Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Claire McDowell

The Manicure Lady (1911)

This short by Mack Sennett was produced for Biograph before he struck out on his own, and it seems he tried (or was told) to imitate D.W. Griffith, because there’s very little of the wacky chaos of a Keystone production here. We do get Griffithian conventions like contrasting scenes intercut to demonstrate opposites, and a race to the rescue at the end.

The movie begins by introducing the named character, a woman (Vivian Prescott) who works in a barber shop, as she prepares for work. The intertitles tell us, however, that this is a romance, which will prove “faint heart never won fair lady.” That situation becomes more clear, however, when we meet her coworker, the barber (Sennett). He immediately pulls out a ring and proposes to her, but she spurns him. As (male) customers come in for manicures and shaves, we see that the manicurist enjoys the intimacy of her work, and is flirtatious with the customers, which drives the barber to distraction, and makes him negligent of his own work (and a bit dangerous, with a razor in his hand). One customer in particular (Eddie Dillon) quickly shows interest in her and becomes a rival for her affections. When lunch break comes along, the barber and the manicurist prepare to go out together, but the rival shows up in a car and takes her off with him. The lunches are cut together – Vivian and Eddie are eating in refinement and luxury, while Mack is in a cheap diner, with a tough steak and a rude waitress. At the end of the day, the rival shows up in another car (possibly a taxi) but this time Mack, desperate, leaps onto the back of the vehicle. As they ride out into the country, Mack breaks through the rear window and beats up his rival, tossing him out of the car. He once again proposes, and the manicure lady, overcome by his passionate determination, finally consents.

Most of the humor of this film comes from Sennett’s distraction while the manicurist flirts. He tugs on beards, forgets to finish what he has started, and generally seems like a menace with his blade. One older customer is dragged off by the ear by his jealous wife (Kate Bruce) who refuses to pay for the shave Sennett forgot to give. Another grows tired of waiting and grabs the razor to shave himself (though he pays). The other laugh I got out of it was the final fight scene, mostly because it was so sudden and surprising. Mostly, though, this is a rather broadly-played romantic drama, and though we feel sorry for the barber, he never really comes across as the better or more deserving of love. Watching it made me think of the strange physical intimacy of this now largely lost form of grooming – few men today go to barbers for shaves and manicures. Almost the only time I am this close to a stranger is when I go to the dentist. For a society as repressed as (we think of) the early twentieth century, it’s interesting that this convention existed. It seems like early film makers, looking for places where romance could happen in nine or ten minutes, found it useful as well.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mack Sennett, Vivian Prescott, Eddie Dillon, Kate Bruce, Verner Clarges, Grace Henderson, Florence La Badie, Claire McDowell, Kate Toncray, Charles West

Run Time: 11 Min, 22 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The House of Darkness (1913)

House_of_Darkness_(1913)1It’s not quite October, when I continue my history of horror films, and this short by D.W Griffith isn’t quite a horror movie. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to measure the development of horror as a genre, because early filmmakers appear to have been reluctant about overtly trying to frighten audiences, even though in other areas the public was quite willing to be frightened. By the time Griffith made “The Avenging Conscience” in 1914, he seems to have been willing to take the plunge, but with this movie – not exactly. I’m still tagging it as part of the horror fest, though, in part because of the title, and in part because it has certain parallels with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the movie with which most traditional histories of the horror movie begin.

House of Darkness2The movie is structured much like other progressivist message pictures we’ve seen from Griffith, beginning with a generalized problem and then closing in on a more intimate and personal storyline. In this case, the opening Intertitle assures us of a happy ending: this is the story of “how the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music.” It begins, however, with a side story of a woman who suffers from mental disease, believing her baby is still alive when it is actually dead. The next sequence makes no sense to me at all – I actually wonder if it was shot for another movie. A clerk in an office seems distraught, then a young child with a doll comes in and he gives her some money (folding money, which would be a big deal in 1913). Then he breaks down and starts weeping and his co-workers gather around him. We don’t see him again. Next, we are taken to an asylum for the insane, where a doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and a nurse (Claire McDowell) carry on an accelerated romance and are wed. In the courtyard of the same asylum, a fight breaks out between two lunatics. Finally, an inmate (Charles Hill Mailes) emerges as the center of the action, as he breaks and runs, apparently meaning to escape. The attendants catch him when he stops to listen to Lillian Gish playing the piano. Once he is away from the music, however, his violent tendencies take over and he breaks and runs. Soon there are many attendants in pursuit, but he eludes them and manages to wrest a gun from some passers-by he accosts. Now he makes his way to the home of the doctor, where the nurse/wife is alone with a cat. He breaks in and threatens to kill her, but when she accidentally hits the keys of a piano, the man stops short. Now she soothes him by playing a tune, and the attendants and her husband show up to take him back to the hospital. In the most improbable sequence of an improbable movie, we now see Mailes “cured” of his malady by repeat sessions of “music therapy” in which McDowell plays the piano for him until he is rational again.

House_of_Darkness_(1913)The movie has a lot of problems, which I have to suspect Griffith would have been conscious of by this time. Really, it needs more than one reel for this story to unfold and be at all believable, and Griffith was campaigning for longer films at this time, so that fits. But, the bizarre sequence with the character who never returns is more likely an afterthought or an error of some kind, perhaps Griffith’s mistake, perhaps of other provenance. The premise calls for a more horrific treatment as well, if we saw the world, as in “Caligari” through the eyes of the madman, the illogic of it might well seem more appropriate. While it may have foreshadowed, or even inspired that film, it also resembles a 1904 Biograph comedy, “The Escaped Lunatic,” which also involves a chase after a mentally ill asylum escapee who stops and starts at unpredictable moments. It is quite possible that Griffith was familiar with this movie and decided (or was ordered) to try remaking it as a drama, which could explain some of its weaknesses.

House of DarknessNot to say that the movie is a total failure. There are some good parts. The acting, especially by McDowell and Mailes, is top-notch. Some of Billy Bitzer’s camerawork is fairly daring – notably a shot mirroring the famous one in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” in which actors approach the camera until they are in extreme close-up. In this case, Mailes “sneaks” toward the camera, at times concealing himself behind palm trees, until he emerges in very close range from behind the nearest of them, staring maniacally into space. Bitzer was unable to keep him in focus during the approach (adjusting focal length in the middle of a shot simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the time), but he did manage to set the lens to focus on him at this most frightening final moment. There are also good close-ups of the cat and of hands playing the piano. Griffith makes use of the editing techniques he was known for, especially cross-cutting, to keep the tension high as the pursuit advances. Finally, this is one of those silent movies where the soundtrack makes or breaks it, and the score by Sidney Jill Lehman on the Flicker Alley DVD-on-demand release is perfect for it.

House of Darkness1Director: DW Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The Female of the Species (1912)

Female of the SpeciesThis is one of the better of the one-reelers D.W. Griffith directed for Biograph. Shot in California, it takes good advantage of the scenery and also of three female leads, who refrain from any frolicking in this one to give powerful melodramatic performances. It struck me that the story is something of a reversal of the “Three Godfathers,” which of course wouldn’t be made for another 36 years (or at least 4 years, to speak of the original).

Female of the Species2The few survivors of a mining camp in the desert consist of a miner (Charles West), his wife (Claire McDowell), her sister (Mary Pickford), and an “Other Woman” (Dorothy Bernard). Although everyone’s mind should be firmly fixed on survival, Charles is focused on getting rid of his wife in order to harass Dorothy. Claire catches them, and blames Dorothy, ignoring the fact that she clearly isn’t interested. In the ensuing struggle, Charles is killed. Mary and Claire bury the man and scowl at the woman. The trek across the desert continues, but the situation grows increasingly tense and Claire makes a point of brandishing guns and axes, preventing Dorothy from getting any sleep at night. Meanwhile, an Indian family of mother, father, and papoose are struggling across the same desert. The squaw falls down from thirst, and the father is killed trying to steal water from some white men. The baby is alone, screaming in the desert. Our trio stumbles across it, and find their humanity reawakened by its helpless innocence. Old grudges are forgotten as they cooperate to keep it alive in the harsh environment.

Not really Mary's film.

Not really Mary’s film.

I found this to be a very effective telling of an emotionally charged story in a short running time. The acting makes a lot of it work. Claire McDowell chews the scenery with her desire for revenge, and Dorothy Bernard shows the hurt of being wrongly accused alongside the terror of being in a hopeless situation. Mary Pickford, surprisingly, winds up with little to do but sneer alongside her sister, but this obviously wasn’t her movie. Griffith uses close-ups occasionally, mostly on Dorothy, who is most frequently seen in isolation at any range, to emphasize how she is separated from her companions. Night is more implied than shown, and at times people appear to be lying down to rest in mid-day (which you might do in the desert, anyway: it’s better to move at night). The bleakness of the desert is shown clearly, and a cruel wind whips the foliage and the girls’ clothes and blankets. I also found the score on the DVD, by Zoran Borisavljevic, to be very affecting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find an online edition with this music, so you’ll have to provide some sad, thoughtful music of your own.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles West, Claire McDowell, Mary Pickford, Dorothy Bernard

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Also: Check out the review at Silentology for a different view.

What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911)

In my opinion, D.W. Griffith was most effective in showing intimate vignettes in short format. Even when he wanted to deal with big issues, as is the case here, and in “A Corner in Wheat,” it is the human side of the story that compels. This movie was meant as a progressivist statement about the treatment of old people without families, and it works because it remains very much grounded in a personal story.

What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_OldThe story begins with a doctor making a house call at the home of an old carpenter. His wife is suffering illness, and the doctor prescribes fresh air, which is lacking in their urban tenement. The old man leaves for work, determined to earn enough to get his wife to the country as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the new foreman is looking for people to lay off, and he decides to cull the oldest workers first, replacing them in their jobs with brawny younger men. The carpenter protests, but is sent out into the street, where he seeks work to no avail, finding that employers value youth over his years of experience. His wife takes a turn for the worse as the money (and food) runs out, so he tries stealing food from what looks to be the kitchen of a restaurant at night. He is caught and held in jail, and tells his sad story in night court, to the disdain of the lawyers and bailiffs who have heard it all before. But the judge, who must be an ancestor of Harry Anderson, sends a cop over to the old man’s house to check on the wife. The cop reports that she doesn’t look good, and the judge pays for the stolen groceries, releases the would-be thief, and arranges for a doctor to attend her in the middle of the night! Sadly, all of this charity is wasted, for when they arrive they find the old woman dead, and the old man hurls the stolen food on the ground in rage and despair.

What Shall We Do with Our OldThis movie is very simple and kept within a low budget by shooting almost entirely on small sets with artificial lighting. The night scenes are not lit differently to the day, we only know the time from the intertitles. Unlike many films of this period, there are rather a lot of intertitles, suggesting the limitations Griffith was discovering in telling stories with visuals only. The “AB” of American Biograph is prominently placed in the old couple’s apartment, but not in any of the other interior shots. Fairly little editing technique is shown, but during the critical scenes of the man’s stealing and arrest, there are cross-cut edits back to the old woman in her bed, to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The concept of the protagonist desperately needing to get food to a sick family member, only to be arrested and detained would be re-used more effectively in “The Italian” four years later. This is nevertheless an emotionally effective film, and a good example of how much could be done with so little at the time. Notably, Griffith makes no effort to answer the film’s question, but simply poses the callous standards of modern urban society as problem to be considered, seeming to favor the kind of smaller community where people would be expected to look out for each other as an alternative.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: W. Christie Miller, Claire McDowell, George Nichols, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Swords and Hearts (1911)

Swords_and_Hearts_1911

Several of the themes we’ve encountered before are present in this Biograph short by D.W. Griffith, including cross-dressing, blackface, questions of honor and loyalty, and rampaging Yankee looters. Here, we also get a comment on social worth, as the heroine (Dorothy West, who was in “The House with the Closed Shutters” and “His Trust Fulfilled”) is a member of the “poor white class,” which the male love interest (Wilfred Lucas, from “Enoch Arden” and “His Trust”) ignores for a more “beautiful, but calculating” wealthy neighbor (Claire McDowell, also in “His Trust” and “What Shall We Do with Our Old?”). She seizes the chance to replace him on a daring courier mission when Yankees are lurking about, and goes on a wild horse ride, with the enemy at her back, even shooting one of them down when he gets too close! Once again, Dorothy acquits herself well, and bears up under the wound she receives while doing her duty, but this time she doesn’t die for her efforts. A loyal African American slave hides away Lucas’s fortune and manages to save his father after the discouraged looters torch the house. Then, when Lucas’s lady love spurns him for a Yankee officer, he and Dorothy can have the last laugh – he’s rich again after all.

 Swords and Hearts1

All pretty typical stuff, and becoming redundant among the tropes we are used to seeing Griffith deploy. He uses editing to maximize suspense, particularly during the horse chase and also the rescue of the old man, which has elements in common with “An Unseen Enemy” as we anticipate the arrival of his savior – but will it be too late? Bitzer’s camerawork is more restrained here, with no panoramic shots of the scenery, but the chase is well covered. McDowell, as the fickle fiancé turns in a memorable performance, but West is once again the real focus. The problem is that this time she can’t top what she gave in “The House with Closed Shutters,” although her longing for Lucas from afar is convincing.

Swords and Hearts2

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dorothy West, Claire McDowell, Charles West, Verner Clarges

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trust Fulfilled (1911)

About a year ago, I briefly discussed the first part of this two-part story from D.W. Griffith when he was working at Biograph. It’s worth going back and looking at that post, because the two movies are a continuation of the same story. Griffith always was interested in finding way to work in longer formats (even though, as I’ve said before, his greatest strength seems to have been in making shorts). In this case, he did it by making a “sequel” at the same time as he shot the first part, although the opening intertitle assures us that “each is a complete story in itself.” I suspect that note was added by Biograph to assure its distributors and exhibitors that they would not require anyone to rent two-reel movies at a time when movies were sold by-the-foot, rather than by-the-story. At any rate, it is likely that some audiences only saw half of the story.

 His Trust Fulfilled

The story is that of “an old faithful negro servant” (read: slave) of a Confederate soldier (Dell Henderson, who we’ve seen in “The Unchanging Sea” and “The Last Drop of Water”), who takes on the role of protecting the widow and orphaned child after the father is killed in the Civil War. The main character, George, is played with understated dignity and humility by Wilfred Lucas, a white man in blackface, which will make it difficult at best for modern audiences to accept him. He saves the daughter (Gladys Egan again, from “In the Border States” and “The Adventures of Dollie”) from the burning house after a group of Union looters torches it, then running back in to rescue also the fallen hero’s sword, symbol of “his trust” and arguably a phallic symbol of his acceptance of white supremacy. He takes both back to his meager shack, and sleeps outside in the cold to preserve their honor. The mother (Claire McDowell, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old?” and “The New York Hat”) nevertheless dies from the pain of her loss, apparently shocked to the core by her circumstances. George gives his meager savings to a white lawyer who refuses to shake his hand in order to see to it that the child is brought up and schooled with her own kind. She grows into a somewhat bouncy Dorothy West (from “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Fugitive”), who attracts the hand of the lawyer’s young cousin from England. George, having fulfilled his life’s purpose – keeping the trust of his long-dead master – shuffles sadly off after the wedding and back to his quarters, where he holds the sword gently to his breast. In what may be a dream sequence, the lawyer appears and finally shakes George’s hand.

The screen's first "interracial" handshake?

The screen’s first “interracial” handshake?

In spite of the clearly racist content, I won’t deny that the story has some dramatic and emotional content that still works. The Civil War battle is less effective than what we see in “The House with Closed Shutters,” which may be attributable to a lower budget, but it’s also less central to the storyline. Lucas’s performance, which at first seems virulently stereotypical, takes on a more dignified cast as we see George age and face the trials of keeping his word. In a way, what Griffith is giving us here is the “positive case” for racism and Southern tradition – a world in which people knew their destiny on Earth and kept their honor by living up to their expectations. That this world is mythical makes it no less effective as a cinematic representation, although of course accepting it without criticism leads down the road that got us to “The Birth of a Nation.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Claire McDowell, Gladys Egan, Dorothy West, Verner Clarges, Harry Hyde

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it (along with “His Trust”) for free: here.

Sunbeam, the (1912)

sunbeam

We don’t generally think of the death of a parent as a good opener for a light comedy about a child. Nor is the threat of scarlet fever outbreaks in tenements usually seen as a subject for humor. But, D.W. Griffith made it work in this, one of his most memorable early shorts. The “Sunbeam” is his nickname for an adorable 4-year-old child (Ynez Seabury, who would later appear in “The Invisible Ray” and “Reap the Wild Wind” during the sound era). When her mother (Kate Bruce, also in “The Mothering Heart” and “The New York Hat“) passes quietly away, she runs out in search of other playmates. She fixes on a spinster (Claire McDowell, whom we’ve seen in “The Usurer,” and who later was in “The Mark of Zorro”) and a bachelor (Dell Henderson, who was in “The Unchanging Sea” and “His Trust”), who conveniently live across the hall from one another. At first, the two are crotchety and resistant, but the Sunbeam breaks down their resistance and gets them to be nice to each other, and to her. Then some local kids stick up a “Scarlet Fever” warning on their door and they are forced into quarantine together for a time, ultimately assuring that the new family unit will gel. It’s pretty silly, but undeniably as charming as Ynez herself.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Ynez Seabury, Kate Bruce, Claire McDowell, Dell Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min, 45 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

His Trust (1911)

His Trust

This early melodrama is a good example of why modern audiences can have a hard time with Griffith, and with early film in general. It has many of the same problems for us as “Birth of a Nation” does, although it is much shorter and refrains, at least, from glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. The subtitle alone: “The Faithful Devotion and Self-Sacrifice of an Old Negro Servant” is enough to set our teeth on edge, although “Negro” was not considered an insulting term at the time, nor even a few generations ago. “Servant” here is, of course, a euphemism for “slave,” as the movie is set in the South during the Civil War, a period that lived in the memory of the older and the myths of the younger generations at the time (it was as distant to them as the Kennedy assassination is to us today). The “servant” is played by a white man (Wilfred Lucas, also in “The Girl and Her Trust” and later “Modern Times” with Chaplin) in black face, another practice that is no longer acceptable. I would encourage viewers, not to ignore their sense of discomfort with this movie, but to regard it as evidence of an important shift in American history. One African American commentator on film I heard observed that stories like “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” were popular among black audiences of the time, because, in spite of the stereotypes, they at least suggested the possibility of noble action on the part of black people, and this movie falls into that category as well. Today, the stereotypes are no longer acceptable, and I’d say that’s a good thing, but this phase in history remains significant in understanding race in America.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Dell Henderson, Claire McDowell, Linda Arvidson, Mack Sennett, Charles West, Grace Henderson.

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here. (Along with the sequel, “His Trust Fulfilled”)