1913 – Ingeborg Holm

Directed by: Victor Sjöström
Written by: Victor Sjöström, Nils Krok (play)

Also known as Margaret Day in the UK, this film is significant for two reasons: first of all, it is considered by some as the beginning of the Golden Age of Swedish Cinema. Although most sources, including The Swedish Film Database, place it in 1917 with the release of Terje Vigen / A Man There Was – another adaptation by Victor Sjöström (this time a poem by Hendrik Ibsen) – Ingeborg Holm is often mentioned and is at the very least a precursor to the Golden Age. Second, its subject matter prompted debate in Sweden regarding social welfare and led to changes in laws. It demonstrated how effective the medium could be in enacting change in society.

The film is split into four acts. The first act quickly establishes the family’s everyday circumstances: they have a sizable allotment garden, decent accommodation and even a maid. During a meal, they receive good news – the husband’s loan of 10,000 kronor to open a shop is approved! The letter notes that this is in large part due to managing to save up 4,000 kronor with his modest wage, which is seen as a show of good character. All of this compounds into a “normal” that audiences can contrast with later misfortunes. Events are set in motion when Sven Holm collapses while setting up the shop and passes away in bed. The business struggles due to their young employee only having eyes for select female customers and they eventually go bankrupt. The act ends with Ingeborg contacting the family lawyer for advice.

Things only get worse for the Holm family and the second act begins with their belongings being sold off to pay for their debts. Ingeborg turns to the National Board of Poverty Alleviation (fattigvårdsstyrelsen), where we see people in the waiting room being mistreated by an official – a taste of things to come. There is little doubt in the stance the film takes on the subject. The group of men who make all the decisions ignore her and talk among each other, then give her a choice: she can either accept 20 kronor a month or move to a poorhouse and have the kids placed in foster care. Not wanting her kids to become beggars, she opts for the latter. She packs their things and places a toy boat and a photo of herself in one of the numbered baskets – almost as if the kids themselves are just reduced to numbers by the system.

The film avoids being melodramatic due to the subtle acting, especially by Hilda Borgström. Ingeborg’s grief does not manifest in elaborate shows of despair but reserved facial expressions and mannerism. Note the sadness conveyed as she quietly packs her children’s belongings late at night or the moment she hides herself after saying goodbye to one of her children and attempts to catch one last glimpse only to be too late – they are out of sight. By signaling her inner emotional state in subtle ways contributed to the realism of the film, which was unusual for the time as the medium still largely relied on over-the-top theatrics.

To emphasize Ingeborg’s plight and isolation, the film also casts the poor in a bad light – she is paired up with a haggard old lady who tempts her with alcohol and then scolds her when she refuses. Not only is she caught up in a broken system that has torn apart her family, she is now surrounded by reprobates that attempt to lead her astray. To make matters worse, she discovers that one of her children, Valborg, is sick and is refused to go and see her due to financial reasons. This concludes the second act.

The third act begins with her escape from the poorhouse and the hunt for her that follows. At this point, the social workers truly become an antagonistic force hell-bent on preventing her from seeing her sick child. She is as if a convict who has escaped from prison. She receives help from a passerby who gives her a ride and a family hides her from the law, while police officers are given directions by roadside workers. These actions seem to tie in directly with the film’s message on social care – that we would be nowhere as a society without help from each other. The officers apprehend her outside of Valborg’s new home but have enough heart to allow Ingeborg to see her child – alas, too late.

She is returned to the poorhouse at the beginning of the fourth act. The establishment receives a bill for services rendered and they make no attempt to hide their displeasure from her. Some time later, she is allowed a meeting with her youngest child, who no longer recognizes her. This proves to be the final straw – her mind snaps and she is put in a psychiatric ward. The staging of the scene offers an interesting contrast with the one of Ingeborg first visiting the National Board of Poverty Alleviation (fattigvårdsstyrelsen); whereas the men first conferred around a table and she was cast aside, they now surround her like a suffocating and oppressive presence.

15 years pass and Ingeborg’s son, Erik, returns from sea – he still has the photograph of her and keen-eyed viewers also remember that she packed a toy sailboat in his box, something which seems to have had an immense influence on his life. In a way, it represents her hopes for her children because she put them in foster care to spare them of a future of being beggars. Her son fulfills this hope, having made something of himself. They are reunited but we are left to think of the many years lost and immense sacrifices.

At the center of the film is the titular character who can be summarized as a mother who loses agency and is unable to perform her function as a mother. The drama derives from her attempts to do the best that she can despite setbacks and limitations. She goes through an increasing amount of grief throughout the course of the story:
Act 1: her husband dies, family goes bankrupt
Act 2: loses her house, loses her children
Act 3: one of her children dies
Act 4: one of her children doesn’t recognize her anymore
Her main attribute is her resilience and what contributes to the drama is when even this eventually runs out and she loses her sanity. We sympathize with her, not only because she goes through an incredible amount of hardship but because she is selfless – her actions are not for her benefit but that of her children. The film not only critiques social services by showing the disintegration of a family but celebrates the self-sacrifice of mothers. Though Ingeborg might be accused of being one-dimensional by contemporary audiences, her simple characteristics turn her into a symbol of care and compassion, which contrast with the cold and ruthless men. Considering her treatment, we are left to wonder if a patriarchal system is truly appropriate, especially in social care.

SCREENWRITING CORNER
1. How would you remake Ingeborg Holm to reflect a contemporary issue?
2. Look at your script. What are the obstacles in your main character’s path? How does your main character overcome these? At what cost?
3. Come up with a scenario that involves a conflict. Swap scenarios with a partner and come up with something that solves the immediate conflict but leads to another one. Trade with your partner again. Keep this going for as long as you want.

Bibliography

Cross, R. (2015). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, 20/20 Movie Reviews, 18 April. Available at: https://www.2020-movie-reviews.com/reviews-year/1913-movie-reviews/ingeborg-holm-1913-movie-review/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].

Hagerfors, L. (2016). ‘Ingeborg Holm’, Svenska Filminstitutet. Available at: https://www.filminstitutet.se/sv/fa-kunskap-om-film/ta-del-av-filmsamlingarna/filmer/ingeborg-holm/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0003014/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].

popegrutch (2014). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, Century Film Project, 8 December. Available at: https://centuryfilmproject.org/2014/12/08/ingeborg-holm-1913/ [Accessed: 26 July 2022].

Rosborn, M. (2017). ‘The Golden Age of Swedish Cinema’, The Swedish Film Database. Available at: https://www.svenskfilmdatabas.se/en/the_golden_age_of_cinema/ [Accessed: 29 July 2022].

Travers, J. (n.d.). ‘Ingeborg Holm (1913)’, French Films.org. Available at: http://www.frenchfilms.org/review/ingeborg-holm-1913.html [Accessed: 26 July 2022].

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1912 – À la conquête du pôle / The Conquest of the Pole

Directed by: Georges Méliès
Written by: Georges Méliès

The first film we are going to look at from the 1910’s is, in many ways, not as much the beginning of a new era as the end of the early years of cinema and an accumulation of the tricks developed and employed by Méliès. With each passing year since its birth circa 1888, films evolved from brief snapshots that documented the everyday to reenactments using actors; single, static shots to more complicated editing of scenes. Every advancement opened new storytelling avenues as well as contributed to the development of a film “language”. Other filmmakers would continue to extend its vocabulary but it would be one of Méliès’ last major productions – a year later, he was bankrupt.

The story structure parallels his earlier works, Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902) and Voyage à travers l’impossible / The Impossible Voyage (1904): there is a meeting of scientists/explorers, construction of the means of travel, journey to the destination, exploration of the terrain, and jubilant return. This formula is slightly elaborated upon with a subplot involving a group of suffragettes attempting to join the expedition and showing the failures of other groups trying to reach the North Pole. Approximately a fourth of the film is spent on the journey itself as the plane passes numerous planets and constellations. Despite the structural repetitiveness, the film features a dream-like quality and unpredictability that keeps the viewer engaged – more so a technical marvel than storytelling feat. The deus ex machina rescue by an unknown aircraft at the end of the film emphasizes this focus, as story-wise it devalues the whole expedition.

Jules Verne’s works have been a recurring influence on Méliès, who this time chose to do a satiric homage to the Voyages Extraordinaires series (54 books published 1863 to 1905), akin to Albert Robida’s Voyages très extraordinaires de Satumin Farandoul (1879-1880). Other possible influences include The Explorer Andrée at the North Pole (1897; a film by the Lumière Brothers), Voyage of the Arctic, or How Captain Kettle Discovered the North Pole (1903; a film directed by Robert W. Paul) and Pif Paf Pouf (a “féerie” play performed in 1906). Although largely a work of fantasy, the film also takes inspiration from current events. At the time, there was debate regarding who reached the North Pole first in 1909 – Frederick Cook or Robert Peary (Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole in 1911). The issue reached mainstream attention again when Cook produced and starred in a docu-drama The Truth About the North Pole (2012). Méliès recalled: “I intervened in the controversy between Cook and Peary. Both pretended to have reached the Pole. In fact I don’t think either one did. I said to myself, I’m going to go there.”

The inclusion of the suffragettes was also not coincidental – the women’s suffrage movement was very topical in France and would remain so until World War II. Their attempt to join the expedition via air is perhaps a nod to Thérèse Peltier, the first female aviator to fly solo in 1908, and Raymonde de Laroche, the first woman to receive an airplane pilot’s license in 1910.

Whereas Le voyage dans la lune was satirical and critical of colonialist attitude, À la conquête du pôle opts to ridicule every group in the film, to the point that it’s difficult to determine whether there is any deeper intent or if everything is just played for laughs. The team that wishes to embark upon the adventure to the North Pole is ripe with national stereotypes: Run-Ever (England), Bluff-Allo-Bill (America), Choukroutman (Germany), Cerveza (Spain), Tching-Tchun (China), and Ka-Ko-Ku (Japan) – the latter two are further mocked by President Maboul of France upon their introduction and their subsequent absence from the expedition raises some eyebrows as well. The suffragettes should have been the noble group that is ridiculed and denied participation in the expedition but who, in the end, are victorious – the underdog that the audience can root for. Alas, they are reduced to silly women who desperately try to be a part of something they have no business in. It can be argued that by showing women working on the construction of the airplane after the suffragettes are kicked out the Assembly highlights the injustice of contributing to the glory but not being allowed any part in it, but subsequent ridicule renders it incidental (the leader of the suffragettes meets her end by falling from a hot air balloon and, upon landing on a tower, explodes) and, if anything, emphasizes that women should stick to sewing.

Ultimately, À la conquête du pôle is a precursor to what would become the summer blockbuster – a film that focuses on visual spectacle and set-pieces. Méliès makes use of all the tools in his toolbox: extravagant painted sets, miniatures, puppetry, multiple exposure, and the substitution splice. By the end of it, one might ask: “What was the point?” The simple answer lies in one of the final shots of Maboul (played by Méliès himself) pointing at the North Pole on the globe and the aforementioned quote by the filmmaker: “I’m going to go there.” And that’s exactly what he did.

SCREENWRITING CORNER
1. Think about how you would remake The Conquest of the Pole today. How would you rework it as a drama? A comedy? Consider both grounded and fantasy versions of each.
2. Look at your script. What is the theme? How do the subplots support the theme?
3. With a partner, individually come up with an agreed number of set-pieces. Now swap them with your partner and work a story around them.

Bibliography

Edwards, C. (2010). ‘Conquest of the Pole (1912)’. Silent Volume, 8 August. Available at: http://silent-volume.blogspot.com.ee/2010/08/conquest-of-pole-1912.html [Accessed 19 April 2022].

Ezra, E. (2000). Georges Méliès. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Frazer, J. (1979). Artificially Arranged Scenes: The Films of Georges Méliès. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co.

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘À la conquête du pôle (1912)’, IMDb. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0002113/ [Accessed: 19 April 2022].

Law, J. (2011). The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Travers, J. (2014). ‘À la conquête du pôle (1912)’. Films de France. Available at: http://www.filmsdefrance.com/review/a-la-conquete-du-pole-1912.html [Accessed 21 Feb. 2017].

Wass, J. (2018). ‘The Conquest of the Pole’. Scifist 2.0, 3 April. Available at: https://scifist.net/2018/04/03/the-conquest-of-the-pole/ [Accessed 21 Feb. 2017].

1909 – A Corner in Wheat

Directed by: D. W. Griffith

This is another example of the fruit of the early years of cinema. Whereas Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909) focused on an accumulation of film techniques, A Corner in Wheat showcases storytelling possibilities and creating meaning through editing. The theatrical showmanship is replaced by grounded realism.

The story begins with a farmer sifting through seeds. Everyone and everything else is still in the shot, except for his father in the background who also looks through seeds in his sack. It emphasizes the focal element in the film – wheat. A modern day equivalent would be starting with an extreme close-up of the seeds and slowly panning out. The story follows three groups: farm workers, average citizens and businessmen. The three never intersect but are influenced by the decisions made by those in power (D. W. Griffith was apparently inspired by Charles Dickens’ storytelling structure in this regard). The greed ultimately results in the farmer’s family starving, the citizens rioting due to a lack of bread and the businessman accidentally falling down a shaft and dying. Although there is some sense of poetic justice as the grain – his greed – kills him, the film doesn’t present it as a triumph. The final shot is of the farmer, alone, seeding the field. He stops, sighs and wearily carries on. The damage is already done and its effects continue to reverberate through society.

The Sower by Jean-François Millet (1850)

The film is known for cross-cutting between poor citizens and workers lined up to try and get bread and the rich lavishly celebrating. This juxtaposition attributed new meaning to the footage by inviting audiences to make direct comparisons between the two settings. It is a technique that would be explored and incorporated into theories by Soviet filmmakers Sergei Eisenstein, Lev Kuleshov and Vsevolod Pudovkin.

The camera remains static throughout the film and scenes are predominantly recorded in full shot – a style which seems dated. Nevertheless, the composition of the shots have been compared to the paintings of Jean-François Millet, which might well have had an influence on the visuals of the film.

In general, the film was influenced by Frank Norris’ novels The Octopus: A Story of California (1901) and The Pit: A Story of Chicago (1903) – two of a planned trilogy known as The Epic of the Wheat, incomplete due to the author’s death – and the short story collection A Deal in Wheat and Other Stories of the New and Old West (1903), published posthumously. It also features similarities with the real-life story of James A. Patten who bought over 10 million bushels of wheat and artificially forced up prices from 89.75 cents per bushel in June 1908 to $1.34 per bushes by May 1909. As a consequence, he made a profit of $1 million.

The most surprising thing about this film is that even over 100 years later, it still manages to remain topical.

Bibliography

Edwards, C. (2009). ‘Corner in Wheat (1909)’, Silent Volume, 22 March. Available at: http://silent-volume.blogspot.com/2009/03/corner-in-wheat-1909.html [Accessed: 19 February 2022].

Greising, D. & Morse, L. (1991). Brokers, Bagman, and Moles: Fraud and Corruption in the Chicago Futures Markets. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘A Corner in Wheat (1909)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000832/ [Accessed: 19 February 2022].

JEC (2020). ‘A Corner in Wheat (1909)’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/04/a-corner-in-wheat-1909.html [Accessed: 19 February 2022].

Rideout, T. D. (2017). ‘A Corner in Wheat (1909) – D.W. Griffith’, The Mind Reels, 14 May. Available at: https://themindreels.com/2017/05/14/a-corner-in-wheat-1909-d-w-griffith/ [Accessed: 19 February 2022].

South West Silents (2021). ‘D. W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909),’ South West Silents, 24 May. Available at: https://www.southwestsilents.com/post/d-w-griffith-s-a-corner-in-wheat-1909 [Accessed: 19 February 2022].

Ulman, E. (2001). ‘A corner in Wheat: An Analysis’, Senses of Cinema. Available at: https://www.sensesofcinema.com/2001/feature-articles/cornerwheat/ [Accessed: 19 February 2022].

1909 – Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy

Directed by: J. Stuart Blackton

This film is an example of the accumulation of techniques developed over the years used in a way that is prototypical of contemporary films.

The story begins with gentleman falling asleep, which sets the stage for the dream-like events that follow (from the arrival of the fairies to the set disappearing). He is also a tobacco enthusiast, as evident from his collection of cigars, cigarettes and pipe. Two fairies appear – the younger climbs into the gentleman’s pipe and hides under a bunch of tobacco while the other one climbs into his box of cigars. When he wakes up and attempts to light his pipe, he discovers the fairy, who dances and then also climbs into the box of cigars. A whimsical back and forth ensues, resulting in the fairies getting the last laugh.

The film incorporates a magnifying glass (similar to Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900)) as an excuse for close-ups, which are largely simulated and are actually full shots of actors surrounded by oversized props. Double exposure was used to create the illusion of the fairy trapped in a bottle but a more elaborate set-up was used for her appearance on the table: the actress stood on a platform next to the camera and was reflected in a mirror behind the table. Finally, stop motion was used to show objects climbing into a box of cigars and a rose transforming into a cigar.

From Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked by Frederick A. Talbot (1912).

At the core, it is an elaboration of the practical joke film as exemplified by films such as L’Arroseur Arrosé / The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895). It has also maintained a performative aspect seen in older films: the gentleman glances at the audience and even holds up the magnifying glass so we can get a close-up of him emptying his pipe.

(It is often cited as the first instance of product placement, though we have already seen an earlier example in Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900).)

Bibliography

Ettleman, T. (2018). ‘Ah, the Whimsy of Lung Cancer: The Product Placement of Princess Nicotine’, Medium, 7 January. Available at: https://trettleman.medium.com/ah-the-whimsy-of-lung-cancer-the-product-placement-of-princess-nicotine-ac1b9b9d698 [Accessed: 17 February 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Princess Nicotine; or, the Smoke Fairy (1909)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0001009/ [Accessed: 17 February 2022].

Kramer, F. (2017). ‘Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909) A Silent Film Review’, Movies Silently, 25 April. Available at: https://moviessilently.com/2017/04/25/princess-nicotine-or-the-smoke-fairy-1909-a-silent-film-review/ [Accessed: 17 February 2022].

Simmon, S. (n.d.). ‘Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy (1909)’, National Film Preservation Foundation. Available at: https://www.filmpreservation.org/preserved-films/screening-room/t1-princess-nicotine-or-the-smoke-fairy-1909 [Accessed: 17 February 2022].

Stans, L. (2019). ‘Thoughts On: “Princess Nicotine, or The Smoke Fairy” (1909)’, Silent-ology, 10 August. Available at: https://silentology.wordpress.com/2019/08/10/thoughts-on-princess-nicotine-or-the-smoke-fairy-1909/ [Accessed: 17 February 2022].

1908 – A Visit to the Seaside

Directed by: George Albert Smith

This film was one of the first to be shot in Kinemacolor – the first motion picture process to capture natural color (it was followed by Technicolor). It’s a collage of people doing everyday activities in Brighton and seems to serve as more of a test of Kinemacolor. The full film is reportedly 8 minutes long, though only about a minute is available – for most part, it is presumably a lost film.

The popular preconception is that sound films kicked off in 1927 with The Jazz Singer and color followed sometime later and was fully established by 1939 when Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz came out. We’ve already seen that people experimented with both during the early days of film: William K. L. Dickson attempted to incorporate sound in 1894/1895 (The Dickson Experimental Sound Film) and people hand-tinted film around the same time (such as Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)). Feature-length natural color films started coming out as early as 1912 (with the British documentary With Our King and Queen Through India, filmed in Kinemacolor). Unfortunately, most are now considered lost films or survive in fragments.

Bibliography

Hall, E. (2021). ‘A Visit to the Seaside (1908)’, wizzardSS Reveiws, 26 April. Available at: https://reviews.wizzardss.com/2021/04/a-visit-to-seaside-1908.html [Accessed: 16 February 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘A Visit to the Seaside (1908)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt3865714/ [Accessed: 16 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2020). ‘A Visit to the Seaside’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 14 December. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Visit_to_the_Seaside [Accessed: 16 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2022). ‘List of early color feature films’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 January. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_early_color_feature_films [Accessed: 16 February 2022].

1908 – L’Assassinat du duc de Guise / The Assassination of the Duke of Guise

Directed by: Charles Le Bargy & André Calmettes

History continues to play a role in world cinema: the Italian La Presa di Roma / The Capture of Roma (1905), the Russian Стенька Разинь / Stenka Razin (1908) and now the French L’Assassinat du duc de Guise / The Assassination of the Duke of Guise (1908) – also known as La Mort du duc de Guise / The Death of the Duke of Guise. Although the French had already made their mark on cinema history with the likes of the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès, they now took it upon themselves to elevate film to an art form and something worthy of the respect of the cultural elite. The aptly-titled production company Le Film d’Art pulled no punches and commissioned a screenplay from renown writer Henri Lavedan, an original score from Camille Saint-Saëns (one of the first original film scores) and hired actors from the Comédie-Française. It set the precedent for “films d’art” – high-budget historical dramas that tried to capture theater on film with elaborate sets and costumes and established actors.

Those unfamiliar with the historic event in 1588 might consider the title a spoiler. However, instead of relying on the assassination to serve as a shocking twist in the story, it uses it as a means of elevating suspense. We discover plans to assassinate Duke Henri de Guise from a letter to his mistress, Charlotte de Sauve, who passes on the warning. He laughs it off and tries to put her at ease. This interaction serves as a means of framing the story as a personal tragedy – two lovers torn apart by a vile act. The scheming that follows reaffirms that there truly is a conspiracy and once Duke de Guise arrives to meet King Henry III, we’re left to anticipate the outcome. It’s approximately 3.5 minutes from the moment he arrives until the assassination during which we see people act suspiciously, hover around him and make sudden movements that not only put him on edge but the audience as well. The tragedy comes to its inevitable conclusion.

A more recent counterpart would be Titanic (1997) – though more aptly if it were titled “The Sinking of the Titanic”. Similarly, the focal point is not the historic event but the human drama surrounding it. Although audiences largely knew of the disaster, they flocked to cinemas to see Jack and Rose’s story. (For those who want to be surprised by the sinking of the Titanic, I would recommend the animated The Legend of the Titanic (1999).)

Bibliography

Film Medium (2021). ‘Movements: Film d’Art Movement and Film List’, Film Medium, 9 May. Available at: https://filmmedium.com/movement/film-dart/ [Accessed: 14 February 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘The Assassination of Duke de Guise (1908)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000637/ [Accessed: 14 February 2022].

JEC (2013). ‘L’assassinat du Duc de Guise (1908)’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2013/07/lassassinat-du-duc-de-guise-1908.html [Accessed: 14 February 2022].

Travers, J. (2002). ‘L’Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908)’, French Films. Available at: http://www.frenchfilms.org/review/l-assassinat-du-duc-de-guise-1908.html [Accessed: 14 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2021). ‘The Assassination of the Duke of Guise’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 July. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Assassination_of_the_Duke_of_Guise [Accessed: 14 February 2022].

1908 – Стенька Разинь / Stenka Razin

Directed by: Vladimir Romashkov

Much like Italy’s La Presa di Roma / The Capture of Roma (1905), Russian cinema kicks off with a historic film. It features the titular Cossack leader who in 1670-1671 led an uprising against nobility in southern Russia. Rather than attempt to chronicle his life and/or major battles, the film focuses on one specific event in folklore – the drowning of a Persian princess. The validity of this event have been contested by contemporary historians and the source material for the film was largely a folk song (which, in turn, was based on a poem written in 1883 by Dmitry Sadovnikov). At the time the film came out, the song was still popular and very much in the consciousness of the public. As such, the film assumes some familiarity with the subject matter. Therefore, a version of the lyrics:

Из-за острова на стрежень,
На простор речной волны,
Выплывают расписные,
Острогрудые челны.

На переднем Стенька Разин,
Обнявшись, сидит с княжной,
Свадьбу новую справляет,
Сам весёлый и хмельной.

Позади их слышен ропот:
Нас на бабу променял!
Только ночь с ней провозился
Сам наутро бабой стал . . . .

Этот ропот и насмешки
Слышит грозный атаман,
И он мощною рукою
Обнял персиянки стан.

Брови чёрные сошлися,
Надвигается гроза.
Буйной кровью налилися
Атамановы глаза.

“Всё отдам не пожалею,
Буйну голову отдам!” —
Раздаётся голос властный
По окрестным берегам.

А она, потупя очи,
Не жива и не мертва,
Молча слушает хмельные
Атамановы слова.

“Волга, Волга, мать родная,
Волга, русская река,
Не видала ты подарка
От донского казака!

“Чтобы не было раздора
Между вольными людьми,
Волга, Волга, мать родная,
На, красавицу возьми!”

Мощным взмахом поднимает
Он красавицу княжну
И за борт её бросает
В набежавшую волну.

“Что ж вы, братцы, приуныли?
Эй, ты, Филька, чёрт, пляши!
Грянем песню удалую
На помин её души!..”

Из-за острова на стрежень,
На простор речной волны,
Выплывают расписные
Острогрудые челны.
From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sail the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side.
Drunk, he holds a marriage revel,
Clasping close his fair young bride

From behind there comes a murmur:
“He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too.”

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And the lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise,
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet-black eyes.

“I will give you all you ask for,
Head and heart and life and hand!”
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

And she, lowering her eyes,
Not alive nor dead is she,
Silently listens to the cries
of the Ataman groggy.

“Volga, Volga, Mother Volga,
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have ne’er seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don!

“So that peace may reign for ever
In this band so free and brave,
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga,
Make this lovely girl a grave!”

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

“Dance, you fools, and let’s be merry.
What is this that’s in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a chanty
To the place where beauty lies!”

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sail the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.

In the story of the lyrics, Stenka Razin overhears his men emasculate him and chooses to prove himself by sacrificing his bride to the river. The film, however, opts for a conspiracy by his men to get him drunk and inflame his jealousy with a falsified letter from the princess to a Persian lover. The outcome is the same – the princess is cast in the river.

As was typical for the time, the film employed a wide shot to tell the story. On one hand, it resulted in interesting shots such as the opening where waves of the river dominate the screen and set the tumultuous and unpredictable tone of the film. On the other hand, there are moments that would have benefited from a medium shot or close-up, such as the men getting Stenka Razin drunk. That said, it is an impressive start and Russian cinema would make significant contributions to film history in the years to come.

Bibliography

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Stenka Razin (1908)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0165497/ [Accessed: 12 February 2022].

Lang, F. (2010). ‘The first dramatic Russian film – 1908 – Stenka Razin – Vladimir Romashkov’, Film: Ab Initio, 9 July. Available at: http://filmabinitio.blogspot.com/2010/07/first-dramatic-russian-film-1908-stenka.html [Accessed: 12 February 2022].

Malina, A. (2020). ‘СТЕНЬКА РАЗИНЪ (Stenka Razin) {1908, Vladimir Romashkov; Russia}’, Anna Malina, 17 November. Available at: https://annamalinanotes.wordpress.com/2020/11/17/stenka-razin/ [Accessed: 12 February 2022].

popegrutch (2015). ‘Stenka Razin (1908)’, Century Film Project, 15 May. Available at: https://centuryfilmproject.org/2015/05/15/stenka-razin-1908/ [Accessed: 12 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2022). ‘Stenka Razin’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 12 January. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stenka_Razin [Accessed: 12 February 2022].

1908 – Fantasmagorie

Directed by: Émile Cohl

This film is one of the earliest examples of traditional animation: each of the 700-odd ink drawings were completed by hand and photographed on negative film (which contributed to the blackboard look). It was projected at 16 frames per second; Émile Cohl only made 8 drawings for each second and photographed each twice. As a result, the animation appears smooth. There are two instances where the creator’s hands interact with the animation (though in this case, they are replaced with cut-outs that can be manipulated and the film briefly becomes live action) which is somewhat reminiscent of J. Stuart Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906).

There is not much of a coherent story – images transform in a dream-like, stream-of-consciousness fashion, likely influenced by Émile Cohl’s background in les arts incohérents(a brief French art movement that encouraged the irrational, nonsensical and silly and served as a precursor to what would become surrealism).

Bibliography

Artlark (2021). ‘The World’s First Cartoon: Fantasmagorie’, Artlark, 17 August. Available at: https://artlark.org/2021/08/17/fantasmagorie-the-first-ever-cartoon/ [Accessed: 9 February 2022].

Ettleman, T. (2017). ‘The First Animated Film Is a Rhythmic Delight’, Medium, 12 November. Available at: https://trettleman.medium.com/the-first-animated-film-is-a-rhythmic-delight-68275df5095 [Accessed: 9 February 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘A Fantasy (1908)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000682/ [Accessed: 9 February 2022].

JEC (2020). ‘Fantasmagorie (1908) A Fantasy’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/06/fantasmagorie-1908-fantasy.html [Accessed: 9 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2021). ‘Incoherents’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 4 December. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Incoherents [Accessed: 9 February 2022].

1907 – Ben Hur

Directed by: Sidney Olcott & Frank Oakes Rose

Lew Wallace’s Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1880) is an epic about revenge and forgiveness, split into eight parts. The book remained at the top of the U.S. all-time bestsellers list until Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind (1936). Due to its religious content, it was a particular hit with Christians and reportedly even managed to convert people.

The 1907 adaptation Ben Hur (the first of many) failed to live up to the novel’s scope. Granted, feature-length films were not commonplace at the time but the narrative is fragmented and messy (it’s difficult to tell who wins the climactic chariot race were it not for an intertitle, effectively eliminating all suspense).

Then what is the significance of this movie? It was central in creating a precedent in copyright law.

It seems obvious today that if somebody wants to adapt something, they first need to secure the rights to the original work. Back in the day, the lines weren’t as clear and laws were still being figured out.

When the Riley Brothers were sued for their magic lantern performances of Ben-Hur, they argued that their shows were not dramatic adaptations and cited the common notion that an image could only infringe the copyright of another image. The judge’s decision in September 1896 barred them from distributing the text that accompanied the slides but the images were still fair game. It’s not inconceivable that when Kalem Studios made Ben Hur and were promptly sued, they relied on the Wallace v. Riley case to save them. The case eventually ended up in the United States Supreme Court that, in 1911, ruled against Kalem Studios and established that film rights must first be procured for copyrighted works before commissioning a screenplay based on it.

Bibliography

Bracha, O. (2021). ‘Before an Image Was Worth a Thousand Words: Ben-Hur and Copyright’s Right of Derivatives’. In: Delamaire, M-S. & Slauter, W. (eds.) (2021) Circulation and Control: Artistic Culture and Intellectual Property in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge: Open Book Publishers.

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Ben Hur (1907)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000582/ [Accessed: 8 February 2022].

Kramer, F. (2022). ‘Ben-Hur (1907) A Silent Film Review’, Movies Silently, 31 January. Available at: https://moviessilently.com/2022/01/31/ben-hur-1907-a-silent-film-review/ [Accessed: 8 February 2022].

Snider, E. D. (2016). ‘The 1907 Version of Ben-Hur That Changed the Movie Business Forever’, Mental Floss, 19 August. Available at: https://www.mentalfloss.com/article/84882/1907-version-ben-hur-changed-movie-business-forever [Accessed: 8 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2021). ‘Ben Hur (1907 film)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 16 October. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben_Hur_(1907_film) [Accessed: 8 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2022). ‘Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 25 January. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ben-Hur:_A_Tale_of_the_Christ [Accessed: 8 February 2022].

1906 – The Story of the Kelly Gang

Directed by: Charles Tait

The Story of the Kelly Gang is considered the first full-length narrative film (even inscribed as such on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register), though only fragments of its hour-long runtime survive.

Its title of “first” once more comes down to very specific definitions. We already looked at The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) which lasted a full 100 minutes. However, it is not a narrative film. Then there are Lucien Nonguet and Ferdinand Zecca’s La Vie et la passion de Jésus Christ / The Life and the Passion of Jesus Christ (1903) and Sigmund Lubin’s Passion Play (1903) that ran for approximately 40 and 60 minutes, respectively. Although they can be viewed as a cohesive whole, the former was released in 27 and latter in 31 parts – enough to disqualify them from the honor of being the first feature-length narrative film. But it’s all a matter of definitions.

Its length and subject matter were possibly inspired by the success of bushranger plays at the time (such as Arnold Denham’s The Kelly Gang; or the Career of the Outlaw, Ned Kelly, the Ironclad Bushranger of Australia (1899)). The golden age of bushrangers had only recently come to an end with the execution of Ned Kelly in 1880. It was only a matter of time before somebody asked: if people can sit through long plays then why not long movies? And this with, surely, the benefit of not having to pay an ongoing cast.

1906 daybill for the film.

The film was a financial success and considered a landmark in Australian cinema despite being banned in numerous areas of Australia due to glorifying outlaws (they made a point of robbing men only whereas police were portrayed as violent and willing to set fire to a hotel with women and children inside). Alas, prints weren’t carefully preserved and it was once even considered a lost film. Fortunately, some fragments of prints were uncovered and the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia used available materials to reconstruct the narrative by arranging the footage in order and producing intertitles to replace missing footage.

Most of the surviving footage indicates that the film was predominantly filmed in wide shot, which was the popular choice at the time (possibly due to its familiar point of view to audiences accustomed to theater). However, whereas The Great Train Robbery (1903) featured one instance of the camera panning, this one has numerous instances of camera movement to follow the action. During screenings at the time, the film was reportedly accompanied by dialogue read by actors and sound effects.

(Fun fact: the film used Ned Kelly’s original armor.)

Bibliography

Ettleman, T. (2017). ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang Is the First Feature-Length Film’, Medium, 24 September. Available at: https://trettleman.medium.com/the-story-of-the-kelly-gang-is-the-first-feature-length-film-4398d4046eb [Accessed 7 February 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000574/ [Accessed 7 February 2022].

Jackson, S. and Shirley, G. (2006). ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang: Restoring the World’s First Feature’, National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. Available at: https://www.nfsa.gov.au/latest/story-kelly-gang [Accessed 7 February 2022].

JEC (2020). ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/04/the-story-of-kelly-gang-1906.html [Accessed 7 February 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2021). ‘The Story of the Kelly Gang’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 13 December. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Story_of_the_Kelly_Gang [Accessed 7 February 2022].