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THE STYLES, STORIES, AND IDIOMS OF SILENT FILM SHOW THE FULL RANGE OF CINEMATIC POSSIBILITIES.

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triptothemooncp.jpg
Still from "A Trip to the Moon."

Much like the leap from DOS to iPad, movie-making advanced at a step-by-step pace within a generation.
 
In the history of movie-making, everything was there at the beginning-- merely to be enhanced and re-interpreted as technology advanced to the present.
 
Although films are generally considered to have begun with the first commercial projects in 1895, many earlier film-makers, the bold and far-sighted pioneers, have been unjustly forgotten.
 
 
 

In 1881 Eadweard Muybridge devised the "Zoopraxiscope," a device whit which he was able to project animated pictures onto a screen. In time he increased the number of cameras to help him ‘investigate" the action of the hooves of horses running as well as humans in various activities. The results were exhibited widely.

From 1887 to 1885 many photographers were attempting ‘moving pictures’ by making ingenious attempts to cluster their negatives into a ‘moving series.’

Here are some of the inventions and films that started it all:

W. K .L. Dickson invented the Kinetoscope which he thought would 'improve the lot of humanity and make people more educated and happy.' The device was commonly used more like a ‘peep show’ allowing room for a single viewer only. His associate, Thomas Edison, used the contrivance to develop a film system that could be projected onto walls to display historical scenes for a larger audience.

In 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumière developed the Cinematographe which was capable of shooting, printing, and projecting film. The first film was "Workers Leaving the Factory." It allowed mobility; cameramen could leave a studio and roam around to show live action with the new technology. They were like home movies that preserved the real world– political leaders, social reality, and far-away places. (a precursor to "Man With a Movie Camera," in 1929.)

George Mèliés, on the other hand, made films of lyrical, whimsical fantasies. He was a professional magician and used his sleights-of-hand techniques in the new medium. Serving as performer, director, and scenarist, he made hundreds of films with sophisticated vision between 1896 and 1912. In 1902 he produced his highly-regarded 14-minute film "A Trip to the Moon."

"The Great Train Robbery," created by Edwin Porter in 1902, had a clear narrative flow based in reality-- a style that quickly became popular. At Pathé Films "The Policeman’s Little Run" elaborated the possibilities of complex story-telling with shifts of consecutive space, cuts, and continuity of story.

In 1909, "Nero, Or the Fall of Rome" was a wide-screen costume drama that started a trend toward epic films which upped production values-- and costs. When it opened it was hailed as ‘the most marvelous picture in the world.’ and inspired grandiose historical films– influencing D. W.Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille.

In "Winsor McCay and his Moving Comics," (1911), the Vitagraph Company hired McCay, the clever cartoonist at the New York Herald, to use his unique drawing abilities (four thousand drawings for one short) in charming live-action narrative structures. Subsequent films utilized his technical innovations, eventually leading to Disney’s Mickey Mouse.

In "The Girl and Her Trust," (1912), a story of tramps assaulting the telegraph office, D.W. Griffith displayed a new sophistication with extreme close-ups and long shots, rapidly moving cameras, multiple story lines cleanly cut together, a variey of camera angles, and a mix of moods and tones.

The earliest films were typically two to five minutes in length. Here are some that have survived. Although it should be said that most of the early films weren’t silent, as they were usually accompanied by narrations and musical scores.

Edison Kinetoscope Films produced a lot of action movies, such as The Kiss, Serpentine Dances, Sandow the Strong Man, The Glenroy Brothers Boxing, Cockfight, The Barber Shop, Feeding the Doves, and a pillow fight in Seminary Girls.

Lumière Films released a wide array of entertaining films from 1895 to 1897. Each depicted as much action and interesting situations as they could devise. Examples are: Exiting the Factory, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, Baby’s Lunch, The Sprinkler Sprinkled, Dragoons Crossing the Sâone, Promenade of Ostriches in the Paris Botanical Garden, Childish Quarrel, Lion at the London Zoological Garden, Demolition of a Wall, Transformation with Hats, Charmaux: Drawing Out the Coke, Poultry Yard, Snowball Fight, Card Party, New York: Broadway at Union Square, President McKinley at Home, and Pack Train in Chilkoot Pass. In1903 they shot Skyscrapers of New York City from North River, and in 1906 they produced San Francisco Aftermath of Earthquake.

Pathé Films produced influential "shorts" such as ‘The Dog in His Various Merits’ and  'The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog.’ In 1903 came more full-blown dramas, like "The Great Train Robbery, and, in 1910, "Aerophane Flight and Wreck. Extended comedies include "Policeman’s Run: Chasing the Dog," and the multi-chapter "Troubles of a Grass-widower."

Early on, Keystone Films were doing farce comedies like "Bangville Police." Max Linder was a frequent star who had a background in comedy and vaudeville– and grealy influenced Charlie Chaplin. The Biograph Company was in the competition with a library of releases of extended dramas, such as "The Girl and Her Trust." Innovations were the rule. In 1907's whimsical "The Golden Beetle," director Ferdinand Zecca hand-colored the film for a visual ‘wow.’

The goal of early film was to entertain audiences in ways that enthralled, excited, and amazed. That they did. The art form continued until 1929. By the late twenties, there were true masters producing, writing, directing, and acting in ‘silents.’

For example: The amazing 80-minute "Passion of Joan of Arc." written and directed (mostly in close-ups) by Carl Theodor Dreyer, was shot in France in 1927. The role of Joan was affectingly played by Melle Falconetti in her only screen role.The gripping impact of the film needed no words (explaining why it is considered a masterpiece of the art). The original negative of "Joan" was thought to have been destroyed by fire– but the story doesn’t end there. In 1981 a Danish copy of the original film was found in a Norwegian mental hosopital. It was cleaned up and restored in 1985 and later ‘perfected’ by Mathematical Technologies software. The results inspired the musician Richard Einhorn to compose the Oratorio "Voices of Light" to accompany the film. Sung by ‘Anonymous 4' with a full symphony orchestra– it’s a perfect fit.

"Film history begins long before Lumières first commercial projections in 1895. Forms as diverse as popular theater, vaudeville, dioramas, panoramas, lantern slide shows, fantasmagoria were all essential contributors to what was to become the business, the technology, and the art of cinema. But, though these concepts had long been in place, it took a surprisingly long time for them to coalesce, and for photography and illusions of movement to become the motion picture." - Dean W. Duncan

Theaters usually screened bulletins before and between films.

Every child must have a ticket.

On entering, kindly take seats farthest from the aisle so as not to be disturbed by those coming later on.

Pictures changed every day.

Remain seated please.

All those coming in late are cordially invited to remain for the next show.

Ladies, please remove your hats.

You can always depend on seeing a GOOD SHOW HERE.

Silents can now be seen in normal speed so you can enjoy the primitive power of image. Many have been tranfered to DVD. Many discs have enrichments like commentaries, out-take footage, alternate endings, interviews, screenplay excerpts, and production documents. The Image Entertainment release, "Landmarks of Early Film," covers works from 1886 to 1913 in grand fashion.

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Remain curious.