Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Messter Film

Fear (1917)

This movie represents the only contribution to the “history of horror” from 1917 that I’ve been able to identify and locate. The now-iconic team of Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt would return in two years to produce the classic “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but this movie gave them a chance to cut their teeth on madness and mystical curses.

Count Greven (Bruno de Carli) returns to his old castle after spending several years touring the world. We see his carriage pull up to the gate from a high angle, and then he comes into the castle to be greeted by his staff. An Intertitle tells us he was a “cheerful and happy man” when he left, but we see that he is now restless and furtive. He orders the castle locked and the gate barred, claiming he wishes to see “no strange faces.” He goes into a room and shutters the light. Once alone, he opens one of his traveling cases and takes out an Indian statue (the script calls it a “Buddha,” but it’s kind of skinny and looks more Hindu to me). For a moment, his face shows pleasure before returning to fear. He carries it through the halls and puts it in a display case hidden behind an arras – thus concealing it and displaying it at the same time.

After a few days of watching his odd behavior, his chief servant goes to the local minister and tells him that his master needs help. The minister visits and Greven confesses his sins. His “unhappy passion for art collecting” has led him to steal the statue from a temple in India, where the “Buddha priests” have sworn revenge on him. He claims that they will kill him to retrieve the statue, using magical powers no one can understand. The minister concludes that he has gone mad.

Greven is at his wits’ end. He now longs for death as a release from his terrible dread of not knowing when the blow will come. One night, he has a vision of one of the priests (Conrad Veidt in a turban) appearing on his lawn. He tries to shoot at the image without effect, then he begs it to kill him. The priest tells him that he will not kill him until he has “learned to love life” and that then he will die by the hand of “the one dearest to him” in exactly seven years.

With this temporary reprieve, Greven launches into a life of dancing, drinking, gambling, and parties to try to “drink the dregs of life” while he has time. When this lifestyle becomes dull, he begins a feverish program of research to discover a means to “transform nitrogen into protein” thus curing world hunger forever. When he succeeds, a crowd of people hails him and lifts him to their shoulders, just before he lifts up a hammer and smashes the flask. He has now experienced the fame of glory and the impulse to destroy all at once. Next, he pursues a love affair with a lovely young woman (Mechthildis Thein), who agrees to become his wife. After they are wed, he plans to leave her and go on a world tour, but he finds he cannot part from her and stays.

 

Finally, the appointed day arrives. Once again his fearful persona comes to the forefront. He tries to get rid of the curse by hurling the statue into the water, but it reappears in his display case. He demands that his butler taste his tea before drinking. When he sees his wife holding a dagger (presumably from his art collection), he takes a shot at her. He flees from everyone, unable even to trust the coachman not to crash and kill him. Finally, the pressure becomes too much. He turns his pistol on himself, shooting himself and becoming his own executioner. Once again, we see the image of the “Buddha priest.” He rises from the lawn, becoming transparent through multiple exposure and walks to the barred gates, which open at a gesture form him. He walks through the halls and stairs, finally retrieving the statue and carrying it back out of the castle.

 

If you’re hoping for Expressionist photography or wild sets, as in “Caligari,” you’ll be disappointed here. There aren’t really any creative shadows or silhouettes as we’d expect from Maurice Tourneur. No scene is more than slightly underlit. The scene of the confrontation on the lawn is shot in full daylight, we have to accept that it’s night based on the Count wearing his nightgown. I think the movie would have benefited from more close-ups, to give us a better sense of the characters’ emotions, but with a better quality print than is currently available on home video, this might not be as much of an issue.

In terms of the story, however, this is a classic horror tale. I was reminded right from the start of the structure of an H.P. Lovecraft story, with the character returning changed from an experience abroad, then revealing what happened to another character who concludes that he’s insane. That level of disconnect forces the audience to question how much of the story is true, even as we know that for narrative purposes the story will proceed as if the character’s perceptions are real. Wiene would return to this theme of the unreliable narrator in “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” but it is used effectively here as well. The structure of the middle part, where Greven goes from wild partying to scientific research to pursuing love, reminded me of the story of “Faust,” which seems to be a part of all early German horror.

 

The movie also reminds me of “The Mummy” in showing how a white man’s blind passion for collection results in his being cursed by the unknown powers of an “exotic” culture. There are definite themes of colonialism and “othering,” and Wiene is somewhat ambiguous as to who is the monster and who the victim here. It never seems to occur to Greven to just give back the statue he stole, or to show remorse for taking it. Even when he begs for death it is to relieve his own suffering, not to make amends. It’s all the more fitting then, when “the hand of the one dearest” to him turns out to be his own.

Director: Robert Wiene

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Bruno DeCarli, Conrad Veidt, Mechthildis Thein, Bernhard Goetzke, Hermann Picha

Run Time: 1 hr

I have been unable to find this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

One of the great things about this project is how much I learn as I do it. The thing about learning so much is that I’m constantly discovering that I was wrong in my assumptions when I started. Towards the beginning of the blog, I wrote a piece on “Studios in 1914.” I didn’t really say anything that was inaccurate then, but I had based it on a somewhat inaccurate theory. My idea was that since moving pictures were so new, there would only be a fairly limited number of companies involved in making them. This idea was reinforced by familiarity with the later Studio System, in which a small group of big players dominated and made it hard for anyone start a new company, and by the knowledge that the Edison Trust was fighting hard to keep competition to a minimum.

Now, that all makes sense, but it’s just not how things were at all. Turns out that there were dozens of small-to-mid-sized operations at any given time, especially once the Nickelodeons got up and running. In fact, what really created the major studios of the future was the consolidation and selling of these little guys to one another. The studios we know about, like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, are actually conglomerates of several smaller businesses that unified in order to gain distribution opportunities. Keeping track of the buyouts and mergers gets dizzying, but also adds to our understanding of the history of the movies.

With all that in mind, this post makes no claim to give a complete picture of all the studios and production companies in operation in 1915. Instead, I’m going to give a partial snapshot of some of the companies I missed last year, along with an update on some of the more interesting ones I did cover.

Since I already mentioned them, let’s start with an update on the Edison Trust. We could see it as sort of a failed prototype for those mega-conglomerates I talked about above, because it’s not one company, but several, who up to now have claimed to “license” all legitimate motion pictures in America. Well, in the trust-busting environment of the time, it was fighting for its existence in court, and wound up losing in October, when a federal court ruled it an “illegal restraint of trade.” After that point, there was an appeal, but no one took the Trust seriously anymore, and it finally disbanded in 1918. This also led to the end of their distribution network, the General Film Company (which was not a producer, as I wrongly stated last year).

Things aren’t much better at the Biograph Company at this time. They were a part of the trust, so this litigation hurt them, too, but they were already crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and his stock company of actors and cameramen in 1913. By 1915, they were reduced to issuing reissues of classic Griffith shorts, along with longer pieces by him they had let sit on the shelf as punishment for trying to force them to release feature films. While these proved more popular than their dwindling new material, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, and it closed its doors before the year was out.

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

You might think that Keystone Studios would have suffered as badly after letting Charlie Chaplin walk out at the end of 1914, but Mack Sennett continued to produce cheap, popular comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops. also striking on the idea of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” this year, who became a hit, even if not as big a hit as Chaplin was. Keystone joined Griffith and Thomas Ince in the new Triangle Film Corporation, which marketed itself as the “upscale” artistic movie distributor.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had moved over to Essanay Studios, who promised him $1000 a week. By the end of the year, this was not enough for the star and he moved again, but not before producing great films like “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen” which showed his improvement as a director and maturity as a comedian. Essanay’s name was a play on S&A, after its founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was also known as “Broncho Billy,” and was star of hundreds of Western shorts. During 1915, they also signed Francis X. Bushman, a talented actor on his way to stardom.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Cecil B. DeMille was making a name for himself over at Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company. This company is one of the (many) tributaries that eventually merged into Paramount Studios, but came from humble beginnings. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille had made “The Squaw Man” from a barn near Los Angeles – which neither had visited before they started working there. In 1915, they brought out great work like “The Cheat” and “The Golden Chance.”

The last American company I want to talk about is the Mutual Film Corporation, which brought out “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 through one of its subsidiaries, Reliance-Majestic Studios. While “Birth” was a huge hit, Mutual had some problems, including litigation and censorship. Mutual’s name is on the landmark case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not subject to First Amendment protections. This, along with the defection of Reliance-Mutual to co-found Triangle later in the year, was a major setback, but they won a major coup in hiring Chaplin when he left Essanay, and today they are associated with most of his most popular shorts.

Again, this blog has a tendency to be more American-centric than I really want (that’s “where the light is better,” in film history, I’m afraid). But, let’s spend a little time catching up on some companies working in other countries.

In Russia we have Khanzhonkov Studios, which I’ve sung the praises of in connection with Evgeni Bauer and his fascinating films. Khanzhonkov also had animation pioneer Ladislav Starevich, who I hope to bring to this blog in coming months. Its owners were Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and Vasily Gonchorov, who had made the nationalist hit “Defense of Sevastopol” in 1911. They seem to have valued directors more than most American concerns, and made Bauer a partner in the concern, rather than argue with him over his pay.

In Germany there’s Messter Film, which later would be absorbed into the German film powerhouse UFA. Unlike France, which largely abandoned film production during the First World War, for Germany this was a time of increased production. At this time, Messter’s employees included Robert Wiene, future director of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

In Japan, which is regrettably unrepresented on my blog so far, the company Nikkatsu has been in business since 1912, when it was formed from a merger of several smaller studios. I believe Shozo Makino was working there in 1915, although at this time he’s in between remakes of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” probably Japan’s most frequently remade film story. Japan’s film industry had an interesting appendage at this time, the benshi, or narrator, who would appear at screenings to explain what was happening on the screen. These men were often bigger stars than the actors in the movies at the time.