Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Lightning Sketches (1907)

This very short film from Vitagraph beats Windsor McCay to the punch by several years in his claim to be the “first animator” – though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were even earlier examples. It serves as an example of developing film techniques in America as the Nickelodeon Era was beginning.

The screen shows a large pad of artist’s paper, hung up on a wall before the camera. J. Stuart Blackton appears on the left side and writes the word “coon,” then rapidly transforms the letters into a caricature of a black man. All of the action is undercranked, to make Blackton’s movements appear rapid when played at normal speed. He now writes the word “Cohen” on the paper next to the first cartoon, and transforms these letters into a caricature of a Jewish man. The paper is rolled up and removed in animation, but we do not see the hands of the person doing it. Next, a bald man comes out and takes a seat before the paper, and Blackton sketches him, giving him a cigar at the end and then adding it to the caricature. A few animated puffs of smoke are visible coming out of the drawn cigar. This paper is also rolled up and removed in animation. Now, Blackton sketches a glass, a bottle labeled “Medoc” and a spritzer bottle, then he departs the screen and the bottle is animated to pour into the glass, followed by a spritz of soda, which causes the glass to overflow. This paper is torn apart in animation and the film ends.

Although there’s only a few seconds worth of animation between the papers getting rolled up and the pouring of the bottle, this was probably a pretty exciting film for an audience of 1907. Even the speeded-up action qualifies as an “effect” and seems to have been done to emphasize Blackton’s ability to work quickly, without mistakes. The unfortunate racial stereotyping at the beginning was probably meant to be humorous and not offensive, though it hasn’t aged well. It was interesting how he integrated the letters into images of people’s faces, it was just an unfortunate choice of words to use to demonstrate this. Blackton barely looks at the bald man as he sketches him – the point of having him “sit” for the picture seems to be so that the audience can see how accurate Blackton’s portrayal is. The final animation of the wine and the spritzer bottle is the climax, and by modern standards it wouldn’t amount to much, but it may have fascinated audiences to see a moving drawing at the time.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Max Is Stuck Up (1910)

This is another short comedy from Max Linder for Pathé Studios. It has a similar narrative structure to our last Linder film, “Max Learns to Skate,” but takes place in the more familiar bourgeois setting of Paris shops and homes.

Max is invited to dine with a young lady by his “future father-in-law.” We see Max in his apartment putting the finishing touches on his preparations, looking dapper as ever and quite excited to be going out. He twirls his cane and heads out the door. Along the way, however, he stops at a butcher’s shop. The butcher is having difficulty with flies, so has set out several pieces of flypaper. Max steps on one as he approaches the counter. The butcher runs off screen briefly to retrieve a parcel for Max, presumably a pastry that he will bring to the luncheon date. As he begins to leave, however, he notices the flypaper on his shoe. Unable to shake it off, he sits in a chair to allow the butcher to pull it off for him, but in the process he sits on another piece. As this is removed, he puts his elbow on yet another piece, which goes with him out the door. At his destination, the young lady is still getting dressed, and is having some difficulty zipping up her dress, even with her mother’s help. Max arrives and hands over the pastry, only now noticing the piece of flypaper on his elbow. In removing it, he gets glue on both his hands and once more on his shoe, and he tries to conceal this, making it impossible for him to be of service to the young lady. He lingers briefly in the living room, fighting it out with the flypaper, before joining the family at the table for the meal. Now everything sticks to Max. His napkin, fork, glass, even the carpet are all snares he falls into. When he offers to pass a plate to his host, his difficulties reach their peak; the plate is finally destroyed and the two come to blows. On his way out the door, he once again collides with the same butcher, and is seen at the end in tears, covered in glue, paper, and baked goods.

As with “Max Learns to Skate,” we watch Max descend from happy and confident, through frustrated and discouraged, to desperate and crying. Once again, the effect is good comedy, although in this case he is a bit less sympathetic (we get the feeling he’s not really interested in the girl, but rather in the father’s money). I was surprised by the number of camera set ups and the use of insert shots to show Max’s stickiness, but when I first watched it, the print claimed the movie was made in 1906. However, it appears that this version, at any rate, really comes from 1910, which makes this less surprising (actually it’s a bit simplistic for 1910). Like many films of the time, it may have been a remake of an effort from a few years earlier. Be that as it may, I still enjoyed watching Max go through his routine, which uses subtle physical cues to illustrate his changing mood and heighten the humor of the situation.

Director: Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder, Gabrielle Lange

Run Time: 6 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Max Learns to Skate (1907)

One of the earliest surviving films of one of the earliest film comedians, this is a fairly simple short about a man’s efforts to learn a simple physical skill – but which takes considerable athletic ability to pull off in a comedic manner. Max Linder succeeds with flying colors in this early outing.

Excited Anticipation

Taken mostly in long shot, this movie consists of just a few sequential scenes, each shot from a stationary camera and lasting several seconds to a minute or more. It begins by establishing a snowy path in a forest, with several people walking along, almost looking like an actuality of France in winter until the star finally approaches close enough to the camera to be recognizable. He stands out from the rest of the characters in the movie by his dandy-ish dress. Most of the men are wearing caps that indicate they are from the working class, while Max sports a shiny top hat. He’s also carrying a pair of skates, designed to be affixed to the bottom of his shoes when he finds a frozen lake. He stops a passerby and asks directions, is pointed the right way and exits, screen left. The next shot shows a table where skaters may check their overcoats and other unneeded items (Max checks his cane, but not his hat). He approaches enthusiastically, and pantomimes his excitement at the opportunity to glide across the ice. The next shot shows wooden chairs where people don their skates, and Max gets one of the local fellows to help him on with his. Next is a shot taken of the shore of the frozen lake, showing Max descending a short plank onto the lake. He is awkward, but stays upright until actually on the ice, where he quickly enters a kind of rapid dance before toppling (and losing his hat). Another local fellow eventually takes pity on him and rights him, giving him his hat back and holding him up as they skate offscreen.

The harsh reality.

The next scene shows Max and his tutor, still arm-in-arm, moving slowly. This shot is taken from the shore and we can now see all the other skaters, out having a grand time. One fellow is on a bicycle. Max eventually feels secure enough to try on his own again and the other fellow skates off. This time, Max is a bit more secure at first, but still wobbles more than he glides, eventually losing his hat again. His effort to recover it results in another pratfall, with him landing on it and crushing it. Another scene of the ice shows Max moving along cautiously, still with the crooked hat, when he is run into by a large child. He runs this kid off angrily, but his buddies show up with snowballs, pelting Max mercilessly. In trying to get away from this assault, Max crashes into another skater who is pushing a lady in a kind of sled-wheelchair. Everyone lands on the ground, and Max, in a fury, is trying to fight with all of them. A skating policeman skates up and removes him from the lake. Max is taken back to the table, where his skates are removed and he retrieves his goods. A final close-up shows Max in tears, his dream of a winter wonderland shattered.

Aftermath

This is a pretty basic film, not especially innovative for 1907, but not bad either. What makes it work is Linder’s screen presence, which keeps the attention and interest of the audience despite the very limited plot and film technique. Max is adorable in the early scenes in which he shows the audience how excited he is to go skating, which makes it all the more effective when he discovers that the sport isn’t as easy as he’d imagined. He only takes four falls, but each is a payoff of some kind of setup, and although we know they’re coming, we don’t know just when. The most surprising is the one where he’s hit from the side, the boy coming in from off camera to crash into him, and this escalates the situation to include others. I wondered, up to that point, if any of the other characters in the movie were “acting,” or whether they were just random people found at the location, behaving naturally. Once Max starts fighting them, we know it’s been set up, but the movie overall feels decidedly natural and unrehearsed. It’s worth noting that what I’ve called a “close-up” at the end of the film is more of a medium-shot, much further back than the camera got to the bandit at the end of “The Great Train Robbery.” It’s possible that the cameraman at Pathé was a bit skeptical of this new-fangled idea, and not willing to take it so far. We can still see enough of Max’s tears that it works, though.

Director: Louis J. Gasnier

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One touch of Nature (1917)

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

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

Hearts and Diamonds (1914)

This short “Bunnyfinch” from Vitagraph packs quite a lot into its half-hour run time: comedy deception, mistaken identity, generational conflict, and, oh yes, baseball, are all represented. Stars John Bunny and Flora Finch were at the height of their fame at the time: probably better-known than that Chaplin fellow still making one-reelers over at Keystone.

The movie begins with Bunny, as “Widower Tupper,” learning that a wealthy widow (Finch) will be coming to town and devising a plan to woo her. First, he has to kick out his own young daughters (Ethel Lloyd and Ethel Corcoran), since for some reason he thinks he’ll do better if he pretends to be single. However, on arriving home, he finds them entertaining a group of “young bloods” (college boys with various musical instruments), so he rages at the boys and throws them out, breaking various objects in the process. Then he makes the girls pack and takes them over to the very deaf Uncle William (William Shea). Once he manages to make William understand the situation, William’s butler shows them to their rooms. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906)

This is an incomplete short from Edison that features a baseball game and was tied in to a publicity stunt involving teams from New York and Pittsburgh. What we see leaves a certain amount to be desired, but it does illustrate the transitional period from “Attractions” to “Nickelodeons.”

The movie opens on a very stage-like office set, with a short man pantomiming a baseball game to a woman sitting behind a typewriter. The man, apparently the “office boy” of the title, ceases his antics when another man comes in, who gives the woman, evidently a secretary or stenographer, an affectionate peck. Then an older man with white hair walks in, and the office boy hands him a note. An insert shot shows us that his note says that his grandmother is dead, and he should come home immediately, so the boss dismisses him for the day. When his back is turned, the office boy gives his co-workers a triumphant laugh. The scene lingers for a few extra seconds, as if something more will happen, but it does not in the surviving print. Instead, we cut to our office boy sitting on top of a telephone pole, brandishing a telescope, apparently in order to see the big game. We cut between shots of what he is seeing (framed with an “iris” around the lens to make a circular image as we would expect to see through a telescope) and shots of his reactions, which are often enthusiastic enough to nearly unseat him from his perch. The telescope footage begins with scenes of baseball players being driven onto the field in contemporary automobiles, then images of a marching band on the field, and it moves into what seem to be mostly warm-up plays or plays staged specifically for the camera. We also see the office boy’s co-workers in the stand, and they seem to be getting chewed out by the boss, who is sitting behind them, but no clear logic for this is in the surviving footage, and indeed the shots of the boss arriving and his yelling at them seem to be in the wrong order. The footage ends with a shot of the scoreboard.

The blog “Baseball Researcher” has filled in a lot of the details of this movie, including a lot of factual information about the location and teams that add to our understanding of this footage. First, the plot seems to be obscured here, but we are meant to understand that the secretary and the office worker made an excuse to leave early as well, while the boss decided that if no work was getting done anyway, he might as well go to the game, only to find his idle workers playing hooky at the field! Thus, the sneaky office boy gets the pleasure of watching his rude co-workers take the punishment he also deserves. Next, these observations confirm my suspicion that most of the playing we see is staged; although movie cameras at ball games weren’t exactly new, the Edison photographers had probably learned that with the limited length of film reels in those days, the chances of catching a good play “by chance” were pretty slim. It also describes a screening of the film for the two ball teams in the evening on a rooftop of a “legitimate” theater, which strikes me as a very intentional “attraction”-style stunt to get some press coverage for the film, and maybe as repayment to the players for staging the scenes for them. By 1906 standards, this is a pretty simplistic film, at least to judge from what we can see, so it probably needed all the promotion it could get to be a big seller. One final note, though this is hardly surprising for the era, is that there is no attempt to line up the angle of the camera with that we would expect to see through a telescope looking from above. All of the shots are taken on the same level as the players and we have to “suspend disbelief” to imagine that the office boy would see it this way.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Ripped Off? Buy Here Instead”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box. Read the rest of this entry »

Some words about the Century Awards

Today is the Oscars, and anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed that I never announced any candidates for the Century Awards of 1918. I could just let that pass without comment, but just in case, here are a few words.

It comes down to just one thing: I didn’t watch enough 1918 movies to make it a fair contest. I missed a number of quite large-scale releases, including the #1 box office success. But, more important, in order to really judge what was outstanding for the year, I need to really steep myself in the “other” movies that came out that year, and I didn’t find the time. In general, the rate of my posting is down, and it’s likely to stay that way. I have too many other things (including work!) going on in my life. The Century Awards was a great idea that turned out to be a lot of work every year, and I just couldn’t keep it going.

If anyone’s interested, here’s my biggest thought about 1918: If there had been an Academy Awards (or equivalent), it would have demonstrated the awesome popularity of the four people who formed United Artists the next year: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford. Between them, I suspect they’d have had nominations in nearly every category, and probably a fair number of wins as well. No doubt it was this swelling of support that led them to make a go of it as a production company, although the history of UA is fraught with their personal difficulties and over-confidence. (William S. Hart was also involved in the planning of UA, and I expect he’d have been a factor in any fair Awards of the time as well).

A couple of comparative newcomers would probably make some lists as well: Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd had been in movies almost as long as Chaplin, but by 1918, he’d gotten out of the “Lonesome Luke” persona and switched over to the now-familiar “glasses” look that made him a comedy icon. Keaton had only been working for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Studios for less than a year when 1918 started, but he had rapidly become one of the most important players and behind-the-scenes gag inventors.

With the end of the First World War, 1918 is a kind of turning point in film history as well. It’s the year that Europe looked up and realized that Hollywood was firmly in control of the industry, whatever they might feel about that. Some tried in later years to fight back by establishing nationalized studios (or supporting existing ones), but to a large extent the masses continue to run out to see Hollywood films, no matter how good their own national product was. The nature of silent cinema made this comparably easy – a silent film can be followed by anyone, regardless of their mother tongue, and swapping out translated intertitles is a lot cheaper than dubbing or subtitling a whole movie. But, there was also the economic reality that four years of (mostly) peace had given studios in the US the opportunity to build infrastructure that Europe lost through war and revolution. That included a massive distribution system to over 100 million people that American studios could reach without paying import duties before they even worried about the European market. No European country had anything to compare.

As we continue into 1919, I’ll probably maintain my current rate of one or two posts a week, not all about 1919 because there’s so much “catching up” I still want to do, so it’s likely that I’ll feel the same when we get to Awards time next year. Perhaps I can write up another essay like this one to “take the pulse of the times.” I hope it doesn’t disappoint anyone too much to miss out on the Century Awards, thank you for reading!

Casey at the Bat (1899)

This fragment of a short Edison movie is subtitled “Or, the Fate of a (Rotten) Umpire,” setting up a fan’s violent wish-fulfillment right from the start. While we don’t have the whole thing, what we do see conforms to the simple slapstick of the time.

The camera is placed just behind home plate and to the left, allowing a clear view of the action in a small ball park. A man in a baseball uniform with large sideburns steps up to the plate and swings as the ball flies past. The umpire calls two strikes before “Casey” turns on him and begins to punch him. Soon, several other players from both teams are involved in the melee – mostly apparently trying to pull “Casey” off the hapless referee.

The position of the camera was particularly interesting to me, because it seems that this is the standard one-shot image of a baseball game, in spite of the fact that it puts the camera at some risk of being hit by a bad pitch. It may have already been established by still photographers, or possibly by baseball fans’ consensus that right behind home plate is the best place to watch a ball game. Or, it may just be the best way to frame both pitcher and batter so that the action is central to the screen without panning or switching shots. Other than that there isn’t much to say about this movie – it’s yet another example of a fight being used to generate interest and comedy in early cinema.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Busher (1919)

This baseball film from Thomas H. Ince emphasizes small-town values and staying true to your roots as ideals, just as many films about “the Great American Pastime” would do in years to come. It features a young Colleen Moore as the love interest, still a few years away from becoming the national symbol of “flapper” fashion.

The movie begins by introducing us to Ben Harding (played by Charles Ray), a small-time pitcher from Brownville. He is already in his baseball uniform as the movie opens, and we get the idea that he’s pretty devoted, in part because he carries a baseball glove around in his pocket. He tries to sneak past his snoozing father on his way to the ball park, but he drops the chain that fastens the gate to the fence and has to go back and tell him where he’s off to. Dad looks stern, but we can see he’s secretly proud of his son’s talents. Read the rest of this entry »