A Western Comedy, 1911

Alkali Ike’s Auto
R: Gilbert M. Anderson. B: Gilbert M. ‘Broncho Billy’ Anderson. D: Augustus Carney, Harry Todd, Margaret Joslin. P: Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. USA 1911

“The movie as a whole is pretty typical of the pre-Keystone comedies of the time. We get no close-ups on anyone, relying on broad physical gestures and costume to tell us what we need to know about character and motivation. Editing is limited, usually just linking one sequence to the next rather than allowing for intercutting between scenes, and the slapstick action is mostly tame by comparison to a Keystone movie.”
Century Film Project:
Alkali Ike’s Auto (1911)

“Augustus Carney (1870-1920) was one of silent comedy’s first stars, whose heyday was essentially of the pre-Chaplin era. Originating in British music halls and American vaudeville, he found his way to Esssanay Studios in 1910. After a couple of random starts he was partnered with Victor Postel as ‘Hank’ in the Hank and Lank series. These were popular, but it was the following year that he struck it really big as the character Alkali Ike on a series of western themed comedies set in the fictional town of Snakeville. He became such a star that crowds mobbed him wherever he met, and Alkali Ike dolls were popular with children.
When Essanay refused his demands for a salary increase in 1912, he went over to Universal, where he got more money and became known by the less catchy name of ‘Universal Ike’. Paired with director Harry Edwards (later famous for his work with Harry Langdon), Carney became tempermental and developed a reputation for being difficult to work with. He stormed out of Universal in 1914, assuming a star of his caliber would easily be hired elsewhere. He wasn’t. He struggled along in small parts for another year or two, and then closed the book.”

>>> Gilbert M. Anderson on this site: Broncho Billy – The American Shot

Film and Comic Strip

Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille (He Ruins His Family’s Reputation)
R: Émile Cohl. B: George McManus (comic strip ‘The Newlyweds’). P: Eclair American. USA 1912
Print: La cinémathèque française

“And now our funny little friend, Snookums, has started real trouble for his poor Dada. A few of the neighbors and Dada were having a nice quiet little game when the door-bell rang and when Snookums’ beautiful mother went to the door, she found the minister. Well, the “gang” made a hurried attempt to hide things, and the chips, cards, etc., were stuffed under the couch, before the Reverend Sir was admitted. Dada and his friends then tried to keep the minister’s attention concentrated on other things, and planned to get rid of him before he suspected anything. But poor little Snookums was rather inquisitive about this hurried hiding of those nice little chips and so he secured the minister’s hat and proceeded to dig out the chips from under the couch and fill the hat with them. When the minister finally decided to go, to the great relief of everyone, the big scandal came out. When he lifted his high hat to place it on his head, there was a shower of little white, blue and red “chips” …”
Moving Picture World synopsis

Zozor ruine la réputation de sa famille (…) provides a glimpse into how some of Cohl’s American animation sought to bridge his own disjointed fantasy with the more linear, narrative comic strip traditions of the United States market. (…) One of the most striking aspects in the film is the dominance of dialogue over motion. Many of the frames are nearly covered with words, as if a static frame from a McManus comic strip, while a animated motion comes in bits and pieces between the important statements. It is as if the blank space between comic strip panels were replaced by tiny, moving cartoons.”
Richard Neupert: French Animation History. John Wiley & Sons 2011

>>> Émile Cohl – the Pathé Period

Early Ethnographic Cinema

À travers le Portugal
P: Société Française des Films Éclair. Fr 1912
Dutch and Engl. titles
Print: EYE collection

Released in the US as a split reel along with the comedy Willy veut déjeuner sans payer (1912) and the documentary Le travail des femmes à Porto (1911).

“The concepts of supplementarity, in general, and ethnographic voice or sound, in particular, invite us to rethink the instabilities of early ethnographic cinema. Visual ethnography has long been described as a supplement. Visual anthropologist Karl Heider most famously used the term to demote ethnographic cinema to a kind of second-order ethnographic practice. Heider writes, ‘No ethnographic film can stand by itself. An ethnography is a written work which may be supplemented by film.’ Bringing Derrida and Heider together: early ethnographic cinema is inscribed within a two-fold process of supplementarity and free-play. It supplements the bodies and landscapes it aims to represent. It also supplements ethnographic writing. As a practice of secondary and vaguely defined utility, early ethnographic cinema welcomes the unexpected and the contingent in a way that its written complement actively tries to sew over. They contribute an order of displacement and decentering to a set of practices that are always and already operating on unstable ground. Put another way: these films do not have any obligations to coherence. As the visual supplement to the written supplement, they are the unnecessary extra, the imprecise something else. But in their shapeless imprecision, they show us the imprecision that has been there all along, lingering beneath the authority of the written word.
Early ethnographic cinema does not fill in the gaps of what remains unsaid. These films do not complete the evidentiary ethnographic whole. Rather, what we find across early ethnographic filmmaking is a field of freeplay, drawn to the noises and voices that cannot be put into words. Indeed, this silent cinema operates as a repository for the sensory excesses that disrupt written ethnographies with inarticulable and untranslatable pleasures. These films are condensations of feeling and flesh, dancing bodies and body parts. And, most importantly, in the silence that stretches across the dances and music making of the early ethnographic images, these films remind us of their own boundaries, of the voices and sounds that we still cannot hear.”
Katherine Groo

>>> Early Ethnography

The Colours of Pathé

Romeo e Giulietta
R: Ugo Falena. B: Augusto Genina, based on the play by William Shakespeare. D: Gustavo Serena, Francesca Bertini, Ferruccio Garavaglia. P: Film d’Arte Italiana / Pathé Frères. It 1912
Dutch titles

“Film d’Art and Film d’Arte Italiana were independent producers that had contracted for Pathé to serve as the ‘editeurs‘ whose duties included colouring the release prints. The aesthetic characteristics associated with these prints – the precise matching of colour and image shape and the restrained, muted hues – allowed Pathé to stress in its advertising the ‘realism’ of its stencilled films and thus compete with Kinemacolor and potentially other photochemical colour systems.”
Marta Braun, Charles Keil, Rob King e.a.: Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks, and Publics of Early Cinema. Indiana University Press 2012, p. 197

>>> more Shakespeare adaptions on this site: Film d’Arte Italiana

>>> Ugo Falena: Salomé, 1910

Humor and Racism

The Watermelon Patch
R: Wallace McCutcheon, Edwin S. Porter. P: Edison Manufacturing Company. USA 1905

“Porter, like other filmmakers of the pre-1908 period, often portrayed outlaws who threaten society as members of fringe or outcast groups, with such characterization serving as motivation for their illegal activities. This is the case with the racial humor and black stereotyping in Porter and McCutcheon’s The Watermelon Patch (October 1905). Their happy-go-lucky thieves (…) are comedic counterparts to the ruthless, scheming lovers of white women in The Clansman. The Watermelon Patch begins as an absurdist comedy: a number of ‘darkies’ steal  watermelons and flee, pursued by redneck farmers dressed in skeleton costumes. Losing their pursuers, the darkies reach their destination, where they dance andenjoy their  watermelon until the rednecks arrive. When the whites board up the exits and seal the chimney, the darkies are soon covered with soot, another racial ‘joke’. (In 1905 many Negro performers still went on stage in black face—as did white actors impersonating blacks. This joke played with the ‘childish’ belief that black skin is black because it is covered with soot.)
In the film’s last three shots, Porter alternated exterior and interior scenes using an editorial construction similar to the ending of Life of an American Fireman . After showing the rednecks sealing the chimney, Porter cut to the interior, where the ‘darkies’ hear the intruders, grow quiet, and slowly feel the ill-effects of the smoke. Realizing what is happening, they make their escape. The final shot, once again of the exterior, returns to the moment when the darkies begin to make their escape. It shows them coming out of the house and receiving the blows of the amused rednecks. What is fascinating, both cinematically and perhaps as an example of unconscious racism, is the contrast between the exterior scenes in which the handful of rednecks dwarf the tiny shack and the interior scenes in which the shack comfortably holds twenty ‘darkies’—reducing them to the size of pygmies.
The Watermelon Patch is as revealing of the state of American cinema in 1905 as it is of American racism.”
Charles Musser: Before the Nickelodeon. Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley / Los Angeles / Oxford 1991, p. 312 f.

>>> Life of an American Fireman on this site: Edwin S. Porter: Blockbuster for Edison

An Italian Carnival Tragedy

La maschera pietosa
D: Alfredo Bertone, Erna Hornak, Anna Lazzarini. P: Società Anonima Ambrosio Torino. It 1914
Print: Nederlands Film Museum / Jean Desmet collection
Dutch titles

“Marcel (Alfredo Bertone) is an artist who is neglecting his wife Julia (Anna Lazzarini) in favour of their younger neighbour Lucy (Erna Hornak) who lives with her elderly mother (Annetta Ripamonti). The carnival is coming to Turin and Marcel asks Lucy to accompany him which she does dressed as a Pierrot. There are superb scenes of the carnival. (…) Julia is distraught and all the more so when she sees the couple sneak out again for more fun. There’s a particularly effective shot of Marcel and Lucy high on a merry-go-round, the thronging masses of old Turin far below reminding you of how advanced pre-War Italian and Turinese cinema was. But tragedy is about to strike as Julia hears Lucy’s mother fall ill. Realising that she is near death she dresses herself as a Pierrot so that she can be Lucy tending to her mother’s final moments – she need not die alone. Lucy and Marcel return to find Julia at the bedside saying prayers having lit candles in tribute to the dead. In the midst of this selfless act Lucy returns Marcel to his wife and the couple leave in unity as the young woman cries for her loss…”

Ruth Roland – a Girl Detective

The Girl Detective
R: James W. Horne. B: Hamilton Smith. D: Ruth Roland, Cleo Ridgely, Marin Sais. P: Kalem Company. USA 1915
Print: EYE collection
Dutch titles

Ruth Roland called her films ‘high class fairy tales’. She first came to the public’s notice as an armchair sleuth in 1915’s The Girl Detective, but she had her real breakout success thanks to a 14-part supernatural serial called The Red Circle which cast her as a young woman cursed with a strange scarlet mark on her hand that compels her to commit crimes. Audiences ate up the good/bad duality of the character, and their admiration turned Ruth into a superstar.
A savvy businesswoman, she used her newfound success wisely, starting her own Ruth Roland Serials, Inc. and cranking out a new hit series, The Adventures of Ruth. Here she was a fearless heiress trying to solve the murder of her father. ‘I wrote the story and personally supervised the taking of every scene’, she promised her adoring public. She followed up that hit with more serials like White Eagle and The Timber Queen, and The Haunted Valley. When she finally retired from the screen, she was a rich woman. According to silent film historian Larry Telles, she eventually starred in 164 serial episodes.”
Jake Hinkson: Serial Queens of the Silent Era: The First Female Action Heroes

  Ruth Roland