Saturday, April 30, 2016

Watching the 20th Century, 1911-1912

Dante’s Inferno

This was a difficult movie to get through for several reasons. One was time constraints -- at just over an hour, this is the longest movie by far that I’ve watched for this project. I now can no longer get in a quick movie over a single breakfast. There’s also the reason that the subject matter is -- albeit appropriate for where this story takes place -- depressing stuff. But the biggest reason for me is that the film dutifully recreates the visuals of Gustave Doré’s illustrations, complete with lots -- LOTS -- of male nudity (or almost full nudity). Dangly bits are always concealed, but there is only so much naked man butt I can look at before it throws me off my cereal.

That said, this film is pretty remarkable. It accomplishes a lot without CGI that would be totally CGI’ed today. People float around with impressive wire work. Beatrice’s scintillating halo looks like it’s achieved by shining a bright light through a big fan positioned behind her head. When you see Geryon and he’s obviously a model, it’s more of a “I want a Geryon action figure right now!” moment than a “wow, is that cheesy” moment. The demon costumes are pretty impressive. Forced perspective and split screens make some of the monsters, like Lucifer and Antaeus, appear to be giants. Everything else is achieved by using extreme long shots. Is that a tiger threatening Dante, or a guy crouching in a costume? At this distance it’s impossible to say.

Most of Dante’s Inferno is Dante walking around and getting to hear the life stories of the sinners being tortured. Most of these are only summarized in single title cards -- but two stories are acted out for us to see. One occurs in the middle of the movie, serving as an intermission of sorts, to break up the movie, but the second one comes, puzzlingly, almost right at the end.

Anyway, the Italians set the bar pretty high with this production. Now back to American movies of 1911 to see what they were getting done!

Fighting Blood

*Sighs*...yeah, this is what American movies were doing at the time. D. W. Griffith churned out a Western here with a little family drama mixed in. By our modern perspective, we understand that Tuttle is a crazed militiaman squatting on Indian lands, and the fact that he punches his son in the face doesn’t make him any more likeable. It’s only the cute little kids you root for when the Indians attack.

The real interesting thing here is the aerial footage of the attack. It’s filmed from a stationary position, so it’s not a flyby. Is the cameraman leaning over a cliff to takes these shots?

The Indian Brothers

If I follow this short D.W. Griffith film, Indian refugee comes and asks the chief of a tribe if he can join them, gets mocked for wearing a skirt and is given a dress to wear, goes berserk, turns into Gollum (he starts crawling around like Gollum, anyway), and kills the chief. The chief’s brother (they’re both dressed as chiefs, so they must have been co-leaders) says “This time, it’s personal!” and chases after the killer. The chase moves from on foot to on horseback, and some Indians the killer stole his horse from get into the chase. The chief’s brother has a territorial dispute with the horse owners, wins it with a knife fight, and then drags the killer back home to kill him in front of his brother’s funeral pyre. I’m ...60% sure that all happens, and probably made it sound better than it was.

Lady Godiva

Spoilers - you don’t see her naked. Instead, the movie follows the drunken pervert who tries to invent the peep show, but gets so excited he dies from a heart attack (or God smotes him down, or something). I cheated for this one, watching it even though it was nine minutes (by my rules, it should be at least eleven).

His Trust and His Trust Fulfilled

Essentially a remake of “Swords and Hearts”, which I’d reviewed before, but D.W. Griffith starts to double down on the racism here. While I had praised Swords and Hearts for putting a black character in a heroic action role, I can’t praise the same thing here because a) while it was more ambivalent in the previous film, the blacks are clearly slave labor in this one, ) the blackface makeup, more convincing in the previous film, looks cartoonish here, c) George’s (the slave butler) motivations are not clearly paternal enough -- I would have been perfectly fine with George sacrificing his life to raise a white girl if she was like a daughter to him, but the title makes it pretty clear that we’re supposed to accept this is the black man’s burden to serve a white man even after his death, d) instead of raising the girl himself, George has to turn the girl over to a white couple he pays to raise her -- it seems REALLY weird, looking back, that it was considered too taboo for audiences to see a black man raise a white girl, but it’s okay later when her cousin shows up to woo her once she’s an adult. And e) there’s no payoff to this movie! George just goes home to die and the girl never finds out about all she did for him.


The Invaders

This movie tries, and almost succeeds, at being a war epic. Two pairs of lovers, a lieutenant and a colonel’s daughter and a white assayer and an Indian chief’s daughter, are caught in the struggle of federal government vs. native Americans. The movie is as ambivalent towards who the true invaders are as the title suggests. It gets its history pretty much right, showing the feds making treaties to give the natives some sovereign land, and then casually ignoring those treaties later. The Sioux seem pretty wimpy at first, as it takes them over an hour to beat five white men. After that, I thought there would be no suspense to this film. But then the Sioux team up with a bigger tribe and wipe out most of the nearby Army garrison. There is a powerful climax as the besieged fort colonel has to decide how to use his last bullet.

I’m unsure if this movie used all authentic Indian actors, or a combination of Indians and whites in make-up. There’s one brave who had a dark face but suspiciously white arms. Ethel Grandin, then just 18, really rocked the corset look, and her father the colonel is none other than Francis Ford, then already 31 and directing films, as well as being a charismatic presence on screen.

The Copper Beeches

This is one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories, and the Jeremy Brett TV adaptation was a masterpiece, so it was both disappointing and baffling that this 1912 adaptation -- supposedly done under the direct supervision of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself -- is so awful. Perhaps assuming that everyone had already read spoilers, the story is presented in chronological order, giving away the story’s big reveal right at the beginning. Worse, when Holmes does show up, he is shown right to the door where the missing girl is right away -- and incredibly, instead of opening it -- ignores the door and proceeds to look for clues as to the motive for why the girl is locked in there. And then,instead of arresting the father for abusing his daughter, Holmes waits until Rucastle tries to murder the boyfriend and only then has Rucastle arrested. The rest of this original 1912 series of Holmes adaptations are all missing; one can only presume they were all as terrible.

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