1910s

The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917)

Poor Little Rich Girl 1917

Gwendolyn (Mary Pickford) comes from a wealthy family and has all the privileges that come along with it, but she’d gladly trade it all to feel more loved by her parents. Her mother is too busy with social events to spend much time with her and her father is too busy with work and is currently busy dealing with a big financial crisis. The family’s servants are left to take care of Gwendolyn. She hardly gets to spend time with other children her own age and when she does, they’re usually the stuck up children of her mother’s snobby friends. She much prefers having fun with people like the plumber or the kids on the street, but every time she does, someone comes along to stop her fun. When it’s Gwendolyn’s birthday, she’s hardly welcome at her own birthday party; the guests are all friends of her parents.

One night, one of the family’s servants wants to go out, so she drugs Gwendolyn to get her to go to sleep. Only the servant gives her too much and she ends up getting close to death. While unconscious, Gwendolyn dreams she’s in the Garden of Lonely Children, where she meets a lot of characters based on the people she knows in real life. Meanwhile, her parents wait to find out whether or not their daughter will live and begin to re-evaluate their priorities in life.

Despite all of the amazing things Mary Pickford achieved during her career, she was hardly a larger than life person. She was just 5 feet tall and she found a way to make her stature work in her favor by playing children. The Poor Little Rich Girl is an excellent example of one of Pickford’s little girl roles. Between her short stature, signature hair curls, and some clever tricks, she actually is pretty believable as a child in Poor Little Rich Girl, even though she was in her mid-20s at the time she made the movie. These roles were a good chance for Pickford to play feisty, spunky, but very likable characters, which she did brilliantly. Even if you can tell when tricks were used to make Pickford appear smaller on screen (oversized sets, other actors who were considerably taller, placing taller people/large objects in the foreground), it’s hard not to be charmed by her, no matter how silly it may seem to have an adult playing a child.

The Blue Bird (1918)

The Blue Bird 1918

Mytyl (Tula Belle) and her brother Tyltyl (Robin Macdougall) are young children who don’t come from a wealthy father. They don’t have much and often spend their time watching the what the wealthier children are doing. However, they often fail to appreciate the simple things they already have. One day, their neighbor Berlingot (Edward Elkas) asks to borrow the childrens’ pet bird to cheer up her sick daughter, but the children refuse to.

Later that night as the children sleep, the fairy Berylune (Lillian Cook) appears to them in a dream in the form of Berlingot and tells them about the blue bird of happiness. The blue bird of happiness is a bird that’s the exact color of the sky, so it’s very difficult to find, but brings immense happiness to those who are able to find it. Berylune sends the children on a mission to find the blue bird of happiness, but first, she gives them a special hat with a diamond in it that allows them to see the spirits of their pets and other objects. The children quickly make friends with all these spirits and they all set off to find the blue bird.

Berylune brings the children and the other spirits to mystical places like the Palace of Night, where they’re reunited with their deceased grandparents, the Palace of Happiness, where they’re introduced to all the joys of life, and the Palace of the Future, where the souls of babies wait to be born. Along the way, the children keep trying to find the blue bird, but with no success. But when they wake up in the morning, the children suddenly have a much greater appreciation for everything they have and realize their pet bird is none other than the blue bird of happiness. When Berlingot stops by, the children insist she bring the bird to her daughter and it’s exactly the sick girl needs. She makes  a speedy recovery and when she comes to return the bird, it escapes and flies away. Rather than getting upset, Tyltyl asks the viewer to look for the blue bird of happiness in their own homes as that’s where it’s most likely to be found.

I wouldn’t say The Blue Bird was one of my favorite movies, but it was pleasant enough. It’s extremely imaginative and reminded me a lot of The Wizard of Oz, thematically speaking. I appreciated that Tula Belle and Robin Macdougall seemed like natural children and not overly-cloying and cutesy like many child actors could be. Many of the special effects were really well done, although the human actors portraying some of the spirits the children start to see like the dog and the cat might seem kind of bizarre Personally, I found the costume on the guy playing the spirit of the sugar loaf (yes, there is a person who gets to play the spirit of a sugar loaf) absolutely hilarious, but that may be because it’s been kind of a long day and I’m kind of easily amused. On the whole, I’m glad I saw it once, but I don’t think it’s the sort of movie I’ll go out of my way to see again.

Back Stage (1919)

Back Stage 1919

Buster Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle both play stagehands at a vaudeville house. Their jobs typically involve things like pasting up new posters, helping with the sets, and assisting the performers as necessary. The performers they encounter can be a very colorful, temperamental bunch of people and when a strongman (Charles A. Post) comes to perform, he’s no exception. The strongman has a very…shall we say demanding personality. His assistant is a lovely woman (Molly Malone) and when the stagehands see him being mean to her, they decide to teach him a lesson by sabotaging his equipment.

Furious, the strongman refuses to go on and so do all of the other performers. With a theater full of people waiting to see a show, the stagehands decide to put on the performers’ costumes and do the show themselves. Of course, the show is a complete disaster, but the stagehands try to carry on the best they can. Things get even worse when the strongman appears in the balcony with a gun and starts firing it. But Buster comes to the rescue and stops the shooting while the other stagehands help put a stop to the madness.

Back Stage is far from being one of the best movies Buster Keaton ever made, but it’s still a lot of fun, good for some laughs, and it’s a good example of what a good team Keaton and Abruckle were. One of the most noteworthy things about it is that is has some jokes that Keaton would go on to re-use to in other films to great success, particularly the very famous joke where the front of a house falls and the person standing in front of it survives because they were standing where the window was. It’s not the kind of movie I’d go out of my way for, but if you’re a big Keaton fan, it’s worth seeing if only for being a movie where you get to see early versions of such famous jokes.

The Oyster Princess (1919)

The Oyster Princess 1919

Ossi (Ossi Oswalda) is the spoiled daughter of Quaker (Victor Janson), a wealthy man who has made his fortune in oysters. When she finds out the daughter of a shoe polish magnate has just married a count, she’s absolutely furious that she isn’t married yet. To calm her down, Quaker promises to buy her a prince and gets in touch with a matchmaker to find someone with a suitable family tree.

The matchmaker knows just the man for Ossi — Prince Nucki (Harry Liedtke). Only Prince Nucki isn’t actually a prince, he’s poor and lives in a very run down apartment with his friend Josef (Julius Falkenstein). When the matchmaker shows up to tell Nucki he’s found a match for him, Nucki and Josef are stunned that their scheme actually worked. To keep up the illusion that Nucki is a prince, Nucki has Josef pose as his representative to go see what Ossi is like.

When Josef arrives at Ossi’s home, everyone assumes he’s the price. Ossi doesn’t make a very good first impression of him and she isn’t too fond of him either, but she’s so eager to get married, she marries Josef that very night. Since their marriage was a spur of the moment thing, their reception is strictly for close family, which still ends up being a big soiree. Everyone has a wonderful time, especially Josef, who hasn’t had a good meal or a drink in a long time. Ossi dances the night away while Josef drinks the night away. Meanwhile, Nucki is back at his apartment having a terrible dinner before he gets invited to get drunk with some friends.

The next morning, Ossi goes to a meeting for a women’s group dedicated to fighting dispomania and  Nucki happens to be one of the drunks brought in for them to cure. Since he’s the only young, handsome drunk in the bunch, all the women fight over who gets to cure Nucki and Ossi wins. She flirts with him and insists on bringing him home with her as part of his treatment. When Josef finds Nucki passed out at Ossi’s home, he can’t help but laugh because they don’t realize he got married under Nucki’s name so he and Ossi are the ones who are married.

Ernst Lubitsch has a well-deserved reputation for being one of the best directors to ever work in Hollywood. His very distinctive knack for witty, sophisticated dialogue and characters remains unsurpassed. But before coming to Hollywood, Lubitsch was making equally sophisticated and witty silent films in Germany that tend to be overlooked. Since The Oyster Princess is a silent film, obviously it doesn’t have as much sharp dialogue as something like Ninotchka or To Be or Not to Be, but it’s still a very witty movie with an incredible amount of style. It’s still very uniquely Lubitsch’s style.

Ossi Oswalda is very charming actress and was considered to be Germany’s answer to Mary Pickford. It’s too bad she didn’t become a more widely known store because I really like her a lot.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

Tillie's Punctured Romance 1914

When Tillie (Mabel Normand) meets Charlie (Charlie Chaplin), a good-looking stranger visiting her small town from the big city, she’s immediately smitten by him. Even though Charlie is a real womanizer, Tillie isn’t the best looking woman so he isn’t terribly interested at first. But then he finds out she comes from a very rich family and suddenly, he’s very interested. He talks her into coming with him back to the city so they can elope and she agrees. But when they get back to the city, Charlie runs into his former girlfriend Mabel (Mabel Normand). He wants to get back together with Mabel, but really wants Tillie’s money, so he conspires to get Tillie’s purse away from her.

Charlie’s big plan to get Tillie’s purse is to get her drunk at a restaurant. His plan works and he runs of with Mabel and Tillie’s money, while Tillie gets arrested. Meanwhile, Tillie’s wealthy uncle is off on a mountain climbing excursion and when an accident happens, he’s believed to be dead. Since Tillie is her uncle’s sole heir, she stands to inherit millions. News of her inheritance makes headlines and when Charlie sees the newspaper, he wants to marry Tillie.

After their wedding, Charlie and Tillie move into her uncle’s spacious mansion together, but Charlie hasn’t given up on his womanizing ways — Mabel is now working as their maid. While they’re having a big party, Tillie catches Charlie and Tillie together, she’s outraged and starts firing a gun around (not harming anyone). The party descends into madness that only gets worse when they have a surprise visitor: Tillie’s uncle, who isn’t actually dead. He wants everyone out of his house and he and chases Tillie, Charlie, and Mabel out of the house with help from the cops. When Tillie is chased off a pier and starts to drown, Mabel rescues her. Once they’re back on dry land, Mabel and Tillie both decide they can do better than Charlie and become good friends, leaving Charlie behind.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a classic of madcap, slapstick silent film comedy. There’s so much chaos and physical comedy, this movie is practically the definition of “slapstick.” It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you want a taste of the type of movies Mack Sennett and Keystone were known for during this era, Tillie’s Punctured Romance is a good choice. Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand were staple stars of this era for Mack Sennett’s Keystone studio and it’s noteworthy for being the film debut of Marie Dressler. All three stars are fantastic in it.

The character Chaplin plays is not his signature Little Tramp character; the Little Tramp was always charming and likable in some way.  The character he plays here is a rather unlikable lout, which makes the ending to the movie a very happy one indeed. In terms of Chaplin’s career, this was a hugely important movie. It was the first feature length film he made and would be the last time he would ever be directed by anyone other than himself.

A Florida Enchantment (1914)

When Lillian Travers (Edith Storey) begins to question her fiance Fred’s (Sidney Drew, who also directed) fidelity, she’s so upset about it that when she finds some seeds in an old trunk that supposedly turn women into men and men into women, she takes one.  Although she doesn’t physically transform into a man, she does suddenly start to act like one and has lots of fun going around flirting with women.  Lillian even gives her maid Jane (Ethel Loyd) one of the seeds so she can have a valet instead of a maid.  After a while, Lillian decides to cut her hair short, wear mens’ clothing, and start going by the name Lawrence Talbot.  Fred still doesn’t understand why this is happening, so when Lawrence tries to explain, he gives Fred one of the seeds.  Fred suddenly begins acting very femininely and when he goes out in public in a dress, some people on the street chase him into the ocean.  But then Lillian wakes up and realizes the whole thing was just a dream.

If you have an interest in LGBTQ images in film, you’ll definitely want to see A Florida Enchantment. First of all, it’s one of the earliest known films to contain LGBTQ themes.  And considering it was made in 1914, it’s remarkably accepting of lesbianism.  Lillian is never looked down upon for flirting with and kissing other women.  In fact, the other women really seem to enjoy it.  Fred is confused and surprised by Lillian’s sudden change in behavior, but he doesn’t condemn it, either.  Even when Lillian becomes Lawrence, there aren’t any judgements for that.  However, the movie isn’t nearly as kind towards men.   Fred’s the one who is judged for behaving like the stereotypical flamboyant gay man and later drowns for dressing in womens’ clothing.  I also feel I should give a warning that there are a lot of very cringe-worthy blackface scenes in this movie.

A Florida Enchantment definitely isn’t a great film, but it certainly has a lot of historical value.

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