Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (1917)

This week’s episode of “Judex” continues the theme of mercy versus vengeance from the previous story and also provides another cycle of capture-and-rescue, so common to serials throughout their history. As a movie, it is roughly divided between the two plotlines.

As the movie begins, the Countess de Tremeuse (Yvonne Dario) demands that her son Judex (René Cresté) show her the prison cell where the banker Favraux (Louis Leubas) is being held. He brings her to the Chateau Rouge and conducts her into the secret hideout beneath the Chateau, where they meet Judex’s brother Roger (Édouard Mathé) and their new collaborator Kerjean (Gaston Michel), who was also wronged by Favraux. Not content with viewing Favraux through the camera-mirror, the Countess asks to visit his cell. When they go in, Favraux grins blandly and plays with a chain on his wall. They realize that he has gone mad, and Judex asks if he has not suffered enough, but the Countess is conscious of her oath to her dead husband and does not reply. Evidently she needs more time to think about the situation.

The mad Favraux

Meanwhile, Judex receives a note from Kerjean’s son (Jean Devalde), who, under the name of Morales had been acting as a villain. Now, he informs Judex that he plans to enlist in the foreign service in order to atone for his error. Judex looks concerned at this news. We soon see that he was right to be worried when Morales shows up at the home of Diana Monti (Musidora) to say goodbye on his way to the enlistment station. Of course, she seduces him with promises of the two of them living together in wealth, and so he divulges the secret location of Favraux. Soon, Monti and her ally the Marquis de la Rochefontaine (Georges Flateau) have gathered a group of thugs to make a raid on the castle.

Sex Appeal.

This raid seems to go well when the thugs are able to chloroform the figure sleeping in the cell bed and take him off in a car without anyone detecting them. Morales hangs around to “establish an alibi” and discovers that Favraux is actually sleeping in his father’s bed! Robert informs him that when they discovered Favraux’s condition, they gave him the nicer bed and it was actually Kerjean that was kidnapped. When Monti discovers that they’ve brought her the wrong man, she tells her goons to go dump him in the river (this is her solution to everything).

Now, Judex and Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque) both go out to investigate Monti’s hideout and they see the gangsters trying to escape with their victim and pursue in a car. The car is overtaken and a shootout occurs in which the Marquis is killed. Kerjean is liberated, however, and despite the tragedy it appears that the good guys have the upper hand once again.

Look! An underground passage!

This episode lacks some elements I look forward to in the series, notably the Licorice Kid and Le Petit Jean. I can’t complain that this episode lacked in action or suspense, but once again I’m left with the feeling that the criminals are annoyingly ineffectual. They almost never seem to pull anything clever, in contrast to “Fantômas” or the various leaders of “Les Vampires.” At least Musidora had a chance to use her feminine wiles. I still don’t understand why she expects to get rich by helping Favraux, and Morales’ idea of establishing his alibi by announcing his presence literally at the scene of the crime (when everyone thought he was at the Front) makes no sense at all. But, it a Feuillade serial made sense, it wouldn’t be half as much fun.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Yvonne Dario, Édouard Mathé, Louis Leubas, Jean Devalde, Musidora, Gaston Michel, Georges Flateau, Marcel Lévesque

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Voice of the Violin (1909)

This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.

The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow.  This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.

The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.

The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.

We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.

The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.

Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.

Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West

Run Time: 16 Min

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

 

How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900)

AKA: “How They Welcome Strangers in Chicago”

This short comedy from the Biograph studio pokes fun at urban crime. In its short running time, it manage to make a sly New York observation about the corruption of another city as well.

A man dressed as a “swell” walks onto a set representing a city street, with stores in the background. He stops and turns as a woman walks by smiling at him, and this allows a nearby thug to approach him from behind and “sap” him with a blackjack. He goes down, and the mugger grabs what he can before running off. A policeman walks on set from the other direction, and noticing the unconscious man, he leans down. Rather than helping him, he removes another item from the victim and pockets it before leaving.

New York and Chicago, as two of the largest cities in the US, have long had a friendly rivalry over their relative conditions and safety. At the time this movie was made, Chicago’s police force were untrained patrolmen who had to pay a share of their wages to political bosses, and many of them supplemented their earnings through graft and bribes. The Biograph company, located in New York, also a locus of criminal and police collusion, took advantage of the known situation in their rival city to produce this film. I admit, the policeman’s actions got a laugh out of me over a hundred and fifteen years after its production.

Director: Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

 

The Woman in Black (1917)

An origin story at last! “Judex” is a bit past halfway, and with this episode, the serial tells us the reason that he is…Judex.

The movie begins by showing us a woman we have not seen before, living on an estate, who receives a telegram from her son “Jacques” telling her that he is coming. This is the Countess de Tremeuse (Yvonne Dario), and the telegram opens a floodgate of memories, which we see in flashbacks. “At a time when her hair was blonde instead of gray,” the subtitles tell us (actually it looks brunette to me, but whatever), she was happily married and raising two sons of the nobility. But, her husband had dealings with the corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas, here made up to look much younger than in earlier episodes). He became romantically interested in the young Countess, and tried to leverage his financial power to gain her favors. When the Countess objected, he pulled out all of his support and the family was ruined. This results in her husband’s suicide. Moments after the Count’s impetuous act, news comes that an African gold mine has paid off and so the family will not face poverty after all. When the Count is laid to rest, Madame de Tremeuse makes her sons swear that they will avenge their father when they are old enough. They do so with right-handed Roman salutes, in the style that would soon be adopted by fascists and later by Nazis.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Black Hand (1906)

This short from Biograph disproves the commonly-made claim that “Musketeers of Pig Alley” was the first gangster movie. Unlike that movie, however, it shows little noble or romantic in the behavior of immigrant criminals, instead emphasizing the decency of the police and of the victims.

The movie consists of just a few shots, mostly with the action staged at quite a distance from the camera. The first shot is somewhat closer, however, and gives us a view of the villains of the story as they write out a note demanding extortion money from “Mr. Angelo,” threatening him with property destruction and the abduction of his daughter if he fails to comply. The gangsters are clearly marked as Sicilian in their attire and appearance, and their poor education is emphasized in the badly spelled ransom note. Read the rest of this entry »

The Licorice Kid (1917)

Perhaps appropriate for Mother’s Day, this episode of “Judex” is particularly child-and-family-friendly. Characters that have been peripheral up to now become central, and the hero himself does nothing but sulk, but the serial continues to deliver in terms of bizarre scheming and unexpected rescues.

In light of the title, I need to mention that the character I’ve been identifying as “Bout-de-Zan” is actually called “the Licorice Kid” in this story. Bout-de-Zan is actually the most well-known character portrayed by child actor René Poyen, who is called “the Licorice Kid” in Judex. Sorry for any confusion!

Musidora’s “eyeroll” emoji

Read the rest of this entry »

The Teddy Bears (1907)

This short movie from Edison mixes three kinds of fantasy together to make a somewhat incoherent family-style film. Probably one of the more expensive productions the studio brought out in the dry year of 1907, it remains fascinating from a historical perspective.

The movie begins with a shot of a rustic cottage in the woods, with snow on the ground all around it. A small figure is dancing for the camera in the front yard – it is someone dressed up as a bear. This child-bear holds a Teddy Bear as he dances. Shortly, a Mama bear (with an apron) comes out and calls him into the house, but the cub resists, he wants to go on playing. After a brief chase the Mama bear calls out the Papa bear (he wears pants and glasses). Baby starts throwing snowballs at them, but he is shortly caught and brought in by the ear. Then the family goes inside the house. They quickly return, now dressed in winter clothing for a walk. They walk offstage together, Baby again dragging his Teddy Bear along. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Evidence (1906)

This short comedy from Edison relies on a predictable formula of repeated foiled attempts and physical violence to get laughs. It has similarities to other comedies of the period, and, yes, even a large-scale chase sequence as well.

The opening title tells us this will show “the trials and tribulations of a private detective.” The first shot shows a stage dressed to be a classic private eye’s office, right down to the door with “Hawkshaw Private Detective” printed on the glass. The detective reclines in a chair with a newspaper. A man comes into the office and paces about, agitated. He gives the detective an envelope, which the detective opens and reads, then the two sit at the desk while the detective gets the particulars. The man gives him money, then leaves.

The next scene takes place in front of a house. The detective “sneaks” quite openly into a hiding position behind a pole, then watches as a lady and a gentleman emerge from the house and get into a car. The detective jumps out to photograph the two of them driving off, but as he does so, a gardener comes up from behind him with a wheelbarrow and knocks him down, wheeling him off. Next we see the detective on a country road. He jumps out as the car approaches, attempting to take his picture, but the driver runs him over. He gets up and hobbles off. The next scene shows the man and the woman at an outdoor café at a club, being waited on by an African American waiter. The detective tries to take their picture again, but this time the man punches him and drives him off. The detective meets the waiter outside and pays him for his jacket, then smears dirt on his face to create blackface and puts on a shaggy wig. He serves the couple, but as he prepares to take the picture, the man grabs a seltzer bottle and sprays him in the face.

In the next scene, the couple is golfing, and the man hides in a sand trap. When he leaps up to take the picture, the woman drives the ball right at him, hitting him and knocking him down. The couple goes to see who’s been hurt, but when they find it is him, the man smashes his camera. Next we see the detective in a sailor suit, getting onto a gondola ahead of the couple. They board and he prepares to take his picture, but the man punches him and knocks him into the water. Then the couple are seen sitting on a hammock together in a park. The detective sets up a tripod to take their picture from behind, but when the flash goes off they are alerted and the man again smashes the camera. Finally, the couple stroll along  the beach, followed by the detective in a white uniform. This time he is able to take their picture unobserved, they are so distracted by one another, but another bather rises the alarm and soon the whole beach is after him! He manages to stash the photograph by hiding out under a levee, but the crowd does find him, beat him, and smash his camera again.

Now we see the client and his wife together at home. He is obviously agitated and the wife denies doing anything wrong. The detective is shown in, with bandages and bruises from all of his fights, and triumphantly shows the man the photograph he took. It’s the wrong woman! The woman and the man in the photo are shown in (apparently it is the mother-in-law), and then the poor man is forcibly shown the door.

This movie has a lot in common with “Mr. Flip,” that came out a few years later. The comedy hinges on a man being a persistent pest, and not taking the hint when he is upbraided for his behavior. The seltzer spritz and wheelbarrow scene are also similar to some of the punishments Ben Turpin suffers in that film. Unlike Turpin, however, this comedian doesn’t really add much to his pratfalls, he just takes the abuse when it comes. He isn’t funny in himself, it’s just that some of the things that happen to him are funny. The car running over him is pretty convincing, although I think it was done with jump cuts and a dummy. I particularly laughed when the entire beach started chasing him after it looked like he would (finally!) get off all right. I mostly felt sorry for him, though. Given that the couple weren’t doing anything wrong, it seems that the violence they mete out in defense of their privacy is a bit extreme.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 14 Min

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

The Tragic Mill (1917)

Alternate Title: Le moulin tragique

At about the halfway point into the serial Judex, this episode once again rescues Jaqueline from the clutches of the bad guys and also reveals not one but two secret identities. With all of that, and also somewhat better film techniques, it almost makes up for the lack of screen time given to its two best actors.

As the episode begins, an ambulance arrives to take Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to the hospital to recover from her unfortunate dip in the river in the last outing. She is wished farewell by her tearful son, Le Petit Jean (Olinda Mano) and his buddy Bout-de-Zan (René Poyen). Shortly after she is driven off, Vallieres, former secretary to the banker Favraux, walks up and inquires after her. While he is there, a second ambulance pulls up, revealing that she has been captured by the devils who tried to do away with her!

Meanwhile, the elderly Kerjean (Gaston Michel) is walking around his old mill, reminiscing about his life before it was destroyed by Favraux’s scheming. While he is there, an ambulance pulls up and Diana Monti (Musidora) and Morales (Jean Devalde) get out, bringing Jacqueline into the mill. Monti wants to drown her beneath the mill, but Morales, who has been acting increasingly reticent suddenly revolts at the idea of murder and there is a fight between them. Kerjean intercedes and warns them to leave, but suddenly Morales reveals that he is Kerjean’s son! They lock Monti in the room with the opening to the water and Kerjean goes to phone Judex. Of course, Monti strips down to a one-piece bathing suit and swims away.

Judex (René Cresté) hops into the Judexboat and zips upriver to find the mill. He takes Jacqueline to the home of Vallieres to recuperate, which she does quickly. Apparently she just needed to get out of that peasant hut and into a nice big bed with feather pillows, was all. Anyway, once she recovers, she speaks to Vallieres and finds out how she got there, and he gives her a note from Judex, also telling her that Judex is in love with her. She immediately dictates a rather nasty note telling him that Vallieres will be forbidden to mention the name of “Judex” around her. Vallieres takes the note into the next room and removes his beard and white hair, revealing that he is, in fact, Judex! The episode ends on this plot twist.

As this quick summary shows, not a whole lot actually happens in this episode, but some pretty major developments in the plot took place. I saw both reveals coming before they happened, but I had wondered when they would occur. I’d been watching out for Kerjean’s son to appear since episode one, when we learn that he has fallen in with a bad crowd, but until the good guy/bad guy lines were clearly drawn it was hard to know where he’d show up. Vallieres has been largely dropped since the beginning, but in this episode I couldn’t help noticing that his build and nose were very much like Judex’s. The thing that disappointed me was the lack of a role for Bout-de-Zan, who just looks on while Le Petit Jean cries, and Marcel Lévesque, who has once again disappeared from sight. This episode seems to serve the purpose of resolving the immediate crisis, while building towards bigger developments in the future.

Technically, however, the film is back on track. The editing, particularly within in the mill, is quite sophisticated for Louis Feuillade, including cross-cutting between rooms and a close up as we see Morales realize who the stranger is. In general, the movie is much more comfortable with cutting within scenes than had been the case with “Fantômas.” There are some good lighting choices while Kerjean walks among his memories. The footage of the boat motoring along the river is also quite effective, sometimes handled with pans, and sometimes by placing the camera at the fore of the boat pointing aft. I can see that this movie, even though it had been shot a few years earlier, worked well for audiences of 1917.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: Yvette Andréyor, René Cresté, Jean Devalde, Édouard Mathé, Gaston Michel, Musidora, René Poyen, Olinda Mano

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it  for free: here.

 

Kathleen Mavourneen (1906)

A short melodrama from Edwin S. Porter that draws from Nineteenth Century theater as well as traditional song, and comes off as creaky as any movie of the Nickelodeon Era. While we see some evidence of the editing techniques that made Porter famous, acting and plot don’t show much advancement in this one.

Kathleen is a lovely Irish lass, introduced in a pastoral setting before a waterfall. She is approached by Captain Clearfield, her landlord, who has designs on her affections. Kathleen spurns his advances, but when he persists, the heroic Terence O’More comes onto the scene and fights him off. Clearfield is now shown conspiring with a band of thugs who hold up a carriage on the highway. He meets with them in a very fake-looking cave set, and divvies up the spoils of their heist. Now Clearfield shows up at Kathleen’s father’s home, accompanied by four men in uniform (I think they’re supposed to be bailiffs, but they look like bellboys to me). When his advances on Kathleen are again spurned, he orders the men to turn Kathleen and her father out of their home. When O’More overhears what is happening, he runs off to get the neighbors to band together and drive off the bailiffs. This precipitates a lengthy chase sequence, which ends with all of the bailiffs chased into the river.

There are two “lost scenes” that follow this sequence, which are today replaced with Intertitles. In the first, the gang kidnaps Kathleen with chloroform, rendering her unconscious and dragging her back to the cave. In the second, one of Clearfield’s henchman knocks out her father and sets the house on fire. O’More arrives in time to rescue him and then goes in pursuit of Kathleen. Wearing a hood, he pretends to be a bootlegger, and convinces some of the men to take him back to their hideout to drink whiskey. Once there, he tears off his disguise and engages in fisticuffs with the entire gang, besting them and freeing Kathleen. The final sequence is a wedding dance for Kathleen and O’More.

This movie is based on a play by Dion Boucicault, which was apparently unreleased in America at the time. The play had been based on the song “Kathleen Mavourneen,” which was popular among Irish Americans during the Civil War. “Mavourneen” is derived from the Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning “my beloved.” The lyrics to this song are simply maudlin longing for a lost love, with no mention of all the complications of an evil landlord and robbers, so Americans unfamiliar with the play might have been baffled by the plot of this movie, which lacks Intertitles or other explanatory techniques to reveal the plot and characters. No doubt some exhibitors provided narration to make sense of it. Historian Charles Musser in “Before the Nickelodeon,” suggests that Porter may have “misjudged their audience’s familiarity” with the material or else “failed to achieve the level of self-sufficient clarity” that was needed. In any event, the movie, which was comparably complex to shoot, was not a big success with exhibitors, who bought fewer than half as many copies as was the case for “The Terrible Kids.”

Looking at it today, it’s hard not to see Clearwater as a classic example of the mustache-twirling “you must pay the rent” model of an evil landlord from the silent era. At least he never ties Kathleen to any railroad tracks! I think he would have seemed old-fashioned even to the moviegoers of the time, in fact. His behavior derives from stage conventions of the Victorian age, which movies would often lampoon in coming years. Given that he has the forces of the law on his side, it seems somewhat unrealistic that simply besting him in single combat is enough to remove his threat, but that is also a convention of simplistic melodrama. The more “modern” pieces of the film include the chase sequence, which we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and the closing dance, which makes me think of “Watermelon Patch” and “The Miller’s Daughter.”

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring:Kitty O’Neil, Walter Griswoll

Run Time: 15 Min

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