Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Paramount Pictures

The Wrong Mr. Fox (1917)

This short is a classic mix-up comedy based on the fact of two very similarly-named towns: Canaan, Vermont, and Canaan, New Hampshire, on the same train line. The thin plot does offer some good opportunities for situational comedy.

An out-of-work actor named Jimmy Fox (Victor Moore) is on the verge of committing suicide by breathing in gas from his light, when he is contacted by his agent and told to go to one of these metropoli in order to join a theater troupe. He boards the train with 3 donuts (one for every 100 miles) and a bottle of milk, stolen from his landlady. At the same time, the reverend John Fox boards the train for the other Canaan, where he is being sent to take over ministerial duties. Of course, they each get off at the wrong station, and, of course, each is mistaken for the other Mr. Fox. Of course, hilarity ensues. The reverend fairly quickly flees his Canaan community (apparently running home to his mother), when an actor in rehearsal pulls out a knife. But our actor figures out his situation fairly quickly and comes up with a plan. He begins his sermon by passing out the collection plates. Then, imitating Billy Sunday, he gives a dramatic series of gestures that cause the congregation to look into the distance while he fills his pockets. Then, he does a kind of strip show, pulling off his jacket, tie, and shirt, finishing with a flourish that makes the crowd look up while he bicycles out the door. However, he’s forgotten that by removing his clothes, he left all the money in his pockets behind.

The now-obscure star of this movie was Victor Moore, who was the principle star of the Jacksonville, Florida-based Klever Komedies studio, a subsidiary of Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company, and therefore part of Paramount. Judging by this film, Moore wasn’t a genius of physical comedy, like Chaplin or Keaton, he seems to be more in the tradition of situational humor like John Bunny or Sidney Drew, with just a hint of Roscoe Arbuckle’s charisma. A lot of this film is shot quite conventionally, but there are some interesting bits. The sequence in which he tries to commit suicide with gas includes several bits where he breathes fire after someone lights a match. There are several dramatic close-ups during his sermon, and I was surprised that his parishioners seem to include at least a few Asian Americans. Honestly, the funniest moment for me didn’t involve Moore at all – I laughed loudest when the preacher runs away from the actor with a knife.

Director:Harry Jackson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victor Moore, William Slade

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Snow White (1916)

Fairy tales made good sources for early silent movies – they were child-friendly, had simple plotlines that were already familiar to nearly all audiences, and gave opportunities for the use of camera tricks to represent their magic. This one in particular was fondly remembered years later by Walt Disney, who saw it as a teenager, as one of the inspirations that made him want to make movies.

Snow_White_1916The movie begins with an odd prologue that seems out of place today: Santa Claus enters a modern home and conjures a Christmas tree and several dolls. A small child peeks out to see this wonder, and is all the more amazed when the dolls come to life and represent diminutive versions of our cast on her tabletop. The movie then moves into more familiar territory with a Queen who pricks her finger while sewing on a snowy day, and then wishes for a child with snow white skin, blood red lips, and jet black hair. Of course, she gets the child but dies shortly thereafter and Snow White (played by Marguerite Clark) is raised by an evil stepmother who conspires with a witch to become the “fairest of them all.” The witch gives her a mirror that always tells the truth and warns her that, if it ever breaks, her true ugliness will be revealed. Meanwhile, Snow White drudges in the kitchen, but still gets to have eight or nine ladies in waiting, all of whom have nicer clothes than she does. She goes to visit her friend the huntsman and his three children, and along the way she meets the Prince of the neighboring country of “Calydon” (Creighton Hale). They seem to like one another, but she’s coy and doesn’t tell her name. She also convinces the children to release a bird from its cage. Then there’s a ball, and Snow White dresses as one of her own ladies in waiting to get in. She gets to dance with the Prince, who announces that he’s in love with her, but the Queen says they have to wait a year to get married while she sends Snow White to finishing school.

A Princess...

A Princess…

Now the Queen orders the huntsman to kill Snow White and bring her heart (the witch wants to eat it because then she will get Snow White’s hair). If he fails, his children will be locked in the tower to starve, so he reluctantly agrees. Of course, he can’t do it and kills a pig instead. But, he does abandon Snow White in the middle of the forest, apparently quite close to a lion which never actually gets into the same shot with her. Fortunately, the little bird comes back and convinces Snow White to follow it to the Dwarves’ house. They are out mining and Snow White steals some of their food and sleeps in one of their small beds. Then, they come home and find her there, and immediately they want her to stay “so they can look at her.” They pile gifts before her while she sleeps, and she apologizes for stealing food when she wakes up. One Dwarf sleeps in a barrel so she can keep the bed. Then, they go off to their mines while Snow White sews and dances with butterflies. The Queen has figured out how she was deceived now (the witch’s hair turns into pigtails), so she locks up the huntsman and his kids. He manages to escape by bending the bars, and luckily the little bird gives him some rope to haul up the kids and he strangles a guard and takes his keys.

...and a Prince.

…and a Prince.

The Queen and the witch have turned the Queen into a traveling crone, and she convinces Snow White to put a poisoned comb in her hair. She falls down dead, but the little bird tells a rabbit, who summons the Dwarves. They take the comb out of her hair and she’s OK. Now the Queen turns into a Pieman who gets her to eat a poisoned apple, which apparently the Dwarves can’t heal. They get the Prince, who mourns his love’s death, and also the huntsman who vows bloody revenge. They take the body to the castle and confront the Queen, but while they do so, Snow White comes back to life because the bit of apple comes un-stuck from her throat. The Queen smashes the mirror and turns ugly and the witch gets the Queen’s hair, which makes her happy. Then everyone bows to the new Queen – Snow White. She marries the Prince and invites the Dwarves to stay with them in the castle.

Snow White2

There are some scenes that jump in this movie, and it’s sometimes not clear what happened in between. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt to director J. Searle Dawley and assume that the existing print is missing some frames. Since it was lost for nearly 80 years, we should be thankful to have it at all, and it’s possible to guess what happened in between. Most of the movie is shot in long- and medium-shot, generally in theatrical proscenium-style with exits and entrances by actors and no camera movement, except the tilt downward that introduces Marguerite Clark on the kitchen floor. The story mostly plays out sequentially, but we get inter-cutting to heighten tension in the scenes where Snow White is poisoned by the comb and the escape of the huntsman. Unfortunately, these are some of the jumpier parts of the movie, suggesting that either damage or badly done re-cuts messed up the storytelling. The prologue is explained by the fact that the movie was released on Christmas of 1916, though it still seems out of place.

Snow White3Clark was 33 years old when this movie was made, and had played the role onstage for two years. She was short and girlish, so it still works, and I think her added acting experience made her a better choice than most young actresses would have been. The costumes deserve a mention – most of the cast is in what seem to be French-style clothes from the Court of Louis XVI, although the Calydons wear what look like more English styles. As the Prince, Creighton Hale actually gets the most interesting costumes: when we first meet him he looks sort of like Robin Hood, then his clothes are more like Elizabethan-era nobility, and at the end he has a tri-corn hat and cloak, like a Revolution-era civilian. By comparison, Marguerite starts out in rags, but moves up to the somewhat frilly dress of the ladies in waiting, and then spends the rest of the movie in a bland, fairly shapeless dress. At the end they stick a crown on her head and call it good. There’s an interesting hierarchy of height in the movie: Clark is about the same height as all her ladies in waiting, who are in general much shorter than the other adult actors. The Dwarves are played by children, who are of course shorter than anyone, and the huntsman towers over everyone, reminding me at times of Charlie Chaplin’s villains Mack Swain and Eric Campbell. Fans of Grumpy, Sneezy, etc. won’t get much out of these Dwarves, they have names like Flick, Glick, and Wick and are pretty interchangeable.

Snow White4In light of the story about Disney, I kept an eye out for familiar-looking scenes. The animated “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” was one of the first movies I went to as a child (I cried during the lost-in-the-forest sequence and my parents had to take me to the lobby). The sequence where Clark dances with birds and butterflies looks somewhat like Disney’s interpretation, as does Snow White in her bier after death. Really, though, the main shot that made me think of the animated version was a mid-shot of Clark sewing at a window while light streamed onto her face. Of course, Disney’s memory had probably faded in the intervening 21 years, with the original listed as “lost” all that time.

Director: J. Searle Dawley

Camera: H. Lyman Broening

Starring: Marguerite Clark, Creighton Hale, Dorothy Cumming, Alice Washburn

Run Time: 1 hr, 3 Min

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

Young Romance (1915)

Young Romance

One of the notices for this film in Moving Picture World stated that it “forever silences the claim that refined comedy cannot be conveyed via the screen.” There’s some truth in that claim, for this is certainly not a slapstick comedy, but it has elements that hearken back to “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife” (as well as its predecessor, “Personal”), and at the same time seems to prefigure the kind of situational comedy that made Clara Bow famous in the twenties.

 Young_Romance_1915

Bow would have been right at home playing our protagonist, a spunky romantic shopgirl who decides to save her money in order to masquerade as a well-to-do customer at a seaside resort in Maine, in the hopes of snagging a handsome and wealthy husband. Clara was still only nine years old when this made, though, so instead we get Edith Taliaferro, a stage actress who only made three movies (this being the only one that survives). She handles the transition to silent film well, neither over-acting nor under-acting, but she lacks Bow’s infectious vivacity. Her scheme works well, attracting not one, but two paramours, but, as silent film fans might predict, both of them are just as much imposters as she is. The nice one (Tom Forman, who appeared in the similar “A Gentleman of Leisure” that same year and later in “The Sea Wolf”) just happens to work in the hardware department of the same department store she does. The bad one is a phony count (Al Ernest Garcia, who later did quite a bit of work with Chaplin, including “City Lights” and “Modern Times”) who takes a cheap hotel room fortuitously close to the young hero. This permits him to eavesdrop and foil the plans of the Count when he plots to kidnap the phony young “heiress” in order to extort money from her.

 Young Romance1

Visually, I found this movie quite good for early 1915. Much of the movie is shot on location, presumably at a Long Island beach resort, and shots of the beach are at times spectacular. The shots often have a greater depth-of-field than others movies of the time, and even when they are limited to small “stages,” the sets are decorated in a very conscious, balanced fashion, presenting a stylish mise-en-scène, appropriate to the sophisticated storyline. The editing emphasizes contrasts and parallels. We see Edith and Tom prepare for their trips in similar tiny apartments, then arrive and move into strongly contrasting hotel rooms – his dismal and small, hers spacious and lovely. Other pieces of editing, such as the Count’s getaway on a train being intercut with Tom’s boat ride to the rescue also show good use of parallelism. We also get close ups, irises, and an interesting overhead pov shot when Tom peers through a hole in his wall to observe the Count’s nefarious actions. There are minimal special effects, but towards the end of the movie, as the two lovers realize that they must own up to their deceits, we get two interesting uses of matte shots to show their thoughts visually. This reminded me of the scene in the restaurant in “Sunrise,” not to be made for many years yet, in which the husband and wife hold each other while their thoughts hover above them. In all, it’s a nice simple comedy that presages some of the trends in later silent film.

Director: George Melford

Camera: Walter Stradling

Screenplay: William C. deMille

Starring: Edith Taliaferro, Tom Forman, Al Ernest Garcia, Raymond Hatton

Run Time: 58 Min, 30 seconds

I have been unable to find it for free on the internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments!

Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

Patchwork Girl of Oz

Twenty five years before Judy Garland, L. Frank Baum himself was involved in the production of several “Oz” films, through a company called “The Oz Film Manufacturing Company.” Although the movies were not successful, Baum must be seen as smart to try to cash in on the new medium, at a time when producers were eagerly grabbing up (or stealing) written content to serve as storylines. This was the first of his books the company adapted, and it relies on pantomime and slapstick, and a few Méliès-style special effects, to create the atmosphere of his imaginary kingdom. There are few intertitles, but we do get camera movement and intercutting between scenes. The “girl” of the title is played by a man (French acrobat Pierre Couderc), while the main Munchkin “boy” is played by an adult woman (Violet MacMillan, who made her name as the “Cinderella Girl” for having children’s size 11 feet). There is other gender-bending in the cast as well, and all the gender-identified women fall in love with a miniature statue of one of the only males played by a man who is neither old nor deformed. Harold Lloyd and Hal Roach, who went on to make many great comedies together, met on this film, each of them in the ethnic-caricature role of a “Tottenhot.” Ozma of Oz, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Man all make appearances near the end.

Director: J. Farrell MacDonald

Writer/Producer: L. Frank Baum

Camera: James A. Crosby

Starring: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc, Fred Woodward, Harold Lloyd, Hal Roach

Run Time: 48 Min

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Virginian, The (1914)

Virginian

This was Cecil B. DeMille’s second movie, coming only months after “The Squaw Man,” and it’s also a Western starring Dustin Farnum as a transplant to the West who bests all comers and upholds his dignity and honor. I found it rather less interesting by comparison. The Indians are there simply as handy adversaries to stymie the hero in his work, and the female character (an eastern schoolmarm) is a pretty bland romantic interest with little motivation or personality of her own. There’s an odd “day for night” bit in the middle of the movie – one shot is shown lit by a campfire in what seems to be real night, while other scenes, edited around it to appear simultaneous, are obviously shot during the daytime. I wonder how audiences read that at a time when night shooting was comparably rare, and most movies simply used the convention of showing everything by daylight because that’s all cameras could pick up. Anyway, our hero is something of a bully and even winds up lynching his best friend in the name of justice, but the film does end with the classic gunfight in the dusty street, and probably did help establish the visual standards of the genre, to say nothing of establishing DeMille as a major player in the medium.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Dustin Farnum, William Elmer, Winifred Kingston

Run Time: 54 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

June, 1914

Pro-Constitutional forces pose in Mexico, 1914.

Pro-Constitutional forces pose in Mexico, 1914.

Our monthly century news roundup has some interesting items this week.

World War: One June 28, Archduke Franz Ferdinand is assassinated. Expect a future “context” post devoted entirely to this event.

War Crimes: On June 12, Ottoman forces begin the “Greek Genocide,” in which Christian Greeks living in Turkey are slaughtered. Over the course of the next ten years, the number of Greeks killed will enter the hundreds of thousands.

Revolution: Mexican “Constitutional Army” forces under Carranza take San Luis Potosi, demanding the surrender of President Victoriano Huerta, whose increasingly dictatorial regime has lost support both at home and abroad.

Diplomacy: June 1, US President Woodrow Wilson’s envoy Edward Mandell House meets with Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. This can be seen as the first of many efforts by the President to prevent or end the First World War.

Disasters: June 24, a major fire guts downtown Manchester, New Hampshire, causing $400,000 damage and injuring 19 firemen.

Sports: June 9, Honus Wagner makes his 3000’th career hit for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the first player to achieve that record in the twentieth century.

Movies: Movies released this month include “The Wrath of the Gods,” “The Only Son” and “The Million Dollar Mystery.”

Births: June 7, Indian director Kwaja Ahmed Abbas (who made “Shehar Aur Sapna” and “Pardesi”), June 18, actor E.G. Marshall (memorable in “12 Angry Men” and also TV’s “Defenders”).

Addendum/Errata: Last month, I failed to note the founding of Paramount Studios on May 8. Many apologies to the future producers of the “Star Trek” and “Friday the Thirteenth” movies!

Italian, The (1915)

George_Beban_(The_Italian)

OK, I admit, I goofed and watched this one a little early. Some source I read referred to this as a 1914 film, probably because it was shot in November, 1914, but it wasn’t actually in theaters until January, 1915 (hence, it would not qualify for a Century Award until next year). I have to say, though, this has me excitedly anticipating next year, because the technical sophistication of this film is far above anything I’ve reviewed so far. It’s also a powerful tear-jerker, telling the story of a hopeful young immigrant whose dreams are thwarted in the New World, and his determination to take revenge on the family of the man he thinks has wronged him. George Beban apparently had a previous successful career playing “ethnic” characters on stage, but this was his first break into movies. His portrayal is ultimately a caricature (emphasized by intertitles with typical Italian broken English), but it is sympathetic almost to a fault. No doubt producers at Paramount were aware that much of the audience for silent films came from immigrant groups, including many Italians, and a hateful portrayal would have worked against them. If you stop to think about it, the portrayal of Italians in later films, including “Marty” and “The Godfather” would be similarly stereotypical, but would nevertheless appeal to Italian Americans’ sense of identity.

Director: Reginald Barker

Starring: George Beban, Clara Williams

Run Time: 74 Min

You can watch it for free: here.