It is difficult to understand today just what a modern marvel trains were in the early twentieth century. They allowed for speedy travel where once such journeys would have taken many weeks, but trains were also fraught with new and worrying dangers that disaster films were quick to exploit. From short actualities to models and special effects, railroad disasters reached their peak with full-scale train wrecks in the middle 1910s.
The program begins with the 1904 Edison actuality A Railroad Smashup. Smashups began as a sort of carnival sideshow and are the precursor to the demolition derby. In this short, two decommissioned Pennsylvania Railroad engines meet in a head-on collision.
Narrative films were soon to build on the smashup tradition in films such as Un drame sur une locomotive or “A Drama on a Locomotive” from the prolific director of French westerns, Jean Durand, in 1910. Here disaster strikes, in the form of models and stock footage, when two railroad engineers vying for the same woman begin to fight in the train’s cockpit and miss a stop signal, sending them head-long into an on-coming train.
From models we return to full-scale locomotives in 1911’s The Firing of the Patchwork Quilt. Likely a trial-
run for The Juggernaut, in this short drama by Hazel Neason, lightning strikes and destroys a trestle over which a train is about to pass and the engineer’s grandmother must find a way to warn him in time.
The program culminates with Vitagraph’s 1915 “Blue Ribbon” feature, The Juggernaut. The president of a railroad notorious for cutting maintenance and safety measures to maximize profits fights dirty against a lawsuit brought against him by his erstwhile friend and now district attorney while, aboard one of his trains, his daughter unwittingly speeds toward her doom. The climactic wreck scene of The Juggernaut, shot without the use of miniatures or special effects, would be remembered for years in fan and trade magazines.
This is the first time The Juggernaut has been seen in Maine since 1920 and the first time Harpodeon’s 2017 reconstruction—bringing the film as close to how it might have been seen at its premiere as possible—has ever been screened theatrically.
Despite The Juggernaut being one of the most commercially successful films of its era—playing for more than 750 days—and being described by film historian William K. Everson as second only in significance to The Birth of a Nation in 1915, Vitagraph’s
railroad disaster film came very close to being entirely lost.
That any of The Juggernaut survives today is thanks to John Griggs. A radio actor by profession, Griggs was also a film collector and very much part of Everson’s circle. Film collecting was not a safe hobby. The prints were only ever rented to exhibitors and remained the property of the studio. Even if the studio had no intention of ever exploiting the film again, police raids of private film collections were frequent.
Griggs had acquired two reels from two different cuts of The Juggernaut: the second reel from the domestic five-reel premier version and the fourth reel from the British release, which had been abbreviated to four reels. Skating on even thinner ice, he not only possessed these “illegal” reels but he made a preservation negative of them. It was just in time as the second reel, especially, was showing advanced signs of degradation and would not have lasted much longer.
From this negative, a very small number of prints were struck—likely fewer than ten. One of these prints he gave to fellow film collector Karl Malkames. On his death in 2010, that print of The Juggernaut was acquired by Harpodeon to serve as the basis of its 2017 reconstruction, which bridges the still-missing material with little- and never-before-seen production and publicity stills along with explanatory text and exact reproductions of dialogue titles.
Modern audience may not realize it, but silent films dealing with LGBTQ+ themes not only exist but are not so unusual. American films did, however, have to contend with censors that were not at all friendly and had to be got around in one of several ways. Gay characters may be hidden behind coding, or excused as a parody, or “what if” scenarios.
From Alice Guy-Blaché, the first female director, comes the first film of the program, Algie the Miner. Produced in 1912 by Guy’s own Solax company. Algie is the prototypical example of a coded gay man in the early 1910s. Soft and effeminate, he is out west ostensibly to prove himself a man to win the approval of his fiancée’s father, but it takes little to see how important Algie becomes in his mentor Big Jim’s life and how quickly Big Jim comes to depend on Algie as much as Algie does him.
But gay men were not always disguised. 1923’s The Soilers, a burlesque of Rex Beach’s much-adapted novel The Spoilers, the cowboy who falls in love with Stan Laurel is anything but coded. Rare in silent cinema, he is explicitly gay, and almost unique, he gets the last laugh.
Trans representation is rare in silent cinema, and most examples that do exist are heavily coded, but what is likely to be the first feature film to deal with trans themes and is certainly the first to address them so
explicitly is A Florida Enchantment, which concludes the evening’s program. “A Fantasy of the Everglades,” A Florida Enchantment sees Lillian swallowing a magic seed that transforms her into a man. Taking the name Lawrence, he spurns his erstwhile fiancé Fred and begins courting Bessie and eventually proposes to her. A romance had already been blooming between Bessie and Lillian before the advent of Lawrence, who claims to be Lillian’s cousin.
When Fred comes to believe Lawrence must have murdered Lillian, he is introduced to the secret of the seeds. Disbelieving Lawrence’s tale of magical transformation, he swallows a seed himself. It is there that A Florida Enchantment demonstrates the ethos of the time: Lillian, when she was presenting as such, caused a minor scandal with her aunt but was otherwise allowed to openly court Bessie. But Fred, when he turns into Frederica, is condemned by society at large and pursued quite literally to death.
A Florida Enchantment is a product of its era and its extensive use of blackface stands out at once to modern audiences. Of course, blackface was not unusual in films of 1914. Far from it; it was the norm. Outside of so-called “race films”—that is, films with an entirely
black cast—black actors might appear as background extras but almost never interacted with the white leads. Black characters who were part of the principal cast were nearly always performed by white actors in blackface.
Today, we see the racism inherent in this policy, but at the time A Florida Enchantment and other films like it were released, white audiences were accustomed to blackface and saw nothing wrong with it. It is not the case that black audiences approved of the practice, but while they did object and did protest, the white creators of these films never heard them.
With that said, A Florida Enchantment is an important part of film history in that it features what may be the first emergence of trans representation on the screen.
Though a product of its era, A Florida Enchantment also resonates in our own time. Transphobia is on the rise and trans people are under attack. Legislators are attacking trans rights, libraries are being defunded for including trans material, and drag performers are being threatened with death—even here in Maine. Trans erasure is the goal. There is an ongoing attempt to delegitimize transgenderism by erasing it from history. A Florida Enchantment, a film more than a century old, refutes the claim that transgenderism is without a historical basis.
Black Beauty, the 1921 adaptation of Anna Sewell’s “autobiography of a horse” starring Jean Paige, survives today only in fragments. Of the seven reels of the original feature, only reels three, four, and seven are known to exist. However, the film was abridged for the home movie market in December of 1929. This 9.5mm release condenses the entire film down to approx-imately thirty-five minutes.
By combining the extent reels of the original release with the footage from the home movie cut-down, along with explanatory text and/or productions stills to bridge the still-missing gaps, most of the film can be recon-structed to something resembling its original state.