Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Dd

The Dancing Midget (1902)

A simple trick film in which Georges Méliès combines the conventions of the stage magic show with the effects of cinema to produce a brief piece of entertainment. Once again, he shows that he was quite willing to milk a technique and concept for all it was worth.

A standard proscenium-style set is established, with the backdrop painted as a tunnel leading away from the audience with a large black area in the center. Méliès enters from stage right, dressed as a slightly comical variety of a standard magician. He waves his cape and an assistant appears, dressed in a servant’s livery and wig. He pulls six eggs from the mouth of the servant, an act which seems to amuse the man greatly, and then breaks each in succession into his hat. He stirs up the hat’s contents and dumps a great deal of confetti out of it onto his assistant’s head. Then, he produces a much larger egg from the hat, about the size of an ostrich egg. He places it onto the table and gestures, causing it first to grow, then to burst and reveal a tiny ballerina inside. She dances on the table for a while. Then the magician brings her up to full size, and puts the assistant into a crate, placing his cape over the ballerina. He pulls up the cape, and – voila! – the two have changed places. He now  kicks the servant off the stage and departs with the ballerina down the tunnel.

I’ve come to recognize that when there’s a large black space in the center of a Méliès set, it means that something will be shown in double-exposure within that space. I wonder if his contemporary audiences ever caught on? Anyway, I liked Méliès’s somewhat frenetic performance here, and was surprised by the comparably under-stated behavior of the assistant. Usually, that would be the more comedic role, with an expectation that he would try to kiss the ballerina at some point. The trick at the center of the film is not especially new, nor are the various appearances and disappearances used to support it. Still, it is another fine example of the many short films Méliès produced during his brief but prolific career.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Dwarf and the Giant (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès shows that even after he had mastered longer forms of storytelling (as in “Blue Beard” and “Cinderella”) he continued to make simple trick films and experiment with effects. Here, forced perspective is used to achieve gigantism and a split screen allows twinning.

A standard proscenium-style stage is established by the camera; in this case the backdrop is painted to appear as if a long tunnel approaches the stage. Méliès approaches from the rear of the set, as if he has just walked down this corridor, wearing a toga. He pulls off the toga to reveal modern clothing and bows. Suddenly, a second figure pulls itself from him, and there are two Méliès on the stage. This new one is slightly shorter than the original, which he emphasizes by squatting down a bit, and the other Méliès makes fun of him. Then he pulls on a hair on top of his own head and seems to grow, magically to a new height, nearly filling the screen. He laughs at the shorter version of himself and drops confetti on its head. Then he shrinks down again and the two images re-combine for a moment, before splitting off and giving one another the raspberry before exiting the stage.

Méliès had used forced perspective more dramatically earlier in “The Man with the Rubber Head,” but the effect here seems simpler, done almost offhandedly, as if he has become more comfortable with the technique. Of course, the growth effect was achieved here by running the same film through the camera twice, with the background masked off and the camera moving closer to the actor to make him become bigger on screen, which is not a simple matter at all. At less than a minute in length, this was a pretty short movie for 1901, but there was so much demand for new content from him by now that he could make almost anything, and of course he also could use it between acts at the Robert-Houdin Theatre. Combined with other movies, as it would be in a period program, it’s a nice enough distraction.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 55 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Dream (1911)

This short film from IMP (the predecessor to Universal Pictures) is a simple morality tale about a philandering husband’s comeuppance. It is probably known today mostly because of starring a young Mary Pickford along with her then-husband Owen Moore.

The film begins by depicting a drunk couple out together in a restaurant. The man (Moore) staggers around and hands the waiter all of the money in his wallet. In the midst of their carousing, we briefly cut away to images of a woman (Pickford) sitting dejectedly at home alone, with dinner waiting on the table. She doses off for a moment, and checking the time, determines that it is getting quite late. An intertitle informs us that the husband returns six hours later, but the wife doesn’t seem angry or concerned, just happy to see him. That quickly changes as he yells at her, throwing the food she made on the floor and turning over a chair before passing out on a divan. She seems very upset by his behavior. Read the rest of this entry »

The Dying Swan (1917)

With some sadness, I return once more to the work of Evgeni Bauer, who I discovered early in the first year of this project. This movie, which was one of the last he made, will likely be the last one I will review – unless I discover one I hadn’t known was available, or unless new discoveries are made in Russia.

The movie begins with a somewhat somber “meet cute,” in which a young man (Vitold Polonski) looking for a lost dog asks a young woman (Vera Karalli) if she has seen it. She turns away and does not answer, but her father (Aleksandr Kheruvimov) comes over and explains that she is mute. The young couple are introduced as Gizella and Viktor, but they make no further contact at this time. Later, we learn that Gizella is a dancer, and that her “soul” is dancing, but she is deeply sad that she couldn’t speak to the young man. They soon see one another again on a forest path while she is picking flowers and he is out for a walk. When she sees him, she stumbles and falls, turning an ankle. He helps her back to her house, thus learning where she lives. Read the rest of this entry »

Demolition of a Wall (1895)

This short film from Lumière shows a bit of demolition techniques from the fin-de-siécle, and gave Auguste Lumière a chance to appear before camera. Dramatic tension is built as we watch the work proceed to its inevitable climax.

Lumière stands with his back to the camera, overseeing some workers as they attempt to push over a thick section of a wall in an already-partially-demolished building. One worker is pressing the wall inwards with a jackscrew, while another is pushing it with a pick. Finally, the wall collapses, and hits the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. The workers now begin breaking it apart with their picks, both the collapsed portion and a small still-standing section below where the wall broke as it fell.

I assume that the Lumières chose this subject as a part of their ordinary work day, bringing the camera along to document something that was going on anyway, which they hoped would provide some visual interest. They had the freedom to do this because their camera was small and light weight, while the Edison camera was pretty well confined to the Black Maria. Seeing this made me reflect on how interesting it would be to have recordings of day-to-day operations at the Edison plant, but unfortunately, no such movies were made that I know of.

Director: Probably Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Down to Earth (1917)

In this movie, also known as “The Optimist,” Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his belief in an active, outdoorsy lifestyle as the cure to society’s woes. He co-wrote the story, along with Anita Loos, who had worked with Fairbanks on “His Picture in the Papers” and “Wild and Woolly.”

The movie begins with Doug, who plays a character named Bill Gaynor (but might as well be called Doug Fairbanks), in college. He’s captain of the football team and in love with Ethyl Forsythe (Eileen Percy). He proposes to her, but she feels they lack common interests – he’s into sports, she’s into society affairs. Besides, she’s found another fellow, Charlie Riddle (Charles K. Gerrard). So, Doug goes off on a world tour to “forget” her. We see him mountain climbing, leading an African safari and riding the range. This healthy lifestyle is contrasted with the decadent parties that Ethyl and Charlie attend. One of them involves a fountain of champagne with dancing girls rising from the middle of the table that reminded me of “Metropolis.” Anyway, the pace of constant partying wears Ethyl down and one day, she collapses with a hangover. She is whisked off to a sanitarium and her engagement to Charlie is postponed, and someone thinks to send Doug a letter out at the ranch.

Doug comes racing back to see her, of course, and isn’t impressed by what he finds at the sanitarium. A bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs are coddled and enabled in their fantasies of illness. The windows are kept shut and there is no fresh air or exercise for anyone. After a brief visit with Ethyl, he goes to give the chief doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a piece of his mind. The doctor explains that efforts to really cure the wealthy are in vain, but a man gets rich allowing them to believe they are sick. Since he’s only in it for the money, he is amenable when Doug offers to “buy” his patients from him. He takes the honest doctor who works their into his confidence, and they devise a plan to kidnap them and bring them to a more healthful environment.

The plan is simple (sort of). They inform everyone that there is a smallpox scare and the sanitarium will be quarantined. But, Doug offers to sneak them out of the quarantine aboard his yacht, bound for New York. Instead of New York, he takes them to a small deserted island and forces them to “rough it” for two months. Actually, it isn’t really a deserted island, it’s an area near a place called “Palm Grove,” evidently in California (the film was really shot at Yosemite), but Doug dresses up one of the sailors from the yacht as a “Wild Man from Waukeegan” and stations him to guard the pass that would allow the socialites to discover the ruse. Anyway, Doug enforces a strict regime of exercise, which the castaways have to endure to eat, since he’s the only one with the wherewithal to catch fish and collect edible mushrooms and berries. The exercise regime is designed to reverse bad behaviors – an alcoholic has to drink two quarts of water before breakfast, a gloomy gus has to laugh like a hyena, and Charlie has to act as janitor. Charlie retains his selfish ways even after arriving – he tries to steal Doug’s and the doctor’s food on the first day, and ultimately he finds out that Palm Grove is nearby and makes an escape.

Charlie hooks up with a friend at Palm Grove who has a good idea. The reason he’s losing Ethyl to Doug is because Doug has used “Cave Man” tactics, so he should be a “Cave Man” too. The two of them will kidnap Ethyl and that will make her come around. The plan fails, of course, when Doug isn’t napping when the rest of the camp is, and he beats Charlie and his friend with one hand tied behind his back (literally). He swims out to the rowboat where Ethyl was drifting away and confesses to the ruse. She admits that she figured it out a while ago, and the two are happily united.

Overall, this is a pretty standard Fairbanks film, and it definitely speaks to his personal feelings about modern America – the health of the country is threatened by a kind of selfish decadence that ignores what made it strong in the first place. I would imagine that this message resonated well with audiences across the country at the time. It’s worth noting that the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe also saw a rise of various health movements that emphasized more “natural” living as well, so this was in the air. I think the story could have been improved by adding an element of real danger, as Loos and Fairbanks did in “Wild and Woolly.” Some kind of real threat – an actual wild man, a local tribe, a gang of smugglers that used this location – could have increased the tension in the third act, which otherwise seems a bit lame. Seeing Doug beat his foe one-handed is impressive, but it also emphasizes the inequity of the situation – he’s never really challenged or put at risk, everything comes to him much too easily. This might be what Americans, getting ready to see real fighting in the First World War, wanted for entertainment at the time, but it doesn’t result in as satisfying a movie as this might have been. I did get some laughs, though, especially from the hypochondriacs and their reactions to the situation, and Fairbanks is as charming as ever.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Charles K. Gerrard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Herbert Standing

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Danger Girl (1916)

This short from Keystone is the first Gloria Swanson movie I’ve reviewed for this blog. It’s probably not the sort of thing most people think of when they think of Gloria, but it does demonstrate her versatility and comfort in front of the camera.

danger-girlThe movie begins with a quarrel between Myrtle Lind and Bobby Vernon. Myrtle’s in a rather unflattering Mary Pickford-style wig, which I guess signals us that she’s a “good” girl. Bobby quickly falls into the orbit of “bad” girl Helen Bray, who may be deliberately imitating (or parodying) Theda Bara’s performance in “A Fool There Was.” She’s going riding, and invites Bobby along after brushing off “Last Season’s Suitor” (A. Edward Sutherland).  Gloria shows up driving recklessly with her brother Reggie Morris (for some reason known throughout as “Honey Boy”). Reggie is hoping to hook up with the danger girl, and Gloria develops an interest in Bobby when he helps her change a tire. When all the men start gravitating to the danger girl at a party, Gloria decides to take matters into her own hands by dressing as a man and distracting her. Myrtle ends up with Reggie, once the danger girl is no longer in play, but Gloria has to avoid the attacks of Last Season’s Suitor until Bobby drives a bus through the plate-glass window of the café they’re at and rescues her. Finally, all the “good” people are happily paired up.

danger-girl1This movie is a bit hard to keep up with, in part because the prints I was able to find were of poor quality, so it’s hard to tell actors apart, but in part because the characters don’t have enough personality or back story to identify with. The danger girl is distinctive, and once Gloria’s in her masculine attire, she’s easy to track, but the others seem quite interchangeable. I’m still not 100% sure I kept the division between Myrtle and Gloria straight before the “drag” sequence, and I gave up even trying to tell Reggie from Last Year’s Suitor, although Bobby Vernon is generally recognizable.

danger-girl2For a Keystone comedy, I was a bit surprised at the “adult” approach to comedy for the first two-thirds of the movie, although once we get to the café the Mack Sennett chaos does kick into gear. The theme of women in “masculine” attire goes a bit beyond just the explicit drag sequence: the danger girl’s riding outfit includes pants and a blazer, giving her a “hard” look, and Gloria puts on overalls when she has to work on her car. I suspect this was titillating to a 1916 audience, who didn’t often see women in pants. Some of the most interesting scenes involve Gloria in the “male” domain of a saloon, where she has to figure out how to stand at the bar, and avoid being groped by a fat drunk.  We do get some basic camera movement and reasonably sophisticated editing, certainly if one compares this to the Keystone Chaplins of 1914, but it was hardly cutting-edge in production values.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Helen Bray, Myrtle Lind, A. Edward Sutherland, Reggie Morris, Josef Swickard

Run Time: 20 Min

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

The Doctor and the Monkey (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Savant et le chimpanzé

Admittedly, this short from Georges Méliès is clearly intended as a comedy romp, but I’m including it with my “history of horror” because of its obvious relationship to later “ape on the loose” movies like “King Kong.” This monkey is less imposing, but the special effects are no less impressive for the period.

doctor-and-the-monkeyThe proscenium-style set displays a split-level home, with both the lower and upper floors visible, and the floor cutting mid-way through the screen. On the lower floor is a laboratory, and a doctor, played by Méliès, has a large monkey in a cage (actually an actor in a very obvious monkey suit). When the doctor turns his back, the monkey breaks out of the cage and begins to smash up the lab. The doctor pursues him and tries to bring him back under control, but to no avail. He grabs the monkey by its tail, and the tail detaches itself and begins flailing around under its own power. The doctor grabs a broom and tries to swat the tail, but it leaps up and attaches itself to his nose. The doctor’s housekeeper runs in and helps him pull off the tail, whereupon it disappears for good. Meanwhile, the monkey has climbed up to the second level, where it is smashing stored bags of flour and other things it finds. As the doctor becomes free again, it smashes through the floor and returns to the lower level terrorizing the doctor and the housekeeper. It now tears off the housekeeper’s skirt, leaving her in her pantalettes. As the film ends, the whole house is in shambles, with the monkey in evident dominance.

Apparently this movie has been compared to later video games like “Donkey Kong” because of the split-level effect, and perhaps the destructive monkey as well. Méliès intended it to be funny, but all movies about monkeys and destruction bring out questions of evolution and the beast within humanity, and the thin veneer of civilization that holds order together. In this film, the doctor proves quite incapable of controlling his creature’s instincts, and the monkey clearly gets the better of him. There’s even a sexual aspect, both in terms of the phallus-like tail attacking the man’s nose, and in the monkey tearing clothes off of the female housekeeper. Horror film makers would be exploring these themes again in the subsequent century and beyond.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30secs

You can watch it for free: here (with music).

The Devil’s Needle (1916)

This release from D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts company reflects his concern with progressive social issues, although it comes across to us today in a similar spirit to “Reefer Madness” and other anti-drug propaganda movies. The version we have today was a re-release for 1923 audiences, which changed character names and other details through new Intertitles.

Devils NeedleBecause of the changes, I’m going to refer to the characters in the film by the names of the actors who played them. Director Chester Withey has followed his mentor’s lead in making the characters more like “types” than individuals in any event. Norma Talmadge, working before she became a big star, plays a model who is caught up in a sort of four-way love triangle (“love trapezoid?”) with her boss, a lanky painter played by Tully Marshall, the daughter of one of his patrons, played by Marguerite Marsh, and her suitor, Howard Gaye, who of course works for her father, F.A. Turner. Norma wants to marry Tully, but he’s infatuated with Marguerite, who is decidedly uninterested in Howard, and apparently willing to consider an marrying artist just to get out of doing what her father wants her to. This whole situation is complicated by the fact that Norma has picked up a habit that involves buying little packages of powder from a shady guy in a cap and sticking herself with needles.

Devils Needle1 Read the rest of this entry »