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This Film Is 100 Years Old

Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari (1920)

Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari is a silent horror film, directed by Robert Wiene and starring Conrad Veidt, about an insane hypnotist causing havoc in a small German town.

It is, of course, 100 years old. It’s also utterly wonderful in almost every way.

One of the most famous and influential films of the period, Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari looks amazing. Everything is really beautifully shot and staged, and the costumes and make-up are brilliant throughout. The sets especially are incredible, all weird oblique lines and strange forced perspectives, which help create a strangely disconcerting and unsettling atmosphere throughout.

The style of it reminded me quite a bit of the 1928 version of The Fall Of The House Of Usher (directed by and viewable here), which obviously came afterwards, but then that’s the problem with watching films throughtout your life with no attempt to make sure you view them in chronological order of release – you almost always end up seeing the influenced things before their influences.

Also, now that I think about it, it strikes me as slightly odd that so few films (not just then, but now, too) look like this, to be honest, when you consider how visually striking both these films are. But the curse of realism is especially strong in films, unfortunately, and this sort of heightened surrealistic construction of image has been rejected almost entirely in favour of something much more mundane in composition.

(I am trying to think of a modern equivalent, really, that uses similarly theatrical and obviously constructed sets, and the best I can think of is probably Bunny And The Bull. Although no doubt once I finish writing this I’ll think of several hundred more and this point will be utterly redundant.)

Anyway, in conclusion, I loved this. You should watch it.

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Notes

1. I watched this on DVD (Eureka Video, 2000)

2. It was from a 1996 restoration, and included a specially composed (and wonderfully atmospheric) score by Timothy Brock

3. There’s a version of this on Amazon Prime, but it seems to be 20 minutes shorter, so I don’t know what’s missing from that.

4. A lot, presumably.

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Film Information

Title: Das Cabinet Des Dr Caligari
Director: Robert Wiene
Year: 1920
Duration: 72 minutes
Watch: youtube; archive.org

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This Film Is 100 Years Old

Manufacture Of Stilton Cheese (1920) / Cheese Mites (1903) / The Unclean World (1903)

Manufacture Of Stilton Cheese is a short look at the process of making cheese, filmed in 1920 by Charles Urban, who was a fairly important figure in the history of British film, especially in documentary and educational film-making.

Manufacture Of Stilton Cheese itself is fairly unremarkable, unless you like watching films of industrial processes (which I do), in which case it’s wonderful. I especially like the scene where the huge rolls of cheese are dressed in their muslin rags, which I found quite beautiful, and oddly funereal.

The main reason I’m reviewing it, though, is it led me to another film about cheese, made by Charles Urban (and F. Martin Duncan, who also plays the man with a magnifying glass in the picture below) in 1903, almost 20 years before.

The wonderful Cheese Mites was part of a series of ground-breaking (and incredibly popular) educational films which used microscopic photography to show the absolute horrors lurking all around us, just out of sight.

The scenes of the cheese mites crawling across the lens are pleasantly revolting, and still just as creepily unsettling (or not, depending on the strength of your constitution) now as they undoubtedly were then. (I don’t know if the horror of this was so great it took Charles Urban fully 17 years to recover the strength to ever film any cheese again, but I’m going to assume so.)

The Unseen World series was so popular they played for almost a year at the cinema in London. They also inspired The Unclean World, a parodic remake of Cheese Mites directed by Percy Stow later that year.

The format of the film is identical to Cheese Mites, building up to a charming punchline which I liked a lot (and which is spoiled behind this link here, if you can’t watch the film itself for some reason but still want to see the end).

And that’s everything I know about 100 year old cheese.

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Notes

1. I watched all of these on the BFI Player – Manufacture Of Stilton Cheese; Cheese Mites; The Unclean World.

2. Other titles in The Unseen World series, alongside Cheese Mites, were Circulation of Blood in a Frog’s Foot, and Red Sludge Worms

3. Although quite disappointingly I haven’t been able to find them anywhere yet.

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Film Information

Title: Manufacture Of Stilton Cheese
Director: Charles Urban
Year: 1920
Duration: 2 minutes
Watch: BFI Player

Title: Cheese Mites
Director: Charles Urban and F. Martin Duncan
Year: 1903
Duration: 2 minutes
Watch: BFI Player

Title: The Unclean World
Director: Percy Stow
Year: 1903
Duration: 2 minutes
Watch: BFI Player

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This Film Is 100 Years Old

The Scarecrow (1920)

The Scarecrow is a 20-minute Buster Keaton comedy (co-directed with Edward F. Cline) from 1920, in which Buster Keaton eats lunch, runs away from a dog, and also pretends to be a scarecrow for about 10 seconds.

The film is essentially two entirely separate parts. The first part, in which Buster Keaton and his flatmate have lunch in a tiny house filled with mechanical space-saving contraptions, is utterly brilliant (and very reminiscent of Wallace and Gromit’s elaborate living arrangements).

The second part, in which Buster Keaton and his flatmate pursue the farmer’s daughter’s hand in marriage, while her father, and also the farmer’s incredibly excellent dog, try to chase them away, isn’t quite as good, but it’s still pretty fun.

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Notes

1. I watched this on youtube here

2. The utterly amazing dog in this is Luke, who is so wonderful he even has his own wikipedia page.

3. This was his last film

4. Although he lived for another 6 years in retirement.

5. So please don’t be too sad.

6. This is one of five Buster Keaton films from 1920, so hopefully I’ll watch all of them sometime soon.

7. Also thanks again to Vom Vorton for recommending this one to me.

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Film Information

Title: The Scarecrow
Directors: Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline
Year: 1920
Duration: 20 minutes
Watch: youtube

Categories
This Film Is 100 Years Old

Coves And Caves (1920)

Claude Friese-Greene, who directed Nude Woman By Waterfall, was best known for his travelogues, of which Coves and Caves is an early example.

Coves and Caves is essentially a series of moving postcards, showing various landmarks and places round Cornwall, and I found it quite charming (no doubt helped by the way they’re all places within twenty minutes or so of where my brother and his family live).

There’s a whimsical lightness about it all that’s genuinely endearing.

And I really hope this baby is now 100 years old.

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Notes

1. I watched this on the BFI player here

2. Coves and Caves is the fourth part of a series, although I haven’t been able to find the others yet.

3. The Trevose Head lighthouse section is pretty incredible. I assume it’s not the first commercial aerial photography section on film, but it must be pretty close.

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Film Information

Title: Coves And Caves
Director: Claude Friese-Greene
Year: 1920
Duration: 12 minutes
Watch: BFI Player; youtube

Categories
This Film Is 100 Years Old

Nude Woman By Waterfall (1920)

An ethereal spirit fades into existence on a cliff high above the sea. Lost and alone, she falls to her knees, and prays for release. Her wish granted, she fades away into nothingness.

Yet her release is only temporary. She returns, trapped in a loop, her body locked into motion as surely as a train on a track, repeating, against her will her gestures and her poses, even her prayers.

Except now her prayers aren’t for release, but understanding.

A jolt of memory, a split second vision. Hands on her shoulders, instructions in her ear. Her actions repeated and repeated until they reach the perfection of his demands. Until she stops being a person and becomes a vision.

Just not a vision of her choosing. A vision of his.

Now she begs for forgetfulness. But it is too late. There is no turning back. Memory forms by repetition. Understanding grows through memory.

And so she realises, slowly, the full horror of her existence,

This eternal torment

an unremembered ghost trapped in someone else’s dream.

And so, she dreams.

She dreams.

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Notes

1. I watched this on the BFI player here.

2. Nude Woman By Waterfall was directed by Claude Friese-Greene in 1920.

3. Claude Friese-Greene is best known for his travelogues, especially his 1926 film The Open Road, which was filmed using an early colour process developed by him and his father, William Friese-Greene.

4. I assume this was test footage, rather than anything meant for release at the time.

5. I watched this while listening to Messy Hearts by Moon Ate The Dark, which worked pretty well together.

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Film Information

Title: Nude Woman By Waterfall
Director: Claude Friese-Greene
Year: 1920
Duration: 12 minutes
Watch: BFI; youtube (extract only)

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 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.

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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 100 Years Old

Oh’phelia: A Cartoon Burlesque (1919)

Oh’phelia: A Cartoon Burlesque is a strangely charmless comedic version of Hamlet, directed and written by the humourist and animator Anson Dyer.

I think pretty much every joke falls flat here, not helped by the stilted pace of the animation. As with all things like this, maybe it’s just because I’m too far removed from the time to actually get any of them. But then again, when you watch some of his other cartoons, such as the cutting political satire shown off in Peter’s Picture Poems (1917), maybe Anson Dyer was just a tediously unfunny hack.

There is an excellent bit where a crow graphically eats a snail, though, and I did like this caption, too, so it’s not all awful.

The dog’s pretty cute too.

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Notes

1. I watched this on the free section of the BFI’s website, here: Oh’phelia: A Cartoon Burlesque
2. There are quite a few other things of his there as well.
3. Including another Shakespeare one, which I’ll presumably watch next year some time. And then immediately regret.
4. Also this has a moon with a face on it. I’m quite scared of moons with faces on them, and always will be.

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Film Information

Title: Oh’phelia: A Cartoon Burlesque
Director: Anson Dyer
Year: 1919
Runtime: 10 minutes

Title: Peter’s Picture Poems
Director: Anson Dyer
Year: 1917
Runtime: 3m minutes