Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Japanese Cinema

Taking stock of 1916

"Mametz Western Front" by Frank Corzier

“Mametz Western Front” by Frank Corzier

From a global political perspective, 1916 was starting off as a grim year, especially so far as the First World War was concerned. In 1914, people thought the war would be over by Christmas. In 1915, it was clearly a longer struggle, but there was still a general hope that the next offensive could be the decisive one. By 1916, it was starting to look like the war could be a perpetual bloody stalemate, with each side taking bits of ground here, while losing them there, and nothing decisive ever taking place. Yet, instead of seeking an armistice based on compromise (did France really need Alsace-Lorraine? Did Austria-Hungary even care about Serbia anymore?), both sides chose to double-down on the stakes in terms of human lives. A record-breaking death toll continued to rise, with no end in sight.

Serbian Infantrymen.

Serbian Infantrymen.

From a film history perspective, what was bad for the goose became very good for the gander. Before 1910, France was the undisputed leader of film production, even the majority of films screened in the US were French. But, France had always been at an economic disadvantage to the United States for the simple reason of the difference in population and the corresponding difference in market caused by number of film-goers. In order to recoup money for an expensive production, a French studio had to count on big international sales. For an American studio, domestic sales took care of all costs, and the international market was icing on the cake (incidentally, I predict that a similar situation will lead to Indian dominance in the global film market within the next century). Once the First World War cut off France’s international distribution system, their collapse was complete. Nationalization of resources (like silver) needed to make motion picture film was merely a nail in a coffin that had been shut even before the guns started firing.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medBut all this new opportunity for American profits led to a time of change and innovation in the US film industry. 1915 had seen the final vindication of the “feature” film, not least because of the huge success of “Birth of a Nation,” shown at live-theater ticket prices in front of enthusiastic crowds in each city in opened in throughout the year. Other directors could now convince their production offices that expensive features could be worth the invention: every studio wanted to back the “next” “Birth of a Nation.” And audiences demanded longer, more sophisticated stories with better acting and cinematography than before. American studios responded, and the concept of “Hollywood” began to crystallize as representing American film, and even simply to stand in for the film industry everywhere.

Hollywood_SignOf course, that doesn’t mean that the rest of the world suddenly went to sleep and stopped making movies. Russian studios remained committed to high standards of art, the Italians were demonstrating that their visual talents went beyond painting and sculpture, and even in 1916, Gaumont Studios in France was able to finish “Les Vampires” and produce “Judex,” two of the most influential serials of the period. While this blog remains largely interested in the development of the Hollywood system in its early years, we’ll be looking at some of these European materials in the year to come. Similarly, if I can ever get my hands on a Japanese Century Film, I’ll be happy to include one of the twentieth century’s most notable filmmaking nations as well, although there will be some interesting cultural differences to consider there, such as the importance of live narration over music. Here’s to the movies of 1916! I hope you enjoy accompanying me in exploring them. Tune in next Sunday for the Century News for January.

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

One of the great things about this project is how much I learn as I do it. The thing about learning so much is that I’m constantly discovering that I was wrong in my assumptions when I started. Towards the beginning of the blog, I wrote a piece on “Studios in 1914.” I didn’t really say anything that was inaccurate then, but I had based it on a somewhat inaccurate theory. My idea was that since moving pictures were so new, there would only be a fairly limited number of companies involved in making them. This idea was reinforced by familiarity with the later Studio System, in which a small group of big players dominated and made it hard for anyone start a new company, and by the knowledge that the Edison Trust was fighting hard to keep competition to a minimum.

Now, that all makes sense, but it’s just not how things were at all. Turns out that there were dozens of small-to-mid-sized operations at any given time, especially once the Nickelodeons got up and running. In fact, what really created the major studios of the future was the consolidation and selling of these little guys to one another. The studios we know about, like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, are actually conglomerates of several smaller businesses that unified in order to gain distribution opportunities. Keeping track of the buyouts and mergers gets dizzying, but also adds to our understanding of the history of the movies.

With all that in mind, this post makes no claim to give a complete picture of all the studios and production companies in operation in 1915. Instead, I’m going to give a partial snapshot of some of the companies I missed last year, along with an update on some of the more interesting ones I did cover.

Since I already mentioned them, let’s start with an update on the Edison Trust. We could see it as sort of a failed prototype for those mega-conglomerates I talked about above, because it’s not one company, but several, who up to now have claimed to “license” all legitimate motion pictures in America. Well, in the trust-busting environment of the time, it was fighting for its existence in court, and wound up losing in October, when a federal court ruled it an “illegal restraint of trade.” After that point, there was an appeal, but no one took the Trust seriously anymore, and it finally disbanded in 1918. This also led to the end of their distribution network, the General Film Company (which was not a producer, as I wrongly stated last year).

Things aren’t much better at the Biograph Company at this time. They were a part of the trust, so this litigation hurt them, too, but they were already crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and his stock company of actors and cameramen in 1913. By 1915, they were reduced to issuing reissues of classic Griffith shorts, along with longer pieces by him they had let sit on the shelf as punishment for trying to force them to release feature films. While these proved more popular than their dwindling new material, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, and it closed its doors before the year was out.

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

You might think that Keystone Studios would have suffered as badly after letting Charlie Chaplin walk out at the end of 1914, but Mack Sennett continued to produce cheap, popular comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops. also striking on the idea of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” this year, who became a hit, even if not as big a hit as Chaplin was. Keystone joined Griffith and Thomas Ince in the new Triangle Film Corporation, which marketed itself as the “upscale” artistic movie distributor.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had moved over to Essanay Studios, who promised him $1000 a week. By the end of the year, this was not enough for the star and he moved again, but not before producing great films like “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen” which showed his improvement as a director and maturity as a comedian. Essanay’s name was a play on S&A, after its founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was also known as “Broncho Billy,” and was star of hundreds of Western shorts. During 1915, they also signed Francis X. Bushman, a talented actor on his way to stardom.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Cecil B. DeMille was making a name for himself over at Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company. This company is one of the (many) tributaries that eventually merged into Paramount Studios, but came from humble beginnings. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille had made “The Squaw Man” from a barn near Los Angeles – which neither had visited before they started working there. In 1915, they brought out great work like “The Cheat” and “The Golden Chance.”

The last American company I want to talk about is the Mutual Film Corporation, which brought out “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 through one of its subsidiaries, Reliance-Majestic Studios. While “Birth” was a huge hit, Mutual had some problems, including litigation and censorship. Mutual’s name is on the landmark case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not subject to First Amendment protections. This, along with the defection of Reliance-Mutual to co-found Triangle later in the year, was a major setback, but they won a major coup in hiring Chaplin when he left Essanay, and today they are associated with most of his most popular shorts.

Again, this blog has a tendency to be more American-centric than I really want (that’s “where the light is better,” in film history, I’m afraid). But, let’s spend a little time catching up on some companies working in other countries.

In Russia we have Khanzhonkov Studios, which I’ve sung the praises of in connection with Evgeni Bauer and his fascinating films. Khanzhonkov also had animation pioneer Ladislav Starevich, who I hope to bring to this blog in coming months. Its owners were Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and Vasily Gonchorov, who had made the nationalist hit “Defense of Sevastopol” in 1911. They seem to have valued directors more than most American concerns, and made Bauer a partner in the concern, rather than argue with him over his pay.

In Germany there’s Messter Film, which later would be absorbed into the German film powerhouse UFA. Unlike France, which largely abandoned film production during the First World War, for Germany this was a time of increased production. At this time, Messter’s employees included Robert Wiene, future director of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

In Japan, which is regrettably unrepresented on my blog so far, the company Nikkatsu has been in business since 1912, when it was formed from a merger of several smaller studios. I believe Shozo Makino was working there in 1915, although at this time he’s in between remakes of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” probably Japan’s most frequently remade film story. Japan’s film industry had an interesting appendage at this time, the benshi, or narrator, who would appear at screenings to explain what was happening on the screen. These men were often bigger stars than the actors in the movies at the time.