1901 – Fire!

Directed by: James Williamson

On the surface, this is a simple story of firemen extinguishing a fire – somebody raises the alarm, they arrive at the scene, rescue people and put out the fire. In the context of film history, it established a concept of chronology by editing together multiple shots (both exterior and interior) into a coherent narrative.

Let’s break it down:

Shot 1: Exterior of the burning house. A policeman notices smoke coming from the house and attempts to alert its occupants. Not getting a reaction, he runs to get the fire brigade. This shot establishes the imminent danger.

Shot 2: Exterior of Hove Fire Brigade. The policeman alerts the fire brigade, who spring into action. Note that in the previous shot, he exited the frame to the right and in this one entered from the left, thus adhering to the 180° rule (which had yet to be formally established). They begin to harness horses to fire engines, which, to the audience, can’t happen quick enough – based on the previous shot, we know that there is a fire raging and potential casualties. There is now some suspense.

Shot 3: Exterior of a street. The fire brigade race down the street in a dramatic angle reminiscent of the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). The audience haven’t seen the building from the first shot for a while and might be wondering what state it will be in once they arrive. The suspense is maintained.

Shot 4: Interior of a bedroom. A man wakes up and discovers smoke everywhere. He panics and tries to leave but there is fire everywhere. Again, audiences know the fire brigade are on their way but the question is – will they be in time? In despair, the man collapses in bed as a fireman breaks through his window, puts out the immediate fire and carries him to safety.

Shot 5: Exterior of the burning building. The man is carried to safety but continues to be in distress and has to be held back from running into the building. We are made to understand somebody else is inside and a fireman breaks through the front door and heads in. Moments later, he returns with a little girl and the man takes her in his arms and walks towards us and off-screen with a smile of relief on his face. It’s a happy ending but before the film ends completely, we get to see more firefighting and the firefighters catching a man who jumps from the window.

What separates this from the likes of Georges Méliès’ Cendrillon / Cinderella (1899) is that the latter more so consisted of vignettes that conveyed a story already known to the majority. With Fire!, James Williamson used multiple shots to convey the story of one central event.

(Edwin S. Porter built upon this narrative model in The Life of an American Fireman (1903).)

Bibliography

Brooke, M. (n.d.) ‘Fire! (1901)’, BFI screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/520632/index.html [Accessed: 11 January 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Fire! (1901)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000355/ [Accessed: 11 January 2022].

JEC (2020). ‘Fire! (1901)’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/03/fire-1901_24.html?view=classic [Accessed: 11 January 2022].

1900 – The Enchanted Drawing

Directed by: J. Stuart Blackton

Blackton started off as “The Komikal Kartoonist” – a vaudeville performer known for his “lightning sketches” (rapid drawings that were altered live during quick verbal commentary). The film starts off in a similar vein, with Blackton drawing a man’s face followed by a bottle and wine glass. Then it deviates from the expected performance as he pulls an actual bottle and wine glass from the sketch. He continues to conjure objects from the page, returns them and interacts with the man’s head (who mainly expresses a range of emotions). The showmanship is similar to Georges Méliès and the film likewise uses the medium to perform literal “movie magic”.

It is significant for being an early recording of an animated sequence on standard film. Blackton is largely considered the father of American animation. In a way, The Enchanted Drawing is a primitive precursor to the likes of Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Bibliography

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘The Enchanted Drawing (1900)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000300/ [Accessed: 10 January 2022].

Popova, M. (2010). ‘The Enchanted Drawing: Blackton’s Eary Animation’, The Marginalian, 23 March. Available at: https://www.themarginalian.org/2010/03/23/the-enchanted-drawing/ [Accessed: 10 January 2022].

Wilkinson, Lawrence (2010). ‘Putting magic in the Magic Lantern…’, (Roughly) Daily, 31 March. Available at: https://roughlydaily.com/2010/03/31/putting-magic-in-the-magic-lantern/ [Accessed: 10 January 2022].

1900 – Grandma’s Reading Glass

Directed by: George Albert Smith / Arthur Melbourne-Cooper

When it comes to early film history, it is easy to be misled due to inaccurate logs, lost media, best guesses and estimations based on crumbs, etc. There is evidence that supports either George Albert Smith or Arthur Melbourne-Cooper being behind this film. I’m going to hedge my bets and include both.

The film is, first and foremost, known for being an early example of the “close-up”. It tells the story of a boy who looks at various things with his grandmother’s magnifying glass, each presented with a close-up: a newspaper, the inside workings of a pocket watch, a bird in a cage, his grandmother’s eye, and a cat. To indicate the point-of-view of the kid, the camera was covered up to form a black circular frame during each close-up, which set them apart from the medium shot.

It is also quite possibly an early example of product placement in film (whether intentionally or not), as the opening shot scans a newspaper and stops on: “BOVRIL: An Appetising Sandwich for Henley.”

Bibliography

Brooke, M. (n.d.). ‘Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900)’, BFI screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/443114/index.html [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

Cross, R. (2014). ‘Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900)’, 20/20 Movie Reviews, 9 September. Available at: http://www.2020-movie-reviews.com/reviews-year/1900-movie-reviews/grandmas-reading-glass-1900-movie-review/ [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000304/ [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2020). ‘Grandma’s Reading Glass’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 24 November. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grandma%27s_Reading_Glass [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

1900 – Let Me Dream Again

Directed by: George Albert Smith

Although transitioning between scenes using a dissolve was already clearly established and used (numerous times) by the likes of Georges Méliès in Cendrillon / Cinderella (1900), this film used a more primitive version of it for a different effect – by letting the first shot slip out of focus and the second one back into focus, it visually communicated waking up from a dream state. Film’s visual vocabulary increases! The technique also works in relation to the story, visually contrasting the two similar shots for comic effect.

(The film was remade by Ferdinand Zecca in 1901 as Rêve et réalité / Dream and Reality.)

Bibliography

Brooke, M. (n.d.) ‘Let Me Dream Again (1900)’, BFI screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/443139/index.html [8 January 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Let Me Dream Again (1900)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000313/ [8 January 2022].

JEC (2021). ‘Let Me Dream Again (1900)’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2021/02/let-me-dream-again-1900.html?view=classic [8 January 2022].

1899 – 紅 葉 狩 / Momijigari

Directed by: Tsunekichi Shibata (柴田 常吉)

Also known as Maple Leaf Viewing, this recording of the kabuki play by the same name (starring Onoe Kikugorō V and Ichikawa Danjūrō IX) is one of the earliest Japanese films in existence.

To understand the story, let us first turn to the title: Momijigari refers to a Japanese tradition of traveling out of town in autumn to enjoy the foliage in hills and valleys. The literal translation is “red leaves hunting”. Thus, the story follows Taira no Koremochi, a Japanese military commander, as he admires the autumn leaves at Mount Togakushi. He meets a beautiful princess, Sarashinahime, who offers him sake. He becomes incredibly drunk and falls asleep. In his dreams, a spirit warns him that Sarashinahime is actually the demon Kijo and intends to kill him. He awakens and defeats the demon using Kogarasumaru, the legendary sword.

Print from 1879 by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (月岡 芳年) featuring the moment of Kijo being revealed.

The film was not initially intended for public release as Ichikawa Danjūrō IX didn’t want live performances to be replaced by it. There was an agreement that it would only be screened after his death. However, when an illness prevented him from performing at the Naka-za in Osaka, he allowed the film to be screened. He died in September 1903 and the film gained a wider release. A point of interest here is that film was not used as much as a means of entertainment but a way of preserving culture – for the sake of historic record. And so we are able to experience them (even if partially) more than 100 years later!

Bibliography

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Momijigari (1899)’, IMDb. Available at: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000319/ [Accessed: 7 January 2022].

Invitation to Kabuki (n.d.). ‘Momijigari’, Invitation to Kabuki. Available at: https://www2.ntj.jac.go.jp/unesco/kabuki/en/play/play22.html [Accessed: 7 January 2022].

JEC (2020). ‘Momijigari (1899) Maple Leaf Viewing’, A Cinema History. Available at: http://www.acinemahistory.com/2020/06/momijigari-1899-maple-leaf-viewing.html?view=classic [Accessed: 7 January 2022].

The Claremont Colleges (n.d.) ‘Taira no Koremochi (11th century) fights Kijo, the demon of Mt. Togakushi’, The Claremont Colleges Digital Library. Available at: https://ccdl.claremont.edu/digital/collection/cyw/id/301/ [Accessed: 7 January 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2021). ‘Momijigari (film)’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 11 August. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Momijigari_(film) [Accessed: 7 January 2022].

Yamano, Yukari (2021). ‘Momijigari, 紅葉狩り’, Seattle Japanese Garden, 7 October. Available at: https://www.seattlejapanesegarden.org/blog/2021/10/5/momiji-gari- [Accessed: 7 January 2022].

1899 – Cendrillon / Cinderella

Directed by: Georges Méliès

This is Méliès’ most ambitious film up until then. Based on the 1697 fairy tale by Charles Perrault, the film consisted of six elaborate sets, a large cast of extras and his usual special effects via the substitution splice and multiple exposure, in addition to using a dissolve to transition between scenes (one of the earliest uses of the technique). It was shot in his “glass house” studio in Montreuil, Seine-Saint-Denis, France.

The visual style is heavily influenced by Gustav Doré’s illustrations of the fairy tale. What sets the adaptation apart from others is the upbeat, optimistic tone throughout. Other than rags to indicate a lower status, the film never establishes Cinderella’s woes or abuse by her stepfamily. The most dramatic thing to happen to her is transforming back to her rags during the ball – and even then the partygoers quickly return to their revelry and the scene ends on a whimsical note. The ending is altered slightly to be more jubilant as well: after trying on the slipper, she once more summons her fairy godmother who conjures up a fancy dress before disappearing. It is possible that Méliès was influenced by a pantomime performed at the Théâtre de la Galerie-Vivienne in 1896.

Art by: Gustav Doré.

The film is broken down into six scenes:

1. The kitchen, where Cinderella is left behind and her fairy godmother appears to ready her for the ball.
2. The ballroom, where Cinderella dances with the prince until the clock strikes midnight, a gnome appears to torment her and her fairy godmother returns to undo her spell.
3. The living room, where Cinderella has a nightmare about clocks, from which her sisters wake her as the prince enters with the slipper.
4. The exterior of a church, where the happy couple and royalty enter and a crowd of girls proceed to dance.
5. A stylized shot of the dancers, Cinderella and the prince, and the fairy godmother watching over all of them.
6. Another stylized shot of a crowd and Cinderella and the prince in a carriage pulled by swans, the reins in the fairy godmother’s hands.

(It’s worth noting that there is no dissolve between scenes four and five but the set itself moves to reveal a new one.)

The color at the beginning of the film was thanks to the workers at Vitagraph (who had the rights for U.S. distribution) who hand-tinted it frame by frame. The process caused severe eye strain for the workers and the practice was discontinued.

Méliès would adapt the fairy tale again in 1912 as Cendrillon ou la Pantoufle merveilleuse / Cinderella or The Glass Slipper.

Bibliography

First Versions (2017). ‘Cinderella (film)’, First Versions. Available at: http://www.firstversions.com/2017/07/cinderella-film.html [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d. a). ‘Cinderella (1899)’, IMDb. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000230/ [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

IMDb contributors (n.d. b). Cinderella or The Glass Slipper (1912). [online] Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0132026/ [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

popegrutch (2016). ‘Cinderella (1899)’, Century Film Project, 15 December. Available at: https://centuryfilmproject.org/2016/12/15/cinderella-1899/ [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

WikiArt (2018). Cinderella. [online] Available at: https://www.wikiart.org/en/gustave-dore/cinderella-1 [Accessed: 9 January 2022].

Zipes, J. (2011). The Enchanted Screen: The Unknown History of Fairy-Tale Films. New York: Routledge, p.39-41

1899 – The Kiss in the Tunnel

Directed by: George Albert Smith

This film elaborated upon the “phantom ride” craze, which consisted of shots captured from a moving train (the earliest known examples include The Haverstraw Tunnel (1897) and Départ de Jérusalem en chemin de fer / Leaving Jerusalem by Railway (1897)). However, George Albert Smith only produced the middle segment featuring a moment between two passengers with the intention of allowing exhibitors to splice it into footage they already owned. In the above video, it has been incorporated into Cecil Hepworth’s Train Entering and Exiting a Tunnel (also known as View from an Engine Front – Train Leaving Tunnel) (1899). This simple act of splicing footage into another film changed the way people understood film editing and opened up new opportunities for storytelling. At the very least, audiences understood that the sequence of events implies the action occurs on the train into which the footage was spliced into.

The unrealistic lighting allows the audience to experience a scene they are otherwise led to believe occurs in complete darkness. They become voyeurs in a private space, excited at being able to see what is otherwise concealed — at being witnesses to a secret. Even though the backdrop is a painted set, the camera is moved side to side which creates the illusion of movement. With the addition of the bookend footage, the audience is sufficiently convinced that they are witnessing an event on a train.

A point of debate regards the potential Freudian undertones. Whether intentional or not, trains entering tunnels would become obvious sexual metaphors, as seen in films such as North by Northwest (1959) (played straight) and The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) (for comedic effect).

A remake of George Albert Smith’s film was made by James Bamforth, released the same year, under the same title. However, there are notable differences. To begin with, rather than being bookended by point-of-view shots, exterior shots of a train are used (the film ends with a shot similar to the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat / Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896)) and the interior design of the “carriage” is more realistic. The passengers are dressed to be of a lower social standing (potentially being more relatable to a wider audience) and not only kiss meekly but entwine in a raunchier embrace.

(Other versions of The Kiss in the Tunnel include Love in a Railroad Train (1902; Sigmund Lubin) and What Happened in the Tunnel (1903; Edwin S. Porter)).

Bibliography

Brooke, M. (n.d. a). ‘Kiss in the Tunnel, The (Bamforth) (1899)’, BFI screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/444255/index.html [Accessed: 5 January 2022].

Brooke, M. (n.d. b). ‘Kiss in the Tunnel, The (Smith) (1899)’, BFI screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/444230/index.html [Accessed: 5 January 2022].

Gray, F. (2004) ‘The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899), G. A. Smith and the emergence of the edited film in England.’ In: Grieveson, L. & Krämer, P. eds. The Silent Cinema Reader. New York: Routledge, p.51-62

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘A Kiss in the Tunnel (1899)’, IMDb. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000248/ [Accessed: 5 January 2022].

Screen Archive South East (n.d.). ‘The Kiss in the Tunnel’, Screen Archive South East. Available at: http://screenarchive.brighton.ac.uk/detail/8370/ [Accessed: 5 January 2022].

Smith, M. G. (2014). ‘Adventures in Early Movies: A Kiss in the Tunnel’, White City Cinema, 14 July. Available at: https://whitecitycinema.com/2014/07/14/adventures-in-early-movies-a-kiss-in-the-tunnel/ [Accessed: 5 January 2022].

1898 – Santa Claus

Directed by: George Albert Smith

While Méliès experimented with the double exposure technique in films such as Un homme de têtes / The Four Troublesome Heads (1898), George Albert Smith did the same across the Channel in The Mesmerist (1898) and Photographing a Ghost (1898). In Santa Claus, he used the technique to simultaneously show a child sleeping and Santa Claus climbing down the chimney, creating cinema’s earliest known example of parallel action. It also marks one of the earliest depictions of Santa Claus in film.

Bibliography

Brooke, M. (n.d.). ‘Santa Claus (1898)’, BFI Screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/725468/index.html [Accessed: 3 January 2022].

Casey, K. (2013). ‘Film Review: G.A. Smith’s Santa Claus (1898)’, The Totality. Available at: http://www.the-totality.com/2013/05/film-review-ga-smiths-santa-claus-1898.html [Accessed: 19 December 2018].

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Santa Claus (1898)’, IMDb. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0242849/ [Accessed: 3 January 2022].

1898 – Come Along, Do!

Directed by: Robert W. Paul

This film is credited as being one of the first to feature more than one shot, a significant step in the evolution of motion picture storytelling. Unfortunately, the second half of the film only survives as stills and the exact means of transitioning between scenes remains lost. The first shot introduces the audience to a couple eating lunch outside an art gallery. Other people enter the gallery and the couple follow suit. In the second shot (now lost), the husband shows particular interest in a nude statue until his wife drags him away.

Stereograph No. 373: Come Along, Do! — copyright 1872 by F. G. Weller.

The film is thought to have been based on controversy surrounding John Gibson’s statue The Tinted Venus, exhibited in 1862. It led to a song where a wife accosts her husband who stares at a nude statue with: “Come along do / What are you staring at? / You ought to know better — so come along do.” The humorous situation was printed as a stereograph in 1872 and republished in the 1890s, likely influencing Robert W. Paul.

Bibliography

Boston Public Library (2013). ‘Come along, do’, Flickr, 25 September. Available at: https://www.flickr.com/photos/boston_public_library/11353720335 [Accessed: 2 January 2022].

Brooke, M. (2014). ‘Come Along, Do! (1898)’, BFI Screenonline. Available at: http://www.screenonline.org.uk/film/id/444430/index.html [Accessed: 2 January 2022].

Christie, I. (2013). ‘“Suitable Music”: Accompaniment Practice in Early London Screen Exhibition from R. W. Paul to the Picture Palaces’. In: Brown, J. & Davison, A. (eds.) The Sounds of the Silents in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

IMDb contributors (n.d.). ‘Come Along, Do! (1898), IMDb. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0000182/ [Accessed: 2 January 2022].

1898 – Un homme de têtes / The Four Troublesome Heads

Director: Georges Méliès

This film employs a couple of tricks. Not only does it use the substitution splice (a usual favorite of Méliès), it is one of the earliest instances of multiple exposure. The head removal is likely achieved with the use of a painted dummy head and Méliès wearing a black hood over his head (which accounts for the black background rather than his usual extravagant and detailed sets – arguably a precursor to green screen special effects). He then had to do at least four takes of the various versions of himself interacting with each other, a considerably impressive feat given the tools available at the time.

(In 1903, Siegmund Lubin released an illegal print of the film in America, retitled Four Heads Are Better Than One.)

Bibliography

IMDb contributors (n.d.). Four Heads Are Better Than One (1898)’, IMDb. Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0135696/ [Accessed: 2 January 2022].

popegrutch (2016). ‘The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)’, Century Film Project, 30 November. Available at: https://centuryfilmproject.org/2016/11/30/the-four-troublesome-heads-1898/ [Accessed: 2 January 2022].

Wikipedia contributors (2021). ‘The Four Troublesome Heads’, Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 28 June. Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Four_Troublesome_Heads [Accessed: 2 January 2022].