Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

The Oyster Princess (1919)

Another Ernst Lubitsch sex comedy starring Ossi Oswalda, this one is a bit less transgressive than “I Don’t Want to Be a Man,” but still racy by the standards of the time, especially compared to American comedies. Lubitsch again shows the talent he will be bringing to movies for some time to come.

Ossi this time plays Ossi Quaker, the daughter of an American magnate (Victor Janson) who has made his fortune selling oysters. She seems to delight in destroying things, throwing newspapers when she runs out of vases to break. When Victor asks what the matter is this time, he finds it’s because the daughter of the “Shoe Cream King” is marrying a count. Of course, she demands better, so Mr. Quaker agrees to find her a prince. He goes to a matchmaker (Max Kronert) who looks in his files and discovers a confirmed bachelor by the name of Prince Nucki (Harry Liedke) and sends him an invitation to meet the Quakers. The reticent Nucki, on receiving this note in his bachelor pad, sends his buddy Josef (Julius Falkenstein) to scope out the girl in question, setting him up to play his valet. Meanwhile, Ossi is “instructed” in married life by practicing with a baby doll.

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The Circus (1920)

This short from Bray Studios again mixes live action with animation (no doubt to save time and money before cel animation had been perfected) to produce a movie about a drawing that takes on a life of its own. The result is simple, but satisfying.

Let this ring represent “Circus.”

The movie begins with an image of an artist at his desk with a messenger standing over him. We see him draw the image of a clown, seal it in an envelope and address it to “the Operator.” The messenger brings it to a projectionist working in a booth, and he opens it to find instructions for the clown. He turns the page over and the clown comes to life, initiating the animated portion of the film. The clown draws himself a circus ring and calls for music. He creates the shape of a horse beneath a blanket, then pulls off the blanket, revealing a skinny nag. The horse eats the blanket and the clown does some stunts on his back, before the horse bucks him off and tramples him. The clown asks the horse to count out the toes on his foot, and the horse stamps on it. The horse then does a series of funny poses, and the clown announces that he will run to beat his own time of a mile in 1 and ¾ seconds, but he accidentally hits the horse with the bullet from the starter gun. The horse announces “I’m kilt” in a speech bubble and a horse with a halo emerges and floats up to horse heaven. The horse-St. Peter insists that he take off his shoes and when he tosses them down he hits the clown repeatedly. The clown throws one back up, giving St. Pete a black eye and the horse laughs, causing St. Pete to kick him back down to Earth. He re-enters the horse-body and comes back to life. He kicks the still laughing clown into an inkpot and the clown throws ink at the horse before putting the cap back on and descending.

This movie was part of a series called “Out of the Inkwell” produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave. The series ran from 1918 to 1926, and the protagonist would eventually become known as “Koko the Clown,” although he was nameless at the time of this film. He has a memorable look that I think today seems like a familiar image of an “old time” clown. He had first been drawn by Max Fleischer to demonstrate the success of his invention, the rotoscope, that was a method for achieving realistic movement for animated cartoons. The series became a hit, and the Fleischers went on to produce on film a month for eight years. Koko remained a staple for years after the end of the first series and continued working up to an appearance with Betty Boop in 1934, then took some time off before appearing on television in the sixties. This cartoon, which has many elements that would be familiar to children of later generations, seems fairly sophisticated, although much of the movie takes place against a blank white background. Once we get up to “horse heaven,” things get a bit more impressive, and the clown does well moving about the “real” world of the inkwell as well.

Director: Dave Fleischer

Animator: Max Fleischer

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

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

I Don’t Want to Be a Man (1918)

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

Unacceptable Behavior

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

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The Bomb Idea (1920)

This animated short from Bray Productions features Jerry Flannigan, known to readers of the Hearst Newspapers as “Jerry on the Job.” He is a diminutive fellow who works a variety of jobs, although his employment is a pretty minor aspect of this film.

Jerry and his boss are at a railroad station, reading the paper. They see a headline screaming “BOLSHEVIKI RUN WILD THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY” and become highly paranoid. When a mustachioed man walk up holding a large black sphere, they become fearful and try to hide, but everywhere they go, he seems to follow, polishing his “bomb.” Finally, they run into town and arouse several other citizens and a police officer to come out and investigate. The team sees the man lighting a match, but really he’s just lighting his pipe. He gets ready to throw the bomb and tries to knock over several bowling pins, but the ball misses and he has to use his pipe to get a “strike.” At that moment, the lynch mob confronts him with a gun, and he holds up his hands, causing his coveralls to fall off and reveal several bowling medals pinned to his chest. He runs off, leaving his clothing behind and the other lynchers turn on Jerry and his boss, initiating the traditional cartoon “fight cloud.” When the dust clears, it appears that Jerry and his boss have been torn to shreds, and the other men leave. Finally, the heads of Jerry and his boss poke out from the ground, with two black eyes each, but they are still alive. Oddly, in the final shot they kiss each other on the mouth.

What surprised me most about this cartoon was the direct political reference, but particularly in the context of red-baiting newspapers. The comic’s original host, the Hearst line of papers had been responsible for some of the worst red-baiting of the postwar period, and here was a cartoon apparently lampooning that with their character! The movie suggests that people should not jump to conclusions, and that violence can be fueled by irresponsible journalism. Of course, it’s all in the service of a laugh, and apparently meant for children who probably wouldn’t read that level of criticism into it. It was also interesting to see the early use of a dust cloud to simulate fighting in cartoons, something I remember from my childhood of cartoon-watching.

Director: Walt Hoban, Vernon Stallings

Animator: Walter Lantz

Run Time: 4 Min

I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Ocean Waif (1916)

This late movie from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax studio seems to be an effort by her to imitate the success of Mary Pickford, with a less-expensive actress. The story, as well as the performer, do manage to evoke some of the charm of Pickford’s better work.

Not Little Mary

Doris Kenyon is Millie, a young orphan who washed up on the beach one day and is being raised by “Hy” Jessop (William Morris), a gruff fisherman with all the social graces and basic decency of Huck Finn’s Pappy. She is also loved from afar by the seemingly simple-minded “Sem” (Fraunie Fraunholz), who hates to see her abused by her foster father, and tries to defend her. She runs away to a nearby abandoned crumbling mansion, which, though filled with rats, is not much worse than her regular squalid digs. A wealthy author by the name of Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) decides to lease said mansion, seeing it as the ideal romantic atmosphere to work out yet another best-selling novel, and he brings along his valet, Edgar Norton. Clearly, the three are on a collision course with wackiness!

This being a fairly brief silent film, said wackiness gets underway pretty quickly, with Millie hiding out in the mansion and fooling the butler into believing there is a “lady ghost.” Norton gives quite a number of good scare takes before Roberts figures out that there’s a real girl hiding out. Once she’s been discovered, Roberts takes her under his wing, with the usual result of an impoverished young girl’s awakening attraction to an older successful man (see, for example, “Stella Maris”). In this case, he more or less reciprocates, but with the added complication of a fiancé who comes to visit at an inopportune moment, causing Millie to run back to her foster father, who now notices her blooming womanhood for the first time. Luckily, Sem intervenes once again to rescue her, conveniently getting himself killed n the process to avoid any further romantic triangles. Ronald’s fiancé decides she’s more interested in marrying “the Count” who has been wooing her single (presumably widowed) mother, thus allowing the two stars to live happily ever after.

Your…fish…has arrived, sir.

This is pretty light fare, and as I’ve suggested it’s rather derivative, so doesn’t hold up against the best work Guy-Blaché was putting out from Gaumont in the 1900s. It is undeniably more sophisticated in terms of film techniques and storytelling, but only in the sense of having kept up with the industry as of 1916, not in terms of any innovations. Still, there are some nice touches. I actually think the best performance is the comic turn by Norton as the butler. I could actually hear his nasally-British voice as he showed his fastidious snobbishness at the surroundings and locals of the seaside. Anyone who watched (or read) “Jeeves and Wooster” will instantly recognize his archetype here. Norton would continue playing butlers of this type well into the sound period, so he’ll be recognized by many classic film fans. One nice bit has the waif’s first night at the mansion intercut with the author’s night in a luxurious hotel nearby, emphasizing the differences in their backgrounds and the lives they’ve known. I was actually rooting for Sem, myself, who seemed to have more genuine feelings for Millie, and who is the only one who really puts himself on the line for her. I suppose that the difference in their intelligence would have prevented a healthy relationship, but I’m not sure that falling for the first rich guy you meet is much better.

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Camera: John G. Haas

Starring: Doris Kenyon, Carlyle Blackwell, William Morris, Fraunie Fraunholz, Edgar Norton

Run Time: 40 Min (with some missing footage, I believe)

You can watch it for free: here.

Terror Island (1920)

Having survived 15 death-defying situations in the previous year’s serial “The Master Mystery,” Harry Houdini is back in this feature-length adventure thriller which bills itself a “melodrama.”

Houdini stars as Harry Harper, a treasure-seeker with a heart of gold who hopes to recover a shipwreck full of diamonds using his newly invented submarine in order to take care of local waifs who sell newspapers. Wilton Taylor and Edwin Brady are greedy treasure hunters who are gunning for the same treasure, and they read about Harry’s plans in the newspaper. Lila Lee is Beverly West, the horseback riding love interest who happens to be related to the bad guys and also possesses the map to the wreck in question, sent by her father in a plea for his rescue from island natives who plan to sacrifice him unless she returns a skull-shaped pearl he sent her earlier. Got all that? Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship

The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.

The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and  liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders (Episode One): The Golden Sea

This first episode in a crime serial was one of Fritz Lang’s first movies as a director, and is the earliest one that survives today. It shows his talent as well as how far the European movie business has come since the beginning of the First World War, but it also wears its influences rather obviously on its sleeve.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue in which we see an old hermit-type man throw a bottle into the sea just before being shot in the back with an arrow by a fellow wearing an elaborate feathered head dress. This is soon explained in a fancy club in San Francisco when a sportsman/adventurer by the name of Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) tells of finding the message in the bottle, which claims to be from a missing Harvard professor who has discovered and been held captive in a surviving Incan civilization. Hoog has verified the professor’s standing and lost status, and now decides to forgo a major boat race in order to head to Chile and try to find the immense treasure these Incans possess. Among his listeners is the lovely Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), who secretly works for the Spiders, an international crime syndicate of immense power and evil.

The spiders send some thieves who look like cut-rate Fantômas clones over to knock Hoog out and steal his map, leaving a large toy spider and a warning behind. Then the leader of the Spiders assigns Lio to lead a rival expedition to recover the treasure. Once in Mexico, she hires a bunch of roughnecks to assist her, and Hoog starts dressing like a cowboy. There’s a bar-room hold up in which he manages to recover a document that tells him about a mysterious “diamond ship,” though now the Spiders are in pursuit. He meets a professor (Georg John) who plans to fly in a balloon over the plateau where the Incas are, and he manages to climb aboard at the last instant despite the efforts of the Spiders to delay him.

Once we get to the Incan city, a lot of the movie is typical serial capture-and-escape material, with the Incans eager to sacrifice at least one of the trespassers, Lio Sha eager to kill Hoog, and her followers mostly interested in stealing the gold for themselves. Hoog meets  the Priestess Naela (Lil Dagover), and rescues her from punishment for refusing to sacrifice Lio. Lio and her gang are able to find the treasure, but chaos breaks out as the men start fighting over the treasure. Of course, at that moment the volcano erupts and wipes out the Incans as well as all of the Spiders except Lio Sha and one nugget-obsessed henchman.

Hoog and Naela are able to escape in a large floating basket and make their way back to San Francisco to be married. Lio Sha comes to him and asks him to join her, saying they would make a great team if they worked together and became lovers. Hoog refuses and Lio kills Naela in revenge.

This movie’s debt to the crime serials of Louis Feuillade would be less painfully obvious if Lang hadn’t cast Orla and dressed her to look so much like Musidora. She comes across as decidedly more German than French, however – she’s domineering and masculine rather than sexy and conniving. I find that de Vogt reminds me of René Cresté, who played “Judex,” though other reviewers compare him to a young William S. Hart. Hart played an Aztec in one movie, so maybe Lang was going for that here. I find it amusing that Lang thought “Kay” was a good first name for his all-American manly man hero. It’s not really clear to me why the “good” character is motivated to steal treasure from a civilization that has avoided Western contact, although all he does in fact is to fall in love with one of their priestesses and save her life. That said, the Spiders work well as a “Vampires”-style crime organization, and some of the best parts of the Feiullades sprang from the illogic of the series.

Overall, the film making technique of this movie is way ahead of the work Gaumont was putting out before and during the war. There are frequent close-ups, cuts within scenes, cross-cutting to enhance suspense, creative camera angles, and lighting. The camera moves to follow actors, and sometimes to reveal things at the right moment. In one scene, Hoog stands in front of a window of the cantina while Lio Sha carouses inside. Both of them are in perfect focus, and the edits each time Hoog peers inside allow us to think she might spot him at any moment. There’s a good use of silhouettes on the plateau at night, and we get actual darkness for night scenes, rather than just tinting a brightly-lit scene and expecting the audience to go along with it. When I was collecting screenshots for this article, I became especially aware of how fast the editing is compared to the movies I’ve reviewed up to now. Usually, I have plenty of time to choose my shot, but with this one, I had to hurry or it would cut away. The costumes and sets for the Incans are elaborate and beautiful (though probably not terribly authentic). Another break in logic came for me when the head-dress fellow snuck up on one of the Spiders’ guards and took him out. How did he not see that huge feathered thing coming right up to him?

The “diamond ship” subplot is a setup for the next episode, which came out in 1920, so I’ll be reviewing it soon as well.

Director: Fritz Lang

Camera: Emil Schünemann, Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Carl de Vogt, Lil Dagover, Ressel Orla, Georg John

Run Time: 1 Hour, 9 Min

You can watch it (together with part two, “The Diamond Ship) for free: here.

Blind Husbands (1919)

Erich von Stroheim’s first directorial effort is a tale of infidelity set in a small European village. This is the feature film that “made him” as a director, establishing a reputation for brilliance, going over-budget, and being domineering on the set.

The picture takes place in a small Alpine village, and begins with a dedication to “Sepp” a mountain guide who happens to share a name with the guide character (played by Gibson Gowland) in the movie. Sepp receives word that his friend Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) is returning to the village, which results in an emotional flashback in which we learn that Dr. Armstrong saved Sepp’s life on the mountain and that Sepp pledged his undying loyalty to him in gratitude. We see the arrival of the doctor and his young wife (Francelia Billington) in a carriage, the doctor consistently with his nose buried in a book. This opens up opportunities for an Austrian Lieutenant (played in highly Prussian style by von Stroheim himself) to awkwardly flirt with her, though she shows no interest in him. As the film progresses, this theme continues, with the Lieutenant flirting with, and at times annoying, Mrs. Armstrong while her husband is oblivious to her concerns. Meanwhile, their relationship is contrasted with that of two young Honeymooners (the girl is played by Valerie Germonprez, von Stroheim’s future wife), who are only interested in one another to the point of obliviousness to all else. Mrs. Armstrong clearly longs for that kind of attention, and is ashamed to be seen in public with a man who ignores her. The Lieutenant quickly seduces and abandons a waitress (Fay Holderness) at their inn, pausing only momentarily in his pursuit of Mrs. Armstrong, giving us a clear picture of what would happen to her if she were to submit to him.

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Montmartre’s Kids (1916)

This wartime propaganda film masquerades as a human interest documentary, but it’s easy to see that the action is contrived. It gives us a look at a Parisian neighborhood during World War I, and a sense of what motivated people’s sympathies at the time.

An opening intertitle assures us that the people of Paris are determined to fight on, and that the children of this besieged city are just as affected as are the adults. We then see a group of local kids kitted up to play soldier, with some even dressed as nuns to treat the wounded. One particularly adorable child has a toy cannon, but most are carrying broken buckets and other scrap as “ammunition.” Two kids, using a tin can and an old pipe as a radio, receive “orders” to “bother the concierge” at a particular address. This is duly passed down the line. The troops assemble (the kid with the cannon stumbles cutely several times), and they charge down the hill to the address, where they toss over their junkyard ammunition. This scene is cross-cut with the concierge, wielding a broom, on the other side of the wall being pelted with trash. The kids make a “strategic retreat” across a hill with a windmill, and the nuns treat the “wounded” in the final shots.

Monmartre is a hill in the north of Paris which was home to several famous artists, though here it looks like a poor neighborhood full of street urchins, reminiscent of Bout-de-Zan. The movie is intended to tug at the heart-strings of viewers, getting them to sympathize with France in its suffering under attack by the German Army. By showing kids, genuinely under threat of war, innocently playing at war themselves, the film makers urge right-thinking adults to show courage and stoicism in the face of the attack. From our point of view today, it’s great to see all these images of a Paris neighborhood from over 100 years ago. A lot of the shots of the area the kids play in makes it appear as an undeveloped lot, or perhaps a junkyard, but for them it serves as a city park. The edited sequence of the attack on the concierge, requiring two camera set-ups to show simultaneous action, demonstrates that this is not a spontaneous action the kids are taking, but rather a scripted storyline. Audiences in 1916 may or may not have been sophisticated enough to figure this out.

Director: Francisque Poulbot

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 50 secs

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