Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Florence Lawrence

The Curtain Pole (1909)

This early collaboration between D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett looks like a primitive version of the latter’s later riotous slapstick comedies. It uses themes (like the mass chase) that have shown up in earlier film comedies from both France and the USA.

The movie begins in a middle-class home, where a man (Henry Solter) is helping several women (one is Florence Lawrence, AKA “The Biograph Girl”) to install a new pole for the curtains. However, he is either not tall enough or otherwise unable to manage it. In walks Sennett, in a ridiculous mustache and tight-fitting clothes that emphasize his lanky frame. He makes an attempt, but slips and falls, bending the pole and then breaking it when he tries to straighten it out. Deeply apologetic, he goes out to procure another for them. Along the way, he encounters an acquaintance, who invites him into a bar for a drink. Thus fortified, he makes his way to a store and buys a very long curtain rod. Almost immediately, he starts knocking people over and whacking them with the pole. When he tries hiding out in the bar, he causes further chaos there, and soon a gang of different types of people, from little old ladies to street ruffians, is chasing him. He stops and gets a taxi, but the added speed only makes the pole more dangerous, and soon he is literally causing riots in the street with his passage. He does manage to elude the mob, in part because his horse starts running backward (!), and eventually makes it back to the home of his friends, who apparently were able to get another curtain rod during his long absence, and have started a dinner party. Driven mad by his experience and failure to help out, Sennett starts eating the curtain rod.

This sort of comes across as a “proof of concept” experiment, with Griffith trying to show what he can accomplish. One part I don’t entirely understand is where a fellow with a walking stick causes the horse to start running backward. The effect is achieve by reversing the film, and Griffith has the mob run up right afterward and fall down, but in fact what the actors did was get up and “run” backwards off the screen in order to get the effect, and it looks very unnatural. Sennett chews the scenery and hams constantly, but he’s having so much fun with it that it’s hard to mind. The riot scenes are remarkable, with baby carriages and innocent couples being knocked over, pushed, and trampled. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few actors were injured. The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and takes advantage of the location to show quite a number of its streets.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer

Starring: Mack Sennett, Henry Solter, Florence Lawrence

Run Time: 10 Min

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

Flo’s Discipline (1912)

This is a movie I got to see at Cinecon in a very nice print, but which does exist on the Internet in incomplete form (see below). It was part of the collection of shorts from the Champion Studio starring Florence Lawrence at the height of her popularity.

This movie concerns “Flo’s” (Lawrence) employment at a boys’ school called Dow’s, and her efforts to get the boys to behave. At the beginning of the film, we see them at a meal, and the male headmaster (Owen Moore) pays them no mind as they scream, yell, throw food, and generally raise Hell. Flo is in the next room and when an elderly man complains to her she takes charge, firing the popular teacher and attempting to establish order. Now it becomes a war between her and the kids. When she cancels recess and sends the boys inside, locking the door after them, they climb out a window and run past her, waving their hats. Next, when Owen tries teaching class outside, she sprays them with a garden hose to get them off the lawn. They foolishly run and hide inside the ice house (not a smart move when you’re wet!) and she again locks them in. The teacher tries to rescue them by climbing a tall ladder to a window in the building (which would seem to be a bad design idea in an ice house, but whatever), but Flo removes the ladder and leaves him stranded on a ledge for an hour. Finally, she relents and lets him down and the boys out. She agrees to re-hire the teacher and the boys, sufficiently chastened, agree to follow the rules. There is a hint that she and Owen will become sweethearts.

This is a pretty silly comedy, with some elements of gender relations thrown in. It struck me again that Florence’s character was pretty determined and self-sufficient, even if the implication was that the male teacher was better able to get through to the boys (they are very well-behaved when he leads the class on the lawn). If we took the movie seriously, her act of locking a bunch of dripping wet kids into an ice house would have to be seen as abusive and possibly life-threatening (although she does give them hot coffee at one point). But, the point here really is that she doesn’t give up or get flustered just because the kids don’t respect her, and she does ultimately win their respect in this way. Although included in the Champion DVD from Milestone, there is evidence that it was actually shot at Victor (see comments). Compared to some of the other Champions shown at Cinecon, this was something of a light and simple movie, but it was an effective comedy and got some laughs from this modern audience.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch a fragment of this film for free: here. Please let me know in the comments if it becomes available in full.

Not Like Other Girls (1912)

This short from Champion was screened at Cinecon last Sunday, and I’m reviewing it based on that viewing. I admit that my memory of this one is a bit hazy – there were four other Champion shorts at the same time and this one seems to have been the least distinctive.

Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore in another movie from 1912.

We see a young couple (Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore) out for a drive. He pulls over to pick her some flowers, but she moves over and drives the car away, ditching him. A few feet away, the car stalls and he runs over to repair it, then they go merrily on their way. When Owen drops her off, she presents the bouquet to him, again reversing the gender order. This continues in a boating trip, where Florence tips the boat over so that he falls into the water, then eagerly seizes the oars and begins rowing for herself. Somewhere in here is a bit where his father tells him that he has lost money that was put in trust to him by Florence’s family, and the only way to stay out of jail will be for the two of them to wed. Owen is pretty well ready to give up after the boating incident, and the father dies. Now Owen is the one who will go to jail if the money is not returned. Florence learns of the crime and goes to see Owen, apparently angry. It turns out she’s really mad because she has fallen in love with him, and the two are married after all.

Florence Lawrence had been in movies for several years by 1912, but her growing stardom was confirmed when Champion, now a subsidiary of Universal, created a new brand called “Victor” to showcase her specifically. If the liner notes for Cinecon are correct, this was the first of those movies. Although I had some difficulty following the plot, it was very interesting that her tomboyishness seemed to be shown as both a source for comedy and also an attractive quality. Sort of like “playing hard to get,” the fact that she’s apparently not interested in men and wants to take control of the car and the boat (and presumably her destiny) apparently made her seem “cute” to male audiences at the time. Perhaps women found the idea of a heroine not having to be subservient at all times appealing also.

Director: Harry L. Solter

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore

Run Time: 9 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing at this time.

1915 and the Movie Star System

Cleopatra

Occasionally, in my reviews of early cinema, I’ve made comments like “this was before the star system was in place.” But what do we mean when we talk about a “star system?” When did it start and why? And how did it become so dominant that movie stars made gigantic salaries, and for a time, at least in the 1930s and 40s, seemed to transcend royalty and become truly gods and goddesses? By studying film from the Age of Attractions through the dawn of the Silent Classical Era, we have an opportunity to observe the birth of the movie star, and consider its trajectory.

In the earliest days of cinema, established celebrities like Annie Oakley and Eugen Sandow both exploited and were exploited by film in order to preserve the record of their accomplishments and lend moving pictures an aura of “respectability,” through its documentation of educational and popular subjects. Dancing stars like Annabelle Moore made good subjects, because their art involved movement, and could be shown without synchronized sound, or any sound. Audiences in remote locations could see people made famous in New York or Boston, and get a chance to get “close” to figures they had only read about before. William McKinley seems to have been the first Presidential hopeful to exploit the movies before election, another example of the growing power of the medium.

Of course, there was an already extant star system in live theater. Theater stars weren’t (and aren’t) the same thing as movie stars, but they were trained actors, and when the demand for narrative film boomed during the Nickelodeon Era, they were of course drawn on as experienced actors with potential box office draw. However, there was a perception (true or not) that this could “hurt” a serious theater actor’s reputation – the movies were still associated with low-class entertainment and not accepted as an art form – so there was resistance within the industry. By the same token, the more “progressive” film studios wanted theater stars to help legitimate the moving pictures and draw a higher class of audience, so they were willing to pay enough to lure at least a few for what was, after all, relatively easy work compared to touring around giving the same performances night after night.

Kid's_auto_races

Meanwhile, about halfway through the Nickelodeon Era (say, 1909-1911), there was an odd innovation in American filmmaking: cameramen started moving the camera a little closer to the action. Remember that the zoom lens, although invented in 1902, was not yet in wide use in movie making. In fact, I don’t think I’ve seen a zoom since I started this project, although I’d be happy to be corrected if somebody’s memory is sharper than mine. Anyway, the point is that generally if you wanted to see more detail on something, you had to physically move the camera closer to it. This had the effect, which we hardly notice today, of cutting up the actors so you can’t see their whole bodies – feet are cut off or legs up to the knees or further. But, it also meant that you could see the faces of actors much more clearly.

This change, so subtle that it’s hard for modern audiences even to notice it, had considerable impact at the time. The critics hated it. The established standard was to frame the picture to show a “stage” as in a theater on which the actors would enter, perform, and exit. Closing in meant that you weren’t seeing the “whole stage,” and several complained about not seeing the stage floor. Apart from that, you were dissecting people’s bodies when you didn’t show them head to toe. This was considered “unnatural” by sophisticated movie-goers. Luckily for us, apparently the unsophisticated masses paying their nickels to see the flickers didn’t mind so much.

The other side of this, again, was seeing faces more clearly, being able to distinguish features and expressions. This meant that the tradition of pantomime began to be replaced with more subtle use of the actor’s faces to show emotion. Actors could stop flailing their arms and using exaggerated body language, and perform in a more natural manner. More than that, it meant that audiences began to recognize their favorite actors, even without the benefit of credits to give them names, and started to ask exhibitors when they would get another film showing “The Biograph Girl,” for example.

Ben Turpin.

Ben Turpin.

One of the first to benefit from this was a comedian named Ben Turpin. He had crossed eyes as a result of an accident in childhood, and was very good at making silly faces. Once movies started being made where you could see how funny he looked, he rapidly became a sought-after property and made a much better living than most movie actors at the time. He went so far as to take out an insurance policy against his eyes ever becoming uncrossed.

It’s important to note here that the close up had been used before this, as in the case of “The Great Train Robbery” (1903) and that Méliès had replicated a zoom by moving the camera closer to his disembodied head as early as “The Man with the Rubber Head” (1901) and probably before that. Seeing actors’ faces wasn’t “invented” in 1909 or any such nonsense, but it gradually became more of a standard, as did inter-cutting close ups to the point where they become major narrative elements, as in the case of “The Golden Chance,” by the end of 1915. As audiences acclimated to a more intimate standard of photography, they increasingly became fascinated by the faces of the people on the screen.

You can track this change in the pages of “Moving Picture World,” one of the first important industry periodicals, which published from 1907 to 1927. In the early issues, there are few illustrations, and very few actors’ names. Even the ads, meant to promote pictures to exhibitors would emphasize the humor, educational value, or novelty of the movie, and rarely include names or pictures of people in it. Over time, this shifts, with more ads showing stills, and increasing numbers of faces, in particular, shown. By 1915, you will start seeing familiar names and faces, with the fact that Charlie Chaplin stars in a film being given precedence over the reputation of the studio or the quality of its innovations. Meanwhile, other publications had begun to spring up that were intended for movie fans, and these heavily emphasized beautiful head shots of famous stars. The star system, while not as powerful as it would become in later decades, was firmly established at this time.