I think it’s safe to say that, before this project, the 1910s was probably my weakest decade in terms of exposure to the classics. Or any films at all really. Of the films that ended up on my essentials list (see my previous post on Considering the Essentials), I had only seen one of them prior to 2019—The Immigrant, a Charlie Chaplin short. So, even though many of the industry developments during this period were well known to me from my dissertation research, I had a lot to learn about the films of this decade.
But let’s start with what I knew.
To begin with, the defining characteristic of the 1910s is probably its transitional and inconsistent nature, with dramatic changes in the film medium as well as modes of production, distribution, and exhibition.
Although the first narrative features emerge in the middle of this decade,* until 1919, popular films could be anything from a one- or two-reel comedy (about 25 minutes) to grand epics of more than two hours to ten-episode serials with episodes of varying lengths. Many multi-reelers were episodic in nature and more like one-reelers strung together, for example, the grand epics Cabiria and Intolerance both have multiple narrative threads. My essentials list reflects this variety: There are eight shorts, sixteen features, and one serial. The sixteen features on my list have running times from 50 minutes to almost 200 minutes, although the majority run between 50 and 65 minutes. [Side note: For purposes of this project, I am using the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences definition of a feature, that is, a film with a running time of 40 minutes or longer.]
Production in the 1910s also experienced seismic shifts. At the beginning of the decade, French companies controlled the vast majority of film production: Before World War I, 60–70% of films imported into the U.S. were French. Gaumont was the largest studio in the world, with Louis Feuillade in charge and cranking out his popular crime serials Fantômas (1913–14), Les Vampires (1915–16), and Judex. Also in Europe, Scandinavian directors began experimenting with narrative continuity and, in 1913, Victor Sjöström directed the social drama Ingeborg Holm, which used long takes, precise compositions, and nuanced performances in what is often considered the first true narrative feature.*
At the beginning of the decade in the United States, production was still based in New York and New Jersey and primarily controlled by the Edison Trust. It was here that the star system emerged when Carl Laemmle revealed the identity of “the Biograph girl” (aka Florence Lawrence) to the world. While the trust’s monopoly would eventually end the European domination of the industry—with a large assist from the onset of war—it was also one reason many independent filmmakers shifted production to the West Coast. In Los Angeles, not only was there abundant sunlight and diverse geography for exteriors, but the distance from New York made it harder for the trust to exert control through patents and fees. The trust would eventually be dismantled in 1918 in the wake of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. While the Hollywood studio system wouldn’t fully develop until the 1920s, by the war’s end, Los Angeles had become the epicenter of film production and directors such as D.W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille had already made their mark there. More on them later.
Unsurprisingly, these production developments also affected the distribution and exhibition of films. As the United States entered the 1910s, it was the age of the nickelodeon—the first type of dedicated indoor cinema space where patrons paid a nickel for entrance. However, as longer films became the norm, people wanted more comfortable venues for watching them, leading to the death of the nickelodeon and the rise of the cinema palace. These purposely built cinemas represented a full evening’s entertainment, and it is at this point that we see the establishment of the newsreel. Longer, narrative films also led to a shift in the use of intertitles: By the mid-1910s, dialogue intertitles had begun to outnumber expository titles, and the concept of screenwriter was born.
In short, this was a turbulent but exciting time for the industry. Nevertheless, I was somewhat dreading looking at the films of this period, mostly because I didn’t really know much about them beyond The Birth of a Nation (which I have deliberately excluded from consideration as part of this project). I had seen a few Chaplin shorts, I had watched Suspense when I originally got the Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers collection out of the library, and I had made it through the first couple of episodes of Les Vampires when I did my Great Unseen project back in 2017; however, everything else was new to me.
Despite the fact that I think the 1910s is likely to be one of the weakest cinema decades when all is said and done, I’m happy to say I discovered some real gems.
Favorite Feature Film: Shoes (1916) by Lois Weber. I first watched Shoes on Valentine’s Day 2020 and it was love at first sight. While ostensibly strictly a “social” film inspired by Jane Addams’s book A New Conscience and an Ancient Evil about the problems faced by underpaid working women, it is also a proto-Sex and the City that opens with our heroine crushing on a pair of shoes in a shop window. We eventually learn that our heroine wants them, not just for a fashion statement, but because she has worn out her own soles working in a five and dime. However, her family is destitute and all her earnings must go to support them. Like an O. Henry story gone very, very wrong, she eventually trades sex for the shoes. The story is great, if bleak, but this film also stands above the rest for its innovative camerawork.
Favorite Director (Drama): Cecil B. DeMille. After Shoes, one of my favorite discoveries of the 1910s was DeMille’s Male and Female (1919), which quickly replaced The Cheat (1915) on my essentials list. Not that The Cheat isn’t good, it is, but I had seen a sound version of it previously and so I already knew the story. Plus, Male and Female is simply on another level, both technically and artistically. The film, which is a drama about gender relations, a satire of social class, and an adventure story all rolled into one, is based on a play by J. M. Barrie (of Peter Pan fame) and stars Gloria Swanson as a spoiled aristocrat who looks down on the attentions of her butler until she finds herself and her family stranded on a deserted island with him. It is best known for an elaborate fantasy sequence about ancient Babylon. If you are an opera lover, I would also recommend DeMille’s Carmen (1915), which stars American soprano Geraldine Farrar in the title role alongside film star Wallace Reid, popularly known as “the screen’s most perfect lover.”
Favorite Director (Comedy): Ernst Lubitsch. This wasn’t even close. I really enjoyed all three Lubitsch features that I watched for this decade. My favorite was Die Puppe (The Doll) (1919), somewhat based on the ballet Coppélia, but also Hoffmann’s short story “Der Sandmann” (later adapted into the opera Les contes d’Hoffmann). Ossi Oswalda, the star of all three Lubitsch features I watched, is incredible here as the daughter of the dollmaker who acts as “the doll” hired by the protagonist to fool his rich uncle into thinking he has gotten married. In Ich möchte kein Mann sein (I Don’t Want to Be a Man) (1918), Oswalda is an independent young woman who enjoys both playing poker and smoking (heavens!). When a new strict guardian arrives, she sneaks out on the town disguised as a young man. However, she soon discovers that her newfound freedom is not all that it’s cracked up to be. Finally, there was The Oyster Princess (1919), about a spoiled rich girl who absolutely insists her father find her a royal husband. Hijinks ensue. I didn’t like the broad comedy of this one quite as much as the other Lubitsch films, but it has an incredible foxtrot scene towards the end that is certainly worth watching.
Favorite Discovery: The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912) by Władysław Starewicz. I am no fan of animation, so I wondered whether I even wanted to include this Russian stop-motion animated short that uses dead insects as its protagonists, but it showed up on so many lists that I figured I’d give it a go. OMG! The detail! The drama! I’m linking to a subtitled version below since, if you’ve never seen this, you must watch it right now. It even contains the classic “movie with the movie” bit (which just goes to show you that almost nothing is truly new).
Favorite Epic: Cabiria (1914) by Giovanni Pastrone. Where to begin? Cabiria is an Italian epic set during the Punic Wars with a plot revolving around a young girl (Cabiria) who gets separated from her family during the eruption of Mount Etna and later is kidnapped and taken to Carthage, where she is destined to be sacrificed to the god Moloch. Although she will continue to reappear, the story really isn’t focused on Cabiria but rather the great historical events of the day, including the alpine trek of Hannibal, the defeat of the Roman fleet at Syracuse, and Scipio’s North African campaign. In addition to being extremely entertaining (really, the 180 minutes just fly by), it is also extremely innovative, featuring the extensive use of a moving camera, including a type of dolly tracking shot initially referred to as a “Cabiria shot.” Cabiria was the first feature film shown at the White House and was a major influence on D.W. Griffith. I had already seen Intolerance by the time I watched Cabiria, and, frankly, Cabiria blows that film out of the water.
Favorite “Social” Film: Traffic in Souls (1913) by George Loane Tucker. This is one of the first films of the decade I actually saw since I found it looking up which silent classics were on Kanopy. As shocking as it may sound for the time, Traffic in Souls is a frank crime melodrama about forced prostitution (aka white slavery). It is also one of the first examples of a narrative feature in the U.S. Like a number of social films during this decade, it takes on the plight of the naïve immigrant and the difficulties faced by working women. Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), which stars Dorothy Gish, is another example of this genre, though a somewhat more romantic one. Both were enjoyable despite their grim subject matter, featuring exciting chase-and-rescue sequences. Gretchen the Greenhorn also features the legendary character actor Eugene Pallette, in an early role as the villain.
Favorite Mary Pickford: The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) by Maurice Tourneur. I watched a bunch of Mary Pickford films for this project, including some of her early shorts under the direction of D.W. Griffith at Biograph, the best of which is The New York Hat (1912), from a screenplay by Anita Loos, and co-starring Lionel Barrymore. However, although Stella Maris (a 1918 film where Pickford plays the dual roles of wealthy invalid and orphan servant) is surely her acting tour de force, I have a fondness for The Poor Little Rich Girl, where she plays a fun-loving but neglected daughter of rich parents. This feature, adapted by Frances Marion from a Broadway play, was a certified box office hit. The production used forced perspective and other tricks to make it appear that the diminutive Pickford was an eleven-year-old girl. Unfortunately, the success of the film meant that Pickford got pigeon-holed in child roles for much of the rest of her career, even playing the lead in Little Annie Rooney in 1925, at the age of 33.
Favorite Film That Changed the Course of Film History: Snow White (1916) by J. Searle Dawley. Snow White was another pleasant surprise. One reason I watched this was that it apparently had a major influence on Walt Disney, who saw this movie as a teen in Kansas City and recalled it as “a perfect story.” But, influence aside, I really like this version of the tale, which is based on a 1912 stage production where the witch and the evil stepmother are separate characters. Fun fact: The dwarves in this version are named Blick, Flick, Glick, Snick, Plick, Whick, and Quee. Dawley also directed the earliest known screen adaptation of Frankenstein in 1910, which you can find on YouTube but I wouldn’t particularly recommend (see below).
Favorite Film to Feature a National Park: The Dragon Painter (1919) by William Worthington. I’m not sure how I stumbled upon the existence of The Dragon Painter, but when I saw that the library had a DVD copy, I jumped on it. The story is a sort of fairy-tale about a young Japanese painter who lives in the mountains and believes his true love has been captured and turned into a dragon. A visiting surveyor sees his artwork and convinces the painter to go to Tokyo to be mentored by a celebrated artist he knows (by telling the painter that his dragon love can be found there). There, the painter falls in love with his mentor’s daughter, but loses his ability to paint. Hijinks and much melodrama ensue. The film stars Japanese acting power couple, Sessue Hayakawa and Tsuru Aoki, and was produced by Hayakawa, who had risen to fame as the star of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Cheat. The easter egg for me was when I started the film and slowly but surely realized the painter lived in Yosemite National Park!
Favorite Hero: Judex (1916) by Louis Feuillade. As I noted in my post on Considering the Essentials, I had watched the first few episodes of Feuillade’s Les Vampires (1915–16) during my The Great Unseen project, but I just couldn’t get into it at that time. However, I knew I should watch at least one of Feuillade’s serials for this decade and so chose Judex. Judex was a direct response to Feuillade’s earlier serials, which focused on criminal gangs and had been criticized for glorifying crime. With the character of Judex (Latin for judge), Feuillade essentially created a proto-Batman, a character who, in response to the death of his father, decides to make his life’s work seeking revenge on a villainous financier and his network. He has a secret identity and lair, multiple gadgets and disguises, and mad fighting skillz. Of course, along the way, he falls in love with the banker’s innocent daughter. The total length of this serial is five hours, but they really do fly by, in part because of the fantastic characters we meet along the way. My favorite was Le Môme réglisse, aka The Licorice Kid.
The Genre of the Decade: The Western
Like many genres, the western has been around since almost the beginning of film history, with Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery appearing in 1903 and The Story of the Kelly Gang, an Australian bushranger film often considered the world’s first full-length narrative feature,* appearing in 1906. [Side note: Unfortunately, only 17 minutes of the latter film are known to have survived.] About 1908 or so, the popularity of the genre exploded and, by 1910, one-reel westerns would account for 25 percent of U.S. production. Part of me actually wonders if the popularity of westerns is one reason for the industry’s move out to California, where obviously location shooting for this genre would be greatly facilitated. In any case, I love westerns, so I was happy to find so many during this period.
Though he wasn’t the first to make them, the producer most associated with the western genre is Thomas Ince. Ince leant a new authenticity to the genre, notably by bringing in Native Americans (primarily Oglala Sioux) to play Native American roles—groundbreaking! In 1912, he purchased a ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, which would become his first studio, featuring stages and elaborate sets, offices and prop houses, and even labs for printing film. Sadly, his legacy as Hollywood’s first producer and studio head has been overshadowed by his death after a trip on the yacht of William Randolph Hearst. For this project, I watched one of his early pictures, The Invaders (1912), a very serviceable cavalry western.
With the emergence of multi-reel westerns in the middle of the decade, one actor emerged as a key player: William S. Hart, often an uncredited director on his films. Even though he was almost fifty at his film debut, Hart had starred in a number of westerns on the stage. In 1915, Hart began production on Hell’s Hinges (1916), nominally directed by Charles Swickard, but helmed by both Hart and producer Ince. Hell’s Hinges was Hart’s sixth feature and one of the most famous of the early westerns (along with The Virginian, by Cecil B. DeMille). The film has a slow build, as an East Coast preacher moves out to a wild frontier town and gradually becomes corrupted by some of the locals who are plotting to get rid of him. In the meantime, one of the local gunslingers falls in love with the preacher’s sister. It all ends in a literal blaze of glory and/or hellfire, take your pick.
Hell’s Hinges was one of five westerns to make their way onto either my essentials list or my favorites list. The others were Le Railway de la mort (The Railway of Death) (1912), a dark western from France that reminded me of Frank Norris’s McTeague; ’49-’17 (1917) a light western that plays on nostalgia for the Old West (and directed by a woman who hails from my hometown!); Bucking Broadway (1917), an early John Ford western that starts off with the beautiful landscapes of the West and ends up with horses galloping through Manhattan; and Out West (1918), a two-reel western comedy directed by Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle and co-starring Buster Keaton. I also watched Wild and Woolly (1917), another comedy, written by Anita Loos and starring Douglas Fairbanks, and The Battle of Elderbush Gilch (1913), directed by D.W. Griffith. Like many of Griffith’s films, the basic plot was good but you have to be willing to overlook the egregious racism to appreciate it. (I’m not willing.)
Personal Highs and Lows
One of the pleasant surprises for me in this decade was the strong presence of women. To start with, there are the directors: Alice Guy-Blaché, who was head of production at Gaumont until her marriage and founded her own studio in the U.S. in 1912; Lois Weber, who by the middle of the decade was Universal’s highest-paid director; and Mabel Normand, who was the first to direct Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character. Additionally, about half of all films written before 1925 were written by women. In fact, from 1915 to 1935, Frances Marion, who had been discovered by Lois Weber, was the highest paid screenwriter of all, eventually winning two Oscars in the 1930s (The Big House, The Champ). Finally, in a field that would long be dominated by women, there was editing. Perhaps the best known editor of the period is Margaret Booth, the editor for D.W. Griffith.
I like to direct, because I believe a woman, more or less intuitively, brings out many of the emotions that are rarely expressed on the screen. I may miss what some of the men get, but I will get other effects that they never thought of.
—Lois Weber (Lois Weber in Early Hollywood, p. 72)
Speaking of Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin, I watched a lot of comedy shorts for this decade, many coming out of Keystone Productions, where both Normand and Chaplin got their start under Mack Sennett. I also watched some early Harold Lloyd shorts directed by Hal Roach. I have to say, not being a huge vaudeville/slapstick fan, I don’t really “love” any of these, but, if that is your sort of thing, I think you would like most any of the following: Mabel’s Dramatic Career, Mabel’s Blunder, Mabel’s Busy Day, The New Janitor, Dough & Dynamite, Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day, One A.M., The Rink, A Dog’s Life, Bumping into Broadway.
And, at long last, we get to D.W. Griffith. I haven’t said much about him here because, frankly, I didn’t really like most of his features in this decade. I tried to watch The Birth of a Nation but turned it off after about fifteen or twenty minutes because I found it so utterly boring that I thought, “Why stick it out just to get to the super racist parts?” Broken Blossoms is a powerful story with some fantastic acting by Lillian Gish, but also incredibly racist and disturbingly violent. Intolerance is a tremendous spectacle but I don’t think it holds a candle to Cabiria. In fact, given that he didn’t actually invent the many things he gave himself credit for (close-ups, cross-cutting, etc.) and that others mistakenly credit to him as “firsts” even to this day, I even considered removing him from the essentials list altogether; however, I didn’t think I would quite get away with that. And I would recommend some of his shorts, including The Girl and Her Trust, The Musketeers of Pig Alley, and The New York Hat. In any case, we will be talking about Griffith again for the 1920s.
Finally, a few adaptations that I was looking forward to but ultimately missed the mark. Oddly enough, these films were all released in 1910. They are all about a dozen minutes long.
As noted above, J. Searle Dawley, the director of Snow White, directed the earliest known Frankenstein. Like another adaptation of his the same year, A Christmas Carol, I could follow the story, but only because I knew it, and there were a lot of missed opportunities. In both, however, he was able to do interesting things with effects. Still, I thought R.W. Paul’s Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901), which is the first known use of intertitles, did a much better job at condensing Dickens in half the time. In a similar way, Edwin S. Porter’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is a fun version of the Lewis Carroll story with great effects, but it really could have used better intertitles to tell the story for those unfamiliar with it. Lastly, if you want to see some truly bizarre sh*t, check out The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by Otis Turner. This is the first surviving film of the Oz story and the story is surreal: the scarecrow is alive from the beginning in Kansas, Toto is a big puppet dog (and there’s also a cow and a mule for some reason), everyone line dances at one point, and the finale features an appearance by the unionized women workers of Emerald City.
In addition to the resources listed in my original post on the subject back in January 2020, for this period of cinema history, I highly recommend the documentary Dawson City: Frozen Time, currently streaming on both The Criterion Channel and Kanopy. The documentary tells the tale of the discovery in the 1970s of a treasure trove of silent films buried in the permafrost of the Yukon Territory and explains how and why they got there.
For podcast lovers, check out Karina Longworth’s You Must Remember This podcast. In 2018, she did a whole series on fact-checking Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon, which included episodes on D.W. Griffith, Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and Thomas Ince.
For more on Lois Weber, see Shelley Stamp, Lois Weber in Early Hollywood (UC Press, 2015).
Finally, a boxed set that didn’t make my original post: Lubitsch in Berlin by Kino Lorber. This includes seven early Lubitsch features, including the three I discuss above.
Essential Films of the 1910s
Afgrunden (The Abyss) (Gad, 1910)
The Cameraman’s Revenge (Starewicz, 1912)
A Fool and His Money (Guy-Blaché, 1912)
Le Railway de la mort (The Railway of Death) (Durand, 1912)
Ingeborg Holm (Sjöström, 1913)
Suspense (Weber/Smalley, 1913)
Traffic in Souls (Tucker, 1913)
Cabiria (Pastrone, 1914)
Mabel’s Blunder (Normand, 1914)
Hell’s Hinges (Smith/Hart/Swickard, 1916)
Intolerance (Griffith, 1916)
Judex (Feuillade, 1916)
Shoes (Weber, 1916)
Snow White (Dawley, 1916)
Bucking Broadway (Ford, 1917)
The Immigrant (Chaplin, 1917)
The Poor Little Rich Girl (Tourneur, 1917)
Terje Vigen (A Man There Was) (Sjöström, 1917)
Out West (Arbuckle, 1918)
Stella Maris (Neilan, 1918)
La Cigarette (The Cigarette) (Dulac, 1919)
The Dragon Painter (Worthington, 1919)
J’accuse (I Accuse) (Gance, 1919)
Male and Female (DeMille, 1919)
Die Puppe (The Doll) (Lubitsch, 1919)
For those that took up my Century+ challenge oh so long ago, did you manage to see anything on my essentials list? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.
For previous posts in this Century+ series, click below:
Film 101—A Century+ Silent Film Resources
A Century+ of Cinema: The Early Silents, 1895–1909
A Century+ of Cinema: Considering the Essentials
*The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) is considered the world’s first full-length narrative feature. Said to have an original running time of 70 minutes, only 17 minutes are known to survive. Therefore, it is hard to know if it is truly a narrative feature. Otherwise, I have found no mention of any other films of this length until the 1910s.
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