Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1909

His Last Game (1909)

This short film from Independent Moving Pictures (the I.M.P.) has many elements that would appear in later films by D.W. Griffith, but with a somewhat surprising ending. It uses baseball to tell a story of honor and racial strife.

The movie opens by telling us that the last game of the year is impending, with the Choctaw team facing the team from Jimtown. Bill Going, an Indian, is the star pitcher for Choctaw. We see Bill standing in front of the town bar and a large sign announcing the game. His teammates, most of whom appear to be white, come up and invite him to go drinking but he refuses, perhaps wanting to stay clear for the game. Another man in Indian garb with elaborate war feathers comes up and stands in the background as the team leaves for their drinks. Now, two gamblers in traditional Western clothing come up and offer Bill a generous pile of coins in order to throw the game. Bill counts out the coins several times, only to finally refuse. The gamblers go off to the bar together, and we see them spiking a drink in an insert shot, then they come back and offer the drink to Bill, who agrees at first, but then insists on switching drinks with one of them. When that one fails to drink, Bill throws his drink at him. Now, the gambler, outraged, pulls his gun. Bill quickly disarms and shoots him. Now the sheriff suddenly comes out of the bar, to see Bill shoot down a white man. The other Indian watches as the sheriff arrests him on the spot.

The next scene is labeled “swift Western justice” by an intertitle. We see a group of grave-diggers in the background, and Bill and the sheriff in the foreground. The Indian tries to remonstrate with the sheriff to no avail, but then Bill’s team arrive and they ask the sheriff to let him live long enough to pitch for them. The sheriff agrees, but insists that the other Indian stand in his place. If Bill doesn’t come back in time, he will execute this man instead. Bill and the Indian agree to the terms. The sheriff sends a note to the judge asking for a stay of execution, if Bill keeps his word. The next sequence shows the ball game, all shot from behind the home plate. We see the Jimtown players gain several bases, but then Bill runs up and pitches a shutout. The Choctaws win. The team carries Bill back to the bar on their shoulders, then offers him a large drink to celebrate. Bill is about to drink when he remembers his promise. He throws down the bottle and runs back to the grave site. The grave diggers are now a firing squad, and are just about to shoot the Indian when Bill arrives. He takes the man’s place, but the Indian signals that he hears hoofbeats, putting his ear to the ground in cliché fashion. Intercutting shows us that the messenger is indeed running back, but the sheriff doesn’t see anything in time, so the execution proceeds. The messenger rides over the hill just as Bill is shot and his body falls into the grave. The sheriff reads the note that would have saved Bill’s life, just seconds too late, and the team arrives to mourn his loss.

I.M.P. was one of the companies that later went into making Universal Pictures, and this movie was produced by Carl Laemmle, senior, the head of that operation. I.M.P. was also famous for defying the Edison Trust and operating independently, and this movie would have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of their operations and much of the American film industry at the time. They made movies for the burgeoning Nickelodeon market, and indeed Laemmle and his partners had started out as Nickelodeon theater owners. This movie demonstrates that concepts of editing which are often attributed to a later period had already come into use, if in rather primitive form, at the time. The inter-cutting between the messenger and the execution scene is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1911 film, “The Lonedale Operator,” although here the hero is unable to save the day in time. I found myself reflecting that if Bill had been white, the story probably would not have ended the same way. The “noble savage” story almost always had a tragic ending, however, and here Bill is killed by “swift Western justice” that has no sympathy for his situation or ethical behavior. Bill’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting – he never actually drinks, but is repeatedly tempted by drink and appears eager to do so, each time realizing just in time that it would be a mistake. Also interesting was the decision to shoot the entire ball game from a single angle, one in which the players frequently obscure the action from the camera. Showing baseball to audiences was still a new thing at the time, and more sophisticated ways to demonstrate it were yet to be developed. Note that the scene of the two gamblers drinking shows the I.M.P. logo prominently – still a common practice at the time to discourage film piracy.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. You can see a brief segment here.

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The Voice of the Violin (1909)

This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.

The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow.  This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.

The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.

The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.

We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.

The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.

Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.

Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West

Run Time: 16 Min

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

 

Princess Nicotine (1909)

This fascinating short from Vitagraph shows a very innovative approach to trick photography and allows more direct interaction between actors than double exposure would have. Director J. Stuart Blackton brings a fantasy to life that has elements of Guy and Méliès, while also displaying a distinctly American style.

Nicotine PrincessA man is in a room, preparing to smoke his pipe. Suddenly, he drowses off and falls asleep. While he is asleep two tiny figures appear among his smoking accoutrements – one a small child and the other, a grown woman, both in fairy costumes. They appear to be only a few inches tall. There is an edit, and we see them at closer range, moving among the oversized implements. The woman gets into the cigar box, and the child hides in the pipe, putting tobacco over herself in the process. The man wakes up and starts smoking his pipe, but he notices something strange. He shakes it out and the child tumbles out happily (apparently unconcerned that she was almost burnt up!). She and the woman dance on the table for a bit, and the man smokes and tries to trap them in the cigar box. When he looks inside, all he finds is a flower, but when he removes it, the child is there smoking a cigarette. Then, he gets up and leaves. Now, there is an animated sequence which shows the matches arranging themselves and then a cigar rolls itself out of leaves and tobacco. The man walks into what looks like a different room and finds the cigar, lighting it and also breaking a bottle that holds one of the fairies. He begins smoking and blows the smoke at the fairy, which seems to annoy her. She builds a bonfire out of the remaining matches, and he extinguishes it with a spritzer bottle. He then uses the spritzer to spray the fairy off of the table.

Nicotine Princess1As the DVD notes observe, there is a wealth of material here for a dedicated Freudian – even if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I alluded to the special effects, which were managed by shooting the women in a mirror at a distance that made it appear that they were small and on the table, rather than using double exposure and having to shoot everything twice. Keeping that technique in mind, this is a very interesting performance. I think the “different room” continuity confusion was a result of the trickiness of these effects: on a second viewing I noticed that most of the background was replaced with a black curtain starting just before the animated sequence. Possibly they were having difficulty getting the effects to show up against the original backdrop. For the insert shots, we see the fairies interacting with large props (a barrel-sized pipe bowl, and matchsticks the size of their legs, etc). I’ve seen claims that the first time this was done was for the movie “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), but here’s an earlier example and there may be more.  The editing structure is relatively sophisticated, not just stringing together scenes, but allowing us to change our perspective on the action as it develops. The movie owes something to the French, in terms of its effects and overall tone, but there’s something quite unique in the subject matter and the ambiguous attitude towards smoking and tiny women.

Alternate Title: Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Tony Gaudio

Starring: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette

Run Time: 5 Min

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

A Trap for Santa (1909)

Trap_for_Santa_ClausWith Christmas coming at the end of his first year working for Biograph, D.W. Griffith released this one-reel seasonal movie with a heartwarming ending and a hint of social message. It shows the level that he had already achieved in terms of storytelling and film technique.

A family in want.

A family in want.

A family is destitute, and the situation grows bleaker as the father (Henry B. Walthall), unable to find work to feed his children, turns to drink in order to forget his worries. The mother (Marion Leonard) tries to make the most of the situation, but she scolds the father when he comes in drunk and wakes the children. Desperate, he leaves the house, fearing that he may be a worse influence on his own children if he stays. The bartender (Mack Sennett) at his usual dive doesn’t appreciate it when he tries to sleep on the table , and throws him out into the cold. The mother tries to find work, but is turned away from the employment agency. When she returns home, she finds that the hungry child she left there alone has eaten their last crusty loaf of bread. Then, some men arrive with some good news: her aunt’s estate has been settled at last, and she is the inheritor of a small fortune. She and the children move into a nice house with a maid (Kate Bruce). When Christmas rolls around, she explains to the kids that Santa will come in through the window, since there is no chimney, and the kids hatch a plan to “trap” Santa by leaving a basket covered by a picture frame right where he will step (it’s lucky he doesn’t break his neck!). Mom manages to get them to bed, but she sighs while trying on the Santa suit, wishing they had a father to play the role.

Trap for Santa1Then, in a typically Griffithian coincidence, the starving father now tries to break into the wealthy home to steal some money or at least food, but finds himself confronted by his estranged wife. The girls think their trap has worked, but mom convinces them to stay in bed. Immediately, the couple puts a new plan into action and the father puts on the Santa suit and acts like he is caught in the trap. Mother rouses the girls, who come out and dance with “Santa.” The family is reunited in love.

Santa is trapped.

Santa is trapped.

It’s a happy ending, and I found it emotionally effective, but after all, the drunk may continue being a drunk now that his wife has money. We can hope not, and clearly Griffith wants us to believe that he will reform, since it was only hunger and desperation that made him drink and (try to) steal. Billy Bitzer’s photography is effective and the camera is at least close enough to cut off the actors’ feet and give us some intimacy with the action. There are only a few camera set-ups, and these are static and set to mid-shot throughout, but the editing makes the story work better than a lot of the movies of the period. Where shots in 1909 generally followed one another sequentially, this movie allows for simultaneous action as the father first deserts the family, and then later when he is “trapped” by the children in the next room. Leonard somewhat overdid her acting, pointing and pantomiming to make sure that the audience knew what was said, but overall the performances were good. I was particularly pleased to see Gladys Egan (from “In the Border States”) show up as the daughter.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. Bitzer

Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Marion Leonard, Gladys Egan, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, W. Chrystie Miller

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The Son’s Return (1909)

Cinecon pulled a surprise on me and screened a bonus Century Film, in a beautifully remastered print. I appreciate this, but it was screened right before the 1918 Mary Pickford vehicle, “M’Liss,” so I hope I don’t get the plots of those movies confused.

Sons Return“The Son’s Return” is an early Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, who I think took on a rather too complicated story for his still-developing skills. Imdb identifies the source as “a novel” by Guy de Maupassant, but the short list of his novels on wikipedia includes nothing that looks like French for “The Son’s Return,” so I can’t confirm that. Pickford’s role is actually comparatively minor, though for some reason the movie begins with her frolicking through sunlit glades of flowers. Griffith was into girls frolicking, we know that. Then we are introduced to Charles West, her sweetie, who is the real center of the narrative. His parents are running an inn in New England that isn’t doing well, but he has decided to move to the city and seek his fortune. He does remarkably well, apparently getting a job on Wall Street or in a major bank, and he stays for five years, apparently forgetting his rural roots, and growing a beard. One day, a letter from Mary comes, telling him that his parents are on the verge of bankruptcy, so he announces to his boss that he’s taking some unplanned time off, and takes a train to town. No one (including his parents) recognizes him with his beard and expensive clothes, and he decides to “surprise” everyone by pretending to be a stranger and checking in to the inn. The landlord is threatening to turn the parents out into the street any day, and when this big-spending stranger shows up passes out fully clothed in his hotel room, they decide to take desperate measures. They club him and steal his wallet, only to decide that he’s dead after a cursory check of his pulse. Then they find the locket with the mother’s picture that demonstrates his identity. Grief- and terror-stricken, they dump the body and run back to the inn. Now Mary comes along and finds the “body,” which acts like it has a terrible hangover. Mary, who recognizes him at once, calls a doctor and the police, assuming that he’s been the victim of highwaymen. The parents decide they cannot live with their crime and show up to turn themselves in, but of course their son forgives them when they fall on their knees.

Sons Return1This isn’t necessarily a bad storyline for a movie, and it might even have worked in short format, given Griffith’s later skills, but it was a bit ambitious for 1909. The biggest problem is the suspension of disbelief that a man’s parents can’t recognize him after only five years because he has grown a beard. Even my extremely near-sighted mother never had this problem, even when I was dying my hair and cutting it in punk rock fashions. He needed a bit more of a disguise. It’s also unclear why he chooses to sleep in his clothes, and the question of day/night is never adequately settled by Billy Bitzer’s photography. When the parents sneak up to the room, they make a point of taking a candle, suggesting that it is night, but there is no attempt to show this through lighting (aside from which, there is a plainly visible burning candle in the room already when they enter, so the second one was unnecessary). The parents presumably dump the body at night, but when Mary walks up a minute later, it appears to be daytime – which is both an editing issue and a lighting one. Editing the whole story more tightly might have heightened the tension and also made it easier to ignore the other problems, but no doubt Griffith was still learning how to do this.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Mary Pickford, Mack Sennett, Edwin August

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Redman’s View (1909)

Red_Man's_ViewThis film is sometimes held up (mistakenly, I would say, for reasons I’ll discuss below) in contrast to “The Birth of a Nation,” to argue that D.W. Griffith wasn’t really racist after all, he was simply misunderstood. It is among the movies he directed in his first year at Biograph and it does demonstrate his belief that the movies could be used to tell serious stories with messages. Even though he was to rebel against the short format for movies, is also demonstrates his ability to work effectively within that form.

Red Mans ViewIn the beginning of the film, a young Native American couple meets by the riverside. He shyly proposes to her and she shyly accepts (all in pantomime). When they return to their tribe, the young man is faced with a horrible choice between her or his father. A group of plundering white men suddenly arrive and insists that everyone leave the land. He protests that his father is to old and ill to move, and for a moment it looks like there will be a confrontation, but then the white men get ahold of his bride and keep her hostage. Reluctantly, the tribe begins their exodus. Whenever they stop to rest, suddenly the white men are there with guns drawn, telling them to keep moving. The girl tries to take advantage of this to escape, but is recaptured. Finally, the old man dies and a ritual is held to honor him. The young man returns to the camp to free his wife, but they are caught again. The white men appear ready to kill them both, but one white man stops the others and sends them on their way. They have lost their land, but they are together.

Red Mans View2Although Griffith tried hard to make this a powerful experience, there are a couple of flaws in this film. First, our sense of time and place is very ambiguous. We get the impression of a long trek (and even are given to understand that the natives reach the Pacific Ocean), but they never seem to be more than short walking distance from the white men’s camp, which never changes. At times it seems we are seeing simultaneous events cross-edited but then characters from one thread turn up in the other – as when the girl attempts her escape to be caught by the same men who are harassing her husband. The other problem is inherent in trying to make a silent movie about people suffering from walking. A lot of the movie is just shots of the Native Americans walking slowly across the screen, with sad expressions on their faces. It’d be hard to make this work with dialogue, but without it, it makes 15 minutes seem long. On the plus side, the New Jersey Palisades stand in nicely for the bleak yet unspoiled landscape Griffith wants us to believe of the West.

Red Mans View1So, doesn’t making a pro-Native American movie clear Griffith of the charge of racism? Well, not exactly, although it does complicate it a bit. This movie is steeped in the imagery of the “Noble Savage,” and the tragic-but-inevitable side of Manifest Destiny. In claiming to give us “The Point of View of the Red Man,” Griffith presumes to speak for numerous cultures, and he lumps them neatly together into a classic stereotype, albeit one less negative than that of “Gus,” the lustful African American. And, of course, he uses only white actors to portray them, although admittedly it would have been hard to find genuine Western Native Americans on 14th Street in New York, let alone good actors of that background. This is generally a less offensive movie than “Birth,” but that doesn’t make it un-biased.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Owen Moore, Kate Bruce, Arthur V. Johnson, Henry Lehrman, Lottie Pickford

Run Time: 14 Min

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

A Sixteenth-Century Russian Wedding (1909)

16th Century Russian Wedding

Alternate Titles: Русская свадьба XVI столетия, Russkaya svadba XVI stoletiya

This short film is a simple historical reenactment. It was produced, as was “Drama in a Gypsy Camp,” by the up-and-coming Alexander Khanzhonkov, who seems to have had a taste in Russian-national themed movies. He retained Vladimir Siversen, the director/cameraman, to shoot this picture, but handed the reins of directing over to Vasily Goncharov. This was probably wise, Siversen seemed to find both directing and cranking the film a bit overwhelming in the last outing, but here the camerawork is consistent and Goncharov seems to have been comfortable keeping the actors in line (liner notes tell us he relied on assistance from Pyotr Chardynin, who plays the father of the groom, in this). The entire movie is shot on the same stage, with only slight changes in decoration and costume to signal the difference between the bride’s room and the groom’s. The wedding hall is decorated with an elaborately-painted backdrop like something out of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but for the most part the art is fairly restrained. All of the actors are shown full-frame, nobody’s feet are cut off, and with considerable headroom, making them appear quite small and indistinguishable on the screen. You’d never recognize any of these actors if you saw them in a different costume. The costumes emphasize the fact that this is an upper-class wedding, not a peasant affair, although some of the dancers at the wedding have more austere clothes, once again a comment on the presumed class of movie-goers in Czarist Russia.

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Starring: Alexandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov, Pyotr Chardynin, Pavel Biryukov, Vasili Stepanov, Lidiya Tridenskaya

Run Time: 8 Min, 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Mr. Flip (1909)

Mr Flip

This fairly primitive slapstick comedy starring Ben Turpin has the distinction of being believed to contain the first example of a character hitting another character with a pie in the face for comedic effect. It wouldn’t surprise me if there actually is an earlier example, or indeed if the trope had been invented in vaudeville before hitting the movies, but this is the earliest one I’ve seen so far, so I’ll go along with it. The plot is quite thin. Turpin is a goofy-faced “masher” who goes to a variety of establishments which employ women and annoys them until they take revenge or humiliate him in some way. I laughed as much with surprise as with humor when the lady at the general store has him removed on a hand truck. The bit with him sitting on a pair of scissors at the manicurist is made funny by his body language, though it’s drawn out more than necessary. In addition to the pie-in-the-face at the restaurant, he is also sprayed with seltzer (another classic bit, though I’m not sure if this is the first instance) by the bartender and several patrons at a bar. It struck me that there is a kind of statement here about the harassment women working with the public had to put up with, and the humor comes in their being able to defend themselves, but Mr. Flip is certainly not a charming character.

Director: Gilbert Anderson

Starring: Ben Turpin

Run Time: 3 Mins, 45 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Custody of the Child (1909)

Custody of the Child

Alternate Title: “La Possession de l’enfant

This is another of Louis Feuillade’s early works for Gaumont studios in France. Although this is largely similar to Progressive Era morality dramas being made in the United States, there are some interesting differences. First of all, the very act of basing a film on the premise of divorce is unusual for American pictures anytime before “Kramer vs. Kramer” (1979), or at least “The Parent Trap” (1961). It’s also interesting that the it is the father who is awarded custody, making the conflict of the film the natural love between a mother and child, and the harm done by divorce to this institution. The child, although well-taken-care-of, quickly becomes melancholy, and the father takes him to his maternal grandmother. She, of course, immediately turns him over to the mother, who absconds and then tries to raise the child in poverty. The father goes to the police, and we seem to be set up for a tragic of ending, but the child brings his parents together. Modern audiences may be confused by the long hair and petticoats of the male child, but this would have been typical in Europe at the time. Again, Feuillade makes good use of Paris exteriors intercut with generic, cramped stage-like sets for the play.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Renée Carl, Christiane Mandelys, Maurice Vinot

Run Time: 11 Min, 34 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fairy of the Surf (1909)

Fairy_Of_The_Surf

Alternate Title: La Fée des Grèves

This gentle piece from Louis Feuillade bears a resemblance to “The Little Mermaid” and other fairy tales. Here, instead of a mermaid, a young prince fishes a fairy from the sea while she dances atop the water, then persuades her to marry him. Alas, she finds she must return to the sea, but the prince follows. Instead of drowning, he becomes “Prince of the Sea” and lives with her in a Méliès-inspired seashell castle. The extensive location shooting, nicely intercut with extravagant interiors, differs the look and feel of the piece from Méliès, however, and the tone and pacing of the piece feels a bit more deliberate than his usual gay abandon. Most of the setups are long shots, however, and we get only limited opportunities to see the actors’ faces, making this a visually typical film for the time. The version I saw had limited hand-painting of frames, especially of the costumes of the human characters, although the movie is not properly in color.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Run Time: 7 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.