Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Best Supporting Actor 1917

As with female roles, often the most interesting or memorable characters in a movie are not its stars. Actors in supporting roles can be family, friends, enemies, or indifferent to the main characters, but they often add spice and interest to the stories on the screen. Supporting actors sometimes play a particular “type” so well that it becomes part of their identity – perhaps being “typecast” is artistically tedious, but it can also be a guarantee of steady work, so long as that “type” stays in fashion. Some of them are able to excel even within the confines of a redundant character type, and these are the actors we look for in this category.

Buster Keaton is remembered today for his starring roles, but in 1917 he started out his career as a supporting actor in Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s company. In “The Rough House,” he actually played two characters – one a throwaway bearded gardener, the other a delivery boy who becomes a classic Keystone-style cop. It’s this second performance that won him the nomination this year. Eric Campbell was one of Charlie Chaplin’s favorite foils – a big man with heavy eyebrows who tragically died in a car crash in December, 1917. He’s especially memorable in “Easy Street” as the man who bends a lamp post to show his strength. Conrad Veidt is remembered by silent fans today mostly for his supporting role in “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” and he plays a similarly menacing role in “Fear,” an earlier film by Robert Wiene. Here, as the mysterious “Buddha Priest,” his close-up defines the unknown dangers of a curse upon the protagonist. René Poyen was a favorite child actor of director Louis Feuillade, and had starred in many “Bout-de-Zan” short films before being brought in for an important role in the “Judex” serial. The episode called “The Licorice Kid” places his character at the center f the action, and gives him a chance to display his surprising range and talent. Tully Marshall takes on the thankless role of the sidekick to Douglas Fairbanks in “A Modern Musketeer,” but he is able to warn Fairbanks’s character of the impending abduction of the romantic lead. More significantly, a revenge subplot against Doug’s romantic rival centers around Marshall, whose character has been wronged in a cowardly financial scam, and this gives him a chance to display a range of emotions.

The nominees for best actor in a supporting role for 1917 are:

  1. Buster Keaton in the Rough House
  2. Eric Campbell in Easy Street
  3. Conrad Veidt in Fear
  4. René Poyen in The Licorice Kid (Judex)
  5. Tully Marshall in A Modern Musketeer

And the winner is…René Poyen!

As a child actor, Poyen was able to be gruff and lovable, without being annoying. His character is one of the best parts of the “Judex” serial, which I found a bit too wholesome, compared with Feuillade’s earlier crime serials. The Licorice Kid provides a pleasant contrast to the rest of the characters, being street smart and used to poverty, but not a scheming criminal. In this episode, he gets tricked by the villains but is able to rescue his friend, Le Petit Jean, by having him leap off of a balcony into a blanket held by their allies below. Even though he was quite young and the time, René Poyen was a highly poised and professional supporting actor.


Best Supporting Actress 1917

In a society in which the “male gaze” is dominant, women are common subjects for visual media. In the silent era, women could surprise you with their boldness, their strength, and sometimes their villainy. Often, the most interesting roles for women were not the leads, but were to be found in the characters that make up the world of action in which they play. The women actors of 1917 had opportunities to add complexity and color to the movies that audiences went to see.

ZaSu Pitts stands out in a supporting role for Mary Pickford in “Little Princess.” She is Becky, the scullion maid with no parents, who is excited by her new friend and also helps her survive her new condition of poverty. Musidora, who won a Century Award for her supporting role in “Les Vampires” is up again for “Judex.” In “The Atonement,” her character, Diana Monti, tries to escape her fate when Judex arrives on the boat where she is holding his true love captive. In “Polly RedheadGertrude Astor navigates a fine line between being jealous of Polly and being her benefactor when she brings the existence of Polly’s doppelganger to the attention of her employer, setting the end plot into motion. May Emory is over the top as a jealous rival for Gloria Swanson in “Teddy at the Throttle,” displaying comic timing and ability and getting a face full of mud for her efforts.

The nominees for best actress in a supporting role for 1917 are:

  1. ZaSu Pitts in Little Princess
  2. Musidora in The Atonement (Judex)
  3. Gertrude Astor in Polly Redhead
  4. May Emory in Teddy at the Throttle

And the winner is…ZaSu Pitts in “Little Princess!”

Pitts completely blew me away with her deferential, demure, yet nuanced and perky performance. I think she actually stole the show from Pickford a couple of times, and that’s quite an accomplishment. It probably helped that the two of them had real chemistry and became good friends after this film. I believe this is the first time Pitts has appeared on this blog, and she came in with a bang. I’m happy to honor her performance with a Century Award.

Best Screenplay 1917

Film didn’t have to become a narrative art form. Its early inventors generally saw it as a means of taking short documentary clips of actual events, or at most of creating “moving portraits” that might involve deliberate costume and lighting, but not necessarily complete stories. Experimental film makers have created a variety of non-narrative, or non-linear, movies that test the boundaries of what film “is.” But, once stories started to be told onscreen, it didn’t take long to catch on, and by 1917, this is the established and expected form, to the degree that actualities are now struggling to come up with stories to justify their running time. The people who created these stories were now highly sought-after professionals, and they were kept busy coming up with fodder for the industry.

The nominees for best screenplay of 1917 are among the best of these storytellers. “A Man There Was,” written by Gustaf Molander and the director, Victor Sjöström, takes a story of a man lost at sea to an epic level, pitting him against storms and his own worse nature to come out a hero. “The Dying Swan,” written by Zoya Barantsevich and inspired by the dance solo of the same name, tells the story of an artist driven mad by his morbid fascination with suffering, and his need to kill the woman he loves if she should become happy. Frances Marion, adapting the stage drama of Eleanor Gates for “The Poor Little Rich Girl,” added a working-class sensibility to its bratty protagonist, assuring a much more sympathetic character. Her second nomination this year comes for “The Little Princess,” adapted from the novel by Frances Hogson Burnett, and here she creates a great friendship in the characters of Mary Pickford and ZaSu Pitts, for which they seem perfectly suited (Marion and Pickford were friends, so the story was written with her, at least, in mind). The story of “Polly Redhead,” written by Eliott J. Clawson from the novel “Pollyooly” by Edgar Jepson, works with the contradictions of the British class system to produce an effective melodrama with comedic elements.

The nominees for best screenplay of 1917 are:

  1. A Man There Was
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. Poor Little Rich Girl
  4. Little Princess
  5. Polly Redhead

And the winner is…”Poor Little Rich Girl!”

This is the first time Frances Marion has been honored with a Century Award, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not the last. She was able to understand what worked for Mary Pickford, one of the biggest stars of her age, with an almost prescient intuition. The fact that she had to make fairly radical changes to the character of Gwendolyn, changes which the director, Maurice Tourneur didn’t care for but which Pickford herself fought to preserve, only makes this a more outstanding example of her talents.

Best Visual Effects 1917

Entertainment often means trickery. Even on stage, various “effects” are used to simulate real-world or fantastic conditions that would be dangerous if reproduced in a theater space: cannon fire, for example, or the ghostly ship in the “The Flying Dutchman”. I’ve even read about spectacles in which building fires were simulated and fought on a large stage to celebrate the bravery of firemen.  Early filmmakers learned that the camera allows for much more convincing and spectacular effects than are safe to perform with a live audience attending, and that it also has the potential for more impressive “magical” trickery. Thus, the category of visual effects in film has become a part of how we judge them. This award considers the best of those effects each year.

In 1917, many films were using simple effects as a matter of course, but the movies I’ve nominated each showed some more innovative, or more elaborate application of them. In “Fear,” a man is haunted by his visions of a “Buddha Priest” he’s wronged. Conrad Veidt is made to appear transparent, and impervious to bullets, in this early example of a horror movie. “The Dying Swan” has a similar ghostly effect, in which the female lead is threatened by disembodied hands that reach out to strangle her, and re-appear in the scene in which she is really strangled. “The Little American” is an ambitious action film, that re-creates the sinking of the Lusitania and also shows the war-ravaged streets of a French town in the First World War. The main effects seen in the “Judex” episode, “The Fantastic Dog Pack,” are changes in tinting of the film to simulate lighting changes, and the hard work of the animal trainers in getting the eponymous “pack” to do its work. We also get underground caverns and chase scenes, handled well.

The nominees for best visual effects of 1917 are:

  1. Fear
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Little American
  4. The Fantastic Dog Pack

And the winner is…”The Little American!”

There’s a tradition in Hollywood of giving the special effects award to a movie that was spectacular, but not a critical success, and I guess I’m following that tradition here. “The Little American” was big with audiences in its day, but is not especially fondly remembered now. It’s a pretty transparent propaganda piece that relies heavily on stereotypes and emotionalism. But, it does have some pretty extravagant effects. We see the sinking of the boat from inside of a ballroom that appears to turn on its side and fill with water. It genuinely appears as though the actors could have been in danger of drowning. The devastated countryside is also effective, even if the plot at the end becomes so heavy-handed as to be almost impossible to take seriously.

Best Cinematography 1917

In its purest form, filmmaking is just photography. A camera captures a series of images and the human eye-brain complex creates the illusion of movement, and all of the narratives that go along with it. The first filmmakers often thought in terms of portraiture, or of landscapes, rather than telling stories. As the art form became more sophisticated, more elements were introduced: acting, special effects, editing, and screenwriting (eventually including recorded dialogue) became vital elements of the motion picture. But the camera remained essential to its definition, and the cinematographer’s technical skill and aesthetic view helps to define how we see the worlds created on film, even to this day.

In 1917, cinematography was already one of the more established positions on a film crew, and many of the people (mostly men) running cameras had long experience creating images on both still and moving film. The Russian Empire boasted some of the most creative photographers of the period, and Boris Zavelev was perhaps the best. He won a Century Award in 1915 for “Daydreams,” a movie he made in collaboration with director Evgeni Bauer, and this year he’s on the list again for “The Dying Swan,” the last movie Bauer was able to complete before he died. Here, he uses a mobile camera and dramatic lighting effects to establish a sense of doom and depth. In “A Man There WasJulius Jaenzon demonstrates that the Swedish also had a sense of the somber and dark by 1917. He shows storms at night which probably would have just been black spaces if shot realistically on the film of the time, but which work through the lighting effects he applies. The video I saw of “Fear” had inferior visuals, but I could see that some interesting work was going on, especially in the dream sequences and scenes set in India. I don’t know the name of the cinematographer hired by Robert Wiene to bring these images to life. Finally, Maurice Tourneur’s camera team of Lucien Andriot and John van der Broek used his familiar lighting techniques to tell a story of a child who faces possible death due to the negligence of the adults in her life. Mary Pickford’s acting is only half of the reason that these scenes are so compelling: the rest is down to tight direction and excellent use of light and shadows. Mary’s dream sequences become darker and darker as she gets nearer to death, yet the audience can always make out the important details.

The nominees for best cinematography for 1917 are.:

  1. The Dying Swan
  2. A Man There Was
  3. Fear
  4. Poor Little Rich Girl

And the winner is…

Julius Jaenzon for “A Man There Was!”

Honestly, I could almost have rolled a die to pick between the three good prints I had (“Fear” didn’t get a fair chance, I admit, because I couldn’t see a decent print). But, reflecting back on it, it seemed to me that the Swedish film was the one where the photography stood out throughout the movie, and not just in a key scene. Given that I had to choose one movie to give the award to, that seemed like the best criterion to use. “A Man There Was” is simply a beautiful film, which any fan of photography will enjoy from beginning to end.

Best Editing 1917

The newest part of the “new art” of film was the power it gave to tell a story through editing. From the ability to compress long expanses of time to the power to heighten tension through simultaneous action in different places, to the power to redirect an audience’s attention through an insert shot, to the use of cuts within a scene to signal changes in perspective or internal experiences of a character, it was a whole new toolbox in narrative construction. Directors, writers, and editors were already exploring the possibilities of that toolbox by 1917, having come a long way from the days when edits were used mainly for “trick films” by making things appear and disappear.

The films nominated for best editing this year show a sophistication that was almost unheard-of five years earlier, but which an increasingly film-literate audience now took largely for granted. Louis Feuillade has been steadily improving his editing skills since the early days of “Fantômas,” and with “The Tragic Mill” he is able to heighten suspense effectively without dragging it out through the use of cross-cutting. The pacing of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “A Modern Musketeer” confirms that star’s famous penchant for “pep” as well as the editing talents of director Allen Dwan. Mary Pickford is the star of two of our nominees this year. In the first, “Little Princess,” director Marshall Neilan uses two distinct editing styles: one slow and stagey, for the main story, and one faster and clipped, for the “Ali Baba” story-within-a-story. Meanwhile, in “Poor Little Rich Girl,” despite his complaints about the scene, Maurice Tourneur turns in a remarkably edited mud fight, that necessitated several set-ups and re-takes. Rumor has it that Mary may have contributed to the editing process as well – Tourneur was mostly known for lighting more than editing.

The nominees for best editing of 1917 are:

  1. The Tragic Mill
  2. A Modern Musketeer
  3. Little Princess
  4. Poor Little Rich Girl

And the winner is…“A Modern Musketeer!”

The energy level of this movie exceeded anything I’d seen from Fairbanks – at his worst a pretty peppy guy – and a lot of this is a credit to the editing. He leaps from one scene to the next, always seeming ready to perform physical stunts or athletics at a moment’s notice. A stagier production couldn’t have pulled this off. We see Doug as D’Artagnan, fighting the good fight with swords, Doug roughing up a whole speakeasy of toughs, the cyclone in which Doug’s character was born, and Doug scaling a church tower – all before the real plot has even gotten going! It could be difficult at best to follow all that action, but the editing handles it deftly and the audience is carried along with each thrill. As a result, “A Modern Musketeer” feels like a thoroughly modern movie, even 100 years later, and that is a testament to its success.

Best Stunts 1917

Silent movies remain famous for their outrageous physicality and for the chances their stars took in production. The truth is that stunt people were used even from the very early days (no one really did “all of their own stunts”), but certain actors, like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, were remarkable athletes in their own rights and did do some pretty amazing stuff onscreen. In the real world of the Academy Awards, we don’t have an award honoring the best stunts seen in movies, but one of the benefits of the Century Awards is that I can rectify that and honor the work of these long-dead daredevils.

The aforementioned Fairbanks had established his style of athletic, all-American comedy by this point, and we have two examples of his work from 1917 on the roster of nominations. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he’s at pains to prove that chivalry isn’t dead to the girl of his dreams. Probably his best stunt here comes at the beginning, when he scales a church steeple bare-handed, but most people remember his handstand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon better (that was probably totally safe, but it looks death-defying!). In “Wild and Woolly,” he’s a Western-obsessed Easterner who tries to fight off the baddies single-handed when the townsfolk replace his bullets with blanks. In that one, we see him hanging to the rafters while kicking his way through the ceiling to get to some live rounds! Stunts involving trains always impress me as a former train-hopper, and we get some pretty risky-looking scenes in “Teddy at the Throttle” with Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon. Charlie Chaplin is in fine form as usual in “The Adventurer,” and he does some interesting stunts both in the water (where he rescues Edna Purviance and more reluctantly Eric Campbell as well), and in a two-story mansion in a manic chase sequence. And newcomer to the screen Buster Keaton showed off some of the prowess that would make him the king of comic stunts in the years to come in “The Rough House,” along with veteran Roscoe Arbuckle. “Fatty” sets fire to his bedroom, he and Buster both slip around a wet floor, and Buster gets hung up on a fence wearing an oversize policeman’s uniform.

The nominees for Best Stunts in 1917 are…

  1. A Modern Musketeer
  2. Wild and Woolly
  3. Teddy at the Throttle
  4. The Adventurer
  5. The Rough House

And the winner is…”A Modern Musketeer!”

I’ll be honest, I was tempted to go with Keaton this year, and “The Rough House” genuinely was one of the funniest movies I watched (see it if you haven’t), but Fairbanks did outdo himself this time around. I have no doubt that Buster will be returning to this category in future years. “A Modern Musketeer” however, really gives Doug a chance to show off everything he can do, from climbing sheer surfaces to swordplay to leaping over people to smashing up rooms in brawls. Some other actors show some pretty good moves in the “cyclone” scene depicting his character’s birth as well. The only problem the movie has is maintaining all of this frenetic action and still managing to get across a plot! It does slow down a bit in the second reel, but only to end with a suspenseful abduction-and-rescue.

Best Production Design 1917

In this world of virtual environments, the silent era often seems like a much more “solid” filmic world. In the early days, of course, directors working in spare studio spaces often asked audiences to “imagine” that a blank space was actually a jail cell, that a wooden box was a walk-in freezer, or that an obviously painted mirror had been smashed, but by 1917, these tricks were things of the past. Sets were built that sometimes dwarfed the actors, and put them into a space that they could believe as much as the audiences did. This category gives us a chance to honor some of the work that went into those productions.

I didn’t see any overwhelming set design in 1917 such as we saw in “Intolerance” the previous year, but some pretty impressive examples came up nonetheless. An underground base for a superhero was imagined in the “Judex” serial as displayed in “The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge.” Charlie Chaplin had an entire urban street environment constructed for “Easy Street,” incorporating gas lamps, second story windows, and trapdoors for hiding anarchist plots. Chaplin again did impressive work on “The Immigrant,” devising a ship set that swayed back and forth to emphasize the harshness (and comic potential) of sea travel. For the Douglas Fairbanks movie “Wild and Woolly,” an entire Western-style town is transformed from its “modern” form to an “Old West” parody of itself. And in Evgeni Bauer’s final film, “The Dying Swan,” he once again introduces his audience to a cinematic space with three complete dimensions, giving us opera stages, a mad artist’s studios, and the realm of the idle rich to play in.

The nominees for best production design of 1917 are:

  1. Easy Street
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Immigrant
  4. Wild and Woolly
  5. The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

And the winner is…“Easy Street!”

I felt that Chaplin’s dedication to creating an entire street for the purposes of a comedy short surpassed anything else I saw in production design this year. It probably facilitated his (and his cast’s) ability to experiment and improvise that they weren’t restricted in terms of angles or movement by the boundaries of a standard set of flats, or the limitations of location-shooting, where unforgiving reality has to be contended with. The street is instantly recognizable, and yet also anonymous: it could be in any large city of that period, in the US, UK, or elsewhere. It places the viewer into a fantasy world of urban blight and dark comedy. I felt it had to be honored as a great achievement.

January and February 1918

I let January slip by without posting the Century News, so I’m mixing two months into this one post. After more than three years of nonstop bloodshed, hope and despair are both at all-time highs. With the collapse of the Russian Empire, there’s unrest spreading on both sides, breaking out into declarations of independence, mutinies, and strikes. There’s also the Americans on the way, and the German populace is captivated by the promises made by Woodrow Wilson on the floor of Congress. To make matters worse, a major epidemic is about to begin that kills more people than the war itself. Let’s take a look at the headlines from a century ago:

Trenches on the shore of the Dead Sea.

World War I:

The SS Tuscania is torpedoed off the Irish coast on February 5; it is the first ship carrying American troops to Europe to be torpedoed and sunk.

Capture of Jericho on February 19 by the Egyptian Expeditionary Force begins the British occupation of the Jordan Valley.

The Imperial Russian Navy evacuates Tallinn through thick ice over the Gulf of Finland during February 19-25.

Kurt Eisner

Political unrest:

Kurt Eisner, leader of the Bavarian Independent Socialists (USPD) leads an anti-war march and is arrested and imprisoned for treason. He will be jailed almost up to the end of the war.

The Cattaro Mutiny sees Austrian sailors in the Gulf of Cattaro (Kotor), led by two Czech Socialists, mutiny.


Demonstrators in Estonia

Russian Revolution:

The Finnish Declaration of Independence is recognized by Russia, Sweden, Germany and France on January 4.

Russian Constituent Assembly proclaims Russian Democratic Federative Republic on January 19, but is dissolved by Bolshevik government on same day.

The Ukrainian People’s Republic declares independence from Bolshevik Russia on January 22.

The Council of Lithuania adopts the Act of Independence of Lithuania, declaring Lithuania’s independence from the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic on February 16.

Estonia declares independence, February 24. German forces capture Tallinn on the next day.


Woodrow Wilson delivers his Fourteen Points speech on January 8.



U.S. troops engage Yaqui Indian warriors in the Battle of Bear Valley in Arizona on January 9, a minor skirmish and one of the last battles of the American Indian Wars between the United States and Native Americans


Finland enacts a “Mosaic Confessors” law on January 12, granting Finnish Jews civil rights.

Finnish Civil War begins with the Battle of Kämärä on January 27.

Naval Construction:

The keel of HMS Hermes is laid in Britain on January 15, the first purpose-designed aircraft carrier to be laid down.


The Historic Concert for the Benefit of Widows and Orphans of Austrian and Hungarian Soldiers at the Konzerthaus, Vienna on January 18.


“Spanish ‘flu” (influenza) first observed in Haskell County, Kansas.


Women’s suffrage in the United Kingdom: Representation of the People Act gives most women over 30 the vote.


The last captive Carolina parakeet (the last breed of parrot native to the eastern United States) dies at the Cincinnati Zoo on February 21.

Joseph Kaufman


Joseph Kaufman, actor (in “The Sporting Duchess” and “The Song of Songs”), on February 1.


John Forsythe, actor (in “The Trouble with Harry” and “Kitten with a Whip”), January 29.

Ida Lupino, actress, director and producer (made “The Hitch-Hiker,” starred in “They Drive by Night”), February 4.

Patty Andrews, singer (of the Andrews Sisters), February 16.

Wanted: A Nurse (1915)

This short comedy from the team of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew plays on stereotypes about nurses – but also pokes fun at the men who promote those stereotypes. While it’s not an especially sophisticated example of situational comedy, it does once again demonstrate that slapstick wasn’t the only option available to the silent comedian.

Sidney plays J. Robert Orr, a seemingly idle rich “club man” who spends his evenings in card games. One day, while walking down the street, he witnesses man having a medical emergency, which is attended to by a pretty young nurse, Helen Worth (Mrs. Drew). They exchange glances, but soon the ambulance arrives and she is whisked away. Orr is so obsessed with her that the four queens in his hand turn into images of the nurse. He fixes himself a drink and comes up with a plan, suddenly throwing himself across the table, convincing his friends that he needs medical attention. He is taken to the hospital, but when the doctor comes in to examine him, he cries, “I don’t want a doctor, I want a NURSE!” However, Helen is out of the hospital right now, attending a serious case. So, several other nurses are sent in, one at a time. Each of them is ugly, fat, old, or mannish, and he is increasingly agitated. Finally, he dresses as  a nurse to escape via the fire escape, and returns to the club. His friends now think he has gone nuts, so they take him to another doctor, who pronounces that he has “nurse-itis.” He goes to get Helen to help attend the case, and Orr hides beneath the covers, terrified of what he may see. When he sees it is her, he softens and smiles. A quick edit covers his recuperation, and he proposes to the girl, who gladly accepts. The end.

The fact that the stars really were married may have helped soften the blow of this premise of this movie, which essentially involves a man stalking a girl he saw once and ignoring the professional qualifications of her and her colleagues, seeing them only as “ugly” or “pretty.” For modern viewers, however, it doesn’t help that Sidney is a good 20 years older than his wife (whose name I always think of as “Nancy,” for obvious reasons, but it was really “Lucille”). He does a pretty good freak out over the disappointment, and one does laugh a bit at his antics, but as I said, it’s not terribly witty. The movie also cross-cuts between his torment and Helen’s actual work, but this serves no obvious purpose, except to remind the audience of the real object of his quest. Certainly not the worst movie of 1915, but not the best, either.

Director: Sidney Drew

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee, Mary Maurice

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found the whole move for free on the Internet. You can watch a short clip of it: here.