Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Tt

Trial Marriages (1907)

This short from Biograph draws from then-recent controversy in the news to create a rather over-the-top slapstick comedy. Unfortunately, it also demonstrates the weak production values at the studio prior to the arrival of D.W. Griffith.

A man is shown in medium-shot, reading a newspaper. Whatever he reads causes him to grin, and then to erupt in laughter. The next shot shows an insert of a (real) newspaper headline: “Mrs. Parsons Advises Trial Marriages.” What follows is a sequence of such “trials” on the part of the man, who we now presume is a bachelor looking forward to enjoying a string of low-commitment affairs. The first is labeled “The Crying Girl” in a forward-facing intertitle. The scene is set as the girl, apparently reading the same article in a newspaper, confers with her father in a small apartment. The father appears happy to have her off his hands, and he invites the bachelor in and introduces them, encouraging his daughter when she pulls back a bit in the initial handshake. Then he leaves the young people alone. The bachelor makes what efforts he can to woo her, but ultimately it is the father who returns and proudly shakes hands with him. After an edit, we see their home life, evidently in the same apartment. The girl cannot stop crying. The former bachelor tries to calm her, but eventually becomes annoyed and she runs offstage, soon to be replaced by her father, who angrily seizes the man and beats him, ultimately throwing him through the window.

The second affair is with “The Jealous Girl.” This “girl” appears a bit older, and their romance is comparably affectionate, she throws her arms gleefully around him when he proposes. An edit takes us again to their home life, this time showing a dining room in what looks like a comfortable home. There is a maid, who brings out a service with tea and food. The wife looks disapprovingly as she serves her husband. After she leaves briefly, the man moves to the maid, holding her shoulders and speaking softly. The wife comes back in and goes ballistic, throwing everything on the table at her husband, hitting him with a chair, and turning over the furniture. The next sequence is “The Tired Girl.” This time, we skip the romantic scene and begin in what seems a relatively squalid combined living-dining room. The man is running a floor sweeper across the floor, while the woman (the youngest-looking so far) reclines on a divan. She occasionally rises to give a big yawn with her arms, and then returns to a horizontal position. The man brings her some tea, then puts on an apron starts doing the dishes, breaking each one as he finishes. The woman gives him her teacup and goes back to sleep. Finally, he forces her upright and puts the apron on her. She reluctantly moves toward the basin. An edit finds the man in the coal cellar, where he is sawing a log (a visual pun?). The wife comes down the stairs and asks him to move a heavy tin of coal up the stairs, without offering to help. He makes it about halfway, then the tin crashes down on top of him.

For the final affair, we see “In Union There Is Strength.” Here, we return to the pattern of first seeing the romance, but this time the single woman brings along a brood of children, presumably from a prior trial marriage. The kids are loud and disturbing, and make it impossible for the couple to be alone. Despite this obstacle, the next scene finds the man in a kitchen, struggling with domestic duties while the kids run around and cause chaos. When an older daughter causes a shelf full of dishes to collapse, the man, at his wits end, prepares to administer a spanking. At this moment the wife appears and begins the most violent scene in the film, literally destroying the entire kitchen by throwing the man about the room. When he collapses, she sits on him and weeps. The final shot is the man in a hospital bed with bandages and bruises, holding a newspaper and shaking his fist at it angrily. “Never Again” reads the intertitle.

In November of 1906, Elsie Clews Parsons, the wife of a prominent Republican congressman, published a sociological study of the family. Towards the end of the 300-page text, she speculated that American families could be made healthier if young women would wait longer before having children, and if relationships between young people could be of a less “permanent” basis than lifelong marriages. She suggested something fairly similar to modern dating: premarital sex, birth control, co-habitation, and easy separation, all predicated on the assumption of no children being born during these “trial marriages.” The moral outrage she triggered resembled a modern Internet flame war, with epithets, death threats, and refusal to listen to opposing viewpoints. Much of it centered around the idea that she was undermining the decency of young women, who were supposed to remain chaste until marriage according to the morality of the day.

The real Elsie Clews Parsons

Biograph, always willing to rip its subject matter from the headlines, eagerly leapt into the fray with this parody. They avoided raising serious questions about the morality of young women by suggesting that men would be the worst victims of this arrangement. We see our bachelor systematically feminized and weakened by the process of his marriages. It’s notable that he winds up doing housework fairly early on, especially in light of earlier films like “Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce” or contemporary ones like “Troubles of a Grass Widower” that use this “unnatural” gender-reversal as a source of comedy. But the real comedy comes from the ways in which he is abused by the wives. Again notably, at the beginning of the film it is the girl’s father who attacks him, but by the end the violence comes from his wife.

The movie is pretty poorly-made, even by the conventions of 1907. The sets are bare-bones and props are only brought in to be smashed, not to add any atmosphere. The “glass” window the man is thrown through is clearly made of paper. The stairs look like they were thrown together at the last moment and one doubts if they would hold both actors at the same time. Apart from the opening and closing shots, the camera is held at a great distance from the actors, who must broadly pantomime to get their emotions across. None of the story is told through lighting, effects, or editing. Compare this to “Troubles of a Grass Widower,” from the next year, in which Max Linder uses the conventions of the time to create an effective farce. There are far fewer laughs to be found here, though it is certainly representative of what the troubled studio was putting out at this time.

Director: Francis J. Marion

Camera: Billy W. Bitzer

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Troubles of a Grasswidower (1908)

For my contribution to the “Food in Film”  Blogathon, I’m taking  a look at an early example of a typical gender-bending situational comedy: one in which a man is left to his own devices and has to perform “women’s work” for himself, including shopping for food and cooking. Max Linder runs with this premise in this Nickelodeon-Era comedy.

Unhappy home life.

The movie begins with Max having a meal with his wife. Max reads the paper and ignores her. She seems bored and agitated. She tries to speak to him and he ignores her until she snatches the paper away. He demands it back and she gives it to him but begins crying. Max puts his fingers in his ears. This causes her to get up, throw her napkin down and stalk across the room, to where she puts on her hat, takes her coat and leaves. Max gets up and dances a jig, then reads his paper.

The next scene begins with the intertitle “back to mother” and we see the wife enter a room and meet another woman who gestures with sympathetic horror. Then the intertitle says “washing the dishes.” We are back with Max, who has finished his paper. He gathers things from the table on a tray, pouring unfinished glasses of wine back into the decanter. As he piles up more and more of the service, it becomes increasingly awkward or him, and soon he is embracing the tray to keep it all from spilling off. He walks delicately into the kitchen, putting the tray on a cutting board, and brings over a basin of water. We cut now to a closer shot of Max gingerly wiping off the dirty dishes with a dripping brush. It finally occurs to him to put on some gloves, but he is just as delicate with the dirty items when he is wearing them. When he tries to wash a bottle, he can’t figure out how to get the brush inside to scrub. Finally, he takes the whole tray down to the street, where there is a hose in a bucket and he sprays all of his dirty dishes with the hose. Satisfied, he now returns to the kitchen, but he’s not paying attention when he tries to put the tray on the cutting board and it drops, all of the now “clean” dishes shattering on the floor. He sweeps them up with a broom, but then loses interest and leaves in annoyance.

Eeeww!

The next scene is labeled “the market” and it calls attention to the fact that men at this time were not expected to act as consumers. Max is in his silk hat and a topcoat and he approaches the front of a grocer’s, where a woman immediately comes out to serve him. She piles various goods on him and takes his money, but he has no bag or other method to hold his purchases, so once again he stands awkwardly embracing the items. He walks off, but as he reaches the corner he sees a young lady of his acquaintance, so he puts some of his haul behind him and holds the rest behind his back as he speaks to her. A street kid sees the goods he has left on the ground and snatches them, running off, and Max immediately pursues, which reduces his lady friend to laughter. Max catches the kid after a short chase and throws his carrots at him before retrieving his other groceries, all of which have now been on the ground at least once. Picking things up, he of course loses his hat, and there is quite a challenge getting his load back under control.

The next scene is “cooking dinner” and it is the real crux of this movie’s relevance to this blogathon. Max brings all his goods into the kitchen, still wearing his silk hat. He tries to move the basin of water but winds up spilling it all over. He takes off some of his fancy outer clothing and puts on an apron. Then he takes out a large bird for cooking and begins to pluck it. The camera once again switches to a closer angle, and indeed we seem to be in a completely different room as we watch Max’s half-hearted effort to pluck the bird. He takes out some scissors and snips off pieces of the wing, but the bird seems half-prepared at best when he puts it in the pot. He breaks an egg with a knife and drops it in, but most of the shell goes in with the edible part and he tries to scrape it out. He throws in various vegetables and peels a potato over the pot (so most of the peel goes in as well). He pours a copious amount of wine over the pot and sprinkles some spice. Then he lights a match and starts the fire underneath the pot, and makes a show of stirring the mixture. Then he seems to forget about it as he starts polishing a shoe right there on the counter. He spills most of the shoe polish and tries to spoon it back into the bottle, then he remembers his meal and stirs it with the same spoon. He tastes it and adds some more pepper, which makes him sneeze the pot off of the oven.

Clueless in the kitchen.

The next scene is labeled “Housekeeping.” Max comes into the bedroom and starts to undress, but he notices that the bed is a mess, he moves mattresses and sheets around, generally making the bed lumpier than before and them climbs in with most of his clothes on. The next morning Max cannot find his favorite tie. He gets out of bed and puts on a collar, then he starts looking in every possible place, including the bed, the dresser, and under the bed. Each place he looks, he throws the neatly folded contents on the ground, then moves on. He begins tearing up the drawers in the study and the sitting room, even looking inside potted plants. The house is rapidly becoming a disaster area, and this only reaches new extremes when he topples a secretary. Now his wife and her mother arrive to find him in the wreckage and he pleads with her to return to him.

The trope of the reversal of gender roles was a common one in comedy, right up to the Golden Age of television: “The Honeymooners,” “I Love Lucy,” “The Flintstones” and many others would use it decades after this. Max Linder probably didn’t invent the idea: in the nineteenth century gender determined the division of labor to an enormous degree, which would lend powerful comedic possibilities for use on the vaudeville stage and elsewhere. What this movie emphasizes for us is that even seemingly simple tasks like shopping and clearing the table (never mind the more obvious cases of cooking and washing dishes) were imagined as beyond the capacity of a man. The grocer’s is an alien environment for Max, and he daren’t allow a young lady friend to see him carting groceries. Food, in short, was entirely a woman’s domain, from the conception to the aftermath. All a man knew how to do was hold a knife and fork. That said, it struck me that Max was very “French” in his failed attempt at cooking – he even thought to use some seasoning on the bird, something which escapes first-time cooks today!

This has been my contribution to the “Food in Film” blogathon, hosted by Speakeasy and Silver Screenings. Be sure to head over and check out the other entries!

Director: Max Linder

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Max Linder

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Transformation by Hats (1895)

This short film by Lumière confirms that the French company had realized at least some of the comedic possibilities of film, despite mostly being remembered for actualities today. Along with “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie stands as among the very first attempts at intentionally funny cinema.

A man sits on a stool and places one hat after another on his head, often adding false whiskers, noses, or wigs to transform his appearance. With each new headpiece, he displays a different personality, often obviously campy or goofy. His first performance involves driving a team of horses. His second appears to be taking or tearing tickets. The third is a sea captain or officer. The fourth wears a tall white top hat and a large nose, and he sneezes into a handkerchief. The fourth is a black top hat with a mustache, and he seems to be telling an amusing story. The final performance ages him into an old man, also interacting with someone off-screen.

All of this in less than a minute! It’s a shame that this performer’s name appears to be lost to history, because he might be said to be the first film comedian. His performances are frenzied and brief, but it’s pretty impressive how he transforms himself under the camera’s eye and instantly gets into character. The characters are often somewhat similar (the last two make nearly identical gestures, for example), but he obviously has a range of ability. It’s conceivable that the Lumière brothers imagined that one day actors would use film reels like these as resumes to demonstrate their range to producers.

Director: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Teddy Bears (1907)

This short movie from Edison mixes three kinds of fantasy together to make a somewhat incoherent family-style film. Probably one of the more expensive productions the studio brought out in the dry year of 1907, it remains fascinating from a historical perspective.

The movie begins with a shot of a rustic cottage in the woods, with snow on the ground all around it. A small figure is dancing for the camera in the front yard – it is someone dressed up as a bear. This child-bear holds a Teddy Bear as he dances. Shortly, a Mama bear (with an apron) comes out and calls him into the house, but the cub resists, he wants to go on playing. After a brief chase the Mama bear calls out the Papa bear (he wears pants and glasses). Baby starts throwing snowballs at them, but he is shortly caught and brought in by the ear. Then the family goes inside the house. They quickly return, now dressed in winter clothing for a walk. They walk offstage together, Baby again dragging his Teddy Bear along. Read the rest of this entry »

The Tragic Mill (1917)

Alternate Title: Le moulin tragique

At about the halfway point into the serial Judex, this episode once again rescues Jaqueline from the clutches of the bad guys and also reveals not one but two secret identities. With all of that, and also somewhat better film techniques, it almost makes up for the lack of screen time given to its two best actors.

As the episode begins, an ambulance arrives to take Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to the hospital to recover from her unfortunate dip in the river in the last outing. She is wished farewell by her tearful son, Le Petit Jean (Olinda Mano) and his buddy Bout-de-Zan (René Poyen). Shortly after she is driven off, Vallieres, former secretary to the banker Favraux, walks up and inquires after her. While he is there, a second ambulance pulls up, revealing that she has been captured by the devils who tried to do away with her!

Meanwhile, the elderly Kerjean (Gaston Michel) is walking around his old mill, reminiscing about his life before it was destroyed by Favraux’s scheming. While he is there, an ambulance pulls up and Diana Monti (Musidora) and Morales (Jean Devalde) get out, bringing Jacqueline into the mill. Monti wants to drown her beneath the mill, but Morales, who has been acting increasingly reticent suddenly revolts at the idea of murder and there is a fight between them. Kerjean intercedes and warns them to leave, but suddenly Morales reveals that he is Kerjean’s son! They lock Monti in the room with the opening to the water and Kerjean goes to phone Judex. Of course, Monti strips down to a one-piece bathing suit and swims away.

Judex (René Cresté) hops into the Judexboat and zips upriver to find the mill. He takes Jacqueline to the home of Vallieres to recuperate, which she does quickly. Apparently she just needed to get out of that peasant hut and into a nice big bed with feather pillows, was all. Anyway, once she recovers, she speaks to Vallieres and finds out how she got there, and he gives her a note from Judex, also telling her that Judex is in love with her. She immediately dictates a rather nasty note telling him that Vallieres will be forbidden to mention the name of “Judex” around her. Vallieres takes the note into the next room and removes his beard and white hair, revealing that he is, in fact, Judex! The episode ends on this plot twist.

As this quick summary shows, not a whole lot actually happens in this episode, but some pretty major developments in the plot took place. I saw both reveals coming before they happened, but I had wondered when they would occur. I’d been watching out for Kerjean’s son to appear since episode one, when we learn that he has fallen in with a bad crowd, but until the good guy/bad guy lines were clearly drawn it was hard to know where he’d show up. Vallieres has been largely dropped since the beginning, but in this episode I couldn’t help noticing that his build and nose were very much like Judex’s. The thing that disappointed me was the lack of a role for Bout-de-Zan, who just looks on while Le Petit Jean cries, and Marcel Lévesque, who has once again disappeared from sight. This episode seems to serve the purpose of resolving the immediate crisis, while building towards bigger developments in the future.

Technically, however, the film is back on track. The editing, particularly within in the mill, is quite sophisticated for Louis Feuillade, including cross-cutting between rooms and a close up as we see Morales realize who the stranger is. In general, the movie is much more comfortable with cutting within scenes than had been the case with “Fantômas.” There are some good lighting choices while Kerjean walks among his memories. The footage of the boat motoring along the river is also quite effective, sometimes handled with pans, and sometimes by placing the camera at the fore of the boat pointing aft. I can see that this movie, even though it had been shot a few years earlier, worked well for audiences of 1917.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera: André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: Yvette Andréyor, René Cresté, Jean Devalde, Édouard Mathé, Gaston Michel, Musidora, René Poyen, Olinda Mano

Run Time: 26 Min

You can watch it  for free: here.

 

The Terrible Kids (1906)

An early “JD’s” (for juvenile delinquents) film, this short from Edison shows the exploits of two naughty boys and their faithful dog, terrorizing the adult world through pranks. The comedy relies on pratfalls and physical stunts for its humor, and on the audience’s enjoyment of seeing the kids get away with their mischief.

Similar to “The Great Train Robbery,” the movie opens with a close-up on our miscreants, who are seen munching on (possibly stolen) pastries, while their dog sits up and begs. When the kid on the right tries to feed him a bit of his pastry, the dog tries to steal the whole thing, giving us a sense of his character right off the bat! The next scene shows a young woman in a summer dress with a small dog of her own. The kids run up to her and seem to try to take the dog away, but she shoos them off. Then, a gentleman comes up and speaks to her. They put the dog in her purse and put it on the ground while they speak. He seems to be giving her directions as the kids’ dog runs up from behind and snatches the purse, running off down the street. The kids run past and the adults notice and give chase.

The next scene is an ethnically insensitive portrayal of a Chinese American, who walks with a funny lope down the street and has a long “queue” or ponytail. The dog runs up from behind him and bites the queue, knocking him down and hanging onto it as the kids run up and laugh. His attempts to get up and chastise them are discouraged by the dog’s persistence in knocking him down. Again, kids and dog end the scene by running off with the adult in pursuit. The next scene involves a poster-hanger, attempting to glue posters on a wall from a ladder. The kids again run up and start putting their hands on the glue, and he shoos them away, flinging glue at them from his brush. Then, once he is five steps up the ladder, the dog jumps up and bites his pants-leg, bringing him crashing to the ground and spilling all of his glue. Now the dog runs up behind two proper Victorian ladies out for a stroll. They ignore him as he runs past with a piece of rope, but then the kids, holding the other end of the rope, position themselves to trip the ladies (incidentally giving the audience occasional glimpses of their petticoats and ankles). Dog and children run around the ladies, effectively tying them together to give them time to escape while the ladies disentangle themselves from the rope.

The next shot shows a wooden fence. The dog runs up and grabs a rope hanging from the top of the fence, suspending itself in the air until the kids lean over and pull it across. It’s not really clear why they do this until the adults, now joined by a policeman, start running up to the fence and start trying to scale it and pursue them. Now we see an opening in the same fence and a large yard behind it. The kids and the dog run across the yard to the opening, then the dog grabs a piece of rope and uses it to trip all of the pursuers. The next shot is of a hillside, and we see the adults rolling up it in what seems to be reversed-action. I guess (?) we are meant to think this is what happens after they are tripped, although we saw them all get up and start running in the previous shot. Again, the undergarments of the women are positioned to be visible during the roll. The next shot is of a trolley, and the kids jump on, luring all of the adults on board before leaping off. The adults climb out of the windows (I guess the kids are supposed to have locked the doors, but I don’t see this as happening). The pursuit continues down a country street, with the dog in the lead. After he runs past, a policeman sees the crowd coming and waits behind a fence in order to catch the kids. The other policeman helps him to drag the kids to a waiting paddy wagon (or “Black Maria”). The camera pans past the dog, sitting innocently on the street corner as the kids are bundled aboard, and once the cops are gone, he leaps up to open the handle. As soon as the wagon starts to roll, the door springs open and the kids and dog make their escape.

Ultimately, this movie is a variation on the chase film, which became so popular in the Nickelodeon Era. Each shot is set up to have one action take place, usually ending with a pratfall or funny physical stunt. No Intertitles are necessary, the movie is shot cheaply, and few effects are seen (assuming that we can count people rolling uphill in reverse as an effect). The only camera movement is the pan at the end, and we only have the one close-up at the beginning. The movie still has the sense of being performed by amateurs. During the opening sequence, we can see the kids responding to directions from off-screen. Occasionally, they look up as if distracted by whatever is being said to them. They are clearly not actors, and neither do the adults attempt to give their characters any real motivation, except anger at the kids.

No one is acting here.

Movies like this were criticized for giving children bad examples of behavior, and it is noteworthy that the children are allowed to escape punishment at the end. Of course, bad boys had been in the movies since “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” and the process of chasing and catching them was typical of the resolution, but usually justice would be seen to prevail, however much the audience may have enjoyed identifying with their acts of mischief up to that point. In subverting this narrative by his ending, director Edwin S. Porter may have been consciously or unconsciously attacking his critics, which surely only made them angrier.

Director:Wallace McCutcheon Edwin S. Porter and

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: “Mannie” the dog, unknown

Run Time: 7 Min

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

The Train Wreckers (1905)

Edwin S. Porter returns to the familiar subject matter of trains and crime, perhaps hoping for another hit on the scale of “The Great Train Robbery.” While it may not have succeeded on the same level, this was one of the bigger releases for the Edison Studios in 1905, and it presents us with an interesting study of early cinema tropes.

A woman walks out onto her porch and greets a man dressed in a railroad uniform and carrying a metal lunchbox. She waves as he walks away. Then, in a very interesting shot, we see the woman at work in an office with an overview of the tracks. After a train rushes by, she pulls one of the switches, seemingly a very un-feminine job for the time. The she says goodbye to her boss and his dog and picks up an identical metal lunchbox and walks down the tracks and into the woods. After a brief walk, she comes across a circle of men dressed like hoboes and sitting in the road, vigorously discussing a plan. One of them carries a rope. She hides behind a tree, but another hobo comes up from behind her and grabs her and the others come over and use the rope to tie her to a tree. The dog from the office now runs up and frees her by biting through the ropes. She collects her lunchbox and goes after the men.

We now see the group of hoboes piling large logs onto the train tracks to cause a wreck. They leave the logs and the woman runs up. She tries to move a log, but can’t make enough progress to clear the tracks before the train arrives, so she runs towards it, waving her handkerchief to get the engineer’s attention. The train continues past her, but finally stops just in time and the man she greeted earlier thanks her for her help while others clear the tracks. Then everyone gets back on board the train and it continues without her. She walks alone down the tracks and is jumped again by the train wreckers, who knock her out and leave her on the tracks. They raid a nearby shed and take a hand-powered rail cart, all six of them working together to get away quickly. Now the train comes toward the woman lying on the tracks, and it looks like she will be crushed, but the man from the beginning is sitting on the cow-catcher, and he picks her up and saves her at the last moment.

Now, the engine is detached from the train and pursues the wreckers, with a man firing a rifle from the cow catcher. They try to return fire with pistols, but it has to be hard to shoot and pump at the same time. Eventually, the train catches up and after a brief gun battle all of the wreckers are killed. The end.

This movie is much more artistically satisfying than “The Miller’s Daughter” and more effective, I would say, than “The Kleptomaniac” and other progressive statements about society from Porter. Porter’s strong point seems to have been the action movie, and while this might not satisfy current mega-budget action fans, it works nicely as a basic crime-suspense thriller. Of course, the villains have no obvious motivation (it’s not clear what they’ll get from either wrecking the train or killing the girl), but they work as adversaries to our more plainly-motivated heroes, and it is satisfying to see them overcome. According to Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema, it was one of the bigger-selling movies of the year.

No ropes, but pretty close.

This movie also raises a bit of a quandary for silent movie fans. Folks who haven’t seen a lot of silent movies often have the idea that one common trope was “the girl tied to the train tracks.” In reality, this is far from a common theme in silent films, and in most of the better-known cases, it is used comedically, in the spirit of parodying nineteenth-century stage melodrama clichés. But, this is one movie that seems to deliberately draw on the cliché. It certainly doesn’t appear to be ironic or humorous, as in the cases of ‘Teddy at the Throttle” or “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” It is there to heighten the tension, and does so pretty well. Now, obviously our heroine is not actually tied to the track (otherwise the last-minute rescue wouldn’t work), but she is left unconscious and immobile on the tracks to be hit by a moving train, so the distinction is pretty minor. Porter was a pretty nineteenth-century kind of guy, and it makes sense that as he’s moving more into the realm of melodrama, he would pick up something so visual that had worked on the stage. So, I would say that this is one rare example of the concept in silent film – one which is probably unknown to the vast majority of those who claim it was all over the place.

Nineteenth-Century or not, it’s worth noting that the heroine here is not a completely helpless damsel, although she is rescued twice (once by the dog, once by the engineer). She pulls a heavy switch at work, and she makes a valiant effort to move the logs, and does manage to save the train on her own even when she can’t move them. She takes some degree of agency in the movie, and makes a difference to its outcome, which may be more than most of the “girl on the tracks” crowd would ever expect.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson

Run Time: 11 Min, 45 secs

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

Turning the Tables (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that shows that the very basic humor established in “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” and “The Lone Fisherman” continued to have its appeal even after seven or eight years of cinematic development.

turning-the-tables

We see a small watering hole, with a sign that reads “No swimming allowed in this lake.” Two shirtless boys are frolicking in it, and soon another little crowd of boys runs up and starts stripping down to their shorts to jump in. Not long afterward, a policeman (distinguishable because of his hard cap and billy club) runs up and yells. All of the boys climb out of the lake to what seems to be a stream of abuse from the angry policeman. Finally, having taken enough, they push him into the water. While he blusters and drips in the water, they gather up their clothes and run off. The policeman climbs out of the water to pursue.

Although 1903 saw the release of a number of relatively sophisticated films from Edison, incorporating editing, multiple angles, and complete narratives, there were still dozens of releases that year that followed the established formulae. In this case, we have a variation on a theme that is as old as the movies themselves: the young miscreants getting the better of the adult authority figure, only to be pursued (and presumably punished) by that authority. The policeman’s uniform is very simplistic in this example, more suggesting a sketch of a costume than the full thing, which makes me wonder if this movie was even planned out very much in advance.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901)

This suggestive short Edison comedy derives from the vaudeville act of then-popular trapeze artist Charmion, who performed it in live theaters before it was captured on film. It once again confirms the close relationship between sex and cinema in America, but I believe the joke may have been on the audience in this case.

trapeze-disrobing-actA set has been constructed to replicate the upper part of the vaudeville stage. We see the curtains and the top of the proscenium and over to the right a woman sits on a trapeze in full Victorian street clothing. Behind her a backdrop is visible, but we cannot see the stage floor; it is below the frame. To the left of the picture is a theater box containing two men in false beards. The woman begins undoing her buttons, and removing her outer garments, to the enthusiastic response of the two men. She throws them pieces of her clothing and soon is in very unrevealing Victorian undergarments. In the process, she occasionally does stunts like hanging from the trapeze and twirling, and so forth. She now removes the undergarments, her stockings, etc., again throwing bits of clothing to the applauding and leaping men in the box. When she is finished, she is in leotards and a tutu.

I said above that the joke was on the audience – despite all of Charmion’s stripping, she remains fully clothed to the end of the act, and is wearing what would be today a ridiculously demure outfit for a trapeze performer. Now, if it’s true that men would gather on 23rd street for an occasional glance of an ankle, this is fairly revealing, but I suspect that women in leotards were hardly unknown on the stage, even in 1901. That’s probably part of why the movie wasn’t banned outright. Charles Musser, in Before the Nickelodeon, suggests that while this movie was intended to titillate, the two comedy characters in the box were necessary to mediate the voyeurism of the audience and make it seem acceptable. Otherwise, it would have been too much of a breach of the accepted standards of morality.

Director: George S. Fleming, Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charmion

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

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

Teddy at the Throttle (1917)

Gloria Swanson and Bobby Vernon are back in another slapstick romantic comedy from Keystone Studios. While it has the signature Keystone zaniness and even ends with an over-the-top chase-and-rescue sequence, this movie is longer and more complicated than the earlier films of that studio.

teddy_at_the_throttleAs the movie begins, Gloria and Bobby are sweetheart neighbors living in a high-class apartment building. Bobby’s money is being “managed” in trust by an older man (Wallace Beery), who actually squanders large sums on himself. Since Bobby is approaching the age of maturity, he’s worried that the shortfall will be noticed, but he comes up with a solution: If his sister (May Emory) can convince Bobby to marry her, they’ll go on controlling the money and Bobby will remain ignorant. Sis likes the idea of marrying an heir and goes to work on vamping Bobby immediately. Gloria doesn’t like this, of course, but Bobby seems to be excited about this sophisticated woman paying attention to him. Eventually, he’s ignoring Gloria and bringing flowers to May. Worse, when May tells him, “put a ring on it,” he immediately goes next door to Gloria, tells her that it’s over, and asks for the ring he gave her back! It doesn’t quite fit May, but she doesn’t complain.

teddy-at-the-throttleNow the plot thickens when Wallace receives a letter informing him that the will stipulates that Bobby loses his fortune if he marries anyone else but Gloria – the money all goes to Gloria in that case. Seems like it would have been easier for the departed to just make Gloria the heiress in the first place, but this is a Keystone comedy, so logic is not a strong point. Anyway, this gives Wallace an idea – he can marry Gloria and that will leave him in charge of the fortune while Bobby and his sister rot in poverty. The problem is that Gloria’s not interested in him, and he keeps dropping the letter in her presence and having to snatch it back before she figures out what’s going on.

teddy-at-the-throttle1The scene now shifts to a fancy nightclub where May and Bobby perform a humorous dance (she’s much taller than he is) and May keeps trying to get Bobby to elope with her. Gloria finally manages to read the letter while Wallace is off getting drinks, and she tries to tell Bobby while May drags him off to a preacher. Seems like if she just told May, it would solve the whole thing when May lost interest in being poor with Bobby, but, again, Keystone. May locks Gloria in the coat room and drags Bobby out to her car, where a storm is now raging, and of course the car has no roof. Undaunted, she speeds off on the muddy roads.

teddy-at-the-throttle2Gloria uses the coat room phone to call a lawyer and let him know what’s going on, and the lawyer climbs aboard the Limited train to intercept Bobby and May. When Gloria gets free, she also pursues, catching up to Bobby and May who have skidded off the road into a muddy ditch. Wallace now catches her, and realizing he can no longer count on Plan A, decides to try a better idea, he’ll chain Gloria to the train tracks and kill her, thus somehow finagling the books so that he keeps the money! Gloria foils this by using her dog whistle to summon Teddy, her large dog, and the title character finally shows up with about five minutes left to the film!

teddy-at-the-throttle3Teddy runs to Gloria, and she writes a note to Bobby, who steals a bicycle and follows Teddy to the train tracks. He is equally unable to free Gloria from the chains, but Teddy runs up to the engine, leaps aboard and shows the engineer the note. The engineer slams on the breaks, the train slowing down, but not quite enough to avoid Gloria. So she lies down on the tracks and lets the train roll overhead, the wheels severing the chains and freeing her to crawl out from beneath the now motionless engine. She and Bobby climb on board the cow catcher and ride happily to get married.

teddy-at-the-throttle4This is another comedy of the “girl tied up on the railroad tracks” variety from Mack Sennett, but it is a little more sophisticated piece of work than “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” Fritzi Kramer, over at “Movies Silently,” has repeatedly taken on the old saw about silent movie women being tied frequently to the railroad tracks, and these two movies are the major “evidence” for the other side. The point is, however, that these were parodies of an earlier cliché, which apparently was used on stage in popular theater. Let’s let it die already. I actually think I’ve seen the ending shot – with the two leads riding away together on a cowcatcher – way more times in silent cinema, but somehow that hasn’t caught on as a cliche.

teddy-at-the-throttle5Vernon is a good looking young man, but short, and part of the joke is how he looks paired up against the taller woman (he and Gloria are about the same height). Much of the humor, up until the climactic multi-vehicle chase, anyway, comes from romantic mix-ups and money grubbing, making it a more “situational” comedy than is usually associated with Mack Sennett. The villain here is Wallace Beery, who puts a lot into the role, even if ultimately he’s just as mustache-twirling as Ford Sterling. In the end, “Teddy” the dog does more to rescue Gloria than the ostensible hero does.

Director: Clarence G. Badger

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gloria Swanson, Bobby Vernon, Wallace Beery, May Emory

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