Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Aa

The Americano (1916)

A somewhat heavy-handed plot and some unfortunate ethnic representations cheapen this rather slight early effort from Douglas Fairbanks. We see little of his physicality and exuberance in this film, although he does manage to represent an optimistic view of Americans, as usual.

americanoThe movie begins in the tiny Central American nation of “Paragonia,” where an uneasy truce between a popular civilian government and a corrupt military is endangered when the Minister of War (Carl Stockdale) opposes renewing a contract with an American mining company that provides work for most of the population. The Presidente (Spottiswoode Aitken) pushes the motion through, and sends a cable to the US, requesting an American mining engineer be sent to help them oversee the complex machinery. At the same time, the Premier (Tote du Crow) and the President’s daughter Juana (Alma Rubens) head to the USA for a visit. The mining school has selected Douglas Fairbanks, of course, as the best man for the job, but he’s not interested in relocating – at least until he gets a look at Juana. Back at home, the coup d’etat has been effected and the Minister of War is in power. The Paragonians return home quickly, leaving word for Doug to stay behind, but of course that wouldn’t be right, so he takes the next boat.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

On arrival in Paragonia, Doug finds that no one wants to talk about the President, the mining offices have been ransacked, and the only American left is a demeaning caricature in blackface, played by Tom Wilson. He does manage to contact the Premier, who’s in disguise as a street vendor, and to scout out the prison where the President is being held. Juana is being forced to marry the unsavory colonel Garagas (Charles Stevens), on threat of her father’s life, and the Minister of War is now splitting the army’s payroll between himself and Garagas. Doug finds that the President has been throwing papers out his window with the date November 23, 1899, and he looks in the old man’s journal to find out what happened on that day. Turns out that there was a jailbreak using a secret tunnel that has since been walled up, and that the old man is in the very cell that tunnel leads to! So, Doug organizes a hasty breakout with “Whitey” and the premier. Along the way, he is arrested by soldiers and taken to meet the Minister of War and Garagas. They try to bribe him with 1/3 of the army money to re-open the mines for them, forestalling a popular revolt. Doug takes the money and pretends to go along with them, then knocks out the soldier sent to spy on him and re-joins his friends and the mouth of the tunnel.

americano2The party makes its way through the tunnel and Doug starts chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel. The President, realizing what must be up, starts pounding on his cane to cover the noise, but a guard sees the tip of Doug’s chisel penetrate the wall. He holds the President at gunpoint and moves to nab whoever comes in that way. Looking through the hole he’s made, Doug figures this out and tosses the captured soldier in ahead of himself, then grabs the guard from behind. Now they make their way back to the capital, using captured guns to threaten their way into the palace, where Juana’s wedding is to take place after a speech by the Minister of War. He’s trying to placate the people, who have been told that the “Americano” is now working with him and will re-open the mine. Doug joins him on the balcony and exposes the plot. When the Minister tries to get the army to join him, saying that Doug has stolen their pay, Doug returns it, explaining that the Minister was the thief all along. The Presidente is re-instated, the mine is opened, and Doug and Juana get married (Doug now appointed the new head of the army of Paragonia).

americano3This movie is a pretty clear argument in favor of American imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine, and it gets its facts a little confused, as far as governmental instability in Latin America at the time. It’s unlikely that a coup against a popular government would be held to oppose American economic interests, usually it was the other way around. And it’s unlikely that the people would be cheering for “the Americano” to come save them. But, for the purposes of a Hollywood fantasy supervised by notorious racist D.W. Griffith, that’s pretty much par for the course. I still find Fairbanks’s “all-American” hero character charming, and reminiscent of the all-American optimist that Harold Lloyd would soon bring to life in his “glasses” character, although he’s certainly not as funny here. I was disappointed that he didn’t perform more stunts in this one. All we see him do is scale a wall to get in and out of Juana’s house, leap down some rocks by the beach, and beat up a soldier or two. Other than that, he spends a lot of the time talking to people and chiseling at a wall. There is a heavy use of close-ups, particularly of Fairbanks, suggesting that the producers thought that his face was a major selling-point of the film. There’s one interestingly shot/edited section where Fairbanks tries to bluff his way past the guards at Juana’s house: they cross their bayonets to block him and he moves back and forth between single-shots of each of them as he tries to fast-talk them, ending up in alone in a shot with the tips of their bayonets behind him. Other than that, it’s a pretty middling production overall.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Alma Rubens, Spottiswoode Aitken, Carl Stockdale, Tote Du Crow, Tom White, Charles Stevens, Mildred Harris

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online; if you do, please comment.

The Adventurer (1917)

I’m beginning the year 2017 with a review of the last movie Charlie Chaplin made in 1917, one of the funniest and most accessible of his work for Mutual Film Corporation. Chaplin finally finished out his record-breaking $670,000 contract with them when this film was released, and he turned down an offer of a million to renew, choosing instead to remain independent. This film was the first new Chaplin audiences had seen in four months, and by the time it came out he was one of the most famous men in the world.

adventurerThe movie begins with escaped-convict Charlie pursued by prison guards who could be Keystone Kops from his earliest days in cinema. He emerges from his escape tunnel on the beach to find himself next to a cop’s shotgun, and the chase is on. He quickly scoots up a cliff and drops rocks on his first pursuer, only to find one of the rocks is the shoe of another guard, with the guard still in it! Not one to complain, Charlie hurls the one guard down after the other. After several more clever incidents, Charlie winds up swimming into the ocean to escape. When the police try to follow in a rowboat, they are swamped by the waves.

adventurer1Charlie is able to get some clothes off of a bather at a nearby resort, and while he is swimming in encounters Edna Purviance’s mother drowning at the dock. Edna is nearby, at a dockside table with her suitor, Eric Campbell, and he at first boasts that he will jump in to save mother, but as he begins to strip off his clothes, it appears to occur to him that the water is cold, so she jumps in instead. Shortly thereafter, Eric and a hefty dockworker lean on the railing, causing it to collapse, and they fall in as well. Charlie manages to save all of them, although not without dumping Eric into the drink one more time for good measure, and he is taken home along with them in a limousine.

adventurer2The next morning, Charlie wakes up and thinks he might be back in jail. There are bars on the bed and stripes on his pajamas. But, the butler (Albert Austin) comes in and assures him he’s in the home of Edna and her parents, and Charlie soon comes down in suitably ill-fitting clothes to join what seems to be a perpetual cocktail party going on at the mansion. He grabs a bottle and mixes seltzer in for a big gulp. He and Eric exchange kicks in the rear, though Charlie always gets one up. Eric recognizes Charlie’s mugshot in the paper and tries to inform the hosts, but Charlie sketches Eric’s beard onto the photograph. In one famous bit, Charlie drops ice cream down his pants, and shakes in out of his trouser leg onto the back of a large, dignified woman below the balcony he’s on.

Charlie in high society

Charlie in high society

All good things must come to an end, and Charlie’s end is precipitated by the usual conceit of the scullion maid entertaining a cop (in this case a prison guard) in the kitchen. At first, Charlie thinks he will catch her in the act, but winds up being pursued himself. Eric calls in reinforcements, and soon Charlie is being chased all over the mansion, occasionally stopping to kiss Edna farewell. He disguises himself as a lamp and traps Eric in a sliding door in a wonderful chase sequence. Each time he gets ready to leave, another pursuer shows up and chases him back inside. Caught at least by the chief guard, he introduces him to Edna, and runs off to escape when the guard offers his hand to shake.

adventurer3This movie demonstrates considerable sophistication and pathos, even though it is in essence nothing more than a couple of chase scenes with material from “The Count,” “Caught in a Cabaret,” and other Tramp-amongst-the-rich shorts thrown in. Part of it is that Chaplin has now rehearsed some of these bits to perfection – the scene in the kitchen with the maid hiding the guard is a great extension of the same scene in “The Count,” for example. But, Chaplin is also a much more confident director, with more of the tools of cinematic storytelling at his disposal as well. The camera angles and cuts that let us experience his realization that he is in danger both emerging from the tunnel and when throwing rocks from the cliff would never have been seen in a 1914 Keystone movie, and so those gags couldn’t  have worked, or not nearly so well. Rarely if ever is the screen set up as a proscenium arch, the camera moves to accentuate the action and hides information from the audience until ready for a punch line. Cross-cutting sets up more complex relationships between actors in different areas than the old throw-the-rock-at-the-next-setup routine he was doing just a few years ago. Close-ups allow us to see the funny reactions of Charlie and of the often embarrassed and/or shocked rich people at the party.

This is one of the best examples of why Chaplin-itis became such a epidemic in the teens, and for those who haven’t seen any of his short subjects before, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Marta Golden

Run Time: 27 Min

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

Adventures of William Tell (1898)

Adventures of William Tell (1898)

Alternate Title: Guillaume Tell et le clown

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is an early example of slapstick, incorporating elements of circus performances into a short comedy routine. Although slapstick had been done before on film, especially with Edison’s release of “Robetta and Doretto,” this is one of the most violent of Méliès’s early films.

adventuresofwilliamtellThe movie starts with a clown building a mannequin by placing a torso onto a pair of legs, then a head and finally a pair of arms. The clown and mannequin are on a small set with a medieval theme, and there is a stool with a crossbow leaning against it to the left of the screen. The clown takes a round object (possibly a head of lettuce) from the stool and places it on top of the mannequin’s head, then goes back to get his crossbow. Suddenly, the mannequin comes to life and hurls the lettuce at the clown from behind. The clown jumps up and runs over to the mannequin, which has become inanimate again, and pulls off an arm, inspecting it and placing it back onto the mannequin. When he turns around to pick up the crossbow, the mannequin again comes to life and smacks him. This time the clown takes off the mannequin’s head and kicks it then puts it back on the mannequin, which immediately comes to life and grabs the clown, throttling him and tossing him about (the clown is now an inanimate doll, while the mannequin is played by a person). After stomping on the husk of the clown, the mannequin-figure runs out a door. The clown gets back up and picks up his crossbow, with the film ending with him in mid-motion.

According to the Star Films catalog entry for this movie, we are missing some of the end. Supposedly, the clown shoots himself with the crossbow, which then explodes, “producing some very fine smoke effects.” This would add to the violence and supply a bit more resolution to the action. The main special effect Méliès uses here is substitution of living actors and mannequins. Otherwise, nothing appears or disappears by magic, nor are there any other effects, apart from the exploding gun we didn’t see. It still appears to me that Méliès is not managing to create very coherent narratives for his movies at this point – he is just filling the sixty seconds or so of run time with as much action as possible, as he did with “The Magician” and “The Famous Box Trick.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès).

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Another Job for the Undertaker (1901)

This early short from Edison Studios is another early comedy from Edwin S. Porter, but it draws heavily from another of the icons of early film: Georges Méliès. It’s something of a remake, or maybe a parody, of his movie, “The Bewitched Inn,” only with a surprise punchline at the end.

another-job-for-the-undertakerWe see a set dressed as a hotel room with a sign reading “Don’t Blow Out the Gas.” A man is shown into the room by a boy in a bellhop’s uniform, but instead of caging for a tip, the boy does a somersault. Partway through the stunt, he vanishes! The man looks confused, but he begins arranging his hat and coat and umbrella, each of which disappears when he puts it down. He takes off his boots and they proceed to walk away from him, disappearing when he tries to grab them. He finishes preparing for bed and climbs in. Suddenly the film cuts to an image of a hearse in a funeral procession.

In traditional film histories, Porter is often given credit for “inventing” parallel editing. Whether that’s strictly true or not, he definitely was among the early experimenters in creating meaning by juxtaposing film of different scenes, and the ending of this film appears to be one of the earliest examples. If the imdb version of the Edison Catalog entry for this film is accurate, the audience is to understand that he has blown out the gas and thereby caused his death. It’s a fairly clunky edit, and ending, but that’s to be expected in an early experiment. Otherwise, the movie closely parallels its apparent source, “The Bewitched Inn,” except that the effects aren’t as good and the physical performance is less amusing. I still think it might be a kind of spoof, in that Porter seems to be using the audience’s expectations that it will follow the same storyline as a deliberate misdirection to make the ending more effective. It’s worth noting that Méliès himself remade this movie repeatedly, including in the 1903 film “The Inn Where No Man Rests,” and that many of his trick films dealt with much the same theme of a person in a room having objects suddenly disappear or appear. In the early days of cinema everyone remade each other’s successful movies, so it’s not really fair to accuse Edison or Porter of being unoriginal, but this doesn’t quite stand up to Méliès’s version.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with George S. Fleming)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

American Falls from Above, American Side (1896)

This early location film is perhaps the first “scenic view” provided by the Edison Studios. By traveling to Niagara Falls in upstate New York, they were able to provide a view that would be exotic to viewers even in New York City and certainly in the rest of the world.

American FallsWe see a view that includes the top portion of the falls and looks down upon a group of men near a tripod. Two of the men point at various features of the landscape and another seems to tinker with the camera. Throughout, the falls roll majestically on. The background shows that it is a cold winter day, with snow on the trees and the ground.

I said earlier that audiences may have become somewhat jaded about just seeing movement by 1896, but to our eyes today, this movie might seem to contradict that. Nothing happens, it just demonstrates movement by showing a waterfall. However, it’s important to remember that the opportunity to see a natural wonder in motion was very new at the time, and that many of the viewers of this movie would never, or maybe only once in their lives, have an opportunity to visit Niagara Falls. Movies like this helped to give people a sense of what it was like to be able to travel easily around the nation, and even contributed to a sense of national unity by bringing exotic locations directly to the people, as it were. While a good quality photograph lets you know what a place looks like, seeing it in motion brings it to life in an entirely new way.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

After the Ball (1897)

This is a rather shocking early short by Georges Méliès which shows “simulated” nudity, as well as more actual flesh than one expects in 1897! Intentionally or otherwise, Méliès proves to be a pioneer in the area of erotic fantasy as well as the child-friendly fairy tales for which he is remembered.

Apres_le_bal_(Star_Film_128,_1897)We see a set of what seems to be an upper class lady’s bedroom, decorated with rococo flourishes. A woman in an elaborate ballroom dress is center stage and another woman, dressed as a maid, accompanies her. The maid assists the lady in removing the dress, her slip, a corset and stockings, finally resulting in a bodystocking intended to simulate nudity. The woman faces the wall and steps into a tub and the maid pours water over her (actually it looks more like black powder, but this was probably to keep the bodystocking dry) from a pitcher. The maid covers her in a towel and the two exit stage left.

This movie stars Méliès’s future wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, who would marry him almost thirty years after this movie was made, in 1926. At the time, Méliès was married to Eugénie Génin, the mother of his children, so this may be the first “scandal” in film history as well. The movie is clearly a “strip show” – nothing happens except for a woman removing her clothes – and there is no attempt to disguise this by framing it in terms of a plot device. It’s worth noting that the nude female form was an accepted subject in painting and other visual arts (and the male nude had made a bit of a comeback with the re-discovery of the Ancient Greeks in the 19th century), so Méliès may have been thinking of this as an area where cinema could become more sophisticated by emulating those art forms. The woman is both mature and rubenesque, as opposed to the very young, skinny women that would be more popular in US movies in later eras, and this seems appropriate to the time and place. I have to assume that the film was not a tremendous success, because none of the other surviving Méliès films repeats the experiment, and it may be that he had difficulty in exporting it to countries that were less tolerant of French morality.

Alternate Title: Après le bal, “After the Ball, the Bath”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Starring: Jehanne d’Alcy, Jane Brady

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Alice Guy Films a Phonoscène (1905)

Alternate Titles: Alice Guy films a “Phonoscène” in the Studio at Buttes-Chaumont, Paris; Alice Guy tourne une phonoscène sur le théâtre de pose des Buttes-Chaumont

This is an early behind-the-scenes film documentary, showing audiences how movies are made. It demonstrates to some degree the more elaborate equipment needed for sound versus silent film.

Alice Guy Films a PhonsceneWe see a film studio from a camera that is set behind the camera which is used to film the actors. The set is brightly lit and includes a variety of actors, apparently preparing to give a large-scale song and dance performance. The crew is visible, but they are mostly silhouettes against the brightly-lit stage. Alice Guy is in the center of the screen, to begin with, but she too is just a silhouette. The camera pans to show all of the equipment. To the left is the movie camera, and on its right is a smaller camera, probably a still camera, the next object is a large table with old-fashioned trumpets (as from a gramophone machine) poking out at the top – presumably this is the sound-recording device. The camera pans past it to show a large reflector, which is at least partly responsible for bouncing all that light onto the performers. It pans back left, but not quite far enough to see the movie camera. The action begins onstage, and during the performance, Guy turns and adjusts some settings on the sound-recorder. At one point, the still photographer picks up his tripod and moves the camera, no doubt making a good deal of noise as he sets it down. Evidently they hadn’t yet invented “quiet on the set!”

It’s always interesting for a film buff to see how films are made, and even more so for a film historian to see the differences in how they were made in an earlier period to how they would be made later. The sound-recorder seems to have no microphone other than those trumpets, which are a good distance from the performers in this case, so you can see how hard it would be to get good sound, especially in a noisy location. Alice Guy was apparently an advocate of sound film from a very early date, and tried several different technologies to get it to work. What we see here is an example of the production of a sound-disc film, such as the “Trained Rooster” we saw earlier in the week. Ironically, the documentary of the filming has no sound, of course, so what we see is a silent depiction of the shooting of a sound film. Alison McMahan, in her book Alice Guy-Blaché: Lost Visionary of the Cinema uses this clip to argue that Guy was more decidedly a “director” as we understand it today than others of that time, although to me it looks like she is more interested in the sound than in managing the performance. In any event, the division of labor is clear at this stage, and perhaps especially so on a sound film.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Anatole Thiberville)

Cast: Alice Guy, unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no sound on original).

At the Floral Ball (1900)

Alternate Title: Au bal de Flore

Another short dance movie by Alice Guy, this one actually credits the dancers and includes hand-tinting. I’m not certain if this made it into “The Celluloid Closet,” but it is definitely an early example of same-sex romance on screen.

At the Floral BallWe see two women dancing – one is in a rather low-cut dress and the other is in 18th-century men’s clothing. They dance for a while and then a chair appears on the stage and the female-dressed woman sits down, apparently overheated. She signals the “man” to come over to her, and she shyly approaches, then sits on her lap and begins kissing her arm, Gomez-Addams-style, working her way up toward her face. The woman, sitting at a lower level, stops this before it goes any further than her elbow, but the two remain embracing in apparent rapture.

At the Floral Ball1A pretty racy ending for 1900! As I say (and indicate below) these dancers/romancers are identified by name in the title card, and they look to me like the Columbine and Harlequin from the previous short. This suggests that they were part of an all-female dance troupe, and perhaps well-known in Paris or elsewhere. How did audiences of the time respond to two women showing such affection? Presumably Guy and her superiors at Gaumont felt it would be accepted, and possibly the fact that one of them is dressed in men’s clothes makes it OK, just as the audience for “Turn-of-the-Century Surgery” accepts the doll as the character of the knocked-out patient, despite its “unrealism.” Perhaps it would have been less acceptable at the time for a man to kiss a woman on stage, because of the assumption that he would be aroused, whereas a woman theoretically could not be (recall the strong reactions to “The Kiss”).

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Lally and Julyett of the Olympia

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

At the Photographer’s (1900)

Alternate Title: Chez le photographe

Once again, we have a film by Alice Guy that resembles something I’ve seen before. In this case, however, Guy’s version is earlier than the others I’ve found, so it’s possible it originated with her.

At the PhotographersA photographer is setting up his gear to take portraits when a customer comes in, carrying a large plant. The cameraman makes him set it down beside him, then sits him in the chair before the camera. Just as he’s ready to snap the photo, the man leans over and picks up the plant. The photographer tries again, but once again the client moves at the critical moment. This continues until the two men come to blows, smashing the photographer’s equipment.

A very basic form of comedy is to set up an expected action and then suddenly defer or delay it. The angrier or more frustrated the person anticipating the action gets, the more the audience is inclined to laugh to let off tension. Certainly Alice Guy wasn’t the first to discover this, but she does use the basic concept nicely in the short run time of this movie. The other version of this that I’ve seen is “The Photographer’s Mischance” by Georges Méliès, but I believe there are Edison and Biograph variations as well, which just goes to prove what I’ve said before: in the early days of film, filmmakers copies one another shamelessly.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Automated Hat Maker and Sausage Grinder (1900)

Alternate Title: “Chapellerie et charcuterie automatique”

This film is another example of Alice Guy taking an old idea and modifying it to make it a little distinctive. It’s not particularly original, but it was more or less what audiences were expecting in the “Age of Attractions.”

Automatic Hat Maker and Sausage GrinderWhat we see is two men in front of a large machine with two dispensing trays. One man goes off screen and brings various live animals – I saw a chicken, a dog, and what I think were a rabbit and a cat – and he puts them into the machine through an opening at the top. Then he adds some powders (spices? Flour? I’m not certain) and pours water in through a funnel. Then the other man turns the crank while he goes around to the front. The first man removes sausage from the first dispenser, while hats pour out of the second into a basket. He puts the sausage aside and tries on some of the hats.

There’s quite a bit of history behind this movie. In 1895, the Lumière brothers released “The Mechanical Butcher,” which some claim as the “first science fiction film.” In it, a pig is put into one side of a large box and an array of sausages removed from the other. Early filmmakers being quite ready to copy a good idea, this was followed by releases from George Albert Smith (“Making Sausages,” 1897), the Biograph Company (“The Sausage Machine,” 1897), and Edison Studios (“Fun in a Butcher Shop, 1901 and “Dog Factory,” 1904). In that context, Guy was really just keeping up with the Joneses by making a similar film. The “hat” part is, so far as I know, completely original. I can’t help but wonder if all these movies reflect a certain uneasiness on the part of consumers regarding the industrial processes by which food was being produced and their lack of certainty about the quality of ingredients.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.