Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ii

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.

Unacceptable Behavior

Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor  for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.

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The Infernal Cauldron (1903)

Alternate Titles: The Infernal Caldron and the Phantasmal Vapors, Le Chaudron infernal

This short trick film from Georges Méliès continues my “history of horror” for October, 2018. Now 115 years old, it shows that some of the effects of cinema have aged well.

Méliès, dressed as a demon (the Star Films catalog informs us he is “Belphegor, executioner of Hell”), dances in front of a large boiling cauldron, on a set dressed like a Renaissance castle, with leering devil masks on the walls. Three women (two apparently dressed as men, wearing swords) are led into the chamber, and one at a time thrown into the pot. Another demon comes forth to stir the pot and Belphegor makes some magical gestures, producing more smoke. Suddenly, the smoke resolves itself into three ghostly figures, which fly about the room over Belphegor’s head, evidently frightening him. The ghosts turn into fireballs which whip around the room. Méliès leaps into the cauldron after they have disappeared, and the cauldron and demon disappear in a puff of smoke.

Although it looked to me as if the victims were having their revenge (in a plot reminiscent of “The Golden Beetle” by Segundo de Chomón), the Star Films catalog suggests a different narrative, more in line with Catholic theology. The condemned souls have been separated from their bodies by the cauldron, and at the end Belphegor turns them into Will-O-The-Wisps, “who must forever remain with the vast concourse of Satan’s victims.” The disappearance of Belphegor at the end is apparently voluntary, since his work is now complete. The catalog also makes quite a big deal about the transparent flying ghosts, calling it, “A very fascinating and absolutely new trick.” There have been some ghosts in Méliès before this, including the semi-transparent one in “A Fantastical Meal,” but these spirits do seem somewhat more nebulous and sophisticated to me. I would imagine that producing an effect for the audience was ultimately more Méliès’s interest than making a coherent or spiritually consistent storyline.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Infernal Cake-Walk (1903)

Alternate Titles: Le Cake-walk infernal

With October now well under way, it’s time to return to my traditional “history of horror” posts. For this outing, I’ve chosen a short dance movie from Georges Méliès which meshes Satanic themes and colonialism.

The movie begins in a cavern with flames shooting up from various places in the floor. A group of young women dressed as demons (perhaps succubi?) dance across the floor, and then some male demons perform tumbling tricks. Soon, a fellow dressed like a biblical prophet appears and chases them all away, but he removes his outer clothes and is revealed to be Satan himself (played by Méliès). First he dances with a fireball in his hand, which grows in proportion until he throws it down. He summons two cake-walk dancers, a black man and woman, who perform their dance and are joined by a group of young women. Now a large cake is brought out by evidently African servants, and a new demon leaps forth from it. This fellow has a humped back and knobby knees, but despite his deformities proves to be an excellent cake-walk dancer. He performs for some time, and during the dance first his legs, then his arms detach themselves and dance independently. He disappears and all of the demons, damned souls, and dancers reappear and dance together on stage until Satan reappears and they vanish in a puff of smoke. Satan disappears through a trap door in the stage.

Because it’s mostly dancing, I was able to summarize the action pretty succinctly, however this is a fairly long movie for Méliès: over five minutes long. Not so long as “A Trip to the Moon,” but well above the earlier 1-2 minute films he was making. There are a number of intriguing aspects. The “female demons” I mentioned above have horns, but their striped costumes made me think of bees. The “male demons” are actually wearing the masks of the Selenites from “A Trip to the Moon” (having gone to the bother of making so many masks, I guess Méliès wanted to get more use out of them). The black dancers appear to be wearing makeup, but from their hair and features I think they may have been actually of African descent, not white Frenchmen in blackface. The cake-bearers are wearing black full-bodysuits, so I think they actually are white people. The Star Film Catalog tells us that the biblical-prophet-looking-guy is really Plato who has returned from a journey to the Earth to show off the cake walk dance. I suppose that Plato has to be in Hell because he was a pagan; Dante places him there in the “Inferno.” Still, it’s interesting that he serves the function of a colonial explorer bringing back exotic foreign dances to Hell. The dancers and cake bearers are to all intents and purposes captured slaves. Since recent analyses of “A Trip to the Moon” have argued that Méliès was making a point about the evils of colonialism, it’s interesting to see this movie as suggesting its origin with the Devil himself. Still, I suspect that for audiences then and today, this is mostly a fun romp of effects and dances.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, others

Run Time: 5 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Indian Land Grab (1910)

This short film from the Champion studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, was screened at the Cinecon film festival this year, so I was able to see it only once. It takes a sympathetic approach to Native American issues and even violates later standards about portraying inter-racial relationships.

The movie begins by telling us through forward-facing Intertitles that the “young chief” is being sent to Washington (D.C.) to plead the case of the tribe to congress. Each scene in the movie consists of a single shot, and each shot is preceded by an Intertitle which predicts all of the action that follows. A group of Senators and lobbyists plot against the Indians, to pass a “land grab” bill, and one Senator asks his daughter to “distract” the chief while he is in town, and she does her best to attract his eye. He gives a speech before a group of white men in chambers, however when it comes time to give the critical speech before the vote, she insists that he dance with her at a ball. He rushes in too late to speak before the vote and accuses the Senator of “theft and prostitution.” When he returns to his tribe, they strip him of his war bonnet and prepare to kill him with tomahawks, but at the last moment the daughter emerges from the forest with a letter from the President, promising to let them keep their land “for all eternity.” The daughter now tells the chief that she loves him and wishes to stay with his people. They kiss.

Although the movie attempts to give a more balanced view than many of the time, it still comes across as very simplistic in its portrayal of both people and situations, and is very old-fashioned in its approach to storytelling. By 1910, it was not unusual to see more of the story told through visuals, or at least to have the Intertitles act as adjuncts, rather than narrators, to the action on screen. The Indians are consistently in full war-dress, although these costumes are the only elaborate props in the movie and the sets are minimal. I think we see four or five different sets, and a lot of the action takes place in a sparse hallway outside of the chambers of Congress. I’m not the only one to be surprised by the ending – according to the liner notes from Cinecon, reviewers at the time referred to the kiss as “offensive” or “repugnant.”

Director: Unknown, possibly Mark M. Dintenfass

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

This rare film is not available on the Internet at this time. Please let me know if you see it online or in a home video format.

Interrupted Bathers (1902)

This short comedy from Edison by Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming uses several tropes that will be familiar to comedy fans from any era. It is a very simple movie, with a quick punchline at the end, that plays on the viewer’s expectations and desires.

interrupted-bathersWe see the bank of a stream or possibly a small lake, shot from the water, with a line of shrubbery in the back. There is a woman reclining there, amid various scraps of clothing. Three other women frolic in the water, splashing one another and themselves with water. Two men dressed as hobos come out of a hole in the bushes, and approach the reclining woman. She screams and runs off and the women in the water splash at the men. They gather up the clothes and wave at the women as they leave. The women swim toward the left side of the screen and disappear. After a jump cut, we see a woman cross the screen left to right, wearing a barrel to cover her lack of clothing.

The thing that stands out about this movie is that all of the women in the water appear to be fully clothed. I suppose that they might be wearing demure bathing suits of the period, but to me it looks like they are just swimming in their street clothes. That makes the entire conflict of the film, and its punch line, seem a bit silly. However, in all likelihood, an audience at the time understood that a woman could not just climb out of the water in a bathing suit or whatever it was she wore and allow herself to be seen in public. It’s also possible that Porter assumed that the audience would understand that the women were “really” nude, even though they could see clothing. At any rate, wearing a barrel (which may have already been established on the vaudeville stage) would continue to be a comedic symbol of modesty and nudity in movies and cartoons for decades.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

 

The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

immigrant1

Hey, at least he’s upright!

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Intolerance (1916)

Probably the most talked about film of 1916, “Intolerance” remains a kind of enigma to film historians. Despite the large amount of ink and computer bytes shed writing about it (see the bibliography at the end of this review for a small sample), it seems no better understood than most of the more typical releases of the year. What is this movie that has inspired so much discussion and debate? Is it one of the most important movies in history or just a giant flop?

Intolerance_(film)

Quick Summary

Regular readers of my blog know I usually begin each review with a recap of the action from the film – I don’t worry too much about “spoiling” 100-year-old movies, but if you want to see it first, you can always scroll down to the link and then come back and read the review. In this case, I’m going to be a bit less specific about the sequence of events and just give a summary of the stories, not accounting for the editing or sequence. In part,  this is because there are several different movies today calling themselves “Intolerance,” and deciding which is the “most authentic” is one of the sources of debate among scholars. It is complicated by the fact that the director, D.W. Griffith, kept making changes for each new re-release of the movie, beginning shortly after the premier on September 5, 1916. Some have argued that the 1917 re-release is more definitive, or even that the version Griffith reconstructed in 1922 after chopping up the print to release one of the storylines as a separate film is the most accurate. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art attempted to reconstruct the movie based on the score written by Joseph Carl Breil for the opening night, in an attempt to get back to an “original” form, but it needs to be noted that this reconstruction is highly debated, and that it is possible that most viewers in 1916 were seeing a quite different movie. Read the rest of this entry »

Interior New York City Subway (1905)

Alternate Title: Interior N.Y. subway, 14th St. to 42nd St.

This is a surprisingly artful “actuality” film, showing the New York City subway for people all over the country who had only heard or read about it. This is a great example of how the cinema brought people from all over the country (and world) together, and established iconic images that everyone would recognize, even if they had never seen the original.

Interior New York SubwayThis film consists of a single long shot taken from the front of a train following another train. The train we follow is in actual service – it stops at stations and lets people on and off, but “our” train (which we never see) simply keeps pace with it. Another train runs on the side track, with a platform full of lighting equipment, which makes it possible to see the train in front (and the tunnels), but it also sometimes comes into view of the camera. The train runs, according to the notes of cameraman Billy Bitzer, from 14th Street to 42nd, and we can see signs that say “Grand Central” when it pulls into the final station, which suggests that we are following the course of the modern-day 6 train, which I believe was part of the Interborough Rapid Transit (IRT) line at the time. This train must be an express, because it doesn’t stop at all of the stations we pass through.

Interior New York Subway1Much of this film shows us racing along in a dark tunnel, with just the back of the train ahead of us visible. We only get a square of light, with the girders of the tunnel appearing and disappearing as the light passes over them, and then an occasional station, which we don’t see very well, because we are looking ahead, not to the sides. It’s a lot like what you see when you stare out the front of a subway train, which I have always found somewhat hypnotic. I should mention that I grew up in New York City, and I regularly rode the Subway for family outings (eg: to the Bronx Zoo) and later every day to get to High School. Today, many of my worst nightmares, or more precisely, anxiety dreams, are set in the subway system: usually the theme is that I have a destination, but I miss my stop, or go to the wrong tracks and can’t find a way to the right ones, or am otherwise prevented from getting to my destination. I have this dream most frequently when I am stressed out about a task which seems endless or impossible, or when I am feeling frustrated and hopeless. The images of this movie invoked that dream-landscape for me, but happily without the accompanying stress. I was able to accept that I was just along for the ride, and enjoyed it, knowing it would end soon enough.

Director: Billy Bitzer

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Unknown subway riders

Run Time: 6 Min

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

The Irresistible Piano (1907)

Alternate Title: Le piano irrésistible

This is another of Alice Guy’s slightly surreal comedies about apartment life, as with “The Cleaning Man.” This is one of those comedies that takes advantage of the silence of the film in order to suggest sounds to the viewer’s imagination.

Irresistible PianoA man in a tall hat and a formal suit is moving into an apartment, and the moving men bring in his piano. As soon as they leave, he takes off his hat and sits down to play. The moving men bring in more furniture, but they begin to dance along with the rhythm of the piece. We cut to the apartment downstairs, where a couple is taking tea, and they also begin to dance. They dance out of the door and we cut back to the original apartment. They come in, apparently intending to complain, but they continue dancing instead. Another couple is engaged in housework, but they are also compelled by the music to begin dancing, and they also dance out their door to find its source. Now we see a group of women working for a dressmaker, sewing and making clothes. They also get the bug and start dancing, heading out to find the jamboree going on in the upstairs apartment. Finally, a passing policeman hear the noise and goes to investigate, but he also begins compulsively dancing. When he enters the room it is a huge party of people dancing to the piano. The pianist tries to end his piece, but the crowd will have none of it – they force him back to the keys. They seem to slow down as the piano player becomes increasingly tired, and he finally stops, slumped over the piano, and all the dancers stop and look at one another.

Irresistible Piano1This movie is a fairly simple one-trick-pony, but it does involve multiple set-ups and shots edited together in sequence. The fun part is that we can’t really hear what the music of the pianist sounds like, though we can see its rhythm in the movements of the dancers. In that sense, it may actually work better without a soundtrack, just allowing your imagination to supply the music. It’s interesting to me how often silent movies rely on the sound that characters would hear to augment their story – as if having to work without the sense of hearing made filmmakers more creative in its depiction. The characters in this movie seem to vary from middle class (the first couple and the dressmaker), to working class (the second couple and the dressmaker’s employees), and perhaps part of the point is the unifying nature of music.

Director: Alice Guy (possibly with help from Louis Feuillade)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy or Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 10 secs

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

Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913)

Inside of the White Slave Traffic

This move was an early example of a combination exploitation-and-message-picture. Ostensibly produced by a sociologist (who thanks “Every Sociologist from Atlantic to Pacific” in the opening credits), it claims to portray the actual daily lives of pimps and prostitutes, drawing audiences in with the promise of salacious (but actually absent) details. This would be an approach taken by exploitation producers to avoid censorship for at least the next 70 years.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic1Most of this story centers around Annie, who is a “good girl, who works hard” in a sweatshop, but it begins with a short prologue about Mary, a woman already caught up in prostitution. Mary is George, the procurer’s, “best girl.” She gets arrested and George goes to court with a mouthpiece to bail her out. Then, George meets Annie and takes her out for drinks, spiking them. When Annie wakes up at his apartment, she is horrified, and runs home, where her father throws her out for having lost her purity. She goes back to George, who takes her to a phony preacher and pretends to marry her. He then puts her up “with friends” while he pretends to look for a job. Soon, he sells her to one of his associates for $300, and he takes her to New Orleans, where he makes it clear what she is expected to do. She keeps the money she makes for herself and runs away to Denver and later Houston, where no one will give her a job because of “the system.” So, she returns to her new pimp, and agrees to try working, but, as soon as she meets a man on the street, a cop chases him off and arrests her. She is “rehabilitated” and works at a department store for a while, but she gets tired of her low pay and returns to her pimp, who puts her back to work. She fantasizes about her former happy family life, but returns to harsh reality. When she dies, she is buried in a potter’s field with no name on her gravestone marker.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic2In fairness, the surviving print of this movie is incomplete, so some of the inconsistencies and jumps in the storyline above should be forgiven. Still, it seems like an awfully inefficient model for organized crime. In the footage we see, her pimp pays $300 for her (worth at least $5000 in today’s money, or a lot more depending on how you measure it), but he only makes a few dollars off her before she is arrested. Meanwhile, he has to pay for telegrams to Houston, Denver, and throughout “the system,” apparently. Criminals like this wouldn’t stay in business very long. It seems to me they would need to have a more effective means of convincing her to work for them than the elaborate plot about faking a marriage and giving her free room and board for weeks or months as well. Finally, as I suggested above, there is nothing at all racy about the content, even by the standards of movies at the time. “Trilby” and “Carmen” showed more skin, and those women did a much better job of implying their availability than the uptight Annie and Mary ever do. They take off their hats in a couple of scenes, but that’s about as far as they go.

Inside of the White Slave Traffic4

As sexy as it gets.

Still, there are some interesting things about this movie. Most of it is shot in the standard “square” format on cramped sound stages with painted flats in the background (you’ll laugh out loud at the attempt at painting perspective on the Dept. Store flat). However, there are brief glimpses of city streets from the period that are fascinating. Some of these are unmistakably New York (watch for the “ell” trains), and the ones ostensibly in Denver are definitely in a rugged Western city with dirt sidewalks and cow hands roving around. The background characters are not extras, they are real people of the time, and their fashions and appearances are informative. As usual at the time, however, these shots are annoyingly brief, requiring you to pause to really examine them. The editing structure has few surprises, but there is a kind of leisurely cross-cutting when Annie tries to find work against the resistance of “the system.” There’s also a handy glossary on criminal slang of the period, which probably includes a couple of accurate entries, if only by accident.

Gillette probably wasn't happy about this association.

Gillette probably wasn’t happy about this association.

Also interesting are the takeaways of the message. The big sin that the movie points out is the “out of my house” rule that the father enforces when Annie comes home after being out all night. The other point that is made is the double standard of arresting the prostitute while just shooing off the John. The producer or the Sociologist involved is trying to make the point that prostitution is not a moral failing, but a result of social conditions that could be changed by society. It’s not an especially sophisticated presentation of that argument, but it is a good representation of the Progressivist influence on motion pictures of the time.

Director: Frank Beal

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Edwin Carewe, Virginia Mann, Jean Thomas

Run Time: 28 Min, 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.