A Century Ago: The Films of 1913

Thursday night, I drove to the Rafael to see A Century Ago: The Films of 1913. This is the latest edition of an annual event–one that was just becoming possible a scant decade ago. And, in its current form, it won’t be possible for much longer. In 1910, people still went to movies primarily to see a selection of one-reelers (ten to 15 minutes depending on the projection speed). By 1920, these shorts were a minor addition to the main attraction–the feature film.

Every year, the Motion Picture Academy puts together the show, screens it at their Los Angeles theater, then flies it up to San Rafael for the second and last screening. Academy executive Randy Haberkamp hosted the program, introducing each film. Michael Mortilla supplied musical accompaniment on piano.

But the best performance came from the projectionist, Joe Rinaudo, working with his hand-cranked 1909 Powers Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine. I got a chance to talk to Rinaudo, looking sharp in his top hat and tails, before the show. The Model 6 was designed to be portable, for travelling showmen who didn’t know if their next gig would be in a vaudeville theater, a church, or a barn. He proudly showed me how he had altered the lamp to provide a better light than was possible in 1913. In those days, the lamp was so hot, and the film so flammable, that safety required a thick glass between them. It saved lives, but produced a less-than-ideal image.

I took several photos of Rinaudo and the Model 6, but the camera in my phone couldn’t handle the low light level. So I snatched this photo from the Academy Web site. If someone objects, I’ll remove it.


Rinardo set up his projector in front of the regular projection booth, with no soundproof wall between the machinery and the audience. The steady, clickety-clack sound behind us, mixed with Mortilla’s music in front and to the side, helped bring us back a century. I’ve been seeing a lot of digital projection lately, and I love it, but this was something very special that went to the heart of cinema.

With one very old projector and seven rare archival one-reel prints, there was no way to do a continuous movie show. But that’s okay. Few places could do that in 1913, either. While Rinaudo changed reels and displayed slides, Haberkamp introduced the next movie.

Some quick notes about the shorts:

Barney Oldfield’s Race For a Life
This Keystone comedy is the only film on the program I’d already seen; it’s part of the Slapstick Encyclopedia collection of silent comedy shorts. On DVD, Ford Sterling’s outrageously overdone villain was annoying. With an audience, he was successfully funny. The title character was a real-life, famous race driver at the time. Starring the always adorable Mabel Normand.

Barney Oldfield's Race For a Life

The Evidence of the Film
Argo wasn’t the first movie to highly praise its own industry. Here, a sweet, innocent young boy is accused of theft and sent away. Luckily, the real crime was accidentally recorded by a film company. This picture gives us a glimpse into early post-production editing facilities.

The Evidence of the Film

A Lady and Her Maid
This very entertaining comedy shows two homely women visiting a beauty parlor, then spurning the men who rejected them. Future star Norma Talmadge plays the younger one. A lot of fun. Although this is an American film, this print from the Netherlands had Dutch intertitles; Haberkamp read the English version out loud.

Arabia Takes the Health Cure
A decade before Rin Tin Tin, Selig tried to turn a horse into a movie star. Everything you need to know about this venture is summed up in the fact that the company gave up after only three shorts. "Health Cure" is the only surviving film starring the equine Arabia . If the other two are of similar quality, their loss is no great one.

The Making of Broncho Billy
Cowboy star Broncho Billy (real name: Max Aronson) has long been a Bay Area favorite, largely because he did so much work here. He made several Broncho Billy shorts before giving his character this origin story. Like all Broncho Billy shorts, it’s fun.

The Lady and the Mouse
The night wouldn’t be complete without something by D.W. Griffith. This warm tale of a struggling rural family, two sisters–one sick and one well–and true love was sweet and fun. It’s also a fine example of Lillian Gish inventing the art of motion picture acting.

I don’t know if Lois Weber really was America’s first woman film director. But judging from this little thriller, she already understood how to scare audiences long before Alfred Hitchcock stepped into a studio. And in 1913, Weber used technical innovations that would seem experimental and daring today (and they were harder to do back then). My favorite of the group.


I suspect that all of these movies are available on Youtube. After all, they’re all in the public domain. But Youtube can’t provide the enthusiastic audience, live music, or the clattering of the projector behind you.

After "Suspense," projectionist Rinaudo got to rest his arm as the program switched to modern technology–the Rafael’s digital projector. Acknowledging the move to features that had already begun in 1913, Haberkamp showed us a selection of clips from other 1913 titles, some of them feature length. Among the highlights were scenes from Atlantis, a fiction based on the then recent Titanic disaster, an Nursery Favorites, an early talkie experiment from Edison.

Altogether, a wonderful evening.