Posted in 1900s, Movies, Silent film

Happy 120th birthday, Life of an American Fireman!

Life of an American Fireman, filmed in late 1902 and released January 1903, stands as one of the very earliest narrative films in the U.S. Prior, most films were actualities, little vignettes of daily life, instead of having actual storylines like Georges Méliès’s pioneering French films. That all began changing with this short classic directed by the legendary pioneer Edwin S. Porter.

For many decades, Fireman was considered revolutionary on account of its editing techniques, namely being the first alleged known use of cross-cutting in the final scene. However, this was later proven to be a false claim, based on researching the paper print at the Library of Congress.

The original version contained few, if any, of the cross-cuts seen in the version which was best-known for a long time. E.g., the inside POV of the burning house appears first, then repeats exactly with an exterior POV, instead of cutting back and forth between the perspectives. Thus, the film was edited at some point, though the exact date is unknown.

According to film historian Charles Musser, author of Before the Nickelodeon and an expert on Edwin S. Porter, the version first seen by January 1903 audiences was the one with repeated actions and scenes, not the cross-cut version.

In 2016, Fireman was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” I first saw it on the excellent 4-disc set Edison: The Invention of the Movies, which contains films from 1889–1918. It’s also available on Treasures from American Film Archives, another 4-disc set which is the first of a currently six-part series showcasing early films.

As Charles Musser explains, this film represents how firefighters’ social role was changing in that era. It also has much in common with the 1901 British film Fire!, directed by James Williamson.

Fireman was considered a lost film until 1944, when the Museum of Modern Art acquired a 35mm print from Pathé.

The story is rather simple. A fireman dreams of a woman putting her little girl to bed, and shortly thereafter an alarm sounds. All the firemen rush out of bed and dress, slide down the pole, and get into their waiting horse-drawn firetrucks. Everyone lines up in the streets to watch as they race to the rescue.

The woman inside the burning house passes out on her bed right before the fireman gets inside. He carries her down the ladder by the window he axed open, then carries her daughter to safety. Once everyone is out, he and another fireman begin putting out the fire.

In the next scene, the same woman begs at the window for help, and the fireman goes up the ladder to rescue her. He then goes back up for her daughter. This was cross-cut together in the later edit.

Original version without cross-cutting.

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, Books, Historical fiction

General thoughts on the Betsy-Tacy series, Part II

Books and Beyond: Literary Dream Tour, Part 6: Betsy-Tacy in Minneapolis

A collection of observations, questions, and thoughts I didn’t mention or go into detail about in my book review posts (in no particular order):

22. The spelling Anastacia for a non-Latina born in 1892 seems very anachronistic.

23. It’s really weird how Betsy, Tacy, and Tib still believe in Santa at age twelve, and still believe in him well into their teen years.

24. I roll my eyes when a book or film paints a clearly comfortably bourgeois family as struggling financially because they can only afford one servant and live in a house under 3,000 square feet!

Quotes from Maud Hart Lovelace's Betsy Novels | LiteraryLadiesGuide

25. It makes no sense for shy Tacy to go from total disinterest in boys to charmed by a much-older groomer as soon as she turns eighteen. I wouldn’t be so disturbed by the nine-year age difference or even the ages she and Mr. Kerr get together if they hadn’t met while Tacy was still in high school and she weren’t so naïve and completely inexperienced with men!

26. Why the hell does Mr. Kerr even want to attend a party for high school kids when he’s 27?!

27. Betsy also does a quick about-face regarding older men. She goes from calling Mr. Kerr a grey-beard to wanting to hook up with a dude in his thirties en route to her Grand Tour a few years later!

28. How exactly did Mr. Ray’s business improve to such an extent he could afford a huge house in another part of town?

29. He can afford fancy new digs, but can’t even buy Betsy a real desk?!

30. That piece of chamois used by all the girls in the high school locker room for rubbing their faces sounds like germ city!

Betsy-Tacy (Betsy-Tacy Books): Maud Hart Lovelace, Lois Lenski: 9780064400961: AmazonSmile: Books | Favorite childhood books, Childhood books, Easy chapter books

31. Betsy’s parents really think she can do no wrong! In Betsy Was a Junior, they can’t believe her Latin teacher was so cruel as to actually punish her for trying to pass a note to Tacy during class.

32. Speaking of junior year, it was good to see Betsy facing consequences for her élitist attitudes. Teachers point-blank tell her a lot of students resent how Betsy and her Crowd have everything, and exclude her from several events she took for granted she’d be a shoe-in for.

33. Betsy’s parents aren’t really preparing her for a career in writing when they carry on about how the essay judging committee is out of its mind for daring to not hand her the prize on a silver platter. They should’ve told her you can’t win every contest, and that maybe she needs to work on her research and writing skills.

Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown - Wikipedia

34. Not being from a close-knit, lovey-dovey, touchy-feely family, it was weird to read about Betsy kissing her mother multiple times a day! I don’t remember kissing my mother once my entire life, and can’t see myself ever doing so.

35. Domestic Science is a really pretentious name for home ec.

36. For a series about a budding writer, we see almost nothing of what Betsy’s actually been writing all these years! We’re not even given descriptions of her work.

Betsy and Joe - Wikipedia

37. Why couldn’t Mrs. Lovelace write a few books about Betsy’s college years and sabbatical in California? Hearing a summary of those events in other books doesn’t carry the same impact.

38. I obviously know this wasn’t done at all in mainstream books until the 1960s, but I would’ve liked reading about Betsy’s first period and how menstruation was handled in the Edwardian era.

39. Likewise with reading about Betsy’s first time wearing a corset. Particularly since Edwardian corsets, in contrast to Victorian ones, came all the way down over the thighs, changing the position of the hips, and made walking very difficult and restrictive.

40. And Betsy’s first time having sex! Nothing graphic or even an actual sex scene, but just her feelings about the experience.

41. Are she and Joe using any birth control?

42. I know most people used a “generic he” in this era, but it felt wrong and jarring to see that grammatical convention used even when referring to an all-female group!

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, Books

General thoughts on the Betsy-Tacy series, Part I

A collection of observations, questions, and thoughts I didn’t mention or go into detail about in my book review posts (in no particular order):

1. What kind of high school only makes students take 4-5 classes a year?! Even in the Edwardian era, when high schools were rather uncommon in the U.S., that seems odd! And to only have to take two years of math and science?

2. How did Betsy choose which classes to take? Did her parents decide for her, did they confer together, or was she given free rein to study whatever she wanted? I’m particularly interested in why she chose Latin as her foreign language for the first three years.

3. I know the Establishment Clause was treated like a joke in many public schools of the era, but it always jolts me to see the school day starting with Protestant prayer, hymns, and Bible-reading!

Heaven to Betsy / Betsy in Spite of Herself by Maud Hart Lovelace

4. Also jolting, but in a good way, to see a depiction of school before it became common to do a creepy daily loyalty oath to the flag. Seriously, almost no other countries in the world make kids do that! And a lot of people believe it’s against the law to refuse to take part in that ritual, instead of protected free speech since 1943.

5. What’s the point of the first day of school just being a morning assembly and scheduling classes? Why didn’t they register for classes during the summer?

6. My jaw dropped when Betsy gave a speech, in her debate team, supporting the restriction of immigration. I don’t associate that kind of attitude with her at all! Well, she got her wish when racist, xenophobic, nativist, eugenics-inspired, severely restrictive quotas were passed in 1921 and 1924.

Heaven to Betsy - Wikipedia

7. Speaking of immigrants, I loved the respectful depiction of the Lebanese in Little Syria (so called because Lebanon was part of Syria at the time). I just wish they’d been featured more often.

8. I know this was a common attitude many immigrants felt compelled into in that era, but it made me sad to see Naifi, in the third book, declaring that she has to ditch her lovely native culture so she can become a whitewashed “real American.”

9. I’m far from the only reader who doesn’t like all the over the top, jingoistic flag-waving at the end of the third book. Though it was published in 1943, when that attitude was considered important for the war effort.

Betsy Was a Junior/Betsy and Joe: Lovelace, Maud Hart: 9780061794728: Books - Amazon.ca

10. What a different world when students were expected to memorize everything, even their graduation speeches and research for essay contests! Now kids whine about having to memorize and recite very short poems.

11. I wish we’d gotten more insight into Betsy’s conversion to Episcopalianism. It seems she only liked superficial things like music and social life. I know that’s what initially motivates a lot of conversions, but it should gradually lead to more substantial theological convictions.

12. Many times, old-fashioned words are used without any context to picture what’s being referred to. E.g., I had to search around for awhile before I finally figured out what exactly a dressing sacque, foolscap, and hair rat are.

Betsy in Spite of Herself (Betsy-Tacy): 9780064401111: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Neville, Vera: Books - Amazon.com

13. Such a big deal is made out of Betsy’s first visit to her town’s new Carnegie library, but we never find out just what she thought of the books she checked out, nor do we see her making many non-school-related future visits.

14. No-longer-famous writers’ names are casually dropped with the expectation that readers will automatically know who they are, like Mrs. Muhlbach (who?).

15. People back in the day were so trusting of strangers inviting their teen daughters to spend a summer or school break on their farm in another town!

Buy Betsy-Tacy: 1 Book Online at Low Prices in India | Betsy-Tacy: 1 Reviews & Ratings - Amazon.in

16. I hate how Betsy is made to feel she should only read literature that improves her mind, and that anything mass-market, popular, and/or sensationalistic is trash she should shun.

17. Judging from the types of magazines she submits to and the few glimpses we get of what exactly Betsy’s been writing all these years, she doesn’t exactly aspire to follow in the footsteps of writers like Dickens and Longfellow!

18. The old-fashioned, then-common spelling Mamma is used. I always mentally pronounced Mamma and Papa the normal English way, not the pretentious Ma-MAAAAAAAAA and Pa-PAAAAAAAAA.

Betsy-Tacy and Tib: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Lenski, Lois: 0201564400972: Books - Amazon.ca

19. It’s not fair that Tib’s name is only in the second book’s title. She takes equal part in Betsy and Tacy’s adventures in most of the other books!

20. What are the names of all of Tacy’s other siblings? I didn’t expect all ten of them would be major characters, but why not at least provide their names? We only get to know older sister Katie. A few brothers are briefly mentioned in the earliest books, and Tacy’s baby sister Bee passes away in infancy.

21. I was afraid to Google the type of winter hood Betsy struggles to put on in the first book, since I knew it would yield lots of porn.

Amazon.co.jp: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown (Betsy-Tacy Books Book 4) (English Edition) 電子書籍: Lovelace, Maud Hart, Lenski, Lois: 洋書

Posted in 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, holidays, Movies, Silent film

A sextuple dose of antique horror

Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! Sadly, the Monster template is no longer available. I’m so disappointed and upset! Every year, I looked forward to changing my blogs into that theme for October.

We’re starting off with the 1897 British film The X-Rays (sometimes called The X-Ray Fiend), directed by George Albert Smith. Many of Mr. Smith’s films feature horror and/or supernatural themes. Some sources say he also directed a lost 1897 film called The Haunted Castle, but most film scholars believe this is a misattribution to either the 1897 Georges Méliès film of the same name, or the 1896 Méliès film The House of the Devil, released as The Haunted Castle in the U.S.

An aggressive would-be suitor tries to woo a woman who wants none of it, and an X-ray machine appears and turns them into skeletons. The woman’s parasol also transmogrifies into just its metal supports. The special effects via jump-cuts were state of the art by 1890s standards.

The woman is played by Mr. Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, and the man is comedian Tom Green.

Sorry there’s no soundtrack, but it’s only 44 seconds long

My yearly horror film spotlight wouldn’t be complete without grand master Georges Méliès! The first of the films featured this year is The Treasures of Satan (Les Trésors de Satan) (1902), released in the U.K. as The Devil’s Money Bags.

In a castle, Satan and two assistants put six moneybags into a long chest. After they leave, a stranger (Méliès) creeps in with the intent to steal the moneybags. He breaks the lock, and the moneybags begin dancing in the air. Then he sits on the chest, but is forced off when the lid flies up.

Six ladies in devil outfits pop out, each holding a moneybag which transmogrifies into a spear. When the would-be robber jumps into the chest to take shelter from their torture, the chest changes position, and he’s left exposed. Then the ladies jump back into the chest, and the chest continues moving all around the room before turning into a demon. More torture follows.

Finally, Satan and the demon capture the robber and put him back into the chest. The ladies return and dance as the chest explodes in fire and smoke.

The moneybags are safe and sound after all that drama.

Satan in Prison (Satan en Prison) is a simple story of an imprisoned man (Méliès) who conjures up a fireplace, a table, chairs, a tablecloth, plates, silverware, a mirror, a woman, and various items of home décor. When the guards return, he makes all these objects disappear as magically as they appeared, and reveals himself as Satan. He then disappears with the aid of his cape.

The Red Spectre (Le Spectre Rouge) was directed by Segundo de Chomón (Segundo Víctor Aurelio Chomón y Ruiz). Señor de Chomón is widely considered the greatest Spanish silent film director, and often compared to Méliès because he used many of the same magical illusion tricks and camera work.

In 1901, he began distributing his films through the French company Pathé, and moved to Paris in 1905. He remained with Pathé even after returning to Barcelona in 1910.

In an underground grotto, a dancing coffin opens amid flames to reveal a demonic magician in a skeleton suit and with a magnificent cape. He conjures up five dancing ladies, flying flames, and decorative gold cauldrons which he lights. He then brings back two of the ladies, wraps them in a black tarpaulin, and makes them levitate and disappear. His next magic trick is making the ladies appear shrunken-down inside large bottles which he fills with liquid.

A Good Spirit does some back and forth tricks, including an easel projecting films and throwing objects at him from thin air. Finally, the Good Spirit reveals an area of the grotto with the other ladies, and she takes him downstage, pours something on him, and turns him into a lifeless skeleton.

Satan at Play (Satan S’Amuse) (1907), also directed by Señor de Chomón, is frequently confused with The Red Spectre at IMDB and on YouTube. They’re obviously two completely different films, which makes me wonder if people even bothered watching before mindlessly copying and pasting a synopsis. Sadly, I couldn’t find a single video of it anywhere, because everyone mislabeled The Red Spectre!

The Devil is bored. He goes back to Earth with a magic elevator. He surprises two sewer workers, disguises himself as a city man, and spreads improbable events: quarrel with a coachman, altercation with a city sergeant, the mystification of a barman, and quid pro quo with couples. He gets trapped in a cage with a young woman and goes down to Hell. It is revealed that the young woman is in fact Madame Devil, disguised by jealousy.

The sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released 16 January 1912. James Cruze, a prolific actor of the silent era who also directed many films from 1919–1937, stars in the lead role, and Florence LaBadie (the Thanhouser Girl) plays his sweetheart. Mr. Cruze’s real-life first wife Marguerite Snow appears as an extra.

Who isn’t familiar with this story? A young doctor concocts a potion to transform himself into a grotesque creature, who commits evil acts and obeys his baser instincts. Before long, he no longer needs to drink the potion to transform, and his alter ego becomes more and more deranged, with tragic consequences.

Posted in 1900s, 1910s, Books, Hermann Hesse

Do you bear the Mark of Cain? (Demian, Part II: Plot summary)

On its face, Demian might seem like a very simple, lightweight novel, with only eight chapters, less than 150 pages, a very small cast, a rather episodic structure, and a plot that’s mostly about the journey through life and Emil Sinclair’s moral and spiritual development. But despite all of those things, the story truly shines as so much deeper and more profound.

Emil Sinclair’s story begins about 1906, when he’s ten years old. All his life, he’s felt safe, comforted, well-ordered, and secure in his family’s shiny, happy, peaceful, calm, pious, wealthy home. However, this home also contains an entirely different second world, that of the servants, who talk of things like prison, ghosts, alcoholism, murder, robbery, suicide, wife-beating, evil spells, injured horses, arson, and cops. From a young age, he’s been inextricably drawn to this forbidden underworld and has felt his family’s world to be boring and depressing in comparison.

Sinclair’s life begins changing forever when Franz Kromer, a 13-year-old public school student and son of an alcoholic tailor, joins him and two of his friends as they’re exploring the town. To try to impress the others when they’re swapping stories about heroics and pranks, Sinclair makes up a windy about robbing gourmet apples from an orchard.

Kromer makes him swear by God that it really happened, and when Sinclair reaches home, the nightmare begins. It so turns out that this orchard really was robbed, and the owner has offered a reward of two marks to anyone who can name the thief. Since Kromer doesn’t come from money like Sinclair, he’s eager to claim this reward.

Sinclair only has 65 cents, which means he’s entirely in Kromer’s servitude until he can produce the full sum of two marks, always summoned by a sickening whistle. During this period, Sinclair does a lot of stealing, lying, and performing humiliating tasks demanded by Kromer, like hopping on one leg for ten minutes and sticking notes on people’s jackets. His health suffers horribly, and his parents know something very wrong is going on, but he can’t tell them the truth.

While these torments are going on, a new boy comes to school, a few years older than Sinclair, who recently lost his father. Like Sinclair, his family is also well-to-do. Max Demian seems so much older than his years, since he carries himself with such maturity. None of the other boys like him, since he keeps to himself, refuses to fight, and acts more like a man than a schoolboy. The only thing they like about him is “the firm and confident tone he took with the teacher.” He and his mother also never attend church, and rumors about his true religion swirl.

One day when they’re walking home together, Demian tells Sinclair a fascinating alternative interpretation of the Cain and Abel story. Cain wasn’t the villain, he was the forward-thinking hero who was already marked and feared because he was so different from other people.

The situation with Kromer intensifies, and Sinclair begins having horrific recurring nightmares, the worst of which involves him murdering his father. Kromer also demands he bring his older sister, which Sinclair refuses to do. But then, after a personal conversation about the matter with Demian, Kromer mysteriously vanishes, and when he encounters Sinclair a few times afterwards, he flees in terror. Sinclair never finds out just how Demian did this.

A few years later, Demian shows up in Sinclair’s confirmation class, since he wasn’t confirmed at the usual age. In a world without separation of church and state, his mother presumably felt being unconfirmed might cause problems for his future.

In this class, Demian’s seat changes several times, until he ends up next to Sinclair. He also introduces Sinclair to psychic games, like compelling the pastor to not call on them or make other boys do a certain gesture. Even more profoundly, thanks to the earlier Midrash about the Mark of Cain, Demian has caused Sinclair to begin interpreting Biblical stories in a more creative, less literal fashion. In confirmation class, Demian shares a new Midrash, about the unrepentant thief at the Crucifixion having the courage of his convictions, while the story of the weepy, repentant thief is “nothing but a sanctimonious fairytale, treacly and dishonest, insipid and sentimental and obviously didactic.”

During one class, Demian goes into a statue-like trance which Sinclair tries and fails to replicate at home.

The next year, Sinclair starts a boarding school in another city, where he feels like a total outsider and unwanted loser until he begins going to bars and getting drunk regularly. His grades plummet as a result, and his parents are quite displeased. But then he encounters a beautiful, intelligent-looking woman whom he names Beatrice, in homage to Dante, and everything immediately turns around. His grades improve and he regains the respect of his teachers and parents, though his old friends reject him with mockery.

Sinclair begins painting, in the hopes of capturing Beatrice’s face, but all his efforts fail. Finally, he creates an image which eerily calls to him, a face both male and female, ageless, dreamy, strong-willed. He hides it in his drawer so no one sees it and makes fun of him, but when he’s alone, he pins it up over his bed so he can constantly gaze upon it.

It dawns on Sinclair that this is Demian’s face, though the features aren’t quite identical. Later, rain smudges the painting, and when it dries between heavy blotting paper, the mouth becomes exactly like Demian’s.

Sinclair’s next artistic mission is to paint the sparrow hawk on top of the coat of arms over his family’s front door, which Demian was very drawn to. He sends the painting to Demian, and in response finds a cryptic note in the pages of a textbook:

“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Who would be born must first destroy a world. The bird flies to God. That god’s name is Abraxas.”

In that very lecture, the teacher discusses Abraxas, “a deity whose symbolic task is to unite the Divine and the Satanic.”

The winter before graduation, Sinclair is entranced by beautiful organ music from a small church, music that sounds like a prayer and with a great deal of personal expressiveness. He eventually tracks down the organist at a bar, and it turns out this fellow also knows about Abraxas.

Sinclair and Pistorius become fast friends, and spend much time together at Pistorius’s house, mostly lying on their stomachs and staring into the fireplace as the embers, smoke, and flames form pictures, shapes, and letters. However, Sinclair later feels himself growing apart from Pistorius. While Sinclair wants to find his own unique path to wisdom and enlightenment, Pistorius looks entirely to the past and other people’s ideas.

During Sinclair’s first semester at university, he finally encounters Demian again, after not seeing him since a brief meeting during Sinclair’s drunk phase. Demian and his mother Eva, whom Sinclair discovers in shock is the true face he painted and the woman in the recurring sexual dreams he’s had for years, have gathered a group of people who bear the Mark of Cain like they do. For the first time in his life, Sinclair feels like he belongs somewhere and is encouraged to find his own unique destiny and truth.

And then World War One breaks out, and nothing or no one will ever be the same again.