Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1906

Waiting at the Church (1906)

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

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

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

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

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victoria Vesta, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 9 Min

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

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Life of a Cowboy (1906)

For this Independence Day post, I’m reviewing a quintessentially American film – one which its director, Edwin S. Porter, believed was “the first filmed Western” (evidently “The Great Train Robbery” didn’t count). It makes use of familiar tropes of Western stage plays and Wild West shows to present its story.

It begins in a saloon, the “Big Horn” (named for a steer skull prominently hanging over the bar). An old Indian comes into the saloon, wobbling a bit, and is turned away by the white bartender. Now, an identifiable bad guy with a black hat comes in and orders a drink, taking it over to the Indian, but an Indian squaw runs up and knocks the glass away before he can take a drink. A generic white good guy in a white hat runs in and stops the bad guy from hurting her, then enforces his departure with his six-gun. He leaves, and some rather odd folks come in. One, identifiable by his Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap and portly girth, evidently represents an English tourist. There is also a skinnier man and a woman with him. Five cowboys on horseback soon enter and entertain themselves by shooting off guns and making the tourist “dance” ala “The Great Train Robbery.” They ride up to the bar and take some drinks, occasionally firing off a gun for good measure.

The next scene takes place on a dirt-covered street outside the hotel. A stagecoach drives up and disgorges the Englishman and his companions. The skinny Englishman is dragged out of the coach by some cowboys and playfully flogged with a saddle. The good guy from the first scene embraces the woman, pushing the bad guy aside when he shows an interest. Then we cut to a scene on a local ranch, where the local cowboys are showing off their lassoing skills to the newcomers. The portly Englishman gets too close, and is dragged around the yard before the main entertainment begins: a woman rides past the lasso artist and he ropes first her, and then her horse as they pass by. We now cut back to the dirt road and watch as the stage coach departs, and the bad guy jumps on a horse and follows, cutting to a side road at top speed.

The bad guy is soon seen to have rounded up some Indian allies, and they chase the stage, eventually overtaking it and wounding the driver. The woman is put on a horse by the bad guy and Englishmen are forced to walk. The stage driver is able to get to the good guy, who rounds up a posse to go after them. There is another chase and several Indians are shot as the good guy and his team liberate the prisoners. At last, evidently free from peril, the good guy and his girl sit by some trees, but the bad guy sneaks up on them, followed by a lone figure. Just as he is about to shoot the good guy in the back, the figure shoots him from behind and we see that it is the Indian girl from the first scene. The good guy thanks her and kisses his girl.

At 17 minutes, this is a fairly long movie for 1906, and it’s not easy to follow the action. I made use of a synopsis, provided to exhibitors by Edison, to make sense of it, and in the theater an exhibitor would most likely have narrated the action for the audience. That synopsis refers to the bad guy as “a Mexican greaser,” but since there is no racial coding that would be obvious to a modern audience, I avoided that term. I did go ahead and refer to the Native Americans in the movie as “Indians,” because their costumes will be recognized by anyone today. They represent several stereotypes, but at least there is some complexity among them: the old man is a drunk, the young squaw is a tragic hero, and most of the younger men are generic thugs. They do a lot of the better stunts, and my guess is that they worked on Wild West shows in real life, where falling off horses and shooting off guns for an audience paid well. The lassoing sequence also comes straight from the Wild West shows (including the comedy of the “rube” getting dragged around), while the reference to the “Big Horn” saloon is from the stage version of “The Squaw Man,” later to be filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, among others.

The movie, like many from this period, relies heavily and fast moving action and chases, along with bits of slapstick comic relief, to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t come across as being as exciting or innovative as “The Great Train Robbery,” but Porter is correct in that it more clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Old West, as understood by film audiences then and now. Porter had gotten proficient at shooting a standard chase sequence at this time, and the use of camera pans allows us to follow the action, but the sequential editing limits the suspense of these scenes, and makes for a less exciting experience than later Westerns would provide.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter and/or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 17 Min, 21 secs

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

How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906)

This is an incomplete short from Edison that features a baseball game and was tied in to a publicity stunt involving teams from New York and Pittsburgh. What we see leaves a certain amount to be desired, but it does illustrate the transitional period from “Attractions” to “Nickelodeons.”

The movie opens on a very stage-like office set, with a short man pantomiming a baseball game to a woman sitting behind a typewriter. The man, apparently the “office boy” of the title, ceases his antics when another man comes in, who gives the woman, evidently a secretary or stenographer, an affectionate peck. Then an older man with white hair walks in, and the office boy hands him a note. An insert shot shows us that his note says that his grandmother is dead, and he should come home immediately, so the boss dismisses him for the day. When his back is turned, the office boy gives his co-workers a triumphant laugh. The scene lingers for a few extra seconds, as if something more will happen, but it does not in the surviving print. Instead, we cut to our office boy sitting on top of a telephone pole, brandishing a telescope, apparently in order to see the big game. We cut between shots of what he is seeing (framed with an “iris” around the lens to make a circular image as we would expect to see through a telescope) and shots of his reactions, which are often enthusiastic enough to nearly unseat him from his perch. The telescope footage begins with scenes of baseball players being driven onto the field in contemporary automobiles, then images of a marching band on the field, and it moves into what seem to be mostly warm-up plays or plays staged specifically for the camera. We also see the office boy’s co-workers in the stand, and they seem to be getting chewed out by the boss, who is sitting behind them, but no clear logic for this is in the surviving footage, and indeed the shots of the boss arriving and his yelling at them seem to be in the wrong order. The footage ends with a shot of the scoreboard.

The blog “Baseball Researcher” has filled in a lot of the details of this movie, including a lot of factual information about the location and teams that add to our understanding of this footage. First, the plot seems to be obscured here, but we are meant to understand that the secretary and the office worker made an excuse to leave early as well, while the boss decided that if no work was getting done anyway, he might as well go to the game, only to find his idle workers playing hooky at the field! Thus, the sneaky office boy gets the pleasure of watching his rude co-workers take the punishment he also deserves. Next, these observations confirm my suspicion that most of the playing we see is staged; although movie cameras at ball games weren’t exactly new, the Edison photographers had probably learned that with the limited length of film reels in those days, the chances of catching a good play “by chance” were pretty slim. It also describes a screening of the film for the two ball teams in the evening on a rooftop of a “legitimate” theater, which strikes me as a very intentional “attraction”-style stunt to get some press coverage for the film, and maybe as repayment to the players for staging the scenes for them. By 1906 standards, this is a pretty simplistic film, at least to judge from what we can see, so it probably needed all the promotion it could get to be a big seller. One final note, though this is hardly surprising for the era, is that there is no attempt to line up the angle of the camera with that we would expect to see through a telescope looking from above. All of the shots are taken on the same level as the players and we have to “suspend disbelief” to imagine that the office boy would see it this way.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Black Hand (1906)

This short from Biograph disproves the commonly-made claim that “Musketeers of Pig Alley” was the first gangster movie. Unlike that movie, however, it shows little noble or romantic in the behavior of immigrant criminals, instead emphasizing the decency of the police and of the victims.

The movie consists of just a few shots, mostly with the action staged at quite a distance from the camera. The first shot is somewhat closer, however, and gives us a view of the villains of the story as they write out a note demanding extortion money from “Mr. Angelo,” threatening him with property destruction and the abduction of his daughter if he fails to comply. The gangsters are clearly marked as Sicilian in their attire and appearance, and their poor education is emphasized in the badly spelled ransom note. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Evidence (1906)

This short comedy from Edison relies on a predictable formula of repeated foiled attempts and physical violence to get laughs. It has similarities to other comedies of the period, and, yes, even a large-scale chase sequence as well.

The opening title tells us this will show “the trials and tribulations of a private detective.” The first shot shows a stage dressed to be a classic private eye’s office, right down to the door with “Hawkshaw Private Detective” printed on the glass. The detective reclines in a chair with a newspaper. A man comes into the office and paces about, agitated. He gives the detective an envelope, which the detective opens and reads, then the two sit at the desk while the detective gets the particulars. The man gives him money, then leaves.

The next scene takes place in front of a house. The detective “sneaks” quite openly into a hiding position behind a pole, then watches as a lady and a gentleman emerge from the house and get into a car. The detective jumps out to photograph the two of them driving off, but as he does so, a gardener comes up from behind him with a wheelbarrow and knocks him down, wheeling him off. Next we see the detective on a country road. He jumps out as the car approaches, attempting to take his picture, but the driver runs him over. He gets up and hobbles off. The next scene shows the man and the woman at an outdoor café at a club, being waited on by an African American waiter. The detective tries to take their picture again, but this time the man punches him and drives him off. The detective meets the waiter outside and pays him for his jacket, then smears dirt on his face to create blackface and puts on a shaggy wig. He serves the couple, but as he prepares to take the picture, the man grabs a seltzer bottle and sprays him in the face.

In the next scene, the couple is golfing, and the man hides in a sand trap. When he leaps up to take the picture, the woman drives the ball right at him, hitting him and knocking him down. The couple goes to see who’s been hurt, but when they find it is him, the man smashes his camera. Next we see the detective in a sailor suit, getting onto a gondola ahead of the couple. They board and he prepares to take his picture, but the man punches him and knocks him into the water. Then the couple are seen sitting on a hammock together in a park. The detective sets up a tripod to take their picture from behind, but when the flash goes off they are alerted and the man again smashes the camera. Finally, the couple stroll along  the beach, followed by the detective in a white uniform. This time he is able to take their picture unobserved, they are so distracted by one another, but another bather rises the alarm and soon the whole beach is after him! He manages to stash the photograph by hiding out under a levee, but the crowd does find him, beat him, and smash his camera again.

Now we see the client and his wife together at home. He is obviously agitated and the wife denies doing anything wrong. The detective is shown in, with bandages and bruises from all of his fights, and triumphantly shows the man the photograph he took. It’s the wrong woman! The woman and the man in the photo are shown in (apparently it is the mother-in-law), and then the poor man is forcibly shown the door.

This movie has a lot in common with “Mr. Flip,” that came out a few years later. The comedy hinges on a man being a persistent pest, and not taking the hint when he is upbraided for his behavior. The seltzer spritz and wheelbarrow scene are also similar to some of the punishments Ben Turpin suffers in that film. Unlike Turpin, however, this comedian doesn’t really add much to his pratfalls, he just takes the abuse when it comes. He isn’t funny in himself, it’s just that some of the things that happen to him are funny. The car running over him is pretty convincing, although I think it was done with jump cuts and a dummy. I particularly laughed when the entire beach started chasing him after it looked like he would (finally!) get off all right. I mostly felt sorry for him, though. Given that the couple weren’t doing anything wrong, it seems that the violence they mete out in defense of their privacy is a bit extreme.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Kathleen Mavourneen (1906)

A short melodrama from Edwin S. Porter that draws from Nineteenth Century theater as well as traditional song, and comes off as creaky as any movie of the Nickelodeon Era. While we see some evidence of the editing techniques that made Porter famous, acting and plot don’t show much advancement in this one.

Kathleen is a lovely Irish lass, introduced in a pastoral setting before a waterfall. She is approached by Captain Clearfield, her landlord, who has designs on her affections. Kathleen spurns his advances, but when he persists, the heroic Terence O’More comes onto the scene and fights him off. Clearfield is now shown conspiring with a band of thugs who hold up a carriage on the highway. He meets with them in a very fake-looking cave set, and divvies up the spoils of their heist. Now Clearfield shows up at Kathleen’s father’s home, accompanied by four men in uniform (I think they’re supposed to be bailiffs, but they look like bellboys to me). When his advances on Kathleen are again spurned, he orders the men to turn Kathleen and her father out of their home. When O’More overhears what is happening, he runs off to get the neighbors to band together and drive off the bailiffs. This precipitates a lengthy chase sequence, which ends with all of the bailiffs chased into the river.

There are two “lost scenes” that follow this sequence, which are today replaced with Intertitles. In the first, the gang kidnaps Kathleen with chloroform, rendering her unconscious and dragging her back to the cave. In the second, one of Clearfield’s henchman knocks out her father and sets the house on fire. O’More arrives in time to rescue him and then goes in pursuit of Kathleen. Wearing a hood, he pretends to be a bootlegger, and convinces some of the men to take him back to their hideout to drink whiskey. Once there, he tears off his disguise and engages in fisticuffs with the entire gang, besting them and freeing Kathleen. The final sequence is a wedding dance for Kathleen and O’More.

This movie is based on a play by Dion Boucicault, which was apparently unreleased in America at the time. The play had been based on the song “Kathleen Mavourneen,” which was popular among Irish Americans during the Civil War. “Mavourneen” is derived from the Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning “my beloved.” The lyrics to this song are simply maudlin longing for a lost love, with no mention of all the complications of an evil landlord and robbers, so Americans unfamiliar with the play might have been baffled by the plot of this movie, which lacks Intertitles or other explanatory techniques to reveal the plot and characters. No doubt some exhibitors provided narration to make sense of it. Historian Charles Musser in “Before the Nickelodeon,” suggests that Porter may have “misjudged their audience’s familiarity” with the material or else “failed to achieve the level of self-sufficient clarity” that was needed. In any event, the movie, which was comparably complex to shoot, was not a big success with exhibitors, who bought fewer than half as many copies as was the case for “The Terrible Kids.”

Looking at it today, it’s hard not to see Clearwater as a classic example of the mustache-twirling “you must pay the rent” model of an evil landlord from the silent era. At least he never ties Kathleen to any railroad tracks! I think he would have seemed old-fashioned even to the moviegoers of the time, in fact. His behavior derives from stage conventions of the Victorian age, which movies would often lampoon in coming years. Given that he has the forces of the law on his side, it seems somewhat unrealistic that simply besting him in single combat is enough to remove his threat, but that is also a convention of simplistic melodrama. The more “modern” pieces of the film include the chase sequence, which we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and the closing dance, which makes me think of “Watermelon Patch” and “The Miller’s Daughter.”

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring:Kitty O’Neil, Walter Griswoll

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The Terrible Kids (1906)

An early “JD’s” (for juvenile delinquents) film, this short from Edison shows the exploits of two naughty boys and their faithful dog, terrorizing the adult world through pranks. The comedy relies on pratfalls and physical stunts for its humor, and on the audience’s enjoyment of seeing the kids get away with their mischief.

Similar to “The Great Train Robbery,” the movie opens with a close-up on our miscreants, who are seen munching on (possibly stolen) pastries, while their dog sits up and begs. When the kid on the right tries to feed him a bit of his pastry, the dog tries to steal the whole thing, giving us a sense of his character right off the bat! The next scene shows a young woman in a summer dress with a small dog of her own. The kids run up to her and seem to try to take the dog away, but she shoos them off. Then, a gentleman comes up and speaks to her. They put the dog in her purse and put it on the ground while they speak. He seems to be giving her directions as the kids’ dog runs up from behind and snatches the purse, running off down the street. The kids run past and the adults notice and give chase.

The next scene is an ethnically insensitive portrayal of a Chinese American, who walks with a funny lope down the street and has a long “queue” or ponytail. The dog runs up from behind him and bites the queue, knocking him down and hanging onto it as the kids run up and laugh. His attempts to get up and chastise them are discouraged by the dog’s persistence in knocking him down. Again, kids and dog end the scene by running off with the adult in pursuit. The next scene involves a poster-hanger, attempting to glue posters on a wall from a ladder. The kids again run up and start putting their hands on the glue, and he shoos them away, flinging glue at them from his brush. Then, once he is five steps up the ladder, the dog jumps up and bites his pants-leg, bringing him crashing to the ground and spilling all of his glue. Now the dog runs up behind two proper Victorian ladies out for a stroll. They ignore him as he runs past with a piece of rope, but then the kids, holding the other end of the rope, position themselves to trip the ladies (incidentally giving the audience occasional glimpses of their petticoats and ankles). Dog and children run around the ladies, effectively tying them together to give them time to escape while the ladies disentangle themselves from the rope.

The next shot shows a wooden fence. The dog runs up and grabs a rope hanging from the top of the fence, suspending itself in the air until the kids lean over and pull it across. It’s not really clear why they do this until the adults, now joined by a policeman, start running up to the fence and start trying to scale it and pursue them. Now we see an opening in the same fence and a large yard behind it. The kids and the dog run across the yard to the opening, then the dog grabs a piece of rope and uses it to trip all of the pursuers. The next shot is of a hillside, and we see the adults rolling up it in what seems to be reversed-action. I guess (?) we are meant to think this is what happens after they are tripped, although we saw them all get up and start running in the previous shot. Again, the undergarments of the women are positioned to be visible during the roll. The next shot is of a trolley, and the kids jump on, luring all of the adults on board before leaping off. The adults climb out of the windows (I guess the kids are supposed to have locked the doors, but I don’t see this as happening). The pursuit continues down a country street, with the dog in the lead. After he runs past, a policeman sees the crowd coming and waits behind a fence in order to catch the kids. The other policeman helps him to drag the kids to a waiting paddy wagon (or “Black Maria”). The camera pans past the dog, sitting innocently on the street corner as the kids are bundled aboard, and once the cops are gone, he leaps up to open the handle. As soon as the wagon starts to roll, the door springs open and the kids and dog make their escape.

Ultimately, this movie is a variation on the chase film, which became so popular in the Nickelodeon Era. Each shot is set up to have one action take place, usually ending with a pratfall or funny physical stunt. No Intertitles are necessary, the movie is shot cheaply, and few effects are seen (assuming that we can count people rolling uphill in reverse as an effect). The only camera movement is the pan at the end, and we only have the one close-up at the beginning. The movie still has the sense of being performed by amateurs. During the opening sequence, we can see the kids responding to directions from off-screen. Occasionally, they look up as if distracted by whatever is being said to them. They are clearly not actors, and neither do the adults attempt to give their characters any real motivation, except anger at the kids.

No one is acting here.

Movies like this were criticized for giving children bad examples of behavior, and it is noteworthy that the children are allowed to escape punishment at the end. Of course, bad boys had been in the movies since “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” and the process of chasing and catching them was typical of the resolution, but usually justice would be seen to prevail, however much the audience may have enjoyed identifying with their acts of mischief up to that point. In subverting this narrative by his ending, director Edwin S. Porter may have been consciously or unconsciously attacking his critics, which surely only made them angrier.

Director:Wallace McCutcheon Edwin S. Porter and

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: “Mannie” the dog, unknown

Run Time: 7 Min

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

Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

The Game-Keeper’s Son (1906)

Alternate Title: La fils du garde-chasse

Alice Guy makes a daring shift from comedy to drama in this short, which may be one of the first “revenge movies.” It shows the complexity that audiences were beginning to expect as the Nickelodeon era progressed, but also tests the limits of that complexity in a short format.

Game Keepers SonThe movie opens on the front yard of a typical rural household. The father sits at a table with a glass of wine and a small child plays with his (the father’s) rifle. Then the elder son, perhaps nine or ten, takes the gun away from him and cleans it for his father. The father finishes up his wine, totally unconcerned about either child’s handling the weapon, and then prepares for his day at work. Finally, he takes the rifle, and as he does the elder son asks if he can come along. The man decides he is too young and tells him to stay home, but the boy follows him secretly. Next, we see two men hunting in the woods, dressed in ragged clothes, clearly local poachers. Each shoots his gun and they run over to collect their game. Now the man from the previous scene (who is the game-keeper) comes running out of the brush, chasing them offscreen. For a little while, the movie follows a fairly standard chase format, where the pursued run across the screen, followed by their pursuer (and then the son, who in one instance picks up the gun his father has dropped but leaves his hat). But, then, the men cross a ravine which is traversed by a plank, and the second one turns the plank, allowing it to fall into the ravine. When the father runs into the shot, he is looking at the poachers, not at his feet, and he also falls into the chasm. His son stops in time, having seen his father plunge out of sight.

Game Keepers Son1Now, the tone of the movie changes. What had seemed a fairly light-hearted chase through the woods has become tragic. The boy runs home and tells his mother and little brother what has happened. While they are grieving together, the poachers, still lost in the woods, stumble upon the hut of the grieving family. Only the eldest son sees (the others are covering their faces and weeping), and he once again picks up the gun and gives chase. The poachers, however, think they have made a clean getaway and return to town, where they stop in a café and order wine. Fairly soon they begin to bicker among themselves. The son hides beneath a table until they are fully engaged with one another and then springs out with a knife, attempting to stab one of them. He is unsuccessful but the ruckus convinces the waitress to summon the police. They hold one of the poachers and run, with the boy, in pursuit of the other. We get another short chase sequence, but soon the poacher comes to that same ravine from the other side. This time, the boy shoves him, and he falls to his doom. The police quickly arrive and shake his hand.

Game Keepers Son2This movie is a bit startling, and I suspect that’s at least partly intentional. The simple set up and chase at the beginning makes you expect a comedy, or at most a fairly conventional action picture, and the sudden death of the father in the middle leaves you groping for a resolution. Up until the end, I kept expecting him to come back, having somehow survived the fall. It just seemed like that kind of a movie. But, it’s not. In the end, the boy still has no father and the death of the second poacher seems a rather extreme punishment for running away from a game keeper. Admittedly he caused the man’s death, but all they really meant to do, so far as I could see, was inhibit his pursuit. That the police would congratulate this seems all the more chilling. Still, I have to assume that this, as well as the child’s handling of a gun, was taken to be appropriate in context at the time. That context isn’t just the difference in attitude between today and 1906, but also the standards of a rural community, living we assume in a traditional manner where the eldest son has certain rights and responsibilities, even at quite a young age. I won’t say that I liked this film as much as some of the fun comedies I’ve been reviewing lately, but it did force me to think a bit. It’s also reasonably sophisticated for the time – where the chase scenes seem set up to be formulaic, Guy throws narrative surprises at us and keeps the movie from falling into obvious ruts.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Ocean Studies (1906)

Alternate Title: Effets de mer

It’s odd to find this simple series of shots of the ocean amidst the movies Alice Guy put out in 1906 – it feels like a reversion to the simple experiments from the “Age of Attractions.” I do suspect that this was also a bit of an experiment, but from what we have, it’s hard to rate its success.

Ocean Studies

We see three images of the ocean breaking against rocks at the shore, edited together in sequence. The first is so close that it could almost be a river. The second is a slow pan back and forth along the coast – this gives us the clearest perspective of the location. And the final image appears to be a reversal of the first, again focusing on the rocks without the horizon visible. The movie includes no human figures or narrative of any kind.

I’m inclined to read this as an attempt at “visual poetry,” but it’s hard to say. For one thing, as it stands, we have the images, but there could have been more to this movie. Possibly Guy released it with narration, which would have been read aloud as it ran by an exhibitor. Or, possibly this wasn’t even intended for release – maybe she was testing a new camera or taking shots she intended to use later in some other way, but they were found in Gaumont’s cellars and included in this set. The title “Ocean Studies,” made me expect something scientific, but as soon as I saw it I realized they meant “study” as a painter would use the term: a study of the ocean. It’s worth noting that by this time Guy had brought on a new assistant, Louis Feuillade, who would write “manifestos” of film as art and try some interesting work along those lines as well, so it’s possible that he influenced this anomalous movie as well.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.