Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Nn

The New Janitor (1914)

This short from Charlie Chaplin’s days at Keystone has a number of elements that we would expect to see in his later work – including a coherent plot and a sympathetic portrayal of his protagonist. Clearly by this point, Charlie was ready to go in some new directions.

The movie begins with Charlie in a somewhat more working-class version of his “Little Tramp” outfit in the lobby of a large urban building, chatting with elevator operator Al St. John. When a passenger gets into Al’s elevator, he quickly goes aboard and closes the doors in Charlie’s face, forcing him to walk up to the top floor, 13 flights above. Meanwhile, in one of the offices on that floor, a clerk (John T. Dillon) reads a note threatening him for gambling debts. Charlie goes in to clean that office, and there are some humorous exchanges between them as Charlie keeps spilling the wastebasket. Then Charlie goes in to clean the president’s office, where there is a large wall safe (and, oddly, a spittoon). While he’s in there the secretary arrives for work and Charlie shyly tries to flirt with her, but she seems barely aware of his existence (how most people treat janitors). The thug (Glen Cavender) arrives, and the clerk promises to have is money later that day, but the secretary hears some of their conversation and becomes concerned. Charlie attempts washing the windows, and has several near-miss falls out the window, due to his clumsiness. He does manage to drop his bucket, which falls on the head of the president (Jess Dandy) as he arrives. This results in his being fired. Once again, Al refuses him a ride and Charlie walks down the steps.

Now the clerk comes into the president’s office and keeps glancing at the safe while giving the president some papers to sign. He waits until the president and the secretary have gone out (perhaps to lunch) and starts rummaging through the safe, but the secretary comes in unexpectedly and is even more suspicious. She tricks him into thinking she’s left again and hides, seeing him take money out of the safe before he notices her and attacks her. She manages to push an emergency button – the one to summon the janitor! Charlie is just about ready to leave when the call comes, but he slowly makes his way up the stairs again, perhaps hoping that the president has had a change of heart. By the time he arrives, the clerk is holding a gun on the secretary and she is passed out on the floor. He overpowers the clerk with a few quick slapstick moves and manages to cover him with the gun, making the larger man pick up the secretary and then discovering that he has cut the phone line. Now he shoots out the window to summon help and a nearby policeman hears the shooting. The president and the policeman arrive to see the janitor holding up the clerk, but the secretary has revived now and explains what really happened. Charlie is exonerated, the clerk is arrested, and the president gives him a sizable cash reward that makes Charlie swoon a bit.

There are obvious similarities between this movie and some of Charlie’s later work, most obviously “The Bank” in which he also plays a janitor who foils a robbery, but also “The Floorwalker” in which there is an embezzlement plot. No doubt he wanted to return to this story line as it was one of the few “original” stories he made at Keystone and he wanted to see what he could add to it with the greater resources and experience he had as his career progressed. The biggest comedy sequence is really the window-washing scene, which reminded me of the work of Harold Lloyd, who would hang from similar buildings in several films, most famously “Safety Last.” In the shot where Charlie is hanging out of the window, I noticed several people on lower floors looking up at the camera, perhaps Chaplin fans hoping to get a glimpse of the star, or else just bored office workers fascinated by the movie-making process. This shot is somewhat unusual for a Keystone movie, as it required the camera to be fixed to the side of the building and presumably the cameraman, Frank D. Williams, had to be hanging out of a window or standing on a ledge in order to hand-crank the film. The movie also makes good use of cross-cutting to build suspense throughout the robbery sequence, both as the secretary figures out what is going on and as Charlie comes to the rescue. Cross-cutting was hardly unknown at Keystone, of course, we saw it put to comedic effect as early as “A Little Hero” and “Bangville Police,” but it doesn’t show up in many of Chaplin’s “park” comedies and is rarely used this well when it does. It’s interesting also that Charlie didn’t try to deepen the romantic subplot between himself and the secretary – I think wisely, because it would have been hard to develop convincingly in a single reel – where his interest in Edna Purviance is central to “The Bank.” That secretary is a bit of a mystery – imdb lists her as Peggy Page, Wikipedia claims it is Helen Carruthers, and both The Silent Era and the Chaplin Film by Film blog say it’s Minta Durfee. Usually I’d regard them as the more authoritative, but it doesn’t look like Minta to me (look at the nose!), so I’m stumped.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Al St. John, Glen Cavender, Jess Dandy, John T. Dillon, Frank Hayes, and an unidentified woman.

Run Time: 12 Min

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

Neigbors (1920)

This 2-reel comedy from Buster Keaton has a very simple storyline – a romance involving a boy and the girl next door – but manages to be nicely coherent and demonstrate production value above what he did with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Comique.

Buster Keaton and Virginia Fox play young lovers who live in tenements, the rear of which face each other, with backyards separated by a wooden fence and with their families constantly feuding over the lovers’ relationship. They pass love notes through a hole in the wood, only to be caught by her father (Joe Roberts) and his mother, each of whom successively gets in trouble with his/her own spouse for presumed cheating (Buster’s father is played by his real-life dad, Joe Keaton). Buster sneaks into Virginia’s bedroom window as the parents are arguing but he is caught by Virginia’s father who ties him to the washing lines and slowly sends him back over to his family’s house. Buster sets up a board on a pivot on the gate so that it spanks anyone who passes between the two yards, then uses this to chastise his pursuers as he athletically springs from one side to the other. Along the way, he accidentally hits a cop who wanders into the yard. As Keaton’s face is covered in oil at the time, the cop pursues him, but when he wipes off the oil, the cop is deceived and arrests a convenient African American instead. Later, Buster gets black paint on his face and the chase is on again. Eventually, he as well as both families end up in court. Buster demands the right to marry Virginia, and the judge insists that the two families not interfere in their plans.

On the day of the wedding, tensions remain high. Keaton is unable to get his suspenders on, and tries using clothes pins as a makeshift belt, but they keep falling down during the ceremony. He tries to remedy this by stealing the preacher’s belt, but this only delays the wedding further. When Roberts sees that the ring Buster intends to give to Virginia is a cheap 10-cent ring purchased from Woolworths, he angrily calls off the wedding and drags Virginia home. Buster now teams up with his friends, the Flying Escalantes, to rescue Virginia by running across the yard on their shoulders, retrieving her suitcase, and ultimately her as well, but they are pursued by Roberts, running down the street through scaffolding, and eventually dropping through a sidewalk cellar hatch into a boiler room where a preacher just happens to be stoking the fire. He pronounces them husband and wife.

This movie demonstrates Buster Keaton’s ability to get a lot out of a little, and reminds me in some ways of Chaplin’s “Easy Street,” in that so much of it is centered around a single set,, reproducing a location in a lower-class urban neighborhood. Not having full-scale riots or anarchist plots, it may seem less ambitious than that film, but the added element of a third dimension makes it physically quite impressive. Fox’s bedroom is on the third floor, and Keaton gets in there any way he can, except for the stairs. The most exciting part is when he rides the shoulders of the Flying Escalantes back and forth across that yard, with each of them entering the building on his floor, only to turn around and come out at the exact moment to catch each other (and Keaton, and eventually Fox) on his shoulders. These shots are done in long takes, so the timing had to be perfect for it to look right, though of course in a silent movie they could have been shouting instructions at each other as they went, making it a bit easier to know just when to step out of the window. It looks great, at any rate.

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

So far as I can recall, this is the biggest role Buster had yet given his father in a movie. Although Joe Roberts remains the main heavy, Joe Keaton gets a chance to reprise some of the work he and Buster did on the stage during their days in vaudeville. These usually involved Buster making dad angry, then getting used as a “human mop,” which resulted in some groups protesting the show on the grounds that Joe was abusing his child. Keaton was of course a trained physical comedian from a young age, and claimed he was never hurt by this, but at times you can see how people could get the wrong idea. By now, as an adult, his victimization is safe to laugh at. Unfortunately, there’s some rather unpleasant ethnic humor targeting African Americans that comes across as much less funny today – including Keaton’s blackface scrapes with the police and a scene in which he rises up from under a sheet, causing a black family to run away in superstitious terror. These bits of the film didn’t ruin it for me, but they certainly don’t add anything.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Virginia Fox, Joe Roberts, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline, Jack Duffy

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Nativity (1910)

This early short from Louis Feuillade pre-dates his better-known crime serials and shows his sense that film can and should be wholesome and uplifting. It is one of many efforts to bring the Bible to the screen, and shows considerable production value, if not a lot of dramatic interest.

The movie begins by showing us a group of shepherds on a small set, dressed to look like a manger at night. Suddenly they awake and witness an angel, and soon a host of angels is playing trumpets to hail the arrival of the messiah. The shepherds fall on their knees to give thanks, then after the vision disappears they express their wonder and joy and set out into the night. The next scene shows Mary and Joseph and the child; interestingly their manger is behind a large stone arch, and includes a cow. We see the shepherds’ herds of sheep in the background as they arrive to worship the child. The next scene shows the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem as the three Magi arrive in a caravan with porters and camels. They approach Herod’s palace and gain admission from the soldiers on guard, while the camels squat down on the tiny set. They are shown into Herod’s throne room, where they convey the story of their vision and quest for the child. Herod sends them on their way as emissaries to represent him, but his wife and advisers seem to raise doubts in his mind. We return to the palace exterior set and see the caravan raise up and depart on its journey. Then, the Magi arrive at the cave-manger (sans camels) and kneel down before the baby Jesus, presenting him with their traditional gifts. Meanwhile, Herod and his wife are plotting on the roof terrace of their palace, and they decide upon the slaughter of the innocent, to prevent Christ’s growing up. An intertitle informs us that an angel has warned Mary and Joseph, and that they are fleeing to Egypt. We see a brief scene of their flight through the wilderness, and then their rest at the end of the journey, where they sleep against the Sphinx while their donkey grazes.

Biblical movies often have difficulty maintaining the dignity and seriousness of their subject matter while still being entertaining. Here, a lot of money (at least by the standards of 1910 production) was clearly spent on sets and costumes, but Feuillade seems to have had some difficulty with the script. He lingers on camels and sheep, and on large processions, but doesn’t show us everything we want to see. Specifically, although the plot hinges on the story of the slaughter of the innocent, no depiction of violence is shown at all. Apart from that, while we have the dramatic appearance of the angels to the shepherds, it seems like the more suspenseful vision, that of the angel warning Joseph to flee Bethlehem, would be a more powerful image. From a modern American perspective, it’s interesting that the story of Mary and Joseph taking refuge in a manger because of poverty and intolerant inn-keepers is skipped over, though this may have been typical of the French Catholic telling of the story at the time.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Renée Carl, Nadette Darson, Alice Tissot, Maurice Vinot

Run Time: 13 Min, 40 secs

I have not found this film available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

New York: Broadway at Union Square (1896)

This imagery of the 14th Street area that would soon become a hub for the American film industry was actually taken for the French film company Lumière, who had sent out “stringers” with cameras all over the world to get exotic and exciting footage. What is perhaps most exciting today is that the area still looks familiar.

The camera is set up across from the park, apparently facing Fourteenth Street from somewhat north, and angled slightly to the East. We can see two buildings (one is under construction) and the edge of a third on the left hand side of the screen. Buildings to stage right are obscured by trees. There is a corner (15th street, if my geography is correct) with a lamppost visible, and streetcar tracks wind around that corner There are several people visible at this corner, including a policeman and a man in a different uniform, possibly a streetcar conductor. We see a streetcar wheel around the corner as the policeman directs pedestrian traffic. Once it is gone, a large number of men and women in various kinds of clothing cross the street. Wagons pulled by horses go by and other streetcars travel up the street without turning at the corner.  The man in the other uniform sometimes appears to assist in conducting pedestrians safely across the street. At the end, the policeman, the conductor, and another man all stare at the camera as another streetcar goes by.

I always enjoy seeing these early movies of the city I grew up in. The scenes are both familiar and unfamiliar. At the time of this movie, Emma Goldman had not yet given her anti-war speech at Union Square, but it was obviously a thriving and busy part of the city. This is one of the most active of the early Lumière pictures, with something going on in nearly every part of the frame, and you have to watch it a few times to catch everything. This is a great movie to contrast with the films shot in Paris by the Lumières, both in terms of the fashions, and the bustle of New York as compared with the often leisurely pace of Parisians.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Not Like Other Girls (1912)

This short from Champion was screened at Cinecon last Sunday, and I’m reviewing it based on that viewing. I admit that my memory of this one is a bit hazy – there were four other Champion shorts at the same time and this one seems to have been the least distinctive.

Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore in another movie from 1912.

We see a young couple (Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore) out for a drive. He pulls over to pick her some flowers, but she moves over and drives the car away, ditching him. A few feet away, the car stalls and he runs over to repair it, then they go merrily on their way. When Owen drops her off, she presents the bouquet to him, again reversing the gender order. This continues in a boating trip, where Florence tips the boat over so that he falls into the water, then eagerly seizes the oars and begins rowing for herself. Somewhere in here is a bit where his father tells him that he has lost money that was put in trust to him by Florence’s family, and the only way to stay out of jail will be for the two of them to wed. Owen is pretty well ready to give up after the boating incident, and the father dies. Now Owen is the one who will go to jail if the money is not returned. Florence learns of the crime and goes to see Owen, apparently angry. It turns out she’s really mad because she has fallen in love with him, and the two are married after all.

Florence Lawrence had been in movies for several years by 1912, but her growing stardom was confirmed when Champion, now a subsidiary of Universal, created a new brand called “Victor” to showcase her specifically. If the liner notes for Cinecon are correct, this was the first of those movies. Although I had some difficulty following the plot, it was very interesting that her tomboyishness seemed to be shown as both a source for comedy and also an attractive quality. Sort of like “playing hard to get,” the fact that she’s apparently not interested in men and wants to take control of the car and the boat (and presumably her destiny) apparently made her seem “cute” to male audiences at the time. Perhaps women found the idea of a heroine not having to be subservient at all times appealing also.

Director: Harry L. Solter

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore

Run Time: 9 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing at this time.

A Nightmare (1896)

Alternate Title: Le Cauchemar

This is another early “dream sequence” film from Georges Méliès, in which he uses the camera to represent “impossible” events that would have been challenging at best on the live-action stage. Made in the same year as “A Terrible Night” and “Card Party,” at this point in time his aesthetic is more clearly defined.

NightmareWe see a man on a stage, in bed, thrashing about agitatedly. Suddenly the background changes from a modern look to what seems to be the interior of a castle, and a young woman is sitting on the edge of his bed. He leaps up excitedly, but when he goes to embrace her she disappears and is replaced with a man in blackface, dressed as a performer in a minstrel show, playing banjo. The new performer dances about on the bed, breaking it, and the man tries to grab him, but he disappears also and is replaced by a white clown or Pierrot figure. Now the background has changed again and there is a balcony visible through an arch, and the moon hovers smiling over it. The clown leaps outside and gestures to the moon before dancing off. The sleeper points at the moon, and suddenly it appears just outside his window, and bites his hand with its large mouth. It hovers there, laughing, and the man gets up and hits it in the face. Now it jumps back to where it belongs in the sky, and the three figures of the clown, the minstrel, and the girl appear on the balcony, dancing and mocking. The man tries hiding in his covers, but the trio come inside to  torment him. Suddenly the background changes back to what it was in the beginning and the dream figures disappear. The man looks around, relieved to find it was a dream (his bed is still broken, however), then decides to roll over and go back to sleep.

Nightmare1I was recently asked what the “first dream sequence” in cinema was, and I think this is a good contender. While “A Terrible Night” is somewhat unclear as to whether it takes place in dream or reality, this one gives us the framing of the man in a different setting to show where he goes to sleep and wakes up, thus establishing  the dream and its parameters. As always with “firsts,” it can be hard to be certain, and depends to some degree on how you define the term. Similarly, one might make a case for this as among the “first horror films,” but I think I chose to skip it in October because the dream aspect makes it not really an exploration of the supernatural but simply, as the title suggests, a nightmare. I spoke of the “Méliès aesthetic” above, and that is most clear from the animated moon, which of course we associate with his most famous film, “A Trip to the Moon,” but it was also a recurring theme in Méliès movies. Also the people and objects appearing and disappearing at random to torment a protagonist would be a frequent theme. According to the Star Films Catalog, this was #82 in their list of over 400 films, and was still available in 1905, suggesting that it was quite successful with audiences, even after they had more sophisticated fare to choose from.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès in the bed?)

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Naked Hands (1916)

Alternate Title:Humanity

This movie apparently took several years to get to the screen and may not exist in complete form today, although at half an hour long, I find it one of the most developed of the movies Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson made in his career as a Western star. As with “Broncho Billy’s Sentence,” the story is written to allow Billy to display the full range of human emotions, but the longer run time makes this appear more natural and convincing.

Naked HandsThe movie opens on Ruth Saville, who plays Billy’s wife. We are told she is an “Eastern flower” transplanted to an environment that doesn’t agree with her. We see the her framed against the empty rolling hills of Western California, and understand that she needs more company than the wilderness provides. Her old school chum (Rodney Hildebrand) is out for a visit, however. When Billy arrives home to find them talking together, Rodney suggests that he go out and look for gold on his property – he represents an Eastern mining concern that can make him rich. Billy goes out while Rodney continues to pressure Ruth to come back East with him, and he spends days scrabbling at rocks with no success. Finally, he does strike gold and rushes into town to buy finery and things Ruth would like in their shed, but it’s too late – Ruth has left with Rodney. Billy refuses to take revenge, and in a state of deep shock, he sets fire to the shed and all of his possessions. With his house burning in the background, he bids the adulterous couple go on their way – condemning them to each other’s weakness.

Naked Hands1The mine, however, continues to be prosperous, and with nothing else in his life, Billy proceeds to get rich on it. In the meantime, Rodney has set Ruth up in the city as his mistress – he has a wife already and never had any intention of giving her anything but money for her affection. With nowhere else to turn, Ruth accepts it, but she’s no happier here than she was in the West. Billy is now living with servants and a mansion – but he still allows his dog to jump up on the desk. As a new wealthy man in town he is invited to a dinner party with other men of wealth. Of course, when he arrives, the house turns out to be Rodney’s, and he refuses to dine with a lowdown snake. Rodney tries to save face with his chums by bragging about stealing Billy’s girl, which sets him off: “if you ever speak disrespectfully of her or any harm comes to her – I’ll finish you with my naked hands!” Ruth as we know is suffering from her mistake, and she finally decides to kill herself, first writing a note asking Billy to come to her. She ends up in the hospital, and Billy does come, arriving in time to be the last thing she sees on Earth. They play a touching scene at her deathbed, surrounded by doctors and nurses, and of course Billy forgives her. She dies as he kisses her.

Naked Hands2Now Billy is overcome with the desire for revenge, and to make his threat come true. He goes at once to the home of Rodney, where a butler in terrible blackface lets him in and shows him to his master. Billy and Rodney fight, Rodney tries to get a gun, then tries to run, and finally starts throwing anything he can get his hands on to try to stop Billy, smashing up his own house in the process. The fight is prolonged, and intercut with Rodney’s wife and butler trying to break down the door to get in, finally, they do and a tiny child runs in as Billy closes his hands on the throat of his nemesis: “Please don’t hurt my daddy.” Billy suddenly becomes aware of what he is doing and backs off in horror, while the family tries to revive Rodney. Billy collects his hat and coat and leaves them in the shambles of the living room.

Naked Hands3Again, I think it is Anderson’s acting that carries this movie, although compared with the shorts I’ve reviewed up to now, it is well-shot and edited, and we do get somewhat more interesting performances from the supporting cast, especially Rodney Hildebrand. I also liked how the visuals contrasted the openness of the West with the closed and sometimes claustrophobic spaces of the East. While the West is empty and spacious, the “city” is crowded with things and people. There are minimal close-ups, so Anderson must show his feelings in a big way that sometimes seems to overwhelm the moment. When he backs off from fighting Rodney at the end, for example, his stunned look and frozen body language seems to drag out the situation rather than resolve it, although we do understand how horrified he is by his own actions. That fight includes probably the best stunts I’ve seen in any Broncho Billy movie, perhaps he’d taken advantage of over a year of having Charlie Chaplin as an employee to pick up a few tricks. In some ways, this was probably the masterpiece of his career, and it does deserve a look by any fan of silent Westerns. On the other hand, I wouldn’t put it in the same category with the best work being done by DeMille, Chaplin, and others in Hollywood by this time, and it may be that Broncho Billy’s day ended about when it needed to so that others could advance the art past his level.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Ruth Saville, Rodney Hildebrand, Harry Todd, Lee Willard

Run Time: 30 Min

I have not found this movie on the Internet for free. If you can, please comment below.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride (1904)

Kiss BlogathonSeveral of the important elements of early cinema come together to make up this short Edison Studios comedy directed by Edwin S. Porter. While much of the film is built on established formulas of the previous ten years, we also get a glimpse of some of the coming direction of American cinema, especially in the realm of slapstick.

The Kiss.

The Kiss.

The movie essentially consists of three scenes, each in a separate location, and each shown in long shot by a stationary camera. The first scene takes place in a train station, signaled by the closed “ticket” window on the left side of the stage. There is a man in “bumpkin” clothes asleep on a bench as the scene opens. Soon, another figure enters through the door beside the bench. This is “Nervy Nat,” and he is dressed in rather frayed and worn-looking evening clothes, with a top hat, and moves in broad gestures that suggest possible inebriation. He goes to the water cooler and pours a glass, confirming our suspicions when he spits it out, disappointed that it is unadulterated by liquor. Then, he notices our bumpkin character, and stealthily checks his coat pocket, pulling out a train ticket and absconding with it. The next scene is aboard a train car, and two newlyweds are the only ones in the car at first. They are kissing, but the conductor comes in to warn them that another passenger will be joining them, and they assume a more demure posture. The new passenger is Nervy Nat, who takes the seat behind them. The husband pulls out a cigar, and invites his wife to join him for a smoke, but she isn’t interested, and they quarrel, the husband finally leaving when his wife turns to look away from him pointedly. Nervy Nat takes the opportunity to sit next to the woman, and tries to take her in his arms. She, still looking out the window, resists, presumably thinking that her husband is attempting an awkward apology. Then she turns and looks, and starts screaming, bringing the husband and two conductors back into the car, and they grab Nat and drag him out the door. The final scene is an exterior of train tracks, with a train rushing by. When the last car passes, we see two men hurl another off the back of the moving train. Nervy Nat gets up, dusts himself off and shakes his fist at the train before walking off.

Nervy Nat Kisses the BrideThe movies, especially American movies, were still figuring themselves out at this time. While there had been artistic and commercial breakthroughs, like Porter’s own “The Great Train Robbery” from the year before, most of the movies seen in American theaters at this time were coming from Europe, mostly France. There was huge demand for new films, but American studios simply didn’t have the capacity to make enough pictures. This was only aggravated by the fact that the Edison company claimed to have the only legitimate patent for motion picture equipment in the USA, and was suing its competition left and right, even taking theater owners to court if they showed non-Edison content. The American film industry was in a fairly sorry state in 1904, but was beginning to function despite itself, due to the enormous audience interest in simple, entertaining stories.

Porter successfully transported several pieces from “The Great Train Robbery” to this movie, made about nine months later. The locations – a ticket station, a train, and the train tracks – are similar in both films. The editing sequence is much simpler for this shorter movie, but still applies the same basic linear conventions we see in “Train Robbery.” Also the aspect of the train itself as a place where “outside” elements can invade and interrupt staid middle class lives is in common between the two. There is also a common special effect: the use of a jump cut and a dummy to simulate a body being thrown off a train. In the “Robbery” we see two men fighting on the back of the train, when one wins, the cut happens and he throws a dummy off. Here the sequence is reversed: we see the men throw the dummy off the train, there is an edit, and then Nervy Nat gets up where the dummy would have been. This combination of dummies and trick photography goes back at least as far as “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,” an American movie, and such camera trickery would be perfected by Georges Méliès of France in the intervening years. I think Méliès would have done it a bit more smoothly by 1904, but I admit I had to re-run it to make sure I caught where the edit happened.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride2The character of Nervy Nat, while not very fleshed-out in the run time of this movie, seems to herald future developments in American comedy. I was particularly reminded of Charlie Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character, both by the behavior and the outfit of Nat. He is dressed up, but at the same time, obviously down and out. He drinks, he steals, he covets, and he has problems understanding social boundaries. In the end, his behavior brings worse trouble on his head. None of this is to say that Chaplin necessarily “stole” his idea from this movie (or even saw it), but it indicates the way that the “Little Tramp” was a part of an established comedic tradition; Chaplin had been doing “funny drunks” on stage for years, and he knew how best to make them funny. Nervy Nat can be seen as a slightly less effective attempt at doing the same thing. Perhaps not surprisingly for slapstick, the part that made me laugh was his ejection from the train.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride1In light of the theme of this Blogathon, I should speak a little bit about the romantic side of this comedy. Of course, it is not meant to be a tragic story of love lost; from that point of view, Nervy Nat is simply too unsympathetic and the woman too obviously uninterested in his advances. Nat reminds us, however, as the “Little Tramp” would time and again in future movies, that even the most alienated and unsocialized of characters still want to be loved. Nat does not find his valentine at the end of this movie but the audience can leave with a sense of having learned from his mistakes and acknowledge the universal human need for affection.

This has been my contribution to the “You Must Remember This…A Kiss is Just a Kiss Blogathon.” Don’t forget to check out the other entries!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

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

A Natural Born Gambler (1916)

Race is a consistently problematic issue with this project, especially for movies which depict African Americans for mostly white audiences. Here, we get a black actor who may have had black audiences in mind during his performance, but who was working for a decidedly white company in doing so. The result is more than a little uncomfortable, although still successfully funny at times.

Natural Born GamblerBert Williams (who plays a character named Bert Williams) is a member of Independent Order of Calcimine Artists of America, a fraternal order which meets in a saloon. He is forced to pay up his dues in order to stay for the gambling which follows the meeting. After the meeting and much argument, Bert carries home his right hand man “Limpy” Jones, because Limpy has a broken leg. As they walk through a graveyard en route from the saloon, they overhear two thieves whom they suspect to be the devil when they hear them speaking. This puts them in a panic and Bert drops Limpy in order to run away. Limpy gets up and runs, quickly overtaking Bert, and showing that his leg was not really broken after all. Bert runs into the thieves outside the graveyard, and is not frightened, since they are normal-looking men. They become friendly and Bert invites them back to the saloon, where Limpy has already run to. Bert joins another dice game, and the thieves lose the chickens they had stolen.

Natural Born Gambler1Meanwhile, Brother Scott of the Order is on a crusade against gambling. He has written an article for the paper claiming that the “evil” is all but gone from town. He breaks up the dice game and takes the money left behind. Another card game gets going when a rich gambler from the North arrives, and Bert and Limpy cheat to take his winnings. The lookout warns the gamblers that “the town sleuth” (a white man) is coming, and they clean up the place and Bert reads Brother Scott’s article against gambling aloud to make it look good. Unfortunately, the cop spots a stray card on the floor. The game resumes when he leaves. Suddenly, the sleuth returns with the police and since the lookout fails to give warning, everyone is arrested. The action now shifts to a courtroom, where the judge gives Brother Scott the winnings from the gambling as a lawyer’s fee, and sentences Bert to ten days in jail. Inside his jail cell, Bert is overcome by his gambling fever and fantasizes about being in a card game, showing through pantomime that he is living a game that isn’t really happening.

Natural_Born_GamblerThe “Slapstick Encyclopedia” presents this movie with a quote from Bert Williams: “It is no disgrace to be a Negro, but it is very inconvenient.” Similarly, this film is not an insult to Williams and his talent as a comedian, but it remains hard to watch in some ways. The African Americans in the film are lazy, shiftless, dishonest, stupid, superstitious, childish, and especially addicted to gambling. Williams himself wears blackface, to emphasize his African American features for the audience, a trick he picked up in the mostly white world of Vaudeville and the Ziegfeld follies, where he was the first black performer. Still, this is the first movie I’ve seen from this period with an African American star, and his name was heavily used to promote the movie. Williams, performing within the constraints of the situation, shows himself to be a talented comedian with excellent timing and an emphasis on comedic pantomime over slapstick. It is easy to see why he was such a success – a combination of talent and a willingness not to rock the boat of racial inequity too hard. W.C. Fields evidently referred to Williams as both “the funniest man” and “the saddest man” he ever knew, and that sums up a lot of what can said about the history of African American comedy.

Bert Williams out of makeup.

Bert Williams out of makeup.

The production is interesting in some other ways as well. It was produced at Biograph Studios, which had been crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and nearly all of his best artists in 1913. This year (1916) would include its final new releases, before it became a source only of re-issues of once-great films. It’s interesting to question how Bert Williams became associated with the dying company, and how much this movie did to keep the doors open at 14th Street. Wikipedia claims that this movie was shot by Billy Bitzer, the cameraman best known for his work with Griffith, and who had left with Griffith in 1913 and gone on to work on “Birth of a Nation” in 1915 and “Intolerance” in 1916. “The Silent Era,” a usually reliable source, puts question marks around this claim, but also suggests that Bitzer may have directed (!) as well. Bitzer’s autobiography, which includes a very detailed filmography of his work, makes no mention of the movie at all, so I’m going to assume it’s a mistake, barring new evidence. It’s hard for me to imagine Bitzer and Biograph reconciling for the duration of this one film.

Director: Bert Williams

Camera: Uncertain (see above)

Cast: Bert Williams, Wes Jenkins

Run Time: 22 Min

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

A Night in the Show (1915)

Night_in_the_Show_(poster)For my final review of 2015, I’m looking at a wonderful New Year’s party-style picture with a drunk Charlie Chaplin in two highly disruptive roles. He goes out for a night’s entertainment, and winds up being more entertaining than anything on the stage.

Night_in_the_Show_(1915)

Except for maybe this guy

Charlie drops his “Little Tramp” outfit to appear as a more refined, but evidently inebriated fellow in a tuxedo, called “Mr. Pest” in the intertitles. Mr. Pest has a hard time distinguishing statues from people, and takes a while finding his seat, meanwhile pushing past large numbers of already-seated people. He lights his cigarette on the trombone player’s head and tosses the match into the trombone. He sits on several hats and drives people like Leo White out of the theater. Meanwhile, up in the balcony (the cheap seats), Mr. Rowdy, who looks like Chaplin in a Ben Turpin mustache, is drinking from a bottle, when he’s not spilling its contents all over the wealthier patrons sitting below. Mr. Pest finally winds up in a front box, along with a fat kid who has brought several pies to snack on. His proximity to the actors on stage gives him the opportunity to interact with them. At one point, the snake charmer allows several snakes to escape into the orchestra. At another, Mr. Rowdy uses first a barrage of rotten fruit and finally a fire hose to drive off a pair of bad singers (one of them is Bud Jamison). The hose goes everywhere and the whole audience gets drenched as well. The final shot is a close-up of Mr. Pest being showered from above by Mr. Rowdy.

Night in the ShowIt’s hard to give a description that really gets across the madcap hilarity and chaos of this picture. Chaplin’s two characters are complete madmen, but they are tolerated and finally appreciated by an audience driven to distraction by the terrible performances that are trotted out. Chaplin brought his full range of physical agility to bear for this; even as he appears to be stumbling drunk each movement is precisely timed and aimed to achieve maximum effect. His ability to switch between the two roles adds a degree of visual diversity to the movie, where with a single protagonist it might have dragged at points. The use of close-ups and editing is now established and honed.

Night in the Show3The whole movie is apparently derived from a vaudeville routine called “Mumming Birds,” which Chaplin performed for the Fred Karno Company before he began work in the movies. He had to re-write it, however, to change it enough to avoid being sued by Karno, so it can still be seen as a Chaplin original script, which built on the framework of the older routine. Parts of it were reused by Robert Downey, Jr. in the biopic “Chaplin,” which gives this piece a “familiar” feeling to someone of my generation, at least. It seems to me the most sophisticated of the many “funny drunk” movies Chaplin had done at this point, and apparently audiences agreed. Judging by the ads in film magazines from the end of 1915, this movie was held over and reissued many times, perhaps almost as many as “Burlesque on Carmen,” which Essanay released only after Chaplin had broken his contract and quit.

Night in the Show1Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Leo White, Bud Jamison, Edna Purviance, Wesley Ruggles, Charles Inslee, John Rand

Run Time: 25 Min

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

Night in the Show2