Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ee

An Excursion to the Moon (1908)

This movie is an unabashed remake of Georges Méliès beloved classic “A Trip to the Moon,” although with a shorter run time and a smaller cast and (evidently) budget. It nonetheless does preserve bits of Segundo de Chomón’s signature wit and gentle charm.

The movie consists of a series of discrete shots, each set up as a tableau within a proscenium-style stage area. The first shot shows a group of “scientists” or explorers, is a garden at night, the moon hanging overhead. One, who is kitted out in a classic wizard’s robe and cap, lectures at them and gestures to the moon. The others appear skeptical at his message. However, they follow him off stage after a bit of pantomime. The next shot shows the wizard/scientist’s observatory, with a large telescope in the background. The wizard shows his fellows the elaborate equations he has worked out on the chalkboard, then turns the chalkboard over to reveal a screen on which an animated image of a capsule flying between Earth and Moon appears. The others appear to congratulate him, and then follow him off this stage to the next scene.

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Excelsior! The Prince of Magicians (1901)

This short trick film by Georges Méliès depicts a brief magic show with just a hint of narrative to hold the interest. It is an example of his use of camera trickery in the service of an enhanced stage performance.

The proscenium-style stage suggests a reception chamber in a noble house, and Méliès walks out in the company of a liveried servant. He asks the servant for a handkerchief, but the man has none. Méliès then conjures one out of the astonished man’s mouth. He then holds it up and produces a large bowl from behind it. He asks his servant to fill it with water, but again the man has no idea how to begin. Méliès pumps his arm and water shoots out of his mouth. Then he takes two fish out of the servant’s mouth, and we see them swimming happily inside the bowl. Méliès gives the bowl to his servant and soon there are flames shooting out of it where there were fish a moment ago. Méliès turns the bowl into a large lobster, and the lobster into a woman, then the woman becomes two small girls riding piggyback, and finally the girls disappear and are replaced with a large piece of fabric. Méliès kicks the servant off the stage and wraps himself in the fabric, flying up and off the stage as well, then he runs back out from stage left and catches the falling fabric in his hand, bowing at last to the audience.

A number of the tricks we see here are equivalent to tricks of misdirection that a magician might perform live on stage, but made easier with substitution splices. The items coming from the servant’s mouth, and the things appearing and disappearing from behind handkerchiefs or large pieces of fabric are examples. I was rather surprised when water started spewing out of the servant’s mouth, and wondered if audiences at the time saw this as “vulgar,” a reference to bodily fluids or vomiting. It looks like a water pump, of course, so it isn’t as gross as could be, but I still wondered a bit, and wondered if French and American audiences of the time would see it differently. The only real narrative we have is the hapless servant, who never seems to have what he needs or to know what to expect. Still, it’s an amusing piece, and probably gives a taste of what Méliès did in live performance as well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

This actuality short from Edison depicts part of the wave of immigration that hit US shores in the early Twentieth Century, forever changing the face of the country. It’s a bit longer – and involves more shots – than earlier Lumiére documents of people disembarking boats and trains, but doesn’t really surpass them in narrative.

The first shot shows a ferry carrying people to Ellis Island from the docks where their ships put in at New York harbor. The ferry is clearly full of many people, but it looks comfortable and clean, possibly better than the conditions many had sailed over with. As it draws past, we read the name of the company, “Wm Myers.” The second shot is taken directly in front of the gangplank, so that we see the first departures off the boat coming right at the camera. They are carrying their bags, and seem intent on getting where they are going. This shot is rapidly replaced by a shot at a 30-45 degree angle, allowing the passengers to pass in front of the camera over more time. This lets us get a look at their clothes and condition. The first to pass appear to be wearing middle-class Western clothes, but they are soon followed by a number of girls with scarves over their hair, looking more like Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidic). We see a lot of women, in varying clothing, some carrying babies or accompanied by children. Although most are carrying bags or luggage of some kind, none appears to have a lot of possessions, and we rarely see a family with both an identifiable mother and father together, although both men and women pass by individually.

Ellis Island was a port of entry for a tremendous number of immigrants from various parts of Europe from 1892 until the late 1920s, when restrictions on immigration reduced the influx, and it remained in operation until 1954. It appears to me that the cameraman chose groups of “exotic”-looking immigrants for his subject, although each ferry would have brought over people from a variety of ships and locations, so this probably wasn’t difficult. There doesn’t seem to have been a political motivation for this movie – the passengers are not depicted as particularly threatening or as especially noble, they’re just people. The Edison cameraman was probably aware that Ellis Island was a “famous” location in New York and was taking advantage of its familiarity to produce a film with some potential for sales. In that sense, it becomes a valuable document of the country as “a nation of immigrants,” and a simple connection with history. Many of the people reading this blog probably had ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, and this allows us to see a part of what they experienced. It’s interesting that, compared to other movies taken in public places at the time, there seems to be less interest in the camera, although a few of the passengers do stare very hard at this contraption of their New World as they walk past.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown aspiring immigrants

Run Time: 2 Min, 5 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Eight Girls in a Barrel (1900)

This short film from Georges Méliès is an example of a “trick film” with only one trick (or a one-trick-film). Méliès continues to demonstrate considerably technical skill, but the many actors on the set push the limit of his ability to mask his edits.

The film shows a proscenium-style set, representing a stage. Méliès, dressed in a toga, leads eight young women, also in classical attire, onto the stage. Before him is a barrel, and a platform with a short staircase. He lifts the barrel and turns it to show the audience that it is empty, and also that it has a solid wood bottom. He places it on the platform just below the stairs, then takes the hand of the first young lady to assist her in climbing the stairs. She climbs up, then steps into the barrels and lowers herself in. Méliès gestures and a jump cut occurs before he leads the next young woman in. Soon, all eight have “disappeared” into the barrel. As a finale, after Méliès walks offstage, he suddenly pokes his head out from inside the barrel.

This film is very simple and predictable, modern audiences wouldn’t even recognize it as a “narrative;” it is simply the depiction of a single magic trick. But, in making multiple people disappear, Méliès has once again stretched his own boundaries, and with reasonable success. The problem is that having so many people on the stage, it is easy to see where the edits happen by watching them jump in the background. Méliès himself is more practiced – he is generally leaning over the barrel at the critical instant, so it is hard to see him move. But, in the early stages of the movie there are four or more other, who don’t always succeed in holding their pose between shots. Doubtless few audience members in 1900 were alarmed by this, it was still very new, and I’d bet a good percentage of his audience hadn’t ever seen anything like it, except for the die-hard fans at the Robert Houdin Theater.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

 

The Ex-Convict (1904)

Edwin S. Porter adapted a popular vaudeville story to the camera, and made an early “message picture” at the same time. While it may seem a bit melodramatic to our tastes today, it stands out among its contemporaries as an unusually effective drama.

The movie begins by showing us an apparently “normal” nuclear family, of mother, father, and daughter, as the father leaves home in the morning for work. All seems well, but the next Intertitle tells us, “That Man is an Ex-Convict.” We see him working in front of a shop on an urban street, moving some large crates and then painting words onto one of them. As he works, a bearded policeman walks up from behind him, examines him, and goes into the shop. The store owner comes out with the policeman, and the two speak for a moment, and the ex-convict is discharged. Evidently the policeman warned his boss about the man’s criminal past. The next scene is titles “Have You Reference?” and it shows the ex-convict joining a line of hopefuls in front of a warehouse that has a sign reading “Wanted 10 Men.” Each man shows the foreman a piece of paper, which is examined closely before he is admitted, but the ex-convict has no paper and so gets no job. The story suddenly leaves the ex-convict and we see a small girl being escorted by a maid in a wealthy neighborhood. The maid stops to speak with a man on the street corner, but the little girl goes into the street without her, then turns and stamps her foot to show that she is annoyed at the delay. Suddenly, the ex-convict comes running from off screen, grabs the child and dives to the ground. A moment later a car speeds through the spot where the child had been standing. The maid and other bystanders congratulate the ex-convict for his heroism, and he is given a bandage for his head (apparently he wounded himself in the fall).

Despite this act of courage, however, the ex-convict returns home to find his wife and daughter hungry, the girl in bed without any supper (possibly we are meant to understand that she is ill). He feels the desperation of his situation, then goes back out into the night. He walks the streets in the snow without an adequate coat, and tries to tell his story to passersby who have no interest or sympathy. Finally, looking at a low window to a rich house, he makes the desperate decision to attempt burglary. The next scene shows the inside of the house, where a mother, a father, and a child live in bourgeois comfort. The child is the same one that the ex-convict saved earlier. She drowses off, and the mother and father take her up to bed. Then, the ex-convict enters the empty room. The father catches him instantly, and holds him at gunpoint. The ex-convict offers no resistance, and the father leaves the room to call the police. The ex-convict considers flight, but at that moment the child comes back downstairs and recognizes him. The two of them speak to each other, and soon the child is sitting in the ex-convict’s lap, while he tells a story. The father comes back in and observes this, and puts his gun away. Soon, the police arrive and the ex-convict puts out his hands for the cuffs, but the child intervenes and the father sends them away. The ex-convict is grateful to them both for the second chance.

The movie clearly supports a progressive attitude that people should not be stigmatized for their social condition or past actions. If a man can’t get a job after his release from prison, by the logic of the film, he will have no choice but to return to crime, and people should be given the chance to redeem themselves, as the hero does when he saves the child. In contrasting the comforts of the rich home with the simplicity and squalor of the man’s apartment, Porter also makes an argument about class in America. As is often the case with early films, I found the location shots more interesting than those in the studio, particularly the images of the workplaces: the store and the warehouse. These would have been shot in New York or possibly New Jersey, but they could have been anywhere with a reasonably urban appearance. The editing structure is simple but effective. It’s not quite clear whether we’ve “jumped back” a bit in time when we move from the snow-covered (studio) street into the bourgeois home, but this could be an example of early parallel editing, if we assume that the ex-convict is waiting outside for an opportunity to come in when the living room is empty. All of the scenes of this movie are shot in long-shot, so that we never get a clear look at the actors’ faces, but there are some interesting angles. The rescue scene involves the ex-convict running onto screen diagonally from behind the camera, and the car zips past at a different diagonal. The camera also pans slightly to follow the child into the street at the beginning of that scene. It’s not a brilliant movie, but it is an interesting entry in Porter’s portfolio.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Egyptian Fakir with Dancing Monkey (1903)

This short film from Edison is a good example of the use of cinema to bring exotic locations and sights to the eyes of people who had limited opportunities for travel. Directed by A.C. Abadie, who we saw as an actor in “What Happened on Twenty Third Street,” it also displays the odd effect of putting a musical event onto silent film.

egyptian-fakirThe camera is low to the ground, and gives us a view of a bearded man with a turban squatting on the ground. Near the man is a goat. The man plays a drum, and in front of him is a monkey, attached by a string to his master. The monkey wears a little costume that includes a fez and pants which are covered in little bells. It shimmies and dances in time to the drumming, in order to make the bells ring. It also holds a long stick in its tail. At one point, it stands on its head. At another, it hops across the ground. Finally, the man puts down his drum and picks up a stick like the one the monkey has, and they “duel” with the sticks as he continues to sing, presumably beating out the time by hitting their sticks together rhythmically. There is a jump cut at the end, after which another man in Middle Eastern garb joins the “fakir” and stares into the camera.

I’m not certain whether this movie was shot in Egypt, but the illusion that it may have been is fairly complete – the only foliage we see are palm fronds, and there is no indication that it was shot in a studio or a convenient part of New York. It seems like without the singing, or the sounds of the bells and the sticks, we must be missing a lot of the impact of the performance. However, from a visual standpoint it certainly gives the viewer a look at something that would be out of the ordinary for early-twentieth century Americans, and the monkey’s trained responses to the music are impressive. The monkey has its back to the camera during almost the whole film, but it is still entertaining.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown man and monkey

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

This short actuality from Edison is a fairly unpleasant film, which will upset some viewers. Fair warning: it does depict the actual death of an animal. It also has been frequently misinterpreted by modern viewers, and therefore is an important part of our study of the history of movies.

electrocuting_an_elephant_edison_film_1903We see an elephant being led from an enclosure in the middle of what seems to be a construction site. Its trunk is bound in a complex harness that almost looks like a bondage garment. The camera pans to follow the elephant and we can see that there are crowds of spectators in the background. After a cut, we see the elephant is strapped in place, apparently roughly in the same place as it was before the edit. Suddenly the elephant stiffens, and you can see a puff of smoke from below its feet. After a few moments, it falls slowly over to the left. It twitches a few times on the ground before the end of the movie.

The story of Topsy the elephant is a tragic one, speaking to why laws regarding elephants in captivity have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. Topsy was a circus elephant who got a reputation for being “bad” after she killed a drunken spectator who deliberately burned her trunk with a lit cigar (classic movie fans will remember “Mighty Joe Young” when reading this story). She apparently became increasingly difficult to handle after this, and was sold by Forpaugh Circus to Luna Park, which was still under construction. There she encountered the abusive animal handler William “Whitey” Alt, who did nothing to improve her temperament. Finally, the owners decided that she would need to be put down, as she was no longer safe to display in a public environment. The original plan was to hang her, but the ASPCA objected, and the idea of electrocution (combined with poison and strangulation) was suggested as more “humane.” This movie depicts that event.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

Now, you can find various places on the Internet that blame Thomas Edison for the death of this elephant. These claims are inaccurate, and result from poor historical study. Having heard that Edison waged a war against alternating current that inflated its dangers and suggested that people would be electrocuted by it, they have concluded that this movie was part of that campaign. It is not. The “war of the currents” was over for more than ten years by the time this was produced, and alternating current was already the standard at Edison’s remaining plants at the time. Because of the early date of the War of the Currents, no movies were produced to support it. The movie “Pan-American Exposition at Night” depicts a display of alternating current lights one year before this movie was made. In short, this movie represents a tragic execution of an animal in no way at fault for its inability to get along with human beings after they had systematically mistreated her, and it exploits the pain of that animal for purposes of spectacle, but Thomas Edison did not use it to make an argument regarding alternating current.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Jacob Blair Smith

Starring: Topsy the elephant

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (viewer discretion advised).

European Rest Cure (1904)

This short narrative film from Edison comes one year after “The Great Train Robbery,” and is also directed by Edwin S. Porter, but it shows little of the promise of that exciting blockbuster. Instead, a few clips of travel footage are edited together with rather creaky studio shots to construct a not-terribly-funny comedy about an American tourist abroad.

european-rest-cureThe movie begins by showing us a gangplank onto a (real) steamship preparing to launch. A porter carries some bags aboard, and then we see the protagonist of our story, a humorously overdressed man with large sideburns and wearing a deerstalker cap. He is accompanied by a young woman in a hat which shades her face, making it invisible to the camera, and an older woman in a darker dress. He waves goodbye to someone off camera, and then kisses each woman and hugs them as they see him off. The camera pans a bit to follow them up the plank. The next shot shows a crowd seeing off an ocean liner, which we are meant to assume the fellow is aboard, although we do not see him. One of the well-wishers, who looks a lot like Georges Méliès, turns and looks at the camera, then resumes waving his hat as the ship sails by. We then cut to a panoramic view of lower Manhattan from the Hudson, taken from a moving ship. For people interested in the history of New York, this may be the best part of the movie: we see the buildings and piers in the Battery area quite clearly. The next scene is labeled “Dropping the Pilot” and it shows a ladder hanging off the side of a stationary boat. Eventually, a fellow in a rainjacket descends the ladder and a small rowboat pulls up alongside. He climbs in and they row off while he’s still standing there. I half-expected him to fall in the water! The camera pans to show us the rowboat rowing safely away, however.

european-rest-cure1The story gets underway with “The Storm,” which shows, first, the bow of a ship going through rough seas and the spray from the waves splashing on the deck. Then, we cut to a shot of our tourist’s cabin rocking back and forth. He pantomimes getting sick and crawls into bed. Then his porthole breaks open and water splashes on him. He tumbles to the floor, narrowly missing his basin, and tries to swim on the floor. The next scene is “Kissing the Blarney Stone” and it takes place on an obvious set. The tourist arrives with a small tour and a couple of rough local fellows offer to hold his feet while he leans over the precarious edge of a wall on Blarney Castle. Predictably, they dump him once he’s over the edge. In “Doing Paris” we see our tourist in a café, where he meets some young women and orders wine. An artist-type glares at their display from the corner while the tourist gets drunk and joins them in a can-can. Eventually some of the snooty women from the tour group find him and drag him back to his chair. The French women continue acting wildly until the waiter kicks everyone out. Then, in “Climbing the Alps,” we see a very unconvincing mountain set. When the tourist begins to climb the tall part to the right of the screen, he quickly falls backward and off a cliff in the back of the set. Two mountaineers pull on the rope he was attached to and bring him back up, looking a bit worse for wear. They give him a glass of something to help him recover.

european-rest-cure2Next comes “Hold Up in Italy,” whose title spoils any suspense about what might happen when we see the tour group walking through Roman ruins on another obvious set. The group leaves our protagonist behind, and three ruffians in very silly hats hold pistols to him while going through his pockets. The group returns to find him shaken but unharmed. In “Climbing the Pyramids in Egypt,” we get a set that shows the lower end of a pyramid with a Sphinx backdrop. A woman in rather long skirts is able somehow to ascend, but of course when our star goes up, he quickly tumbles back down again. Two fellows in turbans come back down to check on him too late. At last, he goes to “Mud Baths in Germany,” the only really restful activity he has engaged in. Actually, nothing especially untoward happens here. A couple of men smear mud on him and then splash him with buckets of water to clean him off. He does try to swim in place again when he gets wet. Finally, in “Home Sweet Home,” we see him assisted to a waiting horse and carriage by his servants, wife and daughter. He seems barely able to walk after the “cure.”

european-rest-cure3Although I don’t consider this one of Porter’s greatest successes, there are some interesting things going on here. For one, this is an interesting combination of “actuality” footage with staged studio material to produce a narrative. We also see this in “Life of an American Fireman,” where actual footage of firemen rushing to a fire was combined with staged images of the rescues they would perform. Having recently reviewed “The Immigrant,” which is famous for the lengths Charlie Chaplin went to in order to produce the rocking-boat effect on camera, I wondered what similar techniques Porter used to get a similar effect here. It also reminded me that I’d seen this even earlier, in the Méliès film “Between Calais and Dover.” Obviously, the comedic potential of rocking ships was a common theme in early film! Chaplin managed to coordinate more actors and stunts than the others, however, to say nothing of his superor comic timing. There is a bit of camera movement here as well, and although I wasn’t impressed with the set design, they certainly did build quite a lot of them, to simulate the tourist’s movements throughout the Old World. Finally, it’s interesting to note that as staged as it looks, some of this is realistic for the time: tourists really did climb the pyramids in those days, and the Blarney Stone lacked any safety bars.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Joseph Hart

Run Time: 13 Min

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

East Is East (1916)

A light-hearted melodrama of social class set in England, this movie follows the familiar plot of the waif who is suddenly given wealth and must adapt to a world of “refinement” and snobbery. Director Henry Edwards takes on the challenge of co-starring with Florence Turner and shows a definite flair for both directing and acting himself.

east_is_eastThe movie begins with Florence Turner as Victoria (“Vickie”) Vickers, a girl from the East End of London who sits in front of window displays and dreams of a life of comfort and grace. Her boyfriend Bert Grummet (Edwards) is a skinny ragamuffin who gives her a laugh, but she refuses his offer of marriage saying, “We’re such good friends, let’s not spoil it.” He munches on his fish and chips and thinks maybe if he can start a successful fish shop, she’ll change her mind.

east-is-east1Vickie lives with “an assumed aunt and uncle,” which I think means that she has assumed them, not that she assumes they’re really her aunt and uncle. Anyway, the little family decides to pile all their worldly goods into a pram and go off to the countryside “hop-picking” (something similar happens here in southern Oregon once a year, but it’s not hops they’re picking…). Bert invites himself along and tries to kiss Vickie, which she resists. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a lawyer who is trying to locate Miss Victoria Vickers before her inheritance defaults to certain unnamed charities. He sends an assistant to scour the East End and even contacts Scotland Yard to no avail. Giving up with only days to go, he gives the assistant leave to go to the countryside on a “photographic holiday.”

Vickie and Bert look at a pretty house in Kent and fantasize about living there one day. Then Bert steals one of their chickens. As he brings the prize back to camp, the lawyer’s assistant fortuitously sees Vickie and asks to photograph her. She is indignant, and refuses, “as sure as my name’s Victoria Vickers!” The assistant suddenly realizes that he’s talking to one of the wealthiest heiresses in London, but he has considerable difficulty convincing her or her companions that he isn’t nuts. Finally, they agree to accompany him back to London to meet the lawyer. The lawyer confirms the story and explains the terms of the will: Victoria will have to learn “refinement,” while she lives on an allowance from the trust for three years. She seems dubious about this, but agrees because it means she can get money to send her “aunt” and “uncle” to visit relatives in Australia and give Bert the money to open his fish shop.

east-is-east

Would you trust this man if he told you he had a million dollars for you?

This aspect of the plan works well, especially when Bert hits upon the idea of buying up cheap dogfish and selling it as “fish” (by crossing off the word “dog”). His business booms, and soon he is opening a chain of stores and sending out trucks for home delivery of his popular fish. Meanwhile, Vickie is learning how different reality is from her store-front fantasy. Servants are constantly telling her what to wear and trying to comb her hair for her. Her table manners make everyone stop and stare. She is unable to make friends at parties, even though she does learn to speak in a “refined” manner. She lives with a Mrs. Carrington (Ruth McKay) and her son, Arthur. Arthur has a bad gambling habit, but Mrs. Carrington is more concerned that Victoria will be corrupted by the “bad influence” of having contact with her old friends like Bert, who has to shove past the butler to get in when he calls.

Mrs. Carrington decides that the best thing to do is take Victoria abroad on an extended tour of exotic (unspecified) locations, while continuing her tutoring. She throws away letters that Victoria writes to Bert instead of mailing them. Victoria is kept away from all her friends for two years, and, failing socially with the new crowd, becomes lonely and depressed. Bert, meanwhile, has decided that he needs some schooling as well in order to impress Vickie. He hires a tutor and a tailor to help with his clothes. Then, he sells off his business and goes to propose to Vickie in his best suit and after some last-minute pointers from the tutor. Along the way, he reads a shocking headline in the society pages – Victoria Vickers is now engaged to Arthur! Arthur is desperate for money to cover his enormous gambling debts, so he proposed to her and since she was so alone and desperate, she agreed, despite his Charlie Chaplin mustache which she mocked in the first reel. Bert gives up and moves to Kent, buying the lovely little cottage they had admired, and living alone with a housekeeper.

east-is-east2But all is not yet lost. Victoria overhears Arthur talking to one of his girlfriends, and he says that of course he doesn’t love her, but he needs the money. Victoria finally has a revelation that she cannot live this “artificial life,” and voluntarily gives up her fortune, hoping to return to the happiness she knew in poverty. As a parting shot, she gives Arthur enough money to be free from debt. When hop-picking season comes, Vickie goes back to Kent and lingers at the site of her youthful happiness, noting that “someone” (Bert, in fact) has put barbed wire around the chicken coop to prevent theft. Bert looks out his window and sees her standing there. He sends the housekeeper out to invite her to tea with “the lady of the house,” not telling her who it is. Vickie goes in out of curiosity, and when Bert shows up she is flummoxed. “Who is the lady of the house?” She asks. Bert tells her she is, if she will still have him.

Like a lot of melodramas of the period, this relies heavily on rather unlikely coincidence (the assistant stumbling onto Victoria in Kent with only days to go being the most extreme), but it is actually a nicely crafted story within the limited formula. The contrast of rich and poor, and the ability of poor people to “know their place” and accept it, are common themes in British literature and film of the time. From that point of view, this movie makes sense, although my American sensibilities say she should have ditched Arthur, finished out the last weeks of her tutelage, and then taken the money and started her own business. It also seems strange that Bert has to sell his business in order to be “respectable.” He doesn’t seem to have anything to do but guard his chickens now, when he could be the (dog)fish-king of the whole realm! But, I think that is a reflection of British class expectations as well.

east-is-east1Overall, the movie is well-shot and edited. During the sequence where the lawyer is looking for her, we flash back and forth from his office to what she is doing. This is a kind of parallel editing, but it is more subtle than what one usually sees from D.W. Griffith, who almost always used the technique simply for suspense or in the telling of a single story, not to run two of them together, at least until “Intolerance.” Both leads do a very good job in terms of acting. I thought the best part of Turner’s performance was when she was still “unrefined,” but dressed as a rich woman in a rich world. Her body language still speaks cockney, so to speak, and even without being able to hear her accent, we could see how she didn’t fit in. But Bert undergoes the more impressive transformation, from street rat to entrepreneur to successful businessman to retired gentleman. He actually seems to fill out and gain considerable weight during the course of the picture, but I think it’s just carefully chosen wardrobe that makes the difference.

One final note: every source agrees that this film was made by the “Turner Film Company,” and one at least lists Florence Turner as the producer. I wonder if she might have been the Turner for which it is named. That would be another example of a pioneering woman business owner and producer from the early years of film, but I can’t find anything definite.

Director: Henry Edwards

Camera: Tom White

Starring: Florence Turner, Henry Edwards, Ruth McKay, W.G. Saunders, Edith Evans

Run Time: 71 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, and it’s a very over-exposed pixillated digitization. It’s all I could find, so if you know of a better version, please comment!)

Easy Street (1917)

Charlie Chaplin’s first movie in 1917 has some surprising elements, including a reversal of his usual relationship to authority. Reflecting his improving budgets and extended production time, he built an entire street on a sound stage and used it to considerable effect.

easy_street_1917The movie begins similarly to “The Champion” and other familiar shorts, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp sleeping in the streets. He awakes to the lovely tones of Edna Purviance leading the choir at the Hope Mission, and ventures inside. The gags in the early part of the film involve sounds that the audience imagines but can’t hear – Edna’s singing, Charlie laughing during the pastor’s sermon, a neighboring parishioner trying to get Charlie to sing along with the choir, etc. Then there’s an extended bit in which Chaplin agrees to hold a baby for another parishioner, and accidentally spills the milk from its bottle onto his pants – but thinks that the baby has wet itself (and him), and tries to foist the fouled brat back onto its mother. Rather a vulgar joke for 1916!

easy-streetAnyway, the real plot of the film gets started once the sermon is over. Charlie, and a rough fellow (John Rand) who also appears to be a tramp, remain behind when the other parishioners leave. Charlie wants to talk to Edna, but the other tramp tries to steal the collection box! Charlie recovers it and returns it, and Edna encourages him to “reform” and get a job. Now that he has experience catching crooks, Charlie thinks it would be a good idea to join the police force. Although it goes against his nature, he convinces himself to go into the police station and apply.

easy-street1Now the action shifts to “Easy Street,” which appears to be the site of an eternal riot. Working-class ruffians are beating the stuffing out of the few police officers brave enough to go there, and we see them returned to the station on stretchers, their uniforms torn and shredded. Eric Campbell intimidates other rioters and controls the street as a bully, wearing his spoils – a policeman’s cap. Charlie is informed that Easy Street will be his beat, but he has no idea what he’s in for.

easy-street2

Just another day on Easy Street.

When Charlie arrives at Easy Street, the riot is over, or at least there’s a lull. Debris is strewn in the street, but things appear to be quiet. The camera tracks towards him as Campbell stalks up behind, still wearing the policeman’s cap. Charlie, finally realizing he’s in danger, sidles up to a lamppost that has a police emergency phone on it. Each time he tries to move for the phone, Eric growls at him and he panics, dropping it. Finally, he tricks Eric into looking into the receiver, giving him a chance to bop him on the head with his billy club. Eric doesn’t appear to notice, so Charlie hits him again. And again. Finally, Eric turns around and sees that he’s being hit, so Charlie tries hitting harder, but with no effect. Eric flexes his muscles and grabs the top of the lamppost, bending it down. Thinking fast, Charlie pulls the lamp over Eric’s head, turning up the gas. Eric slumps into unconsciousness, and Charlie uses the still-working phone to call for backup to arrest him. The police are very afraid to come to Easy Street, even in a large group, and when a small child points his finger at them and goes “bang!” they all skitter in fear. Finally, they drag the unconscious brute back to the station and cuff him. Charlie lights up a cigarette and starts a gas fire on the ruined lamppost.

easy-street3With things now peaceful on Easy Street, Charlie returns to walking his beat. He sees an emaciated woman (Charlotte Mineau) with a bundle hidden under her blouse. He confronts her and sees the food she has stolen. Feeling sympathetic, he goes across the street to where a fruit vendor snoozes peacefully, and steals more food for her, loading her up with ill-gotten gains. Now Edna walks up and sees Charlie 1) employed and 2) performing an act of charity (she doesn’t know the food is stolen). The grateful waif collapses from hunger and the weight of the food, so Charlie and Edna help her up the stairs to her apartment. Then Charlie escorts Edna to another apartment, which she is visiting on her missionary rounds.

easy-street4Meanwhile, Eric Campbell breaks out of the handcuffs. All of the policemen conk him on the head with their bully clubs simultaneously, repeatedly, but it does no good. He defeats them and escapes. He returns home – to his wife Charlotte! They quickly start fighting, with Charlotte throwing various pieces of crockery at Campbell, but with his great strength he gets the upper hand. One of the thrown items breaks the window of the apartment across the street, hitting the father of the family Edna is visiting, and Charlie goes back to Charlotte’s apartment to investigate. When Eric sees him, a chase begins. While this goes on, various lowlifes nab Edna and drag her to an underground lair.

Immune to billy clubs.

Immune to billy clubs.

Charlie finally overcomes Eric by running back to the apartment and dropping a heavy iron stove from the window onto Eric’s head. Now, the ruffians grab him as well. Meanwhile, Edna is being menaced by a man who uses a hypodermic needle before becoming amorous/threatening. Charlie is dropped into the same room through a manhole and accidentally sits on the needle. Suddenly, he becomes a determined fighter, knocking out the addict and taking on several toughs from the speakeasy next door. He rescues Edna and brings peace and order to Easy Street.

easy-street6This movie reminds me a lot of the old “Popeye” cartoons, which may have been partly inspired by it. Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well. Most cast lists I find online indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1I don’t know for sure why Chaplin chose to do this, but it definitely works. Many sources refer to this as the funniest of the comedies he made for Mutual, or even his funniest short, period. There are others I like better, including “The Cure,” “The Vagabond,” and the restored version of “Police,” but this is a contender. The street set is great, and evokes a kind of generic image of urban squalor, that could as easily be New York, LA, or London. When Eric chases him, we do get some very explicit exteriors of Los Angeles, which kind of ruins the illusion for me, but if you ignore that it’s a great location. Chaplin uses all the tricks of cinema he has learned, including a mobile camera, close-ups, and cross-cutting, but it’s still his body language that sells the narrative. He uses his full body to give shrugs and express sympathy, his face lights up when he sees Edna, and he does his patented one-foot turn-hop during the chase sequences. He repeatedly sends up the Keystone Kops, both in his own performance and his use of the other policemen. When he’s hopped up from the hypodermic, he uses his full body to fight, throwing his feet at crowds of opponents, and seems to be a dynamo of energy. The movie once again shows his talent for slapstick, as well as a newly increased confidence as a filmmaker.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Albert Austin, John Rand, Lloyd Bacon, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

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