Monday, March 7, 2016

Watching the 20th Century, 1910-1911

If that’s Mary Pickford under that big black wig, she must be too uncomfortable to effectively play the hispanic maid who falls madly in love she’s supposed to be. Her Indian lover, that guy is sometimes pretty good. The best scene is unintentionally hilarious -- from the context, you’re supposed to believe that Ramona sees her Indian strumming his guitar and, afraid for her feelings for him, runs away...but it looks like his playing is so terrible that it chases her off.

This time, it’s personal! That’s right, in D.W. Griffith’s retelling, the French Revolution is incited by a poor tradesman, upset because a rich aristocrat stole his pretty wife. The costumes and sets are nice, the acting is okay, but the best part is the suspense of the chase scene. The wronged and crazed husband is chasing the aristocrat and his wife through the streets with a knife, but does he want revenge against just the man, or them both?

It seems a little pervy how jealous the old pigeon farmer gets of his daughter -- Mary Pickford, again -- falling in love, though he might rightfully be concerned that she seems to fall in love after just talking to a guy for an hour. D.W. Griffith is at his best when capturing emotion on film, and the old man’s melancholy and loneliness feel the truest in this short film. But the unanswered question is -- why did we ever have pigeon farms??

It’s Mulan in the American Civil War!  Kinda!  Well, that’s the good part, anyway, how the sister disguises herself as her cowardly brother and becomes a war hero in his stead. That’s pretty exciting. To give the movie its title, though, it then shifts to the cowardly brother being locked away by his mother, out of shame, for the rest of his life.


I’m already a fan of the classic comic strip, so seeing it animated, from drawings by the strip’s creator, is pretty special. There’s not anymore to this film than that, though.

This lurid, but often funny tale is about a married couple who grow restless, both seek out affairs, but wind up in big trouble for their efforts. The movie was supposedly made in Russia, though the writing in the movie is in English. The really weird thing about this movie is that it’s all stop-motion animation -- apparently done with dead bugs. The effect is creepy as heck.’

Another Civil War story from D.W. Griffith, this one stars “Old Ben”. Sure, Ben is a white man in blackface and a “happy slave”, but he’s also the first black character action hero in movies -- saving the family fortune from bushwhackers, rushing into a burning house to save a man’s life, and uniting two lovers at movie’s end. The other curious thing about this film is the sub-plot about the bushwhackers -- was civilian looting really such a problem during the Civil War? Or is this just another variation on Griffith’s theme of “income disparity leads to violent uprising”?

D.W. Griffith directed, based on the Tennyson poem. It’s an ambitious story and, like all complex stories, invites plot holes. This might be the first significant plot hole in film history -- if Enoch’s wife stands on the beach all day, watching his ship depart -- who’s watching the baby back home?

It’s a depressing film, but it does have some merit. I appreciate how Philip is never portrayed as a villain for stealing Enoch’s wife. Indeed, I was interested in how smart it was to have the children, who had never really known their father, bond with Philip well before Enoch’s wife comes around too.

This is the earliest Sherlock Holmes parody on film of which I’m aware. There is some broad humor here that works -- Burstrup using his magnifying glass to find his telephone, and the completely unnecessary disguise he uses to show up and investigate. The story is extremely weak -- a henpecked husband (and we know this only because of the masculine look of his wife) wants to escape home for a poker game (this context is only revealed later, at first it appears he’s trying to slip away with his gay lover) so he tries to convince his wife that he’s dead with a dummy’s head with a wig on it in their bed next to some blood.

There is an unusual camera trick used once in the film that makes it appear that the camera is looking over Burstrup’s shoulder while he leans over the floor, searching it for clues. Since cameras were not maneuverable enough in 1911 to do that, the actor must be facing a wall they are pretending is the floor, while he pretends to be bending over.

Perhaps the earliest known film adaptation of the classic fairytale, this version starts right at the invitation to the ball. They must have spent too much on the lavish palace set, because instead of filming an additional outdoor scene for the turning of a pumpkin into a coach, it happens right in Cinderella’s kitchen!  Other unusual changes -- the slightly creepy-looking fairy godmother appears in front of everyone at the end, and Cinderella’s father seems to still be alive! At least, there is an unexplained man hanging out with the stepmother who looks too well-dressed to be a servant. I guess, in this version, Cinderella just has two awful parents.  
Another difficulty is that they hadn’t figured out how to do nighttime outdoor shooting yet, so when it turns midnight, it appears to be noon.

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