Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Gilbert M Anderson

Broncho Billy and the Sheriff’s Kid (1913)

This short from Essanay is a typical “Broncho Billy” entry in which Gilbert M. Anderson plays an outlaw with a heart of gold. The company was cranking out dozens of these movies per month from its base near Chicago at this time.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid

The movie begins with a grim shot of Broncho Billy getting locked into a cell. He wears leather wrist cuffs, a bullet belt, and a holster (despite being in jail), so we know right away that he’s a cowboy, even without a horse or a pistol. He picks at a bowl of unappetizing food and calls the jailer over to remove it, then makes a grab at the jailer through the bars and manages to secure his gun. He forces the man to unlock the cell and makes his escape. The next scene shows the jailer riding up to the sheriff’s house, where he is asleep (presumably it’s night time, though it isn’t dark at all) in the same bedroom with the crib of his small daughter. The sheriff (Harry Todd) reluctantly crawls out of bed and gets dressed to join the search. Now we see the mother (Evelyn Selbie) and child, in their night clothes, fixing food in the kitchen for him to take on the trail. The sheriff tucks the bundle under his shirt and gives each of them a kiss before going out. He rides off and we see Billy stealing food from an outdoor cabinet hung on the side of a house (the same house? It’s hard to say).

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid1

An intertitle reads “Later” and we see children dispersing from the front of a schoolhouse. Each is kissed goodbye by the teacher, a woman in a dark dress. The last one out is the sheriff’s daughter. After leaving the school, she walks home through a wild area, straying just a little off the path, and suddenly tumbling down the side of a cliff! Billy, eating nearby, hears the commotion and draws his gun. He finds the child, crumpled on the rocks, and identifies her by her writing slate, which is labeled “MAY – the sheriff’s kid.” Billy starts to leave, but, struck by his conscience, turns back and picks the child up, carrying her offscreen. He takes her back to the mother, now in day clothes with her hair up (it scarcely looks like the same actress). He places the child gently in her bed and the mother weeps over her. Billy tries to comfort the woman and she says something, which makes him look resolved and then leave. The next shot is a door with the shingle of “Dr. Brush” hanging over it. Billy walks up and pounds on the door. When the doctor comes out, he tells him he’s needed, then sneaks off while the doctor gets his bag.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid2

Meanwhile the searchers have taken a break to eat some lunch. Suddenly, they look up with interest at something offscreen, stow their sandwiches, and get up to proceed cautiously, guns drawn. They hunker down behind a bush and see Billy coming through the brush in another shot which may or may not be anywhere near them. The sheriff fires his rifle and Billy drops his gun, pantomiming that he has been hit in the hand. We cut to a scene of the doctor giving the mother some medicine, and she shakes his hand, relieved that the child will be OK. Now Billy staggers up to a door, his wrist crudely bandaged with a bandana, and knocks, staggering in pain when the mother answers. An intertitle says “I only ask help for help,” which seems an odd way of saying he wants her to return the favor for saving her child. She seems reluctant at first but eventually pulls him into the house. Billy stops and smiles when he sees the child’s improved condition. She takes him into a back room and removes the dressing, examining the wound. Now the sheriff and his companion break off the search, so the sheriff goes back to his house, surprising the mother. He is concerned when he sees the injured child, and he speaks briefly with her, looking surprised when she points toward the door. Billy tries to get some water, knocking a bowl on the floor, which causes the sheriff to realize there’s someone in the house, The mother tries to prevent him going to look, holding his gun hand as he draws his revolver and gesturing to show that she is pleading for the outlaw. Billy hears from the other room, but, having no gun and no way out, can only expect the worst. The mother suddenly kicks the door open, handing Billy the sheriff’s rifle while still holding his revolver-hand low. Billy now has the upper hand and holds the sheriff at bay while he goes over to give the little girl a kiss. The movie ends without any more resolution than that.

Broncho Billy and the Sheriffs Kid3

Please don’t shoot my daddy!

This whole story takes 15 minutes and only two intertitles to tell. The situation is familiar enough that audiences could guess at what the characters were saying to one another, and their motivations, without any more information than that. We know Billy is a good man, even if he has done something wrong or illegal, and we know that he will save the child even at the risk of his own freedom. We also pretty much know that he isn’t going to shoot the sheriff in front of his wife and daughter, but it is a little unclear what the narrative expects to happen next. Maybe that’s why the movie ends so abruptly. One of the most interesting pieces of the film for me is the sheriff’s shooting Billy in the hand. In later Hollywood and television, it would become a cliché that good guys shot pistols out of the hands of bad guys without really hurting them = a practical impossibility, but a convention that arose because of concerns that Westerns were “too violent.” Here, Anderson graphically shows the consequences of being shot in the hand, even using stage blood on the wound and bandages, something Westerns would scrupulously avoid until Sam Peckinpah started using squibs in the 1960s. Anderson’s movies are generally (and for the most part rightly, in my opinion) remembered as simplistic moral tales, compared to the brooding ambiguity of William S. Hart, but the rules of the Western hadn’t been fully defined in 1913, and Anderson did sometimes take an interesting chance in molding them.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Harry Todd, Eugenia Clinchard, Evelyn Selbie, Fred Church

Run Time: 15 Min, 20 secs

I have not found this movie available to watch for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Broncho Billy’s Love Affair (1912)

G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson tries to mix Western with romantic themes in this short from Essanay. Given the limitations of the length and the film techniques, it doesn’t entirely work, but it’s another example of the once-popular series trying for a broad appeal.

Broncho Billys Love Affair

The movie begins in the local land office, where a man (Brinsley Shaw) in a bowtie and a white hat receives money from an older man (David Kirkland), indicating that he does not consider it adequate. He leaves, looking dissatisfied and the scene cuts to an image of Billy with his girl (Evelyn Selbie). He puts a ring on her finger, and an edit shows Brinsley looking on, obviously concerned about this development. He waits until Billy leaves, then goes over to speak with her, and she proudly shows off her ring, disturbing him still further. Now an Intertitle tells us that he “induces his father to discharge Broncho” – the first indication we’ve had to the relationship of anyone in this movie to anyone else. The father (the old man at the office) seems very reluctant to heed his son – evidently Billy is a good worker. But, he eventually caves and calls Billy in, counting out his final pay, much to Billy’s shock. We now see Brinsley sneaking around a nicely appointed home, searching for something (the ring). He eventually finds it and steals it. Then he writes a note ostensibly from the girl, breaking up with Billy because he was fired. He leaves it at Billy’s shack and Billy, heartbroken, saddles up and moves on.

Broncho Billys Love Affair1

The second half of the movie shows how all of this plays out, years later. Evelyn has a completely different hair style and wardrobe, indicating her transformation from virginal young girl to married woman, and Brinsley walks out of the house behind her while she sweeps the stoop. He is dressed less like a fop and more like a cowboy now, and he wears a gun. He takes money from her against her will, and goes to a building with a sign marked “Gambling.” Meanwhile, we see Billy snoozing with his feet propped up a desk, and an image of Evelyn as she used to be appears thanks to double-exposure, showing us his dream. Next, we see Brinsley backing out of the building with his gun drawn – evidently there has been a dispute of some kind. He jumps on a horse and rides off, and we see two men propping up another, apparently shot by Brinsley. One of the men goes to find Billy and tells him what has happened. Billy puts on his hat and joins the posse – we now see his badge and conclude he is the local law. They split up, and the other part of the posse finds Brinsley first, shooting at him from a distance and wounding him in the head. Brinsley escapes back to his house, where Evelyn takes him in, helping him to a bed where he collapses. Billy now wanders up and knocks on the door, and is stunned to find Evelyn there. She tells him she is now married and directs him to the wounded man, who confesses all before he dies.

Broncho Billys Love Affair2

With limited intertitles, at least on the print I saw, this movie is not easy to follow, and without closeups or sharp resolution, I wasn’t even sure Evelyn and Brinsley were the same people after their wardrobe change. It relies on the audience’s ability to follow the formulaic story of star-crossed love more or less by instinct. I used the actor’s names because, even though imdb supplies names for the characters, it gets their relationships wrong, suggesting that David is Evelyn’s father when that is contradicted by the intertitle. There are some interesting edits, as when intercutting is used to show us Brinsley’s reaction to the gift of the ring, and Billy’s dream being intercut with Brinsley at the gambling hall. Overall, though, this is a pretty bare bones film for 1912; even the use of double exposure to indicate a dream is pretty old hat by this time. The romance doesn’t really have time to develop, and the story just moves through the most basic plot points without much development. It’s interesting to note, once again, that although the Broncho Billy movies were a “series,” there is no logical way to make them work as connected narratives. Billy has a different girl in each movie, and a new timeline is set at the beginning of each one, with no connection to what came before or after. Audiences (presumably) accepted the character as iconic, and didn’t worry about trying to make the stories link up in any way.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Evelyn Selbie, Brinsley Shaw, David Kirkland

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not been able to find this movie available for free online. If you do, please comment.

Broncho Billy’s Narrow Escape (1912)

A straightforward Western of the Nickelodeon era, this short from Essanay stars Gilbert M. Broncho Billy” Anderson in the role that he was most identified with. Once again, Billy is wronged by bad intentions, but wins the day and the girl!

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape

The movie begins with three people seated around a table eating breakfast. Vedah Betram and Arthur Mackley play father and daughter, while Brinsley Shaw is there as a hired hand. Vedah offers Arthur more coffee and he refuses, saying it’s time to get to work. When she offers to Brinsley, he tries to become affectionate, which she politely refuses. They go off to continue looking for a vein of gold in the hills. Now, Broncho Billy rides up and politely inquires the girl about any work. She directs him to go find her father, giving him a lingering glance as he leaves. Arthur hires Billy and soon the three of them are swinging picks at a wall. That night, Billy takes out a banjo, and he and Vedah play and sing together, while the others watch. Brinsley is obviously becoming jealous, and Arthur wants to go to bed, so they move to the porch, where they are seen by a desperado (I believe this is Fred Church) who confronts Billy about we know not what, possibly the two are known to each other somehow.

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape1

The next day, the father finds that vein of gold and sends Billy into town on a white horse with the papers that will stake his claim. Brinsley tells locals that Billy has stolen the white horse and a posse is formed. The desperado encounters them and informs them where Billy is headed, then hightails it out of town. When the posse catches up with Billy, he surrenders peaceably, but he has been instructed to tell no one of his errand, so his story sounds fishy. Brinsley tells Vedah what he has done, and she jumps on another horse and speeds into town. Just as the posse are preparing to lynch Billy, she arrives and clears things up. The last shot in the film shows the two of them leaning into the camera, bent forward with heads close together in affection.

Broncho Billys Narrow Escape2

Although Anderson played the “Broncho Billy” character literally hundreds of times, this is not a series in the sense that we understand it today; you couldn’t possibly tie each of these short films together into a running narrative. In many of them, he winds up with a girl, always a different one, who he truly loves, and who he’s never met before. Sometimes he spends years in jail. Sometimes he’s actually not innocent. Each story is discrete, and if you tried to make all of them about the same person, he’d be schizophrenic in his behavior and near immortal in longevity (and the timeline wouldn’t work for the relatively brief period of the “Old West” anyway). Audiences at the time obviously accepted this, not expecting each story to be a continuation of the last, just looking for another rousing Western tale about a hero in a world ruled by guns and fists. This one includes a bit of cross-cutting at the climax, to heighten the tension as the girl rides to Billy’s rescue (a nice reversal of the usual expected situation), but is otherwise a pretty straightforward example of Nickelodeon-era film making. There’s no gunplay or other violence, Billy is remarkably easy-going and polite, and neither villain receives any comeuppance on screen. Broncho Billy gives audiences what they are looking for here, but not a lot else.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Vedah Bertram, Arthur Mackley, Brinsley Shaw, Fred Church, Harry Todd,

Run Time: 15 Min

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

A Western Redemption (1911)

A Broncho Billy Western starring Gilbert M. Anderson that allows him to play a bad man who sees the light and goes straight, not for the first time. Interestingly, this is a rare case in which a bandit is shown in relation to his parents.

An intertitle informs us that a member of the notorious car barn gang has been apprehended and spilled the beans, and we witness the results as Broncho Billy (Identified in interititles as “Tom”) is arrested at his breakfast table in front of his parents. Shortly thereafter, his dad is fired from his job and his mother receives an eviction letter. Polite society doesn’t want the relatives of a criminal around. Years later, Billy has been released and we see him wearing cowboy gear and rolling a cigarette while talking to a cohort. Said cohort watches the stagecoach from a distance and follows it into town when it delivers a cash box to a general store. The proprietor helps a guard to set up a place to sleep next to it and the man beds down. Billy and his buddy take a couple shots of whiskey for courage and ride into town together. They put on masks and hold up the guard, tying him up and taking the key to the cash box. The other criminal goes into the sleeping quarters and holds up the proprietor. He finds a photo of Billy’s parents and realizes that is who they are robbing, deciding to conceal this from Billy. He rejoins Billy and the two ride off with sacks of loot. The second man insists that they divvy up the loot back at the hideout and each man goes his own way. Billy eventually finds a familiar pocket watch in his share, and concludes what has happened. He chases the man down and finds him sleeping by the side of the trail. The two fight, and Billy gets his guns on him before the other can draw. He holds him at gunpoint and makes him ride back to town. He brings him and the loot to the sheriff, confessing the crime and turning his partner in. They are handcuffed together and taken to a cell. A final shot shows Billy, years later, at the supper table in prayer with his aged parents, the father saying grace.

This is a pretty straightforward example of its series. It makes no effort to tie Anderson’s character in to other Broncho Billy storylines, and doesn’t even refer to him as “Billy.” It uses forward-facing intertitles that telegraph the action before you see it, in some cases spoiling or confusing the story by coming too soon before what they announce. The camera is stationary and generally at medium shot or further from the action (we can’t always see the actors’ feet, at least). Some shots are held for a very long time, even though not that much is happening – given the short run time I was surprised at how much of the guard getting ready for bed was shown. Still, Anderson tries to maximize the drama and sympathy we develop for his character in a short time, suggesting that he has a kind of code or sense of responsibility despite his villainous career. It does seem like the partner could have insisted on keeping everything he stole from the parents, giving Billy a bigger share of the payroll and prevented him discovering the watch, but I suppose it also represents how greedy he was that he didn’t do that (and it would have ruined the story).

Director: Gilbert .M. Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Arthur Mackley, Julia Mackley, John B O’Brien, Brinsley Shaw, Harry Todd, Augustus Carney

Run Time: 16 Min

I have not been able  to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Forgiven in Death (1911)

This early western from G.M. Anderson depicts honor and male bonding in uncivilized conditions, a trope that the genre will frequently return to in future decades. It also uses Native Americans as generic un-motivated villains, another aspect that would persist.

The intertitles do much of the heavy lifting in the first act, as we learn that Ned (Brinsley Shaw) and Jack (Anderson) are in love with the daughter of their employer (Gladys Field) and that she has a hard time deciding between them. She chooses Jack, but they keep the wedding secret to avoid hurting Ned, and the two men go off together on a prospecting venture, living in a small shack on the plains. Ned insists on picking up their mail every day, and he stashes all of Gladys’s letters to Jack under the floorboards, resulting in Jack being mopey and depressed. One day, on the way to the post office, he encounters an Indian war party, who are hiding in the grasses and immediately pursue him when he turns his horse back. There’s a long chase back to the shack, and then Jack and Ned try to fight off the attackers with their pistols. There are no further intertitles at this point, with the drama now playing out entirely through the action on the screen.

There are far too many Indians (and they have rifles, so should be able to hit at a greater distance, but these Indians insist on getting as close as possible and standing up to shoot so they lose a lot of men), and Jack is hit. He tries to stand once or twice, then seems to collapse in pain and despair. Ned now runs to get all the letters and starts to read one to his friend, trying to raise his spirits, and learns as a result that Gladys and Jack are married. Jack raises his pistol, and Ned holds up his hands in fear, but at the last moment, Jack shoots an Indian who was pointing his gun through the window. The two men are reconciled, but moments later Ned is hit also, and they reach out to hold hands as they both expire. We see a final shot of the warriors celebrating their victory and breaking into the shack to see their dead enemies.

The key to this movie is the gun battle, which is adequately staged for its purpose, but lacks the dynamics of later films like “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.” The chase is typical for the period, with the camera locked down in one position as the pursued, and then all of the pursuers, race towards it and right past, then cutting to the next shot of pretty much the same thing again. The camera moves very slightly to follow the action, probably panning less than ten degrees so that it could almost be accidental. The gunfight is intercut between shots outside and those inside, showing simultaneous action but never really connecting the two locations. The “outside” action is all but forgotten while Ned and Jack have their interior confrontation, with only the resolution bringing in the Indians at all during that scene. Later film makers would probably at least shown bullets zipping around the shack to remind us that the attackers are still there. But, this is a pretty early effort, and at least the tension of “will Jack shoot Ned?” is held effectively, though the title kind of gives away the ending.

Finally, I mentioned the use of Native Americans as generic bad guys in this film. We never get any sense of why they attack our heroes – presumably they are threatened by the proximity of prospectors in their territory, possibly Ned and Jack (and their employer) are in violation of treaty agreements. But, their side is not part of the drama, so they wind up as one-dimensional villains, with rather poor tactics as well.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Gladys Field, Arthur Mackley, Harry Todd

Run Time: 15 Min, 40 secs

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Puncher’s New Love (1911)

This unusual film from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson avoids most of the usual Western tropes to tell a romantic story of love lost through selfishness. While a bit awkwardly shot and acted, it goes a long way to showing the diversity of roles Anderson did within the “Broncho Billy” umbrella.

As the movie begins, Anderson is leaning in the window to ask out his girl (Ann Little) to an upcoming barn dance. She is happy to accept and even gives him a little kiss goodbye. Right after he departs, a rival (John O’Brien) arrives with a handbill about the same dance. Ann rightly tells John she can’t go with him, because she just agreed to go with Billy, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint until she repeats herself. Eventually, he seems to console himself by saying at least he’ll see her at the dance with Billy. Meanwhile, Billy comes across a “city girl” (Gladys Field) out riding, and is immediately infatuated. He shows her the handbill and she shows an interest in going with Billy, who seems to completely forget about Ann. On the night of the dance, John sees Billy come in with the city girl and his jaw drops. She refuses to shake hands with a man Billy introduces her to, and looks disdainfully at the whole affair, but eventually agrees to dance with Billy. John eagerly rushes off to find Ann, who is standing forlornly in front of her gate. He tells her Billy’s there with another woman, and she looks crushed, but eventually agrees to go with John. Once there, Billy appears to be about to leave with his bored date, but receives a withering stare from Ann before he gets out the door, and sees that she is with John.

Some time later, Billy pays a call on the city girl, looking about in wide-eyed wonder at her fine house and the liveried butler. Gladys seems not to remember Billy when he is announced, but eventually deigns to coldly greet him. Then a man in a tuxedo comes in and she quickly rushes up and hugs him hello. Billy expresses his jealousy and is asked to leave, which he will not do until he’s said his piece and threatened violence. Now he returns shame-faced to see Ann in her home, but she is still angry at being cast aside without even being informed that their date was off. She tells Billy to go, and this time he does so with more decency, because this is someone he can respect. John comes in a bit later with a ring and we see that Ann has transferred her feelings to him. A final intertitle (possibly added due to the loss of some footage) tells us that the couple eventually discovers Billy dead.

We can’t see you, Ann!

There are no gunfights, horseback chases or bar room brawls in this film, yet it is fundamentally about the different values of the “pure” pioneering America versus the corrupt Europeanized culture of the city. Billy and all the other “punchers” wear riding garb at all times, even at the formal dance, although the city girl wears a black gown and the other country girls are in simple dresses. The overall plot is reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s much later movie “Sunrise,” but without the happy ending, or the attempted murder. It’s interesting that Billy is unable to redeem himself from his mistake – usually in a story like this, a man can make amends, but a “fallen woman” has to die. This movie surprised me by ending with the death of the fallen man. It’s very much a 1911 movie, with all shots taken at full-figure distance, and no camera movement or editing within scenes. The sets are often crowded, especially the dance hall set, and actors frequently pass in front of one another, obscuring  the main action. The dance begins with a little comedy about the fiddler, who is either drunk or exhausted (I couldn’t tell if he was laughing hysterically or yawning), and nearly everyone in the movie is crowded into that scene. One really unfortunate choice was to shoot the scene of John picking up Ann from behind the gate Ann is waiting at, so her face is obscured as she acts out her reaction to Billy’s betrayal. There were a lot of other angles they could have used for that scene, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone that it would be an issue.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Gladys Field, Ann Little, John O’Brien, Augustus, Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Brinsley Shaw

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Outlaw and the Child (1911)

This early Western from Essanay shows that Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s characters weren’t always unambiguous heroes and also gives us a glimpse of work the Chicago-based company was doing in California even before opening a permanent studio in Niles.

 

Broncho Billy plays the outlaw, and as the movie opens we see him being secured in his cell by the sheriff (Arthur Mackley), arrested for we know not what crimes and awaiting trial. The sheriff heads home to see his five-year old daughter, assuring that we get to see both of the title characters in the first few minutes of the film. She does a cute bit of searching her father until she finds a bag of candy hidden under his hat. Then the sheriff puts her to bed and gets ready to sleep himself. Meanwhile, a confederate has brought Broncho Billy a file so that he can cut through the bars of his cell. He is able to do this in remarkably little screen time, and steals a saddle and horse in order to get out of town. The deputy (Harry Todd) discovers his absence and raises a posse, heading over to the sheriff’s house to rouse him and get him to lead the search. The sheriff leaves his small child alone, and when she wakes, she finds him absent and so goes out to look for him, soon blundering into the desert with her doll. The search is unsuccessful and the sheriff returns home, only to begin a new search for his missing daughter.

 

Meanwhile, the outlaw has made his way into the dessert with a full canteen, but he comes across the prostrate figure of the child. He rushes to her side and revives her with his supply of water, but while he is doing this, his horse wanders off. Now, he must carry the child back to civilization, sacrificing all his water to keep her alive. He brings her right to the door of the sheriff’s house, where the sheriff and his posse all witness his heroism before he expires.

This simple plot works well for a one-reel Western, although there is little subtlety of character or drama. We have to accept that a seasoned outlaw doesn’t know how to keep his horse under control for a couple of minutes while he attends to another concern, and also that the sheriff hasn’t been able to teach his daughter to stay put at night (I assume it’s night, because they were asleep, though the whole movie was clearly shot in broad daylight), but these are pretty minor concessions compared to the enormous coincidences audiences expected in melodrama at the time. I rather expected when the father left the girl alone that Billy would wind up taking her hostage and then having a change of heart, but this story emphasizes his redemption over his crimes. The locations, which were in Los Gatos and Redlands, California, work well for the piece, especially the desert scenes, where I found myself thinking how vast the openness looked behind our actors, while a film crew and safety lay only a few feet away. The filming and editing are pretty standard for 1911, with pretty much all scenes sequential and shot in long shot, so that we can see actors’ entire bodies as they move about the screen. A simple piece of Americana from another era.

Director: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Arthur Mackley, Harry Todd, William A. Russell

Run Time: 15 Min

I have not been able to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment below.

The Train Wreckers (1905)

Edwin S. Porter returns to the familiar subject matter of trains and crime, perhaps hoping for another hit on the scale of “The Great Train Robbery.” While it may not have succeeded on the same level, this was one of the bigger releases for the Edison Studios in 1905, and it presents us with an interesting study of early cinema tropes.

A woman walks out onto her porch and greets a man dressed in a railroad uniform and carrying a metal lunchbox. She waves as he walks away. Then, in a very interesting shot, we see the woman at work in an office with an overview of the tracks. After a train rushes by, she pulls one of the switches, seemingly a very un-feminine job for the time. The she says goodbye to her boss and his dog and picks up an identical metal lunchbox and walks down the tracks and into the woods. After a brief walk, she comes across a circle of men dressed like hoboes and sitting in the road, vigorously discussing a plan. One of them carries a rope. She hides behind a tree, but another hobo comes up from behind her and grabs her and the others come over and use the rope to tie her to a tree. The dog from the office now runs up and frees her by biting through the ropes. She collects her lunchbox and goes after the men.

We now see the group of hoboes piling large logs onto the train tracks to cause a wreck. They leave the logs and the woman runs up. She tries to move a log, but can’t make enough progress to clear the tracks before the train arrives, so she runs towards it, waving her handkerchief to get the engineer’s attention. The train continues past her, but finally stops just in time and the man she greeted earlier thanks her for her help while others clear the tracks. Then everyone gets back on board the train and it continues without her. She walks alone down the tracks and is jumped again by the train wreckers, who knock her out and leave her on the tracks. They raid a nearby shed and take a hand-powered rail cart, all six of them working together to get away quickly. Now the train comes toward the woman lying on the tracks, and it looks like she will be crushed, but the man from the beginning is sitting on the cow-catcher, and he picks her up and saves her at the last moment.

Now, the engine is detached from the train and pursues the wreckers, with a man firing a rifle from the cow catcher. They try to return fire with pistols, but it has to be hard to shoot and pump at the same time. Eventually, the train catches up and after a brief gun battle all of the wreckers are killed. The end.

This movie is much more artistically satisfying than “The Miller’s Daughter” and more effective, I would say, than “The Kleptomaniac” and other progressive statements about society from Porter. Porter’s strong point seems to have been the action movie, and while this might not satisfy current mega-budget action fans, it works nicely as a basic crime-suspense thriller. Of course, the villains have no obvious motivation (it’s not clear what they’ll get from either wrecking the train or killing the girl), but they work as adversaries to our more plainly-motivated heroes, and it is satisfying to see them overcome. According to Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema, it was one of the bigger-selling movies of the year.

No ropes, but pretty close.

This movie also raises a bit of a quandary for silent movie fans. Folks who haven’t seen a lot of silent movies often have the idea that one common trope was “the girl tied to the train tracks.” In reality, this is far from a common theme in silent films, and in most of the better-known cases, it is used comedically, in the spirit of parodying nineteenth-century stage melodrama clichés. But, this is one movie that seems to deliberately draw on the cliché. It certainly doesn’t appear to be ironic or humorous, as in the cases of ‘Teddy at the Throttle” or “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” It is there to heighten the tension, and does so pretty well. Now, obviously our heroine is not actually tied to the track (otherwise the last-minute rescue wouldn’t work), but she is left unconscious and immobile on the tracks to be hit by a moving train, so the distinction is pretty minor. Porter was a pretty nineteenth-century kind of guy, and it makes sense that as he’s moving more into the realm of melodrama, he would pick up something so visual that had worked on the stage. So, I would say that this is one rare example of the concept in silent film – one which is probably unknown to the vast majority of those who claim it was all over the place.

Nineteenth-Century or not, it’s worth noting that the heroine here is not a completely helpless damsel, although she is rescued twice (once by the dog, once by the engineer). She pulls a heavy switch at work, and she makes a valiant effort to move the logs, and does manage to save the train on her own even when she can’t move them. She takes some degree of agency in the movie, and makes a difference to its outcome, which may be more than most of the “girl on the tracks” crowd would ever expect.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson

Run Time: 11 Min, 45 secs

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

What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.

We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing  the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.

Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Naked Hands (1916)

Alternate Title:Humanity

This movie apparently took several years to get to the screen and may not exist in complete form today, although at half an hour long, I find it one of the most developed of the movies Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson made in his career as a Western star. As with “Broncho Billy’s Sentence,” the story is written to allow Billy to display the full range of human emotions, but the longer run time makes this appear more natural and convincing.

Naked HandsThe movie opens on Ruth Saville, who plays Billy’s wife. We are told she is an “Eastern flower” transplanted to an environment that doesn’t agree with her. We see the her framed against the empty rolling hills of Western California, and understand that she needs more company than the wilderness provides. Her old school chum (Rodney Hildebrand) is out for a visit, however. When Billy arrives home to find them talking together, Rodney suggests that he go out and look for gold on his property – he represents an Eastern mining concern that can make him rich. Billy goes out while Rodney continues to pressure Ruth to come back East with him, and he spends days scrabbling at rocks with no success. Finally, he does strike gold and rushes into town to buy finery and things Ruth would like in their shed, but it’s too late – Ruth has left with Rodney. Billy refuses to take revenge, and in a state of deep shock, he sets fire to the shed and all of his possessions. With his house burning in the background, he bids the adulterous couple go on their way – condemning them to each other’s weakness.

Naked Hands1The mine, however, continues to be prosperous, and with nothing else in his life, Billy proceeds to get rich on it. In the meantime, Rodney has set Ruth up in the city as his mistress – he has a wife already and never had any intention of giving her anything but money for her affection. With nowhere else to turn, Ruth accepts it, but she’s no happier here than she was in the West. Billy is now living with servants and a mansion – but he still allows his dog to jump up on the desk. As a new wealthy man in town he is invited to a dinner party with other men of wealth. Of course, when he arrives, the house turns out to be Rodney’s, and he refuses to dine with a lowdown snake. Rodney tries to save face with his chums by bragging about stealing Billy’s girl, which sets him off: “if you ever speak disrespectfully of her or any harm comes to her – I’ll finish you with my naked hands!” Ruth as we know is suffering from her mistake, and she finally decides to kill herself, first writing a note asking Billy to come to her. She ends up in the hospital, and Billy does come, arriving in time to be the last thing she sees on Earth. They play a touching scene at her deathbed, surrounded by doctors and nurses, and of course Billy forgives her. She dies as he kisses her.

Naked Hands2Now Billy is overcome with the desire for revenge, and to make his threat come true. He goes at once to the home of Rodney, where a butler in terrible blackface lets him in and shows him to his master. Billy and Rodney fight, Rodney tries to get a gun, then tries to run, and finally starts throwing anything he can get his hands on to try to stop Billy, smashing up his own house in the process. The fight is prolonged, and intercut with Rodney’s wife and butler trying to break down the door to get in, finally, they do and a tiny child runs in as Billy closes his hands on the throat of his nemesis: “Please don’t hurt my daddy.” Billy suddenly becomes aware of what he is doing and backs off in horror, while the family tries to revive Rodney. Billy collects his hat and coat and leaves them in the shambles of the living room.

Naked Hands3Again, I think it is Anderson’s acting that carries this movie, although compared with the shorts I’ve reviewed up to now, it is well-shot and edited, and we do get somewhat more interesting performances from the supporting cast, especially Rodney Hildebrand. I also liked how the visuals contrasted the openness of the West with the closed and sometimes claustrophobic spaces of the East. While the West is empty and spacious, the “city” is crowded with things and people. There are minimal close-ups, so Anderson must show his feelings in a big way that sometimes seems to overwhelm the moment. When he backs off from fighting Rodney at the end, for example, his stunned look and frozen body language seems to drag out the situation rather than resolve it, although we do understand how horrified he is by his own actions. That fight includes probably the best stunts I’ve seen in any Broncho Billy movie, perhaps he’d taken advantage of over a year of having Charlie Chaplin as an employee to pick up a few tricks. In some ways, this was probably the masterpiece of his career, and it does deserve a look by any fan of silent Westerns. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it in the same category with the best work being done by DeMille, Chaplin, and others in Hollywood by this time, and it may be that Broncho Billy’s day ended about when it needed to so that others could advance the art past his level.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Ruth Saville, Rodney Hildebrand, Harry Todd, Lee Willard

Run Time: 30 Min

I have not found this movie on the Internet for free. If you can, please comment below.