Cabiria (1914)

In the 1910s, for the most part, film as a storytelling medium was not yet very mature. Most films were static in their camerawork, and the scripts were often clumsy. Some slapstick comedy from that time can still be amusing (in moderate doses), but the dramas and “action” films of the day are mostly pretty tiresome affairs.

But there are exceptions. Cabiria, even though it is the victim of many problems of its time, is one. This Italian film was one of the first great epic dramas, with spectacular sets, masses of extras and a bombastic storyline filled with hyperbole and melodrama.

The statue of Moloch in Cabiria (1914)

The film is about the girl Cabiria, who is robbed from her home during a volcanic eruption in ancient Roman times, taken as a slave to various places around the ancient world, and finally wins her freedom when she has become a grown woman. But in reality, various sub-plots are much more interesting, such as the story of Fulvio Axilla and his slave Maciste. Truth be told, the film is pretty confusing with all its characters and sub-plots, and sometimes too much, sometimes too little, information conveyed in the title cards.

The poor girl Cabiria is barely even treated as a personality. In the first half of the film, she is dragged and carried around as if she was a thing. In the second half, we get to see a bit more of her as she has grown up, but even then she does not do much to give a lasting impression.

Another character in this film is much more interesting, both due to the actor Bartolomeo Pagano and his portrayal of the character in the film, and due to the character’s later on-screen career. The character is called Maciste, and prior to watching this film, I had noticed that name, as it often appeared in Italian sword-and-sandal films from the early 1960s. But the English-language dubs of those films often used other names, such as Atlas in the Land of the Cyclops (Maciste nella terra dei ciclopi) or Colossus and the Headhunters (Maciste contro i cacciatori di teste). I wondered about this sometimes: Who was this mysterious Maciste, who never got to keep his name in translation? Well, it turns out that Cabiria was his first appearance, and that he was later to star in 26(!) further silents (all with Pagano in the title role) and another 25 films in a revival in the early 1960s.

I have not been able to find any other silents with Maciste at the Internet Archive, but there are several interesting 1960s Macistes. Perhaps I will review one of them in the future.

The version of Cabiria I link to is the one at the Internet Archive with the best image quality, but unfortunately it has no soundtrack. If you feel that your life is incomplete without sound, then you can choose between a version with an electronic score and one with piano music. I personally prefer the latter in this case.

This film is best enjoyed if you are interested in cinematic history. For its time, the film is an epic masterpiece, but I have to be frank and admit that it has aged quite considerably during the more than hundred years that have passed since it premiered. Do watch it, and enjoy what is to be enjoyed, but do not expect too much. It is still a great piece considering its age.

Umberto Mozzato, Gina Marangoni and Bartolomeo Pagano (as Maciste) in Cabiria (1914)

Cabiria
Download link
Year: 1914
Language: English
Running time: 2 h 3 min
Director: Giovanni Pastrone
Stars: Umberto Mozzato, Bartolomeo Pagano
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: Cinepack (1.2 G)

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The Invaders (1912)

In my review of Ingeborg Holm (1913), I suggested that it is hard to find good feature film older than that, but during the early years of the 1910s, many good films were created that do not quite qualify as a “feature” by modern standards, yet are long enough to tell a reasonably complex story and helped to pave the way for future film makers. The Invaders is one of those films.

Francis Ford and William Eagle Shirt in The Invaders (1912)

The Invaders, which has been called “cinema’s first great Western epic”, starts with a peace treaty being signed by a U.S. colonel and a Sioux chief (both fictional, as far as I can tell). This gives the Indians the rights to their own land. The treaty, however, is soon broken. Some white people are killed by the Indians, and all of a sudden the war is in full swing.

The film contains many great battle scenes, and though they were dwarfed by D.W. Griffith’s great epics a few years later, they are still very impressive for this time.

Another important factor is the camerawork. Long distance unmoving camera was the norm at this time, and while that is common in this film as well, we see several scenes when the camera breaks free of its limitations, either panning or showing details in close-up. While not very spectacular today, it must have been effective for the audiences of the day.

This film is best enjoyed not only because it is a good film for its time, but also because it treats the Indians in a much more respectful manner than many later Westerns, especially during the sound era. These Indians, evidently played by real Sioux, are actually portrayed as people, with humans rights and human feelings.

Francis Ford and Ethel Grandin in The Invaders (1912)

The Invaders
Internet Archive page
Year: 1912
Running time: 41 min
Directors: Francis Ford, Thomas H. Ince
Stars: William Eagle Shirt, Francis Ford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (651×498; not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (1.4 G)

The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The oldest films I have previously reviewed on this site have been from the years 1913 and 1914, and I personally think it is very difficult to go any further back in time than that when you are looking for good feature films. But shorter films of more than just curiosity interest certainly exist from earlier, and we now end our Short Film Month by looking at one example.

There can be no denying that D. W. Griffith was one of the most important early pioneers in Hollywood, which first started to attract filmmakers around this time. One of his earliest Hollywood productions was The Unchanging Sea.

Arthur V. Johnson and Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

These many years later, the film does feel a bit aged. The camera is mostly static; actors move around inside the picture as if on a stage. But this was conventional at the time, and even with this limitation, Griffith manages to create magnificent tension and visual poetry. The first half, in particular, is excellent, though melodrama creeps into the later part of the film.

Griffith had his greatest period – both in terms of artistic achievement and popularity – a few years later with films such as The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Broken Blossoms (1919). But some of his early shorts are also worth exploring, and The Unchanging Sea is definitely one of them.

This film is best enjoyed for the beautiful sceneries of the sea and the fishing village. Griffith apparently built no sets, but used a real village in California as his backdrop, for excellent effect. The documentary qualities of this film are considerable. The film is also noticeable for an early appearance by Hollywood star Mary Pickford as the fisherman’s adult daughter.

Linda Arvidson in D. W. Griffith's The Unchanging Sea (1910)

The Unchanging Sea
Download link
Year: 1910
Running time: 14 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Mary Pickford
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (72 M)

The Pawn Shop (1916)

October is Short Film Month, and today we celebrate one of the most important short film creators ever, Charlie Chaplin. A good many of his shorts are available at the Internet Archive, and today’s pick is one of the best, The Pawn Shop (more commonly written togeter as The Pawnshop, but the version at the Internet Archive has the word split), which premiered exactly one hundred years and eight days ago.

Charles Chaplin and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

Chaplin had an amazing career in the movies. He began making film in 1914, and in that year alone acted in about 35 films, 20 of which he directed. The following year, he was down to 14 titles, almost all of which he directed. By 1916, production had gone down to 9, and he directed everything himself. Quite frankly, his first attempts were not always very funny, at least not a hundred years later, but already by 1916, every single one of his films ranged from hilarious or astonishing. Diminishing volume and increasing quality continued to go hand in hand, and when he made his masterpiece The Kid (1921), he was down to only two films that year.

Nothing needs to be said about the plot of The Pawn Shop. It is not very important, anyway. What matters are all the amazing stunts and gags.

The version I mainly link to from this post is a completely silent version, with no soundtrack. Another version with a good soundtrack exists at the Archive, but both the resolution and technical quality of that copy are really poor, so I recommend that you try the soundless one.

This film is best enjoyed as a brilliant and still very funny film, but it can also be seen together with some other Chaplin films from various years and production companies, as an illustration of how fast he developed, both as an actor and a director. I would recommend spending some time at the Internet Archive, searching out a handful of samples from each year during the 1910s. It is a highly rewarding experience, both in terms of learning and enjoyment.

Charles Chaplin, Edna Purviance and John Rand in The Pawnshop (1916)

The Pawnshop
Download link
Year: 1916
Running time: 25 min
Director: Charlie Chaplin
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Edna Purviance
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (569×430, not counting black border)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG2 (214 M)

Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

D. W. Griffith seems a very peculiar character in retrospect. Already an experienced director, he went ahead in 1915 and created one of the greatest classics in the history of cinema, The Birth of a Nation. Though a great financial success, it was justly criticized for racism and falsifying history. So the next year, he made Intolerance, allegedly in response to his critics of the former film. This was another majestic classic, but as for the response over the previous film, it falls flat.

So Griffith could have gone down in history as a racist film maker, but then in 1919, he made yet another of his greatest classics, Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl. Here we find a direct and unequivocal statement against racism and intolerance. Hard to tell what Griffith really thought on the subject; the films are his legacy and still deserve to be watched.

Richard Barthelness and Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms tells the story of poor Lucy, whose father is a brutish and alcoholic boxer. He beats her for any poor excuse and forces her to do all the menial tasks in the household. But then she meets a young Chinese. He is also lonesome and disheartened, and they find that they are soulmates, able to lift each other to happiness neither thought possible. Fortune cannot hold forever, of course, though I will not reveal the ending here.

Lilian Gish, one of Griffith’s favourite actors, plays Lucy. Gish is sometimes mentioned as one of the greatest actresses of the silent era. Well, I am not entirely convinced, but she certainly makes a fine portrait in this particular film. In a time when overacting was the norm, Gish did it more than most. She had a pronounced flair for acting miserable, distressed or frightened, and in this film she has little reason to do anything else. In particular, there is a famous scene where she hides in a closet, while her raving father breaks down the door with an axe. This was the kind of scene where Gish absolutely excelled.

Artisitically, Griffith was perhaps at his peak here. He had a few great films ahead of him, but by the mid 1920s, it became steadily clearer that the man who once revolutionized film making had failed to stay ahead of the pack. Hence, you will find that in some ways the film has not aged well. Even so, its classic status cannot be denied.

This film is best enjoyed when you are in the mood for tragedy. This is not a feel-good movie.

Lilian Gish in Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919)

Broken Blossoms or the Yellow Man and the Girl
Download link
Year: 1919
Running time: 1 h 29 min
Director: D. W. Griffith
Stars: Lilian Gish, Richard Barthelmess
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (512×384)
Soundtrack: Good; synchronized with the images
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: DivX (493 M)

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

Usually, when reviewing a film on this blog, it is because I want to recommend it for one or more of its inherent qualities. In other words, I tend to focus on good film and stay away from bad film. However, there are a handful of films that are so historically significant that they deserve inclusion even though they are not very good. One such is Tillie’s Punctured Romance, the first feature-length comedy. It was also Charlie Chaplin’s first feature film, even though it was not “his” in the sense that he neither directed or produced it, and he did not even play the leading part.

Marie Dressler and Charlie Chaplin in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Poor Tillie has never been in love, so when Charlie comes along and plays the right strings, she falls flat before him. Charlie, however, is only interested in her father’s money, and he also wants to win back his old girlfriend Mabel.

For a fact, the film is not entirely without some good qualities. Chaplin, in particular, is good, especially in the slapstick scenes. But the comedy is not enough to hold the rather convoluted plot together, and in the end you leave it with a feeling of dissatisfaction.

This film is best enjoyed as a milestone in cinematic history. The Internet Archive also houses a 1939 re-release with synchronized sound and better resolution. That version is cut down by almost half, which may not necessarily be a bad thing, since it improves upon the original’s pacing. But then you do not watch a film like this mainly to be entertained. You watch it for its historical significance. So I would be inclined to recommend the original after all.

Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand in Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914)

Tillie’s Punctured Romance
Download link
Year: 1914
Running time: 1 h 11 min
Director: Mack Sennett
Stars: Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Low (352×262)
Soundtrack: Poor; random jazz music
Sound Quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG1 (698 M)

Ingeborg Holm (1913)

In 1913, D.W. Griffith was making silly shorts such as The Telephone Girl and the Lady, Charlie Chaplin had not yet started making films at all, and even Hollywood itself had barely even received its name. In short, American film was struggling to get on its feet. This is the kind of perspective you need in order to fully appreciate just how amazing a film such as Ingeborg Holm by Victor Sjöström was for its time.

Hilda Borgström and William Larsson in Ingeborg Holm (1913)

Sjöström created a delightful little melodrama about the struggling wife and mother Ingeborg Holm, who suffers the misery of seeing her husband die shortly after he has started up a new grocery store. She inherits the store, but due to mismanagement by the hired staff, the business soon goes bankrupt and she is faced with heavy debts. The film gives a fine portrait of a strong woman, and explores the limits of misery that a human being can suffer.

Today, Ingeborg Holm may appear somewhat static with all its stationary cameras and long shots, only very rarely featuring a closeup. But Ingeborg Holm is also the oldest film I have yet reviewed here, and compared with the films from the next few years, it is easy to see that Sjöström was way ahead of his competition. Even compared with a masterpiece like The Birth of a Nation (1915), Sjöström shows integrity in cutting and composition that few if any contemporaries could match. If you want to watch good feature film, you really cannot go much farther back than this.

This film is best enjoyed for its historical significance, and as a foretelling of what the future had in store. It is also interesting for its image of poverty in Sweden over a hundred years ago.

Aron Lindgren and Hilda Borgström in Ingeborg Holm (1913)

Ingeborg Holm
Download link
Year: 1913
Running time: 1 h 12 min
Director: Victor Sjöström
Stars: Hilda Borgström
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: MPEG4 (642 M)