Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Raoul Walsh

1915 Century Award Nominations

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThe nominations for the “real” Academy Awards were announced earlier today, and once again I’ve seen none of the movies up for consideration, and have only heard of about half of them. This is a recurring theme, and there’s no reason for me to be bitter about it. I just don’t go to the movies very much, and when I do, I usually don’t enjoy it much.

But…for those who are interested in my opinions of the movies of one hundred years ago, this is also the day that I announce my nominations for the Century Awards. I did a pretty good job of watching available movies from 1915 over the past year, although of course it’s not possible to see everything and I may have missed some obvious ones. I may be making some last minute additions in the next weeks, depending on how the Inter-Library Loan gods treat me.

This year, I’m sticking with the categories and rules I established last year with no significant changes. That means that “shorts” and “features” are competing in the same categories, as are “adapted” and “original” screenplays, and there are no special categories for “documentaries” or “animated” movies. In terms of movie length, I could have changed the rules this year, in light of the much higher rate of feature film production in 1915, but with Charlie Chaplin vaulting to super-stardom on the basis of two-reel releases this year, it only seemed right to let him compete with the longer movies. I think most of the “shorts” I nominated are his, though there’s probably an exception or two. I’ve never really understood the distinction between “original” (nothing is original in Hollywood) and “adapted” screenplays, and I’m too lazy to care, so there’s just one category there. As far as docs and animated, it comes down to the fact that I didn’t see enough of either to justify a separate category. The only 1915 animated movie I’ve seen is Ladislaw Starevich’s “Lily of Belgium,” so I guess it wins by default. I saw both “Over the Top” and “Mabel and Fatty Viewing the San Francisco Exposition,” both of which are sort of documentaries and sort of not, but that’s not enough to be called a representative sample of nonfiction film in 1915. (Between the two of them, “Over the Top” would win, if anyone’s interested). I still see no reason to separate “foreign language” from English-language silent films, and, yes, I’m keeping “Best Stunts.”

As I said last year, the rules to the Academy Awards say that there can be “up to five” nominees for each category except Best Picture, which gets “up to ten.” If you want to weigh in on the choices I’ve made, cast your “vote” by commenting, and explain why you think your chosen film should win. I’m still the final arbiter (it’s my blog), but I’ll certainly take well-thought-out arguments into account. If I sneak any new nominees in, it will mean exceeding the maximums, but I figure I can break my own rules when I need to.

Finally, before anyone asks, “where’s ‘The Birth of a Nation,’” the answer to that is here.

 

Best Makeup/Hairstyling

  1. The Deadly Ring
  2. A Woman
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. Trilby
  5. A Night in the Show

Best Costume Design

  1. Trilby
  2. The Deadly Ring
  3. A Fool There Was
  4. The Coward
  5. Hypocrites
  6. Alice in Wonderland

Best Production Design

  1. Young Romance
  2. Daydreams
  3. Evgeni Bauer for Children of the Age
  4. The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Stunts

  1. Charlie Chaplin for Work
  2. Douglas Fairbanks for The Lamb
  3. Charlie Chaplin for The Champion
  4. William Sheer for Regeneration
  5. Charlie Chaplin for By the Sea
  6. Luke the dog for Fatty’s Faithful Fido
  7. Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for Fatty’s Tintype Tangle

Best Film Editing

  1. The Coward
  2. The Italian
  3. Hypocrites
  4. Cecil B. DeMille for Golden Chance
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Cinematography

  1. Walter Stradling for Young Romance
  2. Joseph H. August for The Italian
  3. Boris Zavelev for Daydreams
  4. Alvin Wyckoff for The Cheat
  5. Alias Jimmy Valentine

Best Visual Effects (includes animation)

  1. Regeneration
  2. Ladislaw Starevich for Lily of Belgium
  3. Frank Ormston Hypocrites
  4. Children of Eve
  5. After Death

Best Screenplay

  1. Charlie Chaplin for The Bank
  2. Carl Harbaugh and Raoul Walsh for Regeneration
  3. C. Gardner Sullivan and Thomas Ince for The Italian
  4. M. Mikhailov for Children of the Age
  5. Hector Turnbull and Jeanie MacPherson for The Cheat

Best Supporting Actress

  1. Musidora for “The Red Cryptogram
  2. Kate Toncray for “The Lamb”
  3. Marta Golden for “Work”
  4. Gertrude Claire for “The Coward”
  5. Florense Simoni for “The Red Cryptogram”

Best Supporting Actor

  1. Wilton Lackaye for “Trilby”
  2. Marcel Levésque for “The Deadly Ring”
  3. William Sheer for “Regeneration”
  4. Roy Daugherty for “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw
  5. Sessue Hayakawa for “The Cheat”

Best Leading Actor

  1. Henry B. Walthall for “The Raven
  2. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”
  3. Rockliffe Fellowes for “Regeneration”
  4. George Beban for “The Italian”
  5. Vitold Polonsky for “After Death”

Best Leading Actress

  1. Clara Kimball Young for “Trilby”
  2. Anna Q. Nilsson for “Regeneration”
  3. Vera Kholodnaia for “Children of the Age”
  4. Fanny Ward for “The Cheat”
  5. Geraldine Farrar for “Carmen”
  6. Francesca Bertini for “Assunta Spina

Best Director

  1. Cecil B. DeMille for “The Cheat”
  2. Raoul Walsh for “Regeneration”
  3. Evgeni Bauer for “After Death”
  4. Maurice Tourneur for “Alias Jimmy Valentine”
  5. Charlie Chaplin for “The Bank”

Best Picture

  1. Regeneration
  2. Children of the Age
  3. After Death
  4. The Cheat
  5. Golden Chance
  6. Carmen
  7. The Bank
  8. The Deadly Ring
  9. Alias Jimmy Valentine
  10. The Italian

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

 Birth of a Nation1

The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

 Birth of a Nation2

In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

 Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

Birth of a Nation3

Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

Birth of a Nation4

Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

 Birth of a Nation5

The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

 Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

 Birth of a Nation7

The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”

Regeneration (1915)

This is my contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon, sponsored by Flicker Alley and hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen. As it happens, our sponsor Flicker Alley offers a DVD with this movie and “Young Romance,” which I reviewed last week on it. For those who want to see it for free, here is the Worldcat link for that DVD in libraries throughout the world: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/50865456

 history-2015-flicker-alley-06

Urban criminals have been part of cinema at least since “The Bold Bank Robbery” and “Capture of the ‘Yegg’ Bank Robbers” – both follow-ups to Edwin S. Porter’s smash hit “The Great Train Robbery.” Many of the tropes now familiar to the genre were established when D.W. Griffith made “The Musketeers of Pig Alley.” Raoul Walsh, who learned filmmaking from working for Griffith, returned to the theme for his first feature, “Regeneration,” and in doing so quite probably made the first feature-length gangster movie. The similarities between “Musketeers” and “Regeneration” are pronounced – both involve the redemption of tough guys who’ve grown up in a harsh environment, and both emphasize the human side of the underworld, drawing on the audience’s desire to sympathize with the criminal.

 Regeneration

This movie may confuse modern fans, however, because rather than spending the bulk of its length depicting its protagonist’s criminal career, it chooses to focus on his efforts to rehabilitate himself (his “regeneration”). This can partly be explained by the source material, a book called My Mamie Rose, by Owen Frawley Kildare. This book is a fairly typical “conversion narrative” from the point of view of a former hoodlum gone straight, who wanted to tell of “the miracle that transformed me.” Unlike most such narratives, it isn’t Jesus Christ or a particular church that Kildare credits with his salvation, but the love of a woman named Marie Deering. The real Marie Deering died of pneumonia in 1903, the same year Kildare wrote his autobiography. It was popular, especially among reform-minded progressives, who held Kildare up as an example of the basic decency inside of every criminal, and gave rise to a stage version by 1908. In 1915, William Fox, a successful Nickelodeon entrepreneur who was breaking into movie production (read up on Fox at Once Upon A Screen’s contribution to the blogathon), bought the movie rights and handed the direction to Raoul Walsh.

 Raoul Walsh

Walsh was just starting out his career at this time, and no doubt jumped at the chance to direct the movie version of a popular book. He had worked with Griffith on a number of short films, and was also familiar to movie audiences as an actor. He had played the role of John Wilkes Booth in Griffith’s runaway hit “The Birth of a Nation” (in what I consider to be one of the most palatable scenes in that movie). Now he would take on the challenge of a feature length film with a guaranteed audience among the book’s fans. Fox was a holdout for making movies on the East Coast at a time when much production was moving West, but no doubt the gritty locations of New York strengthened this movie’s impact.

 Regeneration1

Regeneration opens in the Bowery area of New York city, with a casket being loaded onto a hearse. This is the body of the mother of our hero, called Owen Conway in this version, and played by Rockliffe Fellows (later in “Rusty Rides Alone” and “Monkey Business” with the Marx Brothers). Or, at least he will be, once he’s done growing out of a series of child actors. He’s taken in by the neighbors, who use him as child labor and an occasional punching bag. Owen and his “family” wear some of the rattiest clothes you’ll ever see on film, and the surroundings are consistently grimy, and random extras in the area are deformed or ugly. This is not a nice childhood. By the time he’s twenty five, and has transformed into Fellowes, he’s the leader of a gang, by virtue of his strength and cunning, and his adherence to the codes of the street.

 Regeneration2

Now into the story comes an ambitious young District Attorney, played by Carl Harbaugh (also in Walsh’s lost version of “Carmen” and “Steamboat Bill, Jr.” with Buster Keaton), who has vowed to clean up crime in the city. His dinner party includes young social butterfly Marie Deering (Anna Q. Nilsson, a Swedish actress, who went on to “Seven Keys to Baldpate” and “Sunset Boulevard“), who, at this stage in her development, thinks that seeing some real live gangsters would be exciting, so he takes them all out to a low-class nightclub/beer hall/vaudeville, where he is rapidly recognized and assaulted by the patrons. Owen watches this all, at first with disinterest, but, after he notices the girl, he steps in and breaks up the fight, saving the slumming socialites from the consequences of their actions. Deering is now convinced that the people living in the tenements need someone to show them the way out of poverty and hardship, and volunteers to work at a local mission, where (of course) she runs into Owen again. Owen starts coming around to the mission more, and disassociates himself from his old gang.

A thrilling scene takes place about midway through the film when Deering takes her charges on an outing on the ferry (where are they going, Staten Island? Not that uplifting, if you ask me, but maybe things were different then). Skinny, one of Owen’s old gang, comes along for the ride and carelessly starts a fire when he throws his cigarette into some rope. The burning ferry becomes a smaller version of the Titanic, with panicked passengers hurling themselves into the drink. Owen manages to save some kids, and the intertitles tell us that no children were killed during the disaster. Years later, Walsh told a humorous anecdote about this scene – that several of the women actors who lept from the ferry had no underwear on, and he and the editor had to draw them onto the film in post-production, due to the way their skirts flew up when jumping into the water. It’s a cute story, but not likely, since the long shot he uses here doesn’t allow the eye to catch that level of detail.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they're wearing.

OK, Raoul, now tell me what they’re wearing.

Of course, Owen’s old life catches up with him, first, because the D.A. (who is not at all a likeable character, even if he does represent the forces of law and order) is still hoping to get Deering off the charity kick so she’ll marry him, and starts to snoop around to find out about this young punk who shows such an interest in her, and partly because his old colleague Skinny knifes a cop and comes running to him for hiding. It’s the last portion of the movie in which we get all the violence and excitement we expect in a gangster movie, with cops raiding the gangsters’ hangout, nightsticks thrown, guns blazing, and Skinny threatening to do goodness-knows-what after he’s kidnapped Marie. There’s also a marvelous stunt when Skinny tries to escape his fate by hand-over-handing his way across a laundry line tied between two towering tenement buildings. I don’t usually worry overmuch about “spoilers,” but in this case I think the ending is worth preserving – it has elements of redemption but also tragedy.

Regeneration4

Sorry, hipsters, this is what a beer growler really looks like.

Narratively, this movie has a lot in common with the Western genre. It’s very easy to imagine the same story told in California or Arizona: A man is redeemed from his savage, masculine life by the love of a more civilized woman, but has to return to his natural skills when her life and honor are threatened by the forces of his former world. Stylistically, it is very much of the more “advanced” kind of feature we’re getting used to here at the second half of 1915. There is good use of close-ups, lots of different camera angles, cross-cutting, iris shots, zooms, and a generally “freer” camera, that doesn’t feel as locked down as most of the movies of a year or more before. I also noticed a very sophisticated approach to intertitles: where they used to come before the action they described, now they often interrupt and action or explain it right after the fact. There’s also some great depictions of New York’s Bowery district nearly six decades before CBGB and the Ramones made it a playground for kids like me. Note especially the “growlers” (actually dented metal pails) of beer the residents prefer to drink from. The movie has wonderful style and is emotional evocative, even 100 years later. Reviews at the time emphasized its realism and humanity, and John McCarty, writing in Bullets over Hollywood, noted the debt that Marlon Brando’s character and performance in “On the Waterfront” owed to this movie and its spirit of redemption within a world of crime. Folks who enjoy gangster films will find it more than a curiosity.

Director: Raoul Walsh

Camera: Georges Benoît

Written by: Owen Frawley Kildare (book), Carl Harbaugh & Raoul Walsh (screenplay)

Starring: Rockliffe Fellowes, Anna Q. Nilsson, Carl Harbaugh, James A. Marcus, William Sheer

Run Time: 72 Min

I have not found it for free to watch on the Internet. If you do, please post a link in the comments.