Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Nickelodeon Era

The Ball Player and the Bandit (1912)

This typical Western short from director Francis Ford has an interesting twist and nice performances by the leads. It reminded me a lot of “The Making of Broncho Billy” until the end, where things take a different turn.

The movie begins by introducing Harry Burns (played by Harold Lockwood), who is a star pitcher on a college team. We see him playing pitching a ball in an over-the-shoulder shot, and then the reaction of the crowd as he wins the game. His college life ends, however, when a letter from his uncle arrives informing him that “financial reverses” make it impossible to continue funding his education. He has set him up in a job “in the west,” however, so he’s not destitute. His teammates, along with an old professor and a man in a clerical collar (I suppose the college deacon) all shake his hand and then go to celebrate the victory, leaving Harry to bemoan the loss of his promising baseball career.

He soon recovers, however, and shows up in the typical western town of the era, taking on a job as paymaster (I suppose for the railroad, although it’s not specified). His boss is a gruff-looking cowboy and he has a cute cowgirl daughter (Helen Case). She seem somewhat taken by the handsome new arrival and starts to show him the ropes of his job, but suddenly loses interest when he refuses to carry a gun. She now goes out to a group of toughs and tells them to teach him a lesson, and when Harry comes out they menace him with their guns, even making him “dance” a-la “The Great Train Robbery.” Despite being unarmed, he stands up for himself and proceeds to beat up the lead bully with his fists – the other man tries to fight, but he does have too much honor to reach for his gun and Harry beats him fair and square. Helen takes note of this and gives the bully a bit of ribbing after the fight.

DANCE!

The next day, Harry receives a package in the mail from his old college chums – it is the ball that he pitched in his last game, a memento of his old life. He and Helen are getting closer now, to the consternation of the bully character and the concern of her father. When she sees him setting off to collect the payroll money, she decides to play another “little joke” and takes the office gun that Harry refuses to carry, sneaking out with a smile on her face. However, even as she plans to teach Harry a lesson by pretending to be a bandit, a real bandit by the name of “Red Dan” is introduced. He sees the unarmed man at the post office, picking up the money and his package and decides to follow him.

Helen, now disguised with a heavy coat and a bandana, accosts Harry on the road and threatens him with the gun, but Harry’s not afraid of this rather short bandit and he grabs her gun hand and removes the mask, finding who it really is. Just at that moment, Red Dan rushes in and holds them up. He takes Helen’s gun and searches Harry, finding only the baseball, which he throws to the ground. Then he takes the money and walks away. Thinking fast, Harry grabs the baseball and pitches it into the bandit’s head! He goes down and Harry runs over and quickly overcomes him and binds him while Helen holds his gun. Once again, Harry has proved that his physical talents can overcome a gunman.

I’m sure he’ll get a fair trial.

Now Helen and Harry bring the bandit, and the money, back into town. The gang of toughs leads the bandit away (a prominent length of rope made me think of a lynching, but nothing is shown). Helen’s father congratulates Harry. The final scene shows Helen and Harry sitting on a bench, obviously falling in love. The Pony Express man rides up with a telegram, informing Harry that he has been selected to play on the Chicago White Sox, and can move back east. At this, Helen begins to cry and Harry writes out his reply: he is “engaged for life” and will not return to ball playing. Helen looks up with surprise and embraces him.

Now you see it…

…Now you don’t.

The big surprise in this movie, which sets it apart from “The Making of Broncho Billy” and dozens of similar Westerns, is that the hero does not pick up a gun by the end of the movie. He wins the day with his baseball skills instead. Of course, when G.M. Anderson tried to respond to a bullying situation with his fists, he wasn’t given the chance, so this partly depends on the sense of honor of one’s opponents, but it’s clear that the bandit here would have had no compunctions about shooting an unarmed man or a woman. One odd “continuity error,” that probably no one cared about at the time is that the insert shot introducing the baseball doesn’t match the long shot – in the shots before and after the insert, Harry is holding the bag of money, but the insert shot shows him fondling the ball with both hands and nothing else in them. I was also struck by Helen Case’s performance, in which she frequently acts out what she’s describing to the characters. This would have been frowned on in silent films just a few years later, and usually does look like “over-acting,” but somehow she makes it seem natural, like it’s part of how her character communicates normally. I quite enjoyed her playful approach to acting.

There’s a bit of a mystery about the production of this movie. On-screen credits claim it comes from “Broncho Movie Company” and there’s even an “S&A” at the end with an Indian head, giving the impression that this was released by Essanay, the company that made the Broncho Billy movies. I thought perhaps it was an early release from their studio in Niles, California. But, so far as I know Francis Ford never worked for Essanay, and the imdb (admittedly an imperfect source) lists the producer as Thomas Ince. If that’s the case, Ince may have been deliberately trying to horn in on Essanay’s success with the “Broncho” and “S&A” references. Today, that’d get you a lawsuit, but in the freewheeling early days of film, a lot of things went unchallenged!

Director: Francis Ford

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Harold Lockwood, Helen Case, Joe King

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online. However, you can see a clip from it here.

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His Last Game (1909)

This short film from Independent Moving Pictures (the I.M.P.) has many elements that would appear in later films by D.W. Griffith, but with a somewhat surprising ending. It uses baseball to tell a story of honor and racial strife.

The movie opens by telling us that the last game of the year is impending, with the Choctaw team facing the team from Jimtown. Bill Going, an Indian, is the star pitcher for Choctaw. We see Bill standing in front of the town bar and a large sign announcing the game. His teammates, most of whom appear to be white, come up and invite him to go drinking but he refuses, perhaps wanting to stay clear for the game. Another man in Indian garb with elaborate war feathers comes up and stands in the background as the team leaves for their drinks. Now, two gamblers in traditional Western clothing come up and offer Bill a generous pile of coins in order to throw the game. Bill counts out the coins several times, only to finally refuse. The gamblers go off to the bar together, and we see them spiking a drink in an insert shot, then they come back and offer the drink to Bill, who agrees at first, but then insists on switching drinks with one of them. When that one fails to drink, Bill throws his drink at him. Now, the gambler, outraged, pulls his gun. Bill quickly disarms and shoots him. Now the sheriff suddenly comes out of the bar, to see Bill shoot down a white man. The other Indian watches as the sheriff arrests him on the spot.

The next scene is labeled “swift Western justice” by an intertitle. We see a group of grave-diggers in the background, and Bill and the sheriff in the foreground. The Indian tries to remonstrate with the sheriff to no avail, but then Bill’s team arrive and they ask the sheriff to let him live long enough to pitch for them. The sheriff agrees, but insists that the other Indian stand in his place. If Bill doesn’t come back in time, he will execute this man instead. Bill and the Indian agree to the terms. The sheriff sends a note to the judge asking for a stay of execution, if Bill keeps his word. The next sequence shows the ball game, all shot from behind the home plate. We see the Jimtown players gain several bases, but then Bill runs up and pitches a shutout. The Choctaws win. The team carries Bill back to the bar on their shoulders, then offers him a large drink to celebrate. Bill is about to drink when he remembers his promise. He throws down the bottle and runs back to the grave site. The grave diggers are now a firing squad, and are just about to shoot the Indian when Bill arrives. He takes the man’s place, but the Indian signals that he hears hoofbeats, putting his ear to the ground in cliché fashion. Intercutting shows us that the messenger is indeed running back, but the sheriff doesn’t see anything in time, so the execution proceeds. The messenger rides over the hill just as Bill is shot and his body falls into the grave. The sheriff reads the note that would have saved Bill’s life, just seconds too late, and the team arrives to mourn his loss.

I.M.P. was one of the companies that later went into making Universal Pictures, and this movie was produced by Carl Laemmle, senior, the head of that operation. I.M.P. was also famous for defying the Edison Trust and operating independently, and this movie would have been shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the site of their operations and much of the American film industry at the time. They made movies for the burgeoning Nickelodeon market, and indeed Laemmle and his partners had started out as Nickelodeon theater owners. This movie demonstrates that concepts of editing which are often attributed to a later period had already come into use, if in rather primitive form, at the time. The inter-cutting between the messenger and the execution scene is reminiscent of Griffith’s 1911 film, “The Lonedale Operator,” although here the hero is unable to save the day in time. I found myself reflecting that if Bill had been white, the story probably would not have ended the same way. The “noble savage” story almost always had a tragic ending, however, and here Bill is killed by “swift Western justice” that has no sympathy for his situation or ethical behavior. Bill’s relationship with alcohol is also interesting – he never actually drinks, but is repeatedly tempted by drink and appears eager to do so, each time realizing just in time that it would be a mistake. Also interesting was the decision to shoot the entire ball game from a single angle, one in which the players frequently obscure the action from the camera. Showing baseball to audiences was still a new thing at the time, and more sophisticated ways to demonstrate it were yet to be developed. Note that the scene of the two gamblers drinking shows the I.M.P. logo prominently – still a common practice at the time to discourage film piracy.

Director: Unknown, possibly Harry Solter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free on the Internet. You can see a brief segment here.

The Dream (1911)

This short film from IMP (the predecessor to Universal Pictures) is a simple morality tale about a philandering husband’s comeuppance. It is probably known today mostly because of starring a young Mary Pickford along with her then-husband Owen Moore.

The film begins by depicting a drunk couple out together in a restaurant. The man (Moore) staggers around and hands the waiter all of the money in his wallet. In the midst of their carousing, we briefly cut away to images of a woman (Pickford) sitting dejectedly at home alone, with dinner waiting on the table. She doses off for a moment, and checking the time, determines that it is getting quite late. An intertitle informs us that the husband returns six hours later, but the wife doesn’t seem angry or concerned, just happy to see him. That quickly changes as he yells at her, throwing the food she made on the floor and turning over a chair before passing out on a divan. She seems very upset by his behavior. Read the rest of this entry »

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

An American in the Making (1913)

This short industrial safety film was produced for US Steel by Thanhauser, and contains some unusual narrative elements, some of which are hinted at in the title. Obviously intended to speak to new immigrants and unskilled laborers, part of the purpose was to reassure them that their employer cared about them and their aspirations.

The movie begins in the “old country,” where a young peasant (Harry Benham) receives a letter from a brother in America, who has saved enough money to get him passage to come to the USA. We see him at work in the field, and then he is called into the house by his aging parents who show him a letter written in a non-English (apparently Slavic) language. The next we know, he is arriving on Ellis Island, an awkward insert shot showing him with a tag pinned to his jacket identifying him for the customs officials. He walks out into the streets of New York and to Pennsylvania Station, still with the tag attached, and rides to Gary, Indiana, the “model workers’ city” established by US Steel. His brother meets him at the train and removes the tag from his jacket. They go into the city and the brother steers him away from a saloon and to the impressive edifice of the YMCA for off-hours entertainment.

Soon, he is at work, and we see safety signs in four languages, at least two of which are Eastern European. At this point the fictional narrative essentially grinds to a halt as the film strives to demonstrate various safety precautions and devices used on the job. We see a “universal symbol of danger” (in black and white it is a dark circle on white paper; I assume it’s meant to be red), a device for safely derailing oncoming trains when someone is working on the line, safety goggles, a guard for a table saw, and a large hand-protecting device that resembles a catcher’s mitt. We now see a variety of safety badges that workers can earn on the job. Then we see some depictions of the steelmaking process: large cauldrons with molten metal, a blast furnace, and crucibles pouring the lava-like substance into molds. It’s very visually dramatic, but loses both the thread of the story and any awareness of safety.

How do you work with this thing on?

Finally, we return to our immigrant hero, who is taking company-sponsored English classes. He is excelling, and his diligence has caught the attention of the pretty young teacher (Ethyle Cooke). She lets him walk her home and in the next scene we discover that they are happily married with a child, living in a pleasant suburban home on his fine wages (we don’t know whether she still works, one tends to assume not). Their son goes to a “model school” and plays in a playground built by the company. The movie ends with their smiling faces showing how a foreigner has found happiness in his new land.

Is this thing safe?

It’s pretty hard to make a safety film with an interesting story, but Thanhauser gave it a shot, and wound up making two movies that don’t hang together very well. The narrative part of the story demonstrates how a sober, hard-working young man from another country can assimilate in the United States, when encouraged by a benevolent employer like US Steel. The second movie is basically a series of safety demonstrations, in which the protagonist of the first film plays at best a supporting role, and is forgotten completely for some of the time. It’s interesting how much of the movie was shot on location, and that many of the unpaid “extras” stare openly at the camera or the performers. Part of the intention probably was to show off Gary and its pleasant working and living conditions.

The oddest part of the narrative for me was the ending, which seems to imply that there are enough single female schoolteachers in America to supply wives for all of the workers, and that an educated native-born woman would be readily available to an unskilled immigrant laborer. I had found myself wondering only moments before this sequence started what the prospects for meeting women in the apparently all-male society of Gary were like at the time, and the rather outlandish resolution only emphasized this further. I tend to think that the writers at Thanhauser found themselves written into a corner and did their best to fight their way out of it, but it only works with considerable suspension of disbelief. Still, it’s nice to see a movie from this period that seems to celebrate the “melting pot” concept rather than expressing xenophobia about immigration.

Director: Carl Gregory

Camera: Carl Gregory

Starring: Harry Benham, Ethyle Cooke, Leland Benham

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Crime of Carelessness (1912)

Released by Edison three years before “Children of Eve,” this movie also exploits public interest in industrial accidents generated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Unlike that movie, it also attempts to shift the blame for such accidents away from the owners and managers, and to the workers themselves.

The movie begins by showing an on-site inspector who discovers a pile of materials blocking an emergency exit door. He points this out to the owner (Bigelow Cooper), and begins to write up a citation, but the owner apparently talks him out of it. No money changes hands, and there is plenty of open space visible on a nearby wall, so maybe he has simply promised to move the offending objects. The next scene introduces the “lovers,” Hilda (Mabel Trunnelle) and Tom (Barry O’Moore), who are workers in the plant. When they kiss, the owner and inspector discreetly turn their backs for a moment. A shot follows showing “the day’s work over,” which appears to have been inspired by the famous Lumière shortWorkers Leaving the Factory,” and then we see Hilda and Tom celebrating their engagement with Hilda’s family. The family also discreetly leaves them alone after Hilda has a chance to show off her ring.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.