Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Way Down East (1920)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most enduring features, this movie comes from the period in which he was one of the leading lights of United Artists, and was quickly bankrupting himself trying to keep up a stream of hits for that ambitious studio project. While some of the movies he made then are dismissed today, this one endures as a critics’ darling – does it live up to its reputation?

Griffith’ usual flowery intertitles set up a situation he tries to present as “universal” although it is rather specific. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a young woman living East of Boston with her widowed mother. As money is tight, Anna reluctantly agrees to go in to the city to visit wealthy relatives, and ask for help. The family is clearly put off by her appearance, and she is a little too shy (and a little too proud) to ask outright for money, so she awkwardly accepts a left-handed invitation to stay. The one person in “society” who pays her any attention is Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a raconteur whose only interest is sex. He tricks her into a phony wedding in order to get her in bed, and convinces her to keep it a secret to avoid upsetting his father an losing his inheritance. Anna, thinking that her future fortune is now secure, returns home and begins seeing him secretly. She soon becomes pregnant, and tells Lennox that they must now reveal their marriage, causing him to reveal to her that it wasn’t legal. He promises her money and leaves.

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Forgiven in Death (1911)

This early western from G.M. Anderson depicts honor and male bonding in uncivilized conditions, a trope that the genre will frequently return to in future decades. It also uses Native Americans as generic un-motivated villains, another aspect that would persist.

The intertitles do much of the heavy lifting in the first act, as we learn that Ned (Brinsley Shaw) and Jack (Anderson) are in love with the daughter of their employer (Gladys Field) and that she has a hard time deciding between them. She chooses Jack, but they keep the wedding secret to avoid hurting Ned, and the two men go off together on a prospecting venture, living in a small shack on the plains. Ned insists on picking up their mail every day, and he stashes all of Gladys’s letters to Jack under the floorboards, resulting in Jack being mopey and depressed. One day, on the way to the post office, he encounters an Indian war party, who are hiding in the grasses and immediately pursue him when he turns his horse back. There’s a long chase back to the shack, and then Jack and Ned try to fight off the attackers with their pistols. There are no further intertitles at this point, with the drama now playing out entirely through the action on the screen.

There are far too many Indians (and they have rifles, so should be able to hit at a greater distance, but these Indians insist on getting as close as possible and standing up to shoot so they lose a lot of men), and Jack is hit. He tries to stand once or twice, then seems to collapse in pain and despair. Ned now runs to get all the letters and starts to read one to his friend, trying to raise his spirits, and learns as a result that Gladys and Jack are married. Jack raises his pistol, and Ned holds up his hands in fear, but at the last moment, Jack shoots an Indian who was pointing his gun through the window. The two men are reconciled, but moments later Ned is hit also, and they reach out to hold hands as they both expire. We see a final shot of the warriors celebrating their victory and breaking into the shack to see their dead enemies.

The key to this movie is the gun battle, which is adequately staged for its purpose, but lacks the dynamics of later films like “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.” The chase is typical for the period, with the camera locked down in one position as the pursued, and then all of the pursuers, race towards it and right past, then cutting to the next shot of pretty much the same thing again. The camera moves very slightly to follow the action, probably panning less than ten degrees so that it could almost be accidental. The gunfight is intercut between shots outside and those inside, showing simultaneous action but never really connecting the two locations. The “outside” action is all but forgotten while Ned and Jack have their interior confrontation, with only the resolution bringing in the Indians at all during that scene. Later film makers would probably at least shown bullets zipping around the shack to remind us that the attackers are still there. But, this is a pretty early effort, and at least the tension of “will Jack shoot Ned?” is held effectively, though the title kind of gives away the ending.

Finally, I mentioned the use of Native Americans as generic bad guys in this film. We never get any sense of why they attack our heroes – presumably they are threatened by the proximity of prospectors in their territory, possibly Ned and Jack (and their employer) are in violation of treaty agreements. But, their side is not part of the drama, so they wind up as one-dimensional villains, with rather poor tactics as well.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Gladys Field, Arthur Mackley, Harry Todd

Run Time: 15 Min, 40 secs

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

Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)

William S. Hart stars in this somewhat somber morality tale set in the Pacific Northwest. With less action than his usual Westerns, this movie asks more of him as an actor and director in terms of emotion and conviction.

The movie begins, with rather flowery intertitles that have a distinctly Jack London influence, by introducing “Blue Blazes” Rawden – a hellraising timber man far from civilization (played by Hart), surrounded by his admirers on pay day. He leads them to the town of Timber Cove with the full intention of blowing all their pay in a wild debauch. They quickly locate the Far North Hotel, a place with a saloon suited to separate them from their money, and once there, Blazes is soon in a dispute with the owner, “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim), over his girl Babette du Fresne (Maude George). Blazes and Hilgard try to settle things with cards, but as Blazes winnings pile up and Hilgard is about to lose his hotel, he challenges Blazes to a gunfight, even going so far as to have one of his cronies sabotage Blazes’ ammunition, but Blazes is too tough for him, and ends up shooting Hilgard with his own gun.

Rawden has won the respect of the town, the hotel, and the woman in one fell swoop, but there’s a catch. As he’s dying, Hilgard gives Rawden the letter he just received from his aging mother (Gertrude Clair) – she’s coming out to visit, along with Eric, his innocent younger brother (Robert Gordon), and they expect to find a decent, respectable man, not a ruffian card sharp. When they arrive, apparently Rawden’s heart grows three sizes that day, because he can’t bring himself to tell the truth about Hilgard or himself. He admits that Hilgard is dead, but insists they were fast friends and that Hilgard was a pillar of the community. He threatens everyone at the bar not to contradict him or they’ll get what Ladyfingers got, and so they all go along with him as he puts up a gravestone that calls Hilgard  a good man and generally carries off a huge deception, reforming himself along the way. Eventually, Babette becomes annoyed by the “new” Blazes and tells the younger brother that Blazes killed Hilgard, which so enrages him that he shoots Blazes – who refuses to defend himself because that would mean killing two sons of the woman who he so respects. After saving Eric from a lynch mob, Blue Blazes makes him promise never to tell Mrs. Hilgard what he knows and leaves town a reformed man, though it seems likely he’ll die in the wilderness of his wounds.

Most of this movie hinges on Hart convincing his audience that he is so remorseful after meeting the mother of his victim that he completely changes from the brutal hell raiser into a man of decency. What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off quite well. The two sides of this character seem perfectly suited to Hart – he was equally capable of being the devil-may-care brawler and the man with a simple code of honor who never wavers, once decided on his path. It’s strange to see them both evoked in a single story like this, but somehow it works. It helps that Clair is so good as the refined but sweet old lady who could never think ill of her son or his surroundings. When Babette tries to tell her about Hilgard, she invites her to tea and remarks how surprised she is that the other ladies (all of them evidently prostitutes) of the town have never paid her a call. As a director, Hart deserves credit also for building a believable environment of savage lumber jacks, taking advantage of the redwoods in northern California to show a primeval forest that separates men from their upbringing and civilized training. Given this theme in the early intertitles, I was surprised when something as simple as a mother’s love was enough to shatter this premise and change the title character from hellion to angel.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Maude George, Robert McKim, Gertrude Claire, Robert Gordon, Jack Hoxie

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Garage (1920)

This is the last short film from the Comique Studios starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. after this, Keaton would strike out on his own and Arbuckle would make a brief stab at feature films before being embroiled in scandal, but for now, we get to enjoy the duo in action for one last time.

Arbuckle and Keaton play automobile mechanics and firemen at a garage in a fire station. They work for an old man who seems to have high blood pressure (Dan Crimmins). Molly Malone plays the boss’ daughter who is being courted by a man named Jim (Harry McCoy), though she turns him down after the flowers he brings her end up accidentally soaked in motor oil thanks to Fatty and Buster. Livid, Jim raises the alarm in the fire station to make Fatty and Buster think there is a fire and forcing them to rush across town. However, Jim accidentally starts a real fire while trying to exit the station and the firemen return to put out the fire and rescue Mollie who is trapped inside. When Fatty, Buster and several of the townspeople try to rescue Molly using a life net, she bounces up into the telephone wires. Fatty and Buster eventually get Molly down but become trapped themselves; luckily Mollie moves a car beneath them just before they fall and all three ride off together.

The summary above focuses on the “plot,” but really misses most of the film. Like most of the Keaton/Arbuckle shorts, the story is just a thin skeleton on which to hang a series of gags, which come fast and thick here. Right off the bat, we see Arbuckle washing down a car at the opening, and he seems to work extra hard on a window, before leaning through the window to clean the outside of the car, demonstrating that it was open the whole time! Keaton has some beer with his lunch, but decides it’s a bit thin and adds some wood alcohol to the mix. Keaton and Arbuckle get into a fight, throwing pies, soapy rags, oil and everything else they can find at one another, making a huge mess of themselves and the car Arbuckle just finished washing down. Then they put it on a giant spinning plate and spray it with a hose while the manager does pratfalls to distract the customer. And all this is just the first few minutes of the movie! Probably one of the best-loved sequences is where Keaton, having been chased by Luke the Dog and losing his pants as a result, pretends to be a Scotsman by cutting a kilt off a poster for Scotch whiskey and does a ridiculous jig in front of a policeman. Then he hides by walking behind Arbuckle, then switching to the front when the cop is behind them. None of this has anything to do with the garage (though it is loosely tied in to Jim’s attempts to date Mollie), but it works because it doesn’t need to make sense to be funny.

Unlike some of their earlier work, this one seems to flow naturally from one scene into the next, despite the madcap pacing. There is sort of a divide between reel one, which is mostly about fixing cars, and reel two, which is mostly about fighting fires, but there isn’t quite as much sense of the film being two movies stitched together as in “The Butcher Boy” for example. Arbuckle and Keaton are clearly having fun every minute, and although the movie ends with Keaton acting as chauffeur while Mollie and Fatty snuggle in the back seat, there is very little sense of Arbuckle being the “lead” and Keaton being a “sidekick.” The two of them are fully a team now. It’s sort of sad to think that they never worked together again, but in fact Keaton was headed for bigger things. We’ll be seeing some of that in months and years to come.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Molly Malone, Harry McCoy, Daniel Crimmins, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 25 Min

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

The Silent Man (1917)

William S. Hart one-ups John Wayne by being even quieter in this movie from Thomas Ince’s Artcraft Pictures. Is silence golden? We’ll take a look at it today.

Hart plays “Silent” Budd Marr, a prospector who, after three months in the desert, has finally struck a claim. He treats his horse and mule with characteristic affection, bringing them past rattlesnakes and to the front of the “Hello Thar” dance hall in “Bakeoven,” the small gold rush camp town that is the main setting of our tale. There he proceeds to order three tall glasses of water – a very wise idea given his parched condition – before heading over to the assessor’s office to file his claim. Because he pays in gold dust, he attracts the attention of the proprietors, Ames Mitchell (Milton Ross) and “Handsome” Jack Pressley (Robert McKim). Handsom Jack tries to get Silent drunk, but he sticks to water. He also meets “Grubstake” Higgins (J.P. Lockney), a more classically grizzled-looking resident of the town, who rides him for his choice of drink with a racist comment, but then is big-hearted enough to direct him to the assessor’s office. With his claim in hand, Silent now heads back to the bar for some “man-sized” drinks. This is a mistake, because in the meantime Mitchell and Pressley have devised a plan.

Handsome and Silent

Pressley sends one of his dance hall girls, a woman he had tricked into marrying him in order to lure her to the “Hello Thar,” to get Silent’s attention, and then starts a dispute, which can only be settled by a card game between the two of them. Of course, he’s cheating, using the girl to telegraph Silent’s hand from behind his back, but when Silent catches on he makes the situation worse by fighting and getting shot, spending two weeks in bed to recover, and giving the claim-jumpers a chance to secure a claim with the assessor, somehow moving Silent’s claim a few hundred yards from where it should be.

While Silent’s been out of action, Handsome Jack has been busy recruiting a new girl for his business. This is Betty Bryce (played by the equally alliterative Vola Vale), a young innocent orphan from the neighboring town of Chloride who takes care of her brother (Harold Goodwin), who’d rather she marry a cowboy so he could have a horse to ride. She falls for Pressley’s line, however, with the result that she and he are in the same coach where Ames is transporting his ill-gotten gold dust back to Bakeoven when Silent, now reduced to banditry, decides to raid it. He winds up taking  the girl captive, and has to hide out with her while the posse searches for him. She assumes him to be an evil desperado, but he treats her with gentlemanly consideration, and gradually she comes to see him as trustworthy. He tells her the story of how he came to desperado-hood and that he’s saved her from an evil fate, though at first she has doubts.

Silent brings Betty to the mountain home of “Preachin” Bill Hardy (George Nichols), a former prospector who’s found God and is now building a church in the wilderness to bring the Word to the forsaken people of Bakeoven (but still can’t remember not to cuss in front of young girls). Grubstake brings her brother out to join her, and the family is reunited. The happiness of the situation is temporary (of course), as Ames and Pressley eventually get wind of Silent’s whereabouts. Betty’s brother, eager to earn the reward for the bandit in order to give it to the preacher to help him finish the church, is injured in an attempt to take Silent single-handed, and he brings him back to the church, but meanwhile, the bad guys have set fire to the church to try to get the information from Hardy. Silent lets the boy bring him in so that the reward will go to Hardy, who has lost everything for his honor. At the trial, the truth comes out when Grubstake reveals his true identity as a Federal Marshall investigating Ames. Pressley and Ames try to get the crowd to lynch Silent anyway, but more lawmen show up and save the day. Bud and Betty are able to marry and live happily ever after.

Coming a year after “Hell’s Hinges,” and “The Return of Draw Egan” this movie seems comparably formulaic and unimaginative. I don’t know, maybe I’ve just seen too many of these William Hart movies to appreciate it, but it seems to me like pretty much everything in this has been done before. In fact, the subplot about capturing Betty and wooing her reminded me a lot of “Shark Monroe,” which was to come out the next year and did a much better job of dealing with the awkwardness and sexual tension of that situation. We do get the interesting situation of Hart as an anti-hero bandit with a pure heart and a desire for revenge, but this is mostly window-dressing for a pretty generic Western storyline. Finally, I’m not sure why his character (or the title)  is called “Silent,” unless it was just to call attention to the fact that this is a silent movie. He has as much dialogue as anyone, and actually the one person who keeps silence is the preacher, who refuses to divulge information under extreme duress.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Vola Vale, Robert McKim, J.P. Lockney, George Nichols, Gertrude Clair, Milton Ross, Harold Goodwin

Run Time: 55 Min

 

Headin Home (1920)

This early biopic stars its subject Babe Ruth but completely fictionalizes his life to create a down-home American narrative surrounding a life which might not have fit into accepted American mythology at the time. The result is somewhat odd, but at times quite amusing.

The movie opens, after a jokey intertitle, by showing a throng of baseball fans piling into a ball park (most likely the Polo Grounds, where Ruth worked at the time). They are nearly all men, and nearly all wearing identical straw hats – obviously a major fashion accessory of the day. We see the New York Yankees come out of their dressing rooms and a close up of Ruth in the dugout, then a ballgame and the crowd is shot from a few different angles. Suddenly, one of the fans is introduced as “an oldtimer from Babe’s birthplace, Haverlock.” Haverlock, it seems, is a small rural community somewhere in “the sticks” (it’s never really clear where, but the town has sort of an East Coast look that made me think of upstate New York). We are then transported to this rustic hamlet, where Babe evidently lived with his single mother (Margaret Seddon) and small foster sister (Frances Victory). Ruth is shown hacking down a small tree in the woods with the intention of making himself a baseball bat. Other town members are introduced, each with a funny and often misspelled intertitle, including the local banker (James Marcus), his son (Ralf Harolde) and daughter (Ruth Taylor), who is Ruth’s love interest Mildred. “Si,” the banker (short for “Cyrus”) kicks his son out of the house for running up debts and the son goes off to New York. We also meet Ruth’s rivals, who include the local dogcatcher (George Halpin) and Harry Knight (William Sheer), the man Cyrus brings in to work at the bank and to pitch for the local ball team, run by the drunken town barber (Walter Lawrence).

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Carmen (1918)

Alternate Title: “Gypsy Blood”

Coming early in the careers of Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri, this filmed version of the famous novella/opera gave them an opportunity to work with “serious” cultural material. Does this European interpretation of the story work better than its American predecessors?

The movie opens with a group of gypsies sitting around a campfire at night. One of them launches into the story of “La Carmencita” and the man she ruined. We now see Don Jose (played by Harry Liedke), who visits his mother and sweetheart in the hills before he arrives in Seville to receive a promotion to the rank of Sergeant. This is a great honor for a man of humble beginnings. We can see from his shy interactions with his fiancé that he has little knowledge of the ways of the world. At Seville, we see a parade at the changing of the guard, which seems to be a big draw for crowds, including the girls at the local tobacco factory, who wave at the soldiers and flirt with men on the street. The most beautiful, and aggressive, is of course Carmen (Negri). She sees Don Jose mooning over a letter from his sweetheart and resolves to have some fun with him. She teases him with a rose, which he mostly ignores until she leaves, then notices how marvelously sweet the odor is once she’s gone. Read the rest of this entry »

Charlie Butts In (1920)

Unusual provenance explains this re-edited, re-titled version of Charlie Chaplin’s “A Night Out,” but it was once widely seen by audiences who had little access to new material from Chaplin during his long dry spells in the 1920s.

The movie begins by showing Charlie as a band conductor, with a trombonist who frequently hits him when his back(side) is turned. Then we cut to Charlie in his hotel, flirting with a woman behind a veil, apparently a bit drunk, impressed by her backside and horrified when her face is revealed. Next is a scene showing Charlie, evidently in a restaurant, using a decorative fountain for his evening ablutions. At the very end of this sequence, Bud Jamison appears to chastise him. Next is a scene of Charlie preparing for bed in a hotel room, tossing clothes out the window and nearly sleeping on the floor himself. Edna Purviance plays with a dog across the hall and this hides under Charlie’s bed. Edna follows it and Charlie finds a girl under his bed, only to find moments later, her husband (Bud Jamison again) at the door. Soon, Ben Turpin shows up with a bone to pick with Charlie as well. The ensuing fight ends with Charlie passing out in his bathtub.

Some unscrupulous type seems to have gotten ahold of discarded takes from “A Night Out” and edited it into a short movie. Again, since Chaplin wasn’t releasing much at the time (certainly not as much as the public wanted), it was easy to get a “new” Chaplin into distribution, even without his approval. It lives on in the guise of a Charlie Chaplin movie, although better prints of the originals have been released.

Director: Unknown (though Chaplin presumably directed all the footage)

Camera: Unknown (most likely Harry Ensign)

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Fred Goodwins

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Oyster Princess (1919)

Another Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy starring Ossi Oswalda, this one is a bit less transgressive than “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” but still racy by the standards of the time, especially compared to American comedies. Lubitsch again shows the talent he will be bringing to movies for some time to come.

Ossi this time plays Ossi Quaker, the daughter of an American magnate (Victor Janson) who has made his fortune selling oysters. She seems to delight in destroying things, throwing newspapers when she runs out of vases to break. When Victor asks what the matter is this time, he finds it’s because the daughter of the “Shoe Cream King” is marrying a count. Of course, she demands better, so Mr. Quaker agrees to find her a prince. He goes to a matchmaker (Max Kronert) who looks in his files and discovers a confirmed bachelor by the name of Prince Nucki (Harry Liedke) and sends him an invitation to meet the Quakers. The reticent Nucki, on receiving this note in his bachelor pad, sends his buddy Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to scope out the girl in question, setting him up to play his valet. Meanwhile, Ossi is “instructed” in married life by practicing with a baby doll.

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The Circus (1920)

This short from Bray Studios again mixes live action with animation (no doubt to save time and money before cel animation had been perfected) to produce a movie about a drawing that takes on a life of its own. The result is simple, but satisfying.

Let this ring represent “Circus.”

The movie begins with an image of an artist at his desk with a messenger standing over him. We see him draw the image of a clown, seal it in an envelope and address it to “the Operator.” The messenger brings it to a projectionist working in a booth, and he opens it to find instructions for the clown. He turns the page over and the clown comes to life, initiating the animated portion of the film. The clown draws himself a circus ring and calls for music. He creates the shape of a horse beneath a blanket, then pulls off the blanket, revealing a skinny nag. The horse eats the blanket and the clown does some stunts on his back, before the horse bucks him off and tramples him. The clown asks the horse to count out the toes on his foot, and the horse stamps on it. The horse then does a series of funny poses, and the clown announces that he will run to beat his own time of a mile in 1 and ¾ seconds, but he accidentally hits the horse with the bullet from the starter gun. The horse announces “I’m kilt” in a speech bubble and a horse with a halo emerges and floats up to horse heaven. The horse-St. Peter insists that he take off his shoes and when he tosses them down he hits the clown repeatedly. The clown throws one back up, giving St. Pete a black eye and the horse laughs, causing St. Pete to kick him back down to Earth. He re-enters the horse-body and comes back to life. He kicks the still laughing clown into an inkpot and the clown throws ink at the horse before putting the cap back on and descending.

This movie was part of a series called “Out of the Inkwell” produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave. The series ran from 1918 to 1926, and the protagonist would eventually become known as “Koko the Clown,” although he was nameless at the time of this film. He has a memorable look that I think today seems like a familiar image of an “old time” clown. He had first been drawn by Max Fleischer to demonstrate the success of his invention, the rotoscope, that was a method for achieving realistic movement for animated cartoons. The series became a hit, and the Fleischers went on to produce on film a month for eight years. Koko remained a staple for years after the end of the first series and continued working up to an appearance with Betty Boop in 1934, then took some time off before appearing on television in the sixties. This cartoon, which has many elements that would be familiar to children of later generations, seems fairly sophisticated, although much of the movie takes place against a blank white background. Once we get up to “horse heaven,” things get a bit more impressive, and the clown does well moving about the “real” world of the inkwell as well.

Director: Dave Fleischer

Animator: Max Fleischer

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

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