Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Screenplay

Best Screenplay 1917

Film didn’t have to become a narrative art form. Its early inventors generally saw it as a means of taking short documentary clips of actual events, or at most of creating “moving portraits” that might involve deliberate costume and lighting, but not necessarily complete stories. Experimental film makers have created a variety of non-narrative, or non-linear, movies that test the boundaries of what film “is.” But, once stories started to be told onscreen, it didn’t take long to catch on, and by 1917, this is the established and expected form, to the degree that actualities are now struggling to come up with stories to justify their running time. The people who created these stories were now highly sought-after professionals, and they were kept busy coming up with fodder for the industry.

The nominees for best screenplay of 1917 are among the best of these storytellers. “A Man There Was,” written by Gustaf Molander and the director, Victor Sjöström, takes a story of a man lost at sea to an epic level, pitting him against storms and his own worse nature to come out a hero. “The Dying Swan,” written by Zoya Barantsevich and inspired by the dance solo of the same name, tells the story of an artist driven mad by his morbid fascination with suffering, and his need to kill the woman he loves if she should become happy. Frances Marion, adapting the stage drama of Eleanor Gates for “The Poor Little Rich Girl,” added a working-class sensibility to its bratty protagonist, assuring a much more sympathetic character. Her second nomination this year comes for “The Little Princess,” adapted from the novel by Frances Hogson Burnett, and here she creates a great friendship in the characters of Mary Pickford and ZaSu Pitts, for which they seem perfectly suited (Marion and Pickford were friends, so the story was written with her, at least, in mind). The story of “Polly Redhead,” written by Eliott J. Clawson from the novel “Pollyooly” by Edgar Jepson, works with the contradictions of the British class system to produce an effective melodrama with comedic elements.

The nominees for best screenplay of 1917 are:

  1. A Man There Was
  2. The Dying Swan
  3. Poor Little Rich Girl
  4. Little Princess
  5. Polly Redhead

And the winner is…”Poor Little Rich Girl!”

This is the first time Frances Marion has been honored with a Century Award, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s not the last. She was able to understand what worked for Mary Pickford, one of the biggest stars of her age, with an almost prescient intuition. The fact that she had to make fairly radical changes to the character of Gwendolyn, changes which the director, Maurice Tourneur didn’t care for but which Pickford herself fought to preserve, only makes this a more outstanding example of her talents.

Best Screenplay 1916

Movies begin with a story of some kind. Although the silent cinema as an art form transcends the written word to include visual artistry, acting and pantomime, editing and forms of structure that no static medium can reproduce, it begins with an idea, and that idea is most often and most effectively a written script. Although films were often improvised in the earliest days, and still sometimes at studios like the “fun factory” of Keystone, by 1916 most critically and commercially successful films (especially features) had detailed scripts written in advance. This category recognizes the importance of that writing as a source of great filmmaking.

This year, the screenplays up for consideration range include many original screenplays, only a few with adaptations from other sources. The original story for “East Is East” was highly influential on later British movie plots, setting up a young orphan who suddenly inherits a fortune who has to discover her true class loyalties. Another original story, “Hell’s Hinges” pushes the limits of the traditional Western to a new extreme of darkness and apocalypticism. “The Curse of Quon Gwon,” another original story, gives a truly unique view of Asian-American life that unfortunately would not become influential on American cinema, in part because it failed to achieve distribution during the lifetime of its creator, Marian E. Wong. The Russian movie “A Life for a Life” is based on a French novel and shows the ongoing fascination of the movie-going classes of that time with romance and tragedy. Finally, the screenplay for Cecil B. DeMille’s historical epic, “Joan the Woman” takes liberties with the biography of Joan of Arc to create a highly entertaining version of that tale.

The nominees for best screenplay of 1916 are:

  1. East Is East
  2. Hell’s Hinges
  3. The Curse of Quon Gwon
  4. A Life for A Life
  5. Joan the Woman

And the winner is…“The Curse of Quon Gwon!”

Curse of Quon Gwon3

This sensitive and moving story never got the chance for recognition during its own time, but a hundred years later we can see it as a truly unique example of independent filmmaking. Although it has its heroes and villains, the screenplay avoids caricaturing its characters and gives each a clear, believable motivation. It fits to some degree into the “lost girl” narratives that were common at the time, but takes the situation in a new direction by bringing in the clash between traditional values and modernity in the context of the immigrant experience. Truly an excellent screenplay, carried out well by its freshman director.

Best Screenplay 1914

Even in an era before spoken dialogue, the screenplay was a vital piece of creating a narrative film. Think of it as the architectural blueprint or the military battle plan that you need to have before embarking on a complex and potentially expensive endeavor. While some directors held their screenplays in their heads or kept them a secret, often getting actors to evoke the right mood required them to have something to read in preparation of their performances. These could be a simple listing of camera setups or a complete novelization of the storyline.

Since we don’t have access to these original documents, this award is to a large degree a measure of the effectiveness of the narrative as it appears on screen and in intertitles. “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” demonstrates an understanding of the “lost girl” narrative and brilliantly satirizes it, while “Silent Witnesses” gives us an original interpretation of that storyline that introduces class analysis to strengthen its case. The poetry of cinema reaches a new level with the words of Gabriele D’Annunzio for the intertitles of “Cabiria,”while the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe comes to life in “The Avenging Conscience.” Finally, a fascinating interpretation of the intersection between European and Native American culture is explored in the story to “The Squaw Man.”

The nominees for best screenplay for 1914 are:

  1. Tillie’s Punctured Romance (Hampton Del Ruth)
  2. Cabiria (Gabriele D’Annunzio)
  3. The Avenging Conscience (D.W. Griffith)
  4. The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille & Oscar Apfel)
  5. Silent Witnesses (Aleksander Vosnesenski)

And the winner is… Gabriele D’Annunzio for “Cabiria!”


Apart from the excellent adventure story set in a time largely forgotten by modern people, the words of D’Annunzio added authenticity and lyricism to the experience of watching this film, which I’ve seen three or four times now, and never get tired of. Particularly for the pagan ritual scenes, D’Annunzio connects to an emotional level rarely used for text at this time. One of the few films that really seems to overcome silence to create dialogue, Cabiria was an easy choice for this category.