Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Nn

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

The Night Before Christmas (1905)

This is a 1905 Edison release with clearly seasonal intent from Edwin S. Porter, based loosely on the famous poem, much of which appears in the Intertitles.

Night_Before_Christmas_1905We open on Santa feeding his reindeer, then going inside to labor over toys in a crude woodshop. There is no sign of any Elves or “helpers” present, and it appears Santa must work backbreaking hours on each toy to produce it by hand. We then see the interior of a middle class home with a large family. There is a brief ritual in which the kids appear to write their wishes to Santa and throw them in the fireplace, then all the children run upstairs for their stockings to hang. The smaller ones are helped by the parents and a servant, possibly their nurse. Then they are led upstairs and the parents clear the room for the presents that will appear. The next sequence is in the children’s room, where the excited kids keep getting out of bed and causing the nurse to come back in. Eventually, they break out into a pillow-fight. Now we see Santa again, he goes through a big book with first names written in it, putting check marks next to some, and crossing others out (I noticed he laughed especially hard when he came to my name and crossed it out). He loads up his sleigh and there is an “effect” sequence in which we see a tiny model sleigh with eight reindeer dash across the (painted) countryside, evidently drawn by a string. They do very little flying, but do manage to get to the top of the house at the end. Now we switch back to live-action and Santa throws the bag of toys down the chimney before descending himself. He emerges in the middle-class dining room we saw before, and deposits toys in all the stockings, sometimes checking the letters in the fireplace. He then waves his arms and lots of bigger tows and decorations appear. He makes his signature wink, and goes up the chimney, just before all the kids run downstairs and eagerly start grabbing toys. The movie ends with a close-up on Santa with his finger beside his nose, and the words “Merry Christmas” at the bottom of the screen.

Night Before ChristmasNo doubt this was a successful movie in its day, with familiar material convincingly brought to life through simple storytelling techniques. The reindeer-sleigh sequence hasn’t held up terribly well, although its use does seem to add a kind of Méliès-charm to the whole thing (Méliès would’ve made them fly, I bet). The shots are static and scenes are edited in sequence. The one somewhat odd piece is the pillow fight, which isn’t in the original poem (indeed, supposedly “not a creature” should be “stirring”). Pillow fights were, interestingly enough, a fairly common subject at Edison, where they were seen to supply a certain slapstick humor to family fare, so I suppose Porter felt it would be appropriate to put one in here. My thought, as the pillows flew apart and feathers went everywhere, was that Santa should cross these naughty kids off his list!

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 9 Min

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

A Night Out (1915)

Night OutThis is one of the early films Charlie Chaplin made at Essanay Studios during his year there after he left Keystone. It has many of the familiar elements from Keystone – men with silly facial hair, women who seem to enjoy flirting with transients, a dull-witted policeman, a large jealous husband, hotels and bar rooms, and a world populated with people with a propensity for solving problems with physical violence – but has more measured timing and use of the individual gags, plus a much longer run time than most of the shorts he did there.

Night Out4To the degree that there is a plot, it concerns Charlie and his drinking buddy Ben Turpin, who apparently are out on the town for a while before the movie starts because by the time it does they are both staggering drunk. They make their way to a restaurant, where they get into fights with various patrons and ultimately are thrown out by the large headwaiter (played by Bud Jamison, who is doing his best to be Mack Swain). The two pals decide to get a room and sleep it off, and, after multiple pratfalls, Ben Turpin winds up in his bed, and Charlie winds up in a room with Edna Purviance (this was her first appearance in a Chaplin film, but they would work and sleep together for the next eight years). Then her husband comes home, and, of course, it’s Bud Jamison! So, Charlie packs up his pajamas and goes to another hotel, but he’s too drunk to sign the register and winds up on a park bench. Turpin wakes up alone and the desk clerk insists he pay since Charlie already left. He finds Charlie on the park bench, who replies to his request for rent money with several blows to the head with a brick. Meanwhile, some issue has come up at the original hotel with the headwaiter that involves holes being cut in his handkerchiefs, so they move to the second hotel. Now, Charlie heads back there and goes through an elaborate getting-ready-for-bed ritual that involves throwing his trousers out the window and spreading toothpaste on his slippers. Meanwhile, Edna has been playing with a dog in her room (across from Charlie’s, of course) and the dog runs under Charlie’s bed, where she follows it. Charlie comes out and discovers a girl under his bed, to some apparent glee, until she says something about her husband coming back and he looks out the door and sees Jamison again. They try to sneak her back into the room, but it’s no good, Charlie is caught and chased, and winds up going out a window. Ultimately, Turpin finds him again and they fight, ending with Charlie getting drenched in a bathtub.

Night Out1I’m not sure if it was just me or if Charlie was still getting used to the longer format, but this movie felt more like three or four short movies stitched together than like a cohesive longer plot. At about six minutes in, I had laughed at least as many times as I have at any Keystone, but I was already feeling like it could wrap up and be fine. At fourteen minutes in (the length of the average one-reeler), I was really ready for it to be done. By the end, it seemed actually too long, even though the gags and the falls were entirely up to snuff. One thing Charlie did do was take the time to elaborate some of his gags, which he wouldn’t have done at the faster pace. For example there’s a sequence in the hotel room where Charlie has drunkenly confused the phone with a water dispenser, and keeps trying to pour into his cup from it. That’s the sort of little touch that rarely made it into a Keystone. On the whole, though, it isn’t up to the level of later “feature-length” work like “Burlesque on Carmen,” nor even the sustained zaniness of “The Tramp.” If you like Keystone Chaplin well enough to sit still for half an hour, then this will work for you, maybe even better than watching three Keystones would, but it still seemed to me to be a bit rough around the edges.

Night Out2Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Ben Turpin, Edna Purviance, Bud Jamison, Leo White

Run Time: 33 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Newark Athlete (1891)

Newark_Athlete_1891

Since I’m temporarily living with limited internet and even more limited access to classic DVDs, I’m taking the chance to revisit some of the very short films from the Age of Attractions. This is actually the earliest movie in the National Film Registry, which makes it pretty important in the history of American film. It was shot in the Black Maria and demonstrates the ability of the Kinetoscope to reproduce movement by showing a man in a gym uniform swinging a pair of things that look like bowling pins, but apparently are Indian Clubs. Although he’s identified as the “Newark Athlete,” he’s not really doing anything especially athletic, and I wonder if they really called a professional athlete all the way to the studio just to shoot ten seconds of him swinging his arms. It also strikes me that, like the boxers Dickson would later shoot for Edison, this man is rather more skimpily clad than one usually saw in the late-nineteenth century, and I wonder if the appeal of sex was already a factor even in these early days of the movies.

Director and Camera: W.K.L Dickson

Run Time:12 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

New York Hat (1912)

Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to "Fredojoda."

Image from Wikimedia Commons, attributed to “Fredojoda.”

The arrival of a $10 Merry Widow hat (worth $237.07 in adjusted dollars today) from New York City causes quite a stir in a small-town haberdashery. But, when the local pastor (Lionel Barrymore, from “The Miser’s Heart” and later “You Can’t Take It with You”) buys it for Mary Pickford (also in “The Usurer” and later “Daddy Long Legs”), the local gossips set to work to destroy both their reputations! Her stingy father destroys the hat and the local church board seeks to oust the minister, until he explains that he is simply the holder of a trust from Mary’s dead mother, who willed that she be provided, from time to time, with “bits of finery.” This fairly light bit of fluff does showcase both Barrymore and especially Pickford’s talents, as well as being another avenue for D.W. Griffith’s directing. The “AB” logo for American Biograph is visible in nearly every shot, showing that they were becoming increasingly concerned about copyright and piracy. Imdb claims that Mack Sennett and Dorothy Gish appear uncredited, although it’s a bit late for Sennett to still be hanging around Biograph (he founded Keystone Studios the same year) and it would be a very early appearance for Dorothy, who was only 14 at the time.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Lionel Barrymore, Robert Harron, Mack Sennett (?), Dorothy Gish (?)

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here.