Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ff

Funeral of Vera Kholodnaia (1919)

This Soviet-era newsreel footage is something of the “end of an era” in Russian filmmaking. Evgeni Bauer had died between the revolutions, and most of his important colleagues would soon flee Russia for Paris. The great, innovative movies of the Tsarist period were quickly forgotten as new experimental styles were developed by Vertov, Eisenstein, and others. But now, Vera Kholodnaia, known as the “Queen of the Screen,” succumbed to the flu epidemic that killed millions of Europeans in the year following the First World War. There were immediate speculations about poisoning and Bolshevik plots, with nothing ever proven. Despite the deliberate destruction of many of her films by the State, she had been rehabilitated as a kind of revolutionary heroine, and a large ceremonial funeral was authorized in Odessa. Thousands attended, and the Soviet newsreel footage of her coffin being taken to its final resting place may be the best-known movie of her today. It begins with a title card with her name, followed by seemingly random clips from her movies, then an image of her lying in state with the date of her death superimposed. Then the funeral procession is shown, with the streets of Odessa filled with mourners, and an ornate white coffin lifted by six pallbearers.

Director: Peter Chardynin

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Vera Kholodnaya

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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Fat and Lean Wrestling Match (1900)

Alternate Title: Nouvelles Luttes Extravagantes

A fairly typical example of Georges Méliès-style slapstick with special effects, this short film has rather gruesome comedy. No doubt in the years before cartoons, it would have been very popular with children.

The movie begins with a kind of tease, as we see two women in leotards on the proscenium-style set right after the title. It’s a bit confusing, however, because neither woman is noticeably fatter than the other. They take a bow and suddenly their clothes have become traditional 19th-century female garb. Then they walk off-stage and grab sheets, which they wrap around themselves. When they pull off the sheets, they have transformed into two men in leotards. These two men, who also seem about equal in weight, now begin to fight. One grabs the other, who turns into a doll, and thrashes him about, throwing him to the ground. He transforms back into a man while his opponent takes a bow and proceeds to pull off the other man’s head, arms and legs (now he’s a doll). The victor takes his bow and puts the first man back together again, allowing him to come back to life. Then each man pulls his female counterpart onto the stage from behind the back of the other. The men toss the ladies into the air, causing them to disappear, and then dance off the stage together.

Now is when the title finally makes sense, because two men in particularly comical wrestling get-up appear to fight, and one is fat, the other thin. The thin man tries to grapple his opponent, but he cannot budge the fat man due to his great bulk. The fat man lies on top of the thin man, flattening him out completely. He turns his back on his defeated opponent, who suddenly comes back to life and kicks him in the rear, causing the fat man to fly into the air. When he comes back down, both men are knocked to the floor, but the thin man leaps on the fat man’s belly, causing him to explode into various dismembered parts, similar to the man in the first fight. The thin man takes his bow and departs, but the fat man’s pieces slowly reassemble themselves. The fat man stands up and gestures angrily in the direction of his departed vanquisher.

Interestingly, the write up in the Star Films catalog describes only the second part of the film, suggesting that the distributor didn’t know what to make of the title either. Apparently something like “Burlesque Wrestling Matches” didn’t occur to anyone as an alternative. The French title means something closer to “New Wrestling Extravagances” or “New Extravagant Wrestling.” The other thing that’s interesting about this film is that I don’t think we see Méliès himself as any of these characters – although he’s not in every one of his early movies, he’s in an awful lot of them. By the standards of some of these movies, the special effects are fairly minimal. It’s the madcap pacing that makes this one work, more than mystery of his visual fantasy.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fear (1917)

This movie represents the only contribution to the “history of horror” from 1917 that I’ve been able to identify and locate. The now-iconic team of Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt would return in two years to produce the classic “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but this movie gave them a chance to cut their teeth on madness and mystical curses.

Count Greven (Bruno de Carli) returns to his old castle after spending several years touring the world. We see his carriage pull up to the gate from a high angle, and then he comes into the castle to be greeted by his staff. An Intertitle tells us he was a “cheerful and happy man” when he left, but we see that he is now restless and furtive. He orders the castle locked and the gate barred, claiming he wishes to see “no strange faces.” He goes into a room and shutters the light. Once alone, he opens one of his traveling cases and takes out an Indian statue (the script calls it a “Buddha,” but it’s kind of skinny and looks more Hindu to me). For a moment, his face shows pleasure before returning to fear. He carries it through the halls and puts it in a display case hidden behind an arras – thus concealing it and displaying it at the same time.

After a few days of watching his odd behavior, his chief servant goes to the local minister and tells him that his master needs help. The minister visits and Greven confesses his sins. His “unhappy passion for art collecting” has led him to steal the statue from a temple in India, where the “Buddha priests” have sworn revenge on him. He claims that they will kill him to retrieve the statue, using magical powers no one can understand. The minister concludes that he has gone mad.

Greven is at his wits’ end. He now longs for death as a release from his terrible dread of not knowing when the blow will come. One night, he has a vision of one of the priests (Conrad Veidt in a turban) appearing on his lawn. He tries to shoot at the image without effect, then he begs it to kill him. The priest tells him that he will not kill him until he has “learned to love life” and that then he will die by the hand of “the one dearest to him” in exactly seven years.

With this temporary reprieve, Greven launches into a life of dancing, drinking, gambling, and parties to try to “drink the dregs of life” while he has time. When this lifestyle becomes dull, he begins a feverish program of research to discover a means to “transform nitrogen into protein” thus curing world hunger forever. When he succeeds, a crowd of people hails him and lifts him to their shoulders, just before he lifts up a hammer and smashes the flask. He has now experienced the fame of glory and the impulse to destroy all at once. Next, he pursues a love affair with a lovely young woman (Mechthildis Thein), who agrees to become his wife. After they are wed, he plans to leave her and go on a world tour, but he finds he cannot part from her and stays.

 

Finally, the appointed day arrives. Once again his fearful persona comes to the forefront. He tries to get rid of the curse by hurling the statue into the water, but it reappears in his display case. He demands that his butler taste his tea before drinking. When he sees his wife holding a dagger (presumably from his art collection), he takes a shot at her. He flees from everyone, unable even to trust the coachman not to crash and kill him. Finally, the pressure becomes too much. He turns his pistol on himself, shooting himself and becoming his own executioner. Once again, we see the image of the “Buddha priest.” He rises from the lawn, becoming transparent through multiple exposure and walks to the barred gates, which open at a gesture form him. He walks through the halls and stairs, finally retrieving the statue and carrying it back out of the castle.

 

If you’re hoping for Expressionist photography or wild sets, as in “Caligari,” you’ll be disappointed here. There aren’t really any creative shadows or silhouettes as we’d expect from Maurice Tourneur. No scene is more than slightly underlit. The scene of the confrontation on the lawn is shot in full daylight, we have to accept that it’s night based on the Count wearing his nightgown. I think the movie would have benefited from more close-ups, to give us a better sense of the characters’ emotions, but with a better quality print than is currently available on home video, this might not be as much of an issue.

In terms of the story, however, this is a classic horror tale. I was reminded right from the start of the structure of an H.P. Lovecraft story, with the character returning changed from an experience abroad, then revealing what happened to another character who concludes that he’s insane. That level of disconnect forces the audience to question how much of the story is true, even as we know that for narrative purposes the story will proceed as if the character’s perceptions are real. Wiene would return to this theme of the unreliable narrator in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it is used effectively here as well. The structure of the middle part, where Greven goes from wild partying to scientific research to pursuing love, reminded me of the story of “Faust,” which seems to be a part of all early German horror.

 

The movie also reminds me of “The Mummy” in showing how a white man’s blind passion for collection results in his being cursed by the unknown powers of an “exotic” culture. There are definite themes of colonialism and “othering,” and Wiene is somewhat ambiguous as to who is the monster and who the victim here. It never seems to occur to Greven to just give back the statue he stole, or to show remorse for taking it. Even when he begs for death it is to relieve his own suffering, not to make amends. It’s all the more fitting then, when “the hand of the one dearest” to him turns out to be his own.

Director: Robert Wiene

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Bruno DeCarli, Conrad Veidt, Mechthildis Thein, Bernhard Goetzke, Hermann Picha

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

A Fantastical Meal (1900)

Alternate Title: Le Repast Fantastique (Star Films #311)

This typical short trick film from Georges Méliès begins playfully, but becomes somewhat dark and even violent by the end. It qualifies for my “history of horror,” although in the end I believe that the violence was meant to be funny.

The movie begins with four people in a typical bourgeois French dining room, preparing for a meal. One is a maid, two are nicely-dressed women, and one is Méliès in a wig with sideburns. The maid puts some food on the table and the others pull up chairs to sit down. Suddenly the chairs disappear and reappear on the table. Everyone falls down, then they get up and retrieve their chairs. This time they are able to sit down and Méliès prepares to ladel them some soup from the bowl. Suddenly the bowl disappears and is replaced with a much larger bowl. He reaches in and pulls out a boot. The others turn and yell at the maid, who comes in very distressed. Méliès takes out another boot and the maid removes the soup as Méliès throws the boot after her. They take their seats again and the maid brings in a large turkey, cooked and ready to be carved. Méliès picks up the cutlery and suddenly the table legs have grown so tall he can no long reach the bird. He and his dinner guests try climbing on their chairs, but the table suddenly becomes short again. When they sit down, the table disappears and reappears across the room. When they chase after it, it descends through the floor and emerges in another spot. This repeats, but the second time it comes back with a ghost on top instead of the food. The ghost does a frightening dance and the ladies run out of the room. Méliès tries to fight the ghost with his chair, but it just passes through the image harmlessly. Méliès persists and is able to destroy the table but not to hurt the ghost. He prepares to take a mighty blow, but the ghost disappears and is replaced by a box marked “dynamite.” When Méliès hits it, it explodes and he is thrown onto the wall. His now boneless body flails about, stuck on the wall (it’s a puppet). The maid comes in to try to assist him, but a bunch of broken crockery (his bones?) flies out of his coat and he flops around the floor bizarrely.

The theme of a ghost, poltergeist, or supernatural entity preventing the characters from performing a simple task (often going to bed) has come up several times before, but never in quite this way. The ending took me by surprise: I was expecting the ghost to chase them out of the room, but not to use dynamite to destroy its enemy! The flopping Méliès-body is darkly comedic, much darker than I expect from early cinema, although I think it’s really more slapstick than gore. The other interesting thing is the non-corporeal ghost, achieved through multiple-exposure. Méliès has used multiple exposure to multiply images on the screen, but I think this is the first time we’ve seen objects appear to pass through a body like this. Of course, it became a standard way to show a ghost on film for the next century and more. Méliès will also use puppetry more elaborately in the years to come, but the use here makes it possible for his character to survive impossible violence. It’s a pretty fun example of a supernatural film from the turn of the century.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

From the Submerged (1912)

This short from Essanay uses Chicago locations in a melodrama about urban poverty and redemption. While not an entirely believable story, it contains a message about the worth of every human life.

The opening shot shows a vagrant (E.H. Calvert) waking up on a park bench, assessing his surroundings, and walking away. There are two other homeless people sleeping in the background. He walks out onto a bridge and looks ready to jump when a woman (Essanay co-founder Ruth Stonehouse) restrains him. She speaks to him a bit, gesturing towards the sky, perhaps in reference to God, and the man appears grateful to her for her intervention. Now he goes to a bread line, where he collapses with hunger before he can get any food. A sympathetic fellow-bum gives him a piece of bread, a coffee, and a newspaper, then goes to the back of the line again for himself. He eats eagerly, and looks at the newspaper, spotting a small item in the personals. It is addressed to “Charlie” and says that his father is dying and that all is forgiven. Calvert leaps up and runs off to answer the ad.

Read the rest of this entry »

Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

The Fantastic Dog Pack (1917)

Alternate Title: La Meute Fantastique

This episode of “Judex” is longer than the previous one, but to me it seems like less actually happens. We do get the pay-off of the cliff-hanger from the last story, and also several new entanglements are established, but the story overall feels a bit off-track to me here.

As the story begins, Musidora and her criminal companion Morales (Jean Devalde) bring the chloroformed Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to a villa where they keep her unconscious while they await payment. This soon comes in the form of Cesar de Birargues, the overly-amorous employer who contracted with the pair to kidnap her in “The Mysterious Shadow.” But when he offers his payment, Morales demands an additional 10,000 francs hazard pay. Cesar goes home depressed and confesses what he has done to his sister and father; the father tells him to go to their country home while he takes care of the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)

Alternate Titles: Un homme de têtes, Four Heads Are Better Than One.

This is one of the best-known early shorts from Georges Méliès. It demonstrates considerable creativity and a sophisticated use of special effects.

four-troublesome-headsGeorges Méliès enters the frame and stands between two tables. He removes his own head and puts it on one of the tables, where it starts talking and looking around. Méliès, momentarily headless, has a new head appear on his shoulders, and he crawls underneath the table with the head on it to demonstrate that there is no person there. Méliès repeats the action twice, with a new head appearing on his shoulders each time, until four identical Méliès heads are presented at once – three on the tables, and one on his shoulders where it belongs. Méliès then plays a banjo, and the three additional heads sing along. He appears annoyed by their singing, and smashes two of the heads with the banjo, then pulls his own head off and punts it offscreen. Finally, he reattaches the remaining head and takes a bow.

This movie is technically impressive, considering the number of takes he had to do (at least four) in order to get the multiple-exposures right. Each of his heads is animated and they do seem to interact with one another as well as the full-bodied Méliès. When he takes off his head, he holds a mannequin-head in his hand (nicely painted so it does look like him, but not animated), and the space above his shoulders is blank. It looks to me as if he wore a hood or a sack over his head for these shots, but the multiple-exposure makes it transparent so that you can still see the dark curtain in the background. This is probably the reason he used such a drab backdrop, instead of the usual highly stylized painted sets he usually has, because it would have been much harder to hide the hood as it moved in front of the details. Despite that aesthetic lack, however, this remains a much more creative use of the camera than the typical appearances and disappearances we’ve seen in most of his early experiments. I note again that the Star Films Catalog gives a description of a much more exciting climax than what we seem to have today, though in this case it doesn’t look like anything is missing. I think perhaps they were just talking it up.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Famous Box Trick (1898)

Alternate Title: Illusions Fantasmagoriques

This is another of the early shorts of Georges Méliès, and like many of them it is not so much a story as a one-minute magic act. Méliès uses the camera tricks he has learned up to now to make things appear and disappear, to turn them into other objects, and to cause a simple wooden box to become a source of wonder.

famousboxtrickWe see a tightly-framed proscenium-style set with elaborately decorated backdrops. Toward the back of the stage but prominently visible is a table with a large wooden box on it. Méliès himself is dressed as a magician or “conjurer” (according to the Star Films catalog) on the stage, and as the movie begins he is performing esoteric gestures with his hands. Suddenly a live dove appears in his hand, and he bows quickly and puts it in the box. He adds two handkerchiefs and makes more mystical motions with his hands and – voila! – a boy in a clown suit appears. Méliès lifts him down, then puts him on a stand, and takes a large axe and swings it at him! Of course, there is a jump cut and instead of a single brutally mangled child we now see two which are completely unharmed. They begin fighting and Méliès separates them. He picks one up and the boy disappears and is replaced with some papers which Méliès tears up. He then puts the other boy back into the box. He now produces a hammer and smashes apart the box, but the child has disappeared. He reaches down to the floor, where one of the panels of the box rests and pats it, causing the boy to reappear. He twirls the boy around and picks him up, and suddenly the child turns into two flags, which Méliès waves vigorously. He drops them and disappears in a puff of smoke, but he comes back onstage from a rear door to take a bow.

Similar to “The Magician” of last week, this is a fast-paced series of trick shots with no plotline or logic. It all happens so quickly that you can imagine an audience of children laughing and applauding with each new wonder. There are implications of violence that some adults would not approve of, but in the end no one is really hurt and all the tricks are just for fun. It’s easy to imagine that some of these tricks had already been worked out by Méliès on the stage, but that he found them easier to perform with the magic of stopping the camera. An interesting point is the flags at the end. I tried watching it frame-by-frame to verify what nationalities they were. The Star Films Catalog claims they are “an American and an English (sic) flag.” I’m pretty sure the one on stage right is actually American, while the one to our left has a small Union Jack in a dark field, which is neither British nor “English,” as I understand it. It could be an Australian flag, but I never could spot the Southern Cross. At any rate, it seems odd that he would have used these rather than the French Tricolour, but perhaps he was already aware that his most important audience would be Anglophones? If any vexillologists want to chime in, please do so in the comments.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown children

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women (1899)

This short from Edison contains action and suspense, and even the beginnings of a plot as the bravery and selflessness of rescue teams is put at the forefront. While the melodramatic adulation of fire fighters may seem quaintly nineteenth century to us today, it is worth remembering that 9/11 raised similar emotions in audiences quite recently.

firemen-rescuing-men-and-womenWe see the front of a building, with four windows visible and ladders propped against it. Smoke billows from all of the window, and two teams of firemen work from the highest ones, helping people in civilian clothing out the windows and onto the ladders, where they descend below the frame line. At one point, a fire fighter tosses a doll out the window to one of his fellows on the ladder. He then tosses it casually to the ground. After two men and a woman have been rescued, the fire fighters themselves go in and out of the windows, seemingly uncertain, for a few seconds.

The original catalog entry by Edison emphasizes “the efficiency of modern life-saving methods and apparatus now in use by the fire departments.” All it looks like is a few men on ladders, but presumably this emphasis on modern efficiency would have carried over to the live narration an exhibitor would have used to accompany this film. I assume that this was a staged event or a training exercise, and not a real fire, although it might have been presented to audiences as authentic, and there’s nothing that actually proves it fake. The doll being tossed from the window is the one odd bit, and I wonder if it was intended to help simulate a child-rescue, but the performers didn’t understand this and just tossed it quickly aside to get to the “real” rescuing.

Director:  J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.