Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: USA

Regeneration (1923)

I’m kicking off 1923 with this fragment from director Richard E. Norman. It serves as a reminder of the fragility of the art of film as a medium – and choices that are made about what is preserved and what is not.

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The opening credits inform us that this is part two of a serial produced by the Norman Film Manufacturing Company of Jacksonville Florida. An opening intertitle appears to assume the audience is up to speed as it informs us that we are seeing “The Eve of Sailing.” The opening shot is of a group of African American sailors (one in a chef’s uniform) working on the deck of a small craft. A man in an officer’s uniform talks to a young woman; she is concerned that the crew all look like “villains,” but he assures her he can control them. We get a shot of the one-legged cook singing a song about evading work, strumming on his crutch like it is a banjo. The officer chides him and orders fried chicken for dinner. The footage starts to break up pretty badly at this point, and much of the action can only be concluded by reading intertitles, which linger on the screen even as the nitrate damage dances around them. It appears that as they get far out to sea, the crew rebels and tries to force the officer and his girlfriend to surrender a treasure chart they have in their possession and which is presumably the motivator for the voyage. The cook, despite the rough treatment he received earlier, appears to side with them and work behind the scenes to help them to escape. He seems to sow seeds of discontent among the mutineers, who fall out and accuse one another of stealing the chart. The cook is menaced and surrenders the chart. The episode ends with a promise that the story will continue in part 3.

Regeneration1920

Like many films from the silent era, this movie is essentially “lost,” but we are fortunate to have enough of it to know that it once existed. Studies show that a vast number of films from the silent era have been lost or destroyed over the decades. One reason we know so little now about African American film history is because the “race pictures” that were made in the silent era were not seen as culturally significant; some came from studios that went bankrupt and lost control over their collections, others were distributed with limited prints to begin with, and few film collectors have made them a priority. As with so many aspects of our culture, the most vulnerable groups lose out in history because they don’t have the power to prevent their erasure from history.

Regeneration1920decay

Thankfully, however, we do have both this clip (thanks to the Library of Congress and Kino Lorber’s “Pioneers of African-American Cinema”). We also have a good deal of historical background about this movie, thanks to The Norman Studios Silent Movie Museum website. I won’t repeat everything you can read there, but they nicely document director Richard E. Norman’s showmanship and business acumen in working with distributors and local censors to get his movie seen. What we can see of the film reminds me of other adventure movies of the time, such as “Terror Island” with Harry Houdini. While the production values, marketing, etc may have been good, it’s somewhat disappointing to see the cook portrayed as a standard minstrel-show lazy Black man, though his apparent redemption as the one crew member not standing with the mutineers might help make up for that, if only we could see it more clearly.

Director: Richard E. Norman

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Stella Mayo

Run Time: 11 Min (existing)

You can watch it for free: here.

Georgetown Loop, Colorado

One of many “actualities” from the beginning of the twentieth century that offered to show America to Americans and the world, this movie reflects a rare opportunity to see the West in the movies before fantasy took over. Much longer than movies of only a few years ago, it remains simple in terms of technique and set up.

Georgetown Loop

The camera rushes along a mountain rail line, seeming to soar over forests and rivers, following the track across high bridges and below towering peaks. After a short distance, the train itself comes into view as it proceeds around a bend in the track. We can see the caboose, suggesting that the platform the camera is mounted upon is attached by a cable perhaps ten feet or more long, allowing a complete view of the train under certain circumstances. Seemingly all of the passengers in the rear cars are waving white handkerchiefs out the windows on the left side of the train, waving, as it were, at the audience. A conductor stands on the back of the final car and is especially vigorous and visible in his waving. Even when the passengers seem to tire of it, or when he has to lean dangerously far off the side to be seen, he keeps waving. At one point, the train goes underneath a trestle bridge while another train passes above, but the camera remains focused on the wavers. The terrain becomes rocky, the train barely missing boulders that have been blasted out to make way for the track, and the conductor is now hanging off the side in what seems a decidedly perilous manner as we go by a rail worker standing by the side of the tracks. Now a mountain village becomes visible, as the camera turns to pay more attention to the surroundings than the train. Houses loom up and we roll past warehouses and other commercial buildings. A church spire is visible in the distance. Still, whenever the train turns, we see the passengers endlessly waving, right up to the end of the film.

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It’s interesting that someone thought seeing Coloradans wave would be more interesting than just looking out at a vista of Colorado. This may have been done to add “human interest,” or it may have been calculated to give the audience something more to focus on than just the scenery, which is all you usually get in a “panorama” film like this. It’s especially surprising to a modern audience when we glimpse the second train on the bridge above, only to lose sight of it and stay focused on the wavers. I suspect this is because the tripods used at the time didn’t allow for enough “tilt” to keep it in view as the train went underneath. The conductor seems to have been especially dedicated to the waving principle, we can sometimes see him glance over his shoulder to make sure he’s not the only one waving. His uniform is distinctive and similar to what would be seen in later years; we also see a woman in a heavy, non-revealing outfit with a large hat, pretty much the style in 1903.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown. Some Internet sources claim Billy Bitzer, but this is not confirmed in his autobiography or any reliable source I can find.

Run Time: 3 Min

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

 

 

Blood and Sand (1922)

Happy Silent Movie Day, everyone. Well, this post was originally going to be put up on September 29, “Silent Movie Day,” as part of the blogathon hosted by Silentology. As it happens, the 29th was also “silent moving day” for me – I relocated 250 miles north. For that reason, this post wound up getting delayed until now. Anyway, around here every day is silent movie day!

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Rudolph Valentino remains a phenomenon, almost 100 years after his death. He wasn’t the first male film celebrity, but he is one of the first to have spawned a “cult” of fascination that seems to transcend time and space. Some people just fall completely in love with him, his face, his acting, the very idea of Valentino makes some go weak in the knees. This isn’t his “big breakout” movie (that honor belongs to “The Sheik”), but it’s a solid example of the kind of romantic role he was famous for, and very good at. Being set in Spain, it also reinforces the concept of Valentino as a “Latin Lover.” Let’s dive in and see what it holds!

Blood and Sand Read the rest of this entry »

Do-Re-Mi-Boom! (1915)

Chester Conklin plays a typical Keystone tramp in this Mack Sennett comedy from the year after Charlie Chaplin left the studio. He brings none of the sympathy Chaplin did (although Chaplin’s Keystone roles were his least sympathetic as well), and the movie hinges on increasingly madcap action for laughs.

Do Re Mi Boom

The movie begins with Conklin listening to the piano playing of Vivian Edwards, standing outside her window, dubiously trespassing on her property and peeping in at her. He is so moved by her playing that he starts to sing along, which causes her to come and speak with him, apparently unconcerned about his creepy behavior and odd appearance. Her music teacher (Charles Arling) now arrives and a rivalry is established. Arling quite reasonably takes offense at Conklin’s behavior, and drives him away with threats. He then remonstrates with Vivian not to encourage unhoused individuals to hang about her window making moony eyes at her, but soon engages in a bit of his own sexual harassment toward his pupil. Conklin wanders into the park, and sees an organ-grinder (Harry Booker) with his monkey attracting a crowd. This gives him the good idea to steal the organ and monkey for himself. The organ grinder is understandably upset by this, and being a swarthy foreigner in a Keystone film, naturally avails himself of an anarchist bomb. Conklin attempts to serenade his ostensible sweetie outside her window with the organ, which results in Arling coming out and giving him what for. Arling wins the fight and chucks Conklin into a trash can, where the foreigner tosses his bomb. Luckily, it has quite a long fuse and Conklin is able to put it out in time.

Do Re Mi Boom1

Now armed with the bomb himself, Conklin gets a new idea and follows the music teacher back to his hotel. Despite behaving an a very conspicuous manner and being asked to leave by the desk clerk, he is able to sneak up to Arling’s room and gain entry while he is out. He has the clever idea to hide the bomb inside his piano, rigged to ignite when certain notes are played. However, before he can effect an escape, Arling returns with Vivian and they sit down to another lesson. Conklin, trapped behind the piano, can do nothing but gesture in a panic. Now the monkey climbs up to the window, perhaps seeking Conklin who was his last owner. He jumps on the piano and it starts to smoke, now Conklin jumps out and tells them a bomb is inside. Together, they all push the piano out the window, but Conklin falls out with it and soon he and the monkey are barreling down the street on top of a runaway piano while the fuse grows shorter and shorter. The organ grinder sees them and gives chase, perhaps demanding the return of his monkey (or his bomb), while Arling and Vivian watch from the window. The bomb explodes, apparently resolving the issue and the survivors kiss.

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Watching something like this today, I can sympathize with critics of the day who called the movies “vulgar.” That’s not the word I would choose, but this is certainly pretty low-brow and low in production value. There’s little effort at characterization or story, just escalating zaniness and social cliché. There’s really no one to identify with here, except maybe the monkey – the two rivals are equally violent and inappropriate, one just happens to be in poorer clothing than the other, the foreigner is the worst kind of stereotype, and the woman is completely objectified and apparently has no will of her own. Despite a lack of credits, I’ve gone ahead and named her as Vivian Edwards based on a picture from “The Silent Era,” which is usually more reliable than the imdb, which credits her as “Girl in Hotel Lobby.” She was a busy comedienne of the day, and had worked with Chaplin in his time at Keystone, including on “His Prehistoric Past” and “The Masquerader.”

Director: Walter Wright

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Chester Conklin, Vivian Edwards, Charles Arling, Harry Booker, Fred Fishback, Charles Lakin, William Sheer

Run Time: 11 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Mark of Zorro (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks is a swashbuckling hero in this first adaptation of the famous novel “The Curse of Capistrano,” published just one year before. Generally seen as the beginning of a new direction in his career, the movie shows us how far cinematic techniques come since his start in 1915 as well.

MarkofZorro

The movie begins with intertitles that establish what might be Doug’s ideological stance – that oppressive systems breed their own downfall by causing heroic men to become freedom fighters in the cause of the people. Zorro is presented as such a man, and we see a soldier with a “Z-” shaped scar commiserating with his fellows in a bar. We learn that Zorro punished him for mistreating a local Native American, but also that the situation for the rich is not much better as the Governor imposes such high taxes on Don Carlos, father of Lolita Pulido (Marguerite de le Motte), that he is doomed to lose his lands. We return to the bar, where Sergeant Gonzales (Noah Beery) rails against Zorro and boasts of his prowess with the sword. He insults, but accepts free drinks from Don Diego (Douglas Fairbanks), a foppish, sickly noble. After he leaves, of course, Zorro comes in and defeats Gonzales in a duel, and fights off all of the other soldiers as well, humiliating them and generally wrecking the place.

Mark of Zorro1 Read the rest of this entry »

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County (1913)

This typical short Western from Essanay shows Gilbert M. Anderson’s best-known character once again in trouble with the law, but acting from a code of decency nevertheless. It would be more or less impossible to reconcile its narrative with any coherency with other stories in the series, but that never seems to have been a concern for Anderson or his audiences.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County

The movie begins by showing a girl (Marguerite Clayton) ministering to her sick mother. She runs out of medicine, and goes out to another room to find her father (Lloyd Ingraham) snoozing in an easy chair. She gives him the empty medicine bottle and some money and sends him off to get more. Dad, it seems, however, is not the most reliable errand-boy, as we will see later, but we do see her admonish him as she gives him the money and there is a curious shot of him crossing a creek, sniffing the bottle and using the creek water to rinse it out. Now we switch scenes to a typical Western bar, and Broncho Billy sidles up to the bar and orders a drink. Dad comes into the bar and speaks with the bartender (Harry Todd) before slumping down in a chair at a table. The bartender brings him a menu written on a small tablet/chalk board, and takes a coin from him and erases something from it when he makes his selection. He then brings Dad a full bottle and lets him pour out a drink. After a while, Dad is pretty drunk, and he pulls out the medicine bottle and hands over the last of his coins, asking the bartender to fill it with rotgut. The bartender looks at the bottle and then goes to draw from what looks like the cheapest bottle in the house (actually it looks more like a large wine bottle). Dad passes out while he fills it.

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Now Marguerite, wondering what’s taking so long, walks up and sees the bartender putting booze into the medicine bottle. She puts two and two together and goes to intervene. She wakes up her father and sniffs the bottle, then calls to the bartender, who refuses to take back the booze, insisting that the sale is complete. Broncho Billy sees what’s going on from across the room, and squares things with the bartender, giving him his gun in exchange for him returning both the empty bottle and the money to the girl. She is thankful, but now she struggles to get her dad to come with her, so Billy gives an assist. She goes to the drug store and gets the medicine while Billy sees to Dad, who is now awake and quite upset at the situation. They get back to her home and she gives Billy a prayerbook as a reward.

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The Intertitles tell us it is now the next day, and Billy is on horseback in the woods. He sees the stage driving up and gets himself into position to rob it, but Marguerite sees him and shames him out of doing it. She speaks to him and he takes out the little prayer book she gave. Meanwhile, Dad robs the stage a few feet down the road. He takes the strongbox and bashes it open with a rock, taking the loot bags and riding to his home, unaware that Billy has seen him. We now see the sheriff rousing his deputies in pursuit, as the report of the robbery has come in. Billy goes to the house and warns Dad they are coming, offering to take the cash off his hands. Billy mounts up and there is a wild chase on the road, with the posse in close pursuit. Billy manages to reach the County line, and he leaves the bags at the marker with a note that he is leaving the territory for good. The posse is satisfied to recover the money, and does not pursue him past their jurisdiction. A final shot shows Billy at church, kneeling and putting his prayerbook to good use.

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The first problem with this movie is that there are sources that list it as “Why Broncho Billy Left Bear Country,” which implies a different kind of a story. Even the DVD collection I have gives a different title on the beginning of the movie and the intertitles (both of which look reconstructed, to me). The fact that “Bear County” is written on the sign where Billy hangs the money seems to resolve that question, as well as the fact that we don’t see any bears, which would seem necessary to establish “bear country” in context. I had a hard time recognizing Dad as the robber in the second half of the film, and without that information, the story was confusing the first time through. The only thing that distinguishes him, given the quality of the print I was watching, was his checkered shirt. Poor Marguerite, with a dissipated father who resorts to such un-Christian acts! The color of the medicine and the booze were also very similar, which got me to wondering whether Ma might also be a secret tippler, and the medicine really snake oil all along. The most interesting thing cinematically about this movie is the editing. Most of the movie is stagey, with long, stationary shots in which the actors go about their business. The first moment in which this is disrupted is actually when Billy goes to help out Marguerite. Suddenly there are edits from him to the bar to the table where Dad and Marguerite are, giving the audience a sense of things happening at the same time. The bigger use of this is the horse chase at the end, where Anderson seems to be trying to emulate “The Great Train Robbery” by creating an action-suspense sequence to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. It’s not quite so thrilling as that movie, but with the moment of suspense when the posse is bearing down on the house where Billy and Dad are exposed with the loot, there is a moment of genuine alarm.

Director: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Marguerite Clayton, Lloyd Ingraham, Harry Todd, Fred Church, Victor Potel, True Boardman, David Kirkland

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sky Scrapers of New York City from the North River (1903)

This short from Edison is a classic Panorama of lower Manhattan, taken from a moving boat. Movies like this were old hat by 1903, but apparently there was still enough of a market to justify another one.

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The image begins with the camera facing a pier, with a tugboat steaming across the screen in the opposite direction to the motion of the camera. We pass a docked steamship and the next pier – clearly labeled “Pier 13.” Once we get past this pier, a bit of the city can be seen in the distance, although by modern standards these buildings are hardly “skyscrapers.” As get proceed further, there is a docked ferry (very similar in design to current ones), and now some taller buildings come into view. According to the Library of Congress’s summary, these include the Syndicate Building, Trinity Church, and the Surety Building. We pass a docked freighter and another tugboat steams through the frame. At this point the buildings in the background at tall enough to reach about 4/5 of the top of the frame, so they are impressively tall. A building marked “Babbitt” is a soap factory, according to LoC. Piers 4 and 5 are labelled “Pennsylvania Railroad,” and several barges, evidently intended to carry railroad cars, are piled nearby. The buildings here are somewhat shorter, but large. LoC identifies two as the Bowling Green Building and the Whitehall Building. Piers 2 and three are marked “Lehigh Valley,” and a very tall building (taller than the frame) sits next to #2. Pier One is Pennsylvania Railroad again, but it is followed by “New Pier 1,” which is owned by the United Fruit Company. LoC tells us that the next pier is Pier A, and that the boat marked “Patrol” is a police vessel. Now the Battery comes into view, and we see the Fireboat House and Castle Garden, which was an aquarium at the time, as we pass along the park’s edge. The camera shows Battery Park’s waterfront and begins to turn away from Manhattan at the end.

Skyscrapers from the North River

I was a bit confused by the designation “North River” when I first saw this, expecting it would show the northern part of Manhattan, but it actually shows the southern. The low pier numbers kind of gave it away, even before I recognized the Battery. Edison’s catalog doesn’t give the kind of detail about the location that you might expect; it only mentions the aquarium. Their emphasis is on the “beautiful stereoscopic effect of the sky-scrapers,” by which I suppose they meant that you could see the nearer objects moving faster than those further away (?). Stereoscopy normally refers to systems like Viewmaster, where a 3D effect is produced by showing different images to the left and right eyes, but so far as I know, no such technology was in use for motion picture film at the time. The film overall is probably of greatest interest to architectural and maritime historians and history buffs.

Director: Unknown

Camera: James Blair Smith

Run Time: 3 Min, 38 secs

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

The Mollycoddle (1920)

Douglas Fairbanks plays up the kind of comedy he established five years earlier with “The Lamb” in this typical exploit in which he plays a rich milksop who has to overcome his Old World weaknesses to become a peppy and effective American hero. Along with “When the Clouds Roll By,” this is one of the first directorial efforts of Victor Fleming.

Mollycoddle-1920

This movie begins with an odd sort of “Land Acknowledgement” in which Fairbanks thanks the Hopi of Arizona for “in their savage way” allowing them to film in their “primitive” villages. Since the movie is itself a kind of critique of civilization, this may not be intended to be as insulting as it sounds. A Hopi village is contrasted with an image of Monte Carlo to bring home the point. Doug plays the part of Richard Marshall V, an heir of pioneers and heroes who has been raised with refined manners in England, although he is an American. We see some flashbacks to the glory days of Richard Marshall III and IV (both played by Doug). It is established that the family heirloom is a medal awarded to the first Richard by George Washington, though we don’t see any of his heroics.

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Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Five years after “Intolerance,” D.W. Griffith released this epic film about sisters in revolutionary Paris, filled with romance, intrigue, suspense, and, yes, spectacle. Griffith had a huge reputation to live up to, and struggled to maintain his critical success with each new picture. How does this movie hold up after 100 years?

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The movie begins with the usual Griffith intertitles expostulating on the past and current affairs. In this case, he evokes the history of the Reign of Terror to warn against America’s possible descent into “Anarchy and Bolshevism,” putting you on notice as to where he stands. Then more intertitles introduce our backstory, which establishes the classic orphaned child of the nobility being left at the steps of Notre Dame Cathedral to freeze, but rescued by a peasant who had intended to do the same with his own baby daughter. These two grow up together in provincial poverty, never knowing their roots, and become real-life sisters Dorothy and Lillian Gish, playing Louise and Henriette Girard, respectively.

Orphans of the Storm1 Read the rest of this entry »

My Wife’s Relations (1922)

Buster Keaton winds up married by accident and has to navigate a family of in-laws from Hell in this short comedy from 1922. Will he survive this bizarre situation?

My Wifes Relations

The movie begins with Buster pulling taffy for a living at a candy store in a large urban area. An intertitle emphasizes the many languages spoken in such places (relevant to the plot) and tells us he is a young artist (completely irrelevant). The scene cuts to a young Polish couple, calling a Justice of the Peace to request a wedding ceremony, to be performed in their native language. He concurs, saying, “I speak no other language.” Buster gets into a confrontation with a postman, accidentally hitting him with the taffy pull and provoking him to throw a bottle at him, which smashes a window. Buster runs away, but trips over a large woman (Kate Price). Kate grabs him and sees the window, and the Justice of the Peace inspecting it (turns out it was his window) and draws the conclusion that Buster is responsible, so hauls him back over to the scene of the crime. The Justice of the Peace assumes they are the couple who called and begins the wedding ceremony. Since neither side knows what the other is saying, soon Kate and Buster are hitched. Read the rest of this entry »