Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Walter Long

The Little American (1917)

The star power of Mary Pickford is teamed with the directing power of Cecil B. DeMille to produce a war propaganda picture just as the United States prepares to send its first troops to France to fight in World War One. The movie pulls no punches in showing audiences what the USA will be fighting for, but it has a reputation for being clumsy and jingoistic today.

Mary is the titular representative of the United States, Angela Moore, living a privileged and sheltered life as a socialite on a large estate. She has two suitors: the French Count Jules de Destin (Raymond Hatton) and Karl von Austreim (Jack Holt), a German. As the movie opens, it is July 4, 1914 (which just happens to be Angela’s birthday), and she receives each of them in turn. She seems to prefer Karl, although he insists on teaching her little brother how to goose step. Karl is interrupted as he proposes by an urgent secret message calling him back to serve in the German military, and he honorably releases her from any obligations before he goes. When the Count informs her about the outbreak of war, her first though is of Karl and whether he may have been hurt in the fighting. She sends letters to Karl but hears nothing. Read the rest of this entry »

Joan the Woman (1916)

Cecil B. DeMille enters the arena of the historical epic with this depiction of France’s most famous saint, starring Geraldine Farrar, who had been very successful in “Carmen” the previous year. While a bit rough in places, it is likely to be a major contender in this year’s Century Awards.

joan_the_womanThis is one of those silent movies that, unfortunately, begins with several minutes of intertitles explaining the plot. Most silent directors did their best to avoid this, but DeMille may have felt that because he was dealing with such a “serious” subject, his audiences would need a little priming to get into the mood. Anyway, after five minutes of introductory reading, we finally get to an unnecessary wraparound story. We begin in the trenches in France in 1916, where a young English soldier is digging in the dirt wall for some reason, and pulls out a sword, apparently buried there since the fifteenth century. He speculates that some “queer bloke” must have wielded it, and then responds to a call for volunteers from an officer. The officer is looking for someone to carry a very unwieldy bomb across no-man’s-land to destroy an enemy trench. He tells the soldier to think about it until midnight before making a decision whether to take on the suicide mission. Once back in his barracks, the soldier sees a vision of Joan of Arc and the real movie finally begins!

joan-the-woman2 Read the rest of this entry »

Intolerance (1916)

Probably the most talked about film of 1916, “Intolerance” remains a kind of enigma to film historians. Despite the large amount of ink and computer bytes shed writing about it (see the bibliography at the end of this review for a small sample), it seems no better understood than most of the more typical releases of the year. What is this movie that has inspired so much discussion and debate? Is it one of the most important movies in history or just a giant flop?

Intolerance_(film)

Quick Summary

Regular readers of my blog know I usually begin each review with a recap of the action from the film – I don’t worry too much about “spoiling” 100-year-old movies, but if you want to see it first, you can always scroll down to the link and then come back and read the review. In this case, I’m going to be a bit less specific about the sequence of events and just give a summary of the stories, not accounting for the editing or sequence. In part,  this is because there are several different movies today calling themselves “Intolerance,” and deciding which is the “most authentic” is one of the sources of debate among scholars. It is complicated by the fact that the director, D.W. Griffith, kept making changes for each new re-release of the movie, beginning shortly after the premier on September 5, 1916. Some have argued that the 1917 re-release is more definitive, or even that the version Griffith reconstructed in 1922 after chopping up the print to release one of the storylines as a separate film is the most accurate. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art attempted to reconstruct the movie based on the score written by Joseph Carl Breil for the opening night, in an attempt to get back to an “original” form, but it needs to be noted that this reconstruction is highly debated, and that it is possible that most viewers in 1916 were seeing a quite different movie. Read the rest of this entry »

The Girl and Her Trust (1912)

Girl and Her Trust3

…or are you just happy to see me?

This Biograph short is another “rescue” movie in the vein of “An Unseen Enemy,” and may actually be the more exciting to modern audiences, although it was made earlier and lacks the star talent of the Gish sisters. Director D.W. Griffith packs considerable suspense into a short time span on a limited budget.

Girl and Her Trust1Here, Dorothy Bernard (who we just saw in “For His Son,” and was also in “His Trust”) stars as a plucky young telegraph operator who seems to have several “gentleman callers” who stop by at the telegraph office. The first, a yokel, she dismisses politely, but she shows more interest in the Express Agent (played by Wilfred Lucas), though she chides him for thinking he needs to get out the office revolver when a cash box containing $2000 comes in. When the train comes in, it also carries two tramps (one played by Edwin August), who plan to steal the box! Dorothy locks herself into her office and refuses to give up the key, sending a wire to the next station calling for help. She scares the tramps by faking a gunshot and they decide to take the box and break into it later. They haul it to a railroad handcar and prepare to leave, but the girl runs out to stop them. They beat her and take her along for the ride. Now the tension builds and the locomotive, carrying Wilfred, races after them, both vehicles on the same track. The train rolls to a stop as the tramps leap off, but they are recovered and so is the money. Dorothy and Wilfred ride together on the locomotive’s cow-catcher, sharing a sandwich and, apparently, continuing to bicker.

What? I'm not helping any tramps.

What? I’m not helping any tramps.

Griffith puts cross-cutting to full use here, and in general develops the story visually with minimal intertitles. Actually, where titles do come in, they tend to be disappointments: I had imagined an elaborate SOS from the girl’s furiously bouncing telegraph fingers, but the title card says all it says is “HELP…TRAMPS…QUICK.” At any rate, while the “girl” in this picture is ultimately a damsel in distress, she is not above taking action for herself. First, she engineers her own salvation through her knowledge of technology and Morse code. Second, she comes up with a clever way to fire off a bullet with no gun, hammering a pair of scissors into the primer (I have no idea if this would work, or be safe, in real life, but it looked good on film). Finally, even though she has no way to stop the thieves, she bravely runs out of her safe office to try to stop them from stealing the money. The one criticism one might make is that there is obviously no way the handcart is going to outrun a locomotive, so the ending is a foregone conclusion, but the tension is heightened by the fact that the girl is on board the cart, and the men on the train have no way to know this, and so might smash into it with the locomotive. On the whole, I find this one of Griffith’s better efforts.

Girl and Her Trust

Director: D.W. Griffith

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: Dorothy Bernard, Wilfred Lucas, Edwin August, Charles West, Walter Long

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here (with odd music) or here (better music)

The Birth of a Nation, Part VI

Birth of a Nation

We’ve reached the middle of the year that is the centenary of this controversial and problematic movie, and I went back to review what I’ve written so far. I realized that I have yet to provide the novice viewer with a basic summary of what you see when you watch “The Birth of a Nation,” and that I’ve referred to certain things (like “Gus” or “the scene in the House of Representatives”) without providing any context. Therefore, this post will be a simple re-counting of the storyline and action of the film. I don’t think there’s much danger of losing sight of the underlying message of the movie: The content is precisely what makes it such naked propaganda for the racial order of the old South. I’m not going to worry here about “spoilers,” so if you plan to watch it and care about such things, you’ve been forewarned. Besides, Griffith based it all on “actual historical fact,” so there won’t be any surprises for history buffs.

 Birth of a Nation1

The movie sets the stage in a similar manner to the earlier D.W. Griffith short, “The Fugitive,” but with the advantage of more time to develop character. Two families are presented, one Northern and one Southern, in the period before the outbreak of War. The Northern family is the Stonemans, and it is led by the corrupt abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis, also in “The Avenging Conscience” and later “The Hoodlum”). Stoneman has two sons and a daughter, Elsie (Lillian Gish, long a staple in Griffith’s work, including “The Unseen Enemy” and “The Mothering Heart”). The Southern family is the Camerons, headed by the aging Dr. Cameron (Spottiswoode Aitken, who has my favorite first name ever, and was in “The Battle” and “The Avenging Conscience”). The Doctor has two daughters, Margaret (Miriam Cooper, later in “Intolerance” and “Kindred of the Dust”) and Flora (Mae Marsh, whom we know from “The Battle at Elderbush Gulch” and “Judith of Bethulia”), as well as two sons, the most notable of which is the elder, Ben Cameron (Henry B. Walthall, who starred in “The Avenging Conscience” and “The House with Closed Shutters”).

 Birth of a Nation2

In the happy times before the war, the Stonemans come to visit the Camerons, and, being white and of the same class, get along very well. Various potential matches are made, with sons of the Stoneman house showing interest in the Cameron girls, and Ben clearly interested in Elsie’s photograph, as well as a developing bro-mance between the younger lads, which involves a lot of wrestling and fisticuffs. Along the way, we also see happy African American slaves at work in the fields and dancing spontaneous jigs on their generous lunch breaks to show their appreciation for their white masters. Then the elder Stoneman is manipulated by his mixed-race mistress into believing that a white Senator raped her while in his home, and the Stoneman visitors are recalled home to the North (it is implied though not stated that this is the real reason that war breaks out).

 Birth_of_a_Nation_war_scene

As with the many Griffith Civil War shorts I’ve discussed before, we get more tearful farewells and proud marches as the young men sign up for their respective armies. This sequence, which covers the war itself, is the focus of much of the praise this movie has received, although I think that Griffith and other directors had actually managed more emotionally effective and exciting battle scenes on lower budgets before this. One sequence involves a group of African American militiamen attacking the Cameron house and looting it, a gross distortion of the brave and disciplined service of such units during the war. At this time, the senior Cameron is struck down by the “scalawag white Captain” of the unit. The part that really stood out to audiences then and critics since is the massive “Siege of Petersburg” battle, in which Walthall’s character earns the moniker “The Little Colonel” due to his bravely charging the Yankee lines long after his men have fallen to their bullets. Again, I think there were better battles, this one actually relies too much on long-shots covered in smoke to hide how few extras Griffith had to hand, but it is one of the big claims of the film to large-scale spectacle. The bros wind up killing each other in combat and the Little Colonel is captured after his mad dash at the trenches.

Birth of a Nation3

Having built the audience up with the thrills of combat and women in jeopardy, Griffith now takes a bit of a breath, and gives the audience a sense that, despite the tragedies and injustices, things may work out after all. Abraham Lincoln is portrayed as “the Great Heart,” who will give the defeated South a fair deal, in spite of the insane radical wing of his party, led by Stoneman, who want to give African Americans legal equality. While in convalescence, Ben Cameron meets Elsie Stoneman working as a nurse in the military hospital. She is as taken with him and he with she, but their hearts are broken by the knowledge that he is to be executed as a saboteur. Mrs. Cameron now steps in, after making a Yankee guard feel guilty enough to permit her to visit her son, she goes off to see Lincoln himself and beg for clemency, which he grants. Everything seems to be returning to normal.

 Raoul Walsh

Enter Raoul Walsh (who later directed “Regeneration” and “The Roaring Twenties”) as John Wilkes Booth, a skulking villain with a mad plan. The assassination of Lincoln is, to my mind, one of the better parts of the movie, with a beautifully re-constructed Ford’s Theater set which apparently had no roof in order to allow the use of natural light. Walsh shoots Lincoln, jumps to the stage, speaks his famous line, and exits dramatically.

Birth of a Nation4

Now we enter the Second Act, the most critical part so far as Griffith and Thomas Dixon, the author of the story, are concerned. This is the depiction of the Reconstruction, the terrible dark time in which the South was punished for losing a war. Stoneman and his cronies are in control of the government, and their twisted ideas of racial equality are forced onto the South, despite all the indignities this causes the white population. Men are forced to salute African American veterans (a reversal of the situation in “Martyrs of the Alamo”), women are accosted in the street, and no white southerner is safe.

 Birth of a Nation5

The characters of Silas Lynch (played by George Siegmann, from “The Avenging Conscience” and “Intolerance”), a mixed-race carpetbagger, and Gus (Walter Long, from “Martyrs of the Alamo,” and “The Avenging Conscience”), a “renegade negro” (white in blackface) occupation officer are introduced. Lynch comes down to Piedmont along with Stoneman, to see what a good job of reconstructing the South “his people” are doing, and gets elected Lieutenant Governor by seeing to it that whites aren’t able to vote. In fact, the South Carolina House of Representatives is now overflowing with African American representatives, who have the audacity to eat fried chicken and drink liquor in that hallowed hall. One new congressman goes a bit too far when he takes off his shoes and puts his feet on the desk; a motion is passed forcing him to wear shoes.

 Birth-of-a-nation-klan-and-black-man

The Little Colonel hasn’t given up the fight, however, and when he sees some black children frightened by a “ghost” (another child under a sheet), he has the brilliant inspiration to form the Ku Klux Klan. His first opportunity to enact justice comes when his sister, Flora, runs across Gus in the woods while out fetching water. Gus insists that she marry him, a freedman with full civil rights, and she runs away. This is probably the most objectionable single scene in the movie (it was certainly the one the NAACP cited most frequently in protests), in which the blackface Gus leers and menaces, while the innocent Mae Marsh shrinks in fear. Finally, to avoid being defiled, she hurls herself off a cliff. Ben rallies the Klan and kills Gus, dumping his body on Lynch’s doorstep.

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Shut down all the garbage mashers on the detention level!

Lynch and the reconstructionists respond with force, attempting to arrest Dr. Cameron when they can’t find his son. He, along with his daughter and some loyal African American servants (former slaves) flee to a cabin in a field outside of town. This is intercut with Stoneman’s final upbraiding by Lynch, who has decided to marry his daughter Elsie. Lynch traps Elsie in a back room, but she is able to get word to the Klan. Now the local militia surrounds the house the Camerons are hiding in, Dr. Cameron stands poised to bash his daughter’s brains out rather than let her fall into the hands of the enemy.

 Birth of a Nation7

The Little Colonel leads a heroic charge of robed Klansmen to save, first Elsie, then his father and sister. This is probably the other scene most often cited as innovative and exciting, after the battle of Petersburg. The camerawork is good, with tracking shots following the horses at high speed and several shots of horses charging directly towards the audience. The crosscutting of the two scenes does heighten the tension, but it’s hard today to imagine anyone cheering for hooded Klansmen (and a little frightening, to think of our grandparents doing so).

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

What a free election looks like, to D.W. Griffith.

This is followed by a brief celebration and a picture of the new order. On election day, when African Americans prepare to go out and vote, they find mounted Klansmen in front of their doors. They wisely choose to go back in. Terror has won the day. Then there’s a pleasant double wedding of the surviving heroes (Elsie and Ben, Margaret and the largely irrelevant Phil Stoneman), and it ends on an overblown and seemingly hypocritical religious note.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

So, that’s the story of the film people raved about in 1915, and which people have defended and praised ever since in the name of “film history.” The questions this blog keeps asking are, “Whose history?” and “What does this heritage suggest about film as a medium?”

Martyrs of the Alamo (1915)

Martyrs_of_the_Alamo

In my recent discussion of “The Birth of a Nation,” I mentioned that Americans in 1915 were highly responsive to nationalist epics that portrayed their history as being as significant and heroic as the more established nations of Europe. This movie, also produced by D.W. Griffith in 1915, was another attempt to exploit that desire cinematically, and it presents some of the same problems for modern viewers. The story of Texas’s independence from Mexico may have had a special resonance for audiences at the time, since the Mexican Revolution had been raging for years, and would continue to rage for several more. American moviegoers also saw varied depictions of that war as it proceeded, but doubtless they also looked to the past for answers as to where the United States stood in relation to its Southern neighbor.

Mexicans, it seems, were given to standing in the street, waiting for opportunities to insult white women.

Mexicans, it seems, were given to standing in the street, waiting for opportunities to insult white women.

What they saw here no doubt confirmed their strongest prejudices. The “Americans” are a minority of fur-capped white folks (with one blackface servant), who are stoic in the face of constant harassment by sombrero-clad “Mexicans” and soldiers dressed like wooden-toy-soldier equivalents of Napoleon’s troops. Santa Ana (played by Walter Long, who was the infamous “Gus” in “The Birth of a Nation” and was a policeman in “Traffic in Souls”), an “inveterate drug user” given to “orgies” is a memorable villain – apparently the troops’ insults to white womanhood originate at his level. The “good” guys include Jim Bowie (Alfred Paget, who had been in “The Unchanging Sea” and “In the Border States”), who appears here to be a fop with a habit of constantly fondling his knife, a very tall Captain Dickinson (Fred Burns, who would later star in Westerns like “The Dude Bandit” and “Wild West”), and Silent Smith (Sam de Grasse, who went on to be in “The Man Who Laughs” and “The Black Pirate”). The flower of white womanhood is represented by Juanita Hansen (who ironically had problems with drugs and was also in “The Secret of the Submarine”) and Ora Carew (who had been “Dolores” in “In Old Mexico” and “The Gypsy Girl” in “Tangled Paths”). The revolt breaks out, apparently, because Dickinson’s wife is insulted, so he shoots down the officer who spoke to her in cold blood, and the Mexicans have the audacity to arrest him. Under the short-lived new regime, whiteness is spared from insults because all the Mexicans remove their sombreros and stand respectfully out of the way when Americans walk past. Never mind that this was the “cruel yoke of oppression” when applied to whites in the Reconstruction South in “Birth of a Nation.”

Jim Bowie, dressed at the height of fashion, eagerly shows Davie Crockett his knife.

Jim Bowie, dressed at the height of fashion, eagerly shows Davie Crockett his knife.

The movie was not directed by Griffith, but by Christie Cabanne, who is one of those directors whose sound work in B-movies I am familiar with (it includes the Bela Lugosi color vehicle “Scared to Death” and “The Mummy’s Hand”), but whose silent work I had only heard about, never seen. This may not be a fair movie by which to judge the rest of his oeuvre, we’ll have to see as this project continues. The direction appears to be adequate here, but I really missed Billy Bitzer’s camerawork. We do get some close-ups, particularly of the women’s and children’s faces during the attack, and some good stunts are caught on camera (particularly Mexican soldiers falling off their horses), but much of the movie lacks visual style. At some point, endless scenes of toy soldiers advancing on a fort and falling just aren’t that exciting. I was surprised by the relatively “gory” scenes of the dead after the battle had finished, with bloody wounds in heads and bayonets sticking out of chests. Overall, though, by the standards of late 1915, this seemed somewhat subdued in terms of visuals and action. I suspect it had a significantly lower budget than “Birth” had. There was also a somewhat annoying synthesizer soundtrack on the version I watched, which would have had nothing to do with whatever scores were played when it was screened in 1915.

Silent Smith isn't sure if this movie passes the Bechdel test.

Silent Smith isn’t sure if this movie passes the Bechdel test.

Director: Christy Cabanne

Camera: William Fildew

Starring: Sam de Grasse, Allen Sears, Walter Long, Alfred Paget, Fred Burns, Juanita Hansen, Ora Carew, John T. Dillon, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hour, 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here (synthesizer score and all!)