Categories
This Christmas Is 100 Years Old

Santa Claus (1898)

Santa Claus is a minute long film from 1898 showing Santa Claus himself clambering down a chimney and delivering presents to a couple of very excited children.

I like how sweet and strangely magical this is.

Merry Christmas, etc!

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Notes

1. I watched this on youtube originally, but the version on the BFI website looks nicer.

2. According to lots of places, this is the oldest Christmas film in existence.

3. And according to the BFI page about it, this is also the earlier film that shows two things happening in different places at the same time.

4. I have no idea if either of those facts are true.

5. This film is 121 years old!

6. And now I can’t tell if that’s actually a fake snow effect they’re using, or if it’s all just the result of 121 years of dirt and degradation on the celluloid itself.

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Film Information

Title: Santa Claus
Director: GA Smith
Year: 1898
Duration: 1 minute

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This Film Is More Than 100 Years Old

Animated Putty (1911)

Animated Putty is a short demonstration of stop motion/claymation effects from 1911, directed by “trick” film specialist WR Booth. It consists entirely of a number of sequences where some lumps of putty roll around slowly forming themselves into intricate shapes and models, and it’s brilliant.

There’s two incredible scenes here. The first is one where a windmill builds itself from scratch, and then slowly creates its own sails as it spins. The second is where the pretty figure of a woman transforms into and utterly horrifying demonic gargoyle, which then proceeds to vomit up further gargoyles until we all scream.

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Notes

1. I watched this on the BFI site here.

2. WR Booth also directed ‘The “?” Motorist’ (1906) and ‘The Automatic Motorist’ (1911), both of which I reviewed here.

3. One of the first cartoons I made when I first got a 3DS was a little plasticine worm.

4. Which would have been obsolete a full century before.

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Film Information

Title: Animated Putty
Director: WR Booth
Year: 1911
Duration: 4 minutes

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This Film Is More Than 100 Years Old

Suspense (1913)

Suspense is a brisk ten-minute long home-invasion thriller, directed by Lois Weber, an acclaimed and prolific pioneer in early cinema, the majority of whose work has largely, unfortunately, been lost.

Technically groundbreaking both in its use of split screen and the staging of its scenes (it’s hard to imagine how difficult the wing mirror car chase scene must have been to stage with an impossibly huge and cumbersome 1910s camera rig), Suspense is also beautifully filmed.

There are a number of shots that are pretty much perfectly composed, despite over a century of being referenced, re-used (or just plain stolen) elsewhere potentially diluting their impact for people like us watching it now.

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Notes

1. I watched this on youtube, on the Change Before Going Productions channel.

2. I really like the soundtrack they’ve added to this, composed by the artist Robbie Kaye.

3. This film is often described as Hitchcockian, although maybe we should respect causality at least vaguely and decide that it’s his films that should be termed Weberian.

4. I can’t say I’m a great fan of the slightly reactionary nature of the plot, but it’s not as if we’ve moved onto anything much more thoughtful in the century since.

5. Thanks again to Vom Vorton for recommending this film to me.

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Film Information

Title: Suspense
Director: Lois Weber
Year: 1913
Duration: 10 minutes
Related Articles: Lois Weber (bfi); Four Daring Films By Lois Weber (open culture); Lois Weber (bbc)

Categories
This Film Is 100 Years Old

Bamboozled (1919)

Bamboozled is a silent comedy directed by and starring Fred Rains, concerning the attempts of a man to woo his love by finding a park bench for them to sit on together. Unfortunately, as all the benches in all the parks in London are full of other couples already stting together, he has to hatch a devious plan. This plan of course involves buying a fully life-like automated robot human and getting her to sit on a bench so no one else can.

It is not a very good plan.

At the end it turns out that this human female robot is actually the father of the woman the man is trying to woo. The reasons of both the why and the how of this are never really adequately explained (despite the inclusion of an explanatory flashback), although then again it’s no more unlikely and baffling than the plan itself. So I suppose everything is okay.

I enjoyed this quite a lot. Even if the story doesn’t make a single bit of sense, the physical performance of Fred Rains as an automaton is great, and I really liked the way that British parks seem almost identical to how they are now (except, perhaps, for the noticeable lack of bins).

The direction and editing felt more modern than some of the other films I’ve watched too. There’s the use of explanatory flashbacks throughout (although these are introduced with a somewhat clunky fade out and fade in device), and there are a number of inserted close-up shots of items (expressions, pictures, buttons, instruction booklets, and so on) for clarity.

This watch, for example, is beautiful. I’d have quite happily have watched a full minute of it ticking.

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Notes

1. I watched this on the BFI player.

2. This was produced by a company with the misfortune, from the point of view of those of us watching it here, now, one hundred years later, of being called Swastika Films. The way that every intertitle card throughout is emblazoned with a huge swastika in the corner was more disconcerting than perhaps it should have been.

3. There’s a scene in this where the main character sits on a chair and unties his shoelaces and then takes off his shoe. It’s pretty rare to see people untying their shoelaces and taking off their shoes in films, so it’s always quite nice to see.

4. When I make a film it’s going to be a solid 90 minutes of people taking off their shoes and nothing else.

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Film Information

Title: Bamboozled
Director: Fred Rains
Year: 1919
Duration: 35 minutes

Categories
This Film Is 100 Years Old

Smashing Barriers (1919) / Auntie’s Portrait (1915)

Smashing Barriers was originally a 15-episode adventure serial, where a sawmill owner and her impossibly boring boyfriend try to escape the attentions of an outlaw and his band of ruffians.

Directed by and starring William Duncan in 1919, these episodes (the plotting of which was described at the time as “incomprehensibly convoluted”) were eventually condensed down to a single movie a few years later, and then even further into this short film in the 1930s, for sale as a home movie.

It’s this ultra-condensed version which survives, the originals all having been lost.

The surviving film is only ten minutes long. Yet there’s time enough for rescuing a damsel in distress from a burning building, out of control carts careering down a hill, an improvised zipwire escape, someone leaping off a cliff into the waters below, people randomly fire guns, and more. The picture above is basically straight out of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.

Even though this was presumably all deeply generic at the time (100 years ago!) it’s sort of wonderful how much of the action here is still used repeatedly in everything right now. And for another hundred years yet, too, I expect, unless there’s some sort of catastrophic outbreak of originality just round the corner.

And no one wants that. We’d all be terrified.

I then watched Auntie’s Portrait, a not-especially comedic farce filmed in 1915, and made by the same company as Smashing Barriers, The Vitagraph Company Of America.

This too is deeply generic in almost every way, so much so that I can’t really think of anything to say about it. I wouldn’t have bothered reviewing at all, really, but there’s a nice fourth-wall breaking dog at the start, so I’ve decided to include it here so I’ve got an excuse to post a picture of its cheeky little face.

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Notes

1. I watched Smashing Barriers on amazon prime, where it appears to be one of about five silent movies in their entire catalogue

2. Although with amazon’s, let’s say, incomprehensibly convoluted search function, for all I know there’s actually billions.

3. I watched Auntie’s Portrait on the Harpodeon website, where it’s free for a week.

4. But usually costs two quid.

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Film Information

Title: Smashing Barriers
Director: William Duncan
Year: 1919
Duration: 10 minutes

Title: Auntie’s Portrait
Director: George D. Baker
Year: 1915
Duration: 12 minutes

Categories
This Film Is More Than 100 Years Old

Fantasmagorie (1908) / Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908) / Un drame chez les fantoches (1908)

Fantasmagorie, Le cauchemar de Fantoche (The Puppet’s Nightmare) and Un drame chez les Fantoches (The Puppet’s Drama) are three early animated films, all directed by the groundbreaking Emile Cohl, a French artist and animator who was once a member of the Incoherents art movement, an excellently named precursor of the Surrealists.

Both Fantasmagorie (pictured above) and Le cauchemar de Fantoche (pictured below) are essentially a constant stream of visual improvisations, as the simple stick figures and line drawings transform and morph unpredictably through a series of surrealist imagery and interactions for a couple of minutes. They’re utterly wonderful.

That same year, Emile Cohl followed these up with Un drame chez les fantoches, a slightly more complex cartoon, in terms of plot, at least, in that it actually has a story. Unfortunately, it loses something in terms of the sheer energy and imagination of his first two, although it still has a couple of nice sequences in it, too (like the wonderful snake, shown below, which looks fairly like the sort of creature I like to draw).

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Notes

1. I watched all of these on youtube – Fantasmagorie here, Le cauchemar de Fantoche here, and Un drame chez les fantoches here.

2. Although Fantasmagorie is often said to be the first fully animated film, I’m pretty sure the “fully animated” distinction is added only so everyone can talk about this rather than the deadeningly awful Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces, which was directed a couple of years earlier by J. Stuart Blackton.

3. And which Fantasmagorie is clearly inspired by.

4. It’s strange how many early cartoons had to have a bit showing the illustrators hands drawing the first image at the start.

5. Presumably so you understood it was a cartoon and not some sort of dream come to life.

6. Fantasmagorie and Le cauchemar de Fantoche also remind me a lot of Dipdap, which I really love.

7. I wish I was an Incoherent.

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Film Information

Title: Fantasmagorie
Director: Emile Cohl
Year: 1908
Duration: 2 minutes

Title: Le cauchemar de Fantoche
Director: Emile Cohl
Year: 1908
Duration: 2 minutes

Title: Un drame chez les fantoches
Director: Emile Cohl
Year: 1908
Duration: 3 minutes

Title: Humorous Phases Of Funny Faces
Director: J. Stuart Blackton
Year: 1906
Duration: 3 minutes

Categories
This Film Is 100 Years Old

Feline Follies (1919)

Feline Follies is a short cartoon, directed by Pat Sullivan (or possibly Otto Messmer), and widely credited as being the first Felix The Cat cartoon (even though the cat in this is called Master Tom).

Feline Follies tells the heartwarming story of Master Tom, who romances a neighbouring cat called Miss Kitty White, gets her pregnant, then commits suicide rather than help bring up his huge litter of children.

Unlike in later Felix The Cat shorts, where he gets into increasingly elaborate and surreal adventures, here the setting is pretty prosaic, and there’s only really one playful visual gag in the whole cartoon, when Tom and Miss Kitty use the musical notes from Tom’s guitar playing to make themselves little cars to drive away in.

That scene is by far the best section of Feline Follies, where Miss Kitty dances to Master Tom’s guitar playing, while a group of mischievous mice take advantage of Tom’s absence to cause havoc in his empty home.

Interestingly, the animation and composition of the scenes gets more complex as the film progresses, almost like you’re watching them getting better and more confident at animating in real time.

While the first few scenes are all static short shots in a fixed environment, half way through the scene where Tom caterwauls his love on the back fence, they add cuts between different shots (although still with static backgrounds for each different shot).

Next we get two different scenes intercut with each other, switching back and forth between Tom and Miss Kitty dancing by the bins, while the mice are trashing Tom’s house behind his back. By the last scene, there’s a camera pan to reveal Tom’s kittens, and then a scrolling background as he escapes his responsibilities across the countryside.

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Notes

1. I watched this on youtube, in a version without any soundtrack. There’s plenty of soundtracked versions around, too, if you want.
2. Although this is often said to be the first Felix The Cat cartoon, the earlier Pat Sullivan short, The Tail of Thomas Kat (1917), might well have been the first.
3. Even though he was called Thomas then.
4. But unfortunately that’s a lost film, so no-one can check it to find out.

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Film Information

Title: Feline Follies
Directors: Pat Sullivan, Otto Messmer
Year: 1919
Duration: 4 minutes
Related Articles: Feline Follies (wikipedia article), which has a decent discussion of the authorship dispute about who actually directed this.

Categories
This Film Is 100 Years Old

Press (1919)

Press is a minute long piece of film showing a printing press going through its motions as it’s being set up for that night’s print run.

There’s not much here to review in the traditional sense, obviously, as it’s just a tiny snippet of documentary footage, but that doesn’t really matter. There is a beauty in the movement, a wonder in the slowness. And that’s enough.

One of the things I like about film is that pointing a camera at something and just letting it watch it exist, or occur, forces you, as a viewer, to really look at it. This narrowing of focus, this stripping away of distractions, somehow seems to elongate time, so that a minute of film stretches out more than a minute ever should, or ever would, imbuing it with a depth and density it might not usually have.

I do not know why.

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Notes

1. Another film watched via the BFI Player – Press
2. If you also like silent, wordless, minute long looks at things, you might be interested in watching some of my minute at a time series of videos
3. Although of course you might not be

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Film Information

Title: Press
Year: 1919
Duration: 1 minute

Categories
This Film Is More Than 100 Years Old

To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly (1909)

To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly is a very short educational film (it’s only a minute long), made using stop-motion animation to explain how spiders travel across unexpectedly large distances. It was directed by F. Percy Smith, a naturalist and photographer who helped pioneer the use of many now-familiar film-making techniques, such as time-lapse sequences.

I love spiders and I love stop-motion creatures and I utterly love this. What a wonderful thing.

And a hundred and ten years old.

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Notes

1. I watched this, yes, via the BFI Player – To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly
2. I think this may be my favourite thing
3. I just wish I’d seen it earlier so I could have incorporated this knowledge into Spiders Are Wonderful (multiple winner of the factual book of the year award in 2011).

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Film Information

Title: To Demonstrate How Spiders Fly
Director: F. Percy Smith
Year: 1909
Runtime: 1 minute

Categories
This Film Is More Than 100 Years Old

The “?” Motorist (1906) / The Automatic Motorist (1911)

The “?” Motorist is a pretty wonderful 3-minute long comedy sketch made in 1906 by WR Booth, an early pioneer in so-called “trick” films, where camera tricks and special effects were used to create breathtaking, impossible, visuals.

The “?” Motorist is a delight. It’s quick, funny, perfectly paced, with a strangely beautiful space interlude and a great final joke. The only downside is that it has a frightening moon with a terrifying face, as was the style at the time.

Then, five years later, he decided to make it again, but this time with a robot driving the car.

The Automatic Motorist, despite the robot, is unfortunately worse in almost every way. In typical reboot style, there’s more stuff, and almost all of it worse, so this is longer, slower, with worse jokes, and any number of shots that go on too long.

There is a, though, really lovely scene where they drive along the bottom of a lake and look at all the delightful newts swimming around, which I found really beautiful.

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Notes

1. I watched both of these on the BFI player – The “?” Motorist; The Automatic Motorist
2. Neither of those versions have music, but you can probably find versions with a score on youtube.
3. And many thanks to Vom Vorton for telling me to watch The “?” Motorist, as it was excellent.

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Film Information

Title: The “?” Motorist
Director: WR Booth
Year: 1906
Runtime: 3 minutes

Title: The Automatic Motorist
Director: WR Booth
Year: 1911
Runtime: 6 minutes