Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Transformation by Hats (1895)

This short film by Lumière confirms that the French company had realized at least some of the comedic possibilities of film, despite mostly being remembered for actualities today. Along with “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie stands as among the very first attempts at intentionally funny cinema.

A man sits on a stool and places one hat after another on his head, often adding false whiskers, noses, or wigs to transform his appearance. With each new headpiece, he displays a different personality, often obviously campy or goofy. His first performance involves driving a team of horses. His second appears to be taking or tearing tickets. The third is a sea captain or officer. The fourth wears a tall white top hat and a large nose, and he sneezes into a handkerchief. The fourth is a black top hat with a mustache, and he seems to be telling an amusing story. The final performance ages him into an old man, also interacting with someone off-screen.

All of this in less than a minute! It’s a shame that this performer’s name appears to be lost to history, because he might be said to be the first film comedian. His performances are frenzied and brief, but it’s pretty impressive how he transforms himself under the camera’s eye and instantly gets into character. The characters are often somewhat similar (the last two make nearly identical gestures, for example), but he obviously has a range of ability. It’s conceivable that the Lumière brothers imagined that one day actors would use film reels like these as resumes to demonstrate their range to producers.

Director: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Blogathon Announcement: Food in Film

This is just a short post to announce my participation in the “Food in Film” Blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings, November 3-5 (not sure which day I’ll be posting yet).

I will be reviewing the early Max Linder comedy “Troubles of a Grasswidower” (1908), which is a classic situational comedy in which Max’s wife goes home to mother and he has to learn to fend for himself – cleaning, shopping, and cooking. How will Max fare in the kitchen? Check back here to find out. Thanks to Kristina and Ruth for hosting!

Demolition of a Wall (1895)

This short film from Lumière shows a bit of demolition techniques from the fin-de-siécle, and gave Auguste Lumière a chance to appear before camera. Dramatic tension is built as we watch the work proceed to its inevitable climax.

Lumière stands with his back to the camera, overseeing some workers as they attempt to push over a thick section of a wall in an already-partially-demolished building. One worker is pressing the wall inwards with a jackscrew, while another is pushing it with a pick. Finally, the wall collapses, and hits the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. The workers now begin breaking it apart with their picks, both the collapsed portion and a small still-standing section below where the wall broke as it fell.

I assume that the Lumières chose this subject as a part of their ordinary work day, bringing the camera along to document something that was going on anyway, which they hoped would provide some visual interest. They had the freedom to do this because their camera was small and light weight, while the Edison camera was pretty well confined to the Black Maria. Seeing this made me reflect on how interesting it would be to have recordings of day-to-day operations at the Edison plant, but unfortunately, no such movies were made that I know of.

Director: Probably Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Lion, London Zoological Garden (1896)

This early short from Lumière demonstrates the conditions at London zoos at the turn of the century, and also serves as an early nature documentary. It is one of the “location” movies that the Lumière brothers made by sending men with cameras all over Europe and the world.

A male lion is shown in a cage at quite close range, while a zoo attendant tosses small pieces of meat into the cage. The lion eats them, but also takes occasional swipes at the attendant’s hand when he is too slow to toss fresh pieces inside. The attendant moves around the cage, trying to find a better position from which to toss, but has to move back when the lion follows him out of camera range.

The small lion cage will probably upset animal lovers today. It reminds me of the cages that big cats were kept in at the Central Park Zoo when I was a child, though happily that zoo has become more humane in recent years. I suspect that the zoo worker would have preferred to stand at a better distance from the cat’s claws, but for the purposes of the film he needed to be close. The animal is quite impressive and large, and looks like he could take the worker’s arm off if he wanted to. I also imagine that the small pieces of meat were a convention of the movie – surely you would usually give an animal this size something more to chew on.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Childish Quarrel (1896)

This short Lumière film shows the propensity of the Lumière brothers for showing films of family life, which were comparably rare from Edison at the time. Two infants are shown having difficulty learning to share.

Two babies in high chairs are next to one another with trays that seem to hold food and toys. They are wearing similar petticoats and hats. One is playing with a large spoon, and the other (who seems to be slightly larger) reaches for it. When her sister will not relinquish the spoon, she starts to hit, eventually wresting the spoon away from her. Now the smaller one begins to cry, and the elder seems to feel some remorse. She tries to give the spoon back, but the other child is too deep into her tantrum to notice.

This movie will probably remind parents and others who have been around small children of many similar situations. I couldn’t tell for certain whether either of these children was Andrée Lumière, who we saw in “A Baby’s Meal,” but I suspect that one of them is. The elder child looks to the camera from time to time, and looks as though she may be receiving coaching from off camera as well. Hopefully no one told her to hit her sister!

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown, possibly Andrée Lumière

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Promenade of Ostriches, Paris Botanical Gardens (1896)

This early short movie from Lumière gives a view of Parisian leisure and childhood at the fin-de-siécle. The fashions will probably fascinate modern viewers more than the animals did at the time.

A parade of animals bearing children is shown at an angle on a path in a park. First there is a cart drawn by an ostrich, with two girls and a boy in it. The ostrich is led by a man in work clothes, but the children are decked out in their Sunday dress, including large hats. Next in line is larger cart drawn by two donkeys, with four passengers, who appear to be older girls, and a male driver. They are followed by two ponies, each with a rider (one girl, one boy), also being led by a zoo worker. A camel with a very small child on top is led by the next man. She seems to be accompanied by her mother or an older sibling, but we only get to see the legs of the second camel rider. Bringing up the rear of the parade is two elephants with riders (one is a baby), but they are mostly out of frame so we only get a glimpse of the kids bouncing up and down on the platform on the larger elephant’s back. The film continues for a few seconds after the parade passes, so we get to see several Parisian adults taking strolls with parasols in the park, and also a view of this section of the park in more detail.

There is a powerful view of class at work in this movie, as we contrast the simple work clothes of the zoo workers with the elaborate frills of the children and the long dresses and silk top hats worn by some of the other park-goers. We do see a couple of men in straw hats and simple jackets who pass in front of the camera as well, giving one more view into the fashion of the time. The children all seem to be well behaved and mild – none are excited or crying – and the workers frequently look into the camera as they approach. This movie is listed as “Lumière #4” on the DVD I saw it on, but it was not one of the original ten movies screened in December, 1895, so I’m assuming that imdb is correct in identifying it as an 1896 film.

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Dragoons Crossing the Sâone (1896)

This early short film from Lumière shows a simple military maneuver on horseback. It has some nationalistic implications, but was probably chosen as a subject mostly because it would demonstrate motion effectively.

The camera is set up on the bank from which horsemen are entering the water, facing a pier on the opposite side with two officers watching the crossing. Four horsemen enter first, all shirtless, and proceed to near the middle of the river before others follow. Some of the men fall off their horses and swim alongside as they proceed. Others are able to stay mounted. The film is not long enough for us to see any of them make it onto the other shore, it cuts off as they reach roughly the same line as the pier.

Because of the chosen camera angle, we do not see these soldiers’ faces, just their shirtless backs. In 1896, partly-nude young men might have been a bit of a thrill, at least in some quarters. The movement of the water laterally across the screen contrasts with the movement of the horses and men away from us at a slight diagonal. Simple visual effects like these were common in Lumière actualities – even the angle of the “Train Arriving at La Ciotat Station” seems to be deliberately artistic.

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

September 1917

This is a slow news month, but news from Russia carries some hints of further discontent that will explode once again in November. The war continues unabated, of course, with Allied troops now receiving materiel (but not many men, yet) from the United States. They have two successful actions to report this month. And, color processes take a major step forward in film!

Russian Revolution

Leon Trotsky

Russia is declared a republic by the Provisional Government. on September 14

Leon Trotsky is elected Chairman of the Petrograd Soviet on September 23. The Soviets are worker’s councils (“Soviet” means “council in Russian) originally formed by the socialist Mensheviks to coordinate worker demands and actions. During 1917, they have become increasingly radicalized and drifted towards Bolshevik sympathies.

The Mossovet (Moscow Soviet of People’s Deputies) votes to side with the Bolsheviks on Sepember 25

Australians at the Battle of Polygon Wood

World War One

Battle of Polygon Wood (part of the Battle of Passchendaele) near Ypres in Belgium begins on September 26. Over the next two weeks, British and Australian troops capture positions from the Germans. Casualties will be about even (around 15,000) on each side.

Second Battle of Ramadi. On September 28 and 29, British troops take Ramadi from the Ottoman Empire.

Surviving frame from “The Gulf Between”

Film

Release of The Gulf Between, the first film made in Technicolor System 1, a two-color process on September 13.

Births

Rolf Wenkhaus, child actor (in Emil and the Detectives), born September 9. He would die serving in the Luftwaffe during World War II.

Herbert Lom, actor (in The Pink Panther films and The Phantom of the Opera), born September 11.

Seminary Girls (1897)

This was not the first or last time that the Edison Studio would produce a movie about girls in their nightclothes having a pillow fight. Presumably such titillating releases had an appeal for Kinetoscope audiences at the end of the nineteenth century.

The very short film shows a group of young women in a simple set with two beds, a dresser, and a door. They are already engaged in their “frolic” when the movie begins. They pick up pillows and begin hitting each other. One of them, devoid of a pillow, seems to be trying to defend herself with a sheet. Another tries to hide behind the dresser. Soon, a taller women (or possibly a man in drag) comes in through the door carrying a candle. She scolds them and is pummeled with pillows for her efforts, but soon has one of the miscreants by her toe as she tries to hide under the bed.

There’s not much to this film, but it’s pretty typical of the short film strips viewers could see in Kinetoscope parlors before projected film became standard. Presumably, most people dropping a nickel into a machine marked “Seminary Girls” were hoping for something a bit racier than what they got, but after all, it was still very much the Victorian Era. I note that the set, while still very simple, is a bit more advanced than in the earlier movie “Pillow Fight,” which didn’t even bother with walls or a door, just the usual black background of the Black Maria.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Marked Cards (1913)

This was the latest of the films from the Champion Studio screened at Cinecon this year, and it seems to show the studio in a state of decline, although the program notes say there may be some missing footage, contributing to the incoherence of the storyline. It does contain a very interesting plot device that, integrated better into the story, could have made for a good film.

Jack is a young man who works at a bank and hopes to marry Agnes, but he needs to get enough money together for them to get married. He gets talked into a crooked card game and winds up losing his money, eventually stealing from the bank to pay off his debt. Now, the gambler threatens to turn him in. Agnes cannot wait for him, and gets married, and cut off from her former life. (My notes are a bit confused here. Possibly he is sent to jail and she marries during his absence, or possibly she is pressured into marrying the gambler to keep him out of jail.) Jack seeks his revenge by putting the gambler in a room with a floor consisting of large cards. He tells the gambler that certain cards are electrified, the only way to get out is to step on the right cards. The gambler is too terrified to move at first, but eventually tries to make his way across the floor. He is not lucky, and about three cards in he falls over, dead.

I thought that the method of revenge was rather clever and cinematic, but as I say the plot was hard to follow. All five of the Champion films I’ve reviewed recently are scheduled to be released from Milestone Films on October 17, so it’s possible I’ll be able to correct the summary of this film with a second viewing. In general, the movie used a limited number of set-ups and production values were low for 1913. It relied on Intertitles heavily to keep the audience up on the story, without them much of the action would be meaningless.

Director: Unknown, possibly Mark M. Dintenfass

Camera: Unknown

Starring: possibly Irving Cummings and Gladden James

Run Time: 10 Min

This film is not available for free on the Internet, but can be pre-ordered here as part of the “Champion: Story of America’s First Film Town” DVD set.