Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Kate Toncray

The White Caps (1905)

An important predecessor to “The Birth of a Nation,” this short movie by Edwin S. Porter was nowhere near as successful, but still offers some insights into the themes of early American Cinema. To understand its meaning today, a good deal of context needs to be filled in.

The movie begins by showing two men in awkward white hoods approaching the front of a house and tacking up a sign at the front door. The men are armed with rifles, and one keep a lookout while the other posts the warning sign. They depart, and shortly thereafter we cut to the inside of the house, where a lone woman glumly reads at a table. Soon, her husband comes home, apparently drunk. He is enraged by the sign and tears it down, then goes in and picks a fight with his wife, escalating to violence. A child runs out of the bedroom and distracts him long enough that she can escape his clutches, and we see them run across fields to elude him and ends up at another house, presumably the home of family or friends who give her shelter. The menfolk of this house become agitated, and several of them jump on horses to raise the alarm.

Soon, a group of men with white hoods like those we saw at the start grab the drunken husband and drag him, resisting, away from his house, into the woods. There, they bring him to a torchlit circle of men, all of whom put on their hoods when the man is brought to them (we see that they are ordinary citizens before their hooding). The man breaks and runs, and there is a lengthy chase through the woods. Finally, the man attacks a lone pursuer from behind a tree, possibly hoping to get his hood and escape in disguise, but he loses the fight and the other hooded men soon arrive and take him into custody. Then, his arms are tied and raised by ropes around a tree branch. Now that he is secured, the hooded men rip off his shirt and paint his upper body black, then throw feathers on him from bags. The final image is a grim procession of hooded men, leading the tarred and feathered victim, his hands tied, on the back of a mule.

Before we get into discussing the obvious parallel, it is important to note that there was no active Ku Klux Klan at the time of the release of this movie. The book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, would also come out in 1905, and this would fire the imagination of men like William Simmons, who would re-found the Klan ten years later, the same year that “Birth of a Nation” was released.  This movie is, as the title makes clear, about “Whitecapping,” which was a form of vigilantism prevalent in the South and the West in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. White Caps were groups of citizens that took the law into their own hands, operating clandestinely with the help of masks, and enforcing community standards through the threat of terror. This form of vigilantism has roots in the mythos of the “holy Vehm” of Westphalia and other European traditions. None of which is to say that it has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. While race was not a central issue for the White Caps in the same sense as for the Klan, it certainly played a role in the standards the White Caps enforced, particularly in the South, where competition for scarce resources between poor whites and freed slaves and their descendants contributed to a culture of lynching.

For us today, the vision of a lone man being pursued by hooded figures with torches is undeniably horrific, although that may not have been the impression the directors were seeking to convey. The victim in this movie begins as a villain, a drunk and a spousal abuser (we don’t see him hit the child, but child abuse would also be a logical extension of this character). The White Caps are therefore posited as a force for decency, even if what they do is unpleasant. It’s also worth noting that this movie is edited along the lines of other chase movies by Porter, such as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife…” that are essentially comedic. On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, scholars Charles Musser and Michelle Wallace offer some of the above context, and also emphasize that the tradition of popular vigilantism in the US led to some of the formative genres of Hollywood, including the Western. I would add that there is also a direct line to comic book superheroes, possibly one of the most profitable genres of the current decade. As we thrill at the current portrayals of extra-legal enforcement on the screen, it may help remember the less-glossy origins of the concept in order to maintain some awareness and critical distance from its more unpleasant implications.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring:Kate Toncray, John R. Cumpson, Arthur V. Johnson

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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1915 Century Award Nominations

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThe nominations for the “real” Academy Awards were announced earlier today, and once again I’ve seen none of the movies up for consideration, and have only heard of about half of them. This is a recurring theme, and there’s no reason for me to be bitter about it. I just don’t go to the movies very much, and when I do, I usually don’t enjoy it much.

But…for those who are interested in my opinions of the movies of one hundred years ago, this is also the day that I announce my nominations for the Century Awards. I did a pretty good job of watching available movies from 1915 over the past year, although of course it’s not possible to see everything and I may have missed some obvious ones. I may be making some last minute additions in the next weeks, depending on how the Inter-Library Loan gods treat me.

This year, I’m sticking with the categories and rules I established last year with no significant changes. That means that “shorts” and “features” are competing in the same categories, as are “adapted” and “original” screenplays, and there are no special categories for “documentaries” or “animated” movies. In terms of movie length, I could have changed the rules this year, in light of the much higher rate of feature film production in 1915, but with Charlie Chaplin vaulting to super-stardom on the basis of two-reel releases this year, it only seemed right to let him compete with the longer movies. I think most of the “shorts” I nominated are his, though there’s probably an exception or two. I’ve never really understood the distinction between “original” (nothing is original in Hollywood) and “adapted” screenplays, and I’m too lazy to care, so there’s just one category there. As far as docs and animated, it comes down to the fact that I didn’t see enough of either to justify a separate category. The only 1915 animated movie I’ve seen is Ladislaw Starevich’s “Lily of Belgium,” so I guess it wins by default. I saw both “Over the Top” and “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the San Francisco Exposition,” both of which are sort of documentaries and sort of not, but that’s not enough to be called a representative sample of nonfiction film in 1915. (Between the two of them, “Over the Top” would win, if anyone’s interested). I still see no reason to separate “foreign language” from English-language silent films, and, yes, I’m keeping “Best Stunts.”

As I said last year, the rules to the Academy Awards say that there can be “up to five” nominees for each category except Best Picture, which gets “up to ten.” If you want to weigh in on the choices I’ve made, cast your “vote” by commenting, and explain why you think your chosen film should win. I’m still the final arbiter (it’s my blog), but I’ll certainly take well-thought-out arguments into account. If I sneak any new nominees in, it will mean exceeding the maximums, but I figure I can break my own rules when I need to.

Finally, before anyone asks, “where’s ‘The Birth of a Nation,’” the answer to that is here.

 

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

  1. The Deadly Ring
  2. A Woman
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. Trilby
  5. A Night in the Show

Best Costume Design

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites
  6. Alice in Wonderland

Best Production Design

  1. Young Romance
  2. Daydreams
  3. Evgeni Bauer for Children of the Age
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Stunts

  1. Charlie Chaplin for Work
  2. Douglas Fairbanks for The Lamb
  3. Charlie Chaplin for The Champion
  4. William Sheer for Regeneration
  5. Charlie Chaplin for By the Sea
  6. Luke the dog for Fatty’s Faithful Fido
  7. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Fatty’s Tintype Tangle

Best Film Editing

  1. The Coward
  2. The Italian
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Cecil B. DeMille for Golden Chance
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Cinematography

  1. Walter Stradling for Young Romance
  2. Joseph H. August for The Italian
  3. Boris Zavelev for Daydreams
  4. Alvin Wyckoff for The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Visual Effects (includes animation)

  1. Regeneration
  2. Ladislaw Starevich for Lily of Belgium
  3. Frank Ormston Hypocrites
  4. Children of Eve
  5. After Death

Best Screenplay

  1. Charlie Chaplin for The Bank
  2. Carl Harbaugh and Raoul Walsh for Regeneration
  3. C. Gardner Sullivan and Thomas Ince for The Italian
  4. M. Mikhailov for Children of the Age
  5. Hector Turnbull and Jeanie MacPherson for The Cheat

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Musidora for “The Red Cryptogram
  2. Kate Toncray for “The Lamb”
  3. Marta Golden for “Work”
  4. Gertrude Claire for “The Coward”
  5. Florense Simoni for “The Red Cryptogram”

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Wilton Lackaye for “Trilby”
  2. Marcel Levésque for “The Deadly Ring”
  3. William Sheer for “Regeneration”
  4. Roy Daugherty for “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw
  5. Sessue Hayakawa for “The Cheat”

Best Leading Actor

  1. Henry B. Walthall for “The Raven
  2. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”
  3. Rockliffe Fellowes for “Regeneration”
  4. George Beban for “The Italian”
  5. Vitold Polonsky for “After Death”

Best Leading Actress

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby”
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration”
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age”
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat”
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen”
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina

Best Director

  1. Cecil B. DeMille for “The Cheat”
  2. Raoul Walsh for “Regeneration”
  3. Evgeni Bauer for “After Death”
  4. Maurice Tourneur for “Alias Jimmy Valentine”
  5. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”

Best Picture

  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

The Lamb (1915)

Douglas Fairbanks plays the soon-to-be-familiar role of a spoiled rich kid who has to prove himself a man in this early feature, written by D.W. Griffith and released by Triangle Film Corporation. Griffith’s new protégé, W. Christy Cabanne, directed, and we see some of the same problems as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in spite of the charming star.

LambFairbanks plays “the Lamb,” a rich kid whose father recently passed on. He is in love with Mary (Seena Owen)allowing the Intertitles to riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and he proposes to her at a fashionable society party held by his domineering mother. She accepts, and all seems well until Bill Cactus (Alfred Paget), a “Goat from Arizona,” arrives and turns Mary’s head with his firm handshake. Things only get worse when they all visit the seaside together and spot a drowning woman crying for help. The Goat leaps into action, discarding his jacket and swimming out to save her while the Lamb looks passively on. Now Mary has made up her mind: she needs a real man, and she heads out West with the Goat for an extended stay at his ranch. The Lamb, heart-broken, starts taking boxing lessons and Jiu Jitsu, to his mother’s obvious displeasure. Just as she’s getting ready to put a stop to all this, the Lamb gets a letter from the Goat, asking him to join them in Arizona, and he rushes out to the car to catch the train.

Lamb1The train lets him off for a tourist jaunt, similar to what we saw with Mabel Normand in “The Tourists,” and, of course, he misses his train, getting bilked by a couple of Indians for a blanket and some beads, and then gets shanghaied by a couple of white guys with a car who promise to help him catch up with the train, but club him and dump him in the desert. When he wakes up, he’s chased by rattlesnakes, cougars, and horned toads. Then, an airplane from the Goat’s ranch crashes down nearby and he thinks he’s saved, but the pilot and the Lamb are both taken prisoner by a desperate band of Indian rebels (the intertitles call them “half-caste” and “Yaqui” interchangeably. Most of them are white men in darkface). The rebels have recently captured a machine gun from the Mexican army and are feeling their oats, hoping to extort more money from the Lamb. Meanwhile, the rich folks from the ranch come looking for their pilot, but Mary gets separated and is also captured and threatened with rape. The Lamb manages to break his bonds during a counter-attack by the Mexicans and we see a bit of Fairbanksian swashbuckling before he gets to Mary, who refuses to be rescued by a coward (!). He drags her outside and commandeers the machine gun, cutting down huge numbers of rebels, but he runs out of bullets. Fortunately, the ranch-set have gone to a nearby US barracks and the Cavalry ride in to the rescue. Mary is convinced that her Lamb is a hero and all ends well, for everyone but the rebels.

Lamb2The problem with this movie, as with so much of the Western material from this period is its extreme racism. The rebels are dehumanized and made to look both evil and ridiculous, while the white woman is once again held up as the pure flower of innocence, while the US Cavalry is shown as the heroic forces of order and decency. I blame Griffith’s influence, although this movie is better than “Birth of a Nation” or “The Martyrs of the Alamo,” which Cabanne would direct just two months later. I was impressed by the frequent use of close-ups and the complex cutting within scenes, as well as the classic inter-cutting between scenes to raise tension, now a long-established Griffith technique. There’s also some simple camera pans and tilts, to keep actors centered, and a generally more “cinematic,” less “stagey” approach to the cinematography than in “Martyrs,” although we have the same cameraman, William Fildew, behind the lens. Maybe they gave him more time for this one.

Lamb3Fairbanks is enjoyable, despite his character’s flaws and the flaws in the movie overall. I haven’t seen an earlier performance by him, but he already seems to be comfortable doing the kind of comedy-action picture he would become famous for. If this really was a debut role (I can’t find an earlier one on imdb, but that’s not definitive), it’s interesting because it seems to me that the audience would be hungry to see some heroics by the time he finally does break them out in the final scene. That kind of risk would be more logical for an established star, where the audience thinks, “well, it’s him, he’ll pay off sooner or later.” In a couple of years, we’ll see him pull off a similar, but funnier, character and situation in “Wild and Woolly.”

Lamb4One last thing to mention about this movie is the martial arts sequence, including an instructor with Asian features. I’ve seen various movies (mostly from the 60’s) touted as the “first” movie to include martial arts. Sorry, folks, Douglas Fairbanks beat you all to the punch, or rather the flip.

Director: Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Seena Owen, Alfred Paget, Kate Toncray, Monroe Salisbury

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you can, let me know in the comments.

Tourists (1912)

 TheTourists

This short “farce comedy” is interesting for a number of reasons. Although its depiction of Native Americans is likely to make modern audiences uncomfortable, it does display an aspect of Pueblo culture that is largely forgotten today. Having had their land stolen and their way of life destroyed, many Pueblos turned to the tourist industry to make a living, working in places like the “Harvey House” in Albuquerque and selling hand-crafted blankets and other items to white people on vacation. That is the setting for Mack Sennett, then employed at Biograph Studios, to make this vehicle for the teenaged Mabel Normand, later one of his big stars at Keystone. Mabel plays a ditzy and somewhat sexually transgressive young woman who misses her train and takes a up a flirtation with the local Pueblo chief. This angers her male companion, but also the local Pueblo women, who initiate a classic Sennett chase-sequence that ends with the white folks boarding the next train and leaving empty-handed. The whole story is interspersed with images of the Pueblo people doing their schtick for the camera, and several are used as extras, although the major roles went to Biograph players in dark-face. The enraged Pueblo women referred to in the intertitles as “suffragettes,” which is simply a bad joke at the expense of early-twentieth century feminism.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mabel Normand, Charles West, Frank Evans, Kate Toncray

Run Time: 6 Min, 10 secs

You can watch it for free: here.