Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Watching the 20th Century, 1909-1910

The Sealed Room https://archive.org/details/DWGriffithsTheSealedRoom1909

Both the first horror film I’ve watched in this project, and the first Mary Pickford film I’ve watched. Mary’s reaction when her character realizes what’s happened to her is priceless. I’ll probably enjoy seeing why she had a reputation for the greatest actress of the silent age.

The Redman’s View https://archive.org/details/TheRedmansView

Even a broken racist is right twice a day? D. W. Griffith paints a remarkably sympathetic portrayal of what the forced exodus of the Indian tribes must have been like from their perspective. There’s even a love story! All the walking scenes do feel like a lot of padding for a 12-minute movie, but it’s a central theme of the story so…

1776, or the Hessian Renegades https://archive.org/details/HessianRenegades

British soldiers kill a Revolutionary War spy hiding in a family’s house; the family rallies the neighborhood to avenge the dead spy. At times I thought I was watching a comedy, like when the family moves the spy from place to place to avoid being found while the house is searched, but overall it works as both an adventure film and a patriotic film.

The Country Doctor https://archive.org/details/TheCountryDoctor1909

The first movie in this project too dark and depressing for me. If it wasn’t a mercifully short 14 minutes, I would have stopped watching it.

Nursing a Viper https://archive.org/details/NursingAViper

Eh. I guess the lesson here is that poor people are murderous monsters and rich people are stupid perverts. Oh, and it takes place during the French Revolution. Griffith’s grueling work schedule is already taking a toll on his work.

Nero https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyVBUC0lMwo

This is what the Italians were up to. This costumed drama, with a cast of about 2 dozen, has two good scenes in it...and then people are just standing around and I can’t tell what’s supposed to be going on for the rest of it.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RBDlU_A032U

This was pretty fun. All the actors are just hamming it up for the camera. There are some cheesy special effects, good enough for a high school stage production of Peter Pan, and the girliest Puck ever.


Frankenstein https://archive.org/details/FrankensteinfullMovie

This is my first time visiting the Thomas Edison films in awhile. The Monster costume is pretty good. The last minute doesn’t make sense -- was the Monster only a reflection of Dr. Frankenstein all along? It seems like an “it was all a dream” cop-out ending. What is very interesting is that this Monster is the product of chemistry and not electricity.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz https://archive.org/details/The_Wonderful_Wizard_of_Oz

And I thought Edison’s Frankenstein was different! In this version, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow before the tornado strikes, the tornado transports a cow and a donkey along with Dorothy, Toto, and the Scarecrow, the Wizard is being manipulated by Momba, the Wicked Witch, into turning on the king, and Glinda the Good Witch transforms Toto into a huge dog -- this is some crazy stuff! It also has great costumes and some really impressive flying stunts (I never once spotted a harness).

A Christmas Carol https://archive.org/details/AChristmasCarol

The earliest known film version, another Edison film, makes some interesting deviations. Cousin Fred is not gaily having Christmas dinner without Ebeneezer, he’s suffering alone in poverty, unable to afford to marry. So, in the end, Ebeneezer makes Fred his business partner instead of Bob Crachit. Instead of a slow build-up to learning of his death in the future -- Scrooge witnesses his own death in this version! How that doesn’t drive him completely mad instead of reforming him has me puzzled. The best part that should have been used in all future versions: When Scrooge shows up at Bob’s house, a reformed man, Bob thinks he’s gone nuts and holds up his fireplace poker in case he’s going to have to conk Scrooge on the noggin in self-defense!

White Fawn’s Devotion https://archive.org/details/white_fawn_1910

The acting in the death scene is laughably bad, but there’s a nice, dramatic chase scene that somewhat redeems this film. Apparently this film was produced and performed by actual American Indians, and that makes it interesting, if not a little edgy, when they want to kill the white man. Regardless of what else happens in this film, I feel sorriest for the daughter, because this character is going to be scarred for life after this.

An Arcadian Maid https://archive.org/details/AnArcadianMaid_179

Mack Sennett is just a scenery-chewing ham as the slick peddler, but Mary Pickford shines. Perhaps the first serious actor to understand how to act on camera different than on stage, Mary could hold her own against any actress alive today.

Afgrunden (Abyss) https://archive.org/details/Afgrunden_1910

At nearly 37 minutes, this Danish film is by far the longest I’ve watched yet in this project, and that’s okay. It’s the story of a bored fiance who is seduced by an effeminate cowboy into leaving with him. They marry, he teaches her how to dirty dance with moves that would make Patrick Swayze blush, and she joins the traveling circus with him. He’s a philandering scoundrel but, even when her ex-fiance finds her and tries to bring her back, she can’t get over her physical attraction to her “cowboy” (I’m convinced the Danish weren’t clear on what a “cowboy” was, since all they do is dance). When she attacks his latest love interest, the couple is thrown out of the circus. The wife works playing piano in a beer garden, supporting her now-layabout husband, but when given the opportunity, he tries to force her into prostitution for the money. Luckily, her first and only client turns out to be the ex-fiance, who had tracked her down again and set this up as a way to get to her. She’s overcome with shame. When the husband sees the client is the ex-fiance, he flies into a rage and attacks everyone -- and things end badly. It’s good enough a movie that I don’t want to spoil the ending completely. 

Although most of the camerawork is, typical of the times, set up at a standard medium range (making the screen look like a staged play), there are instances of establishing long shots and even at least one camera pan that was very unusual for the time. The story has symbolism -- the wife’s wardrobe goes from white to black as she loses her purity. The acting is good and the story is always clear from the context, even if I can’t read the close-ups of notes written in Danish. The movie would be even clearer if it was in better shape; it’s simply tragic that a minute of film towards the end is almost unwatchable because of damage to the original film, and the very ending seems cut off, as probably lost to us.

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