Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

Nosferatu (1922)

It looks like this year I may only have time to present a single entry to my “History of Horror” for October, but that one is a doozy! Profoundly influential, in its day controversial, and still significant, we will take a look at Friedrich W. Murnau’s vampire film, which could even qualify as the first indisputable horror film this project has discovered.

Nosferatuposter

The first intertitle to this movie tells you that something a bit unusual is at work, in that it is written in the first-person, as if the story is being told to us by an individual author. Some English prints attribute this to a historian named “Johann Cavallius,” but more authentic prints put it under the header “an Account of the Great Death in Wisborg,” sans author’s name (note that the same prints that give this name tend to follow conventions of Stoker’s novel in naming characters – Hutter is “Jonathan Harker,” etc. I will stick to the names from the Murnau script for this review). Whoever our author is, he or she has a propensity for dramatic statements about “deathbirds” or chilled blood, though what is introduced is homey enough as we see young Hutter (Gustav von Wangenheim) with his wife Ellen (Greta Schröder), living a comfortably bourgeois life with a garden in this fictional town. Hutter, however, works for an unscrupulous real estate agent named Knock (Alexander Granach), who has decided to sell the grim-looking empty house across from Hutter to a mysterious Count Orlok who comes “from the land of phantoms and thieves.” He assigns Hutter to travel there to meet Orlok and close the deal.

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Do-Re-Mi-Boom! (1915)

Chester Conklin plays a typical Keystone tramp in this Mack Sennett comedy from the year after Charlie Chaplin left the studio. He brings none of the sympathy Chaplin did (although Chaplin’s Keystone roles were his least sympathetic as well), and the movie hinges on increasingly madcap action for laughs.

Do Re Mi Boom

The movie begins with Conklin listening to the piano playing of Vivian Edwards, standing outside her window, dubiously trespassing on her property and peeping in at her. He is so moved by her playing that he starts to sing along, which causes her to come and speak with him, apparently unconcerned about his creepy behavior and odd appearance. Her music teacher (Charles Arling) now arrives and a rivalry is established. Arling quite reasonably takes offense at Conklin’s behavior, and drives him away with threats. He then remonstrates with Vivian not to encourage unhoused individuals to hang about her window making moony eyes at her, but soon engages in a bit of his own sexual harassment toward his pupil. Conklin wanders into the park, and sees an organ-grinder (Harry Booker) with his monkey attracting a crowd. This gives him the good idea to steal the organ and monkey for himself. The organ grinder is understandably upset by this, and being a swarthy foreigner in a Keystone film, naturally avails himself of an anarchist bomb. Conklin attempts to serenade his ostensible sweetie outside her window with the organ, which results in Arling coming out and giving him what for. Arling wins the fight and chucks Conklin into a trash can, where the foreigner tosses his bomb. Luckily, it has quite a long fuse and Conklin is able to put it out in time.

Do Re Mi Boom1

Now armed with the bomb himself, Conklin gets a new idea and follows the music teacher back to his hotel. Despite behaving an a very conspicuous manner and being asked to leave by the desk clerk, he is able to sneak up to Arling’s room and gain entry while he is out. He has the clever idea to hide the bomb inside his piano, rigged to ignite when certain notes are played. However, before he can effect an escape, Arling returns with Vivian and they sit down to another lesson. Conklin, trapped behind the piano, can do nothing but gesture in a panic. Now the monkey climbs up to the window, perhaps seeking Conklin who was his last owner. He jumps on the piano and it starts to smoke, now Conklin jumps out and tells them a bomb is inside. Together, they all push the piano out the window, but Conklin falls out with it and soon he and the monkey are barreling down the street on top of a runaway piano while the fuse grows shorter and shorter. The organ grinder sees them and gives chase, perhaps demanding the return of his monkey (or his bomb), while Arling and Vivian watch from the window. The bomb explodes, apparently resolving the issue and the survivors kiss.

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Watching something like this today, I can sympathize with critics of the day who called the movies “vulgar.” That’s not the word I would choose, but this is certainly pretty low-brow and low in production value. There’s little effort at characterization or story, just escalating zaniness and social cliché. There’s really no one to identify with here, except maybe the monkey – the two rivals are equally violent and inappropriate, one just happens to be in poorer clothing than the other, the foreigner is the worst kind of stereotype, and the woman is completely objectified and apparently has no will of her own. Despite a lack of credits, I’ve gone ahead and named her as Vivian Edwards based on a picture from “The Silent Era,” which is usually more reliable than the imdb, which credits her as “Girl in Hotel Lobby.” She was a busy comedienne of the day, and had worked with Chaplin in his time at Keystone, including on “His Prehistoric Past” and “The Masquerader.”

Director: Walter Wright

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Vivian Edwards, Charles Arling, Harry Booker, Fred Fishback, Charles Lakin, William Sheer

Run Time: 11 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks is a swashbuckling hero in this first adaptation of the famous novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” published just one year before. Generally seen as the beginning of a new direction in his career, the movie shows us how far cinematic techniques come since his start in 1915 as well.

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The movie begins with intertitles that establish what might be Doug’s ideological stance – that oppressive systems breed their own downfall by causing heroic men to become freedom fighters in the cause of the people. Zorro is presented as such a man, and we see a soldier with a “Z-” shaped scar commiserating with his fellows in a bar. We learn that Zorro punished him for mistreating a local Native American, but also that the situation for the rich is not much better as the Governor imposes such high taxes on Don Carlos, father of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de le Motte), that he is doomed to lose his lands. We return to the bar, where Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) rails against Zorro and boasts of his prowess with the sword. He insults, but accepts free drinks from Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), a foppish, sickly noble. After he leaves, of course, Zorro comes in and defeats Gonzales in a duel, and fights off all of the other soldiers as well, humiliating them and generally wrecking the place.

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The Mollycoddle (1920)

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

Mollycoddle-1920

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

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Orphans of the Storm (1921)

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

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

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My Wife’s Relations (1922)

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

My Wifes Relations

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

Cops (1922)

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

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

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The Blacksmith (1922)

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

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

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Gussle’s Day of Rest (1915)

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

Gussles Day of Rest

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

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

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

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

Director: F. Richard Jones

Camera: Unknown

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

Run Time: 20 Min, 30 secs

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

The Electric House (1922)

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

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

Electric House

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