Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Watching the 20th Century, 1912-1913

It's been awhile since I've watched a film from the Edison studios. It's clear that the directors here have learned a lot from D.W. Griffith, in regards to staging and building pathos on film. This is the sad, and a little weird, tale of a poor boy in the big city, mistreated by his mean old grandmother (possibly the first wicked grandmother character in film history).

One day, he gets a chance to go along with a church group out into the country and sees the world outside the inner city's slums for the first time. He hears a story about fairies and we're treated to a story within a story of the same boy, imaging himself in Tudor garb, being led to a magical place by fairy women.
The story is a strong condemnation of inner cities, and it's inspiring that the boy feels empowered by fantasy fiction, to want a better life after hearing it. But it's also a little weird that the positive change in the boy's life we get to see is him running away from home (actually, drifting off to sea in a rowboat, which seems even more dangerous!).


No, it’s not a horror story; the house is an insane asylum. The doctor’s wife learns that her piano playing serves as musical therapy for her patients. At first, the patients are shown sympathetically, but it soons become evident that the inmates are in this drama to give it an irrationally violent villain. There is some interesting casting here -- this is the earliest movie I’ve ever seen Lionel Barrymore in. Here he plays the doctor and, for those of us who grew up watching It’s a Wonderful Life, it’s hard to believe Lionel was typecast as playing good guys until that movie. Lillian Gish is wasted as a nurse with a part that’s little more than a walk-on cameo. Charles Mailes is a convincing villain.

There is also effective use of slow fades to black in this film.

D. W. Griffith teams up with Lillian Gish again for this ...well, it was probably intended as a tear jerker. Lillian is an innocent young bride of a poor husband who succeeds at business and then wants the better things in life, without her. Lillian seems poorly cast as the dowdy, cast-off wife -- at least until her crowning moment when she learns her husband is cheating on her and you can see the innocence melt away from her face. Why is it called The “Mothering” Heart? About two-thirds of the way through, we finally see a baby. Lillian is raising the baby on her own, but there’s no explanation for where the baby came from and we never saw Lillian pregnant. Were they separated for nine months during what seemed like only one dinner date with the mistress? Spoilers -- things don’t go well for the baby, giving Lillian a chance to show some more emoting, though less convincingly. And there’s an annoyingly contrite reconciliation at the end.

If you thought Christmas needed more witches and devils in it, this 1913 Russian film is for you! Vakula the Smith is the village nerd -- despite being ridiculously strong, he’s rejected by the prettiest girl in town and mocked by her friends at her Christmas party. The girl teases him by agreeing to marry him if he brings her the tsar’s wife’s shoes.

Meanwhile, the sexy village witch (we know she’s sexy because she bares her forearms) is consorting with a devil (possibly The Devil). She’s perfectly okay with consorting with devils, but is hugely embarrassed at the thought of being caught with male visitors. In the film’s best and truly funny scene, as a string of male visitors come around to call on her, she stuffs them one by one into sacks and hides them (including the devil) in the corner of the room as each subsequent caller shows up.

Finally, Vakula comes to the witch for advice and, while she steps out, he stumbles across all these sacks. Thinking he’s doing her a favor, he picks up all the sacks at once (I did mention he was ridiculously strong) and plans to take them back to his shop. He drops all the sacks with men in them along the way, to the embarrassment of each man as they are found by other villagers.

In the film’s weirdest and least important to the plot scene, Vakula stops at the home of the village magician, a pig-like man who can make food float into his mouth. Still wanting advice, Vakula is told to seek out the Devil, unaware that he already has a devil in the bag he’s carrying.

Vakula finally encounters the devil when he stops for water at the village pond. The devil pops out of the sack and attacks him, but -- did I mention Vakula is ridiculously strong? Vakula reverses the devil’s hold and...well, at the risk of being crude, he kicks the devil’s a-- and makes him his b----. Vakula rides the devil like a flying horse to the tsar’s palace. Refreshingly, Vakula uses flattery instead of magic to get the tsar to give him a pair of his wife’s shoes.

Meanwhile, everyone in the village thinks Vakula drowned in the pond because his coat was found there. The girl feels so guilty that when Vakula shows up, triumphant, she agrees to marry him before she even sees the shoes. The devil returns to H--- where he’s tormented by other devils and is never reunited with the witch he loved.

It’s weird, it’s funny, and it’s surprisingly complex for a 37-minute movie, with subplots that converge. It also has almost nothing to do with Christmas, although we do get to see what Russian carolers and Christmas parties may have looked like in 1913 Russia.

And, unless it was made up for the film, we see an unusual Russian wedding ritual. Apparently, not only did the men have to get permission from the fathers to marry their daughters, but the men had to submit to any beatings the fathers wanted to give them, to prove how committed they were.

Mildred is the granddaughter who loves her grandad. Granddad, though, is a whiskey man and Mildred’s new stepmom is morally opposed to liquor. The stepmom gets so disgusted with his drinking that she shames him into leaving. Later, Mildred spots Granddad in the poorhouse. Meanwhile, the dad learns from a retired Army colonel how Grandad had saved his life during the civil war and was a hero. The dad insists to his wife that his father should get to come home. Later, Grandad dies, surrounded by family and friends, and is given a hero’s burial.

Now, it’s clear from the story that Grandad is meant to be a sympathetic figure and the stepmom is the “villain”...but Mildred lies to her parents about Grandad’s drinking and enables him. But then, in an extended flashback we see some of the horrors of war Grandad witnessed and understand why he drinks to forget. It’s all surprisingly gray for a black and white movie.