Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1911

Her Crowning Glory (1911)

Before there was a “big three” (or four, or five) comedians, before Keystone Studios, before almost anyone (except Ben Turpin), there was John Bunny, the best-known film comedian of his day. Bunny was a large man with a red face and a larger-than-life style of acting. His frequent co-star, Flora Finch, was thin, pinched-faced, and demure. Together, they made a series recalled as the “bunnyfinch” shorts. We’ll be looking at one of those today.

A strong reaction to a hairdo.

A strong reaction to a hairdo.

John stars as an apparently wealthy widower with a small daughter. His daughter is becoming spoiled, as John’s instinct is to indulge her and let her get away with whatever she wants. A “friend” who looks like a typical D.W. Griffith-style bluenosed busybody comes over and tells him the child needs discipline. She recommends a governess of her acquaintance, emphasizing that she is a “strict disciplinarian.” The governess is, of course, Flora Finch. Although when she arrives her long hair is tied up, Bunny shows considerable attraction to it – despite the fact that Finch has been made up to look even uglier than usual. John’s daughter does not take to Flora, however, sticking her with a pin and otherwise being bratty. The relationship proceeds along these lines, with John being fascinated by Flora’s hair, and the child being as contrary as possible, until Bunny proposes to Finch. She happily says yes, and the maid now decides she needs to take action. That night, she gives the little girl a pair of scissors while Flora is combing her hair before bed. Exhausted (probably from running after the child all day!), Flora falls asleep in her chair and the child gives her a haircut while she snoozes. John wakes her with a kiss, but when he sees what has happened, he calls off the wedding, and Flora leaves in shame. John and the child go back to playing as before, and there is an indication that John has noticed how attractive the maid is for the first time.

Don't try this at home, kids!

Don’t try this at home, kids!

John Bunny was not known as a slapstick comedian; his movies are “situational” in their humor. This one seems fairly average, based on the few I’ve seen. It’s a little funny, in terms of the situation, but doesn’t really get me laughing very hard. The most interesting part of the movie is the child, played by Helene Costello (who would become an adult star in the twenties), whose willfulness and dislike of snooty adults is compelling. Silent movie children are often much more natural than their sound-era counterparts, confirming the old adage that “children should be seen but not heard.” Helene does look at the camera once or twice, and does seem to follow instructions from off-screen as she spies on her daddy with the governess. The contrast between Finch and Bunny is played up here – it helps to sell us on the idea that Finch is not the right woman for him, he is simply distracted by her head of hair. The movie is shot in a conventional manner for 1911 (few edits, long shots, stationary camera), but does include an important close-up on the hair as it is cut.

Director: Lawrence Trimble

Camera: Unknown

Starring: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Helene Costello, Kate Price

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lonedale Operator (1911)

This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.

No, I probably won't need it!

No, I probably won’t need it!

Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.

Competant and capable.

Competant and capable.

Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.

Lonedale Operator3So, while it’s maybe not so innovative as is suggested, it is a good example of what could be done with established technique, and I’m even willing to grant that in terms of editing it was better than what most audiences were seeing up to then. Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Dell Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, Wilfred Lucas, W. Chrystie Miller, Charles West.

Run Time: 17 Min

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

Cinderella (1911)

I’ve been meaning for some time to get around to looking at the movies thanhouser.org has made available from the original films of the Thanhouser Film Company, especially those starring Florence La Badie, one of America’s first major movie stars, but, with one thing and another, it hasn’t happened until now. Here, I’ll take a look at one of the most beloved of her films – a version of the famous fairy tale of a girl magically saved from a life of hardship by a simple wish for one of romance and fantasy.

Not just no, HELL NO!

Not just no, HELL NO!

The movie manages to tell the story pretty effectively in a short time and with only three Intertitles. In the first sequence, Florence, as Cinderella, is made to help her sisters get ready for the Prince’s ball, only to be told summarily that she cannot go. Then, alone in the kitchen, she makes her wish and a Fairy Godmother appears, who turns various ordinary items into her coach and liveried servants, and then transforms her into a beautiful princess before sending her to the ball. The next sequence shows the ball, including her glamorous arrival, her meeting and dancing with the Prince, and her losing track of time until the last moment before midnight, when she rushes down the stairs, losing a slipper along the way. Finally, we see the search and trying-on of the shoe by Cinderella’s sisters, and their failure to make the grade, followed by Cinderella putting on the slipper, and even producing its mate from her pocket to verify that it really was her. The Fairy Godmother reappears and turns her back into a princess, whereupon she is taken to the castle and marries the Prince. The End.

Cinderella1 1911The version available on Vimeo can be viewed both with and without historical commentary, which is a nice touch, and it has a simple but appropriate organ score as well. I found the character of the father interesting; while he’s usually left out of this story, here he is a kind-hearted weakling, dominated by Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters. It’s also interesting that, even after all of the other magic has turned back to normal, both of the glass slippers remain in their “magical” state, although that’s basically necessary for the narrative. LaBadie is very good as the innocent, hard working Cinderella, but the evil step-sisters also deserve praise for communicating their meanness so effectively without words or sound. Unlike the 1914 Mary Pickford version, there are no added scenes or sub-plots, just the basic fairy tale that continues to be told in much the same way today. There are the expected camera-stop effects, with objects transformed before our eyes, and Cinderella’s dress appearing by magic, and the story is told by editing various scenes in chronological order, but there is minimal cross-cutting and no camera movement.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Florence La Badie, Harry Benham, Anna Rosemond, Frank H. Crane, Alphonse Ethier, Isabelle Daintry

Run Time: 14 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Alkali Ike’s Auto (1911)

Cars were still a pretty new invention in 1911, especially in the more rural areas of the United States. Film was also pretty new, but with the boom of Nickelodeons opening across the country, more people of different backgrounds were going to the movies and demanding more content they could enjoy. This movie, like a number of others I’ve looked at, shows how film as a medium exploited the fascination with speed and technology in general.

Alkali Ikes AutoAlkali Ike (Augustus Carney) is a fairly typical rural “bumpkin” character – the type of Village Idiot that cityfolk think is typical of the sticks and that rural folks recognize as belonging to the neighbors. In this movie, he has a counterpart or rival, the taller “Mustang Pete” (Harry Todd). The object of their competition is a woman named Betty Brown (Margaret Joslin). First, they both try to help her with her dishes, but she is annoyed by their constant squabbling over who will dry the next dish, which sometimes leads to their pulling their guns on one another. They try to “cooperate” in carrying the basin of water, but actually their fighting over who will carry it results in Betty getting splashed with dirty dishwater. Next, Ike wants to take her for a horseback ride, but Pete wins by showing up in a horse and carriage. Betty goes off with him, and Ike, despondent, leads his horses to the general store. Now a stranger drives up in an automobile. The audience is tipped that the car is in bad shape when the store owner refuses to buy at any price, but Ike misses this key bit of information and offers to trade his horses for the car. The stranger, no doubt happy to have a reliable means of transportation to get out of this backwater, accepts, and gives Ike brief instructions on driving.

Alkali Ikes Auto1Now Pete and Betty ride up in their horse & carriage. Betty is excited to be offered a ride in a horseless carriage, and climbs aboard with Ike, who drives it through town and knocks over a post in front of the store. Betty is patient, however, and he does keep it on the road for a while, before ominous steam starts coming from under the cap. The car stops, and the steam turns into a spray of water aimed at Betty. Ike gets out to look and see what he can do about it, then the car starts up on its own, tearing down the hill with Betty aboard. The car crashes at the end of the ride, and Betty is pitched across the hood into the mud. She is furious when Ike catches up and grabs him by the throat.

Alkali Ikes Auto2There are a number of interesting things about this movie. One is that Betty is not at all the typical love-object, or even any sort of movie farm girl, but rather a large, matronly type, physically larger than either of the male suitors. My initial assumption (based on my familiarity with the genre combined with my own prejudices) was that she was a wealthy widow that the men wanted to marry for land and/or money. However, the Intertitles never say any such thing. Maybe her appearance is part of the comedy, or maybe it was assumed that she was the sort of person a bumpkin would be attracted to. The movie as a whole is pretty typical of the pre-Keystone comedies of the time. We get no close-ups on anyone, relying on broad physical gestures and costume to tell us what we need to know about character and motivation. Editing is limited, usually just linking one sequence to the next rather than allowing for intercutting between scenes, and the slapstick action is mostly tame by comparison to a Keystone movie.

Alkali Ikes Auto3Carney was a well-known Essanay player, and apparently this movie was one of their biggest hit releases for 1911, leading to a remake in 1913. He and Mustang Pete would appear in a number of future shorts together as well. In 1914 Carney would go to Universal in search of higher pay as “Universal Ike,” sans Pete. Another successful series of shorts was released, but Carney still demanded more money until Universal terminated his contract and most of his career. His friend Christy Cabanne occasionally gave him supporting roles after that, as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in which he was a soldier. By 1916, he was out of film altogether, and he died in 1920.

Alkali Ikes Auto4Director: Billy Anderson or, possibly, E. Mason Hopper

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Augustus Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, John B. O’Brien

Run Time: 11 Min

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

What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911)

In my opinion, D.W. Griffith was most effective in showing intimate vignettes in short format. Even when he wanted to deal with big issues, as is the case here, and in “A Corner in Wheat,” it is the human side of the story that compels. This movie was meant as a progressivist statement about the treatment of old people without families, and it works because it remains very much grounded in a personal story.

What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_OldThe story begins with a doctor making a house call at the home of an old carpenter. His wife is suffering illness, and the doctor prescribes fresh air, which is lacking in their urban tenement. The old man leaves for work, determined to earn enough to get his wife to the country as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the new foreman is looking for people to lay off, and he decides to cull the oldest workers first, replacing them in their jobs with brawny younger men. The carpenter protests, but is sent out into the street, where he seeks work to no avail, finding that employers value youth over his years of experience. His wife takes a turn for the worse as the money (and food) runs out, so he tries stealing food from what looks to be the kitchen of a restaurant at night. He is caught and held in jail, and tells his sad story in night court, to the disdain of the lawyers and bailiffs who have heard it all before. But the judge, who must be an ancestor of Harry Anderson, sends a cop over to the old man’s house to check on the wife. The cop reports that she doesn’t look good, and the judge pays for the stolen groceries, releases the would-be thief, and arranges for a doctor to attend her in the middle of the night! Sadly, all of this charity is wasted, for when they arrive they find the old woman dead, and the old man hurls the stolen food on the ground in rage and despair.

What Shall We Do with Our OldThis movie is very simple and kept within a low budget by shooting almost entirely on small sets with artificial lighting. The night scenes are not lit differently to the day, we only know the time from the intertitles. Unlike many films of this period, there are rather a lot of intertitles, suggesting the limitations Griffith was discovering in telling stories with visuals only. The “AB” of American Biograph is prominently placed in the old couple’s apartment, but not in any of the other interior shots. Fairly little editing technique is shown, but during the critical scenes of the man’s stealing and arrest, there are cross-cut edits back to the old woman in her bed, to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The concept of the protagonist desperately needing to get food to a sick family member, only to be arrested and detained would be re-used more effectively in “The Italian” four years later. This is nevertheless an emotionally effective film, and a good example of how much could be done with so little at the time. Notably, Griffith makes no effort to answer the film’s question, but simply poses the callous standards of modern urban society as problem to be considered, seeming to favor the kind of smaller community where people would be expected to look out for each other as an alternative.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: W. Christie Miller, Claire McDowell, George Nichols, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Inferno (1911)

Inferno_1911_filmThis Italian production shows both the sophisticated level that special effects had reached in Europe and the appetite of audiences for feature-length films on serious topics. In some ways, it remains grounded in the limitations of early 1910’s cinema – no close-ups (except Lucifer at the very end), predictable camera angles, limited camera movement, etc, but in others it demonstrates remarkable originality and willingness to experiment. In fact, I would say that the subject matter of Dante’s Inferno does not lend itself to a more traditional narrative approach, and it may well be that the movie is better for its “flaws,” better for trying an experimental structure than it would have been ten years later following the “rules” of “film grammar.”

Inferno2The story is known to anyone familiar with classic literature: Dante describes being taken on a tour of Hell by the spirit of Virgil, who, as a Pagan is barred from Heaven and lives so to speak in the “up-scale suburbs” of Hell. This has been interpreted as Dante using his powers as a poet to do the impossible (go to Hell and return to tell the tale) and Virgil represents the spirit of Italian or Roman poetry upon whose shoulders he stands. At any rate, most of what they do is look at tormented souls in the various “circles” or levels of Hell. Once in a while, Dante sees someone he knew in life, or has heard of, and asks them to tell their story. More frequently, Virgil and Dante are challenged by one or more of the demons whose job it is to tormented the fallen souls, and Virgil authoritatively makes them stand aside. We see Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the gate to Hell, the burning walls of Dis, the river Acheron, the serpent Geryon, the giant Antaeus, and Lucifer himself at the end.

Inferno-_1911,_plutoAs I’ve suggested, each of these scenes plays out in a more-or-less theatrical format, with the camera defining a “stage” for the players to act on. However, within that framework, there’s some interesting creativity. Because of the concept of Hell as a vertical hierarchy, the outdoor shots are generally done on sloping hills or mountainsides (easy enough to find in Italy!). This in itself gives a different kind of geography to the “stages” I’m talking about. In general, the stages are large enough to fit a good number of naked extras as tormented souls. Many shots have twenty or more people visible, which is highly unusual for the time. We also get a kind of close-up, when Dante focuses his attention on a single soul, there will be a “jump cut” and we suddenly see Virgil, Dante, and the individual soul in a three-shot (still large enough to see them from head to toe). In that sense, this is one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of editing within scenes, rather than between them, although I think D.W. Griffith had done it already. Another narrative device, familiar to us today but quite new then, is the flashback, in which souls describe to Dante how they reached their sorry fate, and we cut to a dramatization of what they describe. The one camera movement I caught was a backward tracking shot to reveal a particular condemned soul.

Inferno1The special effects may be based on the work of Méliès, but are in general in advance of his techniques, and far in advance of his imitators in the USA. Several matte shots are done, at least two of which required three or more separate shots to be integrated. One impressive example of this was the carnal sinners being blown about by the winds of Hell. We also see a couple of examples of stop-motion transformations as sinners are turned into lizards and other animals. And there are tricky matte shots in which leprous souls are missing legs or arms, or even carry their own heads about. Several characters are made to fly, presumably through the use of wires, and these shots look consistently good as well. There are a number of shots in Dis where actors are fairly close to (real) flames, and I found myself worrying about their long robes catching fire. A number of “Giants” are created through simple forced perspective, yet it works because the filmmakers are careful not to break the illusion (and because they don’t use multiple shots).

Inferno-_1911,_cainaThat’s not to say that everything is executed perfectly. For one thing, there are way too many Intertitles, more and longer than I’ve seen in any movie from this period. This was probably necessary because without the context of being told what was happening in each new scene before it begins, audiences would probably have been scratching their heads at the surrealistic grandeur. Still, it cuts into the pacing and makes it a slower experience to watch. In the shot where the souls are boarding the ship over Acheron, at one point Dante and Virgil are blocking our view of the action, which could have been avoided with a POV-edit, but it didn’t occur to them. Some of the “monsters” are a bit ridiculous-looking as well, particularly the fluffy Cerberus and the “black mastiffs” which look like perfectly friendly dogs.

InfernoStill, this was a bold project whose producers demonstrated a faith that cinema was a new kind of art form that could be used to show things that otherwise could only be imagined. They based the imagery on the illustrations of Gustav Dore for an older edition of the Divine Comedy, and on the whole their work paid off. Apparently it was a huge financial success and was successful in getting audiences to pay raised ticket prices in the era of Nickelodeons in the US. It remains an impressive document in the development of film history.

Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro

Camera: Emilio Roncarolo

Starring: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano

Run Time: 1 Hour, 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Battle (1911)

This movie has a lot in common with the other early D.W. Griffith representations of the Civil War, with one big exception: the story is told from the point of view of a Union soldier (Charles West, who wore the opposite uniform in “Swords and Hearts” and “The Fugitive”), rather than a Confederate. The storyline roughly parallels that of The Red Badge of Courage – a young infantryman departs proudly for the war, but when he gets his “Baptism of Fire,” he flees in panic. Shamed by his cowardice, he becomes determined to redeem himself with acts of courage, and winds up saving the day by leading reinforcements and ammunition to his old regiment. Blanche Sweet (from “The Goddess of Sagebrush Gulch” and “The Eternal Mother”) gets a small but important role as his sweetheart – he runs to her home in his initial flight, and she scorns him and prays for his redemption when he returns to the battlefield. Obviously, themes are also present that we saw in “The House with Closed Shutters” and “Swords and Hearts” as well.

 Battle

It strikes me that of the many Civil War shorts that Griffith made, this was actually the most elaborate, in terms of staging the battle scenes, and certainly made use of the most actors and extras. He basically rehearses the seizing of trenches as it would be done four years later in “The Birth of a Nation.” The men on horseback riding to the rescue also mimics “Birth,” although Bitzer does not use a moving camera here. Some powerful images include the Confederates emerging from the smoke to invade a trench the heroic dash of the ammunition wagons, and the Rebels lighting fires to halt them, causing at least one to explode. Unfortunately, the slight storyline gets somewhat lost in all this action, and we lose track of Blanche Sweet after the wounded commanding officer requisitions her house as a medical station (had there been more time, I imagine her nursing the wounded and hear the story of her love’s redemption). This is certainly not a bad film, so far as it goes, and the editing and cinematography are at the top of their field for the time, but it winds up sacrificing character for thrills.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Blanche Sweet, Robert Harron, Spottiswood Aitken, Edwin August, Lionel Barrymore, Dell Henderson

Run Time: 16 Min, 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Swords and Hearts (1911)

Swords_and_Hearts_1911

Several of the themes we’ve encountered before are present in this Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, including cross-dressing, blackface, questions of honor and loyalty, and rampaging Yankee looters. Here, we also get a comment on social worth, as the heroine (Dorothy West, who was in “The House with the Closed Shutters” and “His Trust Fulfilled”) is a member of the “poor white class,” which the male love interest (Wilfred Lucas, from “Enoch Arden” and “His Trust”) ignores for a more “beautiful, but calculating” wealthy neighbor (Claire McDowell, also in “His Trust” and “What Shall We Do with Our Old?”). She seizes the chance to replace him on a daring courier mission when Yankees are lurking about, and goes on a wild horse ride, with the enemy at her back, even shooting one of them down when he gets too close! Once again, Dorothy acquits herself well, and bears up under the wound she receives while doing her duty, but this time she doesn’t die for her efforts. A loyal African American slave hides away Lucas’s fortune and manages to save his father after the discouraged looters torch the house. Then, when Lucas’s lady love spurns him for a Yankee officer, he and Dorothy can have the last laugh – he’s rich again after all.

 Swords and Hearts1

All pretty typical stuff, and becoming redundant among the tropes we are used to seeing Griffith deploy. He uses editing to maximize suspense, particularly during the horse chase and also the rescue of the old man, which has elements in common with “An Unseen Enemy” as we anticipate the arrival of his savior – but will it be too late? Bitzer’s camerawork is more restrained here, with no panoramic shots of the scenery, but the chase is well covered. McDowell, as the fickle fiancé turns in a memorable performance, but West is once again the real focus. The problem is that this time she can’t top what she gave in “The House with Closed Shutters,” although her longing for Lucas from afar is convincing.

Swords and Hearts2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dorothy West, Claire McDowell, Charles West, Verner Clarges

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trust Fulfilled (1911)

About a year ago, I briefly discussed the first part of this two-part story from D.W. Griffith when he was working at Biograph. It’s worth going back and looking at that post, because the two movies are a continuation of the same story. Griffith always was interested in finding way to work in longer formats (even though, as I’ve said before, his greatest strength seems to have been in making shorts). In this case, he did it by making a “sequel” at the same time as he shot the first part, although the opening intertitle assures us that “each is a complete story in itself.” I suspect that note was added by Biograph to assure its distributors and exhibitors that they would not require anyone to rent two-reel movies at a time when movies were sold by-the-foot, rather than by-the-story. At any rate, it is likely that some audiences only saw half of the story.

 His Trust Fulfilled

The story is that of “an old faithful negro servant” (read: slave) of a Confederate soldier (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Last Drop of Water”), who takes on the role of protecting the widow and orphaned child after the father is killed in the Civil War. The main character, George, is played with understated dignity and humility by Wilfred Lucas, a white man in blackface, which will make it difficult at best for modern audiences to accept him. He saves the daughter (Gladys Egan again, from “In the Border States” and “The Adventures of Dollie”) from the burning house after a group of Union looters torches it, then running back in to rescue also the fallen hero’s sword, symbol of “his trust” and arguably a phallic symbol of his acceptance of white supremacy. He takes both back to his meager shack, and sleeps outside in the cold to preserve their honor. The mother (Claire McDowell, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old?” and “The New York Hat”) nevertheless dies from the pain of her loss, apparently shocked to the core by her circumstances. George gives his meager savings to a white lawyer who refuses to shake his hand in order to see to it that the child is brought up and schooled with her own kind. She grows into a somewhat bouncy Dorothy West (from “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Fugitive”), who attracts the hand of the lawyer’s young cousin from England. George, having fulfilled his life’s purpose – keeping the trust of his long-dead master – shuffles sadly off after the wedding and back to his quarters, where he holds the sword gently to his breast. In what may be a dream sequence, the lawyer appears and finally shakes George’s hand.

The screen's first "interracial" handshake?

The screen’s first “interracial” handshake?

In spite of the clearly racist content, I won’t deny that the story has some dramatic and emotional content that still works. The Civil War battle is less effective than what we see in “The House with Closed Shutters,” which may be attributable to a lower budget, but it’s also less central to the storyline. Lucas’s performance, which at first seems virulently stereotypical, takes on a more dignified cast as we see George age and face the trials of keeping his word. In a way, what Griffith is giving us here is the “positive case” for racism and Southern tradition – a world in which people knew their destiny on Earth and kept their honor by living up to their expectations. That this world is mythical makes it no less effective as a cinematic representation, although of course accepting it without criticism leads down the road that got us to “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Claire McDowell, Gladys Egan, Dorothy West, Verner Clarges, Harry Hyde

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it (along with “His Trust”) for free: here.

Romance with a Double Bass (1911)

Romance with a Double Bass

This Russian comedy short relies mostly on situation rather than slapstick for its humor. However, as compared with “Princess Tarakanova,” the actors do rely more on pantomime to get the story across and we have no intertitles at all. In this one, a very different sort of a princess goes out fishing at a local stream. So far as I can remember, this is the one time in 104 years of movies that I’ve ever seen a woman cast a fly in a film (someone can correct me in the comments if Katherine Hepburn actually did it in “Bringing Up Baby” or something, but all I remember is golf). Anyway, once we’ve gotten past the shock of that gender-bending situation, we are introduced to a musician traveling with his friends, who decides to put down his instrument and take a dip, just a little way downstream. His friends move on, and as soon as they do, two thieves show up and steal his clothes, as would happen in any American comedy of the period. The swimmer spies the princess napping and swims up to meet her, but becomes shy, perhaps because he’s only wearing a longjohns-style-swimsuit, and moves on. When she wakes up, she goes for a dip too. She, however, is wearing the latest in Paris fashions in swimwear. Still, while she’s in the river, the same two thieves steal her clothes. When each comes back to land, they discover their embarrassed state, and soon afterward, they discover each other. Luckily, the thieves didn’t take the heavy double bass (I guess there’s a big market in Russia for illegal clothes fencing, but not expensive musical instruments), so the musician convinces the princess to hide in the case while he chases after the thieves. The friends now return and, finding the case abandoned with no musician about, pick it up and carry it to the nearby home of the princess. She bursts out, in front of her father, his guests, the servants, and everyone, humorously ashamed of her semi-nudity.

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Charles Musser, in The Emergence of Cinema, mentions a number of American comedies in which women’s bodies are exposed for the pleasure of male audiences. This one differs slightly from that earthy tradition. For one thing, it’s based on a Chekhov short story, suggesting that even where light comedy was concerned, Russian audiences wanted to class up the movies with a little culture. For another, the man in this story is also deprived of clothing, although his embarrassment is not lingered over as much. It’s hard to imagine that female audiences found his skinny frame as interesting as the men found the princess, either. Finally, in the movies Musser mentions, the father is often also the butt of some Oedipal prank, as where the escaping boyfriend topples the peeping father from a ladder in “How the Athletic Lover Outwitted the Old Man,” but here the father is an agent of the girl’s humiliation.

Director: Kai Hansen

Camera: Joseph-Louis Mundwiller

Cast: Vera Gorskaya, Nikolai Vasilyev

Run Time: 6 Min 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.