In honor of National Silent Movie Day I watched several silent shorts:
Title: The Great Train Robbery
Release Date: December 1903
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Production Company: Edison Manufacturing Company
Summary/Review: This 12-minute film was perhaps the first blockbuster motion picture. In latter days it was credited with lots of innovations that weren’t actually true, but it is undeniable that it was a big hit. And the basic imagery of outlaws holding up a train is quite persistent. The version I watched had hand-colored segments that make it feel painterly. And of course, who can ever forget the iconic shot of Justus D. Barnes firing his gun at the camera!
Release Date: June 18, 1917
Director: Charles Chaplin
Production Company: Mutual Film Corporation
Summary/Review: Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp joins the tired poor, huddled masses immigrating to America. There’s not so much of a plot as a series of set pieces, first aboard a ship sailing to New York, and then in a New York restaurant where the broke Tramp struggles to pay for a meal. In both scenes, he tries to charm a fellow immigrant (Edna Purviance). Eric Campbell plays a big and tough waiter. There are a lot of good gags in this movie with a warm and sympathetic portrayal of the travails of the immigrant experience.
Title: There It Is
Release Date: 1928
Director: Harold L. Muller
Production Company: Educational Pictures
Summary/Review: Charles Bowers is not as well-remembered as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, or Harold Lloyd but work in the same genre of slapstick comedy during the silent film era. This movie is almost entirely visual jokes and hard to summarize without spoiling the gags. Suffice to say, a family in New York finds strange things happening in their house due to the “Fuzz-Faced Phantom” (Buster Brodie) and decide that the police will not be good enough so they call Scotland Yard. In this case, it is an actual yard in Scotland where men in full kilts roam around. Charley MacNeesha (Bowers) is sent to investigate with his partner MacGregor, a stop-motion animated bug. So many weird things happen in 19 minutes. The primary Black character spends the entire film trying to leave which plays into the stereotype of easily-spooked African Americans, but then again getting out of that house seems wise. MacNeesha is also extremely cheap, so more cultural stereotypes. This movie is fun to watch to see absurdists humor from a century ago that seems to anticipate Monty Python.
Title: The Cameraman’s Revenge
Release Date: October 27, 1912
Director: Władysław Starewicz
Production Company: Khanzhonkov
Summary/Review: If MacGregor stirred your passion for stop-motion animated bugs, then this movie is for you! All the characters in this 12-minute short are animated insect specimens. Mr. and Mrs. Beetle each are having affairs with other insects. An angry grasshopper, who is a camera operator and projectionist, films it all. So if a movie where insects canoodle while a voyeur watches them through a keyhole is your jam, then this movie has been there for you for almost 110 years! This one is delightfully weird.
Title: New York 1911
Release Date: 1911
Production Company: Svenska Biografteatern
Summary/Review: My grandmother was born in New York on May 1, 1911. Sometime in the same year a Swedish production company filmed this travelogue of Lower Manhattan. As travelers on this journey, we arrive by ferry and then travel around the city streets, sometimes by streetcar. Despite the constant change in New York, the bridges and many buildings are very recognizable. The absence of automobiles is the best part of this vision of New York where the streets are dominated by pedestrians and streetcars. Although we do spend some time observing a white family packed into an open-air motorcar with a Black driver. This film is only 9 minutes long but it’s a remarkable document of a place and time.