Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Gilbert M Anderson

Broncho Billy and the Greaser (1914)

This is probably one of the most “typical” Western shorts I’ve seen from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, in the sense that it could most effortlessly be substituted for the kind of kids’ Western fare of later eras of movies and television.

Broncho Billy and the GreaserBroncho Billy delivers mail by horseback, and when he rides into town he quickly greets Marguerite Clayton, apparently the only single young lady for miles around, before going into the General Store that serves as a local post office. The postmaster there is dealing with the impatience of locals who seem to have little to do but hang around the store asking him when the mail’s coming in, but he’s happy to fill Marguerite’s jug while they wait. Meanwhile, a local “half-breed,” played by Lee Willard, has been making better (or worse) use of his time at the local saloon. He saunters in just after Billy delivers the mail, blustering his way to the head of the line by displaying his six-shooter. Billy, made aware of the situation by the post master, corrects the situation by drawing his gun and escorting the bad guy out of the store. Once she has her mail, Marguerite shows her appreciation with a chaste handshake that makes both of them ride their horses backwards. The villain, of course, observes all of this with glares.

Broncho Billy and the Greaser1Lee now gives us a performance, showing off how enraged he is, riding back to his shack and drinking from a flask, snarling at the camera. He watches as Billy rides past his shack and picks up a knife, showing us what is in his mind with slashing gestures, then gets on his horse and follows. Billy stops on the road to help a man who seems to be suffering from thirst and exhaustion, stumbling down the road and trying to drink from a stream. Lee goes into a bar to get more liquor, but is treated with suspicion by the proprietor, who demands money up front. This only raises his ire, and now he pursues Billy (and his invalid discovery) back to his shack, where Billy has put the man to bed and started a pot of coffee, before taking off his own bracers and laying down for a snooze. Lee peeks into the window and sees Billy asleep, but at this moment Marguerite rides up and sees what is afoot, hastily jumping on her horse for help after the devious Mexican enters Billy’s shack without knocking. Billy fights, but Lee is able to tie him up. So, Marguerite makes her way to the Lazy X ranch, where a dance is taking place, and calls on the men to help. The invalid tries to do something, but barely manages to fall out of bed. The men from the ranch ride to the rescue while Billy struggles to keep the knife away. Once there, they grab the bad guy and drag him away, barely pausing long enough to untie Billy, who now returns to helping the old man. Marguerite comes in and makes sure Billy is OK, before they again shake hands shyly.

Broncho Billy and the Greaser2The obvious thing to comment about in this film is the racist portrayal of a “half-breed” or “greaser” villain. There are no surprises here, and certainly no subversion of American racial hierarchies, but it’s interesting to note two things: First, much of the story is told from Lee’s point of view, and he may actually get more screen time than Billy. Second, for all of the villain’s apparent evil intentions, he in no way menaces the white virginal woman, as played by Marguerite Clayton. One could argue that this threat is implicit, inasmuch as Billy’s closeness to the girl seems to be what sets him off, but it is Billy that he acts out against. Even there, he’s decent enough (or drunk enough) to wake Billy up and tie him rather than simply slitting his throat while he sleeps – although really this is a contrivance to give the girl a chance to go for help. It’s also noteworthy that Billy’s sole “heroic” act against him is to point a gun at him in the general store. If the other (white) townspeople had not come to his rescue, Billy would not have had the strength to defeat his foe alone. Billy is a gentleman toward the girl, and tries to help a wounded man, so we know he’s “good,” but he doesn’t manage to save the day.

Broncho Billy and the Greaser3One more thing I’ve been meaning to comment on is an odd bit of fashion that I mentioned briefly above – the bracers or wrist guards that all of the cowboys wear in these early Westerns. It’s universal in Essanay films, and common from what I recall in Ince pictures and in the few early Westerns of Douglas Fairbanks that I’ve seen. But, if you look at a later Western (I watched “Once Upon a Time in the West” the other night, and kept an eye out, for example), they have been abandoned. Wikipedia only lists these items as protectors for archers, but I can imagine cowboys using them to avoid chafing their wrists with rope or reins. To me, it kind of gives these early cowboy actors a Heavy Metal look (although theirs aren’t studded or spiked), and it feels somewhat more authentic than later movie fashion, but I’m no expert here.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lee Willard, Carl Stockdale

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Making of Broncho Billy (1913)

As promised, I’ll be taking care of the reviews of the movies of Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson that I binge-viewed for my “Broncho Billy Marathon” post. This piece, put out by his Essanay Studio at a time when there wasn’t much in the way of competition, is a fairly uncomplicated but fun little example of what people thought of the Old West at the time.

Making of Broncho BillyAs I mentioned in the previous discussion, the movie serves as a kind of “origin story” for Broncho Billy, although of course there had been many movies made before it. Anderson shows up in a Western town wearing Eastern clothes (he looks sort of like a young D.W. Griffith) and is mercilessly mocked by the local cowhands. When he shows up in the lobby of his hotel, one of the roughnecks shoots at the floor to make him dance. He wanders over to a gambling table, but declines to gamble, to the amusement and annoyance of the other patrons. In the bar, he turns down whiskey and asks for something lighter (a beer, maybe), and the bartender has to brush the dust off the bottle, it is so rarely ordered. One of the cowpokes comes to razz him about it, and Billy gets ready to hit him with the bottle, but the bully quickdraws and shatters it. Now Billy learns that he must learn to shoot to gain their respect.

Making of Broncho Billy1

Please don’t shoot the cinematographer.

Billy goes out and finds someone willing to sell him a gun (no waiting period or background check necessary). Next, we see him attempt shooting a bottle in his Eastern garb, but he doesn’t seem to know to point the gun down at it. In the next scene, wearing Stetson hat and cowboy shirt, he sets up several bottles in front of the camera and hits them all. Then he shoots holes in the middle of playing cards. Now, he’s a real Western man, and he can go back to the bar. There, he meets the fellow who gave him trouble before. They both go for their guns, and Billy shoots the gun from his opponent’s hand. Now he gets on his horse and rides to the sheriff for protection as an angry mob comes after him. The sheriff puts him in a cell, bolts the door, and gets his shotgun out when the mob arrives, and they batter down the door. The surviving bully, whose hand has been treated by the town doc, now races to the scene, where he announces that he just wants to shake Billy’s hand. Everything is resolved happily, and he is accepted in the town.

Making of Broncho Billy2The scene that really surprised me here is where Billy’s target practice involves him shooting right at the camera to take out the bottles and cards. Although, of course, it is easy enough to arrange for an effect that makes that appear to be the case, often in earlier movies people really did fire bullets in gun scenes. At least according to Hollywood legend, Howard Hawks was still doing this as late as 1932 for “Scarface.” Presumably, they figured out some safer way to do that for the camera operator. I wasn’t entirely certain what was going on with the gambling scene – the croupier seems to greet him and hope he’ll join in, but the gamblers mostly look annoyed. Also, my own reaction to Anderson’s being willing to fight hand to hand was that it seemed more courageous than the gunfight his opponent insisted upon, but I suppose Anderson is trying to establish a cultural expectation of the Old West here. Overall, this is rather light family fare, the sort of thing that Anderson would mostly be remembered for, despite the somewhat darker portrayals in years to come.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Brinsley Shaw, Harry Todd, Roland Totheroh

Run Time: 9 Min

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

The Broncho Billy Marathon

Blogathon Marathon StarsFor this “Marathon Star Blogathon” post, I’m going to binge-watch several of Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson’s movies, and write about him as I go. Don’t worry, each film will get it’s own individual review in the weeks to come; in accordance with the rules of this blogathon tonight I’ll be focusing on Anderson himself and what I learn by looking at so much of him at once. Incidentally, a year or so back I watched another one: “Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress,” and I have also watched “His Regeneration” before, in connection with my many reviews of Charlie Chaplin.

OK, here we go…

Making of Broncho BillyFirst up, “The Making of Broncho Billy” (1913). The DVD I bought has a nice brief introduction to the star, reminding us that he was born “Max Aronson,” a Jewish man from Arkansas, and that he finagled a job as “Max Anderson” on “The Great Train Robbery” working for Edwin S. Porter. Supposedly, his horse threw him and he never was in any of the chase scenes, since he couldn’t ride. After founding Essanay, his own production company, with George K. Spoor, he went on to make over 350 films, mostly Westerns. Anyway, this film is a kind of “origin story” for Broncho Billy, although of course there had been many movies made before it. Anderson shows up in a Western town wearing Eastern clothes (he looks sort of like a young D.W. Griffith) and is mercilessly mocked by the local cowhands. When he tries to fight one in a bar, he learns that he must learn to shoot to gain their respect. We see him attempt shooting a bottle in his Eastern garb, but he can’t hit the side of a barn until he puts on a Stetson hat and cowboy shirt. After he confronts one of the bullies, he rides to the sheriff for protection as an angry mob comes after him, but the surviving bully just wants to shake his hand. Anderson is good in this, changing his body language and his acting style as he goes from the victim to the tough guy. Read the rest of this entry »

Blogathons!

In an attempt to keep expanding my readership, I have decided to get back into the Blogathon circuit. As of now, I am signed up for three upcoming blogathons:

Blogathon Marathon StarsFirst up, in March, we have the Marathon Stars Blogathon, hosted by In the Good Old Days of Hollywood and The Wonderful Word of Cinema. I’ll be writing about Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

Book BannerNext will be the Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by two of my favorite blogs, Speakeasy and Now Voyaging. For this one I’m writing about “Sherlock Holmes” (1916).

Blogathon Words Words WordsLast but not least, will be the official CMBA Spring blogathon: “Words! Words! Words!” I’m pretty excited, because that was the topic I proposed, and it won the election (incidentally, the title is a quote from “Dracula” (1931) not “Sunset Boulevard” (1950)). For this one, I’m writing about “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” (1916).

Alkali Ike’s Auto (1911)

Cars were still a pretty new invention in 1911, especially in the more rural areas of the United States. Film was also pretty new, but with the boom of Nickelodeons opening across the country, more people of different backgrounds were going to the movies and demanding more content they could enjoy. This movie, like a number of others I’ve looked at, shows how film as a medium exploited the fascination with speed and technology in general.

Alkali Ikes AutoAlkali Ike (Augustus Carney) is a fairly typical rural “bumpkin” character – the type of Village Idiot that cityfolk think is typical of the sticks and that rural folks recognize as belonging to the neighbors. In this movie, he has a counterpart or rival, the taller “Mustang Pete” (Harry Todd). The object of their competition is a woman named Betty Brown (Margaret Joslin). First, they both try to help her with her dishes, but she is annoyed by their constant squabbling over who will dry the next dish, which sometimes leads to their pulling their guns on one another. They try to “cooperate” in carrying the basin of water, but actually their fighting over who will carry it results in Betty getting splashed with dirty dishwater. Next, Ike wants to take her for a horseback ride, but Pete wins by showing up in a horse and carriage. Betty goes off with him, and Ike, despondent, leads his horses to the general store. Now a stranger drives up in an automobile. The audience is tipped that the car is in bad shape when the store owner refuses to buy at any price, but Ike misses this key bit of information and offers to trade his horses for the car. The stranger, no doubt happy to have a reliable means of transportation to get out of this backwater, accepts, and gives Ike brief instructions on driving.

Alkali Ikes Auto1Now Pete and Betty ride up in their horse & carriage. Betty is excited to be offered a ride in a horseless carriage, and climbs aboard with Ike, who drives it through town and knocks over a post in front of the store. Betty is patient, however, and he does keep it on the road for a while, before ominous steam starts coming from under the cap. The car stops, and the steam turns into a spray of water aimed at Betty. Ike gets out to look and see what he can do about it, then the car starts up on its own, tearing down the hill with Betty aboard. The car crashes at the end of the ride, and Betty is pitched across the hood into the mud. She is furious when Ike catches up and grabs him by the throat.

Alkali Ikes Auto2There are a number of interesting things about this movie. One is that Betty is not at all the typical love-object, or even any sort of movie farm girl, but rather a large, matronly type, physically larger than either of the male suitors. My initial assumption (based on my familiarity with the genre combined with my own prejudices) was that she was a wealthy widow that the men wanted to marry for land and/or money. However, the Intertitles never say any such thing. Maybe her appearance is part of the comedy, or maybe it was assumed that she was the sort of person a bumpkin would be attracted to. The movie as a whole is pretty typical of the pre-Keystone comedies of the time. We get no close-ups on anyone, relying on broad physical gestures and costume to tell us what we need to know about character and motivation. Editing is limited, usually just linking one sequence to the next rather than allowing for intercutting between scenes, and the slapstick action is mostly tame by comparison to a Keystone movie.

Alkali Ikes Auto3Carney was a well-known Essanay player, and apparently this movie was one of their biggest hit releases for 1911, leading to a remake in 1913. He and Mustang Pete would appear in a number of future shorts together as well. In 1914 Carney would go to Universal in search of higher pay as “Universal Ike,” sans Pete. Another successful series of shorts was released, but Carney still demanded more money until Universal terminated his contract and most of his career. His friend Christy Cabanne occasionally gave him supporting roles after that, as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in which he was a soldier. By 1916, he was out of film altogether, and he died in 1920.

Alkali Ikes Auto4Director: Billy Anderson or, possibly, E. Mason Hopper

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Augustus Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, John B. O’Brien

Run Time: 11 Min

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

His Regeneration (1915)

His_Regeneration_posterThis one-reel drama from Essanay stars co-owner G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson and features a brief cameo by Charlie Chaplin as the “Little Tramp,” which makes it an odd sort of a bird to review. At first I thought it might be intended as a kind of spoof of “Regeneration” by Raoul Walsh, but that film came several months after this one, so that’s not a likely explanation. Besides, most of it isn’t very funny (the Chaplin footage excepted).

Charlie: Whose hand am I holding?

Charlie: Whose hand am I holding?

The movie begins in a pawn shop, where the decidedly unregenerate G.M. Anderson sells some presumably ill-gotten jewelry to a proprietor of indeterminate “foreign” origin (I can’t decide whether he’s Jewish or Chinese). Then the action shifts to a dance hall/nightclub that appears to stratify its clientele. On the lower level, rough working class-types brawl and enjoy Apache dancing with their molls, while in the balcony, higher-class customers spectate at a safe distance. The Little Tramp show up at the lower level and tries to chat up a girl with a large, muscular boyfriend, gets caught up in the violent whirlwind of the dance floor, then tries to take a breath at a table before being drawn back into the flurry of dancing. Now Anderson shows up and sits with a girl dressed like Cleopatra whose boyfriend is off getting drinks. He gives her a stolen watch and then fights with the boyfriend when he comes back, to the animated interest of the balcony crew. Their amusement turns to horror when, after Anderson wins, the boyfriend pulls out a gun and shoots him. One of their number (Marguerite Clayton) rushes down to dress the wound and pour alcohol from a nearby glass over it. She turns him over to the police when they arrive.

Why does the Queen of the Nile need a wristwatch?

Why does the Queen of the Nile need a wristwatch?

Anderson, who was obviously the victim in this case, is soon on the streets again, and he breaks into a fancy home with his partner (Lee Willard). While his buddy is opening the safe, Anderson cases the place and finds Marguerite sleeping in her bedroom. He is torn by his obligations to his partner and the girl who may have saved his life. He goes back downstairs and tries to get Lee to put back the jewels he has taken from the safe. Of course, they end up fighting, and eventually Anderson has to shoot his friend to stop him from taking the jewels. That wakes up Marguerite and the neighbors and soon the cops are called. When Marguerite finds him with a gun over his dead pal’s body, he gives her back the jewels and explains what happened. She takes the gun and hides him in the kitchen, claiming that she found and shot a lone burglar when the police arrive. He appreciates what she’s done and leaves a note saying that he’ll “try to make good.”

His Regeneration2Fifteen minutes isn’t much time to develop a full story about the regeneration of a man’s spirit, and this movie takes time out for a comedy interlude that adds nothing to the story, so it doesn’t hold up all that well as a drama. What it does have in its favor is good acting by both leads, a very stylish period dance hall, and a good appearance by Charlie Chaplin. Chaplin, who is only on the screen for a minute or two, probably pleased audiences more than any other part of the movie. It is also tightly edited, and moves quickly through the storyline without a lot of repetition or over-emphasis of simple matters. There are no intertitles, apart from the close-up on the note at the end, so that we can see that the regeneration is complete. Both Anderson and Marguerite also get close-ups, and we can see the dilemma work itself out in his face at the end. Still, I’m not sure that the moral of this story really works: were these jewels really worth a man’s life and does Marguerite really owe Anderson his freedom at the end? Will he stay regenerate or has he merely learned that some rich people are good and you shouldn’t steal from them that treat you right? I expect a bit more by the standards of 1915.

Director: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lee Willard, Charlie Chaplin, Lloyd Bacon, Belle Mitchell

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Champion (1915)

Champion_1915Movies and boxing have gone together since the birth of American cinema. Boxing also lends itself to precisely the kind of physical comedy associated with slapstick, so it’s no surprise that Charlie Chaplin returned to the theme more than once in his career. The first time was in “The Knockout,” which is really a Fatty Arbuckle film that Charlie appeared in as a supporting character, but because of his higher name value, it tends to be associated with Charlie instead (See Silentology for another discussion of “The Knockout”). Less than a year later, and at another studio, Charlie made his first appearance as a headliner in a boxing comedy.

Champion1Slightly longer, “The Champion” has a somewhat simpler plot than “The Knockout.” We open on Charlie with a pet bulldog, apparently down on his heels, but sharing a hot dog with his companion. A bit later, Charlie finds a “good luck” horseshoe just as he passes Spike Dugan’s (Ernest van Pelt) training quarters, which is advertising for a boxing partner “who can take a punch.” After watching others lose, Charlie puts the horseshoe in his glove and wins. The trainer prepares Charlie to fight the world champion, Bob Uppercut, played by Bud Jamison, who still seems to me to be filling Mack Swain’s shoes. A gambler (Leo White) wants Charlie to throw the fight, but Charlie knocks him out and takes his money anyway. He and the trainer’s daughter (Edna Purviance, once again, who seems to be dressing as a boy to sneak into the fights as Minta Durfee did in “The Knockout”) meet and fall in love. At the big fight, Ben Turpin takes on Charlie’s former role as the referee, and winds up getting hit about as often as the fighters. Broncho Billy Anderson, co-owner of Essanay Studios, is rumored to be in the fight audience, but I didn’t spot him based on the one Broncho Billy movie I’ve been able to see so far.

Champion2The opening of the movie, with Charlie and the dog, gives us a chance to identify with the “Little Tramp” more than we ever did when he was at Keystone, and, indeed, the character is cuter and more appealing, even if he is cheating at boxing and apparently robbing gamblers. The longer run time seemed to be handled better in this movie than in “A Night Out,” in part because the whole “training” storyline obviously points to a climax in the ring. Once we get there, all the stops are pulled out and ever single gag you can think of is thrown in. Each time the fighters go at it, something different happens. I was delightedly surprised, for example, when they “hugged” each other and danced, rather than hitting. Still, where “The Knockout” confuses people with so many things going in rapid-fire, “The Champion” at times seems drawn-out, with the gags getting in the way of forward motion of the plot.

Champion5

Shall we dance?

In terms of film making, this movie is still at a fairly simple level. Scenes are generally taken from a straight-on camera angle with little internal cutting. Occasionally, close-ups are used to emphasize Charlie’s emotional state. Cross-cutting, between the audience and the boxing ring, helps to liven up the fight sequence. All of the actors, except Edna, get a chance to show off their athleticism, and the dog puts in a good performance as well, attacking Jamison and biting the seat of his pants at a critical moment. During the “love scenes,” Charlie holds a large jug of beer up to insure Edna and him some privacy.

ChampionDirector: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Ben Turpin, Leo White, Ernest van Pelt, Broncho Billy Anderson, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

One of the great things about this project is how much I learn as I do it. The thing about learning so much is that I’m constantly discovering that I was wrong in my assumptions when I started. Towards the beginning of the blog, I wrote a piece on “Studios in 1914.” I didn’t really say anything that was inaccurate then, but I had based it on a somewhat inaccurate theory. My idea was that since moving pictures were so new, there would only be a fairly limited number of companies involved in making them. This idea was reinforced by familiarity with the later Studio System, in which a small group of big players dominated and made it hard for anyone start a new company, and by the knowledge that the Edison Trust was fighting hard to keep competition to a minimum.

Now, that all makes sense, but it’s just not how things were at all. Turns out that there were dozens of small-to-mid-sized operations at any given time, especially once the Nickelodeons got up and running. In fact, what really created the major studios of the future was the consolidation and selling of these little guys to one another. The studios we know about, like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, are actually conglomerates of several smaller businesses that unified in order to gain distribution opportunities. Keeping track of the buyouts and mergers gets dizzying, but also adds to our understanding of the history of the movies.

With all that in mind, this post makes no claim to give a complete picture of all the studios and production companies in operation in 1915. Instead, I’m going to give a partial snapshot of some of the companies I missed last year, along with an update on some of the more interesting ones I did cover.

Since I already mentioned them, let’s start with an update on the Edison Trust. We could see it as sort of a failed prototype for those mega-conglomerates I talked about above, because it’s not one company, but several, who up to now have claimed to “license” all legitimate motion pictures in America. Well, in the trust-busting environment of the time, it was fighting for its existence in court, and wound up losing in October, when a federal court ruled it an “illegal restraint of trade.” After that point, there was an appeal, but no one took the Trust seriously anymore, and it finally disbanded in 1918. This also led to the end of their distribution network, the General Film Company (which was not a producer, as I wrongly stated last year).

Things aren’t much better at the Biograph Company at this time. They were a part of the trust, so this litigation hurt them, too, but they were already crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and his stock company of actors and cameramen in 1913. By 1915, they were reduced to issuing reissues of classic Griffith shorts, along with longer pieces by him they had let sit on the shelf as punishment for trying to force them to release feature films. While these proved more popular than their dwindling new material, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, and it closed its doors before the year was out.

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

You might think that Keystone Studios would have suffered as badly after letting Charlie Chaplin walk out at the end of 1914, but Mack Sennett continued to produce cheap, popular comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops. also striking on the idea of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” this year, who became a hit, even if not as big a hit as Chaplin was. Keystone joined Griffith and Thomas Ince in the new Triangle Film Corporation, which marketed itself as the “upscale” artistic movie distributor.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had moved over to Essanay Studios, who promised him $1000 a week. By the end of the year, this was not enough for the star and he moved again, but not before producing great films like “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen” which showed his improvement as a director and maturity as a comedian. Essanay’s name was a play on S&A, after its founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was also known as “Broncho Billy,” and was star of hundreds of Western shorts. During 1915, they also signed Francis X. Bushman, a talented actor on his way to stardom.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Cecil B. DeMille was making a name for himself over at Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company. This company is one of the (many) tributaries that eventually merged into Paramount Studios, but came from humble beginnings. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille had made “The Squaw Man” from a barn near Los Angeles – which neither had visited before they started working there. In 1915, they brought out great work like “The Cheat” and “The Golden Chance.”

The last American company I want to talk about is the Mutual Film Corporation, which brought out “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 through one of its subsidiaries, Reliance-Majestic Studios. While “Birth” was a huge hit, Mutual had some problems, including litigation and censorship. Mutual’s name is on the landmark case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not subject to First Amendment protections. This, along with the defection of Reliance-Mutual to co-found Triangle later in the year, was a major setback, but they won a major coup in hiring Chaplin when he left Essanay, and today they are associated with most of his most popular shorts.

Again, this blog has a tendency to be more American-centric than I really want (that’s “where the light is better,” in film history, I’m afraid). But, let’s spend a little time catching up on some companies working in other countries.

In Russia we have Khanzhonkov Studios, which I’ve sung the praises of in connection with Evgeni Bauer and his fascinating films. Khanzhonkov also had animation pioneer Ladislav Starevich, who I hope to bring to this blog in coming months. Its owners were Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and Vasily Gonchorov, who had made the nationalist hit “Defense of Sevastopol” in 1911. They seem to have valued directors more than most American concerns, and made Bauer a partner in the concern, rather than argue with him over his pay.

In Germany there’s Messter Film, which later would be absorbed into the German film powerhouse UFA. Unlike France, which largely abandoned film production during the First World War, for Germany this was a time of increased production. At this time, Messter’s employees included Robert Wiene, future director of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

In Japan, which is regrettably unrepresented on my blog so far, the company Nikkatsu has been in business since 1912, when it was formed from a merger of several smaller studios. I believe Shozo Makino was working there in 1915, although at this time he’s in between remakes of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” probably Japan’s most frequently remade film story. Japan’s film industry had an interesting appendage at this time, the benshi, or narrator, who would appear at screenings to explain what was happening on the screen. These men were often bigger stars than the actors in the movies at the time.

Mr. Flip (1909)

Mr Flip

This fairly primitive slapstick comedy starring Ben Turpin has the distinction of being believed to contain the first example of a character hitting another character with a pie in the face for comedic effect. It wouldn’t surprise me if there actually is an earlier example, or indeed if the trope had been invented in vaudeville before hitting the movies, but this is the earliest one I’ve seen so far, so I’ll go along with it. The plot is quite thin. Turpin is a goofy-faced “masher” who goes to a variety of establishments which employ women and annoys them until they take revenge or humiliate him in some way. I laughed as much with surprise as with humor when the lady at the general store has him removed on a hand truck. The bit with him sitting on a pair of scissors at the manicurist is made funny by his body language, though it’s drawn out more than necessary. In addition to the pie-in-the-face at the restaurant, he is also sprayed with seltzer (another classic bit, though I’m not sure if this is the first instance) by the bartender and several patrons at a bar. It struck me that there is a kind of statement here about the harassment women working with the public had to put up with, and the humor comes in their being able to defend themselves, but Mr. Flip is certainly not a charming character.

Director: Gilbert Anderson

Starring: Ben Turpin

Run Time: 3 Mins, 45 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress (1912)

Broncho Billy Schoolmistress

The young Gibert M. Anderson was one of the founders of Essanay studios (the “A” of “S and A” is for “Anderson). He was a Jewish man from Arkansas, but to his many fans he was known on the screen as “Broncho Billy.” He directed himself ultimately in hundreds of Westerns, although apparently he never learned how to ride or throw a lasso. In this film, he is a charming but seemingly gullible cowpoke, who meets the new “school ma’am” when she arrives with the stage. Apparently this is a town with a lot of children for her to teach, but no other eligible young ladies, because all the men hanging around “Poppie’s Hotel” immediately take an interest in her, despite what I would call fairly plain looks. They also deride her small “ladies’ pistol” and concoct a plan to frighten her by faking a robbery. Billy, hoping to prevent any unpleasantness, volunteers to act the bandit, but he is shot by his rival from a bush when the girl pulls out her pistol. At first she is blamed for his injury, but reveals that her gun shoots only blanks, and the truth is revealed. In all, this movie goes a long way to establish the gender roles appropriate to the Western genre, but also does give the female lead some agency in foiling the bad guy’s plans.

Director: Gilbert M Anderson

Camera: Jess Robins

Starring: Gilbert M Anderson, Brinsley Shaw

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.