Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: William K Everson

Projection in 1916 and the Great Frame Rate Debate

I’ve deliberately avoided talking about “frame rates” and the “correct” speed of silent films on this blog, and for good reason – it’s a very contentious subject, and also quite technical, but looking at the history of presentation will give us some insight. My layman’s version goes like this: After sound film came in, all projectors were motorized and set to run at 24 frames-per-second (although some could be slowed down to lower settings, 24 was the standard for sound). This was pretty fast, compared to earlier standards, but projectionists with no experience would occasionally screen silents (especially Charlie Chaplin) during the sound period, and it would run fast. By the 1960s, everyone had forgotten what movies used to look like, and they came to think that silent movies had always looked fast and jerky. But then, someone found an old copy of Moving Picture World that said that the “official” standard during the silent era was 16 frames-per-second. New projectors were built for specialists who wanted to study films at their “original” speed, and silent movies slowed to a crawl. A new problem was discovered: at that speed, movies have a noticeable “flicker” effect as the eye catches the light between frames. Some film historians assumed that silent audiences were used to that, and just accepted it.

CinematographeProjection

Lumiere projecting with the Cinematographe

But wait! Along comes James Card, William Everson, and a few other collector-historians who were old enough to remember the silent days. They were darn sure that the movies they saw of Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow when they were children didn’t flicker, and they sure didn’t crawl along like molasses on a cold day in January. They suggested that going back to 24 frames-per-second was a better standard. Who was right?

Well, this gets tricky, like I said, but let’s start with one fact that I deliberately left out of this: until the transition to sound, most cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, not motorized. By the end of the silent era, motorized projectors were coming in, but the camera was hand-cranked until the day it had to be synched with sound. In other words, different cameramen and different projectionists did different things, no matter what their “standards” said. It also appears that there was a kind of frame-rate-race between the two professions for much of the period, so the real standard changed over time. This goes back to that issue of exhibitors not really respecting the producers’ wishes in terms of their movies: sometimes, instead of cutting a film, they just told the projectionist to speed up. This was apparently very common, and camera operators began to fight against it by speeding up as well, which led the projectionists to go even faster, and so on. Tests made at the time by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers confirmed this, and they revised their standards upward occasionally, though they were in general conservative about it. Billy Bitzer, for example, was actually timed at right around 16 frames-per-second, so that’s a perfectly reasonable rate for screening “Intolerance,” but other cameramen went a lot faster.

Projector BioscopeSo, here’s one conclusion I draw from all of this: those folks in the 60s may not have been so far off after all. Probably most early movies weren’t run at 24 fps, but it happened some of the time, and fast was much more common than slow. This is probably why there wasn’t that much protest during the occasional Chaplin revival in the 1930s and 40s. A lot of people did remember him moving fast.

A Bell & Howell projector

A Bell & Howell projector

But, so what? Do we have to watch a jerky, speeded-up film just because that’s what people did then? Do we have to sit in uncomfortable folding chairs because that’s what a Nickelodeon usually had? Is it “cheating” to watch a Chaplin movie on your phone? Is it not fair to watch “Intolerance” in a building that lacks a sumptuous lobby and a live stage performance? My real conclusion is that frame rate was pretty much subjective in the pre-automated era, so we should be equally subjective now: go with what looks good. Often, that probably will be about 24 fps, as Card and others advocated, but with earlier movies it probably needs to be slower, and there are probably a few that look better at an even faster rate. This needs to be audience-subjective. We don’t usually get a choice what rate to watch a movie nowadays (the recent “Phantom of the Opera” release from Kino Classics is an exception), and so we leave it to experts to decide for us. On most of the high-quality releases we get today, the action looks natural at whatever speed the distributor has chosen, and I have yet to see a silent film festival that really messed up the speed of a silent movie, so this debate is largely academic anyway. I only mention it because there are people out there who get really het up about it, but then there are people who can’t hear Chaplin’s name without reflexively saying “Keaton was funnier,” and who wants to be friends with them?

Birth of a Nation, Part VII

David_Wark_Griffith_portrait

This month, I’m going to talk a bit about how historians have treated “The Birth of a Nation,” and where I stand in relation to that historiography as I proceed with this project. As it happens, fate placed in my hand a copy of William K. Everson’s book American Silent Film recently, and, though I hadn’t meant to read much of it, I realized I needed to look seriously at what he had to say about D.W. Griffith and “Birth” because he came from such a radically different position, and because he represents what might be seen as the “standard narrative” for the last forty years or so.

 American Silent Film

Before I get into where I differ with Everson, let’s start with his importance. Prior to his work, film historians often dismissed the silent era as “primitive” or even handicapped by the lack of dialogue. Everson proposed that we think of the silent film as an art form unto itself, “as different to sound film as painting is to photography,” and he was one of the first to suggest that silent film had achieved a level of art far in advance of where it would be in the early years of sound, in other words that the introduction of sound represented a serious setback for cinematography and artistry, one which took years to overcome. These are now pretty well accepted arguments, especially among cinematographers and film historians.

The other thing I should mention is that he had less to work with than we do today, due to the amount of recovered and remastered silent films that have been made available since the 70s. At several points in his book, he predicts that there will be relatively few new discoveries in the future, due to the fragility of nitrate originals and the increasing distance in time since their production. He could not possibly have predicted the power that digitization would have to restore then-unwatchable prints, nor the good fortune that film preservationists have had in finding fortunate survivors in the intervening years.

 GriffithDW

So, what does he say? Essentially, he argues that D.W. Griffith was the only serious artist in early cinema, that everything changed with the release of “The Birth of a Nation” and that everything that came afterwards just built on what he had achieved. Nearly every director he considers worthwhile was “apprenticed” to Griffith at some point, or “imitated” his innovations. He refers to “Birth” as “the full flowering of Griffith’s art” argues that it “established movies as an international art and an international industry almost overnight.” His argument is not based on erroneous ideas that “Birth of a Nation” was the “first” film to include Griffith’s “film grammar;” for this he discusses the Biograph shorts and argues that Griffith perfected his art before making “Birth,” but that by putting all of his talents into an epic, big-budget feature film, he broke through the wall that had kept film simple and un-imaginative for twenty years, establishing it forever as a serious form of expression. So far as content, he claims that the film’s “controversy [is] often artificially created and sustained” and has drowned out appreciation of its accomplishments. He argues that the source, Thomas Dixon’s “The Clansman” was far more racist, and that Griffith dialed back some of that racism for the screen, that the use of white men in blackface was standard practice at the time and necessary because Girffith didn’t know enough African American actors, and that Griffith’s historical perspective was supported by legitimate historians in the period he made it. He accuses the NAACP of “harassing” every showing of the film for over fifty years with “letters…indicating that the writers had never seen the film they were protesting so vehemently.”

 Toms Coons

Before I discuss this any further, I want to pause and take a look at another book from the 70s, Donald Bogle’s book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks. Bogle is an African American historian whose book explores the history of African American portrayals in film – essentially arguing that all of them were built on stereotypes, and making the point that African American actors always had to play against the stereotypes they were assigned. What does he have to say about “The Birth of a Nation?” Well, he does deplore the content, saying that it originated the stereotype of the “Buck” (through Gus) and also contributed to the “Tragic Mulatto” and the “Tom” with other blackface characters. But, he also says “[i]n almost every way, ‘The Birth of a Nation’was a stupendous undertaking, unlike any film that had preceded it.” He actually goes farther than Everson, claiming that it “altered the entire course of American moviemaking, developing the close-up, cross-cutting, rapid-fire editing, the iris, the split screen shot, and realistic and impressionistic lighting.” Bogle is actually more historically inept in heaping undue praise onto a movie he sees as damaging to African Americans than Everson is in defending it! It only makes matter worse that I’m quoting from the 1998 edition, by which time Bogle had had 25 years to correct these errors. With enemies like these, why would Griffith need friends?

 DW Griffiths Biograph Shorts

So, what we see here is the way that historians have over-played the importance of both Griffith and “Birth” for generations now. With Everson, we also see the desperate justifications for its content, although he is to be credited – unlike Martin Scorsese at least he didn’t try to hide it completely. With this project, I’ve discovered that there were plenty of films as good as “Birth” both before and afterwards and that, yes, other directors did see the motion picture as art and contribute to its development as well as Griffith. One of the reasons this distortion has taken place is that, for various reasons, the Biograph roster of films happened to be the best preserved and easiest to study for many years. It’s still easier to find a Griffith shorts collection than to do a thorough study of Selig pictures, or the career of Lois Weber or Maurice Tourneur. To say nothing of foreign films. And that’s another point. Everson’s book is called “American Silent Film,” but in arguing that Griffith established movies as an “international art form” he needs to take into account the huge distribution of European, especially French, movies in the US prior to World War One.

 Birth_of_a_Nation_theatrical_poster

I’ve discussed the content elsewhere, but so far as the art of cinema is concerned my own argument is this: Griffith did achieve one important “first” with “The Birth of a Nation.” For the first time in cinema history, he placed the importance of advertising and public relations above the importance of the film itself. People remembered “Birth” as the groundbreaking event it has been commemorated as because Griffith TOLD them it was. They shelled out $2.00 to see it, arguably the equivalent of paying $40 or more to see a movie today. He brought a new class of movie viewers to the new movie palaces, and gave them a spectacle that included a live orchestra, ushers in costume, and, yes, an exciting epic of a film. Not a film that stands up as unique to anyone who looks at what else was available at the time, but that’s exactly the point: his audience didn’t go to the movies before “Birth” was released! They saw “Birth” as the “first” all those things because they thought that moving pictures up to that point had been trivial and unimportant. Griffith achieved a publicity stunt that continued to convince the elites who create the narratives about movies for the next 100 years. My argument is that the time has come to challenge this.