Friday, October 10, 2008


Beginning of a Skyscraper
US 1902. PC: Biograph. D: Wallace McCutcheon?. DP: Robert K. Bonine. Print: LoC, 35 ft /15 fps/ 0'25", no intertitles. - From paper print? A panorama
Paul Spehr: "Filmmakers based in New York City were fascinated by the ever-changing urban scene that surrounded them — and audiences shared their enthusiasm. This scene showing the excavation for one of New York’s signature high-rise buildings, filmed on 18 January 1902, is typical of the films documenting the city’s evolution." – Paul Spehr
The Skyscrapers
The Skyscrapers of New York (title on print). US 1906. PC: Biograph. P+D: Frank J. Marion. DP: Fred A. Dobson. CAST: Gene Gauntier, James Slevin. Print: LoC, 710 m /15 fps/ 12 min, English intertitles
Paul Spehr: "In the late 1890s actuality films were the most reliable source of income for most American film producers, and for a while it seemed that audiences would never have their fill of racing fire engines, roaring trains, and phantom rides, as well as views of famous people and places both familiar and exotic. But while the passion for speeding machines and the fascination with the exotic remained, around the turn of the century audiences began to tire of repetitious views of the same old scenes. So producers were forced to explore ways to make familiar fare more satisfying. One of the most successful methods was to tap into the public’s growing taste for stories by intermingling documentary with melodrama – or dress-up a melodrama with documentary scenes.
This trend is evident in the best known films from this era, The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery. It is not difficult to find other examples, The Skyscrapers being a case in point. The producer, the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, learned very early that audiences thrilled to vicarious danger. Cameras were placed close to the rails and trains rushed towards the audience at full speed; horses charged towards the camera, passing it on both sides. Speed, movement, and action were production characteristics for the company, and the thrills were equally satisfying if the danger threatened someone on screen – a group of workers dangling on a cable; tossing rivets high above a constructions site (both filmed from below to emphasize the position); or a life-threatening fight on the heights.
All of these are elements of the melodramatic plot of The Skyscrapers, one of a pair of dramas documenting major New York construction projects which Biograph released near the end of 1906. They were produced and probably directed by Frank Marion and photographed by Fred A. Dobson. (...) In The Skyscrapers, shot in November and released in December 1906, the drama revolves around a dispute between a workman who has been discharged for fomenting trouble and his supervisor. The worker, “Dago Pete”, seeks revenge by stealing the contractor’s watch and planting it in his supervisor’s home. His efforts are foiled by a young girl who saw him plant the watch.
The stereotyping of Italians and a distinctly pro-management and anti-labor overtone elevates what is otherwise a studio-bound melodrama which might be forgettable, but it is the remarkable shots of steel workers in action and the fight high above the street that makes this film truly unusual. While it lacks sophistication and subtlety, it is clearly a precursor of a host of adventures filmed on America’s urban skylines.
Biograph described the film this way in their Bulletin No. 88, dated 8 December 1906:
“Following The Tunnel Workers we offer a new sensational production in which the action takes place largely on the dizzy heights of the uppermost girder of a twenty-story skyscraper in the heart of New York. The building is said to be the highest is [sic] the city, and overlooks Union Square. [Author’s note: Not far from the company’s studio.] In the distance are to be seen the Flatiron Building, the Times Building and other modern marvels.
“The opening of the production includes a panoramic view of the skyscraper district and several thrilling ‘stunts’ by iron-workers, such as throwing and catching redhot rivets, riding a girder into its position and adjusting it in place, and a group of workmen hanging to the chains and being lowered by the derrick from the top of the building to the ground.
“The action of the story involves the contractor, superintendent and several workmen. ‘Dago Pete,’ an iron-worker, is discharged for fomenting trouble, and to get even, steals the contractor’s watch and charges the superintendent with the crime. To make his deed still blacker he conceals the watch in the superintendent’s home. The latter is accused of the theft by the owner of the watch, and as a result, the two men engage in a hand-to-hand fight on the very top of the building. The contractor is worsted and narrowly escapes death from a fall. The superintendent is arrested and haled [sic] into court, but a little girl who has seen the hiding of the watch denounces the villain. The contractor and the superintendent shake hands, while the thief is hustled off to prison.” – Paul Spehr - Quite a surprising film with raw force and a feeling of real danger and violence.

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