Cheese Mites (1903) and 10 more disgusting moments in silent cinema

Silents by numbers

Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”

The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou (1929)

The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou

Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.

The maggots in Battleship Potemkin

Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery

George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.

Duck archery

Duck archery is not the same as duck hunting. This is a Pordenone moment I will never forget – in actuality short Distraction et Sport à Batavia (1909), the residents of what is now call Jakarta make the most of their leisure time by pursuing a variety of mostly healthy exploits. But really, I can see no justification, nor explanation, for why a round of archery needs to be enlivened by affixing live poultry to the target. As my good man Peter tweeted at the time: “One right in the neck, yeesh.” Sensitive viewers should be aware that animal cruelty abounds in silent cinema – the most notable, and egregious, example is Edison’s notorious Electrocuting an Elephant. The most poignant fictional example is perhaps the poor horse in Eisenstein’s October.

The Black Pirate (1926)
The Black Pirate (1926)

A touch of claret in The Black Pirate

The thing about two-strip Technicolor is that the reds are really really red, offset by rich, sickly greens. And that means that blood, thick and scarlet, is all too vivid – even if it has come from a pot in the props department rather than direct from an artery. In the opening sequence of The Black Pirate, a gang of buccaneers take a ship and strip its crew of their valuables. One poor soul thinks he can protect his precious ring by swallowing it. Unfortunately for him, one of the pirates, and his sharp dagger, finds a more direct route. The cutting takes place off-screen, but the gore dripping off the ring is very much in the audience’s face.

The Phantom of the Opera
The Phantom of the Opera

Lon Chaney’s face

Lon Chaney was a fine actor and an excellent makeup artist – the man of a thousand faces. He was able to transform his features into a horror mask using greasepaint, wax, false teeth and his skill at creating highlights and shadows. He even strapped up his limbs to play amputees. His lumpy Quasimodo face was a fright, and acclaimed for its fidelity to Victor Hugo’s vision. But when his deathly fizzog was finally revealed in The Phantom of the Opera, that’s when they had to start scooping horror-struck patrons out of the aisles. Grisly.

Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)

The surgery scene in Storm Over Asia

Pudovkin’s epic is every bit as violent as a film alternatively titled The Heir to Genghis Khan should be. But still, ugh, there’s something disconcertingly modern and graphic about the brief surgery scene towards the end of the movie. Those gleaming implements and the way the surgeon waggles his finger in the incision. Yikes.

RW Paul’s blubberfest

The business of going to sea and hauling a catch is a tough way to earn a living. And a gruesome one too, if RW Paul’s Whaling Afloat and Ashore (1908) is anything to go by. In this documentary short, sailors harpoon and dissect a whale, with the camera capturing every vivid detail: that monstrous carcass, the way the blubber slithers off the bone … There’s a reason it’s banned you know. In a macabre coda, the men then dance and wrestle on the bloody dock. Worse things happen, as they say.

Die Weber (1927)
Die Weber (1927)

Dog stew in Die Weber

Two problems: no money to buy meat for dinner, and no money for dog food. One solution: fido stew. In this rousing class drama Die Weber, desperate times call for desperate measures in the kitchen. Grandpa’s face when the penny drops is a sad sight to see.

Zasu Pitts as Trina in Greed (1924)
Zasu Pitts as Trina in Greed (1924)

And one we’ll probably never see

Our final entry was chosen in honour of Cheese Mites’s lost-and-found status. There are many grim moments in Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed – the gorging at the wedding breakfast, our antagonists roasting in the desert, anything that involves the west’s most talentless dentist plying his trade … But there is an excised scene from this famously mangled movie that I’m not keen to cast my eyes upon. After McTeague bites Trina’s fingers in a rage, they become infected and have to be amputated. Perhaps it’s worse when you can only imagine it …

Thanks to Bryony Dixon, who suggested this post, and all who shared their ideas with me on Twitter.

More silents by numbers

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