I'm reading Robert Sklar's Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies
and have been taking care of some blind spots along the way.
TERRIBLE TEDDY, THE GRIZZLY KING
(Edwin S. Porter, 1901)
JACK AND THE BEANSTALK
LIFE OF AN AMERICAN FIREMAN
In Sklar's account Porter emerges as one of the most interesting figures of the era, a man of obvious cinematic gifts yet an almost maddening lack of ambition, who pioneered numerous techniques years ahead of popular adoption but rarely utilized more than one at a time, and moreover made no noise when others took credit for his achievements. Reading, there are times you want to scream at him like a victim in a slasher movie, like when he accepts a job basically turning a crank for Adolph Zukor's deliberately dead-static theatrical adaptations, the same job that Griffith refused in order to start the revolution Porter very well could have set off himself.
There's not much to Teddy
, but I got a giggle out of the jab at Roosevelt's macho persona. Fireman
owes a significant debt to James Williamson's Fire!
, but expands on it with close-ups, a more dynamically-presented rescue sequence, and a more sophisticated scenario (or a
scenario). I was struck in particular by what must be the first instance on film of a hero "saving" his loved ones vicariously, with the protagonist's climactic rescue of a mother and child acting as a kind-of realization of his opening daydreams of, presumably, his own wife and child at home. First instance of technique transcending a schematic conceit?
, like Fireman
, features some deadspots understandable from pacing etc still being hammered out (the long firetruck parade there, the giant's extended dinner here), more than made up for anyway by sheer charm and the kind of indelibly bizarre sore-thumb fantasy-dream sequence you only
see in silents. That giant egg thing's gonna stick with me for a while. And dancing human cow is undoubtedly one of the best movie animals ever.
Has anyone read Charles Musser's Before the Nickelodeon: The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter
? Reading Fireman
's wiki page now, it seems the book argues the rescue scene was recut after the film's original release and Porter may not be responsible for its innovations after all!
THE WILD ENGINE
(J.P. McGowan, 1915)
THE OPEN TRACK
(J. Gunnis Davis, 1916)
These are two standalone entries of the long-running serial The Hazards of Helen
, starring Helen Holmes, who did almost all her own stunts (plus some writing and possibly more
). Some 120 episodes were produced, almost all of which are now lost. A shame, as these made for some of the most fun I've ever had with silents, featuring excellent, surprising action sequences and a truly rare protagonist for the time in Holmes' preternatually resourceful working girl. The Wild Engine
sees her hired at a railroad company over the objections of one superior who thinks "women cannot use their heads in case of emergency." Wouldn't you know it, a stray cable causes a train to lose its conductor, and it comes to Helen to chase it down. First on a stolen motorcycle, which she rides off a bridge into the water (Holmes' own stunt) when the operator has to raise it for a quickly-approaching boat. There is a terrific little moment right before that as she zips along the tracks, with the camera fixed in front of her:
In what would seem from these films alone a recurring motif in the series, Helen avails herself of what's left behind by men (or just takes it); here, the motorcycle a beau parks outside her booth (along with a picnic lunch), or even the very controls and occupation in which she replaces one (perhaps a natural development in any female-led silent action movie, but nevertheless). In the even more impressive and exciting Open Track
, she goes after a gang of counterfeiters, along the way fending off a sexual assault
while driving! She then deliberately crashes her car into one of the counterfeiters, who is riding a motorcycle. Then she steals his motorcycle while he's unconscious (/dead for all she knows) and chases down a train, to the front of which the gang have tied two cops, then jumps on the train and stops it just in time to head off the rest of the gang. And just think--there's well over a hundred more of these we'll probably never get to see! A pang that Sklar describes perfectly: "How often did the early movies portray such courageous, competent, resourceful women? When did they disappear, and why? Each glimpse into unexplored aspects of the movies' past opens the tantalizing prospect of unforseen perspectives." (Books about 'em, too.)
Next: deeper into Mack Sennett, whose "sum total of vulgarity and violence through hundreds of films can only be described as awesome..."