Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Witch’s Revenge (1903)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès takes the basic format of one of his magic shows and integrates it into a plot – a plot that seems to playfully celebrate the diabolical powers of Satanism! Lighthearted and fun, it manages on a small budget to provide almost as much entertainment as one of the longer films he was experimenting with at the time.

Witchs Revenge

The stage is set as the throne room of a medieval King, with a throne and some lesser courtly chairs at one end and a post with chains attached at the other. A backdrop completes the picture, suggesting a large room with a colonnade allowing a view of a city beyond. A man with a beard (played by Méliès)is in chains, dragged in by two guards while another man, evidently the King looks on. The King signals that the bearded man be shackled to the post, but the sorcerer (for he is such) pleads with him for mercy, promising to use his powers to benefit the King. The King, intrigued, agrees and sends the guards out of the room. The sorcerer now summons an imp, who rises from the floor and tumbles, before going off-stage. Moments later, a large portable stage (identified in the Star Films catalog as a “palanquin”) is brought forth. The sorcerer gestures and three women in Greek costumes appear. The sorcerer gestures again and they come to life, now dressed in courtly clothes, one assuming the role of a Queen and the others her ladies-in-waiting. The King takes the Queen by the hand and escorts her to a place of honor near the throne and the ladies take up positions nearby. The sorcerer now begins some tricks to amuse the Court, beginning with a chair that he makes spin in place and hop around. He turns it into a clown that performs some tumbles before becoming a chair once again. The sorcerer sits in the chair and disappears. The King rushes over to investigate, only to find the sorcerer is now in his throne! He summons the guards but the sorcerer turns them into demons, who chain the King to the post that was meant for the sorcerer. The sorcerer takes his crown and his Queen as the King struggles against the chains.

Witchs Revenge1

The French title of this movie is “Le Sorcier” which is why I have described the man with the beard as a sorcerer, but the English title uses the term “witch,” which has come to be associated only with women. This was not always the case, and during the time of the witch trials it could be used to describe a person of either gender who made a pact with the Devil to gain worldly power. In that sense, it works just as well for the condemned magician of this story, who obviously does call upon Hellish powers to usurp the King’s position. Why would Méliès make a movie in which the Devil wins? Well, it’s not the first time there has been some playful blasphemy in a Méliès film, for example in “The Devil in a Convent.” But, I think the explanation here has more to do with the nature of comedy. The movie begins with a man in chains, bullied by guards, and in the power of the King. It’s funniest if that situation is reversed at the end. Think of Charlie Chaplin, and the other “little men” of silent comedy, and how they overcame cops, bosses, waiters, large powerful convicts, and other minions of authority. Here, Méliès is doing the same thing, only in this case the authority is endowed with the Divine Right of Kings, so the element of sacrilege is already there, even without bringing in imps and demons. Méliès takes it one step further, and, this time, unlike in “The Devil in a Covent” or “The Devil and the Statue,” he skips the “squaring-up” at the end and doesn’t have the sorcerer get his due – which would make this a moral lesson, rather than a simple comedy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 22 secs

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

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County (1913)

This typical short Western from Essanay shows Gilbert M. Anderson’s best-known character once again in trouble with the law, but acting from a code of decency nevertheless. It would be more or less impossible to reconcile its narrative with any coherency with other stories in the series, but that never seems to have been a concern for Anderson or his audiences.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County

The movie begins by showing a girl (Marguerite Clayton) ministering to her sick mother. She runs out of medicine, and goes out to another room to find her father (Lloyd Ingraham) snoozing in an easy chair. She gives him the empty medicine bottle and some money and sends him off to get more. Dad, it seems, however, is not the most reliable errand-boy, as we will see later, but we do see her admonish him as she gives him the money and there is a curious shot of him crossing a creek, sniffing the bottle and using the creek water to rinse it out. Now we switch scenes to a typical Western bar, and Broncho Billy sidles up to the bar and orders a drink. Dad comes into the bar and speaks with the bartender (Harry Todd) before slumping down in a chair at a table. The bartender brings him a menu written on a small tablet/chalk board, and takes a coin from him and erases something from it when he makes his selection. He then brings Dad a full bottle and lets him pour out a drink. After a while, Dad is pretty drunk, and he pulls out the medicine bottle and hands over the last of his coins, asking the bartender to fill it with rotgut. The bartender looks at the bottle and then goes to draw from what looks like the cheapest bottle in the house (actually it looks more like a large wine bottle). Dad passes out while he fills it.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County1

Now Marguerite, wondering what’s taking so long, walks up and sees the bartender putting booze into the medicine bottle. She puts two and two together and goes to intervene. She wakes up her father and sniffs the bottle, then calls to the bartender, who refuses to take back the booze, insisting that the sale is complete. Broncho Billy sees what’s going on from across the room, and squares things with the bartender, giving him his gun in exchange for him returning both the empty bottle and the money to the girl. She is thankful, but now she struggles to get her dad to come with her, so Billy gives an assist. She goes to the drug store and gets the medicine while Billy sees to Dad, who is now awake and quite upset at the situation. They get back to her home and she gives Billy a prayerbook as a reward.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County2

The Intertitles tell us it is now the next day, and Billy is on horseback in the woods. He sees the stage driving up and gets himself into position to rob it, but Marguerite sees him and shames him out of doing it. She speaks to him and he takes out the little prayer book she gave. Meanwhile, Dad robs the stage a few feet down the road. He takes the strongbox and bashes it open with a rock, taking the loot bags and riding to his home, unaware that Billy has seen him. We now see the sheriff rousing his deputies in pursuit, as the report of the robbery has come in. Billy goes to the house and warns Dad they are coming, offering to take the cash off his hands. Billy mounts up and there is a wild chase on the road, with the posse in close pursuit. Billy manages to reach the County line, and he leaves the bags at the marker with a note that he is leaving the territory for good. The posse is satisfied to recover the money, and does not pursue him past their jurisdiction. A final shot shows Billy at church, kneeling and putting his prayerbook to good use.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County3

The first problem with this movie is that there are sources that list it as “Why Broncho Billy Left Bear Country,” which implies a different kind of a story. Even the DVD collection I have gives a different title on the beginning of the movie and the intertitles (both of which look reconstructed, to me). The fact that “Bear County” is written on the sign where Billy hangs the money seems to resolve that question, as well as the fact that we don’t see any bears, which would seem necessary to establish “bear country” in context. I had a hard time recognizing Dad as the robber in the second half of the film, and without that information, the story was confusing the first time through. The only thing that distinguishes him, given the quality of the print I was watching, was his checkered shirt. Poor Marguerite, with a dissipated father who resorts to such un-Christian acts! The color of the medicine and the booze were also very similar, which got me to wondering whether Ma might also be a secret tippler, and the medicine really snake oil all along. The most interesting thing cinematically about this movie is the editing. Most of the movie is stagey, with long, stationary shots in which the actors go about their business. The first moment in which this is disrupted is actually when Billy goes to help out Marguerite. Suddenly there are edits from him to the bar to the table where Dad and Marguerite are, giving the audience a sense of things happening at the same time. The bigger use of this is the horse chase at the end, where Anderson seems to be trying to emulate “The Great Train Robbery” by creating an action-suspense sequence to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s not quite so thrilling as that movie, but with the moment of suspense when the posse is bearing down on the house where Billy and Dad are exposed with the loot, there is a moment of genuine alarm.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lloyd Ingraham, Harry Todd, Fred Church, Victor Potel, True Boardman, David Kirkland

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sky Scrapers of New York City from the North River (1903)

This short from Edison is a classic Panorama of lower Manhattan, taken from a moving boat. Movies like this were old hat by 1903, but apparently there was still enough of a market to justify another one.

Skyscrapers from the North River1

The image begins with the camera facing a pier, with a tugboat steaming across the screen in the opposite direction to the motion of the camera. We pass a docked steamship and the next pier – clearly labeled “Pier 13.” Once we get past this pier, a bit of the city can be seen in the distance, although by modern standards these buildings are hardly “skyscrapers.” As get proceed further, there is a docked ferry (very similar in design to current ones), and now some taller buildings come into view. According to the Library of Congress’s summary, these include the Syndicate Building, Trinity Church, and the Surety Building. We pass a docked freighter and another tugboat steams through the frame. At this point the buildings in the background at tall enough to reach about 4/5 of the top of the frame, so they are impressively tall. A building marked “Babbitt” is a soap factory, according to LoC. Piers 4 and 5 are labelled “Pennsylvania Railroad,” and several barges, evidently intended to carry railroad cars, are piled nearby. The buildings here are somewhat shorter, but large. LoC identifies two as the Bowling Green Building and the Whitehall Building. Piers 2 and three are marked “Lehigh Valley,” and a very tall building (taller than the frame) sits next to #2. Pier One is Pennsylvania Railroad again, but it is followed by “New Pier 1,” which is owned by the United Fruit Company. LoC tells us that the next pier is Pier A, and that the boat marked “Patrol” is a police vessel. Now the Battery comes into view, and we see the Fireboat House and Castle Garden, which was an aquarium at the time, as we pass along the park’s edge. The camera shows Battery Park’s waterfront and begins to turn away from Manhattan at the end.

Skyscrapers from the North River

I was a bit confused by the designation “North River” when I first saw this, expecting it would show the northern part of Manhattan, but it actually shows the southern. The low pier numbers kind of gave it away, even before I recognized the Battery. Edison’s catalog doesn’t give the kind of detail about the location that you might expect; it only mentions the aquarium. Their emphasis is on the “beautiful stereoscopic effect of the sky-scrapers,” by which I suppose they meant that you could see the nearer objects moving faster than those further away (?). Stereoscopy normally refers to systems like Viewmaster, where a 3D effect is produced by showing different images to the left and right eyes, but so far as I know, no such technology was in use for motion picture film at the time. The film overall is probably of greatest interest to architectural and maritime historians and history buffs.

Director: Unknown

Camera: James Blair Smith

Run Time: 3 Min, 38 secs

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

The Mollycoddle (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.

Mollycoddle-1920

This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.

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Fantasmagorie (1908)

This early work from Gaumont is among the first animated movies I have discovered during this project, though, as with the early works of Windsor McCay, it includes live-action images of the illustrator and follows a stream-of-consciousness storyline.

Fantasmagorie

The first image is of the illustrator’s hand, drawing an odd little character I’m going to call “the clown.” He has a pointy hat, baggy pants, and an “x” on his shirt. Otherwise, he is basically a stick figure. When he first appears, he is hanging from a beam, but he pulls this down to show a screen, with a fat character in a top hat inside. The fat character sits in a chair facing a movie screen, with the clown in the seat before him. The clown turns into a spider and swings away on a strand of web. Then a lady comes into the theater with a large hat adorned with enormous flowers. She sits in front of the fat man and he cannot see. He starts pulling flowers off the hat, but it doesn’t make a lot of difference. He rips a hole in a wall (or maybe it’s a tent flap) and hurls most of the hat through it, choosing to pull the last piece off and sit on it. He then lights a cigar and the clown reappears inside of a bubble he blows. The clown expands to enormous size and pushes everyone else off the screen, then he shrinks down and gets inside a box. The fat man comes back and puts a weight on top, but the clown bursts out and pokes him with his pointy hat. Suddenly the fat man is replaced by an old man in a chair and the clown steals his hat, snagging it on a fishhook. It turns into a blob-shape, then suddenly is a giant, sword-wielding soldier, who attacks the clown who now has a candle instead of a fishing rod. The clown puts the sword in the candlestick holder and it becomes a potted plant. Somehow, the clown’s nose is now attached to the end of the plant and he is lifted into the air as it rapidly grows. His head is pulled off his body and flung into the hands of another character, who treats it like a balloon. The clown’s body reclaims the head and the new character turns into a cannon that also looks like a giant bottle, pointing and the clown. It pulls the clown inside rather than shooting him and then opens up as the petals of a flower, revealing the clown inside. It then turns into a long snake-like object which is revealed as the trunk of an elephant, and the clown tries to ride the elephant. The elephant turns into a building and the clown opens the door and goes inside, just as a policeman walk up. The policeman locks the door, but the clown leaps out of the second-story window, breaking into pieces when he hits the ground. The animator’s hands reappear, and he puts the clown back together. The clown gets up and blows on a trumpet, which causes his pants to blow up like a balloon and he flies off, finally landing on the back of a horse.

Fantasmagorie1

All of that happens in less than two minutes! There’s not much time to make sense of it all, this is really more of a quick whimsical experiment in animation than an attempt to create a narrative. Still, certain aspects of cartoon narration are here – slapstick and violent comedy, for example, and taking advantage of the fact that drawn characters can magically transform or be dismembered and put back together again. I was reminded of the Sennett/Griffith collaboration “Those Awful Hats” by the sequence in the movie theater. All of the action takes place against a black background and most of the characters are stick-figure sketches, which probably made re-drawing them quickly an easier task. Apparently there were two other Gaumont animated releases that I haven’t come – it’s possible they have been lost. It appears that this proved to be too much work for the amount of entertainment it provided and they gave it up after that until better animation technology was developed.

Director: Emile Cohl

Run Time: 1 min, 15secs

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

Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Five years after “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith released this epic film about sisters in revolutionary Paris, filled with romance, intrigue, suspense, and, yes, spectacle. Griffith had a huge reputation to live up to, and struggled to maintain his critical success with each new picture. How does this movie hold up after 100 years?

Orphans_of_the_Storm_01

The movie begins with the usual Griffith intertitles expostulating on the past and current affairs. In this case, he evokes the history of the Reign of Terror to warn against America’s possible descent into “Anarchy and Bolshevism,” putting you on notice as to where he stands. Then more intertitles introduce our backstory, which establishes the classic orphaned child of the nobility being left at the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral to freeze, but rescued by a peasant who had intended to do the same with his own baby daughter. These two grow up together in provincial poverty, never knowing their roots, and become real-life sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, playing Louise and Henriette Girard, respectively.

Orphans of the Storm1 Read the rest of this entry »

Robinson Crusoe (1902)

Another multi-scene interpretation of classic literature, this movie was released by Georges Méliès in the same year as “A Trip to the Moon.” It also deals with questions of colonialism, but where others have found traces of a critical approach in the former film, here it seems little has changed since Daniel Defoe’s day.

Robinson_Crusoe

The movie begins with a depiction of Crusoe’s ship crashing, but surviving prints have very little of this – a brief flash of a man slumped over a rocky cliff, a wrecked ship in the background traces the impression lightly, though the Star Films catalog suggests we should see more of his struggle to survive. The next scene shows Robinson (Méliès) poling upriver in a raft laden with salvaged items, such as a barrel (the catalog suggests an entire scene is lost, in which we see him building the raft). Another scene shows him looting the wreck of the ship before all of it breaks up and drifts away. He locates survivors – a cat and a dog – who will be his first companions on the island. The next scene shows him atop a peak on the island’s mountainous terrain, lighting a signal fir to try to hail a passing ship. The ship sails by without stopping, however. (Once again, the catalog suggests something is missing, since two signaling scenes are listed). Now, Robinson, resigned to living long-term on the island, is shown hard at the labor of building a hut to shelter himself and his animals.

Robinson Crusoe1

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The Drawing Lesson (1903)

Another short trick film by Georges Méliès, this movie demands a bit more of the audience (or perhaps a live narrator) than some of the simpler films of earlier years. We see familiar themes and effects, taken to a somewhat more complex level than before.

Drawing Lesson

The movie begins with a proscenium-style set that depicts a garden with an ornamental colonnade in the background. A man in 18th-century-style clothing carries an easel out onto the stage and gestures his approval of the scene, then tries to signal someone to follow him. When they do not, he goes back offstage in search of them. Now a new individual (this seems to be played by Méliès) comes onstage and appears to be planning a prank on the first. He transforms a barrel into a pedestal, then adds a woman piece by piece, transforming a ball or balloon for the head, a handkerchief for the torso, and a coat for the legs. She stands in a pose as if she were a statue – a natural part of the scene. The first man returns with a class of art students, mostly in wigs and upper-class dress. They spread out on the ground and begin drawing the scene, while the man (evidently an instructor), walks around and inspects their work. Now the statue comes to life and steals his hat, then causes him to fall over, transforming in the process into an elaborate fountain and spraying water all over him. He pulls out an umbrella and kicks, while the class continues to sketch the scene.

Drawing Lesson1

The Star Film catalog describes the art instructor and the art students as if they were clearly identifiable characters, but watching without any narration or intertitles, a modern audience has to piece this together as the story progresses. It also identifies the location as “the gardens at Versailles,” which makes sense if you’ve been there or know about it, but probably wasn’t intuitive even to any non-French audience of the day. The main theme, however, of a caricatured authority figure getting his comeuppance at the hands of a random prankster with magical powers, is pretty much the essence of comedy cinema at the time and for years to come. The only special effects used here are substitution splices and the division of the lady into parts through multiple exposure, but Méliès shows how much his technique has improved since the early days with the precision of this process, which probably would have simply been a single splice, rather than three, in earlier years.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

My Wife’s Relations (1922)

Buster Keaton winds up married by accident and has to navigate a family of in-laws from Hell in this short comedy from 1922. Will he survive this bizarre situation?

My Wifes Relations

The movie begins with Buster pulling taffy for a living at a candy store in a large urban area. An intertitle emphasizes the many languages spoken in such places (relevant to the plot) and tells us he is a young artist (completely irrelevant). The scene cuts to a young Polish couple, calling a Justice of the Peace to request a wedding ceremony, to be performed in their native language. He concurs, saying, “I speak no other language.” Buster gets into a confrontation with a postman, accidentally hitting him with the taffy pull and provoking him to throw a bottle at him, which smashes a window. Buster runs away, but trips over a large woman (Kate Price). Kate grabs him and sees the window, and the Justice of the Peace inspecting it (turns out it was his window) and draws the conclusion that Buster is responsible, so hauls him back over to the scene of the crime. The Justice of the Peace assumes they are the couple who called and begins the wedding ceremony. Since neither side knows what the other is saying, soon Kate and Buster are hitched. Read the rest of this entry »

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls (1913)

This short from G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson doesn’t show a lot of progress over the simple Western stories he’d been telling for years now. The appeal is his folksy charm and good nature, and the opportunity to imagine adventure in the Wild West for a few minutes.

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls1

The movie begins by showing us Billy and his relationship to the two “Western Girls” of the title – Irene and Evelyn Courtney, played by Bess Sankey and Evelyn Selbie, respectively. They run the general store for their father (Lloyd Ingraham), who is disabled, and Irene seems to be sweet on Billy. The general store being the main postal exchange for the area, the stagecoach delivers a large bag of money there, presumably the payroll for a local mine, military outpost, or other operation. This is observed by gang leader Fred Church, who goes to his hombres’ camp in the wilderness, and brings them back to rob the store. This leads to a situation reminiscent of “An Unseen Enemy” in which the two girls are locked in a room while the bad guys try to break in. Evelyn takes the gold, sneaks out the window and rides off on her horse. A chase through the forest is handled with stationary camera, tight shots, and unclear geography, but somehow results in Billy seeing the girl’s plight and shooting the bad man just as he would have grabbed the gold. A posse comes out of nowhere to apprehend the men and help the girl. The movie ends with Billy together with Irene

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls

It’s understandable if Gil Anderson wasn’t quite up to matching D. W. Griffith’s suspense during the break-in and ride to escape, but you would think that ten years after appearing in “The Great Train Robbery,” he could stage a Western chase scene with a bit more deftness. It’s totally unclear why Evelyn gets off her horse and starts running through the brush, how all three bandits managed to get together and chase her after only Fred saw her ride off, or how other people somehow stumble into the same place at the fortuitous moment. I chalk it up to producing dozens of these movies each year, and wanting to give audiences just enough plot to keep them interested for a quarter of an hour, with no expectation that they (or anyone) would re-watch or analyze them carefully. Anderson still comes across as the classic genial Western hero, and it’s fascinating how the women in his movies never look made-up or glamorous, just like the plain women one would expect to find living on the range.

Director: G.M “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy Anderson, Bess Sankey, Evelyn Selbie, Lloyd Ingraham, Fred Church, Victor Potel, Harry Todd

Run Time: 10 Min, 13 secs

You can watch it for free: here.