Later famed as D. W. Griffith's cameraman, G. W. Bitzer began as a kinetoscopic filmmaker. A patriotic recreation of the 1875 painting by Archibald M. Willard, Spirit of '76 (1905) shows a battlefield of the American Revolution, with three figures facing the audience.
One figure is a drummer boy, the next a white-haired drummer, & third a man with a fife. They play their instruments in spooky silence but in my mind I could hear "Yankee Doodle Dandy."
Halfway through, they leave the stage, & there's a pathetic little pyrotechnic effect of an explosion on the battlefield. Then the symbolic musicians return for another round of silent yankee doodle.
For climax a fourth figure arrives in the background, vigorously waving the American flag. I know some home-schooling Christian parents for whom this would be all the American history required!
A series of little stage performances focus around the general theme of Fights of Nations (1907) in this eleven minute "collection" of scenes which rely on race stereotyping for their effect.
It is really six films in one, each with its own subtitle, originally shown in pairs of two & sold as three films. Though held together by the theme of "fights" & national identity, the tone is quite varied mini-film to mini-film. These vignettes originate as vaudevillian sketches that rely on insulting stereotypes for their laughs.
The first episode "Mexico & Spain" shows a peasant Mexican with a knife sneaking along a veranda. He hides behind a rail just before the arrival of a Spaniard & his senorita, who begin dancing.
When the couple sit on the bench for a bit of cooing & billing, the Mexican leaps out & attempts to knife the Spaniard.
The brave young woman grab's the villain's knife-arm saving her beau. The Spaniard begins circling the Mexican, unarmed man against armed man in quite a good bit of fight choreography.
The Spaniard gets the knife away from the Mexican & is about to kill his attacker when the senorita unexpectedly goes down on a knee & pleas for mercy for the Mexican, who makes awful threatening gestures when allowed to go, unworthy cretin that he is.
The second episode 'Our Hebrew Friends" shows a street-vending necktie seller arguing with another Jew in a sidewalk scene.
A gentleman comes walking along in a bowler & can't get past the arguing Jews, so he pushes himself forcefully between them & continues on his way.
A little bearded Jew comes along next & the two arguing Jews buttonhole him & push him around, involving him in their argument until he's mad, too.
The three Jews lock arms in circle & do a kind of ring-around-the-rosies repeatedly kicking each other in the nuts.
An Irish cop breaks them up & is about to arrest them, but when slipped a bribe he lets them off. The three men lock arms again, this time in a row for a happy hava nagila dance.
Episode 3 is "'Hoot Mon!' A Scottish Combat." The stage has a Scot decked out in fullest Lorna Doone drag already fallen in a sword fight. His enemy exits stage right.
Another kilted soldier enters stage left to lend succor to the fallen man, then the foe returns for an exciting bit of broadsword fighting.
That's two sequences our of three with good fight choreography, & might be regarded precursors to swashbuckler films, & a hint of the great action scenes Bitzer would eventually be filming under Griffith's directorial instruction.
"Sunny Africa, Eighth Avenue, New York" is the title of Episode 4, set in a music hall that caters to black folk.
Couples are dancing in close embrace, then seat themselves at tables as a waiter strides in. The piano player tickles the keys at the back wall. The owner-manager (or so I'd take him to be) moves about the joint seeing that everyone's happy.
The guy in the striped shirt begins to do an amusing sailor's tapdance while others clap in time, his slim girlfriend standing on her chair to enjoy the performance from a higher angle.
Up to now this is a surprising little piece, as the black characters are played by black folk rather than by whites in parodying blackface. Everyone's smartly dressed for a fun night out & showing off a bit of talent.
The chap in the striped shirt leaves the hall momentarily & the fellow who seems to be the restaurant manager asks the fellow's date to join him in a cake-walk, the popular dance of the day.
When the striped shirt returns, he turns mean & a wrestling fist fight with knives breaks out. The waiter & the girlfriend break it up, & the guy in the striped shirt cakewalks with his gal right out the door, skipping out on their bill while they're at it.
Episode 5 "Sons of the Ould Sod" is a slapstick encounter between slum dwellers, meant to show the bad tempers of the Irish. A woman in a second-floor tenement apartment is hanging her clothes on a line outside the window when she drops a wet sheet on a man in the street below.
He starts leaping about & cursing up at her window, so she tosses a bucket of ashes down on him, which riles him all the more.
He gets a hose & starts spraying the second story window, where her husband has gotten his head stuck when the window closed on him. The wife has meanwhile come down stairs to hit the offended man with an empty barrel.
Staggering in a daze, the husband then comes out for a round of fisticuffs. The wife finally gets some sense into her & goes down the block for a bucket of beer (cheap dregs were sold to the poor who brought their own tin buckets).
How the Irish love their booze! She pours two glasses of beer for the battlers & alls well that ends.
The closing episode "America the Land of the Free" is a patriotic tableau with an entry at the rear of the stage through which couples & individuals from all over the world step in happy greetings to one another.
It's a scene celebrating America as a land where all nationalities get along swell, including an Indian maiden (who alas goes down on her knees in an attitude of subservience) & Uncle Sam himself.
Too bad no one was daring enough to include one of the Eighth Avenue music hall couples in their glowy assessment of the melting pot. Even after showing "New York's Africans," Bitzer didn't dare show them truly united with whites.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl