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'A Night at the Cinema in 1914': Charles Chaplin, Pearl White and The Great War

Charles Chaplin A Film Johnnie 1914Charles Chaplin in 'A Film Johnnie' (1914).

'A Night at the Cinema in 1914': From The Great War to Charles Chaplin and Pearl White

Imagine, if you will, that you can go back one hundred years in time, when people were enjoying a new and pervasive art form: motion pictures. In 1914, the movies had already been around for a while, in peep shows, nickelodeons, and small screening rooms. But now movie theaters were springing up in every community large and small, where families could flock together and watch flickering images in comfort, with live musical accompaniment.

On September 20, such was the experience provided by the 2014 San Francisco Silent Film Festival - Silent Autumn: “A Night at the Cinema in 1914.” For a history buff like me, this was second best to getting into a time machine.

1914 at the movies

True, the programs consisted mostly of films from the British Film Institute, but the variety content of newsreels, comedy, and travel documentaries – set in a world just before the outset of The Great War – could be enjoyed by American audiences as well. In brief:

Looping the Loop at Hendon was first to be screened. I found this aviation footage significant in regard to the war that was brewing in Europe, and the effect that the newly developed air power would play in that conflict.

Palace Pandemonium may seem funny to us today, but in 1914 women were not allowed to vote, either in Britain or the U.S. The suffragette movement was a driving force felt on both sides of the Atlantic.

Austrian Tragedy had the biggest impact for me, as the world was creeping closer and closer to a global conflagration in the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria.

Dog for the Antarctic was just a short clip of Sir Ernest Shackleton's fateful expedition to the South Pole.

Daisy Doodad's Dial was a bit of nonsense, important only for the fact that it was produced at Britain's Hepworth Studios by an American woman, Florence Turner, who was also the film's star – and who happened to be one of the first movie stars on the other side of the Atlantic as well. (Note from the editor: Before movie stars had “names,” Florence Turner was known as “The Vitagraph Girl,” as she was associated with that Brooklyn-based studio.)

Egypt and Her Defenders returned us to war reporting as it showed British Consul General Lord Kitchener. Here we get to see how The Sphinx and the Great Pyramids looked in 1914.

The Perils of Pauline Pearl White 1914'The Perils of Pauline': 1914 serial with Pearl White and unidentified swarthy villain.

The Perils of Pauline featured one episode of the epoch-making serial starring Pearl White as the heroine who could get out of the most hazardous situations. At Paramount, Betty Hutton would play White in a highly fictionalized 1947 biopic, directed by George Marshall, and also named The Perils of Pauline.

Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine was a low-comedy short. The only things I found funny were the cheap sets and phony special effects. Music hall performers and brothers Fred Evans and Joe Evans directed and were featured in the film, with Fred as the titular lieutenant – a role he played in dozens of shorts from 1912 to 1922.

Scout's Valuable Aid was significant in that it showed how civilians could participate in the war effort by their vigilance.

German Occupation of Historic Louvain provided some compelling propaganda footage of the destruction of Belgium by German troops.

General French's Contemptible Little Army was a wartime animated bit of fluff, which must have kept those with short attention spans very happy. Note: As found on the BFI website, the title refers to Kaiser Wilhelm having allegedly dismissed as “contemptible” the British Expeditionary Force led by Commander-in-Chief Sir John French.

Christmas at the Front, just as the title suggests, was a brief shot of the troops being fed from a steaming cauldron. I couldn't help but wonder what kind of food was in the pot.

The Rollicking Rajah, another Hepworth production, was my favorite. This early example of sound-on-disc was a proto-version of what Vitaphone would become twelve years later. In this case it was called “Vivaphone.” Since the original disc is lost, the soundtrack was “restored” by using the sheet music. The singing was so out of sync that I could understand why audiences wanted nothing to do with talking pictures at the time. But it was a lot of fun to hear the singing and to watch the clumsy chorus girls dancing out of step to the bad lip-synching.

A Film Johnnie, from America's Keystone Studios, ended the program – appropriately enough, with Charles Chaplin, who made his first appearance as the Little Tramp character in this celebrated year.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival should be congratulated for its presentation of “A Night at the Cinema in 1914.” This entertaining “time capsule” thrilled the audience at the Castro Theatre, who enthusiastically applauded every short. The live musical accompaniment was provided by the ever capable Donald Sosin.


Charles Chaplin A Film Johnnie image: San Francisco Silent Film Festival Silent Autumn 2014 – “A Night at the Cinema in 1914.”

Image of Pearl White in the 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline via Women Film Pioneers Project.

'A Night at the Cinema in 1914': Charles Chaplin, Pearl White and The Great War © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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