Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Fine Arts Film Company

The Americano (1916)

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

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

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

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

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

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

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

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

Run Time: 56 Min

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

The Devil’s Needle (1916)

This release from D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts company reflects his concern with progressive social issues, although it comes across to us today in a similar spirit to “Reefer Madness” and other anti-drug propaganda movies. The version we have today was a re-release for 1923 audiences, which changed character names and other details through new Intertitles.

Devils NeedleBecause of the changes, I’m going to refer to the characters in the film by the names of the actors who played them. Director Chester Withey has followed his mentor’s lead in making the characters more like “types” than individuals in any event. Norma Talmadge, working before she became a big star, plays a model who is caught up in a sort of four-way love triangle (“love trapezoid?”) with her boss, a lanky painter played by Tully Marshall, the daughter of one of his patrons, played by Marguerite Marsh, and her suitor, Howard Gaye, who of course works for her father, F.A. Turner. Norma wants to marry Tully, but he’s infatuated with Marguerite, who is decidedly uninterested in Howard, and apparently willing to consider an marrying artist just to get out of doing what her father wants her to. This whole situation is complicated by the fact that Norma has picked up a habit that involves buying little packages of powder from a shady guy in a cap and sticking herself with needles.

Devils Needle1 Read the rest of this entry »

Flirting with Fate (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks is in love again, but this time it’s not going so well, so he decides to off himself. Suddenly, his luck begins to change, but can he avoid the clutches of the assassin he hired to cash himself in?

Flirting_with_FateOur movie begins by introducing Doug in his role as August (“Augy”) Holliday, a starving artist who can “draw anything but a paycheck.” Augy has a couple of “guard dogs” who seem to be trained to chase away landlords and not much else, and a rich friend, played by W.E. Laurence. Laurence stops by and Augy lets him see a picture he’s painted of “the most beautiful girl in the world” – a girl he saw in the park one day, played by Jewel Carmen. Turns out that Laurence knows her family, and he gets Augy invited to a party at their house (and, presumably, provides his down-and-out friend with a tux for the occasion). Augy makes an uneven impression at first on Gladys, but since her aunt is trying to force her into marrying a dull guy with money, she’s a little more interested than she might be. He’s hopelessly smitten, but broke, so he hasn’t a chance with the aunt. Some private collectors offer him $3000 for the painting he did of her, but he can’t part with it, so he goes back to try again. This time, he meets up with one of Gladys’s girlfriends, who agrees to act as a stand-in for Gladys while he rehearses a proposal. Of course, Gladys walks in and sees this and thinks he’s untrue to her, so she runs to the dull guy’s arms, and when Augy sees this, he becomes despondent. Read the rest of this entry »

Reggie Mixes In (1916)

This early feature starring Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his continuing development of his screen persona after “The Lamb” and his ability as both an actor and an acrobat. Produced by D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Film Company and directed by longtime Griffith associate and repeat Fairbanks director W. Christy Cabanne, it also shows the adaptation of the “gangster movie” to Fairbanks’s particular mix of action and comedy.

Reggie_Mixes_In1Fairbanks begins the movie, as he does in “The Lamb” (and the later “Wild and Woolly”) as a young, athletic, and handsome heir to a fortune with no particular ambitions in life. We see him sleeping in till noon and being harassed by his butler (who he calls “Old Pickleface”) to get up for breakfast. Once out of bed, he leaps over a table and does headstands, just to make sure we know he can. He takes a call from his girlfriend, a very posh-looking Alma Rubens, under his blanket in bed. She’s coming over for a party later, which motivates him to get dressed for company. At the party, she flirts with another man, but doesn’t accept his proposal for marriage, to Doug’s relief. Doug then proposes, and she accepts – Intertitles tell us that she was always more interested in his money – and he seems to have second thoughts.

Later, Doug and Old Pickleface are out for a drive and find a waif in the gutter who says she’s “losted.” Charmed, Doug pulls her aboard the car and drives her to her tenement home. We see him play with the child and try to break up a domestic squabble before he sees the girl of his dreams come down the stairs. It’s Bessie Love (still a teenager at the time), who is dancing at a place called “Gallagher’s” for pay. Of course, Doug decides he’s going to need to pay a visit, and he’s smart enough to dress down a bit to make the right impression. Despite this, he drags Old Pickleface along, maybe for moral support. They manage to get served, after Doug stops being polite and pounds his fist on the bar, and they meet the bouncer, who decides they’re OK. Tony, the head of the gas house gang (William Lowry), comes in and demonstrates his ability to push patrons around, and the bouncer talks tough but takes no action. When Tony tries to make a move on Bessie, she shows more interest in getting to know Doug at first. But when Tony roughs up the bouncer and another gangster fires his gun, Doug leaps up to hide in chandelier, and Bessie concludes that he’s chicken. He proves her wrong later by chasing the gangsters away when they try to strongarm Bessie into a car. After this display, the owner of the dance hall hires Doug to be his new bouncer, now he has an excuse to come by every night and get to know Bessie.

Reggie_Mixes_In_(1916)_1He gets a good reputation at the bar for keeping order, and is able to fend off several efforts by the gang to put him out of the way. In one case, Doug climbs the front of a building to leap down on his assailant in an alley. Meanwhile, his Aunt is of course worried about the company he’s keeping and his neglect of his regular social calendar. He comes to a costume ball with his old crowd, dressed up as a bouncer from a dance hall, and gets complimented on his originality when he shows off the dance moves he’s learned on the job. He again sees Alma with her boyfriend, and now he gets the picture and shuns her company. She sends him a note remonstrating against his neglect, which Doug foolishly leaves on a table for Bessie to find. The gangsters make another play for her and when he intervenes, Tony challenges him to a one-on-one fight in a locked room, instructing his sidekick to scrag Doug with a “gat” should he fail, The fight involves several chairs thrown out windows and broken tables, and Doug gets his clothes torn up, but emerges a victor. Before the other gangster can shoot him, the owner shuts off the lights and Doug escapes with Bessie out a broken window. The police raid the joint and presumably take several gangsters into custody.

Finally, Doug has to figure out how to marry the girl he loves. He arranges to send a false note telling her she has inherited $100,000 so that she’ll come to a party at his Aunt’s house. He meets her outside in his bouncer clothes and asks if she would marry him and leave all this wealth behind. She says yes. Then, he sneaks into the house and puts on his tuxedo. While Bessie is trying to get out to meet her sweetheart the Aunt says “You must meet my nephew, Reggie.” Now she sees him in his real clothes and true element, and he knows that she’d marry him whether he had money or not. They live, as we assume, happily ever after, once Doug explains that she isn’t really an heiress.

Reggie_Mixes_InThis movie has somewhat more of Fairbanks’s signature stuntwork and fighting than “The Lamb” did – presumably audiences were coming to expect it by now. I particularly enjoy his penchant for going up (chandeliers, buildings) when people expect him to run or fight. He obviously enjoys his acrobatics, he always has a gleeful smile on his face when he gets to do one of these moves. The story here is pretty contrived, and even for 1916, the characters and situations are cliché. The fact that it’s at least half comedic makes up for this to some degree. I was surprised by the sparseness of the sets, particularly in the “rich” setting of Reggie’s Aunt’s mansion, and there are very few camera movements or other creative uses of the space. It didn’t help that the print I saw was old and washed out. There are a lot of close-ups, however, and we see good use of inter-cutting at moments of emotional impact, as when Bessie finds Alma’s love note. Perhaps not a major contribution to the cinematic art, this is a good piece of light entertainment with a talented performer at its center.

Director: W. Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, William Lowry, Joseph Singleton, Tom Wilson, Allan Sears

Run Time: 45 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)

Martyrs_of_the_Alamo

In my recent discussion of “The Birth of a Nation,” I mentioned that Americans in 1915 were highly responsive to nationalist epics that portrayed their history as being as significant and heroic as the more established nations of Europe. This movie, also produced by D.W. Griffith in 1915, was another attempt to exploit that desire cinematically, and it presents some of the same problems for modern viewers. The story of Texas’s independence from Mexico may have had a special resonance for audiences at the time, since the Mexican Revolution had been raging for years, and would continue to rage for several more. American moviegoers also saw varied depictions of that war as it proceeded, but doubtless they also looked to the past for answers as to where the United States stood in relation to its Southern neighbor.

Mexicans, it seems, were given to standing in the street, waiting for opportunities to insult white women.

Mexicans, it seems, were given to standing in the street, waiting for opportunities to insult white women.

What they saw here no doubt confirmed their strongest prejudices. The “Americans” are a minority of fur-capped white folks (with one blackface servant), who are stoic in the face of constant harassment by sombrero-clad “Mexicans” and soldiers dressed like wooden-toy-soldier equivalents of Napoleon’s troops. Santa Ana (played by Walter Long, who was the infamous “Gus” in “The Birth of a Nation” and was a policeman in “Traffic in Souls”), an “inveterate drug user” given to “orgies” is a memorable villain – apparently the troops’ insults to white womanhood originate at his level. The “good” guys include Jim Bowie (Alfred Paget, who had been in “The Unchanging Sea” and “In the Border States”), who appears here to be a fop with a habit of constantly fondling his knife, a very tall Captain Dickinson (Fred Burns, who would later star in Westerns like “The Dude Bandit” and “Wild West”), and Silent Smith (Sam de Grasse, who went on to be in “The Man Who Laughs” and “The Black Pirate”). The flower of white womanhood is represented by Juanita Hansen (who ironically had problems with drugs and was also in “The Secret of the Submarine”) and Ora Carew (who had been “Dolores” in “In Old Mexico” and “The Gypsy Girl” in “Tangled Paths”). The revolt breaks out, apparently, because Dickinson’s wife is insulted, so he shoots down the officer who spoke to her in cold blood, and the Mexicans have the audacity to arrest him. Under the short-lived new regime, whiteness is spared from insults because all the Mexicans remove their sombreros and stand respectfully out of the way when Americans walk past. Never mind that this was the “cruel yoke of oppression” when applied to whites in the Reconstruction South in “Birth of a Nation.”

Jim Bowie, dressed at the height of fashion, eagerly shows Davie Crockett his knife.

Jim Bowie, dressed at the height of fashion, eagerly shows Davie Crockett his knife.

The movie was not directed by Griffith, but by Christie Cabanne, who is one of those directors whose sound work in B-movies I am familiar with (it includes the Bela Lugosi color vehicle “Scared to Death” and “The Mummy’s Hand”), but whose silent work I had only heard about, never seen. This may not be a fair movie by which to judge the rest of his oeuvre, we’ll have to see as this project continues. The direction appears to be adequate here, but I really missed Billy Bitzer’s camerawork. We do get some close-ups, particularly of the women’s and children’s faces during the attack, and some good stunts are caught on camera (particularly Mexican soldiers falling off their horses), but much of the movie lacks visual style. At some point, endless scenes of toy soldiers advancing on a fort and falling just aren’t that exciting. I was surprised by the relatively “gory” scenes of the dead after the battle had finished, with bloody wounds in heads and bayonets sticking out of chests. Overall, though, by the standards of late 1915, this seemed somewhat subdued in terms of visuals and action. I suspect it had a significantly lower budget than “Birth” had. There was also a somewhat annoying synthesizer soundtrack on the version I watched, which would have had nothing to do with whatever scores were played when it was screened in 1915.

Silent Smith isn't sure if this movie passes the Bechdel test.

Silent Smith isn’t sure if this movie passes the Bechdel test.

Director: Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Starring: Sam de Grasse, Allen Sears, Walter Long, Alfred Paget, Fred Burns, Juanita Hansen, Ora Carew, John T. Dillon, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hour, 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here (synthesizer score and all!)