Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1910

House with the Closed Shutters (1910)

House_with_Closed_Shutters

In some respects, this Civil War melodrama is a bit more of what modern viewers, familiar with D.W. Griffith mostly through “The Birth of a Nation,” will expect, than “In the Border States.” Its protagonists are loyal Southerners, the question of honor plays a central role, and the war itself is shown as implicitly justified, if a tragic necessity. There even is a white man in blackface portraying an African American servant, although his performance is not so explicitly racist as the “mulatto” or the role of “Gus” in “Birth.” It begins with a fairly lengthy tearful farewell sequence – a consistent way of introducing characters in these movies. Here, we get a heroic young son of the South (Henry B. Walthall, of “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Consicence”) and his sister (Dorothy West, who was in “A Burglar’s Mistake” and “The Unchanging Sea”). The sister has two suitors, also going to war, portrayed by Charles West (star of “In the Border States” and “The Last Drop of Water”) and Joseph Graybill (who also appeared in “The Last Drop of Water” and “The Lonedale Operator”). General Robert E. Lee himself chooses Henry to be his courier with “an important dispatch,” but he panics at his first sight of death, and flees back to his mother. His sister, unable to bear the stain on family honor, puts on his uniform and dashes off to battle in his name. Of course, she is killed, trying to retrieve the Confederate flag she sewed with her own hands. Now the family has a deep, dark secret to hide. Their mother (Grace Henderson, who was in “A Corner in Wheat” and “The Usurer”) shutters the house and turns away the suitors, claiming that the sister’s grief is too great to be born, and the son begins a dreary life of hiding. Sometime near the turn of the century, he is at last found out, and he too, drops dead of horror and shame.

 House with Closed Shutters

The action scenes in this short film are nearly equal to the much-praised battles in “The Birth of a Nation,” although of course they are on a smaller scale, and there are some good chase scenes during the courier sequences. I think Ms. West acquits herself well as a woman warrior, with all the overblown enthusiasm and devil-may-care courage Walthall himself shows in the better-known movie. The final sequence has a Poe-like resignation to fate and horror, and at least in this case there is justification for the claustrophobically small, square set of the single room wherein the brother lives out his years of cowardly existence. Billy Bitzer’s camera is largely stationary, but in the outdoor shots he manages some creative compositions. It is really the editing that makes the story work, and at this point in his career, Griffith had worked out how to signal simultaneous action through quick edits between scenes, and to build tension by showing as much as was needed for as long as was needed. I didn’t find the story to be as moving as “In the Border States,” but it is certainly a good example of what Griffith could do effectively in the short format.

House with Closed Shutters2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Henry B. Walthall, Dorothy West, Charles West, Grace Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Frank Evans, Gladys Egan

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

In the Border States (1910)

In the Border States

For my money, D.W. Griffith was always better at directing shorts than he was at working in the feature-length. One only has to compare this homely and touching Civil War story to the bloated and un-subtle “Birth of a Nation” for proof. Shot in Griffith’s second year working as a director at Biograph, it has all the humanity and innovation which his best work shows, even if it is at bottom a melodrama. A young father (Charles West, whose work I’ve discussed in “Enoch Arden” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) in a state on the border marches off to fight for the Union, leaving his family in peril as the war comes dangerously close. A band of disheveled Rebels “forages” near to the house, and is chased by Union soldiers. One of their number (Henry B. Walthall, who would later star in “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Conscience”), staggers, desperate, into the family’s land just as the youngest daughter (Gladys Egan, who played the title role in “The Adventures of Dollie” and also appears in “His Trust Fulfilled”) goes out to fetch a pail of water from the well. The man begs for help, and she lets him drink and hide in the well, but refuses him a kiss in thanks. Later, the tables are turned when the father is being hunted, wounded, by this very same band of Confederates, and seeks shelter in his own home. The soldier is about to kill him when the little girl intervenes. He can’t kill the father of the child who saves him, and he convinces, or orders, the others to depart in peace (he’s the only one with Corporal’s stripes, so I guess he’s in charge). The girl and the soldier shake hands and salute one another, and she takes credit for driving the soldiers off single-handed.

 In the Border States1

For 1910, this is quite a sophisticated drama. Much of the movie is shot outside, which prevents the claustrophobia of having too many “square” compositions, as was often the case in studio productions. Billy Bitzer provides good camerawork, including a nice shot of the New Jersery Palisades that passes well for any vista in middle-southern America. Part of the pursuit of the Union soldier is shown as a night shot, by torchlight, apparently achieved by under-exposing the film, but it looks better than a lot of the “night” shots of the time. But the real key to the story is its editing. Griffith deftly cross-cuts between pursuers and pursued in both sequences to heighten tension. For the second sequence, there are two rooms in the house that each character must pass through to reach the ultimate hiding place, and Griffith keeps us aware of the situation in each as the danger develops. Each time we cut back to the wounded soldier, something in the former area has brought peril closer. Walthall’s performance is good, but Egan’s is the best in the movie. I also noticed that it was very easy to read Egan’s lips as she mouths the words “my father” to Walthall in the climactic moment. This was probably intentional, since silent filmmakers encouraged actors to enunciate lines for lip-readers, in lieu of a soundtrack.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Gladys Egan, Henry B. Walthall, Charles West, Frank Evans, Dell Henderson, Henry Lehrman, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Rusalka (1910)

Rusalka

Alternate Titles: Русалка, The Mermaid

Since this is an English-language blog, I usually privilege the English translation of titles, but in this case there were (at least) two other movies called “The Mermaid” in 1910, so it seems best to stick with the Russian for clarity. I found this the best of the Goncharov movies I’ve seen so far. It resembles “A Sixteenth-Century Russian Wedding,” except that it actually has a plot. We still get the large cast, a simulated wedding night, nicely painted backdrops, and stylized period costumes. But we also get a story from Pushkin, as well. The story is of a young prince, who abandons a miller’s daughter in order to marry another woman, closer to his station. The first girl drowns herself in the river, but then the prince cannot seem to shake her image. On the wedding night, he leaves his bride after seeing apparitions. He returns to the mill, and we see many women emerge and return to the water. Then the miller appears, apparently driven mad by his daughter’s death, but also strangely gesturing about the women who come from the water. The prince follows the apparitions into the water, and next we see his body, surrounded by sirens beneath the waves. The final scene looks very much like a borrowing from Méliès, with shells and seaweed all around.

Rusalka1

Director: Vasily Goncharov

Camera: Vladimir Siversen

Starring: Vasily Stepanov, Alexadrandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov

Run Time: 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Princess Tarakanova (1910)

Princess Tarakanova

Alternate Title: Knyazhna Tarakanova

This appears to have been another French production in Russia, made by Pathé, to judge by the images of roosters on the intertitles. Nevertheless, it is clearly intended primarily for Russian audiences as it tells a story from the time of Catherine the Great, that would have been familiar to the class of people expected to attend films there. Princess Tarakanova was a pretender to the Russian throne who is betrayed to Catherine by her lover, Count Orlov, then tricked into imprisonment. Unwilling to renounce her claim, she eventually died in a dungeon in Peter and Paul Fortress of tuberculosis. The movie recounts all of this, also inserting a tragic final visit by a repentant Count Orlov, and also includes an “alternate ending” showing her being drowned in her prison cell, as one legend claimed was her fate.

Princess Tarakanova1

Painting of Tarakanova’s legendary drowning.

Over all, the production here is very stagey, with stationary cameras and scenes shot in single takes. The movie is based on a stage production, and most of the actors make no effort to adapt their acting style for the lack of sound – they just seem to mouth their lines and make the same kinds of motions they would on stage. The exception is V. Mikulina, who played the hapless princess. For most of the movie, we get the impression of a sort of haughty assurance that everyone will realize their mistake, and finally she hams it up gloriously, especially for her (first) death scene, where we get the impression that it was the untimely visit by Orlov that brought about the tubercular attack. Another issue with the movie is that it depends a great deal on written documents to replace the dialog. Every few minutes, Orlov is ending a letter, or Catherine is issuing a decree, so that the audience can be informed of what is happening. Later Russian filmmakers, such as Evgeni Bauer, would avoid such devices where possible. The final “drowning” sequence is only on screen for a few seconds, but I suspect that it is where most of the budget went – the water rushes in to Tarakanova’s cell from two directions, looking like quite a good deal of pressure is behind it. Apart from that, the costumes and sets are nicely authentic-looking, but this isn’t a triumph of national cinema.

Directors: Kai Hansen and Maurice Maître

Camera: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller and Toppi

Starring: V. Mikulina and Madame Pogorel’snaia

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Queen of Spades (1910)

Queen of Spades1

Alternate Title: Pikovaya Dama (Пиковая дама)

This early Russian silent movie is an adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s opera version of Pushkin’s short story. Pushkin is a remarkable cultural phenomenon in Russia, with no obvious English-language equivalent. People often compare him with Shakespeare, who is seen as the ultimate expression of English literature, but this is inadequate. If you were to stop ten people in the street in any English-speaking country and ask what they thought of Shakespeare, the answers would be all over the map. You might find a couple of enthusiasts, but some people would admit they’d never read or seen a Shakespeare play, some would say he was boring or overrated, and some would just be non-committal. If you stopped ten people in a Russian city and asked about Pushkin, the responses would range from enthusiastic to downright rapturous. The Russians love their Pushkin.

Apparently, this devotion was just getting started at the time this movie was made, seventy three years after his death, while the opera was only about twenty years old and would have been familiar to many of the anticipated viewers. That assumed familiarity is important to bear in mind in order to understand this movie. The actions of the protagonist make little sense based on the information we get from the film, which is limited largely to a single intertitle before each scene begins, and apparently even those limited titles were added after the fact; original film audiences saw the movie without them. This demonstrates again the different assumptions in Russia regarding film audiences. While in America at this time, many films were made to appeal to uneducated masses (sometimes with the “intention” of uplifting them), Russian film seems to have targeted an educated middle class, who probably paid more to see culturally familiar material.

 Queen of Spades

The story is a love story in which Herman (confusingly mis-translated in our subtitles as “German”) longs for the attention of Liza, who is the descendent of a Countess. Herman hangs around a gambling table, thinking how if he could win enough money, he might win her hand as well. Coincidentally, the Countess has learned the secret of winning at cards from the famous occultist Count St. Germain, but she jealously keeps the secret, because it was foretold to her that the next person she revealed it to would mean her death. Herman meets Liza and woos her, which really should be all that matters, but now he is even more motivated to get that secret. He sneaks into the Countess’s room (in the movie by way of a secret door in the wall) and wakes her from a nap, brandishing a revolver. She has a heart attack and dies, but apparently not before giving away the secret. Then Liza comes in and finds what Herman has done. She thinks he only pretended to love her to get the secret. They go their separate ways and Herman is haunted by images of the old lady. Liza asks to meet him by the canal, and when he arrives, she sees that he is even more maddened by the secret than before. He leaves, and she jumps into the canal, killing herself. Herman goes to a gambling house, acting weird but joining in for once. His bets win, but when he bets on an ace, he gets the Queen of Spades, which reminds him of the woman he killed. Herman kills himself in despair.

 Queen of Spades2

This rather over-wrought story of tortured love and multiple deaths (sorry Pushkin fans) works reasonably well on the few small sets we see. Standout scenes for me included the ball where Herman gets the key from Liza and the scene at the canal. Apparently, a pit had to be dug in the studio floor in order to give the actress somewhere to go when she jumps in. Similar to American movies of the time, the camera is static and most edits take place between scenes. The sets are all about the same size and we see no close-ups, although the camera is pulled in for a tighter shot of the gambling table for the climax when Herman pulls the deadly card. The ghostly visitations are done through simple in-camera effects ala Méliès. I imagine that at original screenings, the music of Tchaikovsky was played, but I don’t think that’s what we hear now.

Director: Pyotr Chardynin

Camera: Louis Forestier

Cast: Pavel Biryukov, Alexandra Goncharova, Andrej Gromov

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Over Silent Paths (1910)

Over Silent Paths

This was one of the movies D.W. Griffith made on his first journey to California for Biograph, and it makes good use of the desert outside LA for a bleak setting. An old miner and his daughter (Marion Leonard, also in “A Burglar’s Mistake” and “And a Little Child Shall Lead Them”) are preparing to pack up and return to civilization, when a Mexican-looking “desert wanderer” (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Usurer” and “The Sunbeam”) stumbles into the camp. She’s off getting water, so the villain kills the old man and takes his gold. She buries him and vows revenge. Soon, he’s stumbling around lost and desperate for water, when the girl rides up in her covered wagon. She revives him, not knowing who he is, and soon they are in town and beginning a courtship. When he proposes to her, of course, he shows her all the money he has, in a purse she recognizes as her father’s! She overcomes her emotions and grabs his gun, bringing him in to the sheriff and apparently getting a reward to boot, but the only reward she cares about is the opportunity to go to a lonely grave and say, “I did it, dad.” A fairly typical example of the shorts Griffith was turning out like sausage at the time, boosted by Marion’s performance and the desert backgrounds.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Marion Leonard, Dell Henderson, Arthur V. Johnson, Alfred Paget

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free slightly edited: here (first scene missing)

Sergeant, the (1910)

Sergeant 1910

This one-reeler was apparently shot partly in Yosemite Park and partly along the Willamette River in Oregon, though it’s hard to say which parts are which (it’s been speculated that the Merced would have been too cold to swim in, so those parts might be Willamette, but I wouldn’t be certain of it). It tells the story of a romance between a non-commissioned officer and the inevitable colonel’s daughter, and its interruption by an “Indian renegade” who steals their horses and riles up the local tribe against the intruders. It was shot by John Dored, a Latvian cinematographer who went on to become a famous newsreel cameraman. There are a surprising number of pans for a narrative film of the period, either because Dored was an innovator or because the landscape inspired a more panoramic approach. The director, Frank Boggs, is credited with being the first producer of motion pictures to establish a studio in Los Angeles (Selig Polyscope) and was later shot by a disgruntled studio employee. The on-camera action is almost as thrilling as the story of the filmmakers, though, with various shootouts and a daring swim through icy-cold (or not) rapids to try to rescue the girl. The hero of the movie, Hobart Bosworth, was one of the first silent actors to do stuntwork and later claimed to have “fallen down most of” the West.

Director: Frank Boggs

Camera: John Dored

Starring: Hobart Bosworth, Iva Shepard, Tom Santschi, Frank Clark

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch clips from it for free: here. I have been unable to locate the entire film online, please comment if you know where to find it.

Frankenstein (1910)

Frank-1910bis

I want to dedicate the month of October to the development of the “horror” film, although as genre, it didn’t really get going until the advent of German Expressionism after the First World War. Still, I’ve discussed a few examples and influences before, but for the theme this Edison movie is perhaps the best place to start, because, of everything made 100+ years ago, it is probably the most recognizably a horror movie. Edison no longer dominated the market at this time, but they were still producing some innovative films, as this demonstrates.  The use of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel would return, of course, and arguably be done better in the sound period. But, this movie is not to be underrated. I particularly enjoyed the creation sequence and the emergence of the monster through an elaborate animation sequence. The creature itself is downright creepy, although maybe the poor quality of the print explains why I was able to imagine that some of the rags it wore were actually strips of skin. The end, in which the monster looks into the mirror and fades away, leaving behind its reflection, which Dr. Frankenstein walks up and sees, may be a kind of statement about the degree to which the creature is a projection of Frankenstein’s twisted genius, which, the movie suggests, is overcome by love.

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Cast: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller

Run Time: 12 Min 41 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Unchanging Sea (1910)

1910_UnchangingSea

This Biograph picture by DW Griffith is based on the poem “The Three Fishers” by Charles Kingsley, which provides a somewhat different structure to the storyline than similar shorts of the time. At the beginning of the movie, the intertitles are almost all quotes from that poem, which manage to tell the entire poem before the movie storyline completely takes over. That story involves a fisherman in a small seaside village who leaves his pregnant wife behind to go to the sea and fails to return, leaving her and the child alone for years. His companions’ bodies are washed ashore, but the sea never gives him up, leaving the wife uncertain to his fate. It develops that he’s been in another village all this time, apparently suffering from amnesia, but he finally returns to find his wife and now-grown child – who now has a fisherman sweetheart of her own. The husband is played by Arthur V. Johnson, who we’ve seen in “The Adventures of Dollie” and “The Sealed Room” and the wife is Griffith’s real-life spouse Linda Arvidson, who was in “Corner in Wheat” as well as “The Adventures of Dollie.” Mary Pickford (from “The Usurer” and later in “Poor Little Rich Girl”), again edging toward stardom, is the grown daughter, and Charles West (whose career includes “The Redman’s View” and “In the Border States“) is her boyfriend.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Mary Pickford, Charles West, George Nichols

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Usurer, the (1910)

Usurer

This is another early Griffith work for Biograph, with similarities to both “Corner in Wheat” and “The Sealed Room.” It portrays a greedy money-lender, contrasted with his unfortunate victims, and his ironic demise through suffocation after being sealed in his own vault. Although this one was made later, I feel that it is actually less artistically successful than “Corner in Wheat,” which included so much clever inter-cutting and fast-paced editing. Here, the approach is less successful, and Griffith appears to hope to make up for it by including more separate stories, which really only muddies the waters. The death of the villain is slow and drawn-out, lasting for almost five of the eighteen minutes, and inter-cut with scenes that don’t clearly connect, and Griffith relies more heavily on intertitles to tell the story. George Nichols (who we saw in “The Sealed Room” and “Fatty Joins the Force”) stars as the title character, with future-Keystone-founder Mack Sennett among his cohorts. Mary Pickford (who had a small role in “The Sealed Room” and was later star of “Stella Maris”) is obviously moving up in her career at this point, appearing in the important role of the “invalid daughter” whose bed is removed by strong-arm men when her mother cannot pay her debts, and Henry B. Walthall (from “Corner in Wheat” and “The Avenging Conscience”) is another unfortunate debtor.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: George Nichols, Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Grace Henderson, Linda Arvidson.

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.