Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ss

The Star Boarder (1914)

Way back in 2014, I watched every movie Charlie Chaplin made at Keystone Studios, but there were so many (and so many other things I wanted to cover), that I never finished reviewing them all. Now I’m taking the time to fill some of those gaps, starting with this early film about Charlie getting in trouble in a boarding house.

The movie begins with a wide shot in a kitchen, establishing the household staff. Minta Durfee is the landlady, and she supervises a man in an apron (Edgar Kennedy) and another woman as they do the cooking. A boy (Gordon Griffith) has a small camera box, but Minta shoes him away. Minta goes into the dining room and sets up the dinner, then rings a bell to summon the guests. A large group of them appears, but we cut back and forth to Charlie’s room, where he is lounging and smoking a cigarette. He slowly gets up and dresses for dinner, while Minta continues ringing away. He flirts a bit with Minta on his way into the dining room, and Edgar glares at him as he serves the food. After dinner, another man seems to want to talk to Minta, but Charlie throws his napkin at him. He and Minta flirt a bit more until Edgar interrupts them.

 

Later, Minta and Charlie are play tennis together, though Charlie’s occasional pratfalls suggest he may have had a few drinks in his room first.  He knocks a tennis ball well out of court, and they go to look for it together. The child spots them and begins snapping photos, all the while laughing uproariously. Edgar again finds them and intervenes, finding the ball before either of them, since they seem more interested in one another. Minta now goes over to a rosebush, climbing up on a ladder, but falls off when Charlie comes over to her, and again the child is snapping photos and laughing. They go back to the house together, and Edgar escorts an older lady boarder. Left alone briefly in the kitchen, Charlie raids the liquor cabinet and there are several more pratfalls as he drunkenly attempts to sneak up to his room with two bottles and a pie.

 

 

The child now approaches another boarder (Harry McCoy), and shows him the slides he has prepared and he agrees to set up a projector so the whole house can enjoy his slideshow. When the audience is assembled, the child, laughing hard again, starts to show them shots of Charlie and Minta together, though he also shows Edgar with his companion, and soon the audience devolves into chaos as Edgar and Charlie fight and bump into the others, causing a general rout. Charlie manages to escape the room, stumbling through the screen, and Minta spanks the naughty child.

 

There are no surviving intertitles on the print I’ve been able to see, so a certain amount has to be inferred. Evidently, Minta and Edgar are married, although the cliché is for the landlady of a boarding house to be widowed or a spinster. Also, evidently Gordon is their son. Minta really does seem quite receptive to Charlie’s advances, and (surprisingly for the time), we see Charlie quite openly admiring her backside. No doubt this contributed to the idea that his movies were “vulgar.” Charlie is in full “Little Tramp” getup at this stage, even his mustache is down to the familiar width, and some of his signature gestures (such as his “what, me?” shrug) are clearly established. He’s still building a lot of his act around “funny drunk” bits, and he’s less inclined towards violence in this picture than in others around the same time. That doesn’t stop the movie from ending in a classic Keystone riot, however.

Director: George Nichols

Camera: Frank D. Williams

Starring: Charlie Chaplin, Minta Durfee, Edgar Kennedy, Gordon Griffith, Harry McCoy, Alice Davenport, Phyllis Allen, William Nigh, Al St. John

Run Time: 11 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Scarecrow (1920)

Another of Buster Keaton’s early solo shorts, this one has a lot in common with the work he was doing a year earlier with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, including a cameo from one of the more recognizable Comique players. It’s probably more famous, though, for establishing Keaton’s fascination with gadgets.

As the movie opens, Keaton is sharing a one-room house with frequent foil, Joe Roberts. Buster has a toothache, and Roberts tries to help by tying the tooth to the door with a piece of string, then suddenly opening it to yank out the tooth. It opens the wrong way, though, and all Roberts succeeds in doing is hitting Buster in the nose with the door. This causes the angry Keaton to slam it shut, inadvertently pulling the tooth. Keaton fixes breakfast for the pair, while Roberts “sets” the table by pulling a string that lowers what they need from the ceiling. After the meal, they carry the tabletop, with all of the plates affixed to it, to the wall and spray it down with a hose. They drop the table leavings into a trapdoor that leads to the pigs’ slop-trough. Keaton’s bed folds up, Murphy-style, to become a piano, and the tub, when emptied, dumps water through a hole in the wall to create a pond for ducks, itself folding into a little bench.

The second reel deals with the rivalry of the two men for the heart of Sybil Seely, the classic girl-next-door. As soon as she appears, the two start running and pushing each other, quickly getting into a fight. When Sybil tries out some dance moves from a magazine, Roberts joins her, resulting in Keaton thinking he has lost, but soon he is pursued by Luke the Dog, who has just eaten a cream pie, making it look like he is rabid. He does his old trick of climbing a ladder to chase Keaton around the roof of a crumbling abandoned farmhouse. Roberts, meanwhile, has bought various medical supplies in anticipation of Buster’s needs, but ends up getting run down by a car and using them n himself. Buster falls into a hay thresher, which rips off most of his clothes, effectively ending the chase. It also results in him “exposing” himself (well, his underthings) to Sybil, resulting in her father (Joe Keaton) chasing him and knocking over Roberts, who now tries to propose to Seely.

Good Dog!

Unbeknownst to them, Buster has “borrowed” the clothes of a scarecrow in the field and now, posing as the scarecrow manages to prevent the proposal and start a fight between Roberts and the farmer. Buster then trips into a kneeling position while tying his shoes, and Sybil believes he is proposing marriage to her. Next the couple speeds off on a motorcycle with Roberts and the farmer in hot pursuit. Scooping up a minister during the chase, they are married on the speeding motorcycle and splash into a stream at the climax of the ceremony and the film.

This movie seems like a throwback to the earlier Comique movies, helped by the presence of Luke the Dog. Joe Roberts seems, especially in the early part of the film, to be playing the Arbuckle role, although he develops into a more generic heavyset antagonist as the movie goes along. There’s nowhere near as much of a story as we got in “One Week” or “Convict 13,” in fact it’s so loose it feels more like “The Butcher Boy” than “The Garage.” It’s mostly a series of unconnected gags and chase sequences. The beginning, though, is built around the many bizarre labor-saving devices of Keaton’s and Robert’s home, which is a treat for Keaton fans. I’ll admit that I generally don’t find this all that funny, but it is interesting to see what Keaton comes up with. The best part is when Luke chases Keaton back to the house and he tries to evade the dog by using the various trapdoors and hidden exits. This is the biggest role I’ve yet seen Keaton give to his father, which also lends to the feeling that this is a smaller, more last-minute production than the others we’ve seen so far.

Director: Edward F. Cline, Buster Keaton

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Starring: Buster Keaton, Joe Roberts, Sybil Seely, Luke the Dog, Joe Keaton, Edward F. Cline

Run Time: 19 Min

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

The Silent Man (1917)

William S. Hart one-ups John Wayne by being even quieter in this movie from Thomas Ince’s Artcraft Pictures. Is silence golden? We’ll take a look at it today.

Hart plays “Silent” Budd Marr, a prospector who, after three months in the desert, has finally struck a claim. He treats his horse and mule with characteristic affection, bringing them past rattlesnakes and to the front of the “Hello Thar” dance hall in “Bakeoven,” the small gold rush camp town that is the main setting of our tale. There he proceeds to order three tall glasses of water – a very wise idea given his parched condition – before heading over to the assessor’s office to file his claim. Because he pays in gold dust, he attracts the attention of the proprietors, Ames Mitchell (Milton Ross) and “Handsome” Jack Pressley (Robert McKim). Handsom Jack tries to get Silent drunk, but he sticks to water. He also meets “Grubstake” Higgins (J.P. Lockney), a more classically grizzled-looking resident of the town, who rides him for his choice of drink with a racist comment, but then is big-hearted enough to direct him to the assessor’s office. With his claim in hand, Silent now heads back to the bar for some “man-sized” drinks. This is a mistake, because in the meantime Mitchell and Pressley have devised a plan.

Handsome and Silent

Pressley sends one of his dance hall girls, a woman he had tricked into marrying him in order to lure her to the “Hello Thar,” to get Silent’s attention, and then starts a dispute, which can only be settled by a card game between the two of them. Of course, he’s cheating, using the girl to telegraph Silent’s hand from behind his back, but when Silent catches on he makes the situation worse by fighting and getting shot, spending two weeks in bed to recover, and giving the claim-jumpers a chance to secure a claim with the assessor, somehow moving Silent’s claim a few hundred yards from where it should be.

While Silent’s been out of action, Handsome Jack has been busy recruiting a new girl for his business. This is Betty Bryce (played by the equally alliterative Vola Vale), a young innocent orphan from the neighboring town of Chloride who takes care of her brother (Harold Goodwin), who’d rather she marry a cowboy so he could have a horse to ride. She falls for Pressley’s line, however, with the result that she and he are in the same coach where Ames is transporting his ill-gotten gold dust back to Bakeoven when Silent, now reduced to banditry, decides to raid it. He winds up taking  the girl captive, and has to hide out with her while the posse searches for him. She assumes him to be an evil desperado, but he treats her with gentlemanly consideration, and gradually she comes to see him as trustworthy. He tells her the story of how he came to desperado-hood and that he’s saved her from an evil fate, though at first she has doubts.

Silent brings Betty to the mountain home of “Preachin” Bill Hardy (George Nichols), a former prospector who’s found God and is now building a church in the wilderness to bring the Word to the forsaken people of Bakeoven (but still can’t remember not to cuss in front of young girls). Grubstake brings her brother out to join her, and the family is reunited. The happiness of the situation is temporary (of course), as Ames and Pressley eventually get wind of Silent’s whereabouts. Betty’s brother, eager to earn the reward for the bandit in order to give it to the preacher to help him finish the church, is injured in an attempt to take Silent single-handed, and he brings him back to the church, but meanwhile, the bad guys have set fire to the church to try to get the information from Hardy. Silent lets the boy bring him in so that the reward will go to Hardy, who has lost everything for his honor. At the trial, the truth comes out when Grubstake reveals his true identity as a Federal Marshall investigating Ames. Pressley and Ames try to get the crowd to lynch Silent anyway, but more lawmen show up and save the day. Bud and Betty are able to marry and live happily ever after.

Coming a year after “Hell’s Hinges,” and “The Return of Draw Egan” this movie seems comparably formulaic and unimaginative. I don’t know, maybe I’ve just seen too many of these William Hart movies to appreciate it, but it seems to me like pretty much everything in this has been done before. In fact, the subplot about capturing Betty and wooing her reminded me a lot of “Shark Monroe,” which was to come out the next year and did a much better job of dealing with the awkwardness and sexual tension of that situation. We do get the interesting situation of Hart as an anti-hero bandit with a pure heart and a desire for revenge, but this is mostly window-dressing for a pretty generic Western storyline. Finally, I’m not sure why his character (or the title)  is called “Silent,” unless it was just to call attention to the fact that this is a silent movie. He has as much dialogue as anyone, and actually the one person who keeps silence is the preacher, who refuses to divulge information under extreme duress.

Director: William S. Hart

Camera: Joseph H. August

Starring: William S. Hart, Vola Vale, Robert McKim, J.P. Lockney, George Nichols, Gertrude Clair, Milton Ross, Harold Goodwin

Run Time: 55 Min

 

The Spiders Episode 2: The Diamond Ship

The second and final installment of Fritz Lang’s serial “The Spiders,” like the first one, owes a great deal to earlier silent cinema, but shows the innate talents of the still new director as he works in a somewhat formulaic genre.

The movie opens with a shot that could have been lifted directly from Maurice Tourneur’s “Alias Jimmy Valentine” – an overhead image of a jewel heist that shows a labyrinthine shop floor layout as various people move about and evade one another (it was a bank in the original). The Spiders break into the vault and take the jewels back to their base, but they are discouraged to find that the “Buddha Stone” is not among them. The Buddha Stone is a much sought-after prize that supposedly would “make Asia mighty” and  liberate its people from foreign rule if returned to them, so the Spiders want to sell it to the Indian-led “Asia Committee.” Apparently, they have looked everywhere for this precious and powerful jewel, but cannot find it. Read the rest of this entry »

The Spiders (Episode One): The Golden Sea

This first episode in a crime serial was one of Fritz Lang’s first movies as a director, and is the earliest one that survives today. It shows his talent as well as how far the European movie business has come since the beginning of the First World War, but it also wears its influences rather obviously on its sleeve.

The movie begins with a kind of prologue in which we see an old hermit-type man throw a bottle into the sea just before being shot in the back with an arrow by a fellow wearing an elaborate feathered head dress. This is soon explained in a fancy club in San Francisco when a sportsman/adventurer by the name of Kay Hoog (Carl de Vogt) tells of finding the message in the bottle, which claims to be from a missing Harvard professor who has discovered and been held captive in a surviving Incan civilization. Hoog has verified the professor’s standing and lost status, and now decides to forgo a major boat race in order to head to Chile and try to find the immense treasure these Incans possess. Among his listeners is the lovely Lio Sha (Ressel Orla), who secretly works for the Spiders, an international crime syndicate of immense power and evil.

The spiders send some thieves who look like cut-rate Fantômas clones over to knock Hoog out and steal his map, leaving a large toy spider and a warning behind. Then the leader of the Spiders assigns Lio to lead a rival expedition to recover the treasure. Once in Mexico, she hires a bunch of roughnecks to assist her, and Hoog starts dressing like a cowboy. There’s a bar-room hold up in which he manages to recover a document that tells him about a mysterious “diamond ship,” though now the Spiders are in pursuit. He meets a professor (Georg John) who plans to fly in a balloon over the plateau where the Incas are, and he manages to climb aboard at the last instant despite the efforts of the Spiders to delay him.

Once we get to the Incan city, a lot of the movie is typical serial capture-and-escape material, with the Incans eager to sacrifice at least one of the trespassers, Lio Sha eager to kill Hoog, and her followers mostly interested in stealing the gold for themselves. Hoog meets  the Priestess Naela (Lil Dagover), and rescues her from punishment for refusing to sacrifice Lio. Lio and her gang are able to find the treasure, but chaos breaks out as the men start fighting over the treasure. Of course, at that moment the volcano erupts and wipes out the Incans as well as all of the Spiders except Lio Sha and one nugget-obsessed henchman.

Hoog and Naela are able to escape in a large floating basket and make their way back to San Francisco to be married. Lio Sha comes to him and asks him to join her, saying they would make a great team if they worked together and became lovers. Hoog refuses and Lio kills Naela in revenge.

This movie’s debt to the crime serials of Louis Feuillade would be less painfully obvious if Lang hadn’t cast Orla and dressed her to look so much like Musidora. She comes across as decidedly more German than French, however – she’s domineering and masculine rather than sexy and conniving. I find that de Vogt reminds me of René Cresté, who played “Judex,” though other reviewers compare him to a young William S. Hart. Hart played an Aztec in one movie, so maybe Lang was going for that here. I find it amusing that Lang thought “Kay” was a good first name for his all-American manly man hero. It’s not really clear to me why the “good” character is motivated to steal treasure from a civilization that has avoided Western contact, although all he does in fact is to fall in love with one of their priestesses and save her life. That said, the Spiders work well as a “Vampires”-style crime organization, and some of the best parts of the Feiullades sprang from the illogic of the series.

Overall, the film making technique of this movie is way ahead of the work Gaumont was putting out before and during the war. There are frequent close-ups, cuts within scenes, cross-cutting to enhance suspense, creative camera angles, and lighting. The camera moves to follow actors, and sometimes to reveal things at the right moment. In one scene, Hoog stands in front of a window of the cantina while Lio Sha carouses inside. Both of them are in perfect focus, and the edits each time Hoog peers inside allow us to think she might spot him at any moment. There’s a good use of silhouettes on the plateau at night, and we get actual darkness for night scenes, rather than just tinting a brightly-lit scene and expecting the audience to go along with it. When I was collecting screenshots for this article, I became especially aware of how fast the editing is compared to the movies I’ve reviewed up to now. Usually, I have plenty of time to choose my shot, but with this one, I had to hurry or it would cut away. The costumes and sets for the Incans are elaborate and beautiful (though probably not terribly authentic). Another break in logic came for me when the head-dress fellow snuck up on one of the Spiders’ guards and took him out. How did he not see that huge feathered thing coming right up to him?

The “diamond ship” subplot is a setup for the next episode, which came out in 1920, so I’ll be reviewing it soon as well.

Director: Fritz Lang

Camera: Emil Schünemann, Carl Hoffmann

Starring: Carl de Vogt, Lil Dagover, Ressel Orla, Georg John

Run Time: 1 Hour, 9 Min

You can watch it (together with part two, “The Diamond Ship) for free: here.

Series Photography (1885)

This is not really a movie, but a group of photographic projects shot by Eadweard Muybridge and presented sequentially on the “Movies Begin” DVD set put out by Kino. It does give some insight into how nineteenth-century photographers were thinking about using the new art form to capture movement.

What we see is a series of very short sequences showing nude young women in a variety of activities, such as pouring from a jug or walking downstairs. Each still image is held on the screen for a few seconds before the next one appears, which does produce a slight illusion of movement, especially when the photos were shot quickly enough to produce only slight changes in position. Many of the images have a sort of grid in the background, which apparently Muybridge used to measure precise movements.

From what I’ve read of Muybridge (not a lot), it seems that the inclusion only of female nudes in this selection might be a bit of a misrepresentation. He is more known for studying animal movement, most famously running horses and also took nude male images among his human studies. As presented, it looked as if he was really only interested in the naked female body, which would have been common enough among artists at the time, but this does not seem to have been the case. The liner notes don’t make it very clear whether these images were intended to be seen animated on his “Zoopraxiscope,” but that seems likely, therefore these images can almost be considered “motion pictures,” although they are certainly very simple compared to what would come soon afterward.

Director: Eadweard Muybridge

Camera: Eadweard Muybridge

Run Time: 2 min (as presented)

You can see some examples of Muybridge’s work for free: here.

The Shadow Girl (1902)

I’m sneaking this one into my October “history of horror” because of the “dark” title and because I haven’t gotten to it yet – we have some big ones coming up next year and I may not have the time to get back to these minor trick films. It’s a simple short by Georges Méliès that shows mysterious appearances and disappearances in the context of stage magic.

The scene is set through a standard proscenium-style set showing a stage cluttered with theatrical equipment. A magician (Méliès) and a clown share the stage, and they pull a large white sheet from a basket. They shake it out, and suddenly there is a girl wrapped inside. They unwrap her to reveal her fetching tights and the clown tries to get fresh, causing the girl to run to the other side of the stage and Méliès to kick him in the behind. The clown now brings over a barrel and the magician and the clown hold it upright for the girl to climb through. She goes in, but a (male) clown comes out the other side. He and the magician dance for a moment as the clown brings up a hoop. The new clown jumps through the hoop and transforms again into the girl. The magician gestures her toward a plank at the back of the stage and the film ends.

The Star Films catalog suggests that the movie is cut short with this ending – apparently there is a further trick in which the girl lies on the plank and is made to levitate, then another in which a man and the girl are seen to change places at the wave of a wand. This version is all I could find, however. Another interesting point is that the catalog describes the clown assistant as an “imp,” tying the movie a bit more into the Halloween theme. It’s interesting that the magic tricks we do see focus on gender-swapping, though perhaps this is partly because it was easy to identify the difference between a man in clown makeup and a girl in tights in long shot. This remains an amusing example of the magic shows Méliès used his camera to bring to life, even after more ambitious projects had been successful.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Seine Flood (1910)

This short piece of photojournalism documents a largely forgotten natural disaster, when the Seine river burst its banks and displaced as many as 150,000 Parisians. As a surviving example of actuality film, it gives the modern viewer a glimpse into a disturbance in everyday life of the past century.

The movie consists of several shots of the city of Paris during the days of the flooding. Quite a few shots show us the Seine itself, usually flowing under bridges which are only a few feet from being inundated. As a foreign viewer has no context to know how high the river normally is, however, this is perhaps not as dramatic as the film makers had hoped. We also see a mobile pumping machine, a pipe that is pouring water from the streets beck into the river, and a bit of an industrial dockyard that appears to be quite swamped. The more dramatic images, however, are of wet streets and a partially-submerged park. In some places, we see boards have been set up so that people can get to the bakery for their daily loaf of bread without being soaked to the knees. In another, we see a man pulling a small rowboat, apparently carrying commuters in place of a trolley. There are two horses, valiantly pulling carriages through streets covered in at least a foot of water. There are few intertitles, and where they occur, they mostly identify locations: “The Island Club Courbevoie,” “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” “Molineaux Raliroad Drain Dumps,” “Paris Rue Felicien David Taken by Boat.”

Most of the shots are understandably taken in wide angle, and they tend to show panoramas of the scenes they convey. In some cases, the camera is static, but more often it moves from left to right, allowing us to see the extent of damage or water in a given place. The final shot is taken from a moving boat, essentially a tracking shot of the street. Sullen Parisians look at the camera while being filmed, or else they go about their business. The real interest of this movie is mainly the opportunity to see what Paris looked like at the time. The buildings, clothing styles, and even the lamp posts retain an old-world look, as if the movie could have been taken decades earlier. The only sign of an internal-combustion engine is the pump, and that seems to have been drawn to its position by horsepower. People travel either by boat, by foot, or horse-drawn carriage, although this probably reflects the result of the disaster, rather than the norm of a European city of the time.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 4 Min, 26 secs

I have been unable to find this film available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Stella Maris (1918)

One of Mary Pickford’s biggest hits of 1918 was this drama, in which she not only gets to grow out her perpetual childhood, but also plays dual roles of young girls who become young women. It demonstrates differing audience expectations of the time to our own, especially in terms of “happy endings,” but displays Mary’s talents to their fullest.

At the beginning of the film, Mary’s characters are still in late childhood. The first, the eponymous Stella Maris, is paralyzed and lives in her bed. Fortunately she has been raised by wealthy guardians Sir and Lady Blount (Ida Waterman and Herbert Standing) dedicated to her happiness. Unfortunately, that dedication goes to something of an extreme – Stella is protected from any information about the world that might upset her or make her aware that there is “sorrow, poverty, or death” in the world. This tends to make her a bit spoiled and idealistic. The other young girl is Unity Blake, an orphan in a classically Dickensian orphan house who lives with all of the evils Stella is shielded from. The opulence and beauty of Stella’s world is contrasted with the squalor and hard work of Unity’s in a series of intercut scenes.

In one of these scenes, a prominent relative of the Blounts comes to visit Stella in her room. This young man (Conway Tearle) is referred to as the “Great High Belovedest” and tells her stories of his “castle” where he lives. In reality, he is John Risca, a prominent journalist who hides his alcoholic wife (Marcia Manon) in an apartment. He leaves her because he cannot stand her drinking or her cruelty, but he commits to continuing to support her. She decides to adopt a girl, because servants keep quitting on her and an orphan would have nowhere else to go. Of course, the girl she selects is Unity. Unity is sent over to her home without any guide, and we see her reactions to the world of London – in her way, she is quite as sheltered as Stella. She is quite crushed when she realizes that her new mother intends to give her more work, but no love.

Unity reacts as a customer sends back a steak in a restaurant.

This arrangement doesn’t last long, because one day some street kids steal Unity’s basket of groceries while she is out shopping. When she returns empty-handed, her adoptive mother reacts with rage, beating her to within an inch of her life. The neighbors hear the row, and the police are called. Mrs. Risca is arrested and sentenced to three years imprisonment. In the meanwhile, John agrees to take Unity on, and treats her with kindness and gentleness. They live together with “Aunt Gladys” who wants to punish the child when she lies, but John knows that she lies because she is afraid of getting another beating.

Joining the “family.”

Meanwhile, as the three years pass, Stella Maris is able to get an operation that allows her to walk. She has blossomed into a young adult, and her feelings for the “Great High Blovedest” have matured as well, and appear to be reciprocated. But, when John wishes to confess to her of his previous marriage, he is prevented by Mrs. Blount, who is still trying to protect Stella from knowing about evil. Stella is picking it up on her own, of course, now that she can walk. At one point she asks for “a few thousand pounds” to give to a starving family she sees near the house. Unity has also fallen in love with her new guardian, and tries to overcome her homely looks and poor education to get him to notice her.

Stella decides to go and visit the castle, which she dreams of living in with John. Of course, the limo driver takes her to John’s old address, where the newly released Mrs. Risca is once again residing. She looks about in horror, breaking down into tears when Mrs. Risca reveals who she is. She breaks off relations with John and rages at her family about all of the evil and pain in the world. Unity sees how heartbroken John is from this, and realizes that he will never forget Stella Maris. She also realizes that so long as Mrs. Risca is alive, he will forever be unhappy. She devises a plan and steals one of John’s guns, then uses the key she has kept all these years to the Risca apartment and goes in, threatening Mrs. Risca. When Mrs. Risca responds with more callousness and brutality, she kills her, and then herself.

This, of course, releases John from any obligations. Stella Maris comes to the conclusion that joy and wonder can only exist because there is also pain and evil in the world, and she forgives John and her guardians for lying to her. Aunt Gladys convinces Stella’s wealthy relatives to give John another chance and not think badly about Unity for she helped free him from his abusive wife. John is reunited with Stella and they marry.

I was quite honestly rooting for Unity the whole time, and I was pretty disappointed once I realized that the outcome would be her death and John marrying Stella Maris. Not that I wanted him to marry his adoptive daughter, either (because, ew), but I wanted Unity to realize that there were other possibilities for her happiness and grow up to pursue them. I suspect many modern viewers would respond the same way, but the logic of the time was that Unity had fallen in love with a man “above her station,” and this could only end in tragedy. Of the two characters, I found Unity to be more sympathetic and appealing. Stella is obviously spoiled (through no fault of her own, but still) and her development is far less convincing. She’s mostly there to be sweet and pretty, then to be heartbroken and unreasonable, and finally to provide the standard happy ending for the male lead. She has little sense of agency, and when she does try to do something on her own (feeding the family, for example, or visiting the castle), it is just a reflection of her ignorance.

Mary Pickford plays both roles excellently, however, and this movie decidedly demonstrates her versatility. I must admit with some embarrassment that the first time I watched it I didn’t actually realize she was playing Unity and I went to see who “that actress” was because I thought she had outperformed Mary Pickford! I think it’s a tribute to her and to the director that a modern viewer could be so bamboozled. Lighting choices reinforce the differences, and the different worlds the two girls occupy. The two don’t have a lot of scenes together, and of course “twinning” effects date back to Georges Méliès, so this isn’t so much a measure of special effects as it is of acting. Shots that do have them together are also carried  by the very natural way in which Pickford “talks to herself,” although it’s easy enough to see where the screen has been split.

The film was apparently the second highest-grossing film of the year (records from this period are not precise) and helped solidify Pickford’s already powerful position as a star. It was written for her by her friend Frances Marion and directed by Marshall Neilan, who had also directed “Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,” “The Little Princess,” and later “Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley”  and “M’Liss,” so this movie shows the power Pickford had to choose her productions and her production team. Although we often think of her in terms of her naively innocent characters, like Stella herself, she was a powerful businesswoman, with all the grit of Unity Blake and even the professional acumen of John Risca as well.

Director: Marshall Neilan

Camera:Walter Stradling

Starring: Mary Pickford, Ida Waterman, Herbert Standing, Conway Tearle, Marcia Manon, Josephine Crowell, Teddy the Dog, Gustav von Seyffertitz

Run Time: 1hr, 28 Min

You can watch it for free: here and here (without music) or here (with music).

The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

Winsor McCay, who styled himself the “inventor of animated cartoons,” returns with a much more serious movie than his previous “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur” entries. This time, it’s a propaganda piece about the event that galvanized Americans to war fever – three years after the fact.

As with his previous movies, this begins with some live action images of McCay at work on the project. Although the intertitles make much of the thousands of individual drawings that were created in the making of the film, what we mostly see is McCay researching the event by looking at a big picture of the RMS Lusitania and talking with a man about it. The first bit of animation he shows is simply the ocean waves – an effect he could be justifiably proud of. It looks to me as though he filmed several layers of background waves in order to give the effect of the rolling ocean some degree of three-dimensionality. Then our story begins, with the departure of the Lusitania from port, its sighting of the Irish coast, and the sudden attack of the German U-Boat. We see the explosion and lots of people being lowered in life boats, then a sudden second explosion and the ship’s slow descent into the ocean. All the while, tiny things (presumably human beings) are dropping off of the ship into the ocean. Every now and then we cut to an image of heads bobbing in the water near over-crowded life boats. The intertitles play up the drama and cruelty of the situation, reminding us of mothers drowning with their tiny babies at their breasts, and also showing us a brief gallery of the more famous victims. It ends by reminding us that the Kaiser pinned a medal on the captain of the sub – “AND YET THEY ASK US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

In all, the animation of this movie is adequate, but not terribly exciting from a modern standpoint. The print appears in black and white, as opposed to the hand-painted color of parts of “Little Nemo,” and while that adds to the bleak message, it makes for a visually unsatisfying film. The intertitles come across today as highly jingoistic and naïve, although for that generation they were probably very effective. The Lusitania was their 9/11, after all, and Americans were just as shocked and outraged then as they would be eighty six years later. It took Americans longer to get riled up, in those days – it was two whole years before Woodrow Wilson declared war, after Germany announced in 1917 that it would return to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite all diplomatic efforts in the years since the attack. This partly explains the vehemence of McCay’s intertitles: He was still trying to convince isolationists and apologists for Germany that the cause was right (or at least to drown them out with patriotic cheering). It also took him almost two years to complete the movie, so it isn’t as though he got a sudden whim after the US declared war. The film is therefore an interesting piece of the history of animation, and the history of American attitudes toward war, but it’s not the most interesting movie in itself that McCay ever did.

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Winsor McCay

Run Time: 12 Min

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