Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1913

Più forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913)

Alternate Titles: Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes, Sterker dan Sherlock Holmes.

This Italian short trick film is a slapstick chase-comedy in the style of Alice Guy and other directors of earlier decades. The name of Holmes is only invoked to bring in the concept of crime and pursuit, the movie has nothing to do with the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmesThe movie begins with a man reading a magazine, while his wife peacefully dozes next to him at the table. An over-the-shoulder shot is cut in to reveal illustrations of a cop and a robber in the magazine, then the man also slumps to sleep, dropping the magazine to the floor. Two figures emerge from the magazine, by use of double exposure: One is the burglar from the illustration, and the other is a copy of the sleeping man, now dressed as the cop. He gathers up his hat and gun while the transparent burglar beckons to him from the fireplace. The burglar disappears, and the policeman pulls back a curtain, revealing an opening to the outside. In the next shot, he pursues the burglar through what looks like a thick forest, but might be simply his backyard (a fence is visible in the lower left of the screen). He fires his gun and waves his nightstick. The next shot shows us a lake, with the two figures running towards it from the opposite side. They leap in and swim towards the camera, fully clothed. About halfway, the burglar again becomes transparent through double exposure, and appears to walk on his hands across the surface of the water. He does some cartwheels to tease the cop, who is still struggling along through the water. Finally, he vanishes and appears on a bridge.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes1 Read the rest of this entry »

The Child of Paris (1913)

Alternate Title: L’enfant de Paris

This feature film from Gaumont Studios came out while Louis Feuillade was in the midst of his brilliant serial Fantômas, but comes from a very different director, Léonce Perret, who also gave us “Les mystere des roches de Kador” in the previous year. In style and plot, this is a much more lyrical storyline than the anarchic crime serials Feuillade was working on at the time, but it bears some similarity to earlier work he did at Gaumont.

child-of-parisThe movie begins by introducing the major characters in close-up, some with clips we will see later in the film. There is a surprising number of them, and it’s unlikely that many will stand out as we wait a half hour or more for them to be introduced, although the fact that the only female character introduced is a small child (played by Suzanne Privat) is noticeable. As the story begins, that child is happily ensconced in a loving middle-class home, with a father, a mother, an uncle and an affectionate nanny. Then, the father, a captain in the army (Émile Keppens), is summoned to duty in one of the Moroccan Crises, leaving the care of his wife and child in the hands of his brother. There are some very stagey battle scenes, but for the most part we find out about his exploits through a series of telegrams sent back home, where the child continues to play happily and eagerly runs up every time there is news of daddy.

Moroccans Attack

Moroccans Attack

Eventually, of course, the dreaded telegram comes informing them that the father has been killed in action, and that his body has not been recovered. The mother, who had moments before been frolicking with the daughter and a large ball, suddenly collapses with grief. Despite various concoctions prescribed to her by a “psychiatrist” (including morphine and ether!), she also dies. Now the child is an orphan, though her uncle does his best to console her. Then he, too, is called up, and has no choice but to instruct the nanny to deposit the child in a boarding school. She is miserable there: the other students pick on her and make her a “scapegoat” for their bad behavior, and the teachers are cruel and unsympathetic. Naturally, she runs away one night when everyone is asleep.

Excluded.

Excluded.

Now she is alone and defenseless on the streets of Paris. Perhaps she is looking for her home, but she has no idea how to get there. After hours of wandering the streets, she collapses from exhaustion, exposed to the elements on a street corner. She is found by an unseemly fellow known as “The Graduate” (Louis Leubas), who proceeds to take her rings and an identifying necklace while she sleeps. He is about to leave with his booty, when he seems to have second thoughts. He picks up the girl and takes her to a drunken cobbler (Marc Gérard), who takes her in and puts her to bed in a small loft-space or cupboard with no real mattress. She has to share this space with Bosco (Maurice Legranée), the hunchbacked assistant to the cobbler, who has soft, effeminate features and seems to fall in love with the little girl as soon as he sees her. The cobbler is cruel to her and refuses to give her bread if she doesn’t work hard enough, but Bosco waits until he passes out drunk and sneaks food in to her.

The nanny has not been idle. She goes to the police and initiates a search for the missing child, blaming the school for her disappearance, but the police can do nothing. Now she gets a sudden telegram from the father – he’s alive after all! We see newspaper stories telling us that he was assisted by a “sympathetic Moroccan woman” and hidden until he could return to France. He has heard about his wife’s death, but looks forward to seeing his daughter again. There is a triumphal ticker-tape parade for his return, during which he learns the truth. He seems completely deflated. Why did he bother to live, if everything was to be taken from him?

child-of-paris4Now the Graduate figures out that he’s on to something. He recognizes the officer’s name from the identification medal he pawned, and writes out a ransom note to the captain and arranges to meet him with a gang of “associates” on hand. Although the captain does bring a pistol (he’s no fool), he is forced to write a check for 50,000 francs. The Graduate takes this money and goes to the cobbler, offering him 100 francs to get the child back. The cobbler is thrilled – think of all the wine he can buy with 100 francs! – and willingly surrenders the child. Bosco is suspicious, sure that the Graduate is up to no good, and so he follows them, then reports the location of the meeting to the police.

The father and child are thrilled to see one another, but the Graduate isn’t willing to end his little game. He now demands an additional 50,000 francs. The father reluctantly begins to write the check, but suddenly the gang clobbers him and ties him up. Now the police rush in and begin making arrests. They find the father and release him from his bonds, but the Graduate has snuck off with the child.

child-of-paris5Familiar with the ineffectiveness of the police, Bosco writes a note to the father informing him that he will conduct his own investigation. He trails the Graduate to a train bound for Nice and sees him take a cab from the station. Then, alone and penniless in a strange city, he finds a place to sleep under a tree in a park. The next day he awakens dirty and hungry. While he ponders his next move, a rich woman gives him a coin. He runs after her to return it, protesting that he is not a beggar. The woman is so charmed that she takes out a 100-franc note and forces it on him. This is enough money for Bosco to get cleaned up, buy new clothes, rent a hotel room, have a sumptuous breakfast and send a telegram to the father, letting him know where he is and what he has found.

Now he finds the cabby he saw drive off with the Graduate and pays him to take him to the villa where the child is hidden. He sneaks in and breaks down the locked door to her room, then spirits her back to the hotel without being detected. He sends word to the police as to the Graduate’s whereabouts, and they catch him climbing over the wall of the villa, following Bosco’s trail of broken branches. The daughter is returned to her home and the captain adopts Bosco as a reward for reuniting his family.

Middle-class comfort.

Middle-class comfort.

I found this a very interesting and charming film. It was also surprisingly long for 1913. Most of the movies I’ve seen from before 1915 are an hour or less, a few just a bit longer. This one clocked in at over two hours. That could be partly due to the decision to run it at 16 frames per second, “standard silent speed” for this video release (see my article on frame rates for more detail). Even running it at 18fps would have reduced the run time by 12.5% or about fifteen minutes. I can’t say that anything looked painfully slow, although the action scenes in Morocco and occasionally a horse running seemed a bit slower than “normal.”

This movie also has a surprising amount of opening credits for 1913. I suspect that these have been added by Kino or Gaumont for this 2009 release, and were not included in the original print. Giving any credits was unusual at the time, but these give not only a lengthy list of actors and the director, but also the screenplay, art direction, and cinematographer. The reason this matters is that the list of actors here differs from what is given on imdb. Here, actor René Navarre (known for “Fantômas”) is billed as “Chief of Police.” He does not appear as one of the actors shown in close-up, however, and I wasn’t sure I spotted him. He could have been the fellow who informed the nanny that the police were giving up the search, but that’s a pretty minor role. Imdb doesn’t list him at all for the movie, so it could be a mistake, although I would regard Kino as more authoritative than imdb. Imdb also fails to list the cinematographer.

The narrative struck me as somewhat unconventional. At first, I thought I was seeing a domestic drama, with a focus on the relationships among the adults, then it shifted to kind of a “Little Princess” storyline, and then suddenly the focus was on the Paris underworld. As we moved through these stories, the “star” of the show changed too: at first it seemed to be the captain, then the child, and finally Bosco. I actually somewhat enjoyed the way the protagonist changed during the course of the film, making it feel like we got the chance to meet new characters and get to know them as the story progressed. The one part of the narrative that didn’t work for me was the Graduate’s taking the child to Nice and locking her in a villa. What was his motivation for doing this? The only way he could make money by kidnapping her was to sell her back to the father, who was in Paris. Keeping her just meant added expenses and risk for him, with no clear benefit, and hauling her off to another city served no apparent purpose.

The squlaor of poverty

The squalor of poverty

Now, although I’ve complained about the Nice sequence in terms of the Graduate’s motivations, it does allow Perret to make some interesting observations about class in French society. When Bosco takes his 100 franc note to a café and asks for service, the waiter chases him off because of his dirty clothes, ignoring the money. Bosco has to buy a new suit before he can get service. He also makes a big deal out of the soft hotel bed – which is unlike any he’s ever slept on, and there seems to be a moment when he reflects sadly that the child had been used to such luxury before she fell into the Graduate’s hands (I could be reading that in myself, no title card cues us as to what he is thinking). In a way, much of this movie is about the tragedy of a child losing her middle class comforts, and about how the basic decency of Bosco allows him to move from poverty toward a more “normal” middle class existence. For that reason, I think the sequence in Nice was important to the narrative, I just don’t think it was set up properly.

There’s an interesting bit in a newspaper clipping during the father’s military service about how the Moroccans have “advisors” with “strong German accents. This reflects the tensions between Germany and France even in the years before World War I, and the fact that they were already in undeclared/indirect conflict repeatedly during the final years.

Great lighting

Great lighting

Most of the movie is edited in sequence, with each scene playing out before moving on to the next one, although there is some cross-cutting in the sequences when Bosco follows the Graduate and calls in the police. The real strength of the movie, however, is the photography by Georges Specht. There are a number of interesting backlit scenes, as well as some shots which are much darker than we usually see in movies from the time, including the “dark” themed crime movies of Louis Feuillade. The use of mise-en-scene establishes the contrast between the comfortable and opulent home of the family, and the squalid conditions of the cobbler and his underworld associates. I found it to be a technical as well as a narrative success.

Director: Léonce Perret

Camera: Georges Specht

Starring: Suzanne Privat, Émile Keppens, Louis Leubas, Marc Gérard, Maurice Lagrenée, possibly René Navarre

Run Time: 2 hrs, 4 Min

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

The Making of Broncho Billy (1913)

As promised, I’ll be taking care of the reviews of the movies of Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson that I binge-viewed for my “Broncho Billy Marathon” post. This piece, put out by his Essanay Studio at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of competition, is a fairly uncomplicated but fun little example of what people thought of the Old West at the time.

Making of Broncho BillyAs I mentioned in the previous discussion, the movie serves as a kind of “origin story” for Broncho Billy, although of course there had been many movies made before it. Anderson shows up in a Western town wearing Eastern clothes (he looks sort of like a young D.W. Griffith) and is mercilessly mocked by the local cowhands. When he shows up in the lobby of his hotel, one of the roughnecks shoots at the floor to make him dance. He wanders over to a gambling table, but declines to gamble, to the amusement and annoyance of the other patrons. In the bar, he turns down whiskey and asks for something lighter (a beer, maybe), and the bartender has to brush the dust off the bottle, it is so rarely ordered. One of the cowpokes comes to razz him about it, and Billy gets ready to hit him with the bottle, but the bully quickdraws and shatters it. Now Billy learns that he must learn to shoot to gain their respect.

Making of Broncho Billy1

Please don’t shoot the cinematographer.

Billy goes out and finds someone willing to sell him a gun (no waiting period or background check necessary). Next, we see him attempt shooting a bottle in his Eastern garb, but he doesn’t seem to know to point the gun down at it. In the next scene, wearing Stetson hat and cowboy shirt, he sets up several bottles in front of the camera and hits them all. Then he shoots holes in the middle of playing cards. Now, he’s a real Western man, and he can go back to the bar. There, he meets the fellow who gave him trouble before. They both go for their guns, and Billy shoots the gun from his opponent’s hand. Now he gets on his horse and rides to the sheriff for protection as an angry mob comes after him. The sheriff puts him in a cell, bolts the door, and gets his shotgun out when the mob arrives, and they batter down the door. The surviving bully, whose hand has been treated by the town doc, now races to the scene, where he announces that he just wants to shake Billy’s hand. Everything is resolved happily, and he is accepted in the town.

Making of Broncho Billy2The scene that really surprised me here is where Billy’s target practice involves him shooting right at the camera to take out the bottles and cards. Although, of course, it is easy enough to arrange for an effect that makes that appear to be the case, often in earlier movies people really did fire bullets in gun scenes. At least according to Hollywood legend, Howard Hawks was still doing this as late as 1932 for “Scarface.” Presumably, they figured out some safer way to do that for the camera operator. I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on with the gambling scene – the croupier seems to greet him and hope he’ll join in, but the gamblers mostly look annoyed. Also, my own reaction to Anderson’s being willing to fight hand to hand was that it seemed more courageous than the gunfight his opponent insisted upon, but I suppose Anderson is trying to establish a cultural expectation of the Old West here. Overall, this is rather light family fare, the sort of thing that Anderson would mostly be remembered for, despite the somewhat darker portrayals in years to come.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Harry Todd, Roland Totheroh

Run Time: 9 Min

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

A Muddy Romance (1913)

Muddy Romance4

One off the most famous Keystone romps includes Mabel Normand and Ford Sterling, a whole bunch of Keystone Cops, and a curiously muddy dry lake. This may not be high art, but it brought butts into seats at the Nickelodeons, and remains a great example of the comedy factory’s style and initiative.

Muddy RomanceThe movie begins with Ford and Mabel as next door neighbors with a friendly flirtation going on. All seems well until rival Charles Inslee shows up and charms, first, Mabel’s mother (Minta Durfee) and then Mabel herself. Inslee gets the better of Sterling, first by pouring milk over him and then tricking him into hitting Mabel in the face with a pie. Now, the couple take up arms (er, bricks, anyway), and begin pelting Ford wildly. Sterling puts on a brave defense, but ultimately he’s overwhelmed by their superior numbers and runs back into his house. Mabel and Charles hijack a passing preacher so they can elope, but Sterling pursues them and fires a gun at the rowboat they take out onto the lake to escape him. Unable to hit at that range, Ford comes up with another plan – he’ll turn the convenient crank that drains the lake! He does, and suddenly the rowboat, plus a boat full of Keystone Cops who had heard the shooting and were coming to arrest him, are stuck in the mud. Now someone calls in a squad of “water police” (more Keystone Cops), who are able to drag the stranded unfortunates back to land by use of a javelin-throwing cannon. Sterling is discovered by the parks attendant and dragged away from the crank before he can cause any more mischief. That’s where the “Slapstick Encyclopedia” version ends, but rumor has it an alternate ending exists with Sterling committing comic suicide.

Muddy Romance1The “story” behind this production is that Mack Sennett found out that the lake in Echo Park was due to be drained, and piled a cast and crew into cars to run down there without any kind of script, but with plenty of cop costumes on hand. It’s used as an example both of the lack of planning and arbitrariness of filmmaking at Keystone Studios, but also of the genius Sennett had for improvising with whatever was at hand and saving money by shooting around real-world events. See “Kid Auto Races” and “The Gusher” for similar examples. However you see it, it is both fun and unpredictably goofy, but probably not to everyone’s taste.

Muddy Romance2The same can probably be said about the comedic star/villain, Ford Sterling. According to Charlie Chaplin, when he first arrived on the set at Keystone, he was struck by the fact that all through shooting, Ford Sterling would keep the cast and crew in stitches with a running dialogue in his fake Dutch accent. What was the point, when the audience would never hear it? This is a movie where you can sort of see that happening. Sterling’s lips are in constant motion, and he seems to be rolling his r’s and otherwise being funny with his speech, although I’m no lip reader, so I won’t claim to know for sure. He doesn’t forget the movie audience, though. When he needs to communicate what he’s saying, he pantomimes with his hands or makes appropriate facial expressions so that you can follow his meaning. I suspect that he kept his line of jokes going because he felt it lightened the atmosphere on set (making a movie can be a lot of hard work, especially when so little is planned in advance) and in the hopes of inspiring his fellow comedians to “think funny.” It’s shame we can’t hear them, though, because I bet he’s as funny with his voice as without it.

Muddy Romance3Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Ford Sterling, Charles Inslee, Minta Durfee, Mack Swain

Run Time: 11 Min

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

Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life (1913)

Barney Oldfields Race for Life3

One of the thinnest plotlines in history seems to have introduced one of the most lasting impressions about silent film. This Keystone short has been cited time and again to support a premise that drives silent movie fans up the wall.

Barney Oldfields Race for LifeThis movie begins with Mack Sennett in the same bumpkin costume that he later used in “Mabel’s Dramatic Career.” He gives Mabel Normand a flower and they shyly smooch under a tree. This all seems to make villainous Ford Sterling inexplicably mad, and as soon as he can get Mabel alone, he tries to steal a kiss, which is rebuffed. He only gets angrier, and calls in his two goons to grab Mabel and drag her off to the railroad tracks, where they find chain and fasten her to the tracks with a railroad spike. Then, they take the convenient handcar to the nearest station and commandeer an engine (apparently just waiting for a train to do the job for them wasn’t good enough).

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Barney: No actor, but boy can he drive!

Ford gets angry with one of his associates when he asks to be paid and knocks him out. When the goon wakes up, he tells the railroad workers what’s going on and they inform Mack. Then, world-renowned racecar driver Barney Oldfield drives up and Mack informs him of Mabel’s peril. And the race is on! The car and the train speed toward the same location, but Oldfield’s expert driving assures the Mack will be able to rescue the damsel just in time. Meanwhile, a group of five policemen have taken the handcar to try to apprehend Sterling. Sterling, foiled by his inability to kill Mabel, takes out his gun and shoots all five. He tries to kill himself, but he’s out of bullets, so resorts to strangling himself to death (!).

Barney Oldfields Race for Life1This movie is a patently thin veneer hung over a thrilling chase and a lot of silly satire. Ford Sterling takes his mustache-twirling villain role to unheard-of extremes, climaxing with his own bizarre suicide when thwarted. When he so easily kills the five policemen, the question is immediately raised why he didn’t just shoot Mabel in the first place when she refused him a kiss, but that wouldn’t make for a thrilling movie, just a psychotic act of violence. Trying to crush her with a steam engine is clearly more cinematic. The chase itself includes some impressive photography for 1913, including tracking shots from the hand car, the engine, and the car, as well as from other vehicles just in front of or beside them. The shot where Sennett pulls Mabel off the tracks just in the nick of time appears to have been a double-exposure, and on the print I’ve seen it looks very dark and high-contrast, suggesting that the cinematographers couldn’t manage it with the finesse of Georges Méliès. Oldfield seems to have no interest in even trying to act, his only job is to drive a fast car, and he does that fine, letting Sennett do all the emoting. I suppose the five guys who get shot are technically “Keystone Cops” (they’re men in police uniforms in a Keystone movie), but they don’t do any of the characteristic antics one associates with that name.

Barney Oldfields Race for Life2Although Fritzi at Movies Silently has already covered this in detail, I need to say a few words about the girl-tied-to-the-railroad-tracks thing. Yes, this is a silent movie in which it did happen. No, it wasn’t all that common of a theme. Apparently, it was a trope in Victorian Theater, because you could build suspense by having off-stage train whistles without having to actually show a train. Whatever the case, this example is clearly satire – the situation is outrageous on purpose and being played up as ridiculous, as Sterling’s performance emphasizes. It wasn’t something silent audiences wanted or thought of as serious drama. I found it sort of a disappointing role for Mabel Normand (after all I said about her NOT being a “damsel”), she sort of sits there and weeps instead of taking charge of the situation, but it was hardly representative of her career, either. I’d say this movie doesn’t hold up that well, and isn’t even of great historical interest, inasmuch as it seems to lead people to false conclusions.

Wikipedia calls this a "screen shot" from the movie. I think it's actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Wikipedia calls this a “screen shot” from the movie. I think it’s actually a publicity still, judging by the posed look of the actors.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Lee Bartholomew and Walter Wright

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Ford Sterling, Barney Oldfield, Al St. John, Hank Mann

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Mabel’s Dramatic Career (1913)

Mack Sennett combines several older comedic tropes in this film to produce a rollicking, and, I would say, unusually sophisticated comedy short for Keystone.

Mabels Dramatic Career1Mack himself plays the bumpkin star of the movie. He is in love with the maid (Mabel Normand) his mother (Alice Davenport) has hired as help in their rural homestead, and he gives her a ring. Mother does not approve, and lets him know when she catches them together, and she chases Mabel off to her work in the kitchen. Then, a classy “girl from the city” (Virginia Kirtley) comes to visit (it’s never clear what relationship she has to the family, or why she’s staying with them). Mack suddenly shows more interest in her, to mother’s approval and Mabel’s horror. Mack asks for his ring back and Mabel takes out her anger on the interloper, resulting in her being fired. She heads for the city, to begin her life anew. Once that’s all settled, Mack asks the girl from the city for her hand, and she laughs at him. He looks longingly at a picture of Mabel, finally aware of what he’s lost.

Mabels Dramatic Career2In the city, Mabel happens upon a “Kinome-tograph” studio, where Ford Sterling is strangling a girl on a bed for the camera. Mabel tries to get a job. The producer and director don’t think much of her pantomime skills, but Ford seems interested. He convinces them to hire her. Now, an intertitle tells us that some years have passed, and Mack’s bumpkin character is paying a visit to the city. He passes by a Nickelodeon, and sees Mabel’s picture on a poster. He decides to pay a nickel and go inside. He watches the movie, and becomes increasingly excited when Mabel appears on the screen! The man sitting next to him (Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), tries to calm him down, but he doesn’t quite seem to understand the difference between film and reality. This becomes critical when Ford Sterling, in the role of a bad guy, threatens Mabel and does begins to strangle her. Mack pull out his gun and starts shooting at the screen, dispersing the audience, as well as the projectionist and piano player.

Mabels Dramatic Career3Now, Mack is out for revenge: “That villain must die.” He goes in search of the man he saw on the screen, and happens to peek in a window and find his apartment. But, there are three small children there! Then, Mabel comes out and kisses Ford. Evidently they are married and happy together. Mack, unsure what to do, points his gun anyway, but an upstairs neighbor prevents tragedy by dumping out the dirty dishwater on his head.

Mabels Dramatic Career4I love any movie from this period that shows us the interior of a Nickelodeon. This one has a lot in common, visually, with “Those Awful Hats,” which Mack Sennett appeared in for Biograph a few years earlier. But, the bumpkin-in-a-theater trope goes back further, to Edison films from the early twentieth century. By 1902, we had “Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show,” in which a yokel from the sticks confuses images on the screen with reality, and that is what Sennett is playing on here, only with a much more complex storyline and better characterization. It also resembles the 1913 film by  Louis FeuilladeTragic Error,” only with the tragedy averted. This Nickelodeon includes a projector’s booth, a relatively new innovation at the time (often required to be fireproof by newer fire codes that were trying to prevent deadly nitrate fires), and a female pianist at the front of the house. I thought it was also interesting that Mabel first signs up for a “Kinome-tograph” job, suggesting that the first part of the movie takes place before the Nickelodeon era.

Mabels Dramatic CareerThis movie actually makes better use of close-ups than most Keystones of the next couple of years, making me wonder if Sennett was trying for a more upscale production. Arbuckle is sort of wasted here, just playing off Sennett’s outrageous behavior, but you can already see his potential (he would be paired with Mabel many times in the future), and Sterling is surprisingly understated, especially in the final scene with Mabel. During the hiring sequence, we got the impression that his intentions were less than noble, but I was surprised that Sterling and Mabel are shown married with children as well – rarely do slapstick comedies allow their characters to progress in a relationship. I did feel that the first part of the movie dragged a bit, in comparison to the sequence in the city, but it sets the stage and gives us a chance to know the characters, which is part of what makes the second part work. This is one of my favorite Sennett-directed pictures so far.

Mabel's_Dramatic_Career_1913Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: unknown

Cast: Mabel Normand, Mack Sennett, Virginia Kirtley, Alice Davenport, Ford Sterling, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Granddad (1913)

This is one more movie made by Thomas H. Ince during the years that saw the fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War, and once again, I find comparisons to D.W. Griffith are hard to avoid. In this case, however, although the movie includes some Civil War battle footage, it is in essence a social examination more akin to “The House of Darkness” or “A Corner in Wheat” than to “Birth of a Nation.” Even here, I find Ince’s subtlety and humanity to be superior in some ways to Griffith’s approach, although it may be the case that Griffith was the more technically adept.

Granddad1Our story begins here with a little girl (Mildred Harris) who lives with her old grandfather (J. Barney Sherry). Their mutual love for one another is obvious, although the old man does like a nip from his bottle now and again. One day, they receive a letter from her father (Frank Borzage) telling them that he’s bringing home a new “mother” for Mildred and tells granddad to hide the bottle, because she’s a church woman. Mildred thinks of a good hiding place and granddad goes out to the bar to celebrate. When he comes home to meet his new daughter-in-law, she immediately smells it on his breath and shows that she does NOT approve. Eventually, she finds the bottle and confers with her blue-nosed friends, who assure her that such a man should not be allowed to influence a young girl. So, she confronts the old man and warns him to leave, despite her husband’s protests of the debt he owes his father. Granddad sneaks out during the night, leaving a note to assure Mildred he’ll find work on a farm and not to worry about him.

GranddadAll does not go well, however, and granddad ends up in a work house, although he keeps sending letters home talking about the fresh air and good food of farm life. One day, Mildred’s step mom sends her out with a group of social reformers to visit the poor house. Of course, she recognizes one of the laborers as her grandfather. They exchange very affectionate greetings and she goes back to tell her parents what has happened. Meanwhile, a mysterious retired Confederate Colonel (William Desmond Taylor) has shown up in town, looking for “Jabez Burr,” the Union man who saved his life. That’s granddad, of course, and the Colonel proceeds to give us a thrilling flashback of his battle experiences and encounter with the Yankee who saved his life. Mildred’s father is finally shamed into bringing his father home, but it’s too late, the harsh life of the poorhouse has made him ill. He dies and a final epilogue assures us he was buried with military honors and his minor faults forgotten.

More Ince-ian combat.

More Ince-ian combat.

Whereas Griffith would have told this story by making each character iconic, and the entire situation would have had a heavy-handed message (probably unnecessarily enunciated in beginning and closing Intertitles), the Ince approach is far more individual and subtle. Although he relies on much the same kind of female busy-body as an antagonist, one never gets the idea that he has created a caricature. The mother acts out of what she thinks are the best interests of the family, she simply doesn’t understand the consequences of her act, nor look far enough to see the complex and decent person she is choosing to label a harmful drunk. Each of the characters, except perhaps the Colonel, is sketched out with enough detail for us to see them as individuals, rather than representatives of some segment of society.

Granddad2That said, I find some aspects of Ince’s directing (or possibly Jay Hunt’s – I couldn’t verify which of them actually directed here) and producing not quite up to snuff. For one thing, characters frequently go out of their way to E-NUN-CI-ATE so that we can (hopefully) lip-read their words. I find that slows down the pace and makes the acting look silly, as when Mildred says “I KNOW. THE CLOCK,” to make sure we know her hiding place for the whiskey. Speaking of Mildred, I fear that Ince, or someone at the company, was trying a little too hard to make her into the new Mary Pickford (like they needed a new one). She’s got a short version of Mary’s wig, she’s made up like Mary, and at times she seems to be quite consciously imitating Mary’s mannerisms. But, sorry to say, she’s not Mary. I found this a bit distracting, where I think I would have enjoyed a more natural performance from her. In general, I find Ince’s movies a little slow, even for a century ago. He edits and cross-cuts well enough, but he tends to hold shots longer than Griffith or some of his contemporaries, and scenes play out longer than they need to. Nevertheless, I did find this movie, as well as the others I’ve looked at recently, to be emotionally affecting and well written. Where Griffith seems to have worked out a lot of his problems in the editing room, Ince may have been the better scenarist and planner, and that makes the movies memorable and interesting.

Director: Thomas H. Ince or Jay Hunt

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mildred Harris, J. Barney Sherry, Frank Borzage, William Desmond Taylor

Run Time: 29 Min

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

The Drummer of the 8th (1913)

Drummer of the 8th2This is another Civil War drama made during the 50th anniversary of that conflict, but pre-dates “The Birth of a Nation” by almost two years. Director Thomas Ince, working for the New York Motion Picture Company at the time, chose a decidedly “dark” message for this movie, in contrast to the usually uplifting tone of war movies at the time.

Drummer of the 8thTo be sure, it opens conventionally enough, showing how the advent of the war disrupts a seemingly idyllic family unit (Northern, in this case, but the sides could be changed with no particular impact on the story). In addition to the usual tearful farewell, when the eldest son Jack marches off with his infantry unit, however, we also get a secret night-time departure when the younger son Billy (played by diminutive Cyril Gardner, who was fourteen at the time, but looks younger) sneaks off to enlist as a drummer boy. The two young men serve for the next two years, separated by the circumstances of war. When Jack is due to return home, he writes of his inability to locate Billy. We then follow Billy as he bravely grabs a fallen man’s rifle during a battle, is captured and taken to a prisoner of war camp, the escapes, being wounded in the shoulder on his way out. Billy hides in the Confederate headquarters tent, and is able to overhear the plans for an attack. Of course, he rushes back to his unit (again being wounded in the leg along the way) and gives his report. Unfortunately, all the blood he left in his hiding place gives him away, so the Confederates change their plan and his intelligence causes the Union to lose the battle. Before that, he wrote home that he would be returning with honors and asked that his favorite meal be prepared for his return. His sister and brother go to meet the train, and are confused why there is no sign of him. We then see Union pallbearers unload a small coffin and bear it to the home. They knock, and Billy’s mother comes out to be confronted by the body of her long lost son.

Drummer of the 8th1Ince was pretty daring to put out such a dark storyline in 1913, and it’s lucky that this film has survived, because it makes such a stark contrast with the movies of D. W. Griffith and others who used the Civil War as a springboard for their ideas. It has a structural similarity to the Ince-produced feature, “The Coward,” but in that story the fearful character is redeemed by delivering covertly gained information, while in this version a brave lad is killed because of doing exactly the same thing. There are several short battle scenes in this movie, most of which rely on fairly close-angle shots to give a sense of a larger battlefield, but I found them effective if not spectacular. A similar tactic give the impression of a crowded railroad station at the end with relatively few extras. Ince makes good use of close-ups in a few places, especially to show us Billy in hiding and wounded (the clarity of the blood on his shirt is a striking contrast to the way such things would be handled in later “classic era” movies). The intercutting of the two boys’ stories, and that of the family on the homefront, is less magisterial – at times it is difficult to understand what Ince wants us to focus on – but no less innovative.

Director: Thomas H. Ince

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Cyril Gardner, Mildred Harris, Frank Borzage

Run Time: 28 Min

I found two edited versions of it online: here (cut to one reel) and here (more complete, but without the original intertitles).

The Murderous Corpse (1913)

Murderous CorpseHere at the end of October, I’ve chosen to return to the series I started out with to close out this year’s discussion of the history of horror film. While Fantômas may not meet a strict definition of “horror movie,” the crime serial undeniably influenced the imagery and methods of later horror directors, and titles like “The Murderous Corpse” certainly evoke the conventions of the later genre.

Murderous Corpse1The movie begins by catching us up on the series, telling us that Fantômas (played by René Navarre) destroyed the villa in which he had been hiding, hoping to kill those who were pursuing him, but, of course, the heroic Fandor (Georges Melchior) escaped with minor injuries, from which he recovers in the hospital. Juve (Edmund Breon) is missing and presumed dead. We see a criminal gang at work smuggling, and then Fantômas murders a baroness, cleverly framing the artist Dollon (André Luguet) for the crime. Dollon is mysteriously murdered in prison, but not before the police make a big production of taking his fingerprints and other physical data. Fantômas, with the help of a bribed guard, then removes the body from the prison. This makes it all the more baffling when the dead man’s fingerprints are found at other crime sites! In Juve’s absence, Fandor continues to investigate on his own, while a mysterious lowlife named Cranajour seems to take an odd interest in him, all the while working with the gang of Mother Toulouche, who is clearly in cahoots with Fantômas somehow. Meanwhile (everything in a Fantômas movie is happening “meanwhile”), the banker Nantauil shows up at an important society dance and creeps around the house until he is alone with the hostess, princess Davidoff (Jean Faber), knocking her out with chloroform and stealing her valuable pearl necklace – Nantauil is just another disguise of the master of crime, Fantômas! Naturally, he leaves one of Dollon’s fingerprints on the lady’s neck as a clue, leading to the first indication that a dead man is now a criminal mastermind. Renée Carl, as Lady Beltham, again appears, seeking an audience with the banker Nantauil, and is instructed to transport two pearls and the necklace, using them to attempt to get a ransom from Thomery (Luitz-Morat), the princess’s fiancée. This turns out to be another ruse, allowing Fantômas to murder Thomery, leaving behind another false fingerprint. Meanwhile (once again), Elizabeth, the sister of the dead man (Fabienne Fabrèges) has found a note which appears to outline Fantômas’s insidious plan, and of course she’s being stalked for it. Will Fandor save her? Will inspector Juve be found? Will we learn the secret of Cranajour? Will the police ever figure out how Fantômas has set up the corpse of Dollon?

Murderous Corpse2Well, if you’ve made it this far, you probably know that the answers to all of those questions is, “yes.” trick of making gloves from a dead man’s hands is probably one of the more believable ones Fantômas uses in the series. Cranajour is, of course, Juve in disguise, and for once he actually does look pretty different under the makeup. Fantômas and his gang are able to kill several people and steal a necklace, but overall their operations are curtailed by the good guys, while still allowing him to escape and continue the series another day. This episode is quite long, as long as a standard feature film is today, which is quite a change from the shorter episodes I’ve been seeing from “Les Vampires” lately. It isn’t as laden with iconic imagery, I’ll grant you that, and the absence of Juve seems to leave it without a center to a large degree. Whose story is this? Sometimes it is Fandor’s, sometimes Elizabeth’s, but for the most part is belongs to Fantômas. The camerawork is fairly static in this one, though with somewhat more interesting angles than we see in American studio work of the time. The sets are beautifully decorated and again I find the exteriors exquisite (this may just be because Paris was so attractive in the early twentieth century). I have grown rather fond of the music that Gaumont chose to use from a library as the background score, although I said at first that it was sometimes overwhelming; it is distinctive and playful. The editing is unimaginative and there is a heavy reliance on intertitles and especially close-ups on written documents to keep the audience informed as to what’s going on. Despite some of this clumsiness or seeming-clumsiness, it’s still a fun movie, and I do like Fandor better than his dull counterpart in “Les Vampires.”

Murderous Corpse3That’s all for this year’s Halloween special! Next week, I’ll be back to normal, trying to make up for lost time as we get into Century Awards Season for 1915!

Alternate Titles: Le Mort Qui Tue, Fantômas III: Le Mort Qui Tue, The Dead Man Who Killed.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Georges Guérin

Cast: René Navarre, Georges Melchior, Edmund Breon, Renée Carl, André Luguet, Jean Faber, Luitz-Morat, Fabienne Fabrèges.

Run Time: 90 Min.

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

Fantomas Index

Fantomas_1916I have created this page to act as a listing for all reviews of the Fantômas serial.