The Screening Room
academy films
On December 10, 2004, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences presented the second in what has become an annual event, “A Century Ago,” a selection of representative films made exactly 100 years ago.  The first, "The Films Of 1903," inaugurated the Linwood Dunn Theater at the Academy’s new Mary Pickford facility in Hollywood, which now houses its vast film archive.  Assembled by Randy Haberkamp, that program ranged from Edwin S. Porter’s pioneering "The Life Of An American Fireman," released at the beginning of 1903, to his even more significant "The Great Train Robbery," released at the end, offering an excellent overview in the progress of film technology and technique over the year.
As he did last year, Randy’s superb introduction set up first, the world of 1904, then the film world of that year.  Contrary to the simplifications that have appeared in many film histories, motion pictures were still primarily being shown in vaudeville houses, increasingly as chasers to clear the house, and many of the films made that year reflected this.  But the popularity of "The Great Train Robbery" increased the number of venues devoted exclusively to films that would lead to the introduction of the nickelodeon, and this was reflected in changes in the types of films made through 1904.  (NOTE: the following descriptions are not in the order in which the films were shown.) The earliest “dramatic” films shown were of the type of comic vignettes best suited to vaudeville programs, filmed mostly against painted backings on rooftop studios.  "Casey's Frightful Dream" (Edison), about a man having a nightmare, was interesting in that the story took place in three setups on two sets.  The first shot shows a sleepwalker getting out of bed and going to the window.  The next shot seems rather strange, cats scampering across a roof next to a window.  After about 30 seconds, the window opens and picks up the sleepwalker stepping out and walking across the roof until he stumbles and falls, followed by a cut to the first setup which shows the sleeper actually falling out of bed.  The first cut harks back a year to "The Life Of An American Fireman" in which the same action is completely repeated upon a change of angle, suggesting that in both instances the filmmakers may have felt audiences would not accept continuous action across a cut.  However, Porter did not repeat this in the other “narrative” films he did in 1903, mostly notably "The Great Train Robbery."  Another possible reason can be found in Randy’s text: exhibitors often bought films by the shot as well as the foot, and were free to edit the films as they saw fit.  Such action overlaps would allow for “cutting-on-action” if desired.  (As there was no editing equipment in those days, the cutting was done by holding the film up to the light and choosing where to cut based on the action, an approach that Kevin Brownlow states was used until sound came in.)

The other films of this type shown: "Dog Factory," "Animated Painting," and "Cohen's Advertising" (all Edison) were essentially one joke vignettes as were the series of “Buster Brown” comedies made by Edison, based on a popular comic strip character of the time who was also the namesake for the line of boys’ shoes.  Seven of these very funny precursors of "Our Gang" and similar kids films were shown.

Slightly similar was Selig Polyscope’s "The Girls In The Overalls," released later in the year and made on a farm in the Chicago area, and resembling the kind of innocuous “porno” films made in later years, the girls doing farm work and cavorting in the hay while fully clothed, often looking, smiling, and waving at the camera.

As Randy pointed out, with the rising popularity of motion pictures, piracy became as big a problem then as is claimed today.  Unscrupulous distributors would make a negative from a print and sell it as their own production, hence many companies began painting copyright notices on the sets of their dramatic films.  The most notorious duper was Sigmund Lubin of Philadelphia, who, according to Arthur Miller, ASC who was working for him at the time, once tried to sell George Melies’ brother a dupe of one of Melies’ films as a Lubin production!  In 1903, the distributors reached a loose accord to cease this practice, but that did not stop them from remaking someone else’s successful film.  Thus, Lubin’s “remake” of "The Great Train Robbery," released in June, 1904, was included in the program.

This was not an exact scene-for-scene remake, but very close in many ways.  However, Lubin’s director and/or cinematographer (it’s not clear if Lubin performed any of these functions himself) did not include any of the cinematic innovations Porter had in his version, such as panning and tilting in the location shots.  Also, where Porter had used a surprisingly effective matting process to double expose live backgrounds into his train station and baggage car sets, Lubin built his station set on a real platform and used a stage cyclorama drum for the view outside the baggage car.

Lubin did much better later in the year with his remake of Edison’s remake of a Biograph film, all three of which were shown back-to-back and all interestingly representative of advances in film storytelling between late Spring and early Fall of 1904.  The Biograph film, entitled "Personal," stemmed from an actual event in which a Frenchman advertised for a wife in the New York Herald's personal column.  In the film he proposes to meet the candidate at Grant’s Tomb, and when a mob of women shows up, one of the movies’ first chases results.  The Biograph version is pretty straight forward.  Edison’s version, "How A French Nobleman Got A Wife Through The New York Herald's 'Personal' Columns," not only added bits of humor, some apparently accidental, but opened with a medium shot of the “Frenchman” reading the ad before heading for the Tomb, a very rare setup for a dramatic film at a time when full shots were the norm (producers weren’t paying for half an actor/audiences would be upset by seeing half an actor, though they hadn’t been by half a person in a photograph or newsreel/documentary-type shot).

Lubin’s version, "Meet Me At The Fountain," released in November, not only repeated the opening medium shot, but also included a similar setup of the “Frenchman” making up before heading out.  Lubin’s version also has more clearly intentional humor and he tops it all by including a popular female impersonator of the time, who naturally is the victor.  Since he was shooting in Philadelphia, he could not do scene-for-scene setups as Edison had done with Biograph’s, and his substitutions are inventive.  He also separates each shot with impromptu dissolves, achieved by winding back the negative a few feet at the end of each take, a technique that apparently came from Melies.

A very interesting precursor of the filmmaking trends of 1905 could be seen in Biograph’s "The Suburbanite," released on November 11.  Apparently the only film directed by Biograph business manager Wallace McCutcheon, it was an early situation comedy dealing with the then new phenomenon of New York city dwellers moving to the suburbs, it was shot in Asbury Park, NJ., and their problems of adjustment.  It was the only film in the program to include title cards, a technique introduced the previous year by Edison for its 15 minute condensation of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

It’s doubtful if title cards would have helped film audiences of the time follow "Parsifal," Edison’s curious, and titleless, follow-up to "Uncle Tom."  Like that version, it is a recording from front row center of a traveling troupe pantomiming a condensation of the opera against their sets erected on a rooftop, which results in the scenery blowing in the wind.  The synopsis of the three act opera given by Randy before the showing helped some, but watching it was a very long 15 minutes.

The program included fewer “actualities” than last year, but they were very interesting, especially "Opening Ceremonies, New York Subway, October 27, 1904" (Edison), photographed by Edwin S. Porter and released two days later.  Most photographs depicting motion picture photography in those days show no viewfinders on the cameras, yet this and the two other actualities shown have interesting pans and tilts which leave one wondering how the cameraman composed the shots.  In the subway film Porter pans past another film cameraman, and also shoots in a station which apparently had a skylight that allows enough illumination to dimly show one of the cars.

The other actualities were "The Great Baltimore Fire" (Biograph), showing the ruined aftermath of the blaze and reportedly incorporating similar shots from other big fires, and "Panoramic View Aisle B. Westinghouse Works" (Biograph), a film made for Westinghouse’s pavilion at the St. Louis World’s Fair (as in "Meet Me In...").  Shot from a crane traveling overhead, the film shows various assembly line activities at their plant and gives an idea of how such work was being done then.  Both films were reportedly shot by Billy Bitzer.

Randy Haberkamp made the very interesting point that most film history from this period has concentrated on American films while the most innovative work was apparently being done in Europe.  This is a subject for further research.  A couple of British films that had been imported by American companies were shown last year, and one British and two French films were shown this year.  The British film, "An Englishman's Trip To Paris From London," made by Cecil Hepworth, attempted to add a bit of comedy to what was essentially a travelog, offering interesting views of those two cities.  The film suggests that Hepworth’s unidentified lead may have been a popular Music Hall comedian of the time.

The climax of the evening was George Melies' "The Impossible Voyage" (Star), restored from a Pathe color print that beautifully shows off the process.  Despite his advances in trick photography, well shown off in this film, Melies never went beyond doing his films in full shot stage tableaux.  This was an apparent attempt to top "A Trip To The Moon" (1902) with a trip by train, automobile, dirigible, and submarine to the sun; there is a similar moving POV shot toward the man in the sun, the train entering his open mouth.

The film is an interesting novelty, especially in “color.”  Randy revealed that prior to the wide use of title cards, narrators would often accompany films, which was the case with "The Impossible Voyage," Randy accompanying the film with narration from the Star film catalog.

An even more interesting foreign novelty was the film that ended the evening, one which I somehow don’t believe got that much play in the Puritanical Colonies.  "The Wrong Door" aka "Mistake In The Door" (Pathe) was a short French comedy in which a country bumpkin detraining with gastric distress mistakes an enclosed large phone booth for a WC.  (If you don’t know how to field that one, erudition will not be forthcoming.)  The depiction of his actions in the booth goes a bit further than one would expect for 1904.

Most of the prints shown were in 35mm, and most were shown at 16 fps.  Except for "The Impossible Voyage," they were all from the paper prints deposited with the Library of Congress, some from the 16mm conversions done by Kemp Niver (using an Éclair CM3 similar to one on display in the lobby, a leftover from the previous week’s camera program), others from new 35mm conversions.  The quality varied according to the condition of the source material, but overall was very good.  The steadiness of perforations occasionally visible on the sides of the frame verified that image unsteadiness stemmed from original photography.  The prints came from the Academy Film Archive, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, and the UCLA Film and Television Archive.  Michael Mortilla provided terrific accompaniment, especially for "Parsifal," on a piano recently donated by Jane Powell.

I’m eagerly looking forward to the overview of 1905.

Rick Mitchell is a film editor, film director, and film historian.  He lives in Los Angeles.

© 2004 Rick Mitchell.  All rights reserved

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