Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tol’able David (1921)

This down-homey piece of Americana reflects the values that movie audiences responded to in the immediate post-war era. It also gives Richard Barthelmess a starring vehicle in which we can see his real face, unlike “Broken Blossoms” where he was under Yellowface.

Tol'able_David-Poster

The movie begins by introducing the Kinemon family, salt-of-the-Earth types in a small village somewhere near West Virginia. Warner Richmond is Allan, the favored older son who drives the mail for the local general store owner – an important mark of social success. Barthelmess is David, the younger son, who is pampered by his mother, who describes him as “just tol’able,” not great. Older brother is already married and his wife is expecting, while David frolics in the lake with a little dog, only to have his clothes stolen, resulting in a humorous encounter with the girl-next-door, Esther Hatburn (played by Gladys Hulette). Esther seems to be interested in David, but he is painfully shy. At breakfast, David offers to drive the carriage (called “the hack”) for Allan, but Allan scoffs that he is too young for such a responsible role. We see Allan get the hack ready and take it off down the road, with a local child running alongside. We also see “pa” ignore his wife’s advice to take his work easy because of concern over his health. Read the rest of this entry »

The Noise of Bombs (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios displays both the studio’s embrace of anarchic fun and its rejection of political anarchism in a single blow. It uses violence and the Keystone Kops to deliver the mayhem audiences were looking for.

The movie begins by introducing the Chief of Police (Edgar Kennedy) and his family – an unusually intimate portrayal for a Keystone Kop. He has a wife and small baby, as well as young uniformed maid (Dixie Chene), living with him in a small but comfortable home. The maid, laughing and smiling, takes the baby outside. He kisses his wife goodbye  and goes off to work. We cut to a more familiar Keystone tableaux, as a cop (Charles Murray) with a rounded helmet yawns and stretches out for a nap on a park bench. At an undetermined location elsewhere in the park, we see four shady-looking characters with mustaches (who include Harry McCoy and Charley Chase) crouched down, participating in a dice game or some similar activity. Suddenly, Kennedy comes across them and chases them into the bushes. They all tumble across the bench where Murray is napping, knocking him down. Murray jumps up and gets his billy club ready to hit anyone else that comes through the bushes and of course Kennedy does and Murray clocks him before realizing he’s the boss.

Murray and Kennedy sort things out, but the criminals get away. Kennedy finds the maid on her walk and says hi to his baby, unaware that they are watching him. Now Murray finds the maid in the park and gives her a kiss, showing that they know one another. She lets him hold the baby and goes shopping, and when Kennedy finds him slacking off again, he removes his stripes and badge. After he leaves, the bad guys swarm in and take the cop and baby hostage. They take him back to their hideout which is full of dynamite and explosives, and they prepare a note threatening to blow up Kennedy’s house. Then they give Murray the note and a classic round black bomb to deliver. They don’t trust him, so they go with him, leaving the baby in a pile of dynamite.

Murray breaks in to the house and places the note, but gets his foot stuck hiding the bomb, so has to climb into the settee with it. When the family finds the note, they panic, but instead of evacuating, they start tearing the house apart looking for it, looking everywhere but the settee. Eventually, Murray makes his presence obvious, after the wife engages with a comedic battle to keep the rebellious settee closed. The bomb is smoking now, and everyone runs out, Kennedy eventually throws it into Murray’s hands and fires his gun to make him run. He crashes into the anarchists, and a running shootout begins as more cops arrive. Murray runs back to the hideout, with the gangsters and the police close behind, and finds the baby. As he gets ready to rush out, the bad guys get to the front door and Kennedy hurls the bomb into the shack. Murray climbs up onto the roof while the bad guys try to shoot the door open. They get in, he seals the trap door and the cops are at the front, with the anarchists trapped inside with their own bomb. Murray grabs a telephone wire and hand-over-hands himself to safety, the baby’s swaddling clothes held in his teeth. All of the good guys rush over to congratulate him and the bomb finally goes off, destroying the shack, all the explosives, and presumably the villains.

The trope of the bomb-throwing anarchist, while based to some degree on radical direct action of the time, had by 1914 become a trope of political cartoons and other media, and was often associated with racism against immigrants, especially those from Southern Europe. We’ve seen it used before, including in Charlie Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” but it is taken to a clumsy extreme in this movie to create anti-cop bad guys that will be instantly recognizable and not require any back story, which a single-reel film like this one has no time for. It stands out because Keystone Kops humor often mocks the police, and much of the more well-remembered slapstick of the time glamorized the little man (or tramp) who managed to get the better of them. There is some of that mockery here, in Murray’s incompetence and Kennedy’s bullying, but ultimately we see the police in this movie as on the side of right. Still, it’s all really just a set up for manic running around and the tension of wondering when the bomb will go off.

For us today, it’s a rarity to get to see a Keystone Kops movie that actually stars…the cops, and not someone like Chaplin, Ford Sterling, or Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. This is probably more representative of the vast majority of Keystone output that didn’t trade on any star power of big personalities, but just worked to a comedy formula that was known to work. The standard of film making is pretty typical as well. We get an insert shot of the note, a couple of brief close-ups, and a few two-shots, but most of the movie is played at proscenium distance with characters moving about little stages, linked together through editing. The editing is fast, as you would expect in a comedy, and uses cross-cutting to heighten the tension of the bomb and the rescue. The result is cheap, effective, funny at times, and recognizably Keystone.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charles Murray, Edgar Kennedy, Dixie Chene, Harry McCoy, Charley Chase, Lucille Ward, Josef Swickard, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 11 Min

I have not found this available to watch complete on the internet. If you do, please comment. You can see a brief sample: here.

 

Sea Fighting in Greece (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès combines his knowledge of special effects with his interest in recreating contemporary events, in the style of newsreel footage, for the edification of audiences. Here, Méliès takes on the depiction of a foreign war for an audience safe and sound in peaceful Paris.

Sea Fighting in Greece1

A backdrop shows a seascape, complete with a battleship in the background, while the foreground is an articulated stage that rocks side to side, in semblance of the deck of a ship. A single cannon points stage left, and Méliès himself, in the coat of an officer, peers through a spyglass. Suddenly, he summons his crew to the deck and they man the cannon, firing at an unseen enemy, apparently to the port side of the ship (assuming that it is understood to be sailing away from the camera). Now, Méliès turns his spyglass toward the camera and the drew looks intently in our direction, apparently sighting another enemy. There are two bursts of smoke, and one of the crew falls to the deck, apparently hit. Smoke billows out from the deck. The other men scamper to form a bucket brigade, tossing water at the smoke, while one tends to his fallen comrade.

Sea Fighting in Greece

This movie was intended to represent the Greco-Turkish War, which was raging in another part of Europe at the time, making this a “ripped from the headlines” movie. In fact, naval battles were not a major factor in this war, but it was expected that such fighting could break out at any moment, and Méliès may simply have been interested in anticipating this, or in trying out the technique of the rolling ship and the cannon blasts. The articulated stage would be used again in Star Film #112 (this was released as #110), “Between Dover and Calais”, where it is mobilized for comedic effect rather than action and suspense. While audiences were less experienced in decoding motion pictures at this time, it seems likely that most understood this to be a dramatic recreation of events at sea, not the real thing.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 3 secs

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

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film release is a powerful concoction of slapstick, pathos, comedy, and tear-jerker, remembered to this day as a breakthrough in comedy film making. How does it stand up to a modern viewing? Let’s take a look.

Kid_1921

The movie begins with an unwed mother (Charlie’s leading lady of many years, Edna Purviance) emerging from a “Charity Hospital” with babe in arms. She wanders into a park alone, abandoned by the ne-er-do-well father, who off-handedly tosses her photograph into the fire. Unable to care for the baby, Edna places it into a limousine parked in front of a large house, hoping to give it a good home with a wealthy family. Unbeknownst to her, however, the car is stolen seconds later by a pair of hoodlums who ditch the child in an alley when they discover it. Fortunately, he is found moments later by Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character, wandering the alleyways in search of sustenance, and after some comic attempts to pawn it off on another mother, he eventually takes it back to the dingy attic where he dwells.

Kid

Read the rest of this entry »

Monkey Race (1909)

This Italian short comedy reminds me of the work of Alice Guy and other Europeans at the time it came out. It’s very basic, a bit transgressive, and centers around an extended chase sequence.

Monkey Race

The movie begins as a pair of workmen, accompanied by household servants, bring a crate into the kitchen of a middle class home. A particularly tall woman in a long dress, apparently the mistress of the house, presides excitedly over the proceedings. The crate is open and out springs an ape – or, anyway, a man in an unconvincing orangutan suit. He jumps up and down, eventually climbing onto the counter and removing Madame’s hair – which is now revealed as a wig on her bald head! The monkey runs into the bed room and hides under the covers. When the people come in to find it, they ignore the large bump in the bed and look up into the curtains to see if it has climbed up there, but when it springs out of its hiding place, everyone is knocked down. It leaps out of the window. We now cut to the street, where a photographer is setting up to get a picture of a man and his son in front of a shop window. The gorilla runs past, spoiling the shot, and then all of the humans in pursuit knock over the camera and the subjects, causing a fight to break out. Next, the monkey leaps on top of a hansom cab, knocking over the driver, who is trampled by the crowd of pursuers. Then, the monkey runs into a wooded area (perhaps a park) and climbs a tree. Again his pursuers follow, he monkey performs some swinging stunts and for some reason this sequence is under-cranked to make the motion look faster. Eventually, the monkey returns to the ground and the chase continues.

Monkey Race1

The monkey knocks down some soldiers and some lounging fire men, who pick up ladders to bring with them in the chase. This is fortunate, because now the monkey climbs up the side of a building, and the ladders ease their pursuit. They ascend the wall, and despite occasional tumbles, are able to reach the roof, where the monkey climbs down the chimney. The humans follow, one at a time, and there is an odd shot showing the interior of the chimney as each person (and the animal) falls down toward the bottom. The monkey tumbles out through the furnace door into a basement where two men are washing something in a large tub, and soon afterward the whole crowd bursts through the wall and knocks the men over, grabbing the monkey as it splashes happily in the tub.

Monkey Race2

Parts of this film rely upon special effects, though most of it is just driven by the madcap chase. The monkey first leaps onto the wall by jumping up to a high window with bars to climb from, and this is achieved by means of reversing the film of a shot in which the man-in-the-suit had leaped down from that perch. The shot of monkey and people climbing the all was done as in “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats,” with the camera placed above the floor, shooting down, to give the illusion that the “top” of the screen was actually the higher point on the wall, and then the people pretend to be climbing when they are actually crawling. I believe the chimney-interior was handled the same way, but with the odd choice of showing a cut-out chimney, as if the camera has x-ray vision through the bricks. The bald woman appears to be played by a man, and is itself a little risqué in terms of making fun of the middle-class owner of a monkey. At any rate, this all seems about three years behind for 1909, by which time Biograph is already showing movies with cross-cut editing and more complex narratives, but it is an enjoyable example of early film comedy.

Director: Unkown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Danger Game (1918)

This “melodramatic comedy” feature was produced in Fort Lee, New Jersey after much of American film production had already migrated to California. It stars relative newcomer Madge Kennedy, who would go on to a long career in movies, television and theatrical performances.

Danger Game

The first part of the print is missing, so new intertitles inform us that Madge plays Clytie Rogers, the spoiled daughter of privilege, who fancies herself a bohemian and a novelist. Having spent her father’smoney on a vanity press publication of her first book, she is distressed to find that the critics are trashing it in their columns. One in particular – a certain James Gilpin – is very cruel, and suggests that the most preposterous plot device she uses is depicting a society girl as a successful burglar. Meanwhile, she’s being courted by a rather obvious gold-digging gigolo (Paul Doucet), who is the only one who “understands” her genius. Upset that her father (Ned Burton) disapproves, she vows to run away and marry the gigolo, and leaves a note to that effect, which her parents read over breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

Look Pleasant, Please (1918)

This comedy short stars Harold Lloyd in an early version of his “glasses” character and pulls together many jokes that had been around at least as long as the movies, but manages a pacing and zaniness that shows how Lloyd rose to become one of the major comedy stars of the next decade.

The movie starts out in a (still) photographer’s studio, where Bebe Daniels is annoyed by the off-hand sexual harassment of the proprietor (William Gillespie). She runs to the phone to call her large and jealous husband, who tells Gillespie that he’s coming after him, firing off his gun a couple of times to make the point. Meanwhile, Lloyd works at a nearby vegetable stand, where he presses down the scales to rip off customers and charges a “war tax” of $1 for each item. A group of policemen come up and accuse him; he tries to buy them off with produce, but winds up running into the photographer’s to hide. The photographer mistakes Harold for the husband at first, but when Harold tries to hide instead of killing him, he gets an idea. He puts Harold in charge of the shop and goes to hide in the dark room.

Faith, hope, and charity

The next sequence of the film is a parade of silly customers to the studio, and Harold’s silly attempts to photograph them. One is an old maid (Dorothea Wolbert) who won’t stop talking, so Harold puts her face into a stand so she can’t speak, then poses her with a jug which winds up spilling all over her. He gives her a life preserver. Then a group of drunken swells come in (one of them is James Parrott). Lloyd has a hard time getting them to sit without falling over, but eventually poses them as “faith, hope and charity.” A country couple comes in, but their scene evidently was cut, as we cut back to Bebe and her husband, before seeing the “burles-queen,” who shocks Lloyd with her revealing outfit and briefly fights with janitor Snub Pollard when he tries to look up her skirt (with binoculars, no less). Snub is locked the dark room with the real photographer, but sticks Harold with a pin to escape, just as the husband charges in.  He fires his gun and now Lloyd also hides in the dark room, shoving first Pollard, then Gillespie out to confront the enraged man. A couple of fortuitous bits of crockery are hurled, forcing the husband into the dark room when a police inspector finally comes in to break it all up. Lloyd lets the husband out at the critical moment to punch the inspector, who arrests him, then embraces a quite-willing Bebe for the camera. The End.

A lot of the photography jokes go right back to early Edison, Gaumont, or Lumière films, but where they would have been entire films unto themselves in those days, here they are all thrown together and run at a furious pace, keeping the laughs coming non-stop. There’s little concern in this Hal Roach picture for narrative logic, and a lot more for comedy chaos, but it has a more deliberate feeling than comparable Keystones, as if Lloyd and director Alfred J. Goulding had thought through the chaos carefully before starting. The editing is spot-on and we get multiple camera-angles within scenes as well as cross-cutting to suggest simultaneous action. In other words, state of the art for 1918, but with a devil-may-care attitude to plotting that ties it back to an earlier style of comedy as well. A great example of Lloyd’s developing comedy style, before he started hanging of the edges of buildings to get laughs.

Director: Alfred J. Goulding

Camera: Walter Lundin

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Snub Pollard, William Gillespie, James Parrott, Dorothea Wolbert

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Broncho Billy’s Narrow Escape (1912)

A straightforward Western of the Nickelodeon era, this short from Essanay stars Gilbert M. Broncho Billy” Anderson in the role that he was most identified with. Once again, Billy is wronged by bad intentions, but wins the day and the girl!

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape

The movie begins with three people seated around a table eating breakfast. Vedah Betram and Arthur Mackley play father and daughter, while Brinsley Shaw is there as a hired hand. Vedah offers Arthur more coffee and he refuses, saying it’s time to get to work. When she offers to Brinsley, he tries to become affectionate, which she politely refuses. They go off to continue looking for a vein of gold in the hills. Now, Broncho Billy rides up and politely inquires the girl about any work. She directs him to go find her father, giving him a lingering glance as he leaves. Arthur hires Billy and soon the three of them are swinging picks at a wall. That night, Billy takes out a banjo, and he and Vedah play and sing together, while the others watch. Brinsley is obviously becoming jealous, and Arthur wants to go to bed, so they move to the porch, where they are seen by a desperado (I believe this is Fred Church) who confronts Billy about we know not what, possibly the two are known to each other somehow.

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape1

The next day, the father finds that vein of gold and sends Billy into town on a white horse with the papers that will stake his claim. Brinsley tells locals that Billy has stolen the white horse and a posse is formed. The desperado encounters them and informs them where Billy is headed, then hightails it out of town. When the posse catches up with Billy, he surrenders peaceably, but he has been instructed to tell no one of his errand, so his story sounds fishy. Brinsley tells Vedah what he has done, and she jumps on another horse and speeds into town. Just as the posse are preparing to lynch Billy, she arrives and clears things up. The last shot in the film shows the two of them leaning into the camera, bent forward with heads close together in affection.

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape2

Although Anderson played the “Broncho Billy” character literally hundreds of times, this is not a series in the sense that we understand it today; you couldn’t possibly tie each of these short films together into a running narrative. In many of them, he winds up with a girl, always a different one, who he truly loves, and who he’s never met before. Sometimes he spends years in jail. Sometimes he’s actually not innocent. Each story is discrete, and if you tried to make all of them about the same person, he’d be schizophrenic in his behavior and near immortal in longevity (and the timeline wouldn’t work for the relatively brief period of the “Old West” anyway). Audiences at the time obviously accepted this, not expecting each story to be a continuation of the last, just looking for another rousing Western tale about a hero in a world ruled by guns and fists. This one includes a bit of cross-cutting at the climax, to heighten the tension as the girl rides to Billy’s rescue (a nice reversal of the usual expected situation), but is otherwise a pretty straightforward example of Nickelodeon-era film making. There’s no gunplay or other violence, Billy is remarkably easy-going and polite, and neither villain receives any comeuppance on screen. Broncho Billy gives audiences what they are looking for here, but not a lot else.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Vedah Bertram, Arthur Mackley, Brinsley Shaw, Fred Church, Harry Todd,

Run Time: 15 Min

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

Be My Wife (1921)

This rare feature-length comedy by Max Linder is part of his second round of Hollywood-produced films, but it didn’t catch on with audiences as he had hoped, and there was no major revival of his career. How does it hold up for us today?

Be My Wife

The movie begins with a visual pun, as we see Max in profile pouring water over the head of a girl. In reality, he is watering plants which are in a vase designed to show the silhouette of a girl in profile (something similar is being done with pottery urns today). He is visiting the love of his life, Mary (played by Alta Allen), and is helping with the chores. Unfortunately, Mary has a spinster aunt (Caroline Rankin) living with her, who sees the profile through a window and concludes that he is with her in the bath. She rushes in to catch them, and is baffled how Mary got her hair dry so fast. Archie is another suitor (played by Lincoln Stedman, who bears a certain resemblance to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and he brings his dog over, charming the aunt (the dog bears only a slight resemblance to Arbuckle’s dog Luke). Max hides outside and meets Mary, but Archie and Aunt Agatha are still around, so he hides out by disguising himself as a scarecrow (as Buster Keaton had recently done as well). There’s a good deal of humor about the dog barking at the scarecrow, the scarecrow kicking Archie from behind, and the two lovers stealing moments when no one is looking. Eventually, the aunt comes to investigate, loosens the dog’s post, and the dog chases the scarecrow until it tries to climb a fence, then performs an impressive leap to latch its teeth into Max’s backside.

Read the rest of this entry »

The High Sign (1921)

Buster Keaton’s first starring short languished for over a year before being released – at his request. He later said he was embarrassed by it, but is it as bad as Keaton thought?

High_Sign_(1921)

The first reel of the film follows Keaton’s everyman as he tries to secure work at a shooting gallery. First, we see him clip an ad out of a ridiculously over-sized newspaper, then he gets himself a pistol by stealing one off a cop and replacing it with a banana. He takes that pistol to the beach and tries shooting some bottles, under the supervision of Al St. John, who is shot in the behind before the practice session is over. Soon it is apparent that his aim is never going to improve – when he aims left, shots go right, and when he aims straight ahead, he shoots a bird out of the sky. At the shooting gallery, he contrives to fool the manager (Ingram B. Pickett) by rigging up a system that will cause the bell to ring every time he takes a shot. Since he uses a little dog to pull the string, however, things get out of hand when the dog tries to chase a cat.

High Sign

Meanwhile, the audience learns that his boss is a member of “The Blinking Buzzards,” a secret order that meets in the back room of the shooting gallery. They use a hand sign that involves sticking both thumbs into the nose and holding the hands to look like a bird’s wings (“the high sign”). They are trying to extort money from one August Nickelnurser, but he has so far resisted paying off, and today is the day they will make good on their threat to kill him. August has filled his house with secret doors so that he can get out of any room in a hurry, but his lovely daughter (Bartine Burkett) doesn’t think that’s enough; he needs to hire a bodyguard. Both she and the manager are convinced that Buster is a dead shot, so they each hire him – one to kill August, the other to protect him.

High Sign1

After a few more superfluous gags at the shooting gallery, Buster heads over to Nickelnurser’s home, where we spend most of the second reel. It turns out that the butler is a plant of the Blinking Buzzards, who also lurk outside a window, so Buster is under constant pressure to kill August, even as he tries to woo his daughter and prove himself a brave bodyguard. He tries getting August to fake his death, but the Buzzards get wise. Pretty soon, August and Buster are running around the house, using the trapdoors to evade the Buzzards and leap from one room to another. At one point, Keaton uses a gag from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Adventurer” and traps a Buzzard’s head in a door. At another, he kicks Nickelnurser, thinking it’s a Buzzard hiding behind a curtain. Eventually, he is able to trap or knock out all of the Buzzards, and the girl embraces him as he gives the high sign one last time.

High Sign2

I’d agree with Keaton that this wasn’t the best or most original of his films, but it doesn’t seem to me he had anything to be deeply embarrassed about. Still, he led off his releases with the decidedly better “One Week,” and that probably was better for his reputation. By the time this came out, audiences were used to seeing Keaton as a starring player, and so the more middling material would have gone down easier, as it does for us today. I wonder also if his distaste for the movie has to do with the fact that his character isn’t above stealing the cop’s gun. Later he would claim in his autobiography that what differed him from Chaplin was that his character was always an honest working man, who would find a way to earn what he needed without stealing, and that’s demonstrably not the case here.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John, Joe Roberts, Charles Dorety

Run Time: 20 Min

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