream come true. He gets his job back by promising to apply himself diligently to the job and not aspire for unrealistic things. We see Doug and the girl happy at home with a small child.

Reaching for the Moon

The moral to this story appears to be that one should learn to be happy with one’s lot in life, which is about the most un-Fairbanksian idea I can think of. If he felt that way, he should have stayed in Denver, stayed with his first wife and not married Mary Pickford, and never become one of the world’s first movie star personalities. Since that’s not what he did (indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine), this movie comes off like him telling his fans, “Do as I say, not as I do.” But maybe the bigger disappointment is the use of the “it was all a dream” ending, which was already a cliché in literature and theater long before the movies used it as a cop out. The relatively short run time of features at this time may have precluded a truly clever resolution to the situation, but it seems like Doug could have learned what was really important in his life (the love of the girl, in this instance), without having to negate the most interesting part of the story. On a level of wish-fulfillment, it’s also dissatisfying not to see Doug beat the villain, when we know that he was perfectly capable of putting on a good show as a fencer.

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Whatever we may say about the narrative, however, this movie is pretty well in line with the better-quality work Fairbanks was putting out in 1917. Although Wikipedia calls it an “adventure film,” it is really a light comedy whose adventure-spoofing sequences give Doug ample opportunity to show off his athleticism. The camerawork and editing are of very high quality for the time, but nothing really exciting of innovative is attempted. Fairbanks didn’t really re-invent himself as an action star until the 1920s, but certainly movies like this and “A Modern Musketeer” gave him a chance to sample what that would be like and get in some early practice. The movie is set in New York and “Vulgaria,” though imdb claims it was shot in Venice, California. The exteriors are convincing, although it is certainly true that we don’t see any recognizable New York locations. The scene at the canal really does mimic the other Venice pretty convincingly, and I wonder if this is the only sequence that was actually shot in Venice, with the more urban landscapes taken from deeper in Los Angeles.

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For fans of Fairbanks, this movie is a fine example of his early work, but the ending is bound to be a downer.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming, Sam Landers

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Frank Campeau, Eugene Ormonde, Bull Montana, Charles Stevens, Erich von Strohheim

Run Time: 1 Hr, 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge (1896)

Having taken the world by storm with their projected motion pictures in 1895, the Lumière brothers quickly dispatched cameras to far points of the world, eager to get images that would be exotic or exciting for audiences at home and abroad. This one comes from New York City, and is a rather idiosyncratic view of a still-famous structure.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge1

The camera is set up on train tracks, facing a stationary engine and a small building. A train approaches, turning to exit screen left. As it does so, it blocks the one recognizable arch from the bridge in the distance. Soon other trains cross our view, one quite close to the camera is being driven “backward,” with the engine behind the other cars. These appear to be commuter trains, with people sitting in the coaches. A workman on a ladder is on the other side of the tracks, and at times he seems to look at the camera. It is impossible to tell which side of the East River this image was taken from, but it appears to be at the point where the tracks are turning toward the bridge, not actually on the bridge itself.

New York, Brooklyn Bridge

Bridge? What bridge?

Today, we don’t think of the Brooklyn Bridge being for trains. The upper level is largely for pedestrian and bicycle traffic, and below that is roadway for cars. Even buses and trucks don’t cross the bridge anymore, it isn’t used for public transit, just personal transportation. This was not always the case, however, as we see here. It’s surprising that the photographer felt that this view was the best way to show the bridge, since the trains block its most recognizable features for much of the run time. There isn’t a lot to distinguish this from “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat” or dozens of similar train movies from the nineteenth century, but presumably audience demand was high for this type of film, and getting the famous bridge was a secondary concern.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Camille (1921)

The classic romantic story of a sex worker with a heart of gold is remade in modern times, starring now-huge-names Rudolph Valentino and Alla Nazimova. The look is a decided break with traditions established in the teens, and heralds the coming of the “roaring twenties” in all their glory.

Camille-newspapaerad1922

The movie begins with a wide shot of a grand staircase, filled with people in evening clothes, ostensibly in Paris in the winter (there are no exteriors in this part of the movie, so it could be anywhere/when). We close in on Armand (Valentino) and his pal Gaston (Rex Cherryman), who play law students. Gaston is the elder, more jaded of the pair, while Armand seems to be thrilled by high society. When Camille (Nazimova) emerges, with a coterie of gentlemen trailing after her, Armand is immediately smitten, and asks Gaston about her. She is known as “the Lady with the Camellias” and is in the process of throwing over her current escort for a more high-ranking member of the aristocracy. Gaston introduces her, and she seems to lose interest in her high-stakes quarry for a moment when she sees how handsome Armand is. She lets it be known that there will be an after-party at her place and Gaston agrees to take his aunt and Armand along for the ride.

Camille Read the rest of this entry »

The Haunted Castle (1921)

Originally released with the more prosaic title “Schloss Vogelöd” (“Castle Vogelöd”), this early work by F.W. Murnau skirts the edges of horror and Expressionism, without fully committing to either. Murnau does show his talent for psychological drama here, as well as atmosphere and narrative structure.

The movie begins by showing us a large manor, drenched in rain. We learn from intertitles that this is the home of Lord von Vogelschrey (Arnold Korff) and that the traditional hunting season has been rained out for several days. We move to the interior of the castle and see the host and his bored guests, who are playing cards, smoking, reading newspapers and the like. A servant enters the room and announces Count Oetsch (Lothar Mehnert), which seems to disconcert everyone. Count Oetsch enters and Vogelschrey takes him aside to another room. The guests outside gossip and we learn that the count got his title a few years ago on the death of his brother by shooting, and that he is suspected of the crime. This rumor gets nourished by a retired Judge of the District Court. Vogelscrhey informs Oetsch that his brother’s widow will soon be here, implying that he (Oetsch) should leave, but Oetsch acts nonchalant and makes it clear he intends to stay.

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The Phantom Carriage (1921)

This spooky film from Sweden adds another piece to my “history of horror” that I wasn’t able to get to in the month of October this year. Never mind, November is still a good creepy month, and this movie transcends the horror genre by dealing with issues of morality and personal responsibility, even as it depicts a skeletal horse pulling a transparent buggy.

Phantom Carriage1

As the film opens, a young woman (Astrid Holm) is sick in bed, those around her call her “Sister Edit,” and expect her soon to die. We learn that she is with the Salvation Army, that it is New Year’s Eve, and that she has only one wish: to speak with someone named David Holm. His name seems to scandalize her caretakers, but they cannot ignore a dying request, and a search for David is mounted. When we find him (played by director Victor Sjöstrom), he is in a graveyard, enjoying a final toast with other down-and-outs. He tells a story that appears in flashbacks.

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Artheme Swallows His Clarinet (1912)

This very French farce comes from a time when national cinematic styles were still being determined and when France’s film product was just starting to be challenged economically by the output of the United States. This movie may have been seen around the world at the time, but it was nearly lost at the time of its restoration, with only two known prints to work from.

Artheme Swallows His Clarinet

Our lead character is a short man in a hat and baggy jacket. He is seen strolling along a path in a park, playing his clarinet as he walks. A policeman comes up to him and interrupts, showing us with gestures as he asks Artheme to stop playing. Artheme agrees and walks off. The next scene shows him as he walks up to a streetcar. A crowd is clamoring to get on board, and he begins to play again. The film speeds up and everyone is able to board quickly with the help of his music. He tips his hat to the streetcar as it pulls away. Now he comes to a group of workmen, who are pulling a heavy cabinet on a rope up the side of the building. When he starts to play, they forget their labors and start to dance, but unfortunately, Artheme was standing beneath the cabinet and when they let go the rope it crashes down on him! When they recover and pull him out from under, we see that his clarinet was pushed back into his mouth and it now penetrates his head – the mouthpiece jutting out from the back and the horn sticking out of his mouth. He seems not to be in much pain, however, and rather than horror, the workmen respond with mirth at his plight.

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Artheme leaves and walks on, looking for someone to help him pull it out again. He first finds a policeman, but despite his best efforts, the instrument will not budge. He approaches another man in the park, who recruits more help to get more force on the clarinet, and soon there is a line of people tugging on a rope attached to it. When they slip and lose their grip, however, the whole crowd falls backward into a lake. Artheme sits on a bench at the seashore and a man with a top hat and funny beard walks up, reading from a musical score. He comes behind Artheme and plays the clarinet through his head, making Artheme hold up the music for him. Annoyed at being reduced to a music stand, Artheme hits him and pushes him away. He now comes to a blacksmith’s shop, where men are working with hammers at an anvil. He pleads with them to help him and places his head upon the anvil. A man with a large hammer strikes the mouthpiece until the instrument has been forced out of his mouth. He stands up again, apparently no worse for the experience (and happily without a big hole in the back of his head). Nevertheless, they pick him up and dunk his head into a bucket of water several times, giving us one final laugh as the film ends.

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It’s easy to imagine the early Surrealists seeing this movie in youth or even childhood and loving it. It has all of the elements – including violence and bodily disfigurement – that would fascinate them later. The star and director was Ernest Servaès, who did a series of “Artheme” films for the next few years, although I believe the company he worked for, Eclipse, folded during the First World War and there isn’t much trace of him after that. According to imdb, he lived long enough to make two movies named “Mirelle,” one in 1922 and one in 1934, with that last version being the only feature length film of his career. He has a delightful personality as a French comedian, although he lacks the physicality of a Keaton or a Chaplin and probably would never have made a big hit in the USA. The effect of the clarinet is uneven, Ernest has to keep his head ducked low in order for it to look straight, and much of the time it is obvious that it is constructed of two separate pieces attached to the back of his head and stuck in his mouth. This movie has a light touch that is appealing today. I liked the images of the French coast (the water is rough and full of large, fast-moving waves) and the location shots on the streets, which give a definite sense of place; most of the park looks just like the parks we’ve seen in Keystone comedies, which is itself interesting – I guess even a hundred years ago, a park was a park.

Director: Ernest Servaès

Camera: Émile Pierre

Starring: Ernest Servaès

Run Time: 4 min, 12 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Destiny (1921)

Originally titled “Der Müde Tod,” which in German means “The Weary Death,” this feature film by Fritz Lang is the first anthology film to be added to my “history of horror.” Less outspokenly Expressionist than some of the movies I reviewed last year, it is nonetheless an important film in the rise of the German film industry as a standard-setter in the cinematic art.

Der Mude Tod

The movie begins by showing a young couple (Lil Dagover and Walter Janssen) on a carriage ride in the country. They are annoying the old woman in the carriage with them by constantly showing how in love they are. A tall figure in dark clothing (Bernhard Goetzke) flags down the carriage and boards. His aspect is so sinister that the old woman chooses to walk the rest of the way. He is referred to as “the Stranger” in the subtitles, and he settles on a piece of land near the cemetery, alarming the leading citizens of the town, who are portrayed as venal and selfish, and appear to conduct important business at the local tavern. The Stranger erects a huge wall around his property, with no evident door, gate, or other aperture, though he can get in and out, as shown by his frequent appearances in town. Although the townsfolk fear the Stranger, they are eager to discover the secret of his wall, perhaps suspecting that he keeps treasure hidden inside. One day the Stranger and the loving couple meet again at the tavern, and the young man leaves with the Stranger, which terrifies the young woman when she finds out and she goes to the wall and sees the images of dead people there – the last of which is her lover – entering the wall.

Der Mude Tod1 Read the rest of this entry »

The Prolific Magical Egg (1902)

This trick film from Georges Méliès depicts a standard magic show, as one might have seen in the Theatre Robert-Houdin. We squeeze it into our “History of Horror” because it also shows some of the darker implications of magic and its uses.

Prolific Magical Egg

Méliès appears on a proscenium-style set which resembles a classroom – a blackboard with what looks like a mathematical formula written on it is in the background. There are also two stands erected to either side of the performer, holding up a board between them. He bows and produces a handkerchief. He folds this into his hand and moves close to the camera so that the audience can see his hands, when he opens it, the handkerchief has become an egg. He makes it disappear and reappear an additional time and then retreats to the part of the stage where the stands are erected. The egg suddenly enlarges to the size of his head and he places it on the board. Now he quickly paints a face on it and with gestures, causes it to grow even larger. It fades away to be replaced by a disembodied woman’s head, gargantuan next to the magician. She splits into three enormous heads, which space out along the board. When they move together and recombine into the first head, Méliès goes to kiss her, but now it transforms into an egg-shaped clown’s head, similar to the crude painted face he had first placed on the egg. Méliès laughs and it becomes a painted egg again, then he gestures for it to shrink back down and picks it up. He tosses it into the air and it becomes again a normal egg, which he makes disappear, pretending that he has eaten it. He leaps up onto the board and becomes a skeleton. Now a liveried servant comes out and removes the skeleton. Happy Halloween!

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The most interesting piece of this movie is probably the least obvious to modern viewers: Méliès actually zooms in on his hands through the simple expedient of walking upstage towards the camera. As a result, he is no longer framed in a long shot, with his entire body, including feet, visible to the audience. We only see him from approximately the waste up. This sort of thing was still somewhat controversial a decade or so later when feature films were becoming popular. Some critics felt that it was disturbing, or inappropriate somehow to show only parts of bodies on the camera, instead of using it to film a staged performance as it would be seen from the back rows, with entire bodies of everyone in the scene visible at all times. Of course, within a few years medium shots would be no big deal, but they are very rare in 1902. The disembodied heads and enlarging egg were accomplished using a split screen and moving the camera closer, but Méliès had already done this in “The Man with the Rubber Head” by this time. The ending is the most “horror” aspect, with the skeleton briefly animate, but seemingly dead when the servant comes out to remove it. I thought at first that this was an unfortunate side effect of eating prolific magical eggs, but the Star Films Catalog suggests that there is some missing footage at the beginning in which the skeleton is brought out and transforms into the magician – perhaps he is himself a kind of undead illusion.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

The Enchanted Well (1903)

For this week’s instalment in my “History of Horror,” I’m looking at another of the early films of Georges Méliès that plays with infernal concepts and imagery for the entertainment of an audience. Whimsy, special effects, and rapid action define the scene.

Enchanted Well

A proscenium-style set displays a rural town, with a well placed at the center of the stage. A group of people in peasant clothing assemble at the well, then all go off in different directions. Now a country bumpkin approaches the well, followed by an old crone, who entreats him. He responds by chasing her off, and she makes mystical motions over the well, cursing it. The bumpkin draws water from the well, and pours it into a bucket, but the bucket suddenly bursts into flames as a demon leers forth from the well. The peasant fights with the demon, and it disappears, but now the well itself shoots forth cardboard flames, and it rises into the air, becoming first a tower, and then a furnace with two snakes coming out of it. The peasant fights the snakes, and then faces devils with pitchforks, and finally a giant snake that almost drags him into the furnace before it turns back into a well and spews forth human-sized frogs, which catch him and throw him down the well. The bumpkin manages to climb back out of the well, dripping with water, but the well moves and then turns into the Devil himself. This causes the people of the town to assemble and at first they confront the Devil, but he makes a motion and they all bow down. Then he turns into a bat and flies away.

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Méliès here shows a very traditional Medieval view of witches and their compacts with the Devil (despite current Wiccan propaganda, the word “witch” in pretty much all European languages is associated with malice and evil). The witch curses the well water out of spite when the bumpkin does not give what she asks – in the Star Catalog description it claims all she was asking for was alms – and soon her familiar spirits and demons are plaguing the man and the town itself. Although Satan does fly off at the end, there is no sign he has been vanquished, having established himself as “Lord of This World” by making the peasants bow and depriving the village of its only water supply by taking the well away, perhaps destroying the entire community over this minor slight. No wonder it was necessary to fight witches with fire and torture! In the world of Méliès films of course, this is less frightening, and more fun, than it sounds, and the fast-paced action and torments of the bumpkin are played for slapstick humor, and even small children will be more amused by the large eyes of the snakes than frightened. There are a number of very rapid substitution splices, showing the Méliès has now mastered his special effects in these longer sequences, where before one or two appearances/disappearances were all we could expect. Judging by how he moves, I believe the bumpkin was played by Méliès himself, though he may have been the Devil as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min

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