Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Thanhouser: The Mastery of Structure

George O'Nicholls: David Copperfield (1911), PC: Thanhouser Company.

Viewed at Teatro Verdi, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian, grand piano: Philip C. Carli, 4 Oct 2011.

Introduced by Ned Thanhouser who presented the Thanhouser website where the 56 surviving Thanhouser films are accessible online. Edwin Thanhouser produced 1000 films - and burned all the negatives as he finished his business. For 25 years Ned Thanhouser has been collecting the surviving legacy.

David Robinson (GCM Catalogue): "This programme is both a belated tribute to the centenary of the Thanhouser Company and a reassertion of the individuality and importance of a company whose achievements have too often been overshadowed by the “majors” of the early cinema, Edison, Biograph, and Vitagraph. Edwin Thanhouser’s greatest accomplishments were to bring to the cinema his long theatre experience, but with a perfect understanding of the differences as well as the interrelation between the two forms; and – with the collaboration of Lloyd F. Lonergan – to bring the structure of the 1- and 2-reel format to a degree of sophistication that was not always emulated even by Griffith."

"Edwin Thanhouser (1865-1956) began his career as actor in the company of Alessandro Salvini (1861-1895), and was subsequently to run his own stock companies in Atlanta and Milwaukee. In 1900 he married Gertrude Homan (1882-1951), who was to work closely with him in films, particularly in the choice of scripts."

"In 1909 he decided to invest the fortune he had made managing the Academy of Music Theater in Milwaukee in the newly burgeoning motion picture business. Settling in New Rochelle, a favourite habitation for successful Broadway personalities, he transformed a disused skating rink into his studio and laboratories. The first Thanhouser release, on 15 March 1910, was The Actor’s Children, in which the streets of New Rochelle were already very effectively used as locations. Within a year or two the studio had built up its own repertory company, with Florence LaBadie, Marguerite Snow, Muriel Ostriche, and Mignon Anderson. The outstanding male star was the protean actor and future director James Cruze, though Morris Foster, Harry Benham, and William Russell competed for popularity with audiences. Thanhouser featured small girls – Marie Eline “The Thanhouser Kid”, Helen Badgley “The Thanhouser Kidlet”, and the enchanting “Thanhouser Twins”, Madeline and Marion Fairbanks, who were 12 when they joined the studio. Shep, “The Thanhouser Collie”, was a friend to all."

"In March 1912, Edwin Thanhouser sold his interest in the studio to the Mutual Film Corporation, and departed on an extended tour of Europe, while Mutual appointed Charles J. Hite to manage the studio. The burning of the studio on 13 January 1913 resulted in an opportunist production, When the Studio Burned, and the erection of an ambitious new studio on Main Street, which included a three-acre park accessible to the residents of New Rochelle when not in use for filming. In August 1914 Hite was killed in an automobile accident; and in spring of the following year Mutual persuaded Edwin Thanhouser to resume management. In 1917 the Thanhouser Film Corporation finally phased out its operations, and in the early autumn of that year the studio was leased to the Clara Kimball Young Film Corporation."

"Even in the years of his withdrawal, Thanhouser’s legacy still influenced production at the studio. Most marked was the infallible sense of structure, whether the 15 minutes of a 1-reel film had to compress an entire novel or play – be it Goldsmith or Shakespeare or Jekyll and Hyde – or depict a small, undramatic happening (In a Garden simply describes a meeting, a parting, and a reconciliation). The idea of the pre-planned “continuity” was already established and recognized as essential to economy of shooting: Thanhouser used the “continuity” from the start and consistently. (In The Evidence of the Film the on-screen director is inseparable from his script.) Gertrude Thanhouser’s brother-in-law, Lloyd F. Lonergan (1870-1937), a former Hearst journalist, was head of the scenario department, and seems himself to have written a majority of the plays."

"Thanhouser had a fundamental understanding of acting, and recognized that “the theatric artificiality if employed in a moving picture would offend. We don’t need to follow suit, and should take every opportunity to depart from the theatric standard”. The realistic settings of the film helped: “Instead of actors walking through cardboard flats that signify doors, the true-to-life setting, the environment, will create the right ambience, atmosphere for the actors to act in realistic ways.” Drawing his actors largely from the theatre, he reckoned that “as a rule the good actor on the stage is a good actor in the studio”, even if “it takes him a little while to learn the tricks of moving picture work”."

"The result is acting notable for its naturalism and its expressiveness. More than in other films of the period the players seem to be thinking and feeling rather than acting. This expressiveness has the effect of making Thanhouser films startlingly less reliant on intertitles than their contemporaries. Dialogue titles are rare. Titles are used mostly for inserts, such as letters, or as a kind of narrative mini-chapter heading which serves to punctuate the structure." – David Robinson

UNCLE’S NAMESAKES (Thanhouser Company, US 1913) D, SC, DP: ?; cast: David H. Thompson, Lila Chester, Sidney Bracy, Madeline and Marion Fairbanks, Justus D. Barnes; 35 mm, 895 ft, 15' (16 fps); from: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles.

"This unusually broad and relaxed comedy deliberately or accidentally satirizes the consistent Thanhouser habit of using girls in the roles of small boys. The plot closely resembles Asta Nielsen’s Engelein, which appeared the following year. The story casts David H. Thompson (the studio manager, casting manager, and occasional director) as a nervous and penurious expectant father. A letter from his rich brother in England promises to make the forthcoming child his heir, and to confer an immediate gift of $5,000 – if it is a boy. The not-so-happy event turns out to be twin girls. Father lies to Uncle; so that when Uncle decides to visit, 12 years later, the girls must masquerade as boys. The Fairbanks Twins rise to the occasion. It is a characteristic Thanhouser subtlety that the audience is aware that Uncle knows the secret all the time." – David Robinson
AA: The rich bachelor's revenge to his brother who has lied to him that his children are boys. A cross-dressing theme with a parody of gender clichés. Ok print.

PETTICOAT CAMP (Thanhouser Film Company, US 1912) D, SC: ?; cast: Florence LaBadie, William Garwood, the Jordan Sisters (divers); 35 mm, 895 ft, 15' (16 fps); from: Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA. English intertitles.
"The Thanhouser skills in making drama or comedy out of familiar daily life, and in naturalistic performance, are evident in this comedy of early women’s lib, which is also a revealing view of the new, pre-war mobile American middle class. Several married couples vacation on an island. When the girls find they are working while the boys play (at hunting and fishing), they rebel and find their own island. The boys find that reconciliation comes at a price. The film stars Thanhouser’s most prominent actress, Florence LaBadie, who died tragically in a car accident at the age of 29, in 1917. Here her leading man is William Garwood (1884-1950), who was one of the company’s most prominent players between 1909 and 1913." – David Robinson
AA: The wives have had enough of their men only playing and the wives having to do all the work on the holiday camp. A plein air ambience although there is a duped look and a high contrast in the print.

AN ELUSIVE DIAMOND (Thanhouser Film Company, US 1914) D: ?; SC: Lloyd F. Lonergan; cast: David H. Thompson (Butler), Carey L. Hastings (Mrs. Burr), Mignon Anderson (Bettina), William Noel (Hoodlum); 35 mm, 914 ft, 15' (16 fps); from: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles.
"Some weeks before the launch of The Perils of Pauline, Mignon Anderson (1892-1983) offers a prototype of the daredevil girl – descending walls on fortuitous vegetation, snatching cars, and defeating the jewel thieves. The story is lucidly told, with only three narrative titles and two brief dialogue titles. The cutting is fast and camera set-ups freely move around the set or shift range to follow the story." – David Robinson
AA: An ingenious plot to fool the diamond thieves. A duped look in the print.

THEIR ONE LOVE (Thanhouser Film Company, US 1915) D: John Harvey; SC: Gertrude Thanhouser; DP: Carl Louis Gregory; cast: Madeline & Marion Fairbanks, Robert Wilson (Jack, the soldier), Charles Emerson (Jack as a boy); 35 mm, 951 ft, 15'30" (16 fps); from: BFI National Archive, London. English intertitles.

"Their One Love is by any standards a small masterwork, a poignant reflection on love and war and loss. Twin sisters, loyal and inseparable in their affection, love the same boy. He is killed in the Civil War. It is a film about feelings, and the performances of the 15-year-old Fairbanks twins are extraordinary in their conviction. The story is told entirely without intertitles, apart from inserts of three letters, and a calendar which carries the action from 1858 to 1861 and thence to 1915, the twins’ old age. The film was released just after The Birth of a Nation, and its battle scenes lose nothing by the comparison. The elaboration of the night cinematography, with electric lighting effects and pyrotechnics, is thought to be unprecedented. The script was by Gertrude Thanhouser. The director John Harvey (1881-1954) had been an actor at Vitagraph (as Jack Harvey) before joining Thanhouser as a first-time director in 1914. Their One Love was his fourteenth film for the company, and he was to make six more before quitting Thanhouser for IMP. He continued to direct throughout most of the silent period, then worked intermittently as writer and bit player." – David Robinson
AA: There is real feeling in the story of the sisters both in love with the young man who falls in the Civil War. The devastating flash-forward: 50 years afterwards the two old maids. The nocturnal war sequence is powerful. The best of this selection. *

DAVID COPPERFIELD (Thanhouser Company, US 1911) Italian release version, in 3 parts: (1) Infanzia; (2) L’adolescenza; (3) Gli amori di David D: George O. Nicholls; SC: based on the novel by Charles Dickens (1850); cast: Ed Genung (David Copperfield), Flora Foster (David as a boy), Marie Eline (Em’ly as a child), Anna Seer (Mrs. Copperfield), Florence LaBadie (Em’ly as a woman), Mignon Anderson (Dora Wickfield), Viola Alberti (Betsey Trotwood), Justus D. Barnes (Ham Peggotty [Pt. 1]), William Russell (Ham Peggotty [Pt. 2]), Frank Hall Crane, Alphonse Ethier, Maude Fealy, William Garwood, Harry Benham; 35 mm, 812 m, ca 41' (17 fps) [rl.1: 302 m, 15'; rl.2: 305 m, 15'30"; rl.3: 205 m, 10']; from: Museo Nazionale del Cinema, Torino. Didascalie in italiano.

David Robinson: "Thanhouser’s most ambitious film to its date seems to have been the first of the cinema’s many adaptations of David Copperfield, and was released in three independent one-reel episodes in October 1911 – “The Early Life of David Copperfield”, “Little Em’ly and David Copperfield”, and “The Loves of David Copperfield”. In the Italian release version, these titles are simplified to “Childhood”, “Adolescence”, and “The Loves of David”. The novel was then only just over 60 years old, and the filmmakers could rely on their audience’s first-hand familiarity with the book. Hence characters like Peggotty, Uriah Heep, Mr. Dick, Betsey Trotwood, and Micawber can be presented, fully formed and recognizable, without introduction or explanation. Few characters (Barkis, Jane Murdstone, Mrs. Gummidge) are totally absent. At the same time the adaptation takes some liberties with the story: Dora Spenlow, David’s first wife, here becomes Dora Wickfield, the sister of Agnes, so that a new romantic twist can be introduced in the form of Dora’s death-bed wish that David takes Agnes as his second wife."

"Overall the staging is exceptional for its period, most notably the recreation of Peggotty’s boat-home and the dynamically edited shipwreck. Notable too is the deep staging of Wickfield’s office, with Wickfield, Heep, and Micawber arranged in a dramatically effective triangle across the screen. There are individual moments of striking effect: the great dignity of the shipwreck deaths that end the second episode; the confrontation of Betsey and Murdstone, staged to make him tower absurdly over her; the long-held, interrogative pause of Micawber’s first encounter with Heep. The predominant Thanhouser narrative style is maintained: each sequence is introduced by a narrative title summarizing its contents, and then continues in wordless mime that is generally very sensitive and understated. Here it is true we may sense the influence of stage adaptations of Dickens in occasional displays of histrionics, but as usual the performance on the whole is naturalistic, convincing, internalized. The exception, which somewhat impairs the effect of “Childhood”, is the unrestrained, eye-rolling performance in the role of the child David of 13-year-old Flora Foster (1898-1914), the one-time “Biograph Kid” who was to die of heart failure at the age of 16. Even Flora has her better moments when partnered by the always excellent Marie Eline (1902-1981) as Little Em’ly. This role was clearly regarded as of first importance, as the title of the second film intimates: as a grown-up, Em’ly is played by the impeccable Florence LaBadie (1888-1917). Among the numerous favourable reviews, a notably long and intelligent notice in The Moving Picture World concludes:"

"“The Thanhouser Company has set a new standard in the filming of Dickens, and I very readily believe their assurance that this was with them but a labor of love and that, imbued with a true Dickens’ enthusiasm, they have spent six months in producing these reels. Time is of the essence of success. While it would undoubtedly have had many advantages to release the three films at once, the film makers had made the best of an otherwise unfortunate situation by skillfully using the autobiographical character as a basis of division – The Childhood, The Boyhood, and The Manhood of David Copperfield. That was a happy idea, although the full effect of this excellent production cannot be secured except by showing the three reels in one night. A lecture would go well with it if it were featured as ‘An Evening with Dickens’.”"

"A production still reproduced on the cover of The Moving Picture World on 14 October 1911 – three days before the release of the first part of the film – showed David, confronted by Murdstone and Creakle and with a sign, “Take Care. He Bites”, hung around his neck. This scene does not appear in the apparently pristine print restored by the Museo Nazionale del Cinema of Turin, evidently Thanhouser’s own carefully prepared Italian export version: it may have been sacrificed to keep the film to single-reel length."

"Direction of the film is often erroneously attributed to Theodore Marston, who in fact never directed for Thanhouser, though his brother Leonard did." – David Robinson

AA: Fast-forwarding through Dickens. There is a make-believe feeling in the narrative, which is amusing because it is consistent. The acting is not realistic, but the stylization becomes sympathetic. But this "highlights from David Copperfield" is not one of the good adaptations of the novel, far from Sandberg and Cukor.

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