Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: American Cinema

Fireman Save My Child (1919)

This animated short stars “Mutt and Jeff,” themselves stars of a long-running newspaper comic strip. The movie emphasizes slapstick and low-brow comedy of various kinds.

The movie begins with a very primitive image of the front of a fire station. Mutt and Jeff walk out to the front and Mutt sees smoke billowing out from a neighboring tree. On the logic of “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he and Jeff spray the tree with a fire hose, putting out the cigarette of a policeman who’s standing there and drenching him as well. Jeff runs away, climbing the fire pole and putting his hat on one bed, rumpling the covers to make it appear he’s there, then hiding under another one. The cop comes into the station and hits Mutt with his billy club. Mutt grabs a fire ax and goes looking for Jeff. He finds the hat and gets ready to swing, but suddenly five other firemen jump out of the bed and confront him. Further problems are prevented when a real fire bell goes off and everyone piles into the fire truck in a comedy sequence. They get to a tall building that’s on fire and a lady is yelling “save my darling!” Jeff uses the hose to squirt Jeff up to the top of the neighboring building and helps one young woman escape, but she’s not the right one, so he goes in to the burning house, where he’s attacked by a vicious dog. Eventually he makes an escape, getting ready to leap onto the firemen’s life net, but at that moment a pretty girl is climbing down the fire escape and all the firemen go to look up her skirt. Jeff crashes through the pavement. He and Mutt go to talk to the screaming woman and it turns out that her “darling” is the dog. They pass out on the street.

There’s not much to this, besides constant cartoon violence. The backgrounds remain simple and un-detailed, and most of the animation is repetitive. There is a quick close-up on Mutt as he hides under the bed, which shows more detail than most of the images. The other interesting bit is how various characters, including Mutt and the policeman, are able to “ride” the water coming out of the fire hose. It’s not an entirely reliable mode of conveyance, but it does allow some impossible things to happen. Mutt and Jeff were one of the first comic “strips,” in the sense of being several linked panels, and ran for many years. Many kids, like me, who never actually saw Mutt and Jeff heard about it from our parents: they were American comic icons to which modern cartoons and comics were always compared. This series of animated shorts was produced from 1916 until 1927 and consisted of over 300 movies.

Director: Bud Fisher

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 6 Min

I have been unable to find this available for free viewing. If you do, please comment.

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Bobby Bumps Starts for School (1917)

This short piece of animation is very similar to “Buster Brown” comics and movies, as well as other early twentieth-century American depictions of “rascally” children. It shows the first day at school of a known troublemaker.

As the movie opens, Bobby is in his bathroom, getting thoroughly scrubbed by his mother. He says “Wow!” repeatedly, as shown in a speech balloon. When she’s done washing his face, he staggers about the room blindly, yelling “Towel!” until Fido, his dog, passes the towel on the chair to him. Fido makes the mistake of laughing, however, which results in Bobby scrubbing his face until he starts running around looking for the towel too. Now the cat comes in and laughs and the dog scrubs his face until the cat punches him, giving him a black eye. Bobby lugs enormous school books down the street, and then is shown sitting at his desk working on a writing project. He gets distracted by daydreaming about playing baseball with Fido, but then the teacher asks him to turn in his work. We see that he has written “Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin he helped his father to build.” (Pretty good grammar for a little kid, whatever the logic of the sentence!)

The next sequence takes place during recess, which is set up with a large shot of all the kids playing and fighting in the school yard. A lot of them look just like Bobby, except for some African American caricatures. Bobby sneaks up to the belfry and climbs into the large school bell. When the teacher goes to pull the rope for the bell, no sound comes out. We see that this is because Bobby, briefly joined by Fido, is riding the clapper and presumably muffling the ringing. The teacher comes up to investigate and he sees Bobby just as Bobby and Fido leap out the window and climb down to a waiting mule. The teacher foolishly climbs out on the roof and is kicked by the mule when he falls, flying back up to the belfry and crashing through it on his way down the other side. He is shown beneath the broken bell, his legs flailing and kicking at the sides. This alerts the children in the schoolyard that recess is over. We see the school kids crowded around a sign informing them that the school will be closed until the belfry can be repaired. They all smile in joy. Bobby goes to visit his teacher at the hospital, where a doctor can only hear a ringing noise through his stethoscope.

This movie confirms that casual violence has always been a part of American animation targeting children – and it has always probably been popular with that age group as well. The redundant “towel” sequence seemed to fill up a lot of space, but the “punch line” (ahem), with Fido getting a ring around his eye was cute. It seems like animators at this time relied on being able to repeat actions in order to save time on drawing new images. A lot of the movement we see in this is repeated at least twice, though that also probably makes it easier for very small children to follow the story.

Director: Earl Hurd

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min

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

Cartoons on Tour (1915)

This short from Edison is another very basic animated cartoon – with a live action wrap-around story – from the silent era. Most of the animated sequences are devoted to low humor and slapstick, although the final animated sequence is meant to be uplifting, or at least charming, by comparison.

The movie begins by establishing a young country girl (Maxine Brown) who is waiting on her porch with a comic book for her lover to take her and elope. Her father (William Chalfin) comes out to say good day on his way about some errand and she hides the letter and the marriage license in the comic book. Then, she begins to read, which takes us into the world of the “Animated Grouch Chasers” comic and “The Tales of Silas Bunkum.” Here, a group of rural rubes is sitting around telling tall tales, establishing a second wrap-around story. One tells of a time when he was stranded on a desert island with nothing but a snuff box. We see him take a pinch and sneeze, then he comes upon an elephant who is crying for some reason. The farmer offers the elephant some snuff and it sneezes so hard that it blows him onto the deck of a passing ship. We come out of the story-within-a-story to see the farmer’s companions knock him off his perch for lying. “Folks don’t beleive [sic] nuthin’ no more,” he complains. We now come back to the live-action world to find the girl laughing hysterically at the cartoon.

Now the beau (Johnnie Walker) arrives in his car, but he’s having mechanical problems. The girl manages to locate the problem by putting her hand on the motor at random, and the two are off. The soon overtake her father, and they offer him a ride, without saying where they are going. They give him the comic book to distract him. He reads about “The Kelly Kids’ Kite.” This is another animated sequence in which a small child is given a kite string to hold, only to be pulled high into the air and suffer an encounter with an aggressive bird. There’s an unfortunate caricature of an African American child in this one, which I won’t go into, but the end result is the child losing his grip, but his petticoats open up like a parachute and allow him to land safely in a bale of hay before being chased off by the farmer whose sleep he disturbed. Once they arrive at the pastor’s the father continues to read “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland.” This story involves a misbehaving child-sized husband with a much larger, domineering wife. As the story opens, he’s using a telescope to ogle a bathing woman, but his wife puts a stop to that and holds him in her lap. Mr.s Hicks now dozes off and we see his dreams. He finds the fountain of youth and takes a swim, apparently becoming a baby about the age of the child in the previous film (though with a mustache). He runs away from a frog and steals a bottle from another child before finding a pretty woman and climbing into her lap. Of course, as he goes to give her a kiss he wakes up and finds himself kissing his own wife. The father finds this the funniest comic he’s read so far.

However, now he finds the letter and realizes why the car has been parked in front of a minister’s house so long, and he runs in to remonstrate with the now-wedded couple. They put him at ease by showing him a final comic, “The Pleasure of Being a Grandpa,” which depicts an old man dozing and dreaming of bouncing a little one on his knee. This brings the family together, reconciled.

This movie closely resembles the work of Winsor McCay, and there are some indications that the creator, Raoul Barré, may have deliberately been cribbing from McCay. For one thing, there’s the proximity of the title “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland” to McCay’s famous comic “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” For another, there’s the elephant, which dances in a manner very similar to “Gertie the Dinosaur,” released the previous year. At any rate, the similar style is partly due to the sparse backgrounds, a result of the labor-intensive methods of creating animation in those days before cels had been invented. The movie overall works well enough, but the live action is visually uninspired and wouldn’t be any big deal in terms of plot or acting in 1915. It’s mostly a showcase for the animation, which would have been impressive at the time, even though it looks primitive today.

Director: Raoul Barré

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Maxine Brown, Johnnie Walker, William Chalfin

Run Time: 11 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Triple Trouble (1918)

This is sort of a “fake” Charlie Chaplin movie, but one which nevertheless stars Charlie Chaplin! In 1918, years after losing the star to Mutual, Essanay, his sophomore studio, stitched together this “new” film from footage he left at the studio (some already released), adding some material directed by his co-star Leo White and releasing it to a Chaplin-hungry public that didn’t know any better.

The movie begins with a random close-up of Charlie with a cigar in his mouth, but the plot begins when we see “Colonel A. Nutt,” who is building a new type of “wireless explosive.” The wartime origin of this new footage influences this plotline, which involves a spy ring led by diplomats from “Pretzelstrasse” (Leo White is the lead agent). Meanwhile, Charlie is introduced as the new janitor in the Nutt House, and there’s some good otherwise unreleased footage of his antics in the kitchen with cook Billy Armstrong and flirting with maid Edna Purviance. Charlie empties most of the food the cook has prepared into the dustbin and then proceeds to strew garbage all over the place by carrying it on his back, even dumping it on poor Edna. We see Leo White at a fence and the dustbin appears over the edge, making it seem that Charlie is dumping the remainder of the trash on him! (Close attention reveals that Charlie has four arms in this scene). Edna and Charlie get into a fight in the kitchen, but the wet rag she throws at him flies into adjoining rooms, hitting Billy and Leo instead, so they blame one another and then get into a fight as well. Soon, Billy figures out where the rag came from and goes to punish Edna, only to find himself confronted by Charlie’s wrath (a boot to the rear). The Colonel finds Leo in bad spirits after his confrontation, and ejects the man without hearing him out.

Charlie now heads to a doss house to spend the night, having completed his dubious day’s work. Charlie has various comic adventures there – lighting a man’s toes on fire, conking a loud-singing drunk over the head with a bottle, and outsmarting a thief who comes in to rob the vagrants. Meanwhile, a pickpocket (Billy Armstrong in different clothes) tries to hold up Leo White and is recruited into the scheme to rob the Nutts. A nearby policeman overhears the plan and calls in other officers, busy playing craps in an abandoned lot. They rush to the Nutt House, where they explain that they are on the trail of a large crime, and occupy the living room. A riot breaks out in the dosshouse and Charlie is forced to flee, ending up with Billy, who talks him into joining the robbery of the Nutt House. The cops are all still there; lying around, smoking, waiting for something to happen. Pandemonium breaks out when the pickpocket enters the house, and amid the chaos, Colonel Nutt’s explosive device is detonated, blowing all of the cops skyward. In the aftermath, the pickpocket is buried in a heap of rubble and Charlie is seen poking his head out of the kitchen stove.

While this is far from Charlie’s best movie (or even his movie, really), it is kind of fun from a historical view to try to figure out which scenes were made when. A good portion of it (especially the dosshouse) was used in the Flicker Alley release of “Police,” and may have been shot for that movie. Or, it may have been shot for “Life,” an incomplete semi-autobiographical project Chaplin worked on at Essanay. Certainly the “janitor” sequences come from this source. Other parts, with Leo White and the “Pretzelstrasse,” were shot afterwards directed by White, and inter-cut with the Chaplin footage to appear to be part of the same movie. Some of this is laughably unsuccessful. The final explosion and head-in-stove sequence is straight from “Work.” The result of this piecemeal story engineering is a rather disjointed film which at times feels more like an anthology of very short shorts than a coherent film. The parts which include Chaplin, however, are up to his usual standards in terms of physical comedy and there are at least a few laughs to be found here. I particularly enjoy the early scenes of Charlie as a hapless janitor in a wealthy home, operating within the Upstairs/Downstairs world of the servants.

Chaplin himself was “Not Amused,” however. He sent a telegram to the “Moving Picture World” informing them of the dubious nature of the movie and asking that false advertising for it be “stamped out.” However, having already lost a legal battle to prevent Essanay from releasing the extended version of “Burlesque on Carmen,” he kept his criticism to the trades this time. Essanay defended their right to re-cut Chaplin footage and present it as “new.” After all, no one had seen this movie before, had they? It was largely academic, because it was out by this time and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It entered the public domain since Chaplin never reissued it with an original score, and thus it actually may have had more releases since that time than many of his early Essanays. It remains a part of his legacy, though decidedly a part he never could control.

Director: Charlie Chaplin.Leo White

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Bud Jamison, Albert Austin, Snub Pollard, Wesley Ruggles

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Lightning Sketches (1907)

This very short film from Vitagraph beats Windsor McCay to the punch by several years in his claim to be the “first animator” – though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were even earlier examples. It serves as an example of developing film techniques in America as the Nickelodeon Era was beginning.

The screen shows a large pad of artist’s paper, hung up on a wall before the camera. J. Stuart Blackton appears on the left side and writes the word “coon,” then rapidly transforms the letters into a caricature of a black man. All of the action is undercranked, to make Blackton’s movements appear rapid when played at normal speed. He now writes the word “Cohen” on the paper next to the first cartoon, and transforms these letters into a caricature of a Jewish man. The paper is rolled up and removed in animation, but we do not see the hands of the person doing it. Next, a bald man comes out and takes a seat before the paper, and Blackton sketches him, giving him a cigar at the end and then adding it to the caricature. A few animated puffs of smoke are visible coming out of the drawn cigar. This paper is also rolled up and removed in animation. Now, Blackton sketches a glass, a bottle labeled “Medoc” and a spritzer bottle, then he departs the screen and the bottle is animated to pour into the glass, followed by a spritz of soda, which causes the glass to overflow. This paper is torn apart in animation and the film ends.

Although there’s only a few seconds worth of animation between the papers getting rolled up and the pouring of the bottle, this was probably a pretty exciting film for an audience of 1907. Even the speeded-up action qualifies as an “effect” and seems to have been done to emphasize Blackton’s ability to work quickly, without mistakes. The unfortunate racial stereotyping at the beginning was probably meant to be humorous and not offensive, though it hasn’t aged well. It was interesting how he integrated the letters into images of people’s faces, it was just an unfortunate choice of words to use to demonstrate this. Blackton barely looks at the bald man as he sketches him – the point of having him “sit” for the picture seems to be so that the audience can see how accurate Blackton’s portrayal is. The final animation of the wine and the spritzer bottle is the climax, and by modern standards it wouldn’t amount to much, but it may have fascinated audiences to see a moving drawing at the time.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One touch of Nature (1917)

This is an apparently incomplete fragment of a longer story produced as a feature for Edison late in their production career. It tells a familiarly heart-warming story about a baseball player, using real locations and players to give verisimilitude to the melodrama.

The excerpts begin by introducing John J. McGraw, the real-life manager of the New York Giants, who is talking to a recruiter who has seen an amazing player named Bill Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett). McGraw seems skeptical at reports of the boy’s prowess, but agrees to give him a try. We then jump to the “deciding game of a world’s series” in which the Giants are playing against Philadelphia. McGraw looks on stoically as the seats of the Polo Grounds swell with fans. Read the rest of this entry »

Hearts and Diamonds (1914)

This short “Bunnyfinch” from Vitagraph packs quite a lot into its half-hour run time: comedy deception, mistaken identity, generational conflict, and, oh yes, baseball, are all represented. Stars John Bunny and Flora Finch were at the height of their fame at the time: probably better-known than that Chaplin fellow still making one-reelers over at Keystone.

The movie begins with Bunny, as “Widower Tupper,” learning that a wealthy widow (Finch) will be coming to town and devising a plan to woo her. First, he has to kick out his own young daughters (Ethel Lloyd and Ethel Corcoran), since for some reason he thinks he’ll do better if he pretends to be single. However, on arriving home, he finds them entertaining a group of “young bloods” (college boys with various musical instruments), so he rages at the boys and throws them out, breaking various objects in the process. Then he makes the girls pack and takes them over to the very deaf Uncle William (William Shea). Once he manages to make William understand the situation, William’s butler shows them to their rooms. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906)

This is an incomplete short from Edison that features a baseball game and was tied in to a publicity stunt involving teams from New York and Pittsburgh. What we see leaves a certain amount to be desired, but it does illustrate the transitional period from “Attractions” to “Nickelodeons.”

The movie opens on a very stage-like office set, with a short man pantomiming a baseball game to a woman sitting behind a typewriter. The man, apparently the “office boy” of the title, ceases his antics when another man comes in, who gives the woman, evidently a secretary or stenographer, an affectionate peck. Then an older man with white hair walks in, and the office boy hands him a note. An insert shot shows us that his note says that his grandmother is dead, and he should come home immediately, so the boss dismisses him for the day. When his back is turned, the office boy gives his co-workers a triumphant laugh. The scene lingers for a few extra seconds, as if something more will happen, but it does not in the surviving print. Instead, we cut to our office boy sitting on top of a telephone pole, brandishing a telescope, apparently in order to see the big game. We cut between shots of what he is seeing (framed with an “iris” around the lens to make a circular image as we would expect to see through a telescope) and shots of his reactions, which are often enthusiastic enough to nearly unseat him from his perch. The telescope footage begins with scenes of baseball players being driven onto the field in contemporary automobiles, then images of a marching band on the field, and it moves into what seem to be mostly warm-up plays or plays staged specifically for the camera. We also see the office boy’s co-workers in the stand, and they seem to be getting chewed out by the boss, who is sitting behind them, but no clear logic for this is in the surviving footage, and indeed the shots of the boss arriving and his yelling at them seem to be in the wrong order. The footage ends with a shot of the scoreboard.

The blog “Baseball Researcher” has filled in a lot of the details of this movie, including a lot of factual information about the location and teams that add to our understanding of this footage. First, the plot seems to be obscured here, but we are meant to understand that the secretary and the office worker made an excuse to leave early as well, while the boss decided that if no work was getting done anyway, he might as well go to the game, only to find his idle workers playing hooky at the field! Thus, the sneaky office boy gets the pleasure of watching his rude co-workers take the punishment he also deserves. Next, these observations confirm my suspicion that most of the playing we see is staged; although movie cameras at ball games weren’t exactly new, the Edison photographers had probably learned that with the limited length of film reels in those days, the chances of catching a good play “by chance” were pretty slim. It also describes a screening of the film for the two ball teams in the evening on a rooftop of a “legitimate” theater, which strikes me as a very intentional “attraction”-style stunt to get some press coverage for the film, and maybe as repayment to the players for staging the scenes for them. By 1906 standards, this is a pretty simplistic film, at least to judge from what we can see, so it probably needed all the promotion it could get to be a big seller. One final note, though this is hardly surprising for the era, is that there is no attempt to line up the angle of the camera with that we would expect to see through a telescope looking from above. All of the shots are taken on the same level as the players and we have to “suspend disbelief” to imagine that the office boy would see it this way.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Ripped Off? Buy Here Instead”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box. Read the rest of this entry »

Casey at the Bat (1899)

This fragment of a short Edison movie is subtitled “Or, the Fate of a (Rotten) Umpire,” setting up a fan’s violent wish-fulfillment right from the start. While we don’t have the whole thing, what we do see conforms to the simple slapstick of the time.

The camera is placed just behind home plate and to the left, allowing a clear view of the action in a small ball park. A man in a baseball uniform with large sideburns steps up to the plate and swings as the ball flies past. The umpire calls two strikes before “Casey” turns on him and begins to punch him. Soon, several other players from both teams are involved in the melee – mostly apparently trying to pull “Casey” off the hapless referee.

The position of the camera was particularly interesting to me, because it seems that this is the standard one-shot image of a baseball game, in spite of the fact that it puts the camera at some risk of being hit by a bad pitch. It may have already been established by still photographers, or possibly by baseball fans’ consensus that right behind home plate is the best place to watch a ball game. Or, it may just be the best way to frame both pitcher and batter so that the action is central to the screen without panning or switching shots. Other than that there isn’t much to say about this movie – it’s yet another example of a fight being used to generate interest and comedy in early cinema.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.