Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Maurice Tourneur

The Blue Bird (1918)

Maurice Tourneur gets away from working with Mary Pickford in order to make the kind of ethereal fairy tale he felt was appropriate for children, adapting a famous stage play to the screen. We get plenty of fancy cinematography and effects, but it’s possible that the acting and writing don’t quite hold up.

The story begins by introducing the Tyl family, which consists of Mama Tyl, Papa Tyl, and two children: Tyltyl (Robin MacDougall) is the boy and Mytyl (Tula Belle) is the girl. Apprently, they are neighbors with “the house of rich children” and also an old hag named Berlingot (Edward Elkas) who has a sick little daughter. The little girl has heard of “the blue bird of happiness,” and she believes that if she possesses it, she will get well. Berlingot is apparently ready to try a placebo, and goes to ask the Tyls if she can have their caged bird to give to her daughter, to make her well again. Mytyl and Tyltyl are unwilling to give away their pet.

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Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

One of Mary Pickford’s most successful features at the time, this was directed by Maurice Tourneur – or, perhaps, co-directed by him, given the power Mary wielded on the set – and written by her friend Frances Marion. It’s probably not her most accessible movie today, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s a valuable insight into what made her a superstar for her era.

The movie starts out by introducing its title character, 10-year-old Gwendolyn, played by Pickford (I’ll address that later, just accept it for now). It is immediately established that she is “rich” in wealth, but “poor” in love. Her parents neglect her and leave her with unsympathetic and strict servants in charge. The scene is set for us with highly stylized intertitles that show a small girl in an enormous room, with toys but no companions. Then Gwen comes skipping onto the scene, only to be confronted by two stern-looking butlers. She sees some children skating outside the window and smiles happily, but a servant comes over to slam it down. She begs her mother (Madlaine Traverse) to give her a minute, but her mother is rushing off somewhere and says maybe they can talk to-morrow. Gwen asks, “Why is it that my to-morrows never come?”

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Best Leading Actress 1915

Today, we are accustomed to thinking of the “leading role” for actresses of the classic era as being the chief romantic interest for the male star. Women, we are told, were consigned to simply being objects of men’s attentions, not agents of their own interests. Well, folks who think that way might be surprised by the strong, often dominating, women in the movies of the silent era. Men often seem to be the objects of their whims, weaknesses, designs, and errors.

I hope it will surprise no one that none of this year’s nominees gave their performances while tied to train tracks. Clara Kimball Young as “Trilby” is perhaps the most victimized of our women, but she is no simple damsel – at the beginning she displays a free, bohemian attitude to life, all the more strongly contrasted with her submissiveness once under the thrall of Svengali. Anna Q. Nelson is ultimately the love interest for Rockliffe Fellowes in “Regeneration,” but she is much more, being a society woman who also transforms from being flippant and irresponsible to devoted to improving her world, and as such becomes the inspiration for a “bad” man to find the good in himself. Vera Kholodnaia began her rise to fame portraying a good wife tempted into bad behavior by wealth and excitement in “Children of the Age,” whose eventual fall drags her hapless husband along helplessly. Fanny Ward is similarly tempted by greed in “The Cheat,” and while she may be the victim for Sessue Hayakawa, ultimately it is her actions that decide the fate of her own husband, accused of trying to kill the villain. In one of the classic roles for strong women, Geraldine Farrar brought life to “Carmen” for director Cecil B. DeMille after a famous run of stage performances, showing the free and open attitude to sex of that character as well as her duplicity and selfishness. Finally, the Italian diva Francesca Bertini takes on a tragic role as a woman caught between the violent man she truly loves and the official who uses his position to take her honor in “Assunta Spina.”

The nominees for Best Leading Actress of 1915 are…

  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

And the winner is…Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby!”

Some women look better in men's jackets

Some women look better in men’s jackets

I’ll be honest, this wasn’t what I expected. But, when I went back and looked at all of the performances, I realized how impressive what Young did here really is. Where most of our lead characters travel through an arc – often towards tragedy – Trilby actually has to show two separate transformations. First, she comes on strong, almost like Carmen, but with a bit more of an artistic flair, then she changes as she falls in love with Billie, becoming a softer, more controlled personality. And finally, she gives us the soulless robot of Svengali. Her development is fascinating, and more complex than the others, great though each of them was in her own way.

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 Birth of a Nation, Part IX

Last month, I felt that I didn’t have a lot more to say about “The Birth of a Nation.” This month I find that I do have a few things to add, but we’re still winding down the series.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson

First, Woodrow Wilson: Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently recently posted a debunking of the dual myth that BoaN was “the first movie screened at the White House” as well as “the first feature film” that is generally very good and covers most of the important ground. I think she goes a little too far in suggesting that the movie was screened to consider censoring its potentially divisive content (the source she referred me to on this didn’t back her up, and there was no precedent giving the President the power to censor movies), but the important points are correct: “Cabiria” had been shown at the White House the previous summer, Wilson agreed somewhat reluctantly to the screening on the condition that there be NO publicity about it (a promise that D.W. Griffith never intended to keep), and he certainly did NOT call it “history writ in lightning” or whatever.

Thomas Dixon

Thomas Dixon

Lest we be accused of being overly fair to Wilson, however, there are a few other points to make here. First of all, he was an old school chum of Thomas Dixon, the author of the play “The Clansman,” and it appears he approved the screening as a favor to his buddy. Dixon, let’s remember, was the driving force behind the racist content of “The Birth of a Nation” (William K. Everson claims the play was even more racist than the movie, if such a thing is imaginable), and was a true believer in the heroism of the KKK and the justifiability of slavery. In his discussion of the correspondence between them, which continued during the Wilson presidency, Dick Lehr mentions no instance of Wilson confronting or even chiding Dixon for his views. Furthermore, it was at Wilson’s instigation that Jim Crow segregation was introduced in the Post Office and other federal agencies, to Dixon’s outspoken approval. All of which is to say that, whatever the conditions and significance of the White House screening, Wilson was every bit as much integrated into the predominant racist culture of his time as others who, unlike him, openly praised the film.

GriffithDWSecond, a bit more on the origin of the Griffith Myth. I’ve been reading Seductive Cinema by James Card, who is somewhat of a curmudgeon about film studies in general, and Griffith-worship is among his peeves. On pages 32-34 of this book, he talks about an ad that Griffith took out in the New York Dramatic Mirror in December, 1913, less than two months after he departed from Biograph. Griffith used this opportunity to proclaim himself “[p]roducer of all the great Biograph successes, revolutionizing Motion Picture drama and founding the modern technique of the art.” This is pretty much what his fans still say about him today, but it’s interesting that anyone would have accepted it at the time. Card points out that “[i]n 1913, filmgoers were unaware of the names of any motion picture directors.” In other words, he was the first to proclaim himself a genius, and people went along with it because they didn’t know any better.

DW_Griiffith2But, I think there’s even more going on. In July 1915, while “The Birth of a Nation” was on top of the world, setting new standards for monetary and critical success, Maurice Tourneur gave an interview to the New York Clipper in which he was asked who was the greatest director of the time, and he quickly and unequivocally named Griffith. When I read it, it broke my heart a little. Here was the director of “Alias Jimmy Valentine” and “The Wishing Ring” praising a man whose talent was clearly inferior! It’s as if Ridley Scott said that Joel Schumacher was his favorite director. I think there’s a kind of strategy at work, however. By taking out that ad, Griffith had put directors into the public spotlight. A director who wanted to be taken “seriously” had to affirm his genius, because that was the best way to affirm by proxy that directors were important figures in filmmaking. Between the ad and the runaway success of “Birth of a Nation,” it was career suicide to say anything else at that time. Griffith’s supremacy was now an entrenched myth, which would last a century or more.

Trilby (1915)

Trilby2Director Maurice Tourneur, who charmed us in 1914 with “The Wishing Ring” and thrilled us in February with “Alias Jimmy Valentine” returns in September, 1915 with this very different movie. No doubt Tourneur, influenced by the success of “The Birth of a Nation” in attracting a higher class of filmgoer to theaters, was wanted to try more upscale source material in hope of the same result. For this, he chose George du Maurier’s most famous gothic novel, about a bohemian model under the spell of a diabolical hypnotist. Trilby3

The story begins with Trilby, played by Clara Kimball Young (who had been in “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Hearts in Exile”), who is young, carefree, and the center of the artist’s scene in Paris. She hangs out with a group of bachelor-artists and meets Svengali, a musician who plays weirdly entrancing music, played by Wilton Lackaye, who had played the role famously on stage. She sings an old folk tune for them and demonstrates her tone-deafness, but Svengali sees something in her, and all the boys are in love with her. Especially Billie, who now undertakes to paint her, and with time the two of them fall in love. Billie has a momentary fit when he sees her posing nude for an art class (we don’t see anything, but we get the idea), but then he comes back and begs forgiveness. Their wedding is on. But, the evil Svengali has already gotten his hooks into Trilby; one day when she was suffering from “neuralgia,” he hypnotized the pain away and now she is under his power. He makes her write a note breaking things off with Billie, but then lets her go to the wedding party anyway. He sneaks in to her room while Billie and the others are celebrating, and hypnotizes her into coming with him and leaving the note. Much later, Billie and his friends hear about a famous “Mrs. Svengali” who is coming to town to sing. Apparently she has taken the world by storm. They go to the theater, and of course it is Trilby! Billie swoons and stumbles out of the theater. Trilby’s singing is perfect, but her personality is suppressed. Then, Svengali has a heart attack while she is on stage and the spell is broken. Trilby is booed off the stage, having lost her voice, but rushes back to the arms of Billie.

Not a great-quality image.

Not a great-quality image.

The print I watched of this movie was not perfect, but it was still possible to make out some of Tourneur’s famous lighting effects, particularly in the love scenes with Trilby and Billie. The camera is static and the pacing is slower than a lot of the movies of this period, but there is still good use of editing within scenes and cross-cutting to build drama, as in the scene where the identity of Madame Svengali is exposed. We get a few close-ups, mostly of Trilby early in the film.

Some women look better in men's jackets

Some women look better in men’s jackets

Although Svengali is the character that gets talked about, I thought Clara Kimball Young’s depiction of Trilby was more critical to the picture. She starts out vivacious and seemingly blasé – when she comes into the room with the painters and Svengali, she declines a chair and climbs onto the piano, a close-up reveals that she is only wearing one shoe (horrors! a visible ankle!). In these scenes, she is often wearing a man’s jacket or other masculine clothing, suggesting that she just threw something on to cover up before going out. She’s not by any means a flapper, though, the style remains decidedly 19th-Century bohemian. Then, as she falls in love with Billie, we see a more tender, serious side of her come out. She isn’t playing all the time, although she sometimes still shows her wild side. Her clothing becomes more feminine. Finally, as Svengali’s slave, she seems to lose her personality altogether. She wears what he wants her to wear – generally flowy gowns like something from ancient Greece. Kimball Young handles all three roles excellently.

du Maurier's own depiction of Svengali. No anti-Semitism here at all, right?

du Maurier’s own depiction of Svengali. No anti-Semitism here at all, right?

As a final note, yes, the role of Svengali is inevitably linked with anti-Semitism. Lackaye plays him with an obviously fake crooked nose and an unruly black beard, evoking traditional Jewish caricatures. I won’t excuse this, but it appears to me that Tourneur’s interest here was not in perpetrating anti-Semitic propaganda. Svengali is presented here as an evil Jew, but not necessarily a representative of all Jews. Of course, an audience with a predisposition toward anti-Semitism might well take it that way, showing that what you bring with you to the movies always influences what you take away as well.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Clara Kimball Young, Wilton Lackaye, Chester Barnett

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this for free on the Internet. If you know where it can be seen, please comment below.

Directors of 1915

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.med

Before I get started talking about my subject directly, I need to say a bit about Auteur Theory. I have pretty mixed feelings about it, and I’ve tried to represent that in this blog by giving equal space to cinematographers and directors (although you’ll notice I put directors at the top). In the period I’ve been discussing, the division was beginning to be formalized, with the “director” being, first, the one who told the actors what to do while the camera operator figured out the visuals, and, later, the one with the ultimate authority on the set. Part of the problem is that the concept of “director” vs “producer” was unclear in the really early years, although as cinema moved towards narrative fictional representations, it followed the division of labor that had been established in the theater. In that context, a director was seen as a “creative artist,” while the producer was in charge of practical issues like financing and advertising (the director did answer to the producer for his job, though, more on that in a bit).

So, what’s my problem with Auteur Theory? Two things: first, I think it misrepresents the reality of working on film, especially after the division of labor caused it to become a large-scale, collaborative, industrial process, and, second, it’s promotes laziness among critics and fans.

Let me unpack that a bit for you. Auteur Theory states that a movie director is the “author” of the film, the person with ultimate responsibility for what appears on the screen. The equivalency is problematic. “Authors,” taken to mean the writers of modern novels, represent a new way of thinking about the artist as an individual in Western European society that emerged as Europe moved out of the Middle Ages. Authors are imagined as working in isolation, creating something wholly new and original from their own minds. However well this does or does not work for literature of different times and cultures, it doesn’t translate well to working on a movie. Anyone who’s been on a movie set knows that literally hundreds of decisions are made every day by people other than the director. The director may have “ultimate” authority on the set, and certainly has the right to suggest things he or she thinks are “important,” and will be the final arbiter of many of these decisions, but I’ve never seen a director who was enough of a micro-manager as to directly decide the placement of every light, or the exact shade that each wall is painted, or the detailed placement of every prop, or the precise body language the actors use. Directors do hire the people they think will do the best jobs for each of these things (often in collaboration with their boss, the producer), but that’s not the same as “authoring” them. That’s “management.” In terms of management, though, the producer really has the final say, even to the point of being able to fire directors in the middle of making a movie. And some producers seem to have as much right to be seen as “auteurs” as directors: noted examples would be Darryl F. Zanuck and “The Longest Day” and the collected works of Val Lewton. I think I’d suggest Spielberg’s influence on the original “Poltergeist” and George Lucas in terms of everything he’s produced as well.

Where I see the laziness creeping in is the language of criticism. I have seen classic movie bloggers write that a movie was “shot by” or even “lensed by” the director. No, that would be the cinematographer (or even the camera operator, to be really precise). I have a certain affection for cinematographers, partly because the movie “Visions of Light” was a turning point in my life and thinking about movies, and partly because of working for a cinematographer-turned-producer/director in my main real world movie job. But, I’m not going to propose a “Fotografia Theory” that places them as more important than directors, the way some writer did in proposing “Schreiber Theory.” Possibly, sometimes, especially in the very early years at Edison or Lumière, they might have been. But, my point is that there is no real “author” of a movie. It is a collaborative effort, and everyone’s job is worth noticing and recognizing. A serious critic needs to make themselves familiar with each of these jobs and, where possible, give credit where it is due. If you don’t have the time or ability to do that, at least try not to say Orson Welles did what Gregg Toland is actually responsible for, OK?

Gregg Toland cries every time you say Welles shot Citizen Kane

Gregg Toland cries every time you say Welles shot Citizen Kane

OK, back to 1915. I don’t mean all of the above to be taken to say that “directors are unimportant.” They have a lot of responsibility, and they do have an impact on the creative aspects of the movies they direct. So, let’s talk for a bit about some of the leaders, as well as the up-and-comers of 100 years ago.


I think I have to start with D.W. Griffith, who in 1915 was riding a wave of popularity and controversy to be possibly the most known director of his time. After years of making shorts for Biograph, he left over the issue of wanting to make feature-length films when the studio refused to release “Judith off Bethulia.” He is often credited in (lazy) film histories with having invented everything from the close-up to sliced bread. Actually, during the years he made shorts, he really was quite an innovator, and I think deserves special credit in terms of developing the editing techniques that allow audiences to understand simultaneous action taking place across distances, which is vital to establishing suspense in the movies. It’s fair to ask, however, whether there was a particular editor at Biograph he worked with in developing this technique.


I’ve already waxed poetic about Evgeni Bauer, who I think may be one of those few directors that might be able to claim something like “auteur” status, not least because of his training in set design and the obvious care he gave to camera placement. In 1915 his movies included “The 1002nd Ruse” and “After Death,” my personal favorite of his.


Not often spoken about in terms of directing is Charlie Chaplin, who directed most of the movies he appeared in, starting about mid-way through his year at Keystone Studios. By this point in 1915, he’s at Essanay, and is directing some of the classic shorts that made him an immortal. It’s hard to extract Chaplin’s directing from the rest of his mythos, but I would say that he had a talent for fast-moving action that slapstick work, and that it took him a while to start thinking seriously about character development or even sympathetic characters. His later work proves that he did get it, eventually. This year, his work includes “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen.”

 Cecil B DeMille

One of the new faces on the scene is Cecil B. DeMille, who started out late in 1914 working for producer Jesse Lasky. DeMille is remembered today mostly for making sprawling epic films, but he actually did quite diverse work in the first few years. After two solid Westerns, he turned to character-driven melodramas, like “Carmen” and “The Cheat.” These are both very sophisticated movies for their day, both in terms of the mature subject-matter, and the complex story-telling structure and camerawork. DeMille was doubtless assisted by a crew of excellent quality, but he showed considerable promise right out of the gate.


We’ve also got Maurice Tourneur, whose son Jacques would also go on to be a director of stylistic films. Tournuer had started in France and wisely got out before World War One to work at the World Film Company. He gave us “The Wishing Ring” in 1914, an “Alias Jimmy Valentine” in 1915. These are both very good character dramas, with the former a pleasant fairy tale fantasy and the second an early installment in the gangster genre. The other night I was watching an old Abbott and Costello movie in which a safe was cracked and a joke came up about “making like Jimmy Valentine,” suggesting that the movie still had some resonance a generation later.


Finally, I want to mention Louis Feuillade, who kind of “started it all” for this blog with “Fantômas” and its sequels. I took time to look at some of his shorts earlier this year, and I found his work amazingly diverse. He probably would have agreed with Auteur Theory, being French and given to writing manifestos about filmmaking. Maybe in his case it applies. The thing that stands out to me about his productions is how visually rich they can be, especially when he goes outside and shoots on location, instead on the cramped indoor sets at Gaumont Studios. I anticipate returning to his crime series “Les Vampires” in time for Halloween this year.

June 1915

William Jennings Bryan and his wife, shortly after his resignation as Secretary of State.

William Jennings Bryan and his wife, shortly after his resignation as Secretary of State.

This is a slightly slow news month, so far as I’ve found, but the First World War rages on in Europe and a few major political developments kept Americans buying newspapers and attending the newsreels through the month of June.

World War: The third Allied attack on Gallipolli fails, June 4, resulting in 6500 casualties plus 3000 for the Ottomans. The newly belligerent Italy attacks Austro-Hungarian forces on June 23, beginning the First Battle of the Isonzo. After suffering 14,000 casualties (to about 9,000 Austro-Hungarians), the battle ends in failure for the Italians.

Revolution: Pancho Villa’s and General Álvaro Obregón’s forces clash in the decisive engagement of the Battle of Celaya at León, June 3. Obregón loses an arm to a grenade in this battle, but he is victorious.

Suffrage: On June 5, women in Denmark and Iceland gain the right to vote in parliamentary elections.

Politics: William Jennings Bryan resigns on June 9 as Secretary of State over the handling of the Lusitania disaster. Bryan was a powerful figure in the populist wing of the Democratic Party, and had run for president unsuccessfully twice. He argued that the United States should avoid entanglements in the First World War, predicting that “if either side does win…a victory it will probably mean preparation for another war.” This view became unpopular after the German submarine attack, and he was seen as a liability to President Wilson’s cabinet.

Philanthropy: The British Women’s Institute is founded in Wales in June 16. Its purpose is to revitalize rural communities in order to increase food production during the War.

Film Industry: The Motion Picture Directors Association is founded on June 18, in Los Angeles. This confirms both the growing influence of directors in the industry and the now-established centrality of the Los Angeles area to film production. Founders include Maurice Tourneur, director of “The Wishing Ring” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine.”

Born: Priscilla Lane, actress (“Arsenic and Old Lace” and “Saboteur”) June 12.

Died: Elmer Booth, star of “Musketeers of Pig Alley” and also in “An Unseen Enemy,” on June 16.

Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915)

At least since “The Musketeers of Pig Alley,” gangsters have fascinated American filmmakers, and many of the very best movies of any era have focused on crime and criminals. This despite a moral code that frowns on any attempt to “glamorize” the criminal lifestyle, and various levels of censorship, from official state boards to the Hays Code, that have discouraged it. Crime movies are hardly unique to the USA, of course, but the romance of the gangster seems to have a particularly American spirit to it. The gangster is an individual who succeeds due to toughness and a keen wit, in spite of the disapproval of society. Like the cowboy, much of his success is dependent on his readiness with a gun. Like the sports star, he often comes from humble beginnings and has limited education. Like the USA itself, he bows before no King.

This movie was remade in 1920, 1928, and 1942 (and people say there are too many remakes today!), but this was the first time the story was adapted to the screen. The director is Maurice Tourneur (father of Jacques, for those more familiar with sound classics), who had gotten his start in France, but wisely came to the US at the beginning of World War One, when the French film industry was sacrificed to the war effort. Even at that early time, Tourneur was impressed by the state of American filmmaking, saying it was at a higher level than in Europe. I’ve discussed some of his work before, in “The Wishing Ring,” from 1914. I haven’t been able to find out who his cinematographer was for this picture, which is too bad, because it includes some of the best photography I’ve seen from the period. A lot of time went in to setting up some of these shots, so they were obviously important to Tourneur, perhaps even conceived by him, but it’s a shame not to have a record of who actually crafted them.

Alias Jimmy3

The story is of a man with a double life. Robert Warwick (later in “The Life of Emile Zola” and “The Awful Truth”) plays Lee Randall, “a respected citizen” whose underworld alias is “Jimmy Valentine.” I was a bit surprised at the Anglo-American name for our gangster hero, especially since Warwick looks somewhat Mediterranean in his Valentine guise, but this may have been meant to enhance audience sympathy, since audiences were generally assumed to be white (Anglo) males. His “respected citizen” persona apparently doesn’t earn much scratch, because he lives in a one-room flat in a tenement, but luckily he’s been gifted with hands that can “feel” the combinations to safes. We watch a heist in a fascinatingly labyrinthine bank from a high, diagonal angle:

Image from "Dreamland Cafe"

Image from “Dreamland Cafe

His gang gets caught by the night watchman, Jimmy/Lee manages to get away, but he gets into a fight with one of his cohorts who macks on a girl on a train, and he gets ratted out in return. Again, it’s his good fortune that the girl in question was the daughter of the Lieutenant Governor, because she arranges for his release from Sing Sing prison. But, not before we get quite a bit of footage of the place and its prisoners. During one march-past, several prisoners hold their caps over their faces, probably not wanting to be recognized on film. As a result of this genuine use of location footage, we see a much more ethnically diverse cast of extras than was usual at the time.

Alias Jimmy1

Anyway, the Lieutenant Governor gives Jimmy a job at his bank, and Jimmy convinces his friend Red to stop scamming free drinks and join him as a watchman. Pretty soon, he’s a respected cashier with responsibility for large quantities of cash. But, inspector Doyle, the man who caught him the first time, is hot on his tail for an earlier job, and soon his old buddy Avery shows up with ideas about robbing the bank he works at. Just when it seems like our hero has resisted temptation and covered up all the evidence of his past life, one of his boss’s tykes manages to get locked in a vault, the combination to which is inconveniently on a train out of town. The child is running out of air…

 Alias Jimmy Valentine

In spite of the contrived ending, I found the movie pretty enjoyable and even suspenseful at times. We’ve definitely entered a period where editing and camera movements add to the story structure. This movie actually came out only a few weeks after “The Birth of a Nation” premiered, and it is technically superior in some ways, although I should note that Tourneur considered D.W. Griffith an important inspiration and probably learned a lot of his tricks from Griffith’s early Biograph work. For example the interesting inter-cutting of Lee meeting with the respectable family and Red in a disreputable bar reminds me of Griffith and “A Corner in Wheat” in particular. I’ve already mentioned the photography; there’s a good use of light here, with an emphasis on silhouettes that is reminiscent of his son’s later film noir work. The many barred windows we see in Sing Sing add to that effect.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Starring: Robert Warwick, Ruth Shepley, Alec B. Francis, Johnny Hines.

Run Time: 1 hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Wishing Ring (1914)

Wishing Ring

Although shot in New Jersey, this early American feature claims to be “an idyll of Old England,” perhaps giving us some insight as to how Americans saw Britain and the British at the time. Unsurprisingly, the story centers on class relations. The story concerns a young upper class ne’er-do-well (Chester Barnett, also in “Trilby” and “Woman”) who get expelled from college and takes on the job of tending a rose garden. He falls in love with the pastor’s daughter (Vivian Martin, later to star in “The Stronger Love” and “His Official Fiancée”) when she tries to steal some roses for the church. Of course, she is unaware that he’s rich, and of course this leads to both comedy and drama. When gypsies give her a “Wishing Ring,” he takes advantage of the situation, buying her fancy gifts after she has wished for them, and leaving notes that they are “from the Wishing Ring.” They drink tea, and dance around a maypole, the professors from the school all go around wearing their gowns, and the servants are more stuck up and rigid than their masters. Interestingly, I spotted a few “backward-facing” intertitles, suggesting that some filmmakers were beginning to experiment with different ways of telling the story than setting it up textually then showing it visually all the time. Overall, it’s light and fluffy, but interesting nonetheless.

Director: Maurice Tourneur

Camera: John van der Broek

Starring: Chester Barnett, Vivian Martin, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 60 Mins

I couldn’t find this one for free online. Let me know in the comments if you can.