Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Arab Cortege, Geneva (1896)

One hundred twenty five years ago, a curious cross-cultural display was captured by one of the cameramen sent out by the Lumière brothers to capture interesting sights and sounds on their new motion picture camera, for display to curious audiences. This little snippet of film suggests much more to us today than what it shows, but it is a great historical snapshot nonetheless.

Arab Cortege

A stationary camera looks across a busy corner toward a store front marked “The Divan.” The words “des fees” are beneath. The street is crowded, with people walking in both directions, and a number of people in European garb (Genevans, presumably) line the sides of the street, looking at the passersby. In the foreground, a party of people in robes, fezzes, and other traditional “Arab” clothing parade by. Some of them are playing drums, horns and other instruments. In the background, you can see people walking in the other direction, and if you pay attention, you notice that there are Black people mixed with white. There is a brief lull in which several Swiss men in straw hats and large mustaches stare at the camera, and then a group of native-garbed Africans come past from the other direction. A woman in European clothing pulls a small child past them. Suddenly, the “staged” part of the movie evidently over, the street is filled with white people in European clothing.

Arab Cortege1

As an early film, this would have held much interest for the European audiences it targeted – the scene would be “exotic” and probably was accompanied by a short narration explaining the presence of these foreign people in the city of Geneva, and noting their “otherness” to the crowd. While Switzerland was a less multi-cultural society in the Nineteenth Century than it is today, the presence of the International Red Cross there, and the historical development of the Geneva Conventions, meant that it was a place where many diplomatic missions from around the world would converge. This scene doesn’t seem to represent a random sampling of foreigners walking down a Geneva street, however, it seems staged. Particularly the presence of the musicians in the original party of Arabs seems to suggest a deliberate spectacle, possibly in connection with an international event like a World’s Fair, or possibly the director, Alexandre Promio, set the whole thing up somehow. For us today, simply seeing the street of a European city from 1896 is exotic, with or without the presence of non-Europeans.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Marvelous Wreath (1903)

This short from Georges Méliès is a typical magic show, presented in period dress, with the emphasis on simple camera tricks and the charming personality of Méliès himself. All of his whimsy and love of fantasy comes through on the screen, as usual.

Marvelous Wreath

Méliès enters the set and bows with a flourish. He is made up in period clothing, including a wig, looking rather like one of the Three Musketeers, and the set is designed in proscenium style to represent a room in a castle, with a coat of arms visible hanging on a wall behind him, next to a large throne. He begins with a kind of G-rated strip show, in which he takes off his hat and cloak, other outer garments of the costume, and eventually his sword and boots as well, tossing each item onto a hook on the walls with supernatural precision. He places two stools on either side of the stage, and recovering his cloak, he holds it over each of them in turn. When he removes the cloak, a young girl, dressed as a page, appears sitting there. The girls remove his hanging garments from the hooks, then climb up onto the stools. He now manifests a thick rope, swinging it about like a lasso. It soon turns into a rigid hoop, which he pushes about the stage with a stick, before smashing it through a large piece of paper, which causes it to become a solid circle. The pages hold up the circle, and a demon or imp suddenly leaps out from it and dances about the stage. Méliès breaks the hoop, and has the pages hold it up high; now pulling flowers out of his hat, Méliès puts them on the broken hoop to form a wreath. He produces a fan and fans the wreath and the figure of a woman appears within. He fans it away and then reattaches the ends of the wreath, making a screen on which a close up of a clown’s face appears. The imp leaps up and jumps at the clown, causing an explosion in which both disappear. Méliès takes down the wreath and turns the pages into his outer garments, donning them and then running toward the throne just as the film ends.

Marvelous Wreath1

According to the Star Films Catalog, the movie ends when the “musketeer” as Méliès’s character is known, “disappears in a most mysterious way,” but that part seems to be missing in the surviving print I’ve seen. It’s reassuring to know that people in Méliès’s time also saw the outfit he wears and thought of musketeers (despite the fact he carries a sword, not a musket), perhaps already influenced by a stage version of the work of Alexandre Dumas. The movie is longer than the one-or-two-minute trick films of earlier years, but far shorter than epics like “A Trip to the Moon” or “Gulliver’s Travels.” None of the tricks we see are anything new, but he throws a lot of them together to make a fun performance. The use of the close-up to achieve the effect of the clown face is just one of many examples of him using this technique before it became widely accepted. Often, as in this case, the close-up was reserved for a disembodied head that was “gigantic” next to the other characters on the screen – the most famous example is of course the moon’s face in “A Trip to the Moon.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 4 Min

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

Ambrose’s First Falsehood (1914)

This Keystone comedy came out at about the same time Charlie Chaplin was leaving the studio and stars his frequent on-screen foil Mack Swain. Swain is a lovable big goof in a classic sit-com situation in this one.

Ambroses First Falsehood1

Mack is married to Minta Durfee, and we see them kiss goodbye lovingly as he heads out for the day. Minta is so fond of him that she keeps a huge portrait of him prominently displayed in the dining room, and she seems to swoon for him even after he leaves. Mack runs into his friend Charley Chase, who is riding in a car with two lovely young girls (one of them is Cecile Arnold). Charley needs Ambrose to come along, so that the “other” girl will have a man, but Ambrose says he needs to get back to his wife. Charley offers to send a note to his wife, clearing things up. What he writes is that Ambrose has to grab a train “for business.” In the car, Mack’s girl is very forward, hanging all over him, which makes Mack uncomfortable. He tries to beg off when they arrive in a low-class part of town, but they drag him into a café with a floor show. The proprietor is Edgar Kennedy, and he finds them a good table, despite Mack’s occasional attempts to bolt. The dancer is Dixie Chene, and she comes over to the table and quickly latches on to Mack as well.

Meanwhile, Minta reads in the paper that Mack’s train has crashed, with all passengers lost as casualties. She goes into melodramatic displays of grief. She dresses in all black and gets a wreath in his memory. When the funeral director (Josef Swickard) tries to console her with a kiss, she slugs him and shoves him out the door. Meanwhile, Edgar is now getting jealous of Dixie’s attentions to Mack (evidently they are “an item”). Dixie drags Mack out onto the dance floor, assuring him it’s nothing, and when she drops her purse, she puts it into his pocket for safe keeping. Edgar comes over to break it up, and when Mack tries to defend Dixie, Edgar punches him in the eye. Mack, looking much worse for wear, runs out, and Dixie tells Edgar that he took her purse. She, however, has one of Mack’s calling cards and gives Edgar the address. Mack gets home to find Minta in mourning, and when she asks how he survived the train wreck, he decides to lie, explaining his condition as a result of his heroic actions trying to save the other passengers. She finds the purse in his pocket and he claims it is a present for her.

Ambroses First Falsehood

The lie is discovered when the paperboy throws the late edition in with a correction that the train was not wrecked, and then Edgar and Dixie show up to demand the return of the purse. Minta puts two and two together and smashes his portrait over his head.

The slapstick violence in this movie is fairly minimal, with most of the humor around Minta’s exaggerated reactions and the “funny” idea of a man who doesn’t want to be unfaithful to his wife, but is peer-pressured into a situation not of his own choosing. Despite the title, Mack’s character actually does tell two falsehoods: first that he was on a wrecked train and second that he got the purse of Minta. You’d think Minta would be suspicious, given that the purse was full of another woman’s personal items (or money). Anyway, the two of them are fun to watch together, and Chase and Kennedy also bring their usual big personalities as well. Dixie Chene is probably the most aggressively sensual of the “loose” women Swain is pitted against, and she commits to being sleazy by 1914 standards, in a dress that shows her ankles and more. The most exciting shot is the one of the corner outside the café, apparently a location known to Los Angelinos of the day for the “Oriental Café.” It shows a line of wooden buildings almost appropriate for an “old West” location, but a bit too tall and close together, suggesting a more urban, but still underdeveloped, area.

Director: F. Richard Jones

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mack Swain, Minta Durfee, Charley Chase, Dixie Chene, Edgar Kennedy, Josef Swickard, Cecile Arnold, Ted Edwards, Helen Carruthers, Billy Gilbert, Slim Summerville

Run Time: 11 Min

I have not found this available to view for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

J’Accuse (1919)

Abel Gance took the world cinema scene by storm with this passionate and compelling portrait of the First World War. Although today overshadowed by the fame of his later work (such as “Napoleon”), in the context of this blog it stands out as a century-old example of cinematic innovation and boldness.

The move begins with a credit sequence, built of actuality footage (see below for production details), silhouettes of an officer with a whistle, and the words “J’ACCUSE” spelled out by uniformed men, standing on a field in formation. This is followed by typical introductions to the lead players with intertitles followed by brief close-ups of the actors, but remarkably it begins by showing us the director/screenwriter himself, something not even the egotistical D.W. Griffith had done. Interestingly, the actors frequently are introduced as being affiliated with one or another theater, no doubt legitimating them in the eyes of a more sophisticated audience.

Read the rest of this entry »

Off to Bloomingdale Asylum (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès is a reminder that white European attitudes toward race were about as insensitive as those in the USA in the early Twentieth Century. It constitutes a simple trick film built around clowning, but seems a bit disturbing for what it portrays within that.

In this case, it seems the best way to synopsize, is to directly quote from the “Star Films Catalog.” The language is not my own, but written for an English-speaking audience about 1905: “An omnibus arrives drawn by an extraordinary mechanical horse. On the top are four negroes. The horse kicks and upsets the negroes, who are changed into white clowns. They slap each other’s faces and by the blows become black again. They kick each other and become white once more. Finally they are all merged into one large negro, and when he refuses to pay his carfare, the conductor sets fire to the omnibus and the negro bursts into a thousand pieces.”

It’s worth noting, of course, that the “negroes” of this piece are not black men, but white Frenchmen in blackface. Really black. In fact their faces are so black and their behavior so simian that I wasn’t 100% sure they represented human beings until I read the Star Catalog. Now, of course, visually this blackness contrasts with the white clown-face of the alternate appearance of the characters, which probably means that most people at the time simply read it as a clown show, but there’s a deep well of racism under the surface of this veneer. The effects are, of course, managed with simple substitution photography, well established by this time, and the “extraordinary mechanical horse” is basically a large marionette. Not one of the more illuminating works of  Méliès.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 6 secs

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

I Fetch the Bread (1907)

This is a short comedy from Pathé Freres that decidedly reminds me of the work I’ve seen that Alice Guy was doing at this time. It is based on a simple gag, taken to improbable, almost surreal, extremes.

I Fetch the Bread

We open on a shot of a bourgeois Paris apartment, with a table set in the center of the screen, a middle-aged couple and their maid is preparing dinner. The door at the back of the set is opened to allow another couple to enter, and after brief greetings are exchanged, people begin to settle in for the meal. Now the hostess goes to a cupboard at the back, and produces a tiny crust of bread – apparently she forgot to make sure there was bread for company! Everyone looks flustered until the man of the house agrees to go out and get some more. We next see him emerge from a bakery with a prodigious loaf of bread. He runs down the street, but stops at a wine bar for a quick nip. After finishing the bottle, he moves on to a restaurant for another drink. His escapades are intercut occasionally with shots of the hungry group at home, waiting for the bread to arrive. Eventually, the male guest agrees to take on the task and get some bread, but he, too, keeps stopping at local watering holes of various description. The editing structure now alternates between the two men and their adventures, with each growing drunker and more incapable as they proceed. Eventually, the two encounter one another, hopelessly inebriated, at an outdoor café. Inevitably, the bread is dropped and trod upon. The two men finally stumble back into the apartment, to be reproved and abused by their wives.

I fetch the Bread1

This movie follows a similar pattern to the chase movies that were common at the time, with a single camera setup for each scene which the actors move through in a predictable pattern, until the final crash comes at the end. In this case, most of the shots are taken from the fronts of businesses, each time set up so that we see little of the street or surrounding buildings, but can plainly see the front door and action immediately behind it. I was a bit surprised at the number of separate camera setups at first, but when compared to a chase like “How a French Nobleman Got A Wife” from this time period, it is not unusual. The editing is somewhat advanced, in that we do cut away from scenes to see simultaneous action and then return to complete the scene, rather than having each shot show the beginning, middle, and end of a scene, something that would be more common in typical chase movies. The joke is a bit strained – evidently it is not safe to send a man out unsupervised to run a simple errand, because he will be too distracted by alcohol – but the movie works because it fulfills the audience’s expectations, including our expectations that the naughty husbands will be punished.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 11 secs

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

Hoodoo Ann (1916)

This early production from Triangle Film Corporation stars Mae Marsh, fresh from the set of “Intolerance,” and was produced by D.W. Griffith, at the time when his name could sell a picture by itself. A bit oddly structured for a melodrama, it gives Marsh opportunities to show a range of emotion and development.

Hoodoo Ann

The film begins in an orphanage, where the twenty-two-year-old Marsh plays Ann as a younger girl in the fashion set by Mary Pickford. She is the least popular girl at the orphanage and is also treated cruelly by the staff for some reason, made to do chores like scrubbing the kitchen floor while the others are at recess. It is never explained why her status should be different from any other orphan, except that the African American cook (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) one night reads her palm and tells her she is “hoodooed” until she gets married – “And then you won’t need no hoodoo to make trouble.” One day she steals a doll from Goldie, one of the other orphans (Mildred Harris, future first wife of Charlie Chaplin), accidentally breaks it and hides it, then is wracked with guilt over lying about it. Her opportunity to redeem herself comes when a fire breaks out at the orphanage, and Goldie for some reasons sleeps through the alarm. Ann runs back into the building and saves the still-snoozing Goldie. She wins praise and a couple who recently lost their own child adopts her on the spot.

Hoodoo Ann1 Read the rest of this entry »

Broncho Billy’s Love Affair (1912)

G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson tries to mix Western with romantic themes in this short from Essanay. Given the limitations of the length and the film techniques, it doesn’t entirely work, but it’s another example of the once-popular series trying for a broad appeal.

Broncho Billys Love Affair

The movie begins in the local land office, where a man (Brinsley Shaw) in a bowtie and a white hat receives money from an older man (David Kirkland), indicating that he does not consider it adequate. He leaves, looking dissatisfied and the scene cuts to an image of Billy with his girl (Evelyn Selbie). He puts a ring on her finger, and an edit shows Brinsley looking on, obviously concerned about this development. He waits until Billy leaves, then goes over to speak with her, and she proudly shows off her ring, disturbing him still further. Now an Intertitle tells us that he “induces his father to discharge Broncho” – the first indication we’ve had to the relationship of anyone in this movie to anyone else. The father (the old man at the office) seems very reluctant to heed his son – evidently Billy is a good worker. But, he eventually caves and calls Billy in, counting out his final pay, much to Billy’s shock. We now see Brinsley sneaking around a nicely appointed home, searching for something (the ring). He eventually finds it and steals it. Then he writes a note ostensibly from the girl, breaking up with Billy because he was fired. He leaves it at Billy’s shack and Billy, heartbroken, saddles up and moves on.

Broncho Billys Love Affair1

The second half of the movie shows how all of this plays out, years later. Evelyn has a completely different hair style and wardrobe, indicating her transformation from virginal young girl to married woman, and Brinsley walks out of the house behind her while she sweeps the stoop. He is dressed less like a fop and more like a cowboy now, and he wears a gun. He takes money from her against her will, and goes to a building with a sign marked “Gambling.” Meanwhile, we see Billy snoozing with his feet propped up a desk, and an image of Evelyn as she used to be appears thanks to double-exposure, showing us his dream. Next, we see Brinsley backing out of the building with his gun drawn – evidently there has been a dispute of some kind. He jumps on a horse and rides off, and we see two men propping up another, apparently shot by Brinsley. One of the men goes to find Billy and tells him what has happened. Billy puts on his hat and joins the posse – we now see his badge and conclude he is the local law. They split up, and the other part of the posse finds Brinsley first, shooting at him from a distance and wounding him in the head. Brinsley escapes back to his house, where Evelyn takes him in, helping him to a bed where he collapses. Billy now wanders up and knocks on the door, and is stunned to find Evelyn there. She tells him she is now married and directs him to the wounded man, who confesses all before he dies.

Broncho Billys Love Affair2

With limited intertitles, at least on the print I saw, this movie is not easy to follow, and without closeups or sharp resolution, I wasn’t even sure Evelyn and Brinsley were the same people after their wardrobe change. It relies on the audience’s ability to follow the formulaic story of star-crossed love more or less by instinct. I used the actor’s names because, even though imdb supplies names for the characters, it gets their relationships wrong, suggesting that David is Evelyn’s father when that is contradicted by the intertitle. There are some interesting edits, as when intercutting is used to show us Brinsley’s reaction to the gift of the ring, and Billy’s dream being intercut with Brinsley at the gambling hall. Overall, though, this is a pretty bare bones film for 1912; even the use of double exposure to indicate a dream is pretty old hat by this time. The romance doesn’t really have time to develop, and the story just moves through the most basic plot points without much development. It’s interesting to note, once again, that although the Broncho Billy movies were a “series,” there is no logical way to make them work as connected narratives. Billy has a different girl in each movie, and a new timeline is set at the beginning of each one, with no connection to what came before or after. Audiences (presumably) accepted the character as iconic, and didn’t worry about trying to make the stories link up in any way.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Evelyn Selbie, Brinsley Shaw, David Kirkland

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not been able to find this movie available for free online. If you do, please comment.

Within Our Gates (1920)

The earliest surviving film of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is a very in-your-face response to the off-handed racism of most of cinema at the time, particularly D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Not necessarily the most fun experience to watch, it is nevertheless a fascinating document from the “other side” of history.

Within_Our_Gates_1920_newspaper_ad

Evelyn Preer (introduced in the titles as a “renowned Negro artist”) plays Sylvia, a Southern African American woman living in the North with her friend Alma (Floy Clements, called “Flo” in the intertitles). Sylvia is engaged to serviceman Conrad (James D. Ruffin), but Alma secretly wants him for herself, setting up the first conflict of the film. When he announces his return from overseas, Alma hides the letter and sees to it that he will find Sylvia with an unnamed white man (whose presence isn’t explained until the final reel). Meanwhile Sylvia has been ducking the advances of Larry, Alma’s step brother (Jack Chenault), who is being investigated by a righteous detective (William Smith) at the behest of the police. When he gets into a shootout with some gamblers, Larry makes for Alma’s place, where Sylvia has dreamed that he is a murderer. All that aside for the moment, when Conrad sees Sylvia and the white man, he blows his top and calls off the engagement.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Affairs of Anatol (1921)

Cecil B. DeMille directed this lightweight sex comedy based on a racy play by Arthur Schnitzler, although the story seems to have been cleaned up a bit for the screen. DeMille shows how far he has come since the beginning of his career in the teens, and a young Gloria Swanson is ready for her closeup.

Affairs_of_Anatol_1921_lobbycardposter

The movie begins with an intertitle suggesting that protagonist Anatol (Wallace Reid) is a man who wants to be a hero – a modern Quixote who tries to rescue women from “real or imaginary” dangers. His wife Vivian is unlikely to understand, and she (Swanson) is first revealed to us receiving a pedicure from her maid, then emerging to peek over a changing screen at the camera. We learn from intertitles that they are newlyweds and her flirting seems to annoy him when what he wants is breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »