Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1920

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks is a swashbuckling hero in this first adaptation of the famous novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” published just one year before. Generally seen as the beginning of a new direction in his career, the movie shows us how far cinematic techniques come since his start in 1915 as well.

MarkofZorro

The movie begins with intertitles that establish what might be Doug’s ideological stance – that oppressive systems breed their own downfall by causing heroic men to become freedom fighters in the cause of the people. Zorro is presented as such a man, and we see a soldier with a “Z-” shaped scar commiserating with his fellows in a bar. We learn that Zorro punished him for mistreating a local Native American, but also that the situation for the rich is not much better as the Governor imposes such high taxes on Don Carlos, father of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de le Motte), that he is doomed to lose his lands. We return to the bar, where Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) rails against Zorro and boasts of his prowess with the sword. He insults, but accepts free drinks from Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), a foppish, sickly noble. After he leaves, of course, Zorro comes in and defeats Gonzales in a duel, and fights off all of the other soldiers as well, humiliating them and generally wrecking the place.

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The Mollycoddle (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.

Mollycoddle-1920

This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.

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Within Our Gates (1920)

The earliest surviving film of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is a very in-your-face response to the off-handed racism of most of cinema at the time, particularly D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Not necessarily the most fun experience to watch, it is nevertheless a fascinating document from the “other side” of history.

Within_Our_Gates_1920_newspaper_ad

Evelyn Preer (introduced in the titles as a “renowned Negro artist”) plays Sylvia, a Southern African American woman living in the North with her friend Alma (Floy Clements, called “Flo” in the intertitles). Sylvia is engaged to serviceman Conrad (James D. Ruffin), but Alma secretly wants him for herself, setting up the first conflict of the film. When he announces his return from overseas, Alma hides the letter and sees to it that he will find Sylvia with an unnamed white man (whose presence isn’t explained until the final reel). Meanwhile Sylvia has been ducking the advances of Larry, Alma’s step brother (Jack Chenault), who is being investigated by a righteous detective (William Smith) at the behest of the police. When he gets into a shootout with some gamblers, Larry makes for Alma’s place, where Sylvia has dreamed that he is a murderer. All that aside for the moment, when Conrad sees Sylvia and the white man, he blows his top and calls off the engagement.

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Why WIld Men Go Wild (1920)

This somewhat primitive (ahem) comedy short stars Bobby Vernon, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd, and plays on gender norms as perceived in the early Jazz Age. It may have received a limited release at the time as no contemporary reviews of it are known to exist.

The movie begins by showing two men passed out with a hangover, an intertitle quickly interjecting a wry comment on Prohibition. One of the men is Vernon, the other is Jimmie Harrison; the two play characters named Bobby and Jimmy, respectively. A servant comes in and gives Jimmy a pitcher of cold water, then places it on Bobby’s forehead to wake him as well. He also gives Jimmy a note from his father, which disparages his “wild” lifestyle and invites him to bring his roommate for a visit, so that he can assess whether he is a negative influence. Jimmy has the idea that he can dress Bobby up like a nerd in order to reassure his father that he’s on the right track. Vernon doesn’t like the idea, but agrees. The movie then introduces us to Vera Steadman in a bathing suit, she plays Jimmy’s (nameless) sister, and she has fantasies of meeting a “real” man – which to her, means somebody “wild” like her brother. Obviously Bobby, in his uptight outfit (he dresses like a “minister’s son” according to a later intertitle) is not going to make the cut. Of course, he falls for her as soon as he meets her.

Wild, man.

What is Bobby to do? Well, the situation becomes sillier but clearer when sis reads a newspaper story about a local “wild man” who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. This brute, she thinks, would meet her requirements for “caveman love.” Accordingly, Jimmy and Bobby develop a plan: Bobby will dress as the wild man and win her heart. Meanwhile, of course, the real wild man (who looks for all the world like a cartoon cave man) is sneaking around the property, stealing chickens and being chased by a hillbilly with a rifle. Jimmy “warns” sis to keep away and of course she runs straight toward the “wild man,” not even recognizing that it is Bobby. Bobby orders her to build a fire and start cooking dinner; she seems a bit disappointed that this is all the cave man love she is offered. Bobby sneaks off to find Jimmy and they trade outfits – now Bobby can defeat the “wild man” and come to the rescue. They do a bit of a wrestling act and Jimmy’s sister hits him with the club. He and Bobby  run off again and leave her alone, but she sees Jimmy take off his beard as the two laugh about their exploits, and she stalks off in a huff.

Now, of course the real wild man jumps out of the trees at her. She tugs on his beard, expecting to find Jimmy (or Bobby) underneath. this enrages the wild man who grabs her and drags her away. Now the local yokels get an eyeful of Jimmy in his getup and start taking potshots, which in true slapstick fashion always hit in his backside. Bobby sees the wild man and jumps in and fights him. Now Jimmy runs up to his sister, who defends him from the posse, showing them that the wild man they are chasing is just her brother. They ignore the ongoing struggle between Bobby and the wild man right next to them until he comes out on top and presents the wild man for capture. Bobby now reveals his true self to the sister and they embrace.

This film is really not at the level of the brilliant work being done by Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd at the time – it’s not even as funny or gag-filled as an early Arbuckle or Max Linder movie. Still, it displays competent story telling with a very simple theme, and is made by William Beaudine, who would go on to better stuff. The sister is probably the most interesting character, since she’s so much a product of 1920s femininity, not at all the kind of girl we saw in earlier comedies. She almost seems like a prototype of a later Clara Bow or Colleen Moore character, but without the pep or any of “It.” Vernon’s best moments come when he’s miming the “minister’s son” for the father, giving a rather femmy performance, complete with limp-wristed hand movements. This represents for the audience his being “tame” while the beard, animal skin and club demonstrate “wildness.” There doesn’t seem to be much in between. It’s interesting that the comedy begins by being about drinking during Prohibition, because no one actually takes a drink for the entire run time.

Director: William Beaudine

Camera: F.G. Ullman

Starring: Bobby Vernon, Jimmie Harrison, Vera Steadman

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

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The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

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The Golem (1920)

This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.

The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a  respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.

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Haunted Spooks (1920)

This horror spoof kicks off my annual “history of horror” for the month of October. It is a very funny – but also deeply problematic – comedy short featuring Harold Lloyd in his now-established “glass” character.

The movie begins with a series of funny intertitles that establish the cast and situation. Mildred Davis plays “The Girl,” who we are told is “Sweet Sixteen and never – – – well, only once or twice.” It is established that she is due to inherit a plantation and its associated fortune from her grandfather, so long as she is married and willing to live on the grounds with her husband for one year. The titles also tell us about Lloyd’s character (“The Boy: He wants to get married – – – Has no other faults,”) although we won’t meet him for a little while yet. Before that, we watch as her uncle (Wallace Howe, who plays “A man of sorts – – we are not saying what sort) reads the will and realizes that if he can drive her out of the house, he and his wife will be sole inheritors of the old Colonel’s property. Then we watch  clear parody of one of D.W. Griffith’s classic “bird-smooching heroine” introductions, in which Mildred is simply covered in cute critters, and even feeding a piglet from a milk bottle as well. Now William Gillespie, playing the family lawyer, arrives into her idyll and informs her of her new wealth, discovering to his embarrassment that she isn’t married. He promises to find her a cure for that and dashes off in his car.

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Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.