Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: race

A Reckless Rover (1918)

Another short slapstick comedy distributed by Ebony Studios, this movie once again points up the troubled history of race relations in America. Although the studio was managed and operated by African Americans, it was owned by whites, and as this movie illustrates, it often represented their ideas of what Black entertainment could or should be.

Uh oh.

Our movie begins with a title card and an intertitle, each of which is illustrated with large-lipped caricatures of a Black man. We are told that our hero Rastus (Sam Robinson) makes a sloth look like “a human dynamo of energy,” and we first see him lying in bed as his landlady bangs on the door to get her back rent. She finds a policeman, kitted out in Keystone Kop regalia, to assist her in getting into the room. She doesn’t want her property damaged by breaking in the door, however, so she gets a chair so that the policeman can get in via the window above the door. Rastus pushes the window up so that the cop is stuck, and he kicks and makes faces as the landlady struggles to pull him back through. Rastus goes back to bed and stuffs a pillow in the cop’s face to keep him quiet before he falls back down on the landlady. Now the cop is determined to break in the door and he is soon leaping across the bed while Rastus darts underneath from one side to the other to evade him. Rastus grabs his hat and coat and leaps out the window into the back alley. The landlady, meanwhile, has gotten a shotgun and shoots the cop in the backside, propelling him out the window as well.

The chase proceeds through unpaved alleys and muddy streets, though Rastus soon evades the cop by hiding inside a wooden box as the officer runs around the corner. To be safe, however, he decides to go into a Laundromat run by “Charley Moy” a Black man in yellowface, and steal some new clothes. Moy catches him, however, and threatens him with his iron. Rastus claims that the wind blew the clothes on the ground and Charlie decides to hire him to work at the laundry. Now Rastus has his pick of the clothing, and he chooses a new striped shirt and a tie with spots on it. Now an attractive young woman comes into the shop with the ticket for the very order he has been pillaging. He gives it to her and steals a kiss before she slaps him and leaves. Now Moy uses his iron on Rastus’s backside to encourage him to work harder and Rastus replies by whacking him with a wet garment, even as another customer enters the shop. When Charlie throws the rag back at Rastus, he misses, and of course hits the customer. Soon he is throwing everything in the place at Rastus, and Moy applauds as he catches each parcel without dropping them, but then expresses dismay when Rastus drops the lot into the washer to catch one last item. The customer grabs his bundle and goes, while Rastus runs all of the remaining ones through the wringer (without opening them first).

The management would like to apologize for this image.

Now the lady customer arrives at home and inspects her laundry. She discovers a missing stocking (it’s the “tie” Rastus is wearing), and goes back to the shop. Meanwhile, Rastus has found the boss’s opium pipe and tries a few drags from it. At first, he looks like it is making him nauseous, but soon he starts spinning in place with a blissful look on his face. He prances about until he burns himself on the stove, then gets into the washer to cool off. Steam comes out of his ears. Charlie finds him and surmises what has happened, warning him against smoking from the tin marked in Chinese letters – a fade shows us that they translate to “Rat Poison.” The lady customer returns, and Rastus locks Moy in the back room so he can have her to himself. She recognizes the stocking around his neck this time, and he steals another kiss, trying to placate her by giving her other customer’s parcels. She throws these back at him and at that moment Moy breaks in and knocks a shelf on top of Rastus, pinning him to the counter.

They really don’t get better, do they?

The lady customer finds the cop from before and reports what has happened, so he goes to the store to investigate. Charlie comes out to try to smooth things over, but Rastus hides with the iron and hits he cop whenever his back is turned, making him think it is Charlie doing it. The cop hits  Charlie and Rastus hits the cop and they both fly backward – Charlie to the back room and the cop into the street. The cop beats the ground with his nightstick, summoning a variety of other African American policemen in Keystone garb, most of whom appear to be napping on their beats. The four cops go into the store, but Rastus sets up the unconscious Moy to be their target, backside first. The cops fire their soda powder guns into the room, and Rastus calls out advice so that they will hit Moy. Rastus sneaks out the back, and the cops rush in and start trashing the place. The last shot shows Rastus running down an alleyway.

Not the best print, though that can be merciful.

The movie itself is pretty primitive for 1918 – it looks like something Keystone could have put out five years earlier – and this isn’t helped by a print that is damaged in multiple places. The comic timing and acrobatics of some of the players (particularly Robinson and the main featured cop) is at least at the level of an “average” Keystone movie, but there are no budding Chaplins here. The use of Chicago city streets, apparently on the poorer side of town, is interesting to see. Who would have thought that there would be muddy, unpaved areas in Chicago 100 years ago?

I’ve been soft-balling criticism of these Ebony films because I want to find something good in movies that at least put Black actors and crews to work at this early time, but this one is outright offensive on multiple levels. If it’s not the Chinese caricature, it’s the horrible cartoons on the intertitles, and the depiction of African Americans as lazy, shiftless, unreliable, thieving, and generally stupid throughout. I’ve read that Ebony took some heat at the time for continuing to show movies they made before 1917, when the management was all white, but this movie is clearly from a later time, evidenced by a poster for “Hearts of the World” that Rastus runs past near the end. So, the Black management somehow thought this was OK, apparently. It is the case that the movie borrows its style heavily from Keystone comedies, and it is possible to imagine Ford Sterling or Al St. John playing a character like Rastus, but in context, it’s pretty easy to see why the NAACP would have objected to this studio’s output. The only thing one can say for it, in light of recent research affirming the importance for young people to see images of people like themselves for their healthy development, is that at least the children who watched this were seeing actual Black people on screen, not white men in blackface. It’s a pretty poor compensation, in light of the messages they received about themselves and others.

Director: C.N. David

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Sam Robinson

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here (do so at your own risk).

Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918)

We’re back with another short comedy from the Ebony Film Company, a white-owned Chicago-based company that made movies with Black performers intended for African American audiences. As with “Two Knights of Vaudeville,” the result is a somewhat problematic piece of the legacy of race in America.

The movie opens with a professor placing a classified ad for a genuine mummy to use for experimentation. The professor’s daughter is dating a young man, Bill, and the professor comes home to find them snuggling on the couch, but ignores them in order to test out his new formula in the kitchen. He takes a mounted stuffed duck from the wall and injects the formula, causing an explosion that frightens a small boy peeping in the window. The duck comes to life! It also runs all over the place, wreaking havoc on the kitchen. When Bill comes in to investigate, the professor hits him with the broom intended for the duck. Bill takes his chance to ask the professor for his daughter’s hand in marriage, and the professor agrees on the condition that his formula prove successful with a mummy. This gives Bill an idea.

The next day, Bill goes to a costume shop and picks up a phony sarcophagus. He offers a shoe shine boy ten dollars to play a mummy. Meanwhile, we learn that emissaries from Egypt are in town looking for a stolen mummy, and they spot the professor’s ad. Bill takes the boy back to his place and dresses him up as the mummy and puts him in the sarcophagus. He calls the professor and tells him to come down and pick up his mummy. While waiting, he runs into a friend and brings him in on the scam. The friend sells the “mummy” for a thousand dollars, which he and Bill fight over while the shoeshine boy pockets a goodly portion of it unnoticed. Bill gets some porters to cart the sarcophagus over to the professor’s house. The porters are insufficiently cautious, and the sarcophagus drops out the back, being dragged behind the cart by the rope they used to partially tie it down. The “mummy” yells and gets them to stop and put it back on the cart more securely. The two Egyptian agent observe the mummy’s arrival, since they are now watching the professor’s house. They request admittance of the daughter and ask for the professor to hand it over, so he throws them out.

Now the professor is ready to perform his test, injecting his formula into a genuine mummy. When he does inject it into the shoeshine boy, he screams and starts flailing and running all around the room (much like the duck did, actually). The professor manages to seal it back inside the sarcophagus, but he is hurt in the process and his daughter ministers to his aid. The two Egyptians take advantage of the distraction to sneak into the house and steal the now-unconscious mummy from the sarcophagus. Bill and Lulu head out to find a parson. The professor nails up the sarcophagus to prevent further mummy attacks. The Egyptians are genuflecting before their prize when the shoeshine boy wakes up and terrifies them. He manages to free himself from the bandages and finds all of the professor’s money in the wraps.

There’s a lot of familiar caricatures of Black life here, not least including the many scare-takes the mummy makes possible, as well as the greed and laziness evinced by Bill and his allies. Still, we do get an African American professor, who has authority over his daughter’s future, placing him as an equal to white patriarchs in this regard. He may be a bit nutty (typical of professors in comedies), but he is able to bring a duck back to life. Certainly this movie is less offensive than something like “Watermelon Patch” and it is something of a relief to see actual Black actors as opposed to white actors in blackface in movies of this time, perhaps that would have appealed to the intended audience as well. The young NAACP did denounce Ebony for this sort of movie, however, and even went so far as to suggest that comedies in general were inappropriate material for Black productions. They weren’t alone – a lot of progressive-minded people regarded the slapstick of the era as “vulgar” and degrading. It would be a long time before African American comics like Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy came along to challenge stereotypes rather than reinforce them.

Director: R.W. Phillips

Camera: C.C. Fetty

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 14 Min

I have not been able to find this available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Neigbors (1920)

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

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

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

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

Joe abusing Buster – just like old times.

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

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

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

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Oyster Princess (1919)

Another Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy starring Ossi Oswalda, this one is a bit less transgressive than “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” but still racy by the standards of the time, especially compared to American comedies. Lubitsch again shows the talent he will be bringing to movies for some time to come.

Ossi this time plays Ossi Quaker, the daughter of an American magnate (Victor Janson) who has made his fortune selling oysters. She seems to delight in destroying things, throwing newspapers when she runs out of vases to break. When Victor asks what the matter is this time, he finds it’s because the daughter of the “Shoe Cream King” is marrying a count. Of course, she demands better, so Mr. Quaker agrees to find her a prince. He goes to a matchmaker (Max Kronert) who looks in his files and discovers a confirmed bachelor by the name of Prince Nucki (Harry Liedke) and sends him an invitation to meet the Quakers. The reticent Nucki, on receiving this note in his bachelor pad, sends his buddy Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to scope out the girl in question, setting him up to play his valet. Meanwhile, Ossi is “instructed” in married life by practicing with a baby doll.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship

The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.

The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and  liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Infernal Cake-Walk (1903)

Alternate Titles: Le Cake-walk infernal

With October now well under way, it’s time to return to my traditional “history of horror” posts. For this outing, I’ve chosen a short dance movie from Georges Méliès which meshes Satanic themes and colonialism.

The movie begins in a cavern with flames shooting up from various places in the floor. A group of young women dressed as demons (perhaps succubi?) dance across the floor, and then some male demons perform tumbling tricks. Soon, a fellow dressed like a biblical prophet appears and chases them all away, but he removes his outer clothes and is revealed to be Satan himself (played by Méliès). First he dances with a fireball in his hand, which grows in proportion until he throws it down. He summons two cake-walk dancers, a black man and woman, who perform their dance and are joined by a group of young women. Now a large cake is brought out by evidently African servants, and a new demon leaps forth from it. This fellow has a humped back and knobby knees, but despite his deformities proves to be an excellent cake-walk dancer. He performs for some time, and during the dance first his legs, then his arms detach themselves and dance independently. He disappears and all of the demons, damned souls, and dancers reappear and dance together on stage until Satan reappears and they vanish in a puff of smoke. Satan disappears through a trap door in the stage.

Because it’s mostly dancing, I was able to summarize the action pretty succinctly, however this is a fairly long movie for Méliès: over five minutes long. Not so long as “A Trip to the Moon,” but well above the earlier 1-2 minute films he was making. There are a number of intriguing aspects. The “female demons” I mentioned above have horns, but their striped costumes made me think of bees. The “male demons” are actually wearing the masks of the Selenites from “A Trip to the Moon” (having gone to the bother of making so many masks, I guess Méliès wanted to get more use out of them). The black dancers appear to be wearing makeup, but from their hair and features I think they may have been actually of African descent, not white Frenchmen in blackface. The cake-bearers are wearing black full-bodysuits, so I think they actually are white people. The Star Film Catalog tells us that the biblical-prophet-looking-guy is really Plato who has returned from a journey to the Earth to show off the cake walk dance. I suppose that Plato has to be in Hell because he was a pagan; Dante places him there in the “Inferno.” Still, it’s interesting that he serves the function of a colonial explorer bringing back exotic foreign dances to Hell. The dancers and cake bearers are to all intents and purposes captured slaves. Since recent analyses of “A Trip to the Moon” have argued that Méliès was making a point about the evils of colonialism, it’s interesting to see this movie as suggesting its origin with the Devil himself. Still, I suspect that for audiences then and today, this is mostly a fun romp of effects and dances.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, others

Run Time: 5 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Ramona (1910)

This early short by D.W. Griffith was shot in California and adapts a highly popular novel which had come to be associated with the myth of Californian conquest. Although this is one of the longest movies released that year, Griffith was clearly feeling the constraints of the short format in trying to tell such a large story.

The movie begins with a Biograph title card, which includes the subtitle “A Story of the White Man’s Injustice to the Indian.” The next card informs us about the source, the novel by Helen Hunt Jackson, and the fact that the movie was shot “on location” in Camulos, California, “the actual scenes” where the novel is set. The first shot shows Ramona (played by a very young Mary Pickford) and her meeting with Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), one of the Indians who works at her stepmother’s estate. Ramona is sewing, and as the Indian workers file past, Alessandro notices her and is struck by her beauty. Ramona goes into the church to pray, and Alessandro follows her. An intertitle informs us that the next scene is “the meeting at the chapel,” in which we witness their “meet cute.” Ramona also seems fascinated, but demure, and her stepbrother Felipe (Francis J. Grandon) introduces them and then leads Alssandro away. The next scenes show their growing attraction, and we learn that Ramona has rejected an engagement with Felipe over Alessandro. But, when Ramona sees Alessandro playing guitar under a tree, she runs away in horror, running to the church to ask forgiveness. But, after praying, she returns to him and embraces him, only to be violently separated by her outraged stepmother (Kate Bruce).

A sane Alessandro.

A sudden shift in the plot takes place as the next intertitle informs us that “The Whites” devastate Alessandro’s village. We see this event at a great distance, with burning tents visible from a cliff. The main focus of action is on Alessandro in the foreground, who emotes his loss with gestures.  Now, Ramona’s stepmother tells her the truth: she is half-Indian herself. This makes her love for Alessandro a possibility, and she goes to him to tell him, after somehow “intuiting” the burning of the Indian village. Again, they embrace, and now Ramona chooses his life over her own, joining him in poverty and effective exile. At first, Ramona’s stepmother wants to send workers out to search for her, but Felipe calls it off, forcing the family to accept Ramona’s choice. We see a brief scene of domestic bliss for Ramona and Alessandro, and they have a baby, but soon the whites come back to inform them that they now own the land. Now, they are homeless with a tiny baby to care for. They wander out into the mountains, and soon the baby dies and Alessandro is driven mad. In this state, he runs into one of the whites, who shoots him down. Ramona is grieving over his body when Felipe arrives to take her home.

An insane Alessandro

The movie as shown is very hard to follow without some background information or familiarity with the novel. Felipe’s role is particularly obscure, but also the “intuition” that drives Ramona to Alessandro the second time and various other events are hard to deduce from the intertitles. Scenes like the eviction from their house seem to drag on, but there are big jumps in the plot as it proceeds. Still, the movie has some interest. I’ve always felt that Griffith worked better in a short format (in part because he refused to write scripts or storyboards in detail), and this movie shows some of his developing strengths as a director. There is good use of inter-cutting to set up simultaneous events, and suspense is effectively established, as when Ramona prepares to sneak out of her stepmother’s house and one wonders if she will make it. Pickford is quite early in her acting career, and while she doesn’t dominate the screen the way she will later, she manages some nice touches as Ramona, especially when she seems to be vacillating between guilt over her feelings for Alessandro and a desire to give in to them. Walthall, who would go on to become a very successful leading man, still seems a bit rough around the edges to me. There’s no denying his screen presence, but he seems to go in for gesticulating over facial expressions. A bit more subtlety on his part would go a long way toward making this more watchable.

Once again, we have one of those D.W. Griffith movies that “prove” he wasn’t racist, because the whites are bad guys and the Indians are held up as noble. The problem with this is the degree to which the myth of the “noble savage” is bound up in American colonialism and the fact that this movie makes no attempt to depict the reasons behind the white people’s actions and the degree to which they are motivated by American values into attacking and victimizing the indigenous people. Reviewers at the time noted that it failed to truly transmit the intended message of the novel, focusing only on the elements of tragic romance that transcend race and situation. Undeniably a movie of historical interest, it may not live up to its reputation as a classic.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Mary Pickford, Henry B. Walthall, Francis J. Grandon, Kate Bruce, Mack Sennett, Dell Henderson, W. Chrystie Miller, Dorothy Bernard, Gertrude Clair, Anthony O’ Sullivan

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Out West (1918)

This two-reel comedy from Comique is another collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, and this time the two of them really work well together. As you might guess from the title, it’s a Western spoof, and the level of chaos easily rivals anything the Keystone Studios ever put out.

As the movie begins, Arbuckle is riding the rails, bumming a ride on a freight train. He’s chosen an unusual way to do this, however, he’s in a tanker car three-quarters full of water. Roscoe takes a moment to peek out the hatch, but when he does so, the train comes to a stop and a railroad worker comes across the top of the car, so he ducks back down. The worker now opens the hatch and connects it to the pipe from a water tower, filling the car the rest of the way while Arbuckle sputters and nearly drowns. Once the worker’s gone, he climbs out and looks for somewhere better to ride. He finds the caboose, where the workers are having a breakfast of coffee, ham, and bread. He waits until they’re distracted from reading the paper, then uses a hook to grab their breakfast and haul it up to where he’s sitting, on top of the car. The workers first accuse one another of stealing the food, but then discover Roscoe, since his bottom is still hanging over the windowsill. The chase is on! Arbuckle and the railroad men run across the roof of the moving train, and the silliness escalates until Arbuckle has disengaged several cars in order to escape. The train backs up to reconnect, but he’s able to slip away in the confusion.

We are now introduced to the town of Mad Dog Gulch, which is clearly a wretched hive of scum and villainy. As the owner of the saloon and local sheriff, Buster Keaton keeps order with his sixguns. Spotting a man cheating at cards, Keaton watches from the bar until the confrontation reaches a climax, then cuts it short by gunning the cheater down from behind. He picks up the dead man’s hand and tells his opponent, “you would have lost, anyway.” Then he kicks the corpse into a handy trapdoor to the basement, after briefly removing his hat in respect. We also meet “Wild Bill Hiccup” (Al St. John) who apparently lives in Mad Dog Gulch and is even a meaner hombre than the rest of the town. He plans to rob the saloon with a bunch of his buddies, all of them wearing masks so as not to be recognized by the sheriff.

Meanwhile, Arbuckle is wandering the desert, and winds up being chased by a group of cannibalistic Indians who have decided to eat him. He runs for the nearest sign of civilization, which, for better or worse, is Mad Dog Gulch and the Last Chance Saloon. He runs in just as the robbery is taking place, and just after the bartender has been shot (Keaton rapidly deploys a “bartender wanted” sign, even while the robbery is in progress), and knocks Al over with the saloon doors. He grabs the dropped guns and amazes everyone with trick shooting, managing to roust the robbers, shoot the Indians at an enormous distance, and shoot Buster’s hat off his head several times in a row. Once the smoke has cleared, Keaton dumps the body of the bartender through the trap door as well, and offers Arbuckle the job. He accepts, but Keaton won’t let him permanently remove the “bartender wanted” sign – he knows how long his bartenders usually last.

The next scene of the film is a pretty ugly racist bullying sequence in which a group of men with guns terrorize an African American man  and make him “dance” by shooting at his feet. Arbuckle joins in, and the man is even briefly dumped into the basement with the bodies before “Salvation Sue” (Alice Lake) comes in and puts everyone to shame for the goings-on. She now becomes Arbuckle’s love interest, as the two shyly introduce themselves. Al St John and his gang return, this time without masks, just looking to raise a little Hell instead of robbing the joint. He takes an interest in Sue, despite her lack of reciprocation, and Buster tries to throw him out, getting thrown clear across the room for his efforts. Arbuckle tries to put an end to the “mashing” by breaking a bottle over Al’s head, but he doesn’t seem to notice, so Arbuckle tries another. And another. Soon both Al and Alice are drenched in spirits from all the broken bottles, but Al is in no way slowing down, so Arbuckle tries his gun, also without effect. Finally, it dawns on Arbuckle to try tickling Al with a feather, and this proves to be the one thing Al can’t resist. He’s reduced to helpless laughter and Alice is able to get away. Buster joins in the tickle-fest and they kick Wild Bill Hiccup out, but Buster falls into his own trap door in the process.

Humiliated, Hiccup attempts to gain his revenge by kidnapping Sue and riding out of the town with her as his gang keep the bartender and the sheriff at bay. Arbuckle eventually breaks free and chases Hiccup back to his shack as Keaton holds off Hiccup’s men. After once again subduing Hiccup by tickling him, Arbuckle and Sue push his shack off a hill with him still inside, which is presumed to be enough to kill or at least subdue him. The end.

This movie is completely over the top, which is what it would take to effectively lampoon a Western at a time when so many of them were already silly to begin with. The structure of this film, at least from the time Arbuckle enters the bar, closely follows that of a William S. Hart movie. The stranger from out of town proves himself to be tougher than the tough guys, he gets hired (in a twist, he’s hired as the bartender by the sheriff, rather than the other way around), he meets the girl who makes him want to reform, and then the tough guys abuse her and he has to use his skills to rescue her. But, in this case, the story takes place amid a nonstop barrage of ridiculous gags. I only described maybe 25-30% of them in my rather lengthy synopsis above. The first part of the movie, aboard the train, includes some of the most death-defying stunts I’ve seen done on a train, and I kept thinking about the incredible risks Arbuckle and the other actors were taking. A train is hard to stop, once someone falls between two cars!

I can’t ignore the racist depictions of the Indians or the African American character, which does rather taint this movie for the modern viewer. It’s not a defense, but it is important to understand in the context of the “over the top” comedy that Arbuckle is here lampooning racist depictions that were presented seriously at the time, and he’s deliberately pushing them to an extreme. The idea that Indians would try to hunt down a “big fat paleface” for food was supposed to be ridiculous, and also a mockery of the generic “savage” presented in other films of the day. It can’t be seen as any kind of anti-racist critique, however, and watching it is a bit difficult, to say nothing of the use of the black man’s fear for his life to generate laughs. On the other hand, that man happens to be Ernie Morrison, Sr., a great comedian and the father of “Sunshine Sammy” Morrison, a personal favorite of mine. This was the kind of work he had to take to show off his skills, and we should not underestimate the hard work and talent he put into his “dancing” and pratfalls.

With all of this in mind, however, there are other things at work which save the film if you can get past those parts. Buster and Roscoe are clearly collaborators in this movie: their roles are nearly equal. Arbuckle is definitely still the star, but Keaton is less of a minor character or inferior and more of a sidekick. He also does some great stunts, including hanging from a chandelier and various pratfalls, and it’s clear Arbuckle thought his work was part of the draw, although I don’t find his name on any contemporary posters, so I guess he wasn’t a star yet. I found watching the two of them work together very enjoyable in this movie.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Ernie Morrison Sr

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Watermelon Patch (1905)

This short film from Edison offers the opportunity to think about racial tropes in America and how they have (and haven’t) changed. While certainly not a flattering portrayal of African Americans, it avoids the use of blackface and has real black people portraying themselves at least.

The movie opens on a shot of a watermelon patch with two full-sized scarecrows on poles overlooking it. Two black men cautiously enter the shot and, after comedically bumping heads, signal to off-screen companions, who filter in and each claims a watermelon. While they are distracted, the scarecrows remove their clothes, revealing skeletons underneath (actually, people in black body-suits with skeletons painted on the front). One of the thieves turns and sees them, and the skeletons begin waving. The thieves panic and run, and the skeletons hop down from their poles and chase them off-screen. The chase continues for a few succeeding shots, and many of the watermelon thieves drop their ill-gotten gains as they run through a forest, leap over a fence, and hurry down a country road.

The scene shifts to the interior of a shack, with many African Americans dancing together. The dance has comedic elements – a very large fat woman is featured in one portion, and another section involves two men surreptitiously kicking one another at intervals in the dance. Then, the survivors of the chase come in, some of them still have their watermelons, and this is cause for general celebration. A watermelon is thrown on the ground so that it shatters into pieces, and everyone takes a piece and sits down to eat. We see a close two-shot of two men eating very large pieces of watermelon, occasionally looking up to grin at each other with juice-stained faces. They seem to engage in a kind of “Watermelon Contest,” with the one on the left pulling ahead and then breaking off a chunk of his opponent’s piece to get more watermelon.

The scene returns to the watermelon patch, where some white men with dogs have arrived. The dogs track the scent of the thieves through the forest, the fence, and the road, and the men arrive outside of the shack. One peers in the window, which is closed in his face. The white men board up the door from outside and cover the smokestack with a board. Back inside, we see one of the black men shut the window, then the feeding continues for a while until the place starts to fill up with smoke. Everyone gets up in distress, but they cannot open the door. Someone opens the window, and a woman tries to climb through it, getting stuck so that her undergarments are visible to the audience. Once again, we cut to outside, and again, we go back a bit in time so that we see the window open, and the woman climbs through. This time, she does not get stuck however, because the white men drag her out, and she runs away. Then several more people are brought out that way, and others climb out through a skylight. The white men let all of them go, although apparently they chastise them as they pull them out of the shack.

On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, African American scholar Michele Wallace raises some interesting points about blacks and watermelons, and also black stereotypes generally. Watermelons are a staple Southern food (they will not grow in the North), which can be grown cheaply and with relatively little effort. They have, as we know, become associated with African American culture and with racial epithets. I think she misses the fact that they are generally messy to eat, with juice staining hands and faces, and the necessity of spitting out the seeds, which contributes to their consumption being seen as “uncouth” or infantile. She makes another interesting point that applies well to this movie, which is that most of the stereotypes about black culture from this period reflect poor, rural life in various ways (perhaps today it is poor, urban culture being reflected in black stereotypes). This movie centers around agricultural production, and also the question of ownership (and theft) of the means of living. Wallace points out that poor people often stole food like watermelons and chickens, because these were things that could feed a large group quickly, and could be hard to trace. Other stereotypes include their superstitious reaction to the skeletons, associated with a low level of education and world-experience, and their dancing, which is the only form of free entertainment available to them. The blacks seem to be a mix of “field hands” and “house servants” from their attire, although recall that slavery is now 40 years in the past. The field hands often seem to get the better of their “betters,” as in the kicking contest that takes place during the dance.

Technically, this film is also interesting. When I watched the opening, I thought, “if this movie had been made four years earlier, that opening shot would have been the whole movie, and that would have been just as good.” By 1905, Edwin S. Porter feels the necessity to drag out his thin plot over several shots by adding a chase, which may partly explain why chase films were so common during the Nickelodeon Era. But the really interesting aspect of this movie is the sequential editing, which requires us to see the window being closed from both the inside and the outside of the shack, and for the sequence to “jump backward” in time each time we cut between the two locations. Parallel editing is just a couple of years away, and in fact this is more neatly handled than “Life of an American Fireman” was a few years earlier, where an entire scene is re-played from two angles. I would say that this is a step in the evolution of editing, and suggests that it was not the genius of any one person that “invented” the technique.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

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

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)

This early version of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a little hard to accept in the modern world, because of the associations we have with the title and the way it portrays the African American experience. Nonetheless, at the time of its release it was an important attempt to recreate an important work of literature on the screen, and compared to other movies of the time, it demonstrates high production values and a seriousness of tone.

The movie begins with the Intertitle “Eliza pleads with Tom to run away.” We then see some actors in blackface on a proscenium-style set that depicts a cabin in the snow. They talk with each other and pantomime their conversation. “Eliza” is accompanied by a small child, and “Tom” seems to have a wife or other woman living in his cabin. The next scene is “Phinias outwits the slave traders.” Here, on a set built to resemble a tavern or store, Eliza speaks to a white character, who shows her out the back door, then distracts a well-dressed white man with liquor. Other men come in and “Phinias” keeps them in a huddle while Eliza re-enters the stage, then sneaks her child and herself out through the window. When the men turn around, Phinias holds them at bay with pistols. “The Escape of Eliza” involves an elaborate outdoor set that re-creates a river with ice floes floating along it. Eliza and the child run upriver, pursued by dogs and a group of men, then float past the other direction on one of the ice floes. Some men who try to catch them fall into the river and have to be rescued. Next is the “Reunion of Eliza and George Harris,” which takes place in a large room with a spinning wheel. George tries to hide Eliza, and when the pursuers show up he shoots one of them in the  foot from a high vantage point, then shoots another one dead when they don’t leave.

The narrative now shifts away from Eliza with “Race between the Rob’t E. Lee and Natchez.” This river-boat race is shown with very obvious miniatures, and the losing boat explodes and catches fire at the end. I was expecting “Rescue of Eva” to be rescuing someone from the burning boat, but rather it shows a group of slaves dancing in front of the disembarkation of the winner. Eva, a small white child, trips and falls off the gangplank into the river, and Tom leaps in to save her. The next scene is “The Welcome home to St. Clair Eva Aunt Ophelia and Uncle Tom” [sic]. This shows what seems to be the entryway to a plantation home and more slaves dancing. Eva rides in on a pony. Tom is now dressed in a very fine butler’s uniform. “Tom and Eva in the Garden” is an extension of this happy home life sequence, with a cakewalk-style dance. This is then broken by “Death of Eva” in which a double-exposed image of an angel floats down and takes Eva’s soul from her body on the sickbed. Tom pantomimes his profound sorrow at the child’s death. In “St. Clair Defends Uncle Tom,” we see Tom and his owner enter a fancy saloon. Tom stands deferentially to one side while St. Clair drinks and reads the paper, but some white men start trouble with him and St. Clair gets up and fights them. He is killed in the fight.

The next scene, “Auction Sale of St. Clair’s Slaves” is often criticized because it shows the slaves dancing (again) before the auction begins. Even more stereotypically, two of them are playing craps as well (as if they would have anything to gamble). I think what was more significant to audiences at the time is that Tom is no longer in his servant’s finery, he now is clothed as a field hand. In the next scene, “Tom Refuses to Flog Ema’line” and is flogged himself. This takes place before a backdrop of the plantation field. Then, back at the plantation home of Tom’s new owner, “Marks Avenges Death’s of St. Clair and Uncle Tom” [sic] by coming on stage and unceremoniously shooting the white man. The movie concludes with “Tableau: Death of Tom,” which includes superimposed shots from a magic lantern of the eventual emancipation of the slaves over the broken figure of Tom, chained to a wall and dying.

The movie assumes either a live narrator or an intimate familiarity with the story, despite the forward-facing Intertitles that precede each screen, which was itself an innovation in 1903. I was able to follow some of it. It helps to know that Stowe was an abolitionist, and created the character of Tom as a good Christian whose basic decency and humanity was contrasted with the white slave drivers, whose Christianity was often hypocritical. We don’t think of “Uncle Tom” today as a term relating to showing African Americans as human beings, but that was the original intent of the novel. This version undercuts that somewhat by using blackface and portraying stereotypes, but the basic message is still there: Tom rescues a little girl and refuses to whip another slave and dies for it. It doesn’t really seem like the Eliza sub-plot adds much to this in this version, but presumably audiences familiar with the book would have expected to see it, and I was reasonably impressed with the special effects on the ice floe sequence.

Michelle Wallace, who gave the introduction to “Scrap in Black and White,” also introduces this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, pointing out the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period (the same year, there was a version released by Lubin, a studio dedicated mainly to filmed versions of the classics), and to some degree defending it against its reputation as an agent of racism. I have some problems with the way she expresses this, saying that it is perhaps not “100% racist-fascist” and that it does not support the idea of “extermination” of black people in its interest in showing them at play or dancing. The problem is that these concepts do not apply in 1903. Fascism was still almost twenty years away in Italy and had no roots in American racism, which was never based on a need to exterminate black people. American racism did devalue black lives, and supported killing individual blacks, but the idea was to “keep them in their place,” as second class citizens, not to wipe them out. Of course, Stowe’s novel challenged this by arguing that a black man might be a better Christian than his white owners, but this version of the story preserves only part of that message, which is undercut by the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on the screen.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 19 Min

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