Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Pp

The Phantom Carriage (1921)

This spooky film from Sweden adds another piece to my “history of horror” that I wasn’t able to get to in the month of October this year. Never mind, November is still a good creepy month, and this movie transcends the horror genre by dealing with issues of morality and personal responsibility, even as it depicts a skeletal horse pulling a transparent buggy.

Phantom Carriage1

As the film opens, a young woman (Astrid Holm) is sick in bed, those around her call her “Sister Edit,” and expect her soon to die. We learn that she is with the Salvation Army, that it is New Year’s Eve, and that she has only one wish: to speak with someone named David Holm. His name seems to scandalize her caretakers, but they cannot ignore a dying request, and a search for David is mounted. When we find him (played by director Victor Sjöstrom), he is in a graveyard, enjoying a final toast with other down-and-outs. He tells a story that appears in flashbacks.

Phantom Carriage4

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The Prolific Magical Egg (1902)

This trick film from Georges Méliès depicts a standard magic show, as one might have seen in the Theatre Robert-Houdin. We squeeze it into our “History of Horror” because it also shows some of the darker implications of magic and its uses.

Prolific Magical Egg

Méliès appears on a proscenium-style set which resembles a classroom – a blackboard with what looks like a mathematical formula written on it is in the background. There are also two stands erected to either side of the performer, holding up a board between them. He bows and produces a handkerchief. He folds this into his hand and moves close to the camera so that the audience can see his hands, when he opens it, the handkerchief has become an egg. He makes it disappear and reappear an additional time and then retreats to the part of the stage where the stands are erected. The egg suddenly enlarges to the size of his head and he places it on the board. Now he quickly paints a face on it and with gestures, causes it to grow even larger. It fades away to be replaced by a disembodied woman’s head, gargantuan next to the magician. She splits into three enormous heads, which space out along the board. When they move together and recombine into the first head, Méliès goes to kiss her, but now it transforms into an egg-shaped clown’s head, similar to the crude painted face he had first placed on the egg. Méliès laughs and it becomes a painted egg again, then he gestures for it to shrink back down and picks it up. He tosses it into the air and it becomes again a normal egg, which he makes disappear, pretending that he has eaten it. He leaps up onto the board and becomes a skeleton. Now a liveried servant comes out and removes the skeleton. Happy Halloween!

Prolific Magical Egg1

The most interesting piece of this movie is probably the least obvious to modern viewers: Méliès actually zooms in on his hands through the simple expedient of walking upstage towards the camera. As a result, he is no longer framed in a long shot, with his entire body, including feet, visible to the audience. We only see him from approximately the waste up. This sort of thing was still somewhat controversial a decade or so later when feature films were becoming popular. Some critics felt that it was disturbing, or inappropriate somehow to show only parts of bodies on the camera, instead of using it to film a staged performance as it would be seen from the back rows, with entire bodies of everyone in the scene visible at all times. Of course, within a few years medium shots would be no big deal, but they are very rare in 1902. The disembodied heads and enlarging egg were accomplished using a split screen and moving the camera closer, but Méliès had already done this in “The Man with the Rubber Head” by this time. The ending is the most “horror” aspect, with the skeleton briefly animate, but seemingly dead when the servant comes out to remove it. I thought at first that this was an unfortunate side effect of eating prolific magical eggs, but the Star Films Catalog suggests that there is some missing footage at the beginning in which the skeleton is brought out and transforms into the magician – perhaps he is himself a kind of undead illusion.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

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

Photograph (1896?)

This very brief comedy from Auguste and Louis Lumière establishes some of the visual language that would be used by slapstick comedians until the development of sound. The movie confirms that even very early in the history of cinema, movie makers were thinking of ways to create short scenarios, not simply photographing commonplace reality and reproducing it for audiences.

Photograph

The frame is set up so that we can see two men clearly, from head to foot. They appear to be in a garden or yard behind a private dwelling. One man (Auguste Lumière) sits in a chair, wearing fine clothing. His hat lies on the ground. The other (who I’m pretty sure is not Louis) stands behind a large camera, preparing to take his portrait. The seated man fusses with his hair and the other man poses him and runs back to his camera. As he tries to take the picture, the other man continues to fuss and squirm, preventing him from getting a good shot. Finally, when the seated man takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose, the photographer runs over in frustration, seeking to pose him again, but as he does, he accidentally knocks over a leg of his camera tripod, causing the camera to crash on the ground. The photographer gestures in despair as the seated man gets up to retrieve the camera, which is now wrecked.

Like “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie takes advantage of its short running time to depict a simple mishap and give the audience a quick laugh. No doubt it would have been shown with live narration, the speaker playing up the situation and incident so that the audience was ready for the big crash. Even without this embellishment, it is easy enough for a modern audience to follow and get the joke – so long as they can recognize the large box-shaped thing for a still camera! I’ve had to include a “?” in the date, because Kino’s “The Movies Begin” collection does not indicate its release information, aside from telling us that it is “Lumière #118.” To make matters worse, on Youtube a different movie claims to be “Lumière #118” and says it was released in 1895, which seems too early for such a high number – only ten of their movies were included in the famous screening at the end of that year. It probably is a remake of this movie, using different actors. The Lumières often remade their more successful pictures (I believe there are three distinct version of “Workers Leaving the Factory,” for example), and the Youtube video is longer and does not star either of the Lumières. 1896 seems like a reasonable guess for this version, but it is still speculation.

Director: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 35 secs

You can watch it for free here.

The Playhouse (1921)

Buster Keaton shows off technical wizardry in this two-reel short from First National, but also finds time for laughs in between the effects. Twins and doppelgangers abound as he make fun of his professional roots.

The movie begins by showing Buster looking at a sign for a variety show in front of a theater. He decides to pay and go in, pulling out a long accordion-style wallet and carefully choosing the right coin from its many folds. The clerk gives him a ticket and he enters. An edit shows him entering the inside of the theater – by way of the orchestra pit. It appears that he is the conductor, in spite of his unauspicious entrance, and he begins warming up the musicians. Edits show us several of the musicians, in a series of two-shots. Each of them is identical – they are all Buster! So are the audience (some in drag). One of the Busters looks at his program, finding that every role and crew position is held by “BUSTER KEATON.” He remarks to his mannish-looking wife, “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show.” The various Keatons interact and engage in minor gags for a while, including some unfortunate blackface humor.

This ends as Keaton is woken up in bed by Joe Roberts, in a small sparsely furnished room. It seems that the previous sequence was a dream, and Roberts brings some flunkies in to remove the furniture after briefly remonstrating with Keaton. The audience is set up to believe that Keaton is late with the rent and is being evicted, but after getting Keaton off  the bed and moving that, Roberts pushes the walls down, revealing that this too is a stage set. Keaton picks up a broom and gets down to his real job – sweeping up back stage. Soon, he meets some real twins, a pair of girls that will be performing in the variety show. There are various gags and situations based on his confusion over how many of them are and the fact that one likes him and the other does not.

Striking the set.

Meanwhile, the show starts to go on. Edward Cline instructs Keaton to dress the monkey for his act, but the little critter bolts, so Buster puts on his clothes and performs as a monkey himself. Although he’s probably funnier than the original, he keeps making mistakes, which makes the trainer increasingly angry. At another point, a group of “Zouaves” quits because Keaton has tricked Roberts into punching one of their members, so he goes out and hires a work crew to replace them and leads them through a series of silly stunts and military-style maneuvers. For the final act, one of the twins is put into a tank and holds her breath in a “mermaid” act, but she gets stuck and can’t get out. Buster shatters the glass, causing water to flood the theater and all of the audience is washed out with the tide. He grabs the girl, drags her to a Justice of the Peace before she hits him and he realizes he has the wrong one again. He goes back for the right girl, this time drawing an “x” on her back to avoid future errors before taking her in to get married.

Much has been made of Keaton’s use of a matte box to perform the twinning effect in the first part of the movie, but for the most part Georges Méliès had anticipated him in “The One-Man Band” (1900). At one point, Keaton does have more images on the screen than Méliès managed, but it doesn’t look very good. His best bits are when there are just two of him on the screen, in perfect focus and apparently responding to one another. The female twins are played by two different women, one of whom was Virginia Fox, but I couldn’t tell if she was the one who hit him or the one who married him.

As with most of Keaton’s movies at this time, a thin plot is the basis for a series of gags and routines that add up to a lot of laughs. There’s a bit of an inside joke in the multiple-Keatons sequence, since he got his start as part of a family act called “The Three Keatons.”It struck me as funny when “this fellow Keaton seems to be the whole show,” because in fact Keaton was more of a collaborator than the other famous silent clowns of the time, consistently working with a co-director instead of insisting on being in complete control of everything. He may have been the whole show by now so far as audiences were concerned, but he was only a part of it behind the camera.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

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

Run Time: 22 Min

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

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »

The Property Man (1914)

This early Charlie Chaplin short has elements in common with later films, like “Back Stage” starring Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, though all of them probably drew from Vaudeville routines as their sources. It shows both the roughness of Chaplin’s early work, and the rapidity with which he developed.

Charlie is a stage hand for a popular theater with a variety show. The opening shot shows him taking a break with an elderly co-worker (I think it’s Joe Bordeaux). Charlie is drinking out of a large pitcher, and when the old man reaches for it, Charlie twists his ear and spits out what is in his mouth at the man. We see the arrival of some stars (Phyllis Allen and Charles Bennett) who are angry to find that their act is not billed on the poster outside, although they insist on trying to take the “star’s” dressing room – which is reserved for the strong man (Jess Dandy), who is only too happy to show them the door when he gets there. Charlie sits under a “no smoking” sign, smoking a pipe, although  he eagerly points it out to the actors when thy light up. When the strong man lights a cigar, Charlie discreetly turns the sign toward the wall.  Naturally, the strong man has a lovely assistant (Helen Carruthers) and naturally, she and Charlie hit it off, enraging the strong man. Charlie does several pratfalls built around the supposed weight of the strong man’s luggage, bashing into the rest of the cast as he staggers around beneath the huge crates which the strong man lifts effortlessly. Later, Charlie takes a hatbox and straps the heavy stuff to his senior co-worker, who collapses under the weight. When “the Goo Goo Sisters” (another act, billed as “comediennes” on the billboard) show up, Charlie tries to flirt with them as well, but he hides the pitcher in his pants, resulting in an embarrassing leak.

Not helping, Charlie.

The strong man asks Charlie to sew up his tights, although Charlie winds up using them to mop the floor instead. Meanwhile, the matinee has started and Charlie and his coworker fight behind the scenes, causing a backdrop to hit an unpopular singer and knock him out. Charlie sweeps him off the stage, to the delight of the audience (which includes Mack Sennett and Chester Conklin). When the Goo Goo Sisters, in scanty costumes (for 1914 anyway) go on stage, Charlie first follows them out to stare, then blindfolds his partner to prevent him from staring. Their backstage fighting causes them to bump the sisters through the backdrop, again to the delight of the audience. Charlie throws the wet tights, which miss his target and hits a sister, who then throws them into the audience, thinking someone has thrown them instead of booing. There is a long gap between acts, because the strong man lacks tights and his assistant is busy flirting with Charlie, so when the old man raises the curtain, the audience finds the three of them arguing, with the strong man’s garters exposed. He gamely goes ahead with his act, but his assistant has been knocked out in the fighting, so Charlie tries to help, causing more chaos and riotous laughter from the audience. Charlie goes backstage to help the assistant, while the other actors harangue his partner. The old man lowers a backdrop on the strong man while he tries to balance over 1000 lbs of weight, ruining his act. Now the strong man goes back stage and finds Charlie fanning his unconscious assistant, and goes on a rampage, also ruining the dramatic act of the other performers. To defend himself, Charlie grabs a fire hose and sprays him and the other performers, also drenching the entire audience.

As I commented above, this movie has a lot in common with “Back Stage,” most obviously including the angry strong man and his lovely assistant, but I doubt if Arbuckle was actually being any less original than Chaplin – both would have been drawing from established Vaudeville routines which many in their audience were already familiar with. “Back Stage” is also a rather more polished movie in terms of camerawork, plot, and character, but it’s not entirely fair to compare 1914 with 1919, or Chaplin at this point in career with Arbuckle at that point in his. What I can say is that this is one of the funnier movies Chaplin directed himself in during the summer of 1914, and this is so despite the constraints of the Keystone formula and his own limitations due to lack of experience and knowledge of his character. Chaplin isn’t really the “nice” version of the Tramp here – his constant use of violence, especially against his older and demonstrably weaker colleague argues against that – but he manages to evoke a degree of sympathy or identification in the audience nonetheless, perhaps just by being the little fellow who gets the best of everyone around him. There’s a kind of metaphor at work when his various inopportune moments on the stage prove more popular with the in-movie audience than the planned performances; it seems to reflect how his growing fame took studio heads at Keystone by surprise.

Chaplin delights an audience.

There’s a question here, also: Is he playing the “Little Tramp” or not? His mustache is now established (he’d abandon it later in “Tillie’s Punctured Romance,” but not often after that). but the rest of his costume consists her of oversized overalls and a bowler hat with a rim that is nearly falling off. The strong man refers to him in an intertitle as “that bum,” which at least makes a bit of a connection. It seems likely that Chaplin himself didn’t know for sure whether the Little Tramp would take a job as strenuous as property man, and may have been ambivalent about the character here.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Jess Dandy, Helen Carruthers, Joe Bordeaux, Phyllis Allen, Charles Bennett, Mack Sennett, Chester Conklin, Alice Davenport, Harry McCoy, Norma Nichols, Cecile Arnold, Vivian Edwards

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Post No Bills (1896)

A very simple comedy short from Georges Méliès that doesn’t use any trick photography. No doubt this was an early experiment, and we are lucky to be able to see it at all.

We see a wall with a guard station, on what appears to be a genuine outdoor street. A soldier in uniform marches past, and we see writing on the wall that reads, “DÉFENSE d’AFFICHER.” The soldier marches off screen, and soon a man in a white painter’s uniform carrying a bucket appears. He pulls a poster from behind a post and glues it to the wall with a brush from his bucket. He runs off, and soon another man, similarly attired, comes up with an even bigger poster and glues it over the other one. The first poster man returns, and the two argue, soon throwing their glue pots at each other. Suddenly, they run off and the soldier marches past again, oblivious to the poster and to the bucket on the ground. Then his officer walks up and orders him to stand at attention, dressing him down for failing to protect the wall from vandalism. They march off screen together.

The “Star Films Catalog” uses just two words to describe this movie: “very comical.” Apparently they couldn’t think of much else to say about this artifact, at a time when they were distributing much longer and more complex works, but they kept it on as probably one of the cheaper properties they could occasionally sell to a backwater or particularly un-choosy theater owner. For 1896, it’s a reasonably involved story line, with multiple characters, each with his own motivations and reactions. We don’t get a good look at anyone’s face, but I think Méliès plays the first poster-hanger, gauging from the way he moves (Méliès had a distinct body language all his own). I’m assuming they used the outdoor set because this was before he had built his open-air studio in his backyard, but it could be a particularly clever backdrop. The real evidence that it was shot outside is that there’s a shadow of a tree branch on the lower left of the screen, and no one ever seemed to think to do things like that in 1896 to lend their sets verisimilitude (indeed, Méliès may have regarded it as a “mistake” to shoot it – he always avoided that sort of thing later).

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (see above)

Run Time: 1 Min, 14 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Puncher’s New Love (1911)

This unusual film from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson avoids most of the usual Western tropes to tell a romantic story of love lost through selfishness. While a bit awkwardly shot and acted, it goes a long way to showing the diversity of roles Anderson did within the “Broncho Billy” umbrella.

As the movie begins, Anderson is leaning in the window to ask out his girl (Ann Little) to an upcoming barn dance. She is happy to accept and even gives him a little kiss goodbye. Right after he departs, a rival (John O’Brien) arrives with a handbill about the same dance. Ann rightly tells John she can’t go with him, because she just agreed to go with Billy, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint until she repeats herself. Eventually, he seems to console himself by saying at least he’ll see her at the dance with Billy. Meanwhile, Billy comes across a “city girl” (Gladys Field) out riding, and is immediately infatuated. He shows her the handbill and she shows an interest in going with Billy, who seems to completely forget about Ann. On the night of the dance, John sees Billy come in with the city girl and his jaw drops. She refuses to shake hands with a man Billy introduces her to, and looks disdainfully at the whole affair, but eventually agrees to dance with Billy. John eagerly rushes off to find Ann, who is standing forlornly in front of her gate. He tells her Billy’s there with another woman, and she looks crushed, but eventually agrees to go with John. Once there, Billy appears to be about to leave with his bored date, but receives a withering stare from Ann before he gets out the door, and sees that she is with John.

Some time later, Billy pays a call on the city girl, looking about in wide-eyed wonder at her fine house and the liveried butler. Gladys seems not to remember Billy when he is announced, but eventually deigns to coldly greet him. Then a man in a tuxedo comes in and she quickly rushes up and hugs him hello. Billy expresses his jealousy and is asked to leave, which he will not do until he’s said his piece and threatened violence. Now he returns shame-faced to see Ann in her home, but she is still angry at being cast aside without even being informed that their date was off. She tells Billy to go, and this time he does so with more decency, because this is someone he can respect. John comes in a bit later with a ring and we see that Ann has transferred her feelings to him. A final intertitle (possibly added due to the loss of some footage) tells us that the couple eventually discovers Billy dead.

We can’t see you, Ann!

There are no gunfights, horseback chases or bar room brawls in this film, yet it is fundamentally about the different values of the “pure” pioneering America versus the corrupt Europeanized culture of the city. Billy and all the other “punchers” wear riding garb at all times, even at the formal dance, although the city girl wears a black gown and the other country girls are in simple dresses. The overall plot is reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s much later movie “Sunrise,” but without the happy ending, or the attempted murder. It’s interesting that Billy is unable to redeem himself from his mistake – usually in a story like this, a man can make amends, but a “fallen woman” has to die. This movie surprised me by ending with the death of the fallen man. It’s very much a 1911 movie, with all shots taken at full-figure distance, and no camera movement or editing within scenes. The sets are often crowded, especially the dance hall set, and actors frequently pass in front of one another, obscuring  the main action. The dance begins with a little comedy about the fiddler, who is either drunk or exhausted (I couldn’t tell if he was laughing hysterically or yawning), and nearly everyone in the movie is crowded into that scene. One really unfortunate choice was to shoot the scene of John picking up Ann from behind the gate Ann is waiting at, so her face is obscured as she acts out her reaction to Billy’s betrayal. There were a lot of other angles they could have used for that scene, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone that it would be an issue.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Gladys Field, Ann Little, John O’Brien, Augustus, Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Brinsley Shaw

Run Time: 12 Min

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

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?”

Read the rest of this entry »

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.