Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1917

The Fantastic Dog Pack (1917)

Alternate Title: La Meute Fantastique

This episode of “Judex” is longer than the previous one, but to me it seems like less actually happens. We do get the pay-off of the cliff-hanger from the last story, and also several new entanglements are established, but the story overall feels a bit off-track to me here.

As the story begins, Musidora and her criminal companion Morales (Jean Devalde) bring the chloroformed Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to a villa where they keep her unconscious while they await payment. This soon comes in the form of Cesar de Birargues, the overly-amorous employer who contracted with the pair to kidnap her in “The Mysterious Shadow.” But when he offers his payment, Morales demands an additional 10,000 francs hazard pay. Cesar goes home depressed and confesses what he has done to his sister and father; the father tells him to go to their country home while he takes care of the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Judex Index

This page acts as an index to the various episodes of “Judex.”

The Atonement (1917)

In this third chapter of the “Judex” serial, things finally start moving, as the villains put their plans into action, an important cameo is seen, and the hero discovers that he actually has a mystery to unravel. Great tinting and moody lighting and makeup add to the effectiveness of the film.

This chapter begins by establishing the revived banker, Favraux (Louis Leubas), as the captive of Judex (René Cresté) in his underground lair. The mirror in his cell follows him as he moves, and we learn that Judex and his brother can observe the prisoner through a hidden camera. When Favraux tries to disable it by putting his towel over the mirror, the towel bursts into flame! Judex uses a “flame device” to transmit a message to him: he has been spared from his death sentence by his daughter’s acts of decency, but now he faces lifetime imprisonment for his crimes. Meanwhile, that daughter’s estranged son Le Petite Jean (Olinda Mano) is plotting how he can see her. He sneaks out of his bedroom and onto the back of a truck covered in cabbages. The truck drives to a shop to sell its wares, but before the driver can begin to unload it, Bout-de-Zan sneaks up to steal a cabbage, inadvertently finding the stowaway and quickly referencing the first big hit of Louis Feuillade’s mentor, Alice Guy. He and Jean sneak away before being caught, and Jean shows him the letter from his mother, and Bout-de-Zan agrees to help him get to her. The two kids sneak onto the back of a fancy car bound for the right neighborhood, and manage to hang on without attracting attention all the way there!

Meanwhile, Musidora has gotten to Jean’s mother (Yvette Andréyor) first. Although Yvette is under an assumed name, she advertised her services in the papers and Musidora has come in answer to that ad. Even though she should know better than to accept employment with a governess she previously discharged, Yvette gets into the car with her and her accomplice who, we remember, are still hoping to get the money that Yvette has donated to charity. They quickly capture her. But, Jean has arrived at the apartment, and is taken in by the maid, who shoos Bout-de-Zan away as an undesirable. Jean is sympathetic with the two pigeons who are caged in the apartment, and, when his mother does not come home promptly, he releases them. This was exactly the right thing to do, fortunately, because these are homing pigeons that return to Judex and inform him that all is not as it should be. He investigates, putting on a great black cape and bring a large mastiff with him. The dog is charmed by Jean, and Judex realizes that Yvette has been detained for some unknown purpose. But how? And how can he find her now? These answers will perhaps be addressed in the next installment.

This episode was short and worked well for me, not least because it ended on a kind of cliff-hanger, where we don’t know how the hero will manage to help the apparently helpless heroine. Bout-de-Zan is also a great treat to watch. He plays off the saccharine innocence of Jean by appearing to be the worldly-wise street kid (who still thinks children are born in the cabbage patch), and his outfit makes me think of a French Huckleberry Finn. When he and Jean are finally run off the car by the chauffeur, he refuses to leave until he’s had a chance to kick the man in the backside! I also really like the way Judex comes across in this movie. Finally, an interesting hero from Feuillade! His underground lair is marvelously shot and the mirror watching the prisoner is still creepy, even in an era where such surveillance is common. He also has a great look going with the hat, the cape, and the dog.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera:André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Louis Leubas, Olinda Mano, Yvette Andréyor, Musidora, René Poyen, Édouard Mathé, Jean Devalde

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Wrong Mr. Fox (1917)

This short is a classic mix-up comedy based on the fact of two very similarly-named towns: Canaan, Vermont, and Canaan, New Hampshire, on the same train line. The thin plot does offer some good opportunities for situational comedy.

An out-of-work actor named Jimmy Fox (Victor Moore) is on the verge of committing suicide by breathing in gas from his light, when he is contacted by his agent and told to go to one of these metropoli in order to join a theater troupe. He boards the train with 3 donuts (one for every 100 miles) and a bottle of milk, stolen from his landlady. At the same time, the reverend John Fox boards the train for the other Canaan, where he is being sent to take over ministerial duties. Of course, they each get off at the wrong station, and, of course, each is mistaken for the other Mr. Fox. Of course, hilarity ensues. The reverend fairly quickly flees his Canaan community (apparently running home to his mother), when an actor in rehearsal pulls out a knife. But our actor figures out his situation fairly quickly and comes up with a plan. He begins his sermon by passing out the collection plates. Then, imitating Billy Sunday, he gives a dramatic series of gestures that cause the congregation to look into the distance while he fills his pockets. Then, he does a kind of strip show, pulling off his jacket, tie, and shirt, finishing with a flourish that makes the crowd look up while he bicycles out the door. However, he’s forgotten that by removing his clothes, he left all the money in his pockets behind.

The now-obscure star of this movie was Victor Moore, who was the principle star of the Jacksonville, Florida-based Klever Komedies studio, a subsidiary of Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company, and therefore part of Paramount. Judging by this film, Moore wasn’t a genius of physical comedy, like Chaplin or Keaton, he seems to be more in the tradition of situational humor like John Bunny or Sidney Drew, with just a hint of Roscoe Arbuckle’s charisma. A lot of this film is shot quite conventionally, but there are some interesting bits. The sequence in which he tries to commit suicide with gas includes several bits where he breathes fire after someone lights a match. There are several dramatic close-ups during his sermon, and I was surprised that his parishioners seem to include at least a few Asian Americans. Honestly, the funniest moment for me didn’t involve Moore at all – I laughed loudest when the preacher runs away from the actor with a knife.

Director:Harry Jackson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victor Moore, William Slade

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

wild_and_woolly

Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

wild-and-woolly

Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

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This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

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Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

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Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

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The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

I have not found this for free on the Internet (please comment if you do). However, it can be rented for download from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.

Oh Doctor (1917)

This comedy directed by and starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle is also an early vehicle for Buster Keaton, who plays his spoiled and immature son. While a bit rough around the edges, there is some good physical and situational comedy here.

oh-doctorThe movie begins with Arbuckle and his family arriving at the racetrack in their car. Arbuckle puts down an anchor when he parks, and abuses Junior every time he tries to speak. Shortly thereafter, the Vamp (Alice Mann) drives up with her beau, Al St. John. Al gets his jacket caught in the door of the cab and is dragged through a mud puddle as a result. Meanwhile, Alice flirts with Arbuckle, who we now learn is a doctor who needs cash. He tricks his wife into letting him sit near the Vamp, and overhears Al getting a “hot tip” on a horse, so he bets all his money on it. Of course, the horse is a dud and runs the wrong way. His wife is very angry at him for losing their money, and they go home while Buster laughs about “the funny horse that ran the wrong way.”

oh-doctor2The Vamp and Al now formulate a plan to get the expensive necklace they saw Arbuckle’s wife wearing. She calls him and says she has swallowed  can of shoe polish, so Arbuckle agrees to make a house call. Along the way, he sees a man selling a “miracle soap” that will prevent all illness. Worried about losing business, Arbuckle sets his car on automatic and sends it plowing through the crowd, then hands out business cards to the injured spectators. He whistles and the car obediently returns like a dog. Then, he finally goes to the Vamp’s apartment, where he fixes martinis for both of them from the supplies in his doctor’s bag.

oh-doctor1Meanwhile, Al has appeared at Arbuckle’s house pretending to be a patient, and is able to steal the necklace from around the wife’s neck without her noticing. Buster sees him getting away, though, and follows him back to the Vamp’s apartment, calling his mother and letting her know what has happened. Now, Al and the Vamp have to get Arbuckle out of the house, so they send him to a bookie with another hot tip. He puts in the bet, but then goes back. There is a series of comedic close-encounters as Al avoids Arbuckle, Arbuckle avoids his wife, and the wife tries to get back her necklace. Then Arbuckle finds a police uniform in the kitchen and puts on a false mustache, using it to intimidate Al and retrieve the necklace. At this point, Buster shows up with several more policemen, and Arbuckle bluffs his way past them by pretending to arrest his wife. Then he tries to collect his winnings from the bookie, but they all run away at the sight of his uniform. He takes his money anyway, but his wife gets the last word.

oh-doctor4Contrary to his “Old Stoney Face” standard of later years, Keaton in this movie emotes with powerful facial expressions, laughing uproariously and bawling at the slightest provocation. The comedy is a bit more “situational” than most of what we associate with Keaton and Arbuckle, but they both get in plenty of pratfalls as well. Keaton, in particular, does an impressive tumble backwards over a table to land comfortably in a chair. I suspect that Arbuckle (who directed) had told him to cry so frequently, thinking that it would be good comedy, but I found that it made the relationship seem more abusive and less funny. Overall, I wouldn’t rate this as the best work either actor has done: I spent a lot of it waiting to see what Keaton or Al St. John would come up with next. The biggest laugh Arbuckle got from me was when he started handing out business cards to the people he had injured.

oh-doctor3This year marks the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton’s entry into film comedy, and this blog post marks my entry into the “Buster Keaton Blogathon,” which has been running now for three years. For the next few years, we’ll be able to track Keaton’s development, as we have with Chaplin over the past few. He definitely showed physical ability and screen presence right from the moment he got started, even if he honed and refined his talent as he gained experience. I’m looking forward to getting to know Buster as this project develops.

Now go  check out the other entries in the Blogathon!

buster-blogathon-the-third-1-copyDirector: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Mann

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Canadian Official War Films (1917)

Comparable to the British documentary, “The Battle of the Somme,” this film shows the conditions of Canadian troops at the front during a critical battle in France. Taken together, these two films demonstrate a new sophistication in documentary technique, and in the appreciation their governments had for the importance of domestic propaganda in wartime.

canadian-official-war-filmsThe film is subtitled “In Action with Our Canadian Troops,” although the information provided by Library & Archives Canada suggests that there is a second part, “Footage on Ypres, 1914-1917,” which I was unable to find separately – I think some of that footage has been edited in to this. The movie begins by showing us some troops on parade with the flag presented by Princess Patricia of Connaught, the daughter of the Governor General of Canada. We see various march-bys. Many of these troops appear sullen or uninterested in the camera, though there are a few smiles and glances. Soon, we get to the main feature of the narrative, which follows the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a three-day battle in northern France which involved four divisions of Canadian troops. There is an animated map which shows the progress of the battle, connecting the footage on screen with events known from the newspapers in the audience’s mind. In fact, it is likely that some of the footage was staged or taken at some time other than April 9-12 (the duration of the battle). We don’t see any real combat, which would probably have been much too dangerous with the cameras of the time, although there are images of artillery firing and explosions far off across the battlefield. A lot of the footage is men walking through waterlogged trenches or marching and/or digging in the mud. The conditions look extremely uncomfortable and probably unhygienic. One pan across a group of men crouching in the cover of some trees shows them all duck suddenly; the Intertitles tell us that shrapnel exploded overhead at that moment. I suspect this was staged, but it does help to establish the sense of imminent danger on the frontlines. The film takes us through the successful advance of the Canadians and “digging in” their new defensive line. We see some of the “trophies” (captured artillery) taken, one of which has a lengthy sign explaining that it has been requested by the unit that took it as a trophy. The movie ends with an apparently unrelated image of a tank rolling through a field, probably on experimental maneuvers.

canadian-official-war-films1There are some interesting differences between this movie and “The Battle of the Somme.” I mentioned above that the troops seemed unexcited about being filmed – in “Battle of the Somme” the men frequently waved to the camera and all seemed very hopeful that they would be seen and recognized. One had the sense that the troops shown here were veterans, inured to the dullness of military service, and more interested in their next meal or rest period than in the camera. However, unlike the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a pretty clear Allied victory, in which the stated objectives were achieved successfully in a few days, rather than a months-long stalemate and meat grinder. We see less of headquarters and officers in general, focusing on foot soldiers and artillerymen at work. We also see no Germans, even as prisoners, and no dead bodies. While this is a somewhat bleak portrayal of the conditions of war, it avoids anything shocking, perhaps due to responses in England to “The Battle of the Somme” the previous year. I found the inclusion of the animated maps very useful in giving an interpretation of the mostly pretty ordinary military footage, and I liked how they cannon fire was shown to flash across the screen as the little triangles and dots representing the armed units advanced.

canadian-official-war-films2There is a tendency to overlook the important contributions of Dominion forces in both the World Wars, reflected by the ease with which people will speak of “England” or “Britain” (or worse, “one tiny island”) as being at war with “Germany.” Soldiers came from nearly all points of the world to participate in the confict, and understandably wanted to be remembered and represented for their sacrifices. This movie at least preserves a part of that heritage for Canada, a country which was involved in the First World War from the outset, and their men had been at the front for almost three years by the time any soldiers from the USA arrived on the scene. This movie helps us a hundred years later to appreciate that the second-largest nation in the world made its own contribution to a struggle that may have centered in Europe, but was truly global in reach and implications.

O Canada Banner

This has been my contribution to the “Oh Canada!” blogathon, being hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. If you liked this post, take the time to check out some of the other entries!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Anonymous Canadian soldiers

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music). Thanks to Library & Archives Canada for making it available to everyone!

Teddy at the Throttle (1917)

Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon are back in another slapstick romantic comedy from Keystone Studios. While it has the signature Keystone zaniness and even ends with an over-the-top chase-and-rescue sequence, this movie is longer and more complicated than the earlier films of that studio.

teddy_at_the_throttleAs the movie begins, Gloria and Bobby are sweetheart neighbors living in a high-class apartment building. Bobby’s money is being “managed” in trust by an older man (Wallace Beery), who actually squanders large sums on himself. Since Bobby is approaching the age of maturity, he’s worried that the shortfall will be noticed, but he comes up with a solution: If his sister (May Emory) can convince Bobby to marry her, they’ll go on controlling the money and Bobby will remain ignorant. Sis likes the idea of marrying an heir and goes to work on vamping Bobby immediately. Gloria doesn’t like this, of course, but Bobby seems to be excited about this sophisticated woman paying attention to him. Eventually, he’s ignoring Gloria and bringing flowers to May. Worse, when May tells him, “put a ring on it,” he immediately goes next door to Gloria, tells her that it’s over, and asks for the ring he gave her back! It doesn’t quite fit May, but she doesn’t complain.

teddy-at-the-throttleNow the plot thickens when Wallace receives a letter informing him that the will stipulates that Bobby loses his fortune if he marries anyone else but Gloria – the money all goes to Gloria in that case. Seems like it would have been easier for the departed to just make Gloria the heiress in the first place, but this is a Keystone comedy, so logic is not a strong point. Anyway, this gives Wallace an idea – he can marry Gloria and that will leave him in charge of the fortune while Bobby and his sister rot in poverty. The problem is that Gloria’s not interested in him, and he keeps dropping the letter in her presence and having to snatch it back before she figures out what’s going on.

teddy-at-the-throttle1The scene now shifts to a fancy nightclub where May and Bobby perform a humorous dance (she’s much taller than he is) and May keeps trying to get Bobby to elope with her. Gloria finally manages to read the letter while Wallace is off getting drinks, and she tries to tell Bobby while May drags him off to a preacher. Seems like if she just told May, it would solve the whole thing when May lost interest in being poor with Bobby, but, again, Keystone. May locks Gloria in the coat room and drags Bobby out to her car, where a storm is now raging, and of course the car has no roof. Undaunted, she speeds off on the muddy roads.

teddy-at-the-throttle2Gloria uses the coat room phone to call a lawyer and let him know what’s going on, and the lawyer climbs aboard the Limited train to intercept Bobby and May. When Gloria gets free, she also pursues, catching up to Bobby and May who have skidded off the road into a muddy ditch. Wallace now catches her, and realizing he can no longer count on Plan A, decides to try a better idea, he’ll chain Gloria to the train tracks and kill her, thus somehow finagling the books so that he keeps the money! Gloria foils this by using her dog whistle to summon Teddy, her large dog, and the title character finally shows up with about five minutes left to the film!

teddy-at-the-throttle3Teddy runs to Gloria, and she writes a note to Bobby, who steals a bicycle and follows Teddy to the train tracks. He is equally unable to free Gloria from the chains, but Teddy runs up to the engine, leaps aboard and shows the engineer the note. The engineer slams on the breaks, the train slowing down, but not quite enough to avoid Gloria. So she lies down on the tracks and lets the train roll overhead, the wheels severing the chains and freeing her to crawl out from beneath the now motionless engine. She and Bobby climb on board the cow catcher and ride happily to get married.

teddy-at-the-throttle4This is another comedy of the “girl tied up on the railroad tracks” variety from Mack Sennett, but it is a little more sophisticated piece of work than “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” has repeatedly taken on the old saw about silent movie women being tied frequently to the railroad tracks, and these two movies are the major “evidence” for the other side. The point is, however, that these were parodies of an earlier cliché, which apparently was used on stage in popular theater. Let’s let it die already. I actually think I’ve seen the ending shot – with the two leads riding away together on a cowcatcher – way more times in silent cinema, but somehow that hasn’t caught on as a cliche.

teddy-at-the-throttle5Vernon is a good looking young man, but short, and part of the joke is how he looks paired up against the taller woman (he and Gloria are about the same height). Much of the humor, up until the climactic multi-vehicle chase, anyway, comes from romantic mix-ups and money grubbing, making it a more “situational” comedy than is usually associated with Mack Sennett. The villain here is Wallace Beery, who puts a lot into the role, even if ultimately he’s just as mustache-twirling as Ford Sterling. In the end, “Teddy” the dog does more to rescue Gloria than the ostensible hero does.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery, May Emory

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

The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

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Hey, at least he’s upright!

Read the rest of this entry »

Easy Street (1917)

Charlie Chaplin’s first movie in 1917 has some surprising elements, including a reversal of his usual relationship to authority. Reflecting his improving budgets and extended production time, he built an entire street on a sound stage and used it to considerable effect.

easy_street_1917The movie begins similarly to “The Champion” and other familiar shorts, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp sleeping in the streets. He awakes to the lovely tones of Edna Purviance leading the choir at the Hope Mission, and ventures inside. The gags in the early part of the film involve sounds that the audience imagines but can’t hear – Edna’s singing, Charlie laughing during the pastor’s sermon, a neighboring parishioner trying to get Charlie to sing along with the choir, etc. Then there’s an extended bit in which Chaplin agrees to hold a baby for another parishioner, and accidentally spills the milk from its bottle onto his pants – but thinks that the baby has wet itself (and him), and tries to foist the fouled brat back onto its mother. Rather a vulgar joke for 1916!

easy-streetAnyway, the real plot of the film gets started once the sermon is over. Charlie, and a rough fellow (John Rand) who also appears to be a tramp, remain behind when the other parishioners leave. Charlie wants to talk to Edna, but the other tramp tries to steal the collection box! Charlie recovers it and returns it, and Edna encourages him to “reform” and get a job. Now that he has experience catching crooks, Charlie thinks it would be a good idea to join the police force. Although it goes against his nature, he convinces himself to go into the police station and apply.

easy-street1Now the action shifts to “Easy Street,” which appears to be the site of an eternal riot. Working-class ruffians are beating the stuffing out of the few police officers brave enough to go there, and we see them returned to the station on stretchers, their uniforms torn and shredded. Eric Campbell intimidates other rioters and controls the street as a bully, wearing his spoils – a policeman’s cap. Charlie is informed that Easy Street will be his beat, but he has no idea what he’s in for.

easy-street2

Just another day on Easy Street.

When Charlie arrives at Easy Street, the riot is over, or at least there’s a lull. Debris is strewn in the street, but things appear to be quiet. The camera tracks towards him as Campbell stalks up behind, still wearing the policeman’s cap. Charlie, finally realizing he’s in danger, sidles up to a lamppost that has a police emergency phone on it. Each time he tries to move for the phone, Eric growls at him and he panics, dropping it. Finally, he tricks Eric into looking into the receiver, giving him a chance to bop him on the head with his billy club. Eric doesn’t appear to notice, so Charlie hits him again. And again. Finally, Eric turns around and sees that he’s being hit, so Charlie tries hitting harder, but with no effect. Eric flexes his muscles and grabs the top of the lamppost, bending it down. Thinking fast, Charlie pulls the lamp over Eric’s head, turning up the gas. Eric slumps into unconsciousness, and Charlie uses the still-working phone to call for backup to arrest him. The police are very afraid to come to Easy Street, even in a large group, and when a small child points his finger at them and goes “bang!” they all skitter in fear. Finally, they drag the unconscious brute back to the station and cuff him. Charlie lights up a cigarette and starts a gas fire on the ruined lamppost.

easy-street3With things now peaceful on Easy Street, Charlie returns to walking his beat. He sees an emaciated woman (Charlotte Mineau) with a bundle hidden under her blouse. He confronts her and sees the food she has stolen. Feeling sympathetic, he goes across the street to where a fruit vendor snoozes peacefully, and steals more food for her, loading her up with ill-gotten gains. Now Edna walks up and sees Charlie 1) employed and 2) performing an act of charity (she doesn’t know the food is stolen). The grateful waif collapses from hunger and the weight of the food, so Charlie and Edna help her up the stairs to her apartment. Then Charlie escorts Edna to another apartment, which she is visiting on her missionary rounds.

easy-street4Meanwhile, Eric Campbell breaks out of the handcuffs. All of the policemen conk him on the head with their bully clubs simultaneously, repeatedly, but it does no good. He defeats them and escapes. He returns home – to his wife Charlotte! They quickly start fighting, with Charlotte throwing various pieces of crockery at Campbell, but with his great strength he gets the upper hand. One of the thrown items breaks the window of the apartment across the street, hitting the father of the family Edna is visiting, and Charlie goes back to Charlotte’s apartment to investigate. When Eric sees him, a chase begins. While this goes on, various lowlifes nab Edna and drag her to an underground lair.

Immune to billy clubs.

Immune to billy clubs.

Charlie finally overcomes Eric by running back to the apartment and dropping a heavy iron stove from the window onto Eric’s head. Now, the ruffians grab him as well. Meanwhile, Edna is being menaced by a man who uses a hypodermic needle before becoming amorous/threatening. Charlie is dropped into the same room through a manhole and accidentally sits on the needle. Suddenly, he becomes a determined fighter, knocking out the addict and taking on several toughs from the speakeasy next door. He rescues Edna and brings peace and order to Easy Street.

easy-street6This movie reminds me a lot of the old “Popeye” cartoons, which may have been partly inspired by it. Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well. Most cast lists I find online indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1I don’t know for sure why Chaplin chose to do this, but it definitely works. Many sources refer to this as the funniest of the comedies he made for Mutual, or even his funniest short, period. There are others I like better, including “The Cure,” “The Vagabond,” and the restored version of “Police,” but this is a contender. The street set is great, and evokes a kind of generic image of urban squalor, that could as easily be New York, LA, or London. When Eric chases him, we do get some very explicit exteriors of Los Angeles, which kind of ruins the illusion for me, but if you ignore that it’s a great location. Chaplin uses all the tricks of cinema he has learned, including a mobile camera, close-ups, and cross-cutting, but it’s still his body language that sells the narrative. He uses his full body to give shrugs and express sympathy, his face lights up when he sees Edna, and he does his patented one-foot turn-hop during the chase sequences. He repeatedly sends up the Keystone Kops, both in his own performance and his use of the other policemen. When he’s hopped up from the hypodermic, he uses his full body to fight, throwing his feet at crowds of opponents, and seems to be a dynamo of energy. The movie once again shows his talent for slapstick, as well as a newly increased confidence as a filmmaker.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Albert Austin, John Rand, Lloyd Bacon, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

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