Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Marc McDermott

A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912)

This short film from Edison was actually shot in England and used local locations to create a comedy that was “ripped from the headlines” of the United Kingdom. It manages to address a thorny topic while walking a fine line in terms of not offending viewers of different perspectives, but it may undermine its own humor by walking on eggshells.

The movie begins by introducing our protagonist – a man who is strongly opposed to votes for women. His day begins at the breakfast table with a newspaper, and that paper informs him of the recent activism of suffragettes who have smashed windows, attacked a member of Parliament, and chained themselves to fences to make their case. He gestures broadly to demonstrate his displeasure in this situation and in the process upends a tea tray carried in by his young and pretty maid. He blames her for the accident, but his wife smooths things over a bit. As he gets ready to go, we see how absent-minded and dependent upon his wife he is. She gently helps him remember to take off the napkin tucked into his shirt, find the monocle that has fallen behind his back, and discover the gloves tucked into his hat before leaving the house. Appropriately prepared, he now goes out into the London streets.

The scene shifts to show a woman tacking up a “votes for women” sign to a tree. As soon as she leaves, two boys come up and remove it, then wait for a victim, who is of course our hapless protagonist. The smaller boy distracts him while the older one tacks the sign to his back. He walks off with a sign proclaiming the opposite of his beliefs visible to everyone behind him. His first encounter is in fact an anti-suffrage meeting. A group of men who are just as enraged about recent events as he is are spilling out onto the street, and he tries to engage them in discussion, but the ones behind him see the sign and attack him, he runs off pursued by these erstwhile allies, and then stops to remonstrate with them in front of a news shop. Finally, he picks up his cane to defend himself, but he misses his attackers and inadvertently smashes the windows of the shop. He then runs away, now pursued by the men as well as the police.

He manages to evade pursuit somewhere near the Houses of Parliament, and leans over a railing to rest. But, when he gets up, it turns out that the chain of his stopwatch has caught and he is now “chained to the palings.” Of course, two passing policemen see his sign and take him for a protestor. They extract him in an effort to secure his arrest. At this moment, a group of marching women approaches, and sees what they take to be an ally in distress. They rush over and assault the policemen, freeing our hero and removing him from the scene. They try to convince him to join in, but he is still flustered and confused about the whole affair. Finally, one of them removes the sign from his back and shows it to him. He rushes off, humiliated.

Now he returns to his happy home. But the maid has seen him while he was with the mob of suffragettes, and takes him to be sympathetic to their cause. She puts a large sign, rolled up, just below his bar. He goes to fix a much-needed drink to calm his nerves, but the sign comes unrolled just as his wife walks in. She sees the sign and takes his drink away – evidently he’s had too much already!

Since this movie is shot in England, it makes sense that the term “suffragette” is used instead of “suffragist,” but it’s worth noting that the producers intended it for an American audience, who would have read in the papers about the much more strident activism of women’s advocates in that country. Women really were smashing windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest there, but this movie makes fun of their opposition more than the women themselves. The hero of the movie is the ridiculous one, and the suffragettes appear as comparably sympathetic, especially the maid, who is young and pretty as opposed to mannish or old. This is emphasized by the very broad acting our hero displays as well, although for 1912, even in comedy, this has to be read as a bit too strong. I tend to see it as further evidence of the degree to which Edison directors failed to keep up with the changing standards of cinema, although there’s a nice insert shot of the watch chain when the man gets trapped. The film does avoid stereotyping feminists, but it also steers clear of endorsing them, seeming to be trying  to walk a kind of middle-line that leaves it with fairly little to do but laugh at the Mr. Magoo-ish foolishness of its star. Absent-minded people are funny enough, I suppose, but they don’t offer a lot of originality in comedy, even in 1912.

Director: Ashley Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Marc McDermott, Miriam Nesbitt, Ethel Browning

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Christmas Carol (1910)

I don’t know for certain whether this was the first adaptation of Charles Dickens’s classic tale to the screen, but certainly it is the oldest I’ve seen. It wouldn’t surprise me if a British filmmaker had beaten the Americans to the punch, but this version is directed for Edison by J. Searle Dawley, the same man who brought us “Frankenstein” in the same year and directed D.W. Griffith’s performance in “Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest.”

Christmas CarolMarc McDermott chews the scenery as Ebenezer Scrooge, a tight-fisted miser without a friend in the world. We see him berate Bob Cratchit (played by Charles Ogle) at his office before he rudely receives and then turns out petitioners from a charitable society and his own nephew. He yells at Cratchit for leaving early on Christmas Eve, then goes home himself. He is confronted by the transparent face of the deceased Jacob Marley on his door knocker. Then, as he prepares for bed Marley comes to warn him that he needs to change his ways or be condemned, as he is. The “Spirit of Christmas” (singular) shows him images of his past, present, and likely future. The images of the past are quite detailed and show a young Scrooge in happier times, the present is limited to images of Cratchit’s family and his nephew’s party, and the future shows him a tombstone which reads: “Ebenezer Scrooge, He Lived and Died Without a Friend.” Scrooge awakes the next morning to children caroling at his doorstep and throws money at them. He meets the charitable society people and hands them bills. He goes to find his nephew and makes him his business partner. And he brings him and his fiancé over to Bob Cratchit’s, where he pretends to be furious, then surprises the family with a huge goose. Scrooge and nephew are invited to dinner and everyone is happy.

Christmas Carol1Like many movies of this period, the success of this one largely depends upon one’s familiarity with the story. Fortunately this story is as familiar today (especially after its many screen versions) as it was then. I thought McDermott did a great job of conveying the necessary emotions: meanness at the beginning, then fear and remorse, followed by the jolly pranksterism of his reformed self. We never got to hear, or read in Intertitles, his famous “Bah, humbug” line, but he makes up for it by curtly dismissing his visitors with a bow. At times, it looks like he might hit poor Cratchit with his cane, he’s so furious about him leaving early on Christmas Eve. We do see Tiny Tim, but only briefly. We see him limping with a crutch, but there isn’t much emphasis on him as a point of interest for Scrooge or Cratchit. We only get one ghost, but at least all aspects of the story are retained in the short run time.

Christmas Carol2The ghostly effects are probably the part of this movie that interest most viewers today (and possibly at the time as well). They are accomplished through multiple-exposure, and required fairly precise editing and staging techniques to work. Still, for 1910 they are hardly innovative; Georges Méliès had done for more complex multiple exposures well before this. They do work well enough for the story, however. The other question they raise is whether I should count this as part of my history of horror, always a tricky question in terms of this story, which is both warm hearted and filled with horrific imagery. Because fright plays such a major role in the story arc (it’s the whole reason for Scrooge’s change), I’m labeling it as such.

Christmas Carol3

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Marc McDermott, Charles S Ogle, Viola Dana, Carey Lee

Run Time: 10 Min

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