Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Frank Powell

The Voice of the Violin (1909)

This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.

The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow.  This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.

The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.

The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.

We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.

The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.

Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.

Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West

Run Time: 16 Min

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

 

A Fool There Was (1915)

A Fool There Was

It’s high time I watched and reviewed this movie, which came out at the very beginning of 1915 (January 20) and was a big hit for the up-and-coming film entrepreneur William Fox. who founded the company that became 20th Century Fox and all of its derivatives. More importantly, it is known as the movie that launched the career of Theda Bara, who was one of the most important female stars of the Silent Classical Era, and also the movie that gave us the concept of the “vamp.” In fact, the film is based upon ( play based on) a poem by Rudyard Kipling, called “The Vampire,” and for some time in contemporary media, women such as Bara played were called “vampires,” without intending any supernatural or life-after-death elements. A “vampire” was a woman who lived off of men, luring them and exploiting them until they were no longer useful, then moving on to another.

 A_Fool_There_Was

The above is an adequate summary of the plot of the poem and the film (and probably the play as well). A prominent businessman (Edward José, who was a Belgian actor, and also appeared in “The Stain” and “The Perils of Pauline”) is sent to England as a special envoy. Due to an accident, his wife’s sister is laid up and he has to leave his family behind as he sails across the ocean. On the boat, he meets the Vampire, who has just thrown over her drunken fool of a victim, a young lad who shoots himself as the boat begins to sail. Soon, they are together in Italy, where he is lavishing her with attention, and utterly ignoring his diplomatic assignment. He is seen by friends, and soon word gets out that he is neglecting his duties. He can no longer gain admittance to fancy clubs, and he is discharged from his job. His wife debates divorcing him, but chooses to stick it out. He goes back the US and takes up residence in the Vampire’s flat, but he’s drinking heavily now and noticeably aging. The wife makes an attempt to recover him, but the Vampire kisses him, and he’s trapped. His decline continues to its inevitable tragic end.

 A_Fool_There_Was1

Now, I was expecting a lot from this movie. Without getting overly personal, I’ve played the “fool” a few times in my life, and I fully expected to see in Bara the faces of women who’ve torn me up inside (or inspired me to tear myself up, more accurately). Instead, I saw a rather strong facial resemblance to Margaret Dumont. It doesn’t help that her character seems to be angry most of the time, or coldly dismissive. Nor that her wardrobe is generally heavy, unrevealing, and shapeless. I guess one could say that she comes across as dominating, and there are men who like that, I know, but I was surprised at how little sensuality she displays. The one time she seems aroused is when she first sees the “fool” on the boat, and there her heavings looked to me more like an asthmatic attack than an orgasm. Maybe it was that heavy dress that made it hard to breathe.

Seriously, I can't be the only one who sees this?

Seriously, I can’t be the only one who sees this?

Whatever my personal response, however, there is no denying that audiences at the time found Theda Bara exciting, and she shot to fame almost overnight when this film was released. The reviewer in the “New York Daily Mirror” expressed considerable enthusiasm for the movie, and was especially pleased that the producers had not tacked a happy ending on to it (people were already bothered by that 100 years ago). I’ve also seen a good deal of discussion in “Moving Picture World” of the harmful moral effect that the popularity of “Vampire” films had on the industry as a whole, although no one ever called out this picture as a bad example.

Bara’s career, as important as it was at the time, remains something of a mystery to us today, because almost all of her other major films are lost, while what we have a great deal of studio hype, much of which was blatantly phony. Fritzi Kramer, at Movies Silently, discussed this recently, in connection with a recipe Bara ostensibly devised. She did wind up typecast as the “Vampire,” of course, and in reality was apparently a fairly shy, demure woman. Later stills from her turn as “Cleopatra” show that as the Teens continued, she at least got out of those heavy shapeless dresses.

Theda as Cleopatra. A bit less demure.

Theda as Cleopatra. A bit less demure.

Director: Frank Powell

Camera: George Schneiderman

Starring: Theda Bara, Edward José, May Allison

Run Time: 1 hr, 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Corner in Wheat (1909)

Corner in Wheat

This is an early example of D.W. Griffith directing a film with a clear social message, something he was to return to frequently in his career. In this case, a wealthy tycoon manipulates the market for wheat in order to give himself a monopoly, unconscious of the harm it does to less fortunate people. Through cross-cutting, we see the story unfold across the two worlds simultaneously: the “Wheat King” attends fancy parties in one scene while the poor line up for bread at inflated prices. Another scene, the subtlety of which I missed on the first viewing, shows three people coming in to the shop to get the newly expensive bread: the first is a fop, who just shrugs as he hands over his extra nickel; next is a young woman, who seems reluctant, but pays anyway; finally a poor mother comes in with her daughter, she cannot afford the new price and is turned away hungry. At the end, the Wheat King suffers the ironic fate of being buried alive in wheat at a granary. Henry B. Walthall (the minstrel from “The Sealed Room” and later in “Birth of a Nation”) appears as the Wheat King’s assistant, and there are small parts for Mack Sennett (founder of Keystone Studios) and Blanche Sweet (later to star in “The Avenging Conscience” and “Judith of Bethulia”) as well.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Frank Powell, Henry B. Walthall, Mack Sennett, Blanche Sweet

Run Time: 14 Min, 15 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.