Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

The Nut (1921)

Happy Silent Movie Day, and welcome to my review. In the 1920s, Douglas Fairbanks began a transition as a star to become known mostly for what he is remembered for today – swashbuckling, derring-do, and heroism. But in the teens, he had been a promulgator of physical and situational comedy grounded in athleticism and pep (in fact, he was one of the only film comedians of the time who worked exclusively in feature-length format). One hundred years ago, he still had some funny ideas to work out, and this movie is an example of his earlier style, carried over into the 1920s, and with all the film technique he had learned after six years in the business.

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The movie begins with a series of intertitles that set the scene for us. Doug’s character is Charlie Jackson, an aspiring inventor. Like so many of Doug’s characters, he is in love, and bends all of his energies and attention to The Girl, a neighbor in his Greenwich Village apartment house named Estrell (Marguerite De La Motte). The first scenes of the film focus on the Rube-Goldberg-like inventions Doug has developed as “labor saving” devices. His bed rolls him over to a pool and dumps him in, where spinning brushes apply soap to his body, then the floor raises him up to automatic towel-ers, and a moving sidewalk cruises him past several closets where mechanical arms help him choose clothing and dress himself. It all looks terribly inefficient and inconvenient, but it does show a man always looking for a new way to do things. Once this morning ritual is complete, he crosses the courtyard and climbs to the balcony of his beloved, who treats him politely but distantly, indicating that she is not sold on him as yet. We learn from intertitles that she is an educational reformer who believes that if lower class children spend one hour a day in the homes of the rich, they will grow up to be productive and escape poverty. We see her taking care of a brood of such kids in her own fancy apartment.

Nut

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The Delicatessen Shop (1915)

As with last week’s post, “The Conquest of Canaan,” this is a movie I watched during the Cinecon online film festival this year, and like many movies you can see there, it’s hard to find otherwise. Hence, I’ve only had the chance to see it once to prepare this review.

Delicatessen Shop

Joe Weber and Lew Fields were “Dutch” comedians from Vaudeville, who did an immigrant act based on malapropisms and misunderstandings, Lew as the smart, skinny one, and Joe as the fat, dumb one. Relatively little of this movie takes place in the delicatessen in which they apparently work together, Almost immediately after the credits, they break out into a huge fight, breaking up and throwing everything in the store at each other. This is interrupted when one of their wives shows up and says “the kids have eloped” – apparently referring to one another’s daughter and son. They go into a lengthy Keystone-style chase with cars and horse wagons, but only get there after the minister pronounces the kids man and wife. They make common cause, but somehow wind up in jail. They then go through an elaborate escape and are chased by cops until the climactic crash-up.

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Joe Weber in 1901

This movie follows a pretty standard formula for slapstick, and is essentially built around two comedy chases. The action was so fast most of the time, I had a hard time getting an un-blurry screenshot. It was funny at times, if childishly so, but I would guess that Weber & Fields were better when they could use their voices. According to online sources, they had broken up in 1904, and Fields went on to become a successful theater owner and producer. There were various reunions, most famously their first one in 1912 in which they performed as a duo at one of Weber’s theaters, and presumably in 1915 they were still friendly enough to work together on this and a few other movies (I believe the intro at Cinecon said three, but I could be misremembering as I didn’t make a note). The synopsis published in “Moving Picture World” focuses on the background to the plot seen here, explaining that the two friends have run their shop for years; their friendship deteriorating into suspicion and jealousy as it became more successful: “at night each slept on one side of the cash register.” Thus, two Jewish actors used Jewish stereotypes to create comedy for a mixed audience of Jews and non-Jews.

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Lew Fields in 1912.

The film making for this movie is pretty lackluster for 1915. Produced in Fort Lee at the World Film Company, it was presumably a second-string production for that short-lived but dynamic studio. Editing is minimal, and the use of the chase format allows them to re-use shots for both the pursued and pursuer, economizing on camera set ups. The sets are simplistic, reminiscent of an earlier era in cinema, and the acting is predictably too broad, as is often the case when stage actors first go on the big screen. Worth it mostly because it’s a rare chance to see old vaudevillians in action, otherwise Weber & Fields would just be fragments of old reviews and promotional posters to us now.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Joe Weber, Lew Fields

Run Time: 8 Min

Not currently available for free online. If you find it, please comment and provide a link.

The Conquest of Canaan (1921)

This feature-length interpretation of one of the works of Booth Tarkington was screened last weekend as part of the Cinecon online film festival. As is usually the case with the rare movies I can see through Cinecon, I’ve only been able to watch it once, so this review should be read with that limited exposure in mind.

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The Town of Canaan, Indiana, is dominated by Judge Pike, who owns a crusading newspaper that celebrates lynchings. He is opposed by Joe, a local street hood (Thomas Meighan) who loves Ariel (Doris Kenyon), daughter of an impoverished artist from a wealthy family. Pike’s daughter is the lovely Diana Allen, who is having a coming-out party to which almost everyone in town is coming. Joe is not welcome, but he goes to keep an eye on Ariel. This only enrages the judge further, who begins a campaign to keep Joe out of honest work, which drives him to the criminal underworld of the city, an area known as “Beaver Beach.” Meanwhile, Ariel’s rich uncle has died, making it possible for her father to finance their move to Paris. On the way out, she encourages Joe to study law and make something of himself.

Conquest of Canaan

Joe moves to New York, and working at a shipyard by day, goes to night school and does just that. He decides to move back to Canaan to set up a practice, only to find that the judge and everyone else still stigmatizes him as an enemy of decency. When Ariel comes back, however, she is a famous socialite, and the town forgets that it used to treat her the same as Joe, crowding the train station to welcome her back while Joe gets drunk on bootleg whisky to forget his trouble. She calls on him, which causes a split between her and Pike, while the gossips of town say things like, “That’s what living in Paris will do to a girl.”

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Meanwhile, a new sub-plot develops about a Beaver Beach girl and her husband, who suspects her of cheating on him with a local hood. The husband sees the two of them together in a dive, and he shoots him. Of course, they go to Joe for a defense lawyer. Meanwhile, in a sort of metaphor, Judge Pike and his minions get the idea that Joe’s dog is rabid and chase him through the streets until Joe shows up and shames them. Then the husband shows up and they decide that lynching him sounds like a good idea, although he surrenders willingly to the police, who manage to get him to jail. The movie turns into a courtroom drama as Joe tries to defend him, but meanwhile Pike is inciting a mob outside the courthouse. They burst in just as the Beaver Beach bar owner is about to give critical evidence, and it looks like the husband will hang, but the barkeep reveals that Pike is the true owner and somehow this results in acquittal. The husband goes free and Joe and Ariel are able to marry. The end.

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This movie, while set in Indiana, was in fact shot in the town of Asheville, North Carolina, today a kind of liberal artistic enclave in the largely conservative South. It probably served well enough for an Anytown, USA, at the time, and at least had the advantage of not being recognizably Los Angeles or filled with palm trees and Mexican-influenced architecture. Booth Tarkington, the author, was a tremendously popular author and associated with “Midwesterner” literature that romanticized the center of the country and the salt-of-the-Earth people who dwelt there. This fits pretty well with trends in popular cinema, that produced down-homey characterizations such as we saw in “Way Down East” and “Tol’able David.” Tarkington would continue to be drawn from for “wholesome entertainment” in movies for years to come.

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The big problem with the plot of the film is that the denouement makes little sense. How does the identity of the owner of a tavern alter the question of whether another man is a murderer? It might take some of the wind out of his crusading sails, if published in a newspaper, but it’s unlikely to calm a raging mob in the moment of passion before they haul out a man to be lynched. It certainly has no bearing whatsoever from a legal standpoint, and should have no effect on the verdict of the jury (indeed, the judge should have it stricken from the record as irrelevant). According to the introduction given at Cinecon, this was just as nonsensical in the book, so we can’t accuse Director Roy William Neill of garbling Tarkington’s message. Apparently both felt that it made for good drama, or just found themselves written into a corner with no other clear resolution.

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Another interesting aspect of this movie is that it is critical of lynching and vigilantism, both of which were scourges of that Middle America which Tarkington so famously celebrated – the rise of a new KKK would see its largest membership success in his home State of Indiana. This version avoids any discussion of the issue in terms of race, however, unlike Oscar Micheaux in “Within Our Gates.” If I recall correctly from my single viewing, the first instance of the judge’s newspaper celebrating a lynching mentions that the victim was Black, but no Black people are seen in this movie, we only read about him in an insert shot. On the one hand, by making the potential lynching focus on a white man, we could argue that the director is trying to universalize the experience and make his mostly white audience see the horror more clearly, the more effectively to drive home his lesson that it is always a bad thing. On the other hand, by failing to clearly condemn lynchings of African Americans (which were by far more common), the movie leaves its audience a moral “out” that perhaps it doesn’t apply equally; maybe lynching is truly only objectionable when it is done to “us” not “them.”

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Overall, this is a well-made drama that takes advantage of good acting and camera work, and a location that gives it more authenticity than it would have if made in Hollywood. We don’t often get to see 100-year-old images of North Carolina streets and architecture, so it’s historically interesting from that point of view. It suffers somewhat from its source material and the usual blindness of privilege, but was still good to see.

Director: Roy William Neill

Camera: Harry Perry

Starring: Thomas Meighan, Doris Kenyon, Diana Allen, Henry Hallam

Run Time: 1 hr, 10 Min

I have not found this available for free online, however, you may watch a trailer for free: here.

True Heart Susie (1919)

D.W. Griffith was finishing up his Artcraft contract, preparing to make the shift over to celebrity-owned United Artists, when he put out this homey tale of rustic romance. It shows a number of his strengths as a director, more I think than the great “spectacles” with which he is associated today, though it has its underside of weirdness, like all his movies.

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The movie starts, as we expect from Griffith, with intertitles filled with bombastic claims and purple prose. The entire movie is “taken from real life” and will explore whether men are more motivated by the appearance of women or by their “true heart.” The first images show us the bucolic homes of William Jenkins (Robert Harron) and Susie Trueheart (Lillian Gish), who have grown up just across the road from one another. We see them at school, and when William can’t spell “anonymous” but Susie can, she goes to the head of the class. It develops that Susie has a big crush on William, to which he is completely oblivious, but nonetheless Susie interprets his words and actions to mean that he is also harboring love for her and they are destined to be married. Based on this, when he desires to go to college, she sells her beloved cow and various other farmyard resources in order to secretly sponsor him, pretending that the money comes from a foppish swell that passes through town one day and notices William for all of a second or two.

True Heart Susie

A Tale of Two Houses

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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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