Monday, 28 June 2010

1906 - San Francisco Earthquake: Before and After Journey Down Market Street

The terrifying rumble of an earthquake shattered the early morning silence of April 18 at 5:15 AM. The quake lasted only a minute but caused the worst natural disaster in the nation's history. Modern analysis estimates it registered 8.25 on the Richter scale (By comparison, the quake that hit San Francisco on October 17, 1989 registered 6.7).
The greatest destruction came from the fires the quake ignited. These ravaged the city for three days before burning themselves out. The maelstrom destroyed 490 city blocks, a total of 25,000 buildings, made over 250,000 homeless and killed between 450 and 700. Damage estimates topped $350,000,000.

The above quote is a synopsis of the events of the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which was the first major natural disaster to be chronicled by film and photography (please note that to emphasise the importance of photography as well as film in capturing such an event, none of the pictures in this post are stills from the film, but are instead photographs of the earthquake and its after-effects). There are a number of short films documenting different clips of the earthquake, but I think the above film is the most effective. This is because it provides the viewer with a before and after view of a particular street (Market Street) in San Francisco, which manages to successfully convey just how much damage was done to that particular part of the city.

The one problem with the film is that it has been put together quite recently, so the contemporary audience would not have viewed the particular film in the way that we are. However, the reason I chose this particular film is because it depicts something incredibly simple yet indispensably important: it demonstrates to the audience the actual physical damage caused by the earthquake.

Living in an age of twenty four hour news media, we have become somewhat anaesthetised to the impact of the moving image (Of course I do not mean that we are not moved by terrible events such as the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I simply mean that we do not fully appreciate the fact that we have access to such images) in regards to natural disasters. But before this earthquake, all we had to rely on were eyewitness accounts of such terrifying events. Film would allow such events to be captured as they were, rather than how they were experienced by a limited group of people.

It is almost overwhelming just how much visual information there is to digest when watching this film. The tall building at the top of Market Street, which is visible from the offset in the pre-earthquake film, does not appear as anything more than a silhouette in the post-earthquake film, even when the camera is metres away from it – and it is this contrast which is the most haunting.

In the first two minutes of the film, the juxtaposition of the two films could not present a more stark contrast. On the one hand we have a film (the pre-earthquake film) which could easily have been mistaken for one of the Lumiere Brothers’ actuality films. The San Francisco of this film is brimming with life; the street is cluttered with people, trams and horse carriages, the unique architecture of each building is visually captivating. In the post-earthquake film however, it appears as though we are looking at a completely different city; whole buildings are missing while others are severely damaged, the street is almost completely empty. Towards the two minute mark, there is the poignant image of a solitary horse drawn carriage perambulating around Market Street.

The latter half of the post-earthquake film feels as though we are watching the first zombie film. A mass hoard of people walk by the camera and appear listless and lifeless. The thickness of the fog perpetuates the otherworldly sense of this film, particularly as it is in constant contrast with the clear skies of the pre-earthquake film.

This film makes an even greater case than Panorama from the Times Building did for re-evaluating the importance of early non-fiction film. If we trace some of the tragic events of the last century, from Hiroshima through to 9/11, often the most resonant image in our collective conscience is the visual impact these events had. The moving image not only created a new art, but also managed to alter the eye of history.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

The first American animated film - 1906 - Humorous Phases of Funny Faces - James Stuart Blackton

One of the brilliant repercussions of Melies’ trick film-making is the discovery of animation. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces is widely considered to be the earliest surviving American animated film – and it is as primitive as it is delightful.

The film was directed by John Stuart Blackton, who alongside Albert E. Smith formed one of the first movie studios, Vitagraph Motion Pictures. Before entering the world of film, Blackton had been a vaudeville cartoonist.

An important question to ask as we evaluate the first animated film on this list is: how much of a difference is there between animated films and ‘moving pictures’ (I think moving pictures is a more appropriate phrase than motion pictures when referring to early silent films)? I would suggest that there is a substantial gulf between the two categories.

For example, if we were to draw a family tree of the genealogy of the arts, animated film would stem from a different branch to the ‘moving picture’. The moving picture can be traced back to the earliest photograph, which was produced by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. Animation, on the other hand, can trace its roots back far earlier to the earliest drawings that were made thousands of years ago.

Yet again, the answer of how the contemporary audience would have responded to this film would be extremely helpful. Although seeing the earliest Lumiere Brothers’ films would have startled the audience for obvious reasons, what they were witnessing were things which they could experience witness in their day to day activities. A film like Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, however, surely would have completely 
bamboozled them, as they were seeing a drawing come to life.

Also, unlike with the Lumiere Brothers’ first film, La Sortie de l'Usine Lumière à Lyon, where the workers could not help staring at the camera, the animated film would offer its creator complete control of his/her entire environment. 
The Animation Archive provides us with a helpful background to the film as well as the process behind it:
Smith and Blackton created what were then called "Trick Films"... the camera was stopped for a moment while the scene was changed, making things magically appear and disappear; images dissolved from one to another; and shots were double exposed to create ghostly images. In 1900, Blackton experimented with putting his lightning sketch act on film in a movie called "The Enchanted Drawing", but it was in April of 1906 when he made his most important breakthrough. In a trick film titled "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" Blackton created what is regarded as the first American animated film.
Humorous Phases of Funny Faces sees several of Blackton’s drawings come to life. The most sophisticated animation is reserved for the final character, the clown, who instructs a lion to dance on his arm and then jump through a hoop.

It is an awfully simple film and its joy partly derives from the possibilities that the film hints at. When you think of the incredibly sophisticated and layered animation work that goes into the latest Pixar or Miyazaki release, it is important to understand the humble and simple beginnings of animated films.

But it also serves an important lesson for modern animated film makers – animated film is a completely different entity to moving pictures and this should be embraced – I hope that the success of Toy Story 3 does not mean that most major animated films will be shot in 3D. More often than not, simplicity trumps all, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces exemplifies this point.   

Thursday, 24 June 2010

The first ever feature film - 1906 - The Story of the Kelly Gang - Charles Tait

Just as Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) is testimony to German silent film art, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) symbolises both the birth of the Australian film industry and the emergence of an Australian identity. Even more significantly it heralds the emergence of the feature film format. The Story of the Kelly Gang, directed by Charles Tait in 1906, is the first full-length narrative feature film produced anywhere in the world...

The above quotation is from the UNESCO website, and briefly outlines why The Story of the Kelly Gang (watch the first part above) has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register. Given that this list contains, among other things, the Gutenburg Bible, the original Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and the Magna Carta, its registration on this list should not be taken lightly.

Yet the world’s first feature film has faded into obscurity as with many other films from this forgotten and neglected era.

One of the main reasons for this is the fact that the majority of the film is missing, and a substantial part of what remains is significantly damaged. In fact, there remains a debate as to how long the film actually was, with estimates ranging from 40 to 70 minutes.

Which brings us to a crucial question which Christian Hayes asked when commenting on the La Presa Di Roma post – how do we judge a film that is incomplete? Clearly, the amount of film that has been lost will have a significant impact on answering this question – and in this case it would appear that more than two-thirds of the film have been lost. In fact, for a long period of time, it was thought that only nine minutes of the film survived. However, in 2006, an additional seven minutes was uncovered in the British National Film and Television Archive, which was subsequently restored to its best possible condition by the NFSA and the Haghefilm preservation laboratories in Amsterdam

I would argue that if it is UNESCO’s job to protect the film itself, it is our job to protect and spread its reputation by trying to establish the quality of the film from what footage of the film does remain. In a sense, we need to act as meta-detectives deducing what information we can from the fragments of information we do have available to us – and try not to overemphasise what is missing from the film at the expense of what footage that does remain.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (watch the second and final part above) was based on the true story of Ned Kelly and his gang of bushrangers. At one point they were the most wanted men in Australia, and as with the real-life story behind the events of La Presa di Roma, most members of the Australian audience would have been familiar with Ned Kelly’s story.  

The composition of certain shots is quite impressive for a film of this period. The shot of Kelly and his gang is exhilarating – particularly if you compare it to the shots of the robbers in Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. Whereas in the latter film we get a shot of the backs of the robbers as  they mount their horses and depart (which itself is still an impressive shot), in The Story of the Kelly Gang, the bushrangers face the camera in a beautifully framed shot – providing an equal impression of all the bushrangers. The shot develops a sense of camaraderie among the bushrangers – this shot helps to establish all of them as film’s first anti-heroes.

A simple but important point is that the bodies of the characters are fuller and clearer than in any previous film, particularly when there is a group of characters in the shot. This newfound clarity heightens the tension and drama of the film – the shootout at the gang’s camp for example, is greatly aided by this visual development.

The first shot we have available displays an act of police brutality – a policeman attempts to physically harass a woman – but she is saved by one of the Kelly gang. For the first time in film history, the audience is presented with moral ambiguity and complex characterisation. You feel little sympathy for the policeman when he is held at gun point by the woman he has just accosted.

The sense of moral ambiguity is further enhanced when the gang force a group of people into a building, but respectfully remove their hats when a group of ladies are among those being held in the building. Their is something undeniably attractive about these bushrangers - the film allows to both sympathise and admire some of their actions. 

We also witness cinema’s first suicide pact – as two of Kelly’s gang, kill each other as they cannot escape the bar they are in as the police have set fire to it (see picture below).

The climax of the film is the most thrilling we have witnessed of any film thus far; unfortunately, it also one of the most damaged sections of the film. However, the distortion of the damaged reel seems to enhance the dramatic denouement of the film. In this climactic scene, Ned Kelly makes his last stand, wearing metal armour (see picture below) to protect his face as he is finally captured by the police. The scene can be seen to symbolise the shift from a semi-anarchic, chivalrous period to the more functional, bureaucratic (and sometimes totalitarian) modus operandi of the 20th century. The armoured plating is an outdated, futile yet heroic method for Ned Kelly to make his last stand. His tale will endure, but the ways of the outlaw bushranger ended with him. This aspect of the film may have resonated greatly with the audience, as the film was shown around the country for close to a decade.

By focusing on the sections of the film that have endured, I would argue that even in its current state, The Story of The Kelly Gang is a seminal film which must be brought to the forefront of debate of the early silent era. In terms of both importance and enjoyment, it stands alongside any film we have witnessed so far.

Sunday, 20 June 2010

1906 - Le premier cigare d'un collégien (His First Cigar) - Louis J. Gasnier

The only thing more remarkable than Max Linder’s stellar film career is the neglect with which he is now treated. Linder was film’s first superstar; once, on arrival at Moscow train station, the army had to be called in to help him leave the station and when it had been falsely reported that he had been that he had been killed on the frontlines in World War I in 1914, France was in mourning. 

Despite pioneering many of the comedic techniques that the likes of Chaplin and Keaton would build on, he is now seen as a footnote to Charlie Chaplin’s career. This is despite the fact that Chaplin revered Linder to such an extent that he once wrote on a picture of Linder:

"For the unique Max, the great master - his student Charles Chaplin". 

Le premier cigare d'un collegian, the first of several Max Linder films we shall look at, sees the first appearance of Linder’s Parisian boulevardier persona, a character who had a penchant for women and the finer delicacies of life.

Given the recent penchant for airbrushing cigars, it is intriguing to watch a film based around the premise of the protagonist smoking his first cigar. Linder’s screen presence is both undeniable and infectious. The audience is drawn to his character in the opening scene, where he receives his cigar, and is completely transfixed on him by the time he has finished smoking his first cigar.

Whereas in previous films there has been an almost hyperactive level of movement from the characters in their respective films (particularly in the Lumiere Brothers’ and Méliès’ work), every single movement of Linder’s is controlled and serves a purpose. For example, the delicate, restrained movement of his legs as he re-enters his building after he has been ‘intoxicated’ by his cigar is carefully constructed and well executed.

There is subtlety to his humour; the extended close up of Linder as he smokes the cigar demonstrates this point. After inhaling his first smoke of the cigar, Linder’s subsequent reactions build up a comic crescendo which allows the audience’s reaction to develop and expand in anticipation of Linder’s inevitable come down. 

As with much of Méliès’ work, Linder’s film is extremely enjoyable. Whether Linder is flirting outrageously with a woman in a cafe or stumbling into the wrong apartment, there is an unfiltered joy that you derive from watching this film.   

This film is the first example of a motion picture on this list where the actor’s importance usurps the director’s importance. Although the director of the film, Louis J. Gasnier , would continue to make films until 1940, the film will always be remembered for Linder rather than Gasnier. Linder himself would be granted increasing control of his films; by 1911 he had full creative control over his films.

Furthermore, whereas great theatrical performances by the likes of the great Shakespearean actor Richard Burbage would only be recounted by contemporary accounts of their performances, film allows for great acting performances to be captured for time immemorial – thus greatly enhancing the importance of such performances.

Finally, in terms of tracing the genealogy of Linder’s persona, there are elements of both Méliès’ magician and Porter’s French nobleman in his portrayal of a Parisian boulevardier. Yet there is an element of sophistication to Linder’s portrayal that increases the comedic scope for film, which will be further illustrated by the subsequent films of his that we shall look at.

Wednesday, 16 June 2010

1905 - Panorama from the Times Building, New York - Wallace McCutcheon

It is not an over-exaggeration to state that Panorama from the Times Building, New York provides the audience with a new way of seeing. Panorama is similar to some of the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘actualities’, except that it provides us with a breathtaking view of New York from the top of the Times Building. Within the space of a decade, film has gone from a still shot of workers outside the Lumiere Brothers’ factory to a daring aerial shot of a substantial part of New York. The film was shot by Wallace McCutcheon, who also directed the briefly discussed 1905 film Personal.

In 1905, in the world of art, Matisse and the Les Fauves were pushing beyond Post-Impressionism (See Matisse's Open Window above) and Picasso had left Barcelona for Paris a year earlier and was heading towards ‘inventing’ Cubism alongside Braque. Film, an artistic medium still in its infancy, was also providing its audience with fresh perspectives. We can only speculate as to what the reaction of the contemporary audience would have been to seeing this film, but there is little doubt that it would have had a startling effect on them (I apologise if I seem to make this point about most films but access to such information would enrich this blog). The depth of vision when at 0:29 is remarkable even to the contemporary audience and opens up an exciting amount of new possibilities for film. The motion picture camera is providing the audience with a perspective they would not be able to obtain from any other art form. It also raises the audience’s expectations in terms of what a single frame can contain.

People and transport are barely visible in this film: the city, specifically New York, becomes the protagonist of this film. The writer Thomas Wolfe once said, “One belongs to New York instantly, one belongs to it as much in five minutes as in five years”. It can be argued that this is largely down to the city’s rich cinematic history – not only is the city familiar to many viewers, but it has a distinctive personality that usurps any other filmed city - Panorama begins our relationship with New York.  

The Library of Congress tells us exactly what can be seen in the film:

The view is from the top of the then newly-erected Times Building, at a height of approximately twenty stories. The film opens with a vertical pan, going from the street below up to the sky. The photographer then makes a pan to the north over the tops of the buildings from Bryant Park, south of 42nd Street (behind the New York Public Library) [Frame: 1078] up 6th Avenue to the Hippodrome Theatre at 43rd Street [1866]. A marquee on the theater reads "A Yankee Circus On Mars." The camera continues to rotate toward 44th and 45th Streets between 6th and 7th Avenues, until coming to rest looking directly north up Times Square to 46th Street, where Broadway (left) and 7th Avenue (right) diverge again [3676].
Can any New Yorkers tell us which of these buildings remain in place, and if the Times building is still standing?


New York Subway, directed by G.W. Bitzer, provides us with a viewpoint of the other end of New York: its subway. The Subway itself had only opened a year earlier; once again this film would have bedazzled the audience. Yet again, a comparison can be made with another Lumiere Brothers’ film. In Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat the stationary camera captured a train’s arrival, in this film we are given a tracking shot of a train’s journey from one station to another. The shot of the train as it passes through a tunnel is both hypnotic and claustrophobic; the gradually diminishing light in this shot is quite a sight.

It also gives us our first glimpse of the 'underworld' - it will be interesting to chronicle film's relation with this particular space.

Friday, 11 June 2010

1905 - La Presa Di Roma (The Taking of Rome) - Filoteo Alberini

This film is worth remembering for a number of reasons. It marked a major step forward from the brief short film designed to entertain audiences during intermissions of musical concerts or theatrical productions towards the longer, more complex feature film. The film’s subject, the breaching of the Porta Pia by Italian troops in 1870, resulting in the annexation of Rome to the fledgling unified Italian state, connects the Italian Risorgimento, the national drive to independence and the formation of a single Italian nation throughout the peninsula. (Italian cinema would continue to play a civic function in society, especially during the neorealist period and afterward.) The Taking of Rome also set the stage for the rise of what would eventually become Italy’s most successful silent film genre: the historical epic.

The above is Peter Bondanella’s description of La Presa di Roma from his excellent book A History of Italian Cinema (a reading list post is in the pipeline...). It makes clear the importance of Filoteo Alberini’s film. Alberini was the Italian equivalent of the Lumiere Brothers; on 11 November 1895 he applied for a patent for his device, the Alberini Kinetograph.

La Presa Di Roma is a film which requires a certain amount of background reading. I always attempt to watch a film ‘blind’ first, i.e. without reading any information on it so that I do not enter the viewing of the film with any preconceptions, but on this occasion I was at a complete loss as to the events of the film, which was compounded by the fact that a couple of the scenes of the movie have been lost.

Bondanella refers to the breaching of the Porta Pia by Italian troops, which was the final act of the Second Italian War of Independence and lead to the unification of the Italian state. The events of the film sees the General of the Italian Army escorted under blindfold from Ponte Milvio to the General of the Papal Army, where the latter General issues an ultimatum to the General of the Papal Army to surrender. The ultimatum is refused, and the final scene of the film sees the Italian troops breach through the wall of the Porta Pia.

This scene provides us with our first ‘battle’ scene; there is no Méliès esque  visual trickery on show but it is not needed, the image of the soldiers storming through the wall is compelling but also prophetic of the century’s coming events.

When we think of the origins of political cinema, we tend to think of the likes of Eisenstein and Riefenstahl. Yet this film predates not only those directors, but also the First World War and its recriminations. La Presa Di Roma, depicting a key moment in Italy’s recent history, was produced in co-operation with the Italian Ministry of War. This makes clear that as early as 1905, governments were aware of the potential power of the moving image.

Much is made of the audience’s immediate reactions to The Great Train Robbery and L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat, but it would be of greater interest to learn what effect La Presa Di Roma had on its contemporary audience and their feelings of national pride. It would be extremely useful to uncover accounts of these reactions as I think it is hard for a modern viewer to measure the effect viewing a key historic moment would have had on the contemporary audience.

The influence of the Lumiere Brothers and Méliès is not visible in La Presa Di Roma. The film is distinctively Italian and the visual language is of a different nature to what we have seen in other films. For example, the lavish, opulent set of the scene (see below) where the blindfolded general is brought to the Papal Army’s general will become typical of Italian films of the next decade. The hand gestures and movement of the two generals is of a unique nature and emphasised the Italian inflections of the film.

La Presa di Roma is an incredibly important film that requires far more academic and general interest. A film requiring as much context as La Presa Di Roma does needs more information about the contemporary audience response was as well as to what extent the Italian Ministry of War influenced the film’s direction. If you are interested in either political or Italian cinema it is a must see film.

Tuesday, 8 June 2010

News Review - A number of lost silent films found in New Zealand

News review is a new feature that Film: Ab Initio will be running. It will allow this blog to share any news that is relevant to this project (particularly if the news may result in new films being added to the list) and also look at the various pieces of information coming from different sources in regards to that particular story.

Various sources yesterday reported the exciting news that a whole host of lost movies have been found in the New Zealand Film Archive, 75 of which are being returned to the United States' National Film Preservation board.

The films came to light early in 2009, when Brian Meacham, a preservationist for the Los Angeles archive of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, dropped in on colleagues at the New Zealand Film Archive in Wellington during a vacation.
“The conversation inevitably turned to what films we held in our collection,” recalled Steve Russell, the New Zealand archive’s manager of corporate services. “Brian was not surprisingly excited to learn the Film Archive held a number of non-New Zealand titles, primarily early nitrate films, including a substantial number of American films. We offered to compile a list of the U.S. material, and it was a short step to here.” Many foreign films remained in New Zealand after their commercial lives were over because the studios didn’t think the return shipping was worth the expense. “It’s one of the rare cases where the tyranny of distance has worked in our and the films’ favor,” Mr. Russell said.
Because of the importance of the John Ford film, “Upstream” — a backstage drama from 1927, a year that was a turning point in the development of one of America’s greatest filmmakers — it is being copied to modern safety film stock in a New Zealand laboratory, rather than risk loss or further damage in transit.
Although Ford was already famous as a director of epic westerns like “The Iron Horse”(1925) and “Three Bad Men” (1926), “Upstream” appears to be his first film reflecting the influence of the German director F. W. Murnau, who had arrived at Ford’s studio, Fox, in 1926 to begin work on his American masterpiece, “Sunrise.” From Murnau, Ford learned the use of forced perspectives and chiaroscuro lighting, techniques Ford would use to complement his own more direct, naturalistic style.
Richard Abel, a professor of film studies at the University of Michigan and an authority on early cinema, was one of the experts called in by the National Film Preservation Board to evaluate the inventory and establish priorities for films to be returned. “ ‘Upstream’ was an obvious choice,” Mr. Abel said, “and I suggested strongly that they do ‘Dolly of the Dailies’ with Mary Fuller, because there’s very little that survives of her films. But we were also looking to fill in gaps, which is why many of the early westerns were chosen.”

John Ford’s Upstream appears to be an integral part of his oeuvre, so its discovery must be celebrated. It should be interesting to see to what extent it reveals Murnau’s influence over Ford. One hopes that it will get some sort of cinematic release, but I will be more than happy if it is released on DVD.

The Los Angeles Times provides details of much the restoration will cost as well as providing the tragic background of just how many films from the silent era have been lost:
These films, which will cost more than $500,000 to preserve, are being divided among the five major American silent film archives: the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.
Very few films from the silent era still exist, says Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, the nonprofit charitable affiliate of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. "We know looking at the feature films only about 20% exist," she says. "We think fewer of the shorter films survive. Our major job is to give out grants to American archives to save their films."
The New Zealand partnership is part of a current trend of "film repatriation," in which movies are returned to the country of origin. Three years ago, the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia and the NFPF worked to bring back films considered lost in the U.S., using copies made for the Australian archive. The same is holding true with New Zealand.

It is incredibly sad to learn that only 20% of feature films exist and that even fewer shorter films survive. It makes this discovery all the more important and raises prospects of similar finds being made elsewhere.

It would have been helpful to have been given a rough estimate of the timetable of how long the restoration will take. Does the restoration time differ for each film or can you make a calculation of how long the process will take if you know how long the film is?

Variety provide us with a partial list of the films that will be restored:

  • "The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies," Episode 5, "The Chinese Fan" (Edison Manufacturing Co., 1914). In this episode of the famous serial (previously entirely lost in the United States), ace woman reporter Dolly Desmond, played by Mary Fuller, rescues the editor's daughter from kidnappers and gets the scoop. In the early 1910s, on-going serial narratives starring intrepid heroines lured female moviegoers back to the theater week after week.
  • "The Better Man" (Vitagraph Company of America, 1912), a Western in which a Mexican American outlaw proves himself the better man. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon.
  • "The Big Show" (Miller Brothers Productions, 1926), the only surviving fiction film made by the famous Oklahoma-based Wild West Show managed by the Miller Brothers. The film showcases performances by many of the troupe's performers as well as its owner, Col. Joseph Miller.
  • "Billy and his Pal" (George Méliès / American Wild West Film Company, 1911), a Western filmed in San Antonio, Texas, and the earliest surviving film featuring Francis Ford. The actor-director introduced the movie business to his younger brother, John, who soon blossomed as director. Released in New Zealand as Bobby and his Pal.
  • "Birth of a Hat" (Stetson Company, 1920), an industrial short illustrating how Stetson makes its hats.
  • "The Diver" (Kalem Company, 1916), a documentary showing how to set underwater explosives.
  • "Fordson Tractors" (Ford Motor Co., 1918), an industrial film promoting the all-purpose tractor introduced by Henry Ford & Son in 1917.
  • "The Girl Stage Driver" (Éclair-Universal, 1914), an early Western filmed in Tucson, Arizona. American-made Westerns were in demand by movie audiences around the globe and helped establish the United States as the major film-exporting nation by the late 1910s.
  • "Idle Wives" (Universal Moving Pictures, 1916), the first reel of a Lois Weber feature in which a film inspires three sets of moviegoers to remake their lives. More of the film exists at the Library of Congress.
  • International Newsreel (ca.1926), newsreel including five stories from the United States and abroad. By the late 1910s, newsreels became a regular part of the movie program. Because the footage was usually cut up and reused, very few newsreels from the silent era survive in complete form.
  • "Kick Me Again" (Universal Pictures / Bluebird Comedies, 1925), a short comedy with Hungarian silent star Charles Puffy. As America became the center of world film production in the 1920s, European actors, such as Puffy, came to Hollywood to build their careers.
  • "Little Brother" (Thanhouser Film Corporation, 1913), one of two one-reelers from New York's Thanhouser Company repatriated through the project.
  • "Lyman Howe's Ride on a Runaway Train" (Lyman H. Howe Films, 1921), a thrill-packed short entertainment that was accompanied by sound discs which survive at the Library of Congress.
  • "Mary of the Movies" (Columbia Pictures, 1923), Hollywood comedy about a young woman seeking stardom in the movies. This first surviving film from Columbia Pictures exists in an incomplete copy.
  • "Maytime" (B.P. Schulberg Productions, 1923), a feature with Clara Bow in an early role. Nitrate deterioration has reached the point where "blooms" are starting to eat away at the emulsion.
  • "Midnight Madness" (DeMille Pictures, 1928), comedy starring Clive Brook as a millionaire who decides to teach his golddigging fiancée a lesson.
  • "Run 'Em Ragged" (Rolin Films, 1920), a short featuring slapstick comedian Snub Pollard.
  • "The Sergeant" (Selig Polyscope, 1910), a Western filmed in Yosemite Valley when the area was managed by the U.S. Army. This film will be preserved through funds raised in February by the "For the Love of Film" Blogathon.
  • Trailer for "Strong Boy" (Fox Film Corporation, 1929), a "lost" feature directed by John Ford and starring Victor McLaglen as a courageous baggage handler who thwarts a holdup. No other moving images from this film survive.
  • "Upstream" (Fox Film Corporation, 1927), a feature directed by four-time Academy Award winner John Ford. Only 15% of the silent-era films by the celebrated director are known to survive. This tale of backstage romance stars Nancy Nash and Earle Foxe.
  • "Why Husbands Flirt" (Christie Comedies, 1918), one of the nine short comedies that will be preserved through this project.
  • "The Woman Hater" (Power Picture Plays, 1910), a one-reel comedy starring serial queen Pearl White.
  • "Won in a Closet" (Keystone Film Company, 1914), the first surviving movie directed by and starring Mabel Normand. Released in New Zealand as Won in a Cupboard.
I would like to single out a few films on this list, but the truth is I have the intention of watching every single one of them! The importance of restoring these films cannot be overstated and I hope that this news encourages archives from other countries to find and return equivalent treasures.

Are there any lost silent films that you are hoping will be discovered? Perhaps we can make a list of the most desired lost silent films... 

Finally, have uploaded two clips from The Sergeant (1910), the first film to be preserved from the New Zealand Archive. They are well worth watching.

Friday, 4 June 2010

1904 - How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns - Edwin S. Porter

The wonderfully titled How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns is a film deserving of greater critical attention (as I suspect many of the film’s from ‘the Forgotten Decade’ shall be).

The opening scene of How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns (which shall now be referred to as A French Nobleman) is particularly impressive and ranks with anything covered on this list so far. It is the first time that we are presented with a degree of psychological depth in regards to a character. It is mostly of a comic nature, as the Frenchman checks his newspaper with some glee and attaches his boutonniere (a word I only discovered by watching this film – does anyone still wear boutonnieres?) to his jacket. But what stands out, particularly after multiple viewings, is the use of the mirror in this scene.

When the character starts reading the paper, the placing of the mirror allows us to capture both sides of his face. This simple piece of visual trickery automatically gives the Frenchman more depth as we are given a deeper impression of his figure and character, which appears to be pleasant, eccentric and aristocratic. The Frenchman then turns towards the mirror and ties his boutonniere and appears to have a brief conversation with himself. Here we have film’s first (and probably shortest) soliloquy; it is a highly effective narrative device. Whereas previously we had the Lumiere brothers’ workers in Lyon unable to avoid staring straight into the camera, Méliès the magician communicating directly with the audience, and The Great Train Robbery presenting us with scenes you may expect to find on at a local theatre, it is the unique intimacy of observing a private moment such as this that makes the audience collective voyeurs. This unique of aspect of film will be developed and furthered over its history.

The second scene opens with a simple but beautifully composed shot: the Frenchman awaits his future bride outside Grant’s Tomb in New York. Greeting each woman with a bow deeper than Obama’s own efforts during his first trip to Japan, the scene’s humour expands with each woman’s appearance and peaks as the women surround him and he finally decides to run away.

The majority of the remainder of the film involves these women chasing him through a variety of landscapes (for example, see above), giving birth to our first extended chase scene and undoubtedly influencing Buster Keaton’s later film Seven Chances (see below). Unlike Keaton’s film, the joy and comedy of the chase disperses as it is far too long. As with Porter’s earlier effort The Great Train Robbery, A French Nobleman would have benefited from some heavy editing work. It is frustrating because the excellent build up of the film’s opening two scenes disperses around half way through the chase scene.

A French Nobleman was an Edison Studio remake of the Biograph film entitled Personal – both films were made in 1904. A French Nobleman provides a useful insight into the developing rivalry between these two studios as well signalling a significant shift in the contemporary audience’s taste.

The success of Le Voyage dans la Lune and The Great Train Robbery (which, was pirated by the Edison Studio) signalled a shift from non-fiction films, such as the Lumiere’s actualities, to short-length fiction films. (A similar tectonic shift, this time from short-length to feature films, would occur only a decade later).

In response to these successes, Biograph released a number of popular short-length feature films, which could only be viewed on their exhibition circuits. Just as Edison had pirated Méliès’ Le Voyage Dans Le Lune to great success, he had told his director Edwin S. Porter to re-make films such as Personal (a year later, he would go a step further and steal Personal’s director Wallace McCutcheon from Biograph). Biograph decided to sue Edison Studios for copyright infringement, but they lost their case.

Unfortunately, I do not have access to the original, so I am unable to provide any details on how this film compares to Personal.

The final scene of the film provides the viewer with some symmetry, as the Frenchman once again looks into a mirror, only on this occasion it is a brief glimpse of his reflection in a river. A French Nobleman is a clever film, it closes out the film nicely and enhances my belief that the film deserves more attention.

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

1903 - Alice in Wonderland - Cecil Hepworth & Percy Stow

Thanks to Tim Burton’s now $1 billion grossing version of Alice in Wonderland, there has been a surge of interest in the first cinematic adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s literary classic. The one remaining print has been restored by the BFI and was made available to view online this March. Directed by two of the founders of British cinema, Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, its original running time of twelve minutes made it the longest running British film to date.

Alice in Wonderland was clearly made for cinema goers who had already read the book, hence describing this version of Alice in Wonderland as a literary adaptation in the modern understanding of the term may be misleading (without prior knowledge of the books, deciphering the events of the film would be quite difficult). Given the film’s length, it would be better to describe it as a series of vignettes from the book. It is perhaps this aspect of the film’s organisation that gives it a peculiar and slightly disjointed feel.

Despite the BFI’s best efforts, the original reel of Alice in Wonderland was damaged to such an extent that the deterioration is quite clearly visible on the restored print. This however, only heightens the dreamlike atmosphere of the film. Combined with the fact that the film is not a ‘conventional narrative’, Alice in Wonderland can be seen as a forerunner for the works of surrealist filmmakers such as René Clair, Luis Buñuel and Jean Cocteau. 

The opening scene where Alice follows the rabbit down the hole (see above) is simple yet powerful. As more and more people flocked to the cinema during its formative years, they too would have felt an affinity with Alice as they wandered down the rabbit hole of this new and vibrant art form.

Alice in Wonderland is an enjoyable, charming but lightweight example of early cinema. There is a question mark as to whether the film would have preserved its legacy if it had not been the first adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. However, the film does stand on its own merits. For example, the penultimate scene with the procession of cards is light-hearted and amusing (see below).    

The influence of the Lumiere Brothers’ family ‘actualities’ (The Mad Hatter’s tea party) and Méliès visual trickery (when Alice is stuck in the hallway) are apparent on this film. It will be interesting to note how much of an effect their works had on directors in the noughties and teens of the 20th Century.

Alice in Wonderland has a unique cinematic history – it has been ‘remade’ in eight different decades and will serve as a useful barometer of film’ progress over the years. Therefore many of these adaptations will be added to the Film: Ab Initio list.