Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Curtain Pole (1909)

This early collaboration between D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett looks like a primitive version of the latter’s later riotous slapstick comedies. It uses themes (like the mass chase) that have shown up in earlier film comedies from both France and the USA.

The movie begins in a middle-class home, where a man (Henry Solter) is helping several women (one is Florence Lawrence, AKA “The Biograph Girl”) to install a new pole for the curtains. However, he is either not tall enough or otherwise unable to manage it. In walks Sennett, in a ridiculous mustache and tight-fitting clothes that emphasize his lanky frame. He makes an attempt, but slips and falls, bending the pole and then breaking it when he tries to straighten it out. Deeply apologetic, he goes out to procure another for them. Along the way, he encounters an acquaintance, who invites him into a bar for a drink. Thus fortified, he makes his way to a store and buys a very long curtain rod. Almost immediately, he starts knocking people over and whacking them with the pole. When he tries hiding out in the bar, he causes further chaos there, and soon a gang of different types of people, from little old ladies to street ruffians, is chasing him. He stops and gets a taxi, but the added speed only makes the pole more dangerous, and soon he is literally causing riots in the street with his passage. He does manage to elude the mob, in part because his horse starts running backward (!), and eventually makes it back to the home of his friends, who apparently were able to get another curtain rod during his long absence, and have started a dinner party. Driven mad by his experience and failure to help out, Sennett starts eating the curtain rod.

This sort of comes across as a “proof of concept” experiment, with Griffith trying to show what he can accomplish. One part I don’t entirely understand is where a fellow with a walking stick causes the horse to start running backward. The effect is achieve by reversing the film, and Griffith has the mob run up right afterward and fall down, but in fact what the actors did was get up and “run” backwards off the screen in order to get the effect, and it looks very unnatural. Sennett chews the scenery and hams constantly, but he’s having so much fun with it that it’s hard to mind. The riot scenes are remarkable, with baby carriages and innocent couples being knocked over, pushed, and trampled. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few actors were injured. The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and takes advantage of the location to show quite a number of its streets.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer

Starring: Mack Sennett, Henry Solter, Florence Lawrence

Run Time: 10 Min

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

The Spiders (Episode One): The Golden Sea

This first episode in a crime serial was one of Fritz Lang’s first movies as a director, and is the earliest one that survives today. It shows his talent as well as how far the European movie business has come since the beginning of the First World War, but it also wears its influences rather obviously on its sleeve.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue in which we see an old hermit-type man throw a bottle into the sea just before being shot in the back with an arrow by a fellow wearing an elaborate feathered head dress. This is soon explained in a fancy club in San Francisco when a sportsman/adventurer by the name of Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) tells of finding the message in the bottle, which claims to be from a missing Harvard professor who has discovered and been held captive in a surviving Incan civilization. Hoog has verified the professor’s standing and lost status, and now decides to forgo a major boat race in order to head to Chile and try to find the immense treasure these Incans possess. Among his listeners is the lovely Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), who secretly works for the Spiders, an international crime syndicate of immense power and evil.

The spiders send some thieves who look like cut-rate Fantômas clones over to knock Hoog out and steal his map, leaving a large toy spider and a warning behind. Then the leader of the Spiders assigns Lio to lead a rival expedition to recover the treasure. Once in Mexico, she hires a bunch of roughnecks to assist her, and Hoog starts dressing like a cowboy. There’s a bar-room hold up in which he manages to recover a document that tells him about a mysterious “diamond ship,” though now the Spiders are in pursuit. He meets a professor (Georg John) who plans to fly in a balloon over the plateau where the Incas are, and he manages to climb aboard at the last instant despite the efforts of the Spiders to delay him.

Once we get to the Incan city, a lot of the movie is typical serial capture-and-escape material, with the Incans eager to sacrifice at least one of the trespassers, Lio Sha eager to kill Hoog, and her followers mostly interested in stealing the gold for themselves. Hoog meets  the Priestess Naela (Lil Dagover), and rescues her from punishment for refusing to sacrifice Lio. Lio and her gang are able to find the treasure, but chaos breaks out as the men start fighting over the treasure. Of course, at that moment the volcano erupts and wipes out the Incans as well as all of the Spiders except Lio Sha and one nugget-obsessed henchman.

Hoog and Naela are able to escape in a large floating basket and make their way back to San Francisco to be married. Lio Sha comes to him and asks him to join her, saying they would make a great team if they worked together and became lovers. Hoog refuses and Lio kills Naela in revenge.

This movie’s debt to the crime serials of Louis Feuillade would be less painfully obvious if Lang hadn’t cast Orla and dressed her to look so much like Musidora. She comes across as decidedly more German than French, however – she’s domineering and masculine rather than sexy and conniving. I find that de Vogt reminds me of René Cresté, who played “Judex,” though other reviewers compare him to a young William S. Hart. Hart played an Aztec in one movie, so maybe Lang was going for that here. I find it amusing that Lang thought “Kay” was a good first name for his all-American manly man hero. It’s not really clear to me why the “good” character is motivated to steal treasure from a civilization that has avoided Western contact, although all he does in fact is to fall in love with one of their priestesses and save her life. That said, the Spiders work well as a “Vampires”-style crime organization, and some of the best parts of the Feiullades sprang from the illogic of the series.

Overall, the film making technique of this movie is way ahead of the work Gaumont was putting out before and during the war. There are frequent close-ups, cuts within scenes, cross-cutting to enhance suspense, creative camera angles, and lighting. The camera moves to follow actors, and sometimes to reveal things at the right moment. In one scene, Hoog stands in front of a window of the cantina while Lio Sha carouses inside. Both of them are in perfect focus, and the edits each time Hoog peers inside allow us to think she might spot him at any moment. There’s a good use of silhouettes on the plateau at night, and we get actual darkness for night scenes, rather than just tinting a brightly-lit scene and expecting the audience to go along with it. When I was collecting screenshots for this article, I became especially aware of how fast the editing is compared to the movies I’ve reviewed up to now. Usually, I have plenty of time to choose my shot, but with this one, I had to hurry or it would cut away. The costumes and sets for the Incans are elaborate and beautiful (though probably not terribly authentic). Another break in logic came for me when the head-dress fellow snuck up on one of the Spiders’ guards and took him out. How did he not see that huge feathered thing coming right up to him?

The “diamond ship” subplot is a setup for the next episode, which came out in 1920, so I’ll be reviewing it soon as well.

Director: Fritz Lang

Camera: Emil Schünemann, Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Carl de Vogt, Lil Dagover, Ressel Orla, Georg John

Run Time: 1 Hour, 9 Min

You can watch it (together with part two, “The Diamond Ship) for free: here.

Blind Husbands (1919)

Erich von Stroheim’s first directorial effort is a tale of infidelity set in a small European village. This is the feature film that “made him” as a director, establishing a reputation for brilliance, going over-budget, and being domineering on the set.

The picture takes place in a small Alpine village, and begins with a dedication to “Sepp” a mountain guide who happens to share a name with the guide character (played by Gibson Gowland) in the movie. Sepp receives word that his friend Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) is returning to the village, which results in an emotional flashback in which we learn that Dr. Armstrong saved Sepp’s life on the mountain and that Sepp pledged his undying loyalty to him in gratitude. We see the arrival of the doctor and his young wife (Francelia Billington) in a carriage, the doctor consistently with his nose buried in a book. This opens up opportunities for an Austrian Lieutenant (played in highly Prussian style by von Stroheim himself) to awkwardly flirt with her, though she shows no interest in him. As the film progresses, this theme continues, with the Lieutenant flirting with, and at times annoying, Mrs. Armstrong while her husband is oblivious to her concerns. Meanwhile, their relationship is contrasted with that of two young Honeymooners (the girl is played by Valerie Germonprez, von Stroheim’s future wife), who are only interested in one another to the point of obliviousness to all else. Mrs. Armstrong clearly longs for that kind of attention, and is ashamed to be seen in public with a man who ignores her. The Lieutenant quickly seduces and abandons a waitress (Fay Holderness) at their inn, pausing only momentarily in his pursuit of Mrs. Armstrong, giving us a clear picture of what would happen to her if she were to submit to him.

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The Human Fly (1902)

This simple trick short from Georges Méliès is similar to “Kiriki Japanese Acrobats” in the execution of its effect, but somewhat simpler (and five years earlier) than that movie. Although we know how he pulled off the “magic,” the performance of Méliès makes this still a delight to watch.

A proscenium-style set shows a hall in a castle or mansion, and there are several ladies in upper class dress assembled as an audience. Méliès comes out in a Russian-style costume and gives a Hopak or squat-dance, to which the ladies clap as he becomes more and more animated. Suddenly, he turns and runs up the wall! He then comes back down for a bit more dancing, before ascending the wall again to do several tumbles and then return to the ground for a finale. The movie ends with his bow.

As with the other movie, this was accomplished by setting  up a camera directly above a floor painted to match the backdrop, then editing and using double-exposure to make it appear that Méliès was doing the impossible. Partly because overhead shots were so rarely used at the time, the trick would not have been obvious to most audiences. The Star Films catalog tells us that Méliès is a “Hindoo” in this film, although his dress and dancing seemed Slavic to me – I suppose that this is another example of the careless way in which “exoticism” was utilized to generate interest in magic and movies at the time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 47 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Post No Bills (1896)

A very simple comedy short from Georges Méliès that doesn’t use any trick photography. No doubt this was an early experiment, and we are lucky to be able to see it at all.

We see a wall with a guard station, on what appears to be a genuine outdoor street. A soldier in uniform marches past, and we see writing on the wall that reads, “DÉFENSE d’AFFICHER.” The soldier marches off screen, and soon a man in a white painter’s uniform carrying a bucket appears. He pulls a poster from behind a post and glues it to the wall with a brush from his bucket. He runs off, and soon another man, similarly attired, comes up with an even bigger poster and glues it over the other one. The first poster man returns, and the two argue, soon throwing their glue pots at each other. Suddenly, they run off and the soldier marches past again, oblivious to the poster and to the bucket on the ground. Then his officer walks up and orders him to stand at attention, dressing him down for failing to protect the wall from vandalism. They march off screen together.

The “Star Films Catalog” uses just two words to describe this movie: “very comical.” Apparently they couldn’t think of much else to say about this artifact, at a time when they were distributing much longer and more complex works, but they kept it on as probably one of the cheaper properties they could occasionally sell to a backwater or particularly un-choosy theater owner. For 1896, it’s a reasonably involved story line, with multiple characters, each with his own motivations and reactions. We don’t get a good look at anyone’s face, but I think Méliès plays the first poster-hanger, gauging from the way he moves (Méliès had a distinct body language all his own). I’m assuming they used the outdoor set because this was before he had built his open-air studio in his backyard, but it could be a particularly clever backdrop. The real evidence that it was shot outside is that there’s a shadow of a tree branch on the lower left of the screen, and no one ever seemed to think to do things like that in 1896 to lend their sets verisimilitude (indeed, Méliès may have regarded it as a “mistake” to shoot it – he always avoided that sort of thing later).

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (see above)

Run Time: 1 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Montmartre’s Kids (1916)

This wartime propaganda film masquerades as a human interest documentary, but it’s easy to see that the action is contrived. It gives us a look at a Parisian neighborhood during World War I, and a sense of what motivated people’s sympathies at the time.

An opening intertitle assures us that the people of Paris are determined to fight on, and that the children of this besieged city are just as affected as are the adults. We then see a group of local kids kitted up to play soldier, with some even dressed as nuns to treat the wounded. One particularly adorable child has a toy cannon, but most are carrying broken buckets and other scrap as “ammunition.” Two kids, using a tin can and an old pipe as a radio, receive “orders” to “bother the concierge” at a particular address. This is duly passed down the line. The troops assemble (the kid with the cannon stumbles cutely several times), and they charge down the hill to the address, where they toss over their junkyard ammunition. This scene is cross-cut with the concierge, wielding a broom, on the other side of the wall being pelted with trash. The kids make a “strategic retreat” across a hill with a windmill, and the nuns treat the “wounded” in the final shots.

Monmartre is a hill in the north of Paris which was home to several famous artists, though here it looks like a poor neighborhood full of street urchins, reminiscent of Bout-de-Zan. The movie is intended to tug at the heart-strings of viewers, getting them to sympathize with France in its suffering under attack by the German Army. By showing kids, genuinely under threat of war, innocently playing at war themselves, the film makers urge right-thinking adults to show courage and stoicism in the face of the attack. From our point of view today, it’s great to see all these images of a Paris neighborhood from over 100 years ago. A lot of the shots of the area the kids play in makes it appear as an undeveloped lot, or perhaps a junkyard, but for them it serves as a city park. The edited sequence of the attack on the concierge, requiring two camera set-ups to show simultaneous action, demonstrates that this is not a spontaneous action the kids are taking, but rather a scripted storyline. Audiences in 1916 may or may not have been sophisticated enough to figure this out.

Director: Francisque Poulbot

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 50 secs

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

The Puncher’s New Love (1911)

This unusual film from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson avoids most of the usual Western tropes to tell a romantic story of love lost through selfishness. While a bit awkwardly shot and acted, it goes a long way to showing the diversity of roles Anderson did within the “Broncho Billy” umbrella.

As the movie begins, Anderson is leaning in the window to ask out his girl (Ann Little) to an upcoming barn dance. She is happy to accept and even gives him a little kiss goodbye. Right after he departs, a rival (John O’Brien) arrives with a handbill about the same dance. Ann rightly tells John she can’t go with him, because she just agreed to go with Billy, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint until she repeats herself. Eventually, he seems to console himself by saying at least he’ll see her at the dance with Billy. Meanwhile, Billy comes across a “city girl” (Gladys Field) out riding, and is immediately infatuated. He shows her the handbill and she shows an interest in going with Billy, who seems to completely forget about Ann. On the night of the dance, John sees Billy come in with the city girl and his jaw drops. She refuses to shake hands with a man Billy introduces her to, and looks disdainfully at the whole affair, but eventually agrees to dance with Billy. John eagerly rushes off to find Ann, who is standing forlornly in front of her gate. He tells her Billy’s there with another woman, and she looks crushed, but eventually agrees to go with John. Once there, Billy appears to be about to leave with his bored date, but receives a withering stare from Ann before he gets out the door, and sees that she is with John.

Some time later, Billy pays a call on the city girl, looking about in wide-eyed wonder at her fine house and the liveried butler. Gladys seems not to remember Billy when he is announced, but eventually deigns to coldly greet him. Then a man in a tuxedo comes in and she quickly rushes up and hugs him hello. Billy expresses his jealousy and is asked to leave, which he will not do until he’s said his piece and threatened violence. Now he returns shame-faced to see Ann in her home, but she is still angry at being cast aside without even being informed that their date was off. She tells Billy to go, and this time he does so with more decency, because this is someone he can respect. John comes in a bit later with a ring and we see that Ann has transferred her feelings to him. A final intertitle (possibly added due to the loss of some footage) tells us that the couple eventually discovers Billy dead.

We can’t see you, Ann!

There are no gunfights, horseback chases or bar room brawls in this film, yet it is fundamentally about the different values of the “pure” pioneering America versus the corrupt Europeanized culture of the city. Billy and all the other “punchers” wear riding garb at all times, even at the formal dance, although the city girl wears a black gown and the other country girls are in simple dresses. The overall plot is reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s much later movie “Sunrise,” but without the happy ending, or the attempted murder. It’s interesting that Billy is unable to redeem himself from his mistake – usually in a story like this, a man can make amends, but a “fallen woman” has to die. This movie surprised me by ending with the death of the fallen man. It’s very much a 1911 movie, with all shots taken at full-figure distance, and no camera movement or editing within scenes. The sets are often crowded, especially the dance hall set, and actors frequently pass in front of one another, obscuring  the main action. The dance begins with a little comedy about the fiddler, who is either drunk or exhausted (I couldn’t tell if he was laughing hysterically or yawning), and nearly everyone in the movie is crowded into that scene. One really unfortunate choice was to shoot the scene of John picking up Ann from behind the gate Ann is waiting at, so her face is obscured as she acts out her reaction to Billy’s betrayal. There were a lot of other angles they could have used for that scene, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone that it would be an issue.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Gladys Field, Ann Little, John O’Brien, Augustus, Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Brinsley Shaw

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Series Photography (1885)

This is not really a movie, but a group of photographic projects shot by Eadweard Muybridge and presented sequentially on the “Movies Begin” DVD set put out by Kino. It does give some insight into how nineteenth-century photographers were thinking about using the new art form to capture movement.

What we see is a series of very short sequences showing nude young women in a variety of activities, such as pouring from a jug or walking downstairs. Each still image is held on the screen for a few seconds before the next one appears, which does produce a slight illusion of movement, especially when the photos were shot quickly enough to produce only slight changes in position. Many of the images have a sort of grid in the background, which apparently Muybridge used to measure precise movements.

From what I’ve read of Muybridge (not a lot), it seems that the inclusion only of female nudes in this selection might be a bit of a misrepresentation. He is more known for studying animal movement, most famously running horses and also took nude male images among his human studies. As presented, it looked as if he was really only interested in the naked female body, which would have been common enough among artists at the time, but this does not seem to have been the case. The liner notes don’t make it very clear whether these images were intended to be seen animated on his “Zoopraxiscope,” but that seems likely, therefore these images can almost be considered “motion pictures,” although they are certainly very simple compared to what would come soon afterward.

Director: Eadweard Muybridge

Camera: Eadweard Muybridge

Run Time: 2 min (as presented)

You can see some examples of Muybridge’s work for free: here.

The Master Mystery (1919)

To wrap up this year’s October review of chilling movies, I’m going to look at this serial starring no less a person than Harry Houdini. Once again, it’s not exactly a horror movie – it’s more of a crime serial ala Louis Feuillade – but it has madness, a robot, and lots of creative death-dealing situations for the hero to get out of, so I’m including it.

Our story begins in the home of Peter Brent (Jack Burns), the President of International Patents, Inc, a company whose nefarious scheme is to buy up the patents for new inventions from lone geniuses and keep them off the market – benefiting those who own existing patents by preventing free competition. Unbeknownst to Brent, one of his employees, Quentin Locke (Houdini) is actually an agent of the Dept. of Justice, investigating on the grounds of the Anti-trust Act, and he has wired Brent’s home for sound (most of the first shots we see of Houdini are his reactions to conversations other characters are having in other rooms, which can be a bit confusing). Locke is of course secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Brent is actually having second thoughts about the whole scheme for her sake. Enter the real villains of the movie, Herbert and Paul Balcom (William Pike and Charles E Graham), a father-and-son team who hope to take over the company (the father) and marry Eva (the son). They also have collaborators in the form of a secretary named Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) who is secretly in love with Locke and a lady-of-leisure with the unlikely moniker of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who “dominates” Paul. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

Released just one year after “A Trip to the Moon,” this extended adventure story from Georges Méliès was at least equally as ambitious and well-executed, although it’s not so well remembered today. Essentially a fairy tale-quest story, the use of a witch and her demons as antagonists fits it more or less into my October history of horror.

The movie begins on a proscenium-style set dressed as a medieval court. Lords and ladies arrange themselves around the throne. Méliès himself appears as “Prince Bel-Azor,” who is betrothed to Princess Azurine (Marguerite Thévenard). Various fairies give the princess wedding gifts, led by the fairy godmother, Aurora (Bluette Bernon). Suddenly a witch runs in, offended at not having been invited. When she is admonished by the prince, she turns into flame and disappears. The next sequence shows the princess in her bedchamber, assisted in undressing for bed by several ladies-in-waiting. Once they leave, the witch, assisted by several green demons, seizes the princess from her bed and puts her into a “chariot of fire.” She is unable to resist, although the prince rushes in at the last moment to be confronted by a fire-wielding demon. He and the court rush out to a high tower and watch the chariot of fire and its retinue rushing across the sky. The prince vows to pursue. Read the rest of this entry »