Blockbusters from Italy

Quo vadis?
R: Enrico Guazzoni. B: Henryk Sienkiewicz (novel). K: Alessandro Bona. D: Amleto Novelli, Lea Giunchi, Gustavo Serena. P: Cines. It 1912/13
Print: Cineteca Italiana
Engl. titles

Quo Vadis? is a 1912 film directed by Enrico Guazzoni, based on the 1896 novel of the same name. It was the first blockbuster in the history of cinema, with 5,000 extras, lavish sets, and a running time of two hours, setting the standard for ‘superspectacles’ for decades to come.
A worldwide success, it was the first film to be projected in a first-class Broadway theater, where it was screened for nine months from April to December 1913. The film’s first screening in London was for King George V, who complimented the performers. Two years later, in 1914, another Italian director, Giovanni Pastrone, will direct Cabiria, which is similar to Quo Vadis, but even longer, more complex, and more spectacular.
The story is set during the early years of rule by the emperor Nero. He is an ambitious man obsessed with gaining absolute power. His soldier falls in love with a young Christian slave named Lycia, but their love is hindered by Nero, who hates Christianity and unleashes his officers to burn Rome, pinning the blame on the Christians. In addition, the cruel Nero kidnaps the pair and sends them into an arena to fight lions.”

La sposa del Nilo
R: Enrico Guazzoni. D: Bruto Castellani, Ettore Mazzanti, Gastone Monaldi, Fernanda Negri Pouget. P: Società Italiana Cines. It 1911
Dutch titles

“The film appears to depict a famous painting by Federico Faruffini, ‘The Virgin of the Nile’ which hangs to this day in the Galleria D’Arte Moderna in Rome. In the painting we see the girl floating on the surface of the river like Millais’ ‘Ophelia’, framed by flowers (a favorite nineteenth-cen­tury topos), with the priests and people standing on the bank of the Nile in the distance. In the film, this has been split into two scenes, consisting first of an establishing shot, showing the girl being thrown into the water, then a second scene showing the girl floating on the water, but without the background of onlookers. Guazzoni might very weIl have seen and used this painting, as a sort of Living Picture not unlike the prac­tice in Pathé’s Le Duel or the British Biograph Living Pictures, of staging the whole film in order to show what happened before the final tableau. The use of pictorial references in Quo vadis? was therefore nothing new in Guazzoni’s career.”
Ivo Blom: Quo vadis? From Painting to Cinema and Everything in Between. In: Leonardo Quaresima, Laura Vichi (eds.): La decima musa. Il cinema e le altre arti/ The Tenth Muse. Cinema and other arts. Udine: Forum, 2001, p. 286

Federico Faruffini: Il sacrificio della Vergine al Nilo, 1865

655-Federico-Faruffini-Il-sacrificio-della-Vergine-al-Nilo 1865-2

La caduta di Troia
R: Giovanni Pastrone, Lucio Romano. K: Giovanni Tomatis. D: Signora Davesnes, Giulio Vina, Giovanni Casaleggio. P: Itala. It 1911
Print: Museo Nazionale del Cinema Torino
Ital. intertitles

Nerone o la caduta di Roma
R: Luigi Maggi. B: Decoroso Bonifanti, Arrigo Frusta. K: Giovanni Vitrotti. D: Alberto Capozzi, Lydia De Roberti, Luigi Maggi. P: Società Anonima Ambrosio. It 1909

“In der Filmgeschichtsschreibung einigermaßen gesichert erscheint (…) der Beitrag der italienischen Filme zur Ästhetik der Kinematographie. Diese Filme sind schon auf den ersten Blick ‘monumental’: wegen ihrer Länge und der großen Menge von Schauspielern und Komparsen, die im Bild erscheinen – und die natürlich auch in Bewegung gesetzt werden. Die Filme sind also neu wegen der Quantität und Qualität ihrer bewegten Bilder, ihrer mise-en-spectacle. So viele Personen und Geschichten in Szene zu setzen erfordert Raum. Da genügen nicht mehr einige gemalte Kulissen in kleinen Studios, da werden stabile Bauten in großen Räumen benötigt, zum Beispiel in natürlichen Landschaften. Wofür wiederum eine neue Konzeption der ‘Einstellung’ und der Tiefe nötig ist. Es ist die Stunde der systematischen Handhabung der Bildtiefe und Tiefenschärfe – auch im weiteren Sinn: die Eröffnung einer komplexeren Erzählstruktur zwischen Vordergrund und Hintergrund. Dies gilt für die ersten Filme, wenn die Kamera noch nach dem Kanon der zentralperspektivischen Ausrichtung des Zuschauerblicks fest verankert ist, und natürlich noch weitaus mehr, wenn sie in Bewegung gesetzt wird, zum Beispiel im ‘Cabiria movement’ (Barry Salt).”
Irmbert Schenk: Von Cabiria zu Mussolini- In: I.S.: Kino und Modernisierung. Von der Avantgarde zum Videoclip. Marburg 2008, S. 47 f.


The Onésime Series

Onésime horloger
R: Jean Durand. K: Paul Castenet. D: Ernest Bourbon, Gaston Modot. P: Gaumont. Fr 1912
Engl. intertitles

“(…) the Onésime series expropriated cinematic trucs probably more than any other comic series. The best known, and perhaps most accomplished, of these films is Onésime horloger (1912), whose premise stipulates that Onésime cannot receive his inheritance from an uncle for twenty years. To overcome this obstacle, he reads an 1859 treatise on timepieces and constructs a special pneumatic clock that can accelerate time in his interest. (…) his magical clock, which is as responsible for his success as is any initiative on his part, permits him to tinker with and remake himself and his story – he can have his cake and eat it, too, perhaps repeatedly. And, as the product of another ‘magical’ apparatus, Onésime horloger itself epitomizes the cinema’s ability to do the same, serving up incompatible ingredients in a fantasy space of pleasurable consumption.”
Richard Abel: The Ciné Goes to Town. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London 1998, p. 406 f.

“Messing around with the natural order of things per the laws of physics, gravity, etc. was indeed common during this period and the manipulation of time was a popular topic thanks in part to the 1895 publication of ‘The Time Machine’ by H.G. Wells. (The novel was even considered as the theme for a sort of proto-virtual reality machine by British filmmaker R.W. Paul.) Mark Twain’s 1889 novel ‘A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court’ can also be considered as part of the time travel DNA. ‘Rip Van Winkle’ (1819) by Washington Irving as well, unless you consider the more supernatural flavor of the tale to be more fantasy than science fiction.”
Fritzi Kramer
Movies Silently

Onésime et le nourrisson de la nourrice indigne
R: Jean Durand. D: Ernest Bourbon, Raymond Aimos, Berthe Dagmar, Gaston Modot. P: Gaumont. Fr 1912
Engl. subtitles

La disparition d’Onésime
R: Jean Durand. D: Ernest Bourbon, Édouard Grisollet, Gaston Modot. P: Gaumont. Fr 1913
Engl. subtitles


Film d’Art

L’Assassinat du Duc de Guise
R: André Calmettes. B: Henri Lavedan. D: Charles Le Bargy, Albert Lambert, Gabrielle Robinne. M: Camille Saint-Saëns. P: Pathé (SCAGL). Fr 1908

“Here, formal and historical closure coincide in the violent death of the central male character and establish a precedent for ending most films in the genre. Following the principles of classical unity, Lavedan‘s original scenario confines the action to the morning of that day, within studio set decors representing six seperate rooms in the Chateau du Blois. Although dependent on the conventional practice of using painted flats for walls, these studio spaces are specially decorated to achieve a sense of historical verisimilitude – with actual period furnishings, some of which extend offscreen to the left or right, richly designed costumes, intricate tile floors, and a huge stone fireplace into which the body is tossed at the end. The acting of Le Bargy (Henri III), Albert Lambert (Duc de Guise), Robinne (Marquise de Noirmoutier) and others (…) is indeed economical and restrained, especially in comparison to that of earlier films in the genre.”
Richard Abel: The Ciné Goes to Town. Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1998, p. 248 f.

>>> Calmettes’ Le retour d’Ulysse on this site


Holger-Madsen 02

Four stills


R: Holger-Madsen. B: Arthur Schnitzler (“Liebelei”). D: Valdemar Psilander, Else Froehlich, Augusta Blad. P: Nordisk. Dk 1913/14




Holger-Madsen‘s reputation as an idealistic director led him to direct the big prestige films with pacifist themes which Ole Olsen, the head of Nordisk Films Kompagni, wanted to make in the naive hope that he could influence the fighting powers in the First World War. The films were often absurdly simple, but Holger-Madsen brought his artistic sense to the visual design of these sentimental stories. One of his most famous films is Himmelskibet from 1917, a work about a scientist who flies to Mars in a rocket ship. There he is confronted with a peaceful civilization. The film has obtained a position as one of the first science–fiction films.
When the Danish cinema declined, Holger-Madsen went to Germany. Returning to Denmark after the 1920s, he was offered the opportunity of directing during the early sound film period, but his productions were insignificant. He was a silent film director; the image was his domain, and he was one of the craftsmen who molded and refined the visual language of film.”
Film Reference

>>> Holger-Madsen 01


Holger-Madsen 01

628-Mystike FremmendeDen mystiske Fremmede (A Deal with the Devil) Frgm.
R: Holger-Madsen. B: Richard Jäger. K: Marius Clausen. D: Ebba Thomsen, Olaf Fønss, Alf Blütecher, Dagmar Kofoed. P: Nordisk Films Kompagni. Dk 1914
Print: Det Danske Filminstitut

Click on the picture to watch the film on YouTube

“The two leading directors at Nordisk Films Kompagni in the Golden Age of the Danish cinema from 1910 to 1914 were August Blom and Holger-Madsen. They were similar in many respects. They both started as actors, but unlike Blom, Holger-Madsen began as a director with companies other than Nordisk. When he came to Nordisk he worked in almost all of the genres of the period—sensational films, comedies, farces, dramas, and tragedies. Gradually, though, Holger-Madsen developed his own personality, both in content and style.
Holger-Madsen specialized in films with spiritual topics. His main film in this genre was Evangeliemandens Liv , in which Valdemar Psilander plays the leading part of a dissolute young man of good family who suddenly realizes how empty and pointless his life is. He becomes a Christian and starts working as a preacher among the poor and the social outcasts of the big city. He succeeds in rescuing a young man from the path of sin. Several of the clichés of the period are featured in this tale, but the characterization of the hero is largely free of sentimentality, and Holger-Madsen coached Psilander into playing the role with a mature calm, and genuine strength of feeling. Formally the film is exquisite. The sets, the camerawork, and the lighting are executed with great care, and the film is rich in striking pictorial compositions, which was the director’s forte.
Holger-Madsen had a predilection for extraordinary, often bizarre images and picturesque surroundings. With his cameraman, Marius Clausen, he emphasized the visual look of his films. His use of side light, inventive camera angles, and close-ups, combined with unusual sets, made him an original stylist. He was not very effective in his cutting technique, but he could establish marvelously choreographed scenes in which people moved in elegant patterns within the frame.”
Ib Monty
Film Reference

Three stills

205-Fra Fyrste...

Fra Fyrste til Knejpevaert (Fürstin Spinarosa tanzt)
R: Holger-Madsen. K: Marius Clausen. D: Rita Sacchetto, Augusta Blad, Johannes Meyer. P: Nordisk. Dk 1913

206-Fra Fyrste...

213-Fra Fyrste

>>> Holger-Madsen 02


August Blom and the Nordisk

Three stills

189-Den farlige Alder

Den farlige Alder
R: August Blom. K: Axel Graatkjaer. D: Axel Boesen, Gudrun Bruun Stephenson, Svend Cathala. P: Nordisk. Dk 1911

201-Blom-Dodens Brud

Dodens Brud
R: August Blom. D: Agnete Bloom, Robert Dinesen, Aage Hertel. P: Nordisk. Dk 1912

199-Blom-Dodens Brud

Dodens Brud

1906: The founding of Nordisk Film

“Nordisk Film was founded by cinema-owner Ole Olsen (1863-1943) in 1906. Olsen’s timing was fortuitous. The film industry was enjoying a gigantic upswing, as the new medium moved from marketplace entertainment and music halls to more permanent venues. Small cinemas, often set up in former storefronts, were coming on like gangbusters in most cities and there was enormous demand for motion pictures. Olsen wagered on international sales from the get-go and by 1908 Nordisk Film had set up branches in Berlin, London, Vienna and New York.

1910-1914: Long films and massive expansion

In the early 1910s, Nordisk Film was the first international movie company to retool its production to multi-reel films. The custom in the film industry had been to limit films to what would fit on a single reel, 5 to 12 minutes of film. Den hvide Slavehandel (The White Slave Trade) (1910) was Nordisk Film’s first long film, running 603 metres (approx. 35 minutes). As early as 1913 the company produced a film, Atlantis, with a running time of over two hours.
The changeover to long films entailed a re-organisation of the company’s film production. A script department was set up to supply the company’s directors with screenplays based on explicit guidelines for the content of the films and spelling out the censorship rules in different markets. Nordisk Film went from working with one production team to operating with a steady staff of directors, cameramen, actors, carpenters, etc., who were hired for the shooting season. Expanding its capacity, the company was now able to film on five stages at once. Nordisk Film’s output peaked in 1915, when it turned out 174 films, including 96 features, which means that the company finished shooting nearly two features a week. In many ways, Nordisk Film’s centrally managed film production with separate departments anticipated the famous Hollywood studio system. It is not without good reason that the studios in Valby, after the reorganisation, were known as the ‘film factory’. As World War I wore on, more and more export markets closed to Nordisk Film. The foundation for keeping up such a huge output volume was crumbling, forcing Nordisk Film to change its strategy.”
Isak Thorsen
Carl Th. Dreyer

“August Blom began his acting career in 1893 in Kolding, and was employed as a company actor for the Folketeatret from 1907 to 1910. During that period, he also began performing in films for the Nordisk Film Kompangni. He debuted there as a director in 1910 with his film Livets Storme (Storms of Life). That same year he was made the Head of Production for Nordisk Film and given the title of Director. Blom was a prolific filmmaker and during the ‘golden age’ of Danish silent films, 1910 to 1914, he directed 78 movies. Before he retired from Nordisk Film and filmmaking in 1925, he directed more than 100 titles. His volume of work is the largest of any Danish film director. Blom is credited as a pioneer in silent filmmaking. In 1911, he was instrumental in the development of the erotic melodrama with his film Ved Faengslets Port, the story of a young man in debt to a moneylender while in love with the moneylender’s daughter. Blom refined this genre during the following years, and this became the most profitable trademark for Nordisk company films. He also is credited with developing the use of cross-cutting as well as using mirrors to expand the drama. In 1913, Blom made his most ambitious effort: the film Atlantis based on the 1912 novel by Gerhart Hauptmann.”
Based on Wikipedia

>>> Atlantis: A Danish Shipwreck Melodrama


Griffith-12: Go West!

The Battle at Elderbush Gulch
R: David W. Griffith. K: G.W.Billy Bitzer. D: Mae Marsh, Charles Hill, Blanche Sweet, Walter Miller, Alfred Paget, Elmer Booth, Lionel Barrymore, Lillian Gish Kate Bruce. P: Biograph. USA 1913

“As a western – that is as an early contributor to one of the major genres in American film history – The Battle at Elderbush Gulch is difficult to judge. Its western setting seems more an excuse for filming action rather than an exploration of any of the basic mythic elements of the genre. We have white settlers, we have Indians – and yes, we have violent conflict, ending with the arrival of the U.S. Cavalry. But it is difficult to assign any true perspective upon the myth of conquest from this film. As for the Indians, Griffith depicts them very simply, as savages, sleeping out in the open, eating dogs, and jumping around maniacally – is this supposed to be a ritual war dance? – before attacking the white settlers. But Griffith gives them an undeniably excellent reason for the attack. The Chief’s son has been shot to death by one of the white men. The tribe is naturally enraged, and they come on horseback, guns blazing, to exact revenge. The white settlers, on the other hand, are simply going about their daily business. The ranch upon which most of the action takes place has now become the home for two female ‘waifs’ – orphans, who are now staying with their cowpoke uncle. This good man’s boss won’t allow any dogs in his house, thus setting up the problem that the girls’ little puppies will cause when two young Indians wander back late for a doggy feast.
Soon, it’s all-out war between the two peoples. The Indians invade the ranch and storm the town. The subplot – the ‘town plot’ deals with a mother (Lillian Gish) and her baby, who has disappeared and be-come a potential victim for the marauders. So essentially we have the same situation as in Griffith’s first film, The Adventures of Dollie (1908) – a helpless child is threatened by ethnically different people.

Hollywood’s myopia concerning Native Americans begins early in its history – but that was merely an extension of the prevailing views of the time, as close as they were (in 1914) to actual skirmishes out west and on the plains. It is the same carry over as in Griffith’s ‘southern’ attitude towards Blacks. All Hollywood will do is solidify and codify the myths about savage Indians for another forty years or so, until these assumptions will begin to be challenged in the 1950s and 60s.
The production and acting of Elderbush Gulch is superb. The performances are thoroughly professional throughout: featuring Gish, newcomer Mae Marsh, Alfred Paget, Robert Harron, along with small cameos from Griffith’s other stock players. It is a film that is perhaps more impressive for what it achieves than it is enjoyable to watch, however. At least from my perspective, the near-century of repetition has almost completely worn down any residual power that the film once had. But there is no question that it is a technical triumph and another important giant step forward towards the establishment of cinema as a major art form from its most important early master.”
Pete Gooch

The Massacre
R: David W. Griffith. K: G.W.Billy Bitzer. D: Charles Hill, Robert Harron, Blanche Sweet, Charles H. West, Donald Crisp, Lionel Barrymore. P: Biograph. USA 1912

Further links: