Pioneering Motion Pictures Part II

Poster for the 1911 Italian film ‘L’Inferno’

In Italy, early filmmakers were drawn to the mythical and the spectacular. The works of Dante provided a fruitful source of material, the most successful example being L’inferno, which is considered to be the first Italian feature length film. At the same time, the historical genre was developing through a series of spectacular short films, notably La caduta di Troia directed by Giovanni Pastrone and Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii directed by Mario Caserini.

A scene from the film ‘The Great Train Robbery’

In the United States The Great Train Robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter, is recognized as the first US narrative film. Porter’s innovative camera techniques and editing, location shoots, and Western format combined to make an exciting film for audiences of the day. As technology advanced, filmmakers were able to make longer films, sometimes turning to literature for inspiration. In 1907, Canadian director Sidney Olcott made the first film version of Ben Hur for the New York-based Kalem Company. Adapted from Lew Wallace’s novel of 1880, the 15-minute film is hard to follow unless the viewer knows the story, and its famous chariot race-filmed from a fixed point-lacks excitement. However, it was popular enough for Kalem to be sued successfully for copyright infringement, and the outcome provoked the setting of a precedent for future literary adaptations.

An article about ‘Ben Hur’ 1907

Cramming a lengthy narrative from a novel into a short film was problematic and therefore some of the most satisfying films to emerge were those written specifically for the big screen. Le moulin maudit, shot for Pathe Frères by French director Alfred Machin, tells a story of revenge. Filmed on location in Belgium, stencil tinted to provide color and running at almost 6 minutes, the playlet has a self-contained narrative that is easy to follow.

Couverture du premier volume de la série Fantômas par Pierre Souvestre et Marcel Allain, Paris, éditions Fayard, 1911.
Jean Marais as Fantômas in the 1964 film. In addition to the characteristic face mask, the black gloves of Fantômas are visible.

As technology advanced, filmmakers produced movies that grew in length, and mini-serials developed. Among the more successful in this format is Fantômas, a five-part serial based on one of the most popular characters in French crime fiction, played by René Navarre. Directed by Louis Feuillade, each episode lasted about an hour and ended grippingly on a cliffhanger. Fantômas is an amoral, murderous villain who has continued to capture the imagination of filmmakers up to the present day. Another Feuillade serial, Judex, follows the fantastic adventures of a more virtuous and heroic protagonist in what perhaps marks the first appearance of a caped crusader. The prolific French filmmaker also produced the ten-part serial Les vampires, which tells the story of a Parisian crime organization known as ‘Les Vampires‘. The thriller techniques developed by Feuillade were to influence later masters such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock.

The opportunity to make longer products, the emergence of the Hollywood studios, and larger budgets encouraged filmmakers to produce literary adaptations such as 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, directed by Scotsman Stuart Paton and based on Jules Verne’s novel of 1869 and the same author’s The Mysterious Island. Paton joined forces with two fellow British immigrants to the United States, brothers John and George Williamson to create the first film showing underwater sequences. The pioneering special effects, location shoots, and elaborate sets -including a mock-up of the Nautilus submarine-created a film that was truly remarkable for its time. The appetite for spectacle continued to find expression in epic films such as The Ten Commandments and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, forming what would later become known as the sword-and-sandal genre. Directed by Fred Niblo and an uncredited Charles Brabin, Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ proved a troubled and costly production for the newly merged Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. To make the chariot race more exciting, a US $100 prize was put up by the studio for the winner.

The spirit of pioneering director Georges Méliès can be glimpsed in such epic films of the 1920s and later in the special effects work of Ray Harryhausen in the 1950s and 1960s. Film techniques have grown more complex and narrative structures ever more sophisticated, but the basic creative rationale of cinema-to reinvent and reinterpret reality-has remained constant since its earliest days.

Pioneering Motion Pictures Part I

Pathé Frères film production company

Motion pictures both created and fed an appetite for spectacle, offering the possibility of recreating the past, reimagining the present, and visualizing the future. The technology for making movies was invented in 1895, but the first films were often just a few seconds long and depicted simple everyday events or trick effects. Films with a recognizable narrative arrived with the 20th century. The earliest pioneers were not based in Hollywood, which did not then exist as a center of film making, but in Europe. Notable among them were French filmmakers Georges Méliès, Charles Pathé, and Ferdinand Zecca. The latter directed the 1-minute short A la conquête de l’air in which he flew over the Belleville neighborhood of Paris in a bizarre flying machine. The film was produced for Pathé Frères, the film production company founded in 1896 by Charles Pathé and his brother Emile. The brothers were former restaurateurs who, in reference to their culinary origins, used a distinctive cockerel, Le Coq, as their trademark.

Méliès at his studio in Montreuil

A technical difficulty that held back film’s potential as an art form was the inability to create continuity of action across successive shots. Attack on a China Mission Inspired by China’s Boxer Rebellion, it focuses on a group of Christian missionaries under siege by Boxer fighters. It was directed by British film pioneer James Williamson who created one of the most developed narratives of its time. The film boasted a set in an insecure house, a cast of a couple of dozen people and action shots aided by simulated explosions and gunshots.

Screenshot from the film Attack on a China Mission

After attending the first public screening of the Lumière brothers’ films in 1895, the theatre impresario and stage magician Georges Méliès quickly grasped the possibilities for cinema as a vehicle for illusion and fantasy. Méliès’s signature was the magician’s love of trickery, splicing the fantastic with the macabre. The silent fantasy L’homme à la tête en caoutchouc features Méliès as a scientist who attaches a rubber tube to his own detached head and inflates it with a pair of bellows. The experiment is repeated by an assistant, who inflates the head until it explodes. In Le voyage dans la lune the image of the rocket ship landing in the moon’s eye is a typical Méliès juxtaposition of the whimsical and the visceral. Yet for all the dazzling cinematic innovations that Méliès developed and exploited, his films never truly broke free from his theatrical roots The Société Film d’Art was an altogether more high-minded enterprise, formed with the intention of bringing artistic standards to the cinema, particularly in the depiction of history. The first and best-known example was L’assassinat du duc de Guise, directed by Charles Le Bargy and Andre Calmettes, which was based on an incident in the 16th century when Henri III arranged for the assassination of his aristocratic rival. Despite the sensational nature of the subject, the film, with a specially commissioned score by Camille Saint-Saëns and a cast drawn from the Comédie-Française, provided a sober and serious historical pageant.

Film Poster for “L’ASSASSINAT DU DUC DE GUISE” (The Assassination of the Duke de Guise), a movie by “Le Film d’Art”

In India, the pioneering director D. G. Phalke, inspired by Sepi an early film version of the life of Christ, learned the rudiments of film making to make Raja Harishchandra. This elaborate costume drama, based on Hindu mythology, marked the start of the Indian film industry, Drawing on a text from the Sanskrit epic the Mahabharata, the film tells the story of King Harishchandra, who gives up his kingdom in order to keep his promise to a holy man. Using an all-male non-professional cast and filming in the countryside surrounding Mumbai, Phalke created an elaborate Hindu epic of some 40 minutes. The film was an enormous success when it was first shown at the Coronation Cinema in Mumbai. Unfortunately, only the first two reels survive and modern audiences must guess at the ambitions of the finished film.

Phalke seated on a chair with a small roll of film in his hands.

Beyond Hollywood and the 2nd century of cinema

Horst von Harbou, set photograph from Metropolis, 1927, directed by Fritz Lang, La Cinémathèque française

Besides Hollywood in the 1930s, we could single out Germany and Soviet Russia in the 1920s, France in the 1930s, Britain and the Italy of Neo-Realism in the late 1940s, Japan in the 1950s, France again with the Nouvelle Vague of the 1960s, the films of the Prague Spring in the mid-1960s, Czechoslovakia, Germany again with the New German Cinema of the 1970s, the Hollywood of the ‘storytellers’ such as Martin Scorsese and Robert Altman in the same decade, and the Chinese cinema of the Fifth Generation in the 1980s. More recent decades have seen flowerings of film making talent from Iran, South Korea, Thailand, Latin America, and Romania.

Jean-Luc Goddard with Eddie Constantine and Anna Karina in 1965
Roohangiz Saminejad in Lor Girl, was Iran’s first ever sound film to be produced.

At other times and not always coinciding with a specific golden age certain genres and styles enjoy growth, often in response to a national mood. Looking at Hollywood, a social historian could trace the way in which Film Noir that haunted emanation of the American psyche emerged in the shadows of imminent world conflict just as the perky cheekiness of 1930s screwball comedy reached the end of its cycle, and then continued into the paranoid years of the Cold War, overlapping with-and even infecting-the more optimistic all-American genres of the musical and the Western. Likewise, one could link the cycle of J-horror’ films that began with Ringu (The Ring) by Hideo Nakata to the increase in national uncertainty and disillusionment that followed the crisis in the Japanese economy.

A scene from Hideo Nakata’s ‘Ringu’
Martin Scorsese on the sets of ‘Mean Streets’ with Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel in 1973.
A screenshot from the movie ‘Rome, Open City’.

The second century of cinema seems likely to see revolutionary changes within the art form, and possibly even its metamorphosis into something radically different. Within the last three decades, with the rise and growing sophistication of computer-generated imagery (CGI), cinema has become increasingly technology-driven. This, it could be argued, is unprecedented. The earlier major developments in cinematic technology-sound, color, and widescreen-though far-reaching in their impact, remained subordinate to the film making process. Even when their words could be heard and their actions are seen in Technicolor on huge screens, actors still performed in front of a camera, on a set or on location, just as before. However, computers have revolutionized live-action cinema perhaps more than they have changed animation. After all, the makers of Toy Story and its successors are still painting moving pictures, as were Disney’s artists in Bambi all that has changed are the tools.

Original theatrical release poster.
Original theatrical release poster.

In live action films, not only can huge monsters and vast armies be created on-screen, but also actors can appear on complex landscapes despite never having seen them. Even the actors themselves can be fabricated through motion capture-witness Andy Serkis’s performance as Gollum in the same film-and might even become superfluous as the techniques of CGl and motion capture become more sophisticated. Before long, the first wholly convincing computer-generated ‘human’ actor in a live-action film may be seen, and deceased stars could be resurrected to give new performances.

Andy Serkis as Gollum from ‘ The Lord of the Rings’.

Hays haze

Motion Picture Production Code

Almost from the first, it was recognized that cinema was unique in its immediacy and accessibility. For some, this was a matter for celebration. However, a medium so widely disseminated and influential soon fell under suspicion of vulgarizing, sensationalism, lubricity, political propaganda, encouraging mindless consumerism and corrupting the morals of the youth.

A famous shot from the 1903 film, The Great Train Robbery. Scenes where criminals aimed guns at the camera were considered inappropriate by the New York state censor board in the 1920s, and usually removed.

Such condemnations were sweeping in the extreme. The Chicago Tribune stated that motion pictures are without a redeeming feature to warrant their existence. Moreover, even the then British prime minister Ramsay MacDonald called out Hollywood as a ‘Sinful and abominable rubbish’. From politicians, preachers and teacher came demands for control, for systems of censorship, often resulting in the setting up by the industry of self regulatory bodies. The most famous of these was the Motion Producers and Distributors of America, which drew up a list of “provisions” known as the Hays code. Even so, far from being obstructed by these petty do’s and don’ts’, many filmmakers such as Ernst Lubitsch and Alfred Hitchcock took delight in subtly circumventing them.

This 1932 promotional photo of Joan Blondell was later banned, under the unenforceable Motion Picture Production Code.
Some directors found ways to get around the Code guidelines. An example of this was in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1946 film, Notorious, where he worked around the rule of three-second-kissing by having the two actors break off every three seconds. The whole sequence lasts two and a half minutes.

A more lasting, and in many ways more restrictive, curb on the creativity of filmmakers lay within the structure of the industry itself. In some ways the medium’s very popularity told against it. Once it became evident what potential profits stood to be made from films, the business side of the industry set out to secure a stranglehold over its more experimental or artistic elements. While the three main branches of production, distribution and exhibition remained separate from each other, there was room for maneuvre, however, as the power of studios increased and vertical integration became common, the scope of independence rapidly narrowed.

Clark Gable reading Gone with the wind, a novel by Margaret Mitchell.

It therefore says a lot for the sheer irrepressible vitality of the medium that, both within and outside the studio system, so many exceptional films have been made and, it is worth emphasizing, are still being made today. in cinema, as in so many other activities, the myth off the ‘golden age’ continues to hold sway. A legendary era when classic after classic was produced and overall creative standards were high.

At any time, probably no more than 30% of the world’s annual output of films is worthy of even passing attention, and that may well be an overestimate.

circa 1895

Auguste and Louis in Lyons, France.

Has any art form caught on so swiftly or so universally as cinema? Although the exact moment of its origin is still debated upon, most accounts agree on the year 1895. The year in which brothers Louis and Auguste Lumiere (the gentlemen in the above picture) projected La sortie des usines Lumiere to the members of the Societe d’Encouragement pour l’industrie nationale and then gave private demonstrations of their films to the Photographic Congress at Lyons. Within no time, at the Hotel Scribe in Paris, they mounted their first ever public screening of their films.

Charlie Chaplin, a pivotal figure in early cinema, on a set at Keystone Studios.

Within a mere 20 years of these pioneering ventures, films were being watched by mass audiences across the world. Production was under way in all the major European countries, in the United States, Canada, India, China, Japan, Turkey, Mexico, Brazil, Argentina and Australia, and was already supported by a substantial industry in many of those countries. So instantaneous was the appeal of moving pictures that Charlie Chaplin stepped before a movie camera for the first time in January 1914 as a young English vaudeville artist, and by the end of that year had become the most widely recognized person in the world.

Paradoxically, one major factor in cinema’s rapid rise to universality was its principal limitation: Silence. Silent films were easily and cheaply adaptable: slot in a few inter titles and a film could play to any audience. On the other hand the Japanese, as distinctive as ever, employed official readers known as benshi, whose job was to stand and beside the screen and recount the plot to the audience. One can speculate that cinema had been born in full ‘talkie’ mode it might have have taken far longer to achieve worldwide acceptance. As it was, by the time the ‘talkies’ came in, the habit of going to the cinema was too firmly established to be discouraged by language barriers.

A benshi stands alongside the screen as she narrates the plot to the audience.

The prime cinematic genres emerged early, too. Within months of the Lumiere brothers’ screenings, the ex-stage magician Georges Melies was creating fantasy, horror, and science fiction movies. Documentary, of course, existed from the start, as many early filmmakers simply pointed their cameras at the world around them. Comedy swiftly followed, along with costume based drama, romance, thrillers, psychological drama, war movies, ancient epics and even pornography. As usual the United States made westerns as it was their favorable choice, especially after the industry moved to California. Animation soon arrived, its first appearance credited to J. Stuart Blackton with Humorous Phases of funny Faces. By 1910, virtually every genre that we now recognize had been established, although some were in primitive form.

Georges Melies in his studio working on La Voyage Dans La Lune.
J. Stuart Blackton working on his animated feature Humorous Phases of Funny Faces.

The same can be said for of the main cinematic techniques. It took remarkably little time for filmmakers to discover the manifold tricks that the camera could play. From Close-ups to fades all made their debuts in those initial decades. All that has happened since has been in terms of vastly greater sophistication and technical agility. Youngest and most dynamic of the major arts, cinema has gone from being primitive to post modern in barely a century, still bearing imprints of it origins.

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