Thursday, 22 July 2010

A surreal comic delight - 1908 - The Thieving Hand - J. Stuart Blackton

One can draw a comparison between the birth and exponential growth of cinema and the formation of a star:
Stars are formed from huge clouds of dust and gases, mainly hydrogen and helium (which, combined, are called nebula). As the dust and gases swirl around, they break into clumps and contract due to gravitational forces. As the clumps bump each other and collect more dust and gases, they get bigger, and their gravity, which holds the star together, becomes stronger. Since gravity is so strong, the particles become more tightly packed. Once it is hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur, a star is formed. 

What makes this period (1904-13) so exciting is that it is before the art of film is ‘hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur’ and its star is born. Due to the rapidly evolving technology of the camera (within thirteen years, filmmakers were already making films that were twenty times the length of the Lumiere Brothers’ first actuality films from 1895) and the pioneering vision of filmmakers around the world (the Australians made the first feature film in 1906, the Italians made the first explicit political film a year earlier, etc.) film was very much still ‘dust and gases swirling around’.  

In 1908, film had yet to settle on an expected estimate length or branch off into particular genres; there was a wonderful overlap and fusion of unexpected ideas. There are few better examples of this then J. Stuart Blackton making The Thieving Hand two years after making the first American animated film, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. Whereas Humorous Phases was a primitive but entertaining attempt at making an animated film, The Thieving Hand was a pseudo-surrealist live action comedy centring around a false limb.

The Thieving Hand amalgamates some of the most interesting ideas that we have encountered in the films of the first decade of the twentieth century; one can find the visual trickery of Méliès, the comic timing of Max Linder, the narrative sequencing of Porter and the playfulness of Blackton’s own animation work. The film shares certain surrealist elements with Porter’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
; however, the surrealist aspects of The Thieving Hand are less explicit but more comic. 

The film involves a one-armed street cobbler helping an upper class man (whose hat and cigar bear an uncanny resemblance to Max Linder in Le Premier Cigare d’un Collegien
), who repays the favour by purchasing him an arm from a limb shop (see above). The otherworldliness of the limb shop juxtaposes with the previous scene on the street in an unerring manner that Méliès’ shorter films do not quite manage. The use of a false limb functions in a more subtle and effective manner than one of Méliès’ demons; the limb also manages to function as the proverbial devil on the shoulder of the protagonist (or perhaps even, the protagonist’s subconscious) and land him in trouble.   

The film successfully synergises the aforementioned influences and styles and delivers a simple and thoroughly enjoyable film. In fact, I would suggest that it is an excellent ‘entry point’ for films from this decade. It is thoroughly engaging for a first time viewer, while also alluding to much of the best work of this decade.

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