Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Triangle Film Corporation

Flirting with Fate (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks is in love again, but this time it’s not going so well, so he decides to off himself. Suddenly, his luck begins to change, but can he avoid the clutches of the assassin he hired to cash himself in?

Flirting_with_FateOur movie begins by introducing Doug in his role as August (“Augy”) Holliday, a starving artist who can “draw anything but a paycheck.” Augy has a couple of “guard dogs” who seem to be trained to chase away landlords and not much else, and a rich friend, played by W.E. Laurence. Laurence stops by and Augy lets him see a picture he’s painted of “the most beautiful girl in the world” – a girl he saw in the park one day, played by Jewel Carmen. Turns out that Laurence knows her family, and he gets Augy invited to a party at their house (and, presumably, provides his down-and-out friend with a tux for the occasion). Augy makes an uneven impression at first on Gladys, but since her aunt is trying to force her into marrying a dull guy with money, she’s a little more interested than she might be. He’s hopelessly smitten, but broke, so he hasn’t a chance with the aunt. Some private collectors offer him $3000 for the painting he did of her, but he can’t part with it, so he goes back to try again. This time, he meets up with one of Gladys’s girlfriends, who agrees to act as a stand-in for Gladys while he rehearses a proposal. Of course, Gladys walks in and sees this and thinks he’s untrue to her, so she runs to the dull guy’s arms, and when Augy sees this, he becomes despondent. Read the rest of this entry »

The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks seems to be channeling his inner Ford Sterling in this unusually broad comedy of drug abuse and seaside hijinks. He plays the detective Coke Ennyday, an obvious parody of Sherlock Holmes, who must investigate an opium-smuggling ring – rather like calling in a cat to investigate a tuna fish theft!

Mystery_of_the_Leaping_FishThe movie begins with Coke Ennyday at home, in his dressing-gown. His clock says “Dope, Drinks, Sleep, Eats” on it. Coke goes ahead and shoots up, and his servant prepares an elaborate drink in the chemical laboratory. Before he can continue with this elaborate schedule, however, a man from the secret service arrives with a job. They’ve discovered a man “rolling in wealth, without any visible means of support” living in “Short Beach” and they want Ennyday to investigate. He needs to take another injection and blow cocaine all over the place before agreeing to the job. After the police constable leaves, he gets up to prepare for going out, removing his dressing gown and revealing the bandolier of syringes beneath. He dressed in matching checkered pants, deerstalker cap, and overcoat and goes out to a checkered car to drive to Short Beach.

Mystery of the Leaping FishThe man “rolling in wealth” meanwhile gets out of bed with some difficulty – he’s buried in dollar notes, and his house is cluttered with the stuff. He tells his servant to “press out a bundle of money” and also gets ready for his day of work. He runs a seaside bath house that rents swimsuits and “leaping fish” (actually inflatable fish that can be used as flotation devices). One of his employees is Bessie Love, known for some reason (ahem!) as the fish-blower. His other employees are swarthy men in yellowface, one of whom demands the fish-blower as payment for his ongoing silence about the real source of the wealthy man’s income. Shortly after he arrives, Ennyday sees the fish-blower in peril in the water, and dives in to save her, winding up face down in the muck. She manages to rescue him with an injection and he finds out about the leaping fish. He rents one to pursue some men (called “Japs” in the intertitles) he saw bringing something in from a boat out at sea. Smugglers!

Mystery of the Leaping Fish1Ennyday’s fish isn’t fast enough, so he injects it with coke and catches up to the smugglers. When they bring in their leaping fish to the bath house, he watches from the rafters (after a typically acrobatic leap) as they pull opium out of the fish. Now he’s onto them! They wrap up the opium and the fish-blower in blankets and head out to a laundry, but Ennyday manages to secure one of their cans of opium and takes it orally, which has the effect of hopping him up even more than all his cocaine. Now he runs out after them and finds the gang in a Chinese laundromat. He fights the gang, bouncing around in his drugged-out state and injecting them one at a time so that they are unable to resist. The fish-blower has managed to beat up her assailant and just needs Ennyday to open the door and let her out the room they locked her in. The police arrive with a Black Maria and take the gang in. Ennyday has saved the day! The movie ends with a brief epilogue showing the script being rejected by the scenario editor.

Mystery of the Leaping Fish2This is easily the wackiest comedy I’ve seen from Douglas Fairbanks. It’s almost a Keystone in its anarchic wildness and satire, and it uses Fairbanks’s acrobatics and physique only slightly. It also has some pretty unfortunate portrayals of Asians, pretty clearly played by white men. The part that will really stand out to modern viewers is its comedic use of drugs, something we associate with much later comedy (think of Cheech and Chong, Richard Pryor, etc.). Drug prohibition was still a fairly new concept and of course there was no Hays Code prohibiting the depiction of drug use at the time, but this is still a very unusual approach to a 1916 comedy. Even Griffith’s depiction of “Dopacoke” wasn’t used for “vulgar” comedic purposes! Apparently Fairbanks himself later regretted making  the movie, and it later became a kind of cult hit. Personally, I didn’t think Fairbanks was all that good in the movie, which really needed someone of the caliber of Sterling or Chaplin to pull off the bizarre material. Fairbanks is a bit too much the all-American nice guy for this kind of satire.

The other reason this movie is notable is that it was apparently written or re-written by Tod Browning, who later went on to direct some of Lon Chaney’s best-known movies, as well as the sound pictures “Dracula” and “Freaks.” Christy Cabanne (who would also work with Bela Lugosi during the sound period) was the original director, but was apparently fired during production and replaced with John Emerson, who brought Browning aboard.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: John W. Leezer

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, Allan Sears, Tom Wilson, William Lowery

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music), or you can rent it online from Flicker Alley at Vimeo: here.

His Picture in the Papers (1916)

Douglas Fairbanks returns in yet another movie in which he must face unbelievable odds and travel immense distances in order to get married. This one takes advantage of his charm and wit, and occasional doses of his physical prowess, to get a good number of laughs from the audience.

His_Picture_in_the_Papers_PosterDoug plays Pete Prindle, first son and heir of Proteus Prindle (Clarence Handyside), the magnate behind “Prindle’s Products,” a line of unappetizing vegetarian goods. One of Prindle’s “disciples” (and, evidently, employees), is a fellow named Cassius Cadwalader (Charles Butler). His young daughter, Christine, (Loretta Blake) is of marrying age, but she doesn’t seem to like the thin, effeminate specimens he brings home; it’s very important that she marry a vegetarian, you see. Pete and Christine run into one another at a non-vegetarian restaurant and share a steak together – they both share the secret of rejecting their families’ diet. But, when Pete asks to marry her, Cassius tells him he must prove his worth by getting a 50% interest in the Prindle empire, and his father tells him the only way that will happen is if he gets out and gets some publicity for the company. His daughters have managed to get a story in a Vegetarian Journal, why isn’t he in the news, too?

Doug's got an idea. Watch out, world!

Doug’s got an idea. Watch out, world!

So, Pete sets out to get himself into the papers. First, he fakes an automobile accident, but only gets a small mention, not a picture. Next, he wins a boxing match, but the police raid it before any of the photographers can submit their pictures. Then, he has the bright idea of telling the papers he was miraculously cured of being an “invalid” by taking a competitor’s product – that only gets dad madder at him. Finally, trying to cadge a dollar for a fortune teller from a buddy in a men’s club, he winds up hungover in his pajamas in Atlantic City and gets into a brawl with some policemen, but his name is withheld.

Really, it could happen to anyone!

Really, it could happen to anyone!

While all of this is going on, a gang of hoodlums (one of whom is Erich von Stroheim, still new to America at the time) is trying to threaten Cadwalader for protection money. Cadwalader doesn’t think a Prindle’s man should back down so he has the police arrest one gang member, and when another one stabs him in the chest he’s defended by his trusty tin of Prindle’s lentils that he always carries. His daughter insists on hiring detectives, so from this point he’s constantly surrounded by four of them. One gang member tries throwing a bomb, but gets blown up himself. Now Prindle orders him to go down to Atlantic City to check on a shipment of Prindle’s Products that got delayed, and the gang devises a plan to crash his train.

His Picture in the Papers2Of course, Pete is walking along that very line, and catches sight of a railman they’ve disabled in order to pull the switch that will crash the train. Without knowing who he’s saving, he heroically dashes in and fights off the gang, finding the missing railroad car and using Prindle’s Products as weapons. The next day the headlines trumpet his saving one thousand people and capturing the crooks. He and Christine kiss behind a paper.

His Picture in the Papers3It’s interesting to note how often Doug plays the spoiled son of a wealthy man (even in “The Matrimaniac,” he’s rich and unmarried, although we never see his father) who has to make good somehow. I’ve really come to enjoy the style of humor of these early Douglas Fairbanks movies. In this case, the intertitles are the source of much of the humor, but they seem to match up with the wry grins and attitude of Doug himself. A lot of the humor is at the expense of vegetarianism, which actually makes it seem more relevant today than a lot of century comedies (remember, vegetarians, these products have come a long way in 100 years!). Doug climbs up a building to visit his sweetie’s balcony, and he also boxes, wrestles a goat, beats up two policemen, and swims ashore from a cruise liner. At one point, he is thrown off of a train because his ticket apparently specifies that he is a “fat man with whiskers.” That’s why he attacks the goat – he needs the whiskers! Much of this movie was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, but there are some recognizable shots of New York City (especially Grand Central Station) and the Atlantic City boardwalk (the one the property in Monopoly is named for!). There is good editing and shot composure, and a strong use of close-ups. The one scene that puzzled me was the boxing scene, which looked like it had been shot for Edison in 1896. The camera never moved, there were no cuts, and the whole fight was shot at such a distance that I couldn’t tell the boxers apart. Overall, it’s a very enjoyable movie, and the Flicker Alley version comes with a lively score by Frederick Hodges.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: George W. Hill

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Loretta Blake, Clarence Handyside, Charles Butler, Erich von Stroheim

Run Time: 1 Hr, 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music). For music, head on over to Flicker Alley and rent it, cheap!

The Matrimaniac (1916)

Matrimaniac2This short comedy feature stars Douglas Fairbanks in the kind of vehicle he would be known for before he reinvented himself as an action-adventure star. It’s a movie that emphasizes situation for its silliness, but still allows Doug to show off his physical prowess in stunts and derring-do.

MatrimaniacDoug Fairbanks is determined to get married. Lucky for him, Constance Talmadge (sister of Norma) is just as interested in marrying him. Unlucky for him, her father has already picked another suitor (Clyde E. Hopkins) and has her licked in her room. So, it’s up to Doug to come up with an increasingly wacky elopement scheme and escape with her. Much of this movie plays like “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” with Doug and a preacher (Fred Warren) trying to catch up by any means they can with the train Constance with Constance and the would-be-son-in-law. They wind up on a railway cart, a burro, and finally another train before they get there, but then they have to avoid the “officers of the court” who Dad has called in to serve an injunction to stop the wedding! This movie has all of the elements of the later 1930s “screwball comedies,” including mistaken identities, people getting thrown in jail for the wrong reasons, and plenty of fast talking deal-making, plus Fairbanks’s remarkable athletic abilities, to make for a great silent situation comedy.

No time to get dressed, this is a wedding!

No time to get dressed, this is a wedding!

Fairbanks, avoiding the court officers, climbs up the side of a jailhouse, leaps from one rooftop to another, and also climbs along some telephone wires, performing a bit of a high-wire act up there. Actually, we saw Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle do something similar in “Fatty’s Tintype Tangle” last year – and, if nothing else the camera angle in that one made it clear that he really was high above the ground. Fairbanks is rather less athletic on the wires than Arbuckle was, and from what we see, the whole thing might’ve been faked. What definitely isn’t faked is some scenes which involve him and the preacher being thrown off, jumping onto, or climbing underneath (!) moving trains. Having had some experience train-hopping, I know how dangerous this is, and it would not have been possible to fake it at the time. Doug’s lucky to have kept all his appendages intact.

NOT her boyfriend.

NOT her boyfriend.

Constance Talmadge also acquits herself well in this movie as a somewhat spoiled rich girl who’s used to getting her own way. Some of her best parts come when she’s cutting down the man daddy wants her to marry. When he’s checking them into a hotel, intending to hold Constance until she changes her mind, the clerk asks, “And is this your fiancé?” To which Constance responds, “What, that?” The look on her face is deliciously chilly. She can also be somewhat domineering toward Doug. After going to some lengths to change clothes with a maid and escape the hotel, she arrives at the jail and find he isn’t there (he’s busy leaping from rooftops a block or so away). She declares that he can come get her when he’s ready, and stalks back to her hotel room! I was sort of hoping that the maid and the faux beaux would get together in the end – they both seemed like such easy-going people by comparison.

Matrimaniac5What really makes this, and other Fairbanks comedies, work, is that Doug is so obviously enjoying every minute of it. I recommend it as a change of pace from slapstick comedies, or to demonstrate to your friends that not all silent comedians were constantly hitting one another. I actually think I may have laughed out loud at this at least as many times, if not more, than the last Chaplin film I watched – and that’s saying something!

Matrimaniac3Director: Paul Powell

Camera: Victor Fleming

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Constance Talmadge, Clyde E. Hopkins, Fred Warren

Run Time: 45 Min

I have not found this available for free on the Internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

Waiters’ Ball (1916)

This short for TriangleKeystone stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and his real-life nephew Al St. John as rivals, in this case, not for a girl’s heart, but for a suit of clothes. The competition is no less riotous and ridiculous for the change of prize.

Waiters BallThe setting is a short-order eatery where Al is a waiter and Fatty is the cook. There are signs on the wall saying “Not responsible for chewing gum under the table” and “Take your own hat – the other fellow needs his.” The customers are regularly abused and ignored. Fatty pours soup and coffee from the same urn, and once again does his famous pancake flip – with his feet, with a broom, with anything at hand. Al is apparently sweet on the cashier (Corinne Parquet) and shows her an ad for “The Waiters’ Ball,” due to take place that evening. At first she is thrilled, but then she shows him the line stating “Full Dress Required.” Does he have a formal suit? Al’s face falls; no, he doesn’t. But, he promises to come up with something. There are several comic sequences that do nothing to further the plot, including an old man with a foot in a cast that keeps getting stepped on, a “broom war” between Fatty and Al that starts out with the dusting-into-the-next-room routine we saw Charlie Chaplin do in “The Bank,” a limburger cheese order that tries to crawl away on its own, and a very active leaping fish that Fatty needs to get into a pot of boiling water.

Waiters'_Ball_1916Finally, the dry cleaning man arrives, with Fatty’s suit and the owner’s (Kate Price) dress. Fatty shows how excited he is to be going to the ball, but this gives Al an idea. He starts a fight and chases Fatty with a knife. When he has Fatty cornered in a barrel, he sticks the knife in, finishing off his foe once and for all. “This act suits him,” the Intertitles tells us, and Al takes Fatty’s suit and leaves. Then Fatty climbs out of the barrel, holding a head of lettuce with a knife jammed into it. He used this to survive Al’s attack. When he discovers his suit missing, he decides to put on Kate’s dress and go after Al. The next scene shows Fatty in full drag, making quite a hit at the party. He seems at first to be enjoying herself so much, that he’s forgotten about finding her suit. But, then he sees Al, in ridiculously oversized clothes, drinking at the bar from a ridiculously oversized glass. Suddenly, it’s on! The two of them begin a twirling fight, Fatty hanging on to Al’s jacket while ill-fitting clothes fly off of each of them. It ends with the two of them in their underwear, a Keystone Cop taking them in with barrels covering their nudity.

Waiters Ball1The DVD commentary on my copy of this said that this is a “truncated version,” suggesting that we might be missing some of the more relevant material. As it is, most of the movie is just gags at the diner, and only about the last four minutes is at the eponymous ball. A lot of those gags have been used before: I spotted at least two other Chaplin bits besides the dueling sweeping routine, and the commentators kept referencing Arbuckle’s “The Cook,” which I haven’t seen. That’s not to say that it isn’t funny: the fish sequence is particularly good, and Alice Lake has a good part as a female customer who keeps sitting at the wrong table. The cinematography is by Elgin Lessley, who did some interesting work for Arbuckle in “He Did and He Didn’t,” but seems more pedestrian here. It’s also of note that Triangle had bought out Keystone at this point in time, and was putting out Keystone comedies with its own label. Mack Sennett would stay on for another year before starting “Mack Sennett Comedies Corporation” in 1917.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Al St. John, Corinne Parquet, Kate Price, Alice Lake, Joe Bordeaux

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (Intertitles have been translated to Russian).

Reggie Mixes In (1916)

This early feature starring Douglas Fairbanks demonstrates his continuing development of his screen persona after “The Lamb” and his ability as both an actor and an acrobat. Produced by D.W. Griffith’s Fine Arts Film Company and directed by longtime Griffith associate and repeat Fairbanks director W. Christy Cabanne, it also shows the adaptation of the “gangster movie” to Fairbanks’s particular mix of action and comedy.

Reggie_Mixes_In1Fairbanks begins the movie, as he does in “The Lamb” (and the later “Wild and Woolly”) as a young, athletic, and handsome heir to a fortune with no particular ambitions in life. We see him sleeping in till noon and being harassed by his butler (who he calls “Old Pickleface”) to get up for breakfast. Once out of bed, he leaps over a table and does headstands, just to make sure we know he can. He takes a call from his girlfriend, a very posh-looking Alma Rubens, under his blanket in bed. She’s coming over for a party later, which motivates him to get dressed for company. At the party, she flirts with another man, but doesn’t accept his proposal for marriage, to Doug’s relief. Doug then proposes, and she accepts – Intertitles tell us that she was always more interested in his money – and he seems to have second thoughts.

Later, Doug and Old Pickleface are out for a drive and find a waif in the gutter who says she’s “losted.” Charmed, Doug pulls her aboard the car and drives her to her tenement home. We see him play with the child and try to break up a domestic squabble before he sees the girl of his dreams come down the stairs. It’s Bessie Love (still a teenager at the time), who is dancing at a place called “Gallagher’s” for pay. Of course, Doug decides he’s going to need to pay a visit, and he’s smart enough to dress down a bit to make the right impression. Despite this, he drags Old Pickleface along, maybe for moral support. They manage to get served, after Doug stops being polite and pounds his fist on the bar, and they meet the bouncer, who decides they’re OK. Tony, the head of the gas house gang (William Lowry), comes in and demonstrates his ability to push patrons around, and the bouncer talks tough but takes no action. When Tony tries to make a move on Bessie, she shows more interest in getting to know Doug at first. But when Tony roughs up the bouncer and another gangster fires his gun, Doug leaps up to hide in chandelier, and Bessie concludes that he’s chicken. He proves her wrong later by chasing the gangsters away when they try to strongarm Bessie into a car. After this display, the owner of the dance hall hires Doug to be his new bouncer, now he has an excuse to come by every night and get to know Bessie.

Reggie_Mixes_In_(1916)_1He gets a good reputation at the bar for keeping order, and is able to fend off several efforts by the gang to put him out of the way. In one case, Doug climbs the front of a building to leap down on his assailant in an alley. Meanwhile, his Aunt is of course worried about the company he’s keeping and his neglect of his regular social calendar. He comes to a costume ball with his old crowd, dressed up as a bouncer from a dance hall, and gets complimented on his originality when he shows off the dance moves he’s learned on the job. He again sees Alma with her boyfriend, and now he gets the picture and shuns her company. She sends him a note remonstrating against his neglect, which Doug foolishly leaves on a table for Bessie to find. The gangsters make another play for her and when he intervenes, Tony challenges him to a one-on-one fight in a locked room, instructing his sidekick to scrag Doug with a “gat” should he fail, The fight involves several chairs thrown out windows and broken tables, and Doug gets his clothes torn up, but emerges a victor. Before the other gangster can shoot him, the owner shuts off the lights and Doug escapes with Bessie out a broken window. The police raid the joint and presumably take several gangsters into custody.

Finally, Doug has to figure out how to marry the girl he loves. He arranges to send a false note telling her she has inherited $100,000 so that she’ll come to a party at his Aunt’s house. He meets her outside in his bouncer clothes and asks if she would marry him and leave all this wealth behind. She says yes. Then, he sneaks into the house and puts on his tuxedo. While Bessie is trying to get out to meet her sweetheart the Aunt says “You must meet my nephew, Reggie.” Now she sees him in his real clothes and true element, and he knows that she’d marry him whether he had money or not. They live, as we assume, happily ever after, once Doug explains that she isn’t really an heiress.

Reggie_Mixes_InThis movie has somewhat more of Fairbanks’s signature stuntwork and fighting than “The Lamb” did – presumably audiences were coming to expect it by now. I particularly enjoy his penchant for going up (chandeliers, buildings) when people expect him to run or fight. He obviously enjoys his acrobatics, he always has a gleeful smile on his face when he gets to do one of these moves. The story here is pretty contrived, and even for 1916, the characters and situations are cliché. The fact that it’s at least half comedic makes up for this to some degree. I was surprised by the sparseness of the sets, particularly in the “rich” setting of Reggie’s Aunt’s mansion, and there are very few camera movements or other creative uses of the space. It didn’t help that the print I saw was old and washed out. There are a lot of close-ups, however, and we see good use of inter-cutting at moments of emotional impact, as when Bessie finds Alma’s love note. Perhaps not a major contribution to the cinematic art, this is a good piece of light entertainment with a talented performer at its center.

Director: W. Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Bessie Love, Alma Rubens, William Lowry, Joseph Singleton, Tom Wilson, Allan Sears

Run Time: 45 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please let me know in the comments.

He Did and He Didn’t (1916)

A lot has been made of this “dark” comedy by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, which definitely has a more sophisticated tone than most of the work he did for Keystone Studios. However, it does manage to remain silly and even resort to slapstick for laughs, even as it plumbs the depths of spousal jealousy in a far more serious way than the usual “park comedy.”

He Did and He DidntIn this movie, Fatty and Mabel Normand are once again a couple, as they were often in the teens. This time, however, they are wealthy enough to have servants, and we are introduced to them as they struggle into their evening clothes. Fatty has a good deal of trouble with his collar and tie, and Mabel needs help with her zipper. Despite what has been written about the somber tone of the movie, this sequence establishes it as a comedy, with people confronted by day-to-day problems, but making it worse by getting more frustrated as they go. Next, we meet Jack (William Jefferson), who apparently grew up with Mabel. He produces a picture from “when they were sweethearts” – apparently when Mabel was in her tweens. Fatty is obviously uncomfortable with the newcomer, and he becomes so disturbed that he rips the photograph when Jack is not present. He then realizes what he’s done and apologizes to Mabel, but we know the issue is far from settled.

He Did and He Didnt1As it happens, a pair of burglars (Al St. John and Joe Bordeaux) are casing the place for potential robbery. Joe even comes in and goes through the motions of having a checkup, in order to get a chance to see where the safe is kept. Fatty catches him snooping and throws him out. Then it’s time for dinner. The dinner consists of lobster, and an Intertitle reminds us that eating bad lobster may have unfortunate effects, while the camera shows Fatty becoming increasingly concerned about Jack and Mabel. The thieves make a phone call to the house, calling Fatty across town for a housecall, believing that will leave the loot undefended. He is suspicious, and not at all eager to leave his wife alone with Jack, but nevertheless goes. Bordeaux and St. John enter the house unobserved. Now the action follows Jack, who is no dummy, and plans to stay away from Mabel while Fatty is away to keep the peace. To his surprise, Mabel comes to him in her nightclothes, and leans in close, seeming to intend to initiate romance. She whispers in his ear that there’s someone in her room, and he goes to investigate, finding a robber. Now the classic slapstick Keystone chase begins in earnest, with St. John showing off his athletic talents and his rubbery lanky body to the fullest as Jefferson chases him, firing a revolver wildly around the house. By the time Fatty returns, he has chased the robbers out, dropped his revolver, and tucked an unconscious Mabel in bed. Of course, that last is what Fatty finds on return from a phony address, and he shoots Jack and strangles his wife…

Or does he? We now see Jack and Fatty, waking up each alone in his room, suffering the effects of eating bad lobster.

He Did and He Didnt2There’s no denying that the subject matter here is not as light as most slapstick comedies, but I do think a bit too much is sometimes read into that. Possibly Arbuckle wanted to make a dark film, or at least a genuine melodrama, but his bosses at Keystone wouldn’t allow it. The ending obviously undermines the horror of seeing him kill innocent people, but more than that we have considerable high-energy slapstick and deliberate humor. The dinner is the sequence that is “darkest” to me, with the fewest interruptions for laughs, and it displays the competence of Elgin Lessley, who I believe was working with Arbuckle for the first time, in placing strategic shadows to enhance the mood. Another Lessley shot I appreciated was one in which the burglar comes into a dark room, with the only lighting source being the hallway behind him – usually Keystone houses are floodlit throughout. The DVD I watched had two versions, one with color tinting used to heighten the mood, based on the original release instructions. The color also added to the sense of artistry and deliberation of the film. We also see more close-ups in this movie, particularly of the brooding Fatty as he watches his wife with her old friend.

Elgin Lessley on set for "He Did and He Didn't"

Elgin Lessley on set for “He Did and He Didn’t”

This is interesting stuff, but it winds up being anomalous in a movie that can’t quite decide if it’s dark or light. “Silent Volume” has an interpretation of this film that suggests Fatty was demonstrating the horror of an abusive relationship, but this seems to me to be a very modern interpretation, not something that a comedian would have invented then. If anything, Fatty may be showing his real nature accidentally, not acting, in this movie. In previous cases, what he does here largely came off as cute, and his baby face still undermines the sense of him as a bad guy. It’s important to remember that spouses hitting one another and being controlling is a staple of slapstick, and we’ve seen it between this couple many times. Normally, this doesn’t extend to strangulation, but up to that point the movie only strays slightly off the established patterns of previous shorts. I’m inclined to read it as an experiment that failed, though perhaps your mileage will vary.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: Elgin Lessley

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, William Jefferson, Joe Bordeaux, Al St. John

Run Time: 20 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music, b&w) or here (with music and tinting).

The Lamb (1915)

Douglas Fairbanks plays the soon-to-be-familiar role of a spoiled rich kid who has to prove himself a man in this early feature, written by D.W. Griffith and released by Triangle Film Corporation. Griffith’s new protégé, W. Christy Cabanne, directed, and we see some of the same problems as in “Martyrs of the Alamo,” in spite of the charming star.

LambFairbanks plays “the Lamb,” a rich kid whose father recently passed on. He is in love with Mary (Seena Owen)allowing the Intertitles to riff on “Mary Had a Little Lamb”, and he proposes to her at a fashionable society party held by his domineering mother. She accepts, and all seems well until Bill Cactus (Alfred Paget), a “Goat from Arizona,” arrives and turns Mary’s head with his firm handshake. Things only get worse when they all visit the seaside together and spot a drowning woman crying for help. The Goat leaps into action, discarding his jacket and swimming out to save her while the Lamb looks passively on. Now Mary has made up her mind: she needs a real man, and she heads out West with the Goat for an extended stay at his ranch. The Lamb, heart-broken, starts taking boxing lessons and Jiu Jitsu, to his mother’s obvious displeasure. Just as she’s getting ready to put a stop to all this, the Lamb gets a letter from the Goat, asking him to join them in Arizona, and he rushes out to the car to catch the train.

Lamb1The train lets him off for a tourist jaunt, similar to what we saw with Mabel Normand in “The Tourists,” and, of course, he misses his train, getting bilked by a couple of Indians for a blanket and some beads, and then gets shanghaied by a couple of white guys with a car who promise to help him catch up with the train, but club him and dump him in the desert. When he wakes up, he’s chased by rattlesnakes, cougars, and horned toads. Then, an airplane from the Goat’s ranch crashes down nearby and he thinks he’s saved, but the pilot and the Lamb are both taken prisoner by a desperate band of Indian rebels (the intertitles call them “half-caste” and “Yaqui” interchangeably. Most of them are white men in darkface). The rebels have recently captured a machine gun from the Mexican army and are feeling their oats, hoping to extort more money from the Lamb. Meanwhile, the rich folks from the ranch come looking for their pilot, but Mary gets separated and is also captured and threatened with rape. The Lamb manages to break his bonds during a counter-attack by the Mexicans and we see a bit of Fairbanksian swashbuckling before he gets to Mary, who refuses to be rescued by a coward (!). He drags her outside and commandeers the machine gun, cutting down huge numbers of rebels, but he runs out of bullets. Fortunately, the ranch-set have gone to a nearby US barracks and the Cavalry ride in to the rescue. Mary is convinced that her Lamb is a hero and all ends well, for everyone but the rebels.

Lamb2The problem with this movie, as with so much of the Western material from this period is its extreme racism. The rebels are dehumanized and made to look both evil and ridiculous, while the white woman is once again held up as the pure flower of innocence, while the US Cavalry is shown as the heroic forces of order and decency. I blame Griffith’s influence, although this movie is better than “Birth of a Nation” or “The Martyrs of the Alamo,” which Cabanne would direct just two months later. I was impressed by the frequent use of close-ups and the complex cutting within scenes, as well as the classic inter-cutting between scenes to raise tension, now a long-established Griffith technique. There’s also some simple camera pans and tilts, to keep actors centered, and a generally more “cinematic,” less “stagey” approach to the cinematography than in “Martyrs,” although we have the same cameraman, William Fildew, behind the lens. Maybe they gave him more time for this one.

Lamb3Fairbanks is enjoyable, despite his character’s flaws and the flaws in the movie overall. I haven’t seen an earlier performance by him, but he already seems to be comfortable doing the kind of comedy-action picture he would become famous for. If this really was a debut role (I can’t find an earlier one on imdb, but that’s not definitive), it’s interesting because it seems to me that the audience would be hungry to see some heroics by the time he finally does break them out in the final scene. That kind of risk would be more logical for an established star, where the audience thinks, “well, it’s him, he’ll pay off sooner or later.” In a couple of years, we’ll see him pull off a similar, but funnier, character and situation in “Wild and Woolly.”

Lamb4One last thing to mention about this movie is the martial arts sequence, including an instructor with Asian features. I’ve seen various movies (mostly from the 60’s) touted as the “first” movie to include martial arts. Sorry, folks, Douglas Fairbanks beat you all to the punch, or rather the flip.

Director: Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Cast: Douglas Fairbanks, Seena Owen, Alfred Paget, Kate Toncray, Monroe Salisbury

Run Time: 56 Min

I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you can, let me know in the comments.

The Coward (1915)

Given that this Civil War drama came out in November, 1915, it’s pretty inevitable that comparisons will be made to “The Birth of a Nation.” The Silent Era even goes so far as to say that this movie, produced by Thomas Ince and directed by Reginald Barker (the same team that gave us “The Italian” at the beginning of the year) was “made to capitalize on the success of” the better-known D.W. Griffith production. Maybe, but it’s worth noting that Ince had already produced several other Civil War movies in recent years, in honor of the fiftieth anniversary of that conflict, and that plot-wise, it owes very little to the Griffith spectacular.

cowardThe story centers around the Virginia family of one retired Col. Winslow (Frank Keenan). Winslow had sent a letter offering his own services, and that of his son, to the authorities on hearing of the outbreak of war, but receives a reply stating that they cannot accept such a sacrifice from a man of his advanced years. This leaves his son, Frank (Charles Ray), who is out in the park looking at birdies with his girlfriend when all of his friends rush off to enlist. The girl drags him to the recruiting office, but he bolts before signing up. Apparently, he has a crushing fear that he might be a coward, and so tries to avoid situations that might put his courage to the test. When his dad finds out, he is furious, and forces the boy to sign up, threatening him with a revolver and reminding him of the family name. The first night he is on patrol, Frank panics at the sound of a cow crashing through the fields, and loses his gun before almost blundering into the Union patrol. He hides in a freezing-cold river and manages to evade capture, then runs home, where his (black-face) servants feed him and put him to bed. Of course, dad finds out that he deserted his post and is deeply shamed. His response? “The name of private Winslow is on their rolls, and someone must answer,” he tells his wife before going off to take Frank’s place as a private in the Confederate Army (you’d think someone would notice that Frank got really old overnight, but whatever).

Coward_(1915_film)When the Union army takes over the town, they commandeer the Winslow place as a headquarters. Frank again panics and hides in the attic, while his mother and servants have to feed and otherwise serve the officers and men. The officers discuss their tactical situation while Frank listens from the attic, discovering that they have a weakness in their center which cannot be built up for at least 24 hours, but will be fine so long as the South does not attack during that time. Frank is suddenly seized with patriotism and decides to bring this information to his compatriots at arms. He attacks a guard and steals his uniform and weapons, then breaks into the conference room, taking the map and cleverly escaping by shooting out the candles, then hiding under the table while all the officers run around like ninnies in the dark. He steals a horse and makes a break for the Confederate lines, with a squad of soldiers on his heels. His father is on patrol, and, seeing a Union soldier dashing toward their lines, shoots him at a distance. He falls back into the freezing river, but makes his way in toward camp. When he is captured by Confederate soldiers (he’s still in Union Blues, remember), he insists on seeing the Commanding Officer and gives his information. An attack is ordered and a bloody battle follows, in which his father proves his courage by taking the flag when the current flag bearer runs away, continuing to fire his pistol while waving it. The battle is victorious, but Frank, wounded by his father’s bullet, lies inconsolable in bed. The officer he reported to orders “private Winslow” to come see his son, but he insists he has no son until he learns that Frank is responsible for the victory Finally, the old soldier takes his wounded son in his arms and weeps.

Shuddup, Meathead!

Shuddup, Meathead!

Now, this movie shares some of the problems of “Birth of a Nation.” For example, it is based in an understanding that its audience will sympathize with the “lost cause” of the South and romanticism of Southern concepts of honor and family duty. Modern audiences will be more alarmed by the use of blackface for the servants – the maid is passably like Hattie McDaniel, but the butler looks like Archie Bunker in the episode of “All in the Family” when he participated in a Minstrel Show. But, unlike “Birth,” this movie is not a glorification of the Southern cause nor a deliberate distortion of the history of its occupation. It is a character study of one young man’s fear – he could as easily have been fighting for the other side without making any changes in the story. The Union officers are not rapacious fiends; they treat the civilians with respect even though it is clearly a burden for them to have their house commandeered. The code of honor which requires such brutality from the father is not being held up as a noble ideal, it is rather the premise within which Frank must work out his psychological drama.

Coward2The movie is at its best dealing with these psychological questions. Barker makes frequent use of close-ups to show us the turmoil of father and son, and also intercuts with close-ups (for example on the father’s pistol when he forces his son to enlist) that escalate the drama. This is not surprising, since he made such good use of close-ups in “The Italian.” On the other hand, the battle sequences are nowhere near as effective as those in “Birth,” mostly they consist of a lot of smoke and people running around; very little of the drama is worked out in the action scenes. The pursuit of Frank on horseback is somewhat more effectively done, however. Much of the movie seemed slow to me, often when it was very obvious what the emotional moment was we had to wait for several visual exchanges between the actors and an intertitle before we could move on to the next situation. Nevertheless, perhaps in part because of the tension this generated, I did find it emotionally satisfying at the end to see the two men reconciled. I couldn’t help thinking, however, about the defeat they were bound to share in coming years, and wondering whether Frank had actually extended the bloody conflict by bravely causing the Union setback.

Director: Reginald Barker

Camera: Joseph H. August, Robert S. Newhard

Cast: Frank Keenan, Charles Ray, Gertrude Claire, Nick Cogley

Run Time: 1 hour, 17 Min

I cannot find this movie for free on the Internet, if you find it, please let us know in the comments.

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

One of the great things about this project is how much I learn as I do it. The thing about learning so much is that I’m constantly discovering that I was wrong in my assumptions when I started. Towards the beginning of the blog, I wrote a piece on “Studios in 1914.” I didn’t really say anything that was inaccurate then, but I had based it on a somewhat inaccurate theory. My idea was that since moving pictures were so new, there would only be a fairly limited number of companies involved in making them. This idea was reinforced by familiarity with the later Studio System, in which a small group of big players dominated and made it hard for anyone start a new company, and by the knowledge that the Edison Trust was fighting hard to keep competition to a minimum.

Now, that all makes sense, but it’s just not how things were at all. Turns out that there were dozens of small-to-mid-sized operations at any given time, especially once the Nickelodeons got up and running. In fact, what really created the major studios of the future was the consolidation and selling of these little guys to one another. The studios we know about, like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, are actually conglomerates of several smaller businesses that unified in order to gain distribution opportunities. Keeping track of the buyouts and mergers gets dizzying, but also adds to our understanding of the history of the movies.

With all that in mind, this post makes no claim to give a complete picture of all the studios and production companies in operation in 1915. Instead, I’m going to give a partial snapshot of some of the companies I missed last year, along with an update on some of the more interesting ones I did cover.

Since I already mentioned them, let’s start with an update on the Edison Trust. We could see it as sort of a failed prototype for those mega-conglomerates I talked about above, because it’s not one company, but several, who up to now have claimed to “license” all legitimate motion pictures in America. Well, in the trust-busting environment of the time, it was fighting for its existence in court, and wound up losing in October, when a federal court ruled it an “illegal restraint of trade.” After that point, there was an appeal, but no one took the Trust seriously anymore, and it finally disbanded in 1918. This also led to the end of their distribution network, the General Film Company (which was not a producer, as I wrongly stated last year).

Things aren’t much better at the Biograph Company at this time. They were a part of the trust, so this litigation hurt them, too, but they were already crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and his stock company of actors and cameramen in 1913. By 1915, they were reduced to issuing reissues of classic Griffith shorts, along with longer pieces by him they had let sit on the shelf as punishment for trying to force them to release feature films. While these proved more popular than their dwindling new material, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, and it closed its doors before the year was out.

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

You might think that Keystone Studios would have suffered as badly after letting Charlie Chaplin walk out at the end of 1914, but Mack Sennett continued to produce cheap, popular comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops. also striking on the idea of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” this year, who became a hit, even if not as big a hit as Chaplin was. Keystone joined Griffith and Thomas Ince in the new Triangle Film Corporation, which marketed itself as the “upscale” artistic movie distributor.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had moved over to Essanay Studios, who promised him $1000 a week. By the end of the year, this was not enough for the star and he moved again, but not before producing great films like “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen” which showed his improvement as a director and maturity as a comedian. Essanay’s name was a play on S&A, after its founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was also known as “Broncho Billy,” and was star of hundreds of Western shorts. During 1915, they also signed Francis X. Bushman, a talented actor on his way to stardom.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Cecil B. DeMille was making a name for himself over at Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company. This company is one of the (many) tributaries that eventually merged into Paramount Studios, but came from humble beginnings. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille had made “The Squaw Man” from a barn near Los Angeles – which neither had visited before they started working there. In 1915, they brought out great work like “The Cheat” and “The Golden Chance.”

The last American company I want to talk about is the Mutual Film Corporation, which brought out “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 through one of its subsidiaries, Reliance-Majestic Studios. While “Birth” was a huge hit, Mutual had some problems, including litigation and censorship. Mutual’s name is on the landmark case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not subject to First Amendment protections. This, along with the defection of Reliance-Mutual to co-found Triangle later in the year, was a major setback, but they won a major coup in hiring Chaplin when he left Essanay, and today they are associated with most of his most popular shorts.

Again, this blog has a tendency to be more American-centric than I really want (that’s “where the light is better,” in film history, I’m afraid). But, let’s spend a little time catching up on some companies working in other countries.

In Russia we have Khanzhonkov Studios, which I’ve sung the praises of in connection with Evgeni Bauer and his fascinating films. Khanzhonkov also had animation pioneer Ladislav Starevich, who I hope to bring to this blog in coming months. Its owners were Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and Vasily Gonchorov, who had made the nationalist hit “Defense of Sevastopol” in 1911. They seem to have valued directors more than most American concerns, and made Bauer a partner in the concern, rather than argue with him over his pay.

In Germany there’s Messter Film, which later would be absorbed into the German film powerhouse UFA. Unlike France, which largely abandoned film production during the First World War, for Germany this was a time of increased production. At this time, Messter’s employees included Robert Wiene, future director of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

In Japan, which is regrettably unrepresented on my blog so far, the company Nikkatsu has been in business since 1912, when it was formed from a merger of several smaller studios. I believe Shozo Makino was working there in 1915, although at this time he’s in between remakes of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” probably Japan’s most frequently remade film story. Japan’s film industry had an interesting appendage at this time, the benshi, or narrator, who would appear at screenings to explain what was happening on the screen. These men were often bigger stars than the actors in the movies at the time.