Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Hh

His Last Game (1909)

This short film from Independent Moving Pictures (the I.M.P.) has many elements that would appear in later films by D.W. Griffith, but with a somewhat surprising ending. It uses baseball to tell a story of honor and racial strife.

The movie opens by telling us that the last game of the year is impending, with the Choctaw team facing the team from Jimtown. Bill Going, an Indian, is the star pitcher for Choctaw. We see Bill standing in front of the town bar and a large sign announcing the game. His teammates, most of whom appear to be white, come up and invite him to go drinking but he refuses, perhaps wanting to stay clear for the game. Another man in Indian garb with elaborate war feathers comes up and stands in the background as the team leaves for their drinks. Now, two gamblers in traditional Western clothing come up and offer Bill a generous pile of coins in order to throw the game. Bill counts out the coins several times, only to finally refuse. The gamblers go off to the bar together, and we see them spiking a drink in an insert shot, then they come back and offer the drink to Bill, who agrees at first, but then insists on switching drinks with one of them. When that one fails to drink, Bill throws his drink at him. Now, the gambler, outraged, pulls his gun. Bill quickly disarms and shoots him. Now the sheriff suddenly comes out of the bar, to see Bill shoot down a white man. The other Indian watches as the sheriff arrests him on the spot.

The next scene is labeled “swift Western justice” by an intertitle. We see a group of grave-diggers in the background, and Bill and the sheriff in the foreground. The Indian tries to remonstrate with the sheriff to no avail, but then Bill’s team arrive and they ask the sheriff to let him live long enough to pitch for them. The sheriff agrees, but insists that the other Indian stand in his place. If Bill doesn’t come back in time, he will execute this man instead. Bill and the Indian agree to the terms. The sheriff sends a note to the judge asking for a stay of execution, if Bill keeps his word. The next sequence shows the ball game, all shot from behind the home plate. We see the Jimtown players gain several bases, but then Bill runs up and pitches a shutout. The Choctaws win. The team carries Bill back to the bar on their shoulders, then offers him a large drink to celebrate. Bill is about to drink when he remembers his promise. He throws down the bottle and runs back to the grave site. The grave diggers are now a firing squad, and are just about to shoot the Indian when Bill arrives. He takes the man’s place, but the Indian signals that he hears hoofbeats, putting his ear to the ground in cliché fashion. Intercutting shows us that the messenger is indeed running back, but the sheriff doesn’t see anything in time, so the execution proceeds. The messenger rides over the hill just as Bill is shot and his body falls into the grave. The sheriff reads the note that would have saved Bill’s life, just seconds too late, and the team arrives to mourn his loss.

I.M.P. was one of the companies that later went into making Universal Pictures, and this movie was produced by Carl Laemmle, senior, the head of that operation. I.M.P. was also famous for defying the Edison Trust and operating independently, and this movie would have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of their operations and much of the American film industry at the time. They made movies for the burgeoning Nickelodeon market, and indeed Laemmle and his partners had started out as Nickelodeon theater owners. This movie demonstrates that concepts of editing which are often attributed to a later period had already come into use, if in rather primitive form, at the time. The inter-cutting between the messenger and the execution scene is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1911 film, “The Lonedale Operator,” although here the hero is unable to save the day in time. I found myself reflecting that if Bill had been white, the story probably would not have ended the same way. The “noble savage” story almost always had a tragic ending, however, and here Bill is killed by “swift Western justice” that has no sympathy for his situation or ethical behavior. Bill’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting – he never actually drinks, but is repeatedly tempted by drink and appears eager to do so, each time realizing just in time that it would be a mistake. Also interesting was the decision to shoot the entire ball game from a single angle, one in which the players frequently obscure the action from the camera. Showing baseball to audiences was still a new thing at the time, and more sophisticated ways to demonstrate it were yet to be developed. Note that the scene of the two gamblers drinking shows the I.M.P. logo prominently – still a common practice at the time to discourage film piracy.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. You can see a brief segment here.

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The Hat with Many Surprises (1901)

This short film from Georges Méliès plays on the classic magician’s act of pulling things (no rabbits, in this case) out of a silk hat. It reflects his increasing comfort with the use of camera trickery to make things appear and disappear.

Méliès walks onto a stage in classic magician’s garb, with a cloak and a top hat. The set is dressed to be the interior of a comfortable apartment, with a portrait and a cabinet in the background. The first surprises actually come from the cloak. He takes it off and uses it to conjure a table, then it turns from a black cloak to a white tablecloth. Then he turns back to the hat, and produces from it plates, glasses, napkins, a decanter, and other table settings. Then, he looks a bit thoughtful and suddenly there is a fan in his hand. He fans it and it becomes larger, and then he fans the hat and it suddenly becomes an over-sized cardboard cutout of a hat. From this, he is able to pull out four chairs, and then the dinner companions: a squabbling couple and then a king and queen are produced. He calls forth a maid to begin serving them. Then, having completed the trick, he suddenly leaps onto the table, which crashes through the floor. The portrait comes to life and begins berating the diners, who flee in terror. Méliès re-appears and takes a bow, incidentally turning the hat and cloak back to normal.

There’s not too much here we haven’t seen before, but Méliès is always a fun presence. He’s fairly subdued in this until the end, not leaping about or being overly animated, just letting the illusions carry the story forward. Of course, much of this movie would have worked nearly as well on stage, but he quickly took it to places that only the cinema would allow. So far as I can see, there was no internal logic to the final chaos – it was just a funny way to end the film. I certainly wasn’t expecting the portrait to suddenly come to life, that was probably the biggest surprise of all!

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

How He Missed His Train (1900)

This short trick film from Georges Méliès plays on themes of transformation and frustration we’ve seen from him before. Once again, he shows his proficiency with effects and presents a whimsical acting style.

A man (Méliès, with a wig and false mustache) rises from bed and prepares to put on his clothes. He seems to be in a bourgeois apartment or possibly a nice hotel room, and there is a large picture window behind him, with a painted backdrop depicting Paris from an upper-story window. The man begins to pull on his vest, but suddenly there is an edit and he is pulling his trousers over his arm. He hits himself on the head, perhaps thinking he needs some coffee, and starts to put on the pants, but as soon as he gets one leg up to his knee, they suddenly become a shirt. He tries this several times, with the pants turning into a coat, vest, or a shirt each time he starts to put them on. Finally, he throws this garment to the ground and starts to pull on a boot, only to find that he has his hat on his foot. He puts the hat on his head and it becomes a boot again. With that, he gives up and climbs back into bed.

I’ve said that cinema is the realm of dream, and this movie reminds me of anxiety dreams I’ve had, especially when I’m stressed out about catching something like a plane (or train) the next morning. The film is really just another variation on the theme of “The Bewitched Inn,” in which a traveler is prevented by supernatural occurrences from being able to relax, but there’s a ring of truth to it, that somehow the simplest of tasks becomes impossible when you have a deadline to meet. Méliès is particularly amusing in this one-man show, seeming bemused by his absent-mindedness at first, then determined to overcome the difficulties, and finally resigned to sleep in.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

His Wedding Night (1917)

Another early collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, this once again puts Arbuckle and Al St. John into roles as customer service flunkies competing for the same girl. This time, though, Keaton gets drunk and dresses as a girl. Fun times!

In this movie, “Fatty” (identified as such in the intertitles) runs a soda fountain. He arrives at work to find two nurses collecting for the Red Cross, and cleverly transfers a dollar from one’s plate to the other’s, making it look like he’s made a donation. Then, he goes in and uses Al St. John and his boss as coat racks while he gets ready for his shift. He starts cleaning up his station and serving out soda, using the same implements for both tasks. Then, a young lady comes into the shop to sample some perfume, doling out generous portions on herself. Fatty runs over with a sign reading, “$4 an oz,” and she goes away angry. Meanwhile, a large black woman has come in behind Fatty and she drinks some of the over-priced sample, as well as putting it on her neck. Fatty turns back around and hugs her, thinking that it’s still the other young woman. When she turns around we see that the paint has come off and she has “$4 an oz” on her behind (a troubling joke within living memory of slavery).

The intertitles now introduce the pharmacist’s daughter, played by Alice Mann. She is of course the love interest. Fatty coaxes her into some shy kisses, then gives her a ring. They share a soda together. Fatty has to go out to run the gas pumps, which leaves Alice alone with Al, who now shares some watermelon with her. Fatty charges 26 cents for gas to a poor man, then when a rich limousine pulls up, he switches the sign to say $1.00. Al asks for Alice’s hand, but she tells him she’s already engaged. Al starts crying and Alice hits him with the watermelon. Soon Al is choking Alice and they both have watermelon parts all over them. Fatty clocks Al on the head to break it up, then throws Al across the room onto a table of customers. The fight escalates and ice cream is thrown all around the store until the pharmacist comes in and gets hit in the face. He asks what it is all about and seems pleased with Alice’s choice. When Al tries to protest, he is booted in the pants and sent packing.

Now, Buster shows up as the man delivering the dress for the wedding. He arrives on a bike and does a classic pratfall for his entrance. Having poked his eye, he now has an uncontrollable wink. Fatty sees this and interprets it as a request for alcohol, so he clandestinely serves Buster a beer, also providing him with a bar for his foot a spittoon and sawdust, all of which Buster, apparently unknowingly, makes use of. Once he’s done with his beer he brings Alice her dress, and she brings the apparently still drunk young man up to her room. Once she sees the dress, she insists that she see it worn, and Buster starts to undress. She’s shocked and motions him to leave, but he goes behind a screen and changes into the dress! She appears thrilled, as crazy as the situation is, and has him model it, still winking, around the room.

Meanwhile, Fatty’s been getting up to no good himself downstairs. Having grown tired of people “sampling” the expensive perfume (the latest customer is a man, who acts flamboyantly effeminate), he now replaces it with chloroform. When a young woman knocks herself out by trying it, he decides to steal a kiss. Unfortunately, the pharmacist is nearby watching, so he sprays him as well so that he won’t see Fatty cheating on his daughter. Eventually, he gives her a sniff of some smelling salts to wake her up and send her on her way. When the next woman comes in, however, Fatty’s evil plans are thwarted. She apparently thrives on chloroform, applying it liberally to her neck, spraying it around herself, even drinking from the bottle! When she leaves, Fatty can’t resist trying some, and he quickly falls over.

Meanwhile, Al’s even more evil plans are now afoot. He and his cohorts plan to abduct Alice and force her into marriage. They arrive and are able to make off with a woman in a dress and a veil – which of course is Buster! When Fatty and the pharmacist hear about the raid, however, they assume Alice is taken and mount a rescue effort. This involves Fatty in one of the funniest sequences involving a determined man and a stubborn mule, which climaxes with the mule sitting right on Fatty! Eventually, Fatty shows up and uses his great strength to capture the captive, only to realize the mistaken identity and hurl Buster back into the den of thieves bodily. He and Alice of course end up together, and the minister apparently won’t marry Al and Buster, so all is well.

I feel like this takes a lot of the themes we saw in “The Butcher Boy” and improves on them, although there is some problematic (by today’s standards) humor – especially the racial humor involving the black woman and the joking about date rape drugs. This latter probably didn’t do Arbuckle any favors when the press was smearing his name after the death of Virginia Rappe, and it wouldn’t go over well with the #metoo movement either. Still, there are so many gags here, and so many of them are indisputably great gags, that nearly everyone will find a laugh somewhere. I was particularly impressed with Buster’s drunk drag sequence and with Arbuckle and the mule. The bit where Arbuckle essentially “builds a bar” around Keaton was also a charming bit, especially for someone who appreciates old-time bars. I saw the sawdust coming even before he pulled it out! This is just a few years before Prohibition was passed in the United States, and there were some areas where the sale of alcohol was already illegal or highly restricted, so the gag would make sense to most audiences of the day.

Director: Roscoe Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe Arbuckle, Alice Mann, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Josephine Stevens, Natalie Talmadge, Alice Lake

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

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

His Bitter Pill (1916)

This Western spoof from Keystone has some funny parts, but much of it is played surprisingly straight, or at least low-key, by the standards of the studio. It stars Mack Swain, who had been, and would again be, a “heavy” in Charlie Chaplin comedies, but had a number of starring roles himself.

Swain plays “Big-Hearted Jim,” the sheriff of a Western county. He lives with his mother (Ella Haines), and hankers after Nell, the girl next door (Louella Maxam). While he tries to chat her up, a local ne’er-do-well called Diamond Dan (Edgar Kennedy) gets one of his cronies to “start some legal trouble” so he can horn in. The crony goes into the bar and starts shooting at the ceiling, which causes Big Jim to come crashing in and beat up everyone in the place. He makes no arrests, just leaving the unfortunate rowdies lying on the floor, then he returns to find Nell talking to Dan. He pulls her away, but soon he has to go see about a local widow being evicted from her place. He pays her rent for her, but once again Diamond Dan is on the spot. Jim walks Nell home, and goes back to his mother. She convinces him to ask Nell to marry him, giving him her ring for the proposal. But, by the time he gets there, Dan has already given her a bigger ring! Nell reluctantly tells him she’s always loved him…”as a brother.” He goes home and weeps piteously into his mother’s arms.

While he’s letting out his sorrow, Dan and his pals decide to hold up a stagecoach. As a result of unfortunate planning, they do so in full view of Jim’s house, and he pulls out a pocket telescope and figures out what’s going on. He leaps from his window onto a waiting horse, then charges into action. The bandits scatter, but Jim is able to shoot their moving horses at considerable distance. His mom meanwhile rouses a posse. He pursues Dan, after de-horsing him, back to Nell’s place. But, Dan tells Nell that Jim is just jealous, so she agrees to hide him in the chimney. There’s a funny sequence in which Jim suspects where Dan is, and he deliberately starts a fire in the fireplace to smoke him out, but Dan leaves his boots behind and climbs on the rooftop. Finally, Jim finds Dan and Nell pleads with him to spare his life. Jim gives Dan his horse, then goes to find the posse. Dan sneaks back to the house and “lures” Nell into running away with him to a “back room in a hell hole” which just looks like any saloon. He tries to get her to drink whiskey, but she refuses. Jim, who is having a drink in the outer bar, overhears the commotion and bursts in, once again fighting every ruffian in the place to save her. Jim pretty much trashes the place, but Dan is able to abduct Nell and ride off again, so there’s another chase. Finally, Dan is caught by the posse and Nell tells Jim she loves him, while we see the posse preparing to lynch Dan. The end.

This spoof probably held up better at a time when making fun of silent Westerns was a more original idea. Mack Swain is very hammy, and particularly when he’s grieving for Nell’s loss he goes way over the top, but to some degree that’s what a modern audience is expecting, so it can be hard to remember that it’s deliberate. Edgar Kennedy literally twirls his mustaches as the evil Diamond Dan, but again that’s pretty much par for the course. Sometimes it’s hard to make fun of something that’s already self-parodying. The physical comedy sections are played up in fast-motion, which does make them entertaining, but they don’t seem as extreme as other Keystones, and the whole thing lacks the refined chaos I expect from Mack Sennett (who produced, but didn’t direct in this case). It’s mostly Swain’s innocent sympathy that makes this movie work, and that at least is something.

Director: Fred Fishback

Camera: J.R. Lockwood

Cast: Mack Swain, Louella Maxam, Edgar Kennedy, Ella Haines

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Hazards of Helen, episode 13 (1915)

Alternate (episode) Title: Escape on the Fast Freight

This episode of what the long-running movie serial displays Helen Holmes at the height of her powers as “Helen,” a plucky telegrapher who winds up saving the day – again. If reports are accurate, she was also an uncredited director, making this an even more important piece of the history of women in film.

This movie begins with Helen at work. She receives and decodes a message, then gets up and pulls a switch that brings a locomotive to a halt in the station outside. As she accepts a large strongbox of money from the conductor, two shifty-looking tramps look on. They are thrown off the train by a man with a badge, who then comes over and assists Helen with the cart carrying the money box. They get it into her office, but neglect to bring the receipt, which the tramps find, learning that there’s $1500 in the office. Helen and the sheriff are unable to get the large box into her safe, so they leave it on the floor. As soon as the sheriff leaves, the tramps rush in with a gun. A rather complex cross-cut sequence begins with the sheriff outside, the tramps in the office, and Helen inside of a closet, where the tramps have shoved her after securing the room. They find the key and open the box, but Helen starts shouting for help. The sheriff doesn’t hear, but he does hear the gunshot that the tramps respond with. Helen, we see, has ducked just in time. Whew!

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Hope – A Red Cross Seal Story (1912)

Similar to “The Usurer’s Grip,” this is another educational short from Edison that was made in collaboration with a nonprofit, in this case the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (which has since become the American Lung Association). The thin plot serves as a framework for educating the public about the disease, although depictions of medical procedures or symptoms are avoided.

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How They Rob Men in Chicago (1900)

AKA: “How They Welcome Strangers in Chicago”

This short comedy from the Biograph studio pokes fun at urban crime. In its short running time, it manage to make a sly New York observation about the corruption of another city as well.

A man dressed as a “swell” walks onto a set representing a city street, with stores in the background. He stops and turns as a woman walks by smiling at him, and this allows a nearby thug to approach him from behind and “sap” him with a blackjack. He goes down, and the mugger grabs what he can before running off. A policeman walks on set from the other direction, and noticing the unconscious man, he leans down. Rather than helping him, he removes another item from the victim and pockets it before leaving.

New York and Chicago, as two of the largest cities in the US, have long had a friendly rivalry over their relative conditions and safety. At the time this movie was made, Chicago’s police force were untrained patrolmen who had to pay a share of their wages to political bosses, and many of them supplemented their earnings through graft and bribes. The Biograph company, located in New York, also a locus of criminal and police collusion, took advantage of the known situation in their rival city to produce this film. I admit, the policeman’s actions got a laugh out of me over a hundred and fifteen years after its production.

Director: Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

 

Homunculus (1916)

I want to apologize to my readers for the unexpected delay in posting. I had planned to review this film shortly after my discussion of Part 4 of “Les Vampires,” based on my memory of a partial viewing I had at New York’s Museum of Modern Art around the year 2000. I don’t usually do that, but my understanding was that prints were so rare that I wasn’t likely to get another viewing. But, when I started researching to write the article, I found that there is an incomplete (but longer than what I saw before) version on the Internet! Obviously, I had to take the time to look at it and update my notes.

homunculus_-_teil_6_1917_filmplakat“Homunculus” was a serial released in Germany at the height of the First World War, and it’s a pretty remarkable movie. Its lead actor, the Dane Olaf Fønss, was reputedly paid more for this film than any actor in Germany had received so far. It fully realizes the technical and artistic potential of cinema’s achievements at this time, despite the fact that it was produced during a period of extreme budget limitations on European film making. It also happens to be a ripping good story.

homunculusThe story is that a group of scientists, led by a Professor Ortmann, produce a living human child using scientific processes – a “homunculus.” This creature is human in every way, except that he cannot experience love. He does experience all other emotions, however, apparently including considerable frustration that he cannot experience love. The professor raises him as his son, not telling him who and what he is, until he reaches the age of 25, when he discovers the truth for himself. He now learns that women have a propensity for loving him, although he cannot return this feeling. This results in various tragic situations, wherein he drives young women to suicide. His frustration with the situation causes him to declare a war against humanity, vowing to spread fear and terror. He goes to a Middle Eastern society and is able to use “superhuman abilities” to cure the local Prince, but soon the locals decide that he must be in league with the devil and pursue him. There is a woman in love with him here, as well, but there is also a dog that gets killed by the crowd, which upsets him rather a lot for a man who doesn’t feel love.

homunculus3When he returns to Germany, he becomes involved with a large company on its board of directors, due once again to his remarkable skill. He uses his influence to create increasingly oppressive working conditions for the laborers. Then, at night, he dresses as a worker and rouses the workers to revolt with stirring speeches against the bosses. Thus, he creates the conditions for increasing chaos and strife. Along the way, a young worker girl finds out who he is and what he is doing, and even though she opposes him, she falls in love with him as well. According to the German Wikipedia entry, he plans to use her to breed a new race of humans, although this didn’t happen in either version I saw.

I also only know the ending from reading about it: apparently Dr. Ortmann creates another Homunculus to destroy him. After this one grows up (another 22 years), there is a climactic clash in the mountains, in which Homunculus is destroyed and an avalanche crushes his leagues of human followers.

homunculus4I’m going to go slightly out on a limb and declare that “Homunculus” can be seen as an early example of Expressionism in German film. It’s not as visually creative as “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it operates in a world where feelings and emotions determine outcomes and actions, and it uses light and shadow to display the characters’ inner worlds. It didn’t invent Expressionism, which was already a movement in painting and drama before it came to the screen. There’s also a lost 1915 version of “Der Golem,” which, for all I know, may have been even more Expressionist than Homunculus. However, this movie definitely plays with themes that we will see associated with Expressionism repeatedly when we get a few years further into this project: The “created man” or Homunculus, which comes up in “Der Golem,” in variations on “Frankenstein,” and in “Metropolis,” and the “dopplegänger” or double, which we’ve already seen in “Der Student von Prague” and will see again in Caligari’s dual identity and again in “Metropolis.”

homunculus5The creation sequence for “Homunculus” may have been more influential, in fact, on later versions of “Frankenstein” than was the 1910 Edison version. This one shows classic white-coated scientists in a laboratory with bubbling beakers and electrical equipment. The actual device they take the baby out of looks sort of like a glass art deco statue – but it also is slightly reminiscent of the coiled devices you see scattered around the 1931 lab. Interestingly, both versions of the movie I have seen frequently flashback to the creation sequence – but I don’t know for certain whether these versions have been re-edited from the original serial. Homunculus’s look is also somewhat prescient of F.W. Murnau’s Mephistopheles, although he also reminds me of Sarek, from “Star Trek.” He wears a cape a lot of the time, like later vampires would, at least after Bela Lugosi. I think Fønss does an excellent job with the role; though perhaps his performance will be too overwrought for some tastes, I find the intensity and violence he displays to be fairly compelling, and appropriate for a villain in an Expressionist horror film.

homunculus2The thing that really stood out to me when I watched this years ago is the way it seems to predict Adolf Hitler: a man who simultaneously whips up class resentment and encourages the repression that causes it, who seems to be incapable of love and declares war against the world, yet who has the ability to charm followers (and women) and gain access to the wheels of power. Certain aspects of Homunculus’s slogans seem to prefigure fascist hardline positions: “The globe will tremble under the wrath of the people.” Today, I think what this really reflects is the horror of the First World War and the degree to which two years of trench warfare was traumatizing the German people and its culture and politics, even at this time. If you really come right down to it, there are as many differences between Homunculus and Hitler as there are similarities – it’s just that a brutal and charismatic leader seemed more possible in Germany by this time than ever before, and the filmmakers have tapped into that current.

Director: Otto Rippert

Camera: Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Olaf Fønss, Friedrich Kühne, Mechthildis Thein, Lore Rückert

Run Time: 6 hrs (total, 6 episodes), just over an hour available.

You can watch as much of it as I’ve seen for free: here.