Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

J’Accuse (1919)

Abel Gance took the world cinema scene by storm with this passionate and compelling portrait of the First World War. Although today overshadowed by the fame of his later work (such as “Napoleon”), in the context of this blog it stands out as a century-old example of cinematic innovation and boldness.

The move begins with a credit sequence, built of actuality footage (see below for production details), silhouettes of an officer with a whistle, and the words “J’ACCUSE” spelled out by uniformed men, standing on a field in formation. This is followed by typical introductions to the lead players with intertitles followed by brief close-ups of the actors, but remarkably it begins by showing us the director/screenwriter himself, something not even the egotistical D.W. Griffith had done. Interestingly, the actors frequently are introduced as being affiliated with one or another theater, no doubt legitimating them in the eyes of a more sophisticated audience.

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Hoodoo Ann (1916)

This early production from Triangle Film Corporation stars Mae Marsh, fresh from the set of “Intolerance,” and was produced by D.W. Griffith, at the time when his name could sell a picture by itself. A bit oddly structured for a melodrama, it gives Marsh opportunities to show a range of emotion and development.

Hoodoo Ann

The film begins in an orphanage, where the twenty-two-year-old Marsh plays Ann as a younger girl in the fashion set by Mary Pickford. She is the least popular girl at the orphanage and is also treated cruelly by the staff for some reason, made to do chores like scrubbing the kitchen floor while the others are at recess. It is never explained why her status should be different from any other orphan, except that the African American cook (Madame Sul-Te-Wan) one night reads her palm and tells her she is “hoodooed” until she gets married – “And then you won’t need no hoodoo to make trouble.” One day she steals a doll from Goldie, one of the other orphans (Mildred Harris, future first wife of Charlie Chaplin), accidentally breaks it and hides it, then is wracked with guilt over lying about it. Her opportunity to redeem herself comes when a fire breaks out at the orphanage, and Goldie for some reasons sleeps through the alarm. Ann runs back into the building and saves the still-snoozing Goldie. She wins praise and a couple who recently lost their own child adopts her on the spot.

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Within Our Gates (1920)

The earliest surviving film of African American filmmaker Oscar Micheaux is a very in-your-face response to the off-handed racism of most of cinema at the time, particularly D.W. Griffith and “The Birth of a Nation.” Not necessarily the most fun experience to watch, it is nevertheless a fascinating document from the “other side” of history.

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Evelyn Preer (introduced in the titles as a “renowned Negro artist”) plays Sylvia, a Southern African American woman living in the North with her friend Alma (Floy Clements, called “Flo” in the intertitles). Sylvia is engaged to serviceman Conrad (James D. Ruffin), but Alma secretly wants him for herself, setting up the first conflict of the film. When he announces his return from overseas, Alma hides the letter and sees to it that he will find Sylvia with an unnamed white man (whose presence isn’t explained until the final reel). Meanwhile Sylvia has been ducking the advances of Larry, Alma’s step brother (Jack Chenault), who is being investigated by a righteous detective (William Smith) at the behest of the police. When he gets into a shootout with some gamblers, Larry makes for Alma’s place, where Sylvia has dreamed that he is a murderer. All that aside for the moment, when Conrad sees Sylvia and the white man, he blows his top and calls off the engagement.

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The Affairs of Anatol (1921)

Cecil B. DeMille directed this lightweight sex comedy based on a racy play by Arthur Schnitzler, although the story seems to have been cleaned up a bit for the screen. DeMille shows how far he has come since the beginning of his career in the teens, and a young Gloria Swanson is ready for her closeup.

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The movie begins with an intertitle suggesting that protagonist Anatol (Wallace Reid) is a man who wants to be a hero – a modern Quixote who tries to rescue women from “real or imaginary” dangers. His wife Vivian is unlikely to understand, and she (Swanson) is first revealed to us receiving a pedicure from her maid, then emerging to peek over a changing screen at the camera. We learn from intertitles that they are newlyweds and her flirting seems to annoy him when what he wants is breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

Tol’able David (1921)

This down-homey piece of Americana reflects the values that movie audiences responded to in the immediate post-war era. It also gives Richard Barthelmess a starring vehicle in which we can see his real face, unlike “Broken Blossoms” where he was under Yellowface.

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The movie begins by introducing the Kinemon family, salt-of-the-Earth types in a small village somewhere near West Virginia. Warner Richmond is Allan, the favored older son who drives the mail for the local general store owner – an important mark of social success. Barthelmess is David, the younger son, who is pampered by his mother, who describes him as “just tol’able,” not great. Older brother is already married and his wife is expecting, while David frolics in the lake with a little dog, only to have his clothes stolen, resulting in a humorous encounter with the girl-next-door, Esther Hatburn (played by Gladys Hulette). Esther seems to be interested in David, but he is painfully shy. At breakfast, David offers to drive the carriage (called “the hack”) for Allan, but Allan scoffs that he is too young for such a responsible role. We see Allan get the hack ready and take it off down the road, with a local child running alongside. We also see “pa” ignore his wife’s advice to take his work easy because of concern over his health. Read the rest of this entry »

The Kid (1921)

Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film release is a powerful concoction of slapstick, pathos, comedy, and tear-jerker, remembered to this day as a breakthrough in comedy film making. How does it stand up to a modern viewing? Let’s take a look.

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The movie begins with an unwed mother (Charlie’s leading lady of many years, Edna Purviance) emerging from a “Charity Hospital” with babe in arms. She wanders into a park alone, abandoned by the ne-er-do-well father, who off-handedly tosses her photograph into the fire. Unable to care for the baby, Edna places it into a limousine parked in front of a large house, hoping to give it a good home with a wealthy family. Unbeknownst to her, however, the car is stolen seconds later by a pair of hoodlums who ditch the child in an alley when they discover it. Fortunately, he is found moments later by Charlie’s “Little Tramp” character, wandering the alleyways in search of sustenance, and after some comic attempts to pawn it off on another mother, he eventually takes it back to the dingy attic where he dwells.

Kid

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The Danger Game (1918)

This “melodramatic comedy” feature was produced in Fort Lee, New Jersey after much of American film production had already migrated to California. It stars relative newcomer Madge Kennedy, who would go on to a long career in movies, television and theatrical performances.

Danger Game

The first part of the print is missing, so new intertitles inform us that Madge plays Clytie Rogers, the spoiled daughter of privilege, who fancies herself a bohemian and a novelist. Having spent her father’smoney on a vanity press publication of her first book, she is distressed to find that the critics are trashing it in their columns. One in particular – a certain James Gilpin – is very cruel, and suggests that the most preposterous plot device she uses is depicting a society girl as a successful burglar. Meanwhile, she’s being courted by a rather obvious gold-digging gigolo (Paul Doucet), who is the only one who “understands” her genius. Upset that her father (Ned Burton) disapproves, she vows to run away and marry the gigolo, and leaves a note to that effect, which her parents read over breakfast. Read the rest of this entry »

Look Pleasant, Please (1918)

This comedy short stars Harold Lloyd in an early version of his “glasses” character and pulls together many jokes that had been around at least as long as the movies, but manages a pacing and zaniness that shows how Lloyd rose to become one of the major comedy stars of the next decade.

The movie starts out in a (still) photographer’s studio, where Bebe Daniels is annoyed by the off-hand sexual harassment of the proprietor (William Gillespie). She runs to the phone to call her large and jealous husband, who tells Gillespie that he’s coming after him, firing off his gun a couple of times to make the point. Meanwhile, Lloyd works at a nearby vegetable stand, where he presses down the scales to rip off customers and charges a “war tax” of $1 for each item. A group of policemen come up and accuse him; he tries to buy them off with produce, but winds up running into the photographer’s to hide. The photographer mistakes Harold for the husband at first, but when Harold tries to hide instead of killing him, he gets an idea. He puts Harold in charge of the shop and goes to hide in the dark room.

Faith, hope, and charity

The next sequence of the film is a parade of silly customers to the studio, and Harold’s silly attempts to photograph them. One is an old maid (Dorothea Wolbert) who won’t stop talking, so Harold puts her face into a stand so she can’t speak, then poses her with a jug which winds up spilling all over her. He gives her a life preserver. Then a group of drunken swells come in (one of them is James Parrott). Lloyd has a hard time getting them to sit without falling over, but eventually poses them as “faith, hope and charity.” A country couple comes in, but their scene evidently was cut, as we cut back to Bebe and her husband, before seeing the “burles-queen,” who shocks Lloyd with her revealing outfit and briefly fights with janitor Snub Pollard when he tries to look up her skirt (with binoculars, no less). Snub is locked the dark room with the real photographer, but sticks Harold with a pin to escape, just as the husband charges in.  He fires his gun and now Lloyd also hides in the dark room, shoving first Pollard, then Gillespie out to confront the enraged man. A couple of fortuitous bits of crockery are hurled, forcing the husband into the dark room when a police inspector finally comes in to break it all up. Lloyd lets the husband out at the critical moment to punch the inspector, who arrests him, then embraces a quite-willing Bebe for the camera. The End.

A lot of the photography jokes go right back to early Edison, Gaumont, or Lumière films, but where they would have been entire films unto themselves in those days, here they are all thrown together and run at a furious pace, keeping the laughs coming non-stop. There’s little concern in this Hal Roach picture for narrative logic, and a lot more for comedy chaos, but it has a more deliberate feeling than comparable Keystones, as if Lloyd and director Alfred J. Goulding had thought through the chaos carefully before starting. The editing is spot-on and we get multiple camera-angles within scenes as well as cross-cutting to suggest simultaneous action. In other words, state of the art for 1918, but with a devil-may-care attitude to plotting that ties it back to an earlier style of comedy as well. A great example of Lloyd’s developing comedy style, before he started hanging of the edges of buildings to get laughs.

Director: Alfred J. Goulding

Camera: Walter Lundin

Starring: Harold Lloyd, Bebe Daniels, Snub Pollard, William Gillespie, James Parrott, Dorothea Wolbert

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Be My Wife (1921)

This rare feature-length comedy by Max Linder is part of his second round of Hollywood-produced films, but it didn’t catch on with audiences as he had hoped, and there was no major revival of his career. How does it hold up for us today?

Be My Wife

The movie begins with a visual pun, as we see Max in profile pouring water over the head of a girl. In reality, he is watering plants which are in a vase designed to show the silhouette of a girl in profile (something similar is being done with pottery urns today). He is visiting the love of his life, Mary (played by Alta Allen), and is helping with the chores. Unfortunately, Mary has a spinster aunt (Caroline Rankin) living with her, who sees the profile through a window and concludes that he is with her in the bath. She rushes in to catch them, and is baffled how Mary got her hair dry so fast. Archie is another suitor (played by Lincoln Stedman, who bears a certain resemblance to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle), and he brings his dog over, charming the aunt (the dog bears only a slight resemblance to Arbuckle’s dog Luke). Max hides outside and meets Mary, but Archie and Aunt Agatha are still around, so he hides out by disguising himself as a scarecrow (as Buster Keaton had recently done as well). There’s a good deal of humor about the dog barking at the scarecrow, the scarecrow kicking Archie from behind, and the two lovers stealing moments when no one is looking. Eventually, the aunt comes to investigate, loosens the dog’s post, and the dog chases the scarecrow until it tries to climb a fence, then performs an impressive leap to latch its teeth into Max’s backside.

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The High Sign (1921)

Buster Keaton’s first starring short languished for over a year before being released – at his request. He later said he was embarrassed by it, but is it as bad as Keaton thought?

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The first reel of the film follows Keaton’s everyman as he tries to secure work at a shooting gallery. First, we see him clip an ad out of a ridiculously over-sized newspaper, then he gets himself a pistol by stealing one off a cop and replacing it with a banana. He takes that pistol to the beach and tries shooting some bottles, under the supervision of Al St. John, who is shot in the behind before the practice session is over. Soon it is apparent that his aim is never going to improve – when he aims left, shots go right, and when he aims straight ahead, he shoots a bird out of the sky. At the shooting gallery, he contrives to fool the manager (Ingram B. Pickett) by rigging up a system that will cause the bell to ring every time he takes a shot. Since he uses a little dog to pull the string, however, things get out of hand when the dog tries to chase a cat.

High Sign

Meanwhile, the audience learns that his boss is a member of “The Blinking Buzzards,” a secret order that meets in the back room of the shooting gallery. They use a hand sign that involves sticking both thumbs into the nose and holding the hands to look like a bird’s wings (“the high sign”). They are trying to extort money from one August Nickelnurser, but he has so far resisted paying off, and today is the day they will make good on their threat to kill him. August has filled his house with secret doors so that he can get out of any room in a hurry, but his lovely daughter (Bartine Burkett) doesn’t think that’s enough; he needs to hire a bodyguard. Both she and the manager are convinced that Buster is a dead shot, so they each hire him – one to kill August, the other to protect him.

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After a few more superfluous gags at the shooting gallery, Buster heads over to Nickelnurser’s home, where we spend most of the second reel. It turns out that the butler is a plant of the Blinking Buzzards, who also lurk outside a window, so Buster is under constant pressure to kill August, even as he tries to woo his daughter and prove himself a brave bodyguard. He tries getting August to fake his death, but the Buzzards get wise. Pretty soon, August and Buster are running around the house, using the trapdoors to evade the Buzzards and leap from one room to another. At one point, Keaton uses a gag from Charlie Chaplin’s “The Adventurer” and traps a Buzzard’s head in a door. At another, he kicks Nickelnurser, thinking it’s a Buzzard hiding behind a curtain. Eventually, he is able to trap or knock out all of the Buzzards, and the girl embraces him as he gives the high sign one last time.

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I’d agree with Keaton that this wasn’t the best or most original of his films, but it doesn’t seem to me he had anything to be deeply embarrassed about. Still, he led off his releases with the decidedly better “One Week,” and that probably was better for his reputation. By the time this came out, audiences were used to seeing Keaton as a starring player, and so the more middling material would have gone down easier, as it does for us today. I wonder also if his distaste for the movie has to do with the fact that his character isn’t above stealing the cop’s gun. Later he would claim in his autobiography that what differed him from Chaplin was that his character was always an honest working man, who would find a way to earn what he needed without stealing, and that’s demonstrably not the case here.

Director: Buster Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Bartine Burkett, Ingram B. Pickett, Al St. John, Joe Roberts, Charles Dorety

Run Time: 20 Min

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