Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Movie Highlights of 1919

Best Movie:


Ernest Shackleton's ill-fated 1914-1916 expedition to the South Pole is a remarkable story that's been recently recounted in a feature length documentary, presented as an IMAX feature, and re-enacted for a television mini-series. But photographer Frank Hurley was on board, and his amazing first hand footage has the immediacy not found in the recollections of the crew's grandchildren 80 years later; his stark images capture the sense of desperate isolation better than those projected on a five story screen; and his authentic depiction of the challenges faced by these men provides more drama than even Kenneth Branagh. No human lives were lost during the ordeal on the Endurance, but little else survived. Incredibly, this film did.

Most Pleasant Surprise:

The Doll

The gimmick is established in the opening scene: we see a miniature set with a dollhouse on a grassy hill with a painted walk to the front door. We see full-sized arms dressing the set with miniature cardboard cutout trees and two dressed-up dolls. The arms place the dolls in the dollhouse, and then we cut to the identical full-sized set and two actors walk out of the house dressed in the exact same costumes as the original dolls.

The audience has been told what to expect; we are watching puppet theater. Characters are excused from behaving believably, and there's a different set of physics controlling this world. The fun set design carries the film a long way on it's own, but director Ernst Lubitsch injects some satire into the fairy tale.

Most Underrated:


Axel Heyst lives alone on an island, but he breaks his solitude when, out of pity, he agrees to harbor a young woman from her abusive domestic situation. She's frustrated by his lack of passion. "I have never loved a woman or killed a man" he tells her, and adds "I hope I never shall". But naturally, circumstances conspire to make sure he does both by the end of the movie.

"To Love, to slay - the greatest enterprises in life" says a title card early in this film. And the film delivers on the sex and violence it promised; the sex scenes are surprisingly frank, and the fight scenes are shockingly brutal. The film is the first adaptation of a Joseph Conrad novel (the only one Conrad himself would ever see), and it shows the same dark estimation of human nature that he would explore further in Heart of Darkness.

Most Overrated:

Broken Blossoms

The only film from 1919 deemed significant enough to be inducted into the National Film Registry is this melodrama from D.W. Griffith. It's a typical Griffith downer: the helpless heroine is pitiful and downtrodden; the villain is an irredeemable brute; the hero is stoic and principled; and there's a good chance that most or all will meet a tragic end.

Most Disappointing:

Different From the Others

I was excited to see what was probably the first movie to feature a gay lead character. Naturally, cultural attitudes towards gays have evolved a lot in the last 90 years, so I didn't expect to relate much to even a sympathetic portrayal. That wasn't the problem, the film was unexpectedly progressive, but the film only survives in fragments, and the version that's available has been patched together with stills and long expository title cards to fill in the gaps.


Sunday, January 25, 2009

D. W. Griffith on Race

In 1909, D.W. Griffith made Red Man's View, a sympathetic portrayal of Native Americans which was, at the time, atypical. In 1919, he made Broken Blossoms, an interracial love story, which was daring considering interracial marriage was illegal at the time. In between these racially progressive films, he made Birth of a Nation, a glorification of the KKK and a defense of their intimidation tactics.

These examples suggest that Griffith's racial attitudes are nuanced or complicated, but in fact, they are deceptively simple; Griffith has an intellectually lazy algebra that equates certain virtues with the race that epitomizes it. In both Red Man's View and Broken Blossoms the white characters are violent brutes who can stand to learn the values of kindness, honor, and humility from the other noble non-white characters. In Birth of a Nation, the black characters are uncivilized imbeciles that are better off deferring to their intellectually superior countrymen and not being tricked into voting for the wily carpetbaggers that are only trying to exploit their gullibility.

If Griffith was simply suggesting that we'd all benefit from a healthy exchange of ideas informed by our cultural backgrounds, he'd be making a compelling argument. But this interpretation is undermined by how inauthentic the portrayals of non-white characters are; the Chinese character in Broken Blossoms is an opium addicted shopkeeper and the Native American characters in Red Man's View are also broadly drawn stereotypes that don't add any insight into their cultures beyond what mainstream white culture perceives it to be, which makes the argument that "we ought to learn from their example" self-serving.

The Dragon Painter was another film with Asian characters made the same year as Broken Blossoms. It was directed by and stars Sessue Hayakawa as the lead, and almost the entire cast was ethnically Japanese, whereas Griffith had white actors playing all the Chinese roles in his film. In his defense, this was a common practice at the time. Hayakawa, a frequent leading man, was an exception.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

Many of the films from 1909 used trick cinematography, such as the matte shot in D.W. Griffith's Those Awful Hats or the stop-camera and double exposure techniques that create Puck's magic effects in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

These early filmmakers pushed the limits of their technology in innovative directions, but they were movie makers dabbling in magic; their primitive special effects were fun, but sometimes gimmicky and distracting. In contrast, Georges Méliès was a magician first, and his techniques are executed with the polish and timing of an experienced stage performer, as demonstrated in his film The Devilish Tenant.

The Devilish Tenant

Another significant special effects film was Princess Nicotine. What's unique about this film is it's use of old-fashioned stage magic in addition to the imaginative film tricks. The fairy on the desktop is not super-imposed using a matte shot or double exposure; there's an actual mirror on the desk with an actor playing the fairy at some distance on the other side of the camera to create the illusion that she's small.

Princess Nicotine

If you want to watch more films that feature trick cinematography from 1909:

Those Awful Hats - the "Please silence your cell phones" equivalent 100 years ago.
A Midsummer Night's Dream - an early adaptation of the Shakespeare play.
Airship Destroyer - A remarkably prescient speculation on how the new airships may be used in war.

These films have survived and can be viewed and/or downloaded on YouTube, Google Video or The Internet Archive.

Friday, January 9, 2009


In this 14 minute movie, D.W. Griffith depicts three separate but connected story lines. The main story follows a commodities speculator as he maneuvers to gain a corner on wheat. It is told in parallel with the story of a baker and his customers who have to pay more for their bread. These are bookended by images of a poor farmer and his family sowing seeds.

Griffith contrasts the scenes of the mogul's festivities with the hardships caused by his actions by cross cutting them with scenes of the baker's customers. The effect is a bit ham-fisted by today's standards, but the technique was innovative at the time (as was almost all film technique at this early stage).

An artistic flourish that I thought was notable occurs at the 8 minute mark; it's a 15 second scene of a motionless breadline that is so still you have to watch closely to see that it wasn't actually a photo. I also like how the scenes of the farmer sowing seeds is an intentional reference to the painting, The Sower, by Jean-François Millet.

The novel the film is based on, The Pit, by Frank Norris was published in 1903, but it was the Panic of 1907 that would make the film seem timely to its audience. The panic was triggered by a failed attempt to corner the market on copper. The subsequent crisis led to the establishment of the Federal Reserve in 1913.

Monday, January 5, 2009


Time Capsule Year: 1909

February 12 - The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) is founded, commemorating the 100th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln's birth. Its mission is "to ensure the political, educational, social, and economic equality of rights of all persons and to eliminate racial hatred and racial discrimination."

March 4 - William Howard Taft succeeds Theodore Roosevelt as President of the United States. The popular president Teddy Roosevelt opted not to seek another term in the 1908 elections. Instead he promoted the candidacy of his Secretary of War, William Taft.

March 18 - Einar Dessau uses a short-wave radio transmitter, becoming the first radio broadcaster.

March 24 - In his first Post-Presidential excursion, Teddy Roosevelt embarks on an African Safari sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution and National Geographic Society. The trip is a popular sensation.

August 10 - Alice Huyler Ramsey drives into San Francisco amid great fanfare after leaving Manhattan 59 days earlier and becomes the first woman to drive across the country.

Auguste Marie François Beernaert and Paul Henri d'Estournelles de Constant are awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their work in promoting international arbitration in foreign affairs.

Orville and Wilbur Wright spent the year demonstrating their flying machines and setting several aviation speed and distance milestones. One passenger in a demonstration in Italy in April was a cameraman who filmed the first motion picture from an airplane. That summer, they were invited to the White House to receive awards from President Taft. In October, Wilbur flew for over 30 minutes up and down the Hudson river and circling the Statue of Liberty in front of a million spectators at Manhattan's Hudson-Fulton celebrations.

1909 in Popular Music

"Take Me Up With You, Dearie" by Billy Murray

"Down in Jungle Town (Parody Version)" by Nat M. Wills

"Let's Go Into A Picture Show" by Byron G. Harlan

The above tracks come from the Cylinder Preservation and Digitization Project. The phonograph cylinder was the most popular format for recorded music from the turn of the century until the disc format became more popular in the 1910s.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


Time Capsule Year: 1899

Scott Joplin publishes the Maple Leaf Rag. It would become his most popular piece, one of the most popular ragtime songs of all time, and the first instrumental to sell a million copies. It sparked a cultural appreciation of ragtime music that lasted through the next decade.

On February 6, The United States Senate ratified the peace treaty officially ending the Spanish Amercan War.

Falsely accused French officer Alfred Dreyfus is retried and pardoned as a result of the controversy caused by Emile Zola's J'Accuse.

Newsboys in Brooklyn go on strike in response newspaper prices going up 10 cents a bundle.

The Second Boer War breaks out between the British empire and the Boer republics of South Africa.

Gold is found in Nome Alaska; it is the first of two major gold rushes in Alaska.

Among the future luminaries of film that are born in 1899: Alfred Hitchcock, Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, and James Cagney.

Film Highlights of 1899:

A Turn of the Century Illusionist

Georges Méliès always seems to be a few years ahead of his time. Here we see his typically playful style as he pushes the limits of the technology he's using.

King John

Notable for being earliest adaptation of Shakespeare on film. This is the last of four scenes, and the only one that survives.

Admiral Dewey Landing at Gibraltar

One of over a dozen films the Edison Co. made of the Spanish-American War admiral over the course of the year.