Tag Archives: Billy Bitzer

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:


Top 25 Films Made Before 1920

Because the language of cinema was still dramatically evolving from 1895 to 1919 and because most of the films made during this period were shorts rather than feature length works, this list mixes shorts and features together and is presented in chronological order rather than order of preference. For the earlier, shorter films, I’ve included links to YouTube videos where they can be seen in their entirety.

As with all of my “best of the decade” lists, I’m also limiting myself to one film per director in the interest of diversity. Otherwise, D.W. Griffith and Louis Feuillade would have about half of the slots on this list locked up.

1. Rough Sea at Dover (Acres/Paul, UK, 1895)

2. Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (Lumieres, France, 1896)

Bertrand Tavernier has referred to this Lumiere Brothers masterpiece as the “first horror movie” because, as legend has it, early audiences reacted to the image of a train moving towards the camera by fleeing in terror. This is a simple “actuality” that depicts just what the title states in a single shot lasting approximately 42 seconds. But it’s also a good example of how well made the Lumiere Brothers’ films were: the dramatic contrast of the black and white cinematography, coupled with diagonal perspective of the composition, makes the film an aesthetically pleasing experience even when viewed today. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube by clicking the image above.

3. Seminary Girls (Edison, USA, 1897)

4. As Seen Through a Telescope (Smith, UK, 1900)

5. Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs (Veyre, France/Indochina, 1900)

6. A Trip to the Moon (Melies, France, 1902)

Georges Melies was the polar opposite of the Lumieres; he made narrative films in the fantasy genre that showcased trick photography and special effects. He also shot all of his movies in an ingeniously constructed glass-walled studio in Paris. Melies’ most famous film is A Trip to the Moon, a 14-minute sci-fi adventure about astronomers making a maiden moon voyage, where they do battle with the moon’s alien inhabitants before triumphantly returning to earth. This gained renewed fame when it became a major reference point in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo and was subsequently re-released in a splendidly restored color version. I’m including a link to a YouTube video above but please note that the image quality here is far inferior to what you will find on the magnificent Flicker Alley blu-ray.

7. A Daring Daylight Burglary (Mottershaw, UK, 1903)

8. Life of an American Fireman (Porter, USA, 1903)

9. New York Subway (Bitzer, USA, 1905)

10. Rescued By Rover (Fitzhamon/Hepworth, UK, 1905)

11. The Life of Christ (Guy, France, 1906)

Alice Guy, a true movie pioneer, began her directing career in 1896 and is sometimes credited as the first person to make a narrative film (as opposed to Lumiere-style actualities). A DVD compilation of her work released by Kino in 2009 is a revelation: it contains stunt comedies, panoramic views of exotic places, and fascinating early experiments with sound and color. My favorite of her films that I’ve seen is The Life of Christ, which recounts “the greatest story ever told” in 25 single-shot tableaux-like scenes that, at 33 minutes, made it relatively epic in 1906. Especially effective is the climactic resurrection, which is bolstered by a beautiful score on Kino’s DVD. This is my second favorite Jesus movie after Pasolini’s.

12. The Golden Beetle (Chomon, France, 1907)

13. Moscow Clad in Snow (Mundwiller, France/Russia, 1909)

14. A Child of Paris (Perret, France, 1913)

Also included in Kino’s “Gaumont Treasures” DVD set is a an entire platter devoted to Leonce Perret, an important director previously unknown in the States. The major revelation of the set is A Child of Paris, a feature film from 1913 that is shockingly sophisticated in terms of its cinematography (including the kind of camera movements and oblique compositions that wouldn’t become commonplace for years to come). The Dickensian story concerns a little girl who becomes an orphan, is sent to a boarding school, runs away and then is kidnapped by a gang of thieves. The acting is surprisingly naturalistic for the time and the use of real locations – in Paris and Nice – is impressive in the extreme.

15. Cabiria (Pastrone, Italy, 1914)

16. Child of the Big City (Bauer, Russia, 1914)

17. The Cheat (Demille, USA, 1915)

Forget what you think you know about the conservative purveyor of stolid 1950s epics and experience the raw power of Cecil B. DeMille’s scintillating “yellow peril” melodrama when the trailblazing director was just beginning his career in the mid-1910s. Edith Harvey (Fannie Ward) is a socialite who embezzles money from a charity, loses it in a bad investment and borrows money from shady Japanese businessman Hishuru Tori (Sessue Hayakawa) in order to pay it back. The film’s most outrageous scene involves the Asian Hayakawa (an ostensible “villain” who exudes more movie star charisma than anyone else onscreen) literally branding the caucasian Ward with a hot iron. The dramatic use of chiaroscuro lighting was way ahead of its time and anticipates the rise of German Expressionism a few years later.

18. Regeneration (Walsh, USA, 1915)

19. One A.M. (Chaplin, USA, 1917)

20. The Blue Bird (Tourneur, USA, 1918)

21. Tih Minh (Feuillade, France, 1918)

Jacques d’Athys, a French adventurer, returns to his home in Nice after an expedition to Indochina where he has picked up a Eurasian fiancee and a book that, unbeknownst to him, contains a coded message revealing the whereabouts of both secret treasures and government intelligence. This makes him the target of foreign spies, including a Marquise of mysterious origin, a Hindu hypnotist and an evil German doctor, who will stop at nothing to obtain the book. Louis Feuillade’s 12 chapter, 7 hour serial is overflowing with action, thrills, humor and romance and is a strong contender for the title of the most purely entertaining movie I have ever seen.

22. Blind Husbands (Von Stroheim, USA, 1919)

23. Broken Blossoms (Griffith, USA, 1919)

24. Madame DuBarry (Lubitsch, Germany, 1919)

Polish-born Pola Negri was a major international movie star and sex symbol during the silent era and Madame DuBarry, a biopic of Louis the XV’s mistress set (incongruously) against the backdrop of the French Revolution, is one of her finest star vehicles. Funny, tragic and sexually provocative for its time, this historical epic allowed German film studio UFA to break into the international market. Four years later, director Ernst Lubitsch would become the first of many German filmmakers to migrate to Hollywood (where he would achieve even greater fame).

25. The President (Dreyer, Denmark, 1919)


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