Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1904

The Ex-Convict (1904)

Edwin S. Porter adapted a popular vaudeville story to the camera, and made an early “message picture” at the same time. While it may seem a bit melodramatic to our tastes today, it stands out among its contemporaries as an unusually effective drama.

The movie begins by showing us an apparently “normal” nuclear family, of mother, father, and daughter, as the father leaves home in the morning for work. All seems well, but the next Intertitle tells us, “That Man is an Ex-Convict.” We see him working in front of a shop on an urban street, moving some large crates and then painting words onto one of them. As he works, a bearded policeman walks up from behind him, examines him, and goes into the shop. The store owner comes out with the policeman, and the two speak for a moment, and the ex-convict is discharged. Evidently the policeman warned his boss about the man’s criminal past. The next scene is titles “Have You Reference?” and it shows the ex-convict joining a line of hopefuls in front of a warehouse that has a sign reading “Wanted 10 Men.” Each man shows the foreman a piece of paper, which is examined closely before he is admitted, but the ex-convict has no paper and so gets no job. The story suddenly leaves the ex-convict and we see a small girl being escorted by a maid in a wealthy neighborhood. The maid stops to speak with a man on the street corner, but the little girl goes into the street without her, then turns and stamps her foot to show that she is annoyed at the delay. Suddenly, the ex-convict comes running from off screen, grabs the child and dives to the ground. A moment later a car speeds through the spot where the child had been standing. The maid and other bystanders congratulate the ex-convict for his heroism, and he is given a bandage for his head (apparently he wounded himself in the fall).

Despite this act of courage, however, the ex-convict returns home to find his wife and daughter hungry, the girl in bed without any supper (possibly we are meant to understand that she is ill). He feels the desperation of his situation, then goes back out into the night. He walks the streets in the snow without an adequate coat, and tries to tell his story to passersby who have no interest or sympathy. Finally, looking at a low window to a rich house, he makes the desperate decision to attempt burglary. The next scene shows the inside of the house, where a mother, a father, and a child live in bourgeois comfort. The child is the same one that the ex-convict saved earlier. She drowses off, and the mother and father take her up to bed. Then, the ex-convict enters the empty room. The father catches him instantly, and holds him at gunpoint. The ex-convict offers no resistance, and the father leaves the room to call the police. The ex-convict considers flight, but at that moment the child comes back downstairs and recognizes him. The two of them speak to each other, and soon the child is sitting in the ex-convict’s lap, while he tells a story. The father comes back in and observes this, and puts his gun away. Soon, the police arrive and the ex-convict puts out his hands for the cuffs, but the child intervenes and the father sends them away. The ex-convict is grateful to them both for the second chance.

The movie clearly supports a progressive attitude that people should not be stigmatized for their social condition or past actions. If a man can’t get a job after his release from prison, by the logic of the film, he will have no choice but to return to crime, and people should be given the chance to redeem themselves, as the hero does when he saves the child. In contrasting the comforts of the rich home with the simplicity and squalor of the man’s apartment, Porter also makes an argument about class in America. As is often the case with early films, I found the location shots more interesting than those in the studio, particularly the images of the workplaces: the store and the warehouse. These would have been shot in New York or possibly New Jersey, but they could have been anywhere with a reasonably urban appearance. The editing structure is simple but effective. It’s not quite clear whether we’ve “jumped back” a bit in time when we move from the snow-covered (studio) street into the bourgeois home, but this could be an example of early parallel editing, if we assume that the ex-convict is waiting outside for an opportunity to come in when the living room is empty. All of the scenes of this movie are shot in long-shot, so that we never get a clear look at the actors’ faces, but there are some interesting angles. The rescue scene involves the ex-convict running onto screen diagonally from behind the camera, and the car zips past at a different diagonal. The camera also pans slightly to follow the child into the street at the beginning of that scene. It’s not a brilliant movie, but it is an interesting entry in Porter’s portfolio.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Strenuous Life, or Anti-Race Suicide (1904)

This is a multi-shot short comedy by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Studios, that tells a story by implication, winking at and nudging the audience without ever being explicit, although it deals with childbirth, one of the more sensitive topics at the time.

The movie opens on a set designed to represent an office, which is shot for some reason at a very low angle, so that the actors only come to about halfway in the frame vertically when standing. A man is sitting at a desk, and his secretary (a woman) sits across from him. He receives a phone call that excites him greatly. He gets up to leave and almost puts on the woman’s hat by mistake as he leaves. She points out his mistake so that he is not arrested for cross-dressing. The next shot is a New York street scene. The streets are covered in snow, and a horse and carriage pulls up to the sidewalk, lurching over large piles of snow. The man from the previous scene gets out and runs up to a door. The camera pans to follow him – but a large older gentleman has gotten into the foreground and seems to be the center of action until he passes out of frame (he looks a little annoyed to be photographed, although I could be imagining this). Once our attention is back on the actor, we see that he is collecting someone from the house he has gone to, and they return together to the horse and carriage and drive off.

The next scene takes place at the man’s house, where he is greeted by female servants. The man he has brought with him carries the black bag of a doctor, and the doctor and servants go upstairs while the man remains below. After he has removed his hat and coat, he proceeds into a lounge, which also has a staircase leading up. He paces back and forth excitedly for a little while and then one of the female servants brings a bundle down to him. They put the bundle on a scale, and then a close-up reveals that it is a baby. They weigh the baby and the servant congratulates the man. He picks up the baby (the camera now returns to long-shot) and coos at the child. The servant runs back upstairs, and soon is back with another bundle. This repeats until there are four bundles being held by the man and his servants, and the man collapses on a chair and faints. The doctor comes downstairs to see to him, and when he wakes up he kicks the doctor for delivering quadruplets!

This is an awfully long walk to get to a simple punchline, but I liked it for a couple of reasons. One is that wonderful location shot of a New York street in winter. There isn’t a lot of early footage of wintry days in New York, and you can really see that the streets are covered in snow here. It appears that the passers-by are not extras, just real New Yorkers going about their day, and it apparently didn’t occur to Porter to make sure the actor would be at the center of the action in the pan. The close-up is effectively a jump-cut, but it’s nice to get a better look at the baby and the actors. I’m not sure that the baby was in any of the long shots, maybe the parents were concerned about someone dropping it with all the running around. The other good part is that you can see the joke about the four babies coming pretty early, but the final joke about the man blaming the doctor comes as a funny surprise that actually works to elicit laughs – or it did for me, at least.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Scarecrow Pump (1904)

This simple comedy short from Edison follows established patterns of early comedy and could easily have been made years earlier. It’s a reminder that not everything director Edwin S. Porter made was another “Great Train Robbery” – a lot of his product was very basic in its appeal.

A set has been decorated to represent the front yard of a rural home, with a large water pump at the center of the screen, and a bucket beneath it. A boy in a Huckleberry Finn outfit comes out in to the year with a large ball or round object, which he place on top of the pump, quickly sketching a face on it. Then he puts a coat over the pump so that the handle goes up one sleeve, making it appear to be an arm outstretched. He adds a few other accoutrements and steps back to admire his work. He then hides in the bucket to see what will happen. A large bearded man in a country bumpkin outfit now walks up to the gate, carrying a jug of liquor. He sees the strange “scarecrow” in his yard, and mistakes it for a man, going up to greet the stranger. He clasps the “hand” of the scarecrow firmly and pumps it up and down in a friendly greeting – which, of course, douses the young miscreant in water as the pump is primed.

This joke is along the simple lines of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” except that this time the adult “victim” doesn’t really suffer for being tricked into believing that the scarecrow is real, and the child is the victim of his own lack of foresight. The “country  yokel” is a standard comic foil at this point in film history, and the movie uses traditional American images (like the Huck Finn straw hat and the liquor jug) to give a sense of place. There is no editing and the camera is stationary throughout, so this was a very simple movie for Porter to make, possibly on the same day he shot several others.

Director Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

European Rest Cure (1904)

This short narrative film from Edison comes one year after “The Great Train Robbery,” and is also directed by Edwin S. Porter, but it shows little of the promise of that exciting blockbuster. Instead, a few clips of travel footage are edited together with rather creaky studio shots to construct a not-terribly-funny comedy about an American tourist abroad.

european-rest-cureThe movie begins by showing us a gangplank onto a (real) steamship preparing to launch. A porter carries some bags aboard, and then we see the protagonist of our story, a humorously overdressed man with large sideburns and wearing a deerstalker cap. He is accompanied by a young woman in a hat which shades her face, making it invisible to the camera, and an older woman in a darker dress. He waves goodbye to someone off camera, and then kisses each woman and hugs them as they see him off. The camera pans a bit to follow them up the plank. The next shot shows a crowd seeing off an ocean liner, which we are meant to assume the fellow is aboard, although we do not see him. One of the well-wishers, who looks a lot like Georges Méliès, turns and looks at the camera, then resumes waving his hat as the ship sails by. We then cut to a panoramic view of lower Manhattan from the Hudson, taken from a moving ship. For people interested in the history of New York, this may be the best part of the movie: we see the buildings and piers in the Battery area quite clearly. The next scene is labeled “Dropping the Pilot” and it shows a ladder hanging off the side of a stationary boat. Eventually, a fellow in a rainjacket descends the ladder and a small rowboat pulls up alongside. He climbs in and they row off while he’s still standing there. I half-expected him to fall in the water! The camera pans to show us the rowboat rowing safely away, however.

european-rest-cure1The story gets underway with “The Storm,” which shows, first, the bow of a ship going through rough seas and the spray from the waves splashing on the deck. Then, we cut to a shot of our tourist’s cabin rocking back and forth. He pantomimes getting sick and crawls into bed. Then his porthole breaks open and water splashes on him. He tumbles to the floor, narrowly missing his basin, and tries to swim on the floor. The next scene is “Kissing the Blarney Stone” and it takes place on an obvious set. The tourist arrives with a small tour and a couple of rough local fellows offer to hold his feet while he leans over the precarious edge of a wall on Blarney Castle. Predictably, they dump him once he’s over the edge. In “Doing Paris” we see our tourist in a café, where he meets some young women and orders wine. An artist-type glares at their display from the corner while the tourist gets drunk and joins them in a can-can. Eventually some of the snooty women from the tour group find him and drag him back to his chair. The French women continue acting wildly until the waiter kicks everyone out. Then, in “Climbing the Alps,” we see a very unconvincing mountain set. When the tourist begins to climb the tall part to the right of the screen, he quickly falls backward and off a cliff in the back of the set. Two mountaineers pull on the rope he was attached to and bring him back up, looking a bit worse for wear. They give him a glass of something to help him recover.

european-rest-cure2Next comes “Hold Up in Italy,” whose title spoils any suspense about what might happen when we see the tour group walking through Roman ruins on another obvious set. The group leaves our protagonist behind, and three ruffians in very silly hats hold pistols to him while going through his pockets. The group returns to find him shaken but unharmed. In “Climbing the Pyramids in Egypt,” we get a set that shows the lower end of a pyramid with a Sphinx backdrop. A woman in rather long skirts is able somehow to ascend, but of course when our star goes up, he quickly tumbles back down again. Two fellows in turbans come back down to check on him too late. At last, he goes to “Mud Baths in Germany,” the only really restful activity he has engaged in. Actually, nothing especially untoward happens here. A couple of men smear mud on him and then splash him with buckets of water to clean him off. He does try to swim in place again when he gets wet. Finally, in “Home Sweet Home,” we see him assisted to a waiting horse and carriage by his servants, wife and daughter. He seems barely able to walk after the “cure.”

european-rest-cure3Although I don’t consider this one of Porter’s greatest successes, there are some interesting things going on here. For one, this is an interesting combination of “actuality” footage with staged studio material to produce a narrative. We also see this in “Life of an American Fireman,” where actual footage of firemen rushing to a fire was combined with staged images of the rescues they would perform. Having recently reviewed “The Immigrant,” which is famous for the lengths Charlie Chaplin went to in order to produce the rocking-boat effect on camera, I wondered what similar techniques Porter used to get a similar effect here. It also reminded me that I’d seen this even earlier, in the Méliès film “Between Calais and Dover.” Obviously, the comedic potential of rocking ships was a common theme in early film! Chaplin managed to coordinate more actors and stunts than the others, however, to say nothing of his superor comic timing. There is a bit of camera movement here as well, and although I wasn’t impressed with the set design, they certainly did build quite a lot of them, to simulate the tourist’s movements throughout the Old World. Finally, it’s interesting to note that as staged as it looks, some of this is realistic for the time: tourists really did climb the pyramids in those days, and the Blarney Stone lacked any safety bars.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Joseph Hart

Run Time: 13 Min

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

Dog Factory (1904)

This movie is a reversal on a common theme that started out with the Lumière brothers in the earliest days of cinema. Here, it is done by director Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Film Company in the year following his dramatic success with “The Great Train Robbery.”

Dog FactoryThe stage is hung with loops of sausage, each of which is labeled with the name of a dog (“spaniel,” “setter,” “pointer,” etc). At the center is a large box which is labeled “Patent DOG Transformator.” Two men attend the machine. Various characters come in with dogs, and have them reduced to sausages, to make sure we understand how it works (this is typical from the Lumière, Guy, and other versions). Next, a series of funny characters come in without dogs, and the men at the machine select a loop of sausage to add to the machine, and – voila! – a dog of the type chosen appears. The dogs are matched to the personality of their owners, ie a very proper lady receives a neatly groomed terrier, while a foppish gent takes a spaniel. At the end, a ruffian comes in and gets a bulldog, but he’s not tough enough, so the men create a “fighting bull” and the scene devolves into chaos between the dogs and the humans fighting each other.

Dog Factory1A couple of interesting points, here. Several of the previous movies suggested that sausages were made out of dogs and other unsavory items, but this is the first to suggest that they can be turned back into dogs if not eaten first. It seems like a better movie for dog-lovers, for sure! The original catalog entry says that the men running the machine are “Germans,” which may represent a prejudice of the time about Germans’ eating habits (like jokes today about Koreans ostensibly eating dogs), or it just may be because Germans eat sausage and are associated with mechanical inventiveness.

Animals in Film blogathonThis has been my contribution to the “Animals in Film” Blogathon hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Dog lovers, and animal lovers of all sorts should head over and check out the other posts!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

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

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride (1904)

Kiss BlogathonSeveral of the important elements of early cinema come together to make up this short Edison Studios comedy directed by Edwin S. Porter. While much of the film is built on established formulas of the previous ten years, we also get a glimpse of some of the coming direction of American cinema, especially in the realm of slapstick.

The Kiss.

The Kiss.

The movie essentially consists of three scenes, each in a separate location, and each shown in long shot by a stationary camera. The first scene takes place in a train station, signaled by the closed “ticket” window on the left side of the stage. There is a man in “bumpkin” clothes asleep on a bench as the scene opens. Soon, another figure enters through the door beside the bench. This is “Nervy Nat,” and he is dressed in rather frayed and worn-looking evening clothes, with a top hat, and moves in broad gestures that suggest possible inebriation. He goes to the water cooler and pours a glass, confirming our suspicions when he spits it out, disappointed that it is unadulterated by liquor. Then, he notices our bumpkin character, and stealthily checks his coat pocket, pulling out a train ticket and absconding with it. The next scene is aboard a train car, and two newlyweds are the only ones in the car at first. They are kissing, but the conductor comes in to warn them that another passenger will be joining them, and they assume a more demure posture. The new passenger is Nervy Nat, who takes the seat behind them. The husband pulls out a cigar, and invites his wife to join him for a smoke, but she isn’t interested, and they quarrel, the husband finally leaving when his wife turns to look away from him pointedly. Nervy Nat takes the opportunity to sit next to the woman, and tries to take her in his arms. She, still looking out the window, resists, presumably thinking that her husband is attempting an awkward apology. Then she turns and looks, and starts screaming, bringing the husband and two conductors back into the car, and they grab Nat and drag him out the door. The final scene is an exterior of train tracks, with a train rushing by. When the last car passes, we see two men hurl another off the back of the moving train. Nervy Nat gets up, dusts himself off and shakes his fist at the train before walking off.

Nervy Nat Kisses the BrideThe movies, especially American movies, were still figuring themselves out at this time. While there had been artistic and commercial breakthroughs, like Porter’s own “The Great Train Robbery” from the year before, most of the movies seen in American theaters at this time were coming from Europe, mostly France. There was huge demand for new films, but American studios simply didn’t have the capacity to make enough pictures. This was only aggravated by the fact that the Edison company claimed to have the only legitimate patent for motion picture equipment in the USA, and was suing its competition left and right, even taking theater owners to court if they showed non-Edison content. The American film industry was in a fairly sorry state in 1904, but was beginning to function despite itself, due to the enormous audience interest in simple, entertaining stories.

Porter successfully transported several pieces from “The Great Train Robbery” to this movie, made about nine months later. The locations – a ticket station, a train, and the train tracks – are similar in both films. The editing sequence is much simpler for this shorter movie, but still applies the same basic linear conventions we see in “Train Robbery.” Also the aspect of the train itself as a place where “outside” elements can invade and interrupt staid middle class lives is in common between the two. There is also a common special effect: the use of a jump cut and a dummy to simulate a body being thrown off a train. In the “Robbery” we see two men fighting on the back of the train, when one wins, the cut happens and he throws a dummy off. Here the sequence is reversed: we see the men throw the dummy off the train, there is an edit, and then Nervy Nat gets up where the dummy would have been. This combination of dummies and trick photography goes back at least as far as “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,” an American movie, and such camera trickery would be perfected by Georges Méliès of France in the intervening years. I think Méliès would have done it a bit more smoothly by 1904, but I admit I had to re-run it to make sure I caught where the edit happened.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride2The character of Nervy Nat, while not very fleshed-out in the run time of this movie, seems to herald future developments in American comedy. I was particularly reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, both by the behavior and the outfit of Nat. He is dressed up, but at the same time, obviously down and out. He drinks, he steals, he covets, and he has problems understanding social boundaries. In the end, his behavior brings worse trouble on his head. None of this is to say that Chaplin necessarily “stole” his idea from this movie (or even saw it), but it indicates the way that the “Little Tramp” was a part of an established comedic tradition; Chaplin had been doing “funny drunks” on stage for years, and he knew how best to make them funny. Nervy Nat can be seen as a slightly less effective attempt at doing the same thing. Perhaps not surprisingly for slapstick, the part that made me laugh was his ejection from the train.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride1In light of the theme of this Blogathon, I should speak a little bit about the romantic side of this comedy. Of course, it is not meant to be a tragic story of love lost; from that point of view, Nervy Nat is simply too unsympathetic and the woman too obviously uninterested in his advances. Nat reminds us, however, as the “Little Tramp” would time and again in future movies, that even the most alienated and unsocialized of characters still want to be loved. Nat does not find his valentine at the end of this movie but the audience can leave with a sense of having learned from his mistakes and acknowledge the universal human need for affection.

This has been my contribution to the “You Must Remember This…A Kiss is Just a Kiss Blogathon.” Don’t forget to check out the other entries!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

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

How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the ‘New York Herald’ Personal Columns (1904)

French Nobleman

Quite early on, Edwin S. Porter seems to have realized that the chase was a critical part of the spectacle of film that kept audiences coming back. The climactic chase in “The Great Train Robbery,” for example, is a good part of what makes it a dramatic success. Indeed, chase scenes remain an important element in film today. But, there were also many films made which were based on the chase as the central element, as this short comedy demonstrates. The basic concept is simple, an amorous single (and probably poor) foreigner has decided to place a personal ad, to find a mate. When he shows up at his announced rendezvous, he finds that far too many women have arrived, and he flees, to be pursued by the females through New York’s Riverside Park. Each shot shows him running, then each of the women in turn running after him. At the end, he is caught, ironically not by the swiftest runner, but by the one woman willing to follow him into a pond. Again, we have an interesting perspective on gender relations, something that wouldn’t seem out of place in an old Popeye cartoon: a man is overwhelmed by the attraction of the other sex and has to run from their ardor.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.