Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Kate Bruce

Good Night Nurse (1918)

This short comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company was released in July, 1918 and co-stars Buster Keaton. Arbuckle is at the center of action, but as usual his collaborators get good opportunities to shine as well.

The movie begins on a rainy street corner, in front of a pharmacy. Arbuckle is standing in the downpour, futilely trying to light a cigarette, and occasionally getting chased off the stoop by the pharmacist. A woman with an umbrella (supposedly Keaton, but we never see her face) is blown down the street and Arbuckle attempts to help her against the storm. In the process, hr umbrella is destroyed and she does several pratfalls. Soon, she returns in the direction she originally came from. Now a drunk (Snitz Edwards) joins Arbuckle on the corner, sitting in the gutter. A policeman walks up, and Arbuckle realizes he should stand up and be nonchalant, trying to signal the drunk to do the same as he again tries to light a match to smoke a cigarette. The policeman sees this and laughs at his attempts. Now a gypsy organ grinder and his assistant walk up, and Fatty gives them a coin and asks for the national anthem. This makes the police officer take off his rain hat and stand at attention, and Arbuckle is able to use its protection to finally light up a cigarette.

Arbuckle takes the gypsies back to his house, where his wife has just read about a new surgical cure for alcoholism, at some place called “No Hope Sanitarium.” When the gypsies’ monkey sneaks into her room, she concludes that Fatty needs to take the cure. The rest of the movie takes place at the Sanitarium, at which point the film’s title finally begins to make sense. As Arbuckle is being taken in, he sees a man covered in bandages (apparently this is Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad) leaving on crutches. Arbuckle stops to sympathize with the man, who assures him he’s fine, now he’s been “cured.” This does little to build Arbuckle’s confidence, but his wife insists on bringing him in. Soon, he meets the doctor in charge of the place (Buster Keaton), who arrives in a smock covered in blood. He also meets the “crazy” girl (Alice Lake) who will serve as his illicit love interest, even while wifey is still around watching. When she jumps into his arms and kisses him, what can he do? After all, she’s crazy.

Arbuckle and Lake soon devise plans to escape, using a massive pillow fight amongst the patients as cover, but as soon as she’s outside, she wants to go back in. Arbuckle hides by jumping into a pond, then sets up a hose to blow air so that it looks like he’s still under when the orderlies come to “rescue” him. Then he spots a large nurse (Kate Bruce) going on her lunch break and decides to swipe her uniform to make an escape. He runs into Keaton in the hallway and the two of them flirt, Keaton obviously convinced that he is a large nurse. Then the real nurse returns and blows his cover. Arbuckle runs out into the countryside, winding up in the midst of a cross-country race, which he inadvertently wins. As he is accepting the prize money, the doctors and orderlies surround him, wrestling him down. Suddenly he wakes up back in the Sanitarium, where he has been given ether; all of his escapes are now revealed to be a dream.

This is yet another movie in which Arbuckle and/or Keaton dress in drag for laughs – both of them in this case, if online sources are right and Keaton is the woman with the umbrella. This scenario somewhat resembles their earlier collaboration, “The Butcher Boy,” where Arbuckle tried to rescue Lake from a boarding school by dressing in drag, but with a much heavier emphasis on Keaton’s character and abilities. The pillow fight sequence reminded me of earlier Edison comedies that relied on this gag for humor and titillation, but note that there was also one in “The Butcher Boy” as well. Keaton’s awkward “flirting” with Fatty has to be seen to be believed, it’s one of the funniest on-screen crushes this side of Elmer Fudd. An odd detail stuck out to me in this movie. In most of the silent comedies, especially the “Keystone Kops” movies, the policemen are funny-looking. The policeman in this film is quite handsome, at least pretty normal by comparison. I think he was probably cast for his height rather than his look. He needed to be tall enough that when he held his hat at his breast, Arbuckle could conveniently get under it to light a cigarette. It’s still remarkable that they didn’t give him a false mustache or bushy eyebrows or something. Maybe they would have fallen off in the rain.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Alice Lake, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Joe Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 22 Min

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

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Civilization (1916)

This big-budget release from Thomas Ince is a famous anti-war spectacle, which reproduces the horrors of the First World War in a plea for brotherly love. While it is big on message and visual drama, it is relatively short on plot and character development.

civilization_posterThe story takes place in the fictional country of “Wredpryd,” with much of the action in the capitol, “Nurma.” These places look extremely Central European, so that audiences can be forgiven for misting them for Germany. The King of Wredpryd (Herschel Mayall) believes that war makes a nation great and strong, and his military advisers are urging him into belligerence. Parliament takes up the question for debate, and one man, “an ardent follower of Christ,” dares to oppose war on humanitarian grounds. Onlookers boo his cowardice and throw things, and the Ministers override him and pass articles of war. The King accepts these with pleasure, and calls for Count Ferdinand (Howard C. Hickman), “an inventor in the service of the King.” It is never entirely clear what Count Ferdinand invented, but later we get the sense that it has to do with submarine warfare. Count Ferdinand is in love with a common woman (Enid Markey), so the King promises him dispensation to marry whomever he likes, so long as he devotes his services to the war effort. The Count eagerly agrees. Soldiers parade proudly through the city to the universal acclaim of the populace, but the member of parliament who spoke out against war is present, and decries the sacrifice of young men. This arouses the crowd, and soon there is a riot as he is attacked for his unpatriotic sentiments.

civilization_1916_film_stillThe war begins! We see lots of cannon fire, explosions, men running across smoke-covered fields, and more explosions. What we don’t see is an enemy. We also don’t get any human-level story for to connect us to these images, so they might as well be stock footage (some of it is, I think, but actually relatively little). Losses are heavy, and so it becomes necessary to begin aggressively recruiting new soldiers, taking able-bodied young men away from their homes and farms. We see wives, mothers, and children crying as they are separated from the men they love. In one case, an invalid mother is left to die with no one to take care of her. There is a lingering close-up on an aged woman watching the draft process in horror. Meanwhile, Enid (her character is supposedly named “Katheryn,” but so far as I could tell it never appears in an Intertitle) discovers that her mother has a cross painted on an undergarment. It is the emblem of “the invisible army of women” who oppose all war. Enid is convinced, and tells Count Ferdinand that he is being sent on “a mission of death.”

civilization_still_2The Count is torn between his love for Enid and his sense of duty. He takes command of a submarine and spends his days vacillating while his second-in-command does all the work. One day an order arrives to sink a ship – “The Propatria” – which is carrying passengers but is suspected of taking ammunition to the enemy. The Count stands stunned, while the second-in-command takes over as usual, ordering the boat to surface and prepare a torpedo for the attack. The Count fantasizes the destruction of the ship, seeing women and children being dumped out of lifeboats into the cruel ocean waves. Finally, the Count springs into action, countermanding the order and saying “no torpedoes against children.” He exposes a cross on his undergarment and the men realize that he has become a pacifist. They move to mutiny against him, but he pulls out his sidearm and holds them at bay, shooting two of them when they move to disarm him. Now he opens a torpedo valve and water rushes into the submarine, which sinks and then explodes, killing everyone on board except for him. Sailors from the Propatria row out to rescue him.

civilizationThe war rages on and somehow he is returned home unconscious (this is never clear). The King sits at his bedside, waiting to see whether he will recover. Meanwhile, the Count is experiencing a lengthy religious vision, that involves going to Hell and meeting Jesus Christ. Apparently, he is forgiven for killing dozens of the men under his command, since he did it to save children. Christ now takes possession of his body and heals it so that he can spread the message of peace on Earth. Soon after his miraculous recovery, the King starts receiving reports that Ferdinand is inciting riots and stirring up trouble in the city. Each time he speaks, angry citizens attack him. The King has him arrested and condemns him for treason. On the day of his execution, the “invisible army” of women, which now includes a phalanx of nuns, marches on the city, led by Enid. They fill the square and demand peace at any price. The King discovers that the Count has died in the night, cheating the hangman, and goes to visit his cell. There, the vision of Christ comes to him and shows him the horrors of war, that he has brought upon his people. He sees men dying in the mud, devastated fields and cities, children without fathers, women without husbands. Then, Jesus shows him the book in which his name is written – “on a page stained with the blood of your people,” and the King realizes the evil he has caused.

civilization2The King returns to his courtroom and orders an immediate armistice. The people are joyous, and soldiers march back to their homes to be reunited with their families. The old woman from the opening looks on as better times come to her village. We see a shepherd in a field and the Intertitles tells us that “the blare of the war bugle has died and in its place we hear the shepherd’s horn.”

civilization1I found this movie extremely heavy-handed and un-subtle in its message. It’s possible that some of it is missing, since The Silent Era claims it runs 10 reels, which would be around 2 and a half hours, depending on frame rate, but the video is only 86 minutes. Even so, it managed to be somewhat equivocal in its pacifism. The nation depicted is so clearly Germany, and the blame for war so clearly placed on that side, that it could easily be interpreted as a call to arms against Germany, rather than a call for the Allies to lay down their weapons. Indeed, according to “The Silent Era,” it was distributed in the UK under the title “What Every True Britain [sic] Is Fighting For.” The depiction of the Lusitania incident, which had increased belligerent attitudes in the USA, also does not seem calculated to promote non-interventionism. Apparently the Count can be forgiven for killing his own men, so surely an Allied craft would also be forgiven for destroying a German submarine to save the lives of children. Wikipedia claims that the Democratic National Committee credited this film in part for the re-election of Woodrow Wilson with his slogan of “He kept us out of war,” but I note that the source cited is a 1996 newspaper article, so this has to be taken with a grain of salt. It sounds like Ince-originated hype to me. Wikipedia also makes the blatantly false claim that this was “one of the first movies to depict Jesus Christ as a character.” Apart from Alice Guy’sThe Birth, The Life, and the Death of Christ,” Charles Musser has traced the history of Passion Plays in the pre-Nickelodeon era in “The Emergence of Cinema.” One thing that is true is that such depictions have tended to be controversial in the United States in all eras.

civilization3All that aside, what the story is really lacking is human interest. The battles are large-scale and epic, but not tied to the characters in such a way as to make us really care what’s going on. Our main characters spend a lot of the movie in a beatific trance. Even when they aren’t, they are given to rather broad pantomiming, as when the King tells the Count that he will be allowed to marry his love, and the Count immediately spreads his arms wide and stares up in rapture. The effects, editing, and production design are all good quality, certainly compared to the average Thomas Ince production, but since this came out shortly after “Intolerance,” it’s hard not to compare it unfavorably to D.W. Griffith’s lavish production values. In no way does it measure up, even the battle scenes are frankly weak just in comparison to the previous year’s “The Birth of a Nation.” While it’s realistic that there’s a lot of smoke on the battlefield, so much is used that it tends to obscure the action, and you can’t really make a good battle scene just showing one side of the fight. Apparently a success in its day, “Civilization” came off to me as too clumsy and blunt in its message, and not really a great example of film technique of the period.

Director: Raymond B. West, Reginald Barker, and Thomas H. Ince

Camera: Joseph H. August, Irvin Willat, Clyde de Vinna

Starring: Howard C. Hickman, Herschel Mayall, Enid Markey, Kate Bruce, George Fisher

Run Time: 86 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Trap for Santa (1909)

Trap_for_Santa_ClausWith Christmas coming at the end of his first year working for Biograph, D.W. Griffith released this one-reel seasonal movie with a heartwarming ending and a hint of social message. It shows the level that he had already achieved in terms of storytelling and film technique.

A family in want.

A family in want.

A family is destitute, and the situation grows bleaker as the father (Henry B. Walthall), unable to find work to feed his children, turns to drink in order to forget his worries. The mother (Marion Leonard) tries to make the most of the situation, but she scolds the father when he comes in drunk and wakes the children. Desperate, he leaves the house, fearing that he may be a worse influence on his own children if he stays. The bartender (Mack Sennett) at his usual dive doesn’t appreciate it when he tries to sleep on the table , and throws him out into the cold. The mother tries to find work, but is turned away from the employment agency. When she returns home, she finds that the hungry child she left there alone has eaten their last crusty loaf of bread. Then, some men arrive with some good news: her aunt’s estate has been settled at last, and she is the inheritor of a small fortune. She and the children move into a nice house with a maid (Kate Bruce). When Christmas rolls around, she explains to the kids that Santa will come in through the window, since there is no chimney, and the kids hatch a plan to “trap” Santa by leaving a basket covered by a picture frame right where he will step (it’s lucky he doesn’t break his neck!). Mom manages to get them to bed, but she sighs while trying on the Santa suit, wishing they had a father to play the role.

Trap for Santa1Then, in a typically Griffithian coincidence, the starving father now tries to break into the wealthy home to steal some money or at least food, but finds himself confronted by his estranged wife. The girls think their trap has worked, but mom convinces them to stay in bed. Immediately, the couple puts a new plan into action and the father puts on the Santa suit and acts like he is caught in the trap. Mother rouses the girls, who come out and dance with “Santa.” The family is reunited in love.

Santa is trapped.

Santa is trapped.

It’s a happy ending, and I found it emotionally effective, but after all, the drunk may continue being a drunk now that his wife has money. We can hope not, and clearly Griffith wants us to believe that he will reform, since it was only hunger and desperation that made him drink and (try to) steal. Billy Bitzer’s photography is effective and the camera is at least close enough to cut off the actors’ feet and give us some intimacy with the action. There are only a few camera set-ups, and these are static and set to mid-shot throughout, but the editing makes the story work better than a lot of the movies of the period. Where shots in 1909 generally followed one another sequentially, this movie allows for simultaneous action as the father first deserts the family, and then later when he is “trapped” by the children in the next room. Leonard somewhat overdid her acting, pointing and pantomiming to make sure that the audience knew what was said, but overall the performances were good. I was particularly pleased to see Gladys Egan (from “In the Border States”) show up as the daughter.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. Bitzer

Cast: Henry B. Walthall, Marion Leonard, Gladys Egan, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, W. Chrystie Miller

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The House of Darkness (1913)

House_of_Darkness_(1913)1It’s not quite October, when I continue my history of horror films, and this short by D.W Griffith isn’t quite a horror movie. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s difficult to measure the development of horror as a genre, because early filmmakers appear to have been reluctant about overtly trying to frighten audiences, even though in other areas the public was quite willing to be frightened. By the time Griffith made “The Avenging Conscience” in 1914, he seems to have been willing to take the plunge, but with this movie – not exactly. I’m still tagging it as part of the horror fest, though, in part because of the title, and in part because it has certain parallels with “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” the movie with which most traditional histories of the horror movie begin.

House of Darkness2The movie is structured much like other progressivist message pictures we’ve seen from Griffith, beginning with a generalized problem and then closing in on a more intimate and personal storyline. In this case, the opening Intertitle assures us of a happy ending: this is the story of “how the mind of an unfortunate was brought to reason by music.” It begins, however, with a side story of a woman who suffers from mental disease, believing her baby is still alive when it is actually dead. The next sequence makes no sense to me at all – I actually wonder if it was shot for another movie. A clerk in an office seems distraught, then a young child with a doll comes in and he gives her some money (folding money, which would be a big deal in 1913). Then he breaks down and starts weeping and his co-workers gather around him. We don’t see him again. Next, we are taken to an asylum for the insane, where a doctor (Lionel Barrymore) and a nurse (Claire McDowell) carry on an accelerated romance and are wed. In the courtyard of the same asylum, a fight breaks out between two lunatics. Finally, an inmate (Charles Hill Mailes) emerges as the center of the action, as he breaks and runs, apparently meaning to escape. The attendants catch him when he stops to listen to Lillian Gish playing the piano. Once he is away from the music, however, his violent tendencies take over and he breaks and runs. Soon there are many attendants in pursuit, but he eludes them and manages to wrest a gun from some passers-by he accosts. Now he makes his way to the home of the doctor, where the nurse/wife is alone with a cat. He breaks in and threatens to kill her, but when she accidentally hits the keys of a piano, the man stops short. Now she soothes him by playing a tune, and the attendants and her husband show up to take him back to the hospital. In the most improbable sequence of an improbable movie, we now see Mailes “cured” of his malady by repeat sessions of “music therapy” in which McDowell plays the piano for him until he is rational again.

House_of_Darkness_(1913)The movie has a lot of problems, which I have to suspect Griffith would have been conscious of by this time. Really, it needs more than one reel for this story to unfold and be at all believable, and Griffith was campaigning for longer films at this time, so that fits. But, the bizarre sequence with the character who never returns is more likely an afterthought or an error of some kind, perhaps Griffith’s mistake, perhaps of other provenance. The premise calls for a more horrific treatment as well, if we saw the world, as in “Caligari” through the eyes of the madman, the illogic of it might well seem more appropriate. While it may have foreshadowed, or even inspired that film, it also resembles a 1904 Biograph comedy, “The Escaped Lunatic,” which also involves a chase after a mentally ill asylum escapee who stops and starts at unpredictable moments. It is quite possible that Griffith was familiar with this movie and decided (or was ordered) to try remaking it as a drama, which could explain some of its weaknesses.

House of DarknessNot to say that the movie is a total failure. There are some good parts. The acting, especially by McDowell and Mailes, is top-notch. Some of Billy Bitzer’s camerawork is fairly daring – notably a shot mirroring the famous one in “Musketeers of Pig Alley” in which actors approach the camera until they are in extreme close-up. In this case, Mailes “sneaks” toward the camera, at times concealing himself behind palm trees, until he emerges in very close range from behind the nearest of them, staring maniacally into space. Bitzer was unable to keep him in focus during the approach (adjusting focal length in the middle of a shot simply wasn’t possible with the technology of the time), but he did manage to set the lens to focus on him at this most frightening final moment. There are also good close-ups of the cat and of hands playing the piano. Griffith makes use of the editing techniques he was known for, especially cross-cutting, to keep the tension high as the pursuit advances. Finally, this is one of those silent movies where the soundtrack makes or breaks it, and the score by Sidney Jill Lehman on the Flicker Alley DVD-on-demand release is perfect for it.

House of Darkness1Director: DW Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Charles Hill Mailes, Claire McDowell, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish, Christy Cabanne, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The Redman’s View (1909)

Red_Man's_ViewThis film is sometimes held up (mistakenly, I would say, for reasons I’ll discuss below) in contrast to “The Birth of a Nation,” to argue that D.W. Griffith wasn’t really racist after all, he was simply misunderstood. It is among the movies he directed in his first year at Biograph and it does demonstrate his belief that the movies could be used to tell serious stories with messages. Even though he was to rebel against the short format for movies, is also demonstrates his ability to work effectively within that form.

Red Mans ViewIn the beginning of the film, a young Native American couple meets by the riverside. He shyly proposes to her and she shyly accepts (all in pantomime). When they return to their tribe, the young man is faced with a horrible choice between her or his father. A group of plundering white men suddenly arrive and insists that everyone leave the land. He protests that his father is to old and ill to move, and for a moment it looks like there will be a confrontation, but then the white men get ahold of his bride and keep her hostage. Reluctantly, the tribe begins their exodus. Whenever they stop to rest, suddenly the white men are there with guns drawn, telling them to keep moving. The girl tries to take advantage of this to escape, but is recaptured. Finally, the old man dies and a ritual is held to honor him. The young man returns to the camp to free his wife, but they are caught again. The white men appear ready to kill them both, but one white man stops the others and sends them on their way. They have lost their land, but they are together.

Red Mans View2Although Griffith tried hard to make this a powerful experience, there are a couple of flaws in this film. First, our sense of time and place is very ambiguous. We get the impression of a long trek (and even are given to understand that the natives reach the Pacific Ocean), but they never seem to be more than short walking distance from the white men’s camp, which never changes. At times it seems we are seeing simultaneous events cross-edited but then characters from one thread turn up in the other – as when the girl attempts her escape to be caught by the same men who are harassing her husband. The other problem is inherent in trying to make a silent movie about people suffering from walking. A lot of the movie is just shots of the Native Americans walking slowly across the screen, with sad expressions on their faces. It’d be hard to make this work with dialogue, but without it, it makes 15 minutes seem long. On the plus side, the New Jersey Palisades stand in nicely for the bleak yet unspoiled landscape Griffith wants us to believe of the West.

Red Mans View1So, doesn’t making a pro-Native American movie clear Griffith of the charge of racism? Well, not exactly, although it does complicate it a bit. This movie is steeped in the imagery of the “Noble Savage,” and the tragic-but-inevitable side of Manifest Destiny. In claiming to give us “The Point of View of the Red Man,” Griffith presumes to speak for numerous cultures, and he lumps them neatly together into a classic stereotype, albeit one less negative than that of “Gus,” the lustful African American. And, of course, he uses only white actors to portray them, although admittedly it would have been hard to find genuine Western Native Americans on 14th Street in New York, let alone good actors of that background. This is generally a less offensive movie than “Birth,” but that doesn’t make it un-biased.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Cast: Owen Moore, Kate Bruce, Arthur V. Johnson, Henry Lehrman, Lottie Pickford

Run Time: 14 Min

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

The Fugitive (1910)

No, this is not a movie about a man on the run seeking a one-armed assassin. Instead, it is another of D.W. Griffith’s pre-“Birth of a Nation” explorations of the Civil War. This time, we start with not one, but two tearful farewells, as a Confederate (Edward Dillon, also in “What Shall We Do with Our Old” and “In the Border States”) and a Union soldier (Edwin August, who appears in “The House with Closed Shutters” and “The Eternal Mother”) depart for the front in one of many examples of parallelism the movie provides. In a typical coincidence, they both get separated from their units and the Yankee kills the Reb, only to find himself on the run when his fallen foe’s enemies find the body. Stretching that coincidence even further, now the survivor seeks shelter in his enemy’s home from his victim’s mother (Kate Bruce, also seen in “The Red Man’s View” and “The Unchanging Sea”)! She nearly turns him in, but “thinks of another mother, awaiting her son’s return and does the decent thing. Dorothy West (who starred in last night’s “The House with Closed Shutters”) is the fiancé who loses her beau, and her while exuberance worked on the battlefield, it seems out of place in a bereaved lover.

 Fugitive

This movie was shot on a limited number of sets in New Jersey in the winter, and that may have limited the use of outdoor setups. There are some nice panoramas, I assume of the Hudson River area, but the porches of the two homes appear to simply be the same set shot from the opposite angle. The editing is less taut than we saw in “The House” or than would be the case in other Griffith shorts. Overall, it seems that the story suffers from a rather conventional approach, and there isn’t much here to pull it out of its banality. One historical footnote is that the original story was written about the fighting in Ireland, and that the writer himself died in 1916 during the Rising there, fighting for the Green side against the Orange.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Kate Bruce, Edward Dillon, Edwin August, Dorothy West

Run Time: 17 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Judith of Bethulia (1914)

Judith_of_Bethulia

This is the big contender from 1914 for D.W. Griffith and the Biograph Company. Biograph allowed Griffith to make this feature-length film, but then blanched at the cost and refused to make any more, causing Griffith to depart, taking most of Biograph’s big stars with him. Left with little to show for it, Biograph let the movie languish on the shelf for several months before releasing it to strong critical acclaim. I want to highlight one of the reviews from Moving Picture World, which said it “will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice.” This illustrates the degree to which American film was still regarded as “inferior” in the international film market, where it would be “dominant” just a few years later. Anyway, this movie is based on a story from the Apocrypha, about a devout young woman (Blanche Sweet, who we’ve seen in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Last Drop of Water”) who saves a city from attack by the Assyrians by seducing the general (Henry B. Walthall, from “The Avenging Conscience” and 1915’s “Birth of a Nation”) and chopping his head off while he is drunk on wine. It’s pretty heady stuff for 1914, and the battle scenes and other large-scale scenes are impressive, even when compared to foreign works like “Cabiria.”

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Dorothy Gish, Lillian Gish, Robert Harron

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Battle at Elderbush Gulch (1913)

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This 2-reel Western wraps up my exploration of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts. Unlike “The Massacre” and other examples, this movie has no narrative of sympathy for Native Americans, using them as truly stereotypical villains – the poster seen above is vividly accurate, and could only be embellished if the “Indian” in the image had a half-eaten puppy in his mouth. The story is that two orphans (one of them is Mae Marsh, who appeared in “The New York Hat” and “Birth of a Nation”) arrive in a settlement town with their puppies, but are told by their strict uncle to leave them outside. One goes to see that they are OK, and finds two natives stealing them for a feast. The uncle comes to the rescue, and shoots one, who happens to be the chief’s son. This brings the whole tribe down on the village, and puts the one baby in town (its mother is Lillian Gish, from “The Mothering Heart” and “Intolerance”) into jeopardy, until the cavalry rides in. The baby is saved by one of the “waifs” and everyone seems happy at the end, despite the fact that the stinginess of one man has caused the deaths of dozens on both sides. It doesn’t seem to me that Griffith really needed the longer format to tell such a cliché story, although the battle scenes are undeniably impressive.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, Henry B. Walthall, Kate Bruce.

Run Time: 29 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Death’s Marathon (1913)

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This short suspense piece by Griffith has a certain amount in common with “The Unseen Enemy.” Whereas there, we saw the telephone used to summon the hero to the rescue by motorcar, here wife Blanche Sweet (who we’ve seen in “The Massacre” and “The Painted Lady”) tries to talk hubby Henry B. Walthall (from “The Avenging Conscience” and “The Burglar’s Dilemma”) out of suicide while his friend and business partner Walter Miller (who was in “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” and “The Mothering Heart”) rushes to him with an automobile. The two were rivals for her heart prior, so there’s an added tension of whether Walter really wants to save Henry, and both are in trouble due to Henry’s gambling debts. On the whole, it seems that Griffith was trying to make a morality story about the foolishness of youth and wealth, but it doesn’t really come off as successfully as his more serious social message films, such as “The Usurer” or “Corner in Wheat.” What does stand out, again, is how far the film grammar has developed by this time, with shots in close up to establish intimacy and fast editing during the race to save his life.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Walter Miller, Lionel Barrymore, Kate Bruce, Robert Harron, Alfred Paget.

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.