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.

1910

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.

Watching the 20th Century, 1907-1909

I decided this project was getting too big to fit into one blog post. To review from last November, I'm watching 1 movie from 1901, 2 movies from 1902, 3 movies from 1903, and so on. Now, I just finished 1910. This has been fun!

Le Spectre Rouge (Red Spectre) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvJu9I2Z1Ow

Okay, I cheated here. This particular video pairs the silent film with modern heavy metal music. It works remarkably well. The film itself is a weird combination of bland stage magic combined with special effects and aping the style of Melies. The Red Spectre wears what would make a great Halloween costume. It starts out very subtle, but there’s actually a story going on here about the female spirit that vexes the Red Spectre throughout his show and finally attacks him to get his cape. It’s so tantalizingly underdeveloped that I’m tempted to write some fiction now about the backstory here.

Les Terroristes en Russie (The Russian Terrorists) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oWzqG9woWJk

There is a great 90 minute movie encapsulated into the first 8 minutes of this short film. A government bureaucrat is killed by an anarchist with a bomb, but the bureaucrat is also shown to be a family man. The grieving widow confronts the female bomber, with her children, in the woman’s cell. When the anarchist realizes she not only hurt the government, but tore apart a family, she begs for forgiveness. The family shows mercy and forgives her in the end. It’s a powerful message that resonates today, about the dangers of hating others for purely political reasons.

Well, that’s probably where it should have ended. There’s a ridiculous final 2 minutes, where the widow not only forgives her, but helps the woman escape from jail. To atone, the woman goes back and tries to talk her co-conspirators out of another bombing attempt, but when that fails she takes the bomb and blows them all up.

1908

The Adventures of Dollie https://archive.org/details/TheAdventuresOfDollie#

This was D. W. Griffith's directoral debut, and you can see that what he brought to his early pictures was an understanding of pantomime and appreciation that motions had to be big and expressive to convey meaning clearly, something the more muddled films before this lacked.

Known today for his racism nearly as much as his film work, it's interesting what a negative stereotype we see of gypsies here. Thank goodness, 97 years later, we don't fear cultures not our own anymore. Oh, wait. Never mind.

It's an interesting choice, showing us so little of Dollie's face. Now, it's possible that this decision was borne out of a child who couldn't act, but the effect makes Dollie an "every child".

The Assassination of the Duke of Guise https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Assassination_of_the_Duke_of_Guise

Supposedly the first instance of French "high art" in film, but it even fails at pretentiousness. There are three interesting minutes in the middle, surrounded by men just standing around in period clothes talking...which of course, you can't understand because this is a *silent* film.

Sten’ka Razin https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stenka_Razin_(film)

This was supposedly a 10 minute film, but only 6 minutes of it remains. Six painfully plodding minutes of people rowing boats or milling around. This is the earliest known Russian film biography. You would think Russian history would be more interesting.

The Taming of the Shrew https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Taming_of_the_Shrew_(1908_film)

I expected more from D.W. Griffith after “The Adventures of Dollie”, but I found this one a confusing muddle. Is the lesson you’re supposed to take away from the Shakespearean play that guys who beat their servants get the girls?

A Visit to the Seaside https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TPcHJA2ESAM

The complete film is supposedly 8 minutes long, but I could only find less than a minute of it online. It looks like somebody’s home vacation film, accidentally commercially released.

“Leo Tolstoy on Film” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oxHr1ku9DGI

It’s unclear if this was footage shot for a documentary, or newsreel footage spliced together, but it is remarkably clear footage of the final days, and funeral, of Leo Tolstoy.

The Tempest https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iaXOapmEWLo

This was not the first attempt to bring Shakespeare to film, but it’s the first one you can sort-of follow without needing to know in advance how the play goes. It’s not, well, Shakespeare -- or even Forbidden Planet!

El Hotel El├ęctrico (The Electric Hotel) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cCzru63JBSE

One of the earliest examples of stop-motion animation in film...I’m sure this nine-minute, plotless example was fascinating at the time. Curiously, the only writing in this Spanish film appears to be in French!

1909

A Corner in Wheat https://archive.org/details/D.w.Griffith-ACornerInWheat1909

The modern movie has finally arrived. D. W. Griffith delivers a full story -- character-driven plot, multiple distinguishable characters, complex scenes, and perhaps the best 12-minute summary of what’s wrong with capitalism on film. Interestingly, this silent film might be best to watch with the sound on your computer off; attached is a soundtrack that seems period-appropriate, but doesn’t always sync up with the action appropriately.

A Drunkard’s Reformation https://archive.org/details/ADrunkardsReformation1909

A simplistic tale, as most of these short films are, highlighted by the little girl who stares up at her father with haunting eyes.