Friday, October 10, 2008


Grandma's Reading Glass
GB 1900. PC: G.A.S. Films. D+DP: George Albert Smith. Print: BFINA, 88 ft /16 fps/ 2 min, no intertitles
Grandpa's Reading Glass
US 1902 © 3 October 1903 Biograph. D: Wallace McCutcheon; DP: Robert K. Bonine. Print: LoC 131 ft /15 fps/ 2 min, no intertitles
Charles Musser: "Grandma’s Reading Glass is a delightful achievement, but it is also a significant milestone in the history of cinema. Of course, the film was well known before the Brighton Conference, but for many of us in attendance it was the first time that we had seen it on the screen. (And certainly the fact that we were seeing a Brighton film in Brighton itself added a little piquancy to everyone’s viewing.) The picture immediately stood out for its use of point-of-view structures and for its number of shots – 10 total. The film alternates between different close views of objects, animals, and people, and an establishing shot showing Grandma – and a boy who looks at these objects using her reading glass. (Of course, the grandmother was almost certainly not the boy’s actual grandmother; in fact it was most likely a man dressed up as an old woman, but that is another issue.) As the Warwick Trading Company, its British distributor, explained the picture in its film catalog: “The conception is to produce on the screen the various objects as they appeared to Willy while looking through the glass in their enormously enlarged form. The big print on the newspaper, the visible working of the mechanism of the watch, the fluttering of the canary in the cage, the blinking of grandma’s eye, and the inquisitive look of the kitten, is most amusing to behold. The novelty of the subject is sure to please every audience.” The film thus uses a simple optical instrument – a lens or reading glass – as a stand-in for the camera. Likewise the boy is a stand-in for the cameraman. In this respect the film is consciously and necessarily self-reflexive. It enabled the audience to make sense of the sequence of shots.
This pairing of Grandma’s Reading Glass with Grandpa’s Reading Glass was inspired not so much by the significance of the Smith film as by the sophistication of the Biograph remake. (Note: Grandpa’s Reading Glass was not shown at Brighton, but was screened at the Museum of Modern Art in conjunction with the Brighton Conference.) From the earliest days of motion picture production, remakes were extremely common. Many were done by the people who had made the initial picture: if a negative wore out and there was still sufficient demand, the production company was expected to make a new negative of the same general subject. W.K.L. Dickson and William Heise made Cock Fight in March 1894, and Cock Fight, No. 2 in September 1894. While similar in many respects, the filmmakers improved on the subject by replacing a black background with a white one – to show the action of the roosters more clearly. It is well known that Cecil Hepworth remade Rescued by Rover twice (a total of 3 different negatives). Just as often (perhaps even more often!), production companies remade popular subjects that had been originated by their competitors. After Biograph showed its popular Empire State Express (September 1896), Edison responded with The Black Diamond Express (December 1896) – and so on. Many Biograph films were remade because the company used a large-gauge 68mm/70mm film stock and did not sell their prints. Rival producers could make their own 35mm versions, use the resulting films for their own exhibition service, and eventually sell copies to independent showmen. Correspondingly, when a 35mm film was particularly popular, Biograph could not show it on its large-format projectors and so, in turn, often remade these subjects for its own use. This was the case with Grandpa’s Reading Glass (July 1902).
Grandpa’s Reading Glass was not the first remake of G.A. Smith’s Grandma’s Reading Glass. Pathé Frères, which avidly remade the films of its competitors, produced La Loupe de Grand-Maman in 1901. It was not shown at Brighton, and may not even be extant. Biograph did not produce its remake until July 1902. Why? Thomas A. Edison was victorious in his patent infringement suit against the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company on 15 July 1901, and while the courts allowed Biograph to continue in business it restricted the company in what it could produce while the case was being appealed. Biograph continued to make news and non-fiction films, but was barred from making comedies and fictional subjects. When the decision against Biograph was reversed on 10 March 1902, the company once again operated without restrictions. Responding to important changes in the industry, Biograph began to make films using standard gauge (35mm) stock even though it did not entirely abandon its 68/70mm format. Grandpa’s Reading Glass was shot in the old, large format for its shrunken exhibition circuit (which still included the Keith theatres). The resulting film was 525 feet in length – that is, the equivalent to a 1050-foot 35mm film in terms of raw stock. Since each film frame was roughly 4 times the size of a 35mm frame, and the Biograph operated at about 30 frames per second (more than twice the rate of many American producers working in 35mm), this was a very expensive way to produce a film. Fourteen months later, Biograph began to sell 35mm reduction copies of Grandpa’s Reading Glass to independent exhibition services. These were not only reduction prints, they also apparently included only alternate frames, reducing the appropriate projection rate from 30 to 15 fps. Biograph also copyrighted the film in this 35mm format on 3 October 1903 – and it is the resulting paper print which survives.
It is easy to think of early cinema remakes as cheap knock-offs – quickly produced imitations made with little thought and strictly for money-making purposes. They readily mobilize our worst assumptions and prejudices: that early remakes were crude, that filmmakers lacked mastery and a deep understanding of their medium, that they lacked originality and artistic as well as ethical integrity. Undoubtedly there are pictures that could confirm such hypotheses, but I think this misconstrues how these films were generally meant to be seen and enjoyed – which is to say also how they were made. Filmmakers and audiences were far more attuned to nuance than we often assume. They were ready to compare films and enjoy their subtle differences in ways that are quite unfamiliar to us today.
Biograph changed just one little letter in the title of its film – the “m” becomes a “p” – but this tiny shift changed the gender of the person who possesses the reading glass. This is not the only thing that was inverted or reworked. In fact, McCutcheon systematically pursued this refiguration. For instance, Smith had a young boy wield the reading glass, while McCutcheon had not just one, but two girls. When showing things in close-up, Smith put them against a dark or black background, while McCutcheon used white. (In this respect, neither Smith nor McCutcheon created a seamless spatial matrix – these backgrounds always remove the object from their spatial context.) Smith opened his film with a panning close-up of a newspaper, using a circular matte to mime the circular lens of the reading glass, which is only introduced in the second shot. Grandma’s Reading Glass thus goes from close-up to establishing shot. McCutcheon did the reverse, and was much more careful in the way he introduced the viewer to the film’s “gimmick”. Grandpa’s Reading Glass starts with a frontal shot of the whole scene as Grandpa uses the reading glass to read the comics. The girls grab the glass and start to read it as well. The next shot is a medium shot of newspaper comics with the reading glass scanning the successive images on the page – but the camera is not moving with it (as is the case in the Smith film). McCutcheon then cut back to an establishing shot, and it is only the fourth shot – of a girl holding a kitten – that introduces the circular matte to signal that the enlarged image has been created by the circular lens of the reading glass. Moreover, if Smith filmed “Grandma” in profile, McCutcheon filmed “Grandpa” head-on. McCutcheon had his girls examine many of the same kinds of subjects in his remake, but in a highly self-conscious manner. Thus, both films show a bird in close-up, but Smith’s canary is in a cage and flutters about, while McCutcheon’s parrot rests quietly on a perch. Unlike Smith, McCutcheon did not show the moving mechanism of a watch, but showed a monkey – sitting on a bar and eating. If we associate monkeys with a mischievous predisposition, then McCutcheon was signaling that he was “monkeying around”, and thus involved here in some monkey business.
The Biograph film is 14 shots as opposed to Smith’s 10. The addition of 2 close-ups or inserts are thus worth noting. Smith shows the boy using the glass to get a close-up of “Grandma’s” eye. McCutcheon has the girls turn the lens on the mother, which first generates a portrait-like view of this attractive, smiling woman. (This shot has no immediate counterpart in Smith’s film.) The girls then move the glass closer to motivate a close-up of the eye – the mother’s right eye (Smith likewise had shot Grandma’s right eye). McCutcheon thus introduced a more complex structure – establishing shot, medium close-up, establishing shot, extreme close-up. The other new insert in Grandpa’s Reading Glass is the final close-up of a very young boy. The different endings to these films are thus worth considering. Smith concluded with an establishing shot, and McCutcheon with a close-up. The final close-up in Grandma’s Reading Glass is of a kitten, which Grandma has picked up so her grandson can look at it more closely. The scene then cuts back to the establishing shot as the kitten jumps off Grandma’s lap, which signals the end of the film. McCutcheon placed his close-up of the cat near the beginning of his film – in fact, the first shot in which he uses the circular matte (thus inverting the order). In the final establishing shot of Grandpa’s Reading Glass, the mother picks up the infant son who has been on her lap (as the cat was on Grandma’s lap) and the girls look at him with their glass. The film then concludes with the close-up of her smiling son. Unlike all the other shots in Grandpa’s Reading Glass, the son is against a black background, providing a visual counterpoint to the preceding close-ups and signaling the film’s conclusion.
McCutcheon’s attentive playfulness in Grandpa’s Reading Glass is impressive, and looks towards many of the engaging Biograph comedies he made in 1904-05 (Personal, The Suburbanite, and so forth). Indeed, he proves himself a highly adept reader of Smith’s picture. Both films are nostalgic depictions of family life – though G.A. Smith certainly takes a somewhat more sardonic view, given that “Grandma” seems to be played by a man in drag (and also when contextualized by some of his other films, such as Let Me Dream Again). McCutcheon pushes the depiction of domestic bliss much further – with a more developed family (and more pets!) – without entirely abandoning the comedy. Where is the father in these idyllic scenes? In both films, he is not strictly absent, but behind the camera, where he is creating this portrait of his beloved family. One ideological component shared by both films is thus a patriarchal impulse. In Grandma’s Reading Glass the son wields the reading glass while the father handles the camera. (Another interpretation of this is that the making of Grandma’s Reading Glass is itself a kind of child’s play, perhaps helping to explain why Smith abandoned this kind of filmmaking by about 1903.) Until the concluding shot of Grandpa’s Reading Glass, this idyllic domestic scene has old Grandpa surrounded by women. The introduction of the final shot somewhat unexpectedly produces the heir, and provides the film with both symmetry and closure within a generational thrust. While the film begins with the old man and ends with the young baby boy, it also progresses from Grandpa to the mother, and only then concludes with her son. If McCutcheon, like Smith, subtly privileged the male sex, he also foregrounded the young, virginal girls (dressed in white, while Smith’s boy is dressed in dark clothing) and their charming mother. Could The Lonely Villa (1909), itself a remake of Pathé’s Le Médecin du château (The Physician of the Castle, 1908), be far behind?" – Charles Musser

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