Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Pp

Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

One of Mary Pickford’s most successful features at the time, this was directed by Maurice Tourneur – or, perhaps, co-directed by him, given the power Mary wielded on the set – and written by her friend Frances Marion. It’s probably not her most accessible movie today, for reasons I’ll discuss below, but it’s a valuable insight into what made her a superstar for her era.

The movie starts out by introducing its title character, 10-year-old Gwendolyn, played by Pickford (I’ll address that later, just accept it for now). It is immediately established that she is “rich” in wealth, but “poor” in love. Her parents neglect her and leave her with unsympathetic and strict servants in charge. The scene is set for us with highly stylized intertitles that show a small girl in an enormous room, with toys but no companions. Then Gwen comes skipping onto the scene, only to be confronted by two stern-looking butlers. She sees some children skating outside the window and smiles happily, but a servant comes over to slam it down. She begs her mother (Madlaine Traverse) to give her a minute, but her mother is rushing off somewhere and says maybe they can talk to-morrow. Gwen asks, “Why is it that my to-morrows never come?”

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Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass (1898)

This short film from Edison depicts a piece of an important historical event – the Klondike Gold Rush – as it was seen by news consumers at the time. By 1898, location shooting made it possible to see bits of news events in motion, rather than just as still images in the paper.

What we see is a winding trail from the point of view of a camera placed behind a bush, just off the trail. The pack train approaches us, led by a man on a horse, with several heavily-laden mules following. The train continues for some time, alternating a series of mules with a man on a horse every few seconds. The pack train does not finish passing the camera before the film runs out; it seems to continue forever. Towards the end, a man appears atop a rock to the left side of the trail, looking down at the train, and seems to interact with the men on horseback.

The Chilkoot Pass was a critical artery connecting people to the Klondike, and at times it was filled with streams of gold-seeking migrants. Some very famous images of this event were used or reproduced in later movies, such as “The Gold Rush” (1924) starring Charlie Chaplin. However, this image is fairly dark and blurry (possibly it just hasn’t aged well) and is otherwise unfamiliar. Perhaps it inspired gold fever in some viewers, who decided to try their luck in the Klondike, but it really shows how much competition there already was there by the time the movie was released.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Poultry Yard (1896)

This simple actuality short from Lumière shows a common agricultural activity, where others like “Workers Leaving the Factory” and “Carmaux Drawing Out the Coke” show common industrial ones. This represents the life of a great many French people at the time it was recorded.

We see two small girls in a yard behind a farmhouse, throwing bits of grain among a large flock of birds, most of which appear to be ducks, although I see at least one chicken in the mix as well. A grown woman passes in the background, briefly looking at the girls as they work, then moving out of camera range. The older girl has her grain in a bucket, the younger one’s grain is in her apron. The younger girl frequently looks at her sister, seeming to try to imitate her movements, as if she is not quite certain how to perform the task.

This movie is similar to the Edison film “Feeding the Doves,” although it gives a more domestic view of farm life by showing children and (possibly) their mother as sharing in the chores. That said, it seems to have less historical interest, just showing that both companies were looking for subjects in day-to-day activities, and not yet all that worried about stories or even especially interesting images.

Director: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Polly Redhead (1917)

This was the one “feature length” Century Film screened at this year’s Cinecon, and once again I review it from my memory of a single viewing (almost a week ago as of this writing). It was billed as an attempt by Universal to recreate the success of Mary Pickford, and the plot has a lot in common with the simpler of little Mary’s stories.

Ella Hall

“Polly” is short for “Pollyooly,” apparently the original title of the novel this was based on, and we have to take their word for her hair color because the surviving print is black and white. She is played by Ella Hall, who is young and charming in her elaborate locks, but lacks some of the magic of Pickford. She is a street urchin in London who happens to be the niece of the dying maid of two solicitors solicitor (George Webb and Dick La Reno), and when the maid falls ill, she turns up as a substitute. What she doesn’t mention is that her aunt has actually died and she is hoping to take over the role permanently. In case she isn’t cute enough, the writer has thrown in “the Lump” (William Worthington, Jr.), a precocious little brother with a penchant for playing the drums. She brings “the Lump” to work with her, and for some reason Webb finds this more charming than annoying. Meanwhile the housekeeper (Louise Emmons) learns the truth and does her best to get Polly fired. She loses her job with La Reno but Webb keeps her on because of her remarkable talent for cooking perfect bacon. This turns out to be a good choice, because La Reno soon finds Emmons watering down his whiskey! It was to cover the fact that she had been nipping, but this would have been a lesser crime and she is let go and Polly brought back. Webb takes to teaching the Lump manners, using Polly’s bacon as a reward.

George Webb

A second conflict, seemingly more significant, arises when Webb’s fiancée and only client (Gertrude Astor) begins to object to this attractive young girl around the house. However, this is quickly negated when she recognizes Polly as the exact twin of a wealthy young girl caught in the throes of a custody battle. This allows Hall to take on a typical “changeling” dual-role when the two concoct a plan to replace her so that the mother can sneak the real child away to Europe and take on full custody. Alas, Polly’s odd treatment of the servants as equals gives her quickly away, but the end result is a predictable reconciliation between the parents and Polly even finds a nice rich boy next door while the game is on.

Gertrude Astor

It seemed to me like this was two short films, not all that well sewn together to make one short-ish feature, although it’s possible that there’s missing footage in the middle somewhere. The first movie actually worked better for me, with Polly defending her job through her bacon skills and the housekeeper losing hers for disrespecting good whiskey. The second story is more typical of the worse melodramas of the time and relies on the unlikely coincidence of Polly having a wealthy doppelganger and a resolution that seems all too simplistic and improbable (nothing like kidnapping a child to bring a couple together!). Hall seemed to overdo the dual role by giving the “rich” version of herself a bit too much moodiness and gloom and the “poor” version of herself a can-do spirit. She was more likeable in the first part of the story, where she just gets to be herself (apparently). The little brother seemed a bit too much like an out-of-wedlock child of Polly’s and calling him “the Lump” (which made me think of “baby bump”) didn’t help anything. We never see any sign of his or Polly’s mother, so the connection seems all too likely, though of course we are meant to think she’s the same age as the boy-next-door, who might be eight years her junior, and who she kisses at the end. A bit of a reversal from all the old men falling in love with underage girls in the movies!

Director: Jack Conway

Camera: Edward Kull

Starring: Ella Hall, George Webb, Gertrude Astor, William Worthington, Jr., Louise Emmons, Dick La Reno, Charles Hill, Mailes, Gretchen Lederer

Run Time: 45 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing or on the Internet at this time.

Police Chasing Scorching Auto (1905)

This short from Edison is a 3-shot movie that depicts a car chase from the point of view of the pursuers. It doesn’t hold up today as an especially effective narrative, but the camerawork may have excited audiences of the day.

A small child stands in the middle of a wide city street, waving her arm. A mounted policeman rides into the shot from in front of her, appearing to be the subject of her waves, but he suddenly dismounts and runs over, grabbing her and pulling her to one side. Then a car comes from behind camera, and leisurely cruises through the spot where she was standing. The policeman signals to others, who pursue the car while he pulls the little girl to the safety of the sidewalk.

The next shot is a tracking shot, apparently done by a camera mounted on a car, which follows two police bikes as they chase the automobile up a parkway to Grant’s Tomb. The police slowly close in on the car, whose occupants occasionally wave back at the cops. One fellow seems to try to beat them off with his top hat as they pass to cut it off. Finally, at the top of the parkway, the car stops with the two policemen in front of it.

The next shot is from a stationary camera at a slight angle, showing the police questioning the driver and passengers, some of whom appear to be a bit drunk or belligerent. A policeman gets into the car and the driver prepare to drive off before the end of the movie – apparently they are coming quietly to the precinct.

This whole chase never exceeds 35 mph, perhaps less, but by the standards of the time, it is still fairly exciting. The key is the sequence shot from the back of a moving vehicle, which allows the viewer to experience the chase as if they were pursuers. For an audience which only occasionally saw pans or tilts, this lengthy tracking shot was probably a pretty big deal (although note that travel films as well as “The Great Train Robbery” had included scenes shot from the top of railroad trains much earlier than this). With a live narrator filling in the gaps about how to read the reactions of the onlookers and the miscreants, this was probably good entertainment for the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter, Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901)

This short actuality from Edison takes advantage of technology to show off the technological advances of the new century. As with many of the documentary films of the day, it gave an audience a chance to see a spectacle most people would otherwise only have read about or seen in still images.

pan-american-exposition-by-nightThe movie consists of two shots, edited together more or less seamlessly to appear as a single movement. As the movie opens, we see a large pavilion and some other exotic buildings in the background in what is clearly daytime. The camera pans to the left, revealing more structures until it reaches a large tower. Suddenly, the image changes to the same tower lit up brilliantly by night, with floodlights moving across the ground. The camera continues its pan after the edit, showing how buildings that seem to mirror those we saw in the first shot look with their electric lights shining during the night.

This movie combines two of Thomas Edison’s inventions – the light bulb and the motion picture – into a single spectacle celebrating the technology of the twentieth century and Edison’s contributions to it. Of course, neither device was really a sole responsibility of the “wizard of Menlo Park,” but the concept of Edison as the inventor of these technologies was part of the branding campaign of the Edison Company. In The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser tells us that in order to accomplish the smooth, lengthy pan we see in this movie it was necessary to develop a new mechanism for the tripod. I wonder if it wasn’t also necessary to develop a new film stock in order to pick up the electric lights, since nearly all films were shot in daylight up to this point. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be possible to shoot actors under these lights with the film stock we see here – everything that isn’t a light bulb appears as a pitch black space, except for the areas directly under the floodlights, which are dimly visible. The other interesting piece is the edit from day into night, with the camera in exactly the same position and continuing the movement, giving the illusion that time itself has been manipulated by the filmmakers. This is an early and creative use of editing at a time when most films consisted of a single shot. The Pan-American Exposition took place in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, and was the subject of a large number of Edison films. It is the event President William McKinley was attending at the time of his assassination.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: James H. White

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Più forte che Sherlock Holmes (1913)

Alternate Titles: Stronger Than Sherlock Holmes, Sterker dan Sherlock Holmes.

This Italian short trick film is a slapstick chase-comedy in the style of Alice Guy and other directors of earlier decades. The name of Holmes is only invoked to bring in the concept of crime and pursuit, the movie has nothing to do with the writings of Arthur Conan Doyle.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmesThe movie begins with a man reading a magazine, while his wife peacefully dozes next to him at the table. An over-the-shoulder shot is cut in to reveal illustrations of a cop and a robber in the magazine, then the man also slumps to sleep, dropping the magazine to the floor. Two figures emerge from the magazine, by use of double exposure: One is the burglar from the illustration, and the other is a copy of the sleeping man, now dressed as the cop. He gathers up his hat and gun while the transparent burglar beckons to him from the fireplace. The burglar disappears, and the policeman pulls back a curtain, revealing an opening to the outside. In the next shot, he pursues the burglar through what looks like a thick forest, but might be simply his backyard (a fence is visible in the lower left of the screen). He fires his gun and waves his nightstick. The next shot shows us a lake, with the two figures running towards it from the opposite side. They leap in and swim towards the camera, fully clothed. About halfway, the burglar again becomes transparent through double exposure, and appears to walk on his hands across the surface of the water. He does some cartwheels to tease the cop, who is still struggling along through the water. Finally, he vanishes and appears on a bridge.

piu-forte-che-sherlock-holmes1 Read the rest of this entry »

The Poison Man (1916)

Halloween has come and gone, but I’m not yet finished with the crime serial called “Les Vampires!” In this episode, a new Grand Master takes charge of the Vampires’ ongoing quest to snuff out Mazamette and Philipe Guérande, but Irma Vep still gets most of the screen time.

Venemous at work.

Venemous at work.

At the beginning of the movie, we establish “Venemous,” (played by Frederik Moriss) the “brilliant but deranged chemist” who is the new Grand Master of the Vampires, hard at work in his chemical laboratory, assisted by Irma Vep (Musidora). He receives a message with invisible ink on it, revealing it by brushing it with a special chemical. It states that Guérande (Édouard Mathé) is engaged to be wed to Jane Bremontier (Louise Lagrange), and that he visits his fiancée every day. He sends Irma Vep and two female collaborators to rent the apartment above Bremontier’s. They are able to learn about an upcoming dinner party and get the proposed menu from a maid. Venemous now calls the caterer and cancels the order, substituting Vampires for the caterers on the night of the event.

A generous tenant

A generous tenant

On the day of the party, the Vampires are admitted and allowed to prepare and serve the meal. However, Jane’s mother gives a bottle of the champagne to the concierge to thank him for helping to bring up the food from the delivery, and when he tastes it, he dies! His wife runs up to the party to warn everyone not to drink the champagne, which no one has touched yet because Mazamette (Marcel Lévesque) is making a very long-winded toast. The Vampires in the kitchen realize the gig is up and escape out the window, but Venemous, who is dressed as a valet, must hide in a cabinet in the dining room. Mazamette tries to catch him in the dark, but winds up fighting with Guérande instead. Venemous is also able to escape over the rooftops of Paris.

poison-man2Now Guérande becomes convinced that he must move his fiancée to the country in order to hide her, but Irma Vep sees the car arrive to pick them up and takes a perfume bottle full of sleeping gas to surprise them. Mazamette has been hiding in a trunk on the side of the car, however, and he attacks her. Irma Vep is able to spray him with the gas and her accomplices remove him. Then, she hides in the trunk. Mazamette is dumped on the street and taken to the police station, believed to be drunk. When he wakens, he calls Philipe to warn him, but Irma slips out of the box and gets away in the car before Philipe can catch her.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Musidora is horizontal for much of the film.

Irma Vep now finds herself at a fancy restaurant in the Fontainebleau forest. She summons Venemous by telephone, but Guérande turns up first and attacks her, tying her up and leaving her on the road as a car approaches (almost a rare case of a woman tied to train tracks!). The car contains Mazamette, who stops at first to assist the damsel in distress before recognizing her. Guérande has been waiting nearby with a pistol, and now he joins his friend. They put Irma Vep in Mazamette’s car and go to lie in wait for the arrival of the Grand Master of the Vampires at the restaurant. However, when he arrives, Irma Vep honks the horn with her head and he finds her there and they drive off together in Mazamette’s car, with Guérande and Mazamette in pursuit in his car.

poison-man4

You’re doing it wrong! You’re ruining it for me!

After a lively chase, Venomous leaps out of the vehicle; Philipe chases Venomous on foot, following him onto the top of a moving train, but Venomous gets away, shooting him in the leg. Mazamette has been restrained from jumping onto the train by two well-meaning policemen, and he punches one of them. He is held for assaulting an officer, but when Guérande shows up and strikes him in the police station, the police decide to forget the whole affair.

poison-man5I found this episode to be more visually satisfying than most of the others, in part because so much of it is shot on location in the streets of Paris or the forest of Fontainebleau. We get some nice blue tinting on the night shots. Also, there was a good amount of close-ups, including on Mazamette and Guérande when they first enter the darkened room, and some good camera angles when, at various times, Irma Vep is lying on the ground, and in order to see the figures escaping across the rooftops. Finally, the editing of the chase sequence was very satisfying, including some classic cross-cutting, even though I’ve seen critics who claim Feuillade never used any. The chase across the top of a train was, of course, similar to many Westerns that had already been released, beginning with “The Great Train Robbery,” but it is handled well here also.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

This is how Mazamette rolls.

I usually criticize some aspects of the strained logic in each episode, but this one has only minor departures from logic. The biggest is that, since we’ve already established that Guérande is a teetotaler, it doesn’t make much sense to put poison only in his champagne, instead of the rest of the meal. Of course, it may well be that even a truly sober Frenchman has to sip a little champagne at his own engagement, so maybe that was safe. I was a little surprised that Venemous himself turned up at the party in the guise of a butler, but at this point we’ve gotten used to the Grand Vampires taking ridiculous and unnecessary personal risks, so we’ll give that a pass as well. There’s a somewhat silly bit when a figure in Vampire disguise climbs up a drainpipe – in order to deliver a perfume bottle in Irma Vep. Surely the front door would work just as well. The one part that doesn’t make much sense to me is why is Mazamette riding in the trunk in the first place? Surely the Vampires are going to assume that he is wherever Guérande and his fiancée are, so it doesn’t seem like it would really help much in terms of security. Still, it’s a minor point and doesn’t interfere much with the enjoyment of this episode.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: Manichoux

Starring: Édouard Mathé, Marcel Lévesque, Musidora, Frederik Moriss, Louise Lagrange, Florense Simoni

Run Time: 50 Min

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

Panorama from the Top of a Moving Train (1898)

This early experiment from Georges Méliès contradicts some of the preconceptions we have about his work: that it was always shot from a stationary camera on a sound stage, that it always involves fantasy or magic, or that he was always in front of the camera, for example. It’s certainly true that these descriptions are true for most of his later movies, but not because he lacked imagination or had never thought of trying anything else.

panorama-from-the-top-of-a-moving-trainWe see the top of a train, as the title suggests. The camera faces forward, so as the train moves we get more of a tracking shot than what is today called a “pan” (short for “panorama”), but the we do see dynamic movement and some of the streets of Paris as seen from the train tracks. The most exciting moments come as the train passes underneath bridges – even for a modern audience there is a moment of wondering if the lower bridges might hit the camera. Smoke billows back from the chimney into the camera lens, obscuring our vision at times. The film ends just as the train begins a turn that allows a view of  river, possibly the Seine.

This isn’t an especially skillful example of an actuality film. Méliès’s decision to point the camera forward on the train robs us of a clear view of most of the scenery, and the beginning and end points appear random, rather than chosen to make the most interesting picture. Most of the appeal had to be the simple fact of movement captured on film, plus the drama of wondering what will happen if the bridge is too low. Still, by moving the camera itself, rather than taking an image of a train in motion from a stationary position, Méliès has already in 1898 shown that the audience need not be treated only to shots of a proscenium with actors making entrances and exits. I don’t believe that Méliès invented the “panorama,” however, nor was he the first to put a camera on a train. This was done quite early on by cinematographers working for the Lumière brothers and many other filmmakers copied the style when audiences responded well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Photographing a Country Couple (1901)

This is another short comedy from Edison that uses still photography as the set up for a simple joke. In doing so, it seems to comment on the nature of “looking” and voyeurism.

photographing-a-country-coupleWe see an outdoor location, apparently in a park. There is a bench to the right side of the screen. A man carrying a camera and wearing a straw hat walks toward the camera, and the “couple” enters from the left. They are an unkempt man in overalls and a young girl in a summer dress.  The cameraman convinces them to pose for a photograph, and they arrange themselves on the bench while he sets up his tripod to the left. While he is preparing, the man gets up and peers into the lens of the camera. The photographer tells him to sit down, he’s ready now, but the man insists on looking through the viewfinder himself. The cameraman goes to the bench, and sits next to the girl while he looks. A boy runs up and ties the man’s legs to the tripod legs, and while he is doing this, the cameraman becomes increasingly affectionate with the girl, who protests at first, but then seems to acquiesce to his attentions. Now, the man tries to approach the bench, but the camera “walks” with him, and the scene ends after a few steps.

Judging from imdb’s report of the original Edison catalog entry for this movie, the punchline is missing from the surviving print. According to it, the man behind the camera “makes a wild dash for the photographer, but falls to the ground on top of the camera, smashing it to pieces. The scene ends with the lovers and Reuben all mixed up in a confused mess upon the ground.” Reuben, incidentally, is the generic name for the “rube” character in many early Edison comedies, despite the fact that he was played by different actors in each one. Quite honestly, until I read that description, I wasn’t sure what was supposed to be going on with the kid and “Reuben” walking toward the bench with the tripod. Possibly seeing the ending would have helped. The way I read it, however, was also interesting. It seemed to me as if “Reuben” became so fascinated with looking at the scene through the camera that he lost interest in participating in the dalliance with the girl, and that his approach was meant to signal his desire for a better view as the cameraman kissed his girl. There is still an element of this, since the film audience is also invited in to voyeuristically enjoy the cuckolding of our rube character before his eyes, and to enjoy the transgressive sexuality of the cameraman, without experiencing the consequences of that act. This may not have been the intention, but it is an interesting effect of the film today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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