Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.

Unacceptable Behavior

Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor  for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.

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The Bomb Idea (1920)

This animated short from Bray Productions features Jerry Flannigan, known to readers of the Hearst Newspapers as “Jerry on the Job.” He is a diminutive fellow who works a variety of jobs, although his employment is a pretty minor aspect of this film.

Jerry and his boss are at a railroad station, reading the paper. They see a headline screaming “BOLSHEVIKI RUN WILD THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY” and become highly paranoid. When a mustachioed man walk up holding a large black sphere, they become fearful and try to hide, but everywhere they go, he seems to follow, polishing his “bomb.” Finally, they run into town and arouse several other citizens and a police officer to come out and investigate. The team sees the man lighting a match, but really he’s just lighting his pipe. He gets ready to throw the bomb and tries to knock over several bowling pins, but the ball misses and he has to use his pipe to get a “strike.” At that moment, the lynch mob confronts him with a gun, and he holds up his hands, causing his coveralls to fall off and reveal several bowling medals pinned to his chest. He runs off, leaving his clothing behind and the other lynchers turn on Jerry and his boss, initiating the traditional cartoon “fight cloud.” When the dust clears, it appears that Jerry and his boss have been torn to shreds, and the other men leave. Finally, the heads of Jerry and his boss poke out from the ground, with two black eyes each, but they are still alive. Oddly, in the final shot they kiss each other on the mouth.

What surprised me most about this cartoon was the direct political reference, but particularly in the context of red-baiting newspapers. The comic’s original host, the Hearst line of papers had been responsible for some of the worst red-baiting of the postwar period, and here was a cartoon apparently lampooning that with their character! The movie suggests that people should not jump to conclusions, and that violence can be fueled by irresponsible journalism. Of course, it’s all in the service of a laugh, and apparently meant for children who probably wouldn’t read that level of criticism into it. It was also interesting to see the early use of a dust cloud to simulate fighting in cartoons, something I remember from my childhood of cartoon-watching.

Director: Walt Hoban, Vernon Stallings

Animator: Walter Lantz

Run Time: 4 Min

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

The Ocean Waif (1916)

This late movie from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax studio seems to be an effort by her to imitate the success of Mary Pickford, with a less-expensive actress. The story, as well as the performer, do manage to evoke some of the charm of Pickford’s better work.

Not Little Mary

Doris Kenyon is Millie, a young orphan who washed up on the beach one day and is being raised by “Hy” Jessop (William Morris), a gruff fisherman with all the social graces and basic decency of Huck Finn’s Pappy. She is also loved from afar by the seemingly simple-minded “Sem” (Fraunie Fraunholz), who hates to see her abused by her foster father, and tries to defend her. She runs away to a nearby abandoned crumbling mansion, which, though filled with rats, is not much worse than her regular squalid digs. A wealthy author by the name of Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) decides to lease said mansion, seeing it as the ideal romantic atmosphere to work out yet another best-selling novel, and he brings along his valet, Edgar Norton. Clearly, the three are on a collision course with wackiness!

This being a fairly brief silent film, said wackiness gets underway pretty quickly, with Millie hiding out in the mansion and fooling the butler into believing there is a “lady ghost.” Norton gives quite a number of good scare takes before Roberts figures out that there’s a real girl hiding out. Once she’s been discovered, Roberts takes her under his wing, with the usual result of an impoverished young girl’s awakening attraction to an older successful man (see, for example, “Stella Maris”). In this case, he more or less reciprocates, but with the added complication of a fiancé who comes to visit at an inopportune moment, causing Millie to run back to her foster father, who now notices her blooming womanhood for the first time. Luckily, Sem intervenes once again to rescue her, conveniently getting himself killed n the process to avoid any further romantic triangles. Ronald’s fiancé decides she’s more interested in marrying “the Count” who has been wooing her single (presumably widowed) mother, thus allowing the two stars to live happily ever after.

Your…fish…has arrived, sir.

This is pretty light fare, and as I’ve suggested it’s rather derivative, so doesn’t hold up against the best work Guy-Blaché was putting out from Gaumont in the 1900s. It is undeniably more sophisticated in terms of film techniques and storytelling, but only in the sense of having kept up with the industry as of 1916, not in terms of any innovations. Still, there are some nice touches. I actually think the best performance is the comic turn by Norton as the butler. I could actually hear his nasally-British voice as he showed his fastidious snobbishness at the surroundings and locals of the seaside. Anyone who watched (or read) “Jeeves and Wooster” will instantly recognize his archetype here. Norton would continue playing butlers of this type well into the sound period, so he’ll be recognized by many classic film fans. One nice bit has the waif’s first night at the mansion intercut with the author’s night in a luxurious hotel nearby, emphasizing the differences in their backgrounds and the lives they’ve known. I was actually rooting for Sem, myself, who seemed to have more genuine feelings for Millie, and who is the only one who really puts himself on the line for her. I suppose that the difference in their intelligence would have prevented a healthy relationship, but I’m not sure that falling for the first rich guy you meet is much better.

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Camera: John G. Haas

Starring: Doris Kenyon, Carlyle Blackwell, William Morris, Fraunie Fraunholz, Edgar Norton

Run Time: 40 Min (with some missing footage, I believe)

You can watch it for free: here.

Terror Island (1920)

Having survived 15 death-defying situations in the previous year’s serial “The Master Mystery,” Harry Houdini is back in this feature-length adventure thriller which bills itself a “melodrama.”

Houdini stars as Harry Harper, a treasure-seeker with a heart of gold who hopes to recover a shipwreck full of diamonds using his newly invented submarine in order to take care of local waifs who sell newspapers. Wilton Taylor and Edwin Brady are greedy treasure hunters who are gunning for the same treasure, and they read about Harry’s plans in the newspaper. Lila Lee is Beverly West, the horseback riding love interest who happens to be related to the bad guys and also possesses the map to the wreck in question, sent by her father in a plea for his rescue from island natives who plan to sacrifice him unless she returns a skull-shaped pearl he sent her earlier. Got all that? Read the rest of this entry »

A Dog’s Life (1918)

I’ve been a bit remiss in not moving ahead with Charlie Chaplin’s career since he left Mutual in 1917 and started with First National. In this movie, he abandons many of the violent slapstick formulae of his years with Keystone, and focuses almost entirely on the sympathy and pathos of his “Little Tramp” character.

We meet the Tramp sleeping in an abandoned lot. When a hotdog vendor puts down his pot near a hole in the fence, Charlie reaches through to steal a hotdog. However, a cop observes this and even though Charlie returns his stolen goods, the cop rousts him out of his sleeping place. Charlie evades the cop by rolling under the fence several times, until another cop comes along and he runs away. Throughout all this, there are periodic insert shots of a cute dog with a patch over its left eye, sleeping in an alley. Charlie goes to an employment office where they are looking for men to work in a brewery. Even though he was there first, the other unemployed men manage to bully and outrun Charlie in getting the work tickets, and he spends the time running from window to window for nothing.

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The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship

The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.

The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and  liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Manicure Lady (1911)

This short by Mack Sennett was produced for Biograph before he struck out on his own, and it seems he tried (or was told) to imitate D.W. Griffith, because there’s very little of the wacky chaos of a Keystone production here. We do get Griffithian conventions like contrasting scenes intercut to demonstrate opposites, and a race to the rescue at the end.

The movie begins by introducing the named character, a woman (Vivian Prescott) who works in a barber shop, as she prepares for work. The intertitles tell us, however, that this is a romance, which will prove “faint heart never won fair lady.” That situation becomes more clear, however, when we meet her coworker, the barber (Sennett). He immediately pulls out a ring and proposes to her, but she spurns him. As (male) customers come in for manicures and shaves, we see that the manicurist enjoys the intimacy of her work, and is flirtatious with the customers, which drives the barber to distraction, and makes him negligent of his own work (and a bit dangerous, with a razor in his hand). One customer in particular (Eddie Dillon) quickly shows interest in her and becomes a rival for her affections. When lunch break comes along, the barber and the manicurist prepare to go out together, but the rival shows up in a car and takes her off with him. The lunches are cut together – Vivian and Eddie are eating in refinement and luxury, while Mack is in a cheap diner, with a tough steak and a rude waitress. At the end of the day, the rival shows up in another car (possibly a taxi) but this time Mack, desperate, leaps onto the back of the vehicle. As they ride out into the country, Mack breaks through the rear window and beats up his rival, tossing him out of the car. He once again proposes, and the manicure lady, overcome by his passionate determination, finally consents.

Most of the humor of this film comes from Sennett’s distraction while the manicurist flirts. He tugs on beards, forgets to finish what he has started, and generally seems like a menace with his blade. One older customer is dragged off by the ear by his jealous wife (Kate Bruce) who refuses to pay for the shave Sennett forgot to give. Another grows tired of waiting and grabs the razor to shave himself (though he pays). The other laugh I got out of it was the final fight scene, mostly because it was so sudden and surprising. Mostly, though, this is a rather broadly-played romantic drama, and though we feel sorry for the barber, he never really comes across as the better or more deserving of love. Watching it made me think of the strange physical intimacy of this now largely lost form of grooming – few men today go to barbers for shaves and manicures. Almost the only time I am this close to a stranger is when I go to the dentist. For a society as repressed as (we think of) the early twentieth century, it’s interesting that this convention existed. It seems like early film makers, looking for places where romance could happen in nine or ten minutes, found it useful as well.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mack Sennett, Vivian Prescott, Eddie Dillon, Kate Bruce, Verner Clarges, Grace Henderson, Florence La Badie, Claire McDowell, Kate Toncray, Charles West

Run Time: 11 Min, 22 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Curtain Pole (1909)

This early collaboration between D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett looks like a primitive version of the latter’s later riotous slapstick comedies. It uses themes (like the mass chase) that have shown up in earlier film comedies from both France and the USA.

The movie begins in a middle-class home, where a man (Henry Solter) is helping several women (one is Florence Lawrence, AKA “The Biograph Girl”) to install a new pole for the curtains. However, he is either not tall enough or otherwise unable to manage it. In walks Sennett, in a ridiculous mustache and tight-fitting clothes that emphasize his lanky frame. He makes an attempt, but slips and falls, bending the pole and then breaking it when he tries to straighten it out. Deeply apologetic, he goes out to procure another for them. Along the way, he encounters an acquaintance, who invites him into a bar for a drink. Thus fortified, he makes his way to a store and buys a very long curtain rod. Almost immediately, he starts knocking people over and whacking them with the pole. When he tries hiding out in the bar, he causes further chaos there, and soon a gang of different types of people, from little old ladies to street ruffians, is chasing him. He stops and gets a taxi, but the added speed only makes the pole more dangerous, and soon he is literally causing riots in the street with his passage. He does manage to elude the mob, in part because his horse starts running backward (!), and eventually makes it back to the home of his friends, who apparently were able to get another curtain rod during his long absence, and have started a dinner party. Driven mad by his experience and failure to help out, Sennett starts eating the curtain rod.

This sort of comes across as a “proof of concept” experiment, with Griffith trying to show what he can accomplish. One part I don’t entirely understand is where a fellow with a walking stick causes the horse to start running backward. The effect is achieve by reversing the film, and Griffith has the mob run up right afterward and fall down, but in fact what the actors did was get up and “run” backwards off the screen in order to get the effect, and it looks very unnatural. Sennett chews the scenery and hams constantly, but he’s having so much fun with it that it’s hard to mind. The riot scenes are remarkable, with baby carriages and innocent couples being knocked over, pushed, and trampled. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few actors were injured. The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and takes advantage of the location to show quite a number of its streets.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer

Starring: Mack Sennett, Henry Solter, Florence Lawrence

Run Time: 10 Min

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

The Spiders (Episode One): The Golden Sea

This first episode in a crime serial was one of Fritz Lang’s first movies as a director, and is the earliest one that survives today. It shows his talent as well as how far the European movie business has come since the beginning of the First World War, but it also wears its influences rather obviously on its sleeve.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue in which we see an old hermit-type man throw a bottle into the sea just before being shot in the back with an arrow by a fellow wearing an elaborate feathered head dress. This is soon explained in a fancy club in San Francisco when a sportsman/adventurer by the name of Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) tells of finding the message in the bottle, which claims to be from a missing Harvard professor who has discovered and been held captive in a surviving Incan civilization. Hoog has verified the professor’s standing and lost status, and now decides to forgo a major boat race in order to head to Chile and try to find the immense treasure these Incans possess. Among his listeners is the lovely Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), who secretly works for the Spiders, an international crime syndicate of immense power and evil.

The spiders send some thieves who look like cut-rate Fantômas clones over to knock Hoog out and steal his map, leaving a large toy spider and a warning behind. Then the leader of the Spiders assigns Lio to lead a rival expedition to recover the treasure. Once in Mexico, she hires a bunch of roughnecks to assist her, and Hoog starts dressing like a cowboy. There’s a bar-room hold up in which he manages to recover a document that tells him about a mysterious “diamond ship,” though now the Spiders are in pursuit. He meets a professor (Georg John) who plans to fly in a balloon over the plateau where the Incas are, and he manages to climb aboard at the last instant despite the efforts of the Spiders to delay him.

Once we get to the Incan city, a lot of the movie is typical serial capture-and-escape material, with the Incans eager to sacrifice at least one of the trespassers, Lio Sha eager to kill Hoog, and her followers mostly interested in stealing the gold for themselves. Hoog meets  the Priestess Naela (Lil Dagover), and rescues her from punishment for refusing to sacrifice Lio. Lio and her gang are able to find the treasure, but chaos breaks out as the men start fighting over the treasure. Of course, at that moment the volcano erupts and wipes out the Incans as well as all of the Spiders except Lio Sha and one nugget-obsessed henchman.

Hoog and Naela are able to escape in a large floating basket and make their way back to San Francisco to be married. Lio Sha comes to him and asks him to join her, saying they would make a great team if they worked together and became lovers. Hoog refuses and Lio kills Naela in revenge.

This movie’s debt to the crime serials of Louis Feuillade would be less painfully obvious if Lang hadn’t cast Orla and dressed her to look so much like Musidora. She comes across as decidedly more German than French, however – she’s domineering and masculine rather than sexy and conniving. I find that de Vogt reminds me of René Cresté, who played “Judex,” though other reviewers compare him to a young William S. Hart. Hart played an Aztec in one movie, so maybe Lang was going for that here. I find it amusing that Lang thought “Kay” was a good first name for his all-American manly man hero. It’s not really clear to me why the “good” character is motivated to steal treasure from a civilization that has avoided Western contact, although all he does in fact is to fall in love with one of their priestesses and save her life. That said, the Spiders work well as a “Vampires”-style crime organization, and some of the best parts of the Feiullades sprang from the illogic of the series.

Overall, the film making technique of this movie is way ahead of the work Gaumont was putting out before and during the war. There are frequent close-ups, cuts within scenes, cross-cutting to enhance suspense, creative camera angles, and lighting. The camera moves to follow actors, and sometimes to reveal things at the right moment. In one scene, Hoog stands in front of a window of the cantina while Lio Sha carouses inside. Both of them are in perfect focus, and the edits each time Hoog peers inside allow us to think she might spot him at any moment. There’s a good use of silhouettes on the plateau at night, and we get actual darkness for night scenes, rather than just tinting a brightly-lit scene and expecting the audience to go along with it. When I was collecting screenshots for this article, I became especially aware of how fast the editing is compared to the movies I’ve reviewed up to now. Usually, I have plenty of time to choose my shot, but with this one, I had to hurry or it would cut away. The costumes and sets for the Incans are elaborate and beautiful (though probably not terribly authentic). Another break in logic came for me when the head-dress fellow snuck up on one of the Spiders’ guards and took him out. How did he not see that huge feathered thing coming right up to him?

The “diamond ship” subplot is a setup for the next episode, which came out in 1920, so I’ll be reviewing it soon as well.

Director: Fritz Lang

Camera: Emil Schünemann, Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Carl de Vogt, Lil Dagover, Ressel Orla, Georg John

Run Time: 1 Hour, 9 Min

You can watch it (together with part two, “The Diamond Ship) for free: here.

Blind Husbands (1919)

Erich von Stroheim’s first directorial effort is a tale of infidelity set in a small European village. This is the feature film that “made him” as a director, establishing a reputation for brilliance, going over-budget, and being domineering on the set.

The picture takes place in a small Alpine village, and begins with a dedication to “Sepp” a mountain guide who happens to share a name with the guide character (played by Gibson Gowland) in the movie. Sepp receives word that his friend Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) is returning to the village, which results in an emotional flashback in which we learn that Dr. Armstrong saved Sepp’s life on the mountain and that Sepp pledged his undying loyalty to him in gratitude. We see the arrival of the doctor and his young wife (Francelia Billington) in a carriage, the doctor consistently with his nose buried in a book. This opens up opportunities for an Austrian Lieutenant (played in highly Prussian style by von Stroheim himself) to awkwardly flirt with her, though she shows no interest in him. As the film progresses, this theme continues, with the Lieutenant flirting with, and at times annoying, Mrs. Armstrong while her husband is oblivious to her concerns. Meanwhile, their relationship is contrasted with that of two young Honeymooners (the girl is played by Valerie Germonprez, von Stroheim’s future wife), who are only interested in one another to the point of obliviousness to all else. Mrs. Armstrong clearly longs for that kind of attention, and is ashamed to be seen in public with a man who ignores her. The Lieutenant quickly seduces and abandons a waitress (Fay Holderness) at their inn, pausing only momentarily in his pursuit of Mrs. Armstrong, giving us a clear picture of what would happen to her if she were to submit to him.

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