Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1920

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.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

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

Convict 13 (1920)

Buster Keaton tries on a striped suit along with his stony expression in this early two-reeler from Metro. Dealing as it does with execution, prison riots, and police brutality, it is of course a gold mine for comic pratfalls.

The movie begins with Keaton on a golf course, in his typical get-up, trying to impress a girl and generally failing as a golfer. At one point, having knocked his ball into a water trap, it is swallowed by a fish, and Buster has to catch fish with his bare hands, inspect their insides, and find a way to retrieve his ball when he does find it. Meanwhile, a fellow about Keaton’s height escapes from a nearby prison. He find his way to the golf course and comes across Buster, lying unconscious as a result of beaning himself with his own ball. The escapee swaps clothing and walks away free. As Keaton wakes up and attempts to continue golfing, several prison guards surround him and he slowly becomes aware of his new uniform. He distracts them with his ball and takes off running, but pretty soon there are more guards and Keaton falls into line marching with them. For a moment it looks like he may escape when he tricks them into marching the other way, but it only gives him a brief reprieve – he winds up trying to hitch a ride from the warden before getting finally running ahead of the guards into the prison and locking himself in when he tries to lock them out.

The warden, it turns out, is the father of Buster’s girl (Sybil Seely). She tries to plead for him, knowing that he was free just a few hours ago, but his number (#13) is on the roster for a hanging today and daddy insists on carrying it out. Thinking quickly, Sybil grabs some elasticated rope from the gym, and replaces the noose with it. When the hangman puts it around Buster’s neck, he bounces up and down, but does not hang. The warden assures the disappointed audience of convicts that he’ll hang two next week to make up for it. Keaton is put on rock-breaking, which he does by tapping lightly on the smallest bits of rock he can find, resulting in an extended slapstick battle with one of the guards, who happens to be about Keaton’s height. When he is knocked out, Buster changes clothes with him.

Now in a position of authority, Buster finds himself confronted by a hammer-wielding crazed convict (Joe Roberts), who has already knocked out all his other guards. Buster tries to frighten him, but soon they are also in a running battle, which extends to a riot as the other convicts catch the fever. Buster puts attaches a basketball to the elasticated rope and swings it around his head, knocking out all of the other convicts, and finally managing to take down Roberts as well. Just as it seems he will be able to claim victory and get the girl, he accidentally knocks himself out, finding himself back on the golf course, being shaken back to awareness by Sybil. It was all a dream.

In this movie, Keaton takes the concept of “the clothes make the man” to an extreme. Once he’s in the uniform or prisoner #13, that’s his life. Only Sybil can see through the clothes to recognize him, even Keaton seems resigned to his fate as a convict. This is particularly evident as he resolutely goes up the gallows steps because his number is due for execution – his character doesn’t even know that Sybil has acted to save him. He barely even protests, and does nothing to stop the executioner. Once he’s changed clothes with the guard, now he’s a guard (and presumably the other fellow just accepts being a convict on death row). He acts in his own interest in fighting the rioters, but he also makes no attempt to escape the prison now that he’s presumably a free man. He does his duty, stands his ground, and manages to prevail. Of course, the ending calls all of it into question. In a dream, we often accept conditions that wouldn’t logically make sense in waking life. It’s somewhat more funny to think of this as the reality of Keaton’s world, rather than a dream, but the ending kind of undoes that conceit.

The basketball-swinging stunt harks back to a gag that Buster and Joe Keaton did on stage, as described in Keaton’s autobiography. His father would be shaving himself on one end of the stage with a straight razor while Buster swung a basketball on a rope, getting closer to his dad with each swing, and timing the hit precisely to avoid injury and maximize laughs. Then his father would chase him and use him as a “human mop.” According to Keaton, a real razor was used, and no one was ever hurt with it. Still it shows the lengths he and his family would go for a laugh.

Director: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline, Joe Keaton

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here.