Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: United Artists

Broken Blossoms (1919)

The first major post-World War release from D.W. Griffith is this melodrama of a waif and an immigrant in London’s Limehouse District. This is one of the better-thought-of Griffith movies, even by those who criticize his earlier hits, but how does it look more than a century later?

The movie starts out in an unnamed part of China, where Cheng Huan (Richard Barthelmass in yellowface), a local resident, has a violent encounter with some white American sailors. He is a devotee of Buddhism, and refuses to respond in kind to their taunting and fisticuffs. He decides that the West could use some civilizing, and makes up his mind to bring the word of the Buddha to that part of the world. The film then cuts to several years later, when he runs a small but tidy shop in Limehouse. It seems his missionary zeal is largely forgotten as he deals with the poverty and greed of his neighbors and the struggle to survive in this strange land. Apparently, the only place he can go for company and a taste of the familiar is a local bar that caters to Asians of all stripes – we see men in turbans as well as caftans, almost everyone is smoking, some seem to be holding opium pipes, and there are “fallen” white women scattered about as well as gambling. Memories of his time in the temple in China are contrasted with these images to show how far he has drifted from his original intentions.

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Way Down East (1920)

One of D.W. Griffith’s most enduring features, this movie comes from the period in which he was one of the leading lights of United Artists, and was quickly bankrupting himself trying to keep up a stream of hits for that ambitious studio project. While some of the movies he made then are dismissed today, this one endures as a critics’ darling – does it live up to its reputation?

Griffith’ usual flowery intertitles set up a situation he tries to present as “universal” although it is rather specific. Anna Moore (Lillian Gish) is a young woman living East of Boston with her widowed mother. As money is tight, Anna reluctantly agrees to go in to the city to visit wealthy relatives, and ask for help. The family is clearly put off by her appearance, and she is a little too shy (and a little too proud) to ask outright for money, so she awkwardly accepts a left-handed invitation to stay. The one person in “society” who pays her any attention is Lennox Sanderson (Lowell Sherman), a raconteur whose only interest is sex. He tricks her into a phony wedding in order to get her in bed, and convinces her to keep it a secret to avoid upsetting his father an losing his inheritance. Anna, thinking that her future fortune is now secure, returns home and begins seeing him secretly. She soon becomes pregnant, and tells Lennox that they must now reveal their marriage, causing him to reveal to her that it wasn’t legal. He promises her money and leaves.

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Some words about the Century Awards

Today is the Oscars, and anyone who’s been paying attention has noticed that I never announced any candidates for the Century Awards of 1918. I could just let that pass without comment, but just in case, here are a few words.

It comes down to just one thing: I didn’t watch enough 1918 movies to make it a fair contest. I missed a number of quite large-scale releases, including the #1 box office success. But, more important, in order to really judge what was outstanding for the year, I need to really steep myself in the “other” movies that came out that year, and I didn’t find the time. In general, the rate of my posting is down, and it’s likely to stay that way. I have too many other things (including work!) going on in my life. The Century Awards was a great idea that turned out to be a lot of work every year, and I just couldn’t keep it going.

If anyone’s interested, here’s my biggest thought about 1918: If there had been an Academy Awards (or equivalent), it would have demonstrated the awesome popularity of the four people who formed United Artists the next year: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith and Mary Pickford. Between them, I suspect they’d have had nominations in nearly every category, and probably a fair number of wins as well. No doubt it was this swelling of support that led them to make a go of it as a production company, although the history of UA is fraught with their personal difficulties and over-confidence. (William S. Hart was also involved in the planning of UA, and I expect he’d have been a factor in any fair Awards of the time as well).

A couple of comparative newcomers would probably make some lists as well: Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Lloyd had been in movies almost as long as Chaplin, but by 1918, he’d gotten out of the “Lonesome Luke” persona and switched over to the now-familiar “glasses” look that made him a comedy icon. Keaton had only been working for Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Studios for less than a year when 1918 started, but he had rapidly become one of the most important players and behind-the-scenes gag inventors.

With the end of the First World War, 1918 is a kind of turning point in film history as well. It’s the year that Europe looked up and realized that Hollywood was firmly in control of the industry, whatever they might feel about that. Some tried in later years to fight back by establishing nationalized studios (or supporting existing ones), but to a large extent the masses continue to run out to see Hollywood films, no matter how good their own national product was. The nature of silent cinema made this comparably easy – a silent film can be followed by anyone, regardless of their mother tongue, and swapping out translated intertitles is a lot cheaper than dubbing or subtitling a whole movie. But, there was also the economic reality that four years of (mostly) peace had given studios in the US the opportunity to build infrastructure that Europe lost through war and revolution. That included a massive distribution system to over 100 million people that American studios could reach without paying import duties before they even worried about the European market. No European country had anything to compare.

As we continue into 1919, I’ll probably maintain my current rate of one or two posts a week, not all about 1919 because there’s so much “catching up” I still want to do, so it’s likely that I’ll feel the same when we get to Awards time next year. Perhaps I can write up another essay like this one to “take the pulse of the times.” I hope it doesn’t disappoint anyone too much to miss out on the Century Awards, thank you for reading!