1900-1908: Imitators and Innovation
Moving into the 20th century saw a lot of filmmakers try to imitate Méliès’ camera trickery, and soon begin outpacing him. Unfortunately, as innovative as Méliès was in creating the trick film, he never really went past that, never able to break free from his conception of the cinema as filmed stage action, and never realizing the capabilities of the camera beyond stopping and starting time. There are many great Méliès films in the first half of this decade, but it’s not long before they begin to feel tiresome. In this section, we’ll see trick films continue to be central, but other types of narratives and editing techniques will also start to be developed. I cut the date off at 1908 instead of 1909 because 1909 is when D.W. Griffith really started taking off, and marks the shift from trick film to more complex narratives. We’ll catch up 1909 to 1912 in the next post, and then I’ll try to go year by year after that.
Going to Bed Under Difficulties
One of my favorite Méliès subgenres is the haunted inn, where a weary traveler tries to get to bed but he can’t seem to make it – chairs move, the bed disappears, his clothes walk off on their own. In this case, the furniture stays put, but he can’t seem to manage to keep his clothes off. There are many of these, and they’re one of the few types of Méliès films that never got old for me even when I was tiring of him. I also just really love the English title of this.
The Delights of Automobiling
After a near-decade of cinema domination from the US and France, Great Britain jumped on the scene with some decidedly delightful (and macabre) films from Cecil M. Hepworth, including this one which features a motorcar exploding…and look out for what’s falling from the sky. Great example of wry British black humor.
Grandma’s Reading Glass
When the Brits made their way into cinema, they did it in a big way. George Albert Smith contributed this film, said to contain the first closeups. The conceit is that a boy is looking through his grandma’s magnifying glass, then we cut to see what the magnifying glass sees – in closeup. A bird in a cage, Grandma’s eye, etc. Because of the cut to closeup, it’s also one of the earliest films that contains editing! Things like this are why this Chrono Watch has been so rewarding. You don’t notice things like this being so innovative if you see them out of context.
The Enchanted Drawing
J. Stuart Blackton was something like the American version of Méliès, experimenting with trick films and also animation before most people. An illustrator draws a large man’s face and some wine, and the illustrated face changes in reaction to the illustrator’s actions. A lot of very early animation foregrounded the illustrator like this, as in many of cartoonist Windsor McKay’s early shorts.
“The demand for ‘originality’ – with the implication that the reminiscence of other writers is a sin against originality and a defect in the work – is a recent one and would have seemed quite ludicrous to poets of the Augustan Age, or of Shakespeare’s time. The traditional view is that each new work should be a fresh focus of power through which former streams of beauty, emotion, and reflection are directed. This view is adopted, and perhaps carried to excess, by writers like T.S. Eliot, some of whose poems are a close web of quotations and adaptations, chosen for their associative value; or like James Joyce, who makes great use of the associative value of sounds and syllables. The criterion is, not whether the associations are called up, but whether the spirits invoked by this kind of verbal incantation are charged with personal power by the magician who speeds them about their new business.”
Dorothy L. Sayers, The Mind of the Maker
Okay, so I produced this for my work (collaboration with my student worker – she did the rough cut and some of the b-roll and I added a lot more b-roll and some finishing touches), and I don’t usually post about my work but this one is such a cool story and has a movie tie-in.
What a great and varied line-up coming to TCM in July! As a side-note, I would like a job editing these promos please, kthxbai.