Classical Cinematography: Still Frames from Early Film

Film frame composition — examples from early motion photography to the beginning (almost) of feature-length film.

Motion pictures were naturally influenced technically and artistically by still photography (motion photography was the term given early to the technology), most notably in composition and lighting.  (Other elements of the two art forms could not always be shared, such as certain types of film stock, chemical emulsions, development processes and printing techniques, in large part due to the method of exhibition of the final product — display versus projection.)  In America, two of the most important early motion photography technicians were W. K. L. Dickson (native of Great Britain, and one of the “inventors” of the technology) and G.W. “Billy” Bitzer (a “developer” of early film technology).  [Please see the end of this post for further notes on the beginnings of motion picture technology.]

Both of these men became important “artists” in the new technology.  It seems unusual that among the first leading artists in a new art form — one that arose from a new, if related, technology — are those who are the inventors and/or developers of that technology.  Maybe motion photography was unique in that regard — probably not, but I don’t know for certain (although I would welcome the thoughts of others on the subject).  But it is an intriguing thought.

What follows are images made by some of the early, important artists of motion photography; images that I think are particularly interesting; individual images that fly by when part of a stream in motion but, when viewed as still frames removed from a sequence, are every bit as compelling artistically in isolation as an outstanding, beautifully lit and composed still photograph.

Select frames from early film:

“Blacksmithing Scene,” Edison (1893), shot at the “Black Maria” moving picture facility, New Jersey, by William Heise and W. K. L. Dickson.  In this 50 foot piece of early, experimental, Edison Company film, Dickson and Heise photograph “blacksmiths” (actually Edison employees) against the pitch-blackness of the Black Maria and, though not seen here, they pass a bottle of beer around in-between hammer swings.  As starkly beautiful as anything produced in the era of film “actualities,” roughly from 1891 to 1904, with the possible exception of . . .

. . . the “Annabelle Serpentine Dance,” Edison, 1895, 50 feet in length, hand tinted, filmed by William Heise.  Annabelle Moore performed this and many variations on it and other similar dances, some of which feature frame-by-frame, hand-coloring — a first taste of what color and color toning could do to enhance motion photography.  Placed next to the “Blacksmiths,” above it, the contrasts are stunning — each is uniquely beautiful and, together, oddly complimentary.  Both films literally use the same space, the nearly square, shallow contours of the severely limiting confines of the Black Maria; both solve this potential problem with a dark, neutral background (one blackest night and one deep blue) which gives depth, and then utilize strong motion (one violent; one ballet-like) to overcome the restrictions of width and height.  But there is little or no room in the Edison “Black Maria” for any more intricate or complex composition with motion photography.

Nothing prepares the first-time viewer for this film — wait until it’s over to tell them it was filmed in 1899 in New York City.  A product of Biograph (“The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company,” as it was officially named then), and photographed by the man who would later film “Corner in Wheat,” “Judith of Bethulia,” “Birth of a Nation,” “Intolerance,” “Way Down East” and “Orphans of the Storm,” This miniature documentary, “Blizzard, 1899,” Biograph, by G. W. “Billy” Bitzer, shot in the neighborhood of the Biograph Company headquarters at the time, 841 Broadway (they would move a block west to 11 East Fourteenth Street in 1904).  Bitzer obviously didn’t have nor did he need Griffith’s assistance in selecting the focal point of this 2 minute documentary of an 1899 winter storm in the City-that-never-slept-even-then.

Union Square was a pre-Times Square center of popular entertainment in turn-of-the-20th century New York.  The intersection of Broadway and 14th Street at the Square was a major traffic hub, where all three primary modes of urban transportation of the time, electric rail, the horse and human feet, were slowed to a crawl by the power of nature as documented in this film.  Despite the horses and the absence of automobiles, the entire clip is eerily modern, certainly timeless in a sense — a scene in which those of us who live in urban, cold climates can easily picture ourselves.

Two years later on a warm, sunny late morning/early afternoon nine blocks north of Fourteenth Street in New York, this “actuality,” one of the best known of those that survive the period, “What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City,”  Edison, 1901, Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming, was a “scripted” actuality (much like our reality shows today, though not technically scripted, are programs where “non-actors” are “guided” by the directors and of course “writers”).  The two main characters are in fact actors, the man in straw hat (indicating this is late spring, early summer) and the woman wearing a full skirt with petticoat and whatever else goes on beneath, deliberately walk over a grated steam vent in the sidewalk.  Naturally, the proto-Marilyn has to stop over the gust and, in a half-hearted attempt at modesty, tries to subdue her billowing skirts.  The unscripted part comes not more than two seconds after she passes the vent when a man who had just watched the event while stepping off the curb into the street apparently shouted or whistled at her, hence the look over her shoulder and hearty laugh at her “admirer” and his “commentary.”

“The Great Train Robbery,” Edison, 1903, Edwin S. Porter.  Aside from the beautiful use of sharp perspective and the boost that color toning gives to the film, I’ve always been drawn into this scene by the reflections of the train “robbers” as they jump out of the car.  The paint on the train car is so unblemished by use or time, and seems so new that it makes the mind spin to realize that we are looking at an image recorded on film emulsion exposed to sunlight and shadows reflected from that shiny, new train car 110 years ago.  Or maybe it’s just me . . .

My favorite scene from my favorite “actuality” short film, “Life of An American Fireman,” Edison, 1903, Edwin S. Porter.  This may be the only shot in this film that has not received almost endless technical and historical study and discussion — discussion that rightfully centers on the way the succeeding scenes are edited in a manner completely different from what audiences expect and experience subconsciously today (Porter doesn’t show events happening at the same time by cutting back and forth between them; instead, he shows a complete rescue scene first from the interior of a burning building, then again the same events from the exterior — sort of like a “reverse angle” instant replay).  But in this scene it is all about horses:  fast, furious motion as a phalanx of horse-drawn fire wagons race past the camera, seemingly almost on two wheels as they speed to the site of a blaze.  Dominating the scene are the two white horses with fiercely determined “expressions” and flying hooves — and these still frames capture them in mid-flight to the rescue.

Nothing about this scene is real but the actors.  “The Tempest,” Clarendon, Great Britain, 1908, director Percy Snow, actors unknown.  In this Shakespearean fragment, the rocks, the sea and the sky are set props, and the “doves” are double exposures (or possibly animation).  But the beauty of such bare simplicity echoes modern explorations of Shakespeare, and the original blue toning is rarely better done or more effectively than here.

Griffith and Bitzer’s early experiment with cinema verite or, more accurately, “seat-of-the-pants” filmmaking, probably not their first or last, but their best known, is “Politician’s Love Story,” Biograph, 1909, Griffith, Bitzer.  Trying to make the best of what would otherwise have been a Monday workday largely lost to the winter storm that hit New York City on Sunday, January 17, 1909, the Biograph actors and technicians assembled in Central Park for what turned out to be a mostly clear late morning/early afternoon “location shoot.”  But as the afternoon sun faded during the short daylight hours of that time of the year, Bitzer tried something he may have been thinking about for a while, or possibly had attempted earlier — he shot directly into the fading afternoon sunlight with his actors almost in silhouette coming toward his camera in small groups — “couples,” the theme of the film, ultimately.  Did it work?  It was different from anything Bitzer, Griffith or Biograph had done before, and it was daring.

The faces are just barely recognizable — but keep in mind that we aren’t working with fine grain 35mm prints — the Museum of Modern Art in New York apparently has the lone 35mm release print in existence, and the Library of Congress has a 35mm paper print for copyright deposit from February of 1909, and this frame ain’t from either one of those.  Overall, I think it works.  But, it has fooled a number of writers and historians over the years into thinking that this last scene shows our couple many years later as an aged married couple reminiscing about the day they met.  Well, I don’t think that interpretation is borne out by this (or the other) still frames from this scene..

The sets of frames immediately above and below are from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Vitagraph, 1909, directed by J. Stuart Blackton and Charles Kent, (with William Ranous, Maurice Costello, Walter Ackerman, Julia Swayne Gordon, Rose Tapley, Gladys Hulette, Charles Chapman and Helene and Dolores Costello).  This beautifully photographed, toned and composed short film adaptation of Shakespeare’s tale of love among the humans and various forest creatures, nymphs and fairies is mesmerizing, even if you are unfamiliar (maybe it helps) with the source material.

Although the two adult actresses playing Titania and Penelope in these frames are not credited and are unknown (to me, anyway), the little girl in the two frames above is, I believe, Helene Costello at age 6, who appears here and in a later scene with her sister Dolores, age 4.  The star is their father, Maurice Costello, matinée idol of stage, and an early stage convert to motion picture acting.  Both little girls would grow up to be stars in silent film in the 1920’s, with Dolores Costello’s career lasting into the sound era and well into the 1940s, with memorable roles in “Little Lord Fauntleroy” and “The Magnificent Ambersons.”  The magnificent Dolores Costello would become the wife of John Barrymore and the grandmother of Drew, also magnificent in her own way.

Immediately above and below is an incredible and rare example of hand-coloring in early narrative (non-“trick”) film, an early Italian adaptation of “King Lear,” by Film D’Arte Italiano, 1910, directed by Gerolamo LoSavio and starring the Queen Diva (is that a redundancy?) of Cinema Muto Italiano, Francesca Bertini, as the King’s one genuinely loving daughter, Cordelia.  As if the superb composition (with the Renaissance columns and arches adding essential perspective and depth was not enough, we shoot completely over the top with the incredible hand coloring.

But, as seen immediately above, not all of the hand-colored frames and scenes survive, and we see what happens when it disappears in the middle of the scene — it’s as if much of the air goes out of the film — until the final existing scene, Cordelia’s death (two sets below).

This scene at first glance appears to be studio-bound, but in reality it was filmed entirely outdoors and shot in black and white — here it is obvious that the faces (and hair) were left in stark black and gray and white, making the viewer crazy trying to decide what looks more freakish, the uncolored faces of King Lear and his aide, or the green-tinged face of his court jester.

In the final extant scene of this “King Lear,”  the ancient Roman aqueducts provide the kind of background and depth a filmmaker can only dream of (or get via CGI . . . maybe).  One may miss the fantastic hand-coloring of the earlier scenes, but Diva Francesca Bertini (who at 18 was only beginning her long career in film) provides her own florid, colorful performance.  The career of La Bertini is worthy by itself of closer examination, as is the entire period of highly influential Italian epic films that began a year or so after “King Lear,” lasting into the mid 1910s, a period that essentially brought to a close the era of the short dramatic film.

The early Italian epics were the direct inspiration for the longer films of Griffith, Ince, DeMille and others in America in the 1910s, and they ushered in the modern era of the “feature film,” generally films of at least five to ten “reels” in length (roughly an hour and fifteen minutes to almost three hours).  It was the most important development in movies until the advent of sound a decade and a half later.  Audiences proved to the film producers that they could sit through a single film of more than three-quarters of an hour, routinely.

But the feature film also revolutionised film acting by allowing actors to develop a style that was slower and more effective in film drama, and to leave behind (for the most part) the pantomime and more frantic gestural style to which film actors (and their directors) had leaned upon to make themselves understood within the limitations of the 10 to 20 minute short dramatic film.

Above and below, two scenes with tremendous contrast — from the same film, 1910 Vitagraph adaptation of “Twelfth Night,” directed by Charles Kent and starring (here above and below on the right frame) the legendary “Almost-a-Biograph-Girl,” Florence Turner.  But first, note the rough natural scene of the survivors of a catastrophe at sea as they come ashore, the blue tint telling us it is a “night” scene.  Contrast this treatment with (below) . . .

A very stark painterly approach — the “Dutch Masters” (without cigars) as a film subject, and also a little Shakespeare at that.  At the right in the second frame immediately above is Florence Turner, waiting on “his highness.”  Below, as the Dutch Masters exit the painting, his majesty is left alone with his servant, Ms. Turner.  Had the connectivity of our world existed in 1908, Turner could have been a better-remembered actress with a career at another studio, Biograph, and might have found a director-mentor for as many years as any Gish: D. W. Griffith.

And for now, we close with a late Griffith Biograph, also a late Pickford Biograph, the power of three:  Dorothy Bernard, Claire McDowell and Ms. Pickford, Female of the Species,” Biograph, 1912, D. W. Griffith.  Although partly covered in “The Monumental Claire McDowell” post from March 2011.  This weird landmark film is worthy of an entire essay itself.  Frame composition in this film seems to take over the film and threatens to overwhelm the film’s subject — whatever that actually is.

Notes on Early Motion Photography.

William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, an engineer and photographer, was employed by Edison and was working on an important iron-ore refining project for the Wizard of Menlo Park.  Edison had a concept of expanding his invention of audio recording and playback — the phonograph — to encompass video.  His interest was piqued by the photographic motion studies of Edweard Muybridge in America and the continuous-film strip photography of Etienne-Jules Marey in France.  After creating Edison’s first motion photography camera, and the Kinetoscope display device, Dickson, disenchanted with the Wizard’s less than generous credit toward his lab technicians, left Edison in 1895.

But Dickson had already been serving as a sort of “secret consultant” to Edison’s first chief rival in America, Otway Latham’s Kinetoscope Exhibition Company.  Latham had purchased several Kinetoscopes to show the films made by Edison, and then began to display longer films of an “entire round” of a boxing match with expanded capacity Kinetoscopes ordered from Edison, which soon led to Latham’s development of a more practical viewing device — a film projector.  You can already see the storm clouds gathering during the very first public exhibitions of motion picture viewing and projection technology in May of 1894.  It would be the tip of an iceberg-sized mountain of litigation looming over the first 20 years of motion pictures.

Johann Gottlob Wilhelm “Billy” Bitzer came to the newly formed American Mutoscope Company as a technician in January, 1896.  The company was founded by a gang of four who called themselves the K.M.C.D. group — W. K. L. Dickson, formerly of Edison, was the “D” of the group.  The cameraman on Dickson’s first films with Biograph — mostly “actualities” of scenes in New York and other Northeastern cities — was Bitzer.

[To be continued in future posts . . .]

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About Gene Zonarich

I'm the King of the silent pictures -- I'm hidin' out 'til talkies blow over . . .
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