Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Harry Benham

An American in the Making (1913)

This short industrial safety film was produced for US Steel by Thanhauser, and contains some unusual narrative elements, some of which are hinted at in the title. Obviously intended to speak to new immigrants and unskilled laborers, part of the purpose was to reassure them that their employer cared about them and their aspirations.

The movie begins in the “old country,” where a young peasant (Harry Benham) receives a letter from a brother in America, who has saved enough money to get him passage to come to the USA. We see him at work in the field, and then he is called into the house by his aging parents who show him a letter written in a non-English (apparently Slavic) language. The next we know, he is arriving on Ellis Island, an awkward insert shot showing him with a tag pinned to his jacket identifying him for the customs officials. He walks out into the streets of New York and to Pennsylvania Station, still with the tag attached, and rides to Gary, Indiana, the “model workers’ city” established by US Steel. His brother meets him at the train and removes the tag from his jacket. They go into the city and the brother steers him away from a saloon and to the impressive edifice of the YMCA for off-hours entertainment.

Soon, he is at work, and we see safety signs in four languages, at least two of which are Eastern European. At this point the fictional narrative essentially grinds to a halt as the film strives to demonstrate various safety precautions and devices used on the job. We see a “universal symbol of danger” (in black and white it is a dark circle on white paper; I assume it’s meant to be red), a device for safely derailing oncoming trains when someone is working on the line, safety goggles, a guard for a table saw, and a large hand-protecting device that resembles a catcher’s mitt. We now see a variety of safety badges that workers can earn on the job. Then we see some depictions of the steelmaking process: large cauldrons with molten metal, a blast furnace, and crucibles pouring the lava-like substance into molds. It’s very visually dramatic, but loses both the thread of the story and any awareness of safety.

How do you work with this thing on?

Finally, we return to our immigrant hero, who is taking company-sponsored English classes. He is excelling, and his diligence has caught the attention of the pretty young teacher (Ethyle Cooke). She lets him walk her home and in the next scene we discover that they are happily married with a child, living in a pleasant suburban home on his fine wages (we don’t know whether she still works, one tends to assume not). Their son goes to a “model school” and plays in a playground built by the company. The movie ends with their smiling faces showing how a foreigner has found happiness in his new land.

Is this thing safe?

It’s pretty hard to make a safety film with an interesting story, but Thanhauser gave it a shot, and wound up making two movies that don’t hang together very well. The narrative part of the story demonstrates how a sober, hard-working young man from another country can assimilate in the United States, when encouraged by a benevolent employer like US Steel. The second movie is basically a series of safety demonstrations, in which the protagonist of the first film plays at best a supporting role, and is forgotten completely for some of the time. It’s interesting how much of the movie was shot on location, and that many of the unpaid “extras” stare openly at the camera or the performers. Part of the intention probably was to show off Gary and its pleasant working and living conditions.

The oddest part of the narrative for me was the ending, which seems to imply that there are enough single female schoolteachers in America to supply wives for all of the workers, and that an educated native-born woman would be readily available to an unskilled immigrant laborer. I had found myself wondering only moments before this sequence started what the prospects for meeting women in the apparently all-male society of Gary were like at the time, and the rather outlandish resolution only emphasized this further. I tend to think that the writers at Thanhauser found themselves written into a corner and did their best to fight their way out of it, but it only works with considerable suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s nice to see a movie from this period that seems to celebrate the “melting pot” concept rather than expressing xenophobia about immigration.

Director: Carl Gregory

Camera: Carl Gregory

Starring: Harry Benham, Ethyle Cooke, Leland Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Portrait of Lady Anne (1912)

Florence LaBadie has the title role in this one-reel morality play and costume drama from Thanhouser. Her acting presence shines through, and we get a look at what made her one of the first movie stars.

Portrait of Lady AnneThe movie begins in 1770, when the portrait is first hung in the home of a genteel colonial family. White men in blackface play the servants, and Florence takes center stage as she watches her own image hung in a prominent part of the house. Her suitor comes over, and, with her father’s indulgent permission, they take a walk together on the grounds. While they are out together, however, another woman rides up on horseback and greets them. An intertitle tells us that Anne is unreasonably jealous when her fiancé goes over to speak to this other woman and returns her dropped riding crop to her. Once the other woman has ridden off, she removes her engagement ring and throws it on the ground, walking off in a huff while her beau looks despondent. Soon, she’s entertaining another man and receives a note from the first telling her of his intention to go off to war with a broken heart. She immediately agrees when the new man proposes. The next scene shows her rocking the cradle of their child, but a scene of her first fiancé’s presumed death on the battlefield plays as a superimposition over her shoulder. She collapses from regret.

Portrait of Lady Anne1Now, the scene moves to modern times, and Florence plays an ancestor of the original Lady Anne. She shows off her resemblance to the portrait at a large party, and invites all the other girls to put on period costumes from the wardrobe. She dresses like her own ancestor in the portrait. The 140-year-old problem begins again when she sees her new boyfriend dancing with another woman, and she runs upstairs. While she’s sulking, the “spirit of Lady Anne” comes down from the portrait and dances with her man, now wanting to heal the mistake made so long ago. Modern Florence climbs down the trestle and sees him kiss the image of herself, then sees the portrait without its picture and somehow figures out what it going on. She manages to forgive him and the spirit is able to rest once again.

Portrait of Lady Anne2This very simple little film actually shows how sophisticated movies were getting by 1912. The story is simple enough, but here we see special effects, cross-cutting, and creative camera work, just to get across a very simple idea. The costumes may well have eaten up much of the budget, and I almost get the sense that this story was written to justify using as many colonial-era costumes (especially women’s costumes) as possible. The actors all seem to enjoy the opportunity to dress up and show their ability to act in the unfamiliar garb. I was impressed by the number of camera set-ups as well. The ballroom is actually seen from several angles, including from outside the window, signaling a very sophisticated approach to space, as opposed to the usual stages with entrances and exits that we see from this period. Finally, while most of the editing is chronological, the sequence in which the spirit of Lady Anne comes out of the portrait and is observed by her descendant is edited in simultaneous time, and this allows the tension to build as we wonder if the two Florences will somehow meet and interact.

Portrait of Lady Anne3Beyond the technical aspects, the other thing this movie highlights is the star power of Florence LaBadie, who truly lights up the screen in each scene. She goes through several challenging emotional shifts, as she has to become “insanely jealous” quite rapidly after being happy and contented, then show us her regrets and her sorrow, as well as keeping the two characters reasonably clear for the audience. She pulls all of it off well, using expressions and body language to express what words cannot. I only thought she was a bit overstated at one point – when the modern descendant sees the black portrait and mouths “Oh! I get it” to the camera, but on the whole she is a model of the best in silent film acting. It’s easy to see how her fans came to know and love her, even though Thanhouser refused to credit their actors publicly at the time.

Director: Lloyd Lonergan

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Florence LaBadie, William Russell, Harry Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (also on vimeo: here).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

This one-reel version of the oft-filmed story from Thanhouser represents an early effort to bring horror and special effects to the service of a sophisticated narrative, but uncertain history swirls around the movie nonetheless. Florence LaBadie and James Cruze star in this version of a man who separates the good and evil of his own nature with tragic results.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde MPWThe movie opens with a shot of what seems to be a medical journal, citing a doctor who claims that drugs can be used to “separate man into two beings,” one good and the other evil. Then an intertitle tells us that Dr. Jekyll plans to confirm this before we’ve been introduced to any of the characters. Finally, we see Jekyll at work in his laboratory, mixing chemicals. When he’s finished, he tries the brew and (no surprise to us) a dissolve replaces the kindly old doctor with a monstrous brute. Hyde, however, doesn’t seem to want to hang around and celebrate his success. He just takes a drink from another beaker and turns back into Jekyll. The next intertitle sets up his betrothal to Florence LaBadie, “the minister’s daughter,” and, indeed, we see the two of them out for a stroll on a lovely Spring day. Read the rest of this entry »

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.