Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: fragment

By Right of Birth (1921)

Only a fragment of this feature survives today, and it isn’t much to judge the whole by. It was produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first production company owned and operated by African Americans, which makes it an important piece of history nonetheless.

The footage consists of a few disconnected scenes, most of which are themselves incomplete. The first shows a young woman sitting on the steps, reading a letter from a boyfriend who is away at war – she suspects him of “flirting with some chili queen” according to the intertitles. Another snippet shows a man offering to do “detective work” for another man in an office (the second man is either white or quite pale-skinned, it’s hard to tell). We then see the first man on a country road with a false mustache and a telegram-delivery man’s hat on his head. He complains that his “dogs are sure hot,” and we see smoke rising from his feet in an insert shot. The next scene is somewhat more complete, and involves a young woman being thrown from a horse, which is then recovered by a nearby fisherman, who we learn is named Jones. They don’t speak much, but we get a sense of a spark of romance between the two, and of the class distance that separates them. Then we see a white man on the phone with a white woman (possibly his wife?). The intertitle tells us they are conspiring to get a lease from “a girl,” tricking her into giving her signature. Another scene shows us a note which proves that they have gotten the wrong girl’s signature later on. A mother and two daughters are shown reading an eviction note. The mother appears to be signing over her life insurance when the young girl from the riding scene comes into the office, and they obviously recognize one another, though they are surprised to meet. She introduces her as “Mother” Agnes to the attorney, her father, who thanks her for helping his daughter. A white man walks into the room, and that’s all the footage we have.

Watching this, it’s hard not to try to guess what the rest of the story looked like. Because it’s the longest piece, I kind of want the story between Jones and the riding girl to be at the center of the story, but it seems to involve some kind of real estate scam, possibly against the horseback rider, and Jones doesn’t seem to come back into it again. I’m also unclear about the “detective” – was he also out looking for the girl no one can find? Who for? Was he on the side of the scammers, or some kind of good guy? The title makes me suspect that this is one of those stories, common in the early twentieth century, in which a poor girl discovers that she is actually an heiress, who has been raised in secrecy and without any knowledge of her status and now must claim her title in order to get what she deserves. But that is no more than a guess.

With so little to judge from, it’s hard to make any clear statements about the value of the Lincoln Motion Pictue Company and its artists. Certainly everything here is in focus and logically edited. It’s framed reasonably well, not relying on stagey standards and proscenium sets, and the camera operator is comfortable using close-ups. It seems like every shot has an intertitle, which seems like a lot of titles for the time, but that may just be because the titles happen to be what survived. Having the titles does give us a bit more information about what’s going on than we would get without them. The detective serves as comedy relief, but avoids the more flagrant stereotypes of Black humor we saw in the works of the Ebony Film Company, at least in these scenes. In this movie, it seems as if African Americans move in all levels of society – from a poor old mother, to an attorney and his daughter, to whatever dubious status the detective may have (is he really a delivery boy or is that just a disguise?), to a man who fishes in a stream (is this his profession or just recreation for him?). They do not live in an all-Black world, and the whites we see seem to plot and scheme against them. It would be great if someday the rest of this film is recovered.

Director: Harry Gant

Camera: Harry Gant

Starring: Clarence Brooks, Anita Thompson, Lew Meehan

Run Time: About 4 Min (surviving)

You can watch it (what there is): here.

Misfortunes of an Explorer (1900)

This tantalizing fragment of a short film from Georges Méliès suggests the opening to a trick film. It mostly gives us today a brief opportunity to admire the inventive sets and costumes of his films.

We see a set decorated with various props suggesting an Egyptian archaeological find. There is a statue, walls made of heavy stone blocks, some censers, and a large sarcophagus. Méliès walks out onto the set dressed in a pith helmet and other typical Western explorer’s garb. He examines the sarcophagus and opens the lid, stepping inside before turning to look at the audience. Then the surviving film runs out.

One imagines from the set up and title that the rest of the film will involve annoying or dangerous special effects, along the lines of “The Bewitched Inn,” “The Haunted Castle,” or possibly “The Cook’s Revenge.” But, we don’t know, because the opening of the film is all we can see. Méliès looks great in his outfit, and the set and props are done to his usual standards, so one imagines that this would be another enjoyable romp. Even the Star Films Catalog is uninformative. Perhaps someday a complete print will be rediscovered so we can find out.

Director Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 18 secs (fragment)

You can watch it for free: here.

Obsession, The (1912)

Obsession

This cautionary short by Louis Feuillade allows Renée Carl to show nearly every emotion during its 23-minute duration. She plays a woman who is duped by a phony fortune teller into believing that her husband (René Navarre, from “Fantômas” and “The Trust”) is doomed to die, a suspicion confirmed for the audience when he books a passage aboard the Titanic! But, he survives and returns, causing her to fear that her son must be the one fated to die. The avuncular godfather tricks the palmist into returning and giving a glowing prediction, giving away the game and saving Renée from her obsession. Unfortunately, the final scenes are missing, so had to be summarized in intertitles, but what there is here is interesting. I was particularly struck by the a-typical (for the time) lighting, as demonstrated in the still above. The practical lamp on the right is used again in a scene where the mother worries over the child, and she is able to pick it up and shine it on the bed. This is remarkable, because my understanding is that film of that time was not fast enough to “see” light from a practical source, unless you put a super-powerful bulb in it. So, either there was a clever lighting trick done to make it seem like the light moved with the lamp (without it casting a noticeable shadow), or Renée was in danger of seriously burning herself when she picked it up. Or else I’m badly misinformed on this point. At any rate, it’s a rare shot for the period, and looks pretty good, however it was done.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Starring: Renée Carl, René Navarre

Run Time: 23 Min, 43 secs

You can watch it for free: here.