Comedy

Silent Film with a Surrealist Twist

Buying a new arm at the limb store. Image: lskdj f
Buying a new arm at the Limb shop. Image: cinecouch.com

We could hardly wait to share an obscure six-minute film with you.

Get this: Here is a film that was made in 1908, during the Nickleodeon period (1905-1915), and it feels as fresh and original as many indie short films produced today.

Some background: Before movies became the blockbuster form of entertainment they were before the pre-gaming era, films were shown as one attraction in a vaudeville (variety) show. However, in 1905, there was a shift in the entertainment industry, when the first Nickelodeon theatre opened in Pittsburg. Price of admission: 5 cents.

Suddenly movies became the dominant form of entertainment. As vaudeville theatres were converted to nickelodeon theatres, the programs changed, too. Instead of the focus on live acts, the focus was now on the films, although singing and some vaudeville acts still accompanied these films. These programs lasted between 10 minutes and an hour.

A lot of films were produced during this period; theatres changed their programs as often as three times a week. Everything about these films were short – production time, run time, and length of time in theatres.

Now, you may think these films were simple and unsophisticated. But we disagree. We like to think audiences were given their nickel’s worth. One example is 1908’s The Thieving Hand.

This movie was filmed in Brooklyn, New York, by the Vitagraph Company of America. This company began by making newsreels, but it graduated to narrative film. It was a prolific company; in 1907, for instance, no other company produced more films than Vitagraph. It was also the first studio to use stop-motion photography.

The Thieving Hand is an excellent example of Vitagraph’s trick cinematography (and black humour) during this era.

The plot involves a one-armed man who peddles cigars on a street corner. He sells a cigar to a rich man who accidentally drops his ring in the street. When the one-armed cigar peddler chases him down and returns the ring, the rich man rewards him by buying him a new arm.

Business is brisk at the Limb shop. Image: alskdfj
Business is brisk at the Limb shop. Image: Film: Ab Initio

This is where the film leaps into surrealism. The two men go to a Limbs shop where the one-armed man can be outfitted with a new forearm + hand. (The shop’s windows has arms and legs on display, but you can buy an assortment of hands and feet as well. Wooden “peg” legs are available, too, if that’s your style.)

Sadly for the cigar peddler, his new hand has a mind of its own and steals from passersby on the street. The owner, the poor slob, has no idea his fancy new hand is a kleptomaniac and, through a series of events that are not his fault, ends up in the slammer.

It’s an interesting study of a man, who is honest, and his alter-ego, The Hand, which is dishonest.

It’s also a delightful film with a slightly twisted bent, made better by some cheeky special effects, including:

  • Forearm + hand crawling around by itself.
  • Fitting the man with his new arm by merely shoving it up his shirtsleeve. (If only fitting prosthetics were this easy!)
  • The man pulling off the arm when he doesn’t want it any more.
  • The hand putting rings on itself, then admiring how it looks.

No CGI or other high-tech tricks here, only clever sleight of hand (ha ha). The result is pure magic.

But don’t take our word for it! We’ve included the full movie below. We think you’ll get a kick out of this little-known Nickelodeon gem.

The Thieving Hand: starring Paul Panzer. Directed by J. Stuart Blackton. Vitagraph Co. of America, 1908, B&W, 6 mins.

This post is part of the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon co-hosted by Movies, Silently, Once Upon a Screen and yours truly, and sponsored by Flicker Alley. Click here to view all the posts for today’s era.

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14 thoughts on “Silent Film with a Surrealist Twist

  1. You’re right, these early movies could be surprisingly imaginative. I guess making a few movies a week inspired some people to push the limits. That was fun to watch, and as someone else remarked it was nice to see the arm with a mind of its own in a comedy context instead of Mad Love/Hand of Orlac.

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    1. True! The hand in this film does not care about society’s conventions. It just does what it wants. Like you said, it’s great premise for a horror flick like Orlac, but is also whimsical & fun in a comedy.

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  2. That was fun to watch! I enjoyed reading the history you included, too, Ruth. I didn’t know about the Nickelodeon Period, and that short films started out with vaudeville acts. So interesting! I’m amazed at the creativity of this one. Thank you!

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    1. Isn’t this a great film? I think the special effects are really well done, especially when you consider this film is over 100 years old. I’m glad that some of these older films have been preserved – and are available to watch on YouTube. 🙂

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