Category Archives: Early Cinema

Talking Early Cinema in Wilmette

I’ll be giving a talk on the 1893 World’s Fair and its impact on the nascent film industry at the Wilmette Public Library this Wednesday night. The event is FREE and open to the public. If you’re in the north shore suburbs, please consider swinging by!


Screen shot 2019-03-25 at 12.23.42 PM


Adventures in Early Movies: A Kiss in the Tunnel

kissStill from A Kiss in the Tunnel: Director/star George Albert Smith, the most important of the “Brighton School” filmmakers, with his wife and lead actress Laura Bayley.

A lot of my favorite early silent movies were made by the pioneering British director George Albert Smith (no relation to yours truly). Along with Let Me Dream Again and As Seen Through a Telescope, both of which I’ve written about elsewhere on this blog, one of his most important works is the 1899 comedy A Kiss in the Tunnel. The film is a good example of early continuity editing and consists of three short, cleverly edited shots. In the first shot, a train enters a dark tunnel, which the audience sees from the point-of-view of the front of the train. (Such “train P.O.V.” films, popularly known as “phantom rides,” were common around the turn of the 20th century; the point was to create a thrilling “you-are-there” effect.) The second shot features a man and a woman in Victorian garb, played by Smith and his wife Laura Bayley, sitting opposite one another inside of a train car and reading. The man stands up, doffs his top hat and leans in to kiss the woman three times in quick succession, twice on the lips and once on the cheek. She looks embarrassed after the first kiss, holding her book in front of her face, but is much more participatory in the second, after which she can be seen smiling broadly. After the third and final kiss, the man and the woman abruptly return to reading. Smith then cuts to the third and final shot, another P.O.V. shot from the front of the train as it leaves the tunnel.

According to film historian Charles Musser, George Albert Smith felt that phantom ride films had become “overly familiar” by 1899 and he conceived of A Kiss in the Tunnel as a means of reviving interest in the genre: “The Warwick Trading company catalog instructed exhibitors to buy this studio-made shot of a couple kissing in a railway car and cut it into a phantom ride at a point in which the locomotive is in the darkened tunnel (as shown in this print).” What’s open to debate is whether the point of showing the train entering the tunnel merely provided a convenient cover of darkness for the man to steal his kisses or whether such a shot had more deliberate Freudian undertones. Shots of trains entering tunnels would, after all, eventually become the crudest and most obvious sexual metaphor in all of cinema (as seen in The Lady Eve, North By Northwest, The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear and countless other movies). Watch the film via the YouTube clip I’ve embedded below and decide for yourself. I also highly recommend scrolling through and reading all of the YouTube user comments beneath it, many of which express mock-outrage at this scandalous work of Victorian proto-pornography. Many of them are, quite frankly, hilarious:

Sources Cited
1. Musser, Charles. A Kiss in the Tunnel. The Movies Begin Vol. 2 Text. Kino DVD, 2002.

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:

Adventures in Early Movies: the Lumiere Brothers’ Serpentine Dance


France’s trailblazing filmmaking brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere produced well over a thousand short films, many of them “actualities” consisting of a single shot no longer than 45 seconds, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Out of the hundreds of impressive shorts they made that I have seen, one of my absolute favorites has to be their beautiful and kaleidoscopic Serpentine Dance (or Danse Serpentine as they say in French) from 1896. Purely as a piece of eye-candy, this stimulating film of a woman performing a popular vaudeville dance — invented and patented in 1891 by Chicago’s very own modern-dance pioneer Loie Fuller — still manages to charm and impress today. Fuller’s dance, which involved her artfully twirling the long, flowing silk fabric on her skirt and shirt sleeves, made her a hit in France and helped to influence the Art Nouveau movement there. Unsurprisingly, many films were consequently made of different “serpentine dancers” all over the world, including one by Georges Melies, as well as Thomas Edison’s well-known 1894 production Annabelle Serpentine Dance, which featured a relatively crude use of color-tinting as well as a relatively amateur dancer in one Annabelle Moore.

The Lumiere brothers’ Serpentine Dance, on the other hand, features a much more dynamic dancer and a much more sophisticated use of color-tinting in which the ever-shifting rainbow-like colors of the film are meant to mimic the multicolored lighting effects that Loie Fuller had designed herself for her live stage performances. The unknown Lumiere dancer — often misidentified as Fuller — is vigorous and whip-fast in her movements, which seem to almost magically combine with the filmmakers’ ever-changing but amazingly precise use of color: the women who were commissioned to tint each frame by hand always stay “within the lines” of the dancer’s costume, an extremely impressive feat (and a rare one for the era), especially given how much movement there is within the frame. The end result, believed to have been directed and shot by Louis Lumiere (a great cameraman who shot many of the early Lumiere brothers himself — including their masterpiece A Train Arriving at La Ciotat), is a film of astonishingly abstract beauty in which light, color, form and movement combine into an exhilarating 45-second blast of pure cinema.

Serpentine Dance (Lumiere catalog number 765) is available on the invaluable compilation DVD The Lumiere Bros’ First Films from Kino Video. It can also be seen on YouTube below:

Wikipedia’s Loie Fuller page is chock full of further interesting reading about the life of this fascinating dance pioneer:

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago

The most significant extant film to be made in Chicago after the Lumiere brothers’ 1896 Chicago Police Parade is probably the Edison Manufacturing Company’s Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago. Made only one year after the Lumieres’ pioneering effort, the Edison film, copyrighted in July of 1897, is a fifty-foot, one shot actuality that depicts exactly what the title states. However, like most of “Edison’s movies,” Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was not made by Thomas Edison himself but rather by his favorite director/cinematographer team of James H. White and William Heise. Although both men had been prolific in the motion picture business since the pre-projection days of 1890, it does not appear as though their technique had much improved in the ensuing seven years. When viewed alongside of Chicago Police Parade, with its incredible use of depth of field and impeccably composed diagonal lines, Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago offers an object lesson in the difference between Thomas Edison and the Lumiere brothers (i.e., the difference between approaching movies as a business vs. approaching them as an art).

Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago shows a jumbled mass of people, horses and trolley cars in Chicago’s Loop as they hurriedly move in every conceivable direction at the same time. Some of the subjects are carrying large placards advertising “BOATING” and “ELECTRIC POOL.” Just as Chicago Police Parade is of interest because it proves that 99% of all Chicago cops had mustaches in the late 19th century, so too is Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago of interest because it proves that 100% of all Chicago civilians, including women, wore hats during this same era (and in the middle of summer no less!). In terms of style, it appears that White and Heise have taken little care with the composition of the image, which looks particularly chaotic when compared to the clean lines and artful compositions associated with the Lumieres. Still, however slapdash its technique, it is of tremendous interest (like so many films of its era) for being an evocative portrait of a specific time and place.

The complete description of Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago from the Edison Films Catalogue reads:

“The busiest corner in Chicago. Cable cars and street traffic of all descriptions. Hundreds of shoppers. Fine perspective view looking north toward the Masonic Temple. 50 feet. $7.50.”

The film can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube, courtesy of the Library of Congress, here (although at only 25 seconds, the speed of this particular transfer appears to be too fast):

It should be noted that Andrew Erish, in his excellent new biography Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood, claims that Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago was a Selig Polyscope film that Edison pirated and copyrighted as his own. Most other sources, however, cite it as an authentic Edison film. Edison copyrighted Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago along with several other Chicago-shot films on July 31, 1897 (Sheep Run, Chicago Stockyards, Armour’s Electric Trolley, Cattle Driven to Slaughter, etc.) Selig Polyscope copyrighted the similarly-titled State and Madison Sts., Chicago in 1903.

Adventures in Early Movies: The Great Train Robbery and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Pt. 2

Today’s post is a continuation of last week’s essay concerning Edwin S. Porter’s landmark 1903 production of The Great Train Robbery and the subsequent career of its star “Broncho Billy” Anderson.

The Great Train Robbery had its world premiere at Huber’s Museum in New York City on December 1, 1903, where it played at the end of a vaudeville show. Legend has it that the audience was so enthusiastic they demanded the film be run again . . . and again before they would leave the theater. The following week, it opened in eleven theaters in the greater New York City area. It is impossible to know the exact box office figures but, by all accounts, the movie was a commercial phenomenon. After watching the film with one of these early audiences and noting their rousing reception, Gilbert Anderson said to himself, “That’s it. It’s going to be the picture business for me. The future had no end.” (Brownlow) The Edison Manufacturing Company likewise quickly realized that they had something special on their hands as this description from a 1904 catalogue indicates:

“This sensational and highly tragic subject will certainly make a decided ‘hit’ whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made. It has been posed and acted in faithful duplication of the genuine ‘Hold Ups’ made famous by various outlaw bands in the far West, and only recently the East has been shocked by several crimes of the frontier order, which fact will increase the popular interest in this great Headline Attraction.” (EDISON FILMS CATALOGUE, NO. 200)

One of the side effects of the film’s popularity was that other filmmakers immediately began to copy its techniques (one even remaking it shot for shot) as well as individual moments: train robberies, fights on top of trains, and scenes of men being made to dance by having their feet shot at soon became standard conventions of the genre. Another side effect was that everyone associated with the film found themselves in demand for future motion picture productions. Although The Great Train Robbery, like all movies of its era, does not feature credits, a movie star was nonetheless born: Anderson, who played three different roles in the film (a robber, a train passenger who dies a spectacularly melodramatic death and the aforementioned man who is “made to dance”), would change his moniker again, this time to “Broncho Billy” Anderson, and become the cinema’s first true cowboy star.

Anderson’s “spectacularly melodramatic” death in The Great Train Robbery:

Historian Kalton C. Lahue notes that it was both ironic and fitting, given the “make believe” nature of the movies, that its first western star was born with the “unlikely” (and, though Lahue doesn’t say it, Jewish) name of Aronson and that, at the time The Great Train Robbery was made, he couldn’t ride a horse and had never travelled “west” of Chicago. This irony is precisely what Clint Eastwood had in mind when he directed and starred in the poignant and highly personal 1980 comedy Bronco Billy, the fictional story of a New Jersey shoe salesman who decides to become the headliner of a modern day “Wild West show.” In an age of mechanical reproduction, long after the west had actually been settled, the story of the real Broncho Billy must have resonated with most of the “authentic” cowboy stars that followed in his footsteps.

Following The Great Train Robbery, Anderson starred in three more Edison westerns in 1904 and 1905 (Western Stage Coach Hold Up, A Brush Between Cowboys and Indians and Train Wreckers), all of which provided variations on the basic formula of their first big hit. But Anderson had his own ideas about what constituted “western authenticity” and wanted more creative control. In 1905 he left Biograph to work for their chief competitor Vitagraph. It was there that Anderson directed his first film, Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman.

The financial success of Anderson’s directorial debut led to an offer the following year by Colonel William Selig, who was willing to allow Anderson to both direct and star in his own movies. After making a few Chicago-shot shorts, Anderson convinced Selig to allow him to shoot a series of westerns and “stunt comedies” on location in Colorado. All of these were released in the spring and summer of 1907 and boosted Selig Polyscope’s profits considerably. (Of these, His First Ride and The Bandit King still exist today as fragments).

Anderson and Selig, however, were not a good fit. Anderson thought his brief but successful run at Selig Polyscope meant that he deserved more money but Selig thought differently. Anderson quit. Upon returning to Chicago, Anderson met George Spoor, whose Magniscope projector had made the inventor a fortune. In a 1915 interview with Motion Picture Magazine, Anderson recalled convincing Spoor to start a Chicago-based studio that would rival the Selig Polyscope Company. According to Anderson, the agreement was that Spoor would put up the cash and Anderson would do “the work.” In the summer of 1907, they incorporated as The Peerless Film Manufacturing Company, setting up headquarters at 496 N. Wells Street (1300 N. Wells in modern numbering).

Just as Spoor and Anderson were getting their new company underway, Thomas Edison was implementing a “licensing system” that would maximize the profits from the many motion picture camera and projector patents he owned. Soon, Selig, Spoor and Anderson and most of the nation’s other major studios (Kalem, Pathe Freres and Vitagraph) joined forces with Edison to form The Motion Picture Patents Company (also known as the MPPC or Edison Trust) in something of a Faustian bargain. This trust would control the industry for a decade by suing any motion picture producers who used cameras that allegedly violated Edison’s patents – but it also inadvertently opened the door to new innovations in filmmaking and became one of the reasons why southern California would ultimately become America’s filmmaking capital.

Anderson and Spoor recruited their cross-eyed janitor, Ben Turpin, to star in their first movie, the Anderson-directed stunt-comedy An Awful Skate; or, The Hobo on Rollers. The scenario, reminiscent of His First Ride, features Turpin crashing into things while roller-skating down Wells Street. The scenes may have been staged, but there was little acting involved – Turpin had no idea how to skate.

Ben Turpin, cross-eyed janitor-turned-movie star:

Ironically, the same sort of piracy that Spoor engaged in as an exhibitor became a problem for him immediately as a producer, as independent distributors began duping and circulating their own prints of An Awful Skate. Newspaper ads for the first Peerless movie were run with the following disclaimer: “P.S. ‘An Awful Skate’ has been copied by a rival concern who employed spies to follow our camera. Our picture is the original and best value for your money. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.”

Produced for only a couple hundred dollars, it has been estimated that An Awful Skate made between five and ten thousand dollars in profits in spite of the “bootleg situation.” The new influx of cash saw the studio change its name and move into a much larger complex of buildings on the city’s far north side. Rechristened Essanay Studios (a phonetic spelling of the first letters of the names of Spoor and Anderson – “S an’ A”), the studio opened for business in earnest in early 1908 at the address of 1333-45 W. Argyle Street in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood (St. Augustine’s College today). The rivalry between Selig Polyscope and Essanay was on – but that will be the subject of another post.

The Great Train Robbery is available on Kino Video’s essential The Movies Begin Vol. 1 DVD. It can also be viewed on YouTube here: 

Works Cited

1. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.

2. Lahue, Kalton C. Winners of the West: the Sagebrush Heroes of the Silent Screen,. South Brunswick: A.S. Barnes, 1971. Print.

Adventures in Early Movies: The Great Train Robbery and “Broncho Billy” Anderson, Pt. 1

Today’s post is the first part of a lengthy two part essay in which I analyze one of the most significant early films, Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery from 1903, as well as tell the story of its making. The second part will be published next week.

In the silent film era, trains and movies were a match made in heaven. Nothing symbolized movement in the industrial age like the locomotive, and the early filmmakers knew that movement is what excited audiences the most. Therefore, from the Lumiere brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat) in 1896, which legendarily caused early audiences to flee in terror as a train progressed towards the camera (and therefore, by extension, the viewer) through the simple panoramic films dubbed “phantom rides,” which saw cameras being placed aboard trains to create a “you are there” effect, to the incredible locomotive imagery in late silent masterpieces like Buster Keaton’s The General and Dziga Vertov’s Man with the Movie Camera, no other single image is more closely associated with silent cinema than that of the high speed train.

In 1896, there were at least six theatrical plays being produced in different parts of the United States that involved trotting out elaborate puffing locomotives onstage. Thomas Edison, who had dabbled in the development of electric trains before turning his attention to motion pictures, saw one such play in New York City, Scott Marble’s four-act melodrama The Great Train Robbery. Impressed by both the play’s narrative as well as its pull-out-the-stops special effects, Edison filed it away as a potential subject for a future motion picture. Seven years later, he would realize this ambition. (Bianculi)

In the late 1890s, movies had slowly transitioned away from one-shot actualities into more complex multi-shot narratives. In the first years of the twentieth century, copies of imported European “story films,” duped (not always legally) by Edison, George Spoor and others, were widely distributed in the United States and had become massively popular with American audiences. This was especially true of science-fiction/fantasy movies showcasing trick photography and special effects such as Georges Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune) and crime films involving exciting chases between police officers and criminals such as Frank S. Mottershaw’s A Daring Daylight Burglary.

A Trip to the Moon:

American movie studios soon found it incumbent upon themselves to imitate both the form and content of their European counterparts in order to compete. Consequently, as the Americans imitated the Europeans and the Europeans returned the favor, the language of cinema began to develop at a very rapid pace, becoming extremely sophisticated by the end of the decade. In 1903, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, an outfit headed by Edison’s former employee W.K.L. Dickson, ramped up its commitment to using motion pictures as a vehicle for telling stories. In September, they began producing the first “westerns,” a genre that combined the narratives of the English crime films of the day with the purely American iconography of the popular dime novels and stage shows about cowboys and Indians and the “settling” of the west. But it would be Edison himself who would produce the blockbuster movie that effectively inaugurated the new genre and established its conventions.

In 1899, former projectionist Edwin S. Porter joined the Edison Manufacturing Company as a camera operator and director. By the time he made The Great Train Robbery at the end of 1903, Porter had already directed forty-five short films and served as cinematographer on many more. In this astonishing and prolific run of movies, Porter proved himself a true pioneer (if not quite the “father of the story film” that some histories have claimed) who was responsible for popularizing many of the rules of film grammar that turn-of-the-20th century audiences were experiencing for the very first time. A case in point is Life of an American Fireman from early 1903, a “rescue film” that renders space cinematically (as opposed to theatrically) by showing the same event from multiple perspectives in consecutive scenes.

In the fall of ’03, Porter teamed up with Gilbert M. Anderson, the stage name of a theatrical actor born Maxwell H. Aronson, who would eventually co-found Essanay Studios with George Spoor and become one of the most significant figures in Chicago’s nascent movie scene. Tall, handsome and only in his early twenties at the time, Anderson was a natural in front of the camera but he also worked behind the scenes as a “gag man,” helping Porter to brainstorm story ideas. The two collaborated on multiple film projects for the remainder of the year, culminating in their final 1903 production, The Great Train Robbery, which was shot in November and released one month later. This game-changing movie would ultimately alter the destinies of both men forever. (Musser)

Color tinted publicity photo of “Broncho Billy” Anderson:

Although set in a nameless frontier region of the American west, The Great Train Robbery was filmed entirely in New York and New Jersey on both studio sets as well as actual locations. The film tells the story of a group of bandits who rob a telegraph office/train station, then board the train, where they proceed to rob both the safe and its passengers before making a daring getaway. Meanwhile, the telegraph operator enters a saloon and rounds up a posse to go after the robbers in an attempt to recover the stolen loot.

Among the innovative techniques employed by Porter are parallel editing (cutting back and forth between the bandits and the telegraph operator to suggest simultaneous action), double exposure composite editing (an early “special effect” that allowed multiple shots to be combined in a single frame), camera movement (tilt, pan and tracking shots are all utilized), as well as a primitive but delightful use of color tinting on some prints – since each frame was tinted by hand this was an extremely painstaking process.

One of the most unusual aspects of the film is its famous ending: after a shootout in the woods in which all of the bandits have been killed, Porter unexpectedly cuts to a close-up (the only one in the movie) for his final shot; one of the dead bandits has mysteriously reappeared to point his gun directly at the camera and “shoot” into the audience. The End. It should be noted that a now-famous letter sent by Edison Manufacturing to projectionists across America gave them the option of projecting this shot at either the end or the beginning of the movie. All versions of the film on home video place it at the end – where its impact is undoubtedly more effective.

“Assaulting the audience”:

Whereas the Lumiere brothers had scared audiences unintentionally with their train film, there was no doubt as to the frenzy Edwin S. Porter intended to incite with his more calculated assault on the audience. This shot would become one of the most iconic images of the early silent cinema, right alongside of the rocket ship hitting the Man in the Moon in the eye in A Trip to the Moon, and would serve as an inspiration for the opening of the James Bond movies as well as the ending of Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas.

In an interview in the late 1950s, Anderson recalled Porter’s rapid pace of production: “We made it all in two days. Then it was finished and taken to the reviewing room. After it was reviewed, they all looked up and they were dubious whether it would go or not. And Porter said, ‘Well, the only way we can find out is to try it out in a theater.’” (Brownlow)

To be continued . . .

Works Cited

1. Bianculli, Anthony J. Iron Rails in the Garden State: Tales of New Jersey Railroading. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008. Print.

2. Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California, 1991. Print.

3. Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood, the Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979. Print.

Blu “Moon”

The exquisite fantasy films of French movie pioneer Georges Melies are currently experiencing a new and unprecedented wave of popularity due in large part to their place of prominence in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo. (In that film, Ben Kingsley gives a delightful supporting turn as the elderly Melies and Scorsese devotes a good chunk of the story to showing actual clips of the great director’s movies while also poignantly proselytizing about the importance of film preservation.) Fittingly, the enterprising U.S. label Flicker Alley, who specialize in distributing silent movies on home video, have just released a new Blu-ray (only their second ever such release) of Melies’ most famous film, A Trip to the Moon from 1902. Their release bundles together two painstakingly restored versions of the movie (one in black and white and one in its original hand-tinted color) along with The Extraordinary Voyage, a terrific new feature-length documentary on Melies’ life and work by the French directors Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange. Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray should be considered an essential addition to the home library of any serious film lover.

George Melies was a magician who became a filmmaker after he saw a demonstration of the Lumiere brothers’ Cinematographe (a combination camera, printer and projector) on December 28, 1895. But unlike the Lumiere brothers, Melies was not interested in making “actualities” about the real world. He wanted to make fictional narrative films in which he could create his own worlds. So, like Thomas Edison, Melies built a studio where his movies could be shot. Melies’ studio, meticulously recreated in Hugo, was ingeniously constructed of glass walls, like a greenhouse, so that his sets could be lit by natural sunlight. The films that Melies made in this studio, the first such movie studio in Europe, established him as the first real master of mise-en-scene (the way a director controls all of the elements within the frame). This is not to say that the Lumiere brothers were not wonderful filmmakers in their own right (I actually prefer their work to that of Melies), only that Melies was the first director to rigorously control the set design, costume design, lighting, staging of the action and the performances of his actors. Melies was also a pioneer in stop-motion photography and other special effects, wherein he essentially integrated the sleight of hand he had employed as a magician with cinematography. The resulting movies, including A Trip to the Moon, are the most sophisticated narratives of their time, blowing the primitive fiction shorts of Edison and others out of the water.

Melies’ glass-walled studio:

A Trip to the Moon borrows elements from science fiction novels by Jules Verne (De la Terre à la Lune) and H.G. Wells (First Men in the Moon) in telling the story of a group of French astronomers who make the first expedition to the moon. The film begins with a Scientific Congress debating whether or not to make the trip. Hilariously, one member who violently opposes the idea has papers and books thrown at his head by the chief astronomer who is played by Melies himself. Then we see the construction of the rocket ship, which is loaded into a giant canon by a chorus line of girls identically dressed in short shorts (remember: sex was used to sell movies 110 years ago too!) and fired directly at the moon. This leads to one of the most famous images of the early cinema and one that I am proud to have featured on a Christmas ornament in my home: the rocket ship piercing the man in the moon in the eye. Once on the moon, our intrepid explorers are captured by the extra-terrestrial moon-men known as the Selenites. These prototypical movie aliens are portrayed by members of an actrobatic troupe who delightfully tumble and somersault their way around the set. The Selenites take the captives to their king but the astronomers escape and, after a climactic battle, make their way back to the rocket ship. From there, the explorers return to earth where they receive a heroes’ welcome.

As anyone who has seen Hugo knows, A Trip to the Moon is a remarkably entertaining movie even, as the saying goes, by “today’s standards.” What makes the film so much fun are the many lovingly crafted details of its overall design. Georges Melies was fastidious in building his elaborate sets, all of which utilize scale models to create the illusion of deep focus. One rooftop “exterior” scene, for instance, features a brilliant forced-perspective backdrop where a cityscape in the distance is dotted with miniature chimneys that puff real smoke. The costumes and props are likewise a delight — from the medieval wizard-like look of the astronomers in the opening scene, all pointy hats and flowing robes, to the Selenites’ extraordinary appearance, which combines insect-like bodysuits with tribal-looking masks and spears. All of this makes Melies’ 14-minute fantasy an ideal silent film to introduce to children (and is also why the movie references in Hugo work as well as they do, instead of seeming like a mere commercial for Scorsese’s World Film Foundation, as some critics have claimed).

The restored, color version of A Trip to the Moon on Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray is breathtakingly beautiful. The original 1902 color-tinting actually enhances the movie by more clearly separating characters from their environment, increasing the illusion of depth and subtly directing viewers’ eyes to what Melies wants them to see within a given frame (the man in the moon getting hit by the rocket is the only close-up in the film). My only quibble with the Blu-ray is that each version of the film included in the set comes with a different soundtrack: the black and white version features a score by Robert Israel and the original narration written by Melies that was meant to be read aloud at screenings of the film, whereas the color version features a beautifully bizarre, euphoric new score by the French art-rock duo Air. Ideally, one should be able to choose either score for either version of the film. Needless to say, this is a minor quibble and I am ecstatic that Flicker Alley has put this package together. I watched it with passion.

Adventures in Early Movies: As Seen Through a Telescope

Voyeurism, the practice of spying for the purpose of sexual gratification, has long been one of the most popular themes of the movies. It was of course one of Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite themes (and don’t you just love how Lady Gaga didn’t merely namecheck three random Hitchcock movies in “Bad Romance” but actually proved a little cinephile cred by citing the loose trilogy of voyeurism that is Rear Window, Vertigo and Psycho, hmmmm?). It is worth pointing out though that voyeurism has always been a popular cinematic theme dating back to the earliest days of film. A case in point is George Albert Smith’s delightful As Seen Through a Telescope from 1900, a one minute short that I frequently show to classes before screening Rear Window to prove this very point.

As Seen Through a Telescope begins with a long shot of an old man standing on a public sidewalk looking at something through a telescope. A young couple comes walking down the road. They stop momentarily in order for the man to tie the woman’s shoelaces, which have come undone. The old man trains his telescope on this act and Smith cuts to a second shot from the point-of-view of the old man looking through the telescope: a close-up of the woman hiking up her floor-length skirt by several inches so that the old man (and we the viewers) get a good look at her shapely ankle. Smith then cuts back to the original long shot as the young couple walk past the old man and his telescope. Apparently aware of his spying, the young man conks the old man over the head, knocking him off of the stool where he has been perched.

Although it is over a hundred years old, the final moment of this simple, three-shot movie always gets a big laugh from my Intro to Film students, which I believe cuts to the heart of the appeal of voyeurism-themed films. Movies about voyeurism allow viewers to share the voyeur’s delight but in a way that is completely guilt-free. We laugh at the end of As Seen Through a Telescope because we know that the “dirty old man” got what was coming to him for looking at something he shouldn’t have. But this doesn’t change the fact that we got to assume his exact point-of-view and vicariously experience the same titillation that he did. It wasn’t really us who did the spying we tell ourselves, and thus we can applaud the film’s moralistic ending. When it comes to experiencing a movie, sight is the most important empirical sense. Therefore, movies about the act of looking automatically become complex, multi-layered experiences. Directors like Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Powell knew this and accordingly manipulated viewers through an alternating use of subjective and objective shots. But they could have never done so had George Albert Smith not paved the way with a pioneering film like As Seen Through a Telescope.

George Albert Smith, a man who knew a thing or two about looking:

As Seen Through a Telescope can be found on volume 2 of Kino’s Essential The Movies Begin DVD box set. It can also be viewed online here.

Adventures in Early Movies: Moscow Clad in Snow

My favorite “actuality” of the early 20th century, as opposed to a fictional narrative like D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat, is probably Joseph-Louis Mundwiller’s Moscow Clad in Snow from 1908. Commissioned by the French studio Pathe Freres, this seven minute documentary of the title city is the one and only directorial credit of a man who would enjoy a lengthy career as a cinematographer (including work on such esteemed titles as Abel Gance’s Napolean, Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player and Pierre Chenal’s Crime and Punishment). It also probably offers the most fascinating images of Russian life of any movie made prior to the Bolshevik revolution. This is, for all intents and purposes, the best chance you have to see the “same Russia” that you can read about in the masterpieces of 19th century Russian literature.

The film is divided into four chapters, each of which is prefaced by an intertitle. The first section (THE KREMLIN – MARSHAL’S BRIDGE) begins with a sweeping panoramic shot of a majestic building seen in a long shot taken from such a great distance that the people walking in front of it look like insects. Mundwiller then moves in for closer views as his camera slowly pans from left to right or right to left in front of the building’s peaceful, snow-blanketed exteriors. We see people walking around, bundled up in heavy coats, hats and scarves, and traveling in one-horse open sleighs. At one point, a procession of army officers carrying rifles with fixed bayonets walks past the camera. This section ends with a thrilling shot of a busy Moscow street during a heavy snowfall. If not for the horses, this could be any large city today.

The second section of the film (TWO MONTHS OUT OF THE YEAR A BIG TRADE IN MUSHROOMS AND FISH IS CARRIED ON) takes place in an open market and offers us a chance to see the citizens of Moscow up close. Once again we see several pan shots, this time of merchants and patrons in the market, many of whom stare at the camera out of idle curiosity. They clearly don’t yet know what it means to be filmed; there is none of the instinctive hamming (or camera shyness) that you would find in similarly candid shots taken today. For me, witnessing the humanity of these ordinary people is the film’s emotional high point.

The third section (PETROVSKY PARK) takes place in a heavily wooded public park. Being a rural area, the accumulated snowfall seen on the ground here is considerably greater than in the earlier scenes. This section begins with a shot of more horse-drawn sleighs as the camera pans with them from left to right and right to left. The scene ends with a lovely shot of a group of men and women walking past the camera single-file with the aid of skis and ski poles.

The final section is a kind of coda (GENERAL VIEW OF MOSCOW) consisting of two more panoramic shots, this time taken from an extremely high angle that allows us to see the rooftops of the city’s many prodigious buildings. The angles here are so high and the frame crammed with so many buildings that no people (and not even much snowfall) is visible. In the first of these shots the camera pans from left to right and in the second it pans from right to left, which creates a feeling of perfect symmetry and closure. In seven minutes Joseph-Louis Mundwiller has used the most basic tools of film language (documentary shots of real locations and a system of meaningfully organizing them) to create an invaluable, evocative portrait of an era that would soon vanish forever. Moscow Clad in Snow is a film as wonderfully simple and straightforward as its title.

Moscow Clad in Snow is available on Kino Video’s The Movies Begin Volume 1 DVD and is accompanied by a sublime “needle drop” score from the public domain. It can also be viewed on YouTube here:

%d bloggers like this: