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 (

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

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 ( 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 ( 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 (

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 ( 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 (

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 ( 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 (

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

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 ( 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 ( ( ). 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:

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 (

68 minutes
Not rated

(Music Box) A

Full movie (with sound):



(Germany 1927)

I have been aware of Metropolis since the late Eighties—I can’t remember whether Madonna’s “Express Yourself” video or a now defunct industrial dance club by the same name in the equally defunct Cleveland Flats is responsible for bringing it to my attention; if that makes me a rube, so be it. For whatever reason, though, I never bothered to seek it out. I’m glad I finally saw it—Metropolis is a cool film, even as it approaches a century.

It’s a lot more than I thought it would be. The plot is simple enough, as silent era films are: capitalism and technology have run amuck in the future, and the workers live in a drab underground city while the elite live in a bigger and nicer city above ground. The workers, who run the machines that keep the city going, are planning a revolt. Plot aside, Metropolis as a whole is pretty grand. The sets are amazing: big, industrial, and busy, many shots reminded me of the Chicago Loop. The score is textured and soothing—it actually lulled me into a trance at points. The 2010 restoration we saw—it includes 25 minutes of footage assumed lost until uncovered in Argentina in 2008—is gorgeous, giving Metropolis a crisp look that belies its age. Fritz Lang had a lot to say about capitalism, class, technology, science, progress, and even religion—it’s not hard to find scholarly materials online.

What strikes me most about Metropolis is that for as old as it is—everyone in it has been dead for awhile—its vision of the future, while extreme, is really not that far off from reality.

(Gene Siskel Film Center) A