Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Silent Classical Period

The Fantastic Dog Pack (1917)

Alternate Title: La Meute Fantastique

This episode of “Judex” is longer than the previous one, but to me it seems like less actually happens. We do get the pay-off of the cliff-hanger from the last story, and also several new entanglements are established, but the story overall feels a bit off-track to me here.

As the story begins, Musidora and her criminal companion Morales (Jean Devalde) bring the chloroformed Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to a villa where they keep her unconscious while they await payment. This soon comes in the form of Cesar de Birargues, the overly-amorous employer who contracted with the pair to kidnap her in “The Mysterious Shadow.” But when he offers his payment, Morales demands an additional 10,000 francs hazard pay. Cesar goes home depressed and confesses what he has done to his sister and father; the father tells him to go to their country home while he takes care of the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

The Atonement (1917)

In this third chapter of the “Judex” serial, things finally start moving, as the villains put their plans into action, an important cameo is seen, and the hero discovers that he actually has a mystery to unravel. Great tinting and moody lighting and makeup add to the effectiveness of the film.

This chapter begins by establishing the revived banker, Favraux (Louis Leubas), as the captive of Judex (René Cresté) in his underground lair. The mirror in his cell follows him as he moves, and we learn that Judex and his brother can observe the prisoner through a hidden camera. When Favraux tries to disable it by putting his towel over the mirror, the towel bursts into flame! Judex uses a “flame device” to transmit a message to him: he has been spared from his death sentence by his daughter’s acts of decency, but now he faces lifetime imprisonment for his crimes. Meanwhile, that daughter’s estranged son Le Petite Jean (Olinda Mano) is plotting how he can see her. He sneaks out of his bedroom and onto the back of a truck covered in cabbages. The truck drives to a shop to sell its wares, but before the driver can begin to unload it, Bout-de-Zan sneaks up to steal a cabbage, inadvertently finding the stowaway and quickly referencing the first big hit of Louis Feuillade’s mentor, Alice Guy. He and Jean sneak away before being caught, and Jean shows him the letter from his mother, and Bout-de-Zan agrees to help him get to her. The two kids sneak onto the back of a fancy car bound for the right neighborhood, and manage to hang on without attracting attention all the way there!

Meanwhile, Musidora has gotten to Jean’s mother (Yvette Andréyor) first. Although Yvette is under an assumed name, she advertised her services in the papers and Musidora has come in answer to that ad. Even though she should know better than to accept employment with a governess she previously discharged, Yvette gets into the car with her and her accomplice who, we remember, are still hoping to get the money that Yvette has donated to charity. They quickly capture her. But, Jean has arrived at the apartment, and is taken in by the maid, who shoos Bout-de-Zan away as an undesirable. Jean is sympathetic with the two pigeons who are caged in the apartment, and, when his mother does not come home promptly, he releases them. This was exactly the right thing to do, fortunately, because these are homing pigeons that return to Judex and inform him that all is not as it should be. He investigates, putting on a great black cape and bring a large mastiff with him. The dog is charmed by Jean, and Judex realizes that Yvette has been detained for some unknown purpose. But how? And how can he find her now? These answers will perhaps be addressed in the next installment.

This episode was short and worked well for me, not least because it ended on a kind of cliff-hanger, where we don’t know how the hero will manage to help the apparently helpless heroine. Bout-de-Zan is also a great treat to watch. He plays off the saccharine innocence of Jean by appearing to be the worldly-wise street kid (who still thinks children are born in the cabbage patch), and his outfit makes me think of a French Huckleberry Finn. When he and Jean are finally run off the car by the chauffeur, he refuses to leave until he’s had a chance to kick the man in the backside! I also really like the way Judex comes across in this movie. Finally, an interesting hero from Feuillade! His underground lair is marvelously shot and the mirror watching the prisoner is still creepy, even in an era where such surveillance is common. He also has a great look going with the hat, the cape, and the dog.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera:André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Louis Leubas, Olinda Mano, Yvette Andréyor, Musidora, René Poyen, Édouard Mathé, Jean Devalde

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Wrong Mr. Fox (1917)

This short is a classic mix-up comedy based on the fact of two very similarly-named towns: Canaan, Vermont, and Canaan, New Hampshire, on the same train line. The thin plot does offer some good opportunities for situational comedy.

An out-of-work actor named Jimmy Fox (Victor Moore) is on the verge of committing suicide by breathing in gas from his light, when he is contacted by his agent and told to go to one of these metropoli in order to join a theater troupe. He boards the train with 3 donuts (one for every 100 miles) and a bottle of milk, stolen from his landlady. At the same time, the reverend John Fox boards the train for the other Canaan, where he is being sent to take over ministerial duties. Of course, they each get off at the wrong station, and, of course, each is mistaken for the other Mr. Fox. Of course, hilarity ensues. The reverend fairly quickly flees his Canaan community (apparently running home to his mother), when an actor in rehearsal pulls out a knife. But our actor figures out his situation fairly quickly and comes up with a plan. He begins his sermon by passing out the collection plates. Then, imitating Billy Sunday, he gives a dramatic series of gestures that cause the congregation to look into the distance while he fills his pockets. Then, he does a kind of strip show, pulling off his jacket, tie, and shirt, finishing with a flourish that makes the crowd look up while he bicycles out the door. However, he’s forgotten that by removing his clothes, he left all the money in his pockets behind.

The now-obscure star of this movie was Victor Moore, who was the principle star of the Jacksonville, Florida-based Klever Komedies studio, a subsidiary of Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company, and therefore part of Paramount. Judging by this film, Moore wasn’t a genius of physical comedy, like Chaplin or Keaton, he seems to be more in the tradition of situational humor like John Bunny or Sidney Drew, with just a hint of Roscoe Arbuckle’s charisma. A lot of this film is shot quite conventionally, but there are some interesting bits. The sequence in which he tries to commit suicide with gas includes several bits where he breathes fire after someone lights a match. There are several dramatic close-ups during his sermon, and I was surprised that his parishioners seem to include at least a few Asian Americans. Honestly, the funniest moment for me didn’t involve Moore at all – I laughed loudest when the preacher runs away from the actor with a knife.

Director:Harry Jackson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victor Moore, William Slade

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.

We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing  the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.

Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

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Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

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Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

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This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

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Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

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Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

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The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

I have not found this for free on the Internet (please comment if you do). However, it can be rented for download from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.

Oh Doctor (1917)

This comedy directed by and starring Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle is also an early vehicle for Buster Keaton, who plays his spoiled and immature son. While a bit rough around the edges, there is some good physical and situational comedy here.

oh-doctorThe movie begins with Arbuckle and his family arriving at the racetrack in their car. Arbuckle puts down an anchor when he parks, and abuses Junior every time he tries to speak. Shortly thereafter, the Vamp (Alice Mann) drives up with her beau, Al St. John. Al gets his jacket caught in the door of the cab and is dragged through a mud puddle as a result. Meanwhile, Alice flirts with Arbuckle, who we now learn is a doctor who needs cash. He tricks his wife into letting him sit near the Vamp, and overhears Al getting a “hot tip” on a horse, so he bets all his money on it. Of course, the horse is a dud and runs the wrong way. His wife is very angry at him for losing their money, and they go home while Buster laughs about “the funny horse that ran the wrong way.”

oh-doctor2The Vamp and Al now formulate a plan to get the expensive necklace they saw Arbuckle’s wife wearing. She calls him and says she has swallowed  can of shoe polish, so Arbuckle agrees to make a house call. Along the way, he sees a man selling a “miracle soap” that will prevent all illness. Worried about losing business, Arbuckle sets his car on automatic and sends it plowing through the crowd, then hands out business cards to the injured spectators. He whistles and the car obediently returns like a dog. Then, he finally goes to the Vamp’s apartment, where he fixes martinis for both of them from the supplies in his doctor’s bag.

oh-doctor1Meanwhile, Al has appeared at Arbuckle’s house pretending to be a patient, and is able to steal the necklace from around the wife’s neck without her noticing. Buster sees him getting away, though, and follows him back to the Vamp’s apartment, calling his mother and letting her know what has happened. Now, Al and the Vamp have to get Arbuckle out of the house, so they send him to a bookie with another hot tip. He puts in the bet, but then goes back. There is a series of comedic close-encounters as Al avoids Arbuckle, Arbuckle avoids his wife, and the wife tries to get back her necklace. Then Arbuckle finds a police uniform in the kitchen and puts on a false mustache, using it to intimidate Al and retrieve the necklace. At this point, Buster shows up with several more policemen, and Arbuckle bluffs his way past them by pretending to arrest his wife. Then he tries to collect his winnings from the bookie, but they all run away at the sight of his uniform. He takes his money anyway, but his wife gets the last word.

oh-doctor4Contrary to his “Old Stoney Face” standard of later years, Keaton in this movie emotes with powerful facial expressions, laughing uproariously and bawling at the slightest provocation. The comedy is a bit more “situational” than most of what we associate with Keaton and Arbuckle, but they both get in plenty of pratfalls as well. Keaton, in particular, does an impressive tumble backwards over a table to land comfortably in a chair. I suspect that Arbuckle (who directed) had told him to cry so frequently, thinking that it would be good comedy, but I found that it made the relationship seem more abusive and less funny. Overall, I wouldn’t rate this as the best work either actor has done: I spent a lot of it waiting to see what Keaton or Al St. John would come up with next. The biggest laugh Arbuckle got from me was when he started handing out business cards to the people he had injured.

oh-doctor3This year marks the 100th anniversary of Buster Keaton’s entry into film comedy, and this blog post marks my entry into the “Buster Keaton Blogathon,” which has been running now for three years. For the next few years, we’ll be able to track Keaton’s development, as we have with Chaplin over the past few. He definitely showed physical ability and screen presence right from the moment he got started, even if he honed and refined his talent as he gained experience. I’m looking forward to getting to know Buster as this project develops.

Now go  check out the other entries in the Blogathon!

buster-blogathon-the-third-1-copyDirector: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Mann

Run Time: 21 Min

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

Civilization (1916)

This big-budget release from Thomas Ince is a famous anti-war spectacle, which reproduces the horrors of the First World War in a plea for brotherly love. While it is big on message and visual drama, it is relatively short on plot and character development.

civilization_posterThe story takes place in the fictional country of “Wredpryd,” with much of the action in the capitol, “Nurma.” These places look extremely Central European, so that audiences can be forgiven for misting them for Germany. The King of Wredpryd (Herschel Mayall) believes that war makes a nation great and strong, and his military advisers are urging him into belligerence. Parliament takes up the question for debate, and one man, “an ardent follower of Christ,” dares to oppose war on humanitarian grounds. Onlookers boo his cowardice and throw things, and the Ministers override him and pass articles of war. The King accepts these with pleasure, and calls for Count Ferdinand (Howard C. Hickman), “an inventor in the service of the King.” It is never entirely clear what Count Ferdinand invented, but later we get the sense that it has to do with submarine warfare. Count Ferdinand is in love with a common woman (Enid Markey), so the King promises him dispensation to marry whomever he likes, so long as he devotes his services to the war effort. The Count eagerly agrees. Soldiers parade proudly through the city to the universal acclaim of the populace, but the member of parliament who spoke out against war is present, and decries the sacrifice of young men. This arouses the crowd, and soon there is a riot as he is attacked for his unpatriotic sentiments.

civilization_1916_film_stillThe war begins! We see lots of cannon fire, explosions, men running across smoke-covered fields, and more explosions. What we don’t see is an enemy. We also don’t get any human-level story for to connect us to these images, so they might as well be stock footage (some of it is, I think, but actually relatively little). Losses are heavy, and so it becomes necessary to begin aggressively recruiting new soldiers, taking able-bodied young men away from their homes and farms. We see wives, mothers, and children crying as they are separated from the men they love. In one case, an invalid mother is left to die with no one to take care of her. There is a lingering close-up on an aged woman watching the draft process in horror. Meanwhile, Enid (her character is supposedly named “Katheryn,” but so far as I could tell it never appears in an Intertitle) discovers that her mother has a cross painted on an undergarment. It is the emblem of “the invisible army of women” who oppose all war. Enid is convinced, and tells Count Ferdinand that he is being sent on “a mission of death.”

civilization_still_2The Count is torn between his love for Enid and his sense of duty. He takes command of a submarine and spends his days vacillating while his second-in-command does all the work. One day an order arrives to sink a ship – “The Propatria” – which is carrying passengers but is suspected of taking ammunition to the enemy. The Count stands stunned, while the second-in-command takes over as usual, ordering the boat to surface and prepare a torpedo for the attack. The Count fantasizes the destruction of the ship, seeing women and children being dumped out of lifeboats into the cruel ocean waves. Finally, the Count springs into action, countermanding the order and saying “no torpedoes against children.” He exposes a cross on his undergarment and the men realize that he has become a pacifist. They move to mutiny against him, but he pulls out his sidearm and holds them at bay, shooting two of them when they move to disarm him. Now he opens a torpedo valve and water rushes into the submarine, which sinks and then explodes, killing everyone on board except for him. Sailors from the Propatria row out to rescue him.

civilizationThe war rages on and somehow he is returned home unconscious (this is never clear). The King sits at his bedside, waiting to see whether he will recover. Meanwhile, the Count is experiencing a lengthy religious vision, that involves going to Hell and meeting Jesus Christ. Apparently, he is forgiven for killing dozens of the men under his command, since he did it to save children. Christ now takes possession of his body and heals it so that he can spread the message of peace on Earth. Soon after his miraculous recovery, the King starts receiving reports that Ferdinand is inciting riots and stirring up trouble in the city. Each time he speaks, angry citizens attack him. The King has him arrested and condemns him for treason. On the day of his execution, the “invisible army” of women, which now includes a phalanx of nuns, marches on the city, led by Enid. They fill the square and demand peace at any price. The King discovers that the Count has died in the night, cheating the hangman, and goes to visit his cell. There, the vision of Christ comes to him and shows him the horrors of war, that he has brought upon his people. He sees men dying in the mud, devastated fields and cities, children without fathers, women without husbands. Then, Jesus shows him the book in which his name is written – “on a page stained with the blood of your people,” and the King realizes the evil he has caused.

civilization2The King returns to his courtroom and orders an immediate armistice. The people are joyous, and soldiers march back to their homes to be reunited with their families. The old woman from the opening looks on as better times come to her village. We see a shepherd in a field and the Intertitles tells us that “the blare of the war bugle has died and in its place we hear the shepherd’s horn.”

civilization1I found this movie extremely heavy-handed and un-subtle in its message. It’s possible that some of it is missing, since The Silent Era claims it runs 10 reels, which would be around 2 and a half hours, depending on frame rate, but the video is only 86 minutes. Even so, it managed to be somewhat equivocal in its pacifism. The nation depicted is so clearly Germany, and the blame for war so clearly placed on that side, that it could easily be interpreted as a call to arms against Germany, rather than a call for the Allies to lay down their weapons. Indeed, according to “The Silent Era,” it was distributed in the UK under the title “What Every True Britain [sic] Is Fighting For.” The depiction of the Lusitania incident, which had increased belligerent attitudes in the USA, also does not seem calculated to promote non-interventionism. Apparently the Count can be forgiven for killing his own men, so surely an Allied craft would also be forgiven for destroying a German submarine to save the lives of children. Wikipedia claims that the Democratic National Committee credited this film in part for the re-election of Woodrow Wilson with his slogan of “He kept us out of war,” but I note that the source cited is a 1996 newspaper article, so this has to be taken with a grain of salt. It sounds like Ince-originated hype to me. Wikipedia also makes the blatantly false claim that this was “one of the first movies to depict Jesus Christ as a character.” Apart from Alice Guy’sThe Birth, The Life, and the Death of Christ,” Charles Musser has traced the history of Passion Plays in the pre-Nickelodeon era in “The Emergence of Cinema.” One thing that is true is that such depictions have tended to be controversial in the United States in all eras.

civilization3All that aside, what the story is really lacking is human interest. The battles are large-scale and epic, but not tied to the characters in such a way as to make us really care what’s going on. Our main characters spend a lot of the movie in a beatific trance. Even when they aren’t, they are given to rather broad pantomiming, as when the King tells the Count that he will be allowed to marry his love, and the Count immediately spreads his arms wide and stares up in rapture. The effects, editing, and production design are all good quality, certainly compared to the average Thomas Ince production, but since this came out shortly after “Intolerance,” it’s hard not to compare it unfavorably to D.W. Griffith’s lavish production values. In no way does it measure up, even the battle scenes are frankly weak just in comparison to the previous year’s “The Birth of a Nation.” While it’s realistic that there’s a lot of smoke on the battlefield, so much is used that it tends to obscure the action, and you can’t really make a good battle scene just showing one side of the fight. Apparently a success in its day, “Civilization” came off to me as too clumsy and blunt in its message, and not really a great example of film technique of the period.

Director: Raymond B. West, Reginald Barker, and Thomas H. Ince

Camera: Joseph H. August, Irvin Willat, Clyde de Vinna

Starring: Howard C. Hickman, Herschel Mayall, Enid Markey, Kate Bruce, George Fisher

Run Time: 86 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Canadian Official War Films (1917)

Comparable to the British documentary, “The Battle of the Somme,” this film shows the conditions of Canadian troops at the front during a critical battle in France. Taken together, these two films demonstrate a new sophistication in documentary technique, and in the appreciation their governments had for the importance of domestic propaganda in wartime.

canadian-official-war-filmsThe film is subtitled “In Action with Our Canadian Troops,” although the information provided by Library & Archives Canada suggests that there is a second part, “Footage on Ypres, 1914-1917,” which I was unable to find separately – I think some of that footage has been edited in to this. The movie begins by showing us some troops on parade with the flag presented by Princess Patricia of Connaught, the daughter of the Governor General of Canada. We see various march-bys. Many of these troops appear sullen or uninterested in the camera, though there are a few smiles and glances. Soon, we get to the main feature of the narrative, which follows the Battle of Vimy Ridge, a three-day battle in northern France which involved four divisions of Canadian troops. There is an animated map which shows the progress of the battle, connecting the footage on screen with events known from the newspapers in the audience’s mind. In fact, it is likely that some of the footage was staged or taken at some time other than April 9-12 (the duration of the battle). We don’t see any real combat, which would probably have been much too dangerous with the cameras of the time, although there are images of artillery firing and explosions far off across the battlefield. A lot of the footage is men walking through waterlogged trenches or marching and/or digging in the mud. The conditions look extremely uncomfortable and probably unhygienic. One pan across a group of men crouching in the cover of some trees shows them all duck suddenly; the Intertitles tell us that shrapnel exploded overhead at that moment. I suspect this was staged, but it does help to establish the sense of imminent danger on the frontlines. The film takes us through the successful advance of the Canadians and “digging in” their new defensive line. We see some of the “trophies” (captured artillery) taken, one of which has a lengthy sign explaining that it has been requested by the unit that took it as a trophy. The movie ends with an apparently unrelated image of a tank rolling through a field, probably on experimental maneuvers.

canadian-official-war-films1There are some interesting differences between this movie and “The Battle of the Somme.” I mentioned above that the troops seemed unexcited about being filmed – in “Battle of the Somme” the men frequently waved to the camera and all seemed very hopeful that they would be seen and recognized. One had the sense that the troops shown here were veterans, inured to the dullness of military service, and more interested in their next meal or rest period than in the camera. However, unlike the Battle of the Somme, the Battle of Vimy Ridge was a pretty clear Allied victory, in which the stated objectives were achieved successfully in a few days, rather than a months-long stalemate and meat grinder. We see less of headquarters and officers in general, focusing on foot soldiers and artillerymen at work. We also see no Germans, even as prisoners, and no dead bodies. While this is a somewhat bleak portrayal of the conditions of war, it avoids anything shocking, perhaps due to responses in England to “The Battle of the Somme” the previous year. I found the inclusion of the animated maps very useful in giving an interpretation of the mostly pretty ordinary military footage, and I liked how they cannon fire was shown to flash across the screen as the little triangles and dots representing the armed units advanced.

canadian-official-war-films2There is a tendency to overlook the important contributions of Dominion forces in both the World Wars, reflected by the ease with which people will speak of “England” or “Britain” (or worse, “one tiny island”) as being at war with “Germany.” Soldiers came from nearly all points of the world to participate in the confict, and understandably wanted to be remembered and represented for their sacrifices. This movie at least preserves a part of that heritage for Canada, a country which was involved in the First World War from the outset, and their men had been at the front for almost three years by the time any soldiers from the USA arrived on the scene. This movie helps us a hundred years later to appreciate that the second-largest nation in the world made its own contribution to a struggle that may have centered in Europe, but was truly global in reach and implications.

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This has been my contribution to the “Oh Canada!” blogathon, being hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. If you liked this post, take the time to check out some of the other entries!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Anonymous Canadian soldiers

Run Time: 21 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music). Thanks to Library & Archives Canada for making it available to everyone!

The Americano (1916)

A somewhat heavy-handed plot and some unfortunate ethnic representations cheapen this rather slight early effort from Douglas Fairbanks. We see little of his physicality and exuberance in this film, although he does manage to represent an optimistic view of Americans, as usual.

americanoThe movie begins in the tiny Central American nation of “Paragonia,” where an uneasy truce between a popular civilian government and a corrupt military is endangered when the Minister of War (Carl Stockdale) opposes renewing a contract with an American mining company that provides work for most of the population. The Presidente (Spottiswoode Aitken) pushes the motion through, and sends a cable to the US, requesting an American mining engineer be sent to help them oversee the complex machinery. At the same time, the Premier (Tote du Crow) and the President’s daughter Juana (Alma Rubens) head to the USA for a visit. The mining school has selected Douglas Fairbanks, of course, as the best man for the job, but he’s not interested in relocating – at least until he gets a look at Juana. Back at home, the coup d’etat has been effected and the Minister of War is in power. The Paragonians return home quickly, leaving word for Doug to stay behind, but of course that wouldn’t be right, so he takes the next boat.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

Wee are a poor peeepol Senor.

On arrival in Paragonia, Doug finds that no one wants to talk about the President, the mining offices have been ransacked, and the only American left is a demeaning caricature in blackface, played by Tom Wilson. He does manage to contact the Premier, who’s in disguise as a street vendor, and to scout out the prison where the President is being held. Juana is being forced to marry the unsavory colonel Garagas (Charles Stevens), on threat of her father’s life, and the Minister of War is now splitting the army’s payroll between himself and Garagas. Doug finds that the President has been throwing papers out his window with the date November 23, 1899, and he looks in the old man’s journal to find out what happened on that day. Turns out that there was a jailbreak using a secret tunnel that has since been walled up, and that the old man is in the very cell that tunnel leads to! So, Doug organizes a hasty breakout with “Whitey” and the premier. Along the way, he is arrested by soldiers and taken to meet the Minister of War and Garagas. They try to bribe him with 1/3 of the army money to re-open the mines for them, forestalling a popular revolt. Doug takes the money and pretends to go along with them, then knocks out the soldier sent to spy on him and re-joins his friends and the mouth of the tunnel.

americano2The party makes its way through the tunnel and Doug starts chipping away at the wall with a hammer and chisel. The President, realizing what must be up, starts pounding on his cane to cover the noise, but a guard sees the tip of Doug’s chisel penetrate the wall. He holds the President at gunpoint and moves to nab whoever comes in that way. Looking through the hole he’s made, Doug figures this out and tosses the captured soldier in ahead of himself, then grabs the guard from behind. Now they make their way back to the capital, using captured guns to threaten their way into the palace, where Juana’s wedding is to take place after a speech by the Minister of War. He’s trying to placate the people, who have been told that the “Americano” is now working with him and will re-open the mine. Doug joins him on the balcony and exposes the plot. When the Minister tries to get the army to join him, saying that Doug has stolen their pay, Doug returns it, explaining that the Minister was the thief all along. The Presidente is re-instated, the mine is opened, and Doug and Juana get married (Doug now appointed the new head of the army of Paragonia).

americano3This movie is a pretty clear argument in favor of American imperialism and the Monroe Doctrine, and it gets its facts a little confused, as far as governmental instability in Latin America at the time. It’s unlikely that a coup against a popular government would be held to oppose American economic interests, usually it was the other way around. And it’s unlikely that the people would be cheering for “the Americano” to come save them. But, for the purposes of a Hollywood fantasy supervised by notorious racist D.W. Griffith, that’s pretty much par for the course. I still find Fairbanks’s “all-American” hero character charming, and reminiscent of the all-American optimist that Harold Lloyd would soon bring to life in his “glasses” character, although he’s certainly not as funny here. I was disappointed that he didn’t perform more stunts in this one. All we see him do is scale a wall to get in and out of Juana’s house, leap down some rocks by the beach, and beat up a soldier or two. Other than that, he spends a lot of the time talking to people and chiseling at a wall. There is a heavy use of close-ups, particularly of Fairbanks, suggesting that the producers thought that his face was a major selling-point of the film. There’s one interestingly shot/edited section where Fairbanks tries to bluff his way past the guards at Juana’s house: they cross their bayonets to block him and he moves back and forth between single-shots of each of them as he tries to fast-talk them, ending up in alone in a shot with the tips of their bayonets behind him. Other than that, it’s a pretty middling production overall.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Alma Rubens, Spottiswoode Aitken, Carl Stockdale, Tote Du Crow, Tom White, Charles Stevens, Mildred Harris

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not found this movie available for free online; if you do, please comment.

East Is East (1916)

A light-hearted melodrama of social class set in England, this movie follows the familiar plot of the waif who is suddenly given wealth and must adapt to a world of “refinement” and snobbery. Director Henry Edwards takes on the challenge of co-starring with Florence Turner and shows a definite flair for both directing and acting himself.

east_is_eastThe movie begins with Florence Turner as Victoria (“Vickie”) Vickers, a girl from the East End of London who sits in front of window displays and dreams of a life of comfort and grace. Her boyfriend Bert Grummet (Edwards) is a skinny ragamuffin who gives her a laugh, but she refuses his offer of marriage saying, “We’re such good friends, let’s not spoil it.” He munches on his fish and chips and thinks maybe if he can start a successful fish shop, she’ll change her mind.

east-is-east1Vickie lives with “an assumed aunt and uncle,” which I think means that she has assumed them, not that she assumes they’re really her aunt and uncle. Anyway, the little family decides to pile all their worldly goods into a pram and go off to the countryside “hop-picking” (something similar happens here in southern Oregon once a year, but it’s not hops they’re picking…). Bert invites himself along and tries to kiss Vickie, which she resists. Meanwhile, we are introduced to a lawyer who is trying to locate Miss Victoria Vickers before her inheritance defaults to certain unnamed charities. He sends an assistant to scour the East End and even contacts Scotland Yard to no avail. Giving up with only days to go, he gives the assistant leave to go to the countryside on a “photographic holiday.”

Vickie and Bert look at a pretty house in Kent and fantasize about living there one day. Then Bert steals one of their chickens. As he brings the prize back to camp, the lawyer’s assistant fortuitously sees Vickie and asks to photograph her. She is indignant, and refuses, “as sure as my name’s Victoria Vickers!” The assistant suddenly realizes that he’s talking to one of the wealthiest heiresses in London, but he has considerable difficulty convincing her or her companions that he isn’t nuts. Finally, they agree to accompany him back to London to meet the lawyer. The lawyer confirms the story and explains the terms of the will: Victoria will have to learn “refinement,” while she lives on an allowance from the trust for three years. She seems dubious about this, but agrees because it means she can get money to send her “aunt” and “uncle” to visit relatives in Australia and give Bert the money to open his fish shop.

east-is-east

Would you trust this man if he told you he had a million dollars for you?

This aspect of the plan works well, especially when Bert hits upon the idea of buying up cheap dogfish and selling it as “fish” (by crossing off the word “dog”). His business booms, and soon he is opening a chain of stores and sending out trucks for home delivery of his popular fish. Meanwhile, Vickie is learning how different reality is from her store-front fantasy. Servants are constantly telling her what to wear and trying to comb her hair for her. Her table manners make everyone stop and stare. She is unable to make friends at parties, even though she does learn to speak in a “refined” manner. She lives with a Mrs. Carrington (Ruth McKay) and her son, Arthur. Arthur has a bad gambling habit, but Mrs. Carrington is more concerned that Victoria will be corrupted by the “bad influence” of having contact with her old friends like Bert, who has to shove past the butler to get in when he calls.

Mrs. Carrington decides that the best thing to do is take Victoria abroad on an extended tour of exotic (unspecified) locations, while continuing her tutoring. She throws away letters that Victoria writes to Bert instead of mailing them. Victoria is kept away from all her friends for two years, and, failing socially with the new crowd, becomes lonely and depressed. Bert, meanwhile, has decided that he needs some schooling as well in order to impress Vickie. He hires a tutor and a tailor to help with his clothes. Then, he sells off his business and goes to propose to Vickie in his best suit and after some last-minute pointers from the tutor. Along the way, he reads a shocking headline in the society pages – Victoria Vickers is now engaged to Arthur! Arthur is desperate for money to cover his enormous gambling debts, so he proposed to her and since she was so alone and desperate, she agreed, despite his Charlie Chaplin mustache which she mocked in the first reel. Bert gives up and moves to Kent, buying the lovely little cottage they had admired, and living alone with a housekeeper.

east-is-east2But all is not yet lost. Victoria overhears Arthur talking to one of his girlfriends, and he says that of course he doesn’t love her, but he needs the money. Victoria finally has a revelation that she cannot live this “artificial life,” and voluntarily gives up her fortune, hoping to return to the happiness she knew in poverty. As a parting shot, she gives Arthur enough money to be free from debt. When hop-picking season comes, Vickie goes back to Kent and lingers at the site of her youthful happiness, noting that “someone” (Bert, in fact) has put barbed wire around the chicken coop to prevent theft. Bert looks out his window and sees her standing there. He sends the housekeeper out to invite her to tea with “the lady of the house,” not telling her who it is. Vickie goes in out of curiosity, and when Bert shows up she is flummoxed. “Who is the lady of the house?” She asks. Bert tells her she is, if she will still have him.

Like a lot of melodramas of the period, this relies heavily on rather unlikely coincidence (the assistant stumbling onto Victoria in Kent with only days to go being the most extreme), but it is actually a nicely crafted story within the limited formula. The contrast of rich and poor, and the ability of poor people to “know their place” and accept it, are common themes in British literature and film of the time. From that point of view, this movie makes sense, although my American sensibilities say she should have ditched Arthur, finished out the last weeks of her tutelage, and then taken the money and started her own business. It also seems strange that Bert has to sell his business in order to be “respectable.” He doesn’t seem to have anything to do but guard his chickens now, when he could be the (dog)fish-king of the whole realm! But, I think that is a reflection of British class expectations as well.

east-is-east1Overall, the movie is well-shot and edited. During the sequence where the lawyer is looking for her, we flash back and forth from his office to what she is doing. This is a kind of parallel editing, but it is more subtle than what one usually sees from D.W. Griffith, who almost always used the technique simply for suspense or in the telling of a single story, not to run two of them together, at least until “Intolerance.” Both leads do a very good job in terms of acting. I thought the best part of Turner’s performance was when she was still “unrefined,” but dressed as a rich woman in a rich world. Her body language still speaks cockney, so to speak, and even without being able to hear her accent, we could see how she didn’t fit in. But Bert undergoes the more impressive transformation, from street rat to entrepreneur to successful businessman to retired gentleman. He actually seems to fill out and gain considerable weight during the course of the picture, but I think it’s just carefully chosen wardrobe that makes the difference.

One final note: every source agrees that this film was made by the “Turner Film Company,” and one at least lists Florence Turner as the producer. I wonder if she might have been the Turner for which it is named. That would be another example of a pioneering woman business owner and producer from the early years of film, but I can’t find anything definite.

Director: Henry Edwards

Camera: Tom White

Starring: Florence Turner, Henry Edwards, Ruth McKay, W.G. Saunders, Edith Evans

Run Time: 71 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, and it’s a very over-exposed pixillated digitization. It’s all I could find, so if you know of a better version, please comment!)