Katy Evans-Bush's post yesterday featuring a clip from "Gold-Diggers of 1929," and her promise to post more about the English music hall, prompted my post for today. I've got a particular fascination with early film - I mean, early film, as in pre-1920. I am constantly blown away at the inventiveness of filmmakers at the beginning of the era: they were creating their art form as they went, and a lot of what they came up with still amazes, a century and more later, especially when you think of the extremely limited scope of the technology at the time.
Hollywood as the film capitol of the universe was not invented until the 1920s; many of these early innovators came from Europe. About ten or fifteen years ago, Kenneth Branagh narrated a terrific documentary about these filmmakers called "Cinema Europe: the Other Hollywood". Unfortunately, the DVD has been discontinued by the manufacturer, and the only available copies are quite expensive (today on Amazon, copies are listed as new - $220; used - $139; a few months back I managed to snag a used VHS copy for $60, the cheapest I could find). I wish the manufacturer would re-release it - if you have any interest in film, it's worth watching.
One early filmmaker who delighted in special effects was the Frenchman, George Melies. In this short piece, from 1898 (!!), Melies literally loses his head. (NOTE: YouTube has taken down this clip, so I'm posting another early - 1899 - Melies film, "The Conjurer." The quality isn't great, but you can see Melies' creative cleverness at work. There are a lot of Melies clips on YouTube, and they are worth a look.)
Strange and surreal -- and fabulously inventive. Melies set the bar very high for his competitors. In this, perhaps his most famous film, "A Voyage to the Moon" (1902), the narrator reads from a script written by Melies to accompany each showing of the movie. The story is pretty straighforward, so even if you don't understand French, you should still be able to follow the narrative. (This movie completely creeps my husband out, by the way - he has a phobia about moons with faces. Something from his childhood, I guess.)
It is difficult for us to remember how new this all was for people who had never seen film before. In fact, the first films were similar to the first video clips uploaded to the Internet: short pieces showing everyday actions like people leaving a factory or taking a walk. Often what thrilled audiences was not what we might call "special effects" or a trick shot. This very early (1895) clip by the Lumiere Brothers of a train arriving at the station actually frightened audiences, who felt the train might rumble right off the tracks into the theater.
It wasn't until British filmmaker Cecil Hepworth started editing scenes together into narratives that films as stories became the norm. Hepworth's "Rescued by Rover" (1904) starred his daughter Barbara and his collie Blair - the baby is kidnapped by gyspies and the dog saves the day - and was so popular that the negative wore out and he had to remake it twice. (I have been unable to determine if this Barbara Hepworth is the same girl who grew up to be the famous British sculptor.) "Rescued by Rover" does not seem to be available online, although copies exist both in British archives and at the Smithsonian.
If you are interested in early film, a wonderful research tool is the British Film Institute's YouTube page. They have a huge archive of films, dating from the 1890s through the present.
Finally, in the interest of global equity, here is an American example - the 1903 Edwin Porter melodrama, "The Great Train Robbery." Notice the variety of camera angles and trick shots, also the hand-coloring in some scenes. Even then, the US had the scoop on what makes a good Western. Grab some popcorn and enjoy!