Category Archives: Early Cinema

Adventures in Early Movies: The Golden Beetle

Segundo de Chomon is a little known but major film pioneer whose work appears to be in the process of being rediscovered. Last October a special event at the New York Film Festival, “The Marvelous World of Segundo de Chomon,” drew renewed critical interest in the man sometimes referred to as “the Spanish Melies.” This makes me supremely happy since I consider Senor Chomon’s strange and wonderful 1907 masterpiece The Golden Beetle (Le Scarabee d’or) to be one of my favorite early films and yet have found other movies by its mysterious and shadowy creator (as well as biographical information about him) to be somewhat difficult to come by.

I do know that Chomon got his start as a color tinting specialist for the French studio Pathé in 1901 and directed his first film for them the following year. Like his mentor Georges Melies, Chomon was known primarily for trick cinematography and optical effects. In addition to directing, he is credited with creating the special effects for films as important and far-flung as the Italian epic Cabiria in 1914 and Abel Gance’s Napolean in 1927 (his final credit), which makes him something of a cinematic Zelig. However, as The Golden Beetle makes clear, as a director Chomon was also a cinematic poet whose movies invite sustained reflection and analysis – something that cannot always be said about the one-dimensional illusionism of Melies.

The mysterious Senor Chomon:

The Golden Beetle begins with a shot of a sorcerer wearing stereotypical middle-eastern garb (long beard, turban and baggy clothes) standing in front of a building with an ornate facade. He spies a beetle crawling up the side of the building, plucks it off the wall and casts it into a magic, fiery cauldron. This act transforms the beetle into a beautiful woman wearing a skin-tight gold costume and sporting three pairs of giant wings. Based on the sorcerer’s delighted reaction we can assume he has conjured this beetle-woman for the purposes of his own (sexual?) gratification. However, the creator soon loses all control over his creation; the winged beauty turns the tables on him by turning the cauldron into a colorful exploding fountain, doing a delightful dance and conjuring up two female assistants of her own who plunge the sorcerer into the cauldron and thereby destroy him.

In less than three minutes The Golden Beetle impresses as a kind of prototypical feminist allegory as well as a very beautiful example of an early color-tinted film. Because it was tinted entirely by hand, it must have been an extremely painstaking process for Chomon to create his elaborate psychedelic fountain, which sprays red, purple, pink and yellow colors to all corners of the frame. Indeed it so impressed one of my students in an Intro to Film class that she identified it as the single best film I showed all semester, ranking it ahead of even many feature-length movies with sound.

Hopefully, the renewed interest in Segundo de Chomon will result in the release of a new DVD or Blu-ray compilation devoted solely to his work. In the meantime, The Golden Beetle can be viewed on the first volume of Kino’s essential The Movies Begin box set. It can also be viewed on YouTube here (even though it’s misidentified as the work of Ferdinand Zecca):


Selig Polyscope Podcast!

Selig Polyscope week at White City Cinema concludes with a podcast of a trip I recently made to the lone original Selig Polyscope building at 3900 N. Claremont Ave. on Chicago’s northwest side. Following our recent Essanay Expedition, I headed to the former site of the Selig Polyscope Co. with my fellow Traveling Mystery Solvers Adam Selzer and Hector Reyes. Although the building has recently been converted into condos, we were granted access to the interior by Mike, one of the current tenants, who graciously agreed to give us a tour.

Inside Selig Polyscope!

The top two floors of the building have been extensively renovated. When it was being used as a film studio a century ago the roof was made entirely of glass (not unlike a greenhouse). This was because the monochromatic film stock of the time was notoriously insensitive to light; interior shooting required massive amounts of light in order for the early cinematographers to achieve a proper exposure.

3900 N. Claremont circa 1907 (note the glass roof):

The same building as seen today (note how the bottom two floors are nearly identical to the photograph above):
Photographs by Adam Selzer

Listen to the podcast of Adam, Hector and me discussing the building as we tour it: Colonel Selig’s Moving Picture Plant Podcast

Also, check out Adam’s post on the same topic at his terrific Chicago Unbelievable blog

Selig Polyscope’s Pointers on Picture Acting

Selig Polyscope Week continues both at White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable!

Anyone appearing in a Chicago-shot Selig Polyscope production circa 1910 would have been given this handy, exceedingly amusing manual on “picture acting” that I am reproducing in its entirety below. If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, at least scroll down the page to read the hilarious entry on “Sleeves”. Amazing but true:

ACTION – When the director gives you the word for action at the start of a scene, don’t wait and look at the camera to see if it is going. That will be taken care of and started when the action settles down to where the directors think the scene should start.

LOOKING AT THE CAMERA – Never look toward the director when he speaks to you during the action of a scene and while the camera is running. He may be reminding you that you are out of the picture, or of some piece of business that you have forgotten. Glancing toward the camera near the finish of a scene to see if it has stopped is also a bad habit. The director will inform you when the scene is over.

EYES – Use your eyes as much as possible in your work. Remember that they express your thoughts more clearly when properly used than gestures or unnatural facial contortions. Do not squint. You will never obtain the results you are striving for if you get into that very bad habit.

MAKING EXITS – In making an exit through a door, or out of the picture, never slack up just on the edge; use a little more exertion and continue well out of range of the camera. Many scenes have been weakened by such carelessness.

LETTER WRITING – In writing before the camera, do so naturally. Do not make rapid dashes over the paper. You are completely destroying the realism you are expected to convey by so doing. When reading a letter mentally count five slowly before showing by your expression the effect of the letter upon your mind.

READING A LETTER – When a lady receives a letter from her sweetheart or husband she must not show her joy by kissing it. That is overdone and has become so common by usage in pictures and on the stage as to be tiresome.

KISSING – When kissing your sweetheart, husband or wife, do so naturally – not a peck on the lips and a quick break-a-way. Also use judgment in the length of your kiss. Vary it by the degree of friendship, or love, that you are expected to convey.

GESTURES – Do not use unnecessary gestures. Repose in your acting is of more value. A gesture well directed can convey a great deal, while too many may detract from the realism of your work.

STRUGGLING – Avoid unnecessary struggling and body contortions. Many scenes appear ridiculous by such action. For example, if in a scrimmage you are overpowered by superior numbers, don’t kick, fight and squirm, unless you are portraying a maniac or a man maddened beyond control. Use common sense in this.

SHUTTING THE DOORS – Be careful in opening and shutting of doors in a set, so as not to jar the scenery. Carelessness in this respect causes make-overs, with a considerable loss of time and film, both of which are valuable.

IN PICTURE – Be sure that you stay in the picture while working. Mentally mark with your eyes the limitations of the camera’s focus, and keep within bounds. You can do this with a little practice without appearing purposely to do so.

SMOKING – Don’t smoke near the camera or where the smoke can blow across the lens. Take just as good care about kicking up a dust. If you are on a horse it is not necessary to ride circles around the camera. Throwing dust into a camera will cause scratches, and bring down upon your head the righteous wrath of the operator.

GOSSIP – Avoid discussing the secrets of the business you are engaged in. Remember that much harm is done by spreading the news of all the happenings of the day in your work. Revealing to outsiders the plots and names of pictures you are working on or have just finished is frequently taken advantage of and causes great loss to your firm, by some rival concern rushing a picture out ahead that they have on hand, of the same nature. All gossip of an injurious nature is deplorable, and will not be indulged in by any people who appreciate their position and wish to remain in the good graces of their employer.

PROMPTNESS – Come to work on time. An allowance of ten minutes will be granted for a difference in watches, but be sure it is ten minutes BEFORE and not ten AFTER. There are no hardships inflicted upon you, and you ow it to your employer to be as prompt in this matter as you expect him to be in the payment of your salary.

MAKE-UP – Regarding make-up and dress, do some thinking for yourself. Remember that the director has many troubles, and his people should lighten his burden in this matter as much as possible. For example, if you are told to play as a “49” miner, figure out in your own mind how you should appear, and don’t ask the director if high-laced boots will do when you should know that they have only been in use for a few years. Don’t ask him if pants with side pockets will do, when you know they were never worn at that period. A poor country girl should never wear high French heels, silk stockings and long form corsets; nor should her hair be done in the latest fashion. She would look very much out of the picture in such make-up carrying a milk pail. Do not redden lips too much as a dark red takes nearly black. Likewise in rouging the face, do not touch up the cheeks only and leave the nose and forehead white. The effect of such make-up is hideous in photography.
Get in the habit of thinking out for yourself all the little details that go to complete a perfect picture of the character you are to portray. Then, if there is anything you do not understand do not be afraid to ask the director.

BEARDS – In the making of beards one cannot be too careful. This is an art that every actor can become proficient in, if he will only take the pains to do so. Remember that the camera magnifies every defect in your make-up. Just use your mental faculties to give some thought to your character studies and you will win out.

SLEEVES – Avoid playing too many parts with your sleeves rolled up. Cowboys and miners use the sleeves of their shirts for what they were intended. If you are playing tennis, or courting a girl at the seaside, you may display your manly beauty to your heart’s content. Do not let common stage usages govern you in this matter.

PROFANITY – Let the gentleman exercise care when in the presence of ladies and children to use no profanity. It is just as easy to express yourself without it if you will only try it.

USE NO PROFANITY IN THE PICTURES – There are thousands of deaf mutes who attend the theatres and who understand every movement of your lips.

PARTS – Do not become peeved if you are not given the part you think you ought to have. The director knows what type person he wishes to use in a particular part, and if it is not given to you it is because some other person is better fitted for it.
We should all work for the general good. By giving our employer the best we have in us, we are greatly benefiting him, and by so doing are enhancing our own value.

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Selig Polyscope

It’s Selig Polyscope week! Today’s post is the first of three in which I will be examining one of the most significant film studios, not just in Chicago but in all of America, during the first decade and a half of the 20th century. Selig Polyscope week is a collaborative effort between White City Cinema and Chicago Unbelievable – their first post of the week concerns the first Wizard of Oz movies (shot by Selig in Chicago) and can be found here: Chicago Unbelievable: The First Oz Movie.

The following was written in collaboration with Adam Selzer.

“Colonel” Selig and a smoking chimpanzee:

One of the most colorful motion picture pioneers of the 1890s and early 1900s was William Selig, a native Chicagoan and traveling magician who conferred the title “Colonel” on himself while touring the minstrel show circuit. After seeing one of Thomas Edison’s kinetoscopes in Dallas, Texas in 1894, Selig became obsessed with moving pictures – and with finding his own way to create and exhibit them (and, hence, get around Edison’s patents). Selig eventually formed the first major movie studio in Chicago, Selig Polyscope, and set up shop at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. (in the neighborhood known today as North Center/St. Ben’s).

A true innovator, Selig produced such notable films as a re-creation of Theodore Roosevelt’s African Safari (during which a real live lion was shot and killed in the Chicago studio), the first Wizard of Oz movies and The Adventures of Kathlyn, the first popular cliffhanger serial. A movie he made about Columbus even earned him a medal from Pope Pius – a singular honor for a protestant!

Selig also worked tirelessly, using all of his old vaudeville showmanship, to raise the public’s opinion of movies, which were still seen as terribly low-class in the early 1900s – he envisioned a day when movies would enrich the lives of everyone in a day when most people still thought of them as novelties. In 1907, Selig began a massive publicity campaign in an attempt to make movies acceptable entertainment for people outside of the working class. The Chicago Tribune had been vocally against them, fearing that they would lead children down a path to degradation. “There is no voice raised to defend the great majority of the five cent theatres,” one Trib staffer wrote, “because they cannot be defended. They are hopelessly bad.”

Selig fired back with a five-page ad in which he took on a voice like that of Professor Harold Hill to tout the educational virtues of movies. One day, he claimed, movies would keep children in school, off the streets and out of the dance halls and saloons. Rather than leave their idle minds to the devil’s hands, he wrote, they would be in the theatres, filling their minds with knowledge about exotic travel, ancient history, and great literature. Years later, Selig finally won the Tribune over by contracting with them to print the “novelization” of The Adventures of Kathlyn, which not only catapulted the cliff-hanger serial to new heights of popularity, but greatly raised the Tribune’s circulation as well. The Tribune’s embrace of movies in turn helped the film medium to become more acceptable to the middle and upper classes.

In 1909, Selig became the first film producer to establish West Coast operations, opening a second studio in Los Angeles with director Francis Boggs. Among the significant Selig Polyscope films made at the California studio were the earliest westerns starring legendary cowboy Tom Mix. Around this same time, Essanay, Selig’s chief rival studio in Chicago, made a comedic star out of their cross-eyed janitor Ben Turpin. Selig didn’t have the same luck – his janitor tried to murder him in a drunken rampage that killed Boggs and left Selig with a gunshot wound in the right arm. Selig recovered and hired a new janitor. He eventually turned his California studio into the “Selig Zoo,” a sort of prototype Disneyland. During the Depression, it drove him to bankruptcy and he switched gears to become a literary agent instead.

William Selig was given an honorary Academy Award for his pioneering film work in 1947. He died the following year at the age of 84. Today the southeast corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. in Chicago is occupied by a BP gas station with no indication that hundreds of movies had ever been produced there.

The Selig Polyscope studio at Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. circa 1914:

The corner of Irving Park Rd. and Western Ave. today:

The only original Selig Polyscope building still standing today is located at the corner of Claremont Avenue and Byron Street. It has been converted into condominiums:

The original Selig Polyscope logo (an “S” inside of a diamond) can still be seen above the building’s main entrance:
Photographs by Michael Smith

Adventures in Early Movies: A Corner in Wheat

If I had to name a single favorite narrative film from the first decade of the twentieth century, it would probably be D.W. Griffith’s 14 minute A Corner in Wheat from 1909. Although it was made only one year after Griffith began directing, the film is uncommonly assured in its sense of composition, pacing, mood and tone. This is no doubt in part due to Griffith’s astonishing rate of production in the early phase of his career; between the beginning of 1908 and the end of 1909 (when A Corner in Wheat was released in December), Griffith had already made almost two hundred films. To examine Griffith’s evolution from his first primitive short The Adventures of Dolly to A Corner in Wheat in just two action-packed years is to witness the birth of a master. At the end of this period, Griffith had far surpassed his contemporaries in using narrative continuity techniques to impart meaning in ambitious and complex ways.

The most notable aspect of A Corner in Wheat is its audacious use of parallel editing (also known as crosscutting or intercutting), the technique of cutting back and forth between two locations in order to suggest simultaneous action. Although parallel editing has become so commonplace that it appears in the vast majority of movies made today, this wasn’t always the case; the earliest edited films all involved following a single protagonist or group of protagonists from the beginning of the film to the end. Edwin S. Porter is widely credited with popularizing parallel editing with his 1903 movies Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. Six years later, Griffith (never an inventor but frequently an innovator) perfected the technique, employing it in ways that no one else had yet conceived. For example, most early instances of parallel editing involved cutting between different locations in order to generate suspense or to draw a parallel between different subjects. In A Corner in Wheat, Griffith uses the technique for the purposes of ironic counterpoint, cutting in order to contrast characters in starkly different milieus – and thereby delivering a damning social critique.

A Corner in Wheat begins and ends with scenes of a farmer sowing grain that visually quote Jean-Francois Millet’s painting The Sower. In between, we see a greedy businessman, W.J. Hammond (“The Wheat King”), corner the world market in wheat. As a result, the cost of flour rises and the price of bread doubles. Griffith’s parallel editing shows us a lavish party thrown by the Wheat King (in which his guests are identified by an intertitle as “The Gold of the Wheat”) juxtaposed with a series of tableaux-like shots in which poor people stand in line to buy bread (identified as “The Chaff of the Wheat”). Later, the Wheat King visits a grain elevator (presumably on a folly to see how the other half live) and, while there, receives a telegram from his accountant informing him of his current net worth. His excitement causes him to fall down the elevator shaft where, in a deliciously ironic example of poetic justice, he is literally suffocated to death by falling grain. If this last image sounds familiar, that’s because Carl Dreyer cribbed it for the climax of his great experimental horror film Vampyr 23 years later.

Griffith’s early masterwork has even continued to be paid tribute to right up to the present day. I’m not sure which is the more fitting 21st century tribute: that a shot from it appears in WALL-E (as an image used to define “Earth” to a futuristic people who have never seen our planet) or that it inspired someone in December, 2010 to write the comment “fuck wall street!!” in the comments section of this YouTube video: A Corner in Wheat

A Corner in Wheat can also be found on Kino Video’s essential 2 DVD set D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Shorts.

The Secret History of Chicago Movies: Chicago Police Parade

The “birth” of motion pictures is generally credited by historians to December of 1895, when the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere held in Paris the first public presentation of their invention the “cinematographe” (a combination movie camera, printer and projector). This is believed to be the first time large-scale film projection occurred before a viewing public (as opposed to the movies that had previously been seen only on peep-show machines like Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope). Incredibly, the first motion picture ever shot in Chicago, the still extant Chicago défilé de policemen (Chicago Police Parade), was made only months after the Lumieres’ demonstration.

The cinematographe:

The popularity of the cinematographe led the Lumieres to dispatch cameramen all over the world so audiences could see, for the first time ever, real-time moving images of how people from different countries and cultures lived, worked and played. The aptly titled Chicago Police Parade is a 45 second film of 144 Chicago Police officers walking down a wide street (possibly Wabash Avenue) and past a stationary camera. The officers are formally dressed and carrying billy clubs. Amusingly, it appears that approximately 142 of the officers are sporting large mustaches. Bringing up the rear of the parade is a horse-drawn carriage.

As with other Lumiere productions of the period (including the masterpiece Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), the camera is positioned at an oblique angle so that the policemen appear to walk “diagonally” from the rear of the frame to the front. This perspective puts greater emphasis on the depth of field of the image, with a clear demarcation of background, middle ground and foreground, and also serves as a good example of just how well composed the Lumiere brothers’ films were. However, Chicago Police Parade was not made by either of the brothers themselves but instead by one of their favorite cinematographers, a Frenchman of Italian descent named Alexandre Promio. The very next year Promio would become a major footnote in motion picture history by effectively inventing camera movement; he took his camera to Venice and placed it on board of a gondola!

The first man to shoot Chicago and the inventor of the moving camera:

Chicago Police Parade is available on Kino Video’s wonderful DVD The Lumiere Brothers’ First Films. It can also be viewed in its entirety on YouTube here: Chicago Police Parade

Adventures in Early Movies: Let Me Dream Again

Today’s post is the first in a series about some of the most significant and entertaining films from the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century, an era of which I am quite fond.

In the earliest days of cinema, each movie consisted of a single unedited shot. The early filmmakers would put a small roll of film inside of a 35mm camera, point the camera at a subject and let it roll until the film simply ran out. The result was a lot of wonderful one minute movies, like the immortal films of the Lumiere brothers, that function today as invaluable documents of what life in the late 19th century was like. It wasn’t until years later that it was discovered that a film could be edited, by literally gluing two or more shots together, to create a more complex and elaborate motion picture experience.

The earliest edited films from around the turn of the 20th century typically consist of only two shots. Fascinatingly, a lot of these movies take dreaming as their subject; having two shots of roughly equal length apparently caused the early filmmakers to think of each shot as a different state of consciousness. Therefore, a typical “two shot” film from this time began with a shot of a character falling asleep and concluded with a second shot of what that person was dreaming about. Or, conversely, the film began with a shot of what the audience assumed was “reality,” only to conclude with a second shot of a character waking up from what turned out to be only a dream. A good example of the latter type of film is George Albert Smith’s Let Me Dream Again from 1900.

Smith, an important English director who unfortunately isn’t well known today, made a series of incredible films around this time that tackled such enduringly popular movie themes as dreaming, voyeurism and the chasm between subjectivity and objectivity. Let Me Dream Again is a short, comical film that begins with an overhead shot of a man in an amorous encounter with an attractive young woman in bed. (In another pioneering move destined to be imitated by countless male filmmakers since, Smith cast his real life wife as the attractive woman.) Then, the camera goes out of focus, partially to mask a forthcoming “straight cut” and partially to signal a shift in the man’s consciousness. When Smith cuts to the second shot, also out of focus, we see two characters lying in bed in a graphic match of the previous shot. Smith then racks focus in the second shot to reveal the man from the first shot lying in bed as before, only this time next to his nagging and less attractive real wife (depicted in the still above).

The use of racking focus in successive shots is a little crude (it’s the prototype of the kind of slow dissolves that would later become the standard in signaling a shift between states of consciousness); but by today’s standards the film is still quite funny and even poignant in terms of what it suggests about the divide between dreams and reality. Buster Keaton would perfect this theme, and the cinematic techniques used to accompany it, in Sherlock Jr. in 1924 (due out in a new Blu-ray edition later this month), but he could have never done so without first looking to the shining example of an earlier classic like Let Me Dream Again.

Let Me Dream Again can be found on the second volume of Kino Video’s essential The Movies Begin DVD box set.

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