Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1920

One Week (1920)

Buster Keaton’s first movie released after he and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle ended their partnership and started to work independently is parody of a Ford Motor Company promotional movie for prefab housing. While our ability to appreciate the source of the satire is limited today, it holds up as a comedy for the ages.

The movie begins with a wedding between Buster and his new bride, Sybil Seely. For some reason, their “just married” car is being driven by the Buster’s former rival, “Handy Hank,” who is played by an otherwise unknown and unidentified actor. Buster and Sybil receive a plot of land and a build-it-yourself house that comes in numbered boxes, with IKEA-sized directions in an envelope. Keaton sets to work putting the house together, doing things like sitting on a plank a story up as he saws it in half, causing him to drop to the ground when it separates. Meanwhile, Hank takes some paint and renumbers two of the boxes, adding to the confusion Buster’s already serious incompetence was causing. The end result looks like a German Expressionist worked with a cartoonist to design a house.

Undaunted, Keaton and his wife move into the house. Their first major challenge is when the piano arrives. Keaton tries to attach a pulley to the ceiling to haul it in, but the ceiling droops down like a circus tent. So, Keaton props it up with a spare board. He brings the piano in, dangling from the ceiling, but it swings wildly and chases him around the room before crashing through the floor. His wife brings in a music score and he sets it on the piano. Buster also encounters problems when he nails down the carpet, forgetting that he left his jacket in the middle of the floor. The only way he can think of to get rid of the unsightly lump is to cut around it, remove the jacket, then put a small rug over the hole in the carpet. He uses the extra piece of carpet as a welcome mat. He tries to install the chimney, but winds up falling into the bathtub after his wife has just gotten out, then the door he chooses to leave the bathroom turns out to be a straight drop to the ground, due to the misnumbered boxes.

Buster and Sybil hold a housewarming party, trying to serve their guests despite an oddly-arranged kitchen, but when a storm kicks up outside, they discover that the house pivots in the wind, eventually spinning like a merry-go-round. All of the guests eventually are thrown clear by centripetal force, and Buster and Sibyl watch the house spin from their yard, in the rain. As if this were not enough, Keaton finds he has built his house on the wrong site and has to move it, attaching it to his car with ropes, and then simply nailing it to the back of the car. The movie reaches its climax when the house becomes stuck on railroad tracks. Keaton and Seely try to move it out the way of an oncoming train, which eventually passes on the neighboring track. As the couple look relieved, the house is immediately struck and demolished by another train coming the other way. Keaton stares at the scene, places a ‘For Sale’ sign with the heap (attaching the building instructions) and walks off with Seely.

Keaton showed considerable insight in choosing a simple subject that would make a coherent framework around which to build his many sight gags and pratfalls. The movie is essentially a series of vignettes, each prefaced by a shot of a calendar page being torn off to show us the passage of the week (a device borrowed from the Ford film). Setting it up that way actually makes it feel more coherent than, for example, “The Garage,” in which he and Arbuckle’s gags are tied together just by the sense that all of this could happen in an established workspace. Keaton did not hold back on his gags, using a full-sized house to great effect. One gag I didn’t mention above is an anticipation of one he used years later in “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” where a wall of a house falls toward him, with his character fortuitously missing getting crushed due to standing in the spot where the open window hits. The house really does spin, really is dragged onto a railroad track, and really is smashed by a locomotive. The gag at the end reminded me of a story Keaton tells in his autobiography about a practical joke played on Marcus Loew, where he pretended his car had died on a cable car track, carefully positioning it so that the trams would zip past, barely missing the front and rear bumpers.

Keaton shared writing and directing credits with Edward F. Cline, a man who would continue working on most of Keaton’s short movies for the next few years. It seems that Keaton, who was used to collaborating with Arbuckle, worked better at this time having someone to bounce ideas off of, or even to let him take over sometimes. This is very different from Charlie Chaplin, who started directing his own work while still in his first year at Keystone, and never let anyone else share credit for his creative work afterward. I suspect these differences in work styles partially explains the different flavors of their short movies – Chaplin’s are largely the work of a single genius, while Keaton’s are less personal, more inclusive creations. I don’t entirely know which I prefer – I think I laugh more at Chaplin movies from this period, but there’s something about Keaton that keeps me coming back, partly just to see how he did what he did.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Joe Roberts

Run Time: 19 Min

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

Way Down East (1920)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most enduring features, this movie comes from the period in which he was one of the leading lights of United Artists, and was quickly bankrupting himself trying to keep up a stream of hits for that ambitious studio project. While some of the movies he made then are dismissed today, this one endures as a critics’ darling – does it live up to its reputation?

Griffith’ usual flowery intertitles set up a situation he tries to present as “universal” although it is rather specific. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a young woman living East of Boston with her widowed mother. As money is tight, Anna reluctantly agrees to go in to the city to visit wealthy relatives, and ask for help. The family is clearly put off by her appearance, and she is a little too shy (and a little too proud) to ask outright for money, so she awkwardly accepts a left-handed invitation to stay. The one person in “society” who pays her any attention is Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a raconteur whose only interest is sex. He tricks her into a phony wedding in order to get her in bed, and convinces her to keep it a secret to avoid upsetting his father an losing his inheritance. Anna, thinking that her future fortune is now secure, returns home and begins seeing him secretly. She soon becomes pregnant, and tells Lennox that they must now reveal their marriage, causing him to reveal to her that it wasn’t legal. He promises her money and leaves.

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The Garage (1920)

This is the last short film from the Comique Studios starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton. after this, Keaton would strike out on his own and Arbuckle would make a brief stab at feature films before being embroiled in scandal, but for now, we get to enjoy the duo in action for one last time.

Arbuckle and Keaton play automobile mechanics and firemen at a garage in a fire station. They work for an old man who seems to have high blood pressure (Dan Crimmins). Molly Malone plays the boss’ daughter who is being courted by a man named Jim (Harry McCoy), though she turns him down after the flowers he brings her end up accidentally soaked in motor oil thanks to Fatty and Buster. Livid, Jim raises the alarm in the fire station to make Fatty and Buster think there is a fire and forcing them to rush across town. However, Jim accidentally starts a real fire while trying to exit the station and the firemen return to put out the fire and rescue Mollie who is trapped inside. When Fatty, Buster and several of the townspeople try to rescue Molly using a life net, she bounces up into the telephone wires. Fatty and Buster eventually get Molly down but become trapped themselves; luckily Mollie moves a car beneath them just before they fall and all three ride off together.

The summary above focuses on the “plot,” but really misses most of the film. Like most of the Keaton/Arbuckle shorts, the story is just a thin skeleton on which to hang a series of gags, which come fast and thick here. Right off the bat, we see Arbuckle washing down a car at the opening, and he seems to work extra hard on a window, before leaning through the window to clean the outside of the car, demonstrating that it was open the whole time! Keaton has some beer with his lunch, but decides it’s a bit thin and adds some wood alcohol to the mix. Keaton and Arbuckle get into a fight, throwing pies, soapy rags, oil and everything else they can find at one another, making a huge mess of themselves and the car Arbuckle just finished washing down. Then they put it on a giant spinning plate and spray it with a hose while the manager does pratfalls to distract the customer. And all this is just the first few minutes of the movie! Probably one of the best-loved sequences is where Keaton, having been chased by Luke the Dog and losing his pants as a result, pretends to be a Scotsman by cutting a kilt off a poster for Scotch whiskey and does a ridiculous jig in front of a policeman. Then he hides by walking behind Arbuckle, then switching to the front when the cop is behind them. None of this has anything to do with the garage (though it is loosely tied in to Jim’s attempts to date Mollie), but it works because it doesn’t need to make sense to be funny.

Unlike some of their earlier work, this one seems to flow naturally from one scene into the next, despite the madcap pacing. There is sort of a divide between reel one, which is mostly about fixing cars, and reel two, which is mostly about fighting fires, but there isn’t quite as much sense of the film being two movies stitched together as in “The Butcher Boy” for example. Arbuckle and Keaton are clearly having fun every minute, and although the movie ends with Keaton acting as chauffeur while Mollie and Fatty snuggle in the back seat, there is very little sense of Arbuckle being the “lead” and Keaton being a “sidekick.” The two of them are fully a team now. It’s sort of sad to think that they never worked together again, but in fact Keaton was headed for bigger things. We’ll be seeing some of that in months and years to come.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Molly Malone, Harry McCoy, Daniel Crimmins, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 25 Min

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

Headin Home (1920)

This early biopic stars its subject Babe Ruth but completely fictionalizes his life to create a down-home American narrative surrounding a life which might not have fit into accepted American mythology at the time. The result is somewhat odd, but at times quite amusing.

The movie opens, after a jokey intertitle, by showing a throng of baseball fans piling into a ball park (most likely the Polo Grounds, where Ruth worked at the time). They are nearly all men, and nearly all wearing identical straw hats – obviously a major fashion accessory of the day. We see the New York Yankees come out of their dressing rooms and a close up of Ruth in the dugout, then a ballgame and the crowd is shot from a few different angles. Suddenly, one of the fans is introduced as “an oldtimer from Babe’s birthplace, Haverlock.” Haverlock, it seems, is a small rural community somewhere in “the sticks” (it’s never really clear where, but the town has sort of an East Coast look that made me think of upstate New York). We are then transported to this rustic hamlet, where Babe evidently lived with his single mother (Margaret Seddon) and small foster sister (Frances Victory). Ruth is shown hacking down a small tree in the woods with the intention of making himself a baseball bat. Other town members are introduced, each with a funny and often misspelled intertitle, including the local banker (James Marcus), his son (Ralf Harolde) and daughter (Ruth Taylor), who is Ruth’s love interest Mildred. “Si,” the banker (short for “Cyrus”) kicks his son out of the house for running up debts and the son goes off to New York. We also meet Ruth’s rivals, who include the local dogcatcher (George Halpin) and Harry Knight (William Sheer), the man Cyrus brings in to work at the bank and to pitch for the local ball team, run by the drunken town barber (Walter Lawrence).

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Charlie Butts In (1920)

Unusual provenance explains this re-edited, re-titled version of Charlie Chaplin’s “A Night Out,” but it was once widely seen by audiences who had little access to new material from Chaplin during his long dry spells in the 1920s.

The movie begins by showing Charlie as a band conductor, with a trombonist who frequently hits him when his back(side) is turned. Then we cut to Charlie in his hotel, flirting with a woman behind a veil, apparently a bit drunk, impressed by her backside and horrified when her face is revealed. Next is a scene showing Charlie, evidently in a restaurant, using a decorative fountain for his evening ablutions. At the very end of this sequence, Bud Jamison appears to chastise him. Next is a scene of Charlie preparing for bed in a hotel room, tossing clothes out the window and nearly sleeping on the floor himself. Edna Purviance plays with a dog across the hall and this hides under Charlie’s bed. Edna follows it and Charlie finds a girl under his bed, only to find moments later, her husband (Bud Jamison again) at the door. Soon, Ben Turpin shows up with a bone to pick with Charlie as well. The ensuing fight ends with Charlie passing out in his bathtub.

Some unscrupulous type seems to have gotten ahold of discarded takes from “A Night Out” and edited it into a short movie. Again, since Chaplin wasn’t releasing much at the time (certainly not as much as the public wanted), it was easy to get a “new” Chaplin into distribution, even without his approval. It lives on in the guise of a Charlie Chaplin movie, although better prints of the originals have been released.

Director: Unknown (though Chaplin presumably directed all the footage)

Camera: Unknown (most likely Harry Ensign)

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Fred Goodwins

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Circus (1920)

This short from Bray Studios again mixes live action with animation (no doubt to save time and money before cel animation had been perfected) to produce a movie about a drawing that takes on a life of its own. The result is simple, but satisfying.

Let this ring represent “Circus.”

The movie begins with an image of an artist at his desk with a messenger standing over him. We see him draw the image of a clown, seal it in an envelope and address it to “the Operator.” The messenger brings it to a projectionist working in a booth, and he opens it to find instructions for the clown. He turns the page over and the clown comes to life, initiating the animated portion of the film. The clown draws himself a circus ring and calls for music. He creates the shape of a horse beneath a blanket, then pulls off the blanket, revealing a skinny nag. The horse eats the blanket and the clown does some stunts on his back, before the horse bucks him off and tramples him. The clown asks the horse to count out the toes on his foot, and the horse stamps on it. The horse then does a series of funny poses, and the clown announces that he will run to beat his own time of a mile in 1 and ¾ seconds, but he accidentally hits the horse with the bullet from the starter gun. The horse announces “I’m kilt” in a speech bubble and a horse with a halo emerges and floats up to horse heaven. The horse-St. Peter insists that he take off his shoes and when he tosses them down he hits the clown repeatedly. The clown throws one back up, giving St. Pete a black eye and the horse laughs, causing St. Pete to kick him back down to Earth. He re-enters the horse-body and comes back to life. He kicks the still laughing clown into an inkpot and the clown throws ink at the horse before putting the cap back on and descending.

This movie was part of a series called “Out of the Inkwell” produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave. The series ran from 1918 to 1926, and the protagonist would eventually become known as “Koko the Clown,” although he was nameless at the time of this film. He has a memorable look that I think today seems like a familiar image of an “old time” clown. He had first been drawn by Max Fleischer to demonstrate the success of his invention, the rotoscope, that was a method for achieving realistic movement for animated cartoons. The series became a hit, and the Fleischers went on to produce on film a month for eight years. Koko remained a staple for years after the end of the first series and continued working up to an appearance with Betty Boop in 1934, then took some time off before appearing on television in the sixties. This cartoon, which has many elements that would be familiar to children of later generations, seems fairly sophisticated, although much of the movie takes place against a blank white background. Once we get up to “horse heaven,” things get a bit more impressive, and the clown does well moving about the “real” world of the inkwell as well.

Director: Dave Fleischer

Animator: Max Fleischer

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

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

The Bomb Idea (1920)

This animated short from Bray Productions features Jerry Flannigan, known to readers of the Hearst Newspapers as “Jerry on the Job.” He is a diminutive fellow who works a variety of jobs, although his employment is a pretty minor aspect of this film.

Jerry and his boss are at a railroad station, reading the paper. They see a headline screaming “BOLSHEVIKI RUN WILD THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY” and become highly paranoid. When a mustachioed man walk up holding a large black sphere, they become fearful and try to hide, but everywhere they go, he seems to follow, polishing his “bomb.” Finally, they run into town and arouse several other citizens and a police officer to come out and investigate. The team sees the man lighting a match, but really he’s just lighting his pipe. He gets ready to throw the bomb and tries to knock over several bowling pins, but the ball misses and he has to use his pipe to get a “strike.” At that moment, the lynch mob confronts him with a gun, and he holds up his hands, causing his coveralls to fall off and reveal several bowling medals pinned to his chest. He runs off, leaving his clothing behind and the other lynchers turn on Jerry and his boss, initiating the traditional cartoon “fight cloud.” When the dust clears, it appears that Jerry and his boss have been torn to shreds, and the other men leave. Finally, the heads of Jerry and his boss poke out from the ground, with two black eyes each, but they are still alive. Oddly, in the final shot they kiss each other on the mouth.

What surprised me most about this cartoon was the direct political reference, but particularly in the context of red-baiting newspapers. The comic’s original host, the Hearst line of papers had been responsible for some of the worst red-baiting of the postwar period, and here was a cartoon apparently lampooning that with their character! The movie suggests that people should not jump to conclusions, and that violence can be fueled by irresponsible journalism. Of course, it’s all in the service of a laugh, and apparently meant for children who probably wouldn’t read that level of criticism into it. It was also interesting to see the early use of a dust cloud to simulate fighting in cartoons, something I remember from my childhood of cartoon-watching.

Director: Walt Hoban, Vernon Stallings

Animator: Walter Lantz

Run Time: 4 Min

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

Terror Island (1920)

Having survived 15 death-defying situations in the previous year’s serial “The Master Mystery,” Harry Houdini is back in this feature-length adventure thriller which bills itself a “melodrama.”

Houdini stars as Harry Harper, a treasure-seeker with a heart of gold who hopes to recover a shipwreck full of diamonds using his newly invented submarine in order to take care of local waifs who sell newspapers. Wilton Taylor and Edwin Brady are greedy treasure hunters who are gunning for the same treasure, and they read about Harry’s plans in the newspaper. Lila Lee is Beverly West, the horseback riding love interest who happens to be related to the bad guys and also possesses the map to the wreck in question, sent by her father in a plea for his rescue from island natives who plan to sacrifice him unless she returns a skull-shaped pearl he sent her earlier. Got all that? Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship

The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.

The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and  liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it. Read the rest of this entry »