Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: American Cinema

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.

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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.

Marked Cards (1913)

This was the latest of the films from the Champion Studio screened at Cinecon this year, and it seems to show the studio in a state of decline, although the program notes say there may be some missing footage, contributing to the incoherence of the storyline. It does contain a very interesting plot device that, integrated better into the story, could have made for a good film.

Jack is a young man who works at a bank and hopes to marry Agnes, but he needs to get enough money together for them to get married. He gets talked into a crooked card game and winds up losing his money, eventually stealing from the bank to pay off his debt. Now, the gambler threatens to turn him in. Agnes cannot wait for him, and gets married, and cut off from her former life. (My notes are a bit confused here. Possibly he is sent to jail and she marries during his absence, or possibly she is pressured into marrying the gambler to keep him out of jail.) Jack seeks his revenge by putting the gambler in a room with a floor consisting of large cards. He tells the gambler that certain cards are electrified, the only way to get out is to step on the right cards. The gambler is too terrified to move at first, but eventually tries to make his way across the floor. He is not lucky, and about three cards in he falls over, dead.

I thought that the method of revenge was rather clever and cinematic, but as I say the plot was hard to follow. All five of the Champion films I’ve reviewed recently are scheduled to be released from Milestone Films on October 17, so it’s possible I’ll be able to correct the summary of this film with a second viewing. In general, the movie used a limited number of set-ups and production values were low for 1913. It relied on Intertitles heavily to keep the audience up on the story, without them much of the action would be meaningless.

Director: Unknown, possibly Mark M. Dintenfass

Camera: Unknown

Starring: possibly Irving Cummings and Gladden James

Run Time: 10 Min

This film is not available for free on the Internet, but can be pre-ordered here as part of the “Champion: Story of America’s First Film Town” DVD set.

Flo’s Discipline (1912)

This is a movie I got to see at Cinecon in a very nice print, but which does exist on the Internet in incomplete form (see below). It was part of the collection of shorts from the Champion Studio starring Florence Lawrence at the height of her popularity.

This movie concerns “Flo’s” (Lawrence) employment at a boys’ school called Dow’s, and her efforts to get the boys to behave. At the beginning of the film, we see them at a meal, and the male headmaster (Owen Moore) pays them no mind as they scream, yell, throw food, and generally raise Hell. Flo is in the next room and when an elderly man complains to her she takes charge, firing the popular teacher and attempting to establish order. Now it becomes a war between her and the kids. When she cancels recess and sends the boys inside, locking the door after them, they climb out a window and run past her, waving their hats. Next, when Owen tries teaching class outside, she sprays them with a garden hose to get them off the lawn. They foolishly run and hide inside the ice house (not a smart move when you’re wet!) and she again locks them in. The teacher tries to rescue them by climbing a tall ladder to a window in the building (which would seem to be a bad design idea in an ice house, but whatever), but Flo removes the ladder and leaves him stranded on a ledge for an hour. Finally, she relents and lets him down and the boys out. She agrees to re-hire the teacher and the boys, sufficiently chastened, agree to follow the rules. There is a hint that she and Owen will become sweethearts.

This is a pretty silly comedy, with some elements of gender relations thrown in. It struck me again that Florence’s character was pretty determined and self-sufficient, even if the implication was that the male teacher was better able to get through to the boys (they are very well-behaved when he leads the class on the lawn). If we took the movie seriously, her act of locking a bunch of dripping wet kids into an ice house would have to be seen as abusive and possibly life-threatening (although she does give them hot coffee at one point). But, the point here really is that she doesn’t give up or get flustered just because the kids don’t respect her, and she does ultimately win their respect in this way. Compared to some of the other Champions we saw, this was something of a light and simple movie, but it was an effective comedy and got some laughs from this modern audience.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch a fragment of this film for free: here. Please let me know in the comments if it becomes available in full.

Polly Redhead (1917)

This was the one “feature length” Century Film screened at this year’s Cinecon, and once again I review it from my memory of a single viewing (almost a week ago as of this writing). It was billed as an attempt by Universal to recreate the success of Mary Pickford, and the plot has a lot in common with the simpler of little Mary’s stories.

Ella Hall

“Polly” is short for “Pollyooly,” apparently the original title of the novel this was based on, and we have to take their word for her hair color because the surviving print is black and white. She is played by Ella Hall, who is young and charming in her elaborate locks, but lacks some of the magic of Pickford. She is a street urchin in London who happens to be the niece of the dying maid of two solicitors solicitor (George Webb and Dick La Reno), and when the maid falls ill, she turns up as a substitute. What she doesn’t mention is that her aunt has actually died and she is hoping to take over the role permanently. In case she isn’t cute enough, the writer has thrown in “the Lump” (William Worthington, Jr.), a precocious little brother with a penchant for playing the drums. She brings “the Lump” to work with her, and for some reason Webb finds this more charming than annoying. Meanwhile the housekeeper (Louise Emmons) learns the truth and does her best to get Polly fired. She loses her job with La Reno but Webb keeps her on because of her remarkable talent for cooking perfect bacon. This turns out to be a good choice, because La Reno soon finds Emmons watering down his whiskey! It was to cover the fact that she had been nipping, but this would have been a lesser crime and she is let go and Polly brought back. Webb takes to teaching the Lump manners, using Polly’s bacon as a reward.

George Webb

A second conflict, seemingly more significant, arises when Webb’s fiancée and only client (Gertrude Astor) begins to object to this attractive young girl around the house. However, this is quickly negated when she recognizes Polly as the exact twin of a wealthy young girl caught in the throes of a custody battle. This allows Hall to take on a typical “changeling” dual-role when the two concoct a plan to replace her so that the mother can sneak the real child away to Europe and take on full custody. Alas, Polly’s odd treatment of the servants as equals gives her quickly away, but the end result is a predictable reconciliation between the parents and Polly even finds a nice rich boy next door while the game is on.

Gertrude Astor

It seemed to me like this was two short films, not all that well sewn together to make one short-ish feature, although it’s possible that there’s missing footage in the middle somewhere. The first movie actually worked better for me, with Polly defending her job through her bacon skills and the housekeeper losing hers for disrespecting good whiskey. The second story is more typical of the worse melodramas of the time and relies on the unlikely coincidence of Polly having a wealthy doppelganger and a resolution that seems all too simplistic and improbable (nothing like kidnapping a child to bring a couple together!). Hall seemed to overdo the dual role by giving the “rich” version of herself a bit too much moodiness and gloom and the “poor” version of herself a can-do spirit. She was more likeable in the first part of the story, where she just gets to be herself (apparently). The little brother seemed a bit too much like an out-of-wedlock child of Polly’s and calling him “the Lump” (which made me think of “baby bump”) didn’t help anything. We never see any sign of his or Polly’s mother, so the connection seems all too likely, though of course we are meant to think she’s the same age as the boy-next-door, who might be eight years her junior, and who she kisses at the end. A bit of a reversal from all the old men falling in love with underage girls in the movies!

Director: Jack Conway

Camera: Edward Kull

Starring: Ella Hall, George Webb, Gertrude Astor, William Worthington, Jr., Louise Emmons, Dick La Reno, Charles Hill, Mailes, Gretchen Lederer

Run Time: 45 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing or on the Internet at this time.

Not Like Other Girls (1912)

This short from Champion was screened at Cinecon last Sunday, and I’m reviewing it based on that viewing. I admit that my memory of this one is a bit hazy – there were four other Champion shorts at the same time and this one seems to have been the least distinctive.

Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore in another movie from 1912.

We see a young couple (Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore) out for a drive. He pulls over to pick her some flowers, but she moves over and drives the car away, ditching him. A few feet away, the car stalls and he runs over to repair it, then they go merrily on their way. When Owen drops her off, she presents the bouquet to him, again reversing the gender order. This continues in a boating trip, where Florence tips the boat over so that he falls into the water, then eagerly seizes the oars and begins rowing for herself. Somewhere in here is a bit where his father tells him that he has lost money that was put in trust to him by Florence’s family, and the only way to stay out of jail will be for the two of them to wed. Owen is pretty well ready to give up after the boating incident, and the father dies. Now Owen is the one who will go to jail if the money is not returned. Florence learns of the crime and goes to see Owen, apparently angry. It turns out she’s really mad because she has fallen in love with him, and the two are married after all.

Florence Lawrence had been in movies for several years by 1912, but her growing stardom was confirmed when Champion, now a subsidiary of Universal, created a new brand called “Victor” to showcase her specifically. If the liner notes for Cinecon are correct, this was the first of those movies. Although I had some difficulty following the plot, it was very interesting that her tomboyishness seemed to be shown as both a source for comedy and also an attractive quality. Sort of like “playing hard to get,” the fact that she’s apparently not interested in men and wants to take control of the car and the boat (and presumably her destiny) apparently made her seem “cute” to male audiences at the time. Perhaps women found the idea of a heroine not having to be subservient at all times appealing also.

Director: Harry L. Solter

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore

Run Time: 9 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing at this time.

A Daughter of Dixie (1911)

This Civil War melodrama is a short from the Champion Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey that was screened at this year’s Cinecon on Monday, September 3. As always with those, I have only seen the film once, and have only my notes and memory to work from in reviewing it.

A young girl is seen in her home. Her brother enters in a Confederate uniform and she makes the usual tearful protestations. The family is supportive, but sad at the development. We then cut to a battle scene, shot so that we see only the Confederate side at first. Smoke and some explosions show us that they are under fire, and they fire rifles at enemies off-screen. Then we see “her lover,” who is among the Union forces, shown in similar fashion, and they fire at the opposite side of the screen, giving us a sense that the two sides are in conflict. Finally, they meet, and a full-fledged (but quite small) pitched battle takes place in a static shot. The lover is wounded and separated from his companions, and forced to flee the Rebels. He runs to the girl and begs for shelter. She hides him in a closet and tries to cover when her brother and some other men come searching for him. The brother realizes where the man must be hiding, but when he goes to find him, the girl grabs his rifle and points it at his chest, keeping the Confederates at bay for an hour while the lover escapes. Then the war ends and the family is reunited. When the Northern lover returns, the former Confederate welcomes him to his home.

An interesting dilemma is somewhat weakened by the easy resolution at the end. It seems to me that the sister would have been arrested and possibly lynched for collaborating with the enemy, and even assuming no legal or extra-legal difficulties, the brother has every reason to resent her threatening his life and to hold a grudge after the war. Alternately, it seems as though he and his men should question whether she really would shoot her own flesh and blood, and they likely would have called her bluff on the spot, possibly with tragic results that would not be so easily forgiven. But, I may be asking a bit much of a ten-minute melodrama. The director has rather ambitiously tried to tell a sweeping story of the war in a very simple format, and in places this is quite clever. At first I thought it was a bit cheap, showing the battle from one side only, but once I saw the other side and then the final clash and melee, I realized what they were doing, and saw it as a good way to mirror the two sides and show how an individual soldier would experience the fighting. Once again, this shows that others besides D.W. Griffith were working with the tropes of the Civil War from an early period of cinema.

Director: Unknown, possibly Ulysses S. Davis

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

This movie has not been made available on home video or the Internet at this time.

The Lion, the Lamb, the Man (1914)

This short film stars Lon Chaney early in his career, and even shows of a little of his talents with makeup, for which he would later become famous. I was able to attend a rare screening at Cinecon, and so can now review the film, long thought lost and rediscovered in 2008. Note, as always in these cases, that the plot summary is based on my memory of a single viewing, and may be flawed.

Image courtesy Jon Mirsalis at http://www.lonchaney.org/filmography/37.html

The movie is a metaphorical statement on human relationships, using cavemen to represent the instinctive drives. It opens by showing a classic love-triangle in caveman form. Lon Chaney is “The Lion,” a brute who shoos off “the Lamb” (Gus Inglis) and claims “the Woman” (Pauline Bush) by brute force. Now, a new character, named “the Fox” (Millard K. Wilson) sneaks through the bushes and fires an arrow from a bow, killing the Lion, and claiming the woman for himself. This is followed by a transition to modern times.

It begins by establishing Chaney once again as the Lion, showing him in a brawl with another man, winning by brute force. At the riverside, we see a sequence in which the modern Lion takes the Woman away from the Lamb through force and the Fox attempts to defeat the Lion through ingenuity (this time setting a trap by attaching a string to a rifle). During this, there are superimposed images of the cavemen characters to drive home the point. When the Lion fails to trip the trap, the Fox runs away with the Lion in pursuit, leaving the Woman (who seems rather relieved) to her own devices. She takes off her stockings and begins to wade into the water, but accidentally drops one. She tries to reach it before it floats away, and winds up falling into the river herself. Now we see the Man (William C. Dowlan), who is fishing downstream. He feels a tug at his line and reels it in, discovering the stocking. Now the Woman appears behind the rock he is sitting on, and she tries to stealthily swipe the stocking, but the Man sees her. They playfully flirt and leave together.

The final sequence shows the outcome of the various paths. The Lamb, now an elderly minister, sits among a group of spinsters sipping tea. The Fox and the Lion are together, living in poverty with a very ugly Indian woman (with a mustache) as their mutual companion. The Man and the Woman live in middle-class wedded bliss, their child running about happily as another minister comes over to visit.

Lon Chaney, sans makeup, in 1919.

This was a pretty basic little movie, rather simple for 1914, but interesting in terms of effects and the ambition of the storytelling. Essentially, it appears to argue that where brute strength and cunning were enough in the struggle for survival in “nature,” civilization benefits the person capable of empathy and understanding. It seems to me that this case would have been stronger if the Man had jumped in to save the Woman from drowning, especially if it was made clear that none of the other characters would risk their lives for her, but possibly this was beyond the capacity (or budget) of the filmmakers, or maybe I’m reading it wrong somehow. Chaney is impressive in his makeup (the woman presenting the next film commented “Wow, who knew Lon Chaney was so buff?”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also made up the other actors in their caveman and aged appearances (and maybe drew the mustache on the Indian). The use of multiple exposures to remind the audience of the caveman metaphor is typical of the period, but works well.

Very little of Chaney’s work from the 1910s survives today, which is one reason we’ve only seen him once before on this blog, even though he was working from at least 1914 on and made over 100 films before 1920. Most of these movies are lost, and this one was thought lost until recently, when it was discovered in the UK and sent to the Museum of Modern Art for duplication, and it was their print that I was able to see at Cinecon, apparently in the first audience to view the film for over 100 years. This is largely to the credit of Jon Mirsalis, who many of us know as an accompanist to silent movies and is also a collector and preservationist in his own right. I hope that the day will come when everyone can see it, along with the rest of our public domain film heritage, freely and easily from home.

Director: Joseph De Grasse

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Lon Chaney, Pauline Bush, Millard K. Wilson, William C. Dowlan, Gus Inglis

Run Time: 25 Min

This movie is not yet available on the Internet.

The Indian Land Grab (1910)

This short film from the Champion studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was screened at the Cinecon film festival this year, so I was able to see it only once. It takes a sympathetic approach to Native American issues and even violates later standards about portraying inter-racial relationships.

The movie begins by telling us through forward-facing Intertitles that the “young chief” is being sent to Washington (D.C.) to plead the case of the tribe to congress. Each scene in the movie consists of a single shot, and each shot is preceded by an Intertitle which predicts all of the action that follows. A group of Senators and lobbyists plot against the Indians, to pass a “land grab” bill, and one Senator asks his daughter to “distract” the chief while he is in town, and she does her best to attract his eye. He gives a speech before a group of white men in chambers, however when it comes time to give the critical speech before the vote, she insists that he dance with her at a ball. He rushes in too late to speak before the vote and accuses the Senator of “theft and prostitution.” When he returns to his tribe, they strip him of his war bonnet and prepare to kill him with tomahawks, but at the last moment the daughter emerges from the forest with a letter from the President, promising to let them keep their land “for all eternity.” The daughter now tells the chief that she loves him and wishes to stay with his people. They kiss.

Although the movie attempts to give a more balanced view than many of the time, it still comes across as very simplistic in its portrayal of both people and situations, and is very old-fashioned in its approach to storytelling. By 1910, it was not unusual to see more of the story told through visuals, or at least to have the Intertitles act as adjuncts, rather than narrators, to the action on screen. The Indians are consistently in full war-dress, although these costumes are the only elaborate props in the movie and the sets are minimal. I think we see four or five different sets, and a lot of the action takes place in a sparse hallway outside of the chambers of Congress. I’m not the only one to be surprised by the ending – according to the liner notes from Cinecon, reviewers at the time referred to the kiss as “offensive” or “repugnant.”

Director: Unknown, possibly Mark M. Dintenfass

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

This rare film is not available on the Internet at this time. Please let me know if you see it online or in a home video format.

A Visit to Los Angeles (1916)

In anticipation of my coming visit to Hollywood later this week for Cinecon, I thought I’d check out this old depiction of the city from 101 years ago. Produced by the still-young Ford Motor Company, it’s part travelogue, part advertisement, with an emphasis on the effects and benefits of the automobile on a major Western city.

The movie begins, after a pompous Intertitle, with a panorama of the downtown area taken from the top of a tall building. This would have been pretty exciting for an audience that didn’t get to the tops of skyscrapers very often, and it gives us a good view of the range of architecture that was present at the time. We then cut to the Hall of Records and the Old Court House, which combine monumental size with gothic style fairly effectively. I was surprised by the number of windows on the Hall of Records – at least it looked like you could work with plenty of light in there! We then turn to “Broadway, in the heart of the business section.” We see a crowded street from above (possibly it’s the same vantage as the first shot, simply tilted downward more extremely). Here, we see streetcars and automobiles vying for space on the crowded streets as pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross against traffic that rarely stops. The next shot is of Clune’s Auditorium, which seems to be an imposing structure across the street from a small park. The next shot shows “Central Park,” again from above, but this appears to be a more carefully manicured park than the one in the previous shot. It  is also crowded with people, like its namesake in Manhattan. After a brief panorama, we cut to a ground-level shot of the park, and people pack the pathways, many stopping to sit and smoke at a fountain. Notable in these shots are what appear to be electric streetlamps on the sides of the paths. Now we cut to a street-level shot of a large department store. The Intertitles point out the window boxes with plants visible at every level. The next cut takes us to what looks like a train station, though no Intertitle gives us context here. Now we see Angel’s Flight Inclined Railway, which I didn’t know was so old, as well as the tunnel under the hill that allows you to bypass it. Then a quick pan of the University of California (UCLA), which probably didn’t have a film program at the time. Then California Hospital, which is virtually indistinguishable from the University.

Now, we travel to Chinatown, where we see the only unpaved streets in the movie, and buildings constructed mostly of wood rather than stone. No autos are in evidence, and these are the least crowded streets we’ve seen in the whole movie. A few jabs at the obscurity of Chinese ideograms serves as the segue to a visit to the Old Plaza and the Mexican section of the city (never mind that the whole city had been Mexican within living memory!). Men with long mustaches and heavy suits lounge and stare languidly at the camera in a park. We also see the Plaza Church where the “Mexican population” is said to worship.

We return to the theme of automobiles with a shot of the North Hill Street “double barreled” tunnel, which seems to consist of one barrel for cars, one for streetcars. Then we see a large Masonic temple, before returning to the automotive theme with a view of Broadway in fast motion, the emphasis on the busy traffic. A single policeman in the center of a street  crossing directs what seems like impossibly fast and incessant traffic. Somehow pedestrians occasionally make it safely to the other side. We then see this same corner at regular speed, and get the sense that traffic moves infuriatingly slowly. In perhaps the oddest section, we now see large pipes that are part of the elaborate (and expensive) system of bringing water to the desert community. For scale, a human figure walks on one of the pipes. Then, they show a man driving a Ford car on one of the pipes, to demonstrate how large they really are! Speaking of cars, we now get to see the oil fields of Los Angeles, where a variety of derricks are pumping up the precious liquid in vast quantities. We are told that many industries have shifted from coal-burning plants to oil-burning. Finally, a shot of “bungalows” (actually, quite large houses) from the back of a car demonstrates the thrill of driving in LA. Men wear heavy coats in what seems to be the heat of a California day, and carry papers as they leave their bungalows for work.

This movie is pretty basic, so far as travel films go, but it shows off a lot of LA from a period when it was just beginning to boom as a city. The film industry would have been a going concern already by 1916, but this movie has no interest in that, choosing to emphasize downtown architecture, crowded city streets, ethnic neighborhoods, pipelines, automobiles and oil. Those last two can be seen as particular interests of its production company, so no great surprise perhaps. But one would think that movie audiences would be obvious targets for movies about movie-making. Perhaps no one at Ford thought so, or perhaps the distance to the studios from the locations where this movie was shot made it not worthwhile to them. Anyway, the result is that we see a lot of the old LA that the movie companies tended not to document so well, and the result is interesting if not always terribly entertaining.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch the first two minutes for free: here. Those with University affiliations may be able to access the file via their libraries. Worldcat link: here.