Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: American Cinema

Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1911)

This short documentary about a New York school was evidently made for fundraising purposes. It shows the day-to-day activities at a progressive institution attempting to give working class and especially immigrant women a chance at making enough money to support themselves in an urban, industrial economy.

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that inform us of the difficult economic situation that many young women found themselves in when they left compulsory education. In “blind alley” jobs in shops and factories, they often earned 2 or 3 dollars a week, and had little opportunity for raises or advancement. The one-year program at the Manhattan Trade School can teach them skills, particularly in running sewing machines or other industrial machines that will give them an edge in employment. We see a group of girls filling out applications at their elementary school and then going to the Trade School for the first time. We then begin to see the program of classes.

Interestingly, the first shots of the school’s program emphasize the physical education that is included. We see girls tossing a ball, having their backs measured for posture, and engaged in a simple folk dancing class. This probably reflects the progressive sense that urban living was unhealthy and the importance of physical fitness, though it may also have been intended to perk up the interests of male donors – the girls are shirtless (though covered) for the “back-straightening exercises” sequence. Continuing our interest in the girls’ health, we then see girls preparing “nourishing meals” in the community kitchen. Two girls carefully measure the amount of batter to be added to a tin, using a scale to determine when it is enough, while another peels endless potatoes.

After this the focus is on more the kind of classes we expected to see. The girls are introduced to us by name, and many of them appear to be immigrants and/or Jewish (“Millie Spiro,” “Rosa Pasquale,” “Miriam Levy”). They learn basic sewing, millinery, dressmaking, “novelty box decoration,” “sample mounting,” machine operating, etc. They also receive instruction on personal economy and frugality – how to make the most from their low wages. The working conditions look bleak by our standards today, but there is enough light and air and no one appears to be in physical danger. Older women are on hand to supervise and offer suggestions, and the girls appear to be intent on getting their work done, not particularly distracted by the camera or interested in slacking. At the end of the movie, we see the girls receiving their certificates, and an intertitle tells us the salaries of their first jobs  – one is making $20 per week at “straw operating!”

To put this movie in perspective, it’s worth mentioning that it came out the same year that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took the lives of 123 young women who were working in the most appallingly unsafe industrial conditions in a sweat shop in New York City. Many of these women were immigrants, and many immigrants continued to work under unsafe conditions even after new laws were passed to protect workers. The Manhattan Trade School was intended to be a more positive solution to this situation. Children could leave school legally at age 14 and many working class boys and girls would immediately take work to support their families at that age. Some, especially in immigrant families, didn’t even get that far. The Trade School’s brief program was supported by grants to make it possible for the students to receive small stipends and the work they did in classes was sold to support the school as well. The “trades” taught at this school were not, for the most part, seen as professions, but as better alternatives to low-paying jobs for unmarried girls until they found a husband. Some probably did continue piecework of one kind or another from the home as well, which may explain the emphasis on “novelty box making” or “artificial flower making” we see here. This movie is a very interesting glimpse into the reality of life for many people at the time, although of course it is carefully edited to make the school look as good as possible!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sadie Smith, Mary Johnson, Millie Spiro, Rosa Pasquale, Miriam Levy

Run Time: 16 Min

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

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Trial Marriages (1907)

This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.

A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.

The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.

For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.

In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.

The real Elsie Clews Parsons

Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.

The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.

Director: Francis J. Marion

Camera: Billy W. Bitzer

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1901)

Similar to “Kansas Saloon Smashers,” this is another comedy short from Edison about the militant prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, this movie uses gender-role reversal to lampoon her efforts. Here, we get a peek into what critics thought of her home life – and it turned out to have more truth than they may have realized.

A wide-angle shot of a proscenium-style set shows a domestic middle-class bedroom, decorated with a needlepoint proclaiming “What Is a Home without a Mother?” and two rather creepy-looking portraits of the husband and wife. The husband, a man with a long beard, jumps out of bed in his nightshirt, and picks up a baby from a crib. Evidently, the baby is crying and its mother is nowhere to be seen. The man checks the baby’s diaper, then begins strolling about the room rocking the child to sleep. In the process, he steps on a tack. Just as he puts the baby back in  its crib, an older boy crawls out of the bed, also crying. This child the father disciplines with a quick spanking, turning him over his knee for a couple of quick pats, then rudely pushing him back into the bed. Now the hapless husband paces about the room, bemoaning the absence of his wife. He picks up a newspaper and grows even more angry – presumably it is filled with tales of Mrs. Nation’s exploits. He throws it into the fire. The baby is still not asleep, so now he gives it its bottle, and this reminds him of his own bottle: a bottle of whiskey secreted under a pillow. He retrieves it and starts to drink with pleasure, when suddenly Mrs. Nation arrives unexpectedly. She grabs the bottle and throws it out the door, then turns Mr. Nation over her knee and spanks him, just as he had done to their son only moments earlier.

The humor of this movie is mostly based on the idea that a politically active woman is by definition neglecting her wifely duties, and that a weak man will be dominated by a strong woman, creating an unnatural and thereby funny situation (Mr. Nation is smaller than his wife). It’s all the more ironic in that Carrie Nation only returns from her “manly” political work in order to assert her dominance over her tippling husband. None of this is likely to get a lot of laughs today, but what is somewhat funny is that the real Mr. Nation, a retired minister, did in fact sue his wife for divorce on similar grounds only a few months after this film. He wasn’t taking care of children (Carrie’s only daughter, from a previous marriage, was a grown woman), but he did complain that she neglected the housework and wouldn’t let him drink! I thought that the depiction of child-rearing in the film was interesting: apparently the best way to get a child to sleep was to give him a couple of smacks on the bottom. I doubt if Dr. Spock would endorse this.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901)

This short film from Edison gives a comic reproduction of then-recent prohibitionist activity in the Mid-West.  Although her name is not mentioned in the title, it is clearly a film about Carrie Nation.

We see a proscenium-style wide-shot of the front of a bar, with various characters approaching the bartender to purchase drinks. There is a working-class woman, who buys a “growler” in a bucket, a friendly policeman, who buys and drinks a whiskey, and an Irish caricature, who carries a sod shovel and smokes a pipe. Suddenly, a group of women in black dresses and bonnets rush in with hatchets, smashing bottles of liquor. One of them grabs the “growler” the Irishman was buying and throws it on him, then she runs behind the bar and smashes the mirror. She is then sprayed by the bartender with his seltzer bottle, and the tide of the battle turns as the policeman returns to escort the women out of the bar. They leave, but the policeman slips on the beer and falls. The bartender also slips right as the film ends.

The Real Carrie Nation with a hatchet.

Carrie Nation was able to carry out her attacks on Kansas saloons in part because State law stated that they should not exist. She would be arrested for disturbing the peace, but released after a day because of the difficulty associated with prosecuting her for doing what the police were supposed to do already. The eastern Edison crew that worked on this movie don’t seem to have been terribly sympathetic, the cop we see drinking seems to be a nice fellow, and the prohibitionists are out of control and ultimately defeated with a seltzer spritzer. Still, it was a smart move, dramatizing events that were widely spoken about among the classes of people that were watching movies at the time. This movie was likely adapted both for individual kinetoscope viewing and for screening at venues that had projectors. It’s a pretty simple shoot, but note that the smashing of the mirror is accomplished with a jump cut, similar to the effects that Georges Méliès was now famous for. The narrator on the “Treasures” disc this is included with suggests that the women are played by men: if so, I couldn’t tell, but it’s true that women were pretty scarce at the early Edison shoots.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Little Princess* (1917)

The classic tale of a young scamp in a snooty all-girls school is given the star treatment by Mary Pickford in this movie. Pickford had made her name playing girls well below her actual age, and here she really stretches things, pretending to be a child of only 10 or 11.

As the story opens, Mary, as Sara Crewe, is still in India, hiding in an urn and spying on her father (played by Norman Kerry) as he decides to move back to Britain after years of service in the colonial forces. She is opposed to the idea, being accustomed to a privileged life of servants and a large house, but children don’t get to make those decisions for themselves. She is enrolled in the Minchin boarding school for girls, where she is very shy and uncertain at first, and this is perceived as standoff-ish, which, along with the vast wealth her father provides for her comforts, earns her the nickname of “little Princess” from the other students.

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Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

One of Mary Pickford’s most successful features at the time, this was directed by Maurice Tourneur – or, perhaps, co-directed by him, given the power Mary wielded on the set – and written by her friend Frances Marion. It’s probably not her most accessible movie today, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s a valuable insight into what made her a superstar for her era.

The movie starts out by introducing its title character, 10-year-old Gwendolyn, played by Pickford (I’ll address that later, just accept it for now). It is immediately established that she is “rich” in wealth, but “poor” in love. Her parents neglect her and leave her with unsympathetic and strict servants in charge. The scene is set for us with highly stylized intertitles that show a small girl in an enormous room, with toys but no companions. Then Gwen comes skipping onto the scene, only to be confronted by two stern-looking butlers. She sees some children skating outside the window and smiles happily, but a servant comes over to slam it down. She begs her mother (Madlaine Traverse) to give her a minute, but her mother is rushing off somewhere and says maybe they can talk to-morrow. Gwen asks, “Why is it that my to-morrows never come?”

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Aeroplane Flight and Wreck (1910)

This movie was probably used for stock footage many times in years to come in those movies mocking early efforts to achieve air travel. An inventor demonstrates his new aircraft to the camera, but the title spoils the ending for us.

The movie stars one “M. Cody,” who is presumably the inventor of the biplane we see displayed. He arrives by horse and carriage and pulls the huge biplane out of its hanger by hand (evidently it doesn’t weigh that much). He and his assistants check over the motor and try to get the propeller started. We cut to a shot of the propeller at full speed, then back to a long shot of the men pushing the machine out onto the field into position for takeoff. Cody puts on goggles and gloves and gets into the seat. Then the plane begins its long taxi down the field (seen from multiple camera positions). It bounces along a bit, but never achieves flight before tipping over and crashing nose-first into the ground. The camera lingers on the wreckage.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the most frequent “old movie footage” on television was images of people with wings strapped to their backs or sitting in bizarre contraptions of one kind of another that were supposedly early attempts to fly. I suspect that most of them were filmed solely for comedic effect. This movie does look like a more convincing piece of newsreel footage, although the editing and camera angles suggest that there was a good deal of preparation put into it. Cody seems to be alright at the end, but the wooden structure of the plane has suffered quite a bit of damage from the impact. It’s important to remember that by 1910, powered flight was already accomplished, but, like the motion pictures, it was still a wide-open field of pioneers and experimenters. This fellow’s model didn’t work out, but he may have learned something useful in the attempt.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: M. Cody

Run Time: 4 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass (1898)

This short film from Edison depicts a piece of an important historical event – the Klondike Gold Rush – as it was seen by news consumers at the time. By 1898, location shooting made it possible to see bits of news events in motion, rather than just as still images in the paper.

What we see is a winding trail from the point of view of a camera placed behind a bush, just off the trail. The pack train approaches us, led by a man on a horse, with several heavily-laden mules following. The train continues for some time, alternating a series of mules with a man on a horse every few seconds. The pack train does not finish passing the camera before the film runs out; it seems to continue forever. Towards the end, a man appears atop a rock to the left side of the trail, looking down at the train, and seems to interact with the men on horseback.

The Chilkoot Pass was a critical artery connecting people to the Klondike, and at times it was filled with streams of gold-seeking migrants. Some very famous images of this event were used or reproduced in later movies, such as “The Gold Rush” (1924) starring Charlie Chaplin. However, this image is fairly dark and blurry (possibly it just hasn’t aged well) and is otherwise unfamiliar. Perhaps it inspired gold fever in some viewers, who decided to try their luck in the Klondike, but it really shows how much competition there already was there by the time the movie was released.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cavalier’s Dream (1898)

I’m jumping back a bit in my “history of horror” this October because I just found this early Vitagraph short that is clearly an attempt to imitate Georges Méliès, even though it’s still very early in his career as well. It’s not a terribly frightening film, but it is an example of an American movie showing the supernatural.

The “cavalier” of the film is a man with a long ponytail dressed in knee breeches and a frilly shirt. The movie begins with him bent over a table in a large room or hall. A figure in a hooded cowl approaches his sleeping form. She wakes him up by poking him and when he gets up, the table is suddenly filled with food and the witch has disappeared. When he sits to eat, the figure of the Devil appears and confronts him, and the witch reappears in the seat across from him. He approaches her and she turns into a woman in ordinary dress. He goes to embrace this new figure and suddenly she turns into an old crone. He turns to leave and suddenly two witches and the Devil appear in front of him. He tries to go the other way and a new witch and the Devil appear at that side. Now the Devil climbs atop the table and he is flanked on all sides by the hooded figures. He collapses into the chair and they dance in a circle around him. Then the Devil gestures and all of the apparitions disappear. The cavalier awakes to find himself alone.

The original Edison catalog emphasizes the “startling and instantaneous” transformation effects achieved through stop trick photography. This had been pioneered by Méliès in just the previous years, although Edison used it for a “horrific” effect in “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” even earlier. Like many of these early films, one expects that the intention wasn’t so much to frighten to audience as to fascinate them, but this film does seem to have a somewhat darker atmosphere than Méliès movies of the same period. The Devil isn’t “funny” per se, nor do the dancing figures appear to be having fun so much as acting to threaten. Perhaps the American attitude towards horror was already a bit more serious than the French, even at this early date.

Director: Unknown, sometimes attributed to Edwin S. Porter (though Charles Musser says not possible).

Camera: Unknown, possibly J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Seminary Girls (1897)

This was not the first or last time that the Edison Studio would produce a movie about girls in their nightclothes having a pillow fight. Presumably such titillating releases had an appeal for Kinetoscope audiences at the end of the nineteenth century.

The very short film shows a group of young women in a simple set with two beds, a dresser, and a door. They are already engaged in their “frolic” when the movie begins. They pick up pillows and begin hitting each other. One of them, devoid of a pillow, seems to be trying to defend herself with a sheet. Another tries to hide behind the dresser. Soon, a taller women (or possibly a man in drag) comes in through the door carrying a candle. She scolds them and is pummeled with pillows for her efforts, but soon has one of the miscreants by her toe as she tries to hide under the bed.

There’s not much to this film, but it’s pretty typical of the short film strips viewers could see in Kinetoscope parlors before projected film became standard. Presumably, most people dropping a nickel into a machine marked “Seminary Girls” were hoping for something a bit racier than what they got, but after all, it was still very much the Victorian Era. I note that the set, while still very simple, is a bit more advanced than in the earlier movie “Pillow Fight,” which didn’t even bother with walls or a door, just the usual black background of the Black Maria.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.