Day of The New Masters: The Dawn of Epic Cinema

Lady Jone (Eugenia Tettoni Fior) is ritually undressed by her ladies-in-waiting for her morning bath.  Little does she suspect she is living during “The Last Days of Pompeii” (Ambrosio, S.A., 1913), directed by Mario Caserini.  Nor does she realize she is a participant in the dawn of epic cinema.
Above, advertisements from two of the larger American film producers, Vitagraph and Lubin, in the Jan. 4, 1913 issue of The Moving Picture World are trumpeting their latest releases — mostly single reel short films, and a handful of two-reel dramas.  Both emphasize the frequency and regularity of their weekly film releases as much as their quality.
Below, two of the smaller producers, Broncho and Kay-Bee, are touting their longer releases of two or even three reels: westerns, costume dramas and war films.  Within twelve months, even longer films of six or more reels intended to be “featured” as an evening’s program by themselves, imported primarily from Italy, would alter the world of moving pictures dramatically.

[Additional larger high-resolution images of movie ads from the pages of The Moving Picture World from 1913-1914 can be found in the right margin at the 14th Street Gallery with links to my photostream at Flickr.]

“The changes in 1913 in many respects have been revolutionary.  The importance of the single reel, at one time the mainstay of entertaining kinematography, has been crowded into an almost obscure corner by the arrival of hundreds upon hundreds of multiple reels, of which at this time there seems no end . . . [but] audiences are more discriminating than ever before. . . it is certain that the great spectacular features will retain their popularity; feature making will develop into an art of its own.”  The Moving Picture World, January 3, 1914, p. 23.  “Facts and Comments.”

“This is the day of the new masters.  We are witnessing a new style in dramatic kinematography.  Within the last four weeks there have been splendid manifestations of a new art on the screen. . . which is opening the eyes of the world.”  The Moving Picture World, May 23, 1914, pp. 1090-91.  “Cabiria”  Review by W. Stephen Bush.

These two excerpts from The Moving Picture World, the leading trade publication for motion picture exhibitors — the owners and operators of movie theaters — reflect the level of change and to some extent the uncertainty into which the movie exhibitors found themselves in the new year of 1914, after a tumultuous 1913.  But what they demonstrate is that audiences as well as film critics and commentators once impressed by a few minutes of motion photography were no longer impressed by the basic technology or length alone, and that great filmmaking would require a high standard of story (preferably original film stories), photography, direction, sets, locations, costumes and, of course, acting (assuming there would ever be agreement on what great or even good film acting was).

Early in the second decade of the new century, film producers typically emphasized in their advertisements the number of reels of their newest productions, their “featured” product, “feature” having a connotation of something exceptional: the highlight of a program which may also include several short films and a live musical performance..  There was a good reason why they emphasized the number of “reels.”

From the beginning of public projection of motion pictures, films were sold by the foot, and 1,000 feet was the approximate length that one standard size, metal reel of film shipped in a metal canister would contain — a 10 to 15 minute “show” depending on how fast the projectionist cranked the film through the projector.  And the faster it was shown, the more “shows” and greater turnover of audience, thus greater sales to be made each day.  Having purchased the film outright, it was the property of the exhibitor to show as they saw fit, provided they respected copyright and did not make illegal duplicates, which of course many did anyway.  They could splice the film, take objectionable scenes out, take two short films put them on one reel and advertise two for the price of one without needing the additional screening time of more films.  For a very brief time, they got away with this due to the lack of sophistication of their audience and the absence of a basic understanding of the medium by the general public and, most of all a system that permitted the exhibitor to purchase films outright, rather than renting titles for a fixed period of exhibition.

At the point where narrative or “story” films began to dominate, roughly 1907-1908, longer films of two reels began to appear in numbers.  And by this time, rather than buying films outright by “the foot,” theater operators began to rent from third-party film “exchanges,” who were theoretically independent of the film producers and exhibitors, and for a brief period were able to take advantage of that independence at both ends, offering film that was worn out from use or illegally duplicated by the exchange to expand their market and at minimal cost.

Despite the proliferation of multiple reel movies, they were typically still distributed for exhibition in “parts” with each reel of a movie advertised as a separate “part.”  Griffith’s adaptation of “Enoch Arden,” for an obvious example, was divided into two titles prior to being marketed.  It was titled, literally: “Enoch Arden, Part One” and “Enoch Arden, Part Two.”  They could have been combined into one “feature” of about 25 minutes total, but “two reelers” were not yet the norm and it is axiomatic that business won’t change the basic business model until a case can be made that there is more money to be had by that change.

Audiences, though not clamoring outright for longer films were demonstrating that when it came to films with a compelling story, they could indeed sit through a longer program than producers, exchanges and exhibitors had previously thought possible.  Thus, more two reel films began to appear, and by the end of 1912, they were commonplace — single reel films, though not yet “banished to a dark corner” of the market as described in the MPW editorial quoted above, were fast becoming the realm of comedy shorts and “news reels.”

During 1913, audiences began to accept even longer productions, and two reels no longer seemed to represent the outermost limit of what the average film goer was thought able to tolerate in terms of strained eyes and numbed bottoms.  Concerns about the willingness of audiences to tolerate longer programs may have been understandable when much movie exhibition was confined to small storefront rooms, smoky, crowded, stifling hot and smelly, and hard wooden folding chairs rather than the cushioned seats of the upscale theaters, music halls or vaudeville venues.  But the era of these storefront movie venues, the “nickelodeons,” were by now long gone having passed into history shortly after the time story films became the dominant form of production in 1907-1908.

By the end of 1913 audiences were more discriminating, more knowledgeable, less easily impressed by hyperventilating film ads (including dozens of such ads in the pages preceding the above-quoted editorial in the MPW, which are reproduced in the Gallery at the right margin of this post).

The early Italian epics.  France had been the dominant film producer from the era of the cinematograph, the name given to their film camera/projector by the Lumiere brothers in the early 1890s which became a synonym for projected motion pictures for roughly the next fifteen years, up to the beginning of American dominance at the end of the first decade of the twentieth century.  Lumiere, Gaumont and Pathe (with pioneering filmmaker Georges Melies), were the leading filmmakers of France and of the world prior to 1908 (and maybe a bit longer).  In Italy, movie-making took longer to coalesce into an industry.

Italy as a united country rather than separate provincial governments, did not exist until the latter decades of the nineteenth century, just before the advent of motion photography.  But the Italian tradition of greatness in the arts: painting, sculpture, architecture, literature — prose, poetry and drama, could be traced back almost to the dawn of western civilization itself, and from this dawn arose the epic stories of the Italian peninsula, its culture and its impact on that civilization.  To put it simply, Italian patriotism was running high at the beginning of the twentieth century and it would fuel the first epic films and a fundamental, permanent change in filmmaking and film consumption in America and throughout the world.

MPW Kleine Ad, Jan 10 1914

In the world of 1913, the George S. Klein Optics Company of Chicago was the major importer and distributor of films from Italy.  One of the first of the longer (six or more reels, or over 75 minutes) Italian films distributed by Kleine in America was “Quo Vadis?” produced by Cines Film, an eight reel film adaptation (the second of many) of a late 19th century historical novel of early Christianity versus the Roman Empire by Russian novelist Herman Sienkiewicz.

“Quo Vadis?” premiered in the U. S. on April 13, 1913 in New York.  The New York Times, which had previously covered movies only as a sociocultural phenomenon, began its regular coverage of motion pictures, first as notable “premieres” then later as a daily feature of their coverage of popular entertainment.  The very first of these reviews was of the premiere of “Quo Vadis” at the Astor Theatre, a six-year-old theater/playhouse on Broadway at 47th street in the heart of the new theater district, Times Square, and managed by the legendary Broadway producers George M. Cohan and Sam Harris.  A prestigious setting for the premiere of a new form of a still-young art . . . and noted in the Times of April 22, 1913:

 and reviewed in MPW May 17, 1913:    

But these weren’t the epic sword and sandals spectacles that Hollywood produced in response to the threat of television in the 1950s and 60s.  Those had color, sound-on-film and two other elements we take for granted today: a wide-screen and a moving camera.  The early Italian long films made do with a nearly square format and a mostly static camera.  And while tracking shots to follow moving objects had been used in “chase films” that were essentially primitive early narrative films, the camera was hardly ever moved simply to scan a scene — the kind of simple panoramic shot that we watch and understand without conscious thought about the camera movement.

Given the narrow format of the 1.33:1 or even 1.20:1 of the silent and early sound periods, a moving camera would be something that a film would virtually scream out loud for — to open up the POV, to free it from that narrow rectangle of space.  What could be done, assuming the camera was kept static?  In another film swiftly following “Quo Vadis,” the director and set designers put their theatrical experience to work — they added visual, three-dimensional depth to bring a sense of space and movement to the narrow film formats and static camera placement of the time.

“The Last Days of Pompeii,” or its native title, “Gli ultimi giorni Pompeii,” was the latest film to be brought from Italy to the U. S. by Kleine.

ABOVE:  In these opening shots, the camera is static and captures movement within a narrow, but deep space.  Actors, props, set decor and lighting are set up to keep the far elements in the rear of the frame clearly visible, while the characters interacting in the foreground are illuminated and separated by shafts of light and shadow between the huge columns.  Whether this was a large open outdoor set with natural light, a closed film set with artificial lighting or a combination, I don’t know for certain, but I do know that using only natural light to cast these types of long shadows was very rare in films of this period.
ABOVE and BELOW: This scene early in the film utilizes what appears to be a location shot in which the film’s major character, the blind flower girl Nidia, enters from very far background (visible just to the right of the head of the first actor on the left) and gradually makes her way to the action at the foreground.  This shot of great depth was done in a closed set with a painted scenery backdrop giving the illusion of even greater distance than could be achieved in what was already a large indoor set.

In these two shots immediately above, note how each section of the set from front to back is populated with actors or set elements that allow us to distinguish distance and give depth.  Also noteworthy is the use of simple geometric designs on the floor to create perspective, and in the right frame, this extends beyond the bathing pool to an arched doorway toward a perspective “vanishing point.”  It gives surprising depth to what could otherwise be a very flat frame composition.
The obligatory “bathing scene.”  Note how in the first frame the set design and geometric floor patterns do nothing to keep your eyes from the center element, i.e., the lady being undressed for her bath by her servants.  Note in the right frame how the floor elements lead us to the naked lady in her bath and to her servant girl waiting with towel in hand for her lady to rise from the water, drippingly . . . er, well, unfortunately what you see in this frame is all that you get — the servant at right foreground draws the curtain closed for modesty’s sake.
A nicely done “asymmetrical” split screen.  Splits were common in early film, well before 1913.  But what makes this one unusual is that it is used to illustrate a lie.  The high priest Arbace is telling Jone that her lover, Glaucus, is cavorting with other women when she is away.  We cannot tell whether the “illustration” of this lie is her imagining of it, or the way he is thinking of it as he describes it.  The black background of the inset is a nice contrasting touch to the device.  The scene is being offered as a dramatic moment in the story, but the actors tend to smirk, which makes it seem comic, probably unintentionally so.
Above and below, my favorite two shots in the film.  We see Glaucus and Jone, in love, strolling past a row of marble columns at a vast “rural” estate, followed by the blind Nidia, who unfortunately must grope her way through the movie without so much as a cane or a canine companion.  Below, in “matching” reverse perspective (a film term I’ve just coined), Nidia does an amazing job of following unseen, yet not smacking into a single column — or not loudly enough to be heard.  Except for the costumes, this could be an outtake from mid-period Fellini (OK, even with the costumes) . . . or maybe French New Wave? . . . “Last Year at Marienbad,” anyone?

Unfortunately, “The Last Days of Pompeii” is not a simple historical epic, but is also a disaster movie, as in “Mount Vesuvius” erupting violently for days and destroying two cities, Pompeii and Herculaneum, and encasing the remnants forever preserving them.  And a story that revolves (and resolves) around a natural disaster requires convincing outdoor scenes, and in this respect, the film falters.  Even contemporary reviewers, (MPW for one) wished that a shot of an erupting volcano had at been inserted at the appropriate moment (apparently an eruption of Vesuvius had been filmed a few years earlier, although if this is true, there may have been legitimate reasons why it was not used, probably involving the exchange of money for the rights to use it).  But beginning with the purple rain scene above, with sketched-in lightning and rain that doesn’t even wet the ground or the actors, the outdoor scenes actually hurt the film, which is much stronger in its interior or urban “outdoor” sets.  Immediately below, two crowd scenes in the same sequence appear to be shot from completely different locations, but are supposed to represent a sort of combination of Christians vs. Lions and Gladiators on horseback, no chariots.  Go figure.

Nidia beneath the colosseum, and a friendly slave bringing her a meal — the best lit indoor scene in the film.  Although the only visible light source is the hole at the top of her cell, nearly all the light is artificial at floor level, presumably to minimize shadows that might distort actors faces.

The absolutely nonsensical “gladiators two ways:”  on foot and on horseback . . . and they do what, exactly?  We never find out — thanks to Mount Vesuvius it’s all over!

All I can say for the disaster sequence is that the red tint really does wonders.  Nidia (remember, she’s blind) leads our happy couple Glaucus and Jone to safety, but stays behind to drown herself in the Bay.  Don’t ask.

Below:  Two reviews of “Last Days of Pompeii” and a “Foreign Trade Notes” MPW article about the film’s success on the continent, from MPW, October 13 and 25, 1913.

“The Last Days of Pompeii” (“Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii”), 1913, in six reels, (original release in Italy, 1,958m/6,424ft); directed by Mario Caserini, screen adaptation by Mario Caserini from the novel by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. With Fernanda Negri Pouget, Eugenia Tettoni Fior, and Ubaldo Stefani.  Produced by Ernesto Pasquali for Ambrosio, S.A., Italy; distribution in the U.S. by George Kleine; Released in the U.S. August 13, 1913; reviewed in The Moving Picture World October 11 and 25, 1913. 


NEXT:  The saga of the epics continues . . .

Cabiria, a massive production which was the culmination of longer films — Italian historical epics — directed by one of the first important Italian filmmakers, Giovanni Pastrone — Cabiria, the most financially successful cinematic production prior to D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (1915).– Cabiria’s lasting importance to cinema — It’s impact on filmmaking — Griffith sees Cabiria.  The wheels begin to turn . . .

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