100 American Films to Save: Origins (1883-1932)

You can find the introduction and index for this series here.

Buffalo RunningEadweard Muybridge1883Short
Annabelle Serpentine DanceWilliam Heise and William K.L. Dickson1895Short
Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical LaboratoryJames H. White1897Short
Pan-American Exposition by Night, 1901Edwin S. Porter and James Blair Smith1901Short
Seven ChancesBuster Keaton1925Narrative feature
Sadie ThompsonRaoul Walsh1928Narrative feature
SpeedyTed Wilde1928Narrative feature
Four SonsJohn Ford1928Narrative feature
YamekrawMurray Roth1930Short
The MummyKarl Freund1932Narrative feature

America has two national animals, both of which were driven to the edge of extinction at one time or another. (Somewhere, the ghost of the last passenger pigeon is stomping its foot and cursing that his forbears cut back the lobbying budget.) The bald eagle is the national bird; the bison is the national mammal. At the time that Eadweard Muybridge made his zoopraxograph “Buffalo Running” in 1883, that must have been one sensible bison. By the end of the decade, there were fewer than 600 of the species alive. America’s cranky uncle to the nickelodeon, the zoopraxograph, is not really a type of movie at all. Yet this feels like the right place to start for movies I’d want to save. There’s too much method in this repeated picture of a bison on the run to begin almost anywhere else.

As much as any nation in modern history, America is defined by its motion. In Europe, the nations on today’s map were cleaved together in the 1800s and cleaved apart by savage blows ever since. In this country, it’s not a cleaving but a sprawling that formed the boundaries. With all the pestilence implied in the word, America’s motion is an amoebic one, ragged around the edges like a melanoma. The emigrants, willing or unwilling, have come from every sector of the globe over the past four centuries; meanwhile, Native Americans were made refugees in their own homeland. At the outset of the Civil War, Sam Houston advised against war with the North with prescient words: “when they begin to move in a given direction, they move with the steady momentum and perseverance of a mighty avalanche.” That avalanche momentum is at the heart of any American success, and there is not another animal on the continent which exemplifies that momentum like the bison. A male may weigh a full ton and run at thirty-five miles per hour. I’d rather step in the path of a sedan than a bison; the sedan has brakes.

Muybridge, who fathered a stillborn medium, loved what many moviegoers and even moviemakers of today merely understand. He loved motion. He knew that what set his work apart from the daguerrotypes of his boyhood and the photographs of his contemporaries was the illusion of movement, the sense of action despite the absence of the signified. “Buffalo Running” is the clarion call to American cinema: a people of movement to flock to an art of movement.

The running bison is doing so against a background a little more manufactured than those skies that are not cloudy all day. Yet Muybridge, carnival barking scientist that he was, would have told you (with perfect honesty!) that his carefully arranged track was primarily to clarify the movement of that bison’s stubby legs. “Annabelle Serpentine Dance” is against a black backdrop. The theater has arrived, or at least the burlesque or vaudeville. Movement remains, undulating in on itself rather than trying to escape. The bison runs away in perpetuity, always traveling in the other direction. Annabelle is performing for a camera, entirely sure that she’s at the center of its attention, almost prissy at the end of the film as she tiptoes around the stage. The folds of her dress, tinted and colored for the pleasure of the viewer, are colored in warm colors, foreseeing the intensity of an infrared heat map. The shape of the dress changes throughout, never quite tangled around her body; there is a physical control over this occasionally vaginal shape which exerts itself in pinks and yellows. (It’s been the lifespan of a sixth-grader between “Buffalo Running” and “Annabelle Serpentine Dance,” but already the purpose of looking has changed. The former invites analysis; the second demands wonder.) It’s less a serpentine dance than a nudibranch’s stroll as cinema changes, moving from prairies to the oceans tinted with gold.

Thomas Edison is, if anything, even more self-conscious about the camera than Annabelle. He is no bison, mighty because of the beneficence of God; he is no lovely lady in linens made hypnotic by color corrections. He is a guy in his early fifties from Ohio and living in New Jersey, for heaven’s sake, and neither majesty nor beauty befits him. At twenty-seven seconds into the film, the charlatan supplants the mesmerist. Edison plays the magician with an array of potions rather than the scientist in his laboratory, but then he changes again as he takes off his magic cap and tucks a napkin into his collar. It’s in the way he wiggles his right hand with the relish of someone about to pick the juiciest thigh from a bucket of fried chicken; this is The Sorcerer and John Wellington Wells coming off a hunger fast, not a man on the cusp of the 20th Century doing science. The eye doesn’t know where to focus in “Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory” because of all the white bouncing back. The one time where it feels like we’re supposed to know where to look is in the literal flourish, the movie star standing out from his scene.

Out of these first four, the one I find most beautiful (though this is certainly typical for me) is the one without people. Maybe it doesn’t awe me quite the same way that Judy Garland and company are awed by the World’s Fair in Meet Me in St. Louis, but the line between ghostliness and glitziness in “Pan-American Exposition by Night, 1901” is nonetheless slight.

The film ends with a shot of the Temple of Music illuminated in a stunning darkness. It’s the darkness of another time which would be rejoined about a year later; the Pan-American Exhibition was not made to last. Nor was its presidential visitor, William McKinley, who had been fatally wounded inside the Temple of Music about a month before this footage was taken. The Electric Tower is the standout, which the cameraman must have understood as he filmed it. The pan stops in daytime and starts again in nighttime, ending with the Electric Tower and beginning with it. The change is breathtaking even now, even when I flip on a switch to light up my closet or my kitchen after it gets dark. It doesn’t seem real. The Electric Tower seems to have sprouted in those lights like the pillar of fire that led the Israelites through the desert. The Pan-American Exposition, which was designed and erected to be there one day and gone the next, is emblematic of that American strangeness. Here, we think a century is a long time.

Fifteen minutes, especially in the famous flavor, are plenty for most of us. Almost one hundred years ago (back when the state of Arizona was but a primordial ooze), Seven Chances proves that a day of stress followed by a bare minimum of time famous is enough to just about kill anyone lacking the rubber skeleton and stoical remove of Buster Keaton. I love Seven Chances, a movie which comes in under an hour and uses that brevity to balance an unforgivingly finicky set of scales. On one side, the quality of individual gags taking somewhere between ten and thirty seconds to pay off. On the other, a plot that never infringes on those quicky jokes while maintaining enough story to make the driving force of story hilarious at the end. Maybe it’s less memorable than the image of would-be lynch mob made up of women in mismatching bridal costumes (“Hell hath no fury…”) or Buster Keaton dodging boulders like he’s one of Mario’s luckless antecedents on a side quest, but the pure panic of Jimmy Shannon getting to the house of his intended only to close the gate on his tails is really something. Yankee know-how saves the day, though. A Southron or a Canuck or a furreigner would remove the coat or try to pull the latch from the other side. Jimmy tugs and tugs until the entire gate is removed from the picket fence, a symbol for what happens five years into marriage if ever they made one, and drags it to the door like a ball and chain. For a man to fail to marry in Seven Chances is a comic travesty, a loss of seven million dollars that he didn’t have in the first place. The unmarried woman is no joke. Despoiled women have populated American movies since the early silent features; Tess of the Storm Country, starring that ambulatory baby doll Mary Pickford, would have been my choice for this particular story if it weren’t already in the National Film Registry. Same for Greta Garbo, glorious, in Flesh and the Devil. Enter Sadie Thompson.

Like James Hagan’s play One Sunday Afternoon or Eugene O’Neill’s play Oh, Wilderness!, the basis for this film, the short story “Rain” by W. Somerset Maugham, went through the cycle of making and remaking often in the first half of the century. (Technically this is based on a play based on the Maugham short story too, and even the Maugham short story is just Thais, but like, who’s counting.) There’s a similar inclination to the one we see in the making of new movies with different Spider-Mans or Batmans. Part of it, of course, is the predictable greed in the host of Pardoners who run film studios, but there’s also a pleasure, no matter how much moviegoers grumble, in seeing an adapted version which compares to an original. As an original, Sadie Thompson is gripping stuff. With no disrespect to Gloria Swanson, this is Lionel Barrymore’s film in much the same way that Jules Massenet’s opera belongs to Athanael. Swanson, given her prominence on every poster, holds serve similarly when she has the screen. (Raoul Walsh, who co-starred and directed, is much more memorable for the latter job regarding this picture.) But it’s Barrymore, agonizing and seizing up and praying for some kind of deliverance from the darkness of his shared bedroom and the rain of American Samoa, who raises the level of the film.

Made in the same year and set better than 7,000 miles apart, one placed just about as far from the American pulse as possible and the other living restlessly on a trampoline of heartbeats, this is another film I adore: Speedy. For me, there are two New York movies which you can consider to be the key films about the city. Do the Right Thing is one of them, and probably the right answer. Speedy is the other, and while it typically takes one of those courtesy “we watch stuff from before 1970 too, honest” spots in the 60s and 70s when Time Out and Vulture make their New York lists, that hardly does it justice. I doubt there’s ever been a movie that conveys the brimming motion of New York City like this one does, that speaks to the essential American dreaminess in this city. To borrow from Sondheim and Furth, “he was born in New York, so nothing really interests him.” Anything is possible, but that’s not necessarily an exciting idea; it’s all possible and thus it’s all kind of old hat. Speedy knows that it’s possible to rub shoulders with real celebrity, that at any moment you might share a cab (or nearly kill) Babe Ruth. Speedy knows that the past generations in New York are not just bygone people but still players in the drama. Maybe Speedy is underrated because it’s about a past completely out of memory, or maybe it’s underrated because it recognizes something about New York that isn’t just performative grime.

It’s difficult for us in the present, especially when many of us were raised on movies historical and speculative about World War II, to reckon with how many films there were about World War I in the ’20s and ’30s. Many of them have gone the way of most silent films, and even lovers of classic film tend to leave the silents to devotees. Four Sons, about a woman who loses all but one of her children to World War I, seems pretty standard for the silent WWI movie except for two things. First, it has John Ford behind the camera. Even though Ford’s public-facing persona (and a great deal of his personal self-image) was developed by his experience near the battlefields of World War II, it’s World War I that he made the movies about. Four Sons, Pilgrimage, Men Without Women, What Price Glory: his early films, especially his early sound films, are stocked with stories of people who are living through or dying during the Great War. The inhumanity strikes the humanist, who rarely sees that humanity shine through in the trenches where nothing can even glisten; he finds it on the homefront and especially in the mothers who sent their children to war. The second element that makes Four Sons particularly interesting today is its focus on a German family. One of the four sons immigrates to America and becomes a genuine, entrepreneurial American citizen. When war is declared, he goes over there and finds himself fighting against the nation of his youth as well as the companions of it; his last surviving brother dies in his arms, a moment which is more Biblical than Shakespearean. In the thick of all the torment, the humanity of this German mother, referred to by all the people of her village as “Mother Bernle,” the provider of little meals to desperate children during the starvation of Germany, is unquestioned. Dehumanization of the enemy was the name of the game in so many of the films on World War II, but in this film, protected from critique by ten years’ of distance, Ford finds a humanitarian tragedy as well as first-generation Americans as worthy as his own Irish parents.

When we talk about Black cinema in the United States, the Great Migration does not frequently come up except as implied prologue. The Great Migration is part of Crooklyn and Chi-Raq, of To Sleep with Anger and Beverly Hills Cop, but movies which center the Great Migration as part of the plot are fewer in number. The first one that comes to mind for me is “Yamekraw,” which visualizes the story from a jazz composition of the same name. “Center” might be a slightly strong term for what’s happening in “Yamekraw,” given that the vast majority of this short, including its ending, take place in Georgia. But the film is reflecting Paul Laurence Dunbar and The Sport of the Gods all the same. Like the Hamiltons of the novel, who leave the South for New York City and ultimately return to it out of a kind of necessity, the protagonist of “Yamekraw” heads out for Chicago and rapidly finds himself unsuited to the pace and duplicity of the big city. The train that takes him away is seen head on but canted, a shot that makes the Lumières’ film of the train at La Ciotat journalistic rather than wondrous. The shimmering of the lights in Chicago and the cacophony of the music, to say nothing of the unfaithfulness of the taxi dancers, is stupefying. It takes almost no time at all for the protagonist of the film to head back home as many African-Americans did. Maybe there was opportunity of a kind in a Chicago or Detroit or New York, but to stay there would be to choose a palpitating alienation forever.

Zita Johann plays Helen Grosvenor and her ancient double, the princess Ankh-esen-amun. A number of the memorable stars of Universal horror films, like David Manners and Edward Van Sloan, are here as well. But The Mummy knows where its power stems from: Karloff. Walking stiffly and awkwardly, in his mid-40s already but playing a man revived from thousands of years of catatonia, wearing makeup that makes his face seem like the scaly face of a snake or a bearded dragon, Boris Karloff’s Imhotep does not seem on paper to be a sexual icon. Watch The Mummy and, yes, with help from pioneering cinematographer turned director Karl Freund and Johann’s unnerved eyes and heaving bosom, it’s difficult to name a more erotic performance in American cinema to that point. What are Valentino and Novarro and Fairbanks and Bushman and even Gilbert, men lithe or muscular, with eyes dark or bright, compared to that look that Karloff gives the camera? Eyes made up like he’s trying out to be the sixth member of the Incredibles, each crease in his skin given a few extra creases, Karloff’s eyes are the reflection of light off obsidian. And they want you. (Or Zita Johann, but like, come on.) Movie magic accentuates his face, makes it riveting and unassailable, and in the film we’re supposed to understand that Imhotep has real magic on his side. No matter. That look in his eye is dignified slavering, a lust that has stayed fresh over the millennia. It cannot be replicated, and in the intervening nine decades no one has even tried.

2 thoughts on “100 American Films to Save: Origins (1883-1932)

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