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Adventures in Early Movies: Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St.

Still from Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St.

The name G.W. “Billy” Bitzer belongs on anyone’s short list of the greatest cinematographers of all time. A true innovator, even a genius, in his field, Bitzer shot over a thousand movies between 1896 (the very dawn of the motion-picture medium) and his retirement during the early sound era in 1933. Among his considerable achievements are shooting virtually all of the major masterpieces of D.W. Griffith, including A Corner in Wheat (1909), The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), The Birth of a Nation (1915), Intolerance: Love’s Struggle Through the Ages (1916), Broken Blossoms or The Yellow Man and the Girl (1919), True Heart Susie (1919), Way Down East (1920) and Orphans of the Storm (1921). Among the cinematographic innovations he is credited with creating and/or popularizing are illuminating a film set through artificial lighting (as opposed to using sunlight as was customary with early cinema), as well as the use of backlighting, close-ups, fade-outs, lap dissolves, soft-focus photography and tracking shots. Less well-known is that Billy Bitzer also directed seven movies himself between 1896 and 1907 (the last of which was D.W. Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dolly, on which Bitzer served as both director of photography and uncredited co-director). Most of Bitzer’s directorial credits were for “actualities,” early, short documentaries where the line between cinematographer and director was oftentimes blurred. Among Bitzer’s short filmography as director, however, one film stands tall as a masterpiece of its era: Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. (sometimes also referred to by the abbreviated title New York Subway).

billy G.W. “Billy” Bitzer in an undated publicity still from later in his career

Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. is a movie as interesting for how it was made as for what it depicts. It is a nearly five and a half minute short film consisting of a single unbroken tracking shot in which Bitzer photographs a New York City subway car from behind as it travels from the 18th Street station to its destination of Grand Central. The film was shot on May 21 of 1905 and, ingeniously, Bitzer illuminated the subway’s dark interior by setting up artificial lights on another train running on a track parallel to the one he was photographing. (The train with the lights can be glimpsed twice during the film, on the left side of the frame: first in the opening moments and again at around the 3:45 mark on the video I’ve included below.) Anyone who has ever ridden the New York subway will marvel at how little its interiors have changed in the past 109 years when watching this movie today. Although Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. is a good example of the popular early film genre known as the “phantom ride” (where a camera was mounted onto a forward-moving vehicle), its highest point of interest today is probably the climactic moment when the train pulls into Grand Central station and comes to a full stop. After witnessing a subway ride that feels like it could be occurring at any time anywhere in the world for approximately five unedited minutes, the camera dramatically pans left and the viewer is suddenly thrust into the New York City of the early 20th century, only months, in fact, after its subway had first opened. It is shocking to see how the passengers all appear exceedingly well dressed: the women wear dresses and hats with flowers in them, the men wear suits and bowler hats, flat-brimmed straw hats and even top hats. Poignantly, several of the men, women and children on the platform stop and stare directly into Bitzer’s camera. It is an unforgettable and precious time capsule, captured through a remarkable feat of engineering by one of the cinema’s great early stylists.

Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. is preserved in the paper print collection of the Library of Congress. There are many versions of it floating around on the web. The one I’ve linked to below, taken from the Unseen Cinema DVD, has the best image quality I could find:

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About michaelgloversmith

Filmmaker, author and Film Studies instructor. View all posts by michaelgloversmith

19 responses to “Adventures in Early Movies: Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St.

  • John Charet

    This is great stuff:) I knew this guy was the cinematographer of D.W. Griffith’s major works, but I had no idea that he was a director as well. Their are probably numerous cinematographers turned directors out there (i.e. Barry Sonnenfeld and Ernest R. Dickerson to name a few), but G.W. “Billy” Bitzer is probably the granddaddy of them all. Plus he is the oldest as well:) Now aside from seeing the majority of his movies, I have seen many of D.W. Griffith’s short films as well. Considering how many he has made however, I doubt I have seen them all. Again, their are probably numerous filmmakers of the late 19th and early 20th century who have made many films in which a good many of them are still in the public domain as they are are lost. Now Griffith has probably made tons of films, but I will argue that he may be the Allan Dwan of short films. To put it in other words, he has more than 100 or maybe 60 short films just like Dwan made more than 100 or maybe 60 feature films. I got the statistics from reading some of film critic turned director Peter Bogdanovich’s book on Golden Age filmmakers (I believe the title is called “Who the Devil Made It”). Back to the film you were talking about, of Bitzer’s seven films as a filmmaker (though I have only seen this one), Interior New York Subway, 18th St. to 42nd St. (1905) feels like the most experimental of them all. The close to 6 minute film basically lives up to its title in that it depicts a train going from 18th St. to 42nd St. to drop some people and you even get a look at what society was like in that time courtesy of how the people are dressed. Watching this film reminded me of two other experimental works. The first one is Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope (1948) in which “the master of suspense” (with the exception of one or two subtle cheats) filmed it as a continuous shot (or as a long take). The other one is Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) which was basically a 96-minute (the running time of the film) steadicam sequence. Anyway, keep up the great work. I love your posts:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      Thanks, John. I’m glad you called this an “experimental” film. That’s exactly what it is — and one that is still deeply thrilling to watch today for all of the reasons it must’ve been 109 years ago. Like you, I’m a big fan of the long-take aesthetic.

  • John Charet

    P.S. in that Great Beauty blog entry a few posts ago after you told me what kind of filmmaker Marco Bellocchio was, I remembered who he was after you listed the name of Fists in the Pocket and I remembered that he was also the guy who did Vincere about Mussolini. I feel embarrassed that I forgot who he was. I guess it may be because Vincere was released in 2010 (at least in the States it was) and were in 2014. This was almost like your obituary of singer Lou Reed, in which you and the people who commented on the post remembered the songs of his that played in many films. Although you mentioned David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997), I mentioned Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996) as one of the film’s with a Lou Reed song in the background. I think you responded to me with the same reaction which implied that you forgot considering that Reed died in 2013 and Trainspotting came out back in 1996. No big deal though:) You write awesome stuff as usual:)

  • John Charet

    P.S. How was that event at the Wilmette Public Library back on Sunday of February 9th 2014 where you presented a history of the romantic or screwball comedy. What films were shown? I bet you did an awesome job at the presentation:)

    • michaelgloversmith

      The library talk was great. Half the people there were 85-years-old and the other half were my students. I ended up showing clips from:

      1. THE AWFUL TRUTH
      2. BRINGING UP BABY
      3. THE LADY EVE
      4. THE MORE THE MERRIER
      5. SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK

  • John Charet

    I too am a fan of the long take. It is also interesting to note that as you said Interior New York Subway is a 109-year old film. That means that in 2015 it will turn 110. Speaking of long takes, it is interesting to note that legendary filmmaker Stanley Kubrick often employed the use of steadicam in his films beginning with The Shining in 1980. Considering the fact that steadicam first hit the cinema world in the year 1976, it is interesting to imagine how Kubrick would use long takes prior to that If a scene called for it. Interesting isn’t it:)

  • John Charet

    Now the mystery is solved ūüôā

  • John Charet

    P.S. I love how you put the films you showed on Sunday of February 9th in chronological order. For example: You start with The Awful Truth which came out in 1937 and continue with Bringing Up Baby from 1938 and number 5 was 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook. Or were you putting them in alphabetical order and the chronological order was just a coincidence? Either way awesome work:) Love you posts as usual:)

  • Mitchell

    What a fascinating treat this was for me. I grew up in Brooklyn (the real Brooklyn and not the hipster Brooklyn of Williamsburg and Greenpoint). The subway still looks amazingly like it does in the Bitzer short. There is a thrill in knowing that the people on the platform are real and not the product of the wardrobe department. I am currently trying to write a bunch of stories about growing up in Brooklyn and about how one was aware of the past everywhere you went. This short could be the cinematic equivalent of what I am trying to evoke in the prose – the subway of today that slips perfectly back into the subway of 1905. Thanks for posting this. I thoroughly enjoyed it

  • Sam Wolverton

    Did ya ever view this mini-doc?

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