1900-1908: Imitators and Innovation
Moving into the 20th century saw a lot of filmmakers try to imitate MÃ©liÃ¨s’ camera trickery, and soon begin outpacing him. Unfortunately, as innovative as MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s 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 MÃ©liÃ¨s, 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.
By 1901 MÃ©liÃ¨s was expanding on his costume drama work exemplified by 1899’s Cendrillon, and while Bluebeard suffers from the slow stuffiness of most of his costume dramas, there is narrative innovation here, notably when the woman looks out the tower window to something we don’t see, then a few minutes later, rescuers break down the castle door – a kind of foreshadowing and leading of expectations that simply hadn’t been done before, in my Chrono experience at least. The room with all of Bluebeard’s dead wives is also super creepy and effective.
The Fat and Lean Wrestling Match
Using trick photographer for comedy rather than just magic trickery was one of MÃ©liÃ¨s’ strengths when he chose to do it, and this is a very funny lampoon of the popular boxing films of the era, especially the parts where “lean” becomes “totally flat.”
Scrooge; or Marley’s Ghost
The UK continues to be a center for innovation, bringing many of the earliest literary adaptations to the screen with all the special effects available at the time. In 1901, putting camera trickery to real narrative use is still in its infancy. This is probably the earliest version of the oft-filmed Christmas Carol, and despite its short length is a pretty good adaptation of it!
A Trip to the Moon
MÃ©liÃ¨s’ best-known film is still a wonder of imagination, especially if you’re watching a hand-colored print. Note that the narration in many versions is legit (the one above is Serge Bromberg, a wonderful film preservationist) – many of his films would have had a live narrator at the screening explaining the action. This explains why a lot of his films are difficult to follow and don’t seem to have enough title cards to really explain what’s going on – they would’ve had a narrator doing that. That’s been restored to a lot of copies of A Trip to the Moon, so don’t think that recorded voice is anachronistic; only the fact that it’s recorded is!
The Little Match-Seller
The Brits didn’t even shy away from one of the most depressing fairy tales ever written (thanks, Hans Christian Andersen), and this is a touching version of the tale, which uses double-exposure to great emotional effect.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
This one is kind of a narrative mess, but I always try to show it to people because OMG the colors are incredible on the YouTube print! Many films were painstakingly hand-colored at the time, but the colored prints have been lost or faded over time. Each frame had to be painted individually, which is why the colors kind of jump around a bit sometimes, but this print is magnificent and really gives you a glimpse of the sensory pleasures of early cinema.
The Great Train Robbery
Considered to be the first western, and possibly the first film to employ cross-cut editing (more on that in a minute), The Great Train Robbery is a milestone in American filmmaking, directed by the very innovative Edwin S. Porter for Edison. The film tells the story of a group of bandits robbing a train and the chase to stop them once the telegraph operator manages to get through to the police. This is the beginning of a long tradition of chase films in early cinema, which were perfected toward the end of the decade by D.W. Griffith. It’s a little clunky here in pacing, but cutting back and forth between the robbers running away and the police chasing them hadn’t been done before (probably), and while we’re used to such things now, the idea of using editing in that way to build tension was a major leap forward in cinematic language.
Life of an American Fireman
I used some wiggle words about the cross-cutting in The Great Train Robbery because Life on an American Fireman (also from Porter) was released earlier in the year and MAY have included cross-cutting between the burning building and the firemen rushing towards it. There are prints that include the cross-cutting. But the official copyright version in the Library of Congress does not (copyrighting movies in those days involved submitting the entire film as a series of still frames, because movies weren’t covered in copyright law, but photographs were) – it shows the entire sequence from the perspective of the burning building, then shows the entire sequence again from the perspective of the firefighters. It appears likely it was originally released this way (as in the version above) and later recut with cross-cutting after the success of The Great Train Robbery.
Rescued by Rover
Now that cross-cutting has been established, the chase film is ascendant, and here we have a child in danger rescued by the faithful family dog. This basic story was done a lot of times in the next few years as chase/rescue films were hugely popular, but this remains the first and one of the best.
The Motorist in question hits a policeman (excellent use of camera trickery and dummies) and goes to extreme, even galactic lengths to escape. Some of the double-exposures haven’t lasted well, which may be a print issue, but the whimsicality and general technical competence here is great.
The Colonel’s Account
A dinner party with a Colonel telling of his adventures seems like a staid affair, but this one devolves into mayhem quickly. Director Louis Feuillade would cement his place in film history in the 1910s with his crime serials (more about them later on in my project), but he’s cutting his teeth here on a type of film rather common on France toward the end of the 1900s, where a normal social situation gets out of hand and results in everyone acts like a total nutcase. I kind of love it.
The Policeman’s Little Run
The trick film is morphing right into the slapstick film with this one, a French precursor to the Keystone Kops – a whole bunch of cops chase a dog who’s stolen a hunk of meat, and the chase gets super silly super fast.
That Fatal Sneeze
More innovation from the Brits: this one is pretty simple in story – a sniff of talcum powder causes some powerful sneezes, but the use of camera movement to indicate changes in the world on screen is new and really effective. In other words, when he sneezes, the world shakes, but of course, it’s the CAMERA that shakes, creating a new entry in film grammar.
The Puppet’s Nightmare
If you know a little bit about early animation history, you may have heard of Gertie the Dinosaur (1914) and heard it called the first animated film, but that is incorrect. There had been some drawn animation and some stop-motion animation back into the 1890s, and this one may be the first completely hand-drawn animated film, from pioneering animator Emile Cohl. His line drawing style is very distinctive, and his films are often very funny.
The Thieving Hand
Director J. Stuart Blackton has been around throughout cinema history, competing with MÃ©liÃ¨s on trick photographer and gaining notoriety for his recreations of real events using models (but at times passing them off as documentary). He pops to the fore here with a trick film that tells a funny story, and prefigures a lot of “evil hand” horror films.
Here are my favorite 25 or so films I watched from 1900-1908. I saw a total of 108 films from these years. The above films were chosen due to notability/innovation, not necessarily because I liked them the best, so the top films here don’t necessarily match.