Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ll

Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is a famous early movie by Edwin S. Porter, released earlier in the same year as “The Great Train Robbery.” It is one of the best-known examples of early editing structure, and gives us an opportunity to discuss the development of cinema beyond the single-shot film to the multi-shot narrative, and how this concept has changed over time.

lifeofanamericanfiremanThe first shot in this movie is an interesting trick shot, or special effect. A fireman is seen dozing at work, and over his shoulder is an image of his dream. He is dreaming about a woman putting a small child to bed (perhaps his own wife and child). The next shot is a close-up on a street-corner fire alarm. An anonymous hand opens the case and pulls the alarm. Then we cut to an image of the bunks inside the firehouse, with all of the firemen sleeping. They wake up to the alarm, and then leap out of bed, put on boots and trousers, and slide down the pole to the stables below. We see each one mount the pole and disappear in turn. Then we cut to the stable, and watch as each man slides down the pole in the center of the screen, and runs over to mount the wagon he will ride. Once they are all aboard, the ropes before the horses are taken down, and they race across the screen. Next we see the exterior of the firehouse, and watch as each wagon bolts out the doors and runs onto the street. We cut to another street corner, and watch the fire trucks race by, while crowds of spectators gather to watch them. There are two such shots in sequence, and each one allows each wagon to rush by, the second panning to follow them. This pan ends at the burning house, where we see the fire fighters preparing their hoses.

lifeofanamericanfireman2Now, the scene cuts to the interior of the house, which looks like the same bedroom in the man’s dream from the opening. Smoke is billowing into the room, and the woman and child sleep on the bed. She gets up and runs to the window, screaming for help, then collapses back on the bed. A fire fighter breaks down the door with his axe and runs in. He tears down the curtains and breaks the window open. A ladder appears at the window, and he picks up the unconscious woman, carrying her to it and climbing out on the ladder. A moment later he (or another fire fighter) reappears on the ladder and runs to pick up the sleeping child, taking her out the same way. Now two fire fighters enter from the ladder, wielding a hose, which they spray liberally around the room. The final shot reproduces this last sequence of events, but does so from outside the house (the same shot as the end of the pan, above). A fire fighter enters the burning house from the first floor at about the same moment as the woman appears in the window above. Others set up the ladder from below, and still more train their hose on the house, spraying water in through the open door and windows. Meanwhile, the first fire fighter carries the woman down the ladder and revives her, then runs back to the ladder to recover the child. Finally, the men with the hose climb the ladder, having put out the fire in other parts of the house.

lifeofanamericanfireman1This film s famous for showing Porter’s developing understanding of editing, being a great example of a narrative created by inter-linking shots sequentially. For many years, it was also controversial, because there were two versions – one which followed the sequence I have just described, and another which cross-cut the scenes outside and inside to create a more “modern” style of storytelling. It is pretty well established now that this version is correct: first we see the rescue played out in entirety from inside the house, then we see the entire sequence again from the other perspective. This lines up with audience expectations of the time. People would quite probably have been confused by parallel editing, not being used to seeing shots inter-cut at the time. This gives us a chance to talk a bit about how this whole idea of stitching shots together came about in the first place. The old narrative was that certain “genius” directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter “invented” it. Actually, this isn’t really true. As we have seen in this project, for many years a “film” equaled a single shot of relatively fixed length, that played out some kind of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But often they had related themes, fire fighting being a classic example. So, what various ingenious exhibitors started doing was to create narratives by showing related films in sequence, with their own narration filling in names of characters, etc. So, perhaps you would see “A Morning Alarm” followed by “The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy” and then “Firemen Rescuing Men and Women” while a narrator told you that this was all footage of the same fire. This is where Porter and Méliès (whose “A Trip to the Moon” was a multi-shot film from the previous year) got the idea to make longer movies out of a series of shots. It also explains why they did not cut within their shots – this would have broken the established logic of narrative at the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with James H. White and/or George S. Fleming)

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughn, James H. White

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lord of Thunder (1916)

This week’s episode of “Les Vampires” continues the serial’s pattern of capture-and-escape, with the emphasis on the villains this time out. Musidora, as Irma Vep, manages to have a record number of wardrobe changes, and Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) remembers that he has a family.

lord-of-thunder

Irma Vep in her prison uniform.

This episode begins where the last one ended – with Moréno and Irma Vep in the custody of police and Satanas (Louis Leubas), the true Grand Master of the Vampires, still at large and unknown to the heroes. Irma is informed that her lover has been executed for his crimes, and that she will be transferred to a prison colony in Algeria for life. Satanas reads this news as well, and disguises himself as a priest, taking a hotel room with a view of the ocean in Montmartre. He then visits the women’s prison, distributing religious literature, but Irma Vep is able to decode a message in her pamphlet that warns her to leap into the ocean, because the boat will be destroyed by an explosion. Satanas then returns to the hotel, where his cohorts have been building one of his handy transportable cannons, and he destroys the ship with a single shell.

Irma Vep, in her traveling-to-Algeria getup.

Irma Vep, in her traveling-to-Algeria getup.

Meanwhile, Philippe Guérande has managed to use the codebook he got from the Grand Inquisitor in episode 2 to figure out that the shell must have been fired from Montmartre. Mazamette, who has dropped by to let him and his mother know that he is being considered for the “academic palms,” offers to investigate. He is unsuccessful on his first day, but then his son Eustache (played by Bout-de-Zan) arrives, having been expelled from school for bad behavior. The two of them dress as garbage pickers and return to Montmartre, where they find a cannon shell being delivered to the Grand Master of the Vampires in a hat box.

lord-of-thunder2Satanas stops by Guérande’s house and uses his paralyzing pin to immobilize him while secreting a time bomb in a top hat to blow up the apartment. He sticks a note to Guérande’s collar that proclaims that he has been condemned to avenge the death of Irma Vep. Mazamette arrives in time to see Satanas leaping from the window of the apartment into a waiting getaway car, then is able to find the ticking top hat and dispose of it before it explodes, saving the day. He announces that he now has the address of the Grand Master of the Vampires.

lord-of-thunder3Eustache and Mazamette return to Montmartre and attempt to sneak in to Satanas’s home, but Satanas uses a peephole hidden in a mask on the wall to see what they are doing and locks Mazamette into a chest, while threatening Eustache, who pulls out a gun and shoots at Satanas. Satanas acts as if he was hit, but then gets up and grabs the child, when suddenly thee police break down the door and apprehend him. Mazamette is rescued from the chest, but his face is covered with blood – somehow Eustache’s bullet hit him in the nose!

lord-of-thunder4Meanwhile, Irma Vep has escaped from the shell after all, and turns up at a railroad station, fainting from hunger and weakness. The railyard workers help her to recover and take up a collection for her, charmed by a phony story of a romantic tragedy that she makes up. She then heads back to the nightclub we saw in episode three, and announces her survival by performing on the stage – the assembled Vampires all recognize her voice. She is taken to the hideout in victory and a couple perform an Apache Dance in her honor. Then, the news of Satanas’s arrest comes, and Venomous (Fredrik Moriss), a “brilliant but deranged chemist” announces that he has been deputized to lead the gang in such a circumstance. They mail a seemingly innocuous letter to Satanas, which Satanas eats to commit suicide.

Irma Vep, in her

Irma Vep, in her “riding-the-rails” outfit.

We’re certainly going through the villains quickly in this serial! Only Irma Vep seems to survive, while the male leaders of the gang fall like flies. I found Satanas to be at least as dull of a villain as the old Master Vampire was, though, so no great loss here. I have some hope for the “deranged chemist,” Venomous, for these final chapters. The scene where Irma Vep arrived at the train station was somewhat shocking to me – because Louis Feuillade had Musidora lie on the tracks while an actual train passed overhead! A very dangerous stunt, luckily she was thin enough to pull it off without injury. The arrival of Bout-de-Zan was quite a thrill as well, although he didn’t have all that much to do in this episode, besides shooting his father in the nose, and we didn’t get much of a sense of the playful troublemaking that made him a huge star. Also, the shots of the ship blowing up appeared to be taken from actual footage of naval warfare, suggesting that this was one of the first movies to cut stock footage into its storyline.

Irma Vep's not even sure where these clothes came from.

Irma Vep’s not even sure where these clothes came from.

And, now, let’s pause to consider the logic of the story, as always. OK, so assuming that you can transport a cannon in pieces inside of a couple of large trunks, what are the chances you can fire it out a hotel window without getting reported to the authorities? No one complained about the noise? Montmartre must be a pretty raucous place for no one to have minded cannon fire! Also, Mazamette is remarkably fortunate in this episode: not only does he just happen to literally stumble upon a cannon shell being delivered to a particular address, he takes a bullet to the nose that fortunately didn’t go into his brain! Finally, I certainly wouldn’t be eager to advance in a criminal gang with such a high death rate among its leadership. Given the frequency with which they escape from the police as well, it would seem some kind of rescue would be attempted before sending the “poison pen” letter to Satanas.

Irma Vep goes incognito.

Irma Vep goes incognito.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Musidora, Marcel Levésque, René Poyen, Louis Leubas, Fredrik Moriss, Florense Simoni, Renée Carl

Run Time: 51 Min

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

Land Beyond the Sunset (1912)

This late-period movie from Edison Studios seems to be an attempt at copying D.W. Griffith’s success with “social message” films, but winds up going in a surprising direction. It makes good use of New York locations to contrast urban poverty with natural, outdoor settings.

Land Beyond the SunsetWe see a busy New York street corner. A boy in rags is selling newspapers – or trying to, but no one seems to want one. We see wealthy-looking people come and go, businesspeople, workers, all hurrying to get where they are going, but no one buys a paper. The boy looks increasingly discouraged as time goes by. Finally, a woman with a little girl walks up to the corner. The woman isn’t interested in a paper, but the daughter feels sorry for the boy. She convinces her mother to give him a coin as a hand-out. The boy gratefully accepts and goes home. At home, his grandmother, who is drinking out of a flask, scolds him for not selling more papers. He tries to put the coin in a jacket pocket for later, but she catches him and takes it, presumably to buy more booze.

Land Beyond the Sunset1In the next scene, we see a minister hard at work at the Fresh Air Fund. He hands out stack of tickets to various women for them to distribute – each is good for a ride on a train to a picnic event. The boy gets up early Saturday morning to redeem one of these tickets, though it’s not at all clear how he got it. He meets up with the picnic party and is taken in hand by one of the young women volunteers. He rides out to a nice waterfront park, the like of which he’s never seen before, and runs on green grass and eats a good meal. The minister leads everyone in prayer before the food is broken out. After the meal, he hears a fairy tale about a boy who meets fairies and is carried in a boat to “the land beyond sunset.” When everyone gets ready to go back to the city in the afternoon, the boy hides and stays in the park, then he walks down to the beach. He finds an old rowboat and casts off. The final scenes show him afloat in his boat, drifting towards the sunset.

Land Beyond the Sunset2Oddly enough, this movie was made with the cooperation of the Fresh Air Fund, presumably to promote the charitable work they did with New York slum children, although the end seems to suggest that they routinely abandon kids in the park! The end sounds rather grim – this poor kid is either going to drown, starve, or die of thirst out there in this ratty rowboat – yet, it has a strangely positive, or at least melancholy, feeling, in part because of the lovely framing of the shot of the sunset. I’d love to know who the cinematographer was for this, but perhaps director Harold M. Shaw conceived it. As I suggested above, the city shots are also quite memorable, and the whole piece is one of contrasting images. The kid in this movie reminded me of Jackie Coogan (who wasn’t born until 1914), and I thought did very well in showing his feelings through body language. The park footage was shot near Long Island Sound in the Bronx, so the whole production was done close to home for relatively cheap. It’s a poetic little film from a largely ignored (at this point in time anyway) studio.

Land Beyond the Sunset3Director: Harold M. Shaw

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Bigelow Cooper

Run Time: 12 Min, 30 secs

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

 

The Lonedale Operator (1911)

This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

Blanche knows how to keep a man.

The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.

No, I probably won't need it!

No, I probably won’t need it!

Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.

Competant and capable.

Competant and capable.

Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.

Lonedale Operator3So, while it’s maybe not so innovative as is suggested, it is a good example of what could be done with established technique, and I’m even willing to grant that in terms of editing it was better than what most audiences were seeing up to then. Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Blanche Sweet, Francis J. Grandon, George Nichols, Dell Henderson, Joseph Graybill, Verner Clarges, Edward Dillon, Wilfred Lucas, W. Chrystie Miller, Charles West.

Run Time: 17 Min

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

The Landlady (1900)

Alternate Title: La Concierge

This is another simple comedy from Alice Guy’s period as a director for Gaumont Studios. It reminds me both of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” for being a typical joke about someone getting doused, but also “The Burglars,” because the setting is so obviously French, despite the lack of an elaborate set or location shoot.

LandladyWe see the front of a building and a middle-aged woman is sweeping the stoop. Behind her is a sign reading “Concierge” and a rope to ring the doorbell. A well-dressed man comes up to her and they haggle over money, he leaves and she takes a snort of snuff. Then she goes inside for a moment and some kids run up. They yank the doorbell and run away. The lady comes out to find no one, and shakes her fist. Then she goes back inside. The man returns and yanks the doorbell as well, and she throws a bucket of water over him, thinking he is the prankster. Then the kids rush onto the set and start laughing, and some adult extras also arrive and laugh, providing a kind of laugh-track to give the audience someone to laugh along with.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Run Time: 1 Min

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

La Marseillaise (1907)

This is another early French experiment in sound cinema, this time using their stirring national anthem as the subject matter. Evidently, problems with amplification of the soundtrack prevented this method, developed by Georges Mendel, from catching on, but it remains a fascinating example of the struggle to add a second sense to the silver screen.

La MarseillaiseThere’s really no plot to this movie, what we see is a cannon with a French flag leaning against it and a painted set in the rear. Opera singer Jean Noté walks out onto the set and stirringly sings “La Marseillaise” – well, not really. In fact, the film was shot with him lip-synching to his pre-recorded phonograph record of the song, and he simply moves for the camera while the song plays. Noté gestures emphatically throughout the performance and ends with a patriotic salute. Fans of the 1938 French film or even the scene from Casablanca will not fail to be moved.

La Marseillaise1Unlike in “Cyrano de Bergerac,” inventor Georges Mendel had worked out a mechanism for synching the phonograph playback to the projector, taking the pressure for synchronization off the hands of the projectionist. For me, the effect of the movie is greater as well, because I don’t need to understand French to enjoy the music. It’s interesting to think about the position of France in the world at this time, before being laid low by the First World War, with a still-flourishing global empire that largely was not in rebellion. By the same token, at this time the French cinema dominated the world (somewhat more than two-thirds of the films shown in American nickelodeons were of French origin at this time), and had not yet begun its decline in importance. It therefore makes sense that experiments in sound would be made in film’s first nation, and that they should be as proudly nationalist as this offering.

Director: Georges Mendel

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Jean Noté

Run Time: 2 Min 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

A Life for a Life (1916)

Alternate Titles: Zhiznt zo zhizn, A Tear for Every Drop of Blood, Za kozhduiu slezu po kople krovi, The Rival Sisters, Sestry sopernitsy.

Once again I return to Russian filmmaker Evgeni Bauer, and again I find his work masterful and fascinating. This film also established one of Russia’s most important film stars, Vera Kholodaia, as a major artistic phenomenon.

Life for a LifeThe story is of two sisters, one adopted, who are raised by their very successful single mother. She runs a factory, spending most of her waking hours working, in order to secure the family’s fortune. The adopted daughter, Nata (memorably played by Vera Kholodnaia, who was in “Children of the Age” and a 1914 version of “Anna Karenina”) is a little older, and quite beautiful, but it’s understood that she will not inherit, the money will go to Musia, the younger, less attractive natural daughter of the capitalist mom (Lidiia Koreneva). The young girls are social butterflies, going to dances, parties, and other events, where the men of course regard them as possible prey. Enter Prince Bartinskii (Vitol’d Polonskii), a scoundrel who gambles heavily and has enormous debts. He starts hanging around Nata and they fall in love. He confers with a friend (Ivan Perestiani, who became a director after the revolution, making “The Suram Fortress” and “Three Lives”) about his financial situation, and the friend points out that he needs a rich wife to help him get out of debt and continue his extravagant lifestyle. Nata is not the girl for him, whatever his feelings. But the friend suggests a solution, he is willing to make the sacrifice and marry the lovely Nata for him, if he will marry Musia. Then, the affair can continue, and the Prince will have the money he needs. And so it is done, and the setup for a multi-way tragedy is established.

Life for a Life3This may have been one of the first attempts in Russia to make a “blockbuster” big-budget hit movie, and it was apparently successful with audiences and critics. Based on a French novel by Georges Ohnet, it was not a nationalist epic, along the lines of “The Birth of a Nation” or “Defense of Savastapol.” Instead, it is a romantic story of bourgeois relationships being fouled by aristocratic greed and corruption, an interesting theme for pre-revolutionary Russia. Bauer took advantage of his increased budget by hiring extras and building large, ornate sets. Apparently his use of columns in the background was mocked in the press at the time and seen as an attempt to imitate “foreign” influences. I would agree that there are a lot of them – one in almost every shot, and in one scene a mirror serves to double one of them in case actors should happen to step in front of it. But, I don’t know why this would be seen as “foreign.” Bauer’s set designs generally tended to be busy, and he liked to give the eye more to look at than people; I’m pretty sure I’ve seen columns in other movies by him, I just wasn’t looking for them at the time. Furthermore, I can’t think of a foreign director of the time who used them so much.

Uh oh, columns!

Uh oh, columns!

This movie apparently made Kholodnaia into a major Russian star, earning her the title of “Queen of the Screen,” and she is certainly the one to watch in this movie. She expresses love, joy, guilt, shame, horror, and terrible sadness, sometimes within just a few minutes of each other, but without over-acting, and all the while remaining the focal point of the film. The mom is actually pretty good too – in many ways she’s the real victim here – as is Perestiani. Polonskii and Koreneva have less to do – he mostly looks shifty and smarmy and she just looks stupidly injured. The scene where her mother advises her not to marry the prince is the height of melodramatic pantomime.

Life for a Life2

Director: Evgeni Bauer

Camera: Boris Zavlev

Starring: Ol’ga Rakhmanova, Lidiia Koreneva, Vera Kholodnaia, Vitol’d Polonskii, Ivan Perestiani

Run Time: 1hr 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here (42 Min version)

Leaving the Factory (Alternate) (1896)

When I read that there were “alternate versions” of some of the famous Lumière films shown at Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris, I figured we were talking about re-takes, where the Lumières just made back-up copies for safety. It turns out that they were closer to being re-makes, with completely new set-ups and locations in some cases, as in this one.

Leaving the FactoryThe film itself is, as usual, fifty seconds of workers leaving a factory gate. But, it is distinctly different from the original, which was shot in front of the Lumières’ own workshop, and showed mostly women leaving, as well as (famously) a dog and a horse cart. Here, nearly every figure is male, many of them have bicycles, and the setting is distinctly different. This is not a simple re-framing of the Lumière factory, it appears to be an entirely different factory (at minimum, it is a different exit to their factory), with different workers in the shot.

As we expect from early film, many of the subjects look at the camera with interest. Some even stop and stare, although only for a few seconds each, perhaps because the cameraman instructed them to move out of shot, or because the crowd hurried them on. A couple of women do pass through the shot (apparently walking along the street from some other origin), and the men remove their hats as they pass. Most of the men are in work clothes, but these seem very formal compared to modern dress, and everyone wears a hat or a cap. One man pushes a wheeled basket that could be (?) a pram.

Leaving the Factory1It’s interesting to speculate as to why Lumière chose to remake this movie. Perhaps the response to the first was so positive that they felt the need to provide more versions. Perhaps their limited ability to duplicate meant that they needed extra movies for distribution purposes. Perhaps they wanted to see how it worked under different lighting conditions or there was something of interest to them about the location. Or, perhaps they were simply shooting anything they could think of at the time, to get the most use out of the new camera possible.

Director: Auguste and Louis Lumière

Camera: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Luke’s Movie Muddle (1916)

While this isn’t the first Harold Lloyd movie reviewed on this blog, it is the earliest I’ve seen with him in a starring comedic role. This comes from his time working for Hal Roach for the American Pathé Exchange. It does not disappoint, despite an obviously lower budget than Charlie Chaplin had at the time for his work.

Lukes Movie MuddleLloyd is still (sort of) impersonating Charlie here as the owner of a small movie theater – although his mustache is somewhat the inverse of Charlie’s and his pants are tight rather than baggy, he hasn’t developed the bespectacled, straw-hat-wearing look we associate with his 1920s pictures either. At times, he seems to try to walk like Charlie, but at others, his natural physicality takes over and we see his persona come through. Harold tries to run the movie theater more or less alone, he sells and tears the tickets, and he seats each patron individually, more or less by brute force. This would be a bit much, but he makes it even harder on himself by taking time to chat up all of the female customers. At least he doesn’t try to run the projector. He leaves this up to Snub Pollard, who seems to serve the purpose of Ben Turpin in an Chaplin Essanay film (or his own role in “By the Sea“). Snub unreels a large amount of film and makes a mess (and a fire hazard) of the projection booth. Once he gets it going, he falls asleep while cranking, requiring Harold to run up and boot him in the pants, which only makes him crank much too fast. The climax comes when a country yokel, straight out of an Edison comedy, puts his pipe in his pocket and catches fire, resulting in everyone panicking and running out of the theater. Snub leaps out of the projection booth on top of Harold.

Lukes Movie Muddle1What really struck me in this movie is how nice the small 10-cent theater looks compared to the movie theaters in Chaplin films of just two years earlier, to say nothing of “Those Awful Hats” (1909). The space is large and the screen is set above the heads of the patrons so they don’t block one another’s view, despite the lack of a sloping floor or theater seating. I also appreciated the attention given to the piano player – a vital element in every theater by 1916. The movie uses close-ups and sophisticated editing, but most of the humor comes directly from slapstick and Harold’s physical timing.

Director: Hal Roach

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Harold Lloyd, Snub Pollard, Bud Jamison, Bebe Daniels

Run Time: 9 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.