Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mutual Film

The Strong Arm Squad of the Future (1912)

This short piece of animation was intended to accompany a “Mutual Weeklynewsreel and can thus be seen as a kind of animated political cartoon. It attacks the suffragist movement in through the use of readily recognizable stereotypes.

A series of women in what appear to be Salvation Army-style uniforms (or police uniforms) parade past the camera in profile. They are mostly old, masculine, and ugly, with one exception. The third woman to pass is statuesque, young, and pretty, and has adorned her uniform’s cap with an elaborate feather. The worst of the bunch is #5, a truly monstrous caricature carrying a stick, whose eyeball somehow becomes detached and flies about in a circle before coming home to roost. The final woman sums up the caricature with a word balloon stating “votes for women.”

Alas, even one hundred years later the stereotype that feminists must be too ugly to attract a man, or else too mannish to have “normal” heterosexual relations remains with us. This is simply an undisguised early version of that. The one pretty girl apparently makes the point that some idle rich young women, with more interest in fashion than politics, also attach themselves to the movement. Women’s suffrage was at a peak of interest at the time – the long lag between the few Western states that permitted votes for women at the end of the nineteenth century and the Nineteenth Amendment in 1920 saw increased activism and media coverage, as well as popular criticism like this. The uniforms and title may have been an attempt to predict a kind of feminist fascism before that term properly existed (Fascism in Italy was only coined at the end of the First World War). Even at my very liberal college in the 1990s, certain professors used the term “Femi-Nazi” to describe others, so this perception had considerable staying power as well.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Advertisements

East Is East (1916)

A light-hearted melodrama of social class set in England, this movie follows the familiar plot of the waif who is suddenly given wealth and must adapt to a world of “refinement” and snobbery. Director Henry Edwards takes on the challenge of co-starring with Florence Turner and shows a definite flair for both directing and acting himself.

east_is_eastThe movie begins with Florence Turner as Victoria (“Vickie”) Vickers, a girl from the East End of London who sits in front of window displays and dreams of a life of comfort and grace. Her boyfriend Bert Grummet (Edwards) is a skinny ragamuffin who gives her a laugh, but she refuses his offer of marriage saying, “We’re such good friends, let’s not spoil it.” He munches on his fish and chips and thinks maybe if he can start a successful fish shop, she’ll change her mind.

east-is-east1Vickie lives with “an assumed aunt and uncle,” which I think means that she has assumed them, not that she assumes they’re really her aunt and uncle. Anyway, the little family decides to pile all their worldly goods into a pram and go off to the countryside “hop-picking” (something similar happens here in southern Oregon once a year, but it’s not hops they’re picking…). Bert invites himself along and tries to kiss Vickie, which she resists. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a lawyer who is trying to locate Miss Victoria Vickers before her inheritance defaults to certain unnamed charities. He sends an assistant to scour the East End and even contacts Scotland Yard to no avail. Giving up with only days to go, he gives the assistant leave to go to the countryside on a “photographic holiday.”

Vickie and Bert look at a pretty house in Kent and fantasize about living there one day. Then Bert steals one of their chickens. As he brings the prize back to camp, the lawyer’s assistant fortuitously sees Vickie and asks to photograph her. She is indignant, and refuses, “as sure as my name’s Victoria Vickers!” The assistant suddenly realizes that he’s talking to one of the wealthiest heiresses in London, but he has considerable difficulty convincing her or her companions that he isn’t nuts. Finally, they agree to accompany him back to London to meet the lawyer. The lawyer confirms the story and explains the terms of the will: Victoria will have to learn “refinement,” while she lives on an allowance from the trust for three years. She seems dubious about this, but agrees because it means she can get money to send her “aunt” and “uncle” to visit relatives in Australia and give Bert the money to open his fish shop.

east-is-east

Would you trust this man if he told you he had a million dollars for you?

This aspect of the plan works well, especially when Bert hits upon the idea of buying up cheap dogfish and selling it as “fish” (by crossing off the word “dog”). His business booms, and soon he is opening a chain of stores and sending out trucks for home delivery of his popular fish. Meanwhile, Vickie is learning how different reality is from her store-front fantasy. Servants are constantly telling her what to wear and trying to comb her hair for her. Her table manners make everyone stop and stare. She is unable to make friends at parties, even though she does learn to speak in a “refined” manner. She lives with a Mrs. Carrington (Ruth McKay) and her son, Arthur. Arthur has a bad gambling habit, but Mrs. Carrington is more concerned that Victoria will be corrupted by the “bad influence” of having contact with her old friends like Bert, who has to shove past the butler to get in when he calls.

Mrs. Carrington decides that the best thing to do is take Victoria abroad on an extended tour of exotic (unspecified) locations, while continuing her tutoring. She throws away letters that Victoria writes to Bert instead of mailing them. Victoria is kept away from all her friends for two years, and, failing socially with the new crowd, becomes lonely and depressed. Bert, meanwhile, has decided that he needs some schooling as well in order to impress Vickie. He hires a tutor and a tailor to help with his clothes. Then, he sells off his business and goes to propose to Vickie in his best suit and after some last-minute pointers from the tutor. Along the way, he reads a shocking headline in the society pages – Victoria Vickers is now engaged to Arthur! Arthur is desperate for money to cover his enormous gambling debts, so he proposed to her and since she was so alone and desperate, she agreed, despite his Charlie Chaplin mustache which she mocked in the first reel. Bert gives up and moves to Kent, buying the lovely little cottage they had admired, and living alone with a housekeeper.

east-is-east2But all is not yet lost. Victoria overhears Arthur talking to one of his girlfriends, and he says that of course he doesn’t love her, but he needs the money. Victoria finally has a revelation that she cannot live this “artificial life,” and voluntarily gives up her fortune, hoping to return to the happiness she knew in poverty. As a parting shot, she gives Arthur enough money to be free from debt. When hop-picking season comes, Vickie goes back to Kent and lingers at the site of her youthful happiness, noting that “someone” (Bert, in fact) has put barbed wire around the chicken coop to prevent theft. Bert looks out his window and sees her standing there. He sends the housekeeper out to invite her to tea with “the lady of the house,” not telling her who it is. Vickie goes in out of curiosity, and when Bert shows up she is flummoxed. “Who is the lady of the house?” She asks. Bert tells her she is, if she will still have him.

Like a lot of melodramas of the period, this relies heavily on rather unlikely coincidence (the assistant stumbling onto Victoria in Kent with only days to go being the most extreme), but it is actually a nicely crafted story within the limited formula. The contrast of rich and poor, and the ability of poor people to “know their place” and accept it, are common themes in British literature and film of the time. From that point of view, this movie makes sense, although my American sensibilities say she should have ditched Arthur, finished out the last weeks of her tutelage, and then taken the money and started her own business. It also seems strange that Bert has to sell his business in order to be “respectable.” He doesn’t seem to have anything to do but guard his chickens now, when he could be the (dog)fish-king of the whole realm! But, I think that is a reflection of British class expectations as well.

east-is-east1Overall, the movie is well-shot and edited. During the sequence where the lawyer is looking for her, we flash back and forth from his office to what she is doing. This is a kind of parallel editing, but it is more subtle than what one usually sees from D.W. Griffith, who almost always used the technique simply for suspense or in the telling of a single story, not to run two of them together, at least until “Intolerance.” Both leads do a very good job in terms of acting. I thought the best part of Turner’s performance was when she was still “unrefined,” but dressed as a rich woman in a rich world. Her body language still speaks cockney, so to speak, and even without being able to hear her accent, we could see how she didn’t fit in. But Bert undergoes the more impressive transformation, from street rat to entrepreneur to successful businessman to retired gentleman. He actually seems to fill out and gain considerable weight during the course of the picture, but I think it’s just carefully chosen wardrobe that makes the difference.

One final note: every source agrees that this film was made by the “Turner Film Company,” and one at least lists Florence Turner as the producer. I wonder if she might have been the Turner for which it is named. That would be another example of a pioneering woman business owner and producer from the early years of film, but I can’t find anything definite.

Director: Henry Edwards

Camera: Tom White

Starring: Florence Turner, Henry Edwards, Ruth McKay, W.G. Saunders, Edith Evans

Run Time: 71 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, and it’s a very over-exposed pixillated digitization. It’s all I could find, so if you know of a better version, please comment!)

The Immigrant (1917)

This was the third short Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual in 1917, coming out in June of that year. It may be the most famous of his early work, and has been a critical success since its release, unlike many of his earlier Keystone and Essanay shorts, which were often dismissed as “vulgar” at the time or frivolous afterward.

immigrant_1917This movie begins by showing us a steamer ship loaded with immigrants crossing the Atlantic. After a brief stock footage shot of a ship, and a shot of people stacked on top of one another on the deck, we see a shot of Charlie’s ass, which lingers quite a bit longer. Charlie is leaning over the railing of the ship, his feet at times going up so far it seems that he will fall in, and we get the impression that he is vomiting over the side. It’s a garden path, however, because when he turns around we see that he has caught a fish on a hook and line. He holds it up proudly, then inexplicably casts it aside, where it bites one of the sleeping passengers on the nose.

immigrant1

Hey, at least he’s upright!

Read the rest of this entry »

Easy Street (1917)

Charlie Chaplin’s first movie in 1917 has some surprising elements, including a reversal of his usual relationship to authority. Reflecting his improving budgets and extended production time, he built an entire street on a sound stage and used it to considerable effect.

easy_street_1917The movie begins similarly to “The Champion” and other familiar shorts, with Chaplin as the Little Tramp sleeping in the streets. He awakes to the lovely tones of Edna Purviance leading the choir at the Hope Mission, and ventures inside. The gags in the early part of the film involve sounds that the audience imagines but can’t hear – Edna’s singing, Charlie laughing during the pastor’s sermon, a neighboring parishioner trying to get Charlie to sing along with the choir, etc. Then there’s an extended bit in which Chaplin agrees to hold a baby for another parishioner, and accidentally spills the milk from its bottle onto his pants – but thinks that the baby has wet itself (and him), and tries to foist the fouled brat back onto its mother. Rather a vulgar joke for 1916!

easy-streetAnyway, the real plot of the film gets started once the sermon is over. Charlie, and a rough fellow (John Rand) who also appears to be a tramp, remain behind when the other parishioners leave. Charlie wants to talk to Edna, but the other tramp tries to steal the collection box! Charlie recovers it and returns it, and Edna encourages him to “reform” and get a job. Now that he has experience catching crooks, Charlie thinks it would be a good idea to join the police force. Although it goes against his nature, he convinces himself to go into the police station and apply.

easy-street1Now the action shifts to “Easy Street,” which appears to be the site of an eternal riot. Working-class ruffians are beating the stuffing out of the few police officers brave enough to go there, and we see them returned to the station on stretchers, their uniforms torn and shredded. Eric Campbell intimidates other rioters and controls the street as a bully, wearing his spoils – a policeman’s cap. Charlie is informed that Easy Street will be his beat, but he has no idea what he’s in for.

easy-street2

Just another day on Easy Street.

When Charlie arrives at Easy Street, the riot is over, or at least there’s a lull. Debris is strewn in the street, but things appear to be quiet. The camera tracks towards him as Campbell stalks up behind, still wearing the policeman’s cap. Charlie, finally realizing he’s in danger, sidles up to a lamppost that has a police emergency phone on it. Each time he tries to move for the phone, Eric growls at him and he panics, dropping it. Finally, he tricks Eric into looking into the receiver, giving him a chance to bop him on the head with his billy club. Eric doesn’t appear to notice, so Charlie hits him again. And again. Finally, Eric turns around and sees that he’s being hit, so Charlie tries hitting harder, but with no effect. Eric flexes his muscles and grabs the top of the lamppost, bending it down. Thinking fast, Charlie pulls the lamp over Eric’s head, turning up the gas. Eric slumps into unconsciousness, and Charlie uses the still-working phone to call for backup to arrest him. The police are very afraid to come to Easy Street, even in a large group, and when a small child points his finger at them and goes “bang!” they all skitter in fear. Finally, they drag the unconscious brute back to the station and cuff him. Charlie lights up a cigarette and starts a gas fire on the ruined lamppost.

easy-street3With things now peaceful on Easy Street, Charlie returns to walking his beat. He sees an emaciated woman (Charlotte Mineau) with a bundle hidden under her blouse. He confronts her and sees the food she has stolen. Feeling sympathetic, he goes across the street to where a fruit vendor snoozes peacefully, and steals more food for her, loading her up with ill-gotten gains. Now Edna walks up and sees Charlie 1) employed and 2) performing an act of charity (she doesn’t know the food is stolen). The grateful waif collapses from hunger and the weight of the food, so Charlie and Edna help her up the stairs to her apartment. Then Charlie escorts Edna to another apartment, which she is visiting on her missionary rounds.

easy-street4Meanwhile, Eric Campbell breaks out of the handcuffs. All of the policemen conk him on the head with their bully clubs simultaneously, repeatedly, but it does no good. He defeats them and escapes. He returns home – to his wife Charlotte! They quickly start fighting, with Charlotte throwing various pieces of crockery at Campbell, but with his great strength he gets the upper hand. One of the thrown items breaks the window of the apartment across the street, hitting the father of the family Edna is visiting, and Charlie goes back to Charlotte’s apartment to investigate. When Eric sees him, a chase begins. While this goes on, various lowlifes nab Edna and drag her to an underground lair.

Immune to billy clubs.

Immune to billy clubs.

Charlie finally overcomes Eric by running back to the apartment and dropping a heavy iron stove from the window onto Eric’s head. Now, the ruffians grab him as well. Meanwhile, Edna is being menaced by a man who uses a hypodermic needle before becoming amorous/threatening. Charlie is dropped into the same room through a manhole and accidentally sits on the needle. Suddenly, he becomes a determined fighter, knocking out the addict and taking on several toughs from the speakeasy next door. He rescues Edna and brings peace and order to Easy Street.

easy-street6This movie reminds me a lot of the old “Popeye” cartoons, which may have been partly inspired by it. Eric Campbell’s super-strong giant is much like Bluto and Charlie’s injection from the needle is sort of like Popeye after eating spinach. But, what’s really remarkable here is the way Charlie has reversed his role and that of the villains. Usually, Charlie is the underdog pursued by police. Here, he’s a cop (though he still has his own code of ethics, as we see when he steals food for a hungry woman). Usually, his antagonists are rich, snobby people, but here they are the poor. There are several indications that the rioters are meant to be read as “foreign” or immigrants as well. Most cast lists I find online indicate that some of them are “anarchists” (a political category usually associated with Eastern or Mediterranean immigrants at the time), and there is a portrait of Czar Nicholas II on the wall of the room where Edna is held. Actually, it’s hard to imagine Russian anarchists with a picture of the Czar, unless they use it for target practice, but I think the point is that these are foreigners. Immigrants are usually sympathetic figures for Chaplin, as we will soon see with “The Immigrant.” It may also surprise modern audiences to see such explicit references to drug-use in a silent comedy, but Douglas Fairbanks pushed the theme much further in “Mystery of the Leaping Fish.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1I don’t know for sure why Chaplin chose to do this, but it definitely works. Many sources refer to this as the funniest of the comedies he made for Mutual, or even his funniest short, period. There are others I like better, including “The Cure,” “The Vagabond,” and the restored version of “Police,” but this is a contender. The street set is great, and evokes a kind of generic image of urban squalor, that could as easily be New York, LA, or London. When Eric chases him, we do get some very explicit exteriors of Los Angeles, which kind of ruins the illusion for me, but if you ignore that it’s a great location. Chaplin uses all the tricks of cinema he has learned, including a mobile camera, close-ups, and cross-cutting, but it’s still his body language that sells the narrative. He uses his full body to give shrugs and express sympathy, his face lights up when he sees Edna, and he does his patented one-foot turn-hop during the chase sequences. He repeatedly sends up the Keystone Kops, both in his own performance and his use of the other policemen. When he’s hopped up from the hypodermic, he uses his full body to fight, throwing his feet at crowds of opponents, and seems to be a dynamo of energy. The movie once again shows his talent for slapstick, as well as a newly increased confidence as a filmmaker.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Charlotte Mineau, Albert Austin, John Rand, Lloyd Bacon, Henry Bergman, Frank J. Coleman, Leo White

Run Time: 27 Min

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

The Cure (1917)

This slapstick short continues Charlie Chaplin’s series with Mutual, following the release of “Easy Street” in January. Chaplin was taking longer to work on his films than he ever had before – this wasn’t released until mid-April – but the result was still very profitable for his studio.

cure_1917_posterThis movie takes place in a spa with “healing waters.” We get an insert-shot of the “discoverer” of the healing waters, a sick old man in lying in bed. Then we see a group of seemingly uptight rich people sitting around the well and drinking of the waters. Charlie arrives, apparently drunk, to be cured of his drinking. He steps in the well (but doesn’t quite fall in) on his way to the clinic. He’s having a hard enough time, but then the attendant tries to get him to walk through the revolving doors, which results in the first physical comedy routine of the movie. Charlie skillfully resists entering the building, forcing the attendant to pursue him repeatedly. Eventually, Eric Campbell, in a foot cast, wanders over as well, with predictable results. Charlie eventually gets into the building and Eric limps away in defeat.

cure Read the rest of this entry »

The Adventurer (1917)

I’m beginning the year 2017 with a review of the last movie Charlie Chaplin made in 1917, one of the funniest and most accessible of his work for Mutual Film Corporation. Chaplin finally finished out his record-breaking $670,000 contract with them when this film was released, and he turned down an offer of a million to renew, choosing instead to remain independent. This film was the first new Chaplin audiences had seen in four months, and by the time it came out he was one of the most famous men in the world.

adventurerThe movie begins with escaped-convict Charlie pursued by prison guards who could be Keystone Kops from his earliest days in cinema. He emerges from his escape tunnel on the beach to find himself next to a cop’s shotgun, and the chase is on. He quickly scoots up a cliff and drops rocks on his first pursuer, only to find one of the rocks is the shoe of another guard, with the guard still in it! Not one to complain, Charlie hurls the one guard down after the other. After several more clever incidents, Charlie winds up swimming into the ocean to escape. When the police try to follow in a rowboat, they are swamped by the waves.

adventurer1Charlie is able to get some clothes off of a bather at a nearby resort, and while he is swimming in encounters Edna Purviance’s mother drowning at the dock. Edna is nearby, at a dockside table with her suitor, Eric Campbell, and he at first boasts that he will jump in to save mother, but as he begins to strip off his clothes, it appears to occur to him that the water is cold, so she jumps in instead. Shortly thereafter, Eric and a hefty dockworker lean on the railing, causing it to collapse, and they fall in as well. Charlie manages to save all of them, although not without dumping Eric into the drink one more time for good measure, and he is taken home along with them in a limousine.

adventurer2The next morning, Charlie wakes up and thinks he might be back in jail. There are bars on the bed and stripes on his pajamas. But, the butler (Albert Austin) comes in and assures him he’s in the home of Edna and her parents, and Charlie soon comes down in suitably ill-fitting clothes to join what seems to be a perpetual cocktail party going on at the mansion. He grabs a bottle and mixes seltzer in for a big gulp. He and Eric exchange kicks in the rear, though Charlie always gets one up. Eric recognizes Charlie’s mugshot in the paper and tries to inform the hosts, but Charlie sketches Eric’s beard onto the photograph. In one famous bit, Charlie drops ice cream down his pants, and shakes in out of his trouser leg onto the back of a large, dignified woman below the balcony he’s on.

Charlie in high society

Charlie in high society

All good things must come to an end, and Charlie’s end is precipitated by the usual conceit of the scullion maid entertaining a cop (in this case a prison guard) in the kitchen. At first, Charlie thinks he will catch her in the act, but winds up being pursued himself. Eric calls in reinforcements, and soon Charlie is being chased all over the mansion, occasionally stopping to kiss Edna farewell. He disguises himself as a lamp and traps Eric in a sliding door in a wonderful chase sequence. Each time he gets ready to leave, another pursuer shows up and chases him back inside. Caught at least by the chief guard, he introduces him to Edna, and runs off to escape when the guard offers his hand to shake.

adventurer3This movie demonstrates considerable sophistication and pathos, even though it is in essence nothing more than a couple of chase scenes with material from “The Count,” “Caught in a Cabaret,” and other Tramp-amongst-the-rich shorts thrown in. Part of it is that Chaplin has now rehearsed some of these bits to perfection – the scene in the kitchen with the maid hiding the guard is a great extension of the same scene in “The Count,” for example. But, Chaplin is also a much more confident director, with more of the tools of cinematic storytelling at his disposal as well. The camera angles and cuts that let us experience his realization that he is in danger both emerging from the tunnel and when throwing rocks from the cliff would never have been seen in a 1914 Keystone movie, and so those gags couldn’t  have worked, or not nearly so well. Rarely if ever is the screen set up as a proscenium arch, the camera moves to accentuate the action and hides information from the audience until ready for a punch line. Cross-cutting sets up more complex relationships between actors in different areas than the old throw-the-rock-at-the-next-setup routine he was doing just a few years ago. Close-ups allow us to see the funny reactions of Charlie and of the often embarrassed and/or shocked rich people at the party.

This is one of the best examples of why Chaplin-itis became such a epidemic in the teens, and for those who haven’t seen any of his short subjects before, I can’t think of a better place to start.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Marta Golden

Run Time: 27 Min

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

Censorship in 1916

There is a lot of confusion today over what “censorship” means, much of which I think is because the word itself has fallen out of fashion and become an accusation rather than a useful description of anything. One hundred years ago, people who felt that they had the ability to judge what other people should read, watch, or experience were far less shy about calling openly for censorship, and this kept things more honest. Today they call for “ratings systems” and laws for the “protection of children” (how could anyone be against protecting children?), which makes it all much more slippery.

CensoredNo industry wants to be restricted from doing business as freely as possible, and in a capitalist society censorship ultimately means placing restrictions of some kind on the ability of cultural industries to sell their wares. Whereas the publishing industry was an established force in the early twentieth century, the embryonic motion picture industry had less power, prestige, and legal protection. As a new technology, it was ripe for criticism from all quarters. People really weren’t sure what the long-term results of exposure to moving images would be (any more than they are today about the long-term effects of texting or the internet). Would children’s eyesight be damaged? Would their literacy suffer? Would they lose respect for parental authority? Would they all become criminals? No one knew, but some were willing to suggest the most dire of possible consequences.

Of course the motion picture industry didn’t take all this lying down, small and new though it was at the time. Motion picture exhibitors, distributors, and producers were making money hand over fist and they used some of that money to protect their own interests by forming associations and leagues dedicated to fighting motion picture censorship. One of their strongest allies was the magazine Moving Picture World, which I frequently cite in my reviews. The Moving Picture World was created as a news magazine for exhibitors, the owners of nickelodeons and movie palaces (and chains of such venues), so that they could keep up with trends in the industry, hot new titles, and technical advances. It also became a strong advocate against censorship, as we can see from this editorial page from the first issue of 1916 (click on it to blow it up so you can read it), where it talks about censorship at the local, State, and federal levels:

MPW EditorialIt opens with concerns about local censorship in Oregon, my state of residence. I regret that it doesn’t specify the towns it mentions: one in which local exhibitors called for censorship to forestall worse censorship and one in which “young girls” comprised the censor board. Still, it exemplifies the frustration distributors had to feel when faced with different standards of censorship for each town where they wanted to sell their product. This also led to multiple different re-edited and re-cut versions of each film being distributed, infuriating the creators and confusing historians to this day. In a later paragraph, news about an exhibitors’ convention in New York is an entry to a call for visible opposition to State-wide censorship bills soon to be introduced in Albany. One of these bills would close all movie theaters on Sunday, one of the most profitable days for exhibitors, but also a contested day because of its association with church-going. In speaking about the “modern Sunday,” the editor means the secularization of leisure time, still an important issue at the time. The editorial ends with a petition against Federal Censorship, and by encouraging readers to find “citizens who are not in any way connected with the motion picture industry” to sign it. While dealing with local and State censorship is egregious, the MPW claims that Federal Censorship would “drive not hundreds, but thousands of exhibitors out of business.”

What they aren’t mentioning in all of this is the critical Supreme Court decision of the previous year. On February 23, 1915, the case Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was resolved in the State of Ohio’s favor. Ohio had set up a State Censorship Board in 1913, and Mutual, sick of having to re-cut films for each and every state they sold to, took them to court. In the decision, the Court stated, “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.”

SCOTUS-oldsenateThis is really important: so far as the highest court in the land was concerned, motion pictures had no free speech protections. This remained the case until the decision was overturned in 1952. So, during pretty much the whole “studio era” or what is now often called the “Classic” or “Golden Age” of Hollywood, movies could be legally censored by governmental organs. Which has a lot to do with what was produced and why, but we can get into more of that history as this project continues. For now, I want to look at some aspects of the court’s decision.

The biggest distinction they’re making is that films are businesses, and not therefore “part of the press…or organs of public opinion.” This is at least as bizarre to me (but also the reverse) as the Citizen’s United decision that spending money is the same thing as free speech. For some reason, the fact that newspapers are profitable businesses is completely ignored. They are elevated to a public good, treated as something apart from the business interests, as if they were publically-funded institutions like libraries or the post office, which by this interpretation would also presumably qualify for free speech protection. It’s unclear how the Court found this distinction between “press” and “business” in the Constitution in the first place, but the implications are staggering. Apart from this, they are ignoring (probably because Mutual’s lawyers never brought it up) the existence of documentaries and newsreels, which would become an important “organ of public opinion” within a few years, and had also been seen as the major purpose of motion pictures by many (including the Lumière Brothers and J.P. Chalmers, the author of the article for Moving Picture World) just a few years before.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThere’s another aspect to all of this, which is the question of “movies as an art form.” While directors, actors, and others were arguing fervently that cinema should be taken seriously as a new art form, this doesn’t seem to have even entered into the conversation. Again, I believe this is because the lawyers for Mutual didn’t broach it. It says something about how the industry’s leaders saw themselves: they presented themselves to the Court as a business, and the Court responded in kind. Talk about “art” was all very well for the rubes, but they didn’t expect the idea to be taken seriously at a higher level, is how I read this.

A different decision by the Court a year earlier would have meant a very different editorial for January, 1916. Instead of calling for greater organization to fight hundreds of local censorship ordinances, the focus would have been on clarifying the constitutional limits of government interest in free expression and in local cases that still had not been resolved. The question of film as an “organ of public opinion” or an art form could have been taken more seriously, becoming a matter for serious, high-level discussion, rather than semi-serious ad copy. And, I would say, the growing dominance of the United States film industry would have been a more positive thing, as more creative and innovative product might have become available to inspire artists all over the world. But, history is the study of what did happen, not what didn’t, and from here we study an era in which censorship was an accepted fact of movie making life in the United States.

The Rink (1916)

Rink5In one of his funniest movies of 1916, Charlie Chaplin again draws on old themes to provide a jumping-off point to demonstrate his developing talents. He also brings his audience into two worlds of his character, providing depth even without the level of sympathy seen in “The Vagabond” or “The Bank.”

RinkThe movie opens with an indescribably cute sequence of a kitten playing on a sleeping man, waking him up by swatting at a toy on a string, which is held by Edna Purviance (more evidence that funny cat videos predate the Internet). The man is her father, but we don’t learn anything else about their relationship because the scene shifts to a restaurant, where Charlie is dressed up and working as a waiter. Eric Campbell, as a customer, asks for the check and Charlie determines what he has eaten by looking at the food he spilled on himself (every item costs $1, which seems like a lot for the time). He pays, Charlie counts out his change and then takes it all as his tip. Eric gives chase, but Charlie hides behind other customers. Charlie has several funny run-ins with fellow waiter John Rand, largely because he refuses to abide by the doors marked “In” and “Out” to the kitchen. Rand winds up serving a customer a dish with a rag and floor scrubber on it, due to one of these mishaps. Charlie also gets food on him and on the cook (played by Albert Austin). There is one great bit where the manager (Frank J Coleman) tries to catch Charlie in the act, but due to his creative use of the In/Out doors and some fancy editing, he consistently misses him.

Rink_(poster)After all this goes on for a while, Charlie opens up a stove and pulls out his “Little Tramp” outfit. He changes from the well-fitting waiter’s uniform into his usual tight vest and bowler. Then he goes to lunch (the manager warns him to come back on time). Now he goes to a skating rink, where he bypasses the admission fee and flirts with a girl on a bench. He gets some skates and goes onto the floor, where Eric Armstrong is now trying to flirt with Edna, despite his lack of skill at skating. It turns out that Charlie is very good at skating and skates circles around Eric, impressing Edna. He also causes mayhem at the rink, causing fights and tripping people, but always looking innocent when the bouncer-type fellow arrives. Eric winds up falling down several times and Edna invites Charlie to her “skating party” later that evening.

Rink1We now learn that Eric Armstrong is married to a large woman played by a man (Harry Bergman). They apparently both like to flirt with others, but don’t tell each other about this. She has gotten invited to the party by flirting with Edna’s father, and Eric crashes to flirt with Edna. They are both horrified when they see one another, and even more so when Charlie shows up! He, once again, uses his skating prowess to cause chaos, running into people and knocking over Mrs. Stout and falling on top of her repeatedly. Eventually, the situation becomes so crazy that the police are called, but Charlie continues to escape them by skating skillfully around them. Finally, he is chased by the police and most of the guests out into the street, and escapes by hooking his cane into a passing car and being pulled along on his skates.

Rink2Skating had been a popular topic for comedies since very early in moving picture history. In fact the first picture made by Charlie’s former employer  Essanay Studios was “An Awful Skate” (1907) starring Ben Turpin, and I understand that this movie was based upon a French predecessor. Putting people on wheels makes them move faster and unpredictably, so it makes sense, and of course there are always opportunities for crashing and falling down, the essences of physical comedy. This is the first time Charlie has used the concept, and he shows off his control at all times, even when he pretends to be trying catch himself or falling.

Rink3I’ve talked about a lot of aspects of Charlie’s work up to now, and I’d like to focus a bit on class this time. It is well-known that Charlie grew up in poverty in the class-conscious society of Victorian England. He made the movies he made largely for the working classes, who he knew needed entertainment, not “reform” or preaching at. There’s an interesting aspect in this film, and in a number of others that he made, which I haven’t seen discussed before. Here, he starts out as a waiter, in a working world where he obviously is not in charge, but the narrative also follows him into his private life. We also saw this in “Caught in a Cabaret” and with Bud Jamison’s character in “A Night Out,” who is also a waiter that Charlie later encounters in his personal world at a hotel. I think there’s something subtly subversive in this. Usually, a character with a menial job in a movie is just that: a menial. They don’t break out of that role or become human, they are just there to serve a purpose. Charlie reminds us that these people (his people) have real lives outside of their work roles. Sometimes, they imitate people of higher classes, as Charlie does in “Caught in a Cabaret” or here, where the Intertitles tell us he is announced at the party as “Sir Cecil Seltzer.” I won’t say that he was the only slapstick actor who ever did this, but I haven’t run across it being done by others yet, so I’m willing to call it one of his themes, probably one of the reasons he was so popular with working class audiences.

Rink4With this movie, I’m caught up on all of Chaplin’s work in 1915 and 1916, at some point hopefully later this year I can finish off my reviews of his 1914 year at Keystone Studios.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Armstrong, Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, John Rand, Frank J. Coleman, Lloyd Bacon

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Pawnshop (1916)

PawnshopA fun piece that Charlie Chaplin made for Mutual late in 1916, this one puts an emphasis on running gags and longer vignettes, with the central plot taking a backseat. It has similarities to a number of earlier Chaplins, including “Work,” “The Bank,” and “The Floorwalker.”

Pawnshop_Lobby_Card,_1916Charlie is an assistant in a pawnshop, run by an older man in wearing a skullcap (kippah, yarmulke, or taqiyah). He is sent to do some dusting and winds up making a bigger mess and getting into a fight with his co-worker (John Rand). He goes outside with a large ladder to clean the sign over the shop, and winds up hurting Rand several more times, and running afoul of a local cop. Once he and Rand have avoided the cop, they begin fighting again, to the dismay of Edna Purviance, the shopkeeper’s daughter. Charlie pretends to be hurt and gets her sympathy, but the shopkeeper wants him fired. He has a change of heart and lets him stay. Several customers come in, in succession. First, an old man (Wesley Ruggles) tells a tale of woe and hardship and how he must pawn his dead wife’s wedding ring. Charlie feels sorry for him and offers five dollars, but only has a ten. The man pulls out a huge wad of bills to make change. Another customer is a thief (Eric Campbell), who persuades the shopkeeper to show him all of the fancy jewelry he keeps in the safe. Then, a man (Albert Austin) shows Charlie an alarm clock he wants to pawn. Charlie can’t get it to work, so he dismantles it piece by piece in front of the man, then sweeps the mess into his hat and gives it back to the man. After he leaves, the thief tries to hold up the store with a gun, but Charlie is hiding behind him and knocks him on the head, saving the day.

Pawnshop1Although there is some good stuff in this movie, a lot of it feels recycled, such as the bit about Charlie using his slapstick skills to stop a robbery and the cleaning sequence which is very similar to “The Bank.” One brief gag I didn’t mention was a quick re-do of the opening to “The Bank,” where Charlie opens a safe and takes out his workclothes. This, time, about halfway through, he goes to a safe, quickly turns the combination seemingly at random, and takes out his lunch. It isn’t as funny or surprising this time. My favorite parts were the whole ladder sequence and the scenes where Charlie is “helping” (or being bilked by) the customers. His character is less “innocent” and likeable than in “The Vagabond,” for example, but one still sees him as sympathetic – he’s a victim of circumstances and it’s hard to blame him if he wants to get back at some of the people who mistreat him. The romance between him and Edna is decidedly downplayed in this movie.

Pawnshop2Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, John Rand, Albert Austin, Eric Cambell, Henry Bergman

 Run Time: 24 Min

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

Behind the Screen (1916)

As with “A Film Johnny,” and “His New Job,” this Charlie Chapin short from Mutual Film takes us inside a film production studio for laughs. It starts off innocently enough, but escalates the mayhem throughout, reaching a point almost unseen, even in the original Keystone comedies that gave Chaplin his start.

Behind the ScreenThe movie begins with Edna Purviance on a film set, asking someone (possibly an Assistant Director), “Can I be an actress, please?” The answer is, predictably, no, and the camera holds on her face long enough for us to feel her disappointment Then we are introduced to the stagehand (Eric Campbell) and his assistant (Charlie). The assistant does all the work, while Eric sits and naps. Every time he walks past the camera tripod, Charlie manages to hook it with his foot and bring the camera crashing to the ground. He nearly knocks over a large column on the set (a gag taken from “His New Job,” but done better here). After a particularly grueling task of moving a dozen chairs and a piano, Charlie sits down for a moment and the stagehand and Assistant Director accuse him of loafing. During lunch break, Eric eats an enormous amount of food, while Charlie only seems to have a few pieces of bread. His neighbor (Albert Austin) eats green onions and breathes on Charlie, leading him to put on a prop helmet from a suit of armor. Albert throws the onions into the helmet. Charlie does a drumming routine with some drumsticks and all of the plates from his boss’s meal. When the Assistant Director finds all of the stagehands passed out from food coma after lunch, he wakes them up and they strike. Eric and Charlie refuse to join the strike and Edna gets the bright idea of dressing as a boy so she can be a stagehand.

Behind the Screen1The Assistant Director thanks the few strikebreakers for staying on, and puts them to work. Charlie’s first job is to pull a lever that opens a trap door after a gun is fired. He keeps missing the cue and pulling it when actors or crew members are standing on the door, sometimes closing it while they are trying to climb out of the pit, trapping their heads or extremities between the doors. Soon, the actors all have black eyes and bruises from falling into the pit on top of one another. The Assistant Director’s pants are split when he tries to pull someone out of the pit, and he asks Edna to repair them, to her horror. Charlie, meanwhile has figured out that Edna is a girl, and a pretty one at that, and kisses her, causing Eric to mock him mercilessly, presumably for being gay. A costume drama is being filmed by the “dramatic department” right next to a set where the “comedic department” is testing a “new idea – one character throws a pie at a character, who ducks, then throws a pie back at the first one. Eric and Charlie are called in to help test this innovation, with the result that pies fly into the throne room of the dramatic piece. Meanwhile, the strikers are cooking up a dynamite plot to blow up the studio. With everyone distracted by the mounting pie fight, they are able to sneak in, placing the dynamite under the trapdoors and kidnap Edna along the way. When Charlie finds Edna in danger, he rescues her, knocking the striker and incidentally his boss into the pit. The dynamite goes off, and Charlie and Edna kiss.

Behind the Screen2This movie is a return to the most madcap variety of Chaplin movie, with much of it being based around chases or violence, and few pauses for character development or sympathy. I was actually quite disappointed that Edna’s character never got to act – her sad face at the beginning of the film is the best acting we see here. The ending reminded me of “Dough & Dynamite,” one of the most violent of the Keystone movies. A number of the gags here are from earlier movies, but often expanded upon or improved. Charlie does a wonderful “dance move” each time he pulls the lever for the trap door, which adds to our anticipation of the comedic result.

Behind_the_ScreenA good bit of this movie centers around a pie-fight, something that we haven’t seen much of to date in this project, unless we count the single pie-in-the-face that Ben Turpin took eight years earlier in “Mr. Flip.” Still, Charlie’s placement of it ironically as an “invention” at this time demonstrates that it was already a recognized trope. My first thought was that perhaps it was something established by clowns in 19th Century circuses, and that may be so, but here Charlie clearly places it in the “comedic department” of a movie studio, suggesting that he is making fun of contemporary examples, perhaps from Keystone or Essanay, his former employers. There is no doubt that Fritzi, at “Movies Silently,” is right to point out that not all silent comedies had pie fights, but the evidence is strong that there were more of them than I’ve seen so far.

Behind the Screen3The reviewer for Moving Picture World said: “While this Chaplin effort will doubtless evoke much laughter from a certain class of audience, it is not one to be strongly recommended. There is throughout a distinct vein of vulgarity which is unnecessary, even in slapstick comedy. A great deal of comedy is intended to be extracted from a pie-slinging episode which occurs during the rehearsal of a couple of scenes in a moving picture studio.” This time, I think I can understand some of this reaction. The emphasis on the splitting of the man’s pants, his showing his bottom to a girl (Edna) and the subsequent gay-joke would all seem to be pushing the envelope for 1916. There are several other moments where butts are, as it were, the butt of a joke or gag, and I suspect that this is the sort of thing that middle class audiences reacted against in slapstick at the time. Certainly, this is not a “refined” piece of comedy, whether we’d really be offended by its “vulgarity” or not today, but is intended to be simplistic mayhem, done with artful timing and physical skill.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin, Lloyd Bacon, John Rand, Wesley Ruggles, Leo White

Run Time: 24 Min

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