Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Cc

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.

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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.

The Centaurs (1918-1921)

This fragment of animation from Winsor McCay is listed as “unreleased, circa 1918-1921” on the “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” DVD. I’m reviewing it now mostly for convenience’s sake – possibly it would be just as appropriate to treat it as a 1921 film, or to skip it entirely due to its unreleased, incomplete nature.

The movie begins with an image of a pleasant forest. A nude young woman appears to be walking through it, but as she emerges from the leaves, we see that her lower half is that of a horse. She walks into a clearing and picks up some flowers. Now we see a male centaur on a rocky ridge. He throws a rock at a passing buzzard, knocking it from the sky, and calls out. Then the two of them meet, and he greets her affectionately. The two walk off together. These scenes are intercut with images of what seems to be a nude old woman with glasses, but now she emerges from behind a rock and we see that she is also a centaur. She joins an old male centaur with a long white beard and the young male centaur approaches them, then introduces the female. They each greet her with a hug, and then the three stand in a circle as a bald-headed foal centaur enters the scene and prances and does tricks for them. It ends with an image of the upper (human) part of the foal winking at the audience from inside of a heart.

While this may be incomplete, there does seem to be a kind of narrative of young love, courtship, marriage and the cycle of life here. McCay is mostly remembered for whimsical fantasy such as “Little Nemo” or even somewhat satirical pieces as his “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” cartoons and movies, but here he seems to be trying for something gentle and poetic. It strikes me that, just as he challenged himself to use film to bring a dinosaur to life in “Gertie the Dinosaur,” here he is demonstrating that mythical creatures can also come to life on film. The animation is still rather simplistic by modern standards, but the use of cel technology allows a somewhat more complete image than we saw in “Little Nemo” or “How a Mosquito Operates.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

The Cook (1918)

This short film from Comique brings Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle back to familiar territory as he plays a food-preparer in a restaurant which devolves into chaos. We saw something similar in “The Waiter’s Ball” (a movie he did at Keystone), and there are other examples, either lost or not-yet reviewed here. This is the first time he’s tackled the subject with his new apprentice, Buster Keaton, however, and this results in some new laughs.

The movie begins with a close-up on Arbuckle’s face, with tears streaming down from his eyes. It cuts back (a little too fast, I think, for the image to fully register), revealing the fact that he is seated with a bowl of onions on his knee, peeling one of them, which is why he’s crying. A quick series of establishing shots show us the dishwasher at work, Luke the Dog nearby, and Buster working as a waiter out in the front. Arbuckle finishes his task and starts chopping at a large leg of lamb or beef with a huge meat cleaver. Out front, Keaton is flirting with the cashier (Alice Lake), and the owner breaks it up, throwing Keaton into the kitchen where he is hit by Arbuckle’s wild cleaver. The two of them take some time to establish that his head is still attached, then the owner shows up and drags Keaton out to attend to customers. This tips off a routine in which Keaton takes an order and yells into the kitchen (the intertitles often give somewhat amusing takes on diner lingo). Arbuckle then draws something out of a faucet from the same pot (coffee, soup, gravy), and off-handedly tosses the result at the door. Keaton walks in at the precise moment and catches the order, flipping it around a couple of times, and then walking out the door to deliver it. Of course, the precision of his catches is established with editing, and the cups, bowls, and plates he flips are empty, but it’s still a fun bit.

After this has gone on for a while, the floor show begins, and a belly dancer performs. Not long after she starts, Keaton does a marvelous parody of her “Egyptian”-style dance, and when Arbuckle sees, it, he has to one-up him. He puts on pots and pans as bangles and does himself up as a belly dancer, then gives an utterly incompetent dance, which draws the attention of the whole restaurant to the kitchen. Amazingly, the owner seems to approve as well, even though Arbuckle breaks a great many cups and plates in his shenanigans.

This is interrupted when Al St. John comes in and forcibly dances with Lake, swinging her around in a kind of “Apache Dance.” He is in possibly his most clownish getup, and seems to be interested in disruption and mashing, though sources list his character as “holdup man” today. When Keaton tries to threaten him with a beer bottle and get him to leave, St John turns the tables from “Out West” (where he was hit on the head with multiple bottles) and hits Keaton, breaking the bottle, but drinking from it anyway, and chewing on the broken glass. When the owner tries to get tough with St. John using a knife from the kitchen, St. John takes it away from him and uses it to cut off the owner’s mustaches. Now Luke the Dog comes out and bites the seat of St. John’s pants, in a scene reminiscent of “Fatty’s Faithful Fido.” He hangs on no matter what Al does to shake him off. Arbuckle separates them and Al flees with Luke in pursuit. Luke chases him all the way out to a rural area and around a barn, ending by chasing him up a ladder.

The action now shifts back to the restaurant, where the staff are enjoying their dinner of spaghetti. The spaghetti scene goes on for a while, with several gags about lengths of spaghetti, people getting opposite ends of the same strand, Arbuckle getting his tie mixed up in his pasta, and people using sheers to cut up their spaghetti. After this goes on for a while, we see Al St. John running up a ladder with Luke in pursuit – only now it’s to the roof of the restaurant! He crashes through the skylight onto the table with the spaghetti, and the Al vs. The Staff War ends in his ignominious defeat.

The next scene shows the staff going on their day off. Everyone gets out of uniform, and Arbuckle (of course!) pulls his street clothes out of that same pot that earlier produced ice cream, milk, coffee, etc. He also takes a ridiculously long pole with him, for no clear reason. The gang is all now on a boardwalk in a location that looks like Coney Island. Buster and Alice are at “Goatland” where they rent a cart drawn by goats, but Buster falls out and mostly the ride is a series of pratfalls. Arbuckle has a similar cart, but when he rounds a corner, his pole knocks over two policemen and he is quickly in trouble. He and Luke head to the seashore, where he uses his pole to catch a large fish at sundown (very nice silhouette photography here), but despite his and Luke’s best efforts, that one gets away.

Um, why, exactly?

Alice Lake gets onto a roller coaster and suddenly Al St. John is again in pursuit. She makes a spectacular dive from the top of the tracks into the ocean, and is soon splashing around calling for rescue. Arbuckle witnesses this and runs over, as does Keaton. They fight over various bits of rope and chained-down life preservers, while Luke again pursues St. John on the tracks. Keaton and Arbuckle finally get their rope to the dock area, but both end up falling in rather than saving Lake. The End.

This is probably the most plotless of the Comique movies I’ve seen, but it’s also one of the funniest. There are dozens of gags I left out of the summary above – describing them wouldn’t do them justice anyway – and the whole thing just hangs together better than some of the more easy-to-follow storylines. I think it’s largely a question of timing. Keaton and Arbuckle (and the rest of the gang) don’t ever let up, and just when you think you just saw the funniest thing ever, they throw something new at you. All that zaniness just didn’t leave any time for a plot! I’ve mentioned several bits that were recycled from earlier movies, but they’re done better here, and serve mostly to demonstrate that Arbuckle kept refining his craft as he progressed.

Bara as Salome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are bits that probably worked better at the time. Arbuckle and Keaton’s belly dances (especially Arbuckle’s) are deliberate parodies of the famous sexy dance Theda Bara did in “Salomé,” which is now a presumed-lost film that no one’s seen in living memory. You can see that Arbuckle’s pots-and-pans get-up is a takeoff on the one Bara wore in the posters, but it had to be more hilarious to an audience that had thrilled to it for real on the screen. The “Goatland” thing goes totally over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway. I think if I were going to recommend a “starting place” for someone new to Arbuckle/Keaton/Comique, I’d tell them to start with “The Cook” and then probably “The Bell Boy” and “Out West.” If those aren’t working, I’d say skip the rest, it doesn’t get any better.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Glen Cavender, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Crime of Carelessness (1912)

Released by Edison three years before “Children of Eve,” this movie also exploits public interest in industrial accidents generated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Unlike that movie, it also attempts to shift the blame for such accidents away from the owners and managers, and to the workers themselves.

The movie begins by showing an on-site inspector who discovers a pile of materials blocking an emergency exit door. He points this out to the owner (Bigelow Cooper), and begins to write up a citation, but the owner apparently talks him out of it. No money changes hands, and there is plenty of open space visible on a nearby wall, so maybe he has simply promised to move the offending objects. The next scene introduces the “lovers,” Hilda (Mabel Trunnelle) and Tom (Barry O’Moore), who are workers in the plant. When they kiss, the owner and inspector discreetly turn their backs for a moment. A shot follows showing “the day’s work over,” which appears to have been inspired by the famous Lumière shortWorkers Leaving the Factory,” and then we see Hilda and Tom celebrating their engagement with Hilda’s family. The family also discreetly leaves them alone after Hilda has a chance to show off her ring.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

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

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.

Carmaux, Drawing Out the Coke (1896)

This industrial actuality short from Lumière shows the work environment that the factory owners who invented motion pictures took as standard. We see part of the process of refining coal for fuel.

A stationary camera faces the opening of a smelter, and a large brick of coke comes out of the opening slowly while a man sprays water to cool it. Other workers hit it with rakes to break it apart and spread it out. Meanwhile, the bustle of labor goes on in the background as other workers pass through the frame.

For someone studying industrial processes from the turn of the century, this might be of some interest, but it’s not an especially outstanding Lumière brothers movie. I was hoping for a dramatic spray of steam when the water hit the coke, but there was no such reaction. The most interesting part is seeing the workers break it apart, but even at fifty seconds, this one is sort of dull. Still, where a process like this would surely be automated today, in the late nineteenth century, the work was still done with human hands, and that makes it a bit more interesting.

Director: Unknown, probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Childish Quarrel (1896)

This short Lumière film shows the propensity of the Lumière brothers for showing films of family life, which were comparably rare from Edison at the time. Two infants are shown having difficulty learning to share.

Two babies in high chairs are next to one another with trays that seem to hold food and toys. They are wearing similar petticoats and hats. One is playing with a large spoon, and the other (who seems to be slightly larger) reaches for it. When her sister will not relinquish the spoon, she starts to hit, eventually wresting the spoon away from her. Now the smaller one begins to cry, and the elder seems to feel some remorse. She tries to give the spoon back, but the other child is too deep into her tantrum to notice.

This movie will probably remind parents and others who have been around small children of many similar situations. I couldn’t tell for certain whether either of these children was Andrée Lumière, who we saw in “A Baby’s Meal,” but I suspect that one of them is. The elder child looks to the camera from time to time, and looks as though she may be receiving coaching from off camera as well. Hopefully no one told her to hit her sister!

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown, possibly Andrée Lumière

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Christmas Dream (1900)

Georges Méliès displays the holiday spirit with this fanciful and homely short film. Impressive for the period in its number of setups, it is surprisingly devoid of the special effects that one expects from Méliès.

The opening scene, which may be incomplete, shows children being tucked into a four-poster bed in a room decorated with noble crests and a fireplace. The servant that tucks them in is in Renaissance-era clothing, and she sits down to read aloud from a book. The image then fades to a stage, and a bearded man in a crown hustles people off the stage to prepare for a dance number. First, there is a kind of parade in which a coach is wheeled behind a minstrel, and what appears to be a giant toy rabbit hitting a drum. Then some clowns come onto the stage and perform a dance. One of them loses his shoe, and the rest of the performers dance around it, including dancing girls and a ballerina. Finally, the clown leads another dance and retrieves his shoe, but in doing so, his hat falls off. The crowned man returns and shoos everyone offstage, grabbing the clown by the neck. The next shot shows the snow-covered rooftops of a small town. Angels flit from one roof to another, dropping presents down the chimneys. Next we see the interior of a church, where a man supervises some children pulling on the bell ropes. Some well-dressed citizens come in and shake the snow off their clothes, removing their cloaks and proceeding into the chapel. The next shot shows the bell, constructed of wooden flats but given the illusion of reality by perspective painting and a separate clapper that swings opposite to the bell. Doves fly around the bell tower and a man with a lantern climbs up at the end of the shot.

The next scenes show well-dressed people going in to a feast, first from an exterior street shot (actually a standard proscenium stage dressed as a street), then from inside the hall. The rich people walk past some beggars in the snow and ignore them. One of them comes inside the hall, and he is generously invited to join the feast by the lord of the manor, although the servants don’t want to admit him. This happy scene fades out again and back to the bedroom from the beginning of the movie, where the children are waking up to find presents at the fireplace. Grownups come into the room and see them at play, bringing more toys for them. The final shot shows angels dancing in a snowy heaven.

It’s interesting that Méliès stayed away from his usual trick film effects, especially people appearing and disappearing. There’s a brief image of a transparent angel at the end of the shot with the rooftops, which may also be an incomplete scene, but apart from that there is no camera trickery, just some dissolves from one scene to the next. I wonder if Méliès was trying to achieve a more reverential or serious tone with this film, maintaining a respect for the holiday rather than the fantastic and whimsical approach of his trick films. He certainly did go to (at least) his usual effort on the props and costumes, and the number of setups alone make this a “big budget” film by 1900 standards. It seems to be lacking a clear plot, but I also wonder if the story of the rich man and the beggar might be from a source that French children would recognize. In general, it seems to be more interested in capturing the mood of Christmas than in telling a story, and one imagines that it pleased the children who got to see it.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.