Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Uncategorized

One touch of Nature (1917)

This is an apparently incomplete fragment of a longer story produced as a feature for Edison late in their production career. It tells a familiarly heart-warming story about a baseball player, using real locations and players to give verisimilitude to the melodrama.

The excerpts begin by introducing John J. McGraw, the real-life manager of the New York Giants, who is talking to a recruiter who has seen an amazing player named Bill Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett). McGraw seems skeptical at reports of the boy’s prowess, but agrees to give him a try. We then jump to the “deciding game of a world’s series” in which the Giants are playing against Philadelphia. McGraw looks on stoically as the seats of the Polo Grounds swell with fans. Read the rest of this entry »

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Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Bonds (1919)

Like “Uncle Sam vs. the IWW-Bolsheviki Rat” and “United Snakes of America,” this is a late-teens propaganda movie from the Ford Company. Unlike those, it has a positive message about supporting the troops, rather than a negative one about fighting internal enemies.

The frame centers on a large chest, labeled “U.S. War Chest,” with symbolic figures to either side. To the left is Uncle Sam, in his traditional hat and coat. To the right is a robed female figure, who may represent “victory,” “Columbia,” or just an idealized American Womanhood. They open the chest and inside the lid is written, “1st Liberty Loan: Prepare for War.” The woman gestures toward the chest and Uncle Sam pulls out a sockfull of money to toss in. They close and open the chest and now it reads, “2nd Liberty Loan: Equip.” Uncle Sam throws in his cuffs and collar. The next time, it reads, “3rd Liberty Loan: Transport.” Now Uncle Sam gives his jacket. Next, it says, “4th Liberty Loan: Fight.” Uncle Sam contributes his vest. Finally, they open it to see, “Victory Liberty Loan: Pay Our Debts and Bring Back Our Boys.” Uncle Sam throws in his shirt front and his hat. The movie ends as an animator’s hand appears to sign for the Ford Motor Company underneath the words, “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job!”

I was almost surprised by a movie from an ostensibly “right wing” source that advocated Americans giving money to support the government. Today, the message of Uncle Sam’s brief striptease would probably be that Americans are already expected to pay too much in taxes, and then they are duped into voluntarily supporting the government by buying worthless bonds as well. But this is not Ford’s intent. He is demonstrating that an ideal patriot (Uncle Sam) is one who gives to support the just cause of the war, even after it seems that he has no more to give, and even after the fighting is finished. No doubt, he believed that with hard work over the next few years, Sam would soon be able to buy back all of his clothes. That kind of optimism is hard to find today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. Please comment if you do.

The Centaurs (1918-1921)

This fragment of animation from Winsor McCay is listed as “unreleased, circa 1918-1921” on the “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” DVD. I’m reviewing it now mostly for convenience’s sake – possibly it would be just as appropriate to treat it as a 1921 film, or to skip it entirely due to its unreleased, incomplete nature.

The movie begins with an image of a pleasant forest. A nude young woman appears to be walking through it, but as she emerges from the leaves, we see that her lower half is that of a horse. She walks into a clearing and picks up some flowers. Now we see a male centaur on a rocky ridge. He throws a rock at a passing buzzard, knocking it from the sky, and calls out. Then the two of them meet, and he greets her affectionately. The two walk off together. These scenes are intercut with images of what seems to be a nude old woman with glasses, but now she emerges from behind a rock and we see that she is also a centaur. She joins an old male centaur with a long white beard and the young male centaur approaches them, then introduces the female. They each greet her with a hug, and then the three stand in a circle as a bald-headed foal centaur enters the scene and prances and does tricks for them. It ends with an image of the upper (human) part of the foal winking at the audience from inside of a heart.

While this may be incomplete, there does seem to be a kind of narrative of young love, courtship, marriage and the cycle of life here. McCay is mostly remembered for whimsical fantasy such as “Little Nemo” or even somewhat satirical pieces as his “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” cartoons and movies, but here he seems to be trying for something gentle and poetic. It strikes me that, just as he challenged himself to use film to bring a dinosaur to life in “Gertie the Dinosaur,” here he is demonstrating that mythical creatures can also come to life on film. The animation is still rather simplistic by modern standards, but the use of cel technology allows a somewhat more complete image than we saw in “Little Nemo” or “How a Mosquito Operates.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Year in Review 1917/2017

Once again, a year of reviews and movie watching  is winding up at the Century Film Project. Although I’ll talk in a larger way about the movies when I do my Century Awards in February, I’d like to reflect a bit on the year that just passed, and on the one whose centenary is now nearly over.

At the beginning of the year, I stated that there was “no one big name” that dominated the movies in 1917. I would now have to disagree. The one big/little name that seems to have really taken over this year is Mary Pickford. I haven’t even managed to watch all of the important movies she released this year (might get a couple more in before the Century Awards – we’ll have to see), but the three “little” ones I watched were huge: “The Little American,” “Little Princess,” and “Poor Little Rich Girl” were big audience-pleasers and box office successes. She also released “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm” and “Romance of the Redwoods” this year. She also became even more confident in terms of taking on producing responsibilities, telling directors where to go, and running her “brand” as a business. 1917 really seems to be her year, so far as I can see. Douglas Fairbanks and Charlie Chaplin remain major forces in the industry as well (as well as being friends to Little Mary), but she seems to be the most noticeable breakout of the year.

From a global social-political perspective, this has been an earth-shaking year, which may explain why audiences wanted the reassuring fantasies Pickford was offering, wherein simple child’s morality is upheld and everything turns out OK if you believe and try hard. The United States was finally drawn into war (although they haven’t done much fighting yet). The war itself has been especially brutal this year, with masses of men dying on the French front and ongoing actions in the Middle East and Eastern Europe. Meanwhile the Revolutions in Russia have finally knocked that combatant out of the war, and have placed a whole new kind of government into power: one dominated by radical Communists. The world’s largest country by landmass is officially in upheaval and no one knows what to expect.

This kind of social unrest wasn’t limited to Russia, nor to just one side. Germany was now facing anti-war protests and jailing some of its protesters. The “Civil Peace” that had been established between the working class parties and the Monarchy was now broken, as the Independent Socialists (USPD) broke with the Majority Socialists (SPD) and began to demand reform or revolution on a mass scale. Soldiers for France staged mutinies against the officers’ orders that they throw themselves at German machine-guns again and again. Even quiet England saw the rise of a pro-socialist, anti-war party (small, by comparison), and elites throughout Europe watched events in Russia with trepidation, wondering which other nations might fall to the cry of revolution.

2017, meanwhile, has been another year in which “other interests” (aka my real life) have interfered somewhat with blogging and with century-watching. I suspect that will continue, but compared to some blogs, I still have pretty regular content. Each new year brings a new crop of centenaries to celebrate, and 1918 will be another big one. Growth in views and new followers has continued, but slowed, and it seems like there are more frequent “likers” than there were in previous years. It’s nice to know someone appreciates it! Thank you all for reading, and I look forward to what another year will bring us!

Judex Index

This page acts as an index to the various episodes of “Judex.”

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).