Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Vv

A Visit to Los Angeles (1916)

In anticipation of my coming visit to Hollywood later this week for Cinecon, I thought I’d check out this old depiction of the city from 101 years ago. Produced by the still-young Ford Motor Company, it’s part travelogue, part advertisement, with an emphasis on the effects and benefits of the automobile on a major Western city.

The movie begins, after a pompous Intertitle, with a panorama of the downtown area taken from the top of a tall building. This would have been pretty exciting for an audience that didn’t get to the tops of skyscrapers very often, and it gives us a good view of the range of architecture that was present at the time. We then cut to the Hall of Records and the Old Court House, which combine monumental size with gothic style fairly effectively. I was surprised by the number of windows on the Hall of Records – at least it looked like you could work with plenty of light in there! We then turn to “Broadway, in the heart of the business section.” We see a crowded street from above (possibly it’s the same vantage as the first shot, simply tilted downward more extremely). Here, we see streetcars and automobiles vying for space on the crowded streets as pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross against traffic that rarely stops. The next shot is of Clune’s Auditorium, which seems to be an imposing structure across the street from a small park. The next shot shows “Central Park,” again from above, but this appears to be a more carefully manicured park than the one in the previous shot. It  is also crowded with people, like its namesake in Manhattan. After a brief panorama, we cut to a ground-level shot of the park, and people pack the pathways, many stopping to sit and smoke at a fountain. Notable in these shots are what appear to be electric streetlamps on the sides of the paths. Now we cut to a street-level shot of a large department store. The Intertitles point out the window boxes with plants visible at every level. The next cut takes us to what looks like a train station, though no Intertitle gives us context here. Now we see Angel’s Flight Inclined Railway, which I didn’t know was so old, as well as the tunnel under the hill that allows you to bypass it. Then a quick pan of the University of California (UCLA), which probably didn’t have a film program at the time. Then California Hospital, which is virtually indistinguishable from the University.

Now, we travel to Chinatown, where we see the only unpaved streets in the movie, and buildings constructed mostly of wood rather than stone. No autos are in evidence, and these are the least crowded streets we’ve seen in the whole movie. A few jabs at the obscurity of Chinese ideograms serves as the segue to a visit to the Old Plaza and the Mexican section of the city (never mind that the whole city had been Mexican within living memory!). Men with long mustaches and heavy suits lounge and stare languidly at the camera in a park. We also see the Plaza Church where the “Mexican population” is said to worship.

We return to the theme of automobiles with a shot of the North Hill Street “double barreled” tunnel, which seems to consist of one barrel for cars, one for streetcars. Then we see a large Masonic temple, before returning to the automotive theme with a view of Broadway in fast motion, the emphasis on the busy traffic. A single policeman in the center of a street  crossing directs what seems like impossibly fast and incessant traffic. Somehow pedestrians occasionally make it safely to the other side. We then see this same corner at regular speed, and get the sense that traffic moves infuriatingly slowly. In perhaps the oddest section, we now see large pipes that are part of the elaborate (and expensive) system of bringing water to the desert community. For scale, a human figure walks on one of the pipes. Then, they show a man driving a Ford car on one of the pipes, to demonstrate how large they really are! Speaking of cars, we now get to see the oil fields of Los Angeles, where a variety of derricks are pumping up the precious liquid in vast quantities. We are told that many industries have shifted from coal-burning plants to oil-burning. Finally, a shot of “bungalows” (actually, quite large houses) from the back of a car demonstrates the thrill of driving in LA. Men wear heavy coats in what seems to be the heat of a California day, and carry papers as they leave their bungalows for work.

This movie is pretty basic, so far as travel films go, but it shows off a lot of LA from a period when it was just beginning to boom as a city. The film industry would have been a going concern already by 1916, but this movie has no interest in that, choosing to emphasize downtown architecture, crowded city streets, ethnic neighborhoods, pipelines, automobiles and oil. Those last two can be seen as particular interests of its production company, so no great surprise perhaps. But one would think that movie audiences would be obvious targets for movies about movie-making. Perhaps no one at Ford thought so, or perhaps the distance to the studios from the locations where this movie was shot made it not worthwhile to them. Anyway, the result is that we see a lot of the old LA that the movie companies tended not to document so well, and the result is interesting if not always terribly entertaining.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch the first two minutes for free: here. Those with University affiliations may be able to access the file via their libraries. Worldcat link: here.

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The Voice of the Violin (1909)

This early effort by D.W. Griffith is far from his most sophisticated work, but it does show real talent at an early point in his career. It focuses on immigrants and their differing responses to American culture, with a definite message concerning those responses.

The movie begins with a long scene that establishes most of the conflict – after spoiling this with a forward-facing Intertitle that reads “scorned by the heiress, the music master listens to the reasoning of the anarchists.” Arthur V. Johnson plays a character called “Von Schmitt,’ who is the music master. We see him in his modest home, and he is visited by a mustached fellow who shows him a pamphlet and makes some gestures describing the divide between rich and poor, and advocating equality for all. Von Schmitt is unimpressed, and shows him out before his pupil, a wealthy young lady (Marion Leonard), arrives with her maid (Anita Hendrie) in tow.  This is Helen Walker, the “heiress” of the Intertitle. The two of them stand very close and speak animatedly while staring into one another’s eyes, demonstrating their apparent affection, and the maid interrupts by giving the heiress her violin and bow. When she plays, it is obvious that she has little promise as a violinist, but Von Schmitt continues to try to woo her. Eventually, he goes too far, and she is offended. Her father (Frank Powell), a wealthy man in a fur coat, then comes in and quarrels with Von Schmitt, taking his daughter away from the upstart. Now his friend returns with a more polished radical (David Miles), and they repeat the gestures and the slogan “No High. No Low. All Equal” is revealed in an Intertitle. This time Von Schmitt is more responsive, angry as he is at the rich for excluding him, and he sees this as a way to eliminate the barrier between himself and Helen.

The next scene shows a radical meeting, and signs are posted in the background to again communicate the slogan and aims of the organization. Many of the actors in this scene are made up to look like immigrants, and there is also a somewhat masculine woman (possibly a reference to Emma Goldman?) who leads some of the discussion. A poverty-stricken child is put on a table to demonstrate how wealth inequality hurts the innocent. When Von Schmitt and his friend enter, they are welcomed as comrades. The entire group repeats the high/low/equal gestures, and Von Schmitt echoes it. Then there is a drawing of lots to see who will plant a bomb against a “monopolist.” Of course, Von Schmitt and his friend are the lucky winners. After having their wrists cut to seal their oath, they are presented with a classic round black spherical bomb with a long fuse.

The next scene is on a New York street, in front of a brownstone festooned with American flags. We see Helen and her father drive up in a fancy car and enter the house, letting the audience know who “the monopolist” in question will be before the anarchists arrive. Von Schmitt and his friend walk up shortly afterwards and look around suspiciously. They go down to the lower level entrance and force open a basement window. The friend goes in while Von Schmitt stands watch outside. The scene cuts to the interior of the basement, and the friend sets up the bomb and lights the fuse, having some difficulty getting it started. As he hesitates, he points to the wound on his wrist, reminding himself of his pledge, and this gives him the fortitude to carry on.

We then cut back outside to see Von Schmitt, who hears music from inside the house. He peers in the window and we see Helen playing, inside her well-appointed home. He realizes at last whose home he has been sent out to destroy, and rushes down to the basement, desperate to convince his friend to douse the fuse, or to do it himself. The friend again makes the ritual gestures and also points to the wounds on their wrists, but Von Schmitt is determined to stop the bomb blast. So, the two fight and Von Schmitt is tied up and left in the basement. He wakes up as the time runs down and worms his way across the floor to the fuse, biting it with his teeth to prevent the explosion. In doing so, he makes enough noise that a liveried servant comes down to investigate, and he reports to Mr. Walker what he has found. Soon, the whole household is in the basement, and Von Schmitt is freed and thanked for saving everyone’s lives. Mr. Walker picks up the bomb carefully and takes it upstairs with him.

The final scene shows Von Schmitt and Helen at another lesson, this time in the Walkers’ home. The maid again intervenes when they get too close, but ultimately Mr. Walker comes in and encourages their embrace.

Now, I’ve been pretty critical on this blog about D.W. Griffith’s most famous features, but I’m generally a fan of the shorts he made at Biograph. To the degree that he did innovate and invent the “grammar” of motion pictures (I tend to consider this claim to be an inflation of his importance), I think it can best be appreciated in this early work. Here, although the tension is ruined by the Intertitles and there are other problems, we do see him experimenting with cross-cutting in the bomb-lighting sequence between the basement, the stoop, and Helen’s apartment. The biggest problem with that scene is the resolution – there is no insert shot showing Von Schmitt biting the fuse, so it’s hard to see what’s happening at that point. The first time I watched, I thought it was Walker who defused the bomb at the point when he picked it up. Still, comparing this to the completely sequential rescue scene in “The Black Hand,” it is undeniably the more sophisticated approach.

Anarchism and other forms of radicalism were associated at this time both with immigration and with terrorism, so one can see this movie as promoting a nationalist or even jingoist position. However, Biograph was aware that much of the audience for their movies came from urban immigrant areas, so this message is tempered by the “good” immigrant, who comes to be accepted by the wealthy Mr. Walker, once he has demonstrated his merit. Von Schmitt is only tempted by the radical message when class prejudice keeps him from Helen, but he isn’t basically evil or un-American. The portrayal of the radical meeting is interesting, showing both rabble-like agitation and also conspiratorial discipline. During the oath-taking, there are members dressed in dark robes reminiscent of the Ku Klux Klan, which Griffith would later make into the heroes of “The Birth of a Nation,” but here the robed figures are undeniably sinister, but perhaps also a bit comic in their inappropriateness to the situation. Griffith may have intended this to show the corruption of symbolism through its appropriation by the enemies of justice, although to us today it seems like an unlikely depiction of urban radicalism.

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer and Arthur Marvin

Starring: Arthur V. Johnson, Marion Leonard, David Miles, Anita Hendrie, Frank Powell, Mack Sennett, John R. Cumpson, Dorothy West

Run Time: 16 Min

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

 

The Voice of Conscience (1912)

This short from Thanhouser features its major star, Florence LaBadie, only in a supporting role, but makes use of locations to free up the cinematography somewhat. It’s the story of a typical love-triangle and the rivalry that it calls into being.

Voice of ConscienceThe movie opens with the death of a loving father, who puts his daughter (Jean Darnell) into the care of his best friend (Henry Benham) upon his death bed. The friend puts the “orphan” (as she’s known throughout the movie) up with his mother, presumably because it would be unseemly for a bachelor to live with a young woman. She nevertheless falls for him, and swoons visibly when he gives her a small flower from the garden. Then, some “friends from the city” come to visit the mother. One of them is Florence LaBadie, who immediately captures Henry’s attentions, resulting in dark sulks from the orphan. The three go out driving together, and the driver manages to hit a tiny rock and come to an immediate halt, which somehow knocks out the two women (perhaps because of their delicate constitutions, cough). They are rushed to the hospital and given a “powerful heart stimulant.” Jean then has the clever idea of pouring an overdose into her rival’s medicine, but the doctor sees her through the window (which he apparently routinely peers through to spy on female patients). He prevents the OD, but allows the orphan to believe she has killed Florence. Now, wracked with guilt, the orphan begins to have visions of the dead girl haunting her. After allowing this to go on for a month, the doctor finally shows her that Florence is fine. Jean is repentant, and all is fine.

Watch out for that HUGE ROCK!!!

Watch out for that HUGE ROCK!!!

I think this movie could have been a lot better if Florence had played the orphan. Jean Darnell overacts painfully, particularly when she’s writhing around in bed over her guilty conscience, but really at pretty much any chance she gets. Florence mostly looks on embarrassed, although she manages to display some real chemistry with Henry on the car ride. Admittedly, the premise was silly and likely to call for overly emotional performances, but I think Florence might have saved it, given the chance. As it is, I spent more time appreciating the outdoor locations, reportedly in New Rochelle, New York, and the occasional tilts of camera to keep the players in frame. The shot through the window was an interesting choice – we just see Darnell’s arms as she puts the poison in, the curtains drawn so that we don’t see her face or body. The special effect of the transparent ghostly Florence was pretty typical for 1912. The copy Thanhouser has put up on vimeo includes a nice organ score by Ben Model.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Jean Darnell, Henry Benham, Florence LaBadie, Edmund J. Hayes

Run Time: 14 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Vagabond (1916)

Charlie Chaplin’s character returns to his more lovable behavior with this Mutual release, apparently a kind of follow-up to “The Tramp.” Both in terms of filmmaking and character, this movie shows how far he came in so short a time.

Vagabond_(1916)The movie opens with Charlie, in “Little Tramp” getup, walking out of a bar. At first, we expect that he has returned to the character of the “funny drunk,” but after a moment, he pulls out a violin, showing his real reason for being there. Outside the door, he plays his instrument for the entertainment of those inside. While he is playing, a full band walks up to the other entrance to the bar, and starts playing. We see the patrons of the bar, enjoying the band’s popular tunes, singing along, and raising their glasses to the tune. Charlie finishes his piece and goes inside to ask for donations for the music he played. Enthusiastic about the band, several patrons give him coins. Then the band leader (John Rand) comes in to ask for money, and the patrons are incensed: “What, again?” The band leader figures out that Charlie has “stolen” their money and confronts him. Not understanding, Charlie asks him for a donation. The Band leader hits him and a fight between them turns into a chase, which includes, first, the band leader, then the band (Charlie steps on a drum in trying to escape), and then everyone in the bar (Charlie grabs a drink while they all run after him). He finally evades his pursuers and makes his way to a gypsy camp.

VagabondHere, he plays for a girl (Edna Purviance) who is doing the washing. She accelerates and decelerates her work in time with his playing. At the end, he gets so enthusiastic that he falls over into a water bucket. She comes over to help him, and her cruel stepfather (Eric Armstrong) sees her slacking off and making time with this stranger. He now grabs Edna and drags her over to the fire, where all the other gypsies are and whips her in front of the crowd. Charlie, seeing this, builds up his courage and knocks the man out with a club. He then manages to knock out each of the gypsies in turn, takes Edna back to the caravan and steals a wagon to ride off with her.

Vagabond1The next morning, Charlie awakes on the ground, having given the wagon’s sleeping quarters to Edna, and he helps her wash up and prepares breakfast. Meanwhile, Edna takes a walk and encounters a handsome artist (Lloyd Bacon), who asks her to model. She complies, shyly at first, then invites him back for breakfast, which Charlie isn’t entirely happy about. The painting of Edna winds up in a gallery, where it is seen by her wealthy mother, who recognizes her from the birthmark on her arm as the little girl that was stolen by gypsies! Edna’s mother and the artist return to the camp in a limo, and she agrees to go with them, leaving Charlie, saddened and alone, behind. Suddenly, Edna’s heart tells her that her true love isn’t for the artist, and she cries out for the car to stop and turn back. She runs and embraces Charlie, telling him, “you come too!” They pile into the car and go off to a new life together.

Vagabond2As with “Police,” Charlie’s character in this movie is a victim of the cruel world, rather than a perpetrator of violence for its own sake. His theft of the money from the band is unintentional, and he does not start violence against them on purpose. With the gypsies, he is violent only in defense of Edna, who is being bull-whipped unjustly. He does not act in violence or even discourtesy towards his romantic rival. In short, he is a totally sympathetic character once again. The ending is a stark contrast with “The Tramp,” in which he leaves at the first sight of any competition. Here, he holds out hope and winds up winning. Unlike other Charlie-Edna romances, the decision is left to the girl, and she makes it based on her true feelings. I find the ending effectively dramatic and moving, in spite of its presence in a manic comedy.

Vagabond4Chaplin’s direction is improving this year as well. He seems to have made a real discovery in Lloyd Bacon, who served as his double in “The Floorwalker,” Edna’s father in “The Fireman,” and the suave artist in this movie. He demonstrates range, comedic talent, and solid dramatic acting. Bacon had small roles in some of Chaplin’s early Essanay films, but had mostly worked with “Broncho Billy” Anderson until Chaplin moved to Mutual and somehow convinced Bacon to follow. He would go on to become a successful director in the talkie era, making movies like “42nd Street” and “Action in the North Atlantic” with Humphrey Bogart. Although his role in this movie is fairly “straight,” it is an important role, and Chaplin had to trust the actor to be able to pull it off without trying to be funny. I also want to take a moment to mention Roland Totheroh, who started working with Chaplin at the end of his career at Essanay and stayed with him to film all of his later shorts and major features up to “Monsieur Verdoux” in 1947. Totheroh has a somewhat better style for these more sophisticated movies than Harry Ensign, who worked fast and fit the more manic pace of earlier Chaplin. Camera angles are more carefully considered, and set-ups are not based on the “square” framing of the earlier period, although for editing purposes we still have frames that define edges of spaces that characters will move through, allowing funny business when characters in one frame do not know what takes place in the other.

Vagabond3This is a long review, by the standards of this blog, but there’s one more thing I’d like to point out, which is the emphasis on “sound” and its importance in silent movies. Charlie is a musician, and how other characters react to his playing is an important screen element, although the audience cannot hear what it “really” sounds like (a good soundtrack can make up for this, of course). This was also the case in “The Fireman,” in which alarms and phones ringing are key plot devices. This is characteristic, in my opinion, of what I’m calling the “Silent Classical Period,” in which directors and other creative people had come to see silent movies as an art form of their own – one which included sound as an implied element, but not a direct one. That’s not to say no one had ever done it before 1915 (there are alarms in “Life of an American Fireman,” for example, and reactions to gunshots in “The Great Train Robbery”), but its use is increasingly explicit and sophisticated during this period.

Director: Charlie Chaplin

Camera: Roland Totheroh

Cast: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance, Eric Campbell, Lloyd Bacon, John Rand, Leo White

Run Time: 24 Min

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

The Vanishing Lady (1896)

Once more we have an example of something that may or may not be the first surviving “horror film.” This one is cataloged as #70 in the Méliès company catalog, which would put it after “A Terrible Night” (if the movie we have access to is the right one) and before 1896’s “The Haunted Castle.” Like the others, it is short, and not very scary.

Vanishing LadyIn this case we see Georges Méliès walk onto stage in his role as a performing magician. He places newspaper on the floor and a chair on top of that, demonstrating that there is no trap door beneath which opens during the trick. He then calls his assistant out and has her sit in the chair, and covers her with a sheet. Voila! She has vanished. When he tries to make her come back, a skeleton sits in her place (this is the only real horror element). He again covers the skeleton, and the lady reappears. They take a bow and exit.

Vanishing Lady1This is identified as the first of Méliès’s “trick films,” in which he used the “stop trick” (seen previously in Edison’s “Mary Queen of Scots”) to perform magic on screen. This was one of his most important camera techniques, and to some degree defines the rest of his career as a filmmaker. Because it allows “supernatural” events to be portrayed, it is also undeniably important to the development of horror movies. Indeed, the mysterious appearance of skeletons due to occult forces would be a key element in the 1942 Bela Lugosi movie, “Night Monster,” although I doubt if its makers had this parallel in mind.

Alternate Title: Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin, The Conjuring of a Lady at the House of Robert-Houdin

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Jehanne d’Alcy

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Very Fine Lady (1908)

Very Fine Lady

Alternate Title: Une dame vraiment bien

Another piece of light fluff from the early years of Louis Feuillade, this depicts a young woman walking around the streets of Paris whose figure apparently causes all sorts of mayhem. When she walks by men, they turn and crash into things, or spray one another with hoses, or otherwise become too distracted to function. She is fully and fashionably clothed, although her corset is very tight, which tends to accentuate her figure, but she is far from immodest, which may actually be part of the joke (or maybe it just seems humorous to modern sensibilities). The various Frenchmen reacting to her seem like something out of a Pepe Le Pew cartoon – they have no dignity and respond with broad gestures and ogles. Finally, a couple of policemen take it upon themselves to cover up her dress with a large coat and escort her safely home. The scene with the soldiers breaking rank to stare at her made me think of how France would be at war in just a few years, fighting against Germans who believed just this sort of idea of French military discipline. Interestingly, the audience never gets a good look at the woman’s face, she is generally depicted at a distance, or walking away from the camera.

Director: Louis Feuillade, Romeo Bosetti

Starring: Renée Carl

Run Time: 3 Min, 26 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Virginian, The (1914)

Virginian

This was Cecil B. DeMille’s second movie, coming only months after “The Squaw Man,” and it’s also a Western starring Dustin Farnum as a transplant to the West who bests all comers and upholds his dignity and honor. I found it rather less interesting by comparison. The Indians are there simply as handy adversaries to stymie the hero in his work, and the female character (an eastern schoolmarm) is a pretty bland romantic interest with little motivation or personality of her own. There’s an odd “day for night” bit in the middle of the movie – one shot is shown lit by a campfire in what seems to be real night, while other scenes, edited around it to appear simultaneous, are obviously shot during the daytime. I wonder how audiences read that at a time when night shooting was comparably rare, and most movies simply used the convention of showing everything by daylight because that’s all cameras could pick up. Anyway, our hero is something of a bully and even winds up lynching his best friend in the name of justice, but the film does end with the classic gunfight in the dusty street, and probably did help establish the visual standards of the genre, to say nothing of establishing DeMille as a major player in the medium.

Director: Cecil B. DeMille

Camera: Alvin Wyckoff

Starring: Dustin Farnum, William Elmer, Winifred Kingston

Run Time: 54 Min

You can watch it for free: here.