The Hot Films Of February 1914: We Didn’t Even Need Dialogue

The good news is that February ’14 is the bestest ever month for movies, but of course (hee hee) we are talking about February 1914, one hundred years ago. Sorry, modern movies, but the olden times are kicking your ass right now.

Back in the dawn of time, people made movies in New York, usually at the Biograph studios on 14th Street. Mary Pickford would scamper around in front of D.W. Griffith’s camera (when she wasn’t dying of consumption in a picturesque fashion). Occasionally people would take the ferry out to Fort Lee New Jersey  to shoot a “western,” where the Palisades made an excellent backdrop, and even inspire the term “cliff-hanger.” But before long all the cool kids were heading out to California’s nine months of sunshine a year. Mack Sennett set up Keystone Studios in Edendale, and his fellow Biograph refugee Mabel Normand would star in his pictures, and frequently co-direct them as well.

Charlie Chaplin was touring the United States with the British Karno music hall company when he was spotted by Mack Sennett. Sennett sent a telegram asking to hire “a man named Chaffin…or something like that.” No doubt a comical scene followed, involving flying pies and a girl tied to the railroad tracks, but soon the confusion was sorted out and Chaplin came to Los Angeles to work for Sennett’s Keystone Studios.

After a month or so cooling his heels while Mack Sennett was kept busy cranking out movies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops (there were giants in those days, my friends), in January 1914 Chaplin finally stepped in front of the cameras. By February 2 1914, the first Charlie Chaplin movie hit the screens, a one-reeler called Making a Living. Sadly, Chaplin is barely recognizable playing a caddish pick-pocket, and the movie itself isn’t very entertaining.

Fortunately the second Chaplin film wasn’t long in coming. The classic Kid Auto Races at Venice was released February 7th. Mack Sennett had read about a soapbox derby in the newspaper, and, thrilled at the prospect of hundreds of extras he could film for free, asked Chaplin to improvise some funny business. The result was an instant cinema icon. Here is the first appearance of The Tramp on screen; the movie itself is so modern that if released today on YouTube as “Attention Whore Fail” it would probably go viral. Chaplin plays a man just drawn to a movie camera, a type instantly recognizable from all those idiots waving behind location newscasters. But how did Chaplin know this in 1914?

One day after Kid Auto Races at Venice opened, the popular cartoonist Winsor McCay presented Gertie the Dinosaur for the first time. McCay had been drawing cartoons for the Hearst newspapers, but in his spare time he was pioneering cinema animation. For Gertie he invented keyframes, registration marks, and cycles of animation. The resulting film was played as part of a vaudeville act, in which Winsor McCay would call out “directions” to the cartoon dinosaur, which would obey his commands (most of the time). This was the dawn not only of character animation, but a first step that would lead inexorably to Godzilla and Jurassic Park.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UY40DHs9vc4

A mere four days later, on February 12th, the first feature film made in Hollywood was released. Cecil B. DeMille had originally wanted to make The Squaw Man in Flagstaff, Arizona, but was disappointed with the town when his train arrived, and continued on to Los Angeles. He found a barn to rent in Hollywood, and the rest, as they say, was history.

The rest of February ’14 was nothing special – just some more films with Fatty Arbuckle, Mary Pickford, Wallace Reid, and everybody else. Try imagining a month with a release schedule like this happening today.

Your Handy February 1914 Timeline

2 Feb – Making a Living

5 Feb – O Mimi San (with Sessue Hayakawa, his wife Tsuru Aoki, and future Mrs. Charlie Chaplin Mildred Harris)

7 Feb – Kid Auto Races at Venice

8 Feb – Gertie the Dinosaur

9 Feb – Mabel’s Strange Predicament (with Mabel Normand and Charlie Chaplin)

10 Feb – Hearts Adrift (Directed by Edwin S. Porter, with Mary Pickford who also wrote the scenario)

12 Feb – The Squaw Man (Cecil B. DeMille)

14 Feb – Classmates (with Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore)

18 Feb – A Flash In the Dark (directed by Wallace Reid, with future director  Frank Borzage acting)

20 Feb – The Raiders (produced by Thomas Ince)

21 Feb – Love and Gasoline (co-directed by Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand)

23 Feb – Twixt Love and Fire (starring Fatty Arbuckle, and possibly Harold Lloyd)

26 Feb – The Massacre (D.W. Griffith with Blanche Sweet, Lionel Barrymore)

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  • Lazy Media

    Too bad most silent films were never preserved. I was just reading about Clara Bow in Bill Bryson’s “One Summer: America, 1927.” Most of her best work is lost, because her Brooklyn accent ended her career when talkies came in. Which is a shame, because she was a complete sexual sportin’ lady, and you can’t have fantasies about bangin’ Clara Bow without some Clara Bow video to work with.

    • Mahousu

      Maybe this will help (from “Hula”):

    • Mabel Normand also had a rep as an ‘adventuress,’ complete with drug/murder scandal. But her look was so old-timey that she seems blah compared to flappers like Clara Bow and Louise Brooks.