Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

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Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

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Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

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This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

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Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

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Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

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The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

I have not found this for free on the Internet (please comment if you do). However, it can be rented for download from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.

Early Women Filmmakers Announcement

This is just a quick post to let my readers know that I will be participating in the Early Women Filmmakers Blogathon, hosted by Fritzi at Movies Silently! I plan to do a writeup of the career of Alice Guy Blaché, whose movies I covered extensively last Spring/Summer.

Here are links to a few favorites from that cycle:

The Birth, the Life, and the Death of Christ

The Drunken Mattress

The Consequences of Feminism

Alice Guy Films a Phonoscene

And, of course, the obligatory banner (starring Mabel Normand, another favorite woman filmmaker, who I’ve written about before):

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Turning the Tables (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that shows that the very basic humor established in “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “The Lone Fisherman” continued to have its appeal even after seven or eight years of cinematic development.

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We see a small watering hole, with a sign that reads “No swimming allowed in this lake.” Two shirtless boys are frolicking in it, and soon another little crowd of boys runs up and starts stripping down to their shorts to jump in. Not long afterward, a policeman (distinguishable because of his hard cap and billy club) runs up and yells. All of the boys climb out of the lake to what seems to be a stream of abuse from the angry policeman. Finally, having taken enough, they push him into the water. While he blusters and drips in the water, they gather up their clothes and run off. The policeman climbs out of the water to pursue.

Although 1903 saw the release of a number of relatively sophisticated films from Edison, incorporating editing, multiple angles, and complete narratives, there were still dozens of releases that year that followed the established formulae. In this case, we have a variation on a theme that is as old as the movies themselves: the young miscreants getting the better of the adult authority figure, only to be pursued (and presumably punished) by that authority. The policeman’s uniform is very simplistic in this example, more suggesting a sketch of a costume than the full thing, which makes me wonder if this movie was even planned out very much in advance.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Scrap in Black and White (1903)

This short from Edison shows us something about race and children, but it may be hard to pin down exactly what that message is. From the ending punch line (forgive the pun), it appears to be intended as a comedy, although I’m not sure how funny it is.

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An impromptu boxing ring has been rigged up in a park or backyard, and two boys of perhaps 10 to 12 years of age sit in chairs on either side. One is black, the other white, and they seem to be evenly matched in terms of height and musculature. White adults serve as referees and supporters, and there is another white child sitting on the grass as an audience. The two boys begin to fight, and after a short time the white boy goes down and the referee begins to count. He gets up before the count is over and the fight continues until the bell. Then the boys go to their corners and are fanned with towels. The white boy drinks from a water bottle, while the black boy drinks from a bucket. They get up and begin fighting again, winding up in an embrace, and they both go down. The men throw buckets of water on both of them, and then laugh heartily, when they get up wet and walk out of the ring.

Michelle Wallace, who has written about race in early film, gives a short intro to this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD. She says that it raises some questions about the racial order, since “the black boy is allowed to win.” The problem with that (and I suspect she hadn’t seen the movie immediately before making that comment), is that neither boy actually wins, the fight is called on account of the ending joke. In fact, it looks to me as if the white boy “takes a dive” on instruction from the adults during the part where he is briefly counted over. Prior to that, he is fighting much harder and gets in what look like real hits, while the black boy merely taps his opponent occasionally and seems not to know how to box. I would agree that there is no clear racial hierarchy imposed on this film, however. The children appear to be equals, for the purposes of this simulated boxing match, and they both wind up equally humiliated by the adults’ joke. Unlike movies like “Watermelon Contest,” the point of this does not seem to dehumanize the black subject, which is interesting, although I have no explanation of why they wanted a white and a black fighter, instead of two white children, for this movie.

Director: Unkown

Camera: A.C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 11 secs

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

Best Picture 1916

And now we come to the big award, the one that describes what the most “important” movie was of the year. In my not-terribly-humble opinion, of course. Here we see what movie really stands out 100 years after its release as the one to see by future generations. As with all these awards, I’m not necessarily saying “this is what would have won if there had been an Academy Awards ceremony in 1916,” I’m saying what it looks like from the current context. In that sense, these awards are more for the future than the past. In my first year, I chose “Cabiria,” the epic spectacle of Giovanni Pastrone (who also won Best Director). Last year, it was “The Cheat,” a story of betrayal and sexual dominance contrasted with racial intolerance, directed by this year’s Best Director, Cecil B. DeMille.

This year, the nominations range from the well-known to the obscure. Probably the best known movie of 1916 (and a likely winner then, despite its lack of box office profitability), is D.W. Griffith’s immense spectacle “Intolerance.” This movie has a lot in common with “Cabiria,” particularly in the massive sets used to re-create ancient Babylon. Also well known in its day was “Hell’s Hinges,” the apocalyptic Western starring this year’s Best Actor, William S. Hart. Hart & co. burned down an entire Western town to make this grand story of revenge come to life. Far more obscure, and even unreleased in its own day, we also have “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” by Marion E. Wong, who took home an award for Best Supporting Actress. While it has some technical flaws, this independent movie gives a unique look at Asian American immigrant life from the perspective of the immigrants themselves. The first British production on the list is “East Is East,” a consideration of the class system and the importance of knowing yourself which garnered several nominations, but no actual awards in other categories. Perhaps the whole could be better than its parts, as the movie is entertaining and enjoyable. “A Life for a Life,” directed by past Best Director Evgeni Bauer, won its star, Vera Kholodnaia, the Best Actress award. It depicts a tragedy on a grand scale as a woman marries for convenience, despite being in love with another man. Cecil B. DeMille took home this year’s Best Director award for his work on “Joan the Woman” as well as having directed the Best Picture of 1915. Can he secure both slots with this depiction of the life of the French saint and nationalist? The one contribution from Germany is the serialHomunculus” which comes to us in incomplete form today, but is still viewable as a reasonably complete narrative. This was one of the first movies of the period that I ever saw, and its story of a man created by science who discovers he cannot love or be loved has stayed with more for more than a decade. Actor William Gillette brought “Sherlock Holmes” to the screen for the first time, with the authorization of Arthur Conan Doyle, after a successful stage run in the role. This movie was lost for many years, but its influence on later portrayals of the great detective cannot be denied. One of the runaway hits of the UK this year was the documentary “The Battle of the Somme,” which won an easy category as Best Documentary since that was the only one I saw this year. But, it is such a powerful and influential depiction of such an important historical event that I had to include it for consideration as Best Picture as well. One more William S. Hart movie made the list, even though “Return of Draw Egan” didn’t win in any other categories, and had few nominations. Still, it is another example of how this early film star pioneered the tropes that would become familiar in Westerns for a century, as the bad man turns good for the love of a woman and cleans up a town of desperados.

The nominees for Best Picture of 1916 are:

  1. “Intolerance”
  2. “Hell’s Hinges”
  3. “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. “East Is East”
  5. “A Life for a Life”
  6. “Joan the Woman”
  7. “Homunculus”
  8. “Sherlock Holmes”
  9. “The Battle of the Somme”
  10. “The Return of Draw Egan”

And the winner is…”The Battle of the Somme!”

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

I’m breaking Academy rules by even considering a documentary in this category, but to me the best picture is the best picture, regardless of its genre or methods. Admitting that there are other movies on the list that could be argued for, in terms of scale, directing, box office success, or critical acclaim, I really felt that for a modern audience the chance to witness World War I as it happened is too significant to be ignored. All of the movies on the above list have stayed with me since I viewed them, but “Battle of the Somme” had the strongest impact. So, for this year at least, a British documentary trumps all of Hollywood’s finest product.

Thanks to everyone for reading and liking!

Best Director 1916

The director’s craft developed over the years of early film at a remarkable pace, so that directors working in 1916 had already achieved a high standard of sophistication and ability. Directors had already come to see themselves as creative artists, as being responsible for coordinating the technical talents of their crew into a single vision They were also the one objective eye watching over the actors, coaching them when performances gave too much or too little. Directors might even see themselves as the final “author” or authority on a film, even though the producers often used economic power to make decisions beyond the control of the directors who worked for them. In this category, we assess the artistic talent of the directors of the year 1916.

Evgeni Bauer was last year’s winner, and his movie “A Life for a Life” has been honored this year with multiple nominations. It shows his talent for mise-en-scène and working in multiple dimensions, and also made a major star of its lead actress, Vera Kholodnaia, this years Century Award winner for Best Actress. His countryman Yakov Protazonov is less well-remembered today, but contributed an interesting entry with “Queen of Spades.” This is the second (known) take on the famous Pushkin story in film, and deals interestingly with the transition between time periods in alternating flashback and “modern” storylines. First-time director Marion E. Wong directed her own screenplay in “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” a story about Asian American immigrants told from their side that still seems original and interesting a hundred years later. She showed her talent for sensitive storytelling as well as good instincts for the cinematic art in this long lost film. Cecil B. DeMille has yet to take home a Century Award, although he’s been nominated each year since I started. His depiction of the life of Joan of Arc in “Joan the Woman” shows how far he’s come in the time since he gave us “The Squaw Man” as his freshman effort. Finally, Charles Swickard and William S. Hart co-directed Hart’s highly effective vehicle, “Hell’s Hinges.” Hart took home the award for Best Actor on that one, can he also manage to win as half a director?

The nominees for Best Director of 1916 are:

  1. Evgeni Bauer, for “A Life for a Life”
  2. Yakov Protazonov, for “Queen of Spades”
  3. Marion E. Wong, for “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. Cecil B. DeMille, for “Joan the Woman”
  5. Charles Swickard and William S. Hart, for “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…Cecil B. DeMille!

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I think DeMille’s work is among the best that Hollywood offered in this period. Last year, although he didn’t win the director award, his movie “The Cheat” won as Best Picture, not least due to his direction. Today, DeMille is mostly remembered for grand spectacles like “The Ten Commandments,” but he tried a little of everything in his early years, and that’s part of how he became such an effective showman. In “Joan the Woman,” he fictionalizes enough of the story to hold human interest in a person few can really identify with – a saint and a martyr. The movie is enormously effective and displays the skill he quickly honed by jumping right into feature production in 1914.

Best Leading Actress 1916

The nineteen-teens was an era of memorable female images on the screen. Whether they were Vamps, Divas, or Damsels, whether exotic, matronly or sweetly pretty, women were the focus of much of the camera’s gaze. Coming out of the nineteenth century, when women were covered up with heavy garments in the West, the development of cinema in the early twentieth seemed to offer increasing opportunity for women to become visually distinctive, and in a silent medium visual distinctiveness was the key to fame and prestige. Actresses with leading parts seized that opportunity to display their talents in the new visual medium.

The women up for Century Awards in this category each gives a performance that goes beyond spectacle, however. Vera Kholodnaia became  tremendous super-star in Russia, in part for her role in “A Life for a Life,” in which she portrays the tragic character of a woman who marries a man she does not love as part of a “deal” between her lover and her mother. Florence Turner is more down to earth in “East Is East” in her role as a working-class orphan who inherits a fortune and gives it away to find true happiness in herself. Former opera singer Geraldine Farrar shows that her success in “Carmen” was not a one-time achievement by taking on the unlikely role of a teenage saint in “Joan the Woman.” Marguerite Clark would later influence Walt Disney’s vision of a fairy tale princess in her turn as “Snow White.” And Violet Wong stars as the much put-upon young bride in an unhappy marriage in “The Curse of Quon Gwon.”

The nominees for best actress in a leading role are:

  1. Vera Kholodnaia, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Florence Turner, in “East Is East”
  3. Geraldine Farrar, in “Joan the Woman”
  4. Marguerite Clark, in “Snow White”
  5. Violet Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”

And the winner is…Vera Kholodnaia!

Uh oh, columns!

Vera Kholodnaia had worked with Evgeni Bauer several times by 1916, including in them movie “Children of the Age,” which I discussed two years ago. And, although she had already earned recognition as a major star by this time, it was “A Life for a Life” that was her biggest success, resulting in her being dubbed “the Queen of the Screen.” And she truly shows her ability as a silent film Diva in this movie, as she goes from innocence, to happiness in newfound love, to betrayal and tragedy. In a real life tragedy, she would survive the Russian Revolution by only two years, but her funeral in 1919 was one of the biggest events of that year. We can honor her work now with a Century Award and still look forward to any more surviving pictures she did in the short years remaining to her.

Best Leading Actor 1916

Screen actors in the silent era had to learn to communicate their inner worlds effectively without the use of dialog. In an era in which showing emotions was still somewhat suspect in men, they needed to have visible feelings – yet still retain a “manly” self-control to be seen as heroic. Silent film actors learned to show power and control while still sharing what their character was going through, a talent that is often over-looked by audiences accustomed to different styles of acting.

This year, a number of performances showed that strength in different ways. In “Sherlock Holmes,” William Gillette gave the world its first authorized screen appearance of the brilliant detective, and established tropes with his gestures and facial expressions that would inform future generations. Charlie Chaplin, the one comedian in this year’s nominees, brought a pathos and depth to his familiar “Little Tramp” character by giving him a more serious romantic involvement in “The Vagabond.” As the title character in “Homunculus,” Olaf Fønss expressed frustration and genius side by side. The character arc of Henry Edwards in “East Is East” takes him from youth and poverty to comfortable middle age, all the while maintaining his deep feelings for the girl next door. Finally, William S. Hart gives a powerful performance as a man who transforms from rowdy gunslinger to defender of decency in “Hell’s Hinges.”

The nominees for best actor in a leading role for 1916 are:

  1. William Gillette, in “Sherlock Holmes”
  2. Charlie Chaplin, in “The Vagabond”
  3. Olaf Fønss, in “Homonculus”
  4. Henry Edwards, in “East Is East”
  5. William S. Hart, in “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…William S. Hart!

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I felt that the quiet dignity and authenticity that Hart brought to his Western tough-guy put this movie into a category over and above the typical genre picture of the day. Hart is always in control, yet you know when something is going on inside of him. He demonstrates love-at-first-sight through the simple act of removing his hat before the lady when she arrives. He shows his boiling anger at seeing the church burn by hardening his eyes a little, so that the menace from him is palpable. There are multiple close-ups in the film, any of which could be an iconic image of the American West. For me, this was the performance of 1916.

Best Supporting Actor 1916

Actors in supporting roles can get lost in the shuffle. As bartenders, passerby, butlers, drivers, or other background extras, we are likely to think of them as simply part of the scenery. Sometimes, however, a “character” actor brings something special to his part, something that makes him stand out as integral to the story, or as a high point of the movie itself. These are the actors considered in this category.

In 1916, I saw a mix of comedic parts and villains who seemed worthy of mention as supporting actors. Al St. John takes his energetic jealousy to the point of bizarre psychopathy as the foil of “Fatty and Mabel Adrift.” Eric Campbell is more of a straight-man or a victim opposite Charlie Chaplin in “The Count.” Marcel Levésque may seem like a sidekick, but his romantic comedy sub-plot is possibly the most interesting part of “The Bloody Wedding,” the final chapter in the serialLes Vampires.” On the more serious side, Robert McKim was a convincing Western bad guy in the sophisticated William S. Hart vehicle “Return of Draw Egan,” and Ernest Maupin was the first to bring Professor Moriarty to film audiences in “Sherlock Holmes.”

The nominees for best supporting actor for 1916 are:

  1. Al St. John, in “Fatty and Mabel Adrift”
  2. Robert McKim, in “Return of Draw Egan”
  3. Eric Campbell, in “The Count”
  4. Marcel Levésque, in “The Bloody Wedding”
  5. Ernest Maupain, in “Sherlock Holmes”

And the winner is…Marcel Levésque!

A jealous suitor.

A jealous suitor.

Levésque was up last year as well, but lost his award to Sessue Hayakawa. His entry this year was stronger, a case of the “supporting” character being more powerful and exciting than the ostensible lead. He practically saved “Les Vampires” for me, which never got to be as much fun as “Fantômas,” despite the presence of him and Musidora. I’m looking forward this year to seeing how he fairs in the remainder of “Judex!”

Best Supporting Actress 1916

Women were an important part of silent movie history, often stepping outside of the “traditional” roles to become involved in writing, production, and even directing. Historian James Card emphasized the depth of female characters on the screen as well – he often found that the women in this period are more interesting than the men. Not only as stars, but also as supporting character, female parts often gave their actors a chance to stretch and grow as artists.

This year, the women in supporting roles varied from heroines to mothers to villains, and even villainous mothers. Lidiia Koroneva’s role as a mother in “A Life for a Life” is non-traditional, in that she is a successful businesswoman whose decisions regarding inheritance and favoritism inform the rest of the plot. In “Return of Draw Egan,” Louise Glaum brings vivaciousness and brazenness to her role as a femme fatale. Constance Talmadge has a more positive approach, but no less energy, in her part as “The Mountain Girl” in D.W. Griffith’s spectacle “Intolerance.” Appearing in her own movie, “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” director Marion E. Wong also makes a complex villain as the traditional mother-in-law of an immigrant girl torn between past and present. And Musidora was the iconic Irma Vep in “Les Vampires,”  going through multiple costume changes and misadventures during the course of “The Lord of Thunder.”

The Nominees for Best Supporting Actress of 1916 are:

  1. Lidiia Koroneva, in “A Life for a Life”
  2. Louise Glaum, in “Return of Draw Egan”
  3. Constance Talmadge, in “Intolerance”
  4. Marion E. Wong, in “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  5. Musidora, in “The Lord of Thunder”

And the winner is…Marion E. Wong for “The Curse of Quon Gown!”

What's that on your shoulder, son?

All of the nominees were good this year, but I felt that first time actor-director Wong deserved recognition for the subtlety and strength of her performance. Because the movie was never released, she never became the star she could have been, but a century later she can still be celebrated as one of the best actresses of her era.