Monday, December 30, 2013

A Trap for Santa Claus (USA, 1909)

A simply story of humanity and feelings, a story of simple people…
Revered, controversial, famous and complex, American filmmaker David Llewelyn Wark Griffith (January 22, 1875 – July 23, 1948) had an undeniable influence in early cinema and his name is familiar to anyone who has studied cinema at an academic level and even people who are not very familiar with earlier cinema. Many great actors and actresses blossomed under his tutelage, including Lillian Gish and Mary Pickford. Loved and hated, nobody could ever imagine that a struggling actor who started his cinematic career at American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1908 would reach such mythical heights at his own lifetime.
Being known for feature films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916), the short films he directed at the beginning of his career are sometimes overlooked. Although they are clearly not as lavish and elaborate as his feature films, they represent valuable tools to understand Griffith’s style, especially when it comes to storytelling. Then we can see and assess his style in its pure form, without many resources but with careful production.
Before describing the plot of the film, you should forget about naturalistic actresses such as Lillian Gish, Mary Pickford and Mae Marsh. The Gish sisters would not enter films for a couple years. Mary was beginning her cinematic career at that studio in 1909, but is not in this film, Mae wasn’t in Biograph yet either. Acting here is much more stagey and exaggerated, particularly when it comes to women. It was Victorian-era acting in its final breath.       
This film has a quite touching story, that retains its appeal regardless of time and place. This is early 20th century, United States, but it could have happened even before that or nowadays and in virtually all corners of the world.
The father of the family is unemployed and the whole family is in a quite bad financial situation. Both husband and wife are despondent. As an intertitle says, the father is “crushed in spirit” and then he finds comfort in drinking. In addition to drinking, he also attended bars with other men who looked quite tough, which were definitely not appropriate places for a family head and father. After a while, he returns to his home entirely drunk, which only increases the despair of his wife and two children (a boy and a girl). 

After a particularly stressful argument, the father leaves “the house of sorrow”, an euphemism that means he abandoned his family. Anyway, euphemisms apart, it becomes 100% clear that he was leaving his family out of shame because he left a note to his wife before going away, claiming they would be better without him. But considering that the husband was usually the family's sole breadwinner in the early 20th century, his departure was a dreadful shadow over the future of the family he left behind. How the wife would support her children, then? After reading the note, the woman gets understandably desperate, throws herself on a chair and nearly faints, which was typical melodramatic acting of that time. 

After leaving his family, the husband's alcoholism probably worsened, unsurprisingly. One day, the wife goes to the city with her daughter, leaving her son alone at home, trying to find a job. Unfortunately, she wasn’t successful. While the boy was alone at home, he found some food and ate it. It was probably the last food the whole family had to fall back on and when the mother arrives back home with her little daughter and finds it out, she gets very sad.
Anyway, divine providence exists and God helps the ones who suffer and one of the wife’s aunts left her a good inheritance. The woman becomes wealthy and all her troubles are solved and she moves with her children to a fine house. Unfortunately she still doesn’t know the whereabouts of her husband. 

So it comes the night before Christmas. In an interesting plot twist, it is said in an intertitle that “There is no chimney, so Santa Claus will come through the window”. The children don’t want to sleep, they want to see Santa Claus but, with some effort, the mother made them to pray and go to the bed. But the children get to run away from bed after a short time and they set a trap for poor Santa. As a matter of fact, the mother is going to dress up as Santa Claus. 

While it all happened inside the house, we can see the father nearby and he was forced to “desperate deeds”. In other words, not having any job and having a drinking habit, his only option was robbery and he attempts to burglarize a house. It was the house where his wife and children were living. After he enters through the window, the husband is immediately caught red-handed by his wife. She recognizes him, starts overacting like crazy and the husband wonders what on Earth is she doing in that sophisticated house. 

The woman realizes her husband has become a petty criminal and the man, out of shame, begs his wife to forgive him and also starts overacting as much and she does. He tries to run away, but the wife begs him not to. His family is wealthy now and he doesn’t need to steal anymore. They both hug and reconcile. 

Then the wife has the idea of the husband making a surprise to his children by dressing up as Santa Claus. After he is dressed up, the wife calls the children to see Santa and everybody gets very happy. It’s Christmas and family is united again.
According to Kevin Brownlow[1], some of the characteristics of D.W. Griffith’s films (which in my opinion can all be seen in this film in a way or another) are the following ones:
  • The use of melodrama amid settings of complete reality;
  • The exaggerated, yet still truthful characters;
  • The fascination with detail;
  • The accuracy of dress and behavior;
  • The sentimentality;
  • The attitude toward religion;
  • The outrage over social injustice.
And you, dear reader? After reading this article, do you see any of those aforementioned characteristics in the film? Only some of them? None of all? Feel free to leave a comment and say what you think.

[1] The Parade Has Gone by, Kevin Brownlow, University of California Press, 1968, first edition, reprinted by permission

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

What's the World Coming To? (USA, 1926)

This film follows the tradition of situational comedies by Hal Roach studios, as opposed to the faster pace and greater emphasis on physical humor and typical of slapstick comedies of that era. Featuring Australian actor Clyde Cook, a silent comedian not well known today, the plot deals with the inversion of gender roles in society. This film was made in the Roaring Twenties and its plot reflects the values of its time. Indeed, it is no surprise that henpecked husbands were shown with some frequency in films by Hal Roach's studios back then.
In 100 years from now (as the first intertitle says) newlyweds live with the wife being the prominent member of the family while the husband had his traditional role dramatically reduced. This has made clear all along even with the bride wearing more masculine clothes and having a more proactive attitude while the husband acts shyly, just like a Victoriam “blushing bride” would do. 

Those stereotyped scenes reflect a common misconception theoretically held decades ago that more liberated women would have end up being too masculine, aggressive rather than delicate and motherly, as they were supposed to be. In other words, this “new woman” would also be “anti-virtuous” and “anti-natural”. 

During the wedding ceremony we can notice a mysterious woman named Lieutenant Penelope “casting a sinister shadow over the happy event”. She had a rather masculine look and was watching the wedding from a distance. No further information is given about her in this scene.
Realizing Clyde has made a fool of himself in front of the whole society, his father arrives and finds Clyde sitting at home reading, while his wife was away, a complete inversion of the usual custom of women being involved in domestic activities while the husband was away for the day as the breadwinner of the family. There is even a spoof of “Ladies' Home Journal” as “Husband’s Home Journal”. At that time this journal, having been founded on late XIX century, was already very popular among American women of the era.

Then, urged by his father’s words, Clyde confronts the daily absences of his wife. As soon as they start arguing, the wife finds out her father-in-law was hiding in the living room and threatens to leave her husband. However, the argument is cut short by a mouse who appears out of turn. It is very interesting the brief use of animation in this scene when the mouse is shown. But the argument does not change the fact that the woman is away from home, even overnight, and detached from her family most of time. 

After a while, the final “insult” happens. Penelope appears out of nowhere, with an even more masculine appearance than the wife, and she gives to the husband some make up and a necklace as a present, both of which he is ready to wear as if they were the most natural items of a typical men’s wardrobe. No reason is provided for where Penelope came from and why she gave those items to the husband.  We can perhaps assume that this character appeared as if to show that if the wife does not take a good care of her husband, another woman will propably do. Anyway, this is just an assumption. When the wife arrives back home and realizes there was another woman there trying to seduce her husband, a serious fight starts to take place. 

After this second woman is kicked out of the house, the film reaches its most absurd point, which is that, while the father in law is helplessly hanging on the window, a stork appears with a baby, who looks just like his father. We may assume that it shows the couple had a child and it melted the wife’s heart and she magically starts being motherly and attached to her family, just like all “delicate” and “natural” women must be. 

A noteworthy detail in the film is the background scenery shown outside the house, which represents a 1920's vision of a futuristic city that helps reinforce the prediction that women would become liberated like that in the following century. In the time elapsed since this film, we are able to judge for ourselves how accurate their predictions were and what was sheer exaggeration.
Although it is not a slapstick comedy, we can notice some physical gags, including kicks on the butt of characters, buckets of water being thrown at Clyde, some falls and even broad gestures by Clyde Cook when, for instance, a mouse hides under his trousers and he starts jumping and making some over the top gestures that audiences perhaps would not expect in this sort of comedy. But we must not forget that the distinction between so-called “broad slapstick” and “subtle comedy” is not always 100% clear and that some actors, after having acted in slapstick for a while both in films and vaudeville, had perhaps incorporated those broad gestures and physical gags to their acting and “old habits die hard”.

Further reading and materials:
1. A History of the Hal Roach Studios by Richard Lewis Ward  

Monday, December 9, 2013

Oranges and Lemons (USA, 1923)

Having a very simple rural plot of an orange packer involved in conflicts and trying to escape his pursuers and with the support of the scenery for its gags, this film is still entertaining today. As the western world was still relatively rural on early 1920ies, the plot of this film comes as no surprise.

It is a typical product of Hal Roach’s studio, which produced comedies with a much less frantic pace than his competitor Mack Sennett. This film stars a relatively young Stan Laurel before his successful pairing with Oliver Hardy. Stan was English and a member of famous Fred Karno English music hall troupe that also gave Charlie Chaplin to the cinematic world. An experienced comedian even before entering films, he was in Hal Roach comedies for a while before working with American comedian Oliver Hardy.
Even though this short has a less frantic style than many of its counterparts, it is, however, a bit more physical and fast even compared to other films produced by Roach. In this film we can also see some witty intertitles, a standard practice in films by Hal Roach studios, which had some quite funny ones.

Every gag the scenery could provide was employed in this film, for instance with fruits, machinery, facilities, etc. 

An institution of silent comedies is also evident in one of the characters. A crazy fake moustache, which also emphasizes who menacing the man is. 

Some people might think it is a poorly produced film, but it is not true. We must have in mind that those “bread and butter” comedy shorts were highly popular during silent era and studios kept a steady and growing output of them to meet audiences’ demands. Some studios even produced those shorts on a weekly basis.

Further reading and materials:
1. Stan Without Ollie: The Stan Laurel Solo Films, 1917-1927 by Ted Okuda,James L. Neibaur

Crossed Love and Swords (USA, 1915)

This comedy has really stood the test of time and still stands out today. Being grounded on absurd and nonsense situations, it can still make people laugh. One of best performances of the film is delivered by Al St. John, the highly acrobatic nephew of famous Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was very different from his uncle not only physically, but also in comedic style. Having a steady career in silent-era comedies, he also made a name for himself in westerns during the talkie era.
The film starts in a party where social climbers gather, as it says one of intertitles. After some weird dancing and matrimonial arguments, we see Al St. John, who becomes instantly popular among the women at the party. 

However, regardless of how good Al St. John is in the film, the acting of a great scene-stealer, and one of the most menacing creatures ever produced by a film, must be emphasized. There is no Frankenstein, there is no Dracula, there is Fido, the poodle. Lol! The dog was owned by the always-competent Louise Fazenda, a sophisticated woman to whom both Al St. John and his “bossom friend” are attracted. Apparently their attraction for the same woman shakes their friendship and Fido was the victim of St. John’s friend rage after he realized that his friend was being too friendly with the woman he liked. 

Fido embodied very well the old comedic joke of the coward who got to succeed in his adversities due to luck and good intentions. Fido’s complete helpless look while the craziest situations happened around him added some more laughs to the scenes, specially when he shivered and stood on his rear paws. 

The dog was unfortunately caught in the fight of two friends for the love of Fazenda and ended up being put adrift. Then, the film starts getting even more bizarre when hostilities peak into a duel with swords while poor little Fido was all alone on the lake trying to fight for his life. After a crazy duel involving swords on men’s butts and some attempted cheating, Fido is finally found and the guys are called to save the poor little poodle before it’s too late. 

The dog was found shivering, on his rear paws, wet, and looking as if he would fall apart at any moment. This is perhaps the funniest moment of the film. And the worst was about to happen: Fido was at the point of being attacked by a crocodile. Fortunately, both Fazenda’s suitors get to jump in the lake and save the dog. Something that is noteworthy is the fact that although those men swam and spent some time on the water, their fake moustaches bravely resisted and did not fall off. They were probably quite well-attached to their faces.
All in all, with a competent gag and a comedy focused on quite crazy situations and the acting of an excellent and funny dog, this is a fine example of a film by Keystone studios at its top form.