Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: sexuality

The Great Toe Mystery (1914)

This short comedy from Keystone Studios seems to play upon themes established 11 years earlier in “The Gay Shoe Clerk,” but with a touch of Mack Sennett’s chaotic style thrown in for flavor. It still looks a bit old-fashioned for 1914, possibly deliberately so.

The movie begins with an establishing shot outside of a shoe store. A young lady (Alice Howell) and a man with a silly mustache are standing in front, and he takes her by the arm and leads her inside. We now cut to the interior, where a thin, slightly foppish young man speaks to them. Evidently the first man is buying shoes for himself and his wife. The first shoe clerk summons another over to see to the gentleman, and he leads the lady to the other side of the store, where she sits while the salesman summons another clerk (Charley Chase), this one being flamboyant and feminine in his gestures. She offers him her foot to measure, but he reacts in melodramatic horror to see her toes peeking through the end of a torn stocking. He seems to be lecturing her on hygiene, and she reacts by looking away from him. The husband sees this, and comes over to glare at the clerk. He runs to the back, to get her shoes ready for sale, and decides to put a note in her shoes. He borrows a pen and paper from a female coworker, and then delivers the shoebox to the clearly annoyed lady customer. She and the husband exit the store, evidently arguing about the clerk’s unwanted attentions. They go in separate directions.

The wife returns home (“broken-hearted,” according to an intertitle) and commiserates with her maid (Dixie Chene). She takes a magazine outside to read, discarding the unlucky shoes unopened. Meanwhile, “Mr. Birdie” (the clerk) is now going to the park to for what he hopes to be a rendezvous with a married woman. Of course, he encounters Alice on a park bench, sobbing because of the fight with her husband, and sits next to her, oblivious to her feelings. Now the husband comes home and finds the discarded shoes with the note, vowing to murder the clerk (whom he de-genders as “it” in the intertitles) if he finds them together. The maid is meanwhile flirting with a rather dim-witted young man (possibly a delivery boy, from his attire, or else another servant like a gardener), to the husband’s decided disapproval. The husband rushes out to the park and finds the two of them together, making threatening gestures that the clerk laughs off until he produces a gun and starts shooting at the ground.

Now, a classic Keystone chase begins, and the wife and the maid rapidly enlist the aid of Keystone Kops. Of course, the clerk decides to hide in a chest that the dim-looking servant brings into the house, so now he has no possibility of escape. A comedy routine involves the many steps the servant has to go up (and frequently falls back down) while carrying the chest and tension is held as several people start to open the chest before being distracted by something else. Ultimately, the maid finds him and the chase begins anew, with Birdie hiding in the dumbwaiter, unable to find an unoccupied room to escape into. The Kops now arrive in force, and begin shooting at the servant, not evidently knowing who they are after or why. He hides under the sink, which the Kops promptly shoot full of holes. Finally, the clerk manages to fight everyone off with his handkerchief, knocking over the whole cast, and, snapping his fingers, leaves the house with a rude gesture.

Charley Chase’s performance really makes this movie something special, and it’s very hard for a modern audience not to read his gestures and body language as queer – something which quite possibly could have been intentional on his part, whether or not audiences of 1914 were sophisticated enough to get the joke. That makes it twice as funny that the title of the obvious inspiration of “The Gay Shoe Clerk” had a different meaning at the time. It also struck me with this viewing that the title’s similarity to the other 1903 hit “The Great Train Robbery” (itself basically a well-edited chase movie) might have been intentional as well, meaning that Sennett was lampooning Edison in more than one way here. The editing of this movie keeps it moving effectively, and all of the random elements work together well, with the absurdity of the situation constantly growing, but without giving the audience too much time to reflect on how silly it all is. This is one of the more fun Keystones I’ve seen, in fact and it holds up well enough today.

Director: Charles Avery

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Charley Chase, Alice Howell, Dixie Chene, Chester Conklin, Harry McCoy, Rube Miller

Run Time: 11 Min, 8 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

October’s over, but wait! We still have one more centennial to add to our history of horror. This is my contribution to the “Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon,” hosted by In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood. Please check back there in the coming week for more of the entries.

This version of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale stars John Barrymore, whose reputation as an actor was already well-established, both on the stage and screen at this point, though some of his greatest triumphs in cinema were yet to come. This movie begins by introducing Dr. Henry Jekyll hard at work over his microscope, boasting to a skeptical colleague (Charles Lane as Dr. Lanyon) that science can conquer any mystery. The insert shots of micro-organisms may have been the first that many 1920s audiences had seen. Dr. Lanyon accuses him of meddling with the supernatural, and his butler Poole (George Stevens) comes in to remind him of his shift at the clinic and a later dinner date. We see the “human repair shop” which the charitable Jekyll runs to treat the poor of London. Interestingly, his home and the clinic appear to be on the same crowded London street, suggesting that a sumptuous home could be shouldered up against poverty in that time and place (the movie appears to be set, as the story is, in the late 19th Century).

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I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

This gender-bending sex comedy from German director Ernst Lubitsch demonstrates the sophistication and defiance of taboo for which he would become famous, already in place just slightly after the end of the First World War. While it might seem tame to some audiences today, it still has the power to shock or at least surprise, when seen in context of the work Hollywood was producing at the time.

Unacceptable Behavior

Ossi Oswalda stars as “Ossi,” a spoiled rich tomboy who likes to play cards, smoke, and drink liquor, but is told these are not “ladylike” by her uncle (Victor Janson) and governess (Margarete Kupfer). The uncle receives orders to travel abroad for his job, which each believes will liberate them from the constant clashes. The uncle discovers that he hasn’t the stomach for sea travel, while Ossi learns the he and the governess have hired Dr, Kersten (Curt Götz) as a new tutor  for her, to instruct her in discipline and proper etiquette. He is very strict, but Ossi is very responsive to him – instead of rebelling, she obeys his commands, possibly because she is attracted to him.

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The Bell Boy (1918)

This short comedy from Comique stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton at the height of their collaboration, giving them a new occupation to demolish – hotel management. The use of large indoor sets and outdoor locations gives them some good opportunities for creative chaos.

Arbuckle and Keaton are uniformed bell boys at the Elk’s Head Hotel, which is managed by Al St. John. We first see Arbuckle emerging from an elevator and looking around carefully, before he protrudes a cigarette from inside of his mouth and smokes it. Keaton is lazing on an easy chair when Al rings the bell and both men hasten to the front. They zip up the stairs to the two visible doors and come out carrying bags. They take them out, leading the two guests to a horse-drawn streetcar, but when Arbuckle tries to throw one of his suitcases on top of the vehicle, it misses and hits Buster, causing the first of many pratfalls. They load up the carriage, the guests get on board, and Al gets into the driver’s seat, driving the contraption down the street and past the “Last National Bank” (remember that one).

 

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Photographing a Country Couple (1901)

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

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

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

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

This is a classic example of voyeurism in early film, but note that the term “gay” had no connection to same-sex eroticism at the time. It fits in with the general run of work that Edwin S. Porter was doing for the Edison Company at the time, but note that it is no “Great Train Robbery.”

Gay Shoe Clerk

Guess the genders and win a cocktail!

The original Edison catalog entry described the action thus: “Scene shows interior of shoe-store. Young lady and chaperone enter. While a fresh young clerk is trying a pair of high-heeled slippers on the young lady, the chaperone seats herself and gets interested in a paper. The scene changes to a very close view, showing only the lady’s foot and the clerk’s hands tying the slipper. As her dress is slightly raised, showing a shapely ankle, the clerk’s hands become very nervous, making it difficult for him to tie the slipper. The picture changes back to former scene. The clerk makes rapid progress with his fair customer, and while he is in the act of kissing her the chaperone looks up from her paper, and proceeds to beat the clerk with an umbrella. He falls backward off the stool. Then she takes the young lady by the arm, and leads her from the store.”

Gay Shoe Clerk1The key to this movie is the cut to the close-up, which allows the audience to see a “forbidden” part of a woman’s anatomy, emphasizing once again the effect which this produces on the male character, as in “What Demoralized the Barber Shop.” He is punished for his transgression, but the audience is encouraged to take pleasure from watching without consequences. The “shoe shop” set is interesting as well – it essentially consists of row after row of identical shoe boxes on the back wall, with no attempt at showing displays or other merchandizing. I believe this to be a somewhat accurate portrayal of stores at the time, based on other images I’ve seen, but it could also reflect the stingingess of Porter’s budget at Edison. Although there probably was no deliberate homoerotic intent behind the movie, I understand that the “girl” in the film is actually played by a man (it’s difficult to tell because of the hat “she” wears and the distance from the camera if this is really true), which makes the title seem all the more subversive to a modern audience.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Edward Boulden

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sandow (1894)

Sandow

This early Edison kinetoscope was part of the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures, and represents the efforts of the studio to appeal to audiences, along with Annie Oakley, through the use of celebrities or interesting individuals. Eugen Sandow was a bodybuilder who was promoted by the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, who had him display feats of strength before large audiences in many different countries. Apparently, Ziegfeld found that people were more fascinated by Sandow’s perfectly muscled body than with the amount of weight he lifted, so this film is a kind of ritual dance in which Sandow flexes different muscle groups for the camera. It also shows more flesh (albeit male flesh) than any other movie of the nineteenth century that I can think of. Sandow’s “package” is plainly obvious in his meager shorts, and I have to suspect that audiences of that notoriously repressed era were titillated by this display. Apart from the sexual appeal, which most viewers (especially the men!) would never have admitted to, the film makes no effort to add narrative or elements such as comedy or suspense that might have kept audience interest: the fact that the subject moves is enough in itself.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.