Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Bb

Back Stage (1919)

Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle team up again for this short from Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation. Keaton has a very prominent co-starring role in this, although Arbuckle is still the center of attention.

Like a lot of these two-reel Comique shorts, this movie is divided into two very short story lines. True to the title, the first focuses on the backstage antics of a small theater troupe, while the second shows a performance, disrupted by hecklers. The movie begins by showing two men (Buster and Al St. John) re-arranging furniture in what seems to be a small bedroom. Suddenly, they grab hold of the flats that serve as the side walls and move them, then the backdrop is raised into the ceiling, showing that we have been looking at a set. Arbuckle is now seen, pulling the rope that lifts the backdrop. This sets the stage for the many sight-gags we’ll be seeing throughout. An intertitle informs us that Arbuckle is in charge of the theatrical company, and we see him outside the theater, trying to paste up a new poster for a coming attraction, but a small child takes an interest in his work and keeps getting in the way. Arbuckle finally pastes him to the wall to keep him out of trouble. He then tears him down and sends him on his way, pasting a bit of poster to his bottom to hide where his pants were torn in the process. When he’s done, the sign advertises a famous star, but the sliding door to the theater obscures half the message when left open, and the remaining text appears to promote a stripper. Inside, Keaton is dealing with a touchy star who insists on having a dressing room with a star over it. Once he’s inside, Keaton pulls the string that moves the star over another dressing room.

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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).

The Busher (1919)

This baseball film from Thomas H. Ince emphasizes small-town values and staying true to your roots as ideals, just as many films about “the Great American Pastime” would do in years to come. It features a young Colleen Moore as the love interest, still a few years away from becoming the national symbol of “flapper” fashion.

The movie begins by introducing us to Ben Harding (played by Charles Ray), a small-time pitcher from Brownville. He is already in his baseball uniform as the movie opens, and we get the idea that he’s pretty devoted, in part because he carries a baseball glove around in his pocket. He tries to sneak past his snoozing father on his way to the ball park, but he drops the chain that fastens the gate to the fence and has to go back and tell him where he’s off to. Dad looks stern, but we can see he’s secretly proud of his son’s talents. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)

This typical Western short from director Francis Ford has an interesting twist and nice performances by the leads. It reminded me a lot of “The Making of Broncho Billy” until the end, where things take a different turn.

The movie begins by introducing Harry Burns (played by Harold Lockwood), who is a star pitcher on a college team. We see him playing pitching a ball in an over-the-shoulder shot, and then the reaction of the crowd as he wins the game. His college life ends, however, when a letter from his uncle arrives informing him that “financial reverses” make it impossible to continue funding his education. He has set him up in a job “in the west,” however, so he’s not destitute. His teammates, along with an old professor and a man in a clerical collar (I suppose the college deacon) all shake his hand and then go to celebrate the victory, leaving Harry to bemoan the loss of his promising baseball career.

He soon recovers, however, and shows up in the typical western town of the era, taking on a job as paymaster (I suppose for the railroad, although it’s not specified). His boss is a gruff-looking cowboy and he has a cute cowgirl daughter (Helen Case). She seem somewhat taken by the handsome new arrival and starts to show him the ropes of his job, but suddenly loses interest when he refuses to carry a gun. She now goes out to a group of toughs and tells them to teach him a lesson, and when Harry comes out they menace him with their guns, even making him “dance” a-la “The Great Train Robbery.” Despite being unarmed, he stands up for himself and proceeds to beat up the lead bully with his fists – the other man tries to fight, but he does have too much honor to reach for his gun and Harry beats him fair and square. Helen takes note of this and gives the bully a bit of ribbing after the fight.

DANCE!

The next day, Harry receives a package in the mail from his old college chums – it is the ball that he pitched in his last game, a memento of his old life. He and Helen are getting closer now, to the consternation of the bully character and the concern of her father. When she sees him setting off to collect the payroll money, she decides to play another “little joke” and takes the office gun that Harry refuses to carry, sneaking out with a smile on her face. However, even as she plans to teach Harry a lesson by pretending to be a bandit, a real bandit by the name of “Red Dan” is introduced. He sees the unarmed man at the post office, picking up the money and his package and decides to follow him.

Helen, now disguised with a heavy coat and a bandana, accosts Harry on the road and threatens him with the gun, but Harry’s not afraid of this rather short bandit and he grabs her gun hand and removes the mask, finding who it really is. Just at that moment, Red Dan rushes in and holds them up. He takes Helen’s gun and searches Harry, finding only the baseball, which he throws to the ground. Then he takes the money and walks away. Thinking fast, Harry grabs the baseball and pitches it into the bandit’s head! He goes down and Harry runs over and quickly overcomes him and binds him while Helen holds his gun. Once again, Harry has proved that his physical talents can overcome a gunman.

I’m sure he’ll get a fair trial.

Now Helen and Harry bring the bandit, and the money, back into town. The gang of toughs leads the bandit away (a prominent length of rope made me think of a lynching, but nothing is shown). Helen’s father congratulates Harry. The final scene shows Helen and Harry sitting on a bench, obviously falling in love. The Pony Express man rides up with a telegram, informing Harry that he has been selected to play on the Chicago White Sox, and can move back east. At this, Helen begins to cry and Harry writes out his reply: he is “engaged for life” and will not return to ball playing. Helen looks up with surprise and embraces him.

Now you see it…

…Now you don’t.

The big surprise in this movie, which sets it apart from “The Making of Broncho Billy” and dozens of similar Westerns, is that the hero does not pick up a gun by the end of the movie. He wins the day with his baseball skills instead. Of course, when G.M. Anderson tried to respond to a bullying situation with his fists, he wasn’t given the chance, so this partly depends on the sense of honor of one’s opponents, but it’s clear that the bandit here would have had no compunctions about shooting an unarmed man or a woman. One odd “continuity error,” that probably no one cared about at the time is that the insert shot introducing the baseball doesn’t match the long shot – in the shots before and after the insert, Harry is holding the bag of money, but the insert shot shows him fondling the ball with both hands and nothing else in them. I was also struck by Helen Case’s performance, in which she frequently acts out what she’s describing to the characters. This would have been frowned on in silent films just a few years later, and usually does look like “over-acting,” but somehow she makes it seem natural, like it’s part of how her character communicates normally. I quite enjoyed her playful approach to acting.

There’s a bit of a mystery about the production of this movie. On-screen credits claim it comes from “Broncho Movie Company” and there’s even an “S&A” at the end with an Indian head, giving the impression that this was released by Essanay, the company that made the Broncho Billy movies. I thought perhaps it was an early release from their studio in Niles, California. But, so far as I know Francis Ford never worked for Essanay, and the imdb (admittedly an imperfect source) lists the producer as Thomas Ince. If that’s the case, Ince may have been deliberately trying to horn in on Essanay’s success with the “Broncho” and “S&A” references. Today, that’d get you a lawsuit, but in the freewheeling early days of film, a lot of things went unchallenged!

Director: Francis Ford

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Harold Lockwood, Helen Case, Joe King

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online. However, you can see a clip from it here.

Babe Ruth Kinogram (?)

This may or may not actually qualify as a Century Film, but it seemed pointless to wait until one could be certain before reviewing it. It is a light-hearted piece of “human interest” from a newsreel starring a famous figure.

The opening intertitle establishes that the audience can expect a “surprise,” but the film imagery begins with a prosaic view of an experienced potter at his wheel. As the clay spins, it takes on new forms under his skilled hands. The apparent ease with which he transforms it seems to recall thousands of years of the development of his trade. After only a few seconds of this, the “surprise” is announced: “Who should drop in by Mr. & Mrs. BABE RUTH.” They stand behind the potter and watch him at work on a smaller pot, both appearing completely absorbed in watching his hands at their work. Babe removes a glove and touches the potter’s shoulder and a new intertitle says that he “turns from swatter to potter.” The final image shows Babe working on a very simple pot with both his hands, while his foot pumps away to keep the wheel turning. He looks up at the camera and the scene ends. Read the rest of this entry »

The Bell Boy (1918)

This short comedy from Comique stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton at the height of their collaboration, giving them a new occupation to demolish – hotel management. The use of large indoor sets and outdoor locations gives them some good opportunities for creative chaos.

Arbuckle and Keaton are uniformed bell boys at the Elk’s Head Hotel, which is managed by Al St. John. We first see Arbuckle emerging from an elevator and looking around carefully, before he protrudes a cigarette from inside of his mouth and smokes it. Keaton is lazing on an easy chair when Al rings the bell and both men hasten to the front. They zip up the stairs to the two visible doors and come out carrying bags. They take them out, leading the two guests to a horse-drawn streetcar, but when Arbuckle tries to throw one of his suitcases on top of the vehicle, it misses and hits Buster, causing the first of many pratfalls. They load up the carriage, the guests get on board, and Al gets into the driver’s seat, driving the contraption down the street and past the “Last National Bank” (remember that one).

 

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The Bachelor’s Paradise (1901)

Alternate Title: Chez la sorcière

This short trick film from Georges Méliès shows off his ability to construct a satisfying narrative around a slight story and a couple of simple effects. The French title means “House of the Witch,” which gives it a slight horror element, but it isn’t very scary.

The movie takes place on a proscenium-style stage dressed as the workshop of a sorcerer or magician. Certain set-pieces are recycled from previous movies, including “The Alchemist’s Hallucination.” At the center of the stage is a cauldron held up by a ring of metal frogs. The witch, an ancient crone (I believe it is Méliès in costume) is reading some kind of mystical text, when she is interrupted by the entrance of a young man in the clothes of a dandy. He commissions a spell from her, and she sets to work at the cauldron. She pours in a potion of some kind, then dances around the cauldron waving her walking-stick as if it were a wand. Soon, a young woman levitates out of the smoke billowing from the cauldron. The young man inspects her, but seems uncertain, so the witch gestures, and soon four new girls appear, one after the other, standing in a line next to the first one. The bachelor inspects each carefully, and finally makes a selection. He takes this girl over to a chair at the right side of the screen, and the witch makes the others disappear. Now the young man attempts to woo the magically-summoned young lady, but suddenly she transforms into the crone, cackling with laughter, when the bachelor recoils, she turns him into a donkey, then rides him around the stage, hitting him with her stick.

Another of Méliès’s charming little magic movies, this one got me to thinking that one rarely sees a man dressed up as a woman in a Méliès movie, whereas it was common at the Edison studios for quite some time. I’m not certain that the witch in this movie was a man, but I believe it was. Still, when Méliès wanted a pretty young woman in a movie, that was what he used, not a man in woman’s clothing as was usual at Edison. This may mostly reflect opportunity: Méliès ran a theater and had contact with lots of young actresses, while the Edison Studio was run by engineers, who had to make an effort to find an actress willing to perform in front of a camera. Although the set up for this film is quite sexist – a man attempts to buy a woman from a procuress – the ending puts a bit of a feminist spin on it. Méliès may not really have intended it that way, he probably felt that it was funnier and a bit more family-friendly to have the bachelor receive a comeuppance. It does work for a few chuckles, at least, and the donkey suit is charming.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown, probably Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Bud’s Recruit (1918)

This two-reel narrative was produced as a “positive” film for young people, by a philanthropist concerned about the state of youth in America. It uses the theme of patriotism and the war effort to deliver a message about the innate decency of American boys.

The opening title explains this as a “Judge Brown Story,” but the judge is nowhere to be seen in this movie, so I’ll talk about him a little after going through my synopsis. The movie proper begins by introducing us to “Bud” (Wallis Brennan), a young man who likes to dress up in uniforms and play army games. He blows on his bugle and various other boys from the neighborhood rush over to line up for drilling. A couple of smaller children come up to ask if they can join in, and Bud takes them to a tree where he has marked the minimum height for participation. One makes it, the other does not. Then, that smaller boy gets the idea of standing on a rock, and Bud lets him in, not fooled, but appreciating the boy’s spunk. He gives the little boy a drum to beat while everyone marches. It isn’t long before he loses interest in all the hard walking and sits down under a tree with a puppy. When Bud finds out, he sentences the child to death for desertion, so the boy runs away quickly while the rest of the recruits fire their wooden guns at his back. The boy runs to his mother, who takes on the regiment with a frying pan and routs them, meanwhile beating the stuffing out of a dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm II that they set up for target practice.

Meanwhile, we meet “Reggie” (Robert Gordon), who is Bud’s older brother and has no interest in things military. He sits around in the backyard smoking and drinking lemonade served to him by an African American butler. His girlfriend Edith (Ruth Hampton) is reading  the paper and learns that Reggie’s draft number is so low that there’s no chance he will be called up to serve, which is a relief to them both, as well as to Reggie and Bud’s mom, herself involved with pacifist meetings. Bud objects to the lack of patriotism and is sent to his room without dinner, but he says it’s fine because it’s a “meatless day” anyway. In his room, he puts up various recruiting posters and looks at them longingly. We learn that Edith’s sister also has a beau, who signed up for service because he wasn’t going to be drafted, setting up a new pressure on Reggie to demonstrate his manliness. Reggie goes to the bedroom he shares with Bud and takes down the recruitment poster from the wall, but Bud draws a line with chalk across the middle of the room – one side is for patriots, the other for cowards like Reggie.

The next day, Bud leads a counter-protest of his boys when Reggie and mom attend a peace meeting in the living room. They carry a sign that says “We Want Peace – After We Lick Em!” Edith, apparently finding this more amusing than the dull speeches inside, picks up an American flag and joins the march. Reggie is led back inside by his mother, making him seem all the more dominated and infantilized. That night, while Reggie sleeps, Bud reads a newspaper story about German air raids that kill women and children, and he resolves to take action. If Reggie won’t volunteer to fight, he can dress up as Reggie and sign up himself in his brother’s name! He puts on a false mustache and swipes a pair of Reggie’s glasses and some of his clothes, and heads down to a Recruiting Office. The soldier there looks like he would pretty much sign up any boy who said he wanted to join, whether he dressed up or not – he doesn’t even apply Bud’s “tree test” to see how tall he is.

The news comes out in the local paper’s “honor roll” of volunteer soldiers. Reggie is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list, but before he finds out a soldier shakes his hand on the street and Edith’s sister sneaks up and kisses him! Edith now seems quite proud of Reggie, but mom is still deeply concerned. Then Reggie goes up to his room and shows Bud the article. He spots his glasses in Bud’s pocket and puts two and two together. The two brothers get into a fight, with Bud coming out on top and ordering Reggie to leave town so that he (Bud) can go through with his plan and join the army. Reggie says “uncle” and agrees. In the next scene, he’s at a train station, but of course there are recruitment posters there and he starts having second thoughts. Bud dresses up to report for duty, but he is met at the base by Reggie, who can’t let his kid brother do his duty for him. Bud seems astonished at first, but he smiles and runs off to tell Edith and his family the news. Everyone runs down to the base to see Reggie in his new uniform, and the servant sums up the situation, saying he “always knowed that boy had red, white, and blue blood in his veins.”

Classic movie fans will generally be familiar with Father Edward J. Flanagan and “Boys Town,” but they may not have realized how many similar projects there were in the United States at the time. This movie was made by the “Boy City Film Co.,” a project of Judge Willis Brown who did indeed run a chain of so-called “boy cities” across the nation. The Boy City Film Company produced a series of films to promote clean entertainment, of which this was the first. Most of them evidently did feature the Judge himself as a dispenser of wisdom and resolver of disputes, but this first movie only features him in a still photo as a prop. These movies are mostly lost, and would probably be entirely forgotten, except that the Judge was able to find a rather promising young man named King Vidor to direct them. This is not his first film (in fact he had been directing since 1913), but it is by far the earliest one I’ve ever seen. Given the heavy-handed intentions and presumably limited budget, it is a very effective movie, especially in terms of its comedy. The boy actors are charming, and always seem to give the adults a run for their money. Vidor seems to have internalized Judge Willis’s belief that boys “do not need to be saved,” and are naturally inclined towards goodness and decency, even when adults around them behave questionably. The movie comes across as innocently naïve, where it could have easily been foolish or preachy, which I believe is a testament to Vidor’s subtlety and sensitivity, more than to strength of the script itself.

Director: King Vidor

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Wallis Brennan, Robert Gordon, Ruth Hampton, Mildred Davis

Run Time: 26 Min

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

The Blue Bird (1918)

Maurice Tourneur gets away from working with Mary Pickford in order to make the kind of ethereal fairy tale he felt was appropriate for children, adapting a famous stage play to the screen. We get plenty of fancy cinematography and effects, but it’s possible that the acting and writing don’t quite hold up.

The story begins by introducing the Tyl family, which consists of Mama Tyl, Papa Tyl, and two children: Tyltyl (Robin MacDougall) is the boy and Mytyl (Tula Belle) is the girl. Apprently, they are neighbors with “the house of rich children” and also an old hag named Berlingot (Edward Elkas) who has a sick little daughter. The little girl has heard of “the blue bird of happiness,” and she believes that if she possesses it, she will get well. Berlingot is apparently ready to try a placebo, and goes to ask the Tyls if she can have their caged bird to give to her daughter, to make her well again. Mytyl and Tyltyl are unwilling to give away their pet.

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The Butcher Boy (1917)

The first movie to feature an appearance by Buster Keaton came out almost 101 years ago. It was also the first movie Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle made for his new Comique Film Corporation, with full creative control over his own productions, after many years working for Mack Sennett at Keystone.

The movie is a two-reel slapstick comedy, and like a lot of  those by this time, it essentially consists of two separate but equally important “parts.” The first part concerns Arbuckle (whose character is named “Fatty.” so that’s what I’m going to call him for the rest of this review) at his job as a butcher’s assistant in a general store. The structure of this section reminds me a lot of Charlie Chaplin’s “The Pawnshop.” Various characters come into the shop and ask for things, and comic misadventures ensue, often due to the obliviousness, or deliberate laziness, of Fatty. Arbuckle demonstrates his agility by tossing knives into the air, which consistently land point-downward, lodged in the countertop. Once or twice he does this with another actor standing on the other side of the counter, which struck me as a bit dangerous, but he’s so casual about it that you’d think anyone could do it. Keaton’s part comes in this section and he is undeniably the most memorable of the various “customers.” He wants to buy a pail of molasses, and some very sticky comedy ensues. Among others, Lea over at Silentology has carefully analyzed this scene, and I can’t hope to add to what she says about it, so I’ll just say that for a first film appearance, Keaton has remarkable poise and confidence before the camera.

Shortly after Keaton’s bit, the plot starts to move forward. Fatty and Al St. John are both in competition for the one young woman that works at the store, played by Josephine Stevens. She’s the daughter of the owner, and she’s sweeter on Fatty than on “Slim,” but Slim can’t let it go. The two of them play pranks on each other that escalate into a full-scale war, with exploding bags of flour and other random store implements used to cause mayhem. The owner decides to send his daughter to a boarding school, to prevent any further such nonsense (presumably after firing Fatty and Slim both).

Thus begins the second part of the film, in which Fatty and Al both dress up as girls to sneak into the boarding school and see Josephine. Buster appears again as one of Al’s accomplices, but he has relatively little to do here. Fatty gets in first, and is able to charm the rest of the girls into at least tolerating him, but once Al is on the inside things rapidly escalate to a running pillow fight. Al’s cohorts, for some reason, also sneak into the school to help abduct Josephine, and before long they are caught and held at gunpoint by the schoolmarm. Once again, the scene devolves in chaos and Josephine and Fatty are able to escape. Still in girl’s clothes, he proposes to her in front of a minister’s house, and they go in, presumably to be married.

I’d rate this as a good, but not great, Arbuckle movie, and pretty much “of historical interest” for Keaton fans. This movie has the feel of someone trying things out, but perhaps being afraid of going too far at first. I was surprised how much was shot in long-shot, as if Arbuckle was afraid to move his camera too close to all the flying bags of flour and thrown knives. However, choreographing some of that chaos in long shot is still a feat to be proud of. Arbuckle did plenty of drag, before and after this, as well as many roles where he had some kind of customer service job but mostly abused his customers. In fact, he had combined the two before (in “Waiters Ball”). My favorite Arbuckle movies play more on his “big kid” likeability, his boyish charm, and his being the good guy who is wronged by his opponent, but in this one he’s no better than Al St. John, the girl just happens to like him better. At least he’s not forcing himself on her.

It’s interesting that Buster does maintain his “stone face” in this film, given that in “Oh Doctor” he would be expressive to a fault – maybe that was an Arbuckle suggestions that didn’t work out. In his autobiography, Keaton would claim he’d been told his was the first debut in film that didn’t require any re-takes, but that’s dubious in the extreme, considering that nobody was doing re-takes a little more than a decade earlier, and that some people’s debut scenes were literally walk-bys. He does demonstrate comic timing and physical prowess in the stunts Arbuckle demands of him, and if it was done in a single take, it was a good day’s work for sure.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Buster Keaton, Joe Bordeaux, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 24 Min

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