Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1908

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

This movie is an unabashed remake of Georges Méliès beloved classic “A Trip to the Moon,” although with a shorter run time and a smaller cast and (evidently) budget. It nonetheless does preserve bits of Segundo de Chomón’s signature wit and gentle charm.

The movie consists of a series of discrete shots, each set up as a tableau within a proscenium-style stage area. The first shot shows a group of “scientists” or explorers, is a garden at night, the moon hanging overhead. One, who is kitted out in a classic wizard’s robe and cap, lectures at them and gestures to the moon. The others appear skeptical at his message. However, they follow him off stage after a bit of pantomime. The next shot shows the wizard/scientist’s observatory, with a large telescope in the background. The wizard shows his fellows the elaborate equations he has worked out on the chalkboard, then turns the chalkboard over to reveal a screen on which an animated image of a capsule flying between Earth and Moon appears. The others appear to congratulate him, and then follow him off this stage to the next scene.

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His First Cigar (1908)

Max Linder stars in this short from Pathé. As you might guess from the title, it depicts a man whose first time smoking doesn’t quite turn out as planned.

We see Max at a table in a well-appointed dining room, sitting with an older gentleman (his father, presumably). The old man suddenly gets up and leaves, leaving Max alone with his cigar box. Max jumps up and stuffs his pockets full of them, showing his delight at anticipating enjoying this illicit pleasure. A woman comes in (his mother, we assume), but does not suspect anything as Max prepares to go out for the day. He walks to a sidewalk café and sits down, ordering a drink from the waiter and flirting a bit with a woman from the next table. He gets out one of his cigars and lights it. The shot changes to a close-up as we watch Max smoking, drinking, and flirting. Things are fine at first, but gradually he begins to make faces suggesting nausea. Max throws the cigar down. The shot cuts back to long as he staggers off, to the amusement of the waiter and the people at the next table. He makes his way back home, but at first he can’t get in because he tries to use a cigar instead of a key, and then his hands re shaky so it’s hard to fit the key. He accidentally enters the wrong house and is kicked out by a man in his nightclothes wielding a gun. Then he makes it home, but his mother, disturbed that he is pulling down various decorations he tries to hang on to, tries to comfort him with a drink, which only makes him look sicker.

With this film, we return to the now-familiar pattern of Max anticipating a pleasure, only to be disappointed by the reality and ultimately be ruined by it. In this case, he’s also being punished for stealing from his parents, and perhaps for trying to put one over on the girl he flirts with. Given the simple plotline, I was a bit surprised at the number of set-ups used to tell the story, and especially with the use of close-up to show the transformation in Max’s mood. Other Linders from this period that we’ve seen have saved the close-up for the denouement. It was a good choice, however, because we needed to see how he went from happy and relaxed to nauseous and stumbling. The fact that much of the humor relies on a lengthy insert-shot of Max’s hand trying to fit a cigar then a key into a keyhole is more questionable, but different. It was also a little surprising to see Max portraying a man so young (the French title, “Le premier cigare d’un collegian,” suggests he is home from college). Linder was 25 at the time this film was made, and though he always shows youthful exuberance in his film, he doesn’t really come across as an adolescent. Still, twenty-somethings playing teenagers in cinema would remain a standard for most of the twentieth century, so it can’t be called out as a peculiarity of the time.

Director: Louis J. Garnier

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 5 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908)

For my contribution to the “Food in Film”  Blogathon, I’m taking  a look at an early example of a typical gender-bending situational comedy: one in which a man is left to his own devices and has to perform “women’s work” for himself, including shopping for food and cooking. Max Linder runs with this premise in this Nickelodeon-Era comedy.

Unhappy home life.

The movie begins with Max having a meal with his wife. Max reads the paper and ignores her. She seems bored and agitated. She tries to speak to him and he ignores her until she snatches the paper away. He demands it back and she gives it to him but begins crying. Max puts his fingers in his ears. This causes her to get up, throw her napkin down and stalk across the room, to where she puts on her hat, takes her coat and leaves. Max gets up and dances a jig, then reads his paper.

The next scene begins with the intertitle “back to mother” and we see the wife enter a room and meet another woman who gestures with sympathetic horror. Then the intertitle says “washing the dishes.” We are back with Max, who has finished his paper. He gathers things from the table on a tray, pouring unfinished glasses of wine back into the decanter. As he piles up more and more of the service, it becomes increasingly awkward or him, and soon he is embracing the tray to keep it all from spilling off. He walks delicately into the kitchen, putting the tray on a cutting board, and brings over a basin of water. We cut now to a closer shot of Max gingerly wiping off the dirty dishes with a dripping brush. It finally occurs to him to put on some gloves, but he is just as delicate with the dirty items when he is wearing them. When he tries to wash a bottle, he can’t figure out how to get the brush inside to scrub. Finally, he takes the whole tray down to the street, where there is a hose in a bucket and he sprays all of his dirty dishes with the hose. Satisfied, he now returns to the kitchen, but he’s not paying attention when he tries to put the tray on the cutting board and it drops, all of the now “clean” dishes shattering on the floor. He sweeps them up with a broom, but then loses interest and leaves in annoyance.

Eeeww!

The next scene is labeled “the market” and it calls attention to the fact that men at this time were not expected to act as consumers. Max is in his silk hat and a topcoat and he approaches the front of a grocer’s, where a woman immediately comes out to serve him. She piles various goods on him and takes his money, but he has no bag or other method to hold his purchases, so once again he stands awkwardly embracing the items. He walks off, but as he reaches the corner he sees a young lady of his acquaintance, so he puts some of his haul behind him and holds the rest behind his back as he speaks to her. A street kid sees the goods he has left on the ground and snatches them, running off, and Max immediately pursues, which reduces his lady friend to laughter. Max catches the kid after a short chase and throws his carrots at him before retrieving his other groceries, all of which have now been on the ground at least once. Picking things up, he of course loses his hat, and there is quite a challenge getting his load back under control.

The next scene is “cooking dinner” and it is the real crux of this movie’s relevance to this blogathon. Max brings all his goods into the kitchen, still wearing his silk hat. He tries to move the basin of water but winds up spilling it all over. He takes off some of his fancy outer clothing and puts on an apron. Then he takes out a large bird for cooking and begins to pluck it. The camera once again switches to a closer angle, and indeed we seem to be in a completely different room as we watch Max’s half-hearted effort to pluck the bird. He takes out some scissors and snips off pieces of the wing, but the bird seems half-prepared at best when he puts it in the pot. He breaks an egg with a knife and drops it in, but most of the shell goes in with the edible part and he tries to scrape it out. He throws in various vegetables and peels a potato over the pot (so most of the peel goes in as well). He pours a copious amount of wine over the pot and sprinkles some spice. Then he lights a match and starts the fire underneath the pot, and makes a show of stirring the mixture. Then he seems to forget about it as he starts polishing a shoe right there on the counter. He spills most of the shoe polish and tries to spoon it back into the bottle, then he remembers his meal and stirs it with the same spoon. He tastes it and adds some more pepper, which makes him sneeze the pot off of the oven.

Clueless in the kitchen.

The next scene is labeled “Housekeeping.” Max comes into the bedroom and starts to undress, but he notices that the bed is a mess, he moves mattresses and sheets around, generally making the bed lumpier than before and them climbs in with most of his clothes on. The next morning Max cannot find his favorite tie. He gets out of bed and puts on a collar, then he starts looking in every possible place, including the bed, the dresser, and under the bed. Each place he looks, he throws the neatly folded contents on the ground, then moves on. He begins tearing up the drawers in the study and the sitting room, even looking inside potted plants. The house is rapidly becoming a disaster area, and this only reaches new extremes when he topples a secretary. Now his wife and her mother arrive to find him in the wreckage and he pleads with her to return to him.

The trope of the reversal of gender roles was a common one in comedy, right up to the Golden Age of television: “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones” and many others would use it decades after this. Max Linder probably didn’t invent the idea: in the nineteenth century gender determined the division of labor to an enormous degree, which would lend powerful comedic possibilities for use on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere. What this movie emphasizes for us is that even seemingly simple tasks like shopping and clearing the table (never mind the more obvious cases of cooking and washing dishes) were imagined as beyond the capacity of a man. The grocer’s is an alien environment for Max, and he daren’t allow a young lady friend to see him carting groceries. Food, in short, was entirely a woman’s domain, from the conception to the aftermath. All a man knew how to do was hold a knife and fork. That said, it struck me that Max was very “French” in his failed attempt at cooking – he even thought to use some seasoning on the bird, something which escapes first-time cooks today!

This has been my contribution to the “Food in Film” blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to head over and check out the other entries!

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Thieving Hand (1908)

This odd little short from Vitagraph has a kind of reputation as a (pre-)Surrealist masterpiece. It does involve the use of trick photography to bring an arm to life, but how does it look from a modern viewpoint?

Thieving HandWe see a one-armed man begging on the street. He is selling pencils or some other time-honored item to get handouts. He sells to a man in an expensive-looking coat and the man walks away. Shortly thereafter, the beggar notices something on the ground and picks it up – it seems to be a ring or small piece of jewelry. He runs after the man and catches him in front of his house. The man is very grateful to get back his ring and starts to reach for another handout, but thinks better of it. He takes the beggar to a shop called “limbs” and buys him a new arm! The shopkeeper demonstrates that the arm works by winding it up on the display case. It moves by itself (actually a jump cut has allowed it to be replaced by the arm of an actor hiding behind the case). The shopkeeper attaches the new arm and cranks it up for the beggar. The beggar is thrilled, but doesn’t seem to notice the arm stealing from his benefactor. When the shopkeeper notices, he takes back his goods and sends them on their way. The beggar scolds his new arm.

The beggar goes back to his corner and continues trying to sell pencils. While he does so, his new arm flails about and grabs things off of each passerby while the beggar distracts them with the pencils in his other hand. Several come back, annoyed, and take back their possessions. Finally, returns the arm to the shop, but when the shopkeeper puts it in the window, it steals a bunch of rings and goes back to the beggar! The shopkeeper discovers the theft and has a policeman arrest the beggar. Once in jail, he meets a one-armed convict who recognizes that it is his arm. He returns the arm, and the convict now has back his thieving hand – no doubt his main means of labor.

Thieving Hand1

As I suggested above, this film stands out by its very weirdness, and seems reminiscent of some of Alice Guy’s more bizarre comedies, like “The Drunken Mattress” or “The Truth Behind the Ape Man” in which the animate and inanimate world become blurred for comic effect. It’s pretty pedestrian, really, in terms of camera-work, editing, and effects, but it feels new because we’ve never seen this particular story before, although it might fit into the strange world of “Felix the Cat” or another of the wilder cartoon series. There’s an interesting irony to the fact that the beggar is rewarded for his honesty with a gift that makes him appear dishonest, and even gets him arrested.  There’s also an element to this movie that makes me think of David Cronenberg, a Canadian director whose horror films often explore invasions or mutations of the body. A hand acting of its own volition is right up his alley. This is a good memorable movie from the early Nickeloden Era, when American film makers were just starting to think about their possibilities.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 6 Min

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

Drama in a Gypsy Camp near Moscow (1908)

Drama in a Gypsy Camp Near Moscow

Alternate Title: Drama v tabore podmoskovnykh tsygan

This very short Russian movie came out shortly after “Stenka Razin,” and was produced by Drankov’s major future competitor, Alexander Khanzhokov. It in no way compares. Where “Stenka Razin” is based on a song familiar to audiences, this one seems to have been improvised on the spot. Where the first movie is grand and operatic, this comes off as silly. It claims to have been made in an actual gypsy camp and to be performed exclusively by gypsies, but this authenticity doesn’t help its rushed awkwardness. The one thing I will say for it is that, shot entirely outside in fields and on a cliffside, it has some of the feel of an early American Western, in that it shows off the countryside better than the characters. The story is of an attempt of a gypsy man to woo his intended love. When she resists, he pulls out a knife and stabs her. Then he becomes remorseful and hurls himself from a cliff. The camera is generally placed quite far from the action, and there are only a few setups. There is actually one pan which follows the two characters through the camp, allowing us a good view of all the sleeping gypsies as they sneak off for a rendezvous, but this actually also undermines the “realism” because we can see what look like tourists walking through the wood in the background, making it all too clear that it is actually day. Another “blooper” occurs when we see an ostensibly dead body move in reaction to the people crowding around it. Film making was very new, of course, and the rules were not yet established, so it is interesting to see how the director attempted to create a story, but evidently this movie was a financial failure even with Russian audiences of the day, who were already accustomed to more sophisticated fair from France and other points in Europe.

Director: Vladimir Siversen

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Run Time: 2 Min, 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Stenka Razin (1908)

Unlike last night’s entry, this is decidedly a Russian film intended for Russian audiences. We also know who produced it: Alexander Drankov, who would go on to found one of Russia’s first major production companies, and who collaborated with Vasily Goncharov on the script. Like many early silent pictures, it relies somewhat on the audience’s prior familiarity with the subject matter to make sense of the story. Stenka Razin was a well-known figure in Russian folklore, a rebellious Cossack leader who defied the Czar and his bureaucrats. This movie was also based on a folk song which elaborates the story, which we only see as vignettes. The song informed the audience’s understanding of what they saw, but the movie also had music written specially for it, which was novel at the time (Wikipedia claims both that this is the “first” Russian narrative film and the “first” musical score for a movie, but I’m leery of “firsts” and will not pronounce for certain on either point).

 Stenka_razin_1908_still_01

Stenka is in love with a Persian princess he has taken prisoner in a raid. We see him sail up the Volga with his fleet of raiders, back to the home base, along with the Princess, who performs a dance when they arrive, symbolizing their wedding. The other bandits are concerned about their leader coming under her spell and they plot to make him drunk and jealous. They forge a note from a Persian lover and Stenka becomes enraged. He drowns the princess in the Volga for her presumed infidelity. The movie ends at that point (assuming that what we have today is complete), but the song lets us know that the men are horrified by what they’ve done, but Stenka calls out for more wine and celebration, then ends on the same refrain of the boats sailing up the Volga that was at the beginning.

 Stenka Razin

Whether this was truly a “first” or not, it was an ambitious film that demonstrated that Drankov was aware of the powerful dramatic possibilities of cinema from the very beginning of his career, jumping in with both feet to tell a tragic story with the tools at hand. The movie shows all of its action in wide shot, and there are no edits within scenes, with minimal use of forward-facing intertitles to tell us what to expect to see before we see it. It’s an interesting representation of the Russian culture, and contrasts well with seminal films of other nations, like “The Great Train Robbery” or “A Trip to the Moon.”

Director: Vladimir Romashkov

Camera: Alexander Drankov & Nikolai Kozlovsky

Run Time: 6 Min

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

Fish Factory in Astrakhan (1908)

Fish Factory in Astrakhan

Alternate Title: Zavod rybnykh konservov v Astrakhani

I’m not quite certain whether to label this as a “Russian” or “French” movie. It was made by Pathé in the Russian Empire, and presumably distributed throughout Europe and the US. It would have served as a kind of travel movie, shown to audiences eager to see “exotic” faraway places depicted on their domestic screens. However, there’s a good chance it was shown in the Russian interior as well, where there would be many citizens for whom Astrakhan was nearly as exotic as it seemed in Paris. The movie was found in a Russian archive, where it had been restored, and Russian subtitles added, by a film student in the 1950s. One source I’ve found says it was likely shot by Aleksandr Drankov, which, if true, makes me think it’s pretty Russian, whoever he was working for.

What we actually see is a series of shots taken at an actual fish processing center on the Volga. The fish are delivered, cleaned, salted and shipped out, and we also see the workers during their lunch break. The emphasis on workers may help explain why a Soviet archive felt it was worth preserving. They actually seem pretty happy, for an oppressed working class, and frequently turn and smile to the camera (on the other hand, the presence of the film crew may have been an excuse to slack off). Nearly all the workers we see are women, except for a few men who steer the rafts that are used to deliver the fish. Most of the work is done by hand in a very inefficient and un-ergonomic manner. I have to wonder how long the backs of these workers held up to this kind of treatment. For us today, it no doubt remains an opportunity to indulge in travel to an “exotic” distance in both time and space.

Director: Unknown (see above)

Run Time: 6 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

A Very Fine Lady (1908)

Very Fine Lady

Alternate Title: Une dame vraiment bien

Another piece of light fluff from the early years of Louis Feuillade, this depicts a young woman walking around the streets of Paris whose figure apparently causes all sorts of mayhem. When she walks by men, they turn and crash into things, or spray one another with hoses, or otherwise become too distracted to function. She is fully and fashionably clothed, although her corset is very tight, which tends to accentuate her figure, but she is far from immodest, which may actually be part of the joke (or maybe it just seems humorous to modern sensibilities). The various Frenchmen reacting to her seem like something out of a Pepe Le Pew cartoon – they have no dignity and respond with broad gestures and ogles. Finally, a couple of policemen take it upon themselves to cover up her dress with a large coat and escort her safely home. The scene with the soldiers breaking rank to stare at her made me think of how France would be at war in just a few years, fighting against Germans who believed just this sort of idea of French military discipline. Interestingly, the audience never gets a good look at the woman’s face, she is generally depicted at a distance, or walking away from the camera.

Director: Louis Feuillade, Romeo Bosetti

Starring: Renée Carl

Run Time: 3 Min, 26 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Adventures of Dollie (1908)

Adventures of Dollie

This is the very first directorial effort of D.W. Griffith, who would go on to become one of the major pioneers of the Classical Silent Period. It is a short film about a father’s hunt for his kidnapped little daughter, and in that sense resembles “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest,” which Griffith had starred earlier in under Edwin S. Porter while working for Edison Studios. After joining Biograph as an actor, he was requested to direct something and agreed, on condition that he could return to acting whenever he wished. Apparently he never did. The most thrilling sequence in the film is that in which Dollie is sealed in a barrel by her Gypsy captors, which then accidentally falls off the wagon into the river, and proceeds through rapids and over a falls, before being recovered by a wholesome Huck Finn lookalike and reunited with her family. I was surprised that the father was not given the chance to heroically rescue her, as in the Porter film, but this was a pretty good example of an early multi-scene film, using editing and creative camera angles to tell a story with no intertitles. The Gypsies are definitely stereotypes here, with no depth or dignity, which I suppose also pre-sages certain aspects of Griffith’s career, while Dollie’s family are as white as snow.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Gladys Egan

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Tempest (1908)

Tempest

This short attempt to bring the Bard to the screen is rather more ambitious than the previous decade’s “King John.” It not only attempts to tell the complete story of one of Shakespeare’s most fantasy-filled stories in only twelve minutes, it even attempts to backfill the story for the audience by going back to Prospero’s arrival on his island, the taming of Caliban and the discovery of Ariel. Each scene is told in a single intertitle followed by a brief period of action, ranging from a few seconds to perhaps two minutes. Magical effects are managed, as per the works of Georges Méliès, by in-camera trickery. This may be the most Méliès-like version of Shakespeare I’ve seen, although there is a seriousness of tone and slowness of pace in comparison to his better-known works. It seems to have been intended for an audience that was familiar with the story; I find it hard to believe that people would follow the subplots of Antonio and Caliban based on what we see here (unless some of it is missing), but it does have a child-like quality that suggests that perhaps it was intended as a way for parents to bring their children to see Shakespeare in shortened version, before submitting them to an entire performance.

Director: Percy Stow

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.