Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

The Mollycoddle (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.

Mollycoddle-1920

This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.

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Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Five years after “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith released this epic film about sisters in revolutionary Paris, filled with romance, intrigue, suspense, and, yes, spectacle. Griffith had a huge reputation to live up to, and struggled to maintain his critical success with each new picture. How does this movie hold up after 100 years?

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The movie begins with the usual Griffith intertitles expostulating on the past and current affairs. In this case, he evokes the history of the Reign of Terror to warn against America’s possible descent into “Anarchy and Bolshevism,” putting you on notice as to where he stands. Then more intertitles introduce our backstory, which establishes the classic orphaned child of the nobility being left at the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral to freeze, but rescued by a peasant who had intended to do the same with his own baby daughter. These two grow up together in provincial poverty, never knowing their roots, and become real-life sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, playing Louise and Henriette Girard, respectively.

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My Wife’s Relations (1922)

Buster Keaton winds up married by accident and has to navigate a family of in-laws from Hell in this short comedy from 1922. Will he survive this bizarre situation?

My Wifes Relations

The movie begins with Buster pulling taffy for a living at a candy store in a large urban area. An intertitle emphasizes the many languages spoken in such places (relevant to the plot) and tells us he is a young artist (completely irrelevant). The scene cuts to a young Polish couple, calling a Justice of the Peace to request a wedding ceremony, to be performed in their native language. He concurs, saying, “I speak no other language.” Buster gets into a confrontation with a postman, accidentally hitting him with the taffy pull and provoking him to throw a bottle at him, which smashes a window. Buster runs away, but trips over a large woman (Kate Price). Kate grabs him and sees the window, and the Justice of the Peace inspecting it (turns out it was his window) and draws the conclusion that Buster is responsible, so hauls him back over to the scene of the crime. The Justice of the Peace assumes they are the couple who called and begins the wedding ceremony. Since neither side knows what the other is saying, soon Kate and Buster are hitched. Read the rest of this entry »

Cops (1922)

This simple two-reel short confirms Buster Keaton’s genius before he had moved on to the production of comedy features later in the twenties. While limited in terms of plot and character, it takes the basic concept of the chase, a staple of film since the beginning, and “runs with it” (pun intended) for all it’s worth.

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The movie begins by establishing its simple premise – Keaton speaks to a girl (Virginia Fox) through bars, as if in prison. Then, she turns and walks away from him, and the new angle shows that he is standing at the gate to her home, and that she is on the grounds of a large estate. She tells him in an intertitle that in order to marry her, he will need to be successful in business. And thus, Buster is set into motion. A short distance away, he sees a man (Joe Roberts) hailing a taxi. He accidentally drops a large wad of money. Buster retrieves it and, rather than steal it, offers it back to the man, expecting a reward. The man ignores him and seems annoyed. He then tries to help the man to the taxi, still hoping for a tip, but each effort he makes backfires and the man is tripped and becomes increasingly angry. When the taxi pulls away, Keaton starts counting the money he has lifted during the scuffle. The man, however, realizes the money is gone and has the taxi return, grabbing it from Keaton’s hand in motion. He gets only the wallet, so the taxi turns around again and this time he gets out, ready to confront Buster, but Buster just gets into the cab from the other side and drives off. Only now do we see the man’s badge, indicating that Buster has just had his first run-in with the law.

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The Blacksmith (1922)

Another two-reel short from Buster Keaton that emphasizes his ability to come up with a seemingly endless string of gags around a given them, this movie is surprisingly plotless, even compared to his early work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Enjoy the laughs, but don’t look for a lot of coherence, from this one.

The opening introduces Buster, a blacksmith’s assistant, in poetic intertitles that contrast with the images shown. We are told that the “village smithy” stands under a “spreading chestnut tree,” to see Buster posing beneath a remarkably tall palm tree – essentially a pole with a tuft on top. A line about “the muscles of his brawny arms” is followed by Keaton flexing, then popping the balloon that swells beneath his sleeve. When children look in at him doing his work, the boss (Joe Roberts) comes along and chases them off. He then finds Buster is using the smithy flame to heat up his breakfast. Using tongs to hold the plate, Buster tries to pretend to be working by hammering at the anvil, but shatters the plate and ruins his meal. Then, Buster does several pratfalls involving a hot horseshoe, fresh out of the forge. He burns each of his feet in turn and then his behind, putting each into the bucket of water to cool them and, of course, producing steam. Soon, his boss tells him to bring a large hammer out to the front, where he is working on a wagon wheel. He brings two, but they disappear, sucked up to the huge horseshoe that serves as their shop’s sign – in fact a huge horseshoe magnet. When the wagon wheel disappears the same way, the larger man begins to abuse him, which attracts the attention of the local sheriff, who loses his star and gun in the same way. Now the sheriff calls over his four deputies and they take the blacksmith into custody, with considerable difficulty as the huge man fights back. Buster inadvertently helps them when he sees where ll of the missing bits of metal have gone and climbs up to the magnet, bring it and all of its gains down upon his boss and stunning him.

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Gussle’s Day of Rest (1915)

This Mack Sennett “park comedy” stars Charlie Chaplin’s brother Sydney in a role about as close to the “Little Tramp” as possible. Although by 1915, Charlie had begun making more sympathetic movies about his character, Syd is still definitely in the earlier mode of funny-because-he’s-so-bad.

Gussles Day of Rest

The movie begins with Gussle (Syd) and his wife (Phyllis Allen) at the boardwalk, looking out into the ocean. A boy approaches Gussle and offers to sell him a newspaper. Gussle agrees, but has no money on him, so he cadges some from his wife. He sees that she keeps her change in a stocking, and sticks the end of it (the part with the coins) into his pocket, then uses a pair of scissors to snip off the part that is in her hand. When Nancy sees this, he tries to accuse the salesboy, but she is onto him. They then pass by a bar, and Gussle tries to go in, but wifey stops him. The go into a park, standing on the road, and squabble for a while until Gussle is suddenly hit from behind by a car and knocked over. The driver of that car (Slim Summerville) was distracted by his passenger (Cecile Arnold), and soon Gussle is, too. Now, Gussle and his wife squabble with Slim and Gussle pushes the car back with his foot a couple of times, causing it to careen wildly in reverse, but Slim drives back to the scene each time. Phyliis faints from all the exertion, but somehow manages to wake up to hit Gussle each time he shows too much interest in Cecile or takes a swig of the whiskey offered to help wake her up.

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Gussle and Phyllis continue their day in the park, eventually snoozing under a tree together. Gussle wakes up first and blows cigar smoke into her open mouth, then puts a balloon in it. He distracts her when she awakes, annoyed, by calling her attention to the birds singing, then takes out a slingshot and starts trying to shoot them down. His aim is apparently poor, however; both he and his wife wind up getting a round in the eye when they return to earth. Slim and Cecile, meanwhile, have set up a picnic, which Gussle crashes, evidently with Cecile’s approval. Gussle somehow gets a fork stuck in his behind, which takes a good deal of effort on the part of Slim and Cecile to withdraw.

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Annoyed by Gussle’s interloping, Slim tries to enlist the aid of Gussle’s wife, but she thinks he’s a masher when he wakes her up, and she knocks him down. Soon, Gussle and Slim are fighting, and Cecile takes a powder. Then Phyllis joins in and soon is fighting Cecile as well. Phyllis chases Gussle, who knocks a zookeeper into the pen with a leopard. This gives Gussle the good idea of doing the same thing with his wife, then going back to collect Cecile. A cop (Edward F. Cline) takes an interest, and Gussle sends Cecile away, then distracts him by sashaying around the well until he can hit him with his own billy club. With Phyllis and Slim in pursuit, Gussle puts Cecile in the car, but he can’t get it to start. Finally, it starts just in time to run over the cop, who hits Slim when he gets up again. The end is a high-speed chase with Gussle and Cecile in the car and the others on foot. Cecile’s gestures show us the car is out of control and Gussle swerves all over the road. They crash into a construction site where dynamite is being used, and an explosion dumps dirt all over the car. Gussle pokes his head out of the dirt, but there’s no sign of Cecile. He digs down until he finds her hair, then tugs at it and it comes off – revealing itself as a wig and the top of her head as bald. Gussle puts the wig back and pushes the dirt over it. The end.

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It’s typical enough of the genre, but without whatever the magic was that made Charlie transcend it. Certain scenes, such as the cigar-smoke sequence and the fork in the behind, have the feeling of being ad-libbed comedy of the sort Charlie excelled at, but which just falls flat in Syd’s hands. There are more close-ups than you might expect for a 1915 movie, but the quality of the existing prints makes it hard to appreciate. Syd seems to play “innocent” a lot, fluttering his eyelashes and tilting his head to the side, but his cuteness doesn’t make up for the unlikability of his character. It was funny to spot Buster Keaton‘s future co-director, Edward Cline, in the role of the cop. Here, he’s a typical hot-headed Keystone Kop, which is kind of needed to distract us from Syd’s performance. Like a lot of two-reelers, the movie is divided into a “part one” and “part two,” but without any clear division between them. On the whole, it seems to me that cutting it down to a single reel would have been the best way to make it funnier.

Director: F. Richard Jones

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sydney Chaplin, Phyllis Allen, Slim Summerville, Cecile Arnold, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 20 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (complete, with a terrible soundtrack), or here (incomplete, worse quality print, but better music).

The Electric House (1922)

Another Buster Keaton short from one hundred years ago, this movie gave him an opportunity to show off his love of gadgets and labor-saving devices.

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The movie begins by showing a graduation ceremony from a college. In the front row are Buster, a girl, and a fellow with a pugilist’s face (Steve Murphy), who is really an electrical engineer. A mishap causes them to exchange diplomas accidentally, so when the President of the college (Joe Roberts) announces his need for an electrician to wire his house, the engineer hands him a degree in cosmetics and hairdressing. He is rejected, and Buster, whose degree was supposed to be in Botany, gets the job instead. Seeing the President’s attractive young daughter (Virginia Fox), Buster takes the job and departs with them before the engineer can figure out the mistake. The family quickly departs on vacation and leaves Buster to study a manual on electrical engineering and take care of the job.

Electric House

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The Pest (1922)

A young Stanley Laurel (sans Hardy) stars in this two-reel comedy directed by G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson. Not as far out as a Mack Sennett, nor as refined as the work of Keaton or other recognized geniuses, it still has a few laughs and some interest for us today.

Pest

Laurel plays a “book agent” according to the credits, which seems to mean a man who goes door-to-door selling biographies of Napoleon. As the movie opens, he is going on at some length about the merits of reading up on the great man to a potential customer who has little to say in response. A man comes out from behind the gate they are standing in front of and moves his hands about oddly, then leads the “customer” inside, revealing to the audience (and Laurel) the fact that this is an institution for the “deaf and dumb.” An older woman (Joy Winthrop) comes out and Laurel makes rather more convincing sign language at her as she stares uncomprehendingly, then she starts talking a mile a minute, making it impossible for Stanley to get a word in edgewise. He tries to get away from this pest, but she follows, running surprisingly fast for a woman in a dress that doesn’t allow for much leg movement (a dolly shot follows them from the back of a car or truck, to allow the chase to go as far as possible in the street).

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Day Dreams (1922)

Buster Keaton had been producing his own short comedies for a few years by 1922, when he brought out this ambitious, large-scale project. It ties in with themes he had used before, including youthful ambition, attaining love, and a little man on the run from cops.

Day Dreams

The movie begins by introducing “the Girl” (Renée Adorée), who is changing the flowers in a vase. After a quick cut to Keaton, who we see is picking flowers outside, we see her toss out the old flowers, which are deftly caught by Keaton and added to his bouquet, which he presents her as he walks up to her door. Soon, we learn the real reason for his visit, as he approaches her father (Buster’s real-life dad, Joe Keaton), reclining in his easy chair, and proclaims his love for her daughter. The father questions Buster’s ability to support his daughter, and Buster pledges to find good-paying work, or kill himself if he fails. Dad seems amenable to this arrangement, and Buster heads out to seek his fortune, backing out the doorway and nearly being hit by cars as he walks backward into the street.

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When the Clouds Roll By (1919)

This comedy feature from Douglas Fairbanks lampoons superstition and psychiatry in equal measure, also dealing (as did “Flirting with Fate”) with the dark topic of suicide in a comedic fashion. As always, Doug gets through the shaky premise with athletics, optimism, and “pep.”

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Doug plays “Daniel Boone Brown,” a poor sap who has been chosen by Dr. Metz (Herbert Grimwood), an unscrupulous scientist, as the subject of an experiment to see whether a human being can be killed by his mind alone. For months he has been encouraging all doubts and fears in him, and now he announces his experiment to an academic conference, urging his listeners to keep it a secret. We now see poor Doug, who is being served an onion, a lobster, Welsh rarebit, and a slice of mince pie at midnight to give him indigestion and bad dreams by his servant, who is in on the scheme. As he eats each of these ill-advised foods, we see a depiction of his stomach, with the foods dancing about inside. Of course, he has a terrible night and wakes up late for work. In his dreams he is pursued by a ghostly man with huge forearms, he passes through a room full of women in his nightclothes, and he runs around the walls of a room, as Fred Astaire would do in “Royal Wedding” many years later.

When the Clouds Roll By

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