Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Directors

Best Director 1917

By 1917, directors were well established as the final authority on set, setting the stage for the future of “auteur theory.” Still, some directors used this power to create art, and others used it to make sure they got a bigger paycheck. The directors who are remembered today are generally the ones who fought to make something beyond a quick buck. They had the vision, if not to realize that people would still be fascinated by their work in 100 years, at least to hope to bring something to audiences besides a momentary distraction.

The nominees this year were dedicated to making film into an art form. Evegeni Bauer, whose short life was soon to end, had already made some amazing films, including “After Death,” which won him the Century Award for Best Director in 1915. This year he offered what might be seen as his masterpiece, “The Dying Swan,” a movie which has had several nominations (though no wins) this year. Charlie Chaplin is a many time nominee for directing, and this year his best work was “Easy Street,” which took home the Century Award for Production Design. His somewhat improvisational directing style was supported by the existence of a complete set of a city street that he and his actors could play on. Louis Feuillade is back once again with a serial, the superhero thriller “Judex,” which may have inspired Batman. Episodes of “Judex” have won for Best Costume Design and Best Supporting Actor this year. The best directed episode, “The Woman in Black,” is up for its first award here. Maurice Tourneur is another returning nominee to the awards. His movie “Alias Jimmy Valentine” was up against Bauer in 1915, but the Russian won over the Frenchman. This year, a movie he wasn’t entirely happy with gets the nod; “Poor Little Rich Girl” forced him into an uneasy relationship with star Mary Pickford, who got her own way more often than he did. Victor Sjöström is the only first-timer on this list, but only because this project started too late to honor “Ingeborg Holm” with a nomination. “A Man There Was” has already won for Best Cinematography and Best Leading Actor, two of the most prestigious awards, now it’s up for directing as well.

The nominees for Best Director for 1917 are:

  1. Evgeni Bauer for The Dying Swan
  2. Charlie Chaplin for Easy Street
  3. Louis Feuillade for The Woman in Black (Judex)
  4. Maurice Tourneur for Poor Little Rich Girl
  5. Victor Sjöström for A Man There Was

And the winner is…Evgeni Bauer for “The Dying Swan!”

I probably gave myself away by referring to it as “arguably his masterpiece” above. Actually, I like “After Death” and “Child of the Big City” a bit better, but this one clearly was a labor of intense love for Bauer himself. I think he meant it to top his earlier work, and it may be that dedication that wound up driving him to his own early demise, a haunting reflection of the theme of the film. This is obviously my last chance to honor Bauer with a Century Award, but I’m still hoping to have opportunities to see other work by him that I’ve missed.

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Best Director 1916

The director’s craft developed over the years of early film at a remarkable pace, so that directors working in 1916 had already achieved a high standard of sophistication and ability. Directors had already come to see themselves as creative artists, as being responsible for coordinating the technical talents of their crew into a single vision They were also the one objective eye watching over the actors, coaching them when performances gave too much or too little. Directors might even see themselves as the final “author” or authority on a film, even though the producers often used economic power to make decisions beyond the control of the directors who worked for them. In this category, we assess the artistic talent of the directors of the year 1916.

Evgeni Bauer was last year’s winner, and his movie “A Life for a Life” has been honored this year with multiple nominations. It shows his talent for mise-en-scène and working in multiple dimensions, and also made a major star of its lead actress, Vera Kholodnaia, this years Century Award winner for Best Actress. His countryman Yakov Protazonov is less well-remembered today, but contributed an interesting entry with “Queen of Spades.” This is the second (known) take on the famous Pushkin story in film, and deals interestingly with the transition between time periods in alternating flashback and “modern” storylines. First-time director Marion E. Wong directed her own screenplay in “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” a story about Asian American immigrants told from their side that still seems original and interesting a hundred years later. She showed her talent for sensitive storytelling as well as good instincts for the cinematic art in this long lost film. Cecil B. DeMille has yet to take home a Century Award, although he’s been nominated each year since I started. His depiction of the life of Joan of Arc in “Joan the Woman” shows how far he’s come in the time since he gave us “The Squaw Man” as his freshman effort. Finally, Charles Swickard and William S. Hart co-directed Hart’s highly effective vehicle, “Hell’s Hinges.” Hart took home the award for Best Actor on that one, can he also manage to win as half a director?

The nominees for Best Director of 1916 are:

  1. Evgeni Bauer, for “A Life for a Life”
  2. Yakov Protazonov, for “Queen of Spades”
  3. Marion E. Wong, for “The Curse of Quon Gwon”
  4. Cecil B. DeMille, for “Joan the Woman”
  5. Charles Swickard and William S. Hart, for “Hell’s Hinges”

And the winner is…Cecil B. DeMille!

joan-the-woman2

I think DeMille’s work is among the best that Hollywood offered in this period. Last year, although he didn’t win the director award, his movie “The Cheat” won as Best Picture, not least due to his direction. Today, DeMille is mostly remembered for grand spectacles like “The Ten Commandments,” but he tried a little of everything in his early years, and that’s part of how he became such an effective showman. In “Joan the Woman,” he fictionalizes enough of the story to hold human interest in a person few can really identify with – a saint and a martyr. The movie is enormously effective and displays the skill he quickly honed by jumping right into feature production in 1914.

Best Director 1915

Like the captain of a ship, the film director has ultimate responsibility for what happens on his set. Our captain may be taking orders from higher up (the producer) or attempting to steer the craft according to another’s plan (the screenwriter), but he or she is the one that has to go down with the ship when it sinks, and who sails with it into glory when it succeeds. While the cast and crew each may contribute their own special talents to the finished product, it is the director that coordinates their efforts and looks at the “big picture” or whole.

The nominees for best director for 1915 include names that will be recognized by film fans 100 years later. Cecil B. DeMille, although later remembered largely for large-scale spectacles and biblical epics, got his start with melodramatic romances like “The Cheat,” an excellent investigation of a woman’s dishonor. Raoul Walsh’s later contributions to the gangster and crime drama genres were pre-saged by his movie “Regeneration,” about the redemption of a hardened criminal through love. The Russian Evgeni Bauer would die before the Bolsheviks took power, then dwell in obscurity for decades, but the re-discovery of films like “After Death,” a Gothic twist on a Turgenev story about frustrated lovers, would assure his place in film history. Maurice Tourneur is largely known for stylistic fantasy and fairy tales, but he also took a turn looking at crime and redemption in “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” a movie which mixes his advanced lighting techniques along with the stark images of the real Sing Sing prison in New York. Finally, Charlie Chaplin, whose work would be honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences many years later, gets a nomination for his maturing skills in “The Bank,” a movie which combines his established balletic slapstick talents with a sense of pathos and sympathy.

The nominees for Best Director of 1915 are:

  1. Cecil B. DeMille for “The Cheat
  2. Raoul Walsh for “Regeneration
  3. Evgeni Bauer for “After Death
  4. Maurice Tourneur for “Alias Jimmy Valentine
  5. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank

And the winner is…Evgeni Bauer for “After Death!”

After_DeathAs good as our American directors are getting by 1915, I still felt that Bauer’s approach was the most advanced and exciting of the year. The movie blew me away when I first saw it, it seemed to be ten years ahead of everything else, and it still stands out due to its careful characterization, free-roaming camera, fascinating lighting choices, and use of mise-en-scène, one of Bauer’s specialties. Russian critics at the time gave Bauer a hard time for his “cluttered” sets and for changing the narrative of the sacred Turgenev, but for a modern viewer, this is a visual and emotional treat. What looked “busy” to them is almost reassuring compared to the starkness of early film, and the story works for film, whatever its origins might have been. One hundred years later, I’m happy to honor Bauer for his achievement.

The Birth of a Nation, Part X (The Century Awards: 1915)

The year 1915 represents the transition in my Periodization from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Classical Silent Period.” I took this, partly at least, from David Kalat’s description of silent movie history in his commentary to Fantômas, one of the first movies I watched on reviving this project and beginning this blog. But, the more I have watched, the more convinced I have become that 1915 really does represent a profound turning-point, especially in terms of the American film industry. While there are some standout movies from 1914, even some really good American feature-length films, most of what you see from that year still carries the baggage of “early film” and looks slow, stagey, and static by modern standards. This is especially true if we eliminate French, Italian, and Russian films from consideration. In 1915, we start getting feature-length stories that draw us in, give compelling narratives, and use the camera creatively. The best movies of this year can be put up against any but the very best of later work and still come out looking at decent.

Birth_of_a_Nation BerangerTraditional film histories would give most of the credit for this to D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Everything that came after it was based on it, they’ll tell you, and film, or at least American film, would have remained in its stodgy and uncreative pigeonhole without Griffith and his genius. Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while know that I regard that narrative with some distrust: it looks to me like at least some of it is because of Griffith’s own (very effective) ballyhoo and hype, and some of it is because for far too long, far too many of the people writing about film in this period had access to far too few movies of the period to make a reasonable comparison. Generations of film students were told by their professors that this was the “best” movie of the period, and, not having seen much else from before 1915 except maybe a Méliès and a couple of Edisons, they pretty much swallowed the standard story and wrote all their books based on it. In the era before home video, it took a lot of hard work to do the kind of research necessary to challenge this view.

Birth of a Nation Sheet MusicAs much as I believe that the traditional narrative deserves debunking, though, it’s possible to go too far. There’s one piece of evidence that any Griffith-fan can call to service that I simply cannot refute: this was a hugely popular film, a “blockbuster” by any standard of judgment, and a tremendous critical success that convinced many skeptics that the motion pictures really were a serious art form. People paid up to $2.00 to see it, as much as they did for live theater events, and they saw it in “traditional” theaters rather than nickelodeons, accompanied by a full orchestra and seated by uniformed ushers. Indeed, I suspect that part of the reason for its popularity and impact is that it drew many casual movie-goers or non-movie-goers to its screenings, who were the more impressed with its spectacle for not being accustomed to how advanced the other movies of the day already were.

Acknowledging this fact forces me to admit that the movie must have had an influence: if only because the reality of Griffith’s commercial success after taking what most thought was an insanely expensive risk influenced the way studios responded to other directors who now wanted to make large, expensive feature films. The investment now looked like a good idea, and it has to be said that more studios made more and longer movies after “Birth” came out than they had before it. They also started to push the “genius” and importance of their best directors in their ad copy, following Griffith’s self-promoting example. In other words, reluctantly, I have to admit that, yes, “The Birth of a Nation” is at least partly responsible for the improvement in quality we see in American filmmaking during and after the year 1915. There, I said it: there’s some merit to the traditional narrative after all.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medAll of which is a VERY long-winded introduction to my topic: what am I going to do with “The Birth of a Nation” in this year’s Century Awards? It’s a problem I’ve been thinking about all year. I’ve been tempted to just ignore the problem and let it go away, or to write it off as a non-problem. “Birth” came out at the beginning of 1915, and by the end you’ve got movies like “The Cheat,” “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” “Regeneration,” and “Carmen” which clearly trump “Birth” in any technical category. But, is that really fair or accurate?

If the Century Awards represent my attempt to guess what the Motion Picture Academy would have done if it was in existence 100 years ago, “The Birth of a Nation” would have to win hands down. It was the movie on everyone’s lips at the time, it was the holy grail everyone else wanted to recreate, it was huge. It would have swept any awards given by the industry that year or the next. It would have made “Titanic” look like an also-ran. Again, it may not make me happy, but that’s what the historical evidence suggests.

Birth of a Nation3

But, if the Century Awards represent my own growing understanding about film history over time as a result of watching the movies and applying my current awareness and education to make judgment calls, that’s another thing altogether. I gave “Kid Auto Races” an award last year, not because people flocked to see it then, or because critics at the time said much about it, but because 100 years later I can see that Charlie Chaplin’s “little tramp” is one of the most iconic costumes of all time. I can see that “Birth of a Nation” was an over-rated film today, and I can certainly see that it was a hateful and racist production, so why should I feel compelled to give it awards I don’t think it deserves? I have a policy on my goodreads account that I don’t give star-ratings to materials written to promote racist viewpoints, and I can carry that over to this blog as well. “The Birth of a Nation” isn’t going to get any awards from me, whatever contemporary film makers might have done. You want to give it one, start your own blog.

Mabel Normand – Pretty, but no Damsel

MabelNormand_with_round_mirrorThe years 1895-1915, which coincide with the emergence of cinema as a serious industry, were a mixed period in the history of women. Women in most countries did not have the vote. Women of certain classes were expected to squeeze themselves into tortuous corsets. Working women (and there were many) were paid a pittance compared to men. Very few women held positions of traditional authority – politicians, business owners, financiers, police enforcers, priests, doctors, lawyers, University professors – all these professions were overwhelmingly male and in some cases restricted to men. On the other hand, women were beginning to raise their voices – and to be heard – in regard to some of these very problems. Movements for women’s suffrage existed in nearly every Western nation, and, beginning with New Zealand in 1894, were beginning to win that right. Women were becoming prominent leaders in middle class political and religious social reform movements, such as temperance and progressivism, as well. Women in many countries now had the right to own property and businesses separate from their husbands, and women’s education was expanding as well. Some women were finding niches in society where they could express themselves, even though creativity was still perceived as primarily a “male” privilege.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

Mabel Normand in 1915.

The new industry of film making was a niche that offered opportunities to non-traditional groups, in part because the traditions prevalent in more established industries were not already set in place. The engineers who originally experimented on moving pictures at Edison and Lumière were primarily white and male, although in the US there was more class mobility in this field, however it wasn’t long before the movies started to be more inclusive. In France, Alice Guy-Blaché became one of the first directors as early as 1896. In the United States, movie production became a reliable source of income for many newer immigrant groups, especially Jews, who had less interest in preserving traditional hierarchies. Some women were able to find positions of creative expression and authority within this niche.

MabelnormandportraitMabel Normand was one of these women. Born in the 1890s, she had grown up with the growth of media’s importance in American society. She was at first a professional model, and her remarkable looks could well have netted her a profitable career in that arena had she so chosen. But, she found herself working at Biograph studios under D.W. Griffith in 1911, and, while there, she met a handsome young actor with a pronounced sense of humor: Mack Sennett, who within a year would be running his own studio, and making a name for himself as “the king of comedy.” He took most of Biograph’s funniest comedians with him, and he also took Mabel Normand. Sennett and Normand had an on-again-off-again romance throughout the rest of her lifetime, though they never married. At Keystone, the still-teenage Normand began to hone her comedic talents and her athletic abilities (vital to slapstick). Her good looks made her popular with audiences and it wasn’t long before “Mabel” movies were a staple of the studio. By the time she was twenty, she was either directing or co-directing movies.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

Mabel is shocked to find herself on a Keystone set.

I have to say “either or” because for every single movie I can find that one source says Normand was the director, I can find at least one source that claims it was co-directed by a man, usually Sennett or Charlie Chaplin, sometimes another Keystone star like Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. There is no one Century Film I can point to and say with certainty, “this is a Mabel Normand movie.” As a critic of the Auteur Theory, I suppose that shouldn’t bother me, but in this case I’d like to be able to find an example. In general, the movies she made can be described as “standard Keystones.” They have fast-paced movement, irreverence, farcical situations and violence and outrageous characters. They also lack camera movement, innovative editing techniques, believable plots and character development. Some people love Keystone movies, others (a lot of others, nowadays) hate them. I can’t say that Mabel’s movies will change anyone’s mind one way or the other.

Mabel_Normand1I can say how much I enjoy watching her work as a comedienne. I was fortunate, quite early in this project, to discover the work of Mabel Normand, in “Mabel at the Wheel,” a movie mostly remembered today for having Charlie Chaplin in it, but one which Normand directed (possibly with help from Sennett) and also starred in. I hadn’t really heard of Normand at that time, although I’d come across her name once or twice, and I delighted with this film. Chaplin is good as the villain, but in this case Mabel really carries the film. She is pretty, spunky, determined, competent and, most of all, funny. I started to take notice of her from that moment, and I’ve reviewed quite a number of her movies since then. Some are better than others, but I’ve always enjoyed seeing Mabel again.

Mabel_at_the_WheelInterestingly, Charlie Chaplin wrote about the production of “Mabel at the Wheel” in his autobiography. He says he resented being asked to be directed by Normand, emphasizing her youth. Well, Charlie himself was only 24, and had about three years less experience in movies at the time, so this seems pretty diva-ish of him in retrospect, or else sexist. I think he was aware of this when he wrote this in seventies, and he tries to be very generous to Normand in the rest of the book. He talks about their close friendship and future collaborations, and suggests that they “should” have been lovers, although it never happened. All of this was unfortunately lost when the book was turned into the movie “Chaplin” starring Robert Downey, Jr. When the making of “Mabel at the Wheel” is shown, Marisa Tomei plays Normand as shrewish ditz, obviously only directing because her boyfriend is the producer, one of the oldest stereotypes in Hollywood. The scene goes so far as to recreate “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” with Tomei/Normand as the victim, showing that she understood so little about movies as to be taken in by the oldest slapstick joke in the medium. The scene is insulting to one of cinema’s female pioneers, and isn’t even true to Charlie’s generally positive portrayal of her.

Mabel's Strange PredicamentIt’s too bad, because most of the people who saw that movie probably never saw the “real” Mabel Normand in a movie (I’ll bet Tomei never had, either). I think she was one of the best assets Keystone Studios ever had, and she was certainly Sennett’s loyalest headliner. Most of the others, from Arbuckle to Chaplin to Lloyd, went elsewhere in search of more creative freedom, and, in most cases, more money. Sennett eventually gave Normand her own production company to oversee, in spite of their rocky relationship, and she went right on making movies until her career was destroyed by scandal a few years before her early death in 1930. This blog only covers up to 1915 (for now), however, so I’m going to avoid describing those tragedies. Mabel may have occasionally played the part of a damsel in distress for laughs, but as a director and comedienne she was beyond rescuing. This essay has been my contribution to the Anti-Damsel Blogathon, held by Movies Silently and The Last Drive In. Be sure to check out the other excellent entries and the other empowered ladies of the event!

anti-damsel-bara

Best Director 1914

Even fifty years before the formalization of the “auteur theory,” directors were often given primacy of place in terms of the creation of film. Some might say that in these early days, before powerful studios had the ability to re-cut films or otherwise undermine directors, we can see auteurship in its purest form. On the other hand, one might argue that at this time, when no one was certain what the ultimate division of power might be, perhaps cinematographers or producers were more primary in the creation of a film.

There’s no denying, however, that the directors nominated for Century Awards this year were, one and all, dedicated artists with a vision for their movies as a whole, not mere employees turning out material on demand. D.W. Griffith may have been the very inventor of the idea of director-as-artiste, and “Judith of Bethulia” represented his success in an ongoing battle with Biograph Studios over the production of feature-length films. Like Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille was a born showman, who would promote himself as the premiere filmmaker of his day, and he got off to a strong start with his direction of “The Squaw Man.” Giovanni Pastrone was an innovator in Italian cinema, establishing that nation as a source of some of the most visually satisfying movies in all eras. Louis Feuillade was an amazingly prolific director from cinema’s first nation of France, whose movies range from light comedies to dark crime serials, and who wrote what may have been the first “manifesto” of the movies. Evgeni Bauer was an amazingly advanced filmmaker, who understood more about movement, sets, and lighting than many cinematographers of his day.

The nominees for best director of 1914 are:

  1. W. Griffith for Judith of Bethulia
  2. Cecil B. DeMille for The Squaw Man
  3. Giovanni Pastrone for Cabiria
  4. Louis Feuillade for Fantômas Contre Fantômas
  5. Evgeni Bauer for Silent Witnesses

And the winner is…Giovanni Pastrone for “Cabiria!”

 giovanni-pastrone

This category is our most internationally representative, in terms of the nominees, and my choice reflects, to some degree, my admiration of Italian cinema, which I regard as the most consistently visually satisfying in the world. “Cabiria” demonstrated the director’s ability to not only tell a compelling story, but his commitment to producing it on a grand scale despite the challenges this would present for the actors. For 1914, he went above and beyond what anyone else attempted.