Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Universal Studios

Blind Husbands (1919)

Erich von Stroheim’s first directorial effort is a tale of infidelity set in a small European village. This is the feature film that “made him” as a director, establishing a reputation for brilliance, going over-budget, and being domineering on the set.

The picture takes place in a small Alpine village, and begins with a dedication to “Sepp” a mountain guide who happens to share a name with the guide character (played by Gibson Gowland) in the movie. Sepp receives word that his friend Dr. Robert Armstrong (Sam De Grasse) is returning to the village, which results in an emotional flashback in which we learn that Dr. Armstrong saved Sepp’s life on the mountain and that Sepp pledged his undying loyalty to him in gratitude. We see the arrival of the doctor and his young wife (Francelia Billington) in a carriage, the doctor consistently with his nose buried in a book. This opens up opportunities for an Austrian Lieutenant (played in highly Prussian style by von Stroheim himself) to awkwardly flirt with her, though she shows no interest in him. As the film progresses, this theme continues, with the Lieutenant flirting with, and at times annoying, Mrs. Armstrong while her husband is oblivious to her concerns. Meanwhile, their relationship is contrasted with that of two young Honeymooners (the girl is played by Valerie Germonprez, von Stroheim’s future wife), who are only interested in one another to the point of obliviousness to all else. Mrs. Armstrong clearly longs for that kind of attention, and is ashamed to be seen in public with a man who ignores her. The Lieutenant quickly seduces and abandons a waitress (Fay Holderness) at their inn, pausing only momentarily in his pursuit of Mrs. Armstrong, giving us a clear picture of what would happen to her if she were to submit to him.

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Where Are My Children (1916)

Crusading filmmaker Lois Weber presents a movie dealing with very modern “women’s issues” – birth control and abortion – but with a sensibility that will strike most as decidedly un-modern and possibly anti-feminist. The movie was censored and criticized at the time, but nevertheless made over 3 million dollars at the box office (a tidy sum at the time), probably in part due to the controversy it stirred.

The movie begins with a somewhat contradictory disclaimer from Universal, the studio that produced it. The studio “believes that children should not be admitted to see this picture…but if you bring them it will do an immeasurable amount of good.” Then, Weber launches into one of her over-strained metaphors, ala the “naked truth” from “Hypocrites.” Here, we see the gates of Heaven open to where little souls of unborn children eagerly await to come down to earth and take on human form. Well, we sort of see it. Actually on the print I saw it was mostly a blurry brown field.  Anyway, apparently these souls are divided among “chance” children, “unwanted” children, and “those who were sent forth only on prayer.” Apparently, only this third kind are “fine and strong,” while the others could be defective or even “marked with the sign of the Serpent.”

With this confusing lesson firmly in mind, we now meet the hero of our story, Richard Walton (Tyrone Power), who is a District Attorney and “a great believer in eugenics.” He is a firm and upright-looking man, who looks in on a courtroom processing minor cases and scoffs that only the “ill-born” wind up in such places. Meanwhile, his wife (Helen Riaume, Power’s wife in real life as well) lies on a divan in the sunshine, eating chocolates and snuggling with lap dogs. We learn that she is childless, a source of great sorrow to Walton, who spends his time playing with his sister’s “eugenically born” baby and watching the neighbor children playing on the lawn. Walton prosecutes a case against a doctor (C. Norman Hammond) who works in the slums and has been caught distributing literature in favor of birth control. He strikes an obvious chord with Walton when he claims that unwanted children are the cause of misery and crime.

This world of serious concerns and solutions to the world’s problems is contrasted with the frivolous existence of his wife, who now goes to visit a friend (Marie Walcamp) who seems to be ill. She confides in Mrs. Walton that she is expecting, and Mrs. Walton tells her that she knows how she can get rid of the child, in order to go back to the world of garden parties and socializing. She brings her friend to the seedy office of one “Dr. Malfit” (Juan de la Cruz). Here, the “unwanted” child is sent back up to its heavenly source. Mrs. Walton goes home and blithely ignores her husband’s obvious pining after the neighbor children.

Now, Mrs. Walton’s brother Roger (A.D. Blake) comes to visit, coincidentally on the same day that the housekeeper’s daughter Lillian (Rena Rogers) returns from school. Roger takes an immediate and unsavory interest in Lillian, who shyly looks away from his lascivious glances. But, as they are staying under one roof, Roger gradually wears her down and soon the two are meeting clandestinely in the garden to kiss. Eventually, Roger comes to his sister with a problem – he needs to help Lillian out or he might have to marry her. Sis knows what’s up and sends him, and Lillian, to Dr. Malfit. Unfortunately, Dr. Malfit seems to do less well with young, innocent, lower-class girls than he did with the frivolous social butterflies, and he “bungles” the operation. Lillian makes it home in a cab, only to die a short while later in the Waltons’ home.

Mr. Walton, outraged at the circumstances, throws Roger out of his house and pursues an aggressive prosecution of Dr. Malfit, who tries to save his skin by threatening Mrs. Walton, but the judge refuses to have the names of his clients paraded in the court room. Mr. Walton does get a look at the book where Malfit has been recording his clients, however, and gets an eye-opener. He returns home, where the ladies are holding another house party, and announces that now he knows why so many of them lack children. He should, he says, prosecute them for manslaughter, but he contents himself with throwing them out of the house. When one tries to protest, he points out her name in Dr. Malfit’s register. Then he turns to his wife and asks the titular question. She slumps in disgrace. There is then a brief chilling epilogue where we see them aging in front of a fireplace, embittered and alone, while ghostly specters of their unborn children come out to them and show what could have been.

The interlacing of eugenics, abortion, and birth control might give modern viewers pause, but it was a fairly typical approach at the time. Margaret Sanger had recently made headlines across the country when arrested for distributing “indecent literature” similar to Dr. Homer in this movie, and her arguments were based not only on women’s rights but also on race improvement and the prevention of immoral abortion to get rid of unwanted children. Lois Weber wields this argument with the subtlety of a sledge hammer, and even goes further to suggest that “fit” rich white women are abusing abortion to prevent healthy children from coming into the world. Since Mr. Walton is the righteous victim, it even appears that she is arguing that a man knows best what is good for his wife and the world, and that women should not be included in the decisions that directly affect their own bodies.

That said, I think I see another argument being made here, one which seems less out of place for a crusading female director. The real problem in this movie is in the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Walton, in what was known at the time as the “separation of the spheres.” Neither one has a clue what is important to the other, nor do they work to understand. Mr. Walton lives in his male sphere of work and law and “big ideas” while Mrs. Walton lives in a world of dogs, chocolate, and house parties. If they would at least talk to one another, they might be able to figure out how to create a partnership that would satisfy each of them. Instead, Mrs. Walton surreptitiously aborts her pregnancies and Mr. Walton ignorantly condemns her for it. The real tragedy is that any sense of love or even friendship seems missing in them from the very beginning of the film. It is this separation that leads to their ultimate fate of sitting, glaring at one another for the rest of their lives, unable even to speak the words of accusation each deserves to hear.

Beyond its didactic aspects, the movie is fairly dull by 1916 standards. The only character who really develops at all is Lillian, who goes from being completely innocent to naively in love to dying and then dead. Everyone else remains exactly the same as they are from beginning to end, except that Mr. Walton is a lot angrier by the end (he’s still the same man, though). Lillian is also the only character who gets much of my sympathy, either. Mr. Walton is too caught up in his beliefs to notice that his wife doesn’t share them and Mrs. Walton isn’t even interested enough to notice that he wants a child until it is too late. I’ve already observed that the opening “effects” sequence is unimpressive and while the double exposures at the end work well enough, they’re pretty much old hat by 1916. The editing is just passable, and there are no very interesting lighting effects or camera movements. The movie is of historical interest, not least because of the controversy it generated at the time (and probably does today), but it has little to offer in the way of entertainment.

Director: Lois Weber

Camera: Allen G. Siegler and Stephen S. Norton

Starring: Tyrone Power, Helen Riaume, A.D. Blake, Marie Walcamp, Juan de la Cruz, Rena Rogers, Cora Drew, C. Norman Hammond.

Run Time: 1 Hr, 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

On to Washington (1913)

This short clip of newsreel footage gives us a look at a significant event in women’s history – a march on Washington that culminated on the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration.

The movie begins with a title card that tells us that 14 “suffragettes” will march from Newark, New Jersey to Washington DC, then shows a series of shots of the march – which appears to have attracted many more than 14 individuals, including many men. We also get a two-shot of the leaders of the march: Rosalie Jones and Elizabeth Freeman. Jones wears a heavy cloak and carries a large walking stick. One shot begins by showing a police escort on horseback, and it’s not clear how many of the people marching are involved, sympathetic, curious, or even hostile to the intent of the march, though no unruliness is depicted. One man waves awkwardly at the camera, possibly indicating a wish not to be photographed (or possibly saying, “hi, Ma!”). It ends suddenly, and might be incomplete.

The event shown here is really the kickoff of the march in Newark, so we don’t see the nation’s capitol or the reported 5000 marchers that turned out on March 3, the day of Wilson’s inauguration. This event represents a shift in American suffrage tactics from attempts to win the vote state-by-state to a national strategy. The two women shown represent the alliance between “respectable” wealthy women (Jones) and working-class activists with a more hard line approach (Freeman). There were counter-protestors, as well as politicians and pundits who spoke against them, but the march was seen as effective in raising awareness and sympathy. Wilson at the time was cautiously supportive of women’s right to vote, but he only really came out in favor after the First World War.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Rosalie Jones, Elizabeth Freeman

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Polly Redhead (1917)

This was the one “feature length” Century Film screened at this year’s Cinecon, and once again I review it from my memory of a single viewing (almost a week ago as of this writing). It was billed as an attempt by Universal to recreate the success of Mary Pickford, and the plot has a lot in common with the simpler of little Mary’s stories.

Ella Hall

“Polly” is short for “Pollyooly,” apparently the original title of the novel this was based on, and we have to take their word for her hair color because the surviving print is black and white. She is played by Ella Hall, who is young and charming in her elaborate locks, but lacks some of the magic of Pickford. She is a street urchin in London who happens to be the niece of the dying maid of two solicitors solicitor (George Webb and Dick La Reno), and when the maid falls ill, she turns up as a substitute. What she doesn’t mention is that her aunt has actually died and she is hoping to take over the role permanently. In case she isn’t cute enough, the writer has thrown in “the Lump” (William Worthington, Jr.), a precocious little brother with a penchant for playing the drums. She brings “the Lump” to work with her, and for some reason Webb finds this more charming than annoying. Meanwhile the housekeeper (Louise Emmons) learns the truth and does her best to get Polly fired. She loses her job with La Reno but Webb keeps her on because of her remarkable talent for cooking perfect bacon. This turns out to be a good choice, because La Reno soon finds Emmons watering down his whiskey! It was to cover the fact that she had been nipping, but this would have been a lesser crime and she is let go and Polly brought back. Webb takes to teaching the Lump manners, using Polly’s bacon as a reward.

George Webb

A second conflict, seemingly more significant, arises when Webb’s fiancée and only client (Gertrude Astor) begins to object to this attractive young girl around the house. However, this is quickly negated when she recognizes Polly as the exact twin of a wealthy young girl caught in the throes of a custody battle. This allows Hall to take on a typical “changeling” dual-role when the two concoct a plan to replace her so that the mother can sneak the real child away to Europe and take on full custody. Alas, Polly’s odd treatment of the servants as equals gives her quickly away, but the end result is a predictable reconciliation between the parents and Polly even finds a nice rich boy next door while the game is on.

Gertrude Astor

It seemed to me like this was two short films, not all that well sewn together to make one short-ish feature, although it’s possible that there’s missing footage in the middle somewhere. The first movie actually worked better for me, with Polly defending her job through her bacon skills and the housekeeper losing hers for disrespecting good whiskey. The second story is more typical of the worse melodramas of the time and relies on the unlikely coincidence of Polly having a wealthy doppelganger and a resolution that seems all too simplistic and improbable (nothing like kidnapping a child to bring a couple together!). Hall seemed to overdo the dual role by giving the “rich” version of herself a bit too much moodiness and gloom and the “poor” version of herself a can-do spirit. She was more likeable in the first part of the story, where she just gets to be herself (apparently). The little brother seemed a bit too much like an out-of-wedlock child of Polly’s and calling him “the Lump” (which made me think of “baby bump”) didn’t help anything. We never see any sign of his or Polly’s mother, so the connection seems all too likely, though of course we are meant to think she’s the same age as the boy-next-door, who might be eight years her junior, and who she kisses at the end. A bit of a reversal from all the old men falling in love with underage girls in the movies!

Director: Jack Conway

Camera: Edward Kull

Starring: Ella Hall, George Webb, Gertrude Astor, William Worthington, Jr., Louise Emmons, Dick La Reno, Charles Hill, Mailes, Gretchen Lederer

Run Time: 45 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing or on the Internet at this time.

Not Like Other Girls (1912)

This short from Champion was screened at Cinecon last Sunday, and I’m reviewing it based on that viewing. I admit that my memory of this one is a bit hazy – there were four other Champion shorts at the same time and this one seems to have been the least distinctive.

Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore in another movie from 1912.

We see a young couple (Florence Lawrence and Owen Moore) out for a drive. He pulls over to pick her some flowers, but she moves over and drives the car away, ditching him. A few feet away, the car stalls and he runs over to repair it, then they go merrily on their way. When Owen drops her off, she presents the bouquet to him, again reversing the gender order. This continues in a boating trip, where Florence tips the boat over so that he falls into the water, then eagerly seizes the oars and begins rowing for herself. Somewhere in here is a bit where his father tells him that he has lost money that was put in trust to him by Florence’s family, and the only way to stay out of jail will be for the two of them to wed. Owen is pretty well ready to give up after the boating incident, and the father dies. Now Owen is the one who will go to jail if the money is not returned. Florence learns of the crime and goes to see Owen, apparently angry. It turns out she’s really mad because she has fallen in love with him, and the two are married after all.

Florence Lawrence had been in movies for several years by 1912, but her growing stardom was confirmed when Champion, now a subsidiary of Universal, created a new brand called “Victor” to showcase her specifically. If the liner notes for Cinecon are correct, this was the first of those movies. Although I had some difficulty following the plot, it was very interesting that her tomboyishness seemed to be shown as both a source for comedy and also an attractive quality. Sort of like “playing hard to get,” the fact that she’s apparently not interested in men and wants to take control of the car and the boat (and presumably her destiny) apparently made her seem “cute” to male audiences at the time. Perhaps women found the idea of a heroine not having to be subservient at all times appealing also.

Director: Harry L. Solter

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Florence Lawrence, Owen Moore

Run Time: 9 Min

This movie is not available for home viewing at this time.

The Lion, the Lamb, the Man (1914)

This short film stars Lon Chaney early in his career, and even shows of a little of his talents with makeup, for which he would later become famous. I was able to attend a rare screening at Cinecon, and so can now review the film, long thought lost and rediscovered in 2008. Note, as always in these cases, that the plot summary is based on my memory of a single viewing, and may be flawed.

Image courtesy Jon Mirsalis at http://www.lonchaney.org/filmography/37.html

The movie is a metaphorical statement on human relationships, using cavemen to represent the instinctive drives. It opens by showing a classic love-triangle in caveman form. Lon Chaney is “The Lion,” a brute who shoos off “the Lamb” (Gus Inglis) and claims “the Woman” (Pauline Bush) by brute force. Now, a new character, named “the Fox” (Millard K. Wilson) sneaks through the bushes and fires an arrow from a bow, killing the Lion, and claiming the woman for himself. This is followed by a transition to modern times.

It begins by establishing Chaney once again as the Lion, showing him in a brawl with another man, winning by brute force. At the riverside, we see a sequence in which the modern Lion takes the Woman away from the Lamb through force and the Fox attempts to defeat the Lion through ingenuity (this time setting a trap by attaching a string to a rifle). During this, there are superimposed images of the cavemen characters to drive home the point. When the Lion fails to trip the trap, the Fox runs away with the Lion in pursuit, leaving the Woman (who seems rather relieved) to her own devices. She takes off her stockings and begins to wade into the water, but accidentally drops one. She tries to reach it before it floats away, and winds up falling into the river herself. Now we see the Man (William C. Dowlan), who is fishing downstream. He feels a tug at his line and reels it in, discovering the stocking. Now the Woman appears behind the rock he is sitting on, and she tries to stealthily swipe the stocking, but the Man sees her. They playfully flirt and leave together.

The final sequence shows the outcome of the various paths. The Lamb, now an elderly minister, sits among a group of spinsters sipping tea. The Fox and the Lion are together, living in poverty with a very ugly Indian woman (with a mustache) as their mutual companion. The Man and the Woman live in middle-class wedded bliss, their child running about happily as another minister comes over to visit.

Lon Chaney, sans makeup, in 1919.

This was a pretty basic little movie, rather simple for 1914, but interesting in terms of effects and the ambition of the storytelling. Essentially, it appears to argue that where brute strength and cunning were enough in the struggle for survival in “nature,” civilization benefits the person capable of empathy and understanding. It seems to me that this case would have been stronger if the Man had jumped in to save the Woman from drowning, especially if it was made clear that none of the other characters would risk their lives for her, but possibly this was beyond the capacity (or budget) of the filmmakers, or maybe I’m reading it wrong somehow. Chaney is impressive in his makeup (the woman presenting the next film commented “Wow, who knew Lon Chaney was so buff?”), and I wouldn’t be surprised if he also made up the other actors in their caveman and aged appearances (and maybe drew the mustache on the Indian). The use of multiple exposures to remind the audience of the caveman metaphor is typical of the period, but works well.

Very little of Chaney’s work from the 1910s survives today, which is one reason we’ve only seen him once before on this blog, even though he was working from at least 1914 on and made over 100 films before 1920. Most of these movies are lost, and this one was thought lost until recently, when it was discovered in the UK and sent to the Museum of Modern Art for duplication, and it was their print that I was able to see at Cinecon, apparently in the first audience to view the film for over 100 years. This is largely to the credit of Jon Mirsalis, who many of us know as an accompanist to silent movies and is also a collector and preservationist in his own right. I hope that the day will come when everyone can see it, along with the rest of our public domain film heritage, freely and easily from home.

Director: Joseph De Grasse

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Lon Chaney, Pauline Bush, Millard K. Wilson, William C. Dowlan, Gus Inglis

Run Time: 25 Min

This movie is not yet available on the Internet.

Best Visual Effects 1916

Movies are often seen as the most “realistic” of art forms, since photography captures light as it is, rather than allowing the artist to create the image from their mind, as in painting or sculpture. But, we all know that movies have always tricked our eyes with special effects, to make the unreal or even impossible appear to happen before our very eyes. By 1916, filmmakers had moved beyond the early style of “trick films” whose limited plots centered entirely around effects, to complex storylines with effects woven in to enhance the fantasy or escape that was now at the center of attention.

The first filmed version of “20,000 Leagues under the Sea” involved building a mockup of the Nautilus, and even more impressively the development of new techniques for filming underwater. Director Louis Feuillade shows what he had learned in his apprenticeship under Alice Guy with recovery of body thrown from a moving train in “The Spectre” (an episode of the serialLes Vampires”) and also gives us his patented triple-split-screen to represent a phone conversation and the space between the speakers. The movie “The Devil’s Needle” enters into the realm of fantasy in showing the hallucinations of a heroin addict. In the serial “Homunculus,” visual effects are used to illustrate the creation of an artificial man, and some of the powers he exhibits. “The Mysterious Shadow,” the first official episode of the “Judex” serial, shows the secret base of the hero of that story, and also the disinterment and revival of a corpse.

The nominees for best visual effects of 1916 are:

  1. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea
  2. The Spectre (Les Vampires)
  3. The Devil’s Needle
  4. Homunculus
  5. The Mysterious Shadow (Judex)

And the winner is…“20,000 Leagues under the Sea!”

20000 Leagues Under the Sea1

This was a pretty easy one. Out of the movies I saw last year, nothing matched this science fiction tale in terms of visual effects. Certainly, the other movies had their moments, but none of them really offered anything new: split screen, double images, fade outs, trick props, lighting effects had all been done before. But, googly-eyed octopuses aside, Universal really took out all the stops for this production. Judging by its record at the box office, this early adventure movie paid off as well. According to Moving Picture World, it played at one picture palace for over eight weeks, something that nearly never happened in the high turnover of early film.

Eleanor’s Catch (1916)

This two-reel short from Universal is an interesting twist on the many “lost girl” love triangles of the period. Some of its notability no doubt results from the fact that it was directed by star Cleo Madison, an early feminist who believed that women could do anything as well as men could, and that the day was not far off when everyone agreed to this.

And men can do housework, too!

And men can do housework, too!

Madison introduces her character, Eleanor, as “a tenement rose,” and we see her literally wearing rags as she hand-scrubs her laundry. She also introduces William V. Mong, who wrote the screenplay and plays “Flash” Darcy or Dacy (the credits say “Darcy” but the Intertitles consistently spell it “Dacy”), a “shining light of the neighborhood.” Darcy comes out of a bar and runs into Eleanor’s mom (Lule Warrenton), who is carrying home a heavy basket of linens. He offers to carry them home for her and uses the opportunity to hit on Eleanor, who seems annoyed at first, but becomes interested when he flashes his wallet and agrees to pay for groceries and beer for the family. Mom rushes off to shop and leaves the two of them alone. Flash again ingratiates himself by offering to do some of the scrubbing and then invites a street musician to play accordion for them while they dance. Now, Eleanor’s boyfriend “Red” (Edward Hearn, who’s called “Spike” in the credits for some reason) walks up, and he scowls at what he sees. Mom tries to make it better by inviting him in for beer and dinner, but he mostly sulks while Eleanor and Dacy chit chat. They arrange to meet while Red’s at night school that evening.

Smooth operator.

Smooth operator.

At this point we cut to Eleanor’s less-pretty sister, who’s reduced to begging from men on the street. Then we see Eleanor’s reaction to the nice dress Dacy has sent over for her to wear when they go out (and a pair of socks for mother). He takes her on the town and shows her his trick of stealing a man’s tie clip by pretending to yawn and snatching it in his clenched fist. She’s impressed, but scared, and tells the man about hit, but it’s one of Flash’s cronies, who knew what was up the whole time. Now she tries, and fails, to get away with it. Some time passes, and we are given to understand that Dacy has been training her as a pickpocket. He brings a man with a nice tie clip over to her house and she does the fake yawn. But, instead of stealing the tie clip, she grabs Dacy’s gun from out of his pocket and holds him up, claiming to be an undercover cop. The man flees and a fight breaks out between Dacy and Eleanor, with the hard-up sister in the middle. Red’s been standing outside this whole time, and it finally dawns on him to come in and help and then mom shows up with a cop who hauls Dacy away, although I’m not sure on what charge. We are then told that “officer” Eleanor returns to her home life – which is pretty much like it was in the first reel, except now Red is a welcome guest.

Eleanors Catch2I did enjoy this little movie. In fact, I’d had a somewhat grueling afternoon pre-watching “Intolerance” and was ready for a nice light short. But, it had a few problems, plot-wise. First, I didn’t really buy Eleanor’s revelation that she was with the Secret Service. They sent her deep undercover so she could catch up with a small-time hoodlum that steals tie clips? Second, why does Flash need Eleanor in the first place? He seems like a good enough thief to steal all the tie clips he needs without her help. He certainly didn’t come out ahead on the deal: he had to buy all that food, booze, and clothing, and all he was going to get out of it was a tie clip? Finally, I do like the fact that Eleanor more or less rescues herself by grabbing the gun at the end, but then why did we need a big fight with Red and a policeman charging to the rescue? On top of that, I wish she had found some way to make Red more likeable. I was ready to like him when he showed up, since Dacy was an obvious skeeze, and he’s kind of a good-looking working class mug, but all he does is scowl and sulk until the end. Wikipedia makes the dubious claim that this is one of the first movies to include a twist ending, which obviously depends on your definition of that concept, but it isn’t really the most successful I’ve seen. Still, it was an interesting and fun little movie in its way. I liked the fact that Cleo makes Dacy do laundry, which fits with her idea that work shouldn’t be defined by gender, and she did look pretty comfortable with the gun in her hand, not like a typically nervous female of the time. I’ll keep an eye out for more of her work in the future.

Director: Cleo Madison

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Cleo Madison, William V. Mong, Lule Warrenton, Edward Hearn

Run Time: 15 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free online If you do, please comment.

20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1916)

Blogathon Words Words WordsThis is my contribution to the CMBA Spring Blogathon “Words…Words…Words.” Funny enough, this idea for a blogathon started with me, with the idea that we often focus too much on directors, and not on writers, when reviewing, analyzing, or discussing classic film. Then, lo and behold, I chose a movie to write about that was written and directed by the same fellow, Stuart Paton, who had a busy career at Universal (formerly IMP), but never got much recognition. This may in fact be his best-known movie, although he kept working until 1938.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea1As the story begins, a strange giant sea creature has been rampaging the seas. The American naval ship Abraham Lincoln is sent to investigate, and Professor Arronax (Dan Hanlon), from France, is invited along. He brings his daughter (Edna Pendleton), who rapidly becomes interested in Ned Land (Curtis Benton), the “famous harpoonist,” aboard ship. The ship is rammed by “the creature” which turns out to be the Nautilus, the fantastic submarine of the enigmatic Captain Nemo (Allen Holubar, who looks vaguely like an East Indian Santa Claus), and “Rudderless, the ‘Abraham Lincoln’ drifts on.” Nemo rescues all of the named characters and takes them prisoner. After they pledge not to escape, Nemo shows them the wonders of the underwater world, and even takes them hunting on the sea floor. When a pearl diver is caught in the clutches of a giant octopus, Nemo sends Ned Land and his Lieutenant out to rescue him.

20000 Leagues Under the SeaMeanwhile, soldiers in a runaway Union Army Balloon are marooned on a mysterious island not far from the submarine. They find a wild girl living alone on the island (“a child of nature” played by Jane Gail). Nemo sees the castaways and sends them a present: a chest full of various necessities they will need to survive. One of the soldiers manages to coax the wild girl to live in his shelter, which he chastely guards from outside while she sleeps, stopping one of the other soldiers from attacking her. He also convinces her to trade her leopard-skin one-piece for men’s clothing.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea4Suddenly, the yacht of Charles Denver (William Welsh) arrives at the island. A former Indian colonial officer, he has been haunted by the ghost of a woman (Princess Daaker) that he attacked years ago; she stabbed herself rather than submit to him. He fled with her young daughter and then abandoned the child on the island. The long-tormented Denver has returned to see what became of her. The wild girl meanwhile relates the story of how she came to the island to the nice soldier. Denver quickly becomes disoriented and lost.

20,000_Leagues_under_the_SeaAn evil Union soldier schemes and with help from surprisingly compliant yacht crewmen kidnaps the wild girl onto Denver’s yacht. Another soldier swims aboard to rescue her. Denver is shocked to find her in his cabin. At the same time, Nemo discovers that the yacht belongs to Denver, the enemy he has been seeking all these years. The Nautilus destroys the yacht with a torpedo, but the girl and her rescuer are saved from the water by Captain Nemo. In elaborate flashback scenes to India, Nemo reveals that he is Prince Daaker, and that he created the Nautilus to seek revenge on Charles Denver. He is overjoyed to discover that the abandoned wild girl is his long-lost daughter, but his emotion is such that he expires. His loyal crew bury him at the ocean bottom. They disband and the Nautilus is left to drift to its own watery grave.

20,000_Leagues_under_the_Sea1Anyone who has read “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” will immediately notice that this plotline adds a great deal to that story. The source of most of it is Verne’s “Mysterious Island,” which served as a kind of sequel to “20,000 Leagues” and solved the mystery of Captain Nemo’s origin. By combining the two, writer-director Stuart Paton has given the audience a much more complete story, but he has added a number of expensive action sequences and cluttered the screen with more characters than we can keep track of. He has made matters worse by introducing two female characters, neither in the original books, apparently as love interests, although the romantic storylines are never paid off. It would have been quite shocking in the America of “The Birth of a Nation” had the Indian wild girl ended up married to the heroic white Union soldier, but we do not get that resolution here. I suspect it was cut for being too controversial.

Who are all these people?

Who are all these people?

OK, so it’s a busy storyline with a lot of characters, many of whom never even get the dignity of names, but does it remain true to Jules Verne? I would have to say yes, overall. Verne spent many pages of his novel describing the undersea wonders that Arronax was permitted to see through the “crystalline window” of the Nautilus, and, enamored of their new “underwater photography” techniques, the cameramen at Universal also linger on corals, sharks, and schools of fish. Actually, the camera never went into the water, but a system of watertight tubes and mirrors allowed the camera to shoot reflected images of underwater scenes staged in shallow sunlit waters. For 1916, this looks great, as do the diving suits the characters wear during their external ventures, with rather compact oxygen tanks attached.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea3These convincing effects were further complimented by a genuine full-scale submarine, painted to resemble the Nautilus as described by Verne. It’s not as exotic as the later Disney version (itself based on illustrations by Alphonse de Neuville and Édouard Riou), but it is clearly a functioning vessel, as is the Abraham Lincoln and most shots we see of Denver’s yacht; few if any miniatures are substituted for the ships. During the flashback sequence, we see an impressive palace and enormous city gates which dwarf the extras scrambling beneath them. In fact, the one effect that is disappointing is the octopus, which is just plain goofy-looking.

Director's note: don't put googly eyes on your scary monster.

Director’s note: don’t put googly eyes on your scary monster.

All those effects apparently cost quite a bit, rather more than the still independent Universal Film Manufacturing Company could really afford. This was to be their big money release, and should have been a big hit, but it wound up costing so much that they couldn’t recoup the expenses. This may have partly contributed to Paton’s later bad reputation as a director. The reviews at the time, to judge at least from “Moving Picture World” were fairly kind, and particularly enthusiastic about the underwater photography (including, to my surprise, the octopus!). The reviewer was somewhat mixed on the acting, and a bit left-handed about the directing (“Stuart Paton…has been confronted by many difficult problems and, in the main, has solved them with much skill”). To us today this movie remains an impressive technical achievement from a century ago, but maybe not the most compelling version of the imaginative tale ever told.

20000 Leagues Under the Sea6Director: Stuart Paton

Camera: Eugene Gaudio

Starring: Allen Holubar, William Welsh, Jane Gail, Edna Pendleton, Dan Hanlon, Curtis Benton

Run Time: 1 Hr, 40 Min

You can see it for free: here (no music) or here (bad music. Don’t say I didn’t warn you).

Girl Ranchers (1913)

Marie Walcamp is one of the "Girl Ranchers."

Marie Walcamp is one of the “Girl Ranchers.”

This light comedy from Universal is a pretty typical comedic spin on “the war of the sexes,” and will probably remind modern viewers of similar comedies from more recent times. A pair of Eastern sisters inherit a Western ranch and choose to move out and run the place themselves. The rough and ready mustachioed ranch hands are unhappy about “skirts” bossing them, but they seem unable to be anything but gallant when the ladies are present. The girls redecorate and invite more and more of their friends out, and tensions rise, but the final straw is when the new owners declare that all men must be clean-shaven for reasons of hygiene. The cowboys storm off in protest, and the women attempt to do the ranch work, leading of course to hilarity at their incompetence. The plot is settled by the contrivance of a generic and unmotivated attack by a local Native American tribe. The men ride back to the rescue and the two genders of white people make common cause – the men give up their mustaches and the women hold a dance. The awkward girl winds up dancing with the awkward short man and everyone presumably lives happily ever after. The tall girl is the source of the only moments of actual comedy in the piece; I believe she is played by Laura Oakley.

Director: Al Christie

Starring: Marie Walcamp, Laura Oakley, Ramona Langley, Lee Moran

Run Time: 14 Min

I have been unable to find this film for free online. If you know where it can be seen, please share it in the comments.