Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1918

A Reckless Rover (1918)

Another short slapstick comedy distributed by Ebony Studios, this movie once again points up the troubled history of race relations in America. Although the studio was managed and operated by African Americans, it was owned by whites, and as this movie illustrates, it often represented their ideas of what Black entertainment could or should be.

Uh oh.

Our movie begins with a title card and an intertitle, each of which is illustrated with large-lipped caricatures of a Black man. We are told that our hero Rastus (Sam Robinson) makes a sloth look like “a human dynamo of energy,” and we first see him lying in bed as his landlady bangs on the door to get her back rent. She finds a policeman, kitted out in Keystone Kop regalia, to assist her in getting into the room. She doesn’t want her property damaged by breaking in the door, however, so she gets a chair so that the policeman can get in via the window above the door. Rastus pushes the window up so that the cop is stuck, and he kicks and makes faces as the landlady struggles to pull him back through. Rastus goes back to bed and stuffs a pillow in the cop’s face to keep him quiet before he falls back down on the landlady. Now the cop is determined to break in the door and he is soon leaping across the bed while Rastus darts underneath from one side to the other to evade him. Rastus grabs his hat and coat and leaps out the window into the back alley. The landlady, meanwhile, has gotten a shotgun and shoots the cop in the backside, propelling him out the window as well.

The chase proceeds through unpaved alleys and muddy streets, though Rastus soon evades the cop by hiding inside a wooden box as the officer runs around the corner. To be safe, however, he decides to go into a Laundromat run by “Charley Moy” a Black man in yellowface, and steal some new clothes. Moy catches him, however, and threatens him with his iron. Rastus claims that the wind blew the clothes on the ground and Charlie decides to hire him to work at the laundry. Now Rastus has his pick of the clothing, and he chooses a new striped shirt and a tie with spots on it. Now an attractive young woman comes into the shop with the ticket for the very order he has been pillaging. He gives it to her and steals a kiss before she slaps him and leaves. Now Moy uses his iron on Rastus’s backside to encourage him to work harder and Rastus replies by whacking him with a wet garment, even as another customer enters the shop. When Charlie throws the rag back at Rastus, he misses, and of course hits the customer. Soon he is throwing everything in the place at Rastus, and Moy applauds as he catches each parcel without dropping them, but then expresses dismay when Rastus drops the lot into the washer to catch one last item. The customer grabs his bundle and goes, while Rastus runs all of the remaining ones through the wringer (without opening them first).

The management would like to apologize for this image.

Now the lady customer arrives at home and inspects her laundry. She discovers a missing stocking (it’s the “tie” Rastus is wearing), and goes back to the shop. Meanwhile, Rastus has found the boss’s opium pipe and tries a few drags from it. At first, he looks like it is making him nauseous, but soon he starts spinning in place with a blissful look on his face. He prances about until he burns himself on the stove, then gets into the washer to cool off. Steam comes out of his ears. Charlie finds him and surmises what has happened, warning him against smoking from the tin marked in Chinese letters – a fade shows us that they translate to “Rat Poison.” The lady customer returns, and Rastus locks Moy in the back room so he can have her to himself. She recognizes the stocking around his neck this time, and he steals another kiss, trying to placate her by giving her other customer’s parcels. She throws these back at him and at that moment Moy breaks in and knocks a shelf on top of Rastus, pinning him to the counter.

They really don’t get better, do they?

The lady customer finds the cop from before and reports what has happened, so he goes to the store to investigate. Charlie comes out to try to smooth things over, but Rastus hides with the iron and hits he cop whenever his back is turned, making him think it is Charlie doing it. The cop hits  Charlie and Rastus hits the cop and they both fly backward – Charlie to the back room and the cop into the street. The cop beats the ground with his nightstick, summoning a variety of other African American policemen in Keystone garb, most of whom appear to be napping on their beats. The four cops go into the store, but Rastus sets up the unconscious Moy to be their target, backside first. The cops fire their soda powder guns into the room, and Rastus calls out advice so that they will hit Moy. Rastus sneaks out the back, and the cops rush in and start trashing the place. The last shot shows Rastus running down an alleyway.

Not the best print, though that can be merciful.

The movie itself is pretty primitive for 1918 – it looks like something Keystone could have put out five years earlier – and this isn’t helped by a print that is damaged in multiple places. The comic timing and acrobatics of some of the players (particularly Robinson and the main featured cop) is at least at the level of an “average” Keystone movie, but there are no budding Chaplins here. The use of Chicago city streets, apparently on the poorer side of town, is interesting to see. Who would have thought that there would be muddy, unpaved areas in Chicago 100 years ago?

I’ve been soft-balling criticism of these Ebony films because I want to find something good in movies that at least put Black actors and crews to work at this early time, but this one is outright offensive on multiple levels. If it’s not the Chinese caricature, it’s the horrible cartoons on the intertitles, and the depiction of African Americans as lazy, shiftless, unreliable, thieving, and generally stupid throughout. I’ve read that Ebony took some heat at the time for continuing to show movies they made before 1917, when the management was all white, but this movie is clearly from a later time, evidenced by a poster for “Hearts of the World” that Rastus runs past near the end. So, the Black management somehow thought this was OK, apparently. It is the case that the movie borrows its style heavily from Keystone comedies, and it is possible to imagine Ford Sterling or Al St. John playing a character like Rastus, but in context, it’s pretty easy to see why the NAACP would have objected to this studio’s output. The only thing one can say for it, in light of recent research affirming the importance for young people to see images of people like themselves for their healthy development, is that at least the children who watched this were seeing actual Black people on screen, not white men in blackface. It’s a pretty poor compensation, in light of the messages they received about themselves and others.

Director: C.N. David

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Sam Robinson

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (do so at your own risk).

Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918)

We’re back with another short comedy from the Ebony Film Company, a white-owned Chicago-based company that made movies with Black performers intended for African American audiences. As with “Two Knights of Vaudeville,” the result is a somewhat problematic piece of the legacy of race in America.

The movie opens with a professor placing a classified ad for a genuine mummy to use for experimentation. The professor’s daughter is dating a young man, Bill, and the professor comes home to find them snuggling on the couch, but ignores them in order to test out his new formula in the kitchen. He takes a mounted stuffed duck from the wall and injects the formula, causing an explosion that frightens a small boy peeping in the window. The duck comes to life! It also runs all over the place, wreaking havoc on the kitchen. When Bill comes in to investigate, the professor hits him with the broom intended for the duck. Bill takes his chance to ask the professor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and the professor agrees on the condition that his formula prove successful with a mummy. This gives Bill an idea.

The next day, Bill goes to a costume shop and picks up a phony sarcophagus. He offers a shoe shine boy ten dollars to play a mummy. Meanwhile, we learn that emissaries from Egypt are in town looking for a stolen mummy, and they spot the professor’s ad. Bill takes the boy back to his place and dresses him up as the mummy and puts him in the sarcophagus. He calls the professor and tells him to come down and pick up his mummy. While waiting, he runs into a friend and brings him in on the scam. The friend sells the “mummy” for a thousand dollars, which he and Bill fight over while the shoeshine boy pockets a goodly portion of it unnoticed. Bill gets some porters to cart the sarcophagus over to the professor’s house. The porters are insufficiently cautious, and the sarcophagus drops out the back, being dragged behind the cart by the rope they used to partially tie it down. The “mummy” yells and gets them to stop and put it back on the cart more securely. The two Egyptian agent observe the mummy’s arrival, since they are now watching the professor’s house. They request admittance of the daughter and ask for the professor to hand it over, so he throws them out.

Now the professor is ready to perform his test, injecting his formula into a genuine mummy. When he does inject it into the shoeshine boy, he screams and starts flailing and running all around the room (much like the duck did, actually). The professor manages to seal it back inside the sarcophagus, but he is hurt in the process and his daughter ministers to his aid. The two Egyptians take advantage of the distraction to sneak into the house and steal the now-unconscious mummy from the sarcophagus. Bill and Lulu head out to find a parson. The professor nails up the sarcophagus to prevent further mummy attacks. The Egyptians are genuflecting before their prize when the shoeshine boy wakes up and terrifies them. He manages to free himself from the bandages and finds all of the professor’s money in the wraps.

There’s a lot of familiar caricatures of Black life here, not least including the many scare-takes the mummy makes possible, as well as the greed and laziness evinced by Bill and his allies. Still, we do get an African American professor, who has authority over his daughter’s future, placing him as an equal to white patriarchs in this regard. He may be a bit nutty (typical of professors in comedies), but he is able to bring a duck back to life. Certainly this movie is less offensive than something like “Watermelon Patch” and it is something of a relief to see actual Black actors as opposed to white actors in blackface in movies of this time, perhaps that would have appealed to the intended audience as well. The young NAACP did denounce Ebony for this sort of movie, however, and even went so far as to suggest that comedies in general were inappropriate material for Black productions. They weren’t alone – a lot of progressive-minded people regarded the slapstick of the era as “vulgar” and degrading. It would be a long time before African American comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy came along to challenge stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

Director: R.W. Phillips

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 14 Min

I have not been able to find this available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first attempt to bring the Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle hero to the screen was this early silent feature from First National. It spawned three sequels, and is remembered today as being the most faithful to the book of all of the Tarzan movies since, but how does it hold up as entertainment?

The movie begins in England, where Lord and Lady Greystoke (True Boardman and Kathleen Kirkham) are planning a trip to Africa. An older gentleman advises Alice, Lady Greystoke, to stay home – Africa is no place for a lady and besides, she won’t even be able to take her maid. Lady Greystoke, a modern woman, is disdainful and off they go. While they are on the high seas, a band of mutineers takes the ship and begins murdering the passengers. One sailor, Binns (George B. French), is sympathetic and risks his own life to save them, but he is captured by Arabs and becomes their slave while the couple are marooned on an unknown coast, nowhere near civilization. Alice dies giving birth to their son, and Lord Greystoke is at a loss as to how to nourish him without her milk. Nearby, the ape Kala has lost her baby and mourns deeply. Her tribe of apes kills Lord Greystoke and brings her the human infant.

The boy, now known as Tarzan (Gordon Griffith), is raised by Kala as her own. It never occurs to him that he isn’t an ape until one day when he sees his reflection in a pool (apparently he never noticed his hairless arms before). This sets him to thinking about his identity. He discovers the shack where his parents skeletons still lie, He finds a picture book with alphabet images and teaches himself to speak. He also steals clothing from some natives because apparently wearing clothes is a natural urge.

Meanwhile, Binns finally escapes from the Arabs after ten years and discovers the ape-boy and instructs him, but is unable to rescue him when the Arabs again intervene. He returns to England and convinces some scientists to begin an expedition to find the young Lord Greystoke. Jane Porter (Enid Markey) is the daughter of the lead scientist, and for some reason she is allowed to bring along a maid (Madame Sul-Te-Wan). Kala is killed by a native hunter, who is in turn killed by the now-adult Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln). Tarzan is smitten when he spies Jane and her father poking around the old shack, but is too shy to reveal himself. The scientists conclude that the child was killed when the apes attacked, but Binns still knows better. Some villagers kidnap Jane and Tarzan rescues her, and the two of them fall in love.

True to the book or not, this movie has a lot of problems. The main one is that it is almost completely lacking a plot. That’s probably because instead of trying to tell the full story, they only used the first half of the book, saving the second half for the sequel (“The Romance of Tarzan”). The quality of Burroughs’s work as literature can be debated, but cutting a story in half almost never improves the narrative structure. I kept waiting for the story to get started, and then suddenly it was over. This is more like an “origin story” without any payoff. It needed a clearer conflict to resolve, one that would carry over from the beginning to the end, possibly even some way to have Tarzan avenge himself on the mutineers who are ultimately responsible for his and his parents’ fate.

Another problem, which probably only bothered some audiences at the time, is the explicit and implicit racism of so much of the movie. Madame Sul-Te-Wan was one of the great pioneers of African American film acting, but in this movie she portrays a caricature of a superstitious black maid. The natives who capture Jane are every bit as subhuman and rapacious as Gus from “The Birth of a Nation.” And, of course, Tarzan is superior to them in every way, although in theory this is because he has been raised by apes, and thus is more in touch with nature, not because he is white. I haven’t even mentioned the greedy slaving Arabs, who represent both another stereotype and an alibi for the history of European enslavement of Africans.

Despite these flaws, the movie was an undisputed success in its day, grossing over 1.5 million dollars at a time when movies rarely broke one million. This is probably not least due to the convincing use of Louisiana swamps as a location for African jungles, and the thrills of Tarzan’s adventures. I also rather suspect that the thrill of seeing a half-naked (sometimes fully naked) boy and man on the screen was an appeal to audiences in those days, when there was so little nudity in cinema. I didn’t think much of Lincoln’s or Griffith’s acting, but their physiques are fully on display, and the former was definitely a muscular specimen. There are also very brief glimpses of “native” women’s breasts, but these were censored in many locales. The fights are well-edited and exciting as well, even if they lack a coherent narrative to tie them together, and there are glimpses of exotic animals that were rarely seen at the time, surely an appeal for children who lacked access to zoos. This movie may not seem like much today, but it should also be seen for what it was at the time –a spectacle that brought in the audiences and gave them their money’s worth.

Director: Scott Sidney

Camera: Enrique Juan Vallejo

Starring: Elmo Lincoln, Enid Markey, Gordon Griffith, George B. French, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, True Boardman, Kathleen Kirkham, Eugene Pallette

Run Time: 1 hr

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

The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Despite the title, this is no Western starring William S. Hart, rather this Swedish feature was directed by Victor Sjöström, so far the only Swedish director to be covered in this blog. Like the others, which include “Ingeborg Holm” and “A Man There Was,” this film has a brooding power that draws on Scandinavian narrative style and the vast open spaces of the countryside.

As the opening intertitle informs us, the movie is set in a community in 18th Century Iceland, although it was filmed at home due to the difficulty of travel during the First World War. Sjöström plays Kári, a man who wanders into an established village looking for work. Although the first locals he meets are suspicious, they nevertheless direct him to the farm of Halla (Edith Erastoff), a recently-widowed woman who is managing a farm on her own. Kári proves to be a hard worker and likeable, and he is taken in.

Matters develop when the local bailiff (played by Nils Ahren), hears a rumor that  Kári was run out of another town for being a thief. The bailiff is the brother of Halla’s deceased husband, and he has designs on her land, hoping to marry her in order to integrate her farm and his own. Halla, meanwhile, has made it very clear she has no respect for the bailiff, and she seems to be falling for Kári. When the bailiff makes his accusation, Halla challenges him to wrestle Kári and he loses. Nevertheless, Kári confesses to Halla – it is true, he stole in order to feed his family, ran away, and now he will be put to death if caught. He decides to leave civilization, to go and hide out in the mountains, and Halla asks to come with him, abandoning everything she has just to be with him.

Living alone in their hideout shack, far up on the mountainside, the two lovers seem to have an idyllic situation. They are able to catch fish and grow a little food, get clean water from a spring, and they live in love with themselves and with nature. They are joined by Arnes (John Ekman), another laborer from Halla’s farm who has gotten into trouble with the law, and by a baby girl after Halla gives birth. But, a problem is brewing beneath the surface, because Arnes, isolated from the company of other women, is beginning to obsess over Halla. One day, when the two of them are hunting together along a ridge, Kári slips and falls, grabbing on to a branch to avoid plummeting to his doom. Arnes gets a rope and throws it to him, then gets out his knife and, for a moment, begins to saw at the rope, then Kári calls to him and brings him to his senses, and he rescues Kári after all.

Accepting that he can never have Halla, Arnes decides to leave the area. As he is walking away, he sees a patrol of men coming up the mountainside in search of the fugitives. He runs back to warn Kári and Halla, but he is too late and the men arrive at just the same moment and a fight ensues. In fear of capture, Halla throws her child off the cliff into the river below. Arnes and Kári are able to beat off the men after all, but now the couple must endure their grief and guilt at the death of the child. Their internal devastation is mirrored by nature, which now throws a hellish snowstorm at them, and they are trapped in their little shack with no food and limited fuel for the fire. They begin snapping at each other, and even seem to be contemplating murder and cannibalism as they go mad with hunger. When Kári goes for firewood, Halla wanders out of the cabin and freezes in the snow. Kári finds her and holds her until he has died frozen by her side.

Being somewhat familiar with Icelandic mythic history in the form of the Sagas, I can confirm that this movie has most of the narrative elements one would expect from such a source. It is set more recently than the traditional Sagas, but the living culture of oral history there would result in newer stories. Among the aspects that struck me as in line with the mythic cycles of Scandinavia were the wrestling match to decide a point of honor, the harsh punishment for criminals, and the inevitable punishment of people who transgress or try to live outside the support of society.

Meanwhile, the film also has a lot in common with other work by Sjöström, especially visually and in terms of the bleakness and moral stringency of its philosophical outlook. I’ve compared Sjöström with Ingmar Bergman more than once as I discuss his work, and I’ve learned since that Sjöström was one of Bergman’s mentors in film making, so the connection is more definite than I had realized. Folks who find Bergman dull will probably feel about the same way about Sjöström, but it’s fair to say that he deals with somewhat simpler moral issues than Bergman takes on. This movie is more rapidly edited than earlier Sjöström work, and also makes good use of close-ups to build sympathy with its characters. Finally, it’s interesting to note that Erastoff is not a traditional youthful beauty, but a solid middle-aged woman who exudes strength and confidence more than sex appeal. This can hardly be because Sweden was lacking in beautiful women (see: Greta Garbo), and was surely a conscious casting decision. It makes the film feel decidedly more realistic – a Hollywood star just doesn’t look like someone who can survive the privations that Halla takes on.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Julius Jaenzon

Starring: Victor Sjöström, Edith Erastoff, Nils Ahren, John  Ekman

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Whispering Chorus (1918)

This feature by Cecil B. DeMille shows the development of plot and acting as it was taking place in a young Hollywood. Its star, Raymond Hatton, demonstrates that silent movie performance need not be hackneyed or overstated.

The conceit of this film is a simple one – that each person carries around with them a Greek “chorus” of voices that constantly advise on every decision made or action taken. These voices may be those of someone we know – our mother’s voice, for example, might be quite influential – or just represent our idea of “society” or some part of it. Together, these voices make up a “Whispering Chorus” that echoes through our minds with good and bad advice alike, often contradicting one another as they compete for our attention. Hatton plays John Tremble, a low-ranking white collar worker for a large contracting firm. His “chorus” includes Gustav von Seyffertitz and Edna Mae Cooper, and they appear as disembodied heads behind his shoulder through the magic of double-exposure when DeMille wants us to realize that Hatton is under their sway. When he considers knocking off work early, von Seffertitz encourages him with communistic logic about the theft of his time for the profit of the company, but Cooper changes his mind, promising him that his work will ultimately be appreciated.

After finishing his tasks, Tremble goes home, where h lives with his wife Jane (Kathlyn Williams) and mother (Edythe Chapman). They are busy decorating for Christmas, but John is upset because there are bills waiting to be paid, his clothes are worn and threadbare, and his wife wants to spend money on a new dress. After being a bit of a jerk about it, he talks to his mother, who convinces him to spend the last of his money on the new dress, to make up to her. He goes out again, but before making the purchase, he runs into a friend from the office, who invites him to a poker game. At first he refuses, but his whispering chorus convinces him that he can make enough from gambling to buy the dress and a new coat for himself, so he goes along after all. Predictably, he loses all of his money, then stays out late to avoid having to admit his mistake to his family. His whispering chorus convinces him to steal money from the till at work to make up for it, and he falsifies an entry in the ledger. Then an investigation into graft arrives, in the form of George Coggeswell (Elliott Dexter), and Tremble panics, knowing his theft will be detected. He begs off a theater engagement, claiming he needs to go back to the office to lock his desk, but instead he runs out of the state and goes into hiding in an abandoned shed near a river.

One day, a body washes up on shore, and Tremble uses it to fake his own death, leaving a cryptic note about a man called “Edgar Smith” who was supposedly trying to strong-arm him into falsifying the books. Tremble now shaves off his beard with a piece of glass, giving himself a nasty scar in the process, but also altering his appearance enough to throw off any pursuer. Meanwhile, Mrs. Tremble has been comforted by Coggeswell as his investigation now focuses on “Edgar Smith” rather than her blameless husband. She falls in love with him, and he with her, but she is reluctant to re-marry, since Tremble’s mother still insists that her son is alive. John drifts aimlessly through life, taking up dock work despite being rather too small and skinny for hard labor, and he is injured in an accident, giving him a limp that also distinguishes him from his former self. On Chinese New Year, Jane finally relents and agrees to marry Coggeswell, now  a successful politician and candidate for the governorship, while at the same time John dallies with a prostitute in Shanghai.

Eventually, John goes back to see his mother, finding her alone and dying. This leads to his being caught and accused of being “Edgar Smith.” When the trial comes, his own wife does not recognize him, and he fails to put up a good defense, believing that it is impossible for a man to be convicted of killing himself. He is, however, and now the “good” side of his Whispering Chorus comes to his aid. He decides that rather than proving Jane a bigamist and showing the world his own cowardice, he will go to the electric chair as “Edgar Smith,” redeeming himself for all of his mistakes in this way. The movie concludes by showing us that John Tremble has now become a part of Jane’s Whispering Chorus, the noble version of him guides her conscience through life.

On the whole, I enjoyed this movie more than “Old Wives for New,” also made by DeMille in the same year. While both were written by a woman (Jeannie MacPherson) and intended to appeal to a female audience, this movie does rather a better job of sympathizing with the wife’s point of view. At the beginning of the movie, I was a little worried that her desire for a new dress, and apparent neglect of her husband’s appearance would be blamed for all of the hardship that followed, but the script makes it clear that it is John’s bad decisions that are blame. Jane is portrayed throughout as decent and kind. John, on the other hand, is callous regarding her to the point of psychosis. His Whispering Chorus may be giving him bad advice, but he’s the one who never considers the effect of his actions on the people who love him, almost right up to the final scenes of the movie. It seemed to me that he had the perfect “out” when he made the excuse about going back to the office – he could have replaced the money then and the whole thing would have been cleared up. If there had been a scene showing him at the office, but seeing a cop on guard or something like that, it would have made more sense for him to run away.

John Tremble may be a heel, but Raymond Hatton is outstanding. He gives Lon Chaney a run for his money in changing his face several times in the course of this movie, also developing different body language as he goes from clerical worker to fugitive to deadbeat to convict. The wife who doesn’t recognize her own husband when he shaves (or grows) a beard may be a cliché in silent movie plots, but in this case, the transformation he undergoes makes it believable. The story also gives them several years of distance to help the memory fade. It’s sort of a reversal of “The Return of Martin Guerre,” and it works, but mainly because Hatton is so convincing. This is up there with the best work I’ve seen from DeMille as well, he keeps the story moving through editing and good use of multiple angles to show scenes and simultaneous action. The one weird choice was having the wedding inter-cut with John’s infidelity, though I suppose this was to insure that the audience would sympathize with Jane, even though she was technically violating one of American cinema’s cardinal rules by re-marrying while her husband was still alive.

Director: Cecil B. DeMIlle

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Raymond Hatton, Kathlyn Williams, Elliott Dexter, Edythe Chapman, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Edna Mae Cooper, Julia Faye, Noah Beery, Tully Marshall, Charles Ogle

Run Time: 1 hr, 25 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Blue Blazes Rawden (1918)

William S. Hart stars in this somewhat somber morality tale set in the Pacific Northwest. With less action than his usual Westerns, this movie asks more of him as an actor and director in terms of emotion and conviction.

The movie begins, with rather flowery intertitles that have a distinctly Jack London influence, by introducing “Blue Blazes” Rawden – a hellraising timber man far from civilization (played by Hart), surrounded by his admirers on pay day. He leads them to the town of Timber Cove with the full intention of blowing all their pay in a wild debauch. They quickly locate the Far North Hotel, a place with a saloon suited to separate them from their money, and once there, Blazes is soon in a dispute with the owner, “Ladyfingers” Hilgard (Robert McKim), over his girl Babette du Fresne (Maude George). Blazes and Hilgard try to settle things with cards, but as Blazes winnings pile up and Hilgard is about to lose his hotel, he challenges Blazes to a gunfight, even going so far as to have one of his cronies sabotage Blazes’ ammunition, but Blazes is too tough for him, and ends up shooting Hilgard with his own gun.

Rawden has won the respect of the town, the hotel, and the woman in one fell swoop, but there’s a catch. As he’s dying, Hilgard gives Rawden the letter he just received from his aging mother (Gertrude Clair) – she’s coming out to visit, along with Eric, his innocent younger brother (Robert Gordon), and they expect to find a decent, respectable man, not a ruffian card sharp. When they arrive, apparently Rawden’s heart grows three sizes that day, because he can’t bring himself to tell the truth about Hilgard or himself. He admits that Hilgard is dead, but insists they were fast friends and that Hilgard was a pillar of the community. He threatens everyone at the bar not to contradict him or they’ll get what Ladyfingers got, and so they all go along with him as he puts up a gravestone that calls Hilgard  a good man and generally carries off a huge deception, reforming himself along the way. Eventually, Babette becomes annoyed by the “new” Blazes and tells the younger brother that Blazes killed Hilgard, which so enrages him that he shoots Blazes – who refuses to defend himself because that would mean killing two sons of the woman who he so respects. After saving Eric from a lynch mob, Blue Blazes makes him promise never to tell Mrs. Hilgard what he knows and leaves town a reformed man, though it seems likely he’ll die in the wilderness of his wounds.

Most of this movie hinges on Hart convincing his audience that he is so remorseful after meeting the mother of his victim that he completely changes from the brutal hell raiser into a man of decency. What’s remarkable is that he pulls it off quite well. The two sides of this character seem perfectly suited to Hart – he was equally capable of being the devil-may-care brawler and the man with a simple code of honor who never wavers, once decided on his path. It’s strange to see them both evoked in a single story like this, but somehow it works. It helps that Clair is so good as the refined but sweet old lady who could never think ill of her son or his surroundings. When Babette tries to tell her about Hilgard, she invites her to tea and remarks how surprised she is that the other ladies (all of them evidently prostitutes) of the town have never paid her a call. As a director, Hart deserves credit also for building a believable environment of savage lumber jacks, taking advantage of the redwoods in northern California to show a primeval forest that separates men from their upbringing and civilized training. Given this theme in the early intertitles, I was surprised when something as simple as a mother’s love was enough to shatter this premise and change the title character from hellion to angel.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Maude George, Robert McKim, Gertrude Claire, Robert Gordon, Jack Hoxie

Run Time: 51 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Carmen (1918)

Alternate Title: “Gypsy Blood”

Coming early in the careers of Ernst Lubitsch and Pola Negri, this filmed version of the famous novella/opera gave them an opportunity to work with “serious” cultural material. Does this European interpretation of the story work better than its American predecessors?

The movie opens with a group of gypsies sitting around a campfire at night. One of them launches into the story of “La Carmencita” and the man she ruined. We now see Don Jose (played by Harry Liedke), who visits his mother and sweetheart in the hills before he arrives in Seville to receive a promotion to the rank of Sergeant. This is a great honor for a man of humble beginnings. We can see from his shy interactions with his fiancé that he has little knowledge of the ways of the world. At Seville, we see a parade at the changing of the guard, which seems to be a big draw for crowds, including the girls at the local tobacco factory, who wave at the soldiers and flirt with men on the street. The most beautiful, and aggressive, is of course Carmen (Negri). She sees Don Jose mooning over a letter from his sweetheart and resolves to have some fun with him. She teases him with a rose, which he mostly ignores until she leaves, then notices how marvelously sweet the odor is once she’s gone. Read the rest of this entry »

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.

Unacceptable Behavior

Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor  for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.

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Triple Trouble (1918)

This is sort of a “fake” Charlie Chaplin movie, but one which nevertheless stars Charlie Chaplin! In 1918, years after losing the star to Mutual, Essanay, his sophomore studio, stitched together this “new” film from footage he left at the studio (some already released), adding some material directed by his co-star Leo White and releasing it to a Chaplin-hungry public that didn’t know any better.

The movie begins with a random close-up of Charlie with a cigar in his mouth, but the plot begins when we see “Colonel A. Nutt,” who is building a new type of “wireless explosive.” The wartime origin of this new footage influences this plotline, which involves a spy ring led by diplomats from “Pretzelstrasse” (Leo White is the lead agent). Meanwhile, Charlie is introduced as the new janitor in the Nutt House, and there’s some good otherwise unreleased footage of his antics in the kitchen with cook Billy Armstrong and flirting with maid Edna Purviance. Charlie empties most of the food the cook has prepared into the dustbin and then proceeds to strew garbage all over the place by carrying it on his back, even dumping it on poor Edna. We see Leo White at a fence and the dustbin appears over the edge, making it seem that Charlie is dumping the remainder of the trash on him! (Close attention reveals that Charlie has four arms in this scene). Edna and Charlie get into a fight in the kitchen, but the wet rag she throws at him flies into adjoining rooms, hitting Billy and Leo instead, so they blame one another and then get into a fight as well. Soon, Billy figures out where the rag came from and goes to punish Edna, only to find himself confronted by Charlie’s wrath (a boot to the rear). The Colonel finds Leo in bad spirits after his confrontation, and ejects the man without hearing him out.

Charlie now heads to a doss house to spend the night, having completed his dubious day’s work. Charlie has various comic adventures there – lighting a man’s toes on fire, conking a loud-singing drunk over the head with a bottle, and outsmarting a thief who comes in to rob the vagrants. Meanwhile, a pickpocket (Billy Armstrong in different clothes) tries to hold up Leo White and is recruited into the scheme to rob the Nutts. A nearby policeman overhears the plan and calls in other officers, busy playing craps in an abandoned lot. They rush to the Nutt House, where they explain that they are on the trail of a large crime, and occupy the living room. A riot breaks out in the dosshouse and Charlie is forced to flee, ending up with Billy, who talks him into joining the robbery of the Nutt House. The cops are all still there; lying around, smoking, waiting for something to happen. Pandemonium breaks out when the pickpocket enters the house, and amid the chaos, Colonel Nutt’s explosive device is detonated, blowing all of the cops skyward. In the aftermath, the pickpocket is buried in a heap of rubble and Charlie is seen poking his head out of the kitchen stove.

While this is far from Charlie’s best movie (or even his movie, really), it is kind of fun from a historical view to try to figure out which scenes were made when. A good portion of it (especially the dosshouse) was used in the Flicker Alley release of “Police,” and may have been shot for that movie. Or, it may have been shot for “Life,” an incomplete semi-autobiographical project Chaplin worked on at Essanay. Certainly the “janitor” sequences come from this source. Other parts, with Leo White and the “Pretzelstrasse,” were shot afterwards directed by White, and inter-cut with the Chaplin footage to appear to be part of the same movie. Some of this is laughably unsuccessful. The final explosion and head-in-stove sequence is straight from “Work.” The result of this piecemeal story engineering is a rather disjointed film which at times feels more like an anthology of very short shorts than a coherent film. The parts which include Chaplin, however, are up to his usual standards in terms of physical comedy and there are at least a few laughs to be found here. I particularly enjoy the early scenes of Charlie as a hapless janitor in a wealthy home, operating within the Upstairs/Downstairs world of the servants.

Chaplin himself was “Not Amused,” however. He sent a telegram to the “Moving Picture World” informing them of the dubious nature of the movie and asking that false advertising for it be “stamped out.” However, having already lost a legal battle to prevent Essanay from releasing the extended version of “Burlesque on Carmen,” he kept his criticism to the trades this time. Essanay defended their right to re-cut Chaplin footage and present it as “new.” After all, no one had seen this movie before, had they? It was largely academic, because it was out by this time and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It entered the public domain since Chaplin never reissued it with an original score, and thus it actually may have had more releases since that time than many of his early Essanays. It remains a part of his legacy, though decidedly a part he never could control.

Director: Charlie Chaplin.Leo White

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Bud Jamison, Albert Austin, Snub Pollard, Wesley Ruggles

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Stella Maris (1918)

One of Mary Pickford’s biggest hits of 1918 was this drama, in which she not only gets to grow out her perpetual childhood, but also plays dual roles of young girls who become young women. It demonstrates differing audience expectations of the time to our own, especially in terms of “happy endings,” but displays Mary’s talents to their fullest.

At the beginning of the film, Mary’s characters are still in late childhood. The first, the eponymous Stella Maris, is paralyzed and lives in her bed. Fortunately she has been raised by wealthy guardians Sir and Lady Blount (Ida Waterman and Herbert Standing) dedicated to her happiness. Unfortunately, that dedication goes to something of an extreme – Stella is protected from any information about the world that might upset her or make her aware that there is “sorrow, poverty, or death” in the world. This tends to make her a bit spoiled and idealistic. The other young girl is Unity Blake, an orphan in a classically Dickensian orphan house who lives with all of the evils Stella is shielded from. The opulence and beauty of Stella’s world is contrasted with the squalor and hard work of Unity’s in a series of intercut scenes.

In one of these scenes, a prominent relative of the Blounts comes to visit Stella in her room. This young man (Conway Tearle) is referred to as the “Great High Belovedest” and tells her stories of his “castle” where he lives. In reality, he is John Risca, a prominent journalist who hides his alcoholic wife (Marcia Manon) in an apartment. He leaves her because he cannot stand her drinking or her cruelty, but he commits to continuing to support her. She decides to adopt a girl, because servants keep quitting on her and an orphan would have nowhere else to go. Of course, the girl she selects is Unity. Unity is sent over to her home without any guide, and we see her reactions to the world of London – in her way, she is quite as sheltered as Stella. She is quite crushed when she realizes that her new mother intends to give her more work, but no love.

Unity reacts as a customer sends back a steak in a restaurant.

This arrangement doesn’t last long, because one day some street kids steal Unity’s basket of groceries while she is out shopping. When she returns empty-handed, her adoptive mother reacts with rage, beating her to within an inch of her life. The neighbors hear the row, and the police are called. Mrs. Risca is arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment. In the meanwhile, John agrees to take Unity on, and treats her with kindness and gentleness. They live together with “Aunt Gladys” who wants to punish the child when she lies, but John knows that she lies because she is afraid of getting another beating.

Joining the “family.”

Meanwhile, as the three years pass, Stella Maris is able to get an operation that allows her to walk. She has blossomed into a young adult, and her feelings for the “Great High Blovedest” have matured as well, and appear to be reciprocated. But, when John wishes to confess to her of his previous marriage, he is prevented by Mrs. Blount, who is still trying to protect Stella from knowing about evil. Stella is picking it up on her own, of course, now that she can walk. At one point she asks for “a few thousand pounds” to give to a starving family she sees near the house. Unity has also fallen in love with her new guardian, and tries to overcome her homely looks and poor education to get him to notice her.

Stella decides to go and visit the castle, which she dreams of living in with John. Of course, the limo driver takes her to John’s old address, where the newly released Mrs. Risca is once again residing. She looks about in horror, breaking down into tears when Mrs. Risca reveals who she is. She breaks off relations with John and rages at her family about all of the evil and pain in the world. Unity sees how heartbroken John is from this, and realizes that he will never forget Stella Maris. She also realizes that so long as Mrs. Risca is alive, he will forever be unhappy. She devises a plan and steals one of John’s guns, then uses the key she has kept all these years to the Risca apartment and goes in, threatening Mrs. Risca. When Mrs. Risca responds with more callousness and brutality, she kills her, and then herself.

This, of course, releases John from any obligations. Stella Maris comes to the conclusion that joy and wonder can only exist because there is also pain and evil in the world, and she forgives John and her guardians for lying to her. Aunt Gladys convinces Stella’s wealthy relatives to give John another chance and not think badly about Unity for she helped free him from his abusive wife. John is reunited with Stella and they marry.

I was quite honestly rooting for Unity the whole time, and I was pretty disappointed once I realized that the outcome would be her death and John marrying Stella Maris. Not that I wanted him to marry his adoptive daughter, either (because, ew), but I wanted Unity to realize that there were other possibilities for her happiness and grow up to pursue them. I suspect many modern viewers would respond the same way, but the logic of the time was that Unity had fallen in love with a man “above her station,” and this could only end in tragedy. Of the two characters, I found Unity to be more sympathetic and appealing. Stella is obviously spoiled (through no fault of her own, but still) and her development is far less convincing. She’s mostly there to be sweet and pretty, then to be heartbroken and unreasonable, and finally to provide the standard happy ending for the male lead. She has little sense of agency, and when she does try to do something on her own (feeding the family, for example, or visiting the castle), it is just a reflection of her ignorance.

Mary Pickford plays both roles excellently, however, and this movie decidedly demonstrates her versatility. I must admit with some embarrassment that the first time I watched it I didn’t actually realize she was playing Unity and I went to see who “that actress” was because I thought she had outperformed Mary Pickford! I think it’s a tribute to her and to the director that a modern viewer could be so bamboozled. Lighting choices reinforce the differences, and the different worlds the two girls occupy. The two don’t have a lot of scenes together, and of course “twinning” effects date back to Georges Méliès, so this isn’t so much a measure of special effects as it is of acting. Shots that do have them together are also carried  by the very natural way in which Pickford “talks to herself,” although it’s easy enough to see where the screen has been split.

The film was apparently the second highest-grossing film of the year (records from this period are not precise) and helped solidify Pickford’s already powerful position as a star. It was written for her by her friend Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan, who had also directed “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “The Little Princess,” and later “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley”  and “M’Liss,” so this movie shows the power Pickford had to choose her productions and her production team. Although we often think of her in terms of her naively innocent characters, like Stella herself, she was a powerful businesswoman, with all the grit of Unity Blake and even the professional acumen of John Risca as well.

Director: Marshall Neilan

Camera:Walter Stradling

Starring: Mary Pickford, Ida Waterman, Herbert Standing, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Josephine Crowell, Teddy the Dog, Gustav von Seyffertitz

Run Time: 1hr, 28 Min

You can watch it for free: here and here (without music) or here (with music).