Monthly Archives: June 2013
Cecelia “Cissy” Fitzgerald was a successful stage actress in the 1880s and ‘90s. She was particularly famous for her signature wink, which landed Cissy her first screen credit in the 1896 Edison short See Cissy Wink. She left the stage in 1913 and signed with the Vitagraph Company, where she made several comedies, both shorts and features. The Win(k)some Widow (1914) is probably the best remembered of her Vitagraph films today.
There were many comedians working at Vitagraph – Wally Van, Hughie Mack, Lillian Walker, just to name a few – but the three biggies were John Bunny, Sidney Drew, and Larry Semon. Semon made rough-and-tumble slapstick films, whereas Bunny and Drew’s films were much slower-paced and the comedy was more situational than physical. When Bunny died in 1915 and Drew in 1919, Cissy saw a vacuum that she hoped to fill.
She formed her own production company, Cissy Fitzgerald Productions, and began pumping out a series of two-reel sitcoms. The first of these was Cissy’s Funnymoon in 1919. Just like Sidney Drew’s films, Cissy’s starred a husband and wife team: Cissy and Bertie. Exactly how many Cissy and Bertie shorts there were, I can’t tell. Cissy Fitzgerald Productions operated for a few years and made at the very least eight films and probably several times that number. I don’t believe anything survives of the series aside from what’s in my collection, which is the second reel of Funnymoon.
It seems that Cissy (Cissy Fitzgerald) and Bertie Sweet (Bertie Stanley?) are on their honeymoon at the Cupid Hotel. What I surmise must have happened in the missing first reel is that both intended on surprising the other by sneaking into the room by the fire escape, but accidentally got the wrong window. Bertie probably found a woman in bed who he took to be Cissy. When he realized his mistake, he tried to get out, but the woman, coquettishly, detained him.
Reel two begins with Cissy entering through the sitting-room window of an empty hotel suite. She’s surprised that Bertie isn’t there, but decides to make herself comfortable and wait for his return. She goes into the bedroom and starts to undress.
Meanwhile, one floor up, Bertie sits very uncomfortably as a woman in a nightgown hangs on his neck and whispers in his ear. Her husband is next door with another woman. As near as I can tell, he sees his wife’s coat draped on the chair and realizes she must be nearby. He crosses the fire escape into the neighboring room and finds her with Bertie. The scene begins with the suggestion of a jealous husband, but quickly turns into something else: “So! She’s ruined your life too!” he says, “you can have her!”
Back to Cissy, who’s now in her underwear. She begins putting her things away in the dresser when she notices the strange clothes already there. She’s examining them when another man enters the room, gun drawn. “Hands up! What are you doing here?”
It looks like a fight is about to break out when Bertie tells the other woman’s husband that he doesn’t want her – he’s sure his wife Cissy would object.
Cissy tries to explain, but the gunman will have none of it. He’s caught a burglar, probably none other than the infamous “Frisco Fannie”. He calls the police, who tell him they’re on their way and to make sure she doesn’t escape. Cissy, realizing that the man can’t be reasoned with, tries a different tack and attempts to seduce him.
The other woman cajoles her husband into dropping Bertie. As the two are distracted cozying up to one another, Bertie sees his chance and slips out the window and down the fire escape. One floor below and he hears a familiar voice…
“If Bertie could only see me now!” – a voice comes from behind the curtains: “Cissy!” – Cissy wheels around and sees Bertie’s comically disembodied head as he peers through the window: “Bertie!”
Just at that moment, the police, accompanied by the hotel manager, walk through the door. The gunman’s sure he has Frisco Fannie and her accomplice who was “waiting outside for the swag”, but the manager intervenes, identifies Mr. and Mrs. Sweet to the police, and both Cissy and Bertie’s respective disasters are averted.
It’s plain to see that Cissy’s Funnymoon is taking its cues from Sidney Drew’s Vitagraph shorts – the structure is very reminiscent as are the characters – but Funnymoon’s situations are far more risqué than anything Drew’s character ever found himself in. And I have to say, I like it. I thought this reel was hilarious and am only disappointed that I don’t have the other reel. One has to wonder why Cissy and Bertie weren’t more popular. I imagine they didn’t make a hit with the censors – there were censors in the U.S. back then, at the state and local levels; some locales were more permissive than others – but I just can’t believe how little contemporary publicity this series got.
My rating: I like it.
Tom (Tom Mix) is Vicky Jordan’s (Victoria Forde) boyfriend. He’s a cowboy or something like that and has just ridden into Las Vegas to see Vicky and to visit the local saloon. At said saloon and after several drinks, Tom spots his old friend Ned Burrows (Leo D. Maloney) coming through the door. The bartender appears and he and Ned argue over something the audience isn’t privy to. Tom, a little tipsy, pulls out his gun and starts shooting wildly. Ned is hit. Tom staggers out of the saloon and rides away. He’s met on the road by another of the barflies who tells him that he “sure enough killed Ned” and that he had better clear out of town before the police find him. Tom hops a train and disappears into the night afternoon.
A week later, the Sheriff (Sid Jordan) receives a letter from his sister Bess (Helen Gilmore). There’s going to be a riding show in Los Angeles and she wants him to accompany her there, which he does, and who should he see among the participants…
Tom Mix and Sid Jordan made a boatload of short westerns for Selig in the 1910s. They were mostly comedies or action-comedies, but Never Again (1915) is more of a drama with a twist. The setup echoes the dozens upon dozens of other “drink” films that were coming out at the time. It was during the lead-up to Prohibition and the temperance movement was growing louder by the day. The first act of Never Again reminded me particularly of a somewhat less preachy What Drink Did (1909), but the second act abandons the hard-line approach for a much more moderate message:
The film ends with the Sheriff arresting Tom and taking him back to Las Vegas, only to deliver him into the hands of Ned, who it turns out wasn’t seriously injured, and to Vicky, to whom Tom promises that he’ll “never again get drunk”.
Tom doesn’t say he’ll never drink again, only never drink to drunkenness again. That is frankly remarkable. As far as the other drink films I’ve seen are concerned, alcohol is nothing short of the embodiment of all evil. To see one that hedges that claim even slightly is a puzzle. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but I have an idea for why Never Again backs away from calling for an all-out prohibition.
Who was the target audience for Tom Mix films? They had a broad appeal, surely, but they weren’t most popular among rural audiences, they were watched most by inner-city children and their mothers. City dwellers were, on the whole, against Prohibition – the loudest voices calling for it were in the suburbs and countryside. There were a host of reasons for that, but a big one was that the temperance movement went largely hand-in-hand with the nativist movement, whose subscribers thought America was going to hell in a handbasket and laid the blame squarely on the recent influx of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Those immigrants congregated in cities, chiefly New York, and would have made up the core of Mix’s audience. It would seem to me that Never Again is trying to cash-in on the drink film craze while simultaneously trying hard not to alienate those targeted by Prohibition.
But I haven’t said much about what I thought of the film. It’s pretty good. Like most Selig films, it offers few details regarding the characters or story and it leaves even major plot points to the audience’s imagination, but it has a certain crude charm that makes it very agreeable to watch. I’ve said before that I’m attracted to Selig films for reasons that I can’t entirely express, but I think that comes nearest to explaining why. That, and the fact that the output of any major studio that somehow re-imagines itself as a zoo when the movie business dries up can’t help but be intriguing.
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon
I had heard of the Johnsons long before I saw any of their films. When much of the world was still relatively unexplored, this husband and wife pair traveled to the interior of Africa and to remote tropical islands photographing the natives and wildlife. A fair number of their later documentaries survive, but little remains of their early work. Around four minutes of miscellaneous clips thought to be taken from one of their first films, Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (1918), was all that was believed to survive of the footage that they shot during their exploration of the New Hebrides (present day Vanuatu).
A few years ago, I acquired a print of a silent documentary that was definitely about cannibals and was likely a complete copy of Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific. The trouble was that it’s a 16mm safety print, made probably in 1930, and is in a severely advanced stage of decomposition. When I got it, the first dozen feet were a crumpled mess and so brittle that it would disintegrate if any attempt was made to flatten it. The rest could not be removed from the reel at all – the film base, as it broke down and shrank, became stuck to the emulsion of the film beneath it and the whole reel had essentially fused into a solid block of cellulose diacetate.
By any conventional measure, the film was unsalvageable, but I wasn’t ready to give up. I began soaking the film in naphtha to improve its flexibility. It stayed in its bath for two years before the film base was pliable enough to unwind without breaking. Then began the slow process of separating the film where it had become fused together. This was done manually, with the aid of a thin blade and a lot of patience. A year later and the film was off the reel, and so long as it stayed submerged in naphtha, it was in a stable enough state to be scanned. And scanned it was. Some sections look like you’re watching the film reflected on a shattered funhouse mirror, but not an inch was a total loss.
The film follows Osa and Martin Johnson as they travel through the “Cannibal Isles” (Melanesia is the preferred term nowadays) in search of Nagapate, the chief of the Big Numbers tribe (so the film calls the Big Nambas tribe). They say that two years before, on their previous expedition, they were taken captive by Nagapate’s headhunters and were only saved by the timely arrival of a British patrol boat. Along the way, they meet several other tribes, including pygmies (probably the Kiai) and one where the natives mold the heads of their babies into cone shapes (surely the Small Nambas). Eventually, they find Nagapate, who remembers their previous visit and greets them hospitably. The Big Numbers tribe begin a traditional dance – undoubtedly to frenzy themselves in preparation for a headhunt, the Johnsons say – and the filmmakers take that as their cue to leave. They’ve pre-arranged for the governor of the New Hebridies, Merton King, to meet them in his boat and he arrives right on time.
Robert Flaherty, the Johnsons are not. They’re adventurers in the classical sense, not ethnographers. As a documentary, Cannibal Isles is not overly concerned with the natives’ cultures or traditions and it doesn’t hide the fact that it’s all staged. The Johnsons are more interested in dragging natives (sometimes literally) in front of the camera and presenting them with some bit of Western culture to see how they’ll react to it. Much fun is made of the two men who try to eat a proffered cigarette.
Is it a good film? No, but it is an interesting one. Beneath the surface, there are some fascinating glimpses of Melanesian culture from a time when they actually were headhunters and did still practice ritual cannibalism. Based on that alone, I’m going to have to say…
My rating: I like it.
Available from Harpodeon