Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Vitagraph Studios

Lightning Sketches (1907)

This very short film from Vitagraph beats Windsor McCay to the punch by several years in his claim to be the “first animator” – though it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that there were even earlier examples. It serves as an example of developing film techniques in America as the Nickelodeon Era was beginning.

The screen shows a large pad of artist’s paper, hung up on a wall before the camera. J. Stuart Blackton appears on the left side and writes the word “coon,” then rapidly transforms the letters into a caricature of a black man. All of the action is undercranked, to make Blackton’s movements appear rapid when played at normal speed. He now writes the word “Cohen” on the paper next to the first cartoon, and transforms these letters into a caricature of a Jewish man. The paper is rolled up and removed in animation, but we do not see the hands of the person doing it. Next, a bald man comes out and takes a seat before the paper, and Blackton sketches him, giving him a cigar at the end and then adding it to the caricature. A few animated puffs of smoke are visible coming out of the drawn cigar. This paper is also rolled up and removed in animation. Now, Blackton sketches a glass, a bottle labeled “Medoc” and a spritzer bottle, then he departs the screen and the bottle is animated to pour into the glass, followed by a spritz of soda, which causes the glass to overflow. This paper is torn apart in animation and the film ends.

Although there’s only a few seconds worth of animation between the papers getting rolled up and the pouring of the bottle, this was probably a pretty exciting film for an audience of 1907. Even the speeded-up action qualifies as an “effect” and seems to have been done to emphasize Blackton’s ability to work quickly, without mistakes. The unfortunate racial stereotyping at the beginning was probably meant to be humorous and not offensive, though it hasn’t aged well. It was interesting how he integrated the letters into images of people’s faces, it was just an unfortunate choice of words to use to demonstrate this. Blackton barely looks at the bald man as he sketches him – the point of having him “sit” for the picture seems to be so that the audience can see how accurate Blackton’s portrayal is. The final animation of the wine and the spritzer bottle is the climax, and by modern standards it wouldn’t amount to much, but it may have fascinated audiences to see a moving drawing at the time.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Hearts and Diamonds (1914)

This short “Bunnyfinch” from Vitagraph packs quite a lot into its half-hour run time: comedy deception, mistaken identity, generational conflict, and, oh yes, baseball, are all represented. Stars John Bunny and Flora Finch were at the height of their fame at the time: probably better-known than that Chaplin fellow still making one-reelers over at Keystone.

The movie begins with Bunny, as “Widower Tupper,” learning that a wealthy widow (Finch) will be coming to town and devising a plan to woo her. First, he has to kick out his own young daughters (Ethel Lloyd and Ethel Corcoran), since for some reason he thinks he’ll do better if he pretends to be single. However, on arriving home, he finds them entertaining a group of “young bloods” (college boys with various musical instruments), so he rages at the boys and throws them out, breaking various objects in the process. Then he makes the girls pack and takes them over to the very deaf Uncle William (William Shea). Once he manages to make William understand the situation, William’s butler shows them to their rooms. Read the rest of this entry »

Wanted: A Nurse (1915)

This short comedy from the team of Mr. & Mrs. Sidney Drew plays on stereotypes about nurses – but also pokes fun at the men who promote those stereotypes. While it’s not an especially sophisticated example of situational comedy, it does once again demonstrate that slapstick wasn’t the only option available to the silent comedian.

Sidney plays J. Robert Orr, a seemingly idle rich “club man” who spends his evenings in card games. One day, while walking down the street, he witnesses man having a medical emergency, which is attended to by a pretty young nurse, Helen Worth (Mrs. Drew). They exchange glances, but soon the ambulance arrives and she is whisked away. Orr is so obsessed with her that the four queens in his hand turn into images of the nurse. He fixes himself a drink and comes up with a plan, suddenly throwing himself across the table, convincing his friends that he needs medical attention. He is taken to the hospital, but when the doctor comes in to examine him, he cries, “I don’t want a doctor, I want a NURSE!” However, Helen is out of the hospital right now, attending a serious case. So, several other nurses are sent in, one at a time. Each of them is ugly, fat, old, or mannish, and he is increasingly agitated. Finally, he dresses as  a nurse to escape via the fire escape, and returns to the club. His friends now think he has gone nuts, so they take him to another doctor, who pronounces that he has “nurse-itis.” He goes to get Helen to help attend the case, and Orr hides beneath the covers, terrified of what he may see. When he sees it is her, he softens and smiles. A quick edit covers his recuperation, and he proposes to the girl, who gladly accepts. The end.

The fact that the stars really were married may have helped soften the blow of this premise of this movie, which essentially involves a man stalking a girl he saw once and ignoring the professional qualifications of her and her colleagues, seeing them only as “ugly” or “pretty.” For modern viewers, however, it doesn’t help that Sidney is a good 20 years older than his wife (whose name I always think of as “Nancy,” for obvious reasons, but it was really “Lucille”). He does a pretty good freak out over the disappointment, and one does laugh a bit at his antics, but as I said, it’s not terribly witty. The movie also cross-cuts between his torment and Helen’s actual work, but this serves no obvious purpose, except to remind the audience of the real object of his quest. Certainly not the worst movie of 1915, but not the best, either.

Director: Sidney Drew

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee, Mary Maurice

Run Time: 12 Min

I have not found the whole move for free on the Internet. You can watch a short clip of it: here.

The Courage of the Commonplace (1913)

This short, thoughtful film from Vitagraph busts many of our ideas about the Nickelodeon era by proving that it was possible to treat movies as serious “art” before sound, outside of the feature-length format, and even if your name wasn’t D.W. Griffith. While it’s not exactly a happy story, it has an uplifting message about the values of simple people.

The film takes place almost entirely on the confines of a small dirt farm that reeks of poverty and hard work. The star of the film (Mary Charleson), called Mary, seems to have endless chores and tasks to perform. As soon as she finishes one grueling activity, another one rises up in its place. We first see her moving a heavy tub of water when her two younger brothers run up, apparently having hurt themselves. She tends their wounds and we see that they are barefoot. She hauls off the bucket, and the next we see of her, she is hanging laundry to dry, presumably after washing it by hand. She comes into the house to find that her old, tired mother (Loyola O’Connor) needs help setting out the dinner for an entire brood of kids and the aging, wiry father (Charles Bennett). Then Mary’s “frivolous sister” (Myrtle Gonzalez) comes bouncing in. She is, really, the one ray of light in the film, wearing a smile more often than any other character, and also light-colored (if still very simple) dresses.

The next day, several important plot elements are added rapid-fire. First, we see Mary collecting eggs for sale at the market – her source of personal income. We also see the father driving his old horses to plow a field. One of them, “faithful old Dobbin,” has become ill. Finally, we see what Mary is saving up for, she receives a letter informing her of her acceptance to the “Household and Fine Arts School” at a reduced tuition. All of this comes quite rapidly within the first five minutes of the movie, and the rest plays out as you might expect. The “frivolous” sister goes on dates with a boy and goes to the movies, while Mary continues her life of drudgery, now interspersed with daydreams of a relatively idle academic life where she sits on well-trimmed lawns discussing Big Ideas with well-dressed people and plays tennis with boys. Then, on the day she is to leave, the horse dies, which will leave the family ruined. Of course, Mary swallows her dreams and gives the money to her father to buy a new horse.

That simple summary does not transmit the poignancy or effectiveness of this movie. Its emotional pull didn’t diminish for me on repeat viewings – I started tearing up as soon as Mary’s letter arrived the third time through. It isn’t through any kind of fancy editing or camerawork that this movie becomes powerful, it’s just through its ability to tell a simple story that shows the viewer something old in a new way. That’s not to say that the technical side is a failure, there are adequate edits and occasional close-ups to emphasize the emotional state of the actors, but these work subtly, without being obvious or obtrusive. When they happen, it just “feels right” as if the director knew what would work without having to experiment heavily.

Of course, something like this wouldn’t work without high quality acting, and Mary Charleson provides most of the emotional work the viewer sees. She constantly looks as if she struggles to finish the current task, only to look up immediately to see what else needs to be done. This is in counterpoint to her wistful looks of anticipation regarding her school plans, her plan of escape. The other actors each have a simple archetype to play out – the spoiled sister, the weary mother, the worried yet oblivious father, and all the hungry mouths to feed of the many siblings. But they take their roles seriously, and put real feeling into them. Particularly Gonzalez, whose smile almost lights up the bleakness of the farm, even though we know she doesn’t deserve happiness as much as Mary does. Vitagraph almost seems to scold its audience when the frivolous sister attends a Nickelodeon screening one of their movies, yet who would choose to be Mary rather than the sister?

Director: Rollin S. Sturgeon

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Loyola O’Connor, Myrtle Gonzalez, Edwin August

Run Time: 13 Min

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

The Cavalier’s Dream (1898)

I’m jumping back a bit in my “history of horror” this October because I just found this early Vitagraph short that is clearly an attempt to imitate Georges Méliès, even though it’s still very early in his career as well. It’s not a terribly frightening film, but it is an example of an American movie showing the supernatural.

The “cavalier” of the film is a man with a long ponytail dressed in knee breeches and a frilly shirt. The movie begins with him bent over a table in a large room or hall. A figure in a hooded cowl approaches his sleeping form. She wakes him up by poking him and when he gets up, the table is suddenly filled with food and the witch has disappeared. When he sits to eat, the figure of the Devil appears and confronts him, and the witch reappears in the seat across from him. He approaches her and she turns into a woman in ordinary dress. He goes to embrace this new figure and suddenly she turns into an old crone. He turns to leave and suddenly two witches and the Devil appear in front of him. He tries to go the other way and a new witch and the Devil appear at that side. Now the Devil climbs atop the table and he is flanked on all sides by the hooded figures. He collapses into the chair and they dance in a circle around him. Then the Devil gestures and all of the apparitions disappear. The cavalier awakes to find himself alone.

The original Edison catalog emphasizes the “startling and instantaneous” transformation effects achieved through stop trick photography. This had been pioneered by Méliès in just the previous years, although Edison used it for a “horrific” effect in “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” even earlier. Like many of these early films, one expects that the intention wasn’t so much to frighten to audience as to fascinate them, but this film does seem to have a somewhat darker atmosphere than Méliès movies of the same period. The Devil isn’t “funny” per se, nor do the dancing figures appear to be having fun so much as acting to threaten. Perhaps the American attitude towards horror was already a bit more serious than the French, even at this early date.

Director: Unknown, sometimes attributed to Edwin S. Porter (though Charles Musser says not possible).

Camera: Unknown, possibly J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Princess Nicotine (1909)

This fascinating short from Vitagraph shows a very innovative approach to trick photography and allows more direct interaction between actors than double exposure would have. Director J. Stuart Blackton brings a fantasy to life that has elements of Guy and Méliès, while also displaying a distinctly American style.

Nicotine PrincessA man is in a room, preparing to smoke his pipe. Suddenly, he drowses off and falls asleep. While he is asleep two tiny figures appear among his smoking accoutrements – one a small child and the other, a grown woman, both in fairy costumes. They appear to be only a few inches tall. There is an edit, and we see them at closer range, moving among the oversized implements. The woman gets into the cigar box, and the child hides in the pipe, putting tobacco over herself in the process. The man wakes up and starts smoking his pipe, but he notices something strange. He shakes it out and the child tumbles out happily (apparently unconcerned that she was almost burnt up!). She and the woman dance on the table for a bit, and the man smokes and tries to trap them in the cigar box. When he looks inside, all he finds is a flower, but when he removes it, the child is there smoking a cigarette. Then, he gets up and leaves. Now, there is an animated sequence which shows the matches arranging themselves and then a cigar rolls itself out of leaves and tobacco. The man walks into what looks like a different room and finds the cigar, lighting it and also breaking a bottle that holds one of the fairies. He begins smoking and blows the smoke at the fairy, which seems to annoy her. She builds a bonfire out of the remaining matches, and he extinguishes it with a spritzer bottle. He then uses the spritzer to spray the fairy off of the table.

Nicotine Princess1As the DVD notes observe, there is a wealth of material here for a dedicated Freudian – even if “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” I alluded to the special effects, which were managed by shooting the women in a mirror at a distance that made it appear that they were small and on the table, rather than using double exposure and having to shoot everything twice. Keeping that technique in mind, this is a very interesting performance. I think the “different room” continuity confusion was a result of the trickiness of these effects: on a second viewing I noticed that most of the background was replaced with a black curtain starting just before the animated sequence. Possibly they were having difficulty getting the effects to show up against the original backdrop. For the insert shots, we see the fairies interacting with large props (a barrel-sized pipe bowl, and matchsticks the size of their legs, etc). I’ve seen claims that the first time this was done was for the movie “Dr. Cyclops” (1940), but here’s an earlier example and there may be more.  The editing structure is relatively sophisticated, not just stringing together scenes, but allowing us to change our perspective on the action as it develops. The movie owes something to the French, in terms of its effects and overall tone, but there’s something quite unique in the subject matter and the ambiguous attitude towards smoking and tiny women.

Alternate Title: Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Tony Gaudio

Starring: Paul Panzer, Gladys Hulette

Run Time: 5 Min

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

The Thieving Hand (1908)

This odd little short from Vitagraph has a kind of reputation as a (pre-)Surrealist masterpiece. It does involve the use of trick photography to bring an arm to life, but how does it look from a modern viewpoint?

Thieving HandWe see a one-armed man begging on the street. He is selling pencils or some other time-honored item to get handouts. He sells to a man in an expensive-looking coat and the man walks away. Shortly thereafter, the beggar notices something on the ground and picks it up – it seems to be a ring or small piece of jewelry. He runs after the man and catches him in front of his house. The man is very grateful to get back his ring and starts to reach for another handout, but thinks better of it. He takes the beggar to a shop called “limbs” and buys him a new arm! The shopkeeper demonstrates that the arm works by winding it up on the display case. It moves by itself (actually a jump cut has allowed it to be replaced by the arm of an actor hiding behind the case). The shopkeeper attaches the new arm and cranks it up for the beggar. The beggar is thrilled, but doesn’t seem to notice the arm stealing from his benefactor. When the shopkeeper notices, he takes back his goods and sends them on their way. The beggar scolds his new arm.

The beggar goes back to his corner and continues trying to sell pencils. While he does so, his new arm flails about and grabs things off of each passerby while the beggar distracts them with the pencils in his other hand. Several come back, annoyed, and take back their possessions. Finally, returns the arm to the shop, but when the shopkeeper puts it in the window, it steals a bunch of rings and goes back to the beggar! The shopkeeper discovers the theft and has a policeman arrest the beggar. Once in jail, he meets a one-armed convict who recognizes that it is his arm. He returns the arm, and the convict now has back his thieving hand – no doubt his main means of labor.

Thieving Hand1

As I suggested above, this film stands out by its very weirdness, and seems reminiscent of some of Alice Guy’s more bizarre comedies, like “The Drunken Mattress” or “The Truth Behind the Ape Man” in which the animate and inanimate world become blurred for comic effect. It’s pretty pedestrian, really, in terms of camera-work, editing, and effects, but it feels new because we’ve never seen this particular story before, although it might fit into the strange world of “Felix the Cat” or another of the wilder cartoon series. There’s an interesting irony to the fact that the beggar is rewarded for his honesty with a gift that makes him appear dishonest, and even gets him arrested.  There’s also an element to this movie that makes me think of David Cronenberg, a Canadian director whose horror films often explore invasions or mutations of the body. A hand acting of its own volition is right up his alley. This is a good memorable movie from the early Nickeloden Era, when American film makers were just starting to think about their possibilities.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 6 Min

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

Her Crowning Glory (1911)

Before there was a “big three” (or four, or five) comedians, before Keystone Studios, before almost anyone (except Ben Turpin), there was John Bunny, the best-known film comedian of his day. Bunny was a large man with a red face and a larger-than-life style of acting. His frequent co-star, Flora Finch, was thin, pinched-faced, and demure. Together, they made a series recalled as the “bunnyfinch” shorts. We’ll be looking at one of those today.

A strong reaction to a hairdo.

A strong reaction to a hairdo.

John stars as an apparently wealthy widower with a small daughter. His daughter is becoming spoiled, as John’s instinct is to indulge her and let her get away with whatever she wants. A “friend” who looks like a typical D.W. Griffith-style bluenosed busybody comes over and tells him the child needs discipline. She recommends a governess of her acquaintance, emphasizing that she is a “strict disciplinarian.” The governess is, of course, Flora Finch. Although when she arrives her long hair is tied up, Bunny shows considerable attraction to it – despite the fact that Finch has been made up to look even uglier than usual. John’s daughter does not take to Flora, however, sticking her with a pin and otherwise being bratty. The relationship proceeds along these lines, with John being fascinated by Flora’s hair, and the child being as contrary as possible, until Bunny proposes to Finch. She happily says yes, and the maid now decides she needs to take action. That night, she gives the little girl a pair of scissors while Flora is combing her hair before bed. Exhausted (probably from running after the child all day!), Flora falls asleep in her chair and the child gives her a haircut while she snoozes. John wakes her with a kiss, but when he sees what has happened, he calls off the wedding, and Flora leaves in shame. John and the child go back to playing as before, and there is an indication that John has noticed how attractive the maid is for the first time.

Don't try this at home, kids!

Don’t try this at home, kids!

John Bunny was not known as a slapstick comedian; his movies are “situational” in their humor. This one seems fairly average, based on the few I’ve seen. It’s a little funny, in terms of the situation, but doesn’t really get me laughing very hard. The most interesting part of the movie is the child, played by Helene Costello (who would become an adult star in the twenties), whose willfulness and dislike of snooty adults is compelling. Silent movie children are often much more natural than their sound-era counterparts, confirming the old adage that “children should be seen but not heard.” Helene does look at the camera once or twice, and does seem to follow instructions from off-screen as she spies on her daddy with the governess. The contrast between Finch and Bunny is played up here – it helps to sell us on the idea that Finch is not the right woman for him, he is simply distracted by her head of hair. The movie is shot in a conventional manner for 1911 (few edits, long shots, stationary camera), but does include an important close-up on the hair as it is cut.

Director: Lawrence Trimble

Camera: Unknown

Starring: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Helene Costello, Kate Price

Run Time: 14 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fox Trot Finesse (1915)

The Slapstick Encyclopedia” makes much of the more “refined” approach to comedy evinced by this movie, and its stars, Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew. The Drews eschewed slapstick in favor of situational comedy, much as John Bunny had before them. I haven’t found many surviving examples of their work, but here we have one to work from and consider, released in October of 1915, after many of Chaplin’s great but “vulgarEssanay comedies of that year.

Fox Trot Finesse3Here, Sidney plays Ferdie Crosby and Lucile (his second wife) plays Eva, Mrs. Crosby. Eva is young and sprightly, and in love with the Fox Trot, but Ferdie is middle aged and likes peace and quiet. His happiness is the more challenged by the fact that Eva’s mother (Ethel Lee, as “Mrs. U. Newitt”) is staying with them indefinitely. In order to get away from her, Ferdie gives in to his wife’s demands and dances the nights away, but he’s very tired and stiff the next day. Finally, mother-in-law leaves, called away because of a birth in the family. Now, Ferdie put his plan into action, and fakes an ankle injury. His wife is sympathetic, pampering him and giving him foot rubs, and he puts on a great show of being terribly disappointed at not being able to Fox Trot.

Fox Trot FinesseHis wife, however, is no dummy. Although Ferdie makes a point of going about on horribly mis-sized crutches, she spots him tossing them aside on his way to work and skipping happily down the street. Now, he’s in for it! Eva writes to her mother, telling her that Ferdie is injured and needs another nurse, she can’t handle it all by herself. Ferdie panics, and tells his wife that it’s all been a joke, tearing up the letter to mother-in-law.

Fox Trot Finesse1Maybe I’m setting him up here, but let’s have a look at what Sidney Drew said about his own work just 2 years later, in Moving Picture World: “Humorous action does not mean gross horse-play. It does not mean that the characters dash madly into scenes, trip over matches, and fall out of the scene again. In our own comedies, Mrs. Drew and myself work to appeal to the mind as well as the eye, but to appeal to the mind through the eye.” Quite a claim! But, does “Fox Trot Finesse” have much to offer the mind (or the eye through the mind)? I’d have to say not really. It’s a plot worthy of “The Flintstones,” not some highly refined observational humor. OK, no one gets hit with a brick, and people don’t “dash madly into scenes,” (although the constantly Fox-Trotting wife does add some physical comedy), but this is hardly sophisticated stuff: a husband tricks his wife and she uses the mother-in-law to get even.

Fox Trot Finesse2I note that where the “Slapstick Encyclopedia” describes the Drews’ comedy, it uses the term “refined drawing-room style,” and this may be the real key. This is not a comedian who plays a tramp, or a bumpkin, or some other lowly member of society, this is a comedian who appears as a comfortably middle-class burgher, making fun of the mores of that class. He works in an office and they even have servants. And that’s what makes this “refined,” or at least not “vulgar,” the fact that it takes place in the “normal” world of the white middle class, and not on its fringes where Keystone and other studios focused. I was surprised by Drew’s look, actually he reminded me of D.W. Griffith in slightly later years. He was, as it happens, 27 years older than his wife in reality, so the focus on May-December romance as a source of dilemma and humor makes sense. Lucile and he worked together on the scripts, and at least by her account it was an equitable collaboration. Certainly, in this instance she comes off looking like the smart one, even if her obsession with Fox Trot is a bit bizarre.

Director: Sidney Drew

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Sidney Drew, Lucille Drew, Ethel Lee

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Also, read the review at “Movies Silently” for another view.

Better Man (1912)

Better_Man

Once again, we have an interesting exploration of ethnic and gender tropes in an early Western, this time from Vitagraph who were seen as the major competition for Biograph in turning out drama at the time. Here, a Mexican horse thief (played by Robert Thornby, who went on to direct “The Deadlier Sex” and “Bianca”) proves to be “the better man” than a white husband and father who gambles away his pay at a bar while his young child lies sick at home. The thief enters the home looking for food, but the wife implored him to find a doctor, and, his heart moved by the icon of Maria on the wall, the wanted Latino criminal agrees, though it exposes him to possible capture. The father attempts to apprehend him, is bested in a fair fight, and tries again to get the drop on the Mexican while the doctor ministers to the child, resulting in a thorough shaming by his own wife. Although it may seem a surprising turn of events, the story is in line with other progressive “message pictures” of the day which blamed much of the world’s misery on unmanly men for failing to live up to their gender role as providers and protectors of women and children.

Director: Rollin S. Sturges

Cast: Anne Schaefer, Robert Thornby

Run Time: 12 Min

I have been unable to locate this movie online. If you know where it can be seen for free, please link to it in the comments.