Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: USA

The Circus (1920)

This short from Bray Studios again mixes live action with animation (no doubt to save time and money before cel animation had been perfected) to produce a movie about a drawing that takes on a life of its own. The result is simple, but satisfying.

Let this ring represent “Circus.”

The movie begins with an image of an artist at his desk with a messenger standing over him. We see him draw the image of a clown, seal it in an envelope and address it to “the Operator.” The messenger brings it to a projectionist working in a booth, and he opens it to find instructions for the clown. He turns the page over and the clown comes to life, initiating the animated portion of the film. The clown draws himself a circus ring and calls for music. He creates the shape of a horse beneath a blanket, then pulls off the blanket, revealing a skinny nag. The horse eats the blanket and the clown does some stunts on his back, before the horse bucks him off and tramples him. The clown asks the horse to count out the toes on his foot, and the horse stamps on it. The horse then does a series of funny poses, and the clown announces that he will run to beat his own time of a mile in 1 and ¾ seconds, but he accidentally hits the horse with the bullet from the starter gun. The horse announces “I’m kilt” in a speech bubble and a horse with a halo emerges and floats up to horse heaven. The horse-St. Peter insists that he take off his shoes and when he tosses them down he hits the clown repeatedly. The clown throws one back up, giving St. Pete a black eye and the horse laughs, causing St. Pete to kick him back down to Earth. He re-enters the horse-body and comes back to life. He kicks the still laughing clown into an inkpot and the clown throws ink at the horse before putting the cap back on and descending.

This movie was part of a series called “Out of the Inkwell” produced by Max Fleischer and directed by his brother Dave. The series ran from 1918 to 1926, and the protagonist would eventually become known as “Koko the Clown,” although he was nameless at the time of this film. He has a memorable look that I think today seems like a familiar image of an “old time” clown. He had first been drawn by Max Fleischer to demonstrate the success of his invention, the rotoscope, that was a method for achieving realistic movement for animated cartoons. The series became a hit, and the Fleischers went on to produce on film a month for eight years. Koko remained a staple for years after the end of the first series and continued working up to an appearance with Betty Boop in 1934, then took some time off before appearing on television in the sixties. This cartoon, which has many elements that would be familiar to children of later generations, seems fairly sophisticated, although much of the movie takes place against a blank white background. Once we get up to “horse heaven,” things get a bit more impressive, and the clown does well moving about the “real” world of the inkwell as well.

Director: Dave Fleischer

Animator: Max Fleischer

Run Time: 4 Min, 30 secs

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

The Bomb Idea (1920)

This animated short from Bray Productions features Jerry Flannigan, known to readers of the Hearst Newspapers as “Jerry on the Job.” He is a diminutive fellow who works a variety of jobs, although his employment is a pretty minor aspect of this film.

Jerry and his boss are at a railroad station, reading the paper. They see a headline screaming “BOLSHEVIKI RUN WILD THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY” and become highly paranoid. When a mustachioed man walk up holding a large black sphere, they become fearful and try to hide, but everywhere they go, he seems to follow, polishing his “bomb.” Finally, they run into town and arouse several other citizens and a police officer to come out and investigate. The team sees the man lighting a match, but really he’s just lighting his pipe. He gets ready to throw the bomb and tries to knock over several bowling pins, but the ball misses and he has to use his pipe to get a “strike.” At that moment, the lynch mob confronts him with a gun, and he holds up his hands, causing his coveralls to fall off and reveal several bowling medals pinned to his chest. He runs off, leaving his clothing behind and the other lynchers turn on Jerry and his boss, initiating the traditional cartoon “fight cloud.” When the dust clears, it appears that Jerry and his boss have been torn to shreds, and the other men leave. Finally, the heads of Jerry and his boss poke out from the ground, with two black eyes each, but they are still alive. Oddly, in the final shot they kiss each other on the mouth.

What surprised me most about this cartoon was the direct political reference, but particularly in the context of red-baiting newspapers. The comic’s original host, the Hearst line of papers had been responsible for some of the worst red-baiting of the postwar period, and here was a cartoon apparently lampooning that with their character! The movie suggests that people should not jump to conclusions, and that violence can be fueled by irresponsible journalism. Of course, it’s all in the service of a laugh, and apparently meant for children who probably wouldn’t read that level of criticism into it. It was also interesting to see the early use of a dust cloud to simulate fighting in cartoons, something I remember from my childhood of cartoon-watching.

Director: Walt Hoban, Vernon Stallings

Animator: Walter Lantz

Run Time: 4 Min

I have not been able to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

The Ocean Waif (1916)

This late movie from Alice Guy-Blaché’s Solax studio seems to be an effort by her to imitate the success of Mary Pickford, with a less-expensive actress. The story, as well as the performer, do manage to evoke some of the charm of Pickford’s better work.

Not Little Mary

Doris Kenyon is Millie, a young orphan who washed up on the beach one day and is being raised by “Hy” Jessop (William Morris), a gruff fisherman with all the social graces and basic decency of Huck Finn’s Pappy. She is also loved from afar by the seemingly simple-minded “Sem” (Fraunie Fraunholz), who hates to see her abused by her foster father, and tries to defend her. She runs away to a nearby abandoned crumbling mansion, which, though filled with rats, is not much worse than her regular squalid digs. A wealthy author by the name of Ronald Roberts (Carlyle Blackwell) decides to lease said mansion, seeing it as the ideal romantic atmosphere to work out yet another best-selling novel, and he brings along his valet, Edgar Norton. Clearly, the three are on a collision course with wackiness!

This being a fairly brief silent film, said wackiness gets underway pretty quickly, with Millie hiding out in the mansion and fooling the butler into believing there is a “lady ghost.” Norton gives quite a number of good scare takes before Roberts figures out that there’s a real girl hiding out. Once she’s been discovered, Roberts takes her under his wing, with the usual result of an impoverished young girl’s awakening attraction to an older successful man (see, for example, “Stella Maris”). In this case, he more or less reciprocates, but with the added complication of a fiancé who comes to visit at an inopportune moment, causing Millie to run back to her foster father, who now notices her blooming womanhood for the first time. Luckily, Sem intervenes once again to rescue her, conveniently getting himself killed n the process to avoid any further romantic triangles. Ronald’s fiancé decides she’s more interested in marrying “the Count” who has been wooing her single (presumably widowed) mother, thus allowing the two stars to live happily ever after.

Your…fish…has arrived, sir.

This is pretty light fare, and as I’ve suggested it’s rather derivative, so doesn’t hold up against the best work Guy-Blaché was putting out from Gaumont in the 1900s. It is undeniably more sophisticated in terms of film techniques and storytelling, but only in the sense of having kept up with the industry as of 1916, not in terms of any innovations. Still, there are some nice touches. I actually think the best performance is the comic turn by Norton as the butler. I could actually hear his nasally-British voice as he showed his fastidious snobbishness at the surroundings and locals of the seaside. Anyone who watched (or read) “Jeeves and Wooster” will instantly recognize his archetype here. Norton would continue playing butlers of this type well into the sound period, so he’ll be recognized by many classic film fans. One nice bit has the waif’s first night at the mansion intercut with the author’s night in a luxurious hotel nearby, emphasizing the differences in their backgrounds and the lives they’ve known. I was actually rooting for Sem, myself, who seemed to have more genuine feelings for Millie, and who is the only one who really puts himself on the line for her. I suppose that the difference in their intelligence would have prevented a healthy relationship, but I’m not sure that falling for the first rich guy you meet is much better.

Director: Alice Guy-Blaché

Camera: John G. Haas

Starring: Doris Kenyon, Carlyle Blackwell, William Morris, Fraunie Fraunholz, Edgar Norton

Run Time: 40 Min (with some missing footage, I believe)

You can watch it for free: here.

Terror Island (1920)

Having survived 15 death-defying situations in the previous year’s serial “The Master Mystery,” Harry Houdini is back in this feature-length adventure thriller which bills itself a “melodrama.”

Houdini stars as Harry Harper, a treasure-seeker with a heart of gold who hopes to recover a shipwreck full of diamonds using his newly invented submarine in order to take care of local waifs who sell newspapers. Wilton Taylor and Edwin Brady are greedy treasure hunters who are gunning for the same treasure, and they read about Harry’s plans in the newspaper. Lila Lee is Beverly West, the horseback riding love interest who happens to be related to the bad guys and also possesses the map to the wreck in question, sent by her father in a plea for his rescue from island natives who plan to sacrifice him unless she returns a skull-shaped pearl he sent her earlier. Got all that? Read the rest of this entry »

The Manicure Lady (1911)

This short by Mack Sennett was produced for Biograph before he struck out on his own, and it seems he tried (or was told) to imitate D.W. Griffith, because there’s very little of the wacky chaos of a Keystone production here. We do get Griffithian conventions like contrasting scenes intercut to demonstrate opposites, and a race to the rescue at the end.

The movie begins by introducing the named character, a woman (Vivian Prescott) who works in a barber shop, as she prepares for work. The intertitles tell us, however, that this is a romance, which will prove “faint heart never won fair lady.” That situation becomes more clear, however, when we meet her coworker, the barber (Sennett). He immediately pulls out a ring and proposes to her, but she spurns him. As (male) customers come in for manicures and shaves, we see that the manicurist enjoys the intimacy of her work, and is flirtatious with the customers, which drives the barber to distraction, and makes him negligent of his own work (and a bit dangerous, with a razor in his hand). One customer in particular (Eddie Dillon) quickly shows interest in her and becomes a rival for her affections. When lunch break comes along, the barber and the manicurist prepare to go out together, but the rival shows up in a car and takes her off with him. The lunches are cut together – Vivian and Eddie are eating in refinement and luxury, while Mack is in a cheap diner, with a tough steak and a rude waitress. At the end of the day, the rival shows up in another car (possibly a taxi) but this time Mack, desperate, leaps onto the back of the vehicle. As they ride out into the country, Mack breaks through the rear window and beats up his rival, tossing him out of the car. He once again proposes, and the manicure lady, overcome by his passionate determination, finally consents.

Most of the humor of this film comes from Sennett’s distraction while the manicurist flirts. He tugs on beards, forgets to finish what he has started, and generally seems like a menace with his blade. One older customer is dragged off by the ear by his jealous wife (Kate Bruce) who refuses to pay for the shave Sennett forgot to give. Another grows tired of waiting and grabs the razor to shave himself (though he pays). The other laugh I got out of it was the final fight scene, mostly because it was so sudden and surprising. Mostly, though, this is a rather broadly-played romantic drama, and though we feel sorry for the barber, he never really comes across as the better or more deserving of love. Watching it made me think of the strange physical intimacy of this now largely lost form of grooming – few men today go to barbers for shaves and manicures. Almost the only time I am this close to a stranger is when I go to the dentist. For a society as repressed as (we think of) the early twentieth century, it’s interesting that this convention existed. It seems like early film makers, looking for places where romance could happen in nine or ten minutes, found it useful as well.

Director: Mack Sennett

Camera: Percy Higginson

Starring: Mack Sennett, Vivian Prescott, Eddie Dillon, Kate Bruce, Verner Clarges, Grace Henderson, Florence La Badie, Claire McDowell, Kate Toncray, Charles West

Run Time: 11 Min, 22 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Curtain Pole (1909)

This early collaboration between D.W. Griffith and Mack Sennett looks like a primitive version of the latter’s later riotous slapstick comedies. It uses themes (like the mass chase) that have shown up in earlier film comedies from both France and the USA.

The movie begins in a middle-class home, where a man (Henry Solter) is helping several women (one is Florence Lawrence, AKA “The Biograph Girl”) to install a new pole for the curtains. However, he is either not tall enough or otherwise unable to manage it. In walks Sennett, in a ridiculous mustache and tight-fitting clothes that emphasize his lanky frame. He makes an attempt, but slips and falls, bending the pole and then breaking it when he tries to straighten it out. Deeply apologetic, he goes out to procure another for them. Along the way, he encounters an acquaintance, who invites him into a bar for a drink. Thus fortified, he makes his way to a store and buys a very long curtain rod. Almost immediately, he starts knocking people over and whacking them with the pole. When he tries hiding out in the bar, he causes further chaos there, and soon a gang of different types of people, from little old ladies to street ruffians, is chasing him. He stops and gets a taxi, but the added speed only makes the pole more dangerous, and soon he is literally causing riots in the street with his passage. He does manage to elude the mob, in part because his horse starts running backward (!), and eventually makes it back to the home of his friends, who apparently were able to get another curtain rod during his long absence, and have started a dinner party. Driven mad by his experience and failure to help out, Sennett starts eating the curtain rod.

This sort of comes across as a “proof of concept” experiment, with Griffith trying to show what he can accomplish. One part I don’t entirely understand is where a fellow with a walking stick causes the horse to start running backward. The effect is achieve by reversing the film, and Griffith has the mob run up right afterward and fall down, but in fact what the actors did was get up and “run” backwards off the screen in order to get the effect, and it looks very unnatural. Sennett chews the scenery and hams constantly, but he’s having so much fun with it that it’s hard to mind. The riot scenes are remarkable, with baby carriages and innocent couples being knocked over, pushed, and trampled. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few actors were injured. The film was shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, and takes advantage of the location to show quite a number of its streets.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer

Starring: Mack Sennett, Henry Solter, Florence Lawrence

Run Time: 10 Min

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

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Puncher’s New Love (1911)

This unusual film from Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson avoids most of the usual Western tropes to tell a romantic story of love lost through selfishness. While a bit awkwardly shot and acted, it goes a long way to showing the diversity of roles Anderson did within the “Broncho Billy” umbrella.

As the movie begins, Anderson is leaning in the window to ask out his girl (Ann Little) to an upcoming barn dance. She is happy to accept and even gives him a little kiss goodbye. Right after he departs, a rival (John O’Brien) arrives with a handbill about the same dance. Ann rightly tells John she can’t go with him, because she just agreed to go with Billy, but he doesn’t seem to get the hint until she repeats herself. Eventually, he seems to console himself by saying at least he’ll see her at the dance with Billy. Meanwhile, Billy comes across a “city girl” (Gladys Field) out riding, and is immediately infatuated. He shows her the handbill and she shows an interest in going with Billy, who seems to completely forget about Ann. On the night of the dance, John sees Billy come in with the city girl and his jaw drops. She refuses to shake hands with a man Billy introduces her to, and looks disdainfully at the whole affair, but eventually agrees to dance with Billy. John eagerly rushes off to find Ann, who is standing forlornly in front of her gate. He tells her Billy’s there with another woman, and she looks crushed, but eventually agrees to go with John. Once there, Billy appears to be about to leave with his bored date, but receives a withering stare from Ann before he gets out the door, and sees that she is with John.

Some time later, Billy pays a call on the city girl, looking about in wide-eyed wonder at her fine house and the liveried butler. Gladys seems not to remember Billy when he is announced, but eventually deigns to coldly greet him. Then a man in a tuxedo comes in and she quickly rushes up and hugs him hello. Billy expresses his jealousy and is asked to leave, which he will not do until he’s said his piece and threatened violence. Now he returns shame-faced to see Ann in her home, but she is still angry at being cast aside without even being informed that their date was off. She tells Billy to go, and this time he does so with more decency, because this is someone he can respect. John comes in a bit later with a ring and we see that Ann has transferred her feelings to him. A final intertitle (possibly added due to the loss of some footage) tells us that the couple eventually discovers Billy dead.

We can’t see you, Ann!

There are no gunfights, horseback chases or bar room brawls in this film, yet it is fundamentally about the different values of the “pure” pioneering America versus the corrupt Europeanized culture of the city. Billy and all the other “punchers” wear riding garb at all times, even at the formal dance, although the city girl wears a black gown and the other country girls are in simple dresses. The overall plot is reminiscent of F.W. Murnau’s much later movie “Sunrise,” but without the happy ending, or the attempted murder. It’s interesting that Billy is unable to redeem himself from his mistake – usually in a story like this, a man can make amends, but a “fallen woman” has to die. This movie surprised me by ending with the death of the fallen man. It’s very much a 1911 movie, with all shots taken at full-figure distance, and no camera movement or editing within scenes. The sets are often crowded, especially the dance hall set, and actors frequently pass in front of one another, obscuring  the main action. The dance begins with a little comedy about the fiddler, who is either drunk or exhausted (I couldn’t tell if he was laughing hysterically or yawning), and nearly everyone in the movie is crowded into that scene. One really unfortunate choice was to shoot the scene of John picking up Ann from behind the gate Ann is waiting at, so her face is obscured as she acts out her reaction to Billy’s betrayal. There were a lot of other angles they could have used for that scene, but it probably didn’t occur to anyone that it would be an issue.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Gladys Field, Ann Little, John O’Brien, Augustus, Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin, Brinsley Shaw

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Series Photography (1885)

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

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

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

Director: Eadweard Muybridge

Camera: Eadweard Muybridge

Run Time: 2 min (as presented)

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

The Master Mystery (1919)

To wrap up this year’s October review of chilling movies, I’m going to look at this serial starring no less a person than Harry Houdini. Once again, it’s not exactly a horror movie – it’s more of a crime serial ala Louis Feuillade – but it has madness, a robot, and lots of creative death-dealing situations for the hero to get out of, so I’m including it.

Our story begins in the home of Peter Brent (Jack Burns), the President of International Patents, Inc, a company whose nefarious scheme is to buy up the patents for new inventions from lone geniuses and keep them off the market – benefiting those who own existing patents by preventing free competition. Unbeknownst to Brent, one of his employees, Quentin Locke (Houdini) is actually an agent of the Dept. of Justice, investigating on the grounds of the Anti-trust Act, and he has wired Brent’s home for sound (most of the first shots we see of Houdini are his reactions to conversations other characters are having in other rooms, which can be a bit confusing). Locke is of course secretly in love with Brent’s daughter Eva (Marguerite Marsh), and Brent is actually having second thoughts about the whole scheme for her sake. Enter the real villains of the movie, Herbert and Paul Balcom (William Pike and Charles E Graham), a father-and-son team who hope to take over the company (the father) and marry Eva (the son). They also have collaborators in the form of a secretary named Zita Dane (Ruth Stonehouse) who is secretly in love with Locke and a lady-of-leisure with the unlikely moniker of De Luxe Dora (Edna Britton) who “dominates” Paul. Read the rest of this entry »