Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: March, 2014

Library of Congress: Inventing Entertainment Collection

Homepage: http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/edhtml/edhome.html

First, I should point out that LOC would prefer that I review this page, but I can’t, because it doesn’t work on my computer. Apart from that, the new version is really poorly laid out and harder to use than the old site, so I’m going to talk about the one I can use. Happily, LOC has left it up and available, and hopefully when they do their next upgrade, they will return to it as a basic format, and not the clunky new version.

Either way, what this collection represents is the movies produced by the Edison Film Company during its run in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. At the beginning of that period, Edison was pretty much the only film studio in America, and it remained dominant for several years, due in part to Edison’s patents on 35 millimeter film format, cameras, and projectors. Even after other studios had sprung up, Edison Studios continued to make interesting and historically important movies.

This older website will look old-fashioned to people today, but it is refreshingly easy to navigate. You can find movies by title, subject, or keyword search, or, as I prefer, by looking at the chronological listings, which are broken down into neat, small portions of generally one or two years. You also have a choice of different viewing formats (MPEG, QuickTime, or RealMedia), which is good, because I find that Adobe Flash Player is pretty unreliable on older computers like mine which run Vista. I can almost always get one of these three to work for me, though.

Each entry includes a lot of useful metadata, often including entries from the original Edison catalog in the “Summary” section. These provide interesting insight into the way film was marketed during the Age of Attractions. Consider this excerpt from the movie “Overland Express Arriving in Helena, Mont.” (1897): “We look down the long platform, crowded with people, and see the famous N.P. Railway Overland Express approaching rapidly…the whole scene being one of great interest and activity.” The emphasis on activity and motion demonstrates what was novel or exciting about early film, and similar phrases appear throughout the catalog excerpts.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing a number of Edison movies, and most of them will have been viewed here.

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Studios in 1914

Keystone

The great “studio system” of Hollywood saw its high-water-mark in the 1930s and 40s, but it’s antecedents could be seen many decades earlier. Due to the enormous hunger of the public for content in the new medium, tiny mom-and-pop filmmaking operations boomed into financial giants with remarkable speed, and then competed with one another for the best markets, often stepping on toes or breaking copyright laws to get there. In this week’s contextual post, I’d like to talk a bit about the companies that created the century films I’ve discussed up to now.

Edison Studios is the logical place to begin any discussion of American film studios. By 1914, it was doing business as “Thomas A. Edison, Inc.” and was a part of Edison’s “Motion Picture Patents Company,” also known as “the Edison Trust.” Edison felt that his company owned the patent on motion picture technology, and controlled who could make films legally. His lawyers went after smaller companies making films with all the aggression of Disney, Apple or Microsoft today. This was one reason for the shift in American filmmaking away from New York (where Edison was headquartered) to the wilds of Southern California (which was close to the Mexican border, if you needed to dodge a subpoena). All that aside, by 1914 the Edison company was lagging behind the others in terms of innovation and productivity. You’ll find a few exceptional Edison films from this period, but they often feel clumsy and old fashioned compared to the product put out by the more dynamic, smaller studios.

General Film Company was a part of the Edison Trust, and was founded in 1909 by the Trust. They were the strongarm wing that tried to use patent law to break the smaller studios or force them to join the Trust. They also produced over 12000 movies in their short span, including the popular serial “The Perils of Pauline.” By 1914, much of their power was spent and the Motion Picture Patents Corporation was fighting for its existence against anti-trust prosecution.

The Biograph Company was another New York outfit, which started out when an Edison technician, William Kennedy Dickson, defected from Edison to start his own company. He avoided patent infringement by inventing a new camera-and-projection system, but this limited their audience until Biograph won an important lawsuit against Edison in 1902. By 1914, they had joined the “Edison Trust” to try to keep new companies out of the market. Biograph produced many artistic and original films, especially when director D.W. Griffith joined the company after a brief stint with Edison. However, their resistance to making feature films created a vacuum the independents were happy to fill, and ultimately drove Griffith, their biggest asset, to seek greener pastures.

Keystone Studios was one of those upstart companies that never joined the Trust. Located in Edendale, California, it was founded by Mack Sennett, who had previously worked for Biograph in New York, and made a name for himself as the “king of comedy.” Keystone is remembered today mainly for slapstick, such as was seen in the many “Keystone Cops” pictures, as well as the work of superstars of comedy like Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Keystone focused on short movies, cheaply made, but with an eye toward innovation and dynamic motion. Chaplin, who may seem to define the company for us today, actually only worked for Keystone for about a year, beginning in early 1914 and leaving at the end of the year when Sennett refused to pay him $1000 a week.

The United States was only a part of the story of the history of film. In fact, up until the First World War, the real center of film production remained France, and since I’ve talked about some of those movies, it makes sense to devote some space to their studios as well.

Frères Lumiere were arguably the inventors of motion picture technology, no matter what Edison said in the US. They saw it as a technical toy, however, and claimed there was “no future” in it as an art. They were ill-positioned to move from the “Age of Attractions” into the “Nickelodeon Era” and largely stopped making movies after 1905.

Georges Méliès, then, was the French visionary who saw more than the Lumieres. He built his own production studio in his backyard, making a structure out of glass, like a greenhouse to let in the sunlight that early motion picture cameras required. He made short fantasy pieces that demonstrated the possibilities of film as a story-telling medium. His movies were seen all over the world, but unfortunately, he was a poor businessman and a lot of the copies going out were pirated. By 1914, desperate to hold on to what he had, he joined Edison’s Trust, but it was already too late, and audiences were abandoning his fanciful creations for more elaborate, sophisticated movies.

Pathé Frères was a French company that was happy to pick up the slack left by less innovative studios. Today they are mostly known for Newsreels, which they developed and distributed from 1908 to 1970 (!). They also produced fiction films, however, and even had a short-lived deal with Méliès in 1913. Pathé’s American branch did join the Edison Trust as well.

Gaumont Film Company claims to be the oldest continuous film company in the world, and it did get its start right about the time the Lumieres were first demonstrating their system. They managed to attract Louis Feuillade, a truly prolific director who found time to write manifestos about the art of cinema as well as making over 600 films in a relatively short career, including the “Fantômas” serial.

The story in France has a tragic side, however, because after the outbreak of war in August, 1914, the French film industry was literally sacrificed to the war effort. Film stock was melted down to produce armaments, and the French never recovered their dominance afterward, leaving it to the Americans to define the art form of the Twentieth Century.

Fantômas the Complete Saga

Fantomas_1916

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/670058288

This DVD release of the early French serial gives one the opportunity to “binge-view” the whole thing in a way that never would have happened a century ago, making more obvious some of the plot holes and redundancies, but is nevertheless an enjoyable presentation. The diabolical Fantômas (Rene Navarre, who apparently found it difficult not to be recognized after making the series) is a master criminal who disguises himself and plots gigantic schemes to make himself rich or, as often as not, simply to achieve crime for its own sake. He is pursued, and sometimes pursues the brilliant Inspector Juve (Edmund Breon, who went on to “Gaslight” and “The Woman in the Window”) and his journalistic sidekick, Fandor (Georges Melchior, later in “Rocambole,” another crime drama). This series came at the end of France’s dominance of world cinema, and in someway represents the high point of filmmaking in the pre-World War One period, in spite of its narrative ludicrousness. The DVD includes a bombastic soundtrack, sampled from music libraries, and a somewhat disjointed commentary by film historian David Kalat, who freely admits that he can’t pronounce French words. In spite of that, I found much of what he had to say informative and thought-provoking.

Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914)

Kid's_auto_races

Director: Henry Lehrman

Starring: Charles Chaplin

This is the big start for Charlie Chaplin. It is a simple, seven-minute comedy reel in which an odd fellow blunders in front of cameramen trying to film a local soapbox racing event, and then refuses to go away, even when rather forcefully asked to do so. It was the first time that Chaplin appeared in his “Little Tramp” outfit on film, so is a milestone of sorts. It’s also an example of Keystone Studios taking advantage of a local news event as the setting for one of their comedies, which gave them the opportunity to make what looked like “big” productions for very little money. In later years, Venice police would have chased them off the track for filming without a permit, but here, Charlie is nearly hit by several race cars, and his only adversary seems to be the other actor. Much has been made about the “breaking of the fourth wall,” which refers to the point in the movie where we see the cameraman filming Charlie by virtue of a second camera, although I’ve seen examples of this going back as far as the 1890s. Cameramen were always fascinated by filming other cameramen.

Run time: 6min 21 sec

You can watch it for free: here

Fantômas Contre Fantômas (1914)

Fantomas1

photo from Wikimedia commons, attributed to "Fredojoda." See Copyright.

Director: Louis Feuillade

This century film is the fourth installment in the long-running French “Fantômas” serial by Louis Feuillade (who also made “Les Vampires” and “Judex“). In it, the master criminal Fantômas manages to frame Inspector Juve, his one serious rival, and masquerades as an American detective called “Tom Bob” (a Frenchman’s idea of an American name if there ever was one). One scene takes place at a masquerade ball, with no less than three men dressed up as Fantômas – the real Fantômas kills one of the false Fantômases while under observation by the third. Another key scene involves a body sealed up in plaster, whose presence is revealed when a workman hammers a nail into the wall, only to release a stream of blood.  The French fascination with Poe seems to come out clearly in that sequence. The serial set the standards for future serials, both in terms of straining credulity for narrative effect and in terms of the structure of capture-escape-and-recapture, with the tables being constantly turned between hunter and hunted. Interestingly, these films, and the books on which they were based, would later serve as iconographic touchstones for the Surrealist movement, in part because of the incoherence of the plots.

Run time: 59 min

You can watch it for free: here

Find some of the novels: here

Chaplin at Keystone

Chaplin_Making_a_Living

Worldcat link:http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/671500970

This collection of Charlie Chaplin’s first year in Hollywood is surprisingly complete – and very interesting. You can see as he refines the persona of the “Little Tramp” and the nuances of his performance, but you can also watch several early experiments that maybe didn’t succeed as brilliantly. Chaplin once said that the three necessary elements of a Keystone comedy were “a girl, a park, and a policeman,” and you will see all three in abundance. Perhaps every movie has at least one of those elements, many have two, but really less than half have all three. In general, camera moves are rare, and intercutting is minimal, but there is an interesting ability of the different scenes to interact with one another, as Charlie throws a brick out of camera range in one shot, only to have his adversary duck it in the next shot, and finally in a third shot it collides with a hapless policeman or innocent bystander. Includes Chaplin’s first movie as “the Little Tramp:” “Kid Auto Races at Venice” as well as “Mabel at the Wheel” and “Tillie’s Punctured Romance” and many more. And, yes, for those who were curious, the policemen were frequently played by the famous “Keystone Kops,” who at various times were rivals with Chaplin as comic stars.

Fantômas – in the Shadow of the Guillotine (1913)

Fantomas_early_film_poster

Director: Louis Feuillade

This early French feature kicked off a series of popular “Fantômas” crime films. Here, the cunning criminal steals from and murders members of the nobility in a posh hotel, escaping despite all security precautions and leaving a mysterious calling card. He is pursued by the brilliant Inspector Juve of the Surete, but manages to stay one step ahead of him through his exploits. Unlike American thrillers of the time, the filmmakers increase the suspense by not giving away the identity of the criminal right off. Once it does happen, though, the action shifts to his daring plan to escape from police captivity and a death sentence. Fantômas appears to me to be a kind of anti-hero, someone the audiences rooted for in spite of themselves, because he was so subtle and sly, and ultimately charming, even though he put hurt innocent people for his own selfish ends. The DVD from Kino includes a powerful orchestral score, which at times threatens to drown out the silent action on the screen, but does add to the watchability, in general. The director, Louis Feuillade, made hundreds of films in the 1900s and teens (including “Les Vampires” and “Judex“), many of which are blessed with considerable cinematic vision.

Run Time: 54 min (this episode. Total run time for serial = 335 min)

You can watch it for free: here

Original novel is: here

Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914)

Punctured_Romance

Director: Mack Sennett

Starring: Charles Chaplin, Mack Swain, Mabel Normand

By the end of 1914, when this movie came out, film audiences were demanding two things: feature-length films and as much Charlie Chaplin as they could get, so it’s not surprising that the two were combined. Chaplin had single-handedly put tiny Keystone Studios on the map by signing with them earlier that year and had become a true blockbuster star just by putting together slapstick shorts built around the formula (as Charlie would later describe it) of “a girl, a park, and a policeman.” That wasn’t enough to fill ninety minutes, though, so for this story we get a rather more complex story structure, in which Charlie (in a somewhat slick variation on his “Little Tramp” getup) is the “City Stranger” who comes into the life of homely farmgirl Marie Dressler (who was later in “Min and Bill” and “Emma”) and promises to take her away from her abusive father (regular Chaplin foil Mack Swain, who had been in “His Trysting Place” and would later co-star in “The Gold Rush”). Once he’s lured Tillie back to the city, he meets up with his regular girl (Mabel Normand, another Chaplin regular, who had been in “Mabel at the Wheel” and “The Masquerader”) and the pair proceed to get her drunk and arrested, fleecing her of her purse. This is a parody of the standard “lost girl” melodrama of the day, and the satire carries on from there, becoming increasingly ridiculous and uproarious. One thing I’ve mentioned before about the Keystones is that they lock the camera down for each shot, framing a “stage” (sometimes corresponding to the size of a room) on which actors may perform, and which they enter and exit. The camera never moves, never follows, them, it merely defines a space for them to work in. However, in contrast to the days of Melies, complex editing structures allow the various shots/stages to interact with one another.

Run Time: 71 min (83 min restored version)

You can watch it for free: here (71 min version) 

Audiences of 1914

For this week’s “context” post, I’d like to discuss what it was like to be in the audience of a movie a century or more ago. As I proceed through the project, I hope to read and learn more about this, but for now, this will be more of a speculative, even whimsical, essay.

I’ve always imagined the atmosphere of an early silent picture as carnivalesque. Indeed, many of the first films, shown during the “Age of Attractions” were in fact shown at carnivals. Movies were novelties, not art, and people went to see them to be amazed by the wonder of it all, not uplifted. A lot of the early movies seem to draw from pantomime and vaudeville, not from the so-called “legitimate” theater, which makes it seem as if they were meant to attract a working-class crowd. More snobbish audiences paid the higher ticket prices to see Shakespeare or Shaw, while people who didn’t know better plunked down their nickel at the nickelodeon. Because they weren’t trained in middle-class niceties, they weren’t the sorts to sit in silence while a performance went on. They were noisy and enthusiastic, or, if they didn’t like something, raucous and outspoken.

Silent cinema hit this country at the same time as one of the major booms of immigration, particularly from Eastern and Southern Europe. It seems to me as if the movies were a great entertainment option for people who spoke English as a second language, or not at all. For the most part, you could follow the plot even if you couldn’t read the intertitles. Or, you could go in a group, with one person along who could read and translate for you. Because it was a silent movie, it didn’t matter if someone was talking in Italian or Yiddish – that needn’t disturb the rest of the audience as they read along in English. And, those intertitles always seem to stay up far longer than anyone needs to read the English, but if you were semi-literate or trying to translate, that would be a boon.

So, my imagined theater of 1914 is a crowded, noisy place, with children running in the aisles and people speaking in different languages. People are smoking and maybe even drinking. There are loud outbursts of reaction to the screen, and audience members interact with one another and talk to the actors out loud. Once in a while the management has to eject a particularly disruptive character, but for the most part the audience polices itself, according to its own uncouth standards.

To a lot of modern movie snobs, this probably sounds like Hell, but when I was a teenager I used to go to movie theaters on 42nd Street in Manhattan, back when that meant something. It’s the experience of participatory audiences that I miss from those days. I feel like I’ve wasted my admission if an audience sits in stony silence through a screening. If I wanted that, I could watch it at home.

Now, let’s face it, my fantasy film audience is just that: a fantasy. I’ve heard film historians say that the target audience for early movies was more middle-class than is often assumed. A nickel wasn’t much, but for a lot of working class people it was more than they could spare very often. Movies were a technical innovation, and they appealed to the kind of people who buy ipads or use smartphones. People whose education made them feel that they were a involved in the technical progress of the day, not that they were overwhelmed by it.

I’ll leave you with a paraphrase that totally challenges my fantasized view. One of the commenters on one of the DVD sets I’ve reviewed (I actually don’t recall which) mentioned a quote by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which I have since determined is from his book Death on the Installment Plan. In it, Céline purports to have seen the movies of Georges Méliès at the Theatre Houdin, which would be about the most carnivalesque environment I can imagine. But, according to Céline, he remembered it as a totally silent experience, without music, narration, or talking of any kind. Just the quiet hum of the projector. That’s much closer to my vision of Hell.

Update 4/2/2014: Since writing this, I went and got a copy of Death on the Installment Plan from my local library. The actual passage reads as follows:

Grandma realized that I needed a little fun, that it wasn’t good for me to be in the shop all the time. It made me sick to my stomach to listen to my lunatic father shouting his inanities. She bought a little dog for me to play with while waiting for the customers…He went everywhere with us, even to the movies, to the Thursday matinee at the Robert Houdin. Grandma treated me to that, too. We’d sit through all three shows. It was the same price, all the seats were one franc, one hundred percent silent, without words, without music, without titles, just the purring of the machine. People will come back to that, you get sick of everything except dreaming and daydreaming. The “Trip to the Moon” will be back again. . . I still know it by heart.

Now, there’s a few things: first of all, this is a novel. Although it is supposed to be somewhat autobiographical, it’s also a black comedy, and it’s hard to know where he’s being truthful and where he’s being funny. Also: the fact that the theater let him bring a dog in is more consistent with my vision. Finally, even if there’s any doubt as to whether “A Trip to the Moon” was narrated or had music played along (that’s how it’s presented today), there definitely were titles on the original prints, so he’s either exaggerating or misremembering to some degree.

So far as it goes, the last two sentences are confirmed by the very existence of this blog, and maybe that’s the more important takeaway here.

Georges Méliès First Wizard of Cinema

Worldcat Link: http://www.worldcat.org/oclc/213810721

This collection gives a wonderful insight into the man who introduced the idea that film was not “moving pictures” in the sense of still images that happened to have motion added, it was a medium for telling stories, an extension of the theater. Méliès was a stage magician and a pantomime artist, and he brought the standards and sensibilities of that style of common mass entertainment with him in the movies he made. Today, this nineteenth-century aesthetic is best known to us from old carousels and funhouses. Of course, the iconic image of the Man in the Moon, with a spaceship stuck in his eye, from Méliès’s most popular film, “A Trip to the Moon” (1902) is known to almost everyone, and films such as “The Impossible Voyage,” (1904) and “The Living Playing Cards” (1905) will seem familiar as well. But, I found some of the more obscure gems to be especially interesting. For example, in 1899 Méliès produced a series of 11 films (9 are here, perhaps all that survived), documenting the Dreyfus Affair as it happened. These were not newsreels, but dramatizations of what was going on in newspapers, and they were told from a decidedly liberal, pro-Dreyfus perspective. I was surprised that Méliès would take such a bold stand on a controversial issue, but he never did it again, so perhaps he learned from the result of this experiment.