~posted by Mike
1915 was a banner year for cinema. Douglas Fairbanks and W.C. Fields made their film debuts. Future stars like Ingrid Bergman and Orson Welles were born. Cinema continued to capture the imagination of millions, with the medium making huge artistic and technical strides in what was still its infancy.
In 1915, going to the cinema meant a whole night’s worth of entertainment. There would often be a double feature with one prestige picture balanced out by a cheap B-movie. A newsreel would give audiences a glimpse into current events long before the advent of television. And best of all, there would be short films, either standalone comedies like those of Fatty Arbuckle or serialized adventures that would inevitably end on a cliffhanger to compel audiences back to the theatre the following week to see what happened. One of the most influential serials ever made was the Les Vampires series that debuted in November of 1915 and ran into the following year. Among other things, these French crime films directly inspired Olivier Assayas’s Irma Vep (psst…it’s an anagram) a full nine decades later.
Speaking of shorts, there is no better sign of Charlie Chaplin’s star power than the fact that his Burlesque on Carmen was a higher grossing film that year than the one it was spoofing. There were in fact two straight versions of the famous Carmen story released in 1915, one directed by Raoul Walsh and another by Cecil B. DeMille, both big names in Hollywood but neither as popular as Chaplin. Chaplin starred in thirteen short films over the course of the year. Two other titles worth a look are The Bank which is probably the funniest of the bunch, and A Night in the Show. In the latter, Chaplin plays dual roles, neither of which are his famous Tramp. All these films are available in the Chaplin’s Essanay Comedies collections.
Chaplin’s Burlesque on Carmen was the second highest grossing film of 1915 but it did not come close to threatening D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation for the top spot. The Birth of a Nation was a phenomenon at the time and remains one of the most influential, as well as controversial, films ever made. Griffith is considered one of cinema’s first pioneers, expanding the scope and sophisticating the techniques of the medium. These elements are on display throughout The Birth of a Nation. Unfortunately, so is a thoroughly racist narrative. It can be difficult seeing the film’s inclusion on myriad “Greatest Films of All Time” lists, despite its historical importance and artistic achievements.