Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ii

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.

In the Park (1915)

In_the_Park_(poster)This Charlie Chaplin film returns to the three critical Keystone elements of “a girl, a park, and a policeman.” In fact, it seems so much like a deliberate send-up of Chaplin’s work at Keystone studios that I wonder whether someone at Essanay asked him to make a movie “like” the ones that had launched his popularity. Charlie wanders around a park, running into various people and getting into fights or stealing from them, but the most important are Edna Purviance and Bud Jamison, a couple out in the park because Edna the nursemaid has brought her infant charges out for some sun. Charlie manages to flirt with Edna, then, after stealing a purse from a fellow vagrant thief, sells it to Bud, only to take it back and give it to Edna as a gift. At various points, we get the classic three-frame editing in which characters in frame one throw bricks at someone in frame two, who ducks and allows the brick to sail into frame three and hit someone. The policeman eventually locates the purse’s original owner but Charlie first diverts blame to Jamison, then boots both of them into the lake.

In_the_Park_(1915)Because this movie so closely resembles its Keystone models, there’s not a lot of chance to Charlie to develop his character here. Still, his “Little Tramp” comes across as somewhat more sympathetic simply due to the less frenetic pace of the film. As he steals the purse from an unconscious Jamison at one point, he makes a kind of shrugging movement with his body that seems to say “I know it’s wrong, but what can I do?” This kind of defines the direction he’s taking the character this year. He seems to genuinely enjoy his exchanges with Edna, and also evinces a kind of shy surprise when she is responsive to his advances. Other characters get more chance to elaborate as well, particularly an “elegant masher” played by Leo White, who is romancing the original owner of the purse, and vows to commit suicide when she loses interest in him after the theft. The “suicide” may have helped inspire Harold Lloyd when he made “Haunted Spooks” (see Harold’s idea of funny suicide in this gif at Movies Silently).

In_The_Park_(Charlie_Chaplin)Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Ernest van Pelt.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Inferno (1911)

Inferno_1911_filmThis Italian production shows both the sophisticated level that special effects had reached in Europe and the appetite of audiences for feature-length films on serious topics. In some ways, it remains grounded in the limitations of early 1910’s cinema – no close-ups (except Lucifer at the very end), predictable camera angles, limited camera movement, etc, but in others it demonstrates remarkable originality and willingness to experiment. In fact, I would say that the subject matter of Dante’s Inferno does not lend itself to a more traditional narrative approach, and it may well be that the movie is better for its “flaws,” better for trying an experimental structure than it would have been ten years later following the “rules” of “film grammar.”

Inferno2The story is known to anyone familiar with classic literature: Dante describes being taken on a tour of Hell by the spirit of Virgil, who, as a Pagan is barred from Heaven and lives so to speak in the “up-scale suburbs” of Hell. This has been interpreted as Dante using his powers as a poet to do the impossible (go to Hell and return to tell the tale) and Virgil represents the spirit of Italian or Roman poetry upon whose shoulders he stands. At any rate, most of what they do is look at tormented souls in the various “circles” or levels of Hell. Once in a while, Dante sees someone he knew in life, or has heard of, and asks them to tell their story. More frequently, Virgil and Dante are challenged by one or more of the demons whose job it is to tormented the fallen souls, and Virgil authoritatively makes them stand aside. We see Cerberus, the three-headed guardian of the gate to Hell, the burning walls of Dis, the river Acheron, the serpent Geryon, the giant Antaeus, and Lucifer himself at the end.

Inferno-_1911,_plutoAs I’ve suggested, each of these scenes plays out in a more-or-less theatrical format, with the camera defining a “stage” for the players to act on. However, within that framework, there’s some interesting creativity. Because of the concept of Hell as a vertical hierarchy, the outdoor shots are generally done on sloping hills or mountainsides (easy enough to find in Italy!). This in itself gives a different kind of geography to the “stages” I’m talking about. In general, the stages are large enough to fit a good number of naked extras as tormented souls. Many shots have twenty or more people visible, which is highly unusual for the time. We also get a kind of close-up, when Dante focuses his attention on a single soul, there will be a “jump cut” and we suddenly see Virgil, Dante, and the individual soul in a three-shot (still large enough to see them from head to toe). In that sense, this is one of the earliest examples I’ve seen of editing within scenes, rather than between them, although I think D.W. Griffith had done it already. Another narrative device, familiar to us today but quite new then, is the flashback, in which souls describe to Dante how they reached their sorry fate, and we cut to a dramatization of what they describe. The one camera movement I caught was a backward tracking shot to reveal a particular condemned soul.

Inferno1The special effects may be based on the work of Méliès, but are in general in advance of his techniques, and far in advance of his imitators in the USA. Several matte shots are done, at least two of which required three or more separate shots to be integrated. One impressive example of this was the carnal sinners being blown about by the winds of Hell. We also see a couple of examples of stop-motion transformations as sinners are turned into lizards and other animals. And there are tricky matte shots in which leprous souls are missing legs or arms, or even carry their own heads about. Several characters are made to fly, presumably through the use of wires, and these shots look consistently good as well. There are a number of shots in Dis where actors are fairly close to (real) flames, and I found myself worrying about their long robes catching fire. A number of “Giants” are created through simple forced perspective, yet it works because the filmmakers are careful not to break the illusion (and because they don’t use multiple shots).

Inferno-_1911,_cainaThat’s not to say that everything is executed perfectly. For one thing, there are way too many Intertitles, more and longer than I’ve seen in any movie from this period. This was probably necessary because without the context of being told what was happening in each new scene before it begins, audiences would probably have been scratching their heads at the surrealistic grandeur. Still, it cuts into the pacing and makes it a slower experience to watch. In the shot where the souls are boarding the ship over Acheron, at one point Dante and Virgil are blocking our view of the action, which could have been avoided with a POV-edit, but it didn’t occur to them. Some of the “monsters” are a bit ridiculous-looking as well, particularly the fluffy Cerberus and the “black mastiffs” which look like perfectly friendly dogs.

InfernoStill, this was a bold project whose producers demonstrated a faith that cinema was a new kind of art form that could be used to show things that otherwise could only be imagined. They based the imagery on the illustrations of Gustav Dore for an older edition of the Divine Comedy, and on the whole their work paid off. Apparently it was a huge financial success and was successful in getting audiences to pay raised ticket prices in the era of Nickelodeons in the US. It remains an impressive document in the development of film history.

Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, Giuseppe De Liguoro

Camera: Emilio Roncarolo

Starring: Salvatore Papa, Arturo Pirovano

Run Time: 1 Hour, 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Interrupted Lovers (1896)

Interrupted Lover (1896)

Another quickie Edison comedy from the summer of 1896, this one isn’t as long or quite as successful as “The Lone Fisherman.” Here, a young couple sits on a park bench, only to be assaulted during their necking by two men in gardener’s clothes, one wielding a shovel. The young woman appears to be played by a man in drag, but I don’t think that the audience is meant to notice that, so it isn’t intended to be part of the humor. The funny bit is, I guess, just that slapstick violence suddenly invades what seems to be a peaceful scene. It may even have been a kind of parody of or comment upon “The Kiss,” in that audiences expecting another depiction of a loving interlude would unexpectedly have this expectation thwarted and laugh in spite of themselves. Although the framing makes for a very tight shot, I believe this was also shot on location in a park.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run time: 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

In the Border States (1910)

In the Border States

For my money, D.W. Griffith was always better at directing shorts than he was at working in the feature-length. One only has to compare this homely and touching Civil War story to the bloated and un-subtle “Birth of a Nation” for proof. Shot in Griffith’s second year working as a director at Biograph, it has all the humanity and innovation which his best work shows, even if it is at bottom a melodrama. A young father (Charles West, whose work I’ve discussed in “Enoch Arden” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) in a state on the border marches off to fight for the Union, leaving his family in peril as the war comes dangerously close. A band of disheveled Rebels “forages” near to the house, and is chased by Union soldiers. One of their number (Henry B. Walthall, who would later star in “Birth of a Nation” and “The Avenging Conscience”), staggers, desperate, into the family’s land just as the youngest daughter (Gladys Egan, who played the title role in “The Adventures of Dollie” and also appears in “His Trust Fulfilled”) goes out to fetch a pail of water from the well. The man begs for help, and she lets him drink and hide in the well, but refuses him a kiss in thanks. Later, the tables are turned when the father is being hunted, wounded, by this very same band of Confederates, and seeks shelter in his own home. The soldier is about to kill him when the little girl intervenes. He can’t kill the father of the child who saves him, and he convinces, or orders, the others to depart in peace (he’s the only one with Corporal’s stripes, so I guess he’s in charge). The girl and the soldier shake hands and salute one another, and she takes credit for driving the soldiers off single-handed.

 In the Border States1

For 1910, this is quite a sophisticated drama. Much of the movie is shot outside, which prevents the claustrophobia of having too many “square” compositions, as was often the case in studio productions. Billy Bitzer provides good camerawork, including a nice shot of the New Jersery Palisades that passes well for any vista in middle-southern America. Part of the pursuit of the Union soldier is shown as a night shot, by torchlight, apparently achieved by under-exposing the film, but it looks better than a lot of the “night” shots of the time. But the real key to the story is its editing. Griffith deftly cross-cuts between pursuers and pursued in both sequences to heighten tension. For the second sequence, there are two rooms in the house that each character must pass through to reach the ultimate hiding place, and Griffith keeps us aware of the situation in each as the danger develops. Each time we cut back to the wounded soldier, something in the former area has brought peril closer. Walthall’s performance is good, but Egan’s is the best in the movie. I also noticed that it was very easy to read Egan’s lips as she mouths the words “my father” to Walthall in the climactic moment. This was probably intentional, since silent filmmakers encouraged actors to enunciate lines for lip-readers, in lieu of a soundtrack.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Gladys Egan, Henry B. Walthall, Charles West, Frank Evans, Dell Henderson, Henry Lehrman, Owen Moore, Mack Sennett

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Inventor Edison Sketched by World Artist (1896)

Inventor Edison Drawn

“Lightning sketches” that showed an artist at his work during the short running time of the early motion picture camera were a common format for movies in 1896. This example is noteworthy because it brings the celebrity of Thomas Edison together with the novelty of his newest invention, in this case without his having even been filmed in person. The artist in this case was J. Stuart Blackton, at that time a cartoonist for the New York World newspaper. He later claimed that Edison was present for the sketch, however this is discounted by historians, and seems pretty dubious to the casual viewer, given the fact that he never looks up from his drawing during the run time of the movie. Blackton apparently gained considerable fame from this movie, and became so enthusiastic about cinema that he went on to help found the American Vitagraph Company, going into competition with Edison, and then getting in trouble due to patent infringement, before becoming one of the first “licensed” motion picture exhibitors. This movie suffers a bit from the fact that quality of the print has diminished to where it can be hard to make out the drawing, but it’s still an interesting piece of film history.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

In the Land of the Head Hunters (1914)

In the Land of the Head Hunters

AKA “In the Land of the War Canoes”

This film about the Kwakwaka’wakw people of British Columbia is, according to Wikipedia, the oldest surviving film made in Canada. It is not truly a documentary, although it was made by an ethnologist and is a document of some aspects of the lives of Canadian First Nations people. However, it has a storyline written by its (white) director, Edward S Curtis, and which the actors clearly understood to be fictional. All of the actors are genuine Kwakwaka’wakw, so it’s a rather unusual mixture of truth and illusion – just as most documentaries are, I suppose. The story involves a young warrior who falls in love with a girl promised to an evil sorcerer, and how he and his tribe fight the sorcerer and his relations in order to free the young couple to marry. It is interesting to note that neither side consists of classically Western “individuals,” they all depend on their social group to achieve their ends. Also interesting are the clear depictions of rituals, costumes, and carvings such as those on the canoes, all of which are quite exotic compared to what one sees in Hollywood Westerns of the time. The movie was apparently a failure financially, either because audiences weren’t receptive or because of bad distribution. I wonder how descendents of these people feel about this movie today: is it a valuable document or another example of exploitation?

Director: Edward S Curtis

Camera: Edward S Curtis

Cast: Maggie Frank, Stanley Hunt

Run time: 40 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Ingeborg Holm (1913)

Hilda Borgstrom

Actress Hilda Borgström

I suppose that, like most American film buffs, I have a myopic view of Swedish cinema. Or, more accurately, I have a view of Swedish cinema that is dominated by a single name: BERGMAN. Thus, it never occurred to me that a silent movie from Sweden would be anything but an obvious influence on Bergman’s style. This movie, however, seems to have a lot more in common with the work of D.W. Griffith than Ingmar Bergman. Visually, it could take place in any “western” city; only one brief scene in which the protagonist runs through a field to see her child takes advantage of the Swedish landscape, and everyone except the farmer’s wife who fosters the child is in “modern” urban clothing. Having hinted, I suppose I should comment a bit on the plot: It’s a fairly typical (for 1913) morality play about a woman whose husband dies and is forced to enter the workhouse, losing her children along the way. The message was meant to be that services for the needy should be improved, and apparently it contributed to debate about the need for a better social safety net, helping to lead to the current Swedish welfare state. It’s worth noting, however, that the many similar movies in the US didn’t have as much effect, suggesting that cultural differences cause different responses to media.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Henrik Jaenzon

Starring: Hilda Borgström

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Imperial Japanese Dance (1894)

Imperial JD

Film came early to Japan, but even before that happened, Japan came to film through this Kinetoscope short. Filmed at the Edison Black Maria studio, it shows three young women performing a dance from the Mikado, and the original Edison catalog noted that it was “very effective when colored” suggesting that at some point it was possible to get a hand-painted print (probably not in 1894, though). As we’ve seen in recent posts, many of these Kinetoscopes were made to show performers in movement, and dance is a particularly good genre for that kind of presentation. I’m sure that American audiences found the costumes and formality of this piece intriguingly exotic, and in that sense it is a demonstration of film’s capacities for making the foreign more familiar and also for commoditizing culture. The women in the film are identified as the “Sarashe Sisters” and I was unable to ascertain if they were actually Japanese, Japanese American, or other Asian-Americans made up for the role. The Mikado, of course, was a familiar Gilbert & Sullivan comedy from 1885, which uses Japan as a location in order to disguise its satire of British politics. In that sense, nothing about this film is “authentic” and yet for many Americans of the period, it may have represented as much as they knew about Japan.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.