Category Archives: 1910s

The Portrait (1915)

*. Nikolai Gogol’s story “The Portrait” runs for just over 60 pages in my English translation and this film is only eight minutes long. There are a couple of explanations for this. In the first place, it’s reportedly all that survives of what was originally a 45-minute feature. In addition, it’s the most filmable part of the story, representing the sole dramatic highlight.
*. In the story a struggling artist buys a haunting portrait of a man in a second-hand shop. When he brings it home it magically comes to life, with the man stepping out of the painting and counting rolls of gold coins, one of which the artist grabs.
*. This is all we have left in what survives of the film, and it works quite well. We don’t even need title cards to explain what’s happening, and there is no dialogue. Gogol’s story goes on to describe the rise and fall of the artist, who has sold his soul to the devil by taking the gold. He becomes a rich and famous artist and then goes mad. Then in a long epilogue some of the back story of the painting is filled in. This part of the story is more thematic in nature, and more involved in making an argument. I could see it working in a silent film, but it would have been a challenge. As it is, I think the best reel survived, and probably not by accident.
*. Stripped of any musings about the nature of creativity, what it means to make sacrifices for one’s art, and the ambiguous blessings of fame, what we’re left with is the scene where Sadako comes crawling out of the television set in Ringu. Early filmmakers had played similar tricks with paintings coming to life, but I can’t think of any who give it the same creep factor. And even though it’s necessarily limited, I think it does a nice job of suggesting the dream/nightmare of the portrait’s transformation by its placement above the painter’s sleeping head.
*. It’s not the kind of film I’d immediately associate with the name of Wladyslaw Starewicz, best known today for his inventive stop-motion shorts involving insects. Then again, it’s not a typical Gogol story either. As we have it it’s hard to evaluate, being only a scene cut from a larger whole. As fragments go, however, it’s one of the most haunting we have.

The Tramp (1915)

*. In 1915 Charlie Chaplin became “the most famous man in the world.” It was an achievement both rapid (just over a year earlier his name would have been unknown outside the music hall circuit) and well prepared for. The Tramp, for example, wasn’t his first appearance as a tramp character. He’d been in development for years. But this film is often said to be the first where the Little Tramp was fully formed, and as such it marked (in the words of Peter Ackroyd) “the apotheosis of Chaplin’s early style” and “a defining moment in his career.” He’d just signed on with Essanay Studios, with a deal whereby he would have creative control and his films would be released as an “Essanay-Chaplin Brand.”
*. That paradox of hard-won, overnight success is also reflective of how Chaplin’s early films were made. They were both improvised and driven by inspiration as well as the product of endless rehearsal. Ever a perfectionist, some of the gags in this film had to be repeated as many as forty or fifty times before Chaplin was satisfied. This was tightly controlled chaos.
*. I’ve said before that I’m not a real big fan of Chaplin, but in a work like The Tramp you can see what made him so successful. There’s pathos at the end, but not as overdone as his late, major works. Instead we get a basic set-up (the dude on the farm, unaware of how cows give milk) and a standard repertoire of gags: a funny walk, lots of pratfalls, the sort of broad physical humour that was made for silent film. This simple stuff still charms, where the more involved set pieces in later films leave me cold. David Thomson: “Their jokes [those in the early shorts] are corny and repetitive, but Chaplin’s attempt to charm the viewer is masterly.”
*. What also works, and what was a revelation for me seeing a nicely restored version of this film, is Chaplin’s face. I don’t think I’d ever seen it as clearly before in one of these early pictures, and seeing it really makes a difference. Without Chaplin’s play of expressions the Tramp would remain a sadistic imp (he’s even armed with a pitchfork this time out!). But there’s more going on than just that. He has the face of a man in pain, even when he’s the one dishing it out.
*. All of which is to say I’d rather watch this movie than Modern Times or The Great Dictator again any day. Work like this showed Chaplin at or approaching his best, while at the same time indicating his limits. Already he seems about to overplay his hand, particularly in his direct appeals to the camera. Maybe the Little Tramp is a figure I can only handle in small doses. He’s an iconic figure, but you can only take so much of an icon. There are times I think he might have played better as someone’s sidekick. It worked for Sancho Panza and Falstaff, after all. But Chaplin was always a — or the — star.

L’Inferno (1911)

*. I suspect it’s true that most people who set out to read Dante’s Commedia only read Inferno. While scholars and Dante aficionados will insist that the Purgatorio and Paradiso are equally as interesting and rewarding, for popular tastes nothing quite beats a tour of sinners being tortured in hell. So it’s understandable that this film, which might have been the first part of a trilogy, had no sequels, despite being a big box office success.
*. The fact that Inferno has rarely received this kind of epic treatment — this film took three years to make and was the first feature film to be shown in its entirety in one screening, which allowed theatres to boost ticket prices — suggests the difficulties involved. But in 1911 these weren’t insurmountable. A long movie could be nothing more than a series of vignettes with only a loose narrative structure, since all the audience really came to see was hell’s greatest hits.

*. The visuals didn’t have to be wildly original. In fact they leaned heavily on the popular nineteenth-century illustrations of Gustave Doré, which is what the audience would have been expecting. Given its reception I think people who went to see L’Inferno in 1911 probably felt they got their money’s worth. Viewing it today, can we say the same?
*. The general structure works. Dante’s hell is a theatrical sort of place, with Virgil taking the pilgrim from stage to stage or level to level, presenting him with various tableaux of the damned. So it doesn’t matter that it looks stagey, as all the underworld’s a stage anyway. And the framing of many of these scenes, with the use of arcs and vanishing lines and other theatrical tricks is surprisingly effective. This looks like Doré come to life, those writhing naked bodies as much a part of the landscape as the rocks and pools.

*. Somewhat surprisingly, the big spectacle moments and monsters are the weakest links. The three beasts who confront Dante in the first canto are a silly-looking leopard and lion and a positively playful she-wolf (a friendly and unthreatening dog). Perhaps the rule that you should always avoid working with animals hadn’t been learned yet. The pack of hounds in the forest of suicides also seem as though they’re just looking for a good time (or some treats). But given the primitive stage of creature effects they didn’t have a lot of options.
*. Otherwise, Minos is just a fat guy with a tail, Cerberus a puppet, and Geryon is only briefly seen as a model being lowered on a string. The giants Plutus and Antaeus come off the best, with the giant effects being reasonably well handled by split screens and false perspectives. I appreciate their trying to represent the most CGI moment in Dante’s poem, the transformation of the thieves into snakes and lizards (and vice versa), but that part is not very impressive.

*. Where L’Inferno really scores is with the human-scale renderings of pain and suffering. Somewhat oddly, the longest episode we have is the tale of the suicide Pietro della Vigna (a story I couldn’t even remember from the poem). His blinding is one of the highlights, a moment whose violence still has the power to disturb. Also effective are the mutilated bodies amond the sowers of discord, like Muhammad with his chest torn open and Bertrand de Born carrying his own head like a lantern. And only the film’s eschewing of close-ups (not remarkable at the time) makes Ugolino’s gnawing of Archbishop Ruggieri’s skull while stuck in a skating rink up to his chest less shocking.

*. One of the reason Dante’s poem has survived so long is because of its low and high-brow appeal. It’s a complex work of massive learning and a freak show written in the vernacular. As a blockbuster the effect here is definitely more of the latter, though credit must be given for what is a remarkably faithful adaptation of the poem.
*. As with a lot of movies from this period the question of what has held up is coloured by how much you enjoy the silent-film aesthetic. I find these movies charming, even to the point where corruptions in the film only add to the effect, like the pops and hisses that were a part of old vinyl recordings. In fact, there are scenes here where some of the artifacts on screen do seem an aid to the effects, making the storms seem worse and hell more hellish generally.
*. Obviously the state of the art at the time it was made limited what they could do, and what you should expect. Really there’s not much acting here aside from the usual oversize silent-film gestures. Sweeping arm motions and the like. That does, however, fit with the rest of the presentation, where Virgil seems always to be saying “Lo!” and “Behold!” to the pilgrim (and to us).
*. But perhaps what surprises and impresses the most is how it was borrowed from so often by later movies for its depictions of hell while Dante’s poem was never again attempted on this scale. Either the vision or the ambition may have been exhausted, as much as they were made obsolete.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

*. If you’ve heard of this movie at all it’s likely because it’s usually held to be the first appearance on film of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp.
*. Historians can argue over that one. What I find interesting is the way Chaplin looks like the Tramp, but he’s not the Tramp character yet. The Tramp as we came to know him was a subversive, anti-authoritarian figure, but here he’s more brazen, surly even. He doesn’t just want to survive, he wants to take over. And while we like the Tramp, can we say we like this guy?
*. Peter Ackroyd: “He [the Tramp] sets up a direct relationship with those who are watching him, both mocking and conspiratorial. He does not care that the auto-races are a public and communal occasion; he is absurdly solipsistic, as if to say that only he matters. Only he is worth watching. Chaplin would maintain these sentiments for the rest of his film career.”
*. It’s a curious dynamic. Why does the Tramp here want to be filmed? He’s not really performing, though he does do some comic bits like lighting a match off his shoe. He doesn’t have to perform. Instead, he precociously understands that the audience or crowd at the race isn’t what’s important. The only thing that matters is the camera. What’s important is what the camera sees and records. What’s important is the camera’s ability to transform you from a shabby-genteel comic figure into a king, or The Most Famous Man in the World (which is what Chaplin would become in under a year).
*. And so this is a short film about filmmaking. Not the technical aspects of filmmaking, but what it does to people, how it makes them behave. Because what would you do to be a star? Would you shove children out of the way? Would you take a beating and keep coming back for more? And most of all, how would you feel toward this new medium? Would you court it? Of course. But you’d hate it too. You’d hate it for the power it has. For what it could turn you into.

Bucking Broadway (1917)

*. Watching a movie like Bucking Broadway today makes you (or at least it made me) wonder how it was that film advanced so quickly — not just as a narrative medium but as an art.
*. In 1917 there wasn’t much to build on. We were just a few years removed from stationary cameras filming theatrical spectacles or the presentation of simple magic tricks. And yet in this early work by John Ford we have a remarkably polished piece of work that would be at home, visually, with much later films.
*. I think the fast pace of the evolution was driven mainly by individual talent. When discussing the woodcut prints of Albrecht Dürer in his book/television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark remarks on how, “as usual the invention coincided with the man.” You can see the same thing happening in the case of John Ford.
*. Bucking Broadway was one of the first films Ford directed and I don’t think he had the opportunity to learn all of the skills he puts on display here. He always claimed to be a natural when it came to things like composition and I think he must have been. When we see that shot of the old farmer standing in the doorway I don’t think that’s something Ford was taught, it’s something he brought to the table because it was always in him. It’s also there in the play of shadow on Gladys’s face, and the placement of the candle when Harry has his heart-to-heart with Helen’s father.
*. The same goes for the editing. Note the subtle way that as we cut back to Helen and Thornton sitting on the fence we keep drawing in closer as the two of them get closer to each other, or the dissolve into the shot of Harry sitting meditatively on his horse in front of the herd. This is powerful editing that carries narrative and thematic weight but is also mostly invisible as editing. Again, a huge advance in the art is being driven by a talent that must have been almost entirely instinctual.

*. If the presentation is modern, we can’t say the same for the story. Bucking Broadway is a broad melodrama about outraged and rescued virtue, a beautiful damsel being saved by a man on horseback. It’s also a film that highlights how the Western mythically operates as a form of pastoral, with its explicit or implied contrast between the more natural lifeways of the cowboy and the decadence of the East.
*. One telling difference or adaptation of the pastoral vision is how cowboys always smash things up. I wonder when the battle royale or saloon brawl became a staple of the Western. I think it’s a particular innovation of film, as I don’t think it was a big part of Western literature before this time, though I don’t know since I’m no expert on the subject.
*. Bucking Broadway was a lost film until discovered in a French archive in 2002. I’m glad we found it not just because it’s a fun little film and in surprisingly good shape but because it illustrates so well that moment of the birth of film as a narrative art.

The Copper Beeches (1912)

*. This is a curiosity. It’s one of eight Sherlock Holmes films made “under the personal supervision” of Arthur Conan Doyle, and apparently the only one of the eight that survives.
*. The reason this is interesting is because it is a very different story from what Doyle wrote. So the next time you get upset at directors messing around with the Holmesian canon, keep this film in mind and realize that Doyle was totally on board with allowing whatever changes were necessary to make a story more filmable (if not always better) entertainment.
*. For a short, silent film like this even a very short story has to be cut quite a bit. You just don’t have enough time for complexity. So, no Watson. Nobody else in the manor except mean old Mr. Ruccastle. No mastiff hound patrolling the grounds. Just a simple trap that is frustrated by the ingenuity of Holmes.
*. Aside from its special status as having been supervised by Doyle, there’s nothing very interesting going on here. It’s one of the Holmes movies made by the French studio Éclair starring Georges Tréville as Holmes. I’ve made notes on one of these, Le Trésor des Musgraves, which apparently did not have the imprimatur of Doyle (though I don’t know why it wouldn’t, since it was made by the same people at around the same time as this film).
*. I mentioned the fact that there’s no Watson here, as there wasn’t in Le Trésor des Musgraves. Instead, the story begins with the situation at the manor and Miss Hunter only comes to seek out Holmes about halfway into the movie. This makes me wonder what Doyle really thought of Watson. Of course he’s a figure much beloved by Holmes aficionados, but was he ever much more than a literary device? In a short film like this, where he wasn’t needed, he was easily disposed of.
*. I find The Copper Beeches to be slightly less interesting than Le Trésor des Musgraves, mainly for being more conventional. The acting is even stagier, with lots of arms being thrown out wide and heads tilted back. Shots tend to follow a basic formula. If you see Miss Hunter leaving the manor by the white gate and then riding down the country lane you have to see her returning with Holmes riding down the same country lane in the other direction, and then entering the same white gate. It all makes for a much tidier film than the Musgrave one, but less interesting. Still, for Holmes fans it’s worth checking out.

Le Trésor des Musgraves (1912)

*. The French seem to have always liked Anglo-American detecive stories, from Poe to Agatha Christie, so it’s not too surprising that one of the first serials based on the adventures of Sherlock Holmes came out of a French studio.
*. Le Trésor des Musgraves was one of several Holmes films done by the production company Éclair, directed by and starring (as Holmes) Georges Tréville. It’s based on the Conan Doyle story “The Adventure of the Musgrave Ritual,” and sticks surprisingly close to its source. If you’ve seen the Basil Rathbone-Nigel Bruce vehicle Sherlock Holmes Faces Death, based on the same story, you’ll notice that this production is far more faithful to the original.
*. For example, I’ve heard some people complain about this movie because it doesn’t have Watson in it. But in the story Watson is only introduced at the beginning, as an audience for Holmes. The case of the Musgrave ritual was one of Holmes’s earlier adventures and he hadn’t met Watson yet.
*. Given that this is a short, coming in at just over 17 minutes, the story has to be compromised somewhat. Even the ritual itself is abbreviated into a couple of directions for a treasure hunt. But the basic elements are still there, including the butler and maid being in cahoots and falling out in much the same way. None of that is in Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (which, by the way, is a great little movie in its own right).
*. I’ll confess I was thrown by the shift into a flashback in the second half of the film. Yes, it’s announced as the maid’s “strange confession,” but even so it took me a while to figure out where I was. I don’t know what the first film to use a flashback was. I’ve seen it credited to D. W. Griffith, but not which movie. In The Birth of a Nation he used what he called a “switchback” technique, but that was something different and anyway the movie came out three years after this one. So I think we’re dealing with what was, at least, a very early instance of it in this film. I wonder if audiences were able to follow along, or if they felt temporarily confused like me.
*. This little movie is more than just a footnote in the history of a technique though. It’s really quite enjoyable, making good use of what seem to be very cramped sets intermixed with outdoor settings. Holmes’s parlour looks entirely appropriate (though purists will be able to point out all the missing details). The crime is especially well presented, with the hands reaching up from the subterranean chamber being a delight. And Tréville looks good as Holmes, though there isn’t much detective work for him to do.
*. One of the nicest things about it though is how well preserved it is. I don’t know if it’s been restored or if we just happen to have a remarkably good print that’s survived, but it looks great. So little remains from that era in any form, a movie that looks this good is a real rarity. Even people who aren’t Holmes fans or silent cinema aficionados should find it a treat.

Frankenstein (1910)

*. Every novel has to be put through some process of condensation when making the jump from page to screen. Sub-plots and minor characters get dropped, inessential scenes and excess dialogue are trimmed. Even so, this “liberal adaptation” of Mary Shelley’s novel takes more than a bit off the top. Coming in at under 15 minutes, it had to.
*. That said, if you were looking for a novel ripe to be pared down then this would be near the top of a short list. Shelley’s Frankenstein, despite being not all that long, is dull and preachy, with a lot of boring talk, especially in the latter parts. None of this was going to fly in a silent film and so instead the producers here opted to highlight what has always been the staple of the franchise: the creation of the Monster and its subsequent threatening of Frankenstein’s bride.
*. The creation scene holds up pretty well more than a hundred years later. It’s a simple trick, reversing the film on a burning dummy, but it’s effective. When the Monster rises from the cauldron we can hear Frankesntein crowing “It’s alive!” even without the use of any title cards.
*. Charles Ogle as the Monster is also a wonderful creation: a shaggy, top-heavy and shambling derelict. It’s a shame we don’t get any close-ups on his face to get a better look at his make-up, but this was early cinema.
*. What’s interesting is that while he looks like a stitched-together corpse made out of mismatched pieces, in this version of the story he actually isn’t. Instead he’s just a bunch of chemicals tossed together in a cauldron.
*. The horror film as a genre hadn’t really been invented yet. This is less a horror movie than a magic show, a staple of early silent shorts. Frankenstein is a figure in the tradition of the stage magician with his smoke, trick mirrors, and exploding powder, pulling rabbits out of a hat (which is basically how the Monster first appears).
*. And then . . . the story flips, becoming a very liberal adaptation indeed. Shelley (whose name, perhaps significantly, is misspelled on the Edison Company program for the film) is jettisoned wholesale for Robert Louis Stevenson and the whole thing turns out to have been a Jekyll-and-Hyde fantasy, with the monster just being the release of Frankenstein’s evil id.
*. This switch helps contextualize the shot of the Monster hovering over Frankenstein’s body as he lies stretched out in bed, which must be an intentional nod to Fuseli’s Nightmare. Such a scene works because a nightmare is what the Monster is. Trivia: Mary Wollstonecraft (Mary Shelley’s mother) was, briefly, Fuseli’s lover.
*. Why the change to a dream monster? The official explanation, propagated by the Edison Compay in their program for the film, goes like this: “In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”
*. Nonsense. My guess is that the change in the ending was just the result of expediency. They had to wrap the show up quickly, and not leave any loose ends hanging. Also the mirror trick plays well on screen, being another bit of stage magic to play with. Movies weren’t ready to take monsters seriously . . . yet.

The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912)

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*. The first gangster movie. The beginning of a long love affair.
*. And right away you feel the conflict. Because the Snapper Kid is not a good guy, is he? But at the end of the movie there’s darling Lilian Gish as the Little Lady lying to the police just to save his murdering, thieving ass. Yes, he did rescue her from being drugged (and presumably worse), but he also mugged her brother in brutal fashion. What about that?
*. But then hypergamy is very much part of the gangster ethos. The bad guy always wants the good girl. As Tony Montana puts it: “you gotta make the money first. Then when you get the money, you get the power. Then when you get the power, you get the women.”
*. So are we meant to like the Snapper Kid? We can’t say he’s redeemed at the end because he clearly isn’t. (Nor is he brought to justice. We’re way pre-Code here.) The label of “Musketeer” might not be entirely ironic. Perhaps, like most gangster heroes, he’s just a guy who’s the best of a bad bunch, someone corrupted by his environment but who nevertheless manages to rise above it, at least to some extent.
*. Aside from being the first gangster movie, it’s probably best known today for being the first film to use “follow focus.” This is so established a film technique now that it’s something a contemporary eye will scarcely notice.
*. Necessity was again the mother of invention. Griffith’s innovations in editing came about, I believe, to facilitate the presentation of chase scenes. Follow focus is born in an alley, a long and narrow set that required some decision to be made on how to handle the issue of depth.

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*. My favourite part is watching the Snapper Kid slide toward us down the length of the alley wall. The Kid and that wall have a thing going on in this movie. He’s always just coming out of it or hiding behind it or leaning against it.
*. The smoke of battle in the big gunfight scene is great because it’s both realistic and it adds a sense of chaos and mystery. We don’t see people dying in exaggerated, dramatic ways, but only the bodies lying on the ground when the smoke clears. It feels a bit like a magic trick, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Griffith had something like that in mind.

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The Dwarf (1912)

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*. This is one of a series of films released under the banner “Life As It Is.” All that was really meant by that was that they were contemporary drama. Life as it is did not connote anything like a documentary perspective.
*. I wonder where the French obsession with ugly men hooking up with beautiful women came from. I don’t want to imply by this that all French men are ugly and French women are all beautiful, but there seems to be a national mythos here. Maybe it got started with Beauty and the Beast (a French fairy tale) or Cyrano de Bergerac (note that Rostand’s play is referenced here in the theatre review). But you can also see it in films as diverse as some of those by Jean Renoir (I’m thinking of The Bitch and Rules of the Game), Jean-Paul Belmondo bedding Jean Seberg in Breathless (how did that happen?), or Vincent Cassel with Monica Belluci in Irreversible (at least I find them an odd couple, though off-screen the two were married).
*. So here we have a dwarf who falls in love with an actress. You know that’s not going to work out, and it doesn’t. But it’s a great romance, one that the ladies at the switchboard can enjoy.
*. That switchboard scene is also a good reminder of how communications surveillance didn’t begin with the Internet. Even back — way back — in the day, one’s privacy was compromised. As a child growing up in a rural area I lived on what was known as a “party line.” It was horrible.

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*. Creepy? Oh yeah. As soon as the film disposes of the superficial actress the Dwarf crawls back on his mother’s lap and lets her comfort him. Yikes! He’s supposed to be a little man, not a child!
*. There really isn’t much to recommend this one unless you’re a cultural historian interested in seeing how sentimental mass entertainment was pre-WW1. Not that we’re any better now. We just have different sentiments.