Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Frank Ormiston-Smith. Young Father of the Mountain Film

Frank Ormiston-Smith
Il giovane padre del cinema di montagna
Young Father of the Mountain Film

With e-subtitles in Italian, grand piano: Antonio Coppola, at Teatro Verdi (Le Giornate del Cinema Muto), Pordenone, 7 Oct 2014

William Barnes (GCM catalogue and website): "History has traditionally credited the invention of the genre of the Mountain Film – der Bergfilm – to Germany, and largely to one man, the geologist Dr. Arnold Fanck. Active and successful throughout the years of the Weimar Republic (1919-1933), Fanck developed his own specialist cinematographers, Sepp Allgeier, Hans Schneeberger, and Richard Angst, and two athletic and charismatic stars, Leni Riefenstahl and Luis Trenker, who were to become directors in their own right."

"Fanck’s sound debut came in 1930, with Stürme über dem Mont Blanc (Storm over Mont Blanc). Yet this film – and the whole aesthetic of the mountain film – had been anticipated almost 30 years before by the epic (for 1902) production The Ascent of Mont Blanc, made by a young American director, apparently living and working for a large part of the year in Switzerland, but supplying films to a British company. Between 1901 and 1909 Frank Ormiston-Smith directed more than 200 films, yet his biography remains for the most part mysterious (even his name is sometimes given as Frederick). We know that he was in his early 20s in 1902, but have no dates for his birth or death, or any knowledge of what became of him after 1909."

"In September 1902, Ormiston-Smith headed the Bioscope Expedition up Mont Blanc, sponsored by the Warwick Trading Company of High Holborn, London, under the management of a fellow-American, the producer Charles Urban, who was in 1907 to become a naturalized British subject."

"The personnel of this expedition consisted of two of the most experienced Oberland guides, the foremost Chamonix guide, and three porters, under the command of Ormiston-Smith, who was described in the press as being “not far into his early twenties and already with much experience of climbing in the Alps, spending seven months of each year there”. He alone was responsible for all the cinematographic work and had trained one of his guides, Christian Bergener, in the use of a Kodak camera, with which he was able to capture certain moments of the expedition’s progress in still photographs."

"Ormiston-Smith was equipped with a modified American Bioscope cine-camera said to have cost £50 to adapt – quite a considerable sum in those days. The work on this camera was almost certainly carried out by the manufacturer of cinematography equipment Alfred Darling of Brighton, who had already made cine apparatus for Urban in the past."

"The camera was fitted with a lens having an F5 aperture and a 3' focal length. It appears that everything was done to make quite sure that it was capable of functioning in the most adverse weather conditions, to withstand the trials and tribulations of filming in the High Alps with the rigours of their harsh climate of severe cold, high winds, snow and ice."

"On 22 September 1902 the expedition of seven men arrived at Chamonix, and on the 23rd, 24th, and 25th they successfully accomplished the ascent of Mont Blanc, 15,781 feet high."

"The resulting film consisted of 18 scenes – as we discover from the programme of its special screening at the Queen’s Hall – with a total length of 800 feet. The Warwick catalogue of 1903 stipulated that it was only available to exhibitors as a complete film and not as 18 individual items – thus breaking the usual practice with other multiple films, of which each part could be bought separately. Before this the only films of comparable length were The Passion Play and some records of famous prizefights."

"Following the successful ascent of Mont Blanc, the expedition went on to ascend the Great Schreckhorn of 13,500 feet, securing a film of 250 feet in length. In all Ormiston-Smith shot about 2,500 feet of film, resulting in the release of a dozen films, including The Ascent of Mont Blanc. The other films in the series were of more modest length, measuring 50, 100, or 150 feet."

"The Ascent of Mont Blanc was a huge success, and was exhibited in at least three first-class venues in the West End of London – the Alhambra Music Hall, the Palace Music Hall, and the Queen’s Hall."

"Naturally Ormiston-Smith’s Mont Blanc film cannot be compared with the sophistication, drama, or technique of Fanck’s much later Stürm über dem Montblanc. It was a straightforward narrative of the ascent, in 18 scenes, but for its time it was a remarkable achievement and well deserves better acknowledgment than it has been given. In Low and Manvell’s History of the British Film 1896-1906 it barely gets a mention, and in most other histories of the British cinema, no mention at all."

"In 1903 Charles Urban left the Warwick Trading Company to form his own film business, the Charles Urban Trading Company, and took with him many of the film-makers who had worked for Warwick, including Ormiston-Smith; and by the Summer of 1903 was announcing a series of Ormiston-Smith films called The Wintery Alps and, later in the year, Picturesque Switzerland. That September Ormiston-Smith led another film expedition similar to that of The Ascent of Mont Blanc, and climbed the Jungfrau (24 September 1903) and the Matterhorn (28 September 1903). From early Spring 1904 he toured Greece, Turkey, Egypt, Arabia, and Palestine, and in 1905 he was in Sweden to make the Northern Sports series. All of these films were handled by the Charles Urban Trading Company."

"One feels that there is a biography – even an autobiography – out there somewhere waiting to surface, for surely Ormiston-Smith was a very remarkable man, an amazing film-maker who merits further research on both sides of the Atlantic (Ormiston-Smith is a frequent name-combination in the United States)." – William Barnes

Tutte le copie dei film provengono dal / All prints are from the BFI National Archive, London.

The order was changed in the screening from the printed programme to the following. The Ascent of Mont Blanc was screened as the last picture in the show.

THE MOUNT PILATUS RAILWAY (Warwick Trading Company - GB 1900?/1901?) D, DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 35 mm, 142 ft, 2' (16 fps). - AA: In the style of the phantom ride. Clumsy, visual quality mediocre or worse.

FANCY SKATING ON THE BEAR ICE RINK AT GRINDELWALD (Warwick Trading Company - GB 1902) D, DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 35 mm, 73 ft, 1' (16 fps). - AA: Still clumsy, visual quality as above.

SKI JUMPING AT GRINDELWALD (Charles Urban Trading Company - GB 1903) D, DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 35 mm, 173 ft, 3' (16 fps). - AA: As above.

LIFE IN JAFFA (Jaffa and Jerusalem) (Charles Urban Trading Company - GB 1905)
D, DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 35 mm, 181 ft, 3' (16 fps). - AA: A fascinating record. Visual quality as above.

THE ARLBERG RAILWAY (Charles Urban Trading Company - GB 1906)
D, DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 35 mm, 365 ft, 6' (16 fps). - AA: A phantom ride. Visual quality as above.

Sleighing Parties in Switzerland in Mid-Winter (1902)
INTERNATIONAL WINTER SPORTS (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1904) DP: Joseph Rosenthal, F. Ormiston Smith, Mr. Landsdorff; 35 mm, 370 ft, 6'10" (16 fps); titles: ENG.
    This compilation originally consisted of 25 scenes, representing winter sports in Canada, the United States, Norway, Sweden, and Switzerland; the surviving version being shown contains 10 items. Charles Urban often repackaged compilations of his company’s films. A variant of this was later listed in Urban’s 1906 catalogue as Winter Sports Compilation. The photography of several films is credited to Frank Ormiston-Smith.
SLEIGHING PARTIES IN SWITZERLAND IN MID-WINTER (Warwick Trading Co. – GB 1902) DP: ?; 70 ft. Filmed in Grindelwald; includes shots from the sleigh.
MERRY BOYS AND GIRLS IN SNOWY SWITZERLAND (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1902) DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 55 ft. Schoolchildren on toboggans, filmed in Grindelwald.
THE BATTLE OF THE SNOW (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 26 ft. A snowball fight.
ICE-YACHTING ON THE ST. LAWRENCE (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: Joseph Rosenthal; c.20 ft. Filmed in Canada.
FUN ON THE SKATING RINK AFTER A SNOWSTORM IN THE ALPS (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 23 ft
COCK FIGHTING ON THE ICE RINK (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1904) DP: Frank Ormiston-Smith; 18 ft
MONTREAL ON SKATES (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: Joseph Rosenthal; 11 ft
HOCKEY ON SKATES (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 73 ft
A game of ice hockey, filmed in the Alps.
TOSSING THE PHOTOGRAPHER (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: Joseph Rosenthal; c.17 ft. Members of the Old Tuque Blue Club in Montreal tossing Joseph Rosenthal in a
blanket.
THE OUTING OF THE “OLD TUQUE BLUE” SNOW-SHOEING CLUB OF MONTREAL. (Charles Urban Trading Co. – GB 1903) DP: Joseph Rosenthal; 24 ft
    AA: A fascinating, priceless compilation. The joy of winter sport. Visual quality as above.

THE ASCENT OF MONT BLANC (Warwick Trading Company - GB 1902) D, DP: F. Ormiston-Smith; 35 mm, 775 ft, 13' (16 fps). - AA: An exciting straight record of the ascent of Mont Blanc. The streams, the snow, the avalanches, the terrifying ravines over the clouds, reaching the top. Visual quality: mediocre to bad.

AA: A wonderful programme covering the birth of the mountain film and covering winter sports. The visual quality is not enjoyable, yet this is a magnificent record.

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