Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: First National Pictures

Tol’able David (1921)

This down-homey piece of Americana reflects the values that movie audiences responded to in the immediate post-war era. It also gives Richard Barthelmess a starring vehicle in which we can see his real face, unlike “Broken Blossoms” where he was under Yellowface.

Tol'able_David-Poster

The movie begins by introducing the Kinemon family, salt-of-the-Earth types in a small village somewhere near West Virginia. Warner Richmond is Allan, the favored older son who drives the mail for the local general store owner – an important mark of social success. Barthelmess is David, the younger son, who is pampered by his mother, who describes him as “just tol’able,” not great. Older brother is already married and his wife is expecting, while David frolics in the lake with a little dog, only to have his clothes stolen, resulting in a humorous encounter with the girl-next-door, Esther Hatburn (played by Gladys Hulette). Esther seems to be interested in David, but he is painfully shy. At breakfast, David offers to drive the carriage (called “the hack”) for Allan, but Allan scoffs that he is too young for such a responsible role. We see Allan get the hack ready and take it off down the road, with a local child running alongside. We also see “pa” ignore his wife’s advice to take his work easy because of concern over his health. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film release is a powerful concoction of slapstick, pathos, comedy, and tear-jerker, remembered to this day as a breakthrough in comedy film making. How does it stand up to a modern viewing? Let’s take a look.

Kid_1921

The movie begins with an unwed mother (Charlie’s leading lady of many years, Edna Purviance) emerging from a “Charity Hospital” with babe in arms. She wanders into a park alone, abandoned by the ne-er-do-well father, who off-handedly tosses her photograph into the fire. Unable to care for the baby, Edna places it into a limousine parked in front of a large house, hoping to give it a good home with a wealthy family. Unbeknownst to her, however, the car is stolen seconds later by a pair of hoodlums who ditch the child in an alley when they discover it. Fortunately, he is found moments later by Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character, wandering the alleyways in search of sustenance, and after some comic attempts to pawn it off on another mother, he eventually takes it back to the dingy attic where he dwells.

Kid

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The Playhouse (1921)

Buster Keaton shows off technical wizardry in this two-reel short from First National, but also finds time for laughs in between the effects. Twins and doppelgangers abound as he make fun of his professional roots.

The movie begins by showing Buster looking at a sign for a variety show in front of a theater. He decides to pay and go in, pulling out a long accordion-style wallet and carefully choosing the right coin from its many folds. The clerk gives him a ticket and he enters. An edit shows him entering the inside of the theater – by way of the orchestra pit. It appears that he is the conductor, in spite of his unauspicious entrance, and he begins warming up the musicians. Edits show us several of the musicians, in a series of two-shots. Each of them is identical – they are all Buster! So are the audience (some in drag). One of the Busters looks at his program, finding that every role and crew position is held by “BUSTER KEATON.” He remarks to his mannish-looking wife, “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” The various Keatons interact and engage in minor gags for a while, including some unfortunate blackface humor.

This ends as Keaton is woken up in bed by Joe Roberts, in a small sparsely furnished room. It seems that the previous sequence was a dream, and Roberts brings some flunkies in to remove the furniture after briefly remonstrating with Keaton. The audience is set up to believe that Keaton is late with the rent and is being evicted, but after getting Keaton off  the bed and moving that, Roberts pushes the walls down, revealing that this too is a stage set. Keaton picks up a broom and gets down to his real job – sweeping up back stage. Soon, he meets some real twins, a pair of girls that will be performing in the variety show. There are various gags and situations based on his confusion over how many of them are and the fact that one likes him and the other does not.

Striking the set.

Meanwhile, the show starts to go on. Edward Cline instructs Keaton to dress the monkey for his act, but the little critter bolts, so Buster puts on his clothes and performs as a monkey himself. Although he’s probably funnier than the original, he keeps making mistakes, which makes the trainer increasingly angry. At another point, a group of “Zouaves” quits because Keaton has tricked Roberts into punching one of their members, so he goes out and hires a work crew to replace them and leads them through a series of silly stunts and military-style maneuvers. For the final act, one of the twins is put into a tank and holds her breath in a “mermaid” act, but she gets stuck and can’t get out. Buster shatters the glass, causing water to flood the theater and all of the audience is washed out with the tide. He grabs the girl, drags her to a Justice of the Peace before she hits him and he realizes he has the wrong one again. He goes back for the right girl, this time drawing an “x” on her back to avoid future errors before taking her in to get married.

Much has been made of Keaton’s use of a matte box to perform the twinning effect in the first part of the movie, but for the most part Georges Méliès had anticipated him in “The One-Man Band” (1900). At one point, Keaton does have more images on the screen than Méliès managed, but it doesn’t look very good. His best bits are when there are just two of him on the screen, in perfect focus and apparently responding to one another. The female twins are played by two different women, one of whom was Virginia Fox, but I couldn’t tell if she was the one who hit him or the one who married him.

As with most of Keaton’s movies at this time, a thin plot is the basis for a series of gags and routines that add up to a lot of laughs. There’s a bit of an inside joke in the multiple-Keatons sequence, since he got his start as part of a family act called “The Three Keatons.”It struck me as funny when “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” because in fact Keaton was more of a collaborator than the other famous silent clowns of the time, consistently working with a co-director instead of insisting on being in complete control of everything. He may have been the whole show by now so far as audiences were concerned, but he was only a part of it behind the camera.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 22 Min

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

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin is in the army for this World War One-era comedy short that became his most popular and well-loved film to that time. Can the Little Tramp be a war hero? Watch it and find out.

As the movie begins, Charlie is already in uniform and being drilled at boot camp. The men in his squad are of various heights and builds, but Charlie is the shortest and skinniest. The other men all move and turn with military precision, but Charlie is always a bit behind them. The sergeant tries to show him how to properly “volte face,” but Charlie turns it into a funny dance move. They march for a very long time and Charlie returns to his bunk. The scene fades out and when it begins again, he is in a trench, carrying a ridiculously overloaded pack. The camera dollies to follow him down the trench, then dollies back when he turns around and returns, finding the cubby in the wall that opens in to his new digs. Inside are his two roommates (one of them is Sydney Chaplin, Charlie’s brother). He moves in and secures his bunk, then we get a view of the enemy trench. The Germans are all large and rough-looking men, but their officer is a dwarf (Loyal Underwood). He is very strict with them, and they all appear to be terrified of him.

We see various day-to-day activities in the trenches, like eating lunch under shell fire and standing guard in the rain. When the mail call comes, everyone in the unit seems to get a care package except for Charlie. He refuses the offer to share food with one of his bunkmates, trying to make it seem as if he doesn’t care. He gets very involved in reading over the shoulder of one man who has a letter, desperate for any news from home. Finally, the postal carrier does find a package for him. It includes stale bread and limburger cheese. He tosses the cheese into the German trench, and they react as if it were a chemical weapons attack. When it is time for Charlie to go to bed, the rain has flooded his bunk, and he has to lie in the water. He uses the horn from a gramophone as a snorkel so he doesn’t drown. The next day, his unit is called to make an attack on the German trench. They capture it and Charlie brings in the entire enemy squad as prisoners. When asked how he did it, he says, “I surrounded them.” He gives the short German officer a spanking, which gets applause from his men.

We see a bombed-out French house with a dejected resident (Edna Purviance), who represents all the strife France is going through in the war. Charlie volunteers for duty behind the lines, and is camouflaged as a stump. He hides out as some Germans set up camp. One comes over with an axe, looking for firewood, but Charlie knocks him out by bonking him with a limb, then bonks each of the other Germans in turn. Sydney is captured doing similar behind-the-line spying, and is put before a firing squad, but Charlie saves him by bonking the Germans. A fat soldier chases him through the woods, but often mistakes real trees for Charlie. Charlie escapes into a pipe, and the soldier is too fat to follow.

Charlie finds his way to Edna’s house, and she finds him there and begins a flirtation before the Germans show up and capture them both, wrecking what’s left of the house in the process. Edna is taken to the German headquarters, where she meets a taller German officer who is enjoying local wine. Charlie manages to rescue her and dresses as the officer, just in time to meet the Kaiser and two of his generals (one is fat and looks like Hindenburg, the other is thin and looks nothing like Ludendorff). He knocks out their chauffeur and drives them into Allied territory, where they are taken into custody.

Then he wakes up again, still in hiss bivouac from the first scene, not yet deployed. The entire war sequence is shown to be a dream.

 

As I stated, this movie was wildly popular when released. It was also a critical success on a level far above what Chaplin usually managed. No one seems to have thought it “vulgar” (although there are some decidedly adult gags once he meets Edna). Reviewers for the next decade compared each new Chaplin release to it – often deciding that classics like “The Kid” or “The Gold Rush” were not quite so good as “Shoulder Arms.” It’s easy to see why it was popular in the United States as the country prepared to finally join the long slog of trench warfare, and it was also popular in Britain and elsewhere, where the fighting had been going for years. The movie identifies with the common soldier doing his bit in awful circumstances, not necessarily motivated by any great patriotism or ideology, just wanting to his best and help out the fellow next to him in the foxhole (Sydney). It suggests that even the lowliest soldier can become a hero, at least in his own mind, and it lets people laugh at their own worst fears. Chaplin’s famed pathos is also on display – the forlorn look on his face when he thinks he hasn’t received any mail must have inspired hundreds of letters from mothers and sweethearts.

 

Today the laughs are just as strong. The problem I have is mostly with the caricatured depiction of the Germans, who for the most part were just simple soldiers sitting through the same Hell as the Allies, whatever the mistakes of their leaders, and many of them would soon be joining revolts against those leaders. The one moment that humanizes them is when they applaud seeing their officer spanked. Particularly the final sequence in which Chaplin captures the Kaiser comes across as overwrought propaganda. Of course, all of Chaplin’s “bad guys” are caricatures, and there’s no reason to expect gallantry toward the enemy in a war comedy, and the gags and pratfalls are still brilliant. The Wikipedia article claims that, “[t]his is believed to be the first comedy film about war.” I find that hard to believe, although I haven’t thought of a definite counter-example (Chaplin was in uniform in “Burlesque on Carmen,” but there’s no war going on). Certainly it set the stage for others to come, being a huge success and critical darling.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Sydney Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Loyal Underwood, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Tom Wilson, John Rand

Run Time: 36 Min

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

The Boat (1921)

The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.

The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.

There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.

At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.

The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there.  Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though,  the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.

We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.

After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.

Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).

Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Tarzan of the Apes (1918)

The first attempt to bring the Edgar Rice Burroughs jungle hero to the screen was this early silent feature from First National. It spawned three sequels, and is remembered today as being the most faithful to the book of all of the Tarzan movies since, but how does it hold up as entertainment?

The movie begins in England, where Lord and Lady Greystoke (True Boardman and Kathleen Kirkham) are planning a trip to Africa. An older gentleman advises Alice, Lady Greystoke, to stay home – Africa is no place for a lady and besides, she won’t even be able to take her maid. Lady Greystoke, a modern woman, is disdainful and off they go. While they are on the high seas, a band of mutineers takes the ship and begins murdering the passengers. One sailor, Binns (George B. French), is sympathetic and risks his own life to save them, but he is captured by Arabs and becomes their slave while the couple are marooned on an unknown coast, nowhere near civilization. Alice dies giving birth to their son, and Lord Greystoke is at a loss as to how to nourish him without her milk. Nearby, the ape Kala has lost her baby and mourns deeply. Her tribe of apes kills Lord Greystoke and brings her the human infant.

The boy, now known as Tarzan (Gordon Griffith), is raised by Kala as her own. It never occurs to him that he isn’t an ape until one day when he sees his reflection in a pool (apparently he never noticed his hairless arms before). This sets him to thinking about his identity. He discovers the shack where his parents skeletons still lie, He finds a picture book with alphabet images and teaches himself to speak. He also steals clothing from some natives because apparently wearing clothes is a natural urge.

Meanwhile, Binns finally escapes from the Arabs after ten years and discovers the ape-boy and instructs him, but is unable to rescue him when the Arabs again intervene. He returns to England and convinces some scientists to begin an expedition to find the young Lord Greystoke. Jane Porter (Enid Markey) is the daughter of the lead scientist, and for some reason she is allowed to bring along a maid (Madame Sul-Te-Wan). Kala is killed by a native hunter, who is in turn killed by the now-adult Tarzan (Elmo Lincoln). Tarzan is smitten when he spies Jane and her father poking around the old shack, but is too shy to reveal himself. The scientists conclude that the child was killed when the apes attacked, but Binns still knows better. Some villagers kidnap Jane and Tarzan rescues her, and the two of them fall in love.

True to the book or not, this movie has a lot of problems. The main one is that it is almost completely lacking a plot. That’s probably because instead of trying to tell the full story, they only used the first half of the book, saving the second half for the sequel (“The Romance of Tarzan”). The quality of Burroughs’s work as literature can be debated, but cutting a story in half almost never improves the narrative structure. I kept waiting for the story to get started, and then suddenly it was over. This is more like an “origin story” without any payoff. It needed a clearer conflict to resolve, one that would carry over from the beginning to the end, possibly even some way to have Tarzan avenge himself on the mutineers who are ultimately responsible for his and his parents’ fate.

Another problem, which probably only bothered some audiences at the time, is the explicit and implicit racism of so much of the movie. Madame Sul-Te-Wan was one of the great pioneers of African American film acting, but in this movie she portrays a caricature of a superstitious black maid. The natives who capture Jane are every bit as subhuman and rapacious as Gus from “The Birth of a Nation.” And, of course, Tarzan is superior to them in every way, although in theory this is because he has been raised by apes, and thus is more in touch with nature, not because he is white. I haven’t even mentioned the greedy slaving Arabs, who represent both another stereotype and an alibi for the history of European enslavement of Africans.

Despite these flaws, the movie was an undisputed success in its day, grossing over 1.5 million dollars at a time when movies rarely broke one million. This is probably not least due to the convincing use of Louisiana swamps as a location for African jungles, and the thrills of Tarzan’s adventures. I also rather suspect that the thrill of seeing a half-naked (sometimes fully naked) boy and man on the screen was an appeal to audiences in those days, when there was so little nudity in cinema. I didn’t think much of Lincoln’s or Griffith’s acting, but their physiques are fully on display, and the former was definitely a muscular specimen. There are also very brief glimpses of “native” women’s breasts, but these were censored in many locales. The fights are well-edited and exciting as well, even if they lack a coherent narrative to tie them together, and there are glimpses of exotic animals that were rarely seen at the time, surely an appeal for children who lacked access to zoos. This movie may not seem like much today, but it should also be seen for what it was at the time –a spectacle that brought in the audiences and gave them their money’s worth.

Director: Scott Sidney

Camera: Enrique Juan Vallejo

Starring: Elmo Lincoln, Enid Markey, Gordon Griffith, George B. French, Madame Sul-Te-Wan, True Boardman, Kathleen Kirkham, Eugene Pallette

Run Time: 1 hr

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