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 1920s, Movies, Silent film

A powerful story of hope, faith, and love in the face of great tribulations

Note: I wrote the first section of this post in December 2022, but was unable to squeeze it into the remainder of the year.

Mary Pickford loved Tess of the Storm Country so much, she filmed it twice, in 1914 and 1922. She decided to remake it because her previous film, Little Lord Fauntleroy, hadn’t done so well at the box office, and she wanted to redeem herself. She also realized she needed to play the kind of character audiences had grown to expect from her.

Not only did Mary love the character and story of Tess, she also felt the story could be done greater justice with improved filming technology and a bigger budget. The source material was a 1909 novel of the same name by Grace Miller White (née Mary Esther Miller).

The 1914 original is one of the few known surviving films starring Harold LockwoodTess was remade again in 1932 (with Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell) and 1960 (with Diane Baker and Jack Ging).

The version being discussed here was released 12 November 1922.

Elias Graves (David Torrence, brother of Ernest Torrence) has another think coming if he believes he can easily expel the squatters living at the bottom of his hill. These poor fishers proudly cling to their way of life and their shabby homesteads, even in the face of cruel hostility.

Graves’s daughter Teola (Gloria Hope) is being courted by a young law student, Dan Jordan (Robert Russell). Though Dan and Graves share their hostile views on the squatters, Graves doesn’t approve of Dan and Teola’s relationship. Dan hopes to change that opinion by finding a way to get rid of the squatters.

Graves’s son Frederick (Lloyd Hughes) doesn’t share their opinions. He knows the squatters would have nowhere to go if they were evicted.

The putrid scent of rotting fish carries all the way up to the top of the hill, greatly offending Graves. Hoping to butter him up, Dan goes to take care of the matter. Graves also sends Frederick on this mission.

When they arrive, spunky 17-year-old Tessibel “Tess” Skinner (Mary Pickford) jumps on Dan and tangles him up under a fishing net, giving him a scratched cheek. She also chases Frederick away. Despite this violent meeting and Tess’s unkempt appearance, Frederick is charmed by Tess.

Dan decides to try another tack, stealing the fishing nets. If the squatters can’t fish, they’ll have nothing to eat, and will have no choice but to scram.

Frederick goes down the hill to see Tess, bringing chocolates. Though Tess is initially suspicious of his intentions, she’s quickly won over. Frederick also apologizes to Orn (Daddy) Skinner (Forrest Robinson) for his dad’s hateful views and says he doesn’t share them.

Tess also has another suitor, physically powerful, mean-spirited bully Ben Letts (Jean Hersholt), who won’t take no for an answer, despite her constant refusals.

When the thugs come to steal the nets, Tess and Daddy hide theirs in a mattress. It goes undetected until a tiny bit falls out at the last minute. Dan decides to leave well enough alone and wait until he can catch them using it. Meanwhile, the other families’ nets are burnt, with no concern for how the squatters will eat.

Driven by hunger, the squatters take a chance and go fishing under cover of darkness. Tess is terrified of trouble, and her fears come true when Dan is shot and killed by Ben. The nightmare increases when Daddy is falsely accused and arrested. He admits that’s his gun, but professes his innocence.

Ezra Longman (Danny Hoy), another guy with a crush on Tess, tells Ben he’ll keep the secret if he agrees to quit sexually harassing Tess.

The situation is even more complicated because Teola is pregnant out of wedlock, decades before single motherhood became socially acceptable.

Tess asserts her father’s innocence when Graves comes to the shanty, and prays for God to save her father, which Graves condemns as blasphemy. Graves says he’ll make Daddy pay the penalty, and Tess leaps on him in rage.

Frederick advises her to cool her temper, and reassures her that no prayer is blasphemy.

Tess and Frederick’s friendship continues to grow, and they begin studying the Bible together (with a copy Tess stole from church). A major theme of the film is that some unbaptised people who never go to church, with no formal religious education, are better Christians than people who put on a public show of piety but have no regard for even basic religious teachings.

Graves disowns Frederick when he discovers Frederick is raising money for Skinner’s defence.

The plot thickens when Daddy is found guilty. Now Tess is all alone, and Ben breaks his promise to leave her alone. Not only that, but Tess saves Teola from a suicide attempt and brings her to the shanty to give birth.

Will Daddy be proven innocent? Will Tess and Frederick’s unlikely love succeed? And what will become of Teola’s baby?

Posted in Writing

IWSG—Writing plans for 2023


Welcome to the very first Insecure Writer’s Support Group of 2023! The IWSG convenes the first Wednesday of every month to commiserate over worries, fears, doubts, and struggles.

My major 2023 writing plans are to finish the radical rewrite of the book formerly known as The Very Last and prep it for publication. Its new and improved title will finally be revealed upon release. As I’ve said many times, the title comes from a line in one of Charlie Chaplin’s sound films (but not the most well-known of his talkies).

After that’s done, I’m resuming my near-total rewrite of Almost As an Afterthought: The First Six Months of 1941. I think it’ll go much faster and easier when I’m coming to it in the proper order, with the background context of a completed TVL. I should’ve learnt my lesson about the perils of writing out of order!

To reward myself for winning NaNo, and for my birthday, I got my twelfth ear piercing and got my other nostril pierced. The new addition is the rook (which I’ve had on the other side since 2015), the curved barbell with dark blue opals and anodized blue titanium. I also finally got a new piece of jewelry in my conch in that ear, the blue opal marquis fan. The purple opal I wore in it for seven years is now in my second lobe piercing on that ear.


Hopefully I’ll be able to resume my alternative history about Dante and Beatrice before the end of the year. As I mentioned in my last IWSG post, during NaNo I realized a big factor in my reduced level of writing productivity since lockdown has been my unconscious inability to turn off editor mode. Now that I’m getting back into better habits, I predict writing the first draft at a much faster rate.

Slated blog post topics for 2023:

A thorough review of my favoritest album ever, The Who’s Quadrophenia, which turns 50 this year. I’ve posted about it many times, but never as a review. Given how much I have to say about it and how important it is, I’m doing an entire series on it.

Film reviews of the original Ten Commandments (1923), Quo Vadis (1913), The Last Days of Pompeii (1913), and Life of an American Fireman (1903), plus a whole bunch of classic horror films with landmark anniversaries in October.

The history of Divine Comedy translations into worldwide languages. I already wrote a post about the history of its translation into English.

Part II of contrapasso (a punishment or penance reminding one of the sin committed in life) in The Divine Comedy. This will cover Purgatorio.

Films about The Divine Comedy.

A series on writing about corsets in historical fiction, and debunking persistent myths about this very misunderstood garment.

Reviews of Please Please Me and With The Beatles on their respective 60th birthdays.

Writing about breeching, long pants, and little boys wearing dresses in historical fiction.

Writing about menarche and dysmenorrhea.

A series about writing about Jewish denominations (history, theology, etc.).

The distinction between the words “woman” and “lady” in historical fiction.

Behind the scenes of my list of silent films seen (what I count as a silent, pertinent information to include in parentheses, how and when I started my list, etc.).

The 100th anniversary of Rudy Valentino’s Mineralava Dance Tour, which he and his second wife Natacha Rambova did while he was on strike from acting.

I’d like to express how relieved and happy I am that WordPress decided to retain their Classic Editor through at least 2024! I was dreading the end of 2022 because that had been called as the final date for the Classic Editor, and I was NOT looking forward to the long, slow, steep learning curve of the garbage Block Editor almost no one likes.

What are your writing plans for 2023?

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The Shame of a Nation (Scarface at 90, Part II: Plot summary)

Tony Camonte (Paul Muni), a gangster in Chicago, works as a bodyguard for crime lord Big Louis Costillo until being contracted by his buddy Johnny Lovo (Osgood Perkins) to kill Costillo. Though the cops bring Tony in for questioning, he quickly walks free, and Johnny takes over Costillo’s former territory on the South Side. Tony becomes his second-in-command.

Now that he’s gotten a taste of a bigger salary and more power, Tony is eager to expand the empire even farther, into the North Side. This is a bridge too far for Johnny, who pleads with Tony to leave the North Side in the control of Irish gangster O’Hara.

That doesn’t deter Tony in the least. He’s confident his gang will someday take over the North Side and dethrone O’Hara’s gang. Not only that, he believes he’ll succeed Johnny as the head honcho, and starts getting flirtatious with Johnny’s girlfriend Poppy (Karen Morley).

Because Prohibition has just come in, Tony also wants to increase their crime empire and earn more easy money through bootlegging. Johnny is also keen to do this, but insists on waiting until after Costillo’s funeral to discuss the matter.

We then meet Tony’s kid sister Francesca (Cesca) (Ann Dvorak). He’s furious to discover she’s in the entry hallway kissing some guy instead of eating dinner at home. After Tony chases away her date, he insists he doesn’t want any men touching her, and gives her money to have fun without guys.

Mrs. Camonte (Inez Palange) highly disapproves of her accepting dirty money, but Cesca is determined to live her own life as she sees fit.

Johnny takes over Costillo’s former club without any difficulty, and his gang’s control over the South Side increases even more. Tony and some of his buddies set up a bootlegging operation and begin overselling their beer to every local speakeasy. They also start putting out a lot of hits on rivals and people standing in their way.

One of these shootouts is at The Shamrock, run by O’Hara’s gang. With their rival’s top men permanently out of the picture, it seems as though the North Side is theirs. There’s a little snag when the newspaper reports one of the gangsters survived and is in hospital, so Tony and his guys pay him a little visit to take care of this problem.

Tony tries to put the moves on Poppy again, but she refuses his advances, despite feeling some attraction to him. Johnny is also angry to learn he put out a hit on the North Side, since O’Hara will now be out for blood. As they’re all arguing, a car speeds down the street and throws out a dead body, with a note pinned to him:


Soon afterwards, Poppy calls Tony multiple times to arrange a meeting. The message doesn’t get through the first time on account of Tony’s dimwitted secretary Angelo (Vince Barnett), a great bit of comic relief. Finally, Tony answers the phone himself, and to his great delight learns Poppy is right outside.

Poppy brings the news that O’Hara was taken out that morning in a flower shop, which explains why a fellow gangster just brought a carnation. While she and Tony are getting friendly in his place upstairs, the cops appear outside. Tony sends her to safety down the stairs through a back door and arranges a date that night.

Enter rival crime lord Tom Gaffney (Boris Karloff), who’s just received a fine shipment of sub-machine guns. When he’s tipped off that he’s being trailed, he figures out a way to get his precious new weapons to safety.

Tony has gotten out of legal trouble the same way he did earlier, by having his lawyer cite habeas corpus to the cops. With that matter easily settled, he goes to meet Poppy at the restaurant.

Alas, their date is interrupted by a big shootout. Angelo once against provides great comic relief by being completely unharmed as he talks on the phone right in the middle of the violence.

Tony is thrilled to discover an abandoned machine gun, particularly since it’s portable. This isn’t the kind of machine gun you have to operate in a stationary position. You can take it on the go with you.

Tony demonstrates the use of this magical weapon to Johnny, whom he has another fight with, and starts putting out hits on North Side rivals.

The violence continues fast and furious, leading cops to beg a newspaper editor to quit glorifying gangsters or even giving them any coverage at all. The editor says he can’t change anything unless the laws change first. That’s politicians’ responsibility, not his.

Tony is shocked and angry to see Cesca wearing a sexy dress and dancing with his buddy Guino “Little Boy” Rinaldo (George Raft) at a nightclub. This completely distracts him from his and Johnny’s rivalry for Poppy’s attentions, and he drags Cesca home, breaks a strap of her dress, and hits her. Once again, he insists no man can ever have her.

Then the power struggle between Tony and Johnny starts intensifying, with the stakes increasingly higher. Even more trouble appears when Tony returns from a month-long Florida vacation with Poppy and learns Cesca moved out. Tony storms over to her new home and flips out to see Guino is living with her.

Now the stage is set for one final confrontation between Tony and the law, with the highest stakes ever.

Posted in 1930s, Movies

The Shame of a Nation (Scarface at 90, Part I: Behind the scenes, reception, legacy)

Released 9 April 1932, Scarface: The Shame of a Nation was loosely based on Armitage Trail’s 1929 novel of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Al Capone. Since gangster films were a hot property in the early Thirties, Howard Hughes bought the film rights. Warner Brothers was quickly proven wrong in their pessimistic prediction that the genre was already worn-out and oversaturated!

Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay in eleven days in January 1931. Later additions were made by W.R. Burnett (author of the novel Little Caesar) and Fred Pasley. The script was rewritten for dialogue and continuity by Seton I. Miller and John Lee Mahin.

Ultimately, the film has almost nothing in common with the book, outside of the same major characters, major plot points, and creepy incestuous undertones between Tony and his sister Cesca. Sadly, some of the changes were made because of censorship fears.

Howard Hughes wanted a grand première in NYC, but censorship boards vetoed it. The film was also banned in Detroit, Chicago, Portland, Seattle, Ohio, Kansas, Maryland, and Virginia. The New York Herald Tribune was delighted when Hughes threatened to sue these Puritanical nitwits for attempting to block the release of his film.

Finally, Jason Joy convinced them to permit the film’s screening, since the equally-Puritanical Hays Office had approved all of the many, many, many changes made to appease censors’ warped sense of morality (e.g., making Tony less sympathetic and intelligent, adding scenes to explicitly condemn gangsterism, removing crime-friendly cops and politicians, making Tony’s mother against his lifestyle instead of hugely supportive of it).

Eventually, Scarface was approved for release everywhere.

Though most people liked the film (even Al Capone himself!), and the National Board of Review listed Scarface as one of 1932’s best films, box office receipts were negatively affected by general public disapproval of gangsterism, crime, and violence. Some critics wrote brutal reviews.

In addition to blasting the criminal subject, some critics also zoomed in on Boris Karloff’s British accent, which they felt was really out of place in a gangster film. However, other critics thought his role was one of the best aspects.

The fraternal Order Sons of Italy in America, the Italian Embassy, and many other Italian–American organisations and people also condemned the film for following the trend of associating Italian–Americans with crime. Will Hays tried to do damage control by claiming the film was delayed in production for two years and didn’t reflect the current censorship laws he oversaw.

Scarface was also banned in Nazi Germany, Ireland, and some cities in England, and despite Jason Joy’s victory over Puritanical U.S. censorship boards, some cities and states still refused to screen the film. It wasn’t shown in Chicago until 20 November 1941, when it broke box office records at the Woods Theatre.

Upon its initial release, Scarface earned $600,000 ($13,038,438 in 2022). Though this made it a bigger financial success than Hughes’s other films, it still probably only broke even instead of turning a profit. Hughes was known for spending a lot of money on his productions.

Hughes scrapped his plans to direct a sequel in 1933, thanks to increasingly stricter censorship demands. Eventually he removed Scarface from circulation due to not making enough money from it.

Despite its initial bombing at the box office, Scarface has gone on to become a classic, highly regarded by critics and regular viewers alike. In autumn 1946, it was translated and dubbed into Italian, with the characters’ names Americanised, and a few other changes made to appear less of a negative reflection on Italians.

In 1976, it was redubbed into Italian, with the changes reverted and the original Italian names and references restored.

In 1994, Scarface was chosen for preservation in the U.S. National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” Over the years, it’s frequently appeared on those incessant best-of lists.

Scarface is also considered one of the Big Three of early 1930s gangster films, the other two being The Public Enemy and Little Caesar. However, it was also the final major gangster film for some time, as the ridiculously restrictive Hays Code came crashing down on 1 July 1934 and made the subject matter impossible to depict properly.

In 1979, three years after Hughes’s death, the holding company Summa Corporation, which controlled his estate, released Scarface and seven other films from his vaults and sold their film rights to Universal. This led to a 1983 remake starring Al Pacino.

Since all events are linked together in this best of all possible worlds, Pacino said he was very inspired by Paul Muni, both as an actor in general and his work in Scarface in particular. It was also thanks to Scarface that Muni’s star began rapidly rising.

Additionally, Scarface launched the long leading man career of second lead George Raft, and it was Ann Dvorak’s best-known film.

In 2011, Universal announced plans for a new version, neither a remake or sequel, but rather with elements from both previous films. As of the last update in 2020, the current slated director is Luca Guadagnino, and the Coen brothers are the screenwriters.