Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Automatic Moving Company (1911)

This short film from Pathé demonstrates considerable skill in animation, as well as a touching imaginative approach that rivals Georges Méliès in the realm of the trick film. It still seems somewhat novel today, and must have been even more so at the time.

The movie begins with a brief glimpse of the only human actor in the whole story. We see a postman approach a door and push a letter through the mail slot. The camera then cuts to the interior of the building, where the letter floats across the room and onto a desk. A letter opener, moving by itself, opens the letter and an insert shot shows it to us. A client has written to the “Automatic Moving Company” to request a move, including a new address. A ledger book opens itself and a pen makes a notation. We now cut to a gate, from which a moving cart emerges, with no horses to pull it. It pulls in up to a door, and a series of furniture extracts itself and moves into the door. We follow the furniture up the stairs and into a bedroom, where the bed constructs itself and various pieces of furniture arrange themselves in appropriate positions in the room. Moving crates come in and pictures, linens, and clothing all emerge and tidily put themselves into place. This continues as we see a dining room put itself together, and a kitchen, including anew stove, sets itself up. When one plate falls to the ground and breaks, a broom and dustpan move into position and clean it up. One side table seems to tease a lamp, moving from one side of a table to another until it finally allows the lamp to climb on top and then takes up a position. At the end, one of the moving trunks hides under a table until a large trunk comes and pulls it out with a rope. They stop on the stairs and retreat, allowing the piano to come in, before departing the scene. We see all of the moving trunks load themselves back onto the back of the cart, the doors to the cart close, and it pulls away, the job now complete.

Most of this movie is in wide shot, allowing us to see the entire room, but a couple of insert shots give us a closer view of details, and this allows us to see that the moving objects are in fact miniatures, presumably moving about miniaturized sets on the scale of a doll house. Nevertheless, the illusion is mostly very convincing, and considering the amount of work that had to go into stop motion animation at the time, it was an impressive investment for a small film that was only expected a brief theatrical run before oblivion. Interestingly, the letter indicates that the client lives in “Kalamazoo, Mich,” although everything about the movie looks French, including the moving cart which clearly has French words on it, and appears to be from Nice. Possibly America was associated with modernity and high-technology, or possibly the name “Kalamazoo” sounded exotic to the film makers, and therefore magical. I particularly liked the way certain objects were invested with personality, like the playful side table and the reluctant moving trunk.

Director: Romeo Bosetti

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (mostly animated objects)

Run Time: 4 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dwarf and the Giant (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès shows that even after he had mastered longer forms of storytelling (as in “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella”) he continued to make simple trick films and experiment with effects. Here, forced perspective is used to achieve gigantism and a split screen allows twinning.

A standard proscenium-style stage is established by the camera; in this case the backdrop is painted to appear as if a long tunnel approaches the stage. Méliès approaches from the rear of the set, as if he has just walked down this corridor, wearing a toga. He pulls off the toga to reveal modern clothing and bows. Suddenly, a second figure pulls itself from him, and there are two Méliès on the stage. This new one is slightly shorter than the original, which he emphasizes by squatting down a bit, and the other Méliès makes fun of him. Then he pulls on a hair on top of his own head and seems to grow, magically to a new height, nearly filling the screen. He laughs at the shorter version of himself and drops confetti on its head. Then he shrinks down again and the two images re-combine for a moment, before splitting off and giving one another the raspberry before exiting the stage.

Méliès had used forced perspective more dramatically earlier in “The Man with the Rubber Head,” but the effect here seems simpler, done almost offhandedly, as if he has become more comfortable with the technique. Of course, the growth effect was achieved here by running the same film through the camera twice, with the background masked off and the camera moving closer to the actor to make him become bigger on screen, which is not a simple matter at all. At less than a minute in length, this was a pretty short movie for 1901, but there was so much demand for new content from him by now that he could make almost anything, and of course he also could use it between acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. Combined with other movies, as it would be in a period program, it’s a nice enough distraction.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 55 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

This movie is an unabashed remake of Georges Méliès beloved classic “A Trip to the Moon,” although with a shorter run time and a smaller cast and (evidently) budget. It nonetheless does preserve bits of Segundo de Chomón’s signature wit and gentle charm.

The movie consists of a series of discrete shots, each set up as a tableau within a proscenium-style stage area. The first shot shows a group of “scientists” or explorers, is a garden at night, the moon hanging overhead. One, who is kitted out in a classic wizard’s robe and cap, lectures at them and gestures to the moon. The others appear skeptical at his message. However, they follow him off stage after a bit of pantomime. The next shot shows the wizard/scientist’s observatory, with a large telescope in the background. The wizard shows his fellows the elaborate equations he has worked out on the chalkboard, then turns the chalkboard over to reveal a screen on which an animated image of a capsule flying between Earth and Moon appears. The others appear to congratulate him, and then follow him off this stage to the next scene.

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Fatty’s Suitless Day (1914)

Also released as: Fatty’s Magic Pants

This early work from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle while he was working for Mack Sennett doesn’t have a lot of originality, but it provides plenty of chaotic Keystone anarchy, and puts its star to good use. Crude, but effective in its way.

Fatty is talking to co-star (and his real-life wife) Minta Durfee about an ad in the newspaper. A “Grand Benefit Dance” is to be held that evening, and Minta is eager to go. Minta gives a brief demonstration of her ability to tango, and Fatty does a sort of imitation of her moves. At this point a rival, played by Harry McCoy, walks up carrying fancy-dress evening clothes. He points out to Fatty that he won’t be able to get in, because the ad reads “Strictly Full Dress.” Fatty responds with violence, knocking Harry out, which results in Minta hitting Fatty. There’s a bit more slapstick violence until a Keystone Cop (Slim Summerville) walks up and chases Harry off, throwing his clothes after him. Fatty slinks home and asks his mom to loan him 50 cents so he can hire some clothes, but she responds by bopping him on the ear. Fortunately, Harry lives next door, so Fatty just steals his clothes off the clothes line after he washes them (presumably because of the beating they took during the fight). Of course, they don’t fit, but Fatty fakes things up by drawing buttons on a towel to make it look like the shirt goes all the way down.

Where’s My Pants?

Harry can’t figure out where his clothes went, but he goes down to the dance anyway while Fatty escorts Minta. They dance up a storm, although Fatty’s antics threaten to expose his last-minute alterations. The go into another room for punch, but Harry has sneaked in here, and he recognizes his own suit on Fatty. He sneaks up behind him with a pin and loosens an already-straining seam on Fatty’s pants, then attaches a string to make sure they rip when he gets up. Fatty and Minta have a brief chat with another guest (I think this might be Charley Chase), and suddenly Fatty is pants-less! He runs about in panic while Minta and Charley laugh. He tries hiding behind the punch table, but a waiter comes in and moves it, and soon he is exposed before the whole ball. Now Harry grabs his jacket as well, and Fatty realizes what’s up. He tries to fight Harry, but Harry has a gun. He chases Fatty about the dance hall, causing more chaos along the way. Finally, Fatty escapes out the window, into the clutches of Officer Slim, who puts a barrel on Fatty in the classic method of concealing indecency, then hits him repeatedly with his billy club.

It’s Arbuckle’s physicality that really makes this movie work, from his assaults on Harry, to his pratfalls, to his tango dancing, to his running around in a panic, the movie hinges on well-timed, fast movement from the big man, and he’s fully up to it. Apart from Harry falling down once or twice, and Minta hitting Fatty, none of the other actors really even get a chance to keep up. The filming is standard Keystone, with locked-down cameras at wide shot establishing stages for the actors to work on, and the only editing is occasionally between stages, to show clothes being thrown or stolen or ripped off Fatty’s body. Fatty’s trick with the towel is hard to describe, and doesn’t seem like it would work at all in reality, but it sort of looks OK on camera, given the quality of the print and the camera’s distance from the actor. Given the set-up, I was expecting to see Fatty in drag again, as in “The Waiter’s Ball,” but this was at least different from that movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minta Durfee, Harry McCoy, Slim Summerville, Charley Chase, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel, Fatty and the Law (1915)

Alternate Titles: “Fatty’s Spooning Days,” “Fatty, Mable and the Law.”

This short from Keystone stars two of its biggest stars after (as well as before) the departure of Charlie Chaplin: Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Both are at the top of their game, but the movie suffers from Keystone’s slap-dash approach to plot.

Fatty and Mabel are married at the beginning of the film, but Fatty is flirting with the maid, triggering a bout of violence from Mabel. Another couple is established in essentially the same situation: here the husband is played by Harry Gribbon and the wife by Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real-life spouse). Both couples decide to patch things up by a trip to the park. They each sit on benches beneath signs that say “No Spooning Allowed.” Minta goes for an ice cream, leaving Harry alone, and Fatty spots her and soon ditches Mabel. Mabel and Harry strike up a flirtation as do Minta and Fatty. Now, a Keystone Cop in a tree spots the couples through a telescope and summons cops to arrest them (one is Arbuckle’s cousin Al St. John). Mabel and Harry manage to evade them, but Minta and Fatty are nicked. After some shenanigans with the cops in a crowded holding cell, each calls their respective maids and leaves a message from jail. The spouses rush to spring them, also taking the opportunity to shame them for their bad behavior, but when they see one another, they behave so awkwardly as to give away their own indiscretions. The entire group squabbles until the cop from the tree comes out and glowers at them, causing them to run for cover, one at a time.

The plot centers around an understanding of the concept of “spooning,” which has I believe fallen out of fashion. Most people today think of it either as a sexual position, or as its equivalent in cuddling – most spooning is done naked, and wouldn’t have been appropriate in a commercially released film in 1915. However, what we see the couples arrested for here is just sitting side by side, snuggling a bit, or in the case of Harry and Mabel, walking alongside holding hands. I think there is a deliberate implication of “soliciting” here that adult audiences would recognize, but which is suppressed by the use of the more innocent-sounding word. That’s also part of the humor, if I’m following it right. At any rate, this is a fairly typical Keystone domestic/situational comedy, in which the spouses are equally guilty of philandering, and get caught and shamed for their actions. It never really descends into the kind of chaos we would expect in a full-on slapstick movie, but the cast, especially the cops, get bits of physical comedy. Mabel is especially funny when she beats up on Fatty in the beginning of the film.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Gribbon, Minta Durfee, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavendar, Josef Swickard, Alice Davenport, Frank Hayes

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatty and Minnie-He-Haw (1914)

This two-reel comedy from Keystone shows Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as he was still honing his craft, though he tries out some gags that would be put to better use in later movies. True to the Keystone spirit, it is fast-paced and incoherent.

 

The movie begins similarly to the later movie “Out West,” with Fatty riding the roof of a train, only to be abandoned in the middle of a Western desert with no apparent resources. In this case, Slim Summerville comes along to kick him off the train, and unfortunately that’s his only appearance. Fatty spots Minnie-He-Haw (played by Minnie Devereaux), a Native American woman of about Fatty’s own girth. He decides to pretend to be dying of thirst to get her help, and she calls over some braves from a nearby camp to drag him home. Of course, since she’s now “saved his life,” she expects him to show his appreciation by marrying her. She takes him into her teepee and there’s a bit of funny business about the challenge of kissing when both have such large bellies. Then Minnie goes out to announce her betrothal to the tribe, and Fatty spots Minta Durfee having trouble with her horse nearby. He sneaks over to help her out and when Minnie finds out, the “green-eyed monster” takes over and she drags him back to a feast in their honor. Fatty eats a little and then either becomes ill or fakes it and makes another attempt at a getaway.

Minta rides into town up to the saloon and tells her father (Josef Swickard) about her adventures. He defends her from a funny drunk played by Harry McCoy, who does some good stunts, getting tossed around a bit. She then goes over to the corner to prepare dinner on a convenient stove. Fatty now arrives and also heads to the saloon and pushes McCoy down before spotting Minta and eating most of her dinner. McCoy tries to start another fight and gets shoved again, but now Swickland sees what’s going on and gets out his gun. At the same time, Minnie, also armed, shows up in town looking for Fatty. Swickard tells Fatty to keep away from Minta and shoots at his feet to make him dance, which is so amusing all the local cowhands join in. When he runs outside, Minnie is shooting at him also, so he runs back inside to further gunfire. After this has gone on awhile he runs out of town, winding up back at the Indian camp, where the Indians tie him to a stake and start a fire to punish him for his betrayal of Minnie. Minnie has a change of heart and frees him, but again he uses the opportunity to escape, and now the whole tribe mounts horses to pursue him. He evades them by crossing a skinny rope bridge that won’t hold the horses, but now they fire arrows at him. Several hit him in the behind and he runs off into the distance as the image irises in to indicate the end.

As we might expect from Keystone, the movie is short on plot and big on excesses, and your capacity to enjoy it depends on your comfort with Native American stereotypes and jokes at the expense of fat people. At least Minnie-He-Haw is a person with her own motivations, which is more than some Western dramas were managing at the time. Devereaux definitely fits right in to the madcap atmosphere at Keystone, even if she isn’t wearing bizarre facial hair, and plays her role with gusto. Arbuckle is also committed, even if we don’t get many of his famous stunts, and his run across the rope bridge looks genuinely hazardous. It was fun spotting various Keystone regulars in their Western garb, given a break from always playing cops. I sort of wanted Fatty and Minnie to end up together, but I suppose a mixed-race marriage would have been controversial in a comedy at the time.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Minnie Devereaux, Minta Durfee, Slim Summerville, Josef Swickard, Harry McCoy, Frank Hayes, Edward Dillon.

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Kiriki, Japanese Acrobats (1907)

This short movie by Segundo de Chomón demonstrates his easy facility with the trick film. While much of his work is compared to (or even confused with) that of Georges Méliès, I can honestly say I’ve not seen another movie that looks like this one.

A group of actors walks out onto a bare stage with a black background with a bamboo frame around the sides and top. They are a mixed-age and –gender group, all wearing Japanese-style clothing and imitative hairstyles (the men and boys have shaved “bald wigs” on to represent a chonmage). An edit brings them to about the point of a mid-shot so you can get a look at them, then the camera cuts and they begin their act, climbing on top of one another, and sometimes using poles to hold each other up. The end result is usually a symmetrical pattern of human bodies in an apparently impossible position. How was it done?

I was able to spot the trick in his trick film right away, but I’m not sure how obvious it would have been to an audience in 1907. After the edit, we are not actually looking at people standing on a stage anymore, but rather at people lying on their backs with the camera positioned above them, and they pretend to be “climbing” each other when they are really rolling/crawling on the floor. One of the reasons for the simple stage decoration was that it made it easier to match the two shots so that the audience wouldn’t notice the difference. Camera angles were still a fairly new concept in 1907, and audiences were accustomed to static cameras using proscenium-style framing to establish a stage for all of the action to take place in, so this might have seemed quite impressive, even if it is a somewhat simplistic, plotless film for the Nickelodeon Era.

Director: Segundo de Chomón

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Talion Punishment (1906)

This short fantasy film from Pathé shows the definite influence of Georges Méliès, but is especially interesting because of the innovative color process used. No doubt it was a thrill for audiences of the time.

The movie begins on a stage dressed as a forest, with colorful flowers and trees placed about the set. Two young women in shorts are holding butterfly nets and examining the trees for insects, and a male butterfly collector enters reading a book and carrying a net and other gear. He hands each of them some lunch from his basket, then goes on about chasing insects, exiting the stage. A couple of slightly-oversized butterflies swoop around, evidently on strings, settling on flowers, but when the girls try to catch them, they suddenly turn into fairy-women in costumes with wings and bare legs. The fairy women lead the girls off stage and two gigantic green crickets hop on stage, also apparently moved by invisible strings from over head. The girls return, but now the human women have been transformed into insect fairies as well – one is a bee, the other might be a dragonfly. They dance with the butterfly fairies, exiting when the male lepidopterist returns. He is holding a (normal-sized) butterfly in his hand triumphantly. He sets down his gear and takes out a magnifying glass, to examine his prize. The film cuts to a close-up, framed in a circle like that of the glass, on a fabric reproduction of a butterfly, beautifully colored. Several more of these follow, each one flapping its wings helplessly under the glass.

Now the two giant crickets return, and they turn into women in cricket costumes (bare legs again), and each seizes the man by an arm. The other insect women return and the dragonfly-girl accuses him, pointing at all of the gear strewn about the forest. They all form a conga line, with him in the front, and dance off stage. The scene now cuts to a stage dressed as a cave, a bust of Pan or Satan to one side, and a new insect fairy takes up a station behind a rock like a judge’s bench. The man is thrown to the floor and the fairy women all point to him in accusation. His gear is displayed and the judge fairy hands one of the cricket women a large pin. A large toadstool is brought out and the man is made to lie on his back on top of it. The cricket woman hammers the pin through his stomach and the camera angle changes to show him from above, penetrated by the pin and flapping his arms helplessly like the butterflies. The scene goes back to the stage view again and the judge fairy signals for mercy. The pin is removed, and the man is released, still holding his stomach from the pain. He snaps his butterfly net in two, signaling that he has learned his lesson. He and the two girls (now human again) are led away and the fairies cause the remaining gear to burst into flames, then create a colorful tableau for the camera.

The color process used here was stencil-color, which Pathé-Freres introduced a few years before. Instead of hand-coloring each frame (as Méliès did), they used a stencil for each frame to block out the colors and then effectively silk-screened the film strips at high speed. It still sounds like a lot of work, and isn’t perfect – I noticed that the giant pin changed color as it moved past the colored parts of the background, for example. Still, it does allow for better consistency than I’ve seen in most hand-painted films, and this example is quite lovely. The use of editing to show different camera angles is reasonably sophisticated for 1906. The real surprise of the film, however, is the graphic nature of the punishment the man endures. Although he survives, it struck me as pretty strong stuff for a movie no doubt targeting children, and it suggests that the filmmakers really did find butterfly collecting a bit sadistic and wanted to condemn it.

Director: Gaston Velle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Fernand Rivers

Run Time: 4 Min, 13 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Waiting at the Church (1906)

This Nickelodeon release from Edison Studios uses a popular song as the source for its story, which would have cued exhibitors what music to play for accompaniment, and perhaps encouraged audiences to sing along. Director Edwin S. Porter takes the simple premise to develop a comedic “chase film,” similar to others we’ve seen in the course of this project.

The movie begins with a shot of a man, sitting on a public bench, reading a newspaper. He is joined by a young woman who appears interested in making contact, although he tries to ignore her until she drops something from her purse. Then he gallantly recovers it for her and makes his introduction, and soon the two are strolling arm in arm, the camera panning to follow their action. The next scene shows the two of them at another bench before a lake in a park, flirting affectionately, and the man falls to his knee in the traditional pose for proposal. She responds enthusiastically, and several kisses are rapidly exchanged. The next shot is of the woman alone in a hammock, kissing a photograph repeatedly. A fantasy wedding appears in a double-exposure floating above the woman, but it disappears as the hammock unexpectedly collapses, causing her to crash to the ground. The man suddenly runs up to help her at this moment. The next shot is a medium shot of the man getting ready before a mirror. He fixes a collar on his shirt and fixes his hair with brush and comb, before putting on a jacket and top hat.

The next shot shows a group of children, ranging in age from about 3 to 10, standing in a circle tossing a ball. The man in his top hat is seen leaning out of a window of the house, but he withdraws before they see him. When one child throws the ball out of range, all of the children run off camera to chase it, and now the man comes out of the window and climbs out, running out to the street. The kids, seeing him make an escape, pursue him, the elder child running to the house to get her mother first. The next series of shots are out comedy chase. The man is running with a line of kids (and a wife) running after him, first down a suburban street, the across an open field, then through a columned pavilion, and finally up to the edge of some water, into which he splashes, the mother catching him here and dragging him off by the ear. One running gag is that the smallest child is unable to keep up, and so is always seen dawdling at the end of the line of pursuers. The final shot shows the woman from the original narrative, now dressed as a bride and standing on the stairs of a church, when a man in a messenger’s outfit walks up and gives her a note. She pays him by pulling some coins from her stocking and an insert of the note gives the punch line: “Can’t get away to marry you today. My wife won’t let me.”

While the joke may seem a bit lame today, audiences of the time probably appreciated it – the closing line comes from the chorus of the song, so it didn’t surprise so much as verify the humor they had been enjoying since the beginning of the film. The actress playing the jilted bride is Victoria Vesta, the music hall singer who had popularized the song. The camera movement, double-exposure, and mid-shot were all fairly advanced filmmaking techniques at the time, so this wasn’t necessarily a low-value production. It looked to me as if most of the locations used were pretty close together – the bench in the opening shot has columns behind it that look a lot like the pavilion, and the body of water he splashes into at the end could easily be the same lake we saw in the background of the proposal – but there are quite a lot of camera set ups for the period, and it looked to me as if the church was in some very different part of the city from the suburban homes we see when the man makes his escape. Porter had made a number of similar movies, perhaps the classic today being “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns,” but comedy chases were a staple of the time, because they allowed movement and action along with humor, and didn’t require much dialog or explanation once they were underway.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victoria Vesta, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 9 Min

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

Back Stage (1919)

Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle team up again for this short from Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation. Keaton has a very prominent co-starring role in this, although Arbuckle is still the center of attention.

Like a lot of these two-reel Comique shorts, this movie is divided into two very short story lines. True to the title, the first focuses on the backstage antics of a small theater troupe, while the second shows a performance, disrupted by hecklers. The movie begins by showing two men (Buster and Al St. John) re-arranging furniture in what seems to be a small bedroom. Suddenly, they grab hold of the flats that serve as the side walls and move them, then the backdrop is raised into the ceiling, showing that we have been looking at a set. Arbuckle is now seen, pulling the rope that lifts the backdrop. This sets the stage for the many sight-gags we’ll be seeing throughout. An intertitle informs us that Arbuckle is in charge of the theatrical company, and we see him outside the theater, trying to paste up a new poster for a coming attraction, but a small child takes an interest in his work and keeps getting in the way. Arbuckle finally pastes him to the wall to keep him out of trouble. He then tears him down and sends him on his way, pasting a bit of poster to his bottom to hide where his pants were torn in the process. When he’s done, the sign advertises a famous star, but the sliding door to the theater obscures half the message when left open, and the remaining text appears to promote a stripper. Inside, Keaton is dealing with a touchy star who insists on having a dressing room with a star over it. Once he’s inside, Keaton pulls the string that moves the star over another dressing room.

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