Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: USA

The Centaurs (1918-1921)

This fragment of animation from Winsor McCay is listed as “unreleased, circa 1918-1921” on the “Winsor McCay: The Master Edition” DVD. I’m reviewing it now mostly for convenience’s sake – possibly it would be just as appropriate to treat it as a 1921 film, or to skip it entirely due to its unreleased, incomplete nature.

The movie begins with an image of a pleasant forest. A nude young woman appears to be walking through it, but as she emerges from the leaves, we see that her lower half is that of a horse. She walks into a clearing and picks up some flowers. Now we see a male centaur on a rocky ridge. He throws a rock at a passing buzzard, knocking it from the sky, and calls out. Then the two of them meet, and he greets her affectionately. The two walk off together. These scenes are intercut with images of what seems to be a nude old woman with glasses, but now she emerges from behind a rock and we see that she is also a centaur. She joins an old male centaur with a long white beard and the young male centaur approaches them, then introduces the female. They each greet her with a hug, and then the three stand in a circle as a bald-headed foal centaur enters the scene and prances and does tricks for them. It ends with an image of the upper (human) part of the foal winking at the audience from inside of a heart.

While this may be incomplete, there does seem to be a kind of narrative of young love, courtship, marriage and the cycle of life here. McCay is mostly remembered for whimsical fantasy such as “Little Nemo” or even somewhat satirical pieces as his “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” cartoons and movies, but here he seems to be trying for something gentle and poetic. It strikes me that, just as he challenged himself to use film to bring a dinosaur to life in “Gertie the Dinosaur,” here he is demonstrating that mythical creatures can also come to life on film. The animation is still rather simplistic by modern standards, but the use of cel technology allows a somewhat more complete image than we saw in “Little Nemo” or “How a Mosquito Operates.”

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

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The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918)

Winsor McCay, who styled himself the “inventor of animated cartoons,” returns with a much more serious movie than his previous “Little Nemo” and “Gertie the Dinosaur” entries. This time, it’s a propaganda piece about the event that galvanized Americans to war fever – three years after the fact.

As with his previous movies, this begins with some live action images of McCay at work on the project. Although the intertitles make much of the thousands of individual drawings that were created in the making of the film, what we mostly see is McCay researching the event by looking at a big picture of the RMS Lusitania and talking with a man about it. The first bit of animation he shows is simply the ocean waves – an effect he could be justifiably proud of. It looks to me as though he filmed several layers of background waves in order to give the effect of the rolling ocean some degree of three-dimensionality. Then our story begins, with the departure of the Lusitania from port, its sighting of the Irish coast, and the sudden attack of the German U-Boat. We see the explosion and lots of people being lowered in life boats, then a sudden second explosion and the ship’s slow descent into the ocean. All the while, tiny things (presumably human beings) are dropping off of the ship into the ocean. Every now and then we cut to an image of heads bobbing in the water near over-crowded life boats. The intertitles play up the drama and cruelty of the situation, reminding us of mothers drowning with their tiny babies at their breasts, and also showing us a brief gallery of the more famous victims. It ends by reminding us that the Kaiser pinned a medal on the captain of the sub – “AND YET THEY ASK US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”

In all, the animation of this movie is adequate, but not terribly exciting from a modern standpoint. The print appears in black and white, as opposed to the hand-painted color of parts of “Little Nemo,” and while that adds to the bleak message, it makes for a visually unsatisfying film. The intertitles come across today as highly jingoistic and naïve, although for that generation they were probably very effective. The Lusitania was their 9/11, after all, and Americans were just as shocked and outraged then as they would be eighty six years later. It took Americans longer to get riled up, in those days – it was two whole years before Woodrow Wilson declared war, after Germany announced in 1917 that it would return to unrestricted submarine warfare, despite all diplomatic efforts in the years since the attack. This partly explains the vehemence of McCay’s intertitles: He was still trying to convince isolationists and apologists for Germany that the cause was right (or at least to drown them out with patriotic cheering). It also took him almost two years to complete the movie, so it isn’t as though he got a sudden whim after the US declared war. The film is therefore an interesting piece of the history of animation, and the history of American attitudes toward war, but it’s not the most interesting movie in itself that McCay ever did.

Director: Winsor McCay

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Winsor McCay

Run Time: 12 Min

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

 

The Cook (1918)

This short film from Comique brings Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle back to familiar territory as he plays a food-preparer in a restaurant which devolves into chaos. We saw something similar in “The Waiter’s Ball” (a movie he did at Keystone), and there are other examples, either lost or not-yet reviewed here. This is the first time he’s tackled the subject with his new apprentice, Buster Keaton, however, and this results in some new laughs.

The movie begins with a close-up on Arbuckle’s face, with tears streaming down from his eyes. It cuts back (a little too fast, I think, for the image to fully register), revealing the fact that he is seated with a bowl of onions on his knee, peeling one of them, which is why he’s crying. A quick series of establishing shots show us the dishwasher at work, Luke the Dog nearby, and Buster working as a waiter out in the front. Arbuckle finishes his task and starts chopping at a large leg of lamb or beef with a huge meat cleaver. Out front, Keaton is flirting with the cashier (Alice Lake), and the owner breaks it up, throwing Keaton into the kitchen where he is hit by Arbuckle’s wild cleaver. The two of them take some time to establish that his head is still attached, then the owner shows up and drags Keaton out to attend to customers. This tips off a routine in which Keaton takes an order and yells into the kitchen (the intertitles often give somewhat amusing takes on diner lingo). Arbuckle then draws something out of a faucet from the same pot (coffee, soup, gravy), and off-handedly tosses the result at the door. Keaton walks in at the precise moment and catches the order, flipping it around a couple of times, and then walking out the door to deliver it. Of course, the precision of his catches is established with editing, and the cups, bowls, and plates he flips are empty, but it’s still a fun bit.

After this has gone on for a while, the floor show begins, and a belly dancer performs. Not long after she starts, Keaton does a marvelous parody of her “Egyptian”-style dance, and when Arbuckle sees, it, he has to one-up him. He puts on pots and pans as bangles and does himself up as a belly dancer, then gives an utterly incompetent dance, which draws the attention of the whole restaurant to the kitchen. Amazingly, the owner seems to approve as well, even though Arbuckle breaks a great many cups and plates in his shenanigans.

This is interrupted when Al St. John comes in and forcibly dances with Lake, swinging her around in a kind of “Apache Dance.” He is in possibly his most clownish getup, and seems to be interested in disruption and mashing, though sources list his character as “holdup man” today. When Keaton tries to threaten him with a beer bottle and get him to leave, St John turns the tables from “Out West” (where he was hit on the head with multiple bottles) and hits Keaton, breaking the bottle, but drinking from it anyway, and chewing on the broken glass. When the owner tries to get tough with St. John using a knife from the kitchen, St. John takes it away from him and uses it to cut off the owner’s mustaches. Now Luke the Dog comes out and bites the seat of St. John’s pants, in a scene reminiscent of “Fatty’s Faithful Fido.” He hangs on no matter what Al does to shake him off. Arbuckle separates them and Al flees with Luke in pursuit. Luke chases him all the way out to a rural area and around a barn, ending by chasing him up a ladder.

The action now shifts back to the restaurant, where the staff are enjoying their dinner of spaghetti. The spaghetti scene goes on for a while, with several gags about lengths of spaghetti, people getting opposite ends of the same strand, Arbuckle getting his tie mixed up in his pasta, and people using sheers to cut up their spaghetti. After this goes on for a while, we see Al St. John running up a ladder with Luke in pursuit – only now it’s to the roof of the restaurant! He crashes through the skylight onto the table with the spaghetti, and the Al vs. The Staff War ends in his ignominious defeat.

The next scene shows the staff going on their day off. Everyone gets out of uniform, and Arbuckle (of course!) pulls his street clothes out of that same pot that earlier produced ice cream, milk, coffee, etc. He also takes a ridiculously long pole with him, for no clear reason. The gang is all now on a boardwalk in a location that looks like Coney Island. Buster and Alice are at “Goatland” where they rent a cart drawn by goats, but Buster falls out and mostly the ride is a series of pratfalls. Arbuckle has a similar cart, but when he rounds a corner, his pole knocks over two policemen and he is quickly in trouble. He and Luke head to the seashore, where he uses his pole to catch a large fish at sundown (very nice silhouette photography here), but despite his and Luke’s best efforts, that one gets away.

Um, why, exactly?

Alice Lake gets onto a roller coaster and suddenly Al St. John is again in pursuit. She makes a spectacular dive from the top of the tracks into the ocean, and is soon splashing around calling for rescue. Arbuckle witnesses this and runs over, as does Keaton. They fight over various bits of rope and chained-down life preservers, while Luke again pursues St. John on the tracks. Keaton and Arbuckle finally get their rope to the dock area, but both end up falling in rather than saving Lake. The End.

This is probably the most plotless of the Comique movies I’ve seen, but it’s also one of the funniest. There are dozens of gags I left out of the summary above – describing them wouldn’t do them justice anyway – and the whole thing just hangs together better than some of the more easy-to-follow storylines. I think it’s largely a question of timing. Keaton and Arbuckle (and the rest of the gang) don’t ever let up, and just when you think you just saw the funniest thing ever, they throw something new at you. All that zaniness just didn’t leave any time for a plot! I’ve mentioned several bits that were recycled from earlier movies, but they’re done better here, and serve mostly to demonstrate that Arbuckle kept refining his craft as he progressed.

Bara as Salome

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are bits that probably worked better at the time. Arbuckle and Keaton’s belly dances (especially Arbuckle’s) are deliberate parodies of the famous sexy dance Theda Bara did in “Salomé,” which is now a presumed-lost film that no one’s seen in living memory. You can see that Arbuckle’s pots-and-pans get-up is a takeoff on the one Bara wore in the posters, but it had to be more hilarious to an audience that had thrilled to it for real on the screen. The “Goatland” thing goes totally over my head, but I enjoyed it anyway. I think if I were going to recommend a “starting place” for someone new to Arbuckle/Keaton/Comique, I’d tell them to start with “The Cook” and then probably “The Bell Boy” and “Out West.” If those aren’t working, I’d say skip the rest, it doesn’t get any better.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Alice Lake, Glen Cavender, Luke the Dog

Run Time: 18 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Moonshine (1918)

This is a review of a fragment, rather than a complete movie. The fragment was preserved in the Cineteca Nazionale in Italy and presented by Kino on DVD, which is the version I have seen. I’m not certain, but I think a more complete copy may have since been discovered; if I ever get a chance to see that version, I will post a complete review.

The movie is directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for his Comique Film Company and stars him and Buster Keaton as treasury agents investigating a moonshine-operation in the hills of Kentucky. Al St. John is one of the moonshiners. We see the hillbillies operate a complicated camouflage device by pushing a stone with their feet, and a side of a hill opens up to reveal a still. Arbuckle drives up in a car at another location, and takes in the lay of the land from a rather precarious-looking rock outcropping. He orders Keaton to call for reinforcements, and in what I believe is the longest-surviving scene, we see dozens of armed men emerge from the back of the car, clown-car style. It looks to me as if this effect was accomplished through masking one side of the car and having the men run through it, not by editing. There is one jump cut towards the end, but the rest of the action is smooth. Once about forty men are assembled, Keaton leads them in a group off screen. Arbuckle tells him to have them hide, and they rush off into the woods. Then Keaton joins Arbuckle on the rock, and shenanigans ensue as they struggle not to fall off in a series of pratfalls. Eventually, they both slide down what seems a rather less-dangerous rock face, Keaton with Arbuckle’s pants now in his possession.

A very brief clip introduces “Alice, the Bootlegger’s Daughter” (Alice Lake), the love interest. Al St. John is “a tenacious suitor” in whom she has no real interest. An intertitle tells us that her father is upset at her for spurning the suitor, and we see a wild-eyed man rush around a little, then grab her and beat her with a stick. A rather long intertitle describes the first meeting of “Fatty” and Alice – apparently he sides with the father and she falls for his “authoritarian charm.” We see Alice plunged backwards into a stream and then a scene with her kissing Arbuckle, that cuts off very suddenly. The next title tells us that “Fatty” discovers the bootleggers’ den, but is quickly captured. What we see is Arbuckle drinking from a tin cup, standing in a dark cave-like room, and a bunch of armed hillbillies rushing in to surround him. Keaton runs out of a door in the hill and observes Arbuckle being led away. Then he notices that Al St. John has got the drop on him. Keaton accidentally sneezes some tobacco in Al’s eye, and carefully gives Al back his gun, which he had dropped, making sure to keep it pointed at himself while Al clears out his eye.

Fatty’s imprisonment, we are told, is in “a comfortable room being looked after by Alice.” We see a glimpse of him looking around and putting his feet up in a surprisingly well-appointed home, which then cuts to the bootleggers in a more appropriately shack-like environment, evidently the ground-level part of the same house (Arbuckle is in the basement). They are all wearing tuxedos when they sit down to dinner. Arbuckle has a tray wheeled in by Alice, who is in an evening dress, and who then goes to join the bootleggers. Arbuckle conceives a plan to escape: he pours ketchup over his face and fires a gun to simulate his own suicide. The bootleggers carry him out to the river, apparently without noticing that he’s still alive, and dump him in. Alice seems very upset. There’s a scene of Arbuckle and Keaton meeting up, but quickly running away when Al St. John drops from a tree with a rifle and starts shooting. We see Keaton do one last pratfall and “The End” comes up.

It’s hard to comment much further on this movie, based on what we have. I think the intertitles make up at least a third of the running time, so you’re mostly reading a silent movie here. Arbuckle, St. John, and Keaton are all in good form, but we don’t get a real sense of how much time each one gets to develop their characters. I’m not even 100% sure that St. John is really one of the bad guys here, he may be sort of a loose cannon (isn’t he always?). Anyway, there are some amusing moments, especially in the longer scenes near the beginning, and a lot of good location work.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Starring: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Alice Lake, Al St John, Joe Bordeaux, Charles Dudley

Run Time: 6 min, 30 secs (fragment of a two-reel movie)

You can watch it for free: here.

The Bell Boy (1918)

This short comedy from Comique stars Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and Buster Keaton at the height of their collaboration, giving them a new occupation to demolish – hotel management. The use of large indoor sets and outdoor locations gives them some good opportunities for creative chaos.

Arbuckle and Keaton are uniformed bell boys at the Elk’s Head Hotel, which is managed by Al St. John. We first see Arbuckle emerging from an elevator and looking around carefully, before he protrudes a cigarette from inside of his mouth and smokes it. Keaton is lazing on an easy chair when Al rings the bell and both men hasten to the front. They zip up the stairs to the two visible doors and come out carrying bags. They take them out, leading the two guests to a horse-drawn streetcar, but when Arbuckle tries to throw one of his suitcases on top of the vehicle, it misses and hits Buster, causing the first of many pratfalls. They load up the carriage, the guests get on board, and Al gets into the driver’s seat, driving the contraption down the street and past the “Last National Bank” (remember that one).

 

Read the rest of this entry »

The Dream (1911)

This short film from IMP (the predecessor to Universal Pictures) is a simple morality tale about a philandering husband’s comeuppance. It is probably known today mostly because of starring a young Mary Pickford along with her then-husband Owen Moore.

The film begins by depicting a drunk couple out together in a restaurant. The man (Moore) staggers around and hands the waiter all of the money in his wallet. In the midst of their carousing, we briefly cut away to images of a woman (Pickford) sitting dejectedly at home alone, with dinner waiting on the table. She doses off for a moment, and checking the time, determines that it is getting quite late. An intertitle informs us that the husband returns six hours later, but the wife doesn’t seem angry or concerned, just happy to see him. That quickly changes as he yells at her, throwing the food she made on the floor and turning over a chair before passing out on a divan. She seems very upset by his behavior. Read the rest of this entry »

Amarilly of Clothes Line Alley (1918)

Mary Pickford gets to play an adult girl in this movie with a screenplay by her buddy, Frances Marion, who wrote child roles for her in “The Little Princess,” “Poor Little Rich Girl,” and other films. As in those movies, much of the emphasis here is on a contrast between the rich and the poor, with a sense that poverty and honesty are linked, as are wealth and decadence.

The movie begins, like many of the period, with an extensive introduction to the cast of characters. In addition to Mary in the title role of Amarilly Jenkins, we also meet her mother (Kate Price) and brothers, and her boyfriend, Terry (William Scott), who works as a bartender in a big nightclub in Clothes-Line Alley. On the “other side of the tracks,” are the Society people, represented by Mrs. Philips (Ida Waterman) and her nephew Gordon (Norman Kerry). Gordon has a friend with the auspicious name of Johnny Walker (Fred Goodwins), who he spends time with drinking at the athletic club, and who appears to sleep at Gordon’s studio.  Mrs. Philips wants to set up her nephew with a debutante (Margaret Landis), but Gordon keeps putting off her invitations – apparently he prefers spending time with Johnny for now.

Read the rest of this entry »

Good Night Nurse (1918)

This short comedy from Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle’s Comique Film Company was released in July, 1918 and co-stars Buster Keaton. Arbuckle is at the center of action, but as usual his collaborators get good opportunities to shine as well.

The movie begins on a rainy street corner, in front of a pharmacy. Arbuckle is standing in the downpour, futilely trying to light a cigarette, and occasionally getting chased off the stoop by the pharmacist. A woman with an umbrella (supposedly Keaton, but we never see her face) is blown down the street and Arbuckle attempts to help her against the storm. In the process, hr umbrella is destroyed and she does several pratfalls. Soon, she returns in the direction she originally came from. Now a drunk (Snitz Edwards) joins Arbuckle on the corner, sitting in the gutter. A policeman walks up, and Arbuckle realizes he should stand up and be nonchalant, trying to signal the drunk to do the same as he again tries to light a match to smoke a cigarette. The policeman sees this and laughs at his attempts. Now a gypsy organ grinder and his assistant walk up, and Fatty gives them a coin and asks for the national anthem. This makes the police officer take off his rain hat and stand at attention, and Arbuckle is able to use its protection to finally light up a cigarette.

Arbuckle takes the gypsies back to his house, where his wife has just read about a new surgical cure for alcoholism, at some place called “No Hope Sanitarium.” When the gypsies’ monkey sneaks into her room, she concludes that Fatty needs to take the cure. The rest of the movie takes place at the Sanitarium, at which point the film’s title finally begins to make sense. As Arbuckle is being taken in, he sees a man covered in bandages (apparently this is Joe Keaton, Buster’s dad) leaving on crutches. Arbuckle stops to sympathize with the man, who assures him he’s fine, now he’s been “cured.” This does little to build Arbuckle’s confidence, but his wife insists on bringing him in. Soon, he meets the doctor in charge of the place (Buster Keaton), who arrives in a smock covered in blood. He also meets the “crazy” girl (Alice Lake) who will serve as his illicit love interest, even while wifey is still around watching. When she jumps into his arms and kisses him, what can he do? After all, she’s crazy.

Arbuckle and Lake soon devise plans to escape, using a massive pillow fight amongst the patients as cover, but as soon as she’s outside, she wants to go back in. Arbuckle hides by jumping into a pond, then sets up a hose to blow air so that it looks like he’s still under when the orderlies come to “rescue” him. Then he spots a large nurse (Kate Bruce) going on her lunch break and decides to swipe her uniform to make an escape. He runs into Keaton in the hallway and the two of them flirt, Keaton obviously convinced that he is a large nurse. Then the real nurse returns and blows his cover. Arbuckle runs out into the countryside, winding up in the midst of a cross-country race, which he inadvertently wins. As he is accepting the prize money, the doctors and orderlies surround him, wrestling him down. Suddenly he wakes up back in the Sanitarium, where he has been given ether; all of his escapes are now revealed to be a dream.

This is yet another movie in which Arbuckle and/or Keaton dress in drag for laughs – both of them in this case, if online sources are right and Keaton is the woman with the umbrella. This scenario somewhat resembles their earlier collaboration, “The Butcher Boy,” where Arbuckle tried to rescue Lake from a boarding school by dressing in drag, but with a much heavier emphasis on Keaton’s character and abilities. The pillow fight sequence reminded me of earlier Edison comedies that relied on this gag for humor and titillation, but note that there was also one in “The Butcher Boy” as well. Keaton’s awkward “flirting” with Fatty has to be seen to be believed, it’s one of the funniest on-screen crushes this side of Elmer Fudd. An odd detail stuck out to me in this movie. In most of the silent comedies, especially the “Keystone Kops” movies, the policemen are funny-looking. The policeman in this film is quite handsome, at least pretty normal by comparison. I think he was probably cast for his height rather than his look. He needed to be tall enough that when he held his hat at his breast, Arbuckle could conveniently get under it to light a cigarette. It’s still remarkable that they didn’t give him a false mustache or bushy eyebrows or something. Maybe they would have fallen off in the rain.

Director: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle

Camera: George Peters

Cast: Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, Alice Lake, Buster Keaton, Al St. John, Joe Bordeaux, Joe Keaton, Snitz Edwards, Kate Bruce

Run Time: 22 Min

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

Bud’s Recruit (1918)

This two-reel narrative was produced as a “positive” film for young people, by a philanthropist concerned about the state of youth in America. It uses the theme of patriotism and the war effort to deliver a message about the innate decency of American boys.

The opening title explains this as a “Judge Brown Story,” but the judge is nowhere to be seen in this movie, so I’ll talk about him a little after going through my synopsis. The movie proper begins by introducing us to “Bud” (Wallis Brennan), a young man who likes to dress up in uniforms and play army games. He blows on his bugle and various other boys from the neighborhood rush over to line up for drilling. A couple of smaller children come up to ask if they can join in, and Bud takes them to a tree where he has marked the minimum height for participation. One makes it, the other does not. Then, that smaller boy gets the idea of standing on a rock, and Bud lets him in, not fooled, but appreciating the boy’s spunk. He gives the little boy a drum to beat while everyone marches. It isn’t long before he loses interest in all the hard walking and sits down under a tree with a puppy. When Bud finds out, he sentences the child to death for desertion, so the boy runs away quickly while the rest of the recruits fire their wooden guns at his back. The boy runs to his mother, who takes on the regiment with a frying pan and routs them, meanwhile beating the stuffing out of a dummy of Kaiser Wilhelm II that they set up for target practice.

Meanwhile, we meet “Reggie” (Robert Gordon), who is Bud’s older brother and has no interest in things military. He sits around in the backyard smoking and drinking lemonade served to him by an African American butler. His girlfriend Edith (Ruth Hampton) is reading  the paper and learns that Reggie’s draft number is so low that there’s no chance he will be called up to serve, which is a relief to them both, as well as to Reggie and Bud’s mom, herself involved with pacifist meetings. Bud objects to the lack of patriotism and is sent to his room without dinner, but he says it’s fine because it’s a “meatless day” anyway. In his room, he puts up various recruiting posters and looks at them longingly. We learn that Edith’s sister also has a beau, who signed up for service because he wasn’t going to be drafted, setting up a new pressure on Reggie to demonstrate his manliness. Reggie goes to the bedroom he shares with Bud and takes down the recruitment poster from the wall, but Bud draws a line with chalk across the middle of the room – one side is for patriots, the other for cowards like Reggie.

The next day, Bud leads a counter-protest of his boys when Reggie and mom attend a peace meeting in the living room. They carry a sign that says “We Want Peace – After We Lick Em!” Edith, apparently finding this more amusing than the dull speeches inside, picks up an American flag and joins the march. Reggie is led back inside by his mother, making him seem all the more dominated and infantilized. That night, while Reggie sleeps, Bud reads a newspaper story about German air raids that kill women and children, and he resolves to take action. If Reggie won’t volunteer to fight, he can dress up as Reggie and sign up himself in his brother’s name! He puts on a false mustache and swipes a pair of Reggie’s glasses and some of his clothes, and heads down to a Recruiting Office. The soldier there looks like he would pretty much sign up any boy who said he wanted to join, whether he dressed up or not – he doesn’t even apply Bud’s “tree test” to see how tall he is.

The news comes out in the local paper’s “honor roll” of volunteer soldiers. Reggie is as surprised as anyone to see his name on the list, but before he finds out a soldier shakes his hand on the street and Edith’s sister sneaks up and kisses him! Edith now seems quite proud of Reggie, but mom is still deeply concerned. Then Reggie goes up to his room and shows Bud the article. He spots his glasses in Bud’s pocket and puts two and two together. The two brothers get into a fight, with Bud coming out on top and ordering Reggie to leave town so that he (Bud) can go through with his plan and join the army. Reggie says “uncle” and agrees. In the next scene, he’s at a train station, but of course there are recruitment posters there and he starts having second thoughts. Bud dresses up to report for duty, but he is met at the base by Reggie, who can’t let his kid brother do his duty for him. Bud seems astonished at first, but he smiles and runs off to tell Edith and his family the news. Everyone runs down to the base to see Reggie in his new uniform, and the servant sums up the situation, saying he “always knowed that boy had red, white, and blue blood in his veins.”

Classic movie fans will generally be familiar with Father Edward J. Flanagan and “Boys Town,” but they may not have realized how many similar projects there were in the United States at the time. This movie was made by the “Boy City Film Co.,” a project of Judge Willis Brown who did indeed run a chain of so-called “boy cities” across the nation. The Boy City Film Company produced a series of films to promote clean entertainment, of which this was the first. Most of them evidently did feature the Judge himself as a dispenser of wisdom and resolver of disputes, but this first movie only features him in a still photo as a prop. These movies are mostly lost, and would probably be entirely forgotten, except that the Judge was able to find a rather promising young man named King Vidor to direct them. This is not his first film (in fact he had been directing since 1913), but it is by far the earliest one I’ve ever seen. Given the heavy-handed intentions and presumably limited budget, it is a very effective movie, especially in terms of its comedy. The boy actors are charming, and always seem to give the adults a run for their money. Vidor seems to have internalized Judge Willis’s belief that boys “do not need to be saved,” and are naturally inclined towards goodness and decency, even when adults around them behave questionably. The movie comes across as innocently naïve, where it could have easily been foolish or preachy, which I believe is a testament to Vidor’s subtlety and sensitivity, more than to strength of the script itself.

Director: King Vidor

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Wallis Brennan, Robert Gordon, Ruth Hampton, Mildred Davis

Run Time: 26 Min

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

100% American (1918)

Mary Pickford stars in this promotional film for the Fourth Liberty Bond during World War I. While it’s predictably preachy, the film does take advantage of its star’s charms and gives a brief narrative to hold the audience’s interest while arguing that it needs to “do without” in order to support the war effort.

Pickford is introduced a “Mayme,” a typical young American woman who likes to indulge in the pleasures of an affluent society. The story begins with her and a girlfriend or roommate at an amusement park, dazzled by all kinds of opportunities for meaningless consumption and fun. They are distracted by a man giving a speech – possibly a barker for some new attraction. He turns out to be a “four minute man” – a public speaker drumming up support for buying war bonds. At the climax of his speech, he points at the camera and asks, “What are you giving right now?” A reversal shows Mayme reacting to this question. Evidently she feels guilty for not doing enough. She and her friend continue along the boardwalk and Mayme window shops longingly, but resists the urge to go into a store and buy new clothes. Then she and her friend go to a soda shop. While her friend eats ice cream, Mayme orders water. Finally, she walks home alone to save car fare.

The next scene comes on “bond day.” Mayme stands in a line of people, ready to buy their war bonds. She has saved up a sizable wad of bills, but she gets nervous when an ugly man takes an interest in her, and she stashes the loot. When she reaches the head of the line, she looks in her purse and can’t find the money – she’s already forgotten that she hid it – and she accuses the ugly man of robbing her. A policeman comes over to shake him down and meanwhile, Mayme finds the money, buy her bond, and makes a hasty retreat after correcting her mistake.

The movie now looks forward to “after the war” when Mayme is qualified to go to a “100% American” dance with soldiers and other bond-holders. Her fashionable friend cannot attend this event, because she failed to buy bonds. But, Mayme has pity on her and lets her take her bond. After she leaves, Mayme collapses in remorse that she can’t even go to the celebration. Then, Mayme’s soldier boyfriend comes home. He has bought two bonds, so that they can still go together. The final scene is a live-action political cartoon, in which Kaiser Wilhelm II is suspended from falling into “the soup” on a thin high wire labeled “Hindenburg Line.” He tries to retreat from France to Germany, but is weighted down by various burdens, with labels like “brute force” and “clown prince.” Mayme takes out a baseball labeled “Fourth Liberty Bond” and knocks him off the wire, simulating the kinds of amusements she forsook at the beginning of the film. Then she points to the camera and suggests that, “Your’s may be the bond to knock him off his perch!”

By 1918, Mary Pickford was possibly the biggest star in the world (easily in the top five, at any rate). Her support of liberty bonds was well known, and she donated a considerable amount of her valuable (and expensive!) time to public appearances in support of them. There’s an irony to the title of this film, however, since she was in fact a Canadian citizen! Her home country had been fighting for almost four years by the time any American troops showed up, and perhaps that was the reason for her urgency in trying to get the war over as quickly as possible. Of course, she had already starred in “The Little American” and was known as “America’s Sweetheart,” so audiences probably didn’t see this as a big problem. She was an actress playing a role, and in this case that role was of a patriotic American girl who sacrifices her immediate pleasures for the sake of the war effort. Unfortunately, the concept of “100% American” would be used after the war to hound immigrants and leftists during the “Red Scare.”

Feet!

This sort of short propaganda film doesn’t show off the best in film making technique of the time, but there are some interesting bits. The reversal to Pickford after the four minute man breaks the fourth wall is particularly well executed in terms of editing, and handled very quickly, to keep the emotional verisimilitude high. There are a number of insert shots of Mayme’s fashionable shoes, perhaps to establish her as a person given to extravagance, or perhaps in the interest of titillating the male audience, as shoes and feet seem to have been a big deal since the days of “What Demoralized the Barber Shop” and “The Gay Shoe Clerk.” I found the final “cartoon” interesting as well, since it involved so many different ideas being integrated into a single image.

Director: Arthur Rosson

Camera: Hugh McClung, Glen MacWilliams

Starring: Mary Pickford, Loretta Blake, Monte Blue, Henry Bergman

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.