Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Jesse L Lasky

Best Picture 1915

And so the time comes to announce the best of the best. The movie of 1915 which will live for one hundred years and be so honored as the highest achievement of the motion picture art for that year. This year was an undeniable turning-point in the American film industry. Where last year, they contributed a mere four candidates to the list of nominees for best picture (losing in the end to the Italian “Cabiria”), this year we have no less than seven choices from the USA.

And among those American features, we find three contributed by the same director: Cecil B. DeMille. Whichever film takes away the award, there’s no denying that Mr. DeMille, with only two years experience in the industry, has made his mark. His film “The Cheat” has already taken away an award for Sessue Hayakawa in a supporting role and earned many other nominations. “The Golden Chance” was largely overlooked by the Century Academy, although its story of a woman tempted to dishonor herself for money has much in common with the previous one, plus some impressive editing and acting. And his version of “Carmen” with Geraldine Farrar shows his ability to adapt classic material to the new medium. Another American, Raoul Walsh, got off to a promising start this year with the groundbreaking gangster picture “Regeneration,” another name that we’ve heard quite a few times this evening, although it did not win in any of the categories it was up for so far. Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer took home the statue for best director this year after losing out to Giovanni Pastrone of Italy last year. Will one of his movies be selected as the best? This year his offerings included “Children of the Age,” this year’s winner for production design, and more significantly the haunting Turgenev adaptation “After Death,” which won him best director as well as getting best leading actor for star Vitold Polonsky. Charlie Chaplin, who this year as last has taken home only the minor award of best makeup, sees one of his famous slapstick comedies, “The Bank” on the list as well. Can the “Little Tramp” earn the artistic recognition of the century? Frenchman Maurice Tourneur came to Fort Lee, New Jersey, still a major film producing center, just last year and gave us the outstanding “Wishing Ring.” This year his “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” once again a multiple nominee but non-winner, is among our considerations. Fellow countryman Louis Feuillade may have stayed at home, but that didn’t stop him from turning out another bizarre and clever crime serial, one episode of which, “The Deadly Ring,” has taken the prize for best costumes and now stands for best picture. Finally, the winner of best screenplay and best editing, “The Italian,” rounds out our selection of excellent movies from the previous 100 years. Which will be the winner?

The Nominees for Century Award for Best Picture are…

  1. Regeneration
  2. Children of the Age
  3. After Death
  4. The Cheat
  5. Golden Chance
  6. Carmen
  7. The Bank
  8. The Deadly Ring
  9. Alias Jimmy Valentine
  10. The Italian

And the winner is…”The Cheat!”

Cheat_FilmPosterAs with last year, I didn’t have to work too hard to come up with this one. All I had to do was look back and see which movie really stood out as the one I’m going to come back to and want to see again. It may have been “second best” in a number of the single categories – writing, directing, cinematography, etc – but when you put it all together it beats the winners in each single category and comes out as a solid, memorable whole.

And with that, I’m done once again for another year! Thank you all for reading! I look forward to seeing as many good films from 1916!

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

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

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

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

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

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

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

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

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

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

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

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

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

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

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

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