Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre [Star Theatre]

(USA 1901)

Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre is a silent film that records the demolition of the Star Theatre at Broadway and 13th in the East Village more than a hundred years ago. F.S. Armitage shot the whole thing from across the street over the course of a month using time-lapse photography. The finished product is sped up in really fast motion. Then it’s put in reverse so that what just happened is taken back.

Hard to believe, but Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre, which is not even two minutes long, was shown commercially in theaters. I can’t imagine anyone being all that interested in it, but mmmkay. To be fair, I suspect the technique was revolutionary for its time. Theaters were given the gimmicky option of setting the order to either Building Up then Demolish, or Demolish then Building Up. So, the words “Demolishing” and “Building Up” in the title can be rearranged and still be accurate.

Obviously, this film offers no narrative other than knocking down a building. One cool thing: all the work is done by hand. Another thing: New York City apparently didn’t give any thought to public safety, as I don’t see any barricades; the sidewalk and street are open to traffic.

Archival footage tends to spur research on my part, and this is no exception. The building in the foreground is a Roosevelt project from 1893 that was just restored ten years ago (http://daytoninmanhattan.blogspot.com/2010/12/893-roosevelt-building-839-841-broadway.html). It looks pretty much the same today (https://www.google.com/maps/place/841+Broadway,+New+York,+NY+10003/@40.7341524,-73.9913362,3a,75y,106.41h,100.81t/data=!3m6!1e1!3m4!1sdooWdqOlfZTAhAuf6Kjx-Q!2e0!7i13312!8i6656!4m5!3m4!1s0x89c25998fb0fefb9:0xe2533a21e4f56d2f!8m2!3d40.7342965!4d-73.9912195). Even better, the Star Theatre was owned and operated by James W. and Lester Wallack, brothers who created what was regarded as the best theater company in America at its time (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wallack%27s_Theatre). Today, a Regal Cinema stands where the Star Theatre did.

The Library of Congress has a better print online, so watch that one.

In 2002, the United States Library of Congress deemed Demolishing and Building Up the Star Theatre “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

Distribution: American Mutoscope and Biograph Company

2 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube / Library of Congress) C

https://www.loc.gov/item/00694388

Roller Coaster Rabbit

(USA 1990)

I saw Dick Tracy during its original theatrical run, and I don’t remember a Roger Rabbit cartoon with it. Then again, I don’t remember tee shirt tickets, either. So, what do I know?

Directed by Rob Minkoff and Frank Marshall, Roller Coaster Rabbit is essentially a Warner Brothers cartoon — right down to the logo at the beginning. Roger Rabbit (Charles Fleischer) is left to babysit Baby Herman (Lou Hirsch) at a county fair while his mother (April Winchell) goes off and … does something else. I don’t know what.

A red balloon is the impetus for the insanity: Baby Herman drags Roger into a series of painful mishaps involving darts, gunshots, cogs, a roller coaster, and a grazing bull (Frank Welker) whose nuts become an object of Baby Herman’s curiosity. The story is a group project: Bill Kopp, Kevin Harkey, Lynne Naylor, and Patrick A. Ventura all contribute. Clearly, they’ve seen their share of ‘40s and ‘50s cartoons. There’s even a cameo by Droopy (Corey Burton). I respect that. Roller Coaster Rabbit is a fun piece of fluff.

With Kathleen Turner, Charlie Adler

Production: Touchstone Pictures, Amblin Entertainment

Distribution: Buena Vista Pictures

7 minutes
Rated PG

(Music Box) B-

Chicago Film Society

Pass the Gravy

(USA 1928)

Every now and then, I come across a literary or artistic work from the past that makes me reevaluate its day as maybe a little cooler than I gave it credit for. The silent gem Pass the Gravy is one such work. It’s longer than it needs to be, but it exhibits a twisted sense of humor that I love.

Schultz (Bert Sprotte) and Davidson (Max Davidson) are next door neighbors who don’t get along. Schultz, a well-dressed pompous ass, raises chickens that constantly eat the seeds Davidson, a far less dapper man, plants in his backyard. Schultz’s prize-winning pet rooster, Brigham, makes him, shall we say, cockproud.

When Schultz’s son (Gene Morgan) and Davidson’s daughter (Martha Sleeper) announce their engagement, the two older gentlemen reluctantly agree to set aside their differences and celebrate the occasion with a fine feast. Davidson gives his conniving son, Ignatz (Spec O’Donnell), two bucks to go buy a chicken. Instead, Ignatz pockets the money and steals a bird from Schultz’s yard — it’s Brigham.

The two families sit down at the table. Ignatz realizes what he’s done when he notices a tag that says “1st Prize” hanging off one of the roasted bird’s drumsticks. Hilarity ensues as one by one, each guest at the table realizes what Ignatz did and tries to hide it from Schultz.

Produced by Hal Roach (Our Gang, Laurel and Hardy) and directed by Fred Guiol with Leo McCarey, Pass the Gravy sounds like something Family Guy made up. It’s not: it’s real, and it’s actually pretty funny — if only for Davidson’s well played reaction that has to be seen to be appreciated and Schultz’s morbidly ironic quips (“They act like it’s a funeral” and “It’s my chicken and I’m going to eat it!”).

A football pantomime toward the end is shaky, and the joke here wears thin before the whole thing is over. Still, even with its antiquated slapstick silliness, Pass the Gravy is solid humor.

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed Pass the Gravy “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

Production: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Distribution: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

27 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B-

A Trip to the Moon [Le Voyage dans la lune]

(France 1902)

I’m guessing that a large number of people recognize a particular still from A Trip to the Moon — the one of the “spaceship” lodged into the moon’s “eye” like a bullet. I’m also guessing that a large number of people have never seen the film. I was one of them — until this afternoon.

Written and directed by French film pioneer Georges Méliès, A Trip to the Moon is a lot cooler than I expected. Imaginative and surprisingly sophisticated, it’s downright cinematic in the way it approaches its subject matter and tells its story. Méliès demonstrates far greater artistic and dramatic flair than his American contemporaries, at least from what I’ve seen.

In a Medieval chamber, a wise old astronomer (Méliès) proposes traveling to the moon, only to be scoffed at by his colleagues (Victor André, Brunnet, Henri Delannoy, Depierre, Farjaut, Kelm). Undeterred, he shows them how it will work. Soon, they’re heading for outer space in a vessel that looks like a big bullet fired with a cannon from the rooftops of Paris.

The astronomers land on the moon and deboard their “space bullet” — no need for space suits, of course. They set up camp. As they sleep, celestial bodies like a comet, the Big Dipper, and Saturn all appear in the night sky. A moon goddess (Bleuette Bernon) makes it snow. They awake and encounter huge mushrooms and insect-like aliens — played by acrobats in tights and a mask — that explode on impact. A mob of aliens captures them and takes them to the leader. The astronomers escape and flee to their capsule, aliens pursuing them. Will they get back to Earth safely?

I found A Trip to the Moon charming. It’s got a nifty surreal Alice in Wonderland meets 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea vibe. It’s theatrical and visually stunning, especially the hand tinted color — yes, color — version. The attention to detail is, in a word, heavenly.

Méliès was a wealthy Paris shoemaker who longed to be an artist. He ultimately sold his share of the family business to his brothers and bought a theater, where he performed magic shows (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Méliès). A demonstration of a cinematograph, a combination camera/projector/printer (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cinematograph), in 1895 sparked his interest in film. He’s considered a sci-fi groundbreaker.

With Jeanne d’Alcy, François Lallement, Jules-Eugène Legris

Production: Star Film Company

Distribution: Star Film Company (France), American Mutoscope & Biograph (USA), Edison Manufacturing Company (USA), S. Lubin (USA), Kleine Optical Company (USA), Niels Le Tort (Sweden), The Royal Wonder Bio (Slovenia)

13 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) A

The Great Train Robbery

(USA 1903)

The Great Train Robbery is another early narrative film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by Edwin S. Porter. Unlike Life of an American Fireman earlier the same year, this one looks like a movie: it has a title card, a cast that acts (even if it’s humorously overdramatic), and a more complicated plot — though it’s still pretty simple.

The focus is clearly on telling a story, and on that level it works: a bunch of bandits (Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson, Justus D. Barnes, John Manus Dougherty Sr., Frank Hanaway, Adam Charles Hayman) rob a passenger train and are pursued over it. The action is parsed out more thoughtfully, no doubt for dramatic effect. The settings change, and a lot more characters are involved. Plus, the very last scene is clever — it’s a bit Hitchcockian.

In 1990, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Great Train Robbery “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With A.C. Abadie, George Barnes, Walter Cameron, Donald Gallaher, Shadrack E. Graham, Morgan Jones, Tom London, Robert Milasch, Marie Murray, Mary Snow

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

11 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C

Life of an American Fireman 

(USA 1903)

The National Film Registry has some weird shit on it. Life of an American Fireman is a good example. An early “narrative” film produced by Thomas Edison and directed by George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter, who worked on other Edison film projects, this one depicts the dangerous work of firemen.

Life of an American Fireman doesn’t waste time or expense on things life title cards or credits. It begins with a fireman (Arthur White) dreaming about his wife and kids, shown in an onscreen thought bubble. He is awakened by the sound of the bell — not that we hear it — because oh, Lord Jesus, it’s a fire! It’s not entirely clear, but it looks like the fire is at his house.

This film is interesting from a historical perspective, and it shows some nice exterior shots of suburban New York or New Jersey. It’s also neat how the aforementioned thought bubble is composed as well as how the action is depicted from various viewpoints — in and outside the house. The fake smoke is a nice detail. Other than that, Life of an American Fireman is a snooze — about as thrilling as watching a fax go through. Thankfully, programming has come a long way.

In 2016, the United States Library of Congress deemed Life of an American Fireman “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Vivian Vaughan, James H. White

Production: Edison Manufacturing Company

Distribution: Edison Manufacturing Company, Kleine Optical Company

7 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) D

The Immigrant

(USA 1917)

The Immigrant is quintessential Charlie Chaplin: funny, cute, and touching, it entertains while criticizing the social conditions of the day — here, the treatment of immigrants in “the Land of Liberty.” You decide whether all that much has changed in a hundred years.

Written and directed by Chaplin, The Immigrant follows his Tramp character on a boat bound for the States. He meets a fellow passenger, a beautiful young woman (Edna Purviance) traveling with her mother (Kitty Bradbury), and he has the perfect “in” when money is stolen from her purse. Sparks fly, but unfortunately the two potential love birds are separated by U.S. Customs agents as soon as they reach New York Harbor.

Once in the New World, the Immigrant has some trouble making ends meet. He finds a quarter on the ground one dreary afternoon and heads to a restaurant where a hostile head waiter (Eric Campbell) gives him a hard time. By chance, he sees the young woman from the boat and invites her to his table for beans and coffee (yuck!). Soon realizing that the quarter slipped through a hole in his pocket, he tries to impress her while stalling on the check to avoid ejectment.

The Immigrant starts off rocky — literally: the boat rocks back and forth, lending itself to some nice physical comedy with passengers sliding across the floor, juggling moves, and dishes sliding across a table. Thankfully, the rocking stops just before it becomes annoying. The scene in the restaurant is fascinating both for the character development and the physical choreography. This is a sweet story, an early romcom with a happy ending — and it’s downright charming a century later.

In 1998, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Immigrant “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Albert Austin, Henry Bergman, Loyal Underwood, William Gillespie, James T. Kelly, John Rand, Frank J. Coleman, Tom Harrington, Janet Miller Sully, Tom Wilson, Tiny Sandford

Production: The Lone Star Film Corporation

Distribution: Mutual Film Corporation

24 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) B+

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle

(USA 1915)

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle was a huge (no pun intended) but beleaguered star in the early 20th Century. He had a tough life and he died young (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle). After a start in vaudeville, he became one of Hollywood’s first movie stars, quickly negotiating a deal worth a million dollars a year plus a quarter of the profits from his films (https://www.thehairpin.com/2012/02/scandals-of-classic-hollywood-the-destruction-of-fatty-arbuckle/). On top of it, he got total artistic control.

It all came to a screeching halt when a young alcoholic actress died after a hotel party he threw, and he was accused of rape. It was Hollywood’s first big scandal, and it ended his career (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-skinny-on-the-fatty-arbuckle-trial-131228859/).

Incidentally, that hotel party occurred in San Francisco exactly 96 years ago on the day after this post.

Today, I saw my first Fatty Arbuckle film — and it only took me 108 years (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roscoe_Arbuckle_filmography). I had a loose idea of what to expect but I wasn’t quite sure. Fatty’s Tintype Tangle is familiar and not too crazy, the cinematic equivalent of something that tastes like chicken.

WARNING: Potential spoilers ahead!

A slapstick farce, Fatty’s Tintype Tangle tells of a husband (Arbuckle) whose mother-in-law (Mai Wells) nags the shit out of him. He and his wife (Norma Nichols) laugh at her behind her back. After getting liquored up in the kitchen while cooking breakfast, Fatty tells off his mother-in-law and either throws her ass out of his house or upsets her to the point that she gets up and goes — it’s hard to say.

Fatty goes to the park, where he sits on a bench next to a woman (Louise Fazenda) whose husband (Edgar Kennedy) momentarily leaves her to go do something — the scene card tells us they’re Alaskan “homeseekers,” whatever that is. They seem down and out, staying at an obviously low rent room and board. A photographer (Glen Cavender) snaps their picture — hence the “tintype” in the title — which isn’t cool because, well, they’re both married. The husband returns, mistakes Fatty for a creep, and threatens to kill him if he doesn’t leave town.

Fatty runs home and packs his bags — including his booze. He tells his wife he’s going on a business trip. Despondent, she answers an ad in the paper from someone seeking an apartment. She rents out the house and apparently moves in with her mother. Turns out, her tenants are the Alaskan couple. Doh!

Fatty misses his train and goes home. Unbeknownst to him, the Alaskan woman is in his bathroom. Hilarity ensues.

Fatty’s Tintype Tangle has all the elements of early comedy, a lot of it cliché now: misunderstandings, the hapless henpecked male, a slip and fall on a banana peel, gunshots to the ass, even Keystone cops. The only thing missing is a pie in the face. A rather cool extended scene features Arbuckle climbing up a pole and running across power lines. I was impressed to see him doing his own stunts; he was surprisingly limber for such a big guy.

Slapstick isn’t my favorite form of entertainment, but this is solid physical comedy even if it’s hard to follow at points. The version I saw had no sound at all, which was a bummer — hearing myself breathe adds nothing to the experience.

In 1995, the United States Library of Congress deemed Fatty’s Tintype Tangle “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Frank Hayes, Joe Bordeaux, Bobby Dunn, Ted Edwards, Charles Lakin

Production: Keystone Film Company

Distribution: Mutual Film Corporation

27 minutes
Not rated

(YouTube) C+

Lonesome [Solitude]

(USA 1928)

The promotional poster touts something “New! Different! Refreshing!” It sounds like soda, but it’s not: it’s Lonesome, a real charmer that still works as it nears its centennial.

Music Box Theatre screened a crisp restored 35mm print of Paul Fejos’s Lonesome for Reel Film Day, a countrywide event honoring films of the almost abandoned format (https://drafthouse.com/event/reel-film-day). The program was a double feature that included the Adam Sandler vehicle Punch Drunk. I didn’t stick around so I can’t comment on Punch Drunk, but Lonesome was an excellent choice.

Mary (Barbara Kent), a telephone operator for Ma Bell, and Jim (Glenn Tyron), a punch press operator in a factory, are two young working stiffs in the Big Apple. Both live alone in small rented room (not together—there’d be no movie then), and participate in an urban rat race that actually looks busier and grungier than what we have today.

Clearly, the film predates the standard five-day work week: the calendar in Mary’s room indicates that the day is Saturday, July 3. As Mary and Jim finish their respective jobs, which Fejos shows in a narrative that goes back and forth between the two, their work friends invite them to join in their weekend plans. Mary and Jim both see immediately that they’ll be the odd one out, as all of their friends are paired up. Both politely decline, going home dejectedly without any plans.

After they each see the same marching band advertising a cheap carriage ride to Coney Island, Mary and Jim end up going there solo on the same trip. They meet at the beach, and a modest flitration ensues. He tells her he’s a millionaire, and she tells him she’s a princess. They get along well, and commence an impromptu date, walking around, playing carnival games, and dancing. A fortune teller (Fred Esmelton) reveals that Mary has already met the man who will become her husband.

Mary and Jim get separated after a mishap on a rollercoaster. The problem is, they each have a tiny picture of the other from a photo booth and they only know each other’s first name. Finding each other in the throngs of people at the park that evening is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Have they lost each other before they even had a chance?

Edward T. Lowe, Jr. and Tom Reed adapt a cute story by Mann Page; it’s a simple yet clever plot. Despite its age, one point in Lonesome still rings loud and clear and true: connecting in the big city is harder than it looks. We all get wrapped up in the daily stuff of our lives, and we tend to overlook what’s right in front of us. Kent and Tyron are both adorable. Gilbert Warrenton’s kinetic camerawork captures a lot in the background, and it makes the shots at Coney Island especially fun to watch.

Lonesome features two or three abruptly placed “talking” scenes—the film was made when sound was a new thing—and the dialogue is laughably awful. There are also a few color tinted night shots: marquee lights, fireworks, stars. It’s really cheesy. That said, these are short, minor disruptions that don’t detract from enjoying this film for all its silent era charisma.

In 2010, the United States Library of Congress deemed Lonesome “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

With Fay Holderness, Gusztáv Pártos, Eddie Phillips, Andy Devine, Edgar Dearing

Production: Universal Pictures Corporation/Universal Pictures (USA)

Distribution: Universal Pictures Corporation/Universal Pictures (USA), European Motion Picture Company (UK), The Criterion Collection (DVD)

75 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Reel Film Day: A Celebration of 35mm Cinema

https://www.criterion.com/films/28212-lonesome

http://www.imdb.com/video/screenplay/vi389587993/

The Kid

(USA 1921)

I must confess that I never saw a Charlie Chaplin film until The Kid, his first full-length feature—he wrote, produced, directed, and starred in it. He also composed the score, something I didn’t know silent movies had; I guess I assumed organ players picked their own music to accompany films in those days. It’s a small miracle that The Kid made it out in one piece, as its production faced some financing difficulties (http://about.bankofamerica.com/en-us/our-story/making-of-charlie-chaplins-the-kid.html#fbid=eIQZsBMJxKN) and its release was entangled in Chaplin’s divorce proceedings and studio double-dealing. It was a huge success, becoming the second-highest grossing film of 1921 (http://www.filmsite.org/1921.html) (http://www.wikiwand.com/en/The_Kid_(1921_film) ). It’s easy to see why.

I enjoyed The Kid more than I expected. I was taken aback at how well this film, nearly a century old, works even by today’s standards. It’s a beautifully executed story with elements that seem way ahead of its time. A penniless unmarried woman (Edna Purviance) abandons her illegitimate newborn in the back seat of an expensive Model-T type limo parked in front of a mansion. Two gangsters who steal the limo pull over and dump the baby among some trash in an alley when they discover him crying. The tramp (Chaplin) happens upon him. After a few failed attempts to pawn off the baby on someone else, he finds a note inside his blanket, begging whoever finds him “to love and care for this orphan child.” The tramp takes him in, names him “John,” and raises him as his own in the tenement where he lives.

Five years pass. The tramp has taught John (Jackie Coogan, who later in life would play Uncle Fester on The Addams Family) how to help him eke a living off a window repair scam. By now, the woman is a rich performer who does charity work to help the poor. She crosses paths with John, but of course doesn’t realize who he is. The tramp calls a physician (Jules Hanft) when John gets sick and unwittingly sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to separate them when child welfare authorities take custody of John to place him in an orphanage.

The Kid may very well be the first “dramedy” ever; the opening card (this is a silent picture) gets that out up front, revealing it to be “[a] picture with a smile—and perhaps, a tear.” Chaplin’s trademark slapstick is a prominent ingredient, but he infuses serious drama into the story. The opening sequence that tells us about John’s parents is tragic, but it doesn’t compare to the scene in which the child welfare authority agents take John away from the tramp: the kid is in tears, desperately reaching out of the truck for the tramp to rescue him. Soon, the tramp is running after the truck in an intense rooftop chase and ultimately gets to it, pulling John out of the back. You feel every rush of emotion the characters do—amazing considering it’s accomplished without sound or words. Chaplin and Coogan adeptly convey feelings with simple body movements, facial expressions, and their eyes. Even the mundane parts of their day—like making breakfast and getting dressed—ooze a tenderness that emphasizes their bond.

I picked up on a few themes, but two struck me in particular. The first is religion, though I’m not entirely sure how to interpret it. Much of it comes from the hospital at the beginning and the notorious weird dream sequence the tramp has toward the end of the film—I found this scene curious because I’m not sure how it fits into the whole picture. The point could have something to do with a number of things: mercy, the golden rule, resurrection (this film has a few examples of rebirth and reinvention), salvation, hypocrisy, or something else altogether. The second theme is urban poverty; Chaplin is obviously making a statement about it in the way he shows authority figures—cops, child welfare agents, the doctor who turned him in—barging in on his low-status life and throwing it into turmoil.

The Kid is interesting not only for the autobiographical elements Chaplin incorporates, but also for the time period it depicts. The restored print I saw was luminous and crisp, vividly showing details from the sets (bricks on the buildings, dust in the streets, the tramp’s shabby furniture), the textures of the characters’ clothing, and even the skin tone and hair quality of some of the actors. It’s simultaneously cool and mildly creepy. The exteriors, shot mainly in Hollywood and downtown Los Angeles, remarkably capture the look and feel of a grimy Victorian city. An extra bonus was a live organ player at the screening I caught.

Speaking of Los Angeles, many of the filming locations still exist. Here’s a great blog that shows them today: https://silentlocations.wordpress.com/2016/01/09/how-charlie-chaplin-filmed-the-kid-2/.

The Kid is more complex that it looks. It’s thoroughly satisfying on multiple levels: narrative, visual, social, and historical. I’m thrilled I had an opportunity to see it on the big screen.

In 2011, the United States Library of Congress deemed The Kid “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry (https://www.loc.gov/programs/national-film-preservation-board/film-registry/complete-national-film-registry-listing/).

68 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Full movie (with sound):