Friday, 28 May 2010

1904-1913: Cinema’s Forgotten Decade

When I finished compiling the initial list of films for this blog, I noticed a large ‘filmless’ gap that spanned from 1904-1913. Even Silent Era’s Top 300 Silent films only includes two films from this period (Melies’ Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904) and Louis Feuillade’s Fantomas (1913)).

Given that we go from The Great Train Robbery’s eight minutes of film to The Birth of a Nation’s three hours just over a decade later, I think overlooking the period 1904-1913 would be a significant oversight. I have always been interested to learn why the ‘standard’ length for a feature film became between 2-3 hours, and given that once we reach the mid-teens of the 20th Century the feature film’s length appears to have been determined, I am deeply interested in learning how film arrived at this decision, which remains in place today.

A question for any film buffs and historians: is there any particular reason why this period has not been ‘canonised’ and/or overlooked?

I will therefore attempt to track down ‘important’ films from this period and attempt to cover this ‘blindspot’. Any suggestions would be greatly welcomed.


  1. I think it's a very good point that there are often gaps left in histories between early film at the turn of the century and American feature films of the 1910s. Many histories often cut straight to The Birth of a Nation, as though cinema didn't know what it was doing until that movie came along and set it on its correct path. Indeed you often hear the 'fact' that it was The Birth of a Nation that proved cinema could rival any other art form. (There were of course really interesting features coming out of other countries - for example Ingeborg Holm (1913) from Sweden.)

    Very often histories focus solely on feature fiction films (because that is what we know today), which of course leaves out non-fiction and shorter films (of course all early film were of a short length, but did play as part of a longer selected programme). A very large section of silent output was non-fiction and of course features only started appearing around 1913. So many histories find it difficult to deal with this period of transition, which saw a development from trick films, actualities and spectacle (often also known as 'The Cinema of Attractions')to films driven more overtly by narrative. Early film does not always function in the same way as the Classical narrative feature films that were made from the 1910s onwards, and which we still know today.

    Also many historians and viewers search for 'masterpieces', films that have a totality about them. Some believe that purpose of film history is to produce masterpieces and that little else matters beyond these perceived milestones. Feature films fit this bill well. Early film is far 'messier' due to their non-classical form, length, lack of context for the viewer and also because they can just be difficult to get hold of.

    There are many academics who have published pioneering books on this period, and many more who are also focusing on these years. We just need this work to start infiltrating mainstream (and online) histories - to both get these movies seen, and shed some light on this period.

  2. @Christian - Many thanks for your detailed and well thought out post.

    It is funny you should mention The Birth of a Nation - I was talking to a good friend about this topic and he mentioned a book he has on classic films went straight from The Great Train Robbery to The Birth of A Nation. I think the combination of two of the factors you mention: firstly, that historians tend to focus on feature films and secondly, that they are in search of masterpieces (which they assume will be a feature length movie) has resulted in this period being neglected.

    In regards to academics and others now bringing a greater focus to this period, I was hoping you could mention a few films which you yourself would recommend from this period.

  3. I agree with CH - these lacunae are partly the result of the semi-porous barrier between academia and the mainstream... Something that can crop up pretty quickly, and be tricky to overcome.

    Another obvious example: the early years of the English novel. 31 years - almost a lifetime in the 17th century - separate 'Oroonoko' from 'Robinson Crusoe'. I've never heard of a single novel from the intervening period (1688-1719). I wouldn't be surprised if many academics specializing in the era would be stumped.

    This is definitely related to the 'milestone' view of cultural history. But I don't think it is necessarily the fault of the 'feature' bias... As long as films can be found in the period that can serve as useful 'milestones' (first film to do X), they should be able to sneak into the canon. It's our job to highlight these qualities, I suppose...

  4. @ Rob - The question of how to overcome such gaps is an important one - and I think you are right to suggest that if we can find certain milestones in films from this era - then more attention will be drawn to them.

    Which itself invites the question of whether canons are either unalterable or fluctuating entities. Given the relative youth of cinema in comparison to the other arts, I think (as well as hope) that there is scope for re-thinking the film canon.

    What would be most helpful is if certain films from this era both contain useful milestones and are a pleasure to watch. For example, La Presa Di Roma is an extremely important film (with a couple of key milestones - the first Italian feature film, the first war film), but given the fact that much of it is lost, the quality of the film is inconsistent.

    This does not detract from the film's importance, but it may be a barrier that prevents it from receiving more attention.

    Let us hope that at least a handful of films from this era can fulfil both criteria.