Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Alec B Francis

Waiting at the Church (1906)

This Nickelodeon release from Edison Studios uses a popular song as the source for its story, which would have cued exhibitors what music to play for accompaniment, and perhaps encouraged audiences to sing along. Director Edwin S. Porter takes the simple premise to develop a comedic “chase film,” similar to others we’ve seen in the course of this project.

The movie begins with a shot of a man, sitting on a public bench, reading a newspaper. He is joined by a young woman who appears interested in making contact, although he tries to ignore her until she drops something from her purse. Then he gallantly recovers it for her and makes his introduction, and soon the two are strolling arm in arm, the camera panning to follow their action. The next scene shows the two of them at another bench before a lake in a park, flirting affectionately, and the man falls to his knee in the traditional pose for proposal. She responds enthusiastically, and several kisses are rapidly exchanged. The next shot is of the woman alone in a hammock, kissing a photograph repeatedly. A fantasy wedding appears in a double-exposure floating above the woman, but it disappears as the hammock unexpectedly collapses, causing her to crash to the ground. The man suddenly runs up to help her at this moment. The next shot is a medium shot of the man getting ready before a mirror. He fixes a collar on his shirt and fixes his hair with brush and comb, before putting on a jacket and top hat.

The next shot shows a group of children, ranging in age from about 3 to 10, standing in a circle tossing a ball. The man in his top hat is seen leaning out of a window of the house, but he withdraws before they see him. When one child throws the ball out of range, all of the children run off camera to chase it, and now the man comes out of the window and climbs out, running out to the street. The kids, seeing him make an escape, pursue him, the elder child running to the house to get her mother first. The next series of shots are out comedy chase. The man is running with a line of kids (and a wife) running after him, first down a suburban street, the across an open field, then through a columned pavilion, and finally up to the edge of some water, into which he splashes, the mother catching him here and dragging him off by the ear. One running gag is that the smallest child is unable to keep up, and so is always seen dawdling at the end of the line of pursuers. The final shot shows the woman from the original narrative, now dressed as a bride and standing on the stairs of a church, when a man in a messenger’s outfit walks up and gives her a note. She pays him by pulling some coins from her stocking and an insert of the note gives the punch line: “Can’t get away to marry you today. My wife won’t let me.”

While the joke may seem a bit lame today, audiences of the time probably appreciated it – the closing line comes from the chorus of the song, so it didn’t surprise so much as verify the humor they had been enjoying since the beginning of the film. The actress playing the jilted bride is Victoria Vesta, the music hall singer who had popularized the song. The camera movement, double-exposure, and mid-shot were all fairly advanced filmmaking techniques at the time, so this wasn’t necessarily a low-value production. It looked to me as if most of the locations used were pretty close together – the bench in the opening shot has columns behind it that look a lot like the pavilion, and the body of water he splashes into at the end could easily be the same lake we saw in the background of the proposal – but there are quite a lot of camera set ups for the period, and it looked to me as if the church was in some very different part of the city from the suburban homes we see when the man makes his escape. Porter had made a number of similar movies, perhaps the classic today being “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns,” but comedy chases were a staple of the time, because they allowed movement and action along with humor, and didn’t require much dialog or explanation once they were underway.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victoria Vesta, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 9 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Robin Hood (1912)

I’m writing again from Cinecon, and this is one of the movies that was presented here. As with last year, this means that I’ve only had a single viewing to work from (I usually watch films at least twice before writing a review) and have no access to the film to fact-check myself, I have to work from memory.

Robin HoodThis version of Robin Hood was made by the Éclair studios from their newly-established studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a major film center during the 1910’s. It foregrounds the romance between Robin and Marian, making other aspects of the story more incidental. Robin is played by Robert Frazer, who is in a love-triangle with Marian (Barbara Tennant) and Guy de Gisbourne (Lamar Johnstone), which is complicated by the fact that Marian’s father wants her to wed Guy, and conspires with the bad guys to bring this about. Robin is captured early in the film, but helped to escape by his Merry Men. The sheriff then issues a warrant for his arrest, but Robin’s men use tree branches as camouflage and ambush the sheriff’s party, tying them to trees. They perform various acts to alleviate the oppression of the people, including a raid on a nobleman’s house in which their escape is aided by Marian and her female servants flirting with the sentries. There is a great swordplay scene in which the sheriff’s men attack Robin and some of his companions in a tavern. They make their escape up the chimney. Friar Tuck saves the disguised King from molestation by the Sheriff and brings him back to Robin’s camp, where he beats Robin in duel, betraying his identity. Robin and his men pledge themselves to the King, and the King witnesses his marriage to Marian (after they rescue her once again) in a ceremony in the forest. Marian’s father protests, but must submit to the King’s will.

It was pretty clear that this was a major production for Éclair in 1912, in terms of production value and budget it is well ahead of most work of the time. For one thing, it is three reels long, which should make it about 45 minutes, although only about a half hour exists in the print I saw. Even so, that’s longer than most 1912 movies already. The costumes and multiple camera set-ups speak to the prestige of the movie as well. The fight scene in the tavern involved at least three camera angles, which is pretty rare for the period. We also get several close-ups, some scenes shot at 45-degree angles, color tinting on the print, and special effects like the fades from close-ups of the villains to animals they resemble in character. The camera is often at closer than full-length, giving us a chance to see the faces of the main characters clearly. The swordfights, while hardly Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and handled well and there is a good deal of action in the picture. I was less impressed by the acting. The Éclair studio was very new, and had to hire actors from the stage or with little acting experience at this time, and it shows. There are a lot of overly broad gestures and jerky movements, especially among the supporting players. Others have noticed the oddly oversized hats that the male characters wear, though this didn’t bother me as much.

Director: Étienne Arnaud, possibly with Herbert Blaché

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Robert Frazer, Barbara Tennant, Lamar Johnstone, Alec B. Francis, Arthur Hollingsworth

Run Time: 31 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915)

At least since “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” gangsters have fascinated American filmmakers, and many of the very best movies of any era have focused on crime and criminals. This despite a moral code that frowns on any attempt to “glamorize” the criminal lifestyle, and various levels of censorship, from official state boards to the Hays Code, that have discouraged it. Crime movies are hardly unique to the USA, of course, but the romance of the gangster seems to have a particularly American spirit to it. The gangster is an individual who succeeds due to toughness and a keen wit, in spite of the disapproval of society. Like the cowboy, much of his success is dependent on his readiness with a gun. Like the sports star, he often comes from humble beginnings and has limited education. Like the USA itself, he bows before no King.

This movie was remade in 1920, 1928, and 1942 (and people say there are too many remakes today!), but this was the first time the story was adapted to the screen. The director is Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques, for those more familiar with sound classics), who had gotten his start in France, but wisely came to the US at the beginning of World War One, when the French film industry was sacrificed to the war effort. Even at that early time, Tourneur was impressed by the state of American filmmaking, saying it was at a higher level than in Europe. I’ve discussed some of his work before, in “The Wishing Ring,” from 1914. I haven’t been able to find out who his cinematographer was for this picture, which is too bad, because it includes some of the best photography I’ve seen from the period. A lot of time went in to setting up some of these shots, so they were obviously important to Tourneur, perhaps even conceived by him, but it’s a shame not to have a record of who actually crafted them.

Alias Jimmy3

The story is of a man with a double life. Robert Warwick (later in “The Life of Emile Zola” and “The Awful Truth”) plays Lee Randall, “a respected citizen” whose underworld alias is “Jimmy Valentine.” I was a bit surprised at the Anglo-American name for our gangster hero, especially since Warwick looks somewhat Mediterranean in his Valentine guise, but this may have been meant to enhance audience sympathy, since audiences were generally assumed to be white (Anglo) males. His “respected citizen” persona apparently doesn’t earn much scratch, because he lives in a one-room flat in a tenement, but luckily he’s been gifted with hands that can “feel” the combinations to safes. We watch a heist in a fascinatingly labyrinthine bank from a high, diagonal angle:

Image from "Dreamland Cafe"

Image from “Dreamland Cafe

His gang gets caught by the night watchman, Jimmy/Lee manages to get away, but he gets into a fight with one of his cohorts who macks on a girl on a train, and he gets ratted out in return. Again, it’s his good fortune that the girl in question was the daughter of the Lieutenant Governor, because she arranges for his release from Sing Sing prison. But, not before we get quite a bit of footage of the place and its prisoners. During one march-past, several prisoners hold their caps over their faces, probably not wanting to be recognized on film. As a result of this genuine use of location footage, we see a much more ethnically diverse cast of extras than was usual at the time.

Alias Jimmy1

Anyway, the Lieutenant Governor gives Jimmy a job at his bank, and Jimmy convinces his friend Red to stop scamming free drinks and join him as a watchman. Pretty soon, he’s a respected cashier with responsibility for large quantities of cash. But, inspector Doyle, the man who caught him the first time, is hot on his tail for an earlier job, and soon his old buddy Avery shows up with ideas about robbing the bank he works at. Just when it seems like our hero has resisted temptation and covered up all the evidence of his past life, one of his boss’s tykes manages to get locked in a vault, the combination to which is inconveniently on a train out of town. The child is running out of air…

 Alias Jimmy Valentine

In spite of the contrived ending, I found the movie pretty enjoyable and even suspenseful at times. We’ve definitely entered a period where editing and camera movements add to the story structure. This movie actually came out only a few weeks after “The Birth of a Nation” premiered, and it is technically superior in some ways, although I should note that Tourneur considered D.W. Griffith an important inspiration and probably learned a lot of his tricks from Griffith’s early Biograph work. For example the interesting inter-cutting of Lee meeting with the respectable family and Red in a disreputable bar reminds me of Griffith and “A Corner in Wheat” in particular. I’ve already mentioned the photography; there’s a good use of light here, with an emphasis on silhouettes that is reminiscent of his son’s later film noir work. The many barred windows we see in Sing Sing add to that effect.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Starring: Robert Warwick, Ruth Shepley, Alec B. Francis, Johnny Hines.

Run Time: 1 hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Wishing Ring (1914)

Wishing Ring

Although shot in New Jersey, this early American feature claims to be “an idyll of Old England,” perhaps giving us some insight as to how Americans saw Britain and the British at the time. Unsurprisingly, the story centers on class relations. The story concerns a young upper class ne’er-do-well (Chester Barnett, also in “Trilby” and “Woman”) who get expelled from college and takes on the job of tending a rose garden. He falls in love with the pastor’s daughter (Vivian Martin, later to star in “The Stronger Love” and “His Official Fiancée”) when she tries to steal some roses for the church. Of course, she is unaware that he’s rich, and of course this leads to both comedy and drama. When gypsies give her a “Wishing Ring,” he takes advantage of the situation, buying her fancy gifts after she has wished for them, and leaving notes that they are “from the Wishing Ring.” They drink tea, and dance around a maypole, the professors from the school all go around wearing their gowns, and the servants are more stuck up and rigid than their masters. Interestingly, I spotted a few “backward-facing” intertitles, suggesting that some filmmakers were beginning to experiment with different ways of telling the story than setting it up textually then showing it visually all the time. Overall, it’s light and fluffy, but interesting nonetheless.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Camera: John van der Broek

Starring: Chester Barnett, Vivian Martin, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 60 Mins

I couldn’t find this one for free online. Let me know in the comments if you can.