Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Douglas Fairbanks Sr

Best Editing 1917

The newest part of the “new art” of film was the power it gave to tell a story through editing. From the ability to compress long expanses of time to the power to heighten tension through simultaneous action in different places, to the power to redirect an audience’s attention through an insert shot, to the use of cuts within a scene to signal changes in perspective or internal experiences of a character, it was a whole new toolbox in narrative construction. Directors, writers, and editors were already exploring the possibilities of that toolbox by 1917, having come a long way from the days when edits were used mainly for “trick films” by making things appear and disappear.

The films nominated for best editing this year show a sophistication that was almost unheard-of five years earlier, but which an increasingly film-literate audience now took largely for granted. Louis Feuillade has been steadily improving his editing skills since the early days of “Fantômas,” and with “The Tragic Mill” he is able to heighten suspense effectively without dragging it out through the use of cross-cutting. The pacing of the Douglas Fairbanks vehicle “A Modern Musketeer” confirms that star’s famous penchant for “pep” as well as the editing talents of director Allen Dwan. Mary Pickford is the star of two of our nominees this year. In the first, “Little Princess,” director Marshall Neilan uses two distinct editing styles: one slow and stagey, for the main story, and one faster and clipped, for the “Ali Baba” story-within-a-story. Meanwhile, in “Poor Little Rich Girl,” despite his complaints about the scene, Maurice Tourneur turns in a remarkably edited mud fight, that necessitated several set-ups and re-takes. Rumor has it that Mary may have contributed to the editing process as well – Tourneur was mostly known for lighting more than editing.

The nominees for best editing of 1917 are:

  1. The Tragic Mill
  2. A Modern Musketeer
  3. Little Princess
  4. Poor Little Rich Girl

And the winner is…“A Modern Musketeer!”

The energy level of this movie exceeded anything I’d seen from Fairbanks – at his worst a pretty peppy guy – and a lot of this is a credit to the editing. He leaps from one scene to the next, always seeming ready to perform physical stunts or athletics at a moment’s notice. A stagier production couldn’t have pulled this off. We see Doug as D’Artagnan, fighting the good fight with swords, Doug roughing up a whole speakeasy of toughs, the cyclone in which Doug’s character was born, and Doug scaling a church tower – all before the real plot has even gotten going! It could be difficult at best to follow all that action, but the editing handles it deftly and the audience is carried along with each thrill. As a result, “A Modern Musketeer” feels like a thoroughly modern movie, even 100 years later, and that is a testament to its success.

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Best Stunts 1917

Silent movies remain famous for their outrageous physicality and for the chances their stars took in production. The truth is that stunt people were used even from the very early days (no one really did “all of their own stunts”), but certain actors, like Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, were remarkable athletes in their own rights and did do some pretty amazing stuff onscreen. In the real world of the Academy Awards, we don’t have an award honoring the best stunts seen in movies, but one of the benefits of the Century Awards is that I can rectify that and honor the work of these long-dead daredevils.

The aforementioned Fairbanks had established his style of athletic, all-American comedy by this point, and we have two examples of his work from 1917 on the roster of nominations. In “A Modern Musketeer,” he’s at pains to prove that chivalry isn’t dead to the girl of his dreams. Probably his best stunt here comes at the beginning, when he scales a church steeple bare-handed, but most people remember his handstand at the precipice of the Grand Canyon better (that was probably totally safe, but it looks death-defying!). In “Wild and Woolly,” he’s a Western-obsessed Easterner who tries to fight off the baddies single-handed when the townsfolk replace his bullets with blanks. In that one, we see him hanging to the rafters while kicking his way through the ceiling to get to some live rounds! Stunts involving trains always impress me as a former train-hopper, and we get some pretty risky-looking scenes in “Teddy at the Throttle” with Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon. Charlie Chaplin is in fine form as usual in “The Adventurer,” and he does some interesting stunts both in the water (where he rescues Edna Purviance and more reluctantly Eric Campbell as well), and in a two-story mansion in a manic chase sequence. And newcomer to the screen Buster Keaton showed off some of the prowess that would make him the king of comic stunts in the years to come in “The Rough House,” along with veteran Roscoe Arbuckle. “Fatty” sets fire to his bedroom, he and Buster both slip around a wet floor, and Buster gets hung up on a fence wearing an oversize policeman’s uniform.

The nominees for Best Stunts in 1917 are…

  1. A Modern Musketeer
  2. Wild and Woolly
  3. Teddy at the Throttle
  4. The Adventurer
  5. The Rough House

And the winner is…”A Modern Musketeer!”

I’ll be honest, I was tempted to go with Keaton this year, and “The Rough House” genuinely was one of the funniest movies I watched (see it if you haven’t), but Fairbanks did outdo himself this time around. I have no doubt that Buster will be returning to this category in future years. “A Modern Musketeer” however, really gives Doug a chance to show off everything he can do, from climbing sheer surfaces to swordplay to leaping over people to smashing up rooms in brawls. Some other actors show some pretty good moves in the “cyclone” scene depicting his character’s birth as well. The only problem the movie has is maintaining all of this frenetic action and still managing to get across a plot! It does slow down a bit in the second reel, but only to end with a suspenseful abduction-and-rescue.

Best Production Design 1917

In this world of virtual environments, the silent era often seems like a much more “solid” filmic world. In the early days, of course, directors working in spare studio spaces often asked audiences to “imagine” that a blank space was actually a jail cell, that a wooden box was a walk-in freezer, or that an obviously painted mirror had been smashed, but by 1917, these tricks were things of the past. Sets were built that sometimes dwarfed the actors, and put them into a space that they could believe as much as the audiences did. This category gives us a chance to honor some of the work that went into those productions.

I didn’t see any overwhelming set design in 1917 such as we saw in “Intolerance” the previous year, but some pretty impressive examples came up nonetheless. An underground base for a superhero was imagined in the “Judex” serial as displayed in “The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge.” Charlie Chaplin had an entire urban street environment constructed for “Easy Street,” incorporating gas lamps, second story windows, and trapdoors for hiding anarchist plots. Chaplin again did impressive work on “The Immigrant,” devising a ship set that swayed back and forth to emphasize the harshness (and comic potential) of sea travel. For the Douglas Fairbanks movie “Wild and Woolly,” an entire Western-style town is transformed from its “modern” form to an “Old West” parody of itself. And in Evgeni Bauer’s final film, “The Dying Swan,” he once again introduces his audience to a cinematic space with three complete dimensions, giving us opera stages, a mad artist’s studios, and the realm of the idle rich to play in.

The nominees for best production design of 1917 are:

  1. Easy Street
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. The Immigrant
  4. Wild and Woolly
  5. The Underground Passages of the Chateau Rouge (Judex)

And the winner is…“Easy Street!”

I felt that Chaplin’s dedication to creating an entire street for the purposes of a comedy short surpassed anything else I saw in production design this year. It probably facilitated his (and his cast’s) ability to experiment and improvise that they weren’t restricted in terms of angles or movement by the boundaries of a standard set of flats, or the limitations of location-shooting, where unforgiving reality has to be contended with. The street is instantly recognizable, and yet also anonymous: it could be in any large city of that period, in the US, UK, or elsewhere. It places the viewer into a fantasy world of urban blight and dark comedy. I felt it had to be honored as a great achievement.

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.

A Modern Musketeer (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks extends his brand of good-natured athletic all-American comedy into the realm of swashbuckling with this feature from 100 years ago. No doubt Fairbanks saw the potential in a story setting him as an adventurer in the Grand Canyon as soon as he read the source, a piece called “D’Artagnan of Kansas” by Eugene P. Lyle.

The movie begins with an extended flashback to the “Three Musketeers” which is almost a short movie in itself. Doug plays D’Artgnan, and he makes a point of mocking his own mustache and long locks in what seems to be a kind of wink at the audience. He rides into a tavern where he sees a woman inconvenienced by a nobleman of some sort, then starts a fight that leads to fencing and stunts, including leaping up to the rafters and continuing the fight from there. This is the first time I’ve seen Fairbanks with a sword in his hand (he’s had plenty of fights with guns and fists, up to this point), and it’s easy to see that he was a natural to Hollywood-style swordplay. His sword flashes and leaps, parries and thrusts, and never seems to draw any blood as he disarms and dispatches his foes. I can’t imagine that any fan of later action movies would be disappointed in this sequence or find it slow-moving. And, again, it includes Doug’s now-patented physical comedy touches, as when he grabs the beard of a sleeping drunk to steady himself during the battle.

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Joining the Swashathon

I’m a bit late with this announcement, but there’s still plenty of time before the event!

Movies Silently will be hosting the “Swashathon,” a blogathon dedicated to swashbuckling movies, TV shows, etc, and I will be participating. I will be covering the 1917 Douglas Fairbanks classic “A Modern Musketeer.” The event takes place July 14-17.

For more information, and a complete list of entries to date, see this post at Movies Silently.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

wild_and_woolly

Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

wild-and-woolly

Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

wild-and-woolly2

This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

wild-and-woolly4

Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

wild-and-woolly7

Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

wild-and-woolly1

The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

You can watch it (no music) for free: here. It can also be rented for download (with music) from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.

Best Stunts 1916

Stuntwork is dangerous and has generally been underpaid and under-appreciated in movies. To this day, there is no category for “best stunts” in the Oscars, even though stunt workers continue to put their bodies and lives on the line for the movies that are made. I suspect this is for two reasons: 1) In the digital age, it is increasingly difficult to tell a good stunt from a good effect and 2) Giving an award for stuntwork might encourage producers and stunt workers to take extreme risks to get an award. Neither one applies to movies from 100 years ago, so the Century Awards does include the category.

The other great thing about this category is that it gives us an opportunity to better appreciate different categories of film. In areas like cinematography and screenplay, comedies, and especially short comedies, often get short shrift. But, they tend to shine in the “stunts” category. And, in 1916, stunts and comedy combined in the talents of one man especially: Douglas Fairbanks. He features in four of the six nominees in this category, and each time his work is decisive in the nomination. In “The Matrimaniac,” Doug scales walls and leaps onto moving railroad trains to secure his true love. In “Flirting with Fate,” he’s leaping up fire escapes and climbing trees to escape the hit man he hired to kill himself. In “His Picture in the Papers,” Fairbanks swims the ocean, fights a goat, and boxes to redeem himself as heir to a health food empire. And, we see him again in “Reggie Mixes in,” a parody of the gangster genre, in which he leaps from a window after a classic knock-down-drag-out fight. But, Douglas Fairbanks wasn’t the only one in stunts in 1916. We also have “The Poison Man,” an episode of “Les Vampires” in which we see different actors scaling buildings, leaping on top of moving trains, and fighting each other. Finally, there’s that other master of physical comedy, Charlie Chaplin, who donned roller skates and literally skated circles around the rest of his cast in “The Rink.”

The nominees for best stunts of 1916 are

  1. The Matrimaniac
  2. Flirting with Fate
  3. His Picture in the Papers
  4. Reggie Mixes In
  5. The Poison Man
  6. The Rink

And the winner is…“The Matrimaniac!”

Matrimaniac5

This was one of the tougher choices I had this year. Each of the nominees had really impressive stunts, and in my reviews I mentioned that several of them had placed the actors at considerable risk. But, I felt that Fairbanks had to get credit for essentially inventing a new style of visual comedy in 1915 and perfecting it in 1916, and that this was the best example of that style and of his physicality as an actor from that year. I have no doubt that we’ll be seeing Fairbanks in future awards, and even that a rivalry between him and Chaplin may become a recurring theme.

The Americano (1916)

A somewhat heavy-handed plot and some unfortunate ethnic representations cheapen this rather slight early effort from Douglas Fairbanks. We see little of his physicality and exuberance in this film, although he does manage to represent an optimistic view of Americans, as usual.

americanoThe movie begins in the tiny Central American nation of “Paragonia,” where an uneasy truce between a popular civilian government and a corrupt military is endangered when the Minister of War (Carl Stockdale) opposes renewing a contract with an American mining company that provides work for most of the population. The Presidente (Spottiswoode Aitken) pushes the motion through, and sends a cable to the US, requesting an American mining engineer be sent to help them oversee the complex machinery. At the same time, the Premier (Tote du Crow) and the President’s daughter Juana (Alma Rubens) head to the USA for a visit. The mining school has selected Douglas Fairbanks, of course, as the best man for the job, but he’s not interested in relocating – at least until he gets a look at Juana. Back at home, the coup d’etat has been effected and the Minister of War is in power. The Paragonians return home quickly, leaving word for Doug to stay behind, but of course that wouldn’t be right, so he takes the next boat.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

On arrival in Paragonia, Doug finds that no one wants to talk about the President, the mining offices have been ransacked, and the only American left is a demeaning caricature in blackface, played by Tom Wilson. He does manage to contact the Premier, who’s in disguise as a street vendor, and to scout out the prison where the President is being held. Juana is being forced to marry the unsavory colonel Garagas (Charles Stevens), on threat of her father’s life, and the Minister of War is now splitting the army’s payroll between himself and Garagas. Doug finds that the President has been throwing papers out his window with the date November 23, 1899, and he looks in the old man’s journal to find out what happened on that day. Turns out that there was a jailbreak using a secret tunnel that has since been walled up, and that the old man is in the very cell that tunnel leads to! So, Doug organizes a hasty breakout with “Whitey” and the premier. Along the way, he is arrested by soldiers and taken to meet the Minister of War and Garagas. They try to bribe him with 1/3 of the army money to re-open the mines for them, forestalling a popular revolt. Doug takes the money and pretends to go along with them, then knocks out the soldier sent to spy on him and re-joins his friends and the mouth of the tunnel.

americano2The party makes its way through the tunnel and Doug starts chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel. The President, realizing what must be up, starts pounding on his cane to cover the noise, but a guard sees the tip of Doug’s chisel penetrate the wall. He holds the President at gunpoint and moves to nab whoever comes in that way. Looking through the hole he’s made, Doug figures this out and tosses the captured soldier in ahead of himself, then grabs the guard from behind. Now they make their way back to the capital, using captured guns to threaten their way into the palace, where Juana’s wedding is to take place after a speech by the Minister of War. He’s trying to placate the people, who have been told that the “Americano” is now working with him and will re-open the mine. Doug joins him on the balcony and exposes the plot. When the Minister tries to get the army to join him, saying that Doug has stolen their pay, Doug returns it, explaining that the Minister was the thief all along. The Presidente is re-instated, the mine is opened, and Doug and Juana get married (Doug now appointed the new head of the army of Paragonia).

americano3This movie is a pretty clear argument in favor of American imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine, and it gets its facts a little confused, as far as governmental instability in Latin America at the time. It’s unlikely that a coup against a popular government would be held to oppose American economic interests, usually it was the other way around. And it’s unlikely that the people would be cheering for “the Americano” to come save them. But, for the purposes of a Hollywood fantasy supervised by notorious racist D.W. Griffith, that’s pretty much par for the course. I still find Fairbanks’s “all-American” hero character charming, and reminiscent of the all-American optimist that Harold Lloyd would soon bring to life in his “glasses” character, although he’s certainly not as funny here. I was disappointed that he didn’t perform more stunts in this one. All we see him do is scale a wall to get in and out of Juana’s house, leap down some rocks by the beach, and beat up a soldier or two. Other than that, he spends a lot of the time talking to people and chiseling at a wall. There is a heavy use of close-ups, particularly of Fairbanks, suggesting that the producers thought that his face was a major selling-point of the film. There’s one interestingly shot/edited section where Fairbanks tries to bluff his way past the guards at Juana’s house: they cross their bayonets to block him and he moves back and forth between single-shots of each of them as he tries to fast-talk them, ending up in alone in a shot with the tips of their bayonets behind him. Other than that, it’s a pretty middling production overall.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Alma Rubens, Spottiswoode Aitken, Carl Stockdale, Tote Du Crow, Tom White, Charles Stevens, Mildred Harris

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online; if you do, please comment.

A Century in Review 1916-2016

Intolerance_(1916)_-_Nazarene_-_He_Who_Is_Without_SinA lot of blogs do some kind of year-end wrap up at this point in the year, but for this blog that actually means thinking about two years at the same time: this year and the one a hundred years ago.

1916 was a rough year for a lot of people, especially in Europe. The First World War had gone from an exciting adventure to a horrendous meat grinder of death, and there was no end in sight. Each new attack on the Western Front meant the sacrifice of thousands, and there was no visible movement of the battle lines. For most of the year, men were fighting in Verdun, only to find themselves in December in approximately their original positions, and from July to November, the Battle of the Somme raged with only minor gains for the Allies. Each of these battles cost the lives of hundreds of thousands on both sides.

Meanwhile, the home front was beginning to suffer the effects of war as well. In Germany, the allied blockade was having the effect of creating severe food shortages, which resulted in riots in several cities, especially Berlin, and the imposition of food rationing through the creation of a military office with absolute power over civilian affairs. Contrary to later perceptions of socialist agitation against the military, this move was widely embraced by the working classes, who saw rationing as a way to create equity between the rich and poor in food distribution. Rationing may have helped with front-line morale as well: it was hard for soldiers to feel good about fighting for their homeland when they knew their own families faced deprivation.

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

Mark I Tanks on September 15, 1916

In Russia, the domestic situation was moving from bad to worse to intolerable. The front here was not a stable line, but quite mobile, with advances and retreats of hundreds of miles. That’s fine for a cavalry officer, but it meant a great deal of marching for soldiers who were often sent to the lines without proper footwear. Equipment of all kinds was lacking: including guns. Russian soldiers were advised to take weapons from the dead during battle in order to defend themselves. Moreover, the nation’s casualties (including POWs) now numbered in the millions.

Grigory Rasputin

Grigory Rasputin

Political agitation, which had been relatively quiet since the beginning of the war, started up again in earnest in 1916, with mutinies, strikes, and street demonstrations in most major cities. Russia was also suffering from food shortages, particularly in Petrograd. Even those who had money for bread often could not find it, or waited in lines for hours to get it (reportedly there were housewives who spent up to 40 hours a week on line). The Czar was warned by his senate (the Duma) and his security forces that open revolution was a real possibility by November of 1916. It came only weeks after the New Year.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

The USA has managed to avoid war, even re-electing President Woodrow Wilson with a slogan of “he kept us out of war.” Neutrality in World War One would not survive another year, of course, but it allowed many in the US to prosper from sales of industrial goods to Europe in 1916. The American film industry has been a major beneficiary of the decline in European productivity, and American films are finally beginning to make inroads into European distribution chains. While the distant war in Europe may seem remote or even beneficial to some Americans, a more immediate concern is the ongoing revolution in Mexico, which has spilled across the border repeatedly, and led to 12,000 troops being sent by Wilson to pursue Pancho Villa – a military intervention that brings the US to the brink of outright war with Mexico. The US also occupied the Dominican Republic in 1916, continuing an aggressive interpretation of the Monroe Doctrine.

Intolerance BabylonThis year has no huge breakout film on the scale of “The Birth of a Nation,” although most historians agree that D.W. Griffith’sIntolerance” had a good run and was seen by many of the same people that made “Birth” a huge hit. It still lost money, primarily because it cost so much more to make. The next-highest grossing film is reported to be “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea.” But the name on most people’s lips this year is Charlie Chaplin, who is now the highest-paid movie star, working at Mutual for $670,000, with a signing bonus that nearly brought it to a million. He has finally gained the freedom to slow down his production schedule and is taking more time on each new release, which technically sets him behind on his contractual requirements by the end of the year, but Mutual is still raking in plenty from his work. Others are also benefitting from his lag in production: a huge number of “Chaplin imitators” or derivative acts are filling the void with their own shorts of varying quality, including a fellow calling himself “Lonesome Luke” that is actually a young Harold Lloyd. A new face on the scene this year is Douglas Fairbanks, whose good-natured all-American athleticism is being used to create a new kind of comedy that also finds strong audience approval. He and Chaplin will be friends and allies in years to come.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Carrying the wounded off the field.

Although European film production is down, there are still significant contributions from European studios. The first documentary to see major box office success is “The Battle of the Somme,” released in Britain with the support of the War Office. Germany makes one of its first forays into Expressionism with the serial “Homunculus,” about a man created by science who lacks the ability to feel love. And, although Louis Feuillade is by this time serving on the Western Front, Gaumont Studios manages to profit from late release of his crime-serial follow-ups to “Fantômas:” “Les Vampires,” which runs from the end of 1915 into the early part of the year, and “Judex,” which had been shot years earlier but sees the first episode released in the last week of 1916. Finally, Evgeni Bauer gave us his column-filled drama “A Life for a Life,” which launched its star, Vera Kholodnaia, to celebrity status.

My blog remains a relatively less-popular film blog – I guess the topic and approach is a bit esoteric compared to the usual classic film blog. I’m up about 5000 hits from last year, which falls slightly short of doubling my total for 2015. I’m holding steady with about 120 followers, and I only occasionally get more than one “like” on a post. Only a few people comment, but those that do tend to come back and comment again. My impression is that I have a small cadre of dedicated readers, but not a lot of mass appeal, and I’m fine with that. I am backing off a bit (as some have probably noticed) from doing daily posts. I like doing a short movie every day when I can, and one “feature” or at least more in-depth post a week, but the simple fact is that it takes a little too much of my time away from other activities. I’m also writing fewer “context” posts, apart from my monthly Century News roundups.

I’m aware that my blog is somewhat less research-heavy than some other blogs, especially those focused on the silent era. I generally write my impressions of the movies I watch without doing a lot of background research, in part because I’m interested in what the movies themselves convey as sources. I typically avoid, in particular, reading other reviews of movies I’m discussing until after I’ve posted, because it’s all too easy to be influenced by the perceptions of others. Sometimes that means I get stuff wrong, but that’s a hazard of studying a period for which a large proportion of the primary sources are lost, and I try at least to admit when I’m writing from a position of ignorance.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_luneThe reason I started this blog was unusual: it wasn’t because I knew a whole lot about early film, it was because I wanted to learn more. In that sense, this blog is a huge success. My first posts were under 250 words (one reason daily posting was no big deal), but now it’s hard for me to write less than 500. That’s because I know more, so I see more in every movie I review. I’ve gained an appreciation for movies from this period far beyond just knowledge as well – coming back to “The Mystery of the Rocks of Kador” really demonstrated that to me recently. When I watched it in 2012, I barely understood what I was seeing, whereas now watching it is a rich experience. I’ve discovered viewing-muscles I never knew I had as I’ve done this workout. So, that’s a win, and as long as it’s true, there will be every reason to continue this project.