Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

One touch of Nature (1917)

This is an apparently incomplete fragment of a longer story produced as a feature for Edison late in their production career. It tells a familiarly heart-warming story about a baseball player, using real locations and players to give verisimilitude to the melodrama.

The excerpts begin by introducing John J. McGraw, the real-life manager of the New York Giants, who is talking to a recruiter who has seen an amazing player named Bill Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett). McGraw seems skeptical at reports of the boy’s prowess, but agrees to give him a try. We then jump to the “deciding game of a world’s series” in which the Giants are playing against Philadelphia. McGraw looks on stoically as the seats of the Polo Grounds swell with fans. Read the rest of this entry »

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The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Ripped Off? Buy Here Instead”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box. Read the rest of this entry »

The Busher (1919)

This baseball film from Thomas H. Ince emphasizes small-town values and staying true to your roots as ideals, just as many films about “the Great American Pastime” would do in years to come. It features a young Colleen Moore as the love interest, still a few years away from becoming the national symbol of “flapper” fashion.

The movie begins by introducing us to Ben Harding (played by Charles Ray), a small-time pitcher from Brownville. He is already in his baseball uniform as the movie opens, and we get the idea that he’s pretty devoted, in part because he carries a baseball glove around in his pocket. He tries to sneak past his snoozing father on his way to the ball park, but he drops the chain that fastens the gate to the fence and has to go back and tell him where he’s off to. Dad looks stern, but we can see he’s secretly proud of his son’s talents. Read the rest of this entry »

The Ruse (1915)

This early short starring William S. Hart lacks the complexity of his later features, but still differs from the more generic Westerns of the era by presenting a decidedly unusual storyline for its star. Hart presents a moral tale in which the simple values of the frontier are contrasted with the corrupt climate of the urban Midwest.

The movie opens by introducing the villain (John Davidson), a crooked mine promoter and his innocent stenographer, May Dawson (Clara Williams), who Davidson seems unduly interested in. Then the scene shifts to the West, where Hart as “Bat” Peters rides into town and defends an old drunk against a bully at a bar, then goes to check his mail. He has a letter from the promoter, who is interested in buying his mine. He suggests bringing samples of the ore to Chicago with him. Bat does so, and he and May make eyes at one another when they meet, and she suggests he room at her mother’s boarding house. Meanwhile, the crook decides to swindle Bat out of his mine, and makes plans with a small gang of hoods to pull it off. However, May hears the details of their plan, so she is kidnapped and held in a small room while the plan is put into action. Bat signs over his mine in exchange for cash and a “bogus Westerner” is introduced to show him the town. He is coaxed into a crooked poker game, with the intention of cheating him out of the money he’s been paid for his property. However, Bat sees the others trading cards and holds them at gunpoint. In trying to get out, he stumbles into the room where May is held, and then a fight breaks out as he tries to rescue her. The police, summoned by gunshots and a fire Bat has started, arrive, and take the crooks into custody. Bat and May go back to her mother’s house and he invites her to join him in the clean air of “the only land I understand.” The end.

Pardon me ma’am, but is today the 23rd?

I was a bit surprised to see a story set in Chicago starring William S. Hart. He’s still an upright cowboy though, so I guess it’s OK. It’s sort of a reversal of movies like “Wild and Woolly” where Douglas Fairbanks plays an easterner who goes West to find himself. The director seems to have been concerned that we would lose track of what day it was, because there’s a large calendar on the wall at the office that shows the date clearly, and it changes as the story moves from one day to the next. This movie, like “The Arizona Wooing,” was produced by the New York Motion Picture Company’s “Broncho Films” but there’s no obvious attempt to play on Broncho Billy this time. Hart probably wouldn’t have stood for it, although it occurs to me that Billy’s Essanay Company was located in Chicago, the den of evil in this movie, so there may have been a sly comment at work there. There isn’t much going on with the filmmaking here, mostly pretty standard shots  and editing for the period, although there’s an insert shot during  the poker game of one player’s hand passing a card to another, followed  by a closeup of Hart glaring as this happens, so that at least there’s some use of technique. Bat seems to get off awful easy after shooting several men and starting a fire in the warehouse, but I suppose May’s testimony would have some influence on the police. Anyway, it’s not Hart’s best work, but it’s interesting to see where he came from.

Director: William H. Clifford , William S. Hart

Camera: Robert Doran

Starring: William S. Hart, Clara Williams, John Davidson, Gertrude Clair, Bob Kortman

Run Time: 21 Min

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

An Arizona Wooing (1915)

This lightweight Western short was evidently intended for children and unsophisticated audiences (the bad guy even wears  black hat!), but it works well enough for the time it was made. It was directed by and stars Tom Mix, one of the biggest Western stars of the silent era.

The movie begins by establishing that Tom Warner (Mix) is rivals with “Mexican Joe” (Pat Chrisman) for the affections of Jean Dixon (Louella Maxam). Jean and Tom are on a date out on the range, and Warner goes to a creek to get Jean some water when Joe rides up. He’s kitted out in Mexican finery, and wears a gun (Tom does not). He immediately starts harassing Jean, insisting that she come with him and Tom runs back over and punches him, sending him packing. Next, it is established that Tom is a sheep farmer in cattle country by showing scenes of Tom nursing a baby sheep with a bottle. Jean’s father, Thomas Dixon (William Brunton), gets together with a bunch of other cattle ranchers to write Tom a note saying he needs to stop raising sheep, or else. He responds by asking Jean to meet him at the corral, which angers Mr. Dixon still more. He meets up with Jean, they exchange pleasantries and kiss, and as soon as she’s gone a group of about seven ranchers set upon Tom and tie him up. They ride out to a bluff and tie Tom to the ground, warning him that he’ll stay that way until he agrees to give up sheep farming. The next morning Mexican Joe rides up and slaps Tom in the face now that he’s helpless. Jean comes along and remonstrates with Joe, which results in him kidnapping her. Mr. Dixon now rides out to the bluff to give Tom some food (he’s not heartless) and Tom tells him what’s happened. Mr. Dixon frees Tom and rides off to round up a posse. Tom is able to get to his horse and gallops out to the parson’s, where the Mexican was just minutes away from marrying Jean. He runs as soon as he sees Tom, but Tom lassos him and drags him back to the posse, who take him away. Jean and Tom embrace while Mr. Dixon looks approvingly on, apparently now reconciled to having some sheep on the range.

Just looking at the names in the title credits, I knew who was going to win, even before I noticed that Warner was played by Mix. The movie has no surprises in terms of race, although for half a second I thought Mexican Joe might be decent and free Tom when he found him tied up. I should have known better. The sheep/cattle issue is simplified to a point of being ridiculous, although it seems to have been an excuse to include some cute images of baby sheep, maybe for the littler kids. This is the first Tom Mix movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, I believe, and he lives up to his reputation for providing very simple, super-clean Westerns with action and moral plots. I actually hadn’t known his career started this early, since one usually hears him mentioned in connection with the 1920s, but evidently he worked at Selig from at least 1910 to 1917.

Director: Tom Mix

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Tom Mix, Louella Maxam, Pat Chrisman, William Brunton, Sid Jordan

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The Hayseed (1919)

This small-town comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company once again takes various elements from earlier Arbuckle movies, and puts them in a blender with a whole bunch of new and improved gags from him and Buster Keaton, now a fully-fledged sidekick in the company.

The movie starts off by showing us the town general store (which has a large sign: “Why Go to the City to Be Cheated? Buy Here”). Keaton is the store’s clerk and Arbuckle is the postman, who also operates out of the store. In an opening gag, Arbuckle is carrying a huge stack of mail and packages out to the buggy he uses for delivery, and he and Keaton collide, sending parcels everywhere. Then they start hitting each other with the discarded mail, until the store owner runs out and breaks it up. Arbuckle jumps in his jalopy and takes off, but most of the mail has been left behind. On his run, Arbuckle throws letters into boxes from a moving cart with remarkable accuracy, but when one is too big to go in the slot, he has to stop. He tries folding it, but it’s still too big so he rips it into small pieces to get it into the box.

Soon, he arrives at the home of his sweetheart (Molly Malone), and hand-delivers mail to her. He teases her about one letter, saying it must be a love letter, and they play a game of hide-and-seek. While Molly searches for Fatty he falls asleep; meanwhile, the town’s constable (John Henry Coogan, Sr.) arrives at the house and begins flirting with her. Since Arbuckle is hiding in a hay bale, he gets prodded by the farmer when he comes by, and runs off, leaving Molly alone with the amorous policeman.

 

There’s a brief sequence of Keaton and Arbuckle working at the general store that’s reminiscent of earlier Comiques like “The Butcher Boy” and “His Wedding Night.” Arbuckle gets a call from a woman who wants to order Swiss cheese “with lots of holes.” Arbuckle looks at the slab and decides it needs more, so he takes out a drill and starts drilling new holes, wasting a certain amount of the cheese. Keaton observes Coogan stealing money from a registered letter. When he confronts him about it, Coogan first offers him part of the money, and when Keaton won’t accept it, warns him to stay silent or he’ll kill him. Keaton appears cowed by the sheriff’s threat.

Malone happens to be in the store when a spinster is showing off her engagement ring, and tells Arbuckle she wants one. He immediately orders an imitation diamond ring and a new suit, using the Swiss cheese to measure Malone’s finger and sending a pickle the same size as her finger in the envelope with the order. The sheriff shows up with a real ring, bought with his ill-gotten gains, but Arbuckle’s fake ring appears more to Malone’s liking (maybe because it fits perfectly). Keaton gets into a war with Coogan and the store owner when he throws a bucket of water off the roof. It ends with him on a ladder precariously perched, but managing to fall right into Arbuckle’s buggy as he drives by.

That night at the store, which has been converted into a dance hall, Fatty and Molly dance while Buster entertains the crowd with magic tricks. Fatty is due to sing to the crowd; however, his voice gives out, so Buster persuades him to eat some onions to strengthen his voice. The onions have the desired effect, but they also make his breath so pungent that it causes the entire audience to cry. The sheriff now accuses Arbuckle of stealing the money from the envelope, and everyone he turns to for support turns away, thanks to his onion breath. Keaton then informs them that it was Coogan, not Arbuckle, who stole the money. As a scuffle ensues, Fatty sics Luke the Dog on the crooked official; and the sheriff runs out of town with the dog in hot pursuit. In the film’s closing scene, Fatty and Fanny prepare to celebrate their relationship with a kiss, but she initially refuses to kiss him due to his lingering bad breath. He suggests that she eat some onions too in order to cancel out the effect.

I have to admit that I groaned a little when the movie opened on yet another general store, but not much time is spent on gags involving the store or its customers. In fact, the opening sequence borrowed more from “Fatty and Mabel’s Simple Life,” which is one we haven’t seen much of yet. The movie overall moves with a nice, quick pace, and the split reel format gives Arbuckle a chance to have one reel mostly dedicated to random gags, and the second to moving the plot forward. While Keaton is missing for part of that first reel, his character is undeniably pivotal to the story, and he gets considerable opportunity to show off, particularly in a sequence involving a ladder (ladders would be a frequent theme in his movies). I find this to be one of the more watchable Comiques.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Molly Malone, John Henry Coogan, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 25 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Reawakening (1919)

This live-action documentary short from the Ford Motor Company is quite different from the animated political cartoons we’ve seen from them in the past, but it still has a basically political message. In this case, it’s a positive one about re-integrating wounded veterans in the workforce and American society.

The movie consists of a series of documentary images tied together with intertitles. It begins with footage of an ambulance crew on the battlefield, loading a stretcher into their (no doubt Ford-built) vehicle. This is followed by several cards worth of “purple prose” about the heroics of the men and medics of wartime, and then we see soldiers with canes being disembarked from a train and climbing into another ambulance to be shuttled to a hospital. At the hospital, the footage emphasizes occupational therapy, a relatively new idea in which recuperating men are encouraged to perform tasks to restore their muscle strength and coordination, as well as in some cases re-training skills they might be able to put to use in paid work after discharge. We see them receiving physical therapy from nurses and doing gymnastics. We also see the production of artificial limbs. A soldier with a missing leg comes in to receive his and gives a little jump for joy on the way out the door. Read the rest of this entry »

Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Bonds (1919)

Like “Uncle Sam vs. the IWW-Bolsheviki Rat” and “United Snakes of America,” this is a late-teens propaganda movie from the Ford Company. Unlike those, it has a positive message about supporting the troops, rather than a negative one about fighting internal enemies.

The frame centers on a large chest, labeled “U.S. War Chest,” with symbolic figures to either side. To the left is Uncle Sam, in his traditional hat and coat. To the right is a robed female figure, who may represent “victory,” “Columbia,” or just an idealized American Womanhood. They open the chest and inside the lid is written, “1st Liberty Loan: Prepare for War.” The woman gestures toward the chest and Uncle Sam pulls out a sockfull of money to toss in. They close and open the chest and now it reads, “2nd Liberty Loan: Equip.” Uncle Sam throws in his cuffs and collar. The next time, it reads, “3rd Liberty Loan: Transport.” Now Uncle Sam gives his jacket. Next, it says, “4th Liberty Loan: Fight.” Uncle Sam contributes his vest. Finally, they open it to see, “Victory Liberty Loan: Pay Our Debts and Bring Back Our Boys.” Uncle Sam throws in his shirt front and his hat. The movie ends as an animator’s hand appears to sign for the Ford Motor Company underneath the words, “Sure, We’ll Finish the Job!”

I was almost surprised by a movie from an ostensibly “right wing” source that advocated Americans giving money to support the government. Today, the message of Uncle Sam’s brief striptease would probably be that Americans are already expected to pay too much in taxes, and then they are duped into voluntarily supporting the government by buying worthless bonds as well. But this is not Ford’s intent. He is demonstrating that an ideal patriot (Uncle Sam) is one who gives to support the just cause of the war, even after it seems that he has no more to give, and even after the fighting is finished. No doubt, he believed that with hard work over the next few years, Sam would soon be able to buy back all of his clothes. That kind of optimism is hard to find today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. Please comment if you do.

Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-IWW Rat (1919)

This anti-Communist propaganda cartoon, presented in the style of a newspaper political comic, was produced by the Ford Motor Company at the height of the American “Red Scare.” It uses heavy-handed propaganda to make a fairly blunt (if dubious) comment.

As the movie opens, Uncle Sam is represented as a farmer in a barn stocked with corn. Bags of corn in front of Uncle Sam read “American Institutions” and a speech-bubble from Uncle Sam identifies the corn as “the fruits of our labor.” Then, a rat begins chewing its way through the wall. Uncle Sam crouches down behind the bags with a shovel, proclaiming, “I’ll get that varmint,” and a large black rat comes out of the hole. On it is written “Bolsheviki-IWW.” The rat is heedless of Uncle Sam and goes over to the corn, eagerly grabbing a piece in its jaws. Uncle Sam brings the shovel down on top of it, killing it, the hefts the rat out of the window with the shovel. He proclaims, “Bolshevists are the rats of civilization” and the movie ends.

Henry Ford, in addition to being a successful industrialist, was heavily active in the American far right. He was responsible for the printing of the anti-Semitic “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” in this country, and his news magazine, “The Dearborn Independent” proclaimed any number of conspiracy theories that would fit right into INFOWARS today. With the successful revolution in Russia, and several lesser failed revolutions igniting throughout Europe at the end of the First World War, Ford’s crowd was increasingly concerned about the possibility of foreign influences fomenting labor unrest in the United States. The Industrial Workers of the World was a small but very radical labor union that mostly focused on organizing unskilled laborers, including immigrants. It is unlikely that the USSR, strapped for cash and fighting a Civil War at home, had much to offer their comrades in the IWW besides emotional support in 1919, but accuracy in reporting has never been important in political cartoons (or Internet memes). The real irony of this movie, though, is that it depicts organized labor as “stealing” the fruits of their own work from the embodiment of American society. How did Uncle Sam manage to steal all that corn from the rats in the first place?

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 1Min

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

Stella Maris (1918)

One of Mary Pickford’s biggest hits of 1918 was this drama, in which she not only gets to grow out her perpetual childhood, but also plays dual roles of young girls who become young women. It demonstrates differing audience expectations of the time to our own, especially in terms of “happy endings,” but displays Mary’s talents to their fullest.

At the beginning of the film, Mary’s characters are still in late childhood. The first, the eponymous Stella Maris, is paralyzed and lives in her bed. Fortunately she has been raised by wealthy guardians Sir and Lady Blount (Ida Waterman and Herbert Standing) dedicated to her happiness. Unfortunately, that dedication goes to something of an extreme – Stella is protected from any information about the world that might upset her or make her aware that there is “sorrow, poverty, or death” in the world. This tends to make her a bit spoiled and idealistic. The other young girl is Unity Blake, an orphan in a classically Dickensian orphan house who lives with all of the evils Stella is shielded from. The opulence and beauty of Stella’s world is contrasted with the squalor and hard work of Unity’s in a series of intercut scenes.

In one of these scenes, a prominent relative of the Blounts comes to visit Stella in her room. This young man (Conway Tearle) is referred to as the “Great High Belovedest” and tells her stories of his “castle” where he lives. In reality, he is John Risca, a prominent journalist who hides his alcoholic wife (Marcia Manon) in an apartment. He leaves her because he cannot stand her drinking or her cruelty, but he commits to continuing to support her. She decides to adopt a girl, because servants keep quitting on her and an orphan would have nowhere else to go. Of course, the girl she selects is Unity. Unity is sent over to her home without any guide, and we see her reactions to the world of London – in her way, she is quite as sheltered as Stella. She is quite crushed when she realizes that her new mother intends to give her more work, but no love.

Unity reacts as a customer sends back a steak in a restaurant.

This arrangement doesn’t last long, because one day some street kids steal Unity’s basket of groceries while she is out shopping. When she returns empty-handed, her adoptive mother reacts with rage, beating her to within an inch of her life. The neighbors hear the row, and the police are called. Mrs. Risca is arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment. In the meanwhile, John agrees to take Unity on, and treats her with kindness and gentleness. They live together with “Aunt Gladys” who wants to punish the child when she lies, but John knows that she lies because she is afraid of getting another beating.

Joining the “family.”

Meanwhile, as the three years pass, Stella Maris is able to get an operation that allows her to walk. She has blossomed into a young adult, and her feelings for the “Great High Blovedest” have matured as well, and appear to be reciprocated. But, when John wishes to confess to her of his previous marriage, he is prevented by Mrs. Blount, who is still trying to protect Stella from knowing about evil. Stella is picking it up on her own, of course, now that she can walk. At one point she asks for “a few thousand pounds” to give to a starving family she sees near the house. Unity has also fallen in love with her new guardian, and tries to overcome her homely looks and poor education to get him to notice her.

Stella decides to go and visit the castle, which she dreams of living in with John. Of course, the limo driver takes her to John’s old address, where the newly released Mrs. Risca is once again residing. She looks about in horror, breaking down into tears when Mrs. Risca reveals who she is. She breaks off relations with John and rages at her family about all of the evil and pain in the world. Unity sees how heartbroken John is from this, and realizes that he will never forget Stella Maris. She also realizes that so long as Mrs. Risca is alive, he will forever be unhappy. She devises a plan and steals one of John’s guns, then uses the key she has kept all these years to the Risca apartment and goes in, threatening Mrs. Risca. When Mrs. Risca responds with more callousness and brutality, she kills her, and then herself.

This, of course, releases John from any obligations. Stella Maris comes to the conclusion that joy and wonder can only exist because there is also pain and evil in the world, and she forgives John and her guardians for lying to her. Aunt Gladys convinces Stella’s wealthy relatives to give John another chance and not think badly about Unity for she helped free him from his abusive wife. John is reunited with Stella and they marry.

I was quite honestly rooting for Unity the whole time, and I was pretty disappointed once I realized that the outcome would be her death and John marrying Stella Maris. Not that I wanted him to marry his adoptive daughter, either (because, ew), but I wanted Unity to realize that there were other possibilities for her happiness and grow up to pursue them. I suspect many modern viewers would respond the same way, but the logic of the time was that Unity had fallen in love with a man “above her station,” and this could only end in tragedy. Of the two characters, I found Unity to be more sympathetic and appealing. Stella is obviously spoiled (through no fault of her own, but still) and her development is far less convincing. She’s mostly there to be sweet and pretty, then to be heartbroken and unreasonable, and finally to provide the standard happy ending for the male lead. She has little sense of agency, and when she does try to do something on her own (feeding the family, for example, or visiting the castle), it is just a reflection of her ignorance.

Mary Pickford plays both roles excellently, however, and this movie decidedly demonstrates her versatility. I must admit with some embarrassment that the first time I watched it I didn’t actually realize she was playing Unity and I went to see who “that actress” was because I thought she had outperformed Mary Pickford! I think it’s a tribute to her and to the director that a modern viewer could be so bamboozled. Lighting choices reinforce the differences, and the different worlds the two girls occupy. The two don’t have a lot of scenes together, and of course “twinning” effects date back to Georges Méliès, so this isn’t so much a measure of special effects as it is of acting. Shots that do have them together are also carried  by the very natural way in which Pickford “talks to herself,” although it’s easy enough to see where the screen has been split.

The film was apparently the second highest-grossing film of the year (records from this period are not precise) and helped solidify Pickford’s already powerful position as a star. It was written for her by her friend Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan, who had also directed “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “The Little Princess,” and later “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley”  and “M’Liss,” so this movie shows the power Pickford had to choose her productions and her production team. Although we often think of her in terms of her naively innocent characters, like Stella herself, she was a powerful businesswoman, with all the grit of Unity Blake and even the professional acumen of John Risca as well.

Director: Marshall Neilan

Camera:Walter Stradling

Starring: Mary Pickford, Ida Waterman, Herbert Standing, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Josephine Crowell, Teddy the Dog, Gustav von Seyffertitz

Run Time: 1hr, 28 Min

You can watch it for free: here and here (without music) or here (with music).