Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Fort Lee

The Ocean Waif (1916)

This late movie from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax studio seems to be an effort by her to imitate the success of Mary Pickford, with a less-expensive actress. The story, as well as the performer, do manage to evoke some of the charm of Pickford’s better work.

Not Little Mary

Doris Kenyon is Millie, a young orphan who washed up on the beach one day and is being raised by “Hy” Jessop (William Morris), a gruff fisherman with all the social graces and basic decency of Huck Finn’s Pappy. She is also loved from afar by the seemingly simple-minded “Sem” (Fraunie Fraunholz), who hates to see her abused by her foster father, and tries to defend her. She runs away to a nearby abandoned crumbling mansion, which, though filled with rats, is not much worse than her regular squalid digs. A wealthy author by the name of Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) decides to lease said mansion, seeing it as the ideal romantic atmosphere to work out yet another best-selling novel, and he brings along his valet, Edgar Norton. Clearly, the three are on a collision course with wackiness!

This being a fairly brief silent film, said wackiness gets underway pretty quickly, with Millie hiding out in the mansion and fooling the butler into believing there is a “lady ghost.” Norton gives quite a number of good scare takes before Roberts figures out that there’s a real girl hiding out. Once she’s been discovered, Roberts takes her under his wing, with the usual result of an impoverished young girl’s awakening attraction to an older successful man (see, for example, “Stella Maris”). In this case, he more or less reciprocates, but with the added complication of a fiancé who comes to visit at an inopportune moment, causing Millie to run back to her foster father, who now notices her blooming womanhood for the first time. Luckily, Sem intervenes once again to rescue her, conveniently getting himself killed n the process to avoid any further romantic triangles. Ronald’s fiancé decides she’s more interested in marrying “the Count” who has been wooing her single (presumably widowed) mother, thus allowing the two stars to live happily ever after.

Your…fish…has arrived, sir.

This is pretty light fare, and as I’ve suggested it’s rather derivative, so doesn’t hold up against the best work Guy-Blaché was putting out from Gaumont in the 1900s. It is undeniably more sophisticated in terms of film techniques and storytelling, but only in the sense of having kept up with the industry as of 1916, not in terms of any innovations. Still, there are some nice touches. I actually think the best performance is the comic turn by Norton as the butler. I could actually hear his nasally-British voice as he showed his fastidious snobbishness at the surroundings and locals of the seaside. Anyone who watched (or read) “Jeeves and Wooster” will instantly recognize his archetype here. Norton would continue playing butlers of this type well into the sound period, so he’ll be recognized by many classic film fans. One nice bit has the waif’s first night at the mansion intercut with the author’s night in a luxurious hotel nearby, emphasizing the differences in their backgrounds and the lives they’ve known. I was actually rooting for Sem, myself, who seemed to have more genuine feelings for Millie, and who is the only one who really puts himself on the line for her. I suppose that the difference in their intelligence would have prevented a healthy relationship, but I’m not sure that falling for the first rich guy you meet is much better.

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Camera: John G. Haas

Starring: Doris Kenyon, Carlyle Blackwell, William Morris, Fraunie Fraunholz, Edgar Norton

Run Time: 40 Min (with some missing footage, I believe)

You can watch it for free: here.

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).

Marked Cards (1913)

This was the latest of the films from the Champion Studio screened at Cinecon this year, and it seems to show the studio in a state of decline, although the program notes say there may be some missing footage, contributing to the incoherence of the storyline. It does contain a very interesting plot device that, integrated better into the story, could have made for a good film.

Jack is a young man who works at a bank and hopes to marry Agnes, but he needs to get enough money together for them to get married. He gets talked into a crooked card game and winds up losing his money, eventually stealing from the bank to pay off his debt. Now, the gambler threatens to turn him in. Agnes cannot wait for him, and gets married, and cut off from her former life. (My notes are a bit confused here. Possibly he is sent to jail and she marries during his absence, or possibly she is pressured into marrying the gambler to keep him out of jail.) Jack seeks his revenge by putting the gambler in a room with a floor consisting of large cards. He tells the gambler that certain cards are electrified, the only way to get out is to step on the right cards. The gambler is too terrified to move at first, but eventually tries to make his way across the floor. He is not lucky, and about three cards in he falls over, dead.

I thought that the method of revenge was rather clever and cinematic, but as I say the plot was hard to follow. All five of the Champion films I’ve reviewed recently are scheduled to be released from Milestone Films on October 17, so it’s possible I’ll be able to correct the summary of this film with a second viewing. In general, the movie used a limited number of set-ups and production values were low for 1913. It relied on Intertitles heavily to keep the audience up on the story, without them much of the action would be meaningless.

Director: Unknown, possibly Mark M. Dintenfass

Camera: Unknown

Starring: possibly Irving Cummings and Gladden James

Run Time: 10 Min

This film is not available for free on the Internet, but can be pre-ordered here as part of the “Champion: Story of America’s First Film Town” DVD set.

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.

A Daughter of Dixie (1911)

This Civil War melodrama is a short from the Champion Studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey that was screened at this year’s Cinecon on Monday, September 3. As always with those, I have only seen the film once, and have only my notes and memory to work from in reviewing it.

A young girl is seen in her home. Her brother enters in a Confederate uniform and she makes the usual tearful protestations. The family is supportive, but sad at the development. We then cut to a battle scene, shot so that we see only the Confederate side at first. Smoke and some explosions show us that they are under fire, and they fire rifles at enemies off-screen. Then we see “her lover,” who is among the Union forces, shown in similar fashion, and they fire at the opposite side of the screen, giving us a sense that the two sides are in conflict. Finally, they meet, and a full-fledged (but quite small) pitched battle takes place in a static shot. The lover is wounded and separated from his companions, and forced to flee the Rebels. He runs to the girl and begs for shelter. She hides him in a closet and tries to cover when her brother and some other men come searching for him. The brother realizes where the man must be hiding, but when he goes to find him, the girl grabs his rifle and points it at his chest, keeping the Confederates at bay for an hour while the lover escapes. Then the war ends and the family is reunited. When the Northern lover returns, the former Confederate welcomes him to his home.

An interesting dilemma is somewhat weakened by the easy resolution at the end. It seems to me that the sister would have been arrested and possibly lynched for collaborating with the enemy, and even assuming no legal or extra-legal difficulties, the brother has every reason to resent her threatening his life and to hold a grudge after the war. Alternately, it seems as though he and his men should question whether she really would shoot her own flesh and blood, and they likely would have called her bluff on the spot, possibly with tragic results that would not be so easily forgiven. But, I may be asking a bit much of a ten-minute melodrama. The director has rather ambitiously tried to tell a sweeping story of the war in a very simple format, and in places this is quite clever. At first I thought it was a bit cheap, showing the battle from one side only, but once I saw the other side and then the final clash and melee, I realized what they were doing, and saw it as a good way to mirror the two sides and show how an individual soldier would experience the fighting. Once again, this shows that others besides D.W. Griffith were working with the tropes of the Civil War from an early period of cinema.

Director: Unknown, possibly Ulysses S. Davis

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

This movie has not been made available on home video or the Internet at this time.

Robin Hood (1912)

I’m writing again from Cinecon, and this is one of the movies that was presented here. As with last year, this means that I’ve only had a single viewing to work from (I usually watch films at least twice before writing a review) and have no access to the film to fact-check myself, I have to work from memory.

Robin HoodThis version of Robin Hood was made by the Éclair studios from their newly-established studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, a major film center during the 1910’s. It foregrounds the romance between Robin and Marian, making other aspects of the story more incidental. Robin is played by Robert Frazer, who is in a love-triangle with Marian (Barbara Tennant) and Guy de Gisbourne (Lamar Johnstone), which is complicated by the fact that Marian’s father wants her to wed Guy, and conspires with the bad guys to bring this about. Robin is captured early in the film, but helped to escape by his Merry Men. The sheriff then issues a warrant for his arrest, but Robin’s men use tree branches as camouflage and ambush the sheriff’s party, tying them to trees. They perform various acts to alleviate the oppression of the people, including a raid on a nobleman’s house in which their escape is aided by Marian and her female servants flirting with the sentries. There is a great swordplay scene in which the sheriff’s men attack Robin and some of his companions in a tavern. They make their escape up the chimney. Friar Tuck saves the disguised King from molestation by the Sheriff and brings him back to Robin’s camp, where he beats Robin in duel, betraying his identity. Robin and his men pledge themselves to the King, and the King witnesses his marriage to Marian (after they rescue her once again) in a ceremony in the forest. Marian’s father protests, but must submit to the King’s will.

It was pretty clear that this was a major production for Éclair in 1912, in terms of production value and budget it is well ahead of most work of the time. For one thing, it is three reels long, which should make it about 45 minutes, although only about a half hour exists in the print I saw. Even so, that’s longer than most 1912 movies already. The costumes and multiple camera set-ups speak to the prestige of the movie as well. The fight scene in the tavern involved at least three camera angles, which is pretty rare for the period. We also get several close-ups, some scenes shot at 45-degree angles, color tinting on the print, and special effects like the fades from close-ups of the villains to animals they resemble in character. The camera is often at closer than full-length, giving us a chance to see the faces of the main characters clearly. The swordfights, while hardly Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone, and handled well and there is a good deal of action in the picture. I was less impressed by the acting. The Éclair studio was very new, and had to hire actors from the stage or with little acting experience at this time, and it shows. There are a lot of overly broad gestures and jerky movements, especially among the supporting players. Others have noticed the oddly oversized hats that the male characters wear, though this didn’t bother me as much.

Director: Étienne Arnaud, possibly with Herbert Blaché

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Robert Frazer, Barbara Tennant, Lamar Johnstone, Alec B. Francis, Arthur Hollingsworth

Run Time: 31 Min

This movie is not available on the Internet at this time.

Cinecon 51

CineconFolks who were paying attention probably noticed that last weekend, I was in Los Angeles, attending the 51st Cinecon Film Festival. They were kind enough to show three Century Films, which I reviewed on the spot, but I also wanted to talk about the festival more generally. It was held at the historic Grauman’s Egyptian Theater in Hollywood, and there were a block of rooms reserved at cut rate in the Loews Hollywood Hotel, which also housed the dealer rooms.

Blind-husbands-1919-movieposterFor my first visit to Hollywood this was a good location and a good time. I was able to see a number of touristy-historical locations by walking, and visited others by using the subway. The festival included a walking tour (hosted by John Bengtson of Silent Locations), a slide show stills of deleted scenes from Harold Lloyd movies, and author signings by film historians and writers. The movies were roughly split between silent and sound (I enjoyed the silents more, for the most part). Standouts included von Stroheim’s “Blind Husbands” (1919), Mary Pickford in “M’Liss,” (1918), Douglas Fairbanks in “Wild and Woolly” (1917), and the Harold Lloyd feature “The Kid Brother” (1927). Interesting sound pictures included “The Studio Murder Mystery” (1929) and Laurel and Hardy in “Jitterbugs” (1943). There was also a documentary about the Champion Studio of Fort Lee, New Jersey that would bring tears to any classic film fan’s eyes.

Jitterbugs_1943I don’t want to write an extensive critique, I just want to emphasize that I had a good time and this is a worthwhile festival for readers of my blog to attend. So, I’m going to emphasize the positive with…

Why Every Classic Film Fan Should Consider Going to Cinecon

Everyone on the Internet these days is crazy about lists, right? Well, I’m going to list the best things about the Cinecon Film Festival. This gives you almost a whole year to make up your mind about attending Cinecon 52!

  1. Movies you can’t see otherwise: I think one reason a lot of the classic film community winds up missing it is that they look at the roster of films, and they’ve only heard of one or two titles, but that’s exactly the point. Rather than showing movies you’ve already seen a hundred times, Cinecon seeks out the most difficult titles, the ones you didn’t know you needed to see. They announce them later than some of us would like to make our travel plans, too, but take the chance and register before you know for sure – you’re bound to be pleased.
  2. The opportunity to learn: Instead of having your already massive trivia knowledge confirmed, why not take a chance to find something new out? In addition to movies you wouldn’t have watched otherwise, there are special educational programs, such as John Bengtson’s tour of silent Hollywood and the fascinating set of stills from deleted scenes in Harold Lloyd movies that preceded “The Kid Brother.” The chance to hear erudite film scholars and preservationists introduce several of the films was also thrilling.
  3. These are the good guys: Cinecon is a nonprofit made up of classic film enthusiasts, preservationists, scholars, and others, not a bloated media mega-corporation engaging in dubious copyright tactics to ensure a stranglehold on classic filmdom. Support the good guys.
  4. Networking: Everyone at this festival is interested in knowing what it is you do. A lot of them are doing cool stuff, also. Talk to your neighbors, find out what brought them to Cinecon. Chances are you’ll learn something, and you might even gain a fan in the process.
  5. C’mon, silent/early sound movies in Hollywood! What better way to connect with the history you write and read about, and watch unfold on the screen, than to be right there where it happened, and to re-live it the way audiences of the time experienced it. It’s almost like having a time machine on hand.

Before Hollywood There Was Fort Lee, N.J. (1912-1917, 1964, 2003)

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/53157428

This DVD collection is named for the 1964 documentary that heads it off, a nice early attempt at displaying the legacy of East Coast silent film production for a previous generation. The documentary is very American-centric, and gets several facts wrong, including calling “The Great Train Robbery” the “first narrative film” (!!!!). It also presents a few early movies with voice-over narration to explain the action, mostly as clips, but I believe the entirety of “The Lonely Villa” is embedded in the documentary. I wouldn’t choose to see it with the narrator, but it may work for some, and it’s reminiscent of the Japanese tradition of using a benshi to explain the movie to an audience. The narrator is eager to point out the proximity of shots and studios to the current location of the George Washington Bridge. In 1964, of course, the 19-teens were still living memory for some, and some stars they featured, like Gloria Swanson, were still living and acting. An essay included with the DVD covers much of the same ground, without the errors.

Apart from this, there are three films presented as features in the DVD. They are “The New York Hat” and “The Wishing Ring,” which I’ve reviewed separately, and “A Girl’s Folly,” which is from 1917 so hasn’t become a Century Film Yet. Evidently, it and the documentary are “abridged,” and incomplete, so they shouldn’t be the main reason for getting this. The two movies I have reviewed are presented in very high-quality remastered prints with good music scores added that clearly are timed to the movies. The main reason for this collection, as far as I’m concerned is “The Wishing Ring,” which should have been played up more by the distributors, but the other materials on here are of some interest as well.