Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Mutual Film

The Count (1916)

Count3Charlie Chaplin continues his run of Mutual shorts with this simple piece that harks back to “A Jitney Elopement” and other romantic comedies of the slapstick variety. He gets some wonderful bits of business into the spare plotline.

CountAt the beginning of the movie, Charlie is working as a tailor’s apprentice, taking the measurements of a lady customer. His measurements are confused by the lady’s failure to stand straight, by the tape measure getting caught on a dummy, and by his own imprecise units. The tailor (Eric Campbell) notices what he is doing and comes over to take charge. Charlie, not sure what to do, tries some ironing, only to burn holes in several pairs of pants. When the tailor finishes with the customer, he comes over and fires him. Charlie asks for his pay, but the tailor forcibly ejects him. After he’s gone, the tailor discovers a letter from Count Broko (Leo White) in one of the ruined pants, declining an invitation to meet the eligible Miss Moneybags (Edna Purviance) at a party. This gives the tailor the idea to dress up as the Count and make a good match.

Count1Meanwhile, Charlie has gone to the servants’ entrance of a mansion, looking for handouts. The friendly and flirtatious cook offers him a sandwich with smelly cheese, which is the occasion for some humorous bits as Charlie tries to figure out what the smell is. Then the butler shows up for his lunch. Charlie hides in a basket, but the cook throws the cheese in after him, so he keeps throwing it out. The butler leaves when the doorbell rings, but Charlie’s escape is prevented by an amorous policeman, also interested in the cook, so he dives into the dumbwaiter and goes upstairs, where he runs into the tailor, disguised as Count Broko. Charlie could give the game away, so the tailor offers to bring him in on the scam as his secretary. Then, when the butler arrives to announce the Count, Charlie claims to be him and announces the tailor as his secretary. They go to dinner, Charlie on Edna’s arm and Eric on her mother’s. The dinner includes such classic bits as Charlie stopping Eric’s noisy soup slurping in order to converse with Edna and some hilarious watermelon-eating. After dinner, Charlie and Eric compete for Edna’s attention, with Charlie generally getting the upper hand by tricking Eric. Charlie’s one problem is that he keeps running into the jealous cook, and he is briefly distracted by a woman in a revealing gypsy costume. Then, the real Count Broko arrives, and real mayhem breaks out, with a full-on Keystone-style chase ensuing. Charlie escapes, Eric is arrested, and the Count is covered in clam dip.

Count2This movie once again takes advantage of the comedy trope that penniless aristocrats were always seeking the daughters of nouveau-riche families and vice-versa. This has come up more than a few times now in the Chaplin oeuvre. Chaplin initiates much of the violence and pranks in this movie, but he seems justified because of his previous ill-treatment by the tailor. He doesn’t wind up getting the girl, but he doesn’t seem to be genuinely interested in her, either, just in keeping her away from Eric Campbell. Whether this is out of revenge or in her interests is hard to say. I liked the food business especially in this movie: the smelly cheese, the watermelon, and even some of the after-dinner aperitifs were integrated into the humor. The cheese bit once again shows how silent films used visual cues to include the audience’s other senses, something we saw done with sound in “The Vagabond.”

Count4

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Edna Purviance

Run Time: 24 Min

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

One A.M. (1916)

With this deceptively simple two-reeler for Mutual, Charlie Chaplin returns to his roots playing a funny drunk for laughs, but demonstrates his advancement as an artist by milking the concept for all it’s worth. Chaplin’s unique style dominates the screen for the entire run time, and hardly a single opportunity for laughs is missed.

One_A.M._posterThe movie opens with Charlie, in fancy dress, arriving home in a cab. Albert Austin, who plays the cab driver, sits stoically staring straight ahead while Charlie fumbles with the door handle and the meter, eventually staggering off to his own house. He can’t find his keys, so he enters via a window, stepping in the goldfish bowl along the way. Once inside, he finds the keys, so climbs back out the window (via the goldfish), goes up to the door and opens it. Then, he starts sliding on the rug, unable to maintain his balance. His house seems to be decorated with dead animals (a tiger-skin rug, a stuffed lynx, an ostrich), which become real to him, and engage him in chases around the floor. He tries to pour a drink from a table that consistently spins away from him every time he tries to reach the bottle or glass.

One_A.M.Eventually, he makes his way upstairs, only to encounter an over-sized cuckoo clock whose pendulum knocks him back down the stairs. After several attempts, he finds that it is easier to climb up the coat stand to get to the landing, but he still has to avoid the swinging pendulum that prevents access to the bedroom door. Inside the bedroom, the Murphy bed becomes another challenge. It crashes down when he is under it and leaps back up when he tries to sit or lie down. After destroying the bed, he goes into the bathroom and soaks himself in the shower with all his clothes on. Then, he lies down in the bathtub with a towel and goes to sleep.

One_AM PosterThis isn’t by any means the best thing I’ve seen from Chaplin, but it is a great demonstration of how much he could get out of how little. The movie is all him, except for the brief appearance of Albert Austin, and doesn’t let up for a second. It was probably one of the cheapest movies he made for Mutual (which may be why he made it after comparably high-budget pieces like “The Fireman”). Again, we see the more fluid camerawork of Roland Totheroh, which demonstrates that Charlie didn’t need to be locked into little boxes to be funny. The camera follows him up and down the stairs several times, which works better than editing between the stages would have. The first part of the film, downstairs, emphasizes the drunk’s inability to deal with ordinary things like doors and rugs, but with the spinning table and the dead animals, things become increasingly odd. Then, when he gets upstairs to the gigantic cuckoo clock and the Murphy bed, it seems as though his world has become a surreal mechanical obstacle course. These sections remind me particularly strongly of Jacques Tati and his character Hulot’s constant problems with technology.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Albert Austin, a variety of inanimate objects.

Run Time: 24 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (probably with music but I can’t get archive.org to work at the moment to confirm)

The Vagabond (1916)

Charlie Chaplin’s character returns to his more lovable behavior with this Mutual release, apparently a kind of follow-up to “The Tramp.” Both in terms of filmmaking and character, this movie shows how far he came in so short a time.

Vagabond_(1916)The movie opens with Charlie, in “Little Tramp” getup, walking out of a bar. At first, we expect that he has returned to the character of the “funny drunk,” but after a moment, he pulls out a violin, showing his real reason for being there. Outside the door, he plays his instrument for the entertainment of those inside. While he is playing, a full band walks up to the other entrance to the bar, and starts playing. We see the patrons of the bar, enjoying the band’s popular tunes, singing along, and raising their glasses to the tune. Charlie finishes his piece and goes inside to ask for donations for the music he played. Enthusiastic about the band, several patrons give him coins. Then the band leader (John Rand) comes in to ask for money, and the patrons are incensed: “What, again?” The band leader figures out that Charlie has “stolen” their money and confronts him. Not understanding, Charlie asks him for a donation. The Band leader hits him and a fight between them turns into a chase, which includes, first, the band leader, then the band (Charlie steps on a drum in trying to escape), and then everyone in the bar (Charlie grabs a drink while they all run after him). He finally evades his pursuers and makes his way to a gypsy camp.

VagabondHere, he plays for a girl (Edna Purviance) who is doing the washing. She accelerates and decelerates her work in time with his playing. At the end, he gets so enthusiastic that he falls over into a water bucket. She comes over to help him, and her cruel stepfather (Eric Armstrong) sees her slacking off and making time with this stranger. He now grabs Edna and drags her over to the fire, where all the other gypsies are and whips her in front of the crowd. Charlie, seeing this, builds up his courage and knocks the man out with a club. He then manages to knock out each of the gypsies in turn, takes Edna back to the caravan and steals a wagon to ride off with her.

Vagabond1The next morning, Charlie awakes on the ground, having given the wagon’s sleeping quarters to Edna, and he helps her wash up and prepares breakfast. Meanwhile, Edna takes a walk and encounters a handsome artist (Lloyd Bacon), who asks her to model. She complies, shyly at first, then invites him back for breakfast, which Charlie isn’t entirely happy about. The painting of Edna winds up in a gallery, where it is seen by her wealthy mother, who recognizes her from the birthmark on her arm as the little girl that was stolen by gypsies! Edna’s mother and the artist return to the camp in a limo, and she agrees to go with them, leaving Charlie, saddened and alone, behind. Suddenly, Edna’s heart tells her that her true love isn’t for the artist, and she cries out for the car to stop and turn back. She runs and embraces Charlie, telling him, “you come too!” They pile into the car and go off to a new life together.

Vagabond2As with “Police,” Charlie’s character in this movie is a victim of the cruel world, rather than a perpetrator of violence for its own sake. His theft of the money from the band is unintentional, and he does not start violence against them on purpose. With the gypsies, he is violent only in defense of Edna, who is being bull-whipped unjustly. He does not act in violence or even discourtesy towards his romantic rival. In short, he is a totally sympathetic character once again. The ending is a stark contrast with “The Tramp,” in which he leaves at the first sight of any competition. Here, he holds out hope and winds up winning. Unlike other Charlie-Edna romances, the decision is left to the girl, and she makes it based on her true feelings. I find the ending effectively dramatic and moving, in spite of its presence in a manic comedy.

Vagabond4Chaplin’s direction is improving this year as well. He seems to have made a real discovery in Lloyd Bacon, who served as his double in “The Floorwalker,” Edna’s father in “The Fireman,” and the suave artist in this movie. He demonstrates range, comedic talent, and solid dramatic acting. Bacon had small roles in some of Chaplin’s early Essanay films, but had mostly worked with “Broncho Billy” Anderson until Chaplin moved to Mutual and somehow convinced Bacon to follow. He would go on to become a successful director in the talkie era, making movies like “42nd Street” and “Action in the North Atlantic” with Humphrey Bogart. Although his role in this movie is fairly “straight,” it is an important role, and Chaplin had to trust the actor to be able to pull it off without trying to be funny. I also want to take a moment to mention Roland Totheroh, who started working with Chaplin at the end of his career at Essanay and stayed with him to film all of his later shorts and major features up to “Monsieur Verdoux” in 1947. Totheroh has a somewhat better style for these more sophisticated movies than Harry Ensign, who worked fast and fit the more manic pace of earlier Chaplin. Camera angles are more carefully considered, and set-ups are not based on the “square” framing of the earlier period, although for editing purposes we still have frames that define edges of spaces that characters will move through, allowing funny business when characters in one frame do not know what takes place in the other.

Vagabond3This is a long review, by the standards of this blog, but there’s one more thing I’d like to point out, which is the emphasis on “sound” and its importance in silent movies. Charlie is a musician, and how other characters react to his playing is an important screen element, although the audience cannot hear what it “really” sounds like (a good soundtrack can make up for this, of course). This was also the case in “The Fireman,” in which alarms and phones ringing are key plot devices. This is characteristic, in my opinion, of what I’m calling the “Silent Classical Period,” in which directors and other creative people had come to see silent movies as an art form of their own – one which included sound as an implied element, but not a direct one. That’s not to say no one had ever done it before 1915 (there are alarms in “Life of an American Fireman,” for example, and reactions to gunshots in “The Great Train Robbery”), but its use is increasingly explicit and sophisticated during this period.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, John Rand, Leo White

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Fireman (1916)

Once again, we have an early example of Charlie Chaplin’s work at Mutual Film, and once again, it seems to me a step down from “Police,” which he made at the end of his time at Essanay. The character is only about as lovable as he was in the days of “The Tramp” and “Work,” not at the level we saw him blossom into at the end of 1915.

FiremanHere, Charlie is a fireman who lives at a fire station with several other men. When an alarm goes off, all of the others spring out of bed and down the pole with perfect (Keystone Cop-style) military precision. Charlie goes on snoozing, which is a shame because it’s his job to drive the fire engine. The foreman (Eric Campbell, Charlie’s new replacement for Mack Swain and Bud Jamison) is furious, and hollers until Chaplin gets up and slides leisurely down the pole, going back up again when he fears abuse from his boss. Eventually, Charlie pulls the wagon out into the street for the drill, but he leaves the brigade behind. He has to go back, and this time he gets some of his comeuppance. We now shift to a scene of the brigade sitting down to a meal, and Charlie serves them, in a sequence borrowed almost entirely from “Shanghaied.” In this case, however, Charlie doesn’t have to contend with the rocking boat, but he still manages to get food on almost everyone. One nice touch is that he gets hot coffee and cream from dispensers in the water tank on the fire engine. Another chase with the foreman ensues.Fireman1

A rich man (Lloyd Bacon) and his daughter (Edna Purviance) now arrive at the station and ask to meet with the foreman, who is covered in milk and soup. The man offers the foreman his daughter’s hand in marriage if he will let his building burn down – he wants to collect on the insurance. Edna seems to go along, but also flirts with Charlie when she gets the chance. The foreman goes along with the others on a date, leaving the fire house in Charlie’s charge. Now, a real fire breaks out and a frenetic man (Leo White) does everything he can to get help. He sounds the alarm, he calls the fire station, he runs to the fire station flailing his arms and running about like a ninny. The firemen ignore all his efforts, until he starts attacking Charlie. A strange sort of chase begins, with Charlie trying to slow him down or figure out what he’s saying, while Leo keeps running around waving his arms. Finally, Charlie figures out what he’s trying to say and runs off to get the foreman. The foreman, reluctant to abandon his date, eventually gets the message and rushes back to the station, rounds up the firemen and piles everyone onto the fire engine to race to the scene. The house is pretty well up in flames at this point, but the men do their best, although Charlie keeps pointing the hose at other people instead of the fire.

Fireman2Now Lloyd puts his plan into action and sets fire in the basement of his apartment building. Apparently he has forgotten that Edna is inside! When he sees her at her window, trapped by the smoke, he panics, and rushes off to find the fire truck. He tells Charlie that his daughter is in danger, and Charlie, ignoring the current fire, grabs the fire engine and rushes off alone. The foreman figures out what has happened and follows on foot. Charlie scales the side of the building and manages to carry Edna down, heroically saving her, before Eric can get to the scene.

Fireman3Fire stations were popular settings for slapstick comedy, probably in part because of all the mayhem that could be caused with spraying water, axes, etc. and the speedy chases to the rescue they encourage. But, remember that some of the earliest plotted movies involved “Fire Rescues” and that live simulations of fire fighting were popular entertainment in the previous century. Each generation loves to mock what their elders took seriously, and I think that’s part of the reason for the trope. Substituting Charlie Chaplin for the muscular heroes of those movies rescuing the damsel in distress only makes it funnier.

Fireman4Still, Chaplin’s character here is only partly sympathetic. It’s hard to see a fireman who sleeps through alarms as a “victim” and he seems to go out of his way to start trouble with the foreman. Surely, he could serve coffee without spattering his boss and everyone else with boiling liquid? He’s kind of back to the “vulgar” character of mid-season Essanay. Edna’s character is also disappointing. She doesn’t outwardly rebel against her father pimping her for insurance money, and she doesn’t have the common sense to get out of a building her father is openly planning to burn down, and she ends up with Charlie solely because he gets there first. Not much agency there. Actually, the funniest person in this movie (in my opinion) is Leo White, who overacts insanely as the victim of a house fire, reminding one of a cross between Ford Sterling and a chicken with its head cut off. Particularly when he’s running up and down beside the fire engine, with Charlie trying to stop him at each pass, he’s the focus of action and laughter.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Leo White, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Floorwalker (1916)

Charlie Chaplin’s first film for Mutual Studios is a bit of a step backward from “Police,” in terms of character development, but it shows all the cinematic technique and physical skills that Charlie had mastered at this time.

Floorwalker_(poster)The movie opens on a department store, with shop clerks setting up displays and women competing for bargains. But, something odd is afoot in the upper office, where the manager (Eric Campbell) and his floorwalker (Lloyd Bacon, wearing Chaplin’s mustache and a more dressy outfit) are plotting to embezzle the profits. There are also a pair of detectives (one man, one woman) lurking about the place, apparently hoping to nab the thieves. Finally, a familiar “Little Tramp” wanders in and begins trying the samples put out for display. Charlie gives the impression that he regularly comes in to department stores for his morning toilette, as he samples soap, shaving cream, perfume…all under the watchful eye of the suspicious clerk. This distraction allows several well-dressed ladies to pilfer goods unobserved, and when Charlie wanders back over to the first table, there is nothing left but the wire rack with a sign that says “¢25.” He throws down a quarter and takes it. Suddenly, the clerk and the detective surround him, apparently believing that he took all the merchandise the ladies stole. Now begins a chase, the first of several, in which Charlie winds up on an escalator that never seems to go the direction he needs. He does get away, however, and winds up face-to-face with the floorwalker!

Floorwalker1Since they have identical mustaches and similar clothes, at first Charlie and Lloyd think that they are looking in a mirror. When they figure it out, Lloyd offers to change clothes (and identities) with Chaplin. Since he just knocked out the manager, he’s hoping to get out with the bag of stolen money. Of course, once he steps out the door, the police arrest him for being Charlie, and Charlie takes the bag. He tries to imitate the floorwalker, but arouses suspicion from several people; ultimately getting the detectives on his tail as he tries to run up (or down) the escalator again. Now, he finds the money, but he winds up back in the clutches of the manager, who mysteriously wants to kill him, thinking he’s the real floorwalker. The situation becomes increasingly chaotic, with people running in all directions and shots fired (?) from the balcony, but it ends with the manager captured by the detective, with the help of a descending elevator that crashes on his head.

Floorwalker2

The first thing that struck me about this movie (which I’ve seen before), was Lloyd Bacon doing what might be called the first “authorized” Chaplin imitation. By 1916, Chaplin was so popular that he was almost synonymous with the idea of comedy. As a result, silent comedians all over the world started dressing like him. Even Harold Lloyd (as we saw with “Luke’s Movie Muddle“) got his first starring roles doing an imitation of Chaplin’s act. Apart from that, there were many other, good and bad, and some unscrupulous distributors and theater owners would try to sell their imitations as if they were the real thing. I have to believe that Charlie was aware of this when he wrote and directed this piece, and that he was perhaps playing off the audience’s reaction when the first “Chaplin” they first saw on screen wasn’t him. After a round of “boos” and groans, imagine the applause when he first appears on screen for real! It’s a brilliant gimmick, which can only be appreciated in context.

Floorwalker3This also leads to what is probably the most “famous” part of the movie: the mirror sequence, which would later be imitated by comedy geniuses like Max Linder and the Marx Brothers (and “The Family Guy”). It’s a fairly short bit, here, but it does stand out as a very clever use of the double appearance of the two characters. The other part of the movie that seems to have been an influence is Charlie’s constant problems with the escalator (and, to a lesser degree, the elevator). It is symbolic of his character’s inability to cope with modern society and technology, and seems to prefigure both “Modern Times” and the later work of Jacques Tati (a huge Chaplin fan) in “Mon Oncle” and “Playtime.” However, although Charlie is not as violent as in his Keystone movies or early Essanay appearances, he still comes across as something of a troublemaker, less an innocent victim than the character we saw in “Police.” He seems to be trying to game the system when he takes advantage of the free samples, and he takes some pleasure in messing with the clerk and even the act of “buying” the wire rack seems to be calculated to be abrasive rather than logical. He does take on the new role out of a kind of desperation, but once in it, he takes pleasure in having revenge on the clerks and customers who had mistreated him before. I like Charlie in this movie, overall, but not quite as much as I liked him in “Police.”

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, Edna Purviance, Albert Austin

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Granddad (1913)

This is one more movie made by Thomas H. Ince during the years that saw the fiftieth anniversary of the American Civil War, and once again, I find comparisons to D.W. Griffith are hard to avoid. In this case, however, although the movie includes some Civil War battle footage, it is in essence a social examination more akin to “The House of Darkness” or “A Corner in Wheat” than to “Birth of a Nation.” Even here, I find Ince’s subtlety and humanity to be superior in some ways to Griffith’s approach, although it may be the case that Griffith was the more technically adept.

Granddad1Our story begins here with a little girl (Mildred Harris) who lives with her old grandfather (J. Barney Sherry). Their mutual love for one another is obvious, although the old man does like a nip from his bottle now and again. One day, they receive a letter from her father (Frank Borzage) telling them that he’s bringing home a new “mother” for Mildred and tells granddad to hide the bottle, because she’s a church woman. Mildred thinks of a good hiding place and granddad goes out to the bar to celebrate. When he comes home to meet his new daughter-in-law, she immediately smells it on his breath and shows that she does NOT approve. Eventually, she finds the bottle and confers with her blue-nosed friends, who assure her that such a man should not be allowed to influence a young girl. So, she confronts the old man and warns him to leave, despite her husband’s protests of the debt he owes his father. Granddad sneaks out during the night, leaving a note to assure Mildred he’ll find work on a farm and not to worry about him.

GranddadAll does not go well, however, and granddad ends up in a work house, although he keeps sending letters home talking about the fresh air and good food of farm life. One day, Mildred’s step mom sends her out with a group of social reformers to visit the poor house. Of course, she recognizes one of the laborers as her grandfather. They exchange very affectionate greetings and she goes back to tell her parents what has happened. Meanwhile, a mysterious retired Confederate Colonel (William Desmond Taylor) has shown up in town, looking for “Jabez Burr,” the Union man who saved his life. That’s granddad, of course, and the Colonel proceeds to give us a thrilling flashback of his battle experiences and encounter with the Yankee who saved his life. Mildred’s father is finally shamed into bringing his father home, but it’s too late, the harsh life of the poorhouse has made him ill. He dies and a final epilogue assures us he was buried with military honors and his minor faults forgotten.

More Ince-ian combat.

More Ince-ian combat.

Whereas Griffith would have told this story by making each character iconic, and the entire situation would have had a heavy-handed message (probably unnecessarily enunciated in beginning and closing Intertitles), the Ince approach is far more individual and subtle. Although he relies on much the same kind of female busy-body as an antagonist, one never gets the idea that he has created a caricature. The mother acts out of what she thinks are the best interests of the family, she simply doesn’t understand the consequences of her act, nor look far enough to see the complex and decent person she is choosing to label a harmful drunk. Each of the characters, except perhaps the Colonel, is sketched out with enough detail for us to see them as individuals, rather than representatives of some segment of society.

Granddad2That said, I find some aspects of Ince’s directing (or possibly Jay Hunt’s – I couldn’t verify which of them actually directed here) and producing not quite up to snuff. For one thing, characters frequently go out of their way to E-NUN-CI-ATE so that we can (hopefully) lip-read their words. I find that slows down the pace and makes the acting look silly, as when Mildred says “I KNOW. THE CLOCK,” to make sure we know her hiding place for the whiskey. Speaking of Mildred, I fear that Ince, or someone at the company, was trying a little too hard to make her into the new Mary Pickford (like they needed a new one). She’s got a short version of Mary’s wig, she’s made up like Mary, and at times she seems to be quite consciously imitating Mary’s mannerisms. But, sorry to say, she’s not Mary. I found this a bit distracting, where I think I would have enjoyed a more natural performance from her. In general, I find Ince’s movies a little slow, even for a century ago. He edits and cross-cuts well enough, but he tends to hold shots longer than Griffith or some of his contemporaries, and scenes play out longer than they need to. Nevertheless, I did find this movie, as well as the others I’ve looked at recently, to be emotionally affecting and well written. Where Griffith seems to have worked out a lot of his problems in the editing room, Ince may have been the better scenarist and planner, and that makes the movies memorable and interesting.

Director: Thomas H. Ince or Jay Hunt

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mildred Harris, J. Barney Sherry, Frank Borzage, William Desmond Taylor

Run Time: 29 Min

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

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.