Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Watching the 20th Century, 1912

(Continuing from here)

Plodding, boring experiment with filming a 97-minute stage play, without sound. Twenty years later, a director like Cecil B. Demille will make material like this work, but in 1912 cinema wasn’t ready to tackle this yet. There is perhaps 10 minutes of good cinematography throughout the movie, and at least half of that in the meeting of Cleopatra and Marc Antony for the first time, at about 30 minutes into the movie. If you’re going to watch any part of this train wreck, just fast forward to that.

Three bad films in a row put me off this project for awhile, but D. W. Griffith delivers with this short action film. Sure, the hero is a jerk you wish would get his comeuppance instead of the girl, and the telegraph girl’s plea is laughably specific (“Help...tramps!”), but it has exciting jump cuts and close-ups to build tension, very advanced camera work (first scene filmed from the back of a speeding car?), pretty good performances by Dorothy Bernard and one of the unnamed actors playing a menacing hobo, and possibly the first exciting locomotive chase in film.

This is a dark little film from Griffith about a cute little girl who brings a couple together. From a modern perspective, it is a bit disturbing how affectionate two strangers get with a little girl, and how quickly they decide to adopt her without even considering checking to see if there’s a next of kin. Still, the girl is adorable and it’s fun seeing the rotten kids get their comeuppance by being run off by the cops.

Was this the first film I’ve watched intended as a horror film? It’s very cheesy; I find it hard to believe that even an audience in 1912 would have found this remotely scary. The film is ambiguous about whether Hyde killed the parson, or what he planned to do to the little girl he knocks down. The trick of having Jekyll drop items off his lap to show his distracted state of mind is used twice.

With this title and this plot, this would have made a good screwball comedy in the 1930s, with a surprisingly strong message about gender equality. There is the outline for such a movie here, but it isn’t well-realized in silence, and the humor is understated for so long that when it turns absurd it is quite jarring. There is one good sight gag, when one of the husbands tries to serve a meal to the other abandoned husbands.

1912 is really hurting my enthusiasm for my “Watching the 20th Century” project. The movies have not been very compelling from this year. I’d rather be watching the Mack Sennet comedies that began this year, but they’re too short by my own rules.

This movie didn’t help much. A D.W. Griffith gangster flick, “Musketeers” follows hot young Lillian Gish, who becomes the object of wonderfully menacing Elmer Booth’s infatuation. He beats her boyfriend and robs her so she’ll have no one to turn to but him, but when a rival gangster also takes an interest in her, Elmer and the other guy’s gangs have a shootout that leaves only Elmer alive. The middle of the film is padded with a lot of non-suspenseful gangsters stalking each other, and I don’t buy that the milktoast-y boyfriend spots his billfold on Elmer during the shootout and steals it back while bullets are flying around them.

Also, if you look closely, there’s a walk-on during the alley stalking scenes who seems to be the first non-stereotyped Asian American on film.

I have never read, nor seen another adaptation of this particular Dickens’ work before, so I can’t say if this 30-minute film did it justice or not. I found it largely boring, except for Mr. Squeers, a delightfully detestable villain who is an awful schoolmaster, but seems a caring family man. Too bad he’s only in about a third of the film. In Nicholas’ world, jobs are plentiful and he gets every job he applies for, even with no prior experience in that field. He works for a time in an acting company that seems to perform an abbreviated version of Romeo and Juliet that ends right after Romeo kills Tybalt (or this particular company does curtain calls in mid-play). I did appreciate that the movie treats the sexual harassment of Kate Nickelby as a serious problem.  

Melies was still at it by 1912, but refining what had been a winning formula now. There are subtle innovations here. Melies, anticipating the need for sound, comes up with clever ways to have characters carry signs that read what the characters need to say. There is more impressive use of models than ever before.

The first 13 minutes is all set-up, with badly stereotyped representatives of various countries planning their race to the North Pole, but the sets look so familiar I feel like I’ve seen them all before in “A Trip to the Moon” and “The Impossible Voyage”. The 4-minute trip to the Arctic feels longer than it is because I’m supposed to be marveling at the special effects,, seen those before too.

Things start to get trippy when the hero’s plane passes the constellation of Pisces close enough to see they’re really fish. Shooting stars and a demonic planetoid menace the ship and, when the crew panics, its captain has to tame them at gunpoint. When they land, they find the North Pole is surrounded by towering ice crystals surrounding small lakes.

The giant mechanical frost giant must have been terrifying to be on the same set with, though the effect is lost on the small screen -- at least until the giant eats one of the explorers. Defeating this fearsome foe, the explorers find the pole, but -- uh, oh! -- the physical pole is so magnetic that all the explorers get stuck to it and their combined weight breaks it! Will the explorers drown? Will they get home safely? (Yes and yes.)

Though I’d already seen her in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, this was supposedly the film debut of Lillian Gish.

It’s clear that the Gish sisters are sisters, but figuring out who everyone else is in this D. W. Griffith drama is difficult without relying on the caption cards. The young man who shows up at the grieving sisters’ door who I thought was a slick hustler turned out to be their brother. The dingy woman who I assumed was their mother was really their maid. The sisters and brother are on their own now with both their parents dead (causes unknown).

After we see how chaste and innocent the sisters are (one of them denies her boyfriend a kiss before he leaves), the girls go back inside -- and are locked into a room by their evil maid. The maid sees this as a chance to rob their father’s safe and has called in help from a hoodlum in town. But this is 1912 -- chaste and innocent girls don’t go around saving themselves, so the suspense is seeing which will come back and save them -- the brother or the boyfriend? (It’s the boyfriend, but the brother makes a valiant effort.)

Extreme close-ups were still very rare in movies, so the extreme close-up of the maid’s menacing gun is a particularly potent scene. The brother’s look of horror when he hears his sisters being shot at over the phone is very well-acted. And, of course, there’s Lillian Gish to look at.

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