Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Nickelodeon Era

His Prehistoric Past (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin film came at the end of his short tenure at Keystone Studios, and may by the most “mature” of the movies he made for the company. This post is a part of the Time Travel Blogathon, hosted by Silver Screenings and Wide Screen World. Check out the other entries here. I hope everyone was able to safely “time travel” back from Daylight Saving Time!

We see Chaplin in his familiar “Little Tramp” getup, trying to get comfortable for a nap on a park bench. There’s a funny bit of business where he tries to straighten it our despite a broken board. Soon, he’s a asleep, and the real movie begins in the “prehistoric” era. A group of cavemen and -women surrounds the “Kink,” a chieftan-type played by Mack Swain. Another caveman does a rather swishy effeminate dance, which put an odd spin on the “Kink” intertitle for me, but probably wouldn’t have for most audiences in 1914.  We now see Chaplin in a funny variation of his outfit: he still has the hat and cane, but now his traditional too-tight jacket and baggy pants have been replaced by a frayed bearskin. He has a pipe, and fills it with tobacco, then tries striking several rocks against his leg, as if they were matches. One finally lights, and he smokes the pipe. He spots an attractive young cavewoman (I believe this is Gene Marsh), who is fetching water for the “Kink” and goes to speak with her. He does some funny business with the tail of his bearskin. The “Kink” gets tired of waiting and sends the swishy caveman off to find the water girl. He sees Chaplin and fires an arrow into his bottom. Once the cavegirl gets it out, Charlie throws a large rock at the attacker, which misses him and flies over to hit the “Kink.” The caveman chases Charlie around a boulder with a pointed stick, and the “Kink” comes over to investigate, and winds up getting stuck in the bottom by the other caveman, who is clubbed by Charlie in turn.

The “Kink” is now convinced that Charlie is his friend, and he takes him back to the tribe, where everyone bows down. Charlie keeps hitting the “Kink” accidentally (or not) with his club, but manages to smooth it over or blame someone else each time. Charlie is invited in to the “Kink’s cave for a drink, but winds up spilling a lot of it when he tries to shake it like a martini inside two hollow rocks. He throws the rest of it into the face of a servant (Al St. John). The he goes out to meet the girls of the tribe. Of course, the one he met first is the only one he really wants, but he seems to enjoy the attention. Another caveman walks up and distracts them for a while, but Charlie clubs him and takes his girl over to some rocks by the seaside. When the “Kink” comes out, he sees Charlie frolicking in the waves with the girl (who seems quite close to having a wardrobe malfunction in her furs). The “Kink” finally becomes possessive and pulls her away from Charlie. He smooths things over with the “Kink” again and they have more drinks. The whole tribe starts up a dance (several girls dancing with girls here), and Charlie asks his girl to dance. They do a rather wild jitterbug-style dance, while the others look on. The “Kink” catches sight of this and challenges Charlie to prove himself as a hunter. He gives Charlie a bow and arrows, and they go out to the forest. Charlie targets a bird in a tree, but ends up hitting the nest, raining eggs down on the  “Kink” and himself. Charlie finds the girl by a cliff’s edge an starts taking to her, and when the “Kink” comes to object, he trips him over the ledge. The “Kink” falls a long way but seems fine. Charlie returns to the tribe and announces that he is the new “Kink.” Everyone bows down, but the caveman from the first dance finally gets up and helps the “Kink” climb back up the cliff. The “Kink” picks up a large rock and sneaks up behind Charlie, breaking it into fragments over his head. Suddenly we cut back to Charlie on the park bench. A police officer is smacking him with his billy club, telling the Little Tramp that it’s time to move on. The movie seems to set up an opportunity for Charlie to get the upper hand, but on current prints it cuts off before the final gag.

1918 poster that used stills from the movie.

In terms of time travel, this falls very clearly into the “dream sequence” category: the dream is clearly set up by a framing story at the beginning and the end, and the audience is never asked to accept that Charlie has actually traveled back to the Pleistocene era. Still, the majority of the movie takes place in the imagined past, and makes fun of various caveman tropes that audiences today will still recognize. Especially when Charlie deliberately plays with anachronisms like the match-rock, it reminds me of the Flintstones. Charlie has packed an awful lot of gags into this one piece, as evidenced by the length of the summary, above. I think his ambitions were probably straining the budgets, production schedules, and abilities of Keystone to keep up with, at this point, but the result stands out as a pretty impressive comedy.

Apart from time, this movie made me think a lot about space, and how it was handled in the Keystone universe. There are a limited number of locations: the tribal campground, the cave, the forest, the watering hole, the cliff, and the seaside. Each of these is a discrete unit defined by a single camera frame. The camera can zoom in on people and objects within the set, but it never moves to show us different parts of the area, or how they are related to one another. We know that all of these “sets” are near each other, because sometimes someone in one set can see what is happening in another, or even throws a rock or arrow from one to the next (or through it into another one), but when characters exit one area, they are invisible until they enter the next. In this sense, it reminds me of a classic “Interactive Fiction” computer game, like Zork, that was made up of various “rooms” the player could visit that interlocked in sometimes illogical geographies. Younger readers who’ve never experienced this might get some insight from the “Digital Antiquarian” blog, although you really need to play one of these games for yourself to understand. Anyway, this model is descriptive of a lot of Keystone’s output, and even some of the work Chaplin did at Essanay. It’s a style of filmmaking that links the early theatrical “proscenium” frames to the freer, more mobile camera of the late silent period, and I haven’t seen a lot of discussion about it, but it fascinates me.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Mack Swain, Gene Marsh, Al St. John, Fritz Schade, Cecile Arnold, Sydney Chaplin, Helen Carruthers

Run Time: 21 Min

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


The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

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

On to Washington (1913)

This short clip of newsreel footage gives us a look at a significant event in women’s history – a march on Washington that culminated on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

The movie begins with a title card that tells us that 14 “suffragettes” will march from Newark, New Jersey to Washington DC, then shows a series of shots of the march – which appears to have attracted many more than 14 individuals, including many men. We also get a two-shot of the leaders of the march: Rosalie Jones and Elizabeth Freeman. Jones wears a heavy cloak and carries a large walking stick. One shot begins by showing a police escort on horseback, and it’s not clear how many of the people marching are involved, sympathetic, curious, or even hostile to the intent of the march, though no unruliness is depicted. One man waves awkwardly at the camera, possibly indicating a wish not to be photographed (or possibly saying, “hi, Ma!”). It ends suddenly, and might be incomplete.

The event shown here is really the kickoff of the march in Newark, so we don’t see the nation’s capitol or the reported 5000 marchers that turned out on March 3, the day of Wilson’s inauguration. This event represents a shift in American suffrage tactics from attempts to win the vote state-by-state to a national strategy. The two women shown represent the alliance between “respectable” wealthy women (Jones) and working-class activists with a more hard line approach (Freeman). There were counter-protestors, as well as politicians and pundits who spoke against them, but the march was seen as effective in raising awareness and sympathy. Wilson at the time was cautiously supportive of women’s right to vote, but he only really came out in favor after the First World War.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Rosalie Jones, Elizabeth Freeman

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Director: Ashley Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Marc McDermott, Miriam Nesbitt, Ethel Browning

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Lively Affair (1912)

This short anti-suffragist movie claims to show what life will be like if women get the vote. It uses gender stereotypes to suggest an upside-down world of role reversal, but the men get the last laugh.

The movie opens by showing several women, mostly wearing pants or bloomers, who are going to “a Suffragette Club meeting.” One tells a delivery man, “my husband keeps house now. Give him those bills.” Another steals a child’s bicycle in order to get to the meeting on time. Another leaves her husband in charge of a screaming baby. The ladies gather in a private residence and quickly begin a card game. Because of the stolen bike, a policeman goes to investigate the meeting. He sees the women gambling, drinking, and fighting over the outcome of a hand where someone apparently cheated. The situation is degenerating into a riot, when one of the women pulls the hair of another, pulling off a long braid and hitting her with it. The policeman rushes in to put a stop to the disorder, but is quickly overwhelmed by the violent women and tossed outside. He calls for reinforcements, and with two other men is able to arrest the suffragists. They are taken to jail, and their husbands are called. The husbands, free from their domineering wives, immediately go to a beer garden to celebrate. They then go down to the jail drunk, to parade in front of the women’s cell laughing at them. The final shots show the men in a line facing the camera, all laughing uncontrollably, then reverses to show the women behind bars and weeping.

This movie makes a fascinating contrast with “The Consequences of Feminism.” There, Alice Guy, a woman, takes the same basic theme but turns it on its head, showing that if men and women were reversed, men would have to suffer the indignities women face, and thereby making a feminist argument for equality. Here, a different (probably male) director simply argues that feminism will lead to an unnatural situation of women trying to be masculine and failing, while men are feminized. Both movies are played for laughs, but the laughs come for different reasons. This movie is missing part of the beginning, so I won’t judge it too harshly in terms of plotting, but the overall quality of filmmaking is rather weak for 1912. There is some jerky cross-cutting during the fight-and-arrest sequence, but for the most part forward-facing intertitles announce the action before it comes, and the actors perform on a proscenium-style set with no camera movement. Some of the shots of the baby crying are at least in close-up. I also found it interesting that this evidently American film used the British term “suffragette.” The term in the USA was usually “suffragist,” but maybe that wasn’t always so.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Mabel Van Buren, Lucie K. Villa

Run Time: 7 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1911)

This short documentary about a New York school was evidently made for fundraising purposes. It shows the day-to-day activities at a progressive institution attempting to give working class and especially immigrant women a chance at making enough money to support themselves in an urban, industrial economy.

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that inform us of the difficult economic situation that many young women found themselves in when they left compulsory education. In “blind alley” jobs in shops and factories, they often earned 2 or 3 dollars a week, and had little opportunity for raises or advancement. The one-year program at the Manhattan Trade School can teach them skills, particularly in running sewing machines or other industrial machines that will give them an edge in employment. We see a group of girls filling out applications at their elementary school and then going to the Trade School for the first time. We then begin to see the program of classes.

Interestingly, the first shots of the school’s program emphasize the physical education that is included. We see girls tossing a ball, having their backs measured for posture, and engaged in a simple folk dancing class. This probably reflects the progressive sense that urban living was unhealthy and the importance of physical fitness, though it may also have been intended to perk up the interests of male donors – the girls are shirtless (though covered) for the “back-straightening exercises” sequence. Continuing our interest in the girls’ health, we then see girls preparing “nourishing meals” in the community kitchen. Two girls carefully measure the amount of batter to be added to a tin, using a scale to determine when it is enough, while another peels endless potatoes.

After this the focus is on more the kind of classes we expected to see. The girls are introduced to us by name, and many of them appear to be immigrants and/or Jewish (“Millie Spiro,” “Rosa Pasquale,” “Miriam Levy”). They learn basic sewing, millinery, dressmaking, “novelty box decoration,” “sample mounting,” machine operating, etc. They also receive instruction on personal economy and frugality – how to make the most from their low wages. The working conditions look bleak by our standards today, but there is enough light and air and no one appears to be in physical danger. Older women are on hand to supervise and offer suggestions, and the girls appear to be intent on getting their work done, not particularly distracted by the camera or interested in slacking. At the end of the movie, we see the girls receiving their certificates, and an intertitle tells us the salaries of their first jobs  – one is making $20 per week at “straw operating!”

To put this movie in perspective, it’s worth mentioning that it came out the same year that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took the lives of 123 young women who were working in the most appallingly unsafe industrial conditions in a sweat shop in New York City. Many of these women were immigrants, and many immigrants continued to work under unsafe conditions even after new laws were passed to protect workers. The Manhattan Trade School was intended to be a more positive solution to this situation. Children could leave school legally at age 14 and many working class boys and girls would immediately take work to support their families at that age. Some, especially in immigrant families, didn’t even get that far. The Trade School’s brief program was supported by grants to make it possible for the students to receive small stipends and the work they did in classes was sold to support the school as well. The “trades” taught at this school were not, for the most part, seen as professions, but as better alternatives to low-paying jobs for unmarried girls until they found a husband. Some probably did continue piecework of one kind or another from the home as well, which may explain the emphasis on “novelty box making” or “artificial flower making” we see here. This movie is a very interesting glimpse into the reality of life for many people at the time, although of course it is carefully edited to make the school look as good as possible!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sadie Smith, Mary Johnson, Millie Spiro, Rosa Pasquale, Miriam Levy

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Trial Marriages (1907)

This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.

A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.

The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.

For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.

In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.

The real Elsie Clews Parsons

Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.

The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.

Director: Francis J. Marion

Camera: Billy W. Bitzer

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Aeroplane Flight and Wreck (1910)

This movie was probably used for stock footage many times in years to come in those movies mocking early efforts to achieve air travel. An inventor demonstrates his new aircraft to the camera, but the title spoils the ending for us.

The movie stars one “M. Cody,” who is presumably the inventor of the biplane we see displayed. He arrives by horse and carriage and pulls the huge biplane out of its hanger by hand (evidently it doesn’t weigh that much). He and his assistants check over the motor and try to get the propeller started. We cut to a shot of the propeller at full speed, then back to a long shot of the men pushing the machine out onto the field into position for takeoff. Cody puts on goggles and gloves and gets into the seat. Then the plane begins its long taxi down the field (seen from multiple camera positions). It bounces along a bit, but never achieves flight before tipping over and crashing nose-first into the ground. The camera lingers on the wreckage.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the most frequent “old movie footage” on television was images of people with wings strapped to their backs or sitting in bizarre contraptions of one kind of another that were supposedly early attempts to fly. I suspect that most of them were filmed solely for comedic effect. This movie does look like a more convincing piece of newsreel footage, although the editing and camera angles suggest that there was a good deal of preparation put into it. Cody seems to be alright at the end, but the wooden structure of the plane has suffered quite a bit of damage from the impact. It’s important to remember that by 1910, powered flight was already accomplished, but, like the motion pictures, it was still a wide-open field of pioneers and experimenters. This fellow’s model didn’t work out, but he may have learned something useful in the attempt.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: M. Cody

Run Time: 4 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908)

For my contribution to the “Food in Film”  Blogathon, I’m taking  a look at an early example of a typical gender-bending situational comedy: one in which a man is left to his own devices and has to perform “women’s work” for himself, including shopping for food and cooking. Max Linder runs with this premise in this Nickelodeon-Era comedy.

Unhappy home life.

The movie begins with Max having a meal with his wife. Max reads the paper and ignores her. She seems bored and agitated. She tries to speak to him and he ignores her until she snatches the paper away. He demands it back and she gives it to him but begins crying. Max puts his fingers in his ears. This causes her to get up, throw her napkin down and stalk across the room, to where she puts on her hat, takes her coat and leaves. Max gets up and dances a jig, then reads his paper.

The next scene begins with the intertitle “back to mother” and we see the wife enter a room and meet another woman who gestures with sympathetic horror. Then the intertitle says “washing the dishes.” We are back with Max, who has finished his paper. He gathers things from the table on a tray, pouring unfinished glasses of wine back into the decanter. As he piles up more and more of the service, it becomes increasingly awkward or him, and soon he is embracing the tray to keep it all from spilling off. He walks delicately into the kitchen, putting the tray on a cutting board, and brings over a basin of water. We cut now to a closer shot of Max gingerly wiping off the dirty dishes with a dripping brush. It finally occurs to him to put on some gloves, but he is just as delicate with the dirty items when he is wearing them. When he tries to wash a bottle, he can’t figure out how to get the brush inside to scrub. Finally, he takes the whole tray down to the street, where there is a hose in a bucket and he sprays all of his dirty dishes with the hose. Satisfied, he now returns to the kitchen, but he’s not paying attention when he tries to put the tray on the cutting board and it drops, all of the now “clean” dishes shattering on the floor. He sweeps them up with a broom, but then loses interest and leaves in annoyance.


The next scene is labeled “the market” and it calls attention to the fact that men at this time were not expected to act as consumers. Max is in his silk hat and a topcoat and he approaches the front of a grocer’s, where a woman immediately comes out to serve him. She piles various goods on him and takes his money, but he has no bag or other method to hold his purchases, so once again he stands awkwardly embracing the items. He walks off, but as he reaches the corner he sees a young lady of his acquaintance, so he puts some of his haul behind him and holds the rest behind his back as he speaks to her. A street kid sees the goods he has left on the ground and snatches them, running off, and Max immediately pursues, which reduces his lady friend to laughter. Max catches the kid after a short chase and throws his carrots at him before retrieving his other groceries, all of which have now been on the ground at least once. Picking things up, he of course loses his hat, and there is quite a challenge getting his load back under control.

The next scene is “cooking dinner” and it is the real crux of this movie’s relevance to this blogathon. Max brings all his goods into the kitchen, still wearing his silk hat. He tries to move the basin of water but winds up spilling it all over. He takes off some of his fancy outer clothing and puts on an apron. Then he takes out a large bird for cooking and begins to pluck it. The camera once again switches to a closer angle, and indeed we seem to be in a completely different room as we watch Max’s half-hearted effort to pluck the bird. He takes out some scissors and snips off pieces of the wing, but the bird seems half-prepared at best when he puts it in the pot. He breaks an egg with a knife and drops it in, but most of the shell goes in with the edible part and he tries to scrape it out. He throws in various vegetables and peels a potato over the pot (so most of the peel goes in as well). He pours a copious amount of wine over the pot and sprinkles some spice. Then he lights a match and starts the fire underneath the pot, and makes a show of stirring the mixture. Then he seems to forget about it as he starts polishing a shoe right there on the counter. He spills most of the shoe polish and tries to spoon it back into the bottle, then he remembers his meal and stirs it with the same spoon. He tastes it and adds some more pepper, which makes him sneeze the pot off of the oven.

Clueless in the kitchen.

The next scene is labeled “Housekeeping.” Max comes into the bedroom and starts to undress, but he notices that the bed is a mess, he moves mattresses and sheets around, generally making the bed lumpier than before and them climbs in with most of his clothes on. The next morning Max cannot find his favorite tie. He gets out of bed and puts on a collar, then he starts looking in every possible place, including the bed, the dresser, and under the bed. Each place he looks, he throws the neatly folded contents on the ground, then moves on. He begins tearing up the drawers in the study and the sitting room, even looking inside potted plants. The house is rapidly becoming a disaster area, and this only reaches new extremes when he topples a secretary. Now his wife and her mother arrive to find him in the wreckage and he pleads with her to return to him.

The trope of the reversal of gender roles was a common one in comedy, right up to the Golden Age of television: “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones” and many others would use it decades after this. Max Linder probably didn’t invent the idea: in the nineteenth century gender determined the division of labor to an enormous degree, which would lend powerful comedic possibilities for use on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere. What this movie emphasizes for us is that even seemingly simple tasks like shopping and clearing the table (never mind the more obvious cases of cooking and washing dishes) were imagined as beyond the capacity of a man. The grocer’s is an alien environment for Max, and he daren’t allow a young lady friend to see him carting groceries. Food, in short, was entirely a woman’s domain, from the conception to the aftermath. All a man knew how to do was hold a knife and fork. That said, it struck me that Max was very “French” in his failed attempt at cooking – he even thought to use some seasoning on the bird, something which escapes first-time cooks today!

This has been my contribution to the “Food in Film” blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to head over and check out the other entries!

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.