Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Screen Decades Project (five films)

E-subtitles in English + Italian, grand piano: Mie Yanashita. Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, 10 Oct 2009.

The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
(Edison, US 1906) D: Edwin S. Porter; CAST: John P. Brown; 500 ft, [8'30" announced] actual duration 7'22" (16 fps); from: [Library of Congress announced] actually: MoMA. No intertitles.
From the GCM Catalogue: ""The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” was a popular comic-strip series by illustrator Winsor McCay. A regular feature in the New York Telegram from 1904 until 1914, McCay’s most successful cartoon strip always began the same way: with a portly gentleman who had overindulged in a dinner of Welsh rarebit, a kind of cheese fondue over toast. The combination of grated cheese, beer, butter, and seasonings led to rarebit-induced nightmares of epic proportions. In McCay’s strip, the first frame depicts the diner getting into bed or falling asleep, and the succeeding frames are filled with remarkable dreams beautifully drawn about phobias and anxieties, ones often attendant on modern urban life featuring cityscapes, skylines, and skyscrapers. The strip ends with the dreamer awakening. The Edison Manufacturing Company film The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, made by Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon, emphasizes instead the illusion that inanimate objects move of their accord (e.g., the bed hops up and down, shoes move by themselves) and that the dreamer in his bed flies through the night sky.
The movie opens with a medium shot of the gentleman-diner drinking alcohol and eating rarebit. But immediately after this conventional emblematic shot, Porter begins to employ tricks. The second shot is a double exposure of the gentleman, a swinging lamppost set in an exterior cityscape, and a background of panning, blurring New York City streets. As Charles Musser has written, “It suggested the subjective sensation of the fiend’s predicament without being a point-of-view shot”. After cinematically establishing the fiend’s inebriated state, the film depicts the man’s drunken adventures in his bedroom, a studio interior. First, his shoes appear to scamper across the floor and then the furniture disappears – the result of stop-motion cinematography.
The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend took longer to produce and was a more elaborate production than most films of the time. Increased sales at Edison gave Porter and his collaborator Wallace McCutcheon (who left Edison for Biograph shortly after this film was released) the ability to work more painstakingly, using miniatures, scripts, and the unheard-of length of 2 months’ time to develop the elaborate effects in this movie. As the manufacturer’s catalogue said, “The picture is probably best described as being humorously humorous and mysteriously mysterious, and is certain to make the biggest kind of a ‘hit’ with any audience. Some of the photographic ‘stunts’ have never been seen or attempted before, and but few experts in photography will be able to understand how they are done.” The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend has generally been credited as an important American-produced antecedent of animated film. – Lauren Rabinovitz". - An early exploration in cinema as "the dream mode", literally. A fine sense of vertigo. - The print has low contrast, a duped look, and frameline situations.

The "Teddy" Bears
(Edison, US 1907). D: Edwin S. Porter; CAST: ?; 761 ft, 13 min (16 fps); from: Library of Congress, Washington, DC. No intertitles.
The story of the hunting expedition when Theodore Roosevelt had declined to shoot a bear cub after killing its mother had become so embedded in the popular imagination that it was now represented by a furry stuffed toy known as a “Teddy” bear. Teddy bears became a nationwide fad. The “Teddy” Bears, made by Wallace McCutcheon and Edwin S. Porter for Edison, was meant, according to its advertisements, to be a satire on the teddy bear craze.
The first part of the film is a recounting of the very popular fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, told in sequential scenes and in a variety of indoor and outdoor spaces, with vestiges of the temporal overlapping that characterized Porter’s early films. Originally a tale of bears eating an intrusive female fox, now changed into the story of a curious girlchild who escapes harm by jumping out the window after being discovered by the bears in their house, the story featured a heroine who comes from who-knows-where and tries out identities as she samples the porridge and the beds of Papa Bear, Momma Bear, and Baby Bear.
In the Goldilocks character, we might find an unconscious reflection of the immigrant who attempts to find a role in the New World and is regarded as an object of suspicion by established society. The fairy tale is ambiguous on the question of where its sympathies lie. In the film, the cruelty of the hunter who shoots the pursuing bears (clearly human beings in furry costumes) as they chase Goldilocks through the woods hands over our sympathy to the bears. In a direct reference to the Teddy Roosevelt mythology, Goldilocks pleads with the hunter to spare the life of the bear cub. He does so, and Goldilocks goes in the house to collect the toy teddy bears; the hunter then emerges with Baby Bear, a chain around its neck, an orphan and a prisoner.
The third element in this mixture of fairy tale and contemporary political life is an animated sequence showing a group of toy teddy bears of assorted sizes putting on a kind of acrobatic display. According to Charles Musser, the animated sequence took 8 days of work, moving the teddy bears between each shot. It is seen through a peephole by Goldilocks as she snoops around the house. Typically for this period, there is not a lot of narrative logic for the animation sequence, even if it does serve to underline the Goldilocks role as an outsider looking in. It is there to provide an attraction for the audience. It is a spectacle outside the narrative continuity. Porter was often drawn to the time-consuming technical work that provided wonder and entertainment. – Eileen Bowser - A fairy-tale with actors in bear suits, animated teddy bears, and live action.

Broncho Billy's Christmas Dinner
(Essanay, US 1911). D: G.M. Anderson; SC: Josephine Rector?; cast: G.M. Anderson, Arthur Mackley, Edna Fisher, Julia Mackley, Willis Elder, Brinsley Shaw, Augustus Carney, Fred Church, Josephine Rector; 239 m, 12 min (18 fps); from: NFM (Desmet Collection). Dutch intertitles.
Released on 23 December 1911, Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner marks a turning point in the Westerns that G.M. Anderson was making for Essanay. Several years earlier, George Spoor had set up his partner with his own production unit to shoot films in the West. Favoring a peripatetic form of filmmaking, Anderson led his unit through a series of locations – in Colorado and Texas before “settling” in southern California – where he wrote, directed, and starred in popular cowboy films. In the summer of 1911 the team moved to San Rafael, north of San Francisco, where Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner was shot; then, after a short winter sojourn near San Diego, Anderson returned north and constructed a permanent studio east of San Francisco, in the small town of Niles, which he and his team would occupy for the next 4 and a half years. Although several earlier Essanay films bore the name, Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner was the first of an increasingly regular Broncho Billy series (with Anderson as the title character) that would run through 1915. In the series Anderson played a recurring character type – a “good badman” – yet in autonomous stories that rarely bore any relation to one another or suggested any change in the character from film to film. Simultaneous with this film’s release, Essanay was promoting Anderson as the “most photographed man” in the business – that is, one of the first recognized movie stars.
In Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner, a small-town sheriff is sent a poster of Broncho Billy (granting him immunity if he turns himself in) just before his daughter leaves for college on the local stagecoach. Meanwhile, in some woods, Billy waits for the stage to pass, planning to rob its passengers. The stage driver is delayed; drunken cowboys spook the horses; and the stage careens off (with the daughter), rushing wildly by the surprised Billy. Racing after the stage, he clambers aboard, grabs the loose reins, and brings the horses to a standstill. So grateful is the daughter that she invites him to join her family for Christmas dinner; before he can say no (he eyes the stage cashbox), she drags him off and home. Awkward and unfamiliar with such occasions, Billy finally confesses his identity; the sheriff quickly accepts him, grateful for his “good deed.” One reviewer found the “thrilling ride on [the] stage coach . . . as exciting and realistic as anything . . . shown in pictures,” and the surviving print, marked by some deft framing and editing, confirms this praise. Trade press stories heightened the thrill by reporting that, despite breaking an ankle during the scene’s filming, Edna Fisher (the daughter) “continued acting during three subsequent scenes without revealing the extent of her injuries”. Yet reviewers were equally impressed by the acting “in the quieter moments” near the end, as when a pensive Billy is washing up in the right foreground space of a small room, while the family and other guests cluster around a Christmas tree visible through a doorway in the background.
The Broncho Billy series was unusually popular in Europe, especially in Great Britain and Germany, where Essanay had branch offices. Anderson’s phenomenal appeal – what the English called the “irresistible charm of personality and the breezy, easy, infectious humour . . . of [this] magnetic man” – gave credence to Essanay’s own boast that Broncho Billy was the first American “world famous character-creation”. In contrast to Thomas Ince’s spectacular Indian pictures for Bison-101, Anderson developed Billy as a heroic figure along the lines worked out in Broncho Billy’s Christmas Dinner. That is, he first appeared as either an outlaw or “social bandit”, or else as a cowboy between jobs. If this characterization appealed to working-class audiences and boys, other attributes attracted a middle-class audience. For Billy usually underwent a transformation into a socially acceptable role model (Anderson himself, by contrast, underwent a different transformation, dropping his real name of Max Aaronson for a more Anglicized one). In fact, although never strictly a parent, Billy sometimes served as a surrogate father, making him an appealing figure to mothers as well as children. By incorporating Christian themes of moral uplift, self-sacrifice, and redemption, his films often (and somewhat ironically) evoked the ideals of evangelical Protestantism. In short, the Broncho Billy series became incredibly popular by hewing to traditional, middle-class ideals of morality, manhood, and character, without totally erasing the figure’s initial appearance as a stoic, isolated male. – Richard Abel. - Fascinating to notice also the connections to later John Ford westerns: the good-bad-man in Stagecoach, and the affection with the theme of the villain as a surrogate father (The Three Godfathers).

The Perils of Pauline: reissue Episode 5, The Aerial Wire [originally Episode 14]

(Eclectic Film Co. / Pathé, US 1914). D: Donald MacKenzie?; cast: Pearl White (Pauline), Crane Wilbur (Harry), Paul Panzer (Owen); 1265 ft, 19 min (18 fps); from: BFINA, a 35mm blowup from a 28mm print with reissue titles re-translated into English from French.
A genre of filmmaking often seen as symptomatic of American cinema’s “transitional” period, the action-packed serial enjoyed a terrific boom in popularity in the mid-1910s. The mold was cast by Selig’s 13-episode The Adventures of Kathlyn (which debuted in December 1913) – which made the daring exploits of an athletic “serial queen” central to the format’s appeal – and was emulated many times over in subsequent months: in Pathé’s The Perils of Pauline and The Exploits of Elaine; in Universal’s Lucille Love, the Girl of Mystery, The Trey o’ Hearts, and The Master Key; in Thanhouser’s The Million Dollar Mystery and Zudora; in Lubin’s The Beloved Adventurer; and in Kalem’s The Hazards of Helen – to name only those debuting in 1914!
Typically released in episodes of one or two reels over a period of three or more months, the serial was an economic bonanza for exhibitors unable to shift to features: the very promise “To be continued” virtually guaranteed repeat attendance, rendering the short film program viable in the face of the growing market for feature films. Not for nothing, then, did the serial also mark a watershed in film advertising: far-reaching campaigns were a sine qua non for generating the sustained public interest on which serials depended. The Adventures of Kathlyn may (again) have set the mold – establishing the full-page newspaper serialization as the centerpiece of its promotional campaign – but it was The Perils of Pauline that really upped the publicity stakes. Fueled by a co-production arrangement between Pathé and the Hearst newspaper syndicate, Perils unleashed a torrent of ballyhoo with its debut in March of 1914 – newspaper serializations, of course, but also weekly write-in competitions with cash prizes and a mammoth billboard campaign (Pathé claimed to have put up 52 billboards in New York City alone).
Nothing was more important to Pathé’s promotional efforts on Perils than the serial’s lead actress, the 25-year-old Pearl White – arguably the US cinema’s first truly international star. At a time when the motion picture star system was just coming into effect, early serial queens were paradigmatic of the extent to which fan publicity fused stars’ personal identities with their screen personas – as though there were simply no distance separating these actresses from the characters they portrayed. According to one representative profile, for instance, White was in reality a former trapeze artist, a “pretty fair swimmer”, and an “athlete” who “aeroplaned often”. For her, “leaps over cliffs, and dives off decks of ocean liners, are as prosaic and uneventful as her morning grapefruit,” one magazine reported. The huge success of The Perils of Pauline consequently enshrined White as an icon of modern womanhood, a status secured through subsequent Pathé serials, The Exploits of Elaine (1914), Pearl of the Army (1916), The Iron Claw (1916), and many others.
It is hard not to see the serial queen phenomenon as one of silent cinema’s most explicit discourses on changing ideals of womanhood in early-20th century America. Yet what is surprising watching Perils today is just how limited Pauline’s agency appears (especially in comparison with the far more assertive independence of, for example, Helen Holmes in the roughly contemporaneous The Hazards of Helen). The narrative of Pauline’s “perils” is carefully framed between two patriarchal obligations – to her guardian Mr. Marvin, whose death in Episode 1 frees Pauline to give rein to her adventurous spirit, and to her fiancé Harry, marriage to whom abruptly ends her adventures in the serial’s final (20th) installment. It is only in the period between these bonds that Pauline encounters her adventures, repeatedly fighting off the murderous designs of her guardian’s secretary, Owen, who is plotting to take control of her inheritance.
First released in early October 1914, as Episode 14 in the serial’s 20-chapter run, the installment screened at this year’s Giornate as Episode 5 in fact derives from a later 9-episode 28mm non-theatrical condensed reissue, in turn based on the 1916 European release prints. (The intertitles reflect this circuitous provenance, having been re-translated awkwardly back into English from the French.) As usual, the chapter begins with Pauline lured outside the security of domestic space (this time, by a false report of a fire), only to be returned to it at the end (as always, by being rescued by Harry). Like most early serial episodes, the action is thus relatively self-contained, lacking the “cliffhanger”-style structure that would become more common by 1915. (The print is also missing a few frames from the ending.) And yet, within the modest confines of its 2 reels, the film offers a burning building, a double kidnapping, a flooding, a rat infestation, an underwater dive, and an escape on a telegraph wire. An “old-fashioned, shake-the-house thriller” was how the Moving Picture World described it. “This is truly a real one.” – Rob King. - I have seen very few samples of the American serials, despite their great importance, so I was grateful to see this. Thrills galore with the exploding cellar and the escape over the river via an aerial wire which is cut by the villains. A duped print from a battered source.

The Sinking of the Lusitania
(Winsor McCay, US 1918). D: Winsor McCay; cast [prologue]: Winsor McCay; 217 m, 9'32" (20 fps); from: Cinémathèque Québécoise, Montréal.
Along with features and star vehicles, movie programs during the late 1910s also included short entertainment and informational films such as cartoons and newsreels. Some of these smaller films depicted the war and related topics creatively, didactically, or, in the case of Winsor McCay’s The Sinking of the Lusitania, with some of each. Released in July 1918, it has sometimes been described erroneously as the first animated propaganda cartoon, or the first one about World War I. Animated cartoons about the war had been made since at least 1915, in fact, and their production and rhetoric increased thereafter, along with that of other war-related films. In the months before the release of McCay’s film, there were such cartoons as The Peril of Prussianism (January), Me und Gott (April), and The Depth Bomb (May). Among other producers, Pat Sullivan released several animated shorts during the war, including two that apparently sought to capitalize upon the anticipation or popularity of Shoulder Arms, namely How Charlie Captured the Kaiser (September) and Over the Rhine with Charlie (December).
McCay’s film is neither the first nor last animated cartoon about events related to World War I, nor is it the first film made about the German sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania off the Irish coast in May 1915, an act that had killed over 1,000 people, including 128 Americans, and edged a reluctant nation closer to war. In addition to coverage in other media, two feature films about this event appeared before McCay’s film, both starring Rita Jolivet, an actress who actually had survived the Lusitania disaster. Little is known about Her Redemption(1916), but Lest We Forget, released in January 1918, is a drama in which the Jolivet character is captured by Germans and sentenced to death by firing squad (a likely reference to the Edith Cavell case). She escapes, only to find herself aboard the ill-fated ship, but survives its destruction. Jolivet’s real-life connection to the disaster not only provided a reason to make these films, but also helped to promote them and lend a degree of authenticity. McCay’s film may have been created partly to tap into lingering interest in this particular subject as well as ongoing concerns about a possible direct German attack on the United States. Such concerns were heightened by ongoing submarine warfare when, on 25 May 1918, U-boats made their first confirmed appearance in U.S. waters.
What makes The Sinking of the Lusitania among the more interesting, accomplished, and unique films of its time is its hybrid form as an artful document. Unlike most documentaries it is animated, and unlike most animated cartoons it is not a comedy. And unlike many propaganda films of the time, its production values are exceptional, even noteworthy as one of the earliest films to use cel animation. As with Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918), the prologue of McCay’s film depicts the author figure preparing the film, and likewise touts him as not only a great filmmaker but also “the originator and inventor of Animated Cartoons”. While McCay certainly did not invent animation, he had already produced a number of ground-breaking works such as Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and was an established Hearst newspaper comic strip and editorial cartoonist.
A powerful document with images drawn and edited to resemble a newsreel, McCay’s animated film simultaneously informs, horrifies, and possibly entertains audiences with its spectacle. A self-described “historical record of the crime that shocked Humanity,” the film depicts the ship being torpedoed, engulfed in flames and explosions, and sinking as passengers seek lifeboats and fall overboard to their deaths. The film culminates with a powerful scene of a mother and her baby drowning. While the film depicts the Germans as distant and dark silhouettes, the victims are portrayed with more humanity, including photographs of some prominent passengers who died, such as the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt and “the world’s foremost theatrical manager”, Charles Frohman. Though clearly on the side of the Allies, and sometimes strident in its rhetoric, the film also makes gestures toward a more balanced journalistic tone, including its acknowledgment that there were public warnings that such an event could occur, and that these warnings had been ignored. Perhaps because it is not a feature film, there is not much of a documented popular or critical reception for The Sinking of the Lusitania, but it subsequently may be considered one of McCay’s most accomplished works. – James Latham. - A wonderful animation which could still be studied by today's animators. A nobility of approach, fine artistry and an impressive variety of means to portray the naval tragedy.

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