Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

Polly Redhead (1917)

This was the one “feature length” Century Film screened at this year’s Cinecon, and once again I review it from my memory of a single viewing (almost a week ago as of this writing). It was billed as an attempt by Universal to recreate the success of Mary Pickford, and the plot has a lot in common with the simpler of little Mary’s stories.

Ella Hall

“Polly” is short for “Pollyooly,” apparently the original title of the novel this was based on, and we have to take their word for her hair color because the surviving print is black and white. She is played by Ella Hall, who is young and charming in her elaborate locks, but lacks some of the magic of Pickford. She is a street urchin in London who happens to be the niece of the dying maid of two solicitors solicitor (George Webb and Dick La Reno), and when the maid falls ill, she turns up as a substitute. What she doesn’t mention is that her aunt has actually died and she is hoping to take over the role permanently. In case she isn’t cute enough, the writer has thrown in “the Lump” (William Worthington, Jr.), a precocious little brother with a penchant for playing the drums. She brings “the Lump” to work with her, and for some reason Webb finds this more charming than annoying. Meanwhile the housekeeper (Louise Emmons) learns the truth and does her best to get Polly fired. She loses her job with La Reno but Webb keeps her on because of her remarkable talent for cooking perfect bacon. This turns out to be a good choice, because La Reno soon finds Emmons watering down his whiskey! It was to cover the fact that she had been nipping, but this would have been a lesser crime and she is let go and Polly brought back. Webb takes to teaching the Lump manners, using Polly’s bacon as a reward.

George Webb

A second conflict, seemingly more significant, arises when Webb’s fiancée and only client (Gertrude Astor) begins to object to this attractive young girl around the house. However, this is quickly negated when she recognizes Polly as the exact twin of a wealthy young girl caught in the throes of a custody battle. This allows Hall to take on a typical “changeling” dual-role when the two concoct a plan to replace her so that the mother can sneak the real child away to Europe and take on full custody. Alas, Polly’s odd treatment of the servants as equals gives her quickly away, but the end result is a predictable reconciliation between the parents and Polly even finds a nice rich boy next door while the game is on.

Gertrude Astor

It seemed to me like this was two short films, not all that well sewn together to make one short-ish feature, although it’s possible that there’s missing footage in the middle somewhere. The first movie actually worked better for me, with Polly defending her job through her bacon skills and the housekeeper losing hers for disrespecting good whiskey. The second story is more typical of the worse melodramas of the time and relies on the unlikely coincidence of Polly having a wealthy doppelganger and a resolution that seems all too simplistic and improbable (nothing like kidnapping a child to bring a couple together!). Hall seemed to overdo the dual role by giving the “rich” version of herself a bit too much moodiness and gloom and the “poor” version of herself a can-do spirit. She was more likeable in the first part of the story, where she just gets to be herself (apparently). The little brother seemed a bit too much like an out-of-wedlock child of Polly’s and calling him “the Lump” (which made me think of “baby bump”) didn’t help anything. We never see any sign of his or Polly’s mother, so the connection seems all too likely, though of course we are meant to think she’s the same age as the boy-next-door, who might be eight years her junior, and who she kisses at the end. A bit of a reversal from all the old men falling in love with underage girls in the movies!

Director: Jack Conway

Camera: Edward Kull

Starring: Ella Hall, George Webb, Gertrude Astor, William Worthington, Jr., Louise Emmons, Dick La Reno, Charles Hill, Mailes, Gretchen Lederer

Run Time: 45 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing or on the Internet at this time.

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A Visit to Los Angeles (1916)

In anticipation of my coming visit to Hollywood later this week for Cinecon, I thought I’d check out this old depiction of the city from 101 years ago. Produced by the still-young Ford Motor Company, it’s part travelogue, part advertisement, with an emphasis on the effects and benefits of the automobile on a major Western city.

The movie begins, after a pompous Intertitle, with a panorama of the downtown area taken from the top of a tall building. This would have been pretty exciting for an audience that didn’t get to the tops of skyscrapers very often, and it gives us a good view of the range of architecture that was present at the time. We then cut to the Hall of Records and the Old Court House, which combine monumental size with gothic style fairly effectively. I was surprised by the number of windows on the Hall of Records – at least it looked like you could work with plenty of light in there! We then turn to “Broadway, in the heart of the business section.” We see a crowded street from above (possibly it’s the same vantage as the first shot, simply tilted downward more extremely). Here, we see streetcars and automobiles vying for space on the crowded streets as pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross against traffic that rarely stops. The next shot is of Clune’s Auditorium, which seems to be an imposing structure across the street from a small park. The next shot shows “Central Park,” again from above, but this appears to be a more carefully manicured park than the one in the previous shot. It  is also crowded with people, like its namesake in Manhattan. After a brief panorama, we cut to a ground-level shot of the park, and people pack the pathways, many stopping to sit and smoke at a fountain. Notable in these shots are what appear to be electric streetlamps on the sides of the paths. Now we cut to a street-level shot of a large department store. The Intertitles point out the window boxes with plants visible at every level. The next cut takes us to what looks like a train station, though no Intertitle gives us context here. Now we see Angel’s Flight Inclined Railway, which I didn’t know was so old, as well as the tunnel under the hill that allows you to bypass it. Then a quick pan of the University of California (UCLA), which probably didn’t have a film program at the time. Then California Hospital, which is virtually indistinguishable from the University.

Now, we travel to Chinatown, where we see the only unpaved streets in the movie, and buildings constructed mostly of wood rather than stone. No autos are in evidence, and these are the least crowded streets we’ve seen in the whole movie. A few jabs at the obscurity of Chinese ideograms serves as the segue to a visit to the Old Plaza and the Mexican section of the city (never mind that the whole city had been Mexican within living memory!). Men with long mustaches and heavy suits lounge and stare languidly at the camera in a park. We also see the Plaza Church where the “Mexican population” is said to worship.

We return to the theme of automobiles with a shot of the North Hill Street “double barreled” tunnel, which seems to consist of one barrel for cars, one for streetcars. Then we see a large Masonic temple, before returning to the automotive theme with a view of Broadway in fast motion, the emphasis on the busy traffic. A single policeman in the center of a street  crossing directs what seems like impossibly fast and incessant traffic. Somehow pedestrians occasionally make it safely to the other side. We then see this same corner at regular speed, and get the sense that traffic moves infuriatingly slowly. In perhaps the oddest section, we now see large pipes that are part of the elaborate (and expensive) system of bringing water to the desert community. For scale, a human figure walks on one of the pipes. Then, they show a man driving a Ford car on one of the pipes, to demonstrate how large they really are! Speaking of cars, we now get to see the oil fields of Los Angeles, where a variety of derricks are pumping up the precious liquid in vast quantities. We are told that many industries have shifted from coal-burning plants to oil-burning. Finally, a shot of “bungalows” (actually, quite large houses) from the back of a car demonstrates the thrill of driving in LA. Men wear heavy coats in what seems to be the heat of a California day, and carry papers as they leave their bungalows for work.

This movie is pretty basic, so far as travel films go, but it shows off a lot of LA from a period when it was just beginning to boom as a city. The film industry would have been a going concern already by 1916, but this movie has no interest in that, choosing to emphasize downtown architecture, crowded city streets, ethnic neighborhoods, pipelines, automobiles and oil. Those last two can be seen as particular interests of its production company, so no great surprise perhaps. But one would think that movie audiences would be obvious targets for movies about movie-making. Perhaps no one at Ford thought so, or perhaps the distance to the studios from the locations where this movie was shot made it not worthwhile to them. Anyway, the result is that we see a lot of the old LA that the movie companies tended not to document so well, and the result is interesting if not always terribly entertaining.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch the first two minutes for free: here. Those with University affiliations may be able to access the file via their libraries. Worldcat link: here.

Down to Earth (1917)

In this movie, also known as “The Optimist,” Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his belief in an active, outdoorsy lifestyle as the cure to society’s woes. He co-wrote the story, along with Anita Loos, who had worked with Fairbanks on “His Picture in the Papers” and “Wild and Woolly.”

The movie begins with Doug, who plays a character named Bill Gaynor (but might as well be called Doug Fairbanks), in college. He’s captain of the football team and in love with Ethyl Forsythe (Eileen Percy). He proposes to her, but she feels they lack common interests – he’s into sports, she’s into society affairs. Besides, she’s found another fellow, Charlie Riddle (Charles K. Gerrard). So, Doug goes off on a world tour to “forget” her. We see him mountain climbing, leading an African safari and riding the range. This healthy lifestyle is contrasted with the decadent parties that Ethyl and Charlie attend. One of them involves a fountain of champagne with dancing girls rising from the middle of the table that reminded me of “Metropolis.” Anyway, the pace of constant partying wears Ethyl down and one day, she collapses with a hangover. She is whisked off to a sanitarium and her engagement to Charlie is postponed, and someone thinks to send Doug a letter out at the ranch.

Doug comes racing back to see her, of course, and isn’t impressed by what he finds at the sanitarium. A bunch of wealthy hypochondriacs are coddled and enabled in their fantasies of illness. The windows are kept shut and there is no fresh air or exercise for anyone. After a brief visit with Ethyl, he goes to give the chief doctor (Gustav von Seyffertitz) a piece of his mind. The doctor explains that efforts to really cure the wealthy are in vain, but a man gets rich allowing them to believe they are sick. Since he’s only in it for the money, he is amenable when Doug offers to “buy” his patients from him. He takes the honest doctor who works their into his confidence, and they devise a plan to kidnap them and bring them to a more healthful environment.

The plan is simple (sort of). They inform everyone that there is a smallpox scare and the sanitarium will be quarantined. But, Doug offers to sneak them out of the quarantine aboard his yacht, bound for New York. Instead of New York, he takes them to a small deserted island and forces them to “rough it” for two months. Actually, it isn’t really a deserted island, it’s an area near a place called “Palm Grove,” evidently in California (the film was really shot at Yosemite), but Doug dresses up one of the sailors from the yacht as a “Wild Man from Waukeegan” and stations him to guard the pass that would allow the socialites to discover the ruse. Anyway, Doug enforces a strict regime of exercise, which the castaways have to endure to eat, since he’s the only one with the wherewithal to catch fish and collect edible mushrooms and berries. The exercise regime is designed to reverse bad behaviors – an alcoholic has to drink two quarts of water before breakfast, a gloomy gus has to laugh like a hyena, and Charlie has to act as janitor. Charlie retains his selfish ways even after arriving – he tries to steal Doug’s and the doctor’s food on the first day, and ultimately he finds out that Palm Grove is nearby and makes an escape.

Charlie hooks up with a friend at Palm Grove who has a good idea. The reason he’s losing Ethyl to Doug is because Doug has used “Cave Man” tactics, so he should be a “Cave Man” too. The two of them will kidnap Ethyl and that will make her come around. The plan fails, of course, when Doug isn’t napping when the rest of the camp is, and he beats Charlie and his friend with one hand tied behind his back (literally). He swims out to the rowboat where Ethyl was drifting away and confesses to the ruse. She admits that she figured it out a while ago, and the two are happily united.

Overall, this is a pretty standard Fairbanks film, and it definitely speaks to his personal feelings about modern America – the health of the country is threatened by a kind of selfish decadence that ignores what made it strong in the first place. I would imagine that this message resonated well with audiences across the country at the time. It’s worth noting that the beginning of the twentieth century in Europe also saw a rise of various health movements that emphasized more “natural” living as well, so this was in the air. I think the story could have been improved by adding an element of real danger, as Loos and Fairbanks did in “Wild and Woolly.” Some kind of real threat – an actual wild man, a local tribe, a gang of smugglers that used this location – could have increased the tension in the third act, which otherwise seems a bit lame. Seeing Doug beat his foe one-handed is impressive, but it also emphasizes the inequity of the situation – he’s never really challenged or put at risk, everything comes to him much too easily. This might be what Americans, getting ready to see real fighting in the First World War, wanted for entertainment at the time, but it doesn’t result in as satisfying a movie as this might have been. I did get some laughs, though, especially from the hypochondriacs and their reactions to the situation, and Fairbanks is as charming as ever.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Charles K. Gerrard, Gustav von Seyffertitz, Herbert Standing

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max the Heartbreaker (1917)

Max Linder stars as Max Linder, who dates two pretty American tourists only to create complications for himself. Again, the style of droll humor contrasts interestingly with the more overt slapstick of the era.

The movie begins with a close-up on the two female leads, accompanied by a short poem that relates to the French title (“Max Between Two Fires”), then an Intertitle informs us that Max is traveling “incognito” to Switzerland. We see shots of the Riviera, with Max watching the two girls feeding the birds. He tries to join them, but they break into laughter when they recognize him. He looks annoyed and leaves. The next day they send a note apologizing and inviting him to meet them at a specific time and place with a white carnation. He has his “revenge” by substituting a red carnation instead. For some reason, this insults them and they leave, then he sends an apologetic note…I forget how many times this goes back and forth, but eventually they meet and talk and seem to get along well. They all spend the next day together seeing the sights. There’s an odd bit I don’t quite get in which one of the girls sneaks off and substitutes a woman with painted dark skin and wild hair (a gypsy?) for herself, surprising Max when he turns to kiss (?) her. Max is so startled  that he almost trips over a pig. It’s sort of like the routine from “What Happened in the Tunnel,” but less clear.

We now see Max, in medium-close shot, looking at pictures of the girls, kissing them, but apparently unable to choose. He brings two bunches of flowers over with identical notes, and manages to hide the extra one each time and give the right bunch to the right girl. He also makes dates with each of them, at different times. He goes horseback riding with the lighter-haired girl and on a moonlit rowing excursion with the darker-haired girl. The next day, the two girls are walking around kissing their pictures of Max when they run into one another. They tease each other a bit for being in love, then agree to show each other the man of their heart. Their playfulness gives way to anger, then tears, when they both realize the other has been seeing Max. Soon they decide upon a plan for revenge. They allow Max to overhear them planning to have a duel over him. He arrives before the appointed time and climbs a convenient tree to watch the carnage from above. The girls go through the motions of the duel, but at the last minute, one of them points her gun in the air and fires into the tree! Max falls out and runs away, holding his scorched bottom.

I’m going a bit backward with Linder – recently I reviewed his last movie at Essanay, and this time I’m reviewing a movie he made in France before contracting with them. It’s not a romp like “Max in a Taxi,” but it’s probably funnier than the description above makes it sound. Linder is very good at improvising little bits of “business” and he’s particularly amusing when he flirts with one of the girls. The girls are also funny when they mimic each other’s reaction to his advances and betrayal. The review in the Moving Picture World says “Some scenes in the doctor’s office are quite funny,” but I never saw any doctor’s office – either this is an error or there’s something missing from the surviving print.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Max in a Taxi (1917)

In this short film, Max Linder plays “Max,” a rich swell who gets himself into trouble drinking, then proceeds to get into even more trouble trying to get out of trouble! Linder’s physical comedy skills are on full display, but the situational aspects of the movie are what make it work.

The movie begins with Max very drunk. He and a friend have various mishaps in trying to get home. Eventually max hitches a horse to a carriage to drive them home – only he’s so drunk that he hitches it so that it’s facing the carriage. Fortunately, the horse is good at following orders, so it just trots backwards with the carriage attached. Max has further pratfalls as he bids his friend goodnight at the door and tries to go upstairs. At one point, he falls out a second-story window backward and lands on his friend as he walks out the door! Finally he makes it up the stairs to encounter a stern-looking older man in his room. I presume this is Max’s father or rich uncle or whoever supplies the money he lives on. He obviously disapproves of Max’s state, and he tosses him out with no further support.

This is not, in fact, a taxi.

Max walks the street for days, still in the finery he wore for his night of partying, but unable to come up with any money for food or other survival needs. He resolves to kill himself and tries and fails to do so in several amusing ways. He lies down in front of a train, but the train switches tracks at the last minute. He tries hanging himself, but the rope breaks. Now Max discovers an invitation in his pocket for a party at a wealthy woman’s house that very day. He rushes over there, fakes his way in past the butler, and dances up a storm, somewhat flustering the hostess. Soon, he gets to the main purpose of his visit – a large table stacked with pastries and treats. He sends the butler away so he can chow down, stuffing several into his mouth at a time. However, the hostess now brings her young daughter (Martha Mansfield) over to meet him. He’s nearly as interested in her as in the sweets, and she takes him out on the dance floor with his mouth full. He eventually comes up with the expedient of getting rid of the many cream puffs jammed into his mouth by hiding them in the piano. For some reason, he also throws a cat in after them, and of course that ruins the music. Max manages to stay sober and makes a graceful departure, shaking hands with the butler instead of giving a tip since he’s broke.

The next day, he spends his last two pennies to buy a paper and look at the want ads. He applies for a job driving a taxi, even though he doesn’t know how to drive a car. He gets a short lesson from his new employer by pretending he’s not familiar with “this model,” and gets the car a few blocks away from the station before parking it. Soon, the two ladies from the party walk up. He doesn’t want to admit he’s driving a cab for money, so he puts his top hat back on and tells them he’s just waiting for the chauffeur. They wait for a while but get bored and leave him to nap in the car. When they return, he tries to start the car, but it starts going on its own. Soon, Max is riding the driverless car on the hood, while the two women sit in the back. It hits a telephone pole and is destroyed. The women are alright, but they clothes and hair are ruined. They look for Max in the wreckage, but he has been thrown onto the telephone wires, where he does a few tumbles for the audience.

This is a taxi, but Max isn’t in it.

I’ve been somewhat remiss, up to now, in not reviewing a Max Linder movie. It’s not that I was unaware of him, or thought he was unimportant, or don’t like him. It’s just that there’s always so much to review, and until now I hadn’t gotten to it (I’ve still only reviewed one movie by Harold Lloyd, who’s actually my personal favorite of the silent clowns, so this isn’t entirely a matter of favoritism). This one seems like a good starting point, but note that Linder had been doing “Max” films for ten years already when it came out. Charlie Chaplin fans will see some similarities between the opening of this movie and Charlie’s “One A.M.” from the previous year. Chaplin was influenced by Linder’s work, and later honored him as “the professor” who had taught him the art of comedy. This movie was actually a bit of a collaboration between them, as it was shot in Hollywood and Linder met Chaplin and spoke with him about shooting it while it was in progress. There’s a lot of difference between Linder’s on-screen persona and Chaplin’s, though. When Chaplin played the “drunken swell” (as opposed to the Little Tramp), his comedy was almost entirely physical, and what little we see of the character is largely unsympathetic. Max’s “swell” is certainly dissolute and libertine, but he has a definite charm and sympathy. His character is aware of social expectations, and as a result gets into humorous situations when he doesn’t have the money people expect him to have.

Linder had recently moved to the USA from France and joined Essanay, who hoped to replace the recently departed Chaplin and make a profitable series of “Max” films. This was the third of those, and apparently the most successful, but it wasn’t enough to justify his salary, and the failing studio canceled the contract. Linder’s career went into a decline afterward, although he did make more films and film appearances periodically until his death in 1925. We still have quite a few of them to enjoy, and I trust this will not be his last appearance in this project.

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Arthur Reeves

Cast: Max Linder, Martha Mansfield, Mathilde Comont, Ernest Maupain

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Rough House (1917)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle directs and the new talent of Buster Keaton gets a shot at a bigger role in this 2-reel slapstick comedy from Comique. While it builds on older gags and situations, it shows a definite development in the comedy troupe’s abilities and cinematic imagination.

The movie begins with a typical Arbuckle situation. He plays “Mr. Rough” (hence the multi-tiered pun of the title), a married man whose mother in law (Agnes Neilson) has come to visit. He is hiding in the bedroom while wife (Alice Lake) and mother take their breakfast. He dozes off with a cigarette in his hand, starting a fire on the bed. When he comes to, he stares blankly at the fire for a while, then walks out to the kitchen to fill a teacup with some water, which he then leisurely brings back to the bedroom and tosses on the raging flames. He goes to repeat this, but is distracted by the pretty maid (I think it’s Josephine Stevens), who he tries to kiss, and then he ends up drinking the water! By this point, wife and mother have become alerted to the situation, and they raise the alarm, causing a nearby gardener (Buster Keaton in a beard) to supply Fatty with a hose. He sprays everyone but the fire, eventually drenching the bedroom so much that fire simply cannot continue.

While all of this has been going on, and inter-cut with it, the help have been engaged in slapstick shenanigans. Apparently the cook (Al St. John) also has an interest in the maid, but she isn’t interested in him, and kicks him into a pan of white goo, possibly a future cake that is now spoiled. At table, Fatty entertains the maid with a little bread roll fork-dance that Charlie Chaplin fans will find familiar. Then, her real love interest shows up in the form of Buster Keaton in his primary role as a delivery boy. He does several impressive pratfalls to introduce himself and starts throwing things at Al, resulting in more chaos in the house. This soon escalates to Buster chasing Al through the house with a knife, and Fatty become involved in throwing household objects at both of them. Mr. Rough eventually throws both of them out and they are arrested by a passing policeman when their fight spills into the yard.

Mr. Rough consoles the maid, tending to her injured ankle – until the wife and mother-in-law return. They immediately show their wrath, mother-in-law choking Fatty, and wife firing the maid. Now Fatty has to take on the domestic tasks of the household, preparing for dinner company – a pair of “Dukes” (who are actually robbers) are coming over. Meanwhile, Buster and Al are offered jobs on the police force because the cells are all full. Fatty now does several of the “funny cook” gags we’ve seen in “The Waiters Ball” and elsewhere. He chops bread with a fan, puts out the table settings by carrying it all in the tablecloth, and pours gasoline all over the steak. Soon, the dinner degenerates into chaos, which gives one of the thieves a chance to sneak into the bedroom and steal a string of beads. Unfortunately for him, he is observed in this act by a plainclothes detective who has been following the phony aristocrats. He calls the station and Buster and Al are (of course!) called in to apprehend the miscreants. They now do their best tribute to the Keystone Kops, especially Buster, whose oversize helmet keeps falling off as he tumbles over fences and down slopes to rush to the scene of the crime.

Meanwhile, the detective has recruited Fatty, and tries to hold the “Dukes” at gunpoint, but instead they make a break for it and he and Fatty shoot wildly at them (and at pretty much anything) while they run madly around the house. The thieves run out into the street with the detective and Fatty not far behind, and they hide in a cellar while Fatty shoots at the detective accidentally. After their journey to the house is delayed when the delivery boy gets stuck on a fence, the new police recruits eventually arrive at the house just in time to unintentionally stop the fleeing thieves by bumping into them. Mr. Rough takes back the necklace and the thieves are taken to jail.

Arbuckle often structured his 2-reelers as 2-part stories, as in this case, where the first part of the story is the fire and the fight among Fatty and his help and the second part is the dinner and the chase after the thieves. The two parts are only loosely connected: Having Al and Buster become cops in the middle defies logic, but it keeps the best clowns available for more gags in the second part. Other comedy directors of the time did similar things (think of Chaplin and “The Immigrant,” with part one on the boat and part two in the restaurant), but it seems to me as though Arbuckle was especially devoted to the structure, sometimes at the expense of coherent narrative. This was a fairly early entry in Arbuckle’s series of films with Comique, his own film company, with distribution through Paramount Pictures, and only the second time he had worked with Buster Keaton. Keaton, who had an extensive stage career as a slapstick clown from childhood, is clearly comfortable in front of the camera and working well with the team. His rivalry with Al St. John works especially well in the first half. Interestingly, unlike “Oh Doctor” and “Coney Island,” both of which came out later in 1917, he’s not particularly expressive here, even if he hasn’t quite become “Old Stone Face” yet.

Although the movie, and especially the final chase, is clearly built on older work from Keystone, it also shows cinematic advancement. The scene with the bed fire is pretty much lifted straight from “Fatty’s Plucky Pup,” but here the cross-cutting with another comic storyline makes it funnier and more effective. I’ve mentioned the parallel between the second part of the film and the Keystone Kops, but again there’s improvement, both in terms of the comic timing and the use of camera angles. We get close-ups on the ridiculous-looking station sergeant that Keystone would never have taken the time to do, and one sequence of pratfalls is shot in long shot, with the actors appearing as silhouettes, which is lovely. There’s also a contribution to future movies, in the form of the “bread roll dance” Fatty does for the maid. He’s not really as amusingly sympathetic as Chaplin will be eight years later, but it does show how all of the comedy masters freely borrowed from one another. I think this is the funniest of the Comiques I’ve reviewed so far, and the most readily re-watchable.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Agnes Neilson, Glen Cavender, Josephine Stevens

Run Time: 22 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Man There Was (1917)

Victor Sjöström directs and stars in this Swedish melodrama of cruelty and the Sea, based on a poem by Henrik Ibsen. A major production in the history of Swedish film, it established standards that would influence the industry in coming years.

Sjöström plays a man named Terje Vigen (also the Swedish title of the movie). The film opens with him as an old hermit, whose eyes glaze over wildly whenever a storm is abroad. But he wasn’t always this way, and the movie quickly flashes back to his youth, when he was a sturdy sailor, known as a man who’s true home was the sea. We see him climb the mast of a large ship and unlash the mainsail. He returns home to his wife and gets his first glimpse of his newborn child, an event that profoundly moves him. The Intertitles inform us that he has ended his wild days and that his child is now the most important thing in his life. We see him turn down an offer to go drinking with a rowdy gang of his old friends, because he’d rather stay home and play with the baby. Then, in 1809, the Napoleonic Wars come to Sweden, and the English blockade the country. To feed his starving wife and child, he dares to take a skiff and try to smuggle food from Denmark, but his is caught on the way back by a crew from an English Man-O-War. The English captain ignores his tears for his child, scuttles the skiff, and sends Terje off to prison.

Terje spends five years in prison, mostly with Norwegian P.O.W.s, with whom he can’t even communicate. Finally, the war comes to an end and he is released. He returns home to fins strangers living in his house. They tell him that after the father “ran away,” the woman and child that used to live there died and were buried in the cemetery. He visits the grave in agony. Now, the movie has moved up to the period we saw at the beginning. Terje becomes a boat pilot and lives among others at the edge of the sea, but keeps away from people and becomes wild whenever there is a storm. During such a storm, he sees a yacht in trouble and braves the waters to go out and help. But, as he struggles to control it against the winds, he discovers that its master is the man who condemned him, and that now his wife and child are at his mercy. He lures them into a skiff, and prepares to sink it to have his revenge, but the sight of the innocent child stays his hand. He rows the damaged skiff to a reef and allows the other pilots to rescue the family. The next day, the family comes to thank him and he tells them it was the child that saved them.

Yep, this is a Swedish film.

Where “Ingebord Holm” surprised me, this was much more in line with what I expect from Swedish cinema – dark, brooding, and morally ambivalent, with lots of images of the coastline and men with beards. In short, it confirms my expectation that all Swedish movies must relate somehow to Ingmar Bergman, who was born the year after this was released. But, there are still some elements that remind me of D.W. Griffith. For one thing, Griffith also made a movie based on a poem about a sailor who loses his family (“The Unchanging Sea”). For another, this movie makes classically Griffithian use of cross-cutting, particularly in the scenes where Terje tries to run the blockade and is pursued. I found it relied rather heavily on Intertitles to move the plot forward. Sometimes a scene just seemed to be a short illustration between Intertitles, but this is partly a product of Sjöström’s decision to keep as close to the poem as possible, and to use it for the titles. Probably for fans of Ibsen, this would not be a drawback. Historically, I was struck with the thought that the Napoleonic Wars were about as distant for its audience as World War One is for us – just over a century. Sjöström makes use of this not-quite-mythic time to make a statement about humanity that people could easily relate to, and apparently had quite a success, because bigger-budget features became the standard in Sweden after this.

Director: Victor Sjöström

Camera: Julius Jaenzon

Starring: Victor Sjöström

Run Time: 52 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with dark, brooding music).

A Modern Musketeer (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks extends his brand of good-natured athletic all-American comedy into the realm of swashbuckling with this feature from 100 years ago. No doubt Fairbanks saw the potential in a story setting him as an adventurer in the Grand Canyon as soon as he read the source, a piece called “D’Artagnan of Kansas” by Eugene P. Lyle.

The movie begins with an extended flashback to the “Three Musketeers” which is almost a short movie in itself. Doug plays D’Artgnan, and he makes a point of mocking his own mustache and long locks in what seems to be a kind of wink at the audience. He rides into a tavern where he sees a woman inconvenienced by a nobleman of some sort, then starts a fight that leads to fencing and stunts, including leaping up to the rafters and continuing the fight from there. This is the first time I’ve seen Fairbanks with a sword in his hand (he’s had plenty of fights with guns and fists, up to this point), and it’s easy to see that he was a natural to Hollywood-style swordplay. His sword flashes and leaps, parries and thrusts, and never seems to draw any blood as he disarms and dispatches his foes. I can’t imagine that any fan of later action movies would be disappointed in this sequence or find it slow-moving. And, again, it includes Doug’s now-patented physical comedy touches, as when he grabs the beard of a sleeping drunk to steady himself during the battle.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Little American (1917)

The star power of Mary Pickford is teamed with the directing power of Cecil B. DeMille to produce a war propaganda picture just as the United States prepares to send its first troops to France to fight in World War One. The movie pulls no punches in showing audiences what the USA will be fighting for, but it has a reputation for being clumsy and jingoistic today.

Mary is the titular representative of the United States, Angela Moore, living a privileged and sheltered life as a socialite on a large estate. She has two suitors: the French Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton) and Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt), a German. As the movie opens, it is July 4, 1914 (which just happens to be Angela’s birthday), and she receives each of them in turn. She seems to prefer Karl, although he insists on teaching her little brother how to goose step. Karl is interrupted as he proposes by an urgent secret message calling him back to serve in the German military, and he honorably releases her from any obligations before he goes. When the Count informs her about the outbreak of war, her first though is of Karl and whether he may have been hurt in the fighting. She sends letters to Karl but hears nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

Coney Island (1917)

This movie was the fifth collaboration between Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton, coming out just a month after “Oh, Doctor!” To my mind, it makes better use of Keaton’s talents, although fans of the “Great Stone Face” may be surprised by his expressions at this time.

The movie starts with images of Luna Park at night that are reminiscent of earlier actualities. Images are run at high speed so that people move zip across the screen while our attention is focused on the beautiful lighting. We then see daylight shots at normal speed of the Mardi Gras parade. This serves to get the narrative started as Keaton and his girl (Alice Mann) appear as spectators. Buster does a minor (but impressive) stunt as he shimmies up a pole to get a better view, but comes crashing down on Alice when he gets excited and starts to applaud. We then cut to Fatty and his wife (Agnes Neilson) on the beach, in what seems to be an even less happy relationship. She reads from a magazine and scolds him while he scoops sand into a pail. He looks bored and tries to leave, but she grabs him back. Then his hat gets blown off by the wind, and he uses this as an excuse to move some distance from her, hitting upon the idea of “disappearing” by digging a hole in the sand and hiding in it. He uses a periscope to watch her leave when she misses him and begins to search for him. He now quickly scoots off to the amusement park. Meanwhile Agnes runs into her old friend Al St. John, who does a great tumble that knocks both of them over.

Arbuckle, Al, and Alice & Buster all arrive at the ticket counter. Buster is out of money, so Alice switches sides and goes in with Al. This produces a very demonstrative crying fit in Buster. Then he sneaks in by hiding in a barrel marked “rubbish” that is being brought into the park. Agnes refuses to pay when she gets there, clobbering the ticket-taker with her purse. Al and Alice get onto a go-cart at the “Witching Waves,” soon followed by Buster in another one (evidently you don’t need individual tickets for the rides, just one to get access to the park in general). Al crashes his car into an obstacle, and Alice starts to get seasick from the wave effect. An attendant gives them a push to get going again, and they soon crash into Buster. Al throttles Buster for a bit, then throws him aside, and Buster clings to a fake buoy for support. Alice is looking really ill now, and Al escorts her to a bench that is not rocking up and down. Al goes to get her some ice cream to settle her stomach, and that’s when Fatty moves in. She threatens to get sick in his hat, but manages to control herself, and then he happily accepts the ice cream cones from Al when he arrives, giving one to Alice and eating the other – until Al hits him for it and he spits it out on Al!

The fight now extends over to Keaton, who has been practicing pratfalls with a huge hammer at a “high striker.” Alice seems to enjoy having men fight over her, and cheers on the violence. Arbuckle manages to set up St. John by kicking a cop from behind and making it look like Al did it, so he winds up with Alice again. He and Buster exchange blows with the clown hammer and Fatty winds up winning a cigar. Then he and Alice go on the “Shoot the Chutes” ride. The ride proves to be rather unsafe, and both are dumped into the drink when it hits bottom. Buster sees this and dives in to save Alice. He tries to help Fatty out as well, but of course he winds up getting pulled back into the water. The Alice decides to go off with Fatty again, for reasons that escape Buster and bring on more tears.

Arbuckle and Alice now arrive at the bath house and decide to go for a swim while their clothes dry out. The bath house has no bathing suits in Fatty’s size, so he swipes one from a fat lady. In the changing room, Fatty breaks the “fourth wall” and instructs the camera to shoot above his chest while he’s changing. Meanwhile Keaton, who is also sopping wet, sees one of the workers put up a sign saying “Life Guard Wanted” at the bath house. Having just initiated himself into the profession, Buster decides to apply for the job. He gets it, and is given a suit with the words “Life Guard” emblazoned on it. He walks in on Fatty, and laughs to see him in the woman’s bathing suit, precipitating another slapstick fight. Alice, who looks quite fetching in her very tight bathing suit, manages to get a wig for Fatty to wear. Fatty goes into the men’s shower, which panics all of the men there. One of them directs him to the women’s room, which seems to be more of a powder room than a shower (the contrast is quite extreme). He hangs out there until Alice comes and drags him away.

Meanwhile, Agnes has gone to the police station in search of her miscreant husband, but instead finds that Al St. John is in a cell. She shows him a picture of Fatty, who Al recognizes as the chiseler who stole his girl (and his ice cream). They head back to the beach, which is where Alice and Fatty, each in their women’s bathing suits, have also headed. Alice plays with a dog, and Al spots Fatty, but apparently doesn’t recognize him, because he sits down and tries to flirt. Agnes sees the two of them together, but doesn’t recognize him either until Buster comes along and uses a hook on a long pole to remove Fatty’s hat and wig. Then the fight is back on, but Buster wisely gets out of sight, managing somehow to pick up Alice along the way. She seems happy that he has a job now, maybe he’ll be able to afford tickets in the future. Al and Fatty exchange slapstick kicks and shoves while Agnes nags at Fatty, seeming to scare him more than Al does.  Finally, Agnes calls the police, who act very much like Keystone Kops (but this is Comique, so I guess they’re Comique Cops), pratfalling and saluting and then rushing to the rescue. When they arrive on the scene, Arbuckle and St. John are fighting in the water, so they swim out to arrest them.

Whose kops are these? I think I know…

Back at the station, Fatty requests to be jailed in the same cell with Al, and the cops, who apparently realize he’s a man, comply. They carry on their fight until an officer is sent in to break it up. Al distracts him while Fatty clobbers him with his own nightstick. This bit is repeated four or five times (you’d think they’d catch on), and eventually St John makes a break for it and Arbuckle winds up back in the hands of his wife. He shoves her into the cell and locks it, skipping merrily out the door where he meets Al. They swear a pact to avoid women which lasts less than five seconds.

This movie definitely was good for some chuckles, but I wouldn’t rate it as the best work of any of the three male stars. Keaton is much better here than in “Oh, Doctor!” but he’s still emoting too much and isn’t as central to the action as he could be. If you look at it as a boy-loses-girl, boy-gets-girl-back narrative, he’s arguably the star, but Arbuckle is still giving himself more screen time as director. Arbuckle is good, but he chooses to cast himself as the “heavy,” when he’s really more appealing as the lovable-but-strong dope. Al St. John is the only one who seems really on his game, using his gangly frame to heighten the humor of the various stunts he pulls in the various fight scenes and arrests. He’s nowhere near as psycho as he was in “The Waiters Ball” or “Fatty and Mabel Adrift,” though.

Probably the big draw for viewers at the time was seeing Roscoe Arbuckle in drag, which he had done before, but this time some of the possibilities (like his being in the women’s dressing room) are explored more thoroughly. Apparently this led to some censorship in some areas, particularly a shot in which one of the women reveals a bit more of her stocking than was acceptable. There’s a number of points where the men’s reactions to women’s bodies are played up, including one part where Keaton faints after seeing Alice in her swimsuit. Gender rules are thus both broken and reinforced, with the audience titillated along the way, all in the name of “earthy” humor. No doubt this was very successful at the time, but modern viewers will probably find it more interesting than hilarious.

The other piece that’s worth noting is the extensive location shooting. This is handled much more professionally than in “Fatty and Mabel at the San Diego Exposition,” with effective crowd control and no looky-loos visible on camera. Nevertheless, we get to see a good portion of the park and also get a sense of what kinds of amusements people went in for at the time. The Shoot-the-Chute ride, with no safety bars or seat belts, really does look like a pretty dangerous ride, and the stuntwork involved in that spill was probably pretty risky. The “Witching Waves” is just a weird idea – bumper cars on an oscillating surface? Or were they really not meant to hit each other? And then the bath house, with its very different men’s and women’s rooms, is an interesting insight into gender norms of another age. The movie is definitely worth checking out for its historical interest, and it does pay off with some laughs although each of the principles has better work on offer.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton,, Al St. John, Alice Mann, Agnes Neilson, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 25 Min

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