Documentary Re-creation

The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy
R: unknown. D: Evelyn Nesbit. P: Siegmund Lubin. USA 1907
Print: Museum of Modern Art, New York

“The first documentary re-creation, Siegmund Lubin‘s The Unwritten Law (1907) (…), dramatized the true-life murder – on June 25, 1906 – of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable and jealous millionaire husband Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (who appeared as herself in the one reel film). [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation, and the basis for Richard Fleischer‘s biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow‘s musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]”

“Still well known today, the ‘tragedy’ was a front-page news item for many months. On 25 June 1906, millionaire Harry K. Thaw shot and killed famed architect Stanford White at the Madison Square Roof Garden. Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbitt, had been White’s mistress prior to (and perhaps even after) her marriage. Thaw went on trial for murder and was ultimately judged insane. The trial, however, was still under way when Lubin’s film appeared, taking a pro-Thaw position with the argument that the killing was condoned by ‘unwritten law’. To make its point, the film shows Evelyn’s visit to White’s ‘room with the velvet swing’, his drugging of her wine, and her rape/seduction. The film’s integration of sex and violence, its revelation of decadence and corruption among the rich, fascinated many and scandalized others. It was banned in Houston, Texas, and many other locales, but in others it was the biggest hit of the year.”
Charles Musser: The Emergence of Cinema. Vol. 1.: The American Screen to 1907. Berkeley-Los Angeles-London 1994, p. 479

The Unwritten Law is a prime example of the kind of film that drew the attention of progressive and establishment forces to the new cheap amusement sites where working class people, immigrants, women, and children gathered to socialize. The disapproving spectator did not need to attend the show to know about its sensational nature: outside, advertising posters made it clear. It was the real-life events related and exaggerated in the daily press that provided the excitement. The press continued to give coverage while the trial went on, and while Thaw’s mother fought to obtain his release. Later on, Evelyn Nesbit Thaw and her son would have brief screen careers on the basis of her notoriety. The film itself, barred in some cities (in Chicago, it was banned by the police), continued to play in places where censorship was not strong, even though its film style quickly became old-fashioned. Its notoriety kept it in demand. Its fame remained alive through the many efforts to suppress it.”
Ellen Bowser: 1907 – Movies and the Expansion of the Audience. In: American Cinema 1890 – 1909. Themes and Variations. Ed. by André Gaudreault. New Brunswick, New Jersey, and London 2009, p. 188

Early Cinema in Australia

The Story of the Kelly Gang
R: Charles Tait. K: Millard Johnson, Orrie Perry, Reg Perry. D: Elizabeth Tait, John Tait, Norman Campbell. P: W.A. Gibson e.a. AUS 1906 (Frgm.)
Print: National Film and Sound Archive of Australia

“Since 1879 the sensational Kelly gang story had been the subject of at least five popular plays, and films of re-enacted historical events were also crowd-pleasers. Audiences were accustomed to sitting through plays that ran for more than an hour, so it must have seemed logical to the theatre-seasoned filmmakers to produce a dramatised film running for the same length. The Story of the Kelly Gang was produced by John and Nevin Tait in association with Millard Johnson and William Gibson. The Taits ran theatres throughout Australia and New Zealand, and from 1904 they had been screening the latest films from Europe, Britain and America in Melbourne. Films at this time were generally not more than 10 minutes long and were usually interspersed with the latest sound recordings of the biggest artists of the day. The Taits had made good money with the travel film Living London, and had been impressed by the enormous success of a rival exhibitor’s presentation of Edwin S Porter‘s landmark US short drama, The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Johnson and Gibson were also film exhibitors, as well as cameramen familiar with film labs. They had recently ventured into production with Living Hawthorn (1906) and coverage of a Squires vs Kling boxing contest. The Taits joined forces with Johnson and Gibson to fund The Story of the Kelly Gang, with the former working on the creative side while Johnson and Gibson handled camerawork and other technicalities.”
Sally Jackson and Graham Shirley
National Film and Sound Archive

Griffith 1914

Judith of Bethulia
R: David W. Griffith. B: Thomas Bailey Aldrich, D.W. Griffith. K: G. W. Bitzer. D: Blanche Sweet, Henry B. Walthall, Mae Marsh, Robert Harron, Lillian Gish, Dorothy Gish, Kate Bruce. P: American Biograph. USA 1914
Print: Library of Congress

“A fascinating work of high artistry, Judith of Bethulia will not only rank as an achievement in this country, but will make foreign producers sit up and take notice. It has a signal and imperative message, and the technique displayed throughout an infinity of detail, embracing even the delicate film tinting and toning, marks an encouraging step in the development of the new art. Ancient in story and settings, it is modern in penetrative interpretation – it is a vivid history of one phase of the time it concerns, and is redemptive as well as relative, a lesson from one of those vital struggles that made and unmade nations as well as individuals, yet it is not without that inspiring influence that appeals powerfully to human sense of justice. The entire vigorous action of the play works up to the personal sacrifice of Judith of Bethulia, a perilous chance she takes for the sake of the lives and happiness of her people. She dares expose herself to overwhelming humiliation and dishonor.”
Moving Picture World 1914

Brute Force
R: David W. Griffith. K: G. W. Bitzer. D: Robert Harron, Mae Marsh, William J. Butler. P: American Biograph. USA 1914

“One of the earliest surviving dinosaurs on film is the stiff mechanical model in D.W. Griffith‘s Brute Force (1914), which is an extended version of his own earlier, but dinosaur free, Man’s Genesis (1912), the latter film also features its young cave-couple leads being harassed by a large snake and an unfortunate alligator in a rather bad costume as cinema’s first true slurpasaurs. Parodying Man’s Genesis that same year was Charlie Chaplin‘s His Prehistoric Past (1914) which saw the brown derby and bearskin clad tramp head back to a dinosaur-free stone-age Soloman Islands, courtesy of a blow to the head, in his last outing for Mack Sennett‘s Keystone Studios.”

>>> Man’s Genesis here: Griffith, prehistoric

Gale Henry

She wrote a play and played it
R: Allen Curtis. B: Bennett Cohen. D: Gale Henry, Billy Franey, Milburn Morante. P: Universal Film Manufacturing Company. USA 1916
Print: Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique
Dutch and French titles

Gale Henry, at that time famous as big-nosed, lugubrious-faced purveyor of silent screen slapstick. Here as a prominent villager too interested writing a play to be bothered with lovers. When a wandering director arrives in town, learns of her play and agrees to produce it for her, with the author in the leading role, she is delighted. But the play proves a frost.”

About Gale Henry:
“Known as ‘The Elongated Comedienne’, from 1914 to 1933 she entertained audiences with eccentric physical comedy. Like her contemporaries Alice Howell, Mabel Normand, Marie Dressler, and Louise Fazenda, Gale took many bumps and bruises in the name of laughter alongside her male comedian counterparts in an estimated two hundred fifty-eight shorts and features, some of the craziest of which she wrote. Her active female characters bear comparison with Pearl White and Helen Holmes, the ‘serial queens’ of the 1910s, and she often spoofed the cliff-hanger genre in which they appeared. Henry’s performing style could be very broad, but she also had a gift for small, insightful gestures that could bring a moment of pathos and feeling into the knockabout. She often played put-upon slavies, but her unconventional looks also made her perfect as a lovelorn spinster, an overbearing wife, or a burlesque country girl. She wore a wide-brimmed hat, a tight, old-fashioned button-up blouse, a long plaid or checkered skirt, and clunky high-top shoes. The overall look had a feel of L. Frank Baum‘s Scarecrow of Oz —as if she were put together from odd, mismatching parts.”
Women Film Pioneers Project


How Poe’s Raven Was Born

Edgar Allan Poe
R: David W. Griffith. K: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. D: Herbert Yost (=Barry O’Moore), Linda Arvidson, Arthur Johnson, Robert Harron. P: American Biograph. USA 1909
Print: National Film Library / EYE

Edgar Allan Poe: The Raven. First published 1845

“The first Poe movies, which include two from DW Griffith (Edgar Allan Poe, The Avenging Conscience), tend to wrap the author into his work, presenting him as a protagonist living out the plots of his tales and poems – especially in that old standby ‘The Raven’. It is a theme that continues through the 1942 biopic The Loves of Edgar Allan Poe to a 1994 short version of ‘The Black Cat’.
These films tend to conflate Poe’s cousin/wife, Virginia Clemm – who died young of consumption after a fairly grand guignol incident when blood vessels in her throat burst while she was singing in the parlour – with the dead but restless women of his fictions, though Poe wrote that ‘the death of a beautiful woman is the most poetical topic of all’ well before his marriage. He may have been attracted to Virginia because she fulfilled his fantasies as much as inspired them.
It is still possible to write Poe’s name into a movie title like a possessory credit, even in the case of films he had nothing to do with (such as Edgar Allan Poe’s Cry of the Banshee). Although he worked in a great many genres – he can lay claim to the invention of the two major strands of detective story, puzzle and psycho-drama, was a major figure in the proto-history of science fiction and essayed early efforts in that still controversial area where fiction, hoax and journalism combine – Poe’s cinematic reputation rests on his contribution to the horror film.”
Kim Newman: Poe’s eternal life
The Guardian, 9 July 1999

>>> The Avenging Conscience on this site: Back to Nature

>>> The Pit and the Pendulum (Part I)

Taking No Sides

In the Hands of the Enemy
R: Edwin Thanhouser(?). D: J. Morris Foster, Inda Palmer. P: Thanhouser Film Company. USA 1915
Print: The Library of Congress

“Just 15 months after the outbreak of war in Europe, it was still very early for an American film to be produced on the subject for release in isolationist U.S.A. Edwin Thanhouser had been in Europe at the outbreak and must have seen the dramatic potential, which he produced here as both an intimate and large scale story, taking no sides, set in fictional countries.
The gripping story has very little melodramatic hokum. A countess and her son volunteer to disguise themselves and take a secret message across enemy territory. It begins as the personal mission of two people, but expands into relatively complicated cavalry and artillery battles (not the less picturesque trench warfare that was actually happening).
The fluid editing and vastly more dramatic cinematography (especially the use of close shots for expressiveness and intimacy) are part of the extremely rapid advances in the artistry and technique of the film medium compared to just a year earlier.”
Ned Thanhouser

>>> The Evidence of the Film by Edwin Thanhouser: Film within the Film

Potential Wives

Trial Marriages
K: G.W. “Billy” Bitzer. P: American Mutoscope & Biograph. USA 1907
R and Stars unknown.

Trial marriage: An arrangement by which a couple live together for a period of time to see if they are compatible for marriage.

“Biograph’s Trial Marriages shows the comic effect of the inspiration a man gets from reading a newspaper article by a woman of advanced ideas recommending trial marriages. He then gives a tryout to a series of potential wives, all of whom have various faults. Repetition of the motif provides a relationship from shot to shot, one that is easily broken. It would not make much difference in which order the various ‘tryout wives’ were shown, or if one were dropped or another added.”
Eileen Bowser: The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. Vol. 2, Part 2. University of California Press 1994, p. 56

The Plight of Working Children

Children Who Labor
R: Ashley Miller. B: Ethel Browning. D: Robert Conness, Miriam Nesbitt, Shirley Mason, John Sturgeon, Mary Fuller, Viola Dana. P: Edison Co. USA 1912

Produced for The National Child Labor Committee.

“The National Child Labor Committee was organized on April 25, 1904 at a mass meeting at Carnegie Hall in New York City attended by men and women concerned with the plight of working children. They moved quickly to form an organization, to gain the support of prominent Americans and to identify the extent and scope of the problem.
In 1907 the NCLC was chartered by an Act of Congress, and immediately began to garner support and move towards action and advocacy. One of the first steps took place in early 1908 with the hiring of a tailor’s son from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, a budding anthropologist and photographer, Lewis Wickes Hine. His photographs would awaken the consciousness of the nation, and change the reality of life for millions of impoverished, undereducated children.
In 1912, one of the first goals of the NCLC was achieved: the establishment of a Children’s Bureau in both the U.S. Department of Commerce and the U.S. Department of Labor. From 1910-1920, while publishing and disseminating the photographs of Lewis Hine, the Committee worked for passage of state and federal legislation to ban most forms of child labor, and to promote compulsory education in all states.
When the Supreme Court ruled that federal legislation banning child labor was unconstitutional the NCLC turned its focus to the passage of a constitutional amendment banning child labor and to continued strengthening of state laws from coast to coast in the 1920s.”
childrens cry

354-LewisHine-Addie Card, 1910 

Lewis Hine: Addie Card, 12 years. North Pormal Cotton Mill, 1910


Trafalgar Square Riot
P: British Pathé. UK 1913
Print: BFI National Archive

A suffragette procession in Trafalgar Square led by Sylvia Pankhurst results in a riot in Whitehall. Policemen are seen escorting Miss Pankhurst away.

About Emmeline, Sylvia, Christabel und Adela Pankhurst:

Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928) was a British political activist and leader of the British suffragette movement who helped women win the right to vote. (…) She was widely criticised for her militant tactics, and historians disagree about their effectiveness, but her work is recognised as a crucial element in achieving women’s suffrage in Britain. Pankhurst, her daughters, and other WSPU activists were sentenced to repeated prison sentences, where they staged hunger strikes to secure better conditions. As Pankhurst’s oldest daughter Christabel took leadership of the WSPU, antagonism between the group and the government grew. Eventually the group adopted arson as a tactic, and more moderate organisations spoke out against the Pankhurst family. In 1913 several prominent individuals left the WSPU, among them Pankhurst’s daughters Adela and Sylvia. (…) The family rift was never healed. Sylvia became a socialist.”

On to Washington
P: Universal Film Mfg. Co. for Universal Animated Weekly. USA 1913

“The single most effective American demonstration for female voting rights was the ‘Woman Suffrage Procession’ in Washington, D.C., on March 3, 1913, the day before Woodrow Wilson’’s inauguration as president. Accompanied by nine bands and 26 floats, at least 5,000 marchers paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue, led by women from countries with the female vote, followed by U.S. state delegations, and wrapped up by a contingent of men (who faced taunts of ‘Where are your skirts?’). The march was instrumental in shifting the debate into a national issue, one that would need to be resolved by a constitutional amendment rather than state referenda. By the end of the previous year, the state-by-state approach had reached something of an impasse, and the referendum in Michigan, evidently stolen by anti-suffrage forces, only reinforced the need for a national strategy.
A contingent from the New York State Suffrage Association is profiled in this segment from Universal Animated Weekly, issue 50, released in late February 1913 and perhaps the earliest American newsreel issue to survive.(…)
Here we see the start on February 12 in Newark, New Jersey, of a 180-mile walk in winter by 14 New York ‘suffrage pilgrims’, who timed their arrival into Washington for the pre-inaugural march.”
Scott Simmon
National Film Preservation Foundation

>>> Emmeline Pankhurst’s arrest on this site: Palace Pandemonium

Europe 1914

Balloon Accident at St Cloud (Paris)
Without Credits. UK 1914
Print: BFI National Archive

“Newsreels rarely caught accidents as they occurred, but in this case, the cameras were rolling at the Saint Cloud Aéro-Parc when a gigantic balloon was torn apart mid-flight by a gust of wind. Luckily its passenger, Madame Surcouf, was unharmed, and the resulting footage is spectacular: the balloons bob and sway precariously on their tethers before the airborne ‘Rubis’ deflates dramatically.
The Saint Cloud Aéro-Parc was home to the Aéro-Club de France, which pioneered competitive air-ballooning for sport and entertainment. The sport was enjoying its popularity peak at the time this film was shot (possibly during the club’s annual Grand Prix).”

Palace Pandemonium
P: British Pathé. UK 1914
Print: BFI National Archive

“The newsreel cameras were in place to catch suffragette pioneer Emmeline Pankhurst‘s arrest at Buckingham Palace – the latest episode in her ongoing public campaign for women’s votes. Intent on personally petitioning the King, Emmeline got as far as the gates before the police stepped in. Yet the film privileges the police presence, showing Emmeline being frogmarched away from the scene.
‘Arrested at the gates of the Palace. Tell the King!’, Pankhurst reportedly shouted as the police dragged her away. The suffragettes were shrewdly aware of the power of the press; this incident was one of several headline-grabbing stunts lapped up by the newsreels.”

Sea Dreams
Without Credits. UK 1914
Print: BFI National Archive

“Maintaining public confidence in Britain’s naval prowess was a key propaganda priority in WWI. Here, celebrated illustrator Lancelot Speed conjures up images of Drake and Nelson to contrast with the more recent ambitions of the German navy. By a fortunate coincidence, the film was released just two days after Britain’s victory at sea in the Battle of the Falkland Islands.”