Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ll

Life of a Cowboy (1906)

For this Independence Day post, I’m reviewing a quintessentially American film – one which its director, Edwin S. Porter, believed was “the first filmed Western” (evidently “The Great Train Robbery” didn’t count). It makes use of familiar tropes of Western stage plays and Wild West shows to present its story.

It begins in a saloon, the “Big Horn” (named for a steer skull prominently hanging over the bar). An old Indian comes into the saloon, wobbling a bit, and is turned away by the white bartender. Now, an identifiable bad guy with a black hat comes in and orders a drink, taking it over to the Indian, but an Indian squaw runs up and knocks the glass away before he can take a drink. A generic white good guy in a white hat runs in and stops the bad guy from hurting her, then enforces his departure with his six-gun. He leaves, and some rather odd folks come in. One, identifiable by his Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap and portly girth, evidently represents an English tourist. There is also a skinnier man and a woman with him. Five cowboys on horseback soon enter and entertain themselves by shooting off guns and making the tourist “dance” ala “The Great Train Robbery.” They ride up to the bar and take some drinks, occasionally firing off a gun for good measure.

The next scene takes place on a dirt-covered street outside the hotel. A stagecoach drives up and disgorges the Englishman and his companions. The skinny Englishman is dragged out of the coach by some cowboys and playfully flogged with a saddle. The good guy from the first scene embraces the woman, pushing the bad guy aside when he shows an interest. Then we cut to a scene on a local ranch, where the local cowboys are showing off their lassoing skills to the newcomers. The portly Englishman gets too close, and is dragged around the yard before the main entertainment begins: a woman rides past the lasso artist and he ropes first her, and then her horse as they pass by. We now cut back to the dirt road and watch as the stage coach departs, and the bad guy jumps on a horse and follows, cutting to a side road at top speed.

The bad guy is soon seen to have rounded up some Indian allies, and they chase the stage, eventually overtaking it and wounding the driver. The woman is put on a horse by the bad guy and Englishmen are forced to walk. The stage driver is able to get to the good guy, who rounds up a posse to go after them. There is another chase and several Indians are shot as the good guy and his team liberate the prisoners. At last, evidently free from peril, the good guy and his girl sit by some trees, but the bad guy sneaks up on them, followed by a lone figure. Just as he is about to shoot the good guy in the back, the figure shoots him from behind and we see that it is the Indian girl from the first scene. The good guy thanks her and kisses his girl.

At 17 minutes, this is a fairly long movie for 1906, and it’s not easy to follow the action. I made use of a synopsis, provided to exhibitors by Edison, to make sense of it, and in the theater an exhibitor would most likely have narrated the action for the audience. That synopsis refers to the bad guy as “a Mexican greaser,” but since there is no racial coding that would be obvious to a modern audience, I avoided that term. I did go ahead and refer to the Native Americans in the movie as “Indians,” because their costumes will be recognized by anyone today. They represent several stereotypes, but at least there is some complexity among them: the old man is a drunk, the young squaw is a tragic hero, and most of the younger men are generic thugs. They do a lot of the better stunts, and my guess is that they worked on Wild West shows in real life, where falling off horses and shooting off guns for an audience paid well. The lassoing sequence also comes straight from the Wild West shows (including the comedy of the “rube” getting dragged around), while the reference to the “Big Horn” saloon is from the stage version of “The Squaw Man,” later to be filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, among others.

The movie, like many from this period, relies heavily and fast moving action and chases, along with bits of slapstick comic relief, to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t come across as being as exciting or innovative as “The Great Train Robbery,” but Porter is correct in that it more clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Old West, as understood by film audiences then and now. Porter had gotten proficient at shooting a standard chase sequence at this time, and the use of camera pans allows us to follow the action, but the sequential editing limits the suspense of these scenes, and makes for a less exciting experience than later Westerns would provide.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter and/or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 17 Min, 21 secs

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet.  If you do, please comment.

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The Legend of Ponchinella (1907)

This early short from Max Linder demonstrates a very different style to what would become his established routine in later movies, seeming to draw from the work of Georges Méliès, as well as French folklore, for its inspiration. Rather than his usual fussy modern aristocrat, Max plays a fairy tale hero in this one.

The movie begins with a series of shots of Max, in Harlequin costume, leading a group of short masked people (probably intended to represent elves, dwarves, or goblins) through various medieval settings. Real locations are used for this, no doubt genuine castles and other ancient landscapes in France that were briefly closed off so that the costumed actors could appear to exist in some timeless period. The small band climbs a stairwell and enters a room, causing smoke somehow to start billowing up from the floor, then they all run off screen. The next scene is preceded by the intertitle “Harlequin rescues his love.” We see a group of well-dressed people surrounding a girl on a short pedestal. She moves in a mechanical way, turning and bowing to the people in the room, to their evident delight. Suddenly the smoke enters the room and all of the aristocrats flee, leaving the clockwork girl alone. She stumbles and collapses from her perch.

The room now transforms from a nice, well-appointed space to a ruin. Now Max enters and finds her in pieces on the floor. He gathers up the pieces of the girl and stuffs them into a sack and carries her away. The next shot shows Max, still with the sack, some distance from the smoking wreck of a castle. He uses a magic wand to create a bridge across a chasm and escape the wreckage. He brings the sack to a beautiful fountain and with a wave of the wand, brings the girl back to life. She now moves in a natural manner, embracing Harlequin and walking off with him. The final scene is called “Harlequin Triumphant” and it involves a series of fairy dances, in a set that closely resembles a Méliès movie, even to the point of having a face like a large moon presiding over the proceedings.

It’s important to realize that when this movie came out, Méliès was one of the most important and successful filmmakers in the world, and that much of the movies coming out imitated or outright stole from him. This is at least somewhat original, more of a homage than a rip-off, though it’s not really what we think of when we think of Max Linder. We hardly see Max’s face at all – most of the scenes are tableaux in proscenium-style sets in long shot. There is one rather lengthy pan as Max and his fairies move through the streets, but Max is always shown at full-figure, never in close-up. The use of actual castle locations is what gives the movie its distinctiveness, although most of the action takes place in sets like the one used for the final fairy dance. I believe that the final fountain where Harlequin resurrects his girlfriend may be at Versailles – possibly a good part of the movie was shot there. In all, it’s an amusing entry in French cinematic history, though not very representative of the work of Linder.

Director: Albert Capellani, Lucien Nonguet

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 7 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Lightning Sketches (1907)

This very short film from Vitagraph beats Windsor McCay to the punch by several years in his claim to be the “first animator” – though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were even earlier examples. It serves as an example of developing film techniques in America as the Nickelodeon Era was beginning.

The screen shows a large pad of artist’s paper, hung up on a wall before the camera. J. Stuart Blackton appears on the left side and writes the word “coon,” then rapidly transforms the letters into a caricature of a black man. All of the action is undercranked, to make Blackton’s movements appear rapid when played at normal speed. He now writes the word “Cohen” on the paper next to the first cartoon, and transforms these letters into a caricature of a Jewish man. The paper is rolled up and removed in animation, but we do not see the hands of the person doing it. Next, a bald man comes out and takes a seat before the paper, and Blackton sketches him, giving him a cigar at the end and then adding it to the caricature. A few animated puffs of smoke are visible coming out of the drawn cigar. This paper is also rolled up and removed in animation. Now, Blackton sketches a glass, a bottle labeled “Medoc” and a spritzer bottle, then he departs the screen and the bottle is animated to pour into the glass, followed by a spritz of soda, which causes the glass to overflow. This paper is torn apart in animation and the film ends.

Although there’s only a few seconds worth of animation between the papers getting rolled up and the pouring of the bottle, this was probably a pretty exciting film for an audience of 1907. Even the speeded-up action qualifies as an “effect” and seems to have been done to emphasize Blackton’s ability to work quickly, without mistakes. The unfortunate racial stereotyping at the beginning was probably meant to be humorous and not offensive, though it hasn’t aged well. It was interesting how he integrated the letters into images of people’s faces, it was just an unfortunate choice of words to use to demonstrate this. Blackton barely looks at the bald man as he sketches him – the point of having him “sit” for the picture seems to be so that the audience can see how accurate Blackton’s portrayal is. The final animation of the wine and the spritzer bottle is the climax, and by modern standards it wouldn’t amount to much, but it may have fascinated audiences to see a moving drawing at the time.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Little Princess* (1917)

The classic tale of a young scamp in a snooty all-girls school is given the star treatment by Mary Pickford in this movie. Pickford had made her name playing girls well below her actual age, and here she really stretches things, pretending to be a child of only 10 or 11.

As the story opens, Mary, as Sara Crewe, is still in India, hiding in an urn and spying on her father (played by Norman Kerry) as he decides to move back to Britain after years of service in the colonial forces. She is opposed to the idea, being accustomed to a privileged life of servants and a large house, but children don’t get to make those decisions for themselves. She is enrolled in the Minchin boarding school for girls, where she is very shy and uncertain at first, and this is perceived as standoff-ish, which, along with the vast wealth her father provides for her comforts, earns her the nickname of “little Princess” from the other students.

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Lion, London Zoological Garden (1896)

This early short from Lumière demonstrates the conditions at London zoos at the turn of the century, and also serves as an early nature documentary. It is one of the “location” movies that the Lumière brothers made by sending men with cameras all over Europe and the world.

A male lion is shown in a cage at quite close range, while a zoo attendant tosses small pieces of meat into the cage. The lion eats them, but also takes occasional swipes at the attendant’s hand when he is too slow to toss fresh pieces inside. The attendant moves around the cage, trying to find a better position from which to toss, but has to move back when the lion follows him out of camera range.

The small lion cage will probably upset animal lovers today. It reminds me of the cages that big cats were kept in at the Central Park Zoo when I was a child, though happily that zoo has become more humane in recent years. I suspect that the zoo worker would have preferred to stand at a better distance from the cat’s claws, but for the purposes of the film he needed to be close. The animal is quite impressive and large, and looks like he could take the worker’s arm off if he wanted to. I also imagine that the small pieces of meat were a convention of the movie – surely you would usually give an animal this size something more to chew on.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lion, the Lamb, the Man (1914)

This short film stars Lon Chaney early in his career, and even shows of a little of his talents with makeup, for which he would later become famous. I was able to attend a rare screening at Cinecon, and so can now review the film, long thought lost and rediscovered in 2008. Note, as always in these cases, that the plot summary is based on my memory of a single viewing, and may be flawed.

Image courtesy Jon Mirsalis at http://www.lonchaney.org/filmography/37.html

The movie is a metaphorical statement on human relationships, using cavemen to represent the instinctive drives. It opens by showing a classic love-triangle in caveman form. Lon Chaney is “The Lion,” a brute who shoos off “the Lamb” (Gus Inglis) and claims “the Woman” (Pauline Bush) by brute force. Now, a new character, named “the Fox” (Millard K. Wilson) sneaks through the bushes and fires an arrow from a bow, killing the Lion, and claiming the woman for himself. This is followed by a transition to modern times.

It begins by establishing Chaney once again as the Lion, showing him in a brawl with another man, winning by brute force. At the riverside, we see a sequence in which the modern Lion takes the Woman away from the Lamb through force and the Fox attempts to defeat the Lion through ingenuity (this time setting a trap by attaching a string to a rifle). During this, there are superimposed images of the cavemen characters to drive home the point. When the Lion fails to trip the trap, the Fox runs away with the Lion in pursuit, leaving the Woman (who seems rather relieved) to her own devices. She takes off her stockings and begins to wade into the water, but accidentally drops one. She tries to reach it before it floats away, and winds up falling into the river herself. Now we see the Man (William C. Dowlan), who is fishing downstream. He feels a tug at his line and reels it in, discovering the stocking. Now the Woman appears behind the rock he is sitting on, and she tries to stealthily swipe the stocking, but the Man sees her. They playfully flirt and leave together.

The final sequence shows the outcome of the various paths. The Lamb, now an elderly minister, sits among a group of spinsters sipping tea. The Fox and the Lion are together, living in poverty with a very ugly Indian woman (with a mustache) as their mutual companion. The Man and the Woman live in middle-class wedded bliss, their child running about happily as another minister comes over to visit.

Lon Chaney, sans makeup, in 1919.

This was a pretty basic little movie, rather simple for 1914, but interesting in terms of effects and the ambition of the storytelling. Essentially, it appears to argue that where brute strength and cunning were enough in the struggle for survival in “nature,” civilization benefits the person capable of empathy and understanding. It seems to me that this case would have been stronger if the Man had jumped in to save the Woman from drowning, especially if it was made clear that none of the other characters would risk their lives for her, but possibly this was beyond the capacity (or budget) of the filmmakers, or maybe I’m reading it wrong somehow. Chaney is impressive in his makeup (the woman presenting the next film commented “Wow, who knew Lon Chaney was so buff?”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also made up the other actors in their caveman and aged appearances (and maybe drew the mustache on the Indian). The use of multiple exposures to remind the audience of the caveman metaphor is typical of the period, but works well.

Very little of Chaney’s work from the 1910s survives today, which is one reason we’ve only seen him once before on this blog, even though he was working from at least 1914 on and made over 100 films before 1920. Most of these movies are lost, and this one was thought lost until recently, when it was discovered in the UK and sent to the Museum of Modern Art for duplication, and it was their print that I was able to see at Cinecon, apparently in the first audience to view the film for over 100 years. This is largely to the credit of Jon Mirsalis, who many of us know as an accompanist to silent movies and is also a collector and preservationist in his own right. I hope that the day will come when everyone can see it, along with the rest of our public domain film heritage, freely and easily from home.

Director: Joseph De Grasse

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Lon Chaney, Pauline Bush, Millard K. Wilson, William C. Dowlan, Gus Inglis

Run Time: 25 Min

This movie is not yet available on the Internet.

The Little American (1917)

The star power of Mary Pickford is teamed with the directing power of Cecil B. DeMille to produce a war propaganda picture just as the United States prepares to send its first troops to France to fight in World War One. The movie pulls no punches in showing audiences what the USA will be fighting for, but it has a reputation for being clumsy and jingoistic today.

Mary is the titular representative of the United States, Angela Moore, living a privileged and sheltered life as a socialite on a large estate. She has two suitors: the French Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton) and Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt), a German. As the movie opens, it is July 4, 1914 (which just happens to be Angela’s birthday), and she receives each of them in turn. She seems to prefer Karl, although he insists on teaching her little brother how to goose step. Karl is interrupted as he proposes by an urgent secret message calling him back to serve in the German military, and he honorably releases her from any obligations before he goes. When the Count informs her about the outbreak of war, her first though is of Karl and whether he may have been hurt in the fighting. She sends letters to Karl but hears nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

Love’s Forgiveness (1917)

The final episode of “Judex” lives up to its title by being more about love and forgiveness than about crime and revenge. It serves almost as more of an epilogue than a discreet chapter of the serial.

The movie begins at the seaside villa which has served as Judex’s headquarters for the final parts of the story. Judex (René Cresté) and his brother (Édouard Mathé) lead Favraux (Louis Leubas) into a room and put him in a chair, where he contemplates his fate alone, and breaks down crying. Shortly, Judex leads Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) into the room to see her father. When he leaves the room, she reaches out at first towards him as if she cannot bear his departure, but then turns her attention to her father, embracing him. Judex rejoins his brother and mother, Countess de Tremeuse (Yvonne Dario), looking downcast. His mother assures him that Jacqueline now knows the truth, and that she loves him. The Countess now brings Le Petit Jean (Olinda Mano) to Jacqueline and Favraux, and the child seems to break the grandfather from his stupor, as he again accepts his role in the loving family. His expression resumes its blank look when Judex walks into the room and asks for Favraux to pronounce judgment upon him. Favraux asks to see the Countess first. Judex leads Favraux to his mother, and Favraux breaks down and begs her forgiveness. The Countess informs him that he is forgiven, because of the harm that revenge will bring to the innocent Jacqueline and Jean.

Meanwhile, the Licorice Kid (René Poyen) has found Robert in the yard and asks to see Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque). Robert takes him to the marina, where Cocantin and Daisy Torp (Juliette Clarens, if my deductions are correct) are returning from their adventures. Cocantin, still wearing Daisy’s hat, introduces her as his fiancée. The Licorice Kid appears to approve of his choice. The next day, Kerjean (Gaston Michel) is walking on the seaside when he finds the body of a woman – it is Diana Monti (Musidora), who evidently drowned in her attempt to escape justice the previous night. Michel, who has been deprived of his son by this woman’s machinations, appears to be bitterly satisfied at the discovery.

The official “Epilogue” is now announced with an Intertitle, and we see Judex’s now united family, represented by Robert, the Countess, and Le Petit Jean walking in the woods. They find Kerjean sitting sadly at the seaside and Jean runs up to him and kisses him, which brings him out of his reverie. Although he has lost his son, it seems he has a place with the family and can still partake of their love. Favraux, we learn, chooses to live in ongoing isolation without reclaiming his fortune. We see him pruning a tree in his old garden. He interrupts his work when a poor girl comes begging at the gate, and he gives her some money – proving his repentance is sincere, since the series began with him turning away a similar beggar in the Prologue. Next we see Cocantin and Daisy Torp in wedded bliss, with the Licorice Kid as their officially adopted ward. Cocantin proves his love by demonstrating that he is learning to swim on a tabletop. Finally, Judex and Jacqueline are shown in a happy embrace, having overcome everything to be together in one another’s arms.

And so ends “Judex,” the third of the crime serials directed by Louis Feuillade, perhaps France’s most important director of the late Nickelodeon period. I’ve seen all three now, and, due to the nature of this project, I wound up seeing them in the sequential order of their release: first “Fantômas,” then “Les Vampires,” and finally “Judex.” During that time I’ve discovered that each one has its fans and devotees, and that there isn’t agreement on which is the “best” of the three serials. I usually try to avoid reducing my reviews to simple analyses of whether I like a film or not, but I have to admit that for me the progression has been pretty much downward. “Fantômas” remains my favorite, then “Les Vampires,” and “Judex” is at the bottom of the list. This despite the fact that the filmmaking techniques, and especially the editing, decidedly improved over time. I have a theory that which one will be your favorite depends on which one you see first. They’re each so different that if you go into the second and third ones expecting more of what you got in the first, you’re bound to be disappointed.

That’s a compliment to Feuillade, really, a reflection of the breadth of his skill and imagination. He did not simply make three serials that were all the same, he made three very distinct cinematic experiences, linking them only in terms of cast and themes. And, just because “Judex” seems to me the least of the three Feuillade serials, doesn’t mean I haven’t enjoyed watching it. It’s easily one of the best serials of the period, even if it isn’t “Fantômas.” (I have yet to meet a silent fan who regards “The Perils of Pauline” with the devotion so many give to these movies. “Judex” was made in part as a response to criticism that Feuillade’s earlier crime films had glamorized criminals and de-emphasized the heroes. I think that’s part of why it seems less modern and interesting to me. I think Feuillade tries so hard to emphasize redemption and love that he forgets to include enough action, and his fascinating villainess winds up being cast off, literally killed off as an afterthought at the end of the series. But, in doing this he also more or less invented the concept of the superhero, an iconic figure that the world would spend the next century exploring and re-examining. That’s an accomplishment worth celebrating.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Yvette Andréyor, Musidora, Édouard Mathé, Gaston Michel, Yvonne Dario, René Poyen, Marcel Lévesque, Louis Leubas, Olinda Mano, Juliette Clarens

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here (episode incomplete. I have not found the complete episode for free online. If you do, let me know in the comments).

The Licorice Kid (1917)

Perhaps appropriate for Mother’s Day, this episode of “Judex” is particularly child-and-family-friendly. Characters that have been peripheral up to now become central, and the hero himself does nothing but sulk, but the serial continues to deliver in terms of bizarre scheming and unexpected rescues.

In light of the title, I need to mention that the character I’ve been identifying as “Bout-de-Zan” is actually called “the Licorice Kid” in this story. Bout-de-Zan is actually the most well-known character portrayed by child actor René Poyen, who is called “the Licorice Kid” in Judex. Sorry for any confusion!

Musidora’s “eyeroll” emoji

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Life of American Policeman (1905)

This famous follow-up to “Life of an American Fireman” by Edwin S. Porter is a longer movie, but oddly less satisfying than its predecessor. Where that movie was an innovation in bringing sequential narrative to film, this one seems to lose its thread and becomes more a series of unconnected vignettes.

The opening scene parallels the original, by showing us a policeman off duty at home, with his wife and small child. The man sits at the table, reading his newspaper and smoking, while the woman tends to the needs of two very small girls. Meanwhile, a slightly larger boy marches around the table in his father’s police helmet, and carrying his belt and nightstick. After a while, father rises to leave and mother brings him his coat. He gives each of the children a kiss in turn, and retrieves his articles from Junior, before going out the door. After he leaves, the woman brings the children to the window to wave, although we can see pretty clearly that there is nothing but a studio wall behind it. Note that this policeman has no mustache. Read the rest of this entry »