Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: George Nichols

The Lonedale Operator (1911)

This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.

No, I probably won't need it!

No, I probably won’t need it!

Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.

Competant and capable.

Competant and capable.

Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.

Lonedale Operator3So, while it’s maybe not so innovative as is suggested, it is a good example of what could be done with established technique, and I’m even willing to grant that in terms of editing it was better than what most audiences were seeing up to then. Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Dell Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, Wilfred Lucas, W. Chrystie Miller, Charles West.

Run Time: 17 Min

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

Cinderella (1911)

I’ve been meaning for some time to get around to looking at the movies thanhouser.org has made available from the original films of the Thanhouser Film Company, especially those starring Florence La Badie, one of America’s first major movie stars, but, with one thing and another, it hasn’t happened until now. Here, I’ll take a look at one of the most beloved of her films – a version of the famous fairy tale of a girl magically saved from a life of hardship by a simple wish for one of romance and fantasy.

Not just no, HELL NO!

Not just no, HELL NO!

The movie manages to tell the story pretty effectively in a short time and with only three Intertitles. In the first sequence, Florence, as Cinderella, is made to help her sisters get ready for the Prince’s ball, only to be told summarily that she cannot go. Then, alone in the kitchen, she makes her wish and a Fairy Godmother appears, who turns various ordinary items into her coach and liveried servants, and then transforms her into a beautiful princess before sending her to the ball. The next sequence shows the ball, including her glamorous arrival, her meeting and dancing with the Prince, and her losing track of time until the last moment before midnight, when she rushes down the stairs, losing a slipper along the way. Finally, we see the search and trying-on of the shoe by Cinderella’s sisters, and their failure to make the grade, followed by Cinderella putting on the slipper, and even producing its mate from her pocket to verify that it really was her. The Fairy Godmother reappears and turns her back into a princess, whereupon she is taken to the castle and marries the Prince. The End.

Cinderella1 1911The version available on Vimeo can be viewed both with and without historical commentary, which is a nice touch, and it has a simple but appropriate organ score as well. I found the character of the father interesting; while he’s usually left out of this story, here he is a kind-hearted weakling, dominated by Cinderella’s step-mother and step-sisters. It’s also interesting that, even after all of the other magic has turned back to normal, both of the glass slippers remain in their “magical” state, although that’s basically necessary for the narrative. LaBadie is very good as the innocent, hard working Cinderella, but the evil step-sisters also deserve praise for communicating their meanness so effectively without words or sound. Unlike the 1914 Mary Pickford version, there are no added scenes or sub-plots, just the basic fairy tale that continues to be told in much the same way today. There are the expected camera-stop effects, with objects transformed before our eyes, and Cinderella’s dress appearing by magic, and the story is told by editing various scenes in chronological order, but there is minimal cross-cutting and no camera movement.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Florence La Badie, Harry Benham, Anna Rosemond, Frank H. Crane, Alphonse Ethier, Isabelle Daintry

Run Time: 14 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

What Shall We Do With Our Old? (1911)

In my opinion, D.W. Griffith was most effective in showing intimate vignettes in short format. Even when he wanted to deal with big issues, as is the case here, and in “A Corner in Wheat,” it is the human side of the story that compels. This movie was meant as a progressivist statement about the treatment of old people without families, and it works because it remains very much grounded in a personal story.

What_Shall_We_Do_with_Our_OldThe story begins with a doctor making a house call at the home of an old carpenter. His wife is suffering illness, and the doctor prescribes fresh air, which is lacking in their urban tenement. The old man leaves for work, determined to earn enough to get his wife to the country as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the new foreman is looking for people to lay off, and he decides to cull the oldest workers first, replacing them in their jobs with brawny younger men. The carpenter protests, but is sent out into the street, where he seeks work to no avail, finding that employers value youth over his years of experience. His wife takes a turn for the worse as the money (and food) runs out, so he tries stealing food from what looks to be the kitchen of a restaurant at night. He is caught and held in jail, and tells his sad story in night court, to the disdain of the lawyers and bailiffs who have heard it all before. But the judge, who must be an ancestor of Harry Anderson, sends a cop over to the old man’s house to check on the wife. The cop reports that she doesn’t look good, and the judge pays for the stolen groceries, releases the would-be thief, and arranges for a doctor to attend her in the middle of the night! Sadly, all of this charity is wasted, for when they arrive they find the old woman dead, and the old man hurls the stolen food on the ground in rage and despair.

What Shall We Do with Our OldThis movie is very simple and kept within a low budget by shooting almost entirely on small sets with artificial lighting. The night scenes are not lit differently to the day, we only know the time from the intertitles. Unlike many films of this period, there are rather a lot of intertitles, suggesting the limitations Griffith was discovering in telling stories with visuals only. The “AB” of American Biograph is prominently placed in the old couple’s apartment, but not in any of the other interior shots. Fairly little editing technique is shown, but during the critical scenes of the man’s stealing and arrest, there are cross-cut edits back to the old woman in her bed, to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. The concept of the protagonist desperately needing to get food to a sick family member, only to be arrested and detained would be re-used more effectively in “The Italian” four years later. This is nevertheless an emotionally effective film, and a good example of how much could be done with so little at the time. Notably, Griffith makes no effort to answer the film’s question, but simply poses the callous standards of modern urban society as problem to be considered, seeming to favor the kind of smaller community where people would be expected to look out for each other as an alternative.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: W. Christie Miller, Claire McDowell, George Nichols, Francis J. Grandon

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Little Hero (1913)

Little HeroCould this Keystone short have been the inspiration for Sylvester and Tweety Bird cartoons? Mabel Normand is a young woman with lots of pets: a cat, a dog, and a bird in the cage. She’s very affectionate with her dog, and also pays a lot of attention to the bird, while the cat sits quietly on the couch, apparently happy to sleep undisturbed. Then she goes out, and the cat soon starts stalking the caged creature. The dog, seeing what’s coming, runs off to get some “friends” – a trio of much larger dogs – to chase the cat away from the bird’s cage. Mabel comes home to find the cage knocked over, the dog on the table, and the cat nowhere around. Somehow, she puts it together (I’d have scolded the dog for knocking over the birdcage, but never mind), and hugs her little hero.

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

I Tot I Taw a Puddy Tat!

What’s remarkable in this film is their ability to use the animal actors so effectively to tell a story, when it’s clear that none of them are the kind of trained “stage animal” we’re used to seeing on screen (Lassie, Rusty, Boomer, etc). The cat, in particular, is being completely natural in its behavior, and the bird is genuinely terrified. The dogs don’t have much to do but run around, but they stay in shot and look determined (probably to get a tasty treat offscreen!). Given Mack Sennett’s frugal shooting ratios, we have to assume that there weren’t many “bad takes” and that someone had simply figured out how best to use the resources at hand.

A natural star.

A natural star.

The Internet has some conflicting credits for this film, Some sources say Mack Sennett directed, some say George Nichols, who made some of Chaplin’s Keystone movies. The Silent Era splits the difference and says it could have been either. More perplexingly, some sources give additional human cast members, including Harold Lloyd. The only way this is possible is if there’s lost footage on the version I saw, because Mabel is definitely the only human I saw. It seems unlikely, because the story itself is complete, anything added would be superfluous. Still,I could imagine an opening scene where Harold gives Mabel the bird and tells her to take care of it for the weekend or something. Until I find another version, I’m sticking with the story that Mabel did a solo here.

Director: Mack Sennett or George Nichols (or both)

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Pepper the cat, Teddy the dog

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Cruel Cruel Love (1914)

Cruel_Cruel_Love_1914

Here’s an early Charlie Chaplin movie from Keystone  in which he does not play his “Little Tramp” character, but is good nonetheless. Charlie is a well-to-do fellow (enough to have a car and servants in 1914) who wears a variation on his getup from “Making a Living” or “Mabel at the Wheel,” but with more understated facial hair. He’s in love with Minta Durfee (real life wife of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who we saw with him in “The Rounders” and “Fatty Joins the Force”), but she catches him canoodling with the maid and calls off the engagement. Despondent, Charlie goes home and attempts suicide, but the butler replaces his poison with water. Charlie makes a show his imminent demise and Minta races to the rescue, having forgiven him. Some comic doctors show up, but Charlie’s strenuous acrobatics keep them from getting much done. Finally, having wrecked his room and given flying kicks to nearly everyone, Charlie is alone with Minta, apparently happy to be alive and in love.

 Cruel Cruel Love

This movie was quite early in Chaplin’s screen appearances, and it looks to me as though Mack Sennett used it as a means to display Charlie’s comedic physicality. The race to the rescue does include some interesting inter-cutting, showing that the techniques of editing had made their way to the smaller studios already, and for his fantasy of arriving in Hell as a suicide, we get some basic Méliès-style magical effects. Also, one shot of Charlie maddened face as he imagines the “poison” taking effect counts as a medium close-up, although he moves away from the camera afterward returning to “normal” distance from it.

Directors: Mack Sennett, George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 9 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Favorite Pastime (1914)

His_Favourite_Pastime_1914

AKA: “His Favourite Pastime”

This will be the last Charlie Chaplin movie I review for the 2014 Century Awards season. I saw every movie he made in 1914, but there just wasn’t time to review them all. I think all the serious contenders for awards are covered now, at least. Of the really early Keystone movies, this is probably the most classic “Little Tramp” short. Charlie is doing his funny drunk bit at a bar, and engaging in slapstick with a variety of bar patrons including Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Outside the bar, he seems to be effectively charming a young lady (Peggy Pearce, also in “Tango Tangles” and “A Film Johnny”) with his silly antics, which include twirling his cane and manipulating his hat with it, until her father comes along and chases him off. Back inside the bar, he has a variety of pratfalls involving the swinging door to the bathroom, and then engages the entire clientele in a slapstick fight. He then follows the young woman home and drunkenly stumbles about the pace causing mayhem until he gets kicked out. Not really an admirable fellow, but definitely funny. The chemistry between Chaplin and Pearce was apparently real – she was the first of many leading ladies to be romantically involved with him for a time.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe Arbuckle, Peggy Pearce, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 13 Min 30 sec

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Film Johnny (1914)

A_Film_Johnnie_(1914)

I wanted to be sure and include this early Chaplin film, because it gives us a certain amount of insight into movies and moviemaking in the period of our subject. It begins with the “Little Tramp” attending a Nickelodeon and seeing a Keystone film which excites him greatly, to the point where he falls in love with the star (Virginia Kirtley, who we saw in “Making a Living” and “A Flirt’s Mistake”). The theater gives a wonderful sense of the squalid conditions of most movie-going at the time: folding chairs are set up in rows so that the patrons in the front block the view of those in the rear, the room is tiny and cramped. Next, Chaplin goes to the studio, which we see in a lovely panorama as he first walks in, showing the conditions in which he and his colleagues were working. Later shots follow the more standard “stagey” framing, pulled back just a bit so we can see the camera running as Chaplin inevitably blocks the shot in order to try to win the girl. They move to a location shoot, trying to capture the thrill of an actual fire as the fire dept puts it out. Fights break out and pretty much everyone gets sprayed with the hose. Charlie does not get the girl.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mable Normand, Virginia Kirtley, Ford Sterling, Edgar Kennedy

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Enoch Arden (1911)

Enoch_Arden_(1911_film)

This two-part “featurette” by Griffith has a lot in common with his earlier film “The Unchanging Sea.” First of all, it’s based on a poem of the same name, in this case by Alfred, Lord Tennyson, who was read by all educated people at school at the time. Secondly, it follows the story of a couple, separated when the husband goes to sea to seek his fortune, and shows their seaside romance as well as images of the abandoned wife staring out to sea forlornly while she waits for her husband’s return. Unlike that story, however, it does not end in reconciliation, but rather in tragedy, as the wife finally relents and marries her other suitor (a remarkably persistent fellow, who continues to court her as her children grow from babies to adulthood). It’s obvious that Griffith was becoming interested in more complex storylines and storytelling techniques: we see closeups, and there’s a pretty impressive ship, either built or hired for the shoot. The story stars and was written by Griffith’s wife Linda Arvidson, who we’ve seen in “Corner in Wheat” and “The Adventures of Dollie,” with Enoch portrayed by Wilfred Lucas, from “His Trust” and “The Girl and Her Trust.” The rival is Francis J. Grandon, who would soon turn to directing movies like “To Be Called For” and “The Adventures of Kathlyn.”

Director: D. W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Wilfred Lucas, Linda Arvidson, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Grace Henderson, Blanche Sweet, Dell Henderson, Charles West.

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Unchanging Sea (1910)

1910_UnchangingSea

This Biograph picture by DW Griffith is based on the poem “The Three Fishers” by Charles Kingsley, which provides a somewhat different structure to the storyline than similar shorts of the time. At the beginning of the movie, the intertitles are almost all quotes from that poem, which manage to tell the entire poem before the movie storyline completely takes over. That story involves a fisherman in a small seaside village who leaves his pregnant wife behind to go to the sea and fails to return, leaving her and the child alone for years. His companions’ bodies are washed ashore, but the sea never gives him up, leaving the wife uncertain to his fate. It develops that he’s been in another village all this time, apparently suffering from amnesia, but he finally returns to find his wife and now-grown child – who now has a fisherman sweetheart of her own. The husband is played by Arthur V. Johnson, who we’ve seen in “The Adventures of Dollie” and “The Sealed Room” and the wife is Griffith’s real-life spouse Linda Arvidson, who was in “Corner in Wheat” as well as “The Adventures of Dollie.” Mary Pickford (from “The Usurer” and later in “Poor Little Rich Girl”), again edging toward stardom, is the grown daughter, and Charles West (whose career includes “The Redman’s View” and “In the Border States“) is her boyfriend.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Mary Pickford, Charles West, George Nichols

Run Time: 13 Min, 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Usurer, the (1910)

Usurer

This is another early Griffith work for Biograph, with similarities to both “Corner in Wheat” and “The Sealed Room.” It portrays a greedy money-lender, contrasted with his unfortunate victims, and his ironic demise through suffocation after being sealed in his own vault. Although this one was made later, I feel that it is actually less artistically successful than “Corner in Wheat,” which included so much clever inter-cutting and fast-paced editing. Here, the approach is less successful, and Griffith appears to hope to make up for it by including more separate stories, which really only muddies the waters. The death of the villain is slow and drawn-out, lasting for almost five of the eighteen minutes, and inter-cut with scenes that don’t clearly connect, and Griffith relies more heavily on intertitles to tell the story. George Nichols (who we saw in “The Sealed Room” and “Fatty Joins the Force”) stars as the title character, with future-Keystone-founder Mack Sennett among his cohorts. Mary Pickford (who had a small role in “The Sealed Room” and was later star of “Stella Maris”) is obviously moving up in her career at this point, appearing in the important role of the “invalid daughter” whose bed is removed by strong-arm men when her mother cannot pay her debts, and Henry B. Walthall (from “Corner in Wheat” and “The Avenging Conscience”) is another unfortunate debtor.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: George Nichols, Mack Sennett, Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Grace Henderson, Linda Arvidson.

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.