Here 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.
The 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?
Well, 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.”
That’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.
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.
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”).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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?”
With just a week left before the Century Awards, I’ve gone ahead and finalized the nominations. I wound up seeing more 1914 movies in the past weeks than I’d anticipated, and some of them were quite good. The new nominations reflect my newfound love for Evgeni Bauer, although I must confess that “Silent Witnesses” was not my favorite of his movies, so it may not do as well this year as “After Death” might do next year. “Salomy Jane” deserved a few nods as well, and to my surprise, the short film “Last of the Line” made a couple of appearances, while “The Wishing Ring” got one notice and I decided to add a nomination for “Judith of Bethulia.” The new noms are all listed below, or you can see the whole updated list here.
“Last of the Line” for best makeup/hairstyling.
“Judith of Bethulia” for best costume design.
Evegeni Bauer on “Silent Witnesses” for production design.
Jack Holt from “Salomy Jane” for best stunts.
“Last of the Line” for editing.
“Silent Witnesses” for best cinematography.
“Silent Witnesses” for best visual effects.
Aleksander Vosnesenski, “Silent Witnesses” for best screenplay.
Elsa Krueger for “Silent Witnesses” for best supporting actress.
Alec B. Francis for “The Wishing Ring” for best supporting actor.
Joe Goodboy for “Last of the Line” for best actor.
Beatriz Michelena for “Salomy Jane” for best actress.
Evgeni Bauer for “Silent Witnesses” for best director.
“Silent Witnesses” and “Salomy Jane” for best picture.
Good luck next week to all the nominees!
I’ve started reaching out (a bit) to other classic film bloggers. The first notable result is that I’ll be participating in this:
This early Kinetoscope experiment takes us back to a time when motion pictures were imagined to be just that – still pictures with a bit of movement added – and can be seen as an example of what Edison’s team imagined a portrait might be like in the future. In just a few seconds a man, dressed in 19th-century garb, takes a pinch of snuff, sniffs it, and either sneezes or fakes a sneeze. It’s never looked all that convincing to me. Be that as it may, this film also began Edison Studios’ long-standing tradition of printing out paper images of each frame of a movie and then copyrighting them. There was no law permitting the copyrighting of moving pictures, but still images could be, so this was how the company protected itself in the early days, and the surviving paper stills have proved useful in historical reconstruction of lost nitrate films. Apparently, in this case, the company also allowed Harper’s magazine to print the stills, in order to give some idea what the future of photography would bring, so in addition to being the first copyrighted film, this was the first to be “seen” by a mass audience, albeit not in the motion format.
Also Known as: Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze.
Director: W.K.L. Dickson
Camera: William Heise
Starring: Fred Ott
Run Time: 5 seconds
You are watching the whole thing free above. If you’d like to see it larger, go: here.
In classic Griffith fashion, this short film uses cross-cutting to contrast the lives of two newlywed couples, one rich, one poor, in order to make a social comment about the way we treat dishonesty at different ends of the income spectrum. When the poor man (Charles West, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) cannot find a job, he finally breaks and tries to steal from the rich man’s (Edwin August, also in “The Eternal Mother” and later appeared in “The Magnificent Ambersons”) home. Said rich man has just accepted an offer of a bribe for his “vote” (I assume on a committee of some kind, since surely his vote on a ballot measure wouldn’t count for more than anyone else’s) in favor of a new railroad. Rich wife Blanche Sweet (from “The Painted Lady” and “Judith of Bethulia”) catches the would-be robber and holds him at gun-point, but, finding out about her husband’s illicit dealings, lets him go and upbraids her spouse. Chastised, the rich husband returns the money and offers poor Charles a job, apparently in a brickyard he owns. The happy ending probably pleased both working class viewers, who enjoyed seeing the rich man shamed, and the more middle class of film audiences, who wanted to believe that honesty pays off.
Director: D.W. Griffith
Camera: Billy Bitzer
Starring: Charles West, Dorothy Bernard, Edwin August, Blanche Sweet.
Run Time: 15 Min, 22 seconds.
You can watch it for free: here.
Update 4/2/2014: APRIL FOOLS!
Since the invention of the motion picture camera, someone has been using it for naughty purposes. It seems that people with dirty minds just can’t resist the temptation of the moving image.
In my efforts to find as many 100+ year-old titles as are out there, I have encountered quite a few that got my imagination racing. So for this special April 1st edition of Century Films, here is a partial list, broken down by year. Since these are silents, you’ll have to provide the “bow-chicka-bow-bow” yourself:
As early as this, we get “Cockfight No. 2.” Note that porn titles have always like sequels.
This year, we get “Game of Balls,” as well as the classic “Interrupted Lovers.”
Things start taking off with “Sutro Baths, No. 1 & 2,” and the very naughty “Seminary Girls,” along with our first S&M title, “The Lover in the Bag.”
Brings us a sailor fantasy, “Collecting the Ship’s Laundry.”
Things get really racy now with “The Devil in a Convent.” Perhaps an inspiration for Ken Russell?
The nineteenth century rolls out with the fantasy “The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy” and the unusual “Going to Bed with Difficulties,” and an early lesbian fantasy “Eight Girls in a Barrel.”
The new century begins with “Trapeze Disrobing Act” and the first reflexive porn, “Photographing a Country Couple.”
In this year, there’s the rather depressing “Burlesque Suicide No. 2” as well as “Interrupted Bathers” and the truly raunchy “The Colonel’s Shower Bath.”
Here we have the infamous “Too Ardent Lover” as well as “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” which combines foot fetishes and homosexuality.
In this year, we get the post-apocalyptic porn “The Widow and the Only Man” and a milder piece, “Seashore Baby.”
This year brings us an early example of a “roughie,” “Athletic Girl and Burglar.”
Has two of the more outre titles, “The Tramp and the Mattress Makers” and “Mr. Butt-in.”
Has the lonely-hearts fantasy “Wife Wanted” and also the very naughty “Mrs Smithers’ Boarding School.”
The “Planter’s Wife” turns out to be busier than most would imagine, and “Why That Actor Was Late” is downright kinky, but perhaps the most extreme for this year is “Calamitous Elopement.”
Brings an explosion of smut, such as “The Welcome Burglar,” “Lucky Jim,” and “Two Women and a Man.” Marriage-fantasies had a big run, including “They Would Elope,” “His Wife’s Visitor,” and “Choosing a Husband.” Innocence lost is portrayed in “Sweet and Twenty” and “The Salvation Army Lass.” The fetishes are explored in “Leather Stocking,” while incest is exploited in “Eloping with Auntie” and my favorite title of the year, “Oh, Uncle!”
As the 10’s get started, we see another big year for risque flicks, including “Willful Peggy,” “Love among the Roses,” and “The Arcadian Maid.” Marriage is again a theme in “Taming a Husband” and “His Sister-in-Law.” And the theme of youthful innocence comes up in “Serious Sixteen” and “The Englishman and the Girl.”
We get two examples of girl-next-door fantasies this year with “Love in the Hills” and “Her Awakening,” and also how-to’s like “Winning Back His Love” and “Teaching Dad to Like Her.”
We come back to lesbian themes with “Two Daughters of Eve.” Two explorations of innocence occur in “The Schoolteacher and the Waif” and “The Girl and Her Trust.”
Sees a return to gay themes with “The Woman Haters” and “Two Men of the Desert.” The women aren’t left out either, in “The Telephone Girl and the Lady.” A very naughty title for the year is “A Ride for a Bride.” More fetishes in “Peeping Pete.” More straight themes are shown in “Love in an Apartment Hotel” and “The Little Tease.”
This may be the crowning year for dirty pictures, as we get the following:
Twenty Minutes of Love
Tillie’s Punctured Romance (ouch!)
Those Love Pangs
The Sea Nymph
A Robust Romeo
My Official Wife
Mabel’s Busy Day
His Trysting Place
A Flirt’s Mistake
Fatty’s Magic Pants
A Bath House Beauty
What a dirty year! I think I’ll need a shower…
I’ve been writing this blog now for about a week, and I’m enjoying watching it grow into something interesting. I have big plans! But there are some things I haven’t yet addressed, which seem important. One of these is what century films tell us about the past in terms of racial history. Especially in American films of the period, one is sometimes brought up short by attitudes and images that would simply not be acceptable in polite society today. Seeing these movies reminds us that there was a time when the words and images we used to describe other people were rather more blunt than they are now.
In one sense, it can be good to be reminded how things have changed. Seeing a white man in blackface actually shocks us today; it didn’t then. It seems to me as if this is more true of race than, for example, gender relations, which often seem quaintly familiar to us in century films (but that’s a subject for a future blog post). We’re less likely to be shocked where less progress has happened. But, it isn’t enough to look down on our ancestors for having such primitive attitudes; part of the point of this blog is to remind us that these movies are a part of our common heritage, and the disturbing truth is that racism is a part of that heritage.
But, it isn’t the intention of this blog to simply ignore that, either. Earlier today I posted a review of Griffith’s “The Avenging Conscience,” which didn’t address the racialized character of “The Italian,” who was added to the story with no precedent from Poe. Every mention of Griffith alludes to his famous 1915 celebration of the Ku Klux Klan, “Birth of a Nation,” which, due to its release date, I get to wait a year before addressing. But we all know it’s there. What do we do with it?
I’m still looking for answers. I’ve found some of the historical reflections on DVDs about standards then and now to be informative, and I’ll try to include that as I write the reviews. It’s all too easy to let something like this become invisible, to let discussions of heritage be simplistic celebrations, devoid of analysis of the harder issues. For now, this post represents a humble attempt to open the discussion. You’re invited to comment, and I’ll see if I can think of more to say as I proceed.