Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

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Honoring David Shepard

david-shepardThe news came out yesterday that film preservationist David Shepard had died of kidney failure, and many blogs devoted to silent film have mentioned his role in recovering and restoring the heritage of early film. I never met Mr. Shepard, although I rather hoped I might get the chance one day. All I know of him, then, I know because of the movies he was instrumental to preserving and making available. In his honor, here is a listing of the movies reviewed on this blog that we might not have today (or have as good versions to see) without his efforts:

Arrival of a Train (1897)

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Card Party (1896)

Carmen (1915)

The Cheat (1915)

The Coward (1915)

Cyrano de Bergerac (1900)

Danse Serpentine (1900)

Flirting with Fate (1916)

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

His New Job (1915)

Intolerance (1916)

The Italian (1915)

Kobelkoff (1900)

La Marseillaise (1907)

Leaving the Factory (1896)

Les Vampires (1915)

The Matrimaniac (1916)

Over the Top (1915)

Regeneration (1915)

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

Traffic in Souls (1913)

20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1916)

 

This list has been hastily compiled, but it gives some idea of the importance of David Shepard’s work. If you know of other movies he was involved with restoring, preserving, or making available that have been reviewed on this blog, please comment and I will add them.

A Century in Review 1916-2016

Intolerance_(1916)_-_Nazarene_-_He_Who_Is_Without_SinA lot of blogs do some kind of year-end wrap up at this point in the year, but for this blog that actually means thinking about two years at the same time: this year and the one a hundred years ago.

1916 was a rough year for a lot of people, especially in Europe. The First World War had gone from an exciting adventure to a horrendous meat grinder of death, and there was no end in sight. Each new attack on the Western Front meant the sacrifice of thousands, and there was no visible movement of the battle lines. For most of the year, men were fighting in Verdun, only to find themselves in December in approximately their original positions, and from July to November, the Battle of the Somme raged with only minor gains for the Allies. Each of these battles cost the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

Meanwhile, the home front was beginning to suffer the effects of war as well. In Germany, the allied blockade was having the effect of creating severe food shortages, which resulted in riots in several cities, especially Berlin, and the imposition of food rationing through the creation of a military office with absolute power over civilian affairs. Contrary to later perceptions of socialist agitation against the military, this move was widely embraced by the working classes, who saw rationing as a way to create equity between the rich and poor in food distribution. Rationing may have helped with front-line morale as well: it was hard for soldiers to feel good about fighting for their homeland when they knew their own families faced deprivation.

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

In Russia, the domestic situation was moving from bad to worse to intolerable. The front here was not a stable line, but quite mobile, with advances and retreats of hundreds of miles. That’s fine for a cavalry officer, but it meant a great deal of marching for soldiers who were often sent to the lines without proper footwear. Equipment of all kinds was lacking: including guns. Russian soldiers were advised to take weapons from the dead during battle in order to defend themselves. Moreover, the nation’s casualties (including POWs) now numbered in the millions.

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

Political agitation, which had been relatively quiet since the beginning of the war, started up again in earnest in 1916, with mutinies, strikes, and street demonstrations in most major cities. Russia was also suffering from food shortages, particularly in Petrograd. Even those who had money for bread often could not find it, or waited in lines for hours to get it (reportedly there were housewives who spent up to 40 hours a week on line). The Czar was warned by his senate (the Duma) and his security forces that open revolution was a real possibility by November of 1916. It came only weeks after the New Year.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

The USA has managed to avoid war, even re-electing President Woodrow Wilson with a slogan of “he kept us out of war.” Neutrality in World War One would not survive another year, of course, but it allowed many in the US to prosper from sales of industrial goods to Europe in 1916. The American film industry has been a major beneficiary of the decline in European productivity, and American films are finally beginning to make inroads into European distribution chains. While the distant war in Europe may seem remote or even beneficial to some Americans, a more immediate concern is the ongoing revolution in Mexico, which has spilled across the border repeatedly, and led to 12,000 troops being sent by Wilson to pursue Pancho Villa – a military intervention that brings the US to the brink of outright war with Mexico. The US also occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916, continuing an aggressive interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Intolerance BabylonThis year has no huge breakout film on the scale of “The Birth of a Nation,” although most historians agree that D.W. Griffith’sIntolerance” had a good run and was seen by many of the same people that made “Birth” a huge hit. It still lost money, primarily because it cost so much more to make. The next-highest grossing film is reported to be “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But the name on most people’s lips this year is Charlie Chaplin, who is now the highest-paid movie star, working at Mutual for $670,000, with a signing bonus that nearly brought it to a million. He has finally gained the freedom to slow down his production schedule and is taking more time on each new release, which technically sets him behind on his contractual requirements by the end of the year, but Mutual is still raking in plenty from his work. Others are also benefitting from his lag in production: a huge number of “Chaplin imitators” or derivative acts are filling the void with their own shorts of varying quality, including a fellow calling himself “Lonesome Luke” that is actually a young Harold Lloyd. A new face on the scene this year is Douglas Fairbanks, whose good-natured all-American athleticism is being used to create a new kind of comedy that also finds strong audience approval. He and Chaplin will be friends and allies in years to come.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Although European film production is down, there are still significant contributions from European studios. The first documentary to see major box office success is “The Battle of the Somme,” released in Britain with the support of the War Office. Germany makes one of its first forays into Expressionism with the serial “Homunculus,” about a man created by science who lacks the ability to feel love. And, although Louis Feuillade is by this time serving on the Western Front, Gaumont Studios manages to profit from late release of his crime-serial follow-ups to “Fantômas:” “Les Vampires,” which runs from the end of 1915 into the early part of the year, and “Judex,” which had been shot years earlier but sees the first episode released in the last week of 1916. Finally, Evgeni Bauer gave us his column-filled drama “A Life for a Life,” which launched its star, Vera Kholodnaia, to celebrity status.

My blog remains a relatively less-popular film blog – I guess the topic and approach is a bit esoteric compared to the usual classic film blog. I’m up about 5000 hits from last year, which falls slightly short of doubling my total for 2015. I’m holding steady with about 120 followers, and I only occasionally get more than one “like” on a post. Only a few people comment, but those that do tend to come back and comment again. My impression is that I have a small cadre of dedicated readers, but not a lot of mass appeal, and I’m fine with that. I am backing off a bit (as some have probably noticed) from doing daily posts. I like doing a short movie every day when I can, and one “feature” or at least more in-depth post a week, but the simple fact is that it takes a little too much of my time away from other activities. I’m also writing fewer “context” posts, apart from my monthly Century News roundups.

I’m aware that my blog is somewhat less research-heavy than some other blogs, especially those focused on the silent era. I generally write my impressions of the movies I watch without doing a lot of background research, in part because I’m interested in what the movies themselves convey as sources. I typically avoid, in particular, reading other reviews of movies I’m discussing until after I’ve posted, because it’s all too easy to be influenced by the perceptions of others. Sometimes that means I get stuff wrong, but that’s a hazard of studying a period for which a large proportion of the primary sources are lost, and I try at least to admit when I’m writing from a position of ignorance.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_luneThe reason I started this blog was unusual: it wasn’t because I knew a whole lot about early film, it was because I wanted to learn more. In that sense, this blog is a huge success. My first posts were under 250 words (one reason daily posting was no big deal), but now it’s hard for me to write less than 500. That’s because I know more, so I see more in every movie I review. I’ve gained an appreciation for movies from this period far beyond just knowledge as well – coming back to “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador” really demonstrated that to me recently. When I watched it in 2012, I barely understood what I was seeing, whereas now watching it is a rich experience. I’ve discovered viewing-muscles I never knew I had as I’ve done this workout. So, that’s a win, and as long as it’s true, there will be every reason to continue this project.

Silent Era Back!

Some weeks back I announced “The End of an Era,” but happily events have turned. Without a full explanation, but with a contrite apology, the owner of “The Silent Era” has brought his vitally important website back online. I’m very happy to know this, because 1) it means all my old links are no longer broken and 2) I can continue to refer to it as a source of reliable information about silent film casts, crews, and preservation conditions.

Once again, however, the whole situation highlights how ephemeral modern websites can be and the importance of digital preservation. In 100 years, will the modern Internet be as preserved as our silent film heritage is today? How much more of that heritage would exist now if silent producers had been thinking in terms of posterity?

Saharet, Bolero (1905)

Alternate Title: Saharet Performs the Bolero

This is another short dance film from Alice Guy. These movies seem to have made up a good amount of her product, at least to judge from what had survived.

Saharet BoleroWhat we see is a typical stage with a Spanish patio backdrop and performers in hand-tinted Spanish dress. A pair, male and female, dance in the center of the stage, and some female supporting dancers twirl around them and occasionally move to center stage. The central woman begins quite demurely, and becomes more energetic as the dance progresses.

The Bolero is a dance from Latin America, which apparently first broke out in Cuba and became popular in other countries. Here, we see it performed by “Madame Saharet,” an Australian dancer who had made her name on Broadway in 1897, and toured Europe several times. She would go on to make several films in Germany before the War, and her future husband would be arrested by the British for carrying pro-German literature across national lines in 1916. I have no information about her dance partner, nor any of the supporting dancers. I wonder, from having seen some of Guy’s sound experiments, whether this was originally a “phonoscène” for which the sound disc is now lost. It might explain the ongoing interest in simple dance movies into the 1900’s if they were being presented with synch-sound, or it might just be that audiences were excited by the exotic costumes and dances.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Saharet, Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

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

The Turn-of-the-Century Blind Man (1898)

Working inside a studio, Alice Guy presents us with a simple narrative comedy that indicates the style of humor that would be common in film for many years. Set in a park, with a wily beggar and a policeman as antagonist, it sets the stage for much later work of Charlie Chaplin and others.

Turn of the Century Blind ManOur “blind man” sits on a bench with his dog, playing a pipe. When some passing pedestrians drop coins in his cup, he looks at them closely before thanking his benefactors. Now a policeman comes along and chases him off. Moments later, a weary pedestrian sits on the bench and reads from a magazine, quickly dropping off to sleep. The beggar comes back and finds him, trading hats and stealing his watch, also leaving the sign and the dog with the sleeping man. Now, the policeman returns and thinks there is another fake blind beggar, so he shakes the man awake and chases him as well, at which point the entire cast comes on stage to laugh at his misfortune.

Alice Guy

Alice Guy

This film’s title in French is “L’Aveugle fin de siècle.” I point that out because there is a difference between how we read “turn-of-the-Century” today and what “fin de siècle” meant then We don’t use the term “turn-of-the-Century” to refer to the period around 1999-2001, when our most recent Century began, so the term has a kind of quaint, dated feel for a modern viewer. However, “fin de siècle” which was used at the end of the nineteenth century really implied something “modern” to the people at that time: a “turn-of-the-Century” blind man was one who was different to the blind men of simpler, more innocent times. As we see in this instance, he isn’t necessarily blind at all. The other interesting aspect of this movie is its shooting location. The “park” backdrop makes it entirely obvious that this was shot indoors, apparently on a theatrical stage. This is also how Méliès was working at the time, but where he devised beautiful and imaginative backdrops, these appear to be generic stage backdrops, possibly used for vaudeville acts. No effort is made at creating realism, although it would seem simple enough to have shot the whole thing in a real park. One final note is that comedies at this time often provided what I think of as “visual laugh tracks” by showing people laughing at the funny part.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Moving Forward While Looking Backward

FoolMost of the other blogs I read have done some kind of year-in-review, best-of-the-year, and/or annual roundup in the past week or two. I was too busy between work and vacation to do such a thing before the New Year, but it seems worth it to put some time into assessing this project, where it’s been and where it’s going. So, while my focus is usually on 100 years ago, let’s zoom ahead and look at the past 1 year instead.

A year ago, this blog was so obscure that very few people knew about it who didn’t know me in real life. I set a goal to try to double the number of hits for each month, and, instead, I’ve pretty consistently quadrupled my hits per month every month this year. That sounds amazing, but it’s actually more a reflection on how few people read the blog a year ago than anything else. Not surprisingly, my hits mostly come from the US, but I’ve expanded to a number of other countries as well. Countries that visited my site 100 times or more this year include the UK, Belgium, Canada, Germany, France, Spain, and Russia. Australia and New Zealand are just behind.

A couple of things have contributed to getting me out of my ghetto-existence. One was simply finding other people who blog about early and silent film, and commenting on their blogs. A comment on a relevant blog drives a surprising amount of traffic to mine, even when I don’t have that much to say. Once I had made contact in that way, I started entering blogathons. I think the first one was a little over a year ago, actually. The posts I’ve done for blogathons have been consistently the most-read posts I write. Finally, I applied for membership (and was accepted) in CMBA, the Classic Movie Bloggers Association, a really good group of people writing about older film – most of it a lot newer than what I review, but still pretty much kindred spirits.

There are downsides to each of these. First, comments. I find it very hard to write comments that simply say, “Yay! What a good article.” I want to include some critical or contextual information that adds to what the blogger has written. It turns out some bloggers take this as an attack, rather than an invitation to open dialog. I still haven’t figured out the best way to negotiate this. Blogathons are great click-grabbers, but they often force me to devote time to things that are peripheral to the real purpose of this project. Many of them, of course, are about eras or subjects that just don’t fall within my scope (Clara Bow was only 11 in 1916, so I’m probably not going to join a Clara Bow Blogathon), but even when they do, I have to think about the themes I’m working on and how the timing of the event overlaps with what I’m doing. I probably participate in fewer than I could for that reason. And CMBA, fun as it is, runs somewhat against the nature of what I’m doing: where they are interested in “classic” movies, I’m interested in “historical” movies, and in movie history. They are similar concepts, but not necessarily the same. CMBA doesn’t actually prevent me from doing what I want to do, but sometimes I wonder if there’s a better forum for getting my word out.

Now, the content. A year ago, I mostly wrote entries of one or two paragraphs, with one picture (usually from Wikimedia Commons) and a little data at the end. As this year has progressed, I’ve found that I have more to say about even fairly minor short films. This reflects how much I’ve learned as a result of doing this project, and learning is at least 50% of why I’m doing it, so that’s a statistic I’m pretty happy with. But it does make keeping up the number of posts difficult. I started out with one-or-two-posts-a-day, and that gets more taxing as I go. I have developed a schedule that I’m relatively happy with: shorts on weeknights, a “feature” (broadly defined) on Saturday, and a “context” post on Sunday. Really, I’m more likely to post two or three weeknights a week than every night, and that’s not so bad. We’ll see how this develops, but I don’t want to burn myself out too fast. As far as pictures, I’ve gotten more comfortable with taking screen captures from movies (so far, everything I review is in the public domain), and pleased with the quality I’m getting, which is good, but again, it does add to the time needed for each review. I’m tagging more heavily and linking like crazy as well, which is part of my librarian’s way of doing things, but I don’t know whether it helps anyone but me.

I think I’ve mentioned before that at the beginning of this project, I thought it would be “no big deal” to watch every available film from before 1912 in one year, then just focus on the year itself. Well, I still have hundreds of un-reviewed movies to watch from before 1900, let alone 1910! But, 1915 was such an important year that I’m glad I let myself get caught up in it and reviewed so much from it. I think that will probably continue in 1916 and 1917, with older movies coming in piecemeal, because there’s always something you find later. As far as the Century Awards, this approach has worked well. Last year at this time I was scampering to watch “important” movies from 1914, because I didn’t have much ready to nominate, but this year there’s just a few outliers I’d like to get to (and a few “lost” films that I have to let go).

I may shift format a bit when it comes time for the Century Awards themselves, this year. Last year I waited until the day of the Oscars, and posted one an hour (some were pre-written). It was a big day for clicks, but also exhausting. I may try stretching it out over the weekend this time, or combine a multiple awards into single posts, or something else to take the pressure down a notch this year. We’re only two weeks away from nominations, by the way, and if you want to nominate a movie from 1915 in any category, just let me know in comments or email.

Well, all in all, it’s been a great, productive year and I’ve learned a lot and “met” (online) a lot of great people. Let’s look forward to another great year and all the surprises it will bring.

Richard III (1912)

Richard_III_1912_PosterMy closest friends know that I’ve recently become a fan of “Good Tickle Brain,” a web-comic/blog done by a fellow librarian in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her particular obsession isn’t early/silent film, however, it’s Shakespeare, and she draws wonderful versions of the canonical plays using stick figures. Reading it got me excited to watch another silent version of Shakespeare, this time a version of my personal favorite play, the one which serves as the model for all super-villains and baddies, Richard III. It’s been my favorite ever since the Ian McKellen version hit the theaters in the early 90s.

See how my sword weeps for the poor king's death!

See how my sword weeps for the poor king’s death!

In this version, the movie begins with its star, Frederick Warde, out of costume, standing before a curtain and bowing, to give the full sense of a theatrical experience. There is then a fairly lengthy Dramatis Personae, which was very rare (almost unheard-of) in 1912. The movie actually begins by re-capping some of the action from 3 Henry VI, in which the Lancasters are overthrown and the new Yorkist dynasty taking their place. Richard goes to the cell holding the previous king and stabs him, then steps out to wave as his brother Edward marches into town, and goes back in to stab the dead king a few more times so we know he’s bad. Richard then intercepts Anne, the widow of Henry’s son (also killed by Richard), on the way to the funeral and coerces her into marrying him. Once Edward is installed as king, Richard forges evidence that his other brother Clarence is plotting to kill Edward’s children, then hires some murderers to kill Clarence in the Tower of London. The strain of being responsible for his brother’s death does Edward in, and now the young princes are called in and Richard is made Lord Protector. He sends his crony Buckingham into the city to stir up support and a multitude of citizens show up at Richard’s gate, demanding that he accept the crown. He pretends to be reluctant, but accepts. After his installment, he has the princes arrested and put in the Tower, then sends the same murderers to snuff them out. Meanwhile, he kills his own wife and tries to woo Elizabeth, the young daughter of Edward (so, Richard’s niece, actually), whose brothers he just had killed. Her mom puts a stop to that by writing to the heroic Richmond (played by co-director James Keane), and asking him to bring an army to overthrow the “tyrant” Richard. They show up, most of Richard’s friends abandon him and he loses the battle. England, presumably, becomes a happier place henceforth. The movie closes as the star once again bows at the end.

Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?

Was ever woman in this humor wooed? Was ever woman in this humor won?

This movie, which is reportedly the oldest completely surviving American feature-length film, was obviously intended to be a “prestige picture” in a time when most “flickers” were looked down on as inferior art if art at all, and many production companies were more concerned about grinding out numerous short films than in making quality cinema. Its star apparently had hoped that the movie would be such a hit that he could work on making movies for the rest of his career, and not have to appear on stage every night, or tour around the country with productions. It didn’t quite work out that way, because he was called on by the studio to travel with the film and offer some narration and readings from the play for the audiences who went to see it. This movie doesn’t seem to have had the impact that “Birth of a Nation” would have a few years later in terms of people praising it as a cultural success or new direction in filmmaking. My guess is that it didn’t turn make a big enough profit to keep the company making features and hiring big-name actors. Warde himself did appear in a 1916 movie production of “King Lear,” so this wasn’t the death of his career, but it doesn’t seem to have launched anything big right away.

Will you enforce me to a world of cares?

Will you enforce me to a world of cares?

As I said, this is based on my favorite Shakespeare play, so I was probably predisposed to like it no matter what.  I did have one major pet peeve, which no one else would probably care about: they changed Richard from “Duke of Gloucester” to “Duke of Gloster,” in the Intertitles, probably to make it more phonetic to a mass audience. It’s reasonably technically advanced for 1912, including camera pans, interesting angles, and relatively fast-paced editing. There are no close-ups at all, and the majority of shots are in long shots that show the actors’ full bodies, sometimes cutting off their feet. Edits within scenes only happen when a character moves from one room to another (as in the killing of Henry VI, or the scene where Richard accepts the crown). There is tinting used to establish mood and time of day. I found the angles of the sets somewhat interesting, especially within the Tower of London, where I would even say that the walls anticipated the Expressionism of a decade later. Unlike many American films, but more typical of the French, the camera was often at a 30-45 degree angle to the walls, but apparently one of the directors called in for this movie was from France, so that may explain the style. Some parts of the play are cut (which is almost always the case with Shakespeare) and there are times when it would be hard to follow without knowing the play. For example, the Intertitles inform us that Richard refuses to pay Buckingham for his assistance, but what we see is Richard getting mad at Buckingham – from the context of the play I know that’s because Buckingham refuses to condone the murder of the princes, but an audience without that knowledge would be lost. Still, given the limitations of trying to perform Shakespeare without dialogue, I’d rate this a pretty good effort, one that I’m glad still survives.

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!

Directors: James Keane, André Calmettes

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Frederick Warde, James Keane, George Moss, Carey Lee

Run Time: 59 Min

I have not found this movie for free online. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

Over the Top (1915)

Over the TopSixty seven years before “Fitzcarraldo,” a small automobile club tried something similar – using ropes to haul a car over the Sierra Nevada mountains. Subtitled, “A Battle with the Elements,” this film documents their efforts, or at least purports to document them. I say “purports to” because some of the shots are clearly staged, suggesting at least re-creations of the actual events, although it does seem to me that the film crew genuinely accompanied the car on its trans-montane journey.

Over the Top1The film begins with the explanation that the Reno Commercial Club is offering a trophy for the first car to travel from San Francisco to Reno on the newly-opened road. We see a city street, a shiny new Buick, and three clean-cut strapping young men, departing on the journey. At first, the trip seems dusty and bumpy, but not too bad, and we get some nice travel footage of the mountains and quaint mining towns with wooden sidewalks. Then, things take a turn as we reach a level below the snow line where the road has largely turned into “bottomless” mud. Those young men don’t seem so clean anymore. Soon, every shot depicts two of them helping to push the car and take up slack on the ropes attached to trees and stumps that are being used to winch the vehicle along. What kind of road is this! It looks like a far more “extreme” sport than a simple drive in the country. The boys take time to scale a pole and plant some flags, and also set up camp near the summit to cook dinner, so there’s not much sense of urgency – maybe they’re the only ones in this race. They do finally make it across, and down into the valley, where they can speed along at a decent clip, arriving in Reno and receiving their trophy. I thought the Commercial Club should buy them a new car, they really tore up the old one on the crossing!

Plenty of time for leisure activities.

Plenty of time for leisure activities.

As I’ve suggested, the “documentary” aspect of this movie is at least a bit staged. Nearly every shot begins with the cameraman in front of the car, so they must have frequently stopped to give him time to get into position and set up. Presumably, the rest of the time, he rode in the fourth seat in that car, but of course we never see that. There are some simple pans, but not a lot of camera movement, and few close-ups on the men are shown – the emphasis is always the car and its position vis-à-vis the elements. I wonder if the Commercial Club hoped that this movie would increase travel to Reno – the message seems to be that it’s a pretty inaccessible place, for adventurers only.

All for this?

All for this?

Cast & Crew Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please inform us in the comments.

Granddad (1913)

This is one more movie made by Thomas H. Ince during the years that saw the fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War, and once again, I find comparisons to D.W. Griffith are hard to avoid. In this case, however, although the movie includes some Civil War battle footage, it is in essence a social examination more akin to “The House of Darkness” or “A Corner in Wheat” than to “Birth of a Nation.” Even here, I find Ince’s subtlety and humanity to be superior in some ways to Griffith’s approach, although it may be the case that Griffith was the more technically adept.

Granddad1Our story begins here with a little girl (Mildred Harris) who lives with her old grandfather (J. Barney Sherry). Their mutual love for one another is obvious, although the old man does like a nip from his bottle now and again. One day, they receive a letter from her father (Frank Borzage) telling them that he’s bringing home a new “mother” for Mildred and tells granddad to hide the bottle, because she’s a church woman. Mildred thinks of a good hiding place and granddad goes out to the bar to celebrate. When he comes home to meet his new daughter-in-law, she immediately smells it on his breath and shows that she does NOT approve. Eventually, she finds the bottle and confers with her blue-nosed friends, who assure her that such a man should not be allowed to influence a young girl. So, she confronts the old man and warns him to leave, despite her husband’s protests of the debt he owes his father. Granddad sneaks out during the night, leaving a note to assure Mildred he’ll find work on a farm and not to worry about him.

GranddadAll does not go well, however, and granddad ends up in a work house, although he keeps sending letters home talking about the fresh air and good food of farm life. One day, Mildred’s step mom sends her out with a group of social reformers to visit the poor house. Of course, she recognizes one of the laborers as her grandfather. They exchange very affectionate greetings and she goes back to tell her parents what has happened. Meanwhile, a mysterious retired Confederate Colonel (William Desmond Taylor) has shown up in town, looking for “Jabez Burr,” the Union man who saved his life. That’s granddad, of course, and the Colonel proceeds to give us a thrilling flashback of his battle experiences and encounter with the Yankee who saved his life. Mildred’s father is finally shamed into bringing his father home, but it’s too late, the harsh life of the poorhouse has made him ill. He dies and a final epilogue assures us he was buried with military honors and his minor faults forgotten.

More Ince-ian combat.

More Ince-ian combat.

Whereas Griffith would have told this story by making each character iconic, and the entire situation would have had a heavy-handed message (probably unnecessarily enunciated in beginning and closing Intertitles), the Ince approach is far more individual and subtle. Although he relies on much the same kind of female busy-body as an antagonist, one never gets the idea that he has created a caricature. The mother acts out of what she thinks are the best interests of the family, she simply doesn’t understand the consequences of her act, nor look far enough to see the complex and decent person she is choosing to label a harmful drunk. Each of the characters, except perhaps the Colonel, is sketched out with enough detail for us to see them as individuals, rather than representatives of some segment of society.

Granddad2That said, I find some aspects of Ince’s directing (or possibly Jay Hunt’s – I couldn’t verify which of them actually directed here) and producing not quite up to snuff. For one thing, characters frequently go out of their way to E-NUN-CI-ATE so that we can (hopefully) lip-read their words. I find that slows down the pace and makes the acting look silly, as when Mildred says “I KNOW. THE CLOCK,” to make sure we know her hiding place for the whiskey. Speaking of Mildred, I fear that Ince, or someone at the company, was trying a little too hard to make her into the new Mary Pickford (like they needed a new one). She’s got a short version of Mary’s wig, she’s made up like Mary, and at times she seems to be quite consciously imitating Mary’s mannerisms. But, sorry to say, she’s not Mary. I found this a bit distracting, where I think I would have enjoyed a more natural performance from her. In general, I find Ince’s movies a little slow, even for a century ago. He edits and cross-cuts well enough, but he tends to hold shots longer than Griffith or some of his contemporaries, and scenes play out longer than they need to. Nevertheless, I did find this movie, as well as the others I’ve looked at recently, to be emotionally affecting and well written. Where Griffith seems to have worked out a lot of his problems in the editing room, Ince may have been the better scenarist and planner, and that makes the movies memorable and interesting.

Director: Thomas H. Ince or Jay Hunt

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mildred Harris, J. Barney Sherry, Frank Borzage, William Desmond Taylor

Run Time: 29 Min

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

The Drummer of the 8th (1913)

Drummer of the 8th2This is another Civil War drama made during the 50th anniversary of that conflict, but pre-dates “The Birth of a Nation” by almost two years. Director Thomas Ince, working for the New York Motion Picture Company at the time, chose a decidedly “dark” message for this movie, in contrast to the usually uplifting tone of war movies at the time.

Drummer of the 8thTo be sure, it opens conventionally enough, showing how the advent of the war disrupts a seemingly idyllic family unit (Northern, in this case, but the sides could be changed with no particular impact on the story). In addition to the usual tearful farewell, when the eldest son Jack marches off with his infantry unit, however, we also get a secret night-time departure when the younger son Billy (played by diminutive Cyril Gardner, who was fourteen at the time, but looks younger) sneaks off to enlist as a drummer boy. The two young men serve for the next two years, separated by the circumstances of war. When Jack is due to return home, he writes of his inability to locate Billy. We then follow Billy as he bravely grabs a fallen man’s rifle during a battle, is captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp, the escapes, being wounded in the shoulder on his way out. Billy hides in the Confederate headquarters tent, and is able to overhear the plans for an attack. Of course, he rushes back to his unit (again being wounded in the leg along the way) and gives his report. Unfortunately, all the blood he left in his hiding place gives him away, so the Confederates change their plan and his intelligence causes the Union to lose the battle. Before that, he wrote home that he would be returning with honors and asked that his favorite meal be prepared for his return. His sister and brother go to meet the train, and are confused why there is no sign of him. We then see Union pallbearers unload a small coffin and bear it to the home. They knock, and Billy’s mother comes out to be confronted by the body of her long lost son.

Drummer of the 8th1Ince was pretty daring to put out such a dark storyline in 1913, and it’s lucky that this film has survived, because it makes such a stark contrast with the movies of D. W. Griffith and others who used the Civil War as a springboard for their ideas. It has a structural similarity to the Ince-produced feature, “The Coward,” but in that story the fearful character is redeemed by delivering covertly gained information, while in this version a brave lad is killed because of doing exactly the same thing. There are several short battle scenes in this movie, most of which rely on fairly close-angle shots to give a sense of a larger battlefield, but I found them effective if not spectacular. A similar tactic give the impression of a crowded railroad station at the end with relatively few extras. Ince makes good use of close-ups in a few places, especially to show us Billy in hiding and wounded (the clarity of the blood on his shirt is a striking contrast to the way such things would be handled in later “classic era” movies). The intercutting of the two boys’ stories, and that of the family on the homefront, is less magisterial – at times it is difficult to understand what Ince wants us to focus on – but no less innovative.

Director: Thomas H. Ince

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Cyril Gardner, Mildred Harris, Frank Borzage

Run Time: 28 Min

I found two edited versions of it online: here (cut to one reel) and here (more complete, but without the original intertitles).