Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ernest Van Pelt

Broncho Billy’s Sentence (1915)

This short movie is supposed to reflect a more “mature” stage in Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s career. At only a single reel, it doesn’t really manage the complexity Anderson probably hoped for, but it does give him a chance to display a range of emotional states and motivations, making it well ahead of “Broncho Billy and the Greaser,” for example.

Broncho Billys SentenceThe story begins with Billy on the run, apparently having stolen a cash box from a stagecoach, whose drivers are raising a posse to search for him. He picks out a few large bills from the cash box and leaves the rest, making his way through the forest until he finds the home of Virginia True Boardman and her father, Ernest Van Pelt, while the posse rides like mad through the countryside. We see the posse interrogate the local preacher and his wife, who haven’t seen Billy but offer them sandwiches. Billy busts in on Virginia and Ernest, holding them at bay with his gun when pappy makes a move for a club, and demanding bread. The posse now knocks at their door, sandwiches in hand, and Billy makes it clear what will happen to father if Virginia isn’t quiet. She tells the posse “he went thataway” and they rush off. Billy thanks her with a kiss that she doesn’t want, then runs out into the night. She follows with a rifle and manages to wing him in the head. The gunshot seems to attract no one’s attention, but Billy finds a place to hide his spoils and jumps into the preacher’s church.

Broncho Billys Sentence1In this second act, as it were, Billy is cared for by the preacher and his wife, who have no idea who he is, but see that he has been hurt. Such kindness obviously affects the desperado, and he listens attentively when the preacher’s wife reads the Bible to him. Still in hiding, he listens in on the preacher’s sermon and appears to realize that the words are spoken to him as much as any man there. He writes a note to his benefactors and goes to retrieve his booty and turn himself in to face his punishment. He does stop just long enough to take a dog-eared copy of the Bible from the old couple’s house. Now he goes to the sheriff, who is obviously surprised to see him, and nearly shoots first when Billy tries to surrender his gun. Billy just gives a kind of knowing smile, hands over the gun and the money, and is escorted to the cell, where he proceeds to start reading his Bible, from page 1. The final act begins with Billy in prison. All the the prisoners are marched into a small chapel, and Billy leads the service, still holding his Bible after many years. His service is intercut with the arrival of an important letter at the Warden’s office – obviously Billy’s release, although this is not confirmed until he has finished preaching and been escorted by a trustee to the office. Billy gives an emotional display when the Warden hands him the news, then we watch the men marched out of the chapel. Finally, Billy, now dressed in street clothes returns and asks to take his Bible with him to the new life he will make for himself. He shakes hands with the Warden and leaves.

Broncho Billys Sentence2Ultimately, there isn’t enough to this brief morality tale to justify regarding it as substantially more “realistic” or “mature” than other Broncho Billy movies I’ve seen, although it does go in a new direction, compared to those. It resembles “His Regeneration” in that it is about a bad man going straight, but instead of doing it for a lovely girl, he does it out of a newfound religious conviction that is actually somewhat more convincing. Billy seems to convey at first that he believes the world is a tough place where you can’t trust anyone, and he’ll take what he can get along the way. After he is shot, he realizes this philosophy leaves him no recourse when he needs help, and the surprise in his face when he receives it is obvious. He then shows the effort he is making to understand why anyone would help a wretch like him, and the new faith he finds through the Bible. Trying to do this with dialogue would simply fall flat – but in silence each viewer can find his or her own voice speaking of goodness and charity in whatever words are most convincing to them. We see Billy grow from bewilderment to realization, and then finally resolve as he decides to turn himself in. The final act simply shows him as a reformed man, although his breakdown when the Warden announces his release gives him a final emotional outlet. Because he is so clearly at the center of the story, none of the other actors manages to be anything more than background in the short time they are on screen, although at first Virginia shows a feistiness that seems to portend Hollywood-style romance. In a longer version of this, we might have seen her feelings about Billy grow and develop, as she watched him transform himself through faith. The movie is shot in a very typical, rigid, often cramped style, although the tight editing makes it a bit more visually interesting.

Broncho Billys Sentence3Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Virginia True Boardman, Ernest van Pelt, Carl Stockdale

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

By the Sea (1915)

By_the_Sea_(1915_film)_posterWith this one-reel comedy made at Essanay, Charlie Chaplin returned to the plotless violence of his Keystone work, right after finishing his opus “The Tramp,” which had showed how much more he could do with the character. Although this may be a slight disappointment for those who want Charlie to take himself seriously as an artist, it is nevertheless a strong example of his powerful physical comedy and capacity for clowning.

A blustery day.

A blustery day.

On a windy day at a seaside resort, the “Little Tramp” has wisely tied his hat to a string so he won’t lose it. Unfortunately, another tourist (Billy Armstrong, who I mistook for Ben Turpin at first) has thought of the same thing, and their strings get hopelessly tangled. After a few pratfalls and mix-ups, Chaplin destroys the other man’s hat, precipitating a fight. They manage to make up after a policeman intervenes and the two knock out the cop and go off for ice cream (the ice cream clerk is Snub Pollard). Then another fight breaks out over who should pay, and of course both ice cream cones are smashed into faces. This brings big Bud Jamison into the scene, as an unintentional ice cream casualty. His wife is Edna Purviance, and of course Charlie takes advantage of opportunities to flirt with her. For once, she is not all that responsive and eventually Bud comes over to chase Charlie, who then finds Billy’s wife sitting alone and tries to flirt with her as well. The other two men discover what is happening and insert themselves on the bench between Charlie and his love-interests. Charlie tips over the bench and everyone falls over. The end.

Edna's not having it.

Edna’s not having it.

Even by Chaplin one-reel standards, this is not very sophisticated stuff, but I had a good time watching it and was glad it didn’t overstay its welcome. I laughed quite a bit, especially during the “hat fight,” when it was clear that neither man would be able to walk away with his own hat without the strings tangling again. This is a very “simple” effect that worked really well – if the strings had accidentally become untangled during a take, the whole thing would have been ruined. I’m inclined to believe that the wind was real, not an effect, and it even seems possible that a windy day at the beach was the inspiration for the whole film, which was shot, we are told, at Ocean Front Walk and Abbott Kinney Pier in Venice, California (remember that the first “Little Tramp” movie, “Kid Auto Races,” also used a Venice location). Billy Armstrong acquitted himself well in this movie, at least as well as any of Charlie’s usual foils, and Bud Jamison is clearly comfortable in the comic “big man” role at this point. I’ve compared him in the past to Mack Swain, but I think I’ve now seen more of Jamison in this role than Swain, it’s just that Swain was in “The Gold Rush” and hence became famous. The major technical difference between this and the Keystone period, is the frequent use of close-ups, especially on Chaplin, which does make it seem a bit “warmer” in tone.This movie demonstrates that Charlie didn’t “grow up” overnight, but kept experimenting in the slapstick style through his early development.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Billy Armstrong, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Snub Pollard, Ernest Van Pelt

Run Time: 14 Min

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

A Jitney Elopement (1915)

Jitney_Elopement_(poster)Released only days before “The Tramp,” this Essanay comedy starring Charlie Chaplin seems to show him starting to get his bearings after a few middling efforts at the new studio. While it may not – quite – be classic on the same level as the better-known release, it definitely shows both his developing directorial talents and his natural comedic ability.

Jitney Elopement2Frequent co-star Edna Purviance is in a quandary. Her father is determined to marry her to an impoverished French nobleman (who appears in the Intertitles as “Count Chloride du Lime” or sometimes “de Lime”). She secretly loves Charlie, though it is unclear how the two met, and requests him to “rescue” her. He immediately goes to the front door and tells the butler to announce him as the Count! This is enough to get him a free drink and an opportunity to swipe cigars, and then the father invites him to dine with him and his daughter. At this point things start going wrong. Charlie clearly lacks the social graces, accidentally puts a sugar cube in his soup, eats beans off the edge of his knife, and has a very difficult time cutting his meat. As coffee is served, the “real” Count (who looks every bit the imposter as well) turns up, and the father angrily turns Charlie out. The Count takes Edna out to the park to try to woo her despite her obvious lack of enthusiasm, and Charlie finds them there. A slapstick running battle now breaks out, involving Charlie, the Count, Edna’s father, and two dopey policemen who jump out of the bushes at a comic moment. Having emerged more or less victorious, Charlie takes Edna down to the road and makes off with her and the Count’s car (the “Jitney” of the title). The father and Count pursue in another vehicle, and another madcap chase begins. It ends with one car going into the Bay, and the lovers kissing discreetly in the land-bound survivor.

Jitney ElopementThis movie was shot in San Francisco, and the park used is recognizably Golden Gate. During the car chase, anyone who has been to the beach at Golden Gate will recognize the windmills seen in the background of the car chase. What’s more fascinating is the dirt roads, apparently in that same vicinity, and the paucity of buildings alongside them. This is less than ten years after the 1906 Earthquake, of course, but I don’t think the under-developed look is due to lack of reconstruction. It appears that the area was still sparsely populated at this time. The Jitney is today mostly associated with early motorized taxicab operations, but this one appears to belong to the Count as a personal-use vehicle. Much of the humor of the chase comes from Charlie’s needing to get out and crank it up every now and again.

Jitney Elopement1Technically, the movie again confirms the development of Chaplin’s standards after he left Keystone studios. The camera is frequently placed much closer, so that the audience can plainly see Charlie’s and the other actor’s faces, not necessarily their full bodies. In fact, the camera is closer throughout much of this movie than in “The Birth of a Nation” or other 1915 movies praised for their innovations. The editing is also particularly good, and keeps the high speed chase working well. Cutaways sometimes make use of reaction shots, as when the two cops attempt to stop the Jitney by holding a rope across its path and are dragged behind it. We see most of this through Charlie’s reactions, only catching the beginning and end of the action. The scene of the dinner reminds me of gags Charlie would use later, for example in “The Gold Rush” (there are no dancing bread rolls, however). Edna isn’t quite up to Mabel Normand’s level as a leading lady, for me, though. She mostly looks on as Charlie and her father fight, and only seems to follow Charlie’s lead rather than taking action for herself.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Ernest Van Pelt, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Bud Jamison

Run Time: 26 Min

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

In the Park (1915)

In_the_Park_(poster)This Charlie Chaplin film returns to the three critical Keystone elements of “a girl, a park, and a policeman.” In fact, it seems so much like a deliberate send-up of Chaplin’s work at Keystone studios that I wonder whether someone at Essanay asked him to make a movie “like” the ones that had launched his popularity. Charlie wanders around a park, running into various people and getting into fights or stealing from them, but the most important are Edna Purviance and Bud Jamison, a couple out in the park because Edna the nursemaid has brought her infant charges out for some sun. Charlie manages to flirt with Edna, then, after stealing a purse from a fellow vagrant thief, sells it to Bud, only to take it back and give it to Edna as a gift. At various points, we get the classic three-frame editing in which characters in frame one throw bricks at someone in frame two, who ducks and allows the brick to sail into frame three and hit someone. The policeman eventually locates the purse’s original owner but Charlie first diverts blame to Jamison, then boots both of them into the lake.

In_the_Park_(1915)Because this movie so closely resembles its Keystone models, there’s not a lot of chance to Charlie to develop his character here. Still, his “Little Tramp” comes across as somewhat more sympathetic simply due to the less frenetic pace of the film. As he steals the purse from an unconscious Jamison at one point, he makes a kind of shrugging movement with his body that seems to say “I know it’s wrong, but what can I do?” This kind of defines the direction he’s taking the character this year. He seems to genuinely enjoy his exchanges with Edna, and also evinces a kind of shy surprise when she is responsive to his advances. Other characters get more chance to elaborate as well, particularly an “elegant masher” played by Leo White, who is romancing the original owner of the purse, and vows to commit suicide when she loses interest in him after the theft. The “suicide” may have helped inspire Harold Lloyd when he made “Haunted Spooks” (see Harold’s idea of funny suicide in this gif at Movies Silently).

In_The_Park_(Charlie_Chaplin)Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Ernest van Pelt.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Champion (1915)

Champion_1915Movies and boxing have gone together since the birth of American cinema. Boxing also lends itself to precisely the kind of physical comedy associated with slapstick, so it’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin returned to the theme more than once in his career. The first time was in “The Knockout,” which is really a Fatty Arbuckle film that Charlie appeared in as a supporting character, but because of his higher name value, it tends to be associated with Charlie instead (See Silentology for another discussion of “The Knockout”). Less than a year later, and at another studio, Charlie made his first appearance as a headliner in a boxing comedy.

Champion1Slightly longer, “The Champion” has a somewhat simpler plot than “The Knockout.” We open on Charlie with a pet bulldog, apparently down on his heels, but sharing a hot dog with his companion. A bit later, Charlie finds a “good luck” horseshoe just as he passes Spike Dugan’s (Ernest van Pelt) training quarters, which is advertising for a boxing partner “who can take a punch.” After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion, Bob Uppercut, played by Bud Jamison, who still seems to me to be filling Mack Swain’s shoes. A gambler (Leo White) wants Charlie to throw the fight, but Charlie knocks him out and takes his money anyway. He and the trainer’s daughter (Edna Purviance, once again, who seems to be dressing as a boy to sneak into the fights as Minta Durfee did in “The Knockout”) meet and fall in love. At the big fight, Ben Turpin takes on Charlie’s former role as the referee, and winds up getting hit about as often as the fighters. Broncho Billy Anderson, co-owner of Essanay Studios, is rumored to be in the fight audience, but I didn’t spot him based on the one Broncho Billy movie I’ve been able to see so far.

Champion2The opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.

Champion5

Shall we dance?

In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.

ChampionDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Ernest van Pelt, Broncho Billy Anderson, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Tramp (1915)

shorts-marion

This is my contribution to the Shorts Blogathon being hosted by Movies Silently. Take a look at what the other bloggers have contributed to this event, especially if you enjoy shorter movies. (Ironically, at over 26 minutes, this is the longest movie I’ve written about in a week – but it still counts!)

I will begin with a hazy anecdote. If I remember correctly, this was the first silent movie I ever saw. I remember a friend’s birthday party, a 16mm projector, and an adult who was very excited about showing Charlie Chaplin films to small children. Funny enough, I don’t remember whether we laughed out loud or sat in confused silence. I do remember feeling sad at the ending.

The_Tramp_(film)

And that, at least, was an appropriate reaction, because “The Tramp,” famously, is where Chaplin’s famous character began to show some sympathetic traits, and to represent the “little man” in his struggle to survive in a world he doesn’t fit in to. Previous Chaplins often made the Little Tramp out to be more aggressive, somewhat less appealing, or drunkenly foolish. There would sometimes be moments of sympathy, but these would often be undercut by the motives of revenge or the general chaos of the slapstick situation. The Little Tramp we see in “The Tramp” is far more human and easier to identify with, even if one wonders how long it’s been since he showered and whether inviting him into the house is such a good idea.

The story begins with Charlie walking along a roadside, being knocked over as some cars go by, then pulling out a whisk broom from his pocket to dust himself off, to good comedic effect. Already, we get the sense of a man who is a) homeless and b) eccentric, as well as his inability to cope with the modern world, in the form of the automobiles. Soon, he encounters Edna Purviance, a farmer’s daughter, who is being set upon by a robber, who wants to take the money she got from her father to go to market. Charlie, wielding his hobo’s bindle, is able to drive the man off and protect her. But, it turns out that there are two other robbers nearby, each a bit taller and meaner-looking than the last. Charlie takes them out one at a time, then accidentally sits in their campfire, and must run about in search of water to put out his flaming pants. The slapstick here is fast and thick, with only one intertitle interrupting the action, to make sure we know that the robbers’ motive is money, not something more salacious.

Purviance and Chaplin were said to be romantically involved at the time (they never married, which may have been the best thing all around, given how Charlie’s marriages tended to go badly). Their apparent attraction for each other, particularly his for her, helps drive the movie forward. The Little Tramp likes this girl, and is more interested in her than her money. That’s the only motivation we need to understand his actions for the duration of the film, and it’s entirely believable. We see them at mid-shot as each is introduced, giving us a chance to feel close to them, but most of the acting is broad and farcical, so we don’t need, or get, intense close-ups on faces. This is not high drama, but pure comedy.

Tramp1

Chaplin returns with the girl to the farm, and her father offers him a job. It’s clear that Charlie isn’t used to physical labor, and knows nothing about farms or farm animals, but he takes the job to be close to the girl. He is a menace to the father and the farm-hand, especially when he has dangerous devices like pitchforks, candles, or heavy bags of flour in his hand. He is completely clueless how to milk a cow (and it does take a bit of expertise, speaking as a city-kid who has learned the skill), and has a tendency to break chicken eggs so that they run down his leg, or someone else’s face.

This sequence, which I’ll call the “Second Act” for the sake of simple shorthand, is pure slapstick. We only have a brief scene with Charlie and the girl together, and she seems to want him to succeed, but doesn’t offer more than encouragement. He is lucky not to get fired or beaten up with all the times he inadvertently injures his boss and his co-worker. The camera has moved out to a standard stage distance, generally showing the full body of the actor and some space to either side, but, as with the old Keystones, the different sets would interact, so that a bag of flour thrown from one set is bound to crash into someone in the set next door or below. The editing is critical here, and I think Charlie, or his editor at Essanay, improves the on pacing that Keystone had established. Things are just fast enough to be funny, and they come thick and fast enough to keep the funny building, pausing only when the audience needs a break from laughing so much.

Tramp_poster

In the “Third Act,” the robbers show up on the farm and hold Charlie up with a gun, insisting that he help with their planned heist of the joint. Charlie agrees. He’s no hero, at least not to the point that he’ll get shot to prove a point. Once he’s in his bedroom, he sees to it that there’s a ladder up to his window, and he finds a large mallet to fight the robbers. After some more erroneous comedy pratfalls with the farmer and the farmhand, the fight begins in earnest. Charlie saves the farm and the farmer gets his shotgun and drives off the terrified robbers. This sequence follows the standards now established, and we don’t see the girl again until after it’s all over. Note that, although Charlie and his co-worker are going to bed (and carrying a candle), there’s no effort to show night time through the lighting. It was all shot in broad daylight, which makes it possible for the audience to see everything that happens and keep track of who hits who, even though the characters are often confused about this.

The final piece, which I’ll call an “Epilogue” rather than a 4th Act, is where the girl’s handsome boyfriend shows up, and Charlie’s heart is broken. He writes a tearful and poorly-spelled note, and goes off to seek his fortune elsewhere. Once on the road, however, he breaks into a jaunty walk that suggests he’s already gotten over her and accepted his lot in life, and the freedom that comes with it. This is where he belongs.

Every source I’ve read online and off identifies the character who shows up at the end as “Edna’s fiancé,” so I guess he is, but it struck me as I watched that no character ever confirms this. It could be the classic comedy situation of the long-lost brother or cousin who is mistaken for a boyfriend. Just a personal observation, I don’t know that it changes anything about the movie.

This warning from Essanay Studios about pirated Chaplin films appeared in Moving Picture World, Oct, 16 1915.

This warning from Essanay Studios about pirated Chaplin films appeared in Moving Picture World, Oct, 16 1915.

By the end of 1914, Charlie Chaplin was known in Nickelodeons all over the US and was becoming a major star. The year 1915, though, was what really made him. This is the year that his name and image became known all over the world, and people wanted all the Chaplin they could get. He was so popular that people started imitating him, with various degrees of success, and certain shadier distributors started duping and re-editing his old movies with new titles to try to get in on the profit. Soon the concept of a “genuine Chaplin” was important to exhibitors, who wanted to keep their Chaplin-obsessed patrons happy. This movie was a big part of starting the craze.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Lloyd Bacon, Leo White, Bud Jamison, Ernest Van Pelt

Run Time: 26 Min, 40 seconds

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