Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Uncategorized

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.

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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).

The Coward (1915)

Given that this Civil War drama came out in November, 1915, it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be made to “The Birth of a Nation.” The Silent Era even goes so far as to say that this movie, produced by Thomas Ince and directed by Reginald Barker (the same team that gave us “The Italian” at the beginning of the year) was “made to capitalize on the success of” the better-known D.W. Griffith production. Maybe, but it’s worth noting that Ince had already produced several other Civil War movies in recent years, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of that conflict, and that plot-wise, it owes very little to the Griffith spectacular.

cowardThe story centers around the Virginia family of one retired Col. Winslow (Frank Keenan). Winslow had sent a letter offering his own services, and that of his son, to the authorities on hearing of the outbreak of war, but receives a reply stating that they cannot accept such a sacrifice from a man of his advanced years. This leaves his son, Frank (Charles Ray), who is out in the park looking at birdies with his girlfriend when all of his friends rush off to enlist. The girl drags him to the recruiting office, but he bolts before signing up. Apparently, he has a crushing fear that he might be a coward, and so tries to avoid situations that might put his courage to the test. When his dad finds out, he is furious, and forces the boy to sign up, threatening him with a revolver and reminding him of the family name. The first night he is on patrol, Frank panics at the sound of a cow crashing through the fields, and loses his gun before almost blundering into the Union patrol. He hides in a freezing-cold river and manages to evade capture, then runs home, where his (black-face) servants feed him and put him to bed. Of course, dad finds out that he deserted his post and is deeply shamed. His response? “The name of private Winslow is on their rolls, and someone must answer,” he tells his wife before going off to take Frank’s place as a private in the Confederate Army (you’d think someone would notice that Frank got really old overnight, but whatever).

Coward_(1915_film)When the Union army takes over the town, they commandeer the Winslow place as a headquarters. Frank again panics and hides in the attic, while his mother and servants have to feed and otherwise serve the officers and men. The officers discuss their tactical situation while Frank listens from the attic, discovering that they have a weakness in their center which cannot be built up for at least 24 hours, but will be fine so long as the South does not attack during that time. Frank is suddenly seized with patriotism and decides to bring this information to his compatriots at arms. He attacks a guard and steals his uniform and weapons, then breaks into the conference room, taking the map and cleverly escaping by shooting out the candles, then hiding under the table while all the officers run around like ninnies in the dark. He steals a horse and makes a break for the Confederate lines, with a squad of soldiers on his heels. His father is on patrol, and, seeing a Union soldier dashing toward their lines, shoots him at a distance. He falls back into the freezing river, but makes his way in toward camp. When he is captured by Confederate soldiers (he’s still in Union Blues, remember), he insists on seeing the Commanding Officer and gives his information. An attack is ordered and a bloody battle follows, in which his father proves his courage by taking the flag when the current flag bearer runs away, continuing to fire his pistol while waving it. The battle is victorious, but Frank, wounded by his father’s bullet, lies inconsolable in bed. The officer he reported to orders “private Winslow” to come see his son, but he insists he has no son until he learns that Frank is responsible for the victory Finally, the old soldier takes his wounded son in his arms and weeps.

Shuddup, Meathead!

Shuddup, Meathead!

Now, this movie shares some of the problems of “Birth of a Nation.” For example, it is based in an understanding that its audience will sympathize with the “lost cause” of the South and romanticism of Southern concepts of honor and family duty. Modern audiences will be more alarmed by the use of blackface for the servants – the maid is passably like Hattie McDaniel, but the butler looks like Archie Bunker in the episode of “All in the Family” when he participated in a Minstrel Show. But, unlike “Birth,” this movie is not a glorification of the Southern cause nor a deliberate distortion of the history of its occupation. It is a character study of one young man’s fear – he could as easily have been fighting for the other side without making any changes in the story. The Union officers are not rapacious fiends; they treat the civilians with respect even though it is clearly a burden for them to have their house commandeered. The code of honor which requires such brutality from the father is not being held up as a noble ideal, it is rather the premise within which Frank must work out his psychological drama.

Coward2The movie is at its best dealing with these psychological questions. Barker makes frequent use of close-ups to show us the turmoil of father and son, and also intercuts with close-ups (for example on the father’s pistol when he forces his son to enlist) that escalate the drama. This is not surprising, since he made such good use of close-ups in “The Italian.” On the other hand, the battle sequences are nowhere near as effective as those in “Birth,” mostly they consist of a lot of smoke and people running around; very little of the drama is worked out in the action scenes. The pursuit of Frank on horseback is somewhat more effectively done, however. Much of the movie seemed slow to me, often when it was very obvious what the emotional moment was we had to wait for several visual exchanges between the actors and an intertitle before we could move on to the next situation. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the tension this generated, I did find it emotionally satisfying at the end to see the two men reconciled. I couldn’t help thinking, however, about the defeat they were bound to share in coming years, and wondering whether Frank had actually extended the bloody conflict by bravely causing the Union setback.

Director: Reginald Barker

Camera: Joseph H. August, Robert S. Newhard

Cast: Frank Keenan, Charles Ray, Gertrude Claire, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 1 hour, 17 Min

I cannot find this movie for free on the Internet, if you find it, please let us know in the comments.

The Dwarf (1912)

Dwarf1This short movie by Louis Feuillade is included as a bonus with the release of Fantômas by Kino. It represents one of his “Life as It Is” movies, which were early attempts at film realism, as defined by one of his manifestos on film.

DwarfThe movie begins with several Intertitles, which explain to us that a new play, “The Virgin of Corinth,” has become a tremendous critical and popular hit, and at its performance, when the audience calls for the author, the management displays a card explaining that the script was submitted anonymously, and that no one knows the author by face or by name. The next morning, we see the beautiful star of the piece (Suzanne Grandais) arise and read all the positive notices about herself and the mysterious writer. Then, we see another person (Delphin, whose name means “dolphin”) reading the same reviews: but he is a man of perhaps only four feet in height. He lives with his mother (Renée Carl), and dreams of his love for Suzanne, but he knows she would reject him. Suddenly, he gets an inspiration to use the high technology of the telephone to call her. If she only hears his voice, she will fall in love with his words, and perhaps someday overcome her reaction to his true size. He calls her, she is thrilled to receive a call from so talented an artist, and the moreso since he maintains anonymity in the world. We see a group of (female) telephone operators listening in on the call – to judge by their faces, it gets pretty hot. Suzanne has connections, however, and is able to discover the address of her mysterious caller. She goes to visit him, and meets his mother. Renée tells her son of his visitor, and he swallows his fears and goes out to meet her. The response, of course, is crushing. Suzanne laughs at him openly, and at herself for being so easily fooled. Renée tells her to leave, and tries to console her son, knowing that a mother’s love is no substitute for the love he has lost.

Pretty cool for 1912.

Pretty cool for 1912.

While the movie is largely typical in style for its time, there are some interesting aspects to it. Perhaps the most exciting for me was the use of a split screen to demonstrate the telephone call – a tactic that remains in use today. Feuillade handles it by dividing the screen into three segments: with Delphin on one side and Suzanne (in her bed – racy stuff!) on the other. In the middle is a shot of the Champs-Élysées facing toward the Arc de Triomph, seeming to signify that “Paris” stands between the two telephone sweethearts. I’m not going to say that this is the “first” time a split screen was used to show a telephone call – quite possibly I’ve seen other examples already – but it is a very interesting use of the concept, and seemingly original to Feuillade. Apart from this is the very fact that the little person is used not for comedy or to emphasize his “strangeness” as in a freak show, but with sympathy and as a tragic figure, a brilliant artist trapped inside a body that the world cannot appreciate. Even in much later years, shorter actors would still be playing monsters and clowns rather than protagonists of serious story lines. Finally, I found it amusing that the cliché of the snoopy telephone operator had been established so soon after the introduction of telephone technology. I think this is one of the better “Life as It Is” movies that I’ve seen from Feuillade, and I’m glad it was included on the disc, reminding audiences that he did much more than crime serials.

Alternate Titles: Le Nain

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Georges Guérin

Cast: Delphin, Renée Carl, Suzanne Grandais

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it (in two parts) here and here.

Les Vampires Index

Deadly RingI have created this page to act as an index for reviews of the serial “Les Vampires.”


The Murderous Corpse (1913)

Murderous CorpseHere at the end of October, I’ve chosen to return to the series I started out with to close out this year’s discussion of the history of horror film. While Fantômas may not meet a strict definition of “horror movie,” the crime serial undeniably influenced the imagery and methods of later horror directors, and titles like “The Murderous Corpse” certainly evoke the conventions of the later genre.

Murderous Corpse1The movie begins by catching us up on the series, telling us that Fantômas (played by René Navarre) destroyed the villa in which he had been hiding, hoping to kill those who were pursuing him, but, of course, the heroic Fandor (Georges Melchior) escaped with minor injuries, from which he recovers in the hospital. Juve (Edmund Breon) is missing and presumed dead. We see a criminal gang at work smuggling, and then Fantômas murders a baroness, cleverly framing the artist Dollon (André Luguet) for the crime. Dollon is mysteriously murdered in prison, but not before the police make a big production of taking his fingerprints and other physical data. Fantômas, with the help of a bribed guard, then removes the body from the prison. This makes it all the more baffling when the dead man’s fingerprints are found at other crime sites! In Juve’s absence, Fandor continues to investigate on his own, while a mysterious lowlife named Cranajour seems to take an odd interest in him, all the while working with the gang of Mother Toulouche, who is clearly in cahoots with Fantômas somehow. Meanwhile (everything in a Fantômas movie is happening “meanwhile”), the banker Nantauil shows up at an important society dance and creeps around the house until he is alone with the hostess, princess Davidoff (Jean Faber), knocking her out with chloroform and stealing her valuable pearl necklace – Nantauil is just another disguise of the master of crime, Fantômas! Naturally, he leaves one of Dollon’s fingerprints on the lady’s neck as a clue, leading to the first indication that a dead man is now a criminal mastermind. Renée Carl, as Lady Beltham, again appears, seeking an audience with the banker Nantauil, and is instructed to transport two pearls and the necklace, using them to attempt to get a ransom from Thomery (Luitz-Morat), the princess’s fiancée. This turns out to be another ruse, allowing Fantômas to murder Thomery, leaving behind another false fingerprint. Meanwhile (once again), Elizabeth, the sister of the dead man (Fabienne Fabrèges) has found a note which appears to outline Fantômas’s insidious plan, and of course she’s being stalked for it. Will Fandor save her? Will inspector Juve be found? Will we learn the secret of Cranajour? Will the police ever figure out how Fantômas has set up the corpse of Dollon?

Murderous Corpse2Well, if you’ve made it this far, you probably know that the answers to all of those questions is, “yes.” trick of making gloves from a dead man’s hands is probably one of the more believable ones Fantômas uses in the series. Cranajour is, of course, Juve in disguise, and for once he actually does look pretty different under the makeup. Fantômas and his gang are able to kill several people and steal a necklace, but overall their operations are curtailed by the good guys, while still allowing him to escape and continue the series another day. This episode is quite long, as long as a standard feature film is today, which is quite a change from the shorter episodes I’ve been seeing from “Les Vampires” lately. It isn’t as laden with iconic imagery, I’ll grant you that, and the absence of Juve seems to leave it without a center to a large degree. Whose story is this? Sometimes it is Fandor’s, sometimes Elizabeth’s, but for the most part is belongs to Fantômas. The camerawork is fairly static in this one, though with somewhat more interesting angles than we see in American studio work of the time. The sets are beautifully decorated and again I find the exteriors exquisite (this may just be because Paris was so attractive in the early twentieth century). I have grown rather fond of the music that Gaumont chose to use from a library as the background score, although I said at first that it was sometimes overwhelming; it is distinctive and playful. The editing is unimaginative and there is a heavy reliance on intertitles and especially close-ups on written documents to keep the audience informed as to what’s going on. Despite some of this clumsiness or seeming-clumsiness, it’s still a fun movie, and I do like Fandor better than his dull counterpart in “Les Vampires.”

Murderous Corpse3That’s all for this year’s Halloween special! Next week, I’ll be back to normal, trying to make up for lost time as we get into Century Awards Season for 1915!

Alternate Titles: Le Mort Qui Tue, Fantômas III: Le Mort Qui Tue, The Dead Man Who Killed.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Georges Guérin

Cast: René Navarre, Georges Melchior, Edmund Breon, Renée Carl, André Luguet, Jean Faber, Luitz-Morat, Fabienne Fabrèges.

Run Time: 90 Min.

I have been unable to find this for free on the Internet. If you find it, please comment.

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

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The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

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In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

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As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

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Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

Birth of a Nation4

Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

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The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

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The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

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The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

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So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”