Monday, 30 March 2015

1910: The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
It's always interesting to see other versions of well-known film adaptations. Here's the Selig Polyscope Company's version of "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz" from 1910.
It seems to be a tradition in Hollywood not to have too much respect for your source text - in this film, Dorothy meets the Scarecrow before she goes to Oz, not after she gets there - though perhaps that was done to tie in with the brilliant spinning haystack that gets caught up in the cyclone - a practical alternative to having a house lift off the ground.
Stylistically, this isn't too far removed from George Méliès - elaborate but theatrical-looking backgrounds, and a style of acting where the whole ensemble convey the feel of a scene simultaneously, while the camera keeps its distance and takes in the whole stage in each scene, rather than having the action focus on an individual from shot to shot. Also reminiscent of Méliès and various Pathé films from several years earlier, we've got demonic imps that turn somersaults and disappear in puffs of smoke.
There's not a lot of camera trickery, but there's some great wire-work. Check out the wicked witch's spectacular entrance at 3.38.
The best thing about this though is the costumes - we've got a great pantomime mule and cow, and the Cowardly Lion with his huge head is very endearing.
Incidentally there's a perfect HD version of this on the current Wizard of Oz 3D blu-ray, along with loads of other stuff not mentioned on the box, including the 1925 feature with Larry Semon and Dorothy Dwan.            

Saturday, 28 March 2015

1909: Oliver Twist

Oliver Twist
As a rule, I've been trying to select films that bring something new to the art of cinema, but this one is so far behind the curve it's in danger of being lapped. The reason I include it is that it represents the last gasp of a style of film making that in 1909 had already had its day.
Instead of telling a coherent story, it illustrates incidents from a story it assumes we know well. Also, it does this with stagey, painted backgrounds and a locked-off camera. There's no attempt at close-ups or editing or any kind of film technique at all - and this is starting to look odd because all of that had been introduced by Edwin S Porter and Cecil Hepworth six or seven years previously. Also, it displays more ham than Smithfield Market. If you don't want to watch the whole thing, just treat yourself to Nancy's death scene, starting around 11.20. The over-the-top, theatrical acting makes this a masterpiece of unintentional comedy to a modern eye - and perhaps even to a contemporary one. Bill Sikes drags Nancy through a door and out of sight while strangling her, and reappears a few seconds later, tortured with remorse. Point made, you might think, but not quite. You'll see what I mean.
It could be that the producers just wanted to get their money's worth out of Elita Proctor Otis, as she's the only performer in the picture to get a screen credit - and in the middle of the film, too.
To be fair to the director, J. Stuart Blackton, he was probably pitching to a safe market here. He was a pioneer of animation and trick photography, so no stranger to innovation. For a more fun example of his work, check out "The Thieving Hand", from 1908.

Sunday, 15 March 2015

1908: Troubles of a Grass Widower

Troubles of a Grass Widower
Now we're getting somewhere. Max Linder's "Troubles of a Grass Widower" is part of a silent comedy tradition that's recognisable to a modern viewer. We have a fully developed character  - not just a random person having surreal dreams or fantastic accidents but someone we can relate to in situations we might have had to deal with. In this case, Max's wife goes home to mother after he ignores her once too often at breakfast, leaving Max to cope - ineptly - with making his dinner, doing the dishes, making the bed, and wondering where the hell he put his tie.  
We're not all high-living Edwardian-era Frenchmen, of course, and we don't still live in a time when there's such clear demarcation of what's women's work and what's men's work but we haven't totally lost the idea that some men at least can be a bit useless when it comes to commonplace tasks that their significant other is normally the one to do. If you don't agree, you can take my word for it.
Max Linder is the first silent comedian to have a well-defined screen identity, and he's a master of it. He can be graceful, balletic and charming one moment, clumsy and gauche the next, without missing a beat. It's clear why Chaplin called him "my professor".
Also finally here's a good version on YouTube - no music though. Ignore the incorrect date, this is definitely from 1908.      

Saturday, 14 March 2015

1907: Le Cheval Emballé

Le Cheval Emballé
Many of the Pathé studio's films from this period are fairy-tale or Arabian Nights adaptations - lavishly decorated studio productions, usually hand-coloured. Very pretty to look at but rather dull to watch, to a modern eye. I wanted to include one in this blog just to have the genre represented, and many of the best examples are from 1907, but I'm going to give them a miss again to focus on one that's from the same studio but a lot more fun.
In Le Cheval Emballé - The Runaway Horse - directed by Louis Gasnier but often attributed to Ferdinand Zecca, a delivery man's horse gorges itself on a sack of oats while the owner is distracted.
Energised, he runs off down the street and causes chaos, wrecking carts, market stalls and workmen's scaffolding as he gallops past. At each incident a few more people join the angry crowd chasing the horse, until he returns to his stable and the crowd are seen off with hoses.
Each scene is clearly carefully set up, but with little room for error - there's only so much precision you can bring to charging a horse and cart through a row of market stalls. As a result there's a special joy to watching something like this, where everyone involved is throwing themselves into the job, apparently with little heed for their own safety and clearly no health-and-safety or insurance company placing any limitations on what gets filmed or what risks are taken. It's not even clear whether each scene went quite as planned.  
Especially fun is the mother or nanny - clearly visible on the DVD as a man in drag - who doesn't give a damn about the safety of the baby in the pram.  Sadly like many of these films the low-res versions on YouTube don't quite do them justice, but most of the ones I've covered so far are on the BFI DVD "Early Cinema - Primitives and Pioneers".  

Friday, 13 March 2015

1906: Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
I passed on Edwin S Porter's landmark 1903 film "The Great Train Robbery" to focus on the more visceral "Desperate Poaching Affray", but just so his fans aren't too upset, here's his 1906 film "Dream of a Rarebit Fiend", based on one of a series of comic strips by the great Winsor McCay.

A man overindulges in a restaurant, then staggers home, stopping to cling to a lamp post as the streets spin around him. He gets into bed, then the furniture comes to life and leaves the room. After he goes to sleep, little demons stand on his headboard and torment him with pitchforks, then the bed lifts off the floors, spins round wildly and flies out of the window and over the city. Finally he finally he falls out of the flying bed, gets caught on a weathervane, then falls again, through the ceiling of his room and back into bed, where he wakes up.    

The film is full of ingenious photographic effects that aren't too obvious in their execution even today. Not to me anyway. I was trying to see whether he's really hanging from that flimsy-looking weathervane via a hidden harness, or if there are wires supporting him from offscreen - I think there are, in which case it's quite a feat not to get them tangled up as the vane rotates several times as he hangs from it.

We're getting to the end of an era here - one where trick effects are still expected to hold an andience's attention without much added in the way of characters or story - but this goes the extra mile, adding a few new tricks of its own, and is still fun to watch today.

It's hard to find good copies of many of these early films online but the one I've linked to here with a soundtrack by The Carport Theatre is the best I've found.      

Monday, 9 March 2015

1905: Rescued by Rover

Rescued by Rover

Here's the prolific Cecil Hepworth again with one of the iconic films of the age, "Rescued by Rover". A simple story but impressively executed - ingeniously so in fact.
It's very much a family production. A nanny, out walking the baby (played by Hepworth's son), gets distracted by a handsome soldier, while an old beggar woman, bitter about being turned away a moment earlier, steals the baby from the pram and takes it back to her hovel ( a run-down terraced house in Walton-on-Thames that probably last sold for about half a million if it's still there).
The nanny gets home and tearfully confesses to the mother (Mrs Hepworth). The dog (Hepworth's dog, Blair) eavesdrops, runs off to track down the baby, and having done that reports back to the distraught father (Hepworth) and somehow gets the message across to him. Father chases dog back to the hovel, father retrieves baby, happy reunion scene.
It's obvious enough to us that the dog would have been carefully trained to do each shot in turn, but a contemporary audience - even fully aware that they were watching a fiction - would probably have been hugely impressed by the dog apparently racing right across town and checking a whole row of cottages till he found the baby. Apparently, in reality, sausages helped.
The film was so popular the negative wore out from repeated reprinting, and it had to be re-filmed twice. One of the versions on YouTube seems to be one of the remakes. In that version, the dog seems to be momentarily confused about which scene he's playing when, reaching the river, instead of immediately swimming across, he sits for a moment in the boat as he's supposed to do later when leading the father to the baby.
Of course this is the prototype for all the clever-animal series that were popular throughout the 20th Century - Lassie, Champion the Wonder Horse, and Skippy the Bush Kangaroo.