Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: USA

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.

Do Re Mi Boom2

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.

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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.

Why Broncho Billy Left Bear County1

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.

Skyscrapers from the North River1

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.

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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 »

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls (1913)

This short from G.M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson doesn’t show a lot of progress over the simple Western stories he’d been telling for years now. The appeal is his folksy charm and good nature, and the opportunity to imagine adventure in the Wild West for a few minutes.

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls1

The movie begins by showing us Billy and his relationship to the two “Western Girls” of the title – Irene and Evelyn Courtney, played by Bess Sankey and Evelyn Selbie, respectively. They run the general store for their father (Lloyd Ingraham), who is disabled, and Irene seems to be sweet on Billy. The general store being the main postal exchange for the area, the stagecoach delivers a large bag of money there, presumably the payroll for a local mine, military outpost, or other operation. This is observed by gang leader Fred Church, who goes to his hombres’ camp in the wilderness, and brings them back to rob the store. This leads to a situation reminiscent of “An Unseen Enemy” in which the two girls are locked in a room while the bad guys try to break in. Evelyn takes the gold, sneaks out the window and rides off on her horse. A chase through the forest is handled with stationary camera, tight shots, and unclear geography, but somehow results in Billy seeing the girl’s plight and shooting the bad man just as he would have grabbed the gold. A posse comes out of nowhere to apprehend the men and help the girl. The movie ends with Billy together with Irene

Broncho Billy and the Western Girls

It’s understandable if Gil Anderson wasn’t quite up to matching D. W. Griffith’s suspense during the break-in and ride to escape, but you would think that ten years after appearing in “The Great Train Robbery,” he could stage a Western chase scene with a bit more deftness. It’s totally unclear why Evelyn gets off her horse and starts running through the brush, how all three bandits managed to get together and chase her after only Fred saw her ride off, or how other people somehow stumble into the same place at the fortuitous moment. I chalk it up to producing dozens of these movies each year, and wanting to give audiences just enough plot to keep them interested for a quarter of an hour, with no expectation that they (or anyone) would re-watch or analyze them carefully. Anderson still comes across as the classic genial Western hero, and it’s fascinating how the women in his movies never look made-up or glamorous, just like the plain women one would expect to find living on the range.

Director: G.M “Broncho Billy” Anderson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: G.M. “Broncho Billy Anderson, Bess Sankey, Evelyn Selbie, Lloyd Ingraham, Fred Church, Victor Potel, Harry Todd

Run Time: 10 Min, 13 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Cops (1922)

This simple two-reel short confirms Buster Keaton’s genius before he had moved on to the production of comedy features later in the twenties. While limited in terms of plot and character, it takes the basic concept of the chase, a staple of film since the beginning, and “runs with it” (pun intended) for all it’s worth.

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The movie begins by establishing its simple premise – Keaton speaks to a girl (Virginia Fox) through bars, as if in prison. Then, she turns and walks away from him, and the new angle shows that he is standing at the gate to her home, and that she is on the grounds of a large estate. She tells him in an intertitle that in order to marry her, he will need to be successful in business. And thus, Buster is set into motion. A short distance away, he sees a man (Joe Roberts) hailing a taxi. He accidentally drops a large wad of money. Buster retrieves it and, rather than steal it, offers it back to the man, expecting a reward. The man ignores him and seems annoyed. He then tries to help the man to the taxi, still hoping for a tip, but each effort he makes backfires and the man is tripped and becomes increasingly angry. When the taxi pulls away, Keaton starts counting the money he has lifted during the scuffle. The man, however, realizes the money is gone and has the taxi return, grabbing it from Keaton’s hand in motion. He gets only the wallet, so the taxi turns around again and this time he gets out, ready to confront Buster, but Buster just gets into the cab from the other side and drives off. Only now do we see the man’s badge, indicating that Buster has just had his first run-in with the law.

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The Blacksmith (1922)

Another two-reel short from Buster Keaton that emphasizes his ability to come up with a seemingly endless string of gags around a given them, this movie is surprisingly plotless, even compared to his early work with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Enjoy the laughs, but don’t look for a lot of coherence, from this one.

The opening introduces Buster, a blacksmith’s assistant, in poetic intertitles that contrast with the images shown. We are told that the “village smithy” stands under a “spreading chestnut tree,” to see Buster posing beneath a remarkably tall palm tree – essentially a pole with a tuft on top. A line about “the muscles of his brawny arms” is followed by Keaton flexing, then popping the balloon that swells beneath his sleeve. When children look in at him doing his work, the boss (Joe Roberts) comes along and chases them off. He then finds Buster is using the smithy flame to heat up his breakfast. Using tongs to hold the plate, Buster tries to pretend to be working by hammering at the anvil, but shatters the plate and ruins his meal. Then, Buster does several pratfalls involving a hot horseshoe, fresh out of the forge. He burns each of his feet in turn and then his behind, putting each into the bucket of water to cool them and, of course, producing steam. Soon, his boss tells him to bring a large hammer out to the front, where he is working on a wagon wheel. He brings two, but they disappear, sucked up to the huge horseshoe that serves as their shop’s sign – in fact a huge horseshoe magnet. When the wagon wheel disappears the same way, the larger man begins to abuse him, which attracts the attention of the local sheriff, who loses his star and gun in the same way. Now the sheriff calls over his four deputies and they take the blacksmith into custody, with considerable difficulty as the huge man fights back. Buster inadvertently helps them when he sees where ll of the missing bits of metal have gone and climbs up to the magnet, bring it and all of its gains down upon his boss and stunning him.

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