An Elusive Diamond is a fine example of how exciting early movies could be. Released in 1914, it isn’t a groundbreaking masterpiece, but it is an antidote to the oft-repeated idea that movies didn’t become technically sophisticated until feature films started dominating the industry. This film moves at a good clip and interrupts its employment of the usual stagey blocking with close-ups that create a sense of cinematic intimacy.
The story is a simple Macguffin affair. A servant girl (Mignon Anderson) needs to deliver a $90,000 diamond to its owner, only she knows the butler of the house is on her trail and he wants the shiny stuff for himself. The girl concocts an elaborate scheme to ensure the diamond is not stolen: she hides it in a bar of soap while loudly telling her mistress that it’s going to be hidden in a jewel box stuffed into her big 1910s hairdo (all the while knowing the butler will be listening). En route to the niece, the girl is kidnapped by the would-be thieves, but far from being a fainting damsel, she outsmarts the lot of them.
Mignon Anderson is not a well-remembered name even among silent film buffs, but she does well for herself in this film. Her character is remarkably proactive, using her brains to save herself and the diamond. Thanhouser (the studio that produced this movie) promoted her as another Mary Pickford type (“I was supposed to look like Mary Pickford— I really didn’t,” she told historian Anthony Slide years later), innocent and spunky. For those who think Edwardian movie actresses were all delicate china dolls lashed to the train tracks, here Anderson does her own stunts, dropping twenty feet from an open window.
There’s not too much more to say: this is an entertaining little gem with so much packed into fifteen minutes. Give it a look!
The Frozen North rarely appears on any Buster Keaton fan’s favorites list, yet it remains one of his most compelling short films. It’s a pitch black parody of Klondike melodramas and William S. Hart westerns, with a dash of Von Stroheim’s “the man you love to hate” for good measure. Keaton drops his usual persona to play a murdering, slimy villain– a very, very inept villain, but still a covetous murderer out to seduce another man’s wife.
Discussion of The Frozen North is often dominated by the context of the Roscoe Arbuckle manslaughter trials which dominated the papers in 1922. The usual story goes that William S. Hart insinuated Arbuckle was guilty in interviews with the press and that Keaton mercilessly mocked Hart’s onscreen persona as vengeance for the honor of his closest friend. In his autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton stated his aims were more benign. He claimed parody was his favorite form of comedy and that his kidding Hart came from a place of admiration.
Hart’s persona was often described as “the Good Bad Man,” essentially an anti-hero redeemed by the final reel. For example, in The Toll Gate, Hart is a cold-blooded outlaw out for revenge against the partner-in-crime that betrayed him. He’s so vengeful that he considers taking his rage out on the traitor’s innocent wife, but by the end, he redeems himself, nobly gives up his love interest, and rides off alone. This is a far cry from Keaton’s nasty character here, who has no redeeming qualities.
The great limitation of parody is that the audience needs to be in on the joke. When you’re not familiar with Bill Hart or the Klondike melodramas popular when Keaton was making the film, some of the gags seem odd or random. Luckily, The Frozen North possesses a dreamlike surrealism that slightly accommodates these limitations. The strangeness of a cowboy emerging from a subway in a frozen landscape has its own weird charm, regardless of the proper context.
The “it was all a dream” ending can be seen as a cop-out, though it offers an interesting prefiguration of the frame story of Sherlock Jr, in which Keaton plays a projectionist who dreams himself into the movies. That film’s spoof qualities are more sophisticated than The Frozen North, with the characters in the “real” world taking on “reel” personas: the projectionist fashions himself after hyper-competent movie detectives and his love interest dresses like Mary Pickford. We can only assume the dreamer awaking in the theater at the close of The Frozen North is the usual hapless, porkpie hat-wearing version of Buster we’re used to seeing in Keaton’s more standard films, though what his dreaming about being a villain says about him is anyone’s guess.
You can easily get psychoanalytical– the usual placid Buster character dreams he is an aggressive amalgamation of William S. Hart and Erich von Stroheim, suggesting that the movies give us an outlet for our darker fantasies, the ones we suppress in order to seem “normal”… but I doubt this was Keaton’s intention. Given his bemused reaction to the academics who embraced his work in the 50s and 60s, it might be best to say he wanted to assure the audience that this short was only a nightmarish lark.
Keaton’s Silent Shorts: Beyond the Laughter by Gabriella Oldham
During the early sound period, producer Joseph Schenck commissioned a series of live-action shorts set to classical music. The series was short-lived, but it did produce one minor classic in the form of The Wizard’s Apprentice.
Ten years before Paul Dukas’ musical interpretation of Goethe’s famous poem became forever linked with Mickey Mouse, pioneering art director William Cameron Menzies and his collaborators created a low-tech fantasy with more charm in its ten minutes than a great many features with slicker effects and bigger budgets. Menzies is arguably the best known production designer of early Hollywood. He was a major asset on the films which employed his skills, from the Arabian Nights fantasy of Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad to the HG Wells-helmed science-fiction epic Things to Come. Here, he meshes a medieval storybook world with gothic touches common to many horror films of the time.
Though this short was produced in the early talkie period, the influence of the late silent era still lingers in every aspect of the production. The atmosphere is right out of the German expressionist classics of the 1920s. The performers’ emoting and full body gestures would be right at home in films from the earlier part of the silent era. They’re operatic and grand, which suit this fairytale narrative perfectly. In fact, the wizard was played by silent film veteran Joseph Swickard, best known as Valentino’s guilt-stricken father in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The other two major performers—Fritz Feld as the apprentice and Greta Granstedt as the diminutive love interest—would go on to have long Hollywood careers in supporting and bit parts for decades to come.
While the film’s special effects are simple, they are effective, especially the brooms. Little more than painted matchsticks with legs, the brooms are surprisingly creepy, perhaps due to how jerky their movements are. The eeriness is a side effect of the primitive technique, a quality which evades the smoother animation of Disney’s broomsticks.
One weird touch I never see mentioned in other reviews of this movie: the funky editing trick that occurs whenever the wizard enters or leaves his study. The shape of the doorway rapidly shifts between high and longways, adding a bizarre dreamlike vibe to the proceedings.
An absolutely classic short—it makes great viewing with Disney’s more iconic take on the poem.
William Cameron Menzies: The Shape of Films to Come by James Curtis
Animation pioneer Winsor McCay was a man of many talents. Before 1920, McCay would work as an illustrator, comic book creator, political cartoonist, vaudevillian, and filmmaker. It is as a filmmaker that he is most remembered today, particularly for his 1915 short Gertie the Dinosaur. However, his ambitions went beyond what most thought possible for animation as an art form. Considering we still live in an era where the mainstream sees animation as little more than an electric babysitter, the scope of those ambitions remains impressive.
In 1915, McCay was enraged by the fate of the Lusitania, an English commercial liner torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Almost 1,200 people died in the disaster, including American civilians. The sinking would not catapult the US into the Great War, but it did establish angry feelings towards Imperial Germany and would be a major contributing factor when the country did enter the conflict in 1917. In the meantime, the event inspired McCay to create a harrowing work that would allow people to see the ship’s final moments.
The Sinking of the Lusitania is McCay’s masterpiece and representative of a road long untaken by the American animation industry at large. To this day, mainstream American animation is associated with two genres: fantasy (usually for children) or comedy (usually for children or frat boys). The Sinking of the Lusitania is neither. McCay set out to recreate the infamous sinking in an expressive but realistic style, essentially creating an animated documentary.
The film was a labor of love for McCay. He funded it himself and worked on it in his free time for a period of twenty-two months. While the film never made a profit for its creator, it was heavily admired by both audiences and animation professionals at the time.
Early cartoons tend to be pigeonholed as visually simplistic, but this is certainly not the case for The Sinking of the Lusitania. Here, the sheer amount of detail is staggering. Just look at the virtuosity of the shot in which the first torpedo speeds through the water, fish ducking out of its path—or look at the long shot of the sinking ship and the tiny figures of individual human beings jumping from the vessel. These are scenes that would have been either impossible or difficult to achieve in a live-action movie during that time.
Just compare this film to the 1917 Mary Pickford vehicle The Little American, which features a thinly disguised depiction of the Lusitania’s sinking. The animated film is far more chilling and dynamic.
McCay never shies away from the horror of the sinking. The short’s most striking moments feature the victims of the attack trying to keep their heads above the waves, their miserable faces resembling skulls. Most heart-wrenching of all is the shot of a mother thrusting her baby above the water, desperately trying to ensure its survival before they are both pulled down.
Propaganda is perhaps the more appropriate descriptor for this film than documentary. Released during the war itself, The Sinking of the Lusitania brims with outrage against Imperial Germany, reflecting popular sentiment during this time. Anti-German feelings grew to a lethal fever pitch once the country entered the war in 1917, unfortunately extending even to German-American communities. The “Huns” were depicted as freedom-hating, baby-killing monsters who needed to be stopped at all costs. The final intertitle is chilling in its echoing of this national fervor: “The man who fired the shot was decorated for it by the Kaiser! AND YET THEY TELL US NOT TO HATE THE HUN.”
In recent years, some elements of the film’s depiction of the sinking have been debunked. Most significantly, it was revealed in 1982 that the ship was carrying military ammunition. Of course, that does not make the loss of innocent life any less tragic. As animation historian John Canemaker observed, even if these facts had been known in 1915, they likely would not have had much impact on the emotions surging throughout the US at the time.
Removed from the fear-soaked, enraged environment in which it was conceived, The Sinking of the Lusitania remains compelling, its combination of gorgeous animation with raw emotions elevating it from mere historical curio to disturbing work of art. Canemaker once said the film’s dramatic power was not equaled in American animation for many years. I would have to agree.
As always, I recommend watching Snow-White before continuing on to the article:
While pre-code cartoons tended to be a wild bunch in general both due to the permissiveness of the era and the exhilaration that came with new sound technologies, few were stranger than what came out of Fleischer Studios. Disney’s biggest competitor at the time, the typical Fleischer Studios product tended to be more hard-edged, provocative, and unapologetically strange than anything from the House of Mouse. Case in point: their Betty Boop series.
Betty Boop is about as pure a pre-code creation as they come. She was a bonafide cartoon sex symbol, and her design’s juxtaposition of the cute and the alluring contributed to her popularity. The cartoons in which she appeared certainly catered more to the grown-ups than the kiddies. Snow-White is a great example, with its jazzy music, non-sequitur comedy, and macabre imagery.
As in the original fairy tale, Betty is the fairest in the land and therefore targeted for death by a jealous step-mother. Koko the Clown and Bimbo the Dog weep as they prepare to dispatch her, but they take pity instead and Betty manages to escape, only to fall into an icy river. She re-emerges in an ice block (a stand-in for the glass coffin), which is taken by seven dwarfs into a “Mystery Cave.” And that’s about all there is of the original story, unless I forgot about a random musical number or the queen transforming into a dragon.
Snow-White is less of a conventional story than it is a bizarre dream. Every frame boasts some kind of gag or surreal flourish as characters morph into new forms. The whimsically ghoulish backgrounds in the “Mystery Cave” alone are something to examine on repeat viewings, from skeletons playing poker to monsters grinning from framed photos on the wall.
The early Fleischer cartoons were notable for featuring some of the top jazz talent of the 1930s. Snow-White boasts the legendary Cab Calloway performing the “St. James Infirmary Blues” through Koko the Clown. Calloway not only provided Koko’s singing voice, but also his smooth dance moves via rotoscoping technology. The result is the highlight of the short, an eerie mini-music video in which Koko morphs into a crooning, moonwalking ghost as he tails Betty’s impromptu funeral procession.
Intriguingly, the number is not a 100% non-sequitur when you consider the lyrics of “St. James Infirmary Blues.” Koko is following Betty in her frozen coffin, while “St. James Infirmary Blues” starts with the singer visiting the corpse of his lover in a hospital before musing on his own eventual death.
Somehow, this somber song suits this otherwise high-spirited short perfectly. Between the winter time setting, monochrome visuals, and the continued presence of death (threatened, assumed, or otherwise) throughout the seven-minute runtime, I even dare to say Snow-White is borderline cartoon noir, only it’s so playful that it keeps any true moodiness at bay. Even among the strange Fleischer canon, Snow-White stands out and deserves its place as a classic of animation.
For the first entry in my new Short of the Month series, I’m going to gush over what might be my favorite short film of the 1910s: Suspense, directed by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley.
If you’ve never seen Suspense, then I recommend watching the short in question before reading on. You can watch the short below:
This taut home invasion thriller is a gem of early cinema. The plot’s basic DNA– a woman left alone in her home is menaced by an outside force– would be shared by many movies to follow, from Sorry, Wrong Number to Panic Room. Running only ten minutes, Suspense keeps its story simple: a housewife and her child are threatened by a malicious tramp in their isolated house, the phone line cut and help far away. Can they be rescued in time?
Though thoroughly cinematic, Suspense was inspired by the theater. The chief influence is a grim 1902 French play titled At the Telephone, which was performed at the Theatre du Grand Guignol in Paris and at the Garrick Theatre in New York. Unlike the later works that would be inspired by it, the original story ends on a dark note as the husband hears his frightened wife and child being murdered by intruders over the telephone.
Though little known today, At the Telephone was quite the influential thriller. In its day, it was adapted into a 1904 French film. The story also inspired Griffith’s 1909 The Lonely Villa, which concludes with a just-in-the-nick-of-time rescue by the victim’s husband. Suspense is another variation on this story, but its cinematography and energy elevate it above its predecessors as a work of cinema.
If you seriously think all early films were theatrical and static affairs, Suspense will shock you to your core with its dynamic camera angles and groundbreaking use of split screen. These artistic choices are more than trendy stylistic flourishes or empty attempts at standing out. They serve the story and the movie’s raison d’etre: thrusting the audience into a state of dread and anxiety.
Take the early scene in which the maid, driven crazy by the isolation of the remote house, exits the front door. Instead of opting for a static frontal shot much the way such a moment would be viewed on a stage, Weber and Smalley place the camera at a high angle, gazing down at the maid from the top of the porch. The high angle strikes an ominous note, an almost God’s eye perspective.
The early moments also create a sense of voyeurism and privacy being invaded. Before leaving her bitter resignation letter, the maid peeks through a keyhole to watch the guileless wife interacting with her baby. Later, the tramp gazes in on the domestic scene through a window. As with later home invasion films, the security of the domestic space is compromised by criminal onlookers. The wife and her child are like goldfish in a bowl being eyed by a hungry cat.
The split screen in particular is used so well. Suspense was not the first to use the technique, but it might have been the first to split the screen three ways. Watching the film again, I was reminded of the vogue for complicated split screens in 1960s crime movies like The Boston Strangler and The Thomas Crown Affair. Those films use split screens to create suspense or to evoke the complexities of a criminal plot.
Suspense uses the device in the same vein as those movies in which we see at once the victim in her home, her husband far away at work, and the intruder as he finds the house key under the mat.
While Suspense lacks the overt violence audiences expect from home invasion movies today, the tramp is still a chilling character. His vacant expressions evoke the impassivity of wild animals and he is the one character in the short to not receive a single dialogue intertitle. It’s interesting how his exact intentions regarding the wife are never laid out. Does he just want to kill her or does he have more sinister intentions as well? That the film never tells us makes his entry into the bedroom all the more disturbing.
While DW Griffith is often marked as the nickelodeon era’s Master of Suspense with his races to the rescues and cross-cutting, Weber and Smalley go to show how Griffith was hardly the only pioneer in town. I dare to say they even out-Griffithed Griffith with this one! Suspense is a great introduction to early cinematic dramas: short enough to not tax a modern viewer uninitiated to the slower pace of older movies and still intense enough to quicken the pulse.
I’m going to do a new monthly series on this blog: Short of the Month.
I love movie shorts, especially silent one or two-reelers. In college, I would actually spend my lunch break binging Biograph two-reelers or Oswald the Lucky Rabbit cartoons. That’s how nerdy I am about this.
Like the best short fiction, a short film can pack a lot into a brief running time. While the Shakespeare quote “Brevity is the soul of wit” did come from the mouth of Hamlet‘s long-winded Polonius character, that does not make the phrase any less true. Shorter does not always equate to trivial or shallow.
While I’m mostly going to be focusing on silent and early sound shorts, there will also be titles from the 1940s as well, if not occasionally the 1950s and 1960s.
Here are my main guidelines regarding my selections for this series:
1. The film has to be made between the silent era and the 1960s.
2. No one agrees on what exactly constitutes a “short film,” but I’m going to go with movies that run no more than 40 minutes.
I’m really excited about this, as I have so many favorites. Expect the first post tomorrow!