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
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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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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
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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)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

So you thought that Judy Garland’s The Wizard of Oz (1939) was the first Oz adaptation on film? Not even close! And it was not the first good one, either (even though it could arguably be said to be the best).

In fact, Oz film was incorporated into what has later been described as “a multimedia presentation” as early as 1908, and the first Oz film proper, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was released two years later. But the really interesting titles started to appear a hundred years ago, as three Oz films were released in 1914. The best of them is The Patchwork Girl of Oz.

On trial before Ozma of Oz and the Wizard of Oz in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

L. Frank Baum (the writer of the original Oz books) was very interested in the film medium, and he took an active interest in these productions, acting as writer and co-producer through his own short-lived production company. For fans of the original books, this makes the trio of films highly interesting. As an added bonus, they are actually very good for films that old.

Ojo and his uncle live in poverty, so they decide to go to the Emerald City. Along the way, they witness a magician creating a girl from patches, and Ojo decides to insert some brains into the girl when no-one is watching. Then there seems to be footage missing (the film was almost double the length originally, according to Wikipedia), as Ojo’s uncle and some others become petrified for no apparent reason. Ojo and his friends must search the magical lands of Oz for a cure to the petrification. Their search will eventually lead to the Emerald City itself.

Baum’s Oz films were probably among the first to be made specifically as family entertainment. That means that the plots are fairly simple, there is a lot of slapstick comedy, and there are many actors dressed up as donkeys, apes and other animals.

The Patchwork Girl of Oz is in many ways typical of films from the period before The Birth of a Nation (1915). Almost exclusively shot with a single stationary camera and simple (though well-made) special effects, such as double exposure or stop-motion. But where this particular film sticks out is in its effective use of acrobatics, especially by the title’s patchwork girl.

The other two 1914 Oz films produced by Baum, by the way, are The Magic Cloak of Oz and His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz. These are also good, but tend to be a bit slow and incoherent.

This film is best enjoyed with a good musical score. Since none such is available at the Internet Archive, I suggest that you put on some upbeat instrumental music in the background. Unlike silent dramas or romantic comedy, this one is not terribly dependent on a score that adapts to the various moods in the film.

The Patchwork Girl meets the Scarecrow in The Patchwork Girl of Oz (1914)

The Patchwork Girl of Oz
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Year: 1914
Running time: 44 min
Director: J. Farrell MacDonald
Stars: Violet MacMillan, Pierre Couderc
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (785×576)
Soundtrack: None
Best file format: DivX (521 M)