Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

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.

The Master Mystery (1919)

To wrap up this year’s October review of chilling movies, I’m going to look at this serial starring no less a person than Harry Houdini. Once again, it’s not exactly a horror movie – it’s more of a crime serial ala Louis Feuillade – but it has madness, a robot, and lots of creative death-dealing situations for the hero to get out of, so I’m including it.

Our story begins in the home of Peter Brent (Jack Burns), the President of International Patents, Inc, a company whose nefarious scheme is to buy up the patents for new inventions from lone geniuses and keep them off the market – benefiting those who own existing patents by preventing free competition. Unbeknownst to Brent, one of his employees, Quentin Locke (Houdini) is actually an agent of the Dept. of Justice, investigating on the grounds of the Anti-trust Act, and he has wired Brent’s home for sound (most of the first shots we see of Houdini are his reactions to conversations other characters are having in other rooms, which can be a bit confusing). Locke is of course secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Brent is actually having second thoughts about the whole scheme for her sake. Enter the real villains of the movie, Herbert and Paul Balcom (William Pike and Charles E Graham), a father-and-son team who hope to take over the company (the father) and marry Eva (the son). They also have collaborators in the form of a secretary named Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) who is secretly in love with Locke and a lady-of-leisure with the unlikely moniker of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who “dominates” Paul. Read the rest of this entry »

Mabel, Fatty and the Law (1915)

Alternate Titles: “Fatty’s Spooning Days,” “Fatty, Mable and the Law.”

This short from Keystone stars two of its biggest stars after (as well as before) the departure of Charlie Chaplin: Mabel Normand and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Both are at the top of their game, but the movie suffers from Keystone’s slap-dash approach to plot.

Fatty and Mabel are married at the beginning of the film, but Fatty is flirting with the maid, triggering a bout of violence from Mabel. Another couple is established in essentially the same situation: here the husband is played by Harry Gribbon and the wife by Minta Durfee (Arbuckle’s real-life spouse). Both couples decide to patch things up by a trip to the park. They each sit on benches beneath signs that say “No Spooning Allowed.” Minta goes for an ice cream, leaving Harry alone, and Fatty spots her and soon ditches Mabel. Mabel and Harry strike up a flirtation as do Minta and Fatty. Now, a Keystone Cop in a tree spots the couples through a telescope and summons cops to arrest them (one is Arbuckle’s cousin Al St. John). Mabel and Harry manage to evade them, but Minta and Fatty are nicked. After some shenanigans with the cops in a crowded holding cell, each calls their respective maids and leaves a message from jail. The spouses rush to spring them, also taking the opportunity to shame them for their bad behavior, but when they see one another, they behave so awkwardly as to give away their own indiscretions. The entire group squabbles until the cop from the tree comes out and glowers at them, causing them to run for cover, one at a time.

The plot centers around an understanding of the concept of “spooning,” which has I believe fallen out of fashion. Most people today think of it either as a sexual position, or as its equivalent in cuddling – most spooning is done naked, and wouldn’t have been appropriate in a commercially released film in 1915. However, what we see the couples arrested for here is just sitting side by side, snuggling a bit, or in the case of Harry and Mabel, walking alongside holding hands. I think there is a deliberate implication of “soliciting” here that adult audiences would recognize, but which is suppressed by the use of the more innocent-sounding word. That’s also part of the humor, if I’m following it right. At any rate, this is a fairly typical Keystone domestic/situational comedy, in which the spouses are equally guilty of philandering, and get caught and shamed for their actions. It never really descends into the kind of chaos we would expect in a full-on slapstick movie, but the cast, especially the cops, get bits of physical comedy. Mabel is especially funny when she beats up on Fatty in the beginning of the film.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mabel Normand, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Harry Gribbon, Minta Durfee, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Glen Cavendar, Josef Swickard, Alice Davenport, Frank Hayes

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Back Stage (1919)

Buster Keaton and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle team up again for this short from Arbuckle’s Comique Film Corporation. Keaton has a very prominent co-starring role in this, although Arbuckle is still the center of attention.

Like a lot of these two-reel Comique shorts, this movie is divided into two very short story lines. True to the title, the first focuses on the backstage antics of a small theater troupe, while the second shows a performance, disrupted by hecklers. The movie begins by showing two men (Buster and Al St. John) re-arranging furniture in what seems to be a small bedroom. Suddenly, they grab hold of the flats that serve as the side walls and move them, then the backdrop is raised into the ceiling, showing that we have been looking at a set. Arbuckle is now seen, pulling the rope that lifts the backdrop. This sets the stage for the many sight-gags we’ll be seeing throughout. An intertitle informs us that Arbuckle is in charge of the theatrical company, and we see him outside the theater, trying to paste up a new poster for a coming attraction, but a small child takes an interest in his work and keeps getting in the way. Arbuckle finally pastes him to the wall to keep him out of trouble. He then tears him down and sends him on his way, pasting a bit of poster to his bottom to hide where his pants were torn in the process. When he’s done, the sign advertises a famous star, but the sliding door to the theater obscures half the message when left open, and the remaining text appears to promote a stripper. Inside, Keaton is dealing with a touchy star who insists on having a dressing room with a star over it. Once he’s inside, Keaton pulls the string that moves the star over another dressing room.

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Fireman Save My Child (1919)

This animated short stars “Mutt and Jeff,” themselves stars of a long-running newspaper comic strip. The movie emphasizes slapstick and low-brow comedy of various kinds.

The movie begins with a very primitive image of the front of a fire station. Mutt and Jeff walk out to the front and Mutt sees smoke billowing out from a neighboring tree. On the logic of “where there’s smoke there’s fire,” he and Jeff spray the tree with a fire hose, putting out the cigarette of a policeman who’s standing there and drenching him as well. Jeff runs away, climbing the fire pole and putting his hat on one bed, rumpling the covers to make it appear he’s there, then hiding under another one. The cop comes into the station and hits Mutt with his billy club. Mutt grabs a fire ax and goes looking for Jeff. He finds the hat and gets ready to swing, but suddenly five other firemen jump out of the bed and confront him. Further problems are prevented when a real fire bell goes off and everyone piles into the fire truck in a comedy sequence. They get to a tall building that’s on fire and a lady is yelling “save my darling!” Jeff uses the hose to squirt Jeff up to the top of the neighboring building and helps one young woman escape, but she’s not the right one, so he goes in to the burning house, where he’s attacked by a vicious dog. Eventually he makes an escape, getting ready to leap onto the firemen’s life net, but at that moment a pretty girl is climbing down the fire escape and all the firemen go to look up her skirt. Jeff crashes through the pavement. He and Mutt go to talk to the screaming woman and it turns out that her “darling” is the dog. They pass out on the street.

There’s not much to this, besides constant cartoon violence. The backgrounds remain simple and un-detailed, and most of the animation is repetitive. There is a quick close-up on Mutt as he hides under the bed, which shows more detail than most of the images. The other interesting bit is how various characters, including Mutt and the policeman, are able to “ride” the water coming out of the fire hose. It’s not an entirely reliable mode of conveyance, but it does allow some impossible things to happen. Mutt and Jeff were one of the first comic “strips,” in the sense of being several linked panels, and ran for many years. Many kids, like me, who never actually saw Mutt and Jeff heard about it from our parents: they were American comic icons to which modern cartoons and comics were always compared. This series of animated shorts was produced from 1916 until 1927 and consisted of over 300 movies.

Director: Bud Fisher

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 6 Min

I have been unable to find this available for free viewing. If you do, please comment.

Bobby Bumps Starts for School (1917)

This short piece of animation is very similar to “Buster Brown” comics and movies, as well as other early twentieth-century American depictions of “rascally” children. It shows the first day at school of a known troublemaker.

As the movie opens, Bobby is in his bathroom, getting thoroughly scrubbed by his mother. He says “Wow!” repeatedly, as shown in a speech balloon. When she’s done washing his face, he staggers about the room blindly, yelling “Towel!” until Fido, his dog, passes the towel on the chair to him. Fido makes the mistake of laughing, however, which results in Bobby scrubbing his face until he starts running around looking for the towel too. Now the cat comes in and laughs and the dog scrubs his face until the cat punches him, giving him a black eye. Bobby lugs enormous school books down the street, and then is shown sitting at his desk working on a writing project. He gets distracted by daydreaming about playing baseball with Fido, but then the teacher asks him to turn in his work. We see that he has written “Abraham Lincoln was born in a log cabin he helped his father to build.” (Pretty good grammar for a little kid, whatever the logic of the sentence!)

The next sequence takes place during recess, which is set up with a large shot of all the kids playing and fighting in the school yard. A lot of them look just like Bobby, except for some African American caricatures. Bobby sneaks up to the belfry and climbs into the large school bell. When the teacher goes to pull the rope for the bell, no sound comes out. We see that this is because Bobby, briefly joined by Fido, is riding the clapper and presumably muffling the ringing. The teacher comes up to investigate and he sees Bobby just as Bobby and Fido leap out the window and climb down to a waiting mule. The teacher foolishly climbs out on the roof and is kicked by the mule when he falls, flying back up to the belfry and crashing through it on his way down the other side. He is shown beneath the broken bell, his legs flailing and kicking at the sides. This alerts the children in the schoolyard that recess is over. We see the school kids crowded around a sign informing them that the school will be closed until the belfry can be repaired. They all smile in joy. Bobby goes to visit his teacher at the hospital, where a doctor can only hear a ringing noise through his stethoscope.

This movie confirms that casual violence has always been a part of American animation targeting children – and it has always probably been popular with that age group as well. The redundant “towel” sequence seemed to fill up a lot of space, but the “punch line” (ahem), with Fido getting a ring around his eye was cute. It seems like animators at this time relied on being able to repeat actions in order to save time on drawing new images. A lot of the movement we see in this is repeated at least twice, though that also probably makes it easier for very small children to follow the story.

Director: Earl Hurd

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min

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

Cartoons on Tour (1915)

This short from Edison is another very basic animated cartoon – with a live action wrap-around story – from the silent era. Most of the animated sequences are devoted to low humor and slapstick, although the final animated sequence is meant to be uplifting, or at least charming, by comparison.

The movie begins by establishing a young country girl (Maxine Brown) who is waiting on her porch with a comic book for her lover to take her and elope. Her father (William Chalfin) comes out to say good day on his way about some errand and she hides the letter and the marriage license in the comic book. Then, she begins to read, which takes us into the world of the “Animated Grouch Chasers” comic and “The Tales of Silas Bunkum.” Here, a group of rural rubes is sitting around telling tall tales, establishing a second wrap-around story. One tells of a time when he was stranded on a desert island with nothing but a snuff box. We see him take a pinch and sneeze, then he comes upon an elephant who is crying for some reason. The farmer offers the elephant some snuff and it sneezes so hard that it blows him onto the deck of a passing ship. We come out of the story-within-a-story to see the farmer’s companions knock him off his perch for lying. “Folks don’t beleive [sic] nuthin’ no more,” he complains. We now come back to the live-action world to find the girl laughing hysterically at the cartoon.

Now the beau (Johnnie Walker) arrives in his car, but he’s having mechanical problems. The girl manages to locate the problem by putting her hand on the motor at random, and the two are off. The soon overtake her father, and they offer him a ride, without saying where they are going. They give him the comic book to distract him. He reads about “The Kelly Kids’ Kite.” This is another animated sequence in which a small child is given a kite string to hold, only to be pulled high into the air and suffer an encounter with an aggressive bird. There’s an unfortunate caricature of an African American child in this one, which I won’t go into, but the end result is the child losing his grip, but his petticoats open up like a parachute and allow him to land safely in a bale of hay before being chased off by the farmer whose sleep he disturbed. Once they arrive at the pastor’s the father continues to read “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland.” This story involves a misbehaving child-sized husband with a much larger, domineering wife. As the story opens, he’s using a telescope to ogle a bathing woman, but his wife puts a stop to that and holds him in her lap. Mr.s Hicks now dozes off and we see his dreams. He finds the fountain of youth and takes a swim, apparently becoming a baby about the age of the child in the previous film (though with a mustache). He runs away from a frog and steals a bottle from another child before finding a pretty woman and climbing into her lap. Of course, as he goes to give her a kiss he wakes up and finds himself kissing his own wife. The father finds this the funniest comic he’s read so far.

However, now he finds the letter and realizes why the car has been parked in front of a minister’s house so long, and he runs in to remonstrate with the now-wedded couple. They put him at ease by showing him a final comic, “The Pleasure of Being a Grandpa,” which depicts an old man dozing and dreaming of bouncing a little one on his knee. This brings the family together, reconciled.

This movie closely resembles the work of Winsor McCay, and there are some indications that the creator, Raoul Barré, may have deliberately been cribbing from McCay. For one thing, there’s the proximity of the title “Mr. Hicks in Nightmareland” to McCay’s famous comic “Little Nemo in Slumberland.” For another, there’s the elephant, which dances in a manner very similar to “Gertie the Dinosaur,” released the previous year. At any rate, the similar style is partly due to the sparse backgrounds, a result of the labor-intensive methods of creating animation in those days before cels had been invented. The movie overall works well enough, but the live action is visually uninspired and wouldn’t be any big deal in terms of plot or acting in 1915. It’s mostly a showcase for the animation, which would have been impressive at the time, even though it looks primitive today.

Director: Raoul Barré

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Maxine Brown, Johnnie Walker, William Chalfin

Run Time: 11 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Triple Trouble (1918)

This is sort of a “fake” Charlie Chaplin movie, but one which nevertheless stars Charlie Chaplin! In 1918, years after losing the star to Mutual, Essanay, his sophomore studio, stitched together this “new” film from footage he left at the studio (some already released), adding some material directed by his co-star Leo White and releasing it to a Chaplin-hungry public that didn’t know any better.

The movie begins with a random close-up of Charlie with a cigar in his mouth, but the plot begins when we see “Colonel A. Nutt,” who is building a new type of “wireless explosive.” The wartime origin of this new footage influences this plotline, which involves a spy ring led by diplomats from “Pretzelstrasse” (Leo White is the lead agent). Meanwhile, Charlie is introduced as the new janitor in the Nutt House, and there’s some good otherwise unreleased footage of his antics in the kitchen with cook Billy Armstrong and flirting with maid Edna Purviance. Charlie empties most of the food the cook has prepared into the dustbin and then proceeds to strew garbage all over the place by carrying it on his back, even dumping it on poor Edna. We see Leo White at a fence and the dustbin appears over the edge, making it seem that Charlie is dumping the remainder of the trash on him! (Close attention reveals that Charlie has four arms in this scene). Edna and Charlie get into a fight in the kitchen, but the wet rag she throws at him flies into adjoining rooms, hitting Billy and Leo instead, so they blame one another and then get into a fight as well. Soon, Billy figures out where the rag came from and goes to punish Edna, only to find himself confronted by Charlie’s wrath (a boot to the rear). The Colonel finds Leo in bad spirits after his confrontation, and ejects the man without hearing him out.

Charlie now heads to a doss house to spend the night, having completed his dubious day’s work. Charlie has various comic adventures there – lighting a man’s toes on fire, conking a loud-singing drunk over the head with a bottle, and outsmarting a thief who comes in to rob the vagrants. Meanwhile, a pickpocket (Billy Armstrong in different clothes) tries to hold up Leo White and is recruited into the scheme to rob the Nutts. A nearby policeman overhears the plan and calls in other officers, busy playing craps in an abandoned lot. They rush to the Nutt House, where they explain that they are on the trail of a large crime, and occupy the living room. A riot breaks out in the dosshouse and Charlie is forced to flee, ending up with Billy, who talks him into joining the robbery of the Nutt House. The cops are all still there; lying around, smoking, waiting for something to happen. Pandemonium breaks out when the pickpocket enters the house, and amid the chaos, Colonel Nutt’s explosive device is detonated, blowing all of the cops skyward. In the aftermath, the pickpocket is buried in a heap of rubble and Charlie is seen poking his head out of the kitchen stove.

While this is far from Charlie’s best movie (or even his movie, really), it is kind of fun from a historical view to try to figure out which scenes were made when. A good portion of it (especially the dosshouse) was used in the Flicker Alley release of “Police,” and may have been shot for that movie. Or, it may have been shot for “Life,” an incomplete semi-autobiographical project Chaplin worked on at Essanay. Certainly the “janitor” sequences come from this source. Other parts, with Leo White and the “Pretzelstrasse,” were shot afterwards directed by White, and inter-cut with the Chaplin footage to appear to be part of the same movie. Some of this is laughably unsuccessful. The final explosion and head-in-stove sequence is straight from “Work.” The result of this piecemeal story engineering is a rather disjointed film which at times feels more like an anthology of very short shorts than a coherent film. The parts which include Chaplin, however, are up to his usual standards in terms of physical comedy and there are at least a few laughs to be found here. I particularly enjoy the early scenes of Charlie as a hapless janitor in a wealthy home, operating within the Upstairs/Downstairs world of the servants.

Chaplin himself was “Not Amused,” however. He sent a telegram to the “Moving Picture World” informing them of the dubious nature of the movie and asking that false advertising for it be “stamped out.” However, having already lost a legal battle to prevent Essanay from releasing the extended version of “Burlesque on Carmen,” he kept his criticism to the trades this time. Essanay defended their right to re-cut Chaplin footage and present it as “new.” After all, no one had seen this movie before, had they? It was largely academic, because it was out by this time and there was nothing anyone could do to stop it. It entered the public domain since Chaplin never reissued it with an original score, and thus it actually may have had more releases since that time than many of his early Essanays. It remains a part of his legacy, though decidedly a part he never could control.

Director: Charlie Chaplin.Leo White

Camera: Harry Ensign

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Leo White, Billy Armstrong, Bud Jamison, Albert Austin, Snub Pollard, Wesley Ruggles

Run Time: 23 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One touch of Nature (1917)

This is an apparently incomplete fragment of a longer story produced as a feature for Edison late in their production career. It tells a familiarly heart-warming story about a baseball player, using real locations and players to give verisimilitude to the melodrama.

The excerpts begin by introducing John J. McGraw, the real-life manager of the New York Giants, who is talking to a recruiter who has seen an amazing player named Bill Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett). McGraw seems skeptical at reports of the boy’s prowess, but agrees to give him a try. We then jump to the “deciding game of a world’s series” in which the Giants are playing against Philadelphia. McGraw looks on stoically as the seats of the Polo Grounds swell with fans. Read the rest of this entry »