Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Wallace McCutcheon

Watermelon Patch (1905)

This short film from Edison offers the opportunity to think about racial tropes in America and how they have (and haven’t) changed. While certainly not a flattering portrayal of African Americans, it avoids the use of blackface and has real black people portraying themselves at least.

The movie opens on a shot of a watermelon patch with two full-sized scarecrows on poles overlooking it. Two black men cautiously enter the shot and, after comedically bumping heads, signal to off-screen companions, who filter in and each claims a watermelon. While they are distracted, the scarecrows remove their clothes, revealing skeletons underneath (actually, people in black body-suits with skeletons painted on the front). One of the thieves turns and sees them, and the skeletons begin waving. The thieves panic and run, and the skeletons hop down from their poles and chase them off-screen. The chase continues for a few succeeding shots, and many of the watermelon thieves drop their ill-gotten gains as they run through a forest, leap over a fence, and hurry down a country road.

The scene shifts to the interior of a shack, with many African Americans dancing together. The dance has comedic elements – a very large fat woman is featured in one portion, and another section involves two men surreptitiously kicking one another at intervals in the dance. Then, the survivors of the chase come in, some of them still have their watermelons, and this is cause for general celebration. A watermelon is thrown on the ground so that it shatters into pieces, and everyone takes a piece and sits down to eat. We see a close two-shot of two men eating very large pieces of watermelon, occasionally looking up to grin at each other with juice-stained faces. They seem to engage in a kind of “Watermelon Contest,” with the one on the left pulling ahead and then breaking off a chunk of his opponent’s piece to get more watermelon.

The scene returns to the watermelon patch, where some white men with dogs have arrived. The dogs track the scent of the thieves through the forest, the fence, and the road, and the men arrive outside of the shack. One peers in the window, which is closed in his face. The white men board up the door from outside and cover the smokestack with a board. Back inside, we see one of the black men shut the window, then the feeding continues for a while until the place starts to fill up with smoke. Everyone gets up in distress, but they cannot open the door. Someone opens the window, and a woman tries to climb through it, getting stuck so that her undergarments are visible to the audience. Once again, we cut to outside, and again, we go back a bit in time so that we see the window open, and the woman climbs through. This time, she does not get stuck however, because the white men drag her out, and she runs away. Then several more people are brought out that way, and others climb out through a skylight. The white men let all of them go, although apparently they chastise them as they pull them out of the shack.

On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, African American scholar Michele Wallace raises some interesting points about blacks and watermelons, and also black stereotypes generally. Watermelons are a staple Southern food (they will not grow in the North), which can be grown cheaply and with relatively little effort. They have, as we know, become associated with African American culture and with racial epithets. I think she misses the fact that they are generally messy to eat, with juice staining hands and faces, and the necessity of spitting out the seeds, which contributes to their consumption being seen as “uncouth” or infantile. She makes another interesting point that applies well to this movie, which is that most of the stereotypes about black culture from this period reflect poor, rural life in various ways (perhaps today it is poor, urban culture being reflected in black stereotypes). This movie centers around agricultural production, and also the question of ownership (and theft) of the means of living. Wallace points out that poor people often stole food like watermelons and chickens, because these were things that could feed a large group quickly, and could be hard to trace. Other stereotypes include their superstitious reaction to the skeletons, associated with a low level of education and world-experience, and their dancing, which is the only form of free entertainment available to them. The blacks seem to be a mix of “field hands” and “house servants” from their attire, although recall that slavery is now 40 years in the past. The field hands often seem to get the better of their “betters,” as in the kicking contest that takes place during the dance.

Technically, this film is also interesting. When I watched the opening, I thought, “if this movie had been made four years earlier, that opening shot would have been the whole movie, and that would have been just as good.” By 1905, Edwin S. Porter feels the necessity to drag out his thin plot over several shots by adding a chase, which may partly explain why chase films were so common during the Nickelodeon Era. But the really interesting aspect of this movie is the sequential editing, which requires us to see the window being closed from both the inside and the outside of the shack, and for the sequence to “jump backward” in time each time we cut between the two locations. Parallel editing is just a couple of years away, and in fact this is more neatly handled than “Life of an American Fireman” was a few years earlier, where an entire scene is re-played from two angles. I would say that this is a step in the evolution of editing, and suggests that it was not the genius of any one person that “invented” the technique.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

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

The White Caps (1905)

An important predecessor to “The Birth of a Nation,” this short movie by Edwin S. Porter was nowhere near as successful, but still offers some insights into the themes of early American Cinema. To understand its meaning today, a good deal of context needs to be filled in.

The movie begins by showing two men in awkward white hoods approaching the front of a house and tacking up a sign at the front door. The men are armed with rifles, and one keep a lookout while the other posts the warning sign. They depart, and shortly thereafter we cut to the inside of the house, where a lone woman glumly reads at a table. Soon, her husband comes home, apparently drunk. He is enraged by the sign and tears it down, then goes in and picks a fight with his wife, escalating to violence. A child runs out of the bedroom and distracts him long enough that she can escape his clutches, and we see them run across fields to elude him and ends up at another house, presumably the home of family or friends who give her shelter. The menfolk of this house become agitated, and several of them jump on horses to raise the alarm.

Soon, a group of men with white hoods like those we saw at the start grab the drunken husband and drag him, resisting, away from his house, into the woods. There, they bring him to a torchlit circle of men, all of whom put on their hoods when the man is brought to them (we see that they are ordinary citizens before their hooding). The man breaks and runs, and there is a lengthy chase through the woods. Finally, the man attacks a lone pursuer from behind a tree, possibly hoping to get his hood and escape in disguise, but he loses the fight and the other hooded men soon arrive and take him into custody. Then, his arms are tied and raised by ropes around a tree branch. Now that he is secured, the hooded men rip off his shirt and paint his upper body black, then throw feathers on him from bags. The final image is a grim procession of hooded men, leading the tarred and feathered victim, his hands tied, on the back of a mule.

Before we get into discussing the obvious parallel, it is important to note that there was no active Ku Klux Klan at the time of the release of this movie. The book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, would also come out in 1905, and this would fire the imagination of men like William Simmons, who would re-found the Klan ten years later, the same year that “Birth of a Nation” was released.  This movie is, as the title makes clear, about “Whitecapping,” which was a form of vigilantism prevalent in the South and the West in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. White Caps were groups of citizens that took the law into their own hands, operating clandestinely with the help of masks, and enforcing community standards through the threat of terror. This form of vigilantism has roots in the mythos of the “holy Vehm” of Westphalia and other European traditions. None of which is to say that it has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. While race was not a central issue for the White Caps in the same sense as for the Klan, it certainly played a role in the standards the White Caps enforced, particularly in the South, where competition for scarce resources between poor whites and freed slaves and their descendants contributed to a culture of lynching.

For us today, the vision of a lone man being pursued by hooded figures with torches is undeniably horrific, although that may not have been the impression the directors were seeking to convey. The victim in this movie begins as a villain, a drunk and a spousal abuser (we don’t see him hit the child, but child abuse would also be a logical extension of this character). The White Caps are therefore posited as a force for decency, even if what they do is unpleasant. It’s also worth noting that this movie is edited along the lines of other chase movies by Porter, such as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife…” that are essentially comedic. On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, scholars Charles Musser and Michelle Wallace offer some of the above context, and also emphasize that the tradition of popular vigilantism in the US led to some of the formative genres of Hollywood, including the Western. I would add that there is also a direct line to comic book superheroes, possibly one of the most profitable genres of the current decade. As we thrill at the current portrayals of extra-legal enforcement on the screen, it may help remember the less-glossy origins of the concept in order to maintain some awareness and critical distance from its more unpleasant implications.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring:Kate Toncray, John R. Cumpson, Arthur V. Johnson

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Winter Straw Ride (1906)

Winter Straw Ride1With December progressing apace, it’s time I come back to my seasonally-oriented movie reviews. This one depicts outdoor activities of an earlier generation and seems a lot more fun than “A Holiday Pageant at Home.”

Winter Straw Ride2Two horse-drawn sleds are loaded up in front of a stationary camera. The first seems to contain younger girls, the second is apparently grown women; possibly the pupils and teachers of an all-girls school are going on a sleigh ride before the school holidays. The succeeding shots show the two teams of horses approaching the camera as the sleighs dash over the snow. In one shot, a group of boys pelt the riders with snowballs. The sleighs cross a bridge and the girls wave at the camera. They enter a field and one of them tips over when going through a snowbank, and every gets out to right it, with some assistance from nearby onlookers, then they are off again! The next scene shows the girls and women chasing a group of men and boys. They catch an older man that looks like Teddy Roosevelt and smush his face in the snow, then continue the pursuit. The rest of the film is the boys running and the girls pursuing them. At one point, they all slide down a snowbank, until it collapses under their weight, revealing that there was no hill underneath, it had been piled up by the wind. Finally, in the last scene, the boys come to a steep ravine they cannot climb out of. The girls and women catch up and the chase devolves into a massive snowball fight.

Walk softly and carry a big snowball, Teddy.

Walk softly and carry a big snowball, Teddy.

I was ready for a cup of hot cocoa after I watched this one! It was made by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Manufacturing Company, presumably shot somewhere in New Jersey during the winter months. The snow doesn’t look that thick on the roads in some places, which may explain why they went into the fields. I don’t quite get why they abandoned the “straw ride” theme to run after boys for half of the movie, but Porter seems to have been fond of using the “chase” format to give some plot to his largely storyless vignettes. There is little camera movement, although the camera does pan a little as the sleighs go by and one critical pan takes place when they catch the man in the snow, and all editing is simply to put one scene after the other. Close-ups are essentially incidental, as the subjects run past the camera. Everyone in the movie seems to be having a good time, and when we can make out faces, they are smiling and laughing. This bit of snow sport seems much more in keeping with the spirit of Christmas than the rigid Victorian world of “Holiday Pageant” to me.

Winter Straw RideDirector: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 6 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (No music, good image) or here (with music, poorer quality image).