Friday, March 16, 2012

Four National Film Preservation Foundation shorts

[This post is a teaser for the third annual For the Love of Film blogathon and fundraiser, which will be running from May 13-18. This year, hosts Marilyn Ferdinand, Farran Smith Nehme and Roderick Heath have dedicated the week to Alfred Hitchcock, whose early (non-directorial) work "The White Shadow" will be the beneficiary of any money earned during the event. The following post provides capsules for some of the films currently screening at the National Film Preservation Foundation website's Screening Room. Be sure to donate!]

Ramona is an early D.W. Griffith one-reel short, an adaptation of a novel by Helen Hunt Jackson that dramatized the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout history via an inter-racial love story, not the kind of message movie that one would associate with the future director of Birth of a Nation. A young Spanish girl named Ramona (Mary Pickford) falls in love with a Native American improbably named Alessandro (Henry B. Walthall), with predictably tragic results. The young couple elopes, fleeing her disapproving family, but everywhere they turn, they only encounter "the whites" who keep pushing the Native Americans aside, claiming, "this is our land!" wherever Alessandro and Ramona show up.

The acting is extremely over-the-top: when Ramona is trying to resist her attraction for Alessandro, she sees him playing a guitar, listens briefly, and then recoils in terror, running away with her arms in the air, and throws herself down at an altar to pray. If a title card hadn't already prepared viewers for the fact that she was going to fight against her growing love for the young man, one would be hard-pressed to guess just why she was so suddenly hysterical. There are horror movie heroines who react more sedately to the sight of invading alien monsters. There's lots of hand-waving and dramatic gesticulating here; Ramona's mother (Kate Bruce), reacting with horror to her daughter's dalliance with a Native American, seems to have abruptly contracted epilepsy, her hands shaking and flailing about, locked into claws as she points in random directions all around her head. Most of the cast just runs around through every scene with hands raised, pointing dramatically off towards some unseen point beyond the camera.

This histrionic acting style aside, the film is well-directed, and Griffith's staging within the static frame is impeccable. He frequently frames some foreground action against a dramatic natural backdrop of hills and mountains stretching off into the distance, contrasting the human-scale romantic story against the imposing grandeur of the landscape, as though suggesting that this one little story is part of a grander historical struggle. One scene that suggests this especially well is the one where Alessandro's village is destroyed by white settlers who are driving off the natives. Griffith's camera is angled down from a high cliff, looking down at the village in the valley, mostly obscured by clouds of smoke as wagons rush by and the slaughter commences. In the foreground, Alessandro throws his arms around in despair and tears at his hair as a few white cowboys run past with guns drawn, casually killing another Native American man as they pass. These striking compositions provide some interest in an otherwise rather slight film that rushes through its narrative as a series of clipped moments, seemingly under the assumption, very reasonable at the time, that virtually everyone in the audience would have been familiar with the story already.

The Lonedale Operator is a one-reel Western actioner directed by D.W. Griffith and written by future Keystone mastermind Mack Sennett. The film demonstrates Griffith's famous development of suspense-building, cross-cutting action montages, in this case built around a simple scenario of a train station payroll robbery. A young girl (Blanche Sweet) takes over telegraph duties for her sick father, while a pair of criminals plan to steal the payroll bag that's been dropped off into her care. The first half of the very short film builds a little character through some flirtatious sparring between the girl and a train engineer who's courting her, and then the second half settles into a propulsive editing rhythm as the crooks try to break into the telegraph office.

Griffith cuts quickly back and forth from the girl in the office, sending out a message for help, to the criminals trying to break down the door outside, to the engineer rushing to her rescue on his train. The rhythm of the editing gradually speeds up as the criminals get closer to breaking in and the train gets closer to the station. It's a simple but effective way of ratcheting up the tension. The payoff is a nice last-minute gag in which the crooks break in before the rescue party has arrived, but the clever girl manages to outwit the robbers by making them think she has a gun. The ending defuses all the tension with some low-key humor, having the robbers exaggeratedly bow to the girl once they realize they've been outsmarted, and this resolution hints at Sennett's comedic sensibility, abruptly replacing the sense of impending danger with a witty sight gag.

Robert C. Bruce was a premiere director of what were known in the early cinema as "scenics," short documentary travelogues from exotic locales. Bruce's Tropical Nights is a prime example of the genre, the first film released from a 1920 expedition to the Caribbean, where he traveled through the islands and shot numerous brief, poetic, beautifully photographed little slices of reality.

The film is purely about the sensory experience of a locale, presenting one gorgeous, blue-tinted image after another of this tropical island paradise. The photography is lovely: trees swaying in the wind, scenic vistas looking out over the ocean, moonglow rippling on the water, dramatic storm clouds gathering on the horizon, but never any rain. The prosaic title cards only interrupt the poetic flow of these images with bland objective descriptions. Bruce's images hardly require the accompaniment, because there's obviously a keen photographic sensibility to these static views of beautiful natural scenes. People only occasionally enter the shot, but when they do they're often looking off in the same direction as the camera, as awed as the photographer by these lovely views. The presence of these spectators within the film merely confirms the "hey look" attitude of the film, which builds a contemplative mood as it chronicles the progress of the moon across the sky, the gentle flow from sunset to sunrise, with nothing but moody blue beauty in between.

Keystone comedienne Mabel Normand was a prolific comic actress in the silent era, and in 1914-15 she made the transition to director as well, making her one of the earliest female directors in Hollywood. Won In a Closet was her second directorial film (her first is presumed lost) and it's a madcap, silly farce that displays the fledgling director's likeably goofy screen presence and her feel for slapstick. The fluffy little story of Mabel's romance with a dopey-looking neighbor (Charles Avery) is just set-up for the extended sequence where her father and his mother get trapped in a closet together, prompting a ridiculous series of misunderstandings and slapstick pile-ups.

The slapstick is all but completely unmotivated here, with little connection to reality: everyone's just constantly running around, falling on their asses, colliding into each other for no apparent reason, and Normand herself switches on a dime from a sweet, coy young lover to a manic hysteria case. It's all pretty silly, of course, but there is one nice shot along the way, an inventive split-screen in which Mabel and her boyfriend walk towards one another, the two sides of the screen eventually coming together when they wind up on opposite sides of the same tree. That shot suggests a witty visual sensibility that matches Normand's charming screen persona.


Sam Juliano said...

A terrific line-up here Ed. I have not seen these to this point, (I know of LONEDALE OPERATOR) but hope to in the near future. Great upcoming project, wonderful post!

Ed Howard said...

Thanks, Sam. Lonedale Operator is definitely the highlight of these, but it's so cool in general that the NFPF posts these kinds of rare, preserved old films online for anyone to see. I'm looking forward to the blogathon, and to seeing The White Shadow this way once it gets streamed.