Tag Archives: George Albert Smith

The Art of Alfred Hitchcock

I recently gave an hour-long Zoom presentation on the “Art of Alfred Hitchcock” for the 19th Century Charitable Foundation in Chicago. I talked about the relationship between voyeurism and film editing and showed clips from THE LODGER, REAR WINDOW, VERTIGO and PSYCHO. You can now watch it on YouTube:


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: 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: 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.

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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