Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

Hard Luck (1921)

Buster Keaton claimed the biggest laugh of his career was from the finale of this movie, which was lost for many years, but can now be seen restored. It still has laughs, though that final scene may be a bit less comfortable for a modern audience.

Buster plays a down on his luck young man who decides to commit suicide after losing his job and his girl. He tries lying in front of a streetcar, but it stops in front of him, then changes direction and proceeds up the line. He tries cutting a rope to cause a safe being hauled up the side of a building to fall on him, but it misses. He tries hanging himself from a tree branch, but just falls out of the tree with the rope wrapped around him. Pursued by two cops for his antics, he tries jumping on a streetcar, but it again reaches the end of the line and returns him to the police. He jumps through an open window to avoid them, and in his new environs he finds a bottle marked “poison” which he rapidly consumes, however it really contains whiskey – the waiter who had marked it poison was just trying to keep his stash to himself. He joins a table of men discussing the need for an adventurer to bring in an armadillo for the zoo. Bolstered by the whiskey, he volunteers. Read the rest of this entry »

Charlie’s White Elephant (1916)

This animated short exploits Charlie Chaplin’s image, but due to the different standards of copyright at the time, he probably made no money off it. It also includes a character named “Fatty” who appears to represent Roscoe Arbuckle.

The movie shows a relatively barren landscape, with Charlie walking up to a house with a large window, a stand of trees in the background and what looks like a fern in the foreground. He addresses a woman inside the house, asking her to marry him. She replies that she will – if he can bring her a white elephant. He shrugs and wanders off and Fatty now emerges from behind the house, asking the girl if she has forgotten him. She replies again that she will belong to whoever brings her a white elephant. Charlie now wanders the bleak countryside, looking high and low for a white elephant, but they don’t seem to be indigenous to this region. Fatty follows him to keep an eye on his progress.

Eventually Charlie happens upon a circus, represented by tents in the foreground and background, and he spies an elephant snoozing on the ground, This one is not white, however, it seems to be a mottled grey shade. Undeterred, Charlie wakes the beast and yanks on its tail, resulting in his being thrown. He chases the elephant up and down the landscape, and eventually drags it by the trunk back to his home, Fatty still following at a discreet distance. Charlie brings out a pail of paint and a brush, and he paints the elephant white. While he goes off to get the girl, Fatty comes up with another pail and kicks the elephant several times and pulls its tail. Charlie and the girl climb to the roof of his house to see the elephant, and Fatty continues agitating it, until he splashes it with orange paint, which causes the girl to lift Charlie by the seat of his pants, twirl him around her head, and throw him at the elephant. The elephant sits on Fatty. The end.

This very simplistic movie seems to have been intended mostly to entertain very small children, who would recognize Chaplin from his well-known live action movies, and would be able to follow the simple, almost fairy tale plot. I actually think the detail on Charlie is a bit better than in some of the other Charlie cartoons we’ve seen, for example “Charlie on the Windmill,” or maybe we just have a better-preserved print with more close-ups here. It’s sort of interesting that they chose to use “Fatty” as his adversary; Arbuckle and Chaplin had been in a couple of shorts together in 1914, but he was never an established “villain” the way Mack Swain was. Presumably, the producers of this little movie thought that Arbuckle was more recognizable than Swain, although he’s not as easy to represent in an avatar as Chaplin (or Swain, for that matter). The girl just seems to be a generic love interest, not one of Chaplin’s co-stars at Keystone or elsewhere.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

By Right of Birth (1921)

Only a fragment of this feature survives today, and it isn’t much to judge the whole by. It was produced by the Lincoln Motion Picture Company, the first production company owned and operated by African Americans, which makes it an important piece of history nonetheless.

The footage consists of a few disconnected scenes, most of which are themselves incomplete. The first shows a young woman sitting on the steps, reading a letter from a boyfriend who is away at war – she suspects him of “flirting with some chili queen” according to the intertitles. Another snippet shows a man offering to do “detective work” for another man in an office (the second man is either white or quite pale-skinned, it’s hard to tell). We then see the first man on a country road with a false mustache and a telegram-delivery man’s hat on his head. He complains that his “dogs are sure hot,” and we see smoke rising from his feet in an insert shot. The next scene is somewhat more complete, and involves a young woman being thrown from a horse, which is then recovered by a nearby fisherman, who we learn is named Jones. They don’t speak much, but we get a sense of a spark of romance between the two, and of the class distance that separates them. Then we see a white man on the phone with a white woman (possibly his wife?). The intertitle tells us they are conspiring to get a lease from “a girl,” tricking her into giving her signature. Another scene shows us a note which proves that they have gotten the wrong girl’s signature later on. A mother and two daughters are shown reading an eviction note. The mother appears to be signing over her life insurance when the young girl from the riding scene comes into the office, and they obviously recognize one another, though they are surprised to meet. She introduces her as “Mother” Agnes to the attorney, her father, who thanks her for helping his daughter. A white man walks into the room, and that’s all the footage we have.

Watching this, it’s hard not to try to guess what the rest of the story looked like. Because it’s the longest piece, I kind of want the story between Jones and the riding girl to be at the center of the story, but it seems to involve some kind of real estate scam, possibly against the horseback rider, and Jones doesn’t seem to come back into it again. I’m also unclear about the “detective” – was he also out looking for the girl no one can find? Who for? Was he on the side of the scammers, or some kind of good guy? The title makes me suspect that this is one of those stories, common in the early twentieth century, in which a poor girl discovers that she is actually an heiress, who has been raised in secrecy and without any knowledge of her status and now must claim her title in order to get what she deserves. But that is no more than a guess.

With so little to judge from, it’s hard to make any clear statements about the value of the Lincoln Motion Pictue Company and its artists. Certainly everything here is in focus and logically edited. It’s framed reasonably well, not relying on stagey standards and proscenium sets, and the camera operator is comfortable using close-ups. It seems like every shot has an intertitle, which seems like a lot of titles for the time, but that may just be because the titles happen to be what survived. Having the titles does give us a bit more information about what’s going on than we would get without them. The detective serves as comedy relief, but avoids the more flagrant stereotypes of Black humor we saw in the works of the Ebony Film Company, at least in these scenes. In this movie, it seems as if African Americans move in all levels of society – from a poor old mother, to an attorney and his daughter, to whatever dubious status the detective may have (is he really a delivery boy or is that just a disguise?), to a man who fishes in a stream (is this his profession or just recreation for him?). They do not live in an all-Black world, and the whites we see seem to plot and scheme against them. It would be great if someday the rest of this film is recovered.

Director: Harry Gant

Camera: Harry Gant

Starring: Clarence Brooks, Anita Thompson, Lew Meehan

Run Time: About 4 Min (surviving)

You can watch it (what there is): here.

The Boat (1921)

The title of this short by Buster Keaton says it all. This is a movie about a boat, and a man who brings his family to ruin because of his obsession with high seas living.

The movie begins with an effect – Keaton is inside of a boat that is rocking violently back and forth, apparently at sea. Much like the Méliès movie “Between Calais and Dover” what the audience sees is an apparently stable camera, with a set that is tilting along its axis. Unlike in that film, however, it does not appear that the camera is tilting; rather it seems that the set has been designed to genuinely rock back and forth in front of it. This allows objects to fall naturally in the right direction without help from the actors, and actors to be consistent in leaning the right way. We now see the outside of the boat, which is still in Keaton’s garage, but one of his small sons has jumped onto a rope that is holding it in place and is swinging on it, causing the rocking of the boat. Keaton emerges, removes the child from the rope, administers a quick spanking and goes on applying the finishing touches to his masterpiece. His wife (Sybil Seely) and other son join him and he has them get into the car outside, so that the family can go to the marina for the launching.

There is one small problem, however, as Keaton realizes that his garage door is too small for him to tow the boat out from it. He tries to fix this issue with a few strokes of his hammer, knocking some bricks out of the top to make room. He decides it’s close enough and starts up the car, but the boat is still too large and knocks out considerably more of the basement wall. This undermines the foundation and the entire front of the house collapses. Keaton inspects the damage, and finding that the life boat has been smashed, replaces it with a bathtub salvaged from the wreckage. He drives the family down to the dock.

At the dock, Keaton tries to have his wife christen the boat “Damfino” with a coke bottle. She can’t get it to break, so he uses a hammer. They begin to lower the boat into the water, using the car to tow it again, but Sybil sees the little boy playing on one of the planks supporting the boat that is about to be submerged, and calls out to Buster. He turns around and fails to notice the end of the dock, resulting in the loss of their car as it disappears into the drink. He and Sybil work valiantly to stop the descent of the boat, but eventually, he has to pull the child off the support and watch as the boat follows the car – it does not float, simply descends beneath the waves.

The boat is somehow recovered in time for the next scene, and seems to be floating ably with no leaks or difficulties, as Buster prepares for her maiden voyage. He places a smokestack in the middle of the deck, failing to notice that one of the children has been trapped under it. At first, he takes he child’s cries for help as a faulty ship’s whistle, but eventually he looks inside and sees him in there.  Now he lifts the smokestack again and drops the child overboard. he throws in a life saver, but this sinks. Before jumping in to save him, he drops a thermometer into the water to see how cold it is. Once he gets moving, though,  the smokestack seems to work very well. Buster has rigged it, and the ship’s mast, to lean backward as he goes under a low bridge. All he has to do is pull a handle. However, one such bridge comes along when his back is turned, and the chimney and mast crash down on him, knocking him once again off the boat, so that he must swim after it.

We see Buster and family having breakfast, down in the hull of the boat. At one point, the boat seems to go improbably up one side of a hill, then down the other – leaving open the question of who’s driving when Buster takes his meals. His wife cooks up pancakes and distributes them, but no one can bite into them, they are so hard. Buster hides his inside of his famous hat, and both boys follow suit with theirs. He gets the bright idea of hanging a picture on the wall, but the nail goes through and springs a leak. Buster covers it up with the pancake from his hat, which stops the leak.

After a long day at sea, the family is bedding down for the night when Buster’s bunk topples him onto the floor. He looks out and the sea is getting rough. He lights a candle and goes up on deck to see what there is to see, but mostly he just keeps getting toppled by waves. Eventually, he recognizes the danger and descends to the lower deck, putting his family into a closet for whatever safety that may provide while he uses the telegraph to call for help. A sailor receives his SOS and asks who’s calling. Buster identifies as “Damfino” and the sailor assumes it’s a joke, meaning “Damned if I know.” Now the boat is actually spinning in place, really putting his rigged set to the test, and Buster valiantly nails his shoes to the floor so he can keep signaling, but eventually the pancake comes loose and the leak begins to fill the room. Buster’s solution is to drill a hole in the floor so the water can get out, which of course results in an even bigger leak.

Now the boat is doomed, so he takes his family out to the deck and puts them into the bathtub he grabbed at the beginning for a lifeboat. He in unable to join them in time, and goes down with the ship, but as the family mourns his loss, his hat floats over to them and he turns out to be under it. He give one child a drink from his hat while another plays with the stopper, eventually loosing it and the bathtub sinks as the whole family desperately bails. Finally, Keaton kisses his wife and sons goodbye and prepares for the end, but the tub hits bottom and stops sinking. It turns out that they are only in a few feet of water! After a short walk through the water Buster and his family happen upon a deserted beach in dark of night. “Where are we?” asks his wife (via an intertitle), to which Buster replies, “Damn if I know” (mouthing the words to the camera, no intertitle is used).

Buster Keaton was undeniably a comedy genius, but not everything he made works for me today. Here, Keaton gives us a classic “little man” and his innocent family (his two small sons both wear pork pie hats) and instead of having them overcome insurmountable odds (as Harold Lloyd would have done) or at least poke fun at larger bullies (as Charlie Chaplin would have done), he proceeds to destroy all of their worldly possessions and put them in imminent danger of death for the sake of a few cheap gags. There is some impressive film-making here, including the eponymous vehicle, which is capable of spinning around so that Keaton can do some amazing pratfalls, but I find the movie frankly depressing. One can find similar dark currents in other Keaton movies, for example “One Week,” but there the obvious and at times enchanting affection of the two leads makes up for some of the difficulties they suffer. They may be starting out with nothing, but they still have one another. Here, Keaton’s family would frankly be better off without him.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Buster Keaton, Sybil Seely, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 24 Min

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

Charlie on the Farm (1919)

This very slight early cartoon uses Charlie Chaplin’s image and a familiar setting to evoke movies like “The Tramp” without actually involving Chaplin or using any of his gags. It is similar to some others we’ve seen, like “Charlie on the Windmill” and “Charlie and the Indians.”

A lightly-sketched background shows a train pulling out of a tunnel into a rural landscape. The train pulls into a station and one of the boxcars opens up, ejecting Charlie, who is being booted unceremoniously off by a railroad worker. He dusts himself off and walks away. He comes to a fence, from which he watches the courtship of a chicken. She is attracted to the rooster, who asks to marry her, but refuses to give up his other girlfriends, so she tries to get the duck to move in. He agrees, and says he would be happy to help raise a family, until she calls in her many children. He flies out of the window and into the distance. Now Charlie sees a man hanging a sign announcing a need for farm hands. Charlie applies for the job. The farmer tells him to milk the cows. Charlie doesn’t know how it’s done, so he takes off his coat and hat and turns the cows’ tails like they are cranks. He sees a milkmaid milking nearby, and watches as the cow’s stomach goes from full to empty, but fails to learn anything; he just goes on cranking. He then tries turning the tail of a bull, which of course chases him until he gets stuck in a knothole in the fence, then butts him so he flies through the air. He bounces off the backside of a caricatured African American laundress and flies back to the other side of the fence, where he sees a pig’s tail, and above it the head of a woman. He’s confused until he looks over the fence to see that the girl is in a hammock above the pig.

Charlie reports back to the farmer who tells him to dress some poultry for dinner, so he puts fancy clothes on them and brings them to the house, where they all eat at the table. The caricatured maid takes advantage of their presence to get some eggs for her cake. Now Charlie gets ready for bed after a hard day’s work, but the night sounds of the countryside keep him awake. He looks out his window to cats howling on the fence and frogs croaking out, “work! Work! Work!” in the pond. Before he can even get in bed, the farmer knocks on his door to get him started on the morning chores. Charlie leaps out his window, retrieves his hat and coat from where he left them outside and runs off. Seeing a sign that promises easy work on another farm, he runs away again, not willing to be bitten twice.

These cartoons were produced by Universal without Chaplin’s approval, but unlike some of the live “imitators,” he couldn’t get court approval to shut them down under copyright law at the time. The bare-bones images and unimaginative gags probably didn’t do much for his brand, but they did keep his image in the public view at a time when he wasn’t producing much. It’s odd that the writers spent so much time on the chickens, ducks, and other farm animals, rather than Charlie’s antics. Possibly they couldn’t come up with enough ideas, not having seen “The Tramp” for several years themselves. It seems to me as if animation still had a long way to go before Walt Disney and other animators caught it up to live-action cinema as a form of entertainment.

Director: Pat Sullivan

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Why WIld Men Go Wild (1920)

This somewhat primitive (ahem) comedy short stars Bobby Vernon, looking a bit like Harold Lloyd, and plays on gender norms as perceived in the early Jazz Age. It may have received a limited release at the time as no contemporary reviews of it are known to exist.

The movie begins by showing two men passed out with a hangover, an intertitle quickly interjecting a wry comment on Prohibition. One of the men is Vernon, the other is Jimmie Harrison; the two play characters named Bobby and Jimmy, respectively. A servant comes in and gives Jimmy a pitcher of cold water, then places it on Bobby’s forehead to wake him as well. He also gives Jimmy a note from his father, which disparages his “wild” lifestyle and invites him to bring his roommate for a visit, so that he can assess whether he is a negative influence. Jimmy has the idea that he can dress Bobby up like a nerd in order to reassure his father that he’s on the right track. Vernon doesn’t like the idea, but agrees. The movie then introduces us to Vera Steadman in a bathing suit, she plays Jimmy’s (nameless) sister, and she has fantasies of meeting a “real” man – which to her, means somebody “wild” like her brother. Obviously Bobby, in his uptight outfit (he dresses like a “minister’s son” according to a later intertitle) is not going to make the cut. Of course, he falls for her as soon as he meets her.

Wild, man.

What is Bobby to do? Well, the situation becomes sillier but clearer when sis reads a newspaper story about a local “wild man” who has been terrorizing the neighborhood. This brute, she thinks, would meet her requirements for “caveman love.” Accordingly, Jimmy and Bobby develop a plan: Bobby will dress as the wild man and win her heart. Meanwhile, of course, the real wild man (who looks for all the world like a cartoon cave man) is sneaking around the property, stealing chickens and being chased by a hillbilly with a rifle. Jimmy “warns” sis to keep away and of course she runs straight toward the “wild man,” not even recognizing that it is Bobby. Bobby orders her to build a fire and start cooking dinner; she seems a bit disappointed that this is all the cave man love she is offered. Bobby sneaks off to find Jimmy and they trade outfits – now Bobby can defeat the “wild man” and come to the rescue. They do a bit of a wrestling act and Jimmy’s sister hits him with the club. He and Bobby  run off again and leave her alone, but she sees Jimmy take off his beard as the two laugh about their exploits, and she stalks off in a huff.

Now, of course the real wild man jumps out of the trees at her. She tugs on his beard, expecting to find Jimmy (or Bobby) underneath. this enrages the wild man who grabs her and drags her away. Now the local yokels get an eyeful of Jimmy in his getup and start taking potshots, which in true slapstick fashion always hit in his backside. Bobby sees the wild man and jumps in and fights him. Now Jimmy runs up to his sister, who defends him from the posse, showing them that the wild man they are chasing is just her brother. They ignore the ongoing struggle between Bobby and the wild man right next to them until he comes out on top and presents the wild man for capture. Bobby now reveals his true self to the sister and they embrace.

This film is really not at the level of the brilliant work being done by Keaton, Chaplin, or Lloyd at the time – it’s not even as funny or gag-filled as an early Arbuckle or Max Linder movie. Still, it displays competent story telling with a very simple theme, and is made by William Beaudine, who would go on to better stuff. The sister is probably the most interesting character, since she’s so much a product of 1920s femininity, not at all the kind of girl we saw in earlier comedies. She almost seems like a prototype of a later Clara Bow or Colleen Moore character, but without the pep or any of “It.” Vernon’s best moments come when he’s miming the “minister’s son” for the father, giving a rather femmy performance, complete with limp-wristed hand movements. This represents for the audience his being “tame” while the beard, animal skin and club demonstrate “wildness.” There doesn’t seem to be much in between. It’s interesting that the comedy begins by being about drinking during Prohibition, because no one actually takes a drink for the entire run time.

Director: William Beaudine

Camera: F.G. Ullman

Starring: Bobby Vernon, Jimmie Harrison, Vera Steadman

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

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

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

Read the rest of this entry »

The Penalty (1920)

Lon Chaney established himself as the master of makeup and evil characters with this crime-horror feature after years in cinema, developing his range and honing his abilities. His character’s complexities lead to a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a man driven by revenge and evil.

The movie begins with a classic supervillain-origin-story: a child who has been in an accident is under the care of a young, freshly-minted doctor (Charles Clary), who amputates both his legs beneath the knees. When the doctor’s mentor arrives on the scene, he pronounces the amputations unnecessary, and the child learns of his disfigurement by overhearing them, then witnesses both doctors lying to his parents to cover up the mistake. Thus are the seeds of insanity sown. The boy grows up to become known as “Blizzard,” the chief of the criminal underworld in San Francisco. We first see him in his new role after a goon named Frisco Pete (Jim Mason) kills a streetwalker called Barbary Nell (Doris Pawn) in a dance hall. Pete runs back to Blizzard’s hideout and beat cops wisely choose to look the other way when they realize who is behind it. We learn that Nell has “wandered” from Blizzard’s gang, perhaps because for some strange reason he has put all of his girls to work in a sweatshop making hats. Read the rest of this entry »

The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari (1920)

At long last, here is my discussion of the feature that often begins the list of any “history of horror” films. It’s probably one of the most analyzed and written-about films of the Expressionist period, perhaps of German silent film in general, so I’ll be trying to see if I can add something new or at least interesting to consider.

The movie begins with a shot of two men sitting on a bench in front of a high stone wall. A tree with no leaves nearby establishes the time of year, and that they are in a park or similar outdoor space. The camera quickly cuts to a close-up on the older of the two men, and he speaks about spirits being “all around us” (“überall sind sie um uns her”), which seems to establish the supernatural or otherworldly nature of the tale, and he claims that they have separated him from his family. An ethereal-looking woman in white approaches the pair from the distance, and the younger man watches her in fascination. He identifies her as his fiancée, although she gives no sign of recognizing him, and tells the first man that their experiences are even stranger (“still seltsamer”) than what he has lived through. He offers to tell his tale, and then with a gesture evokes “The little town where I was born,” and from this point the movie takes place within his narrative (although see below about this).

Read the rest of this entry »

The Golem (1920)

This German feature film directed by Paul Wegener enters our History of Horror among the first movies modern fans easily recognize as “really” a horror movie. But its place in history remains disputed, with many possible interpretations available, so let’s take a closer look.

The movie begins with a shot of a starry sky above gnarled rooftops, with seven stars in a strange over-lapping configuration. We cut to an old man atop one of those rooftops, peering through a telescope and learn in an intetitle that he is Rabbi Loew (Albert Steinrück), and that he sees bad days ahead for the Jews of Prague in the stars. Close-ups then introduce us to his household – an assistant named Famulus (Ernst Deutsch) and a daughter named Miriam (Lyda Salmonova, in reality the wife of Wegener). These two are both young adults, and they gently flirt as they assist on some alchemical experiment or other. Rabbi Loew interrupts to tell them of his prophecy, then he puts on a tall peaked hat and goes out to inform the other elders of the Ghetto. He advises them to begin a 24-hour vigil of prayer to avert coming disaster. Since he’s a  respected rabbi, the community elders follow is advice.

Read the rest of this entry »