The Tableau System of Presentation

Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs
R: Ferdinand Zecca. P: Pathé Frères. Fr 1902

“The governing structural principle in Ali Baba is obviously the autonomous tableau — a narrative element bracketed by intertitles — and its most obvious ‘rhetorical’ device is Pathécolor (which is often striking). Clearly, the tableau system of presentation is not congenial to the principle from which the representational system of cinematic storytelling would gradually emerge — namely, the principle of matching action across adjacent spaces within a linear time frame. In addition, the color in this film is used not to enrich some aspect of this particular story, but rather because it’s an inherent component of its genre: the truly spectacular is, of course, very colorful. Color, in other words, reflects primarily the technical ingenuity of the production company in satisfying the demands of its chosen subject: as a self-conscious display of the cinema’s ability to show what will attract the spectator’s attention, it functions here within a cinema of attractions.”

Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse
R: Albert Capellani. D: Georges Vinter. P: Pathé Frères. Fr 1906

“Like Ali Baba, Aladin is primarily a demonstration of the cinema of attractions. Color is again exploited as a display of Pathé’s technical ingenuity, and the exhibition of deep space in the arrangement of shots — the practice of keeping planes in focus as deeply as possible into the background — serves not to naturalize space, but rather to demonstrate the superiority of the cinematic presentation of space over that of the theatrical. And of course the film’s ‘representational’ system is anchored in a series of autonomous tableaux introduced by intertitles. But the differential between the number of title-announced tableaux (6) and the number of shot-scenes (16) means that most episodes are composed of multiple shots. Ali Baba’s house*, for example (especially in episode 3/shot {6}), is constructed of adjacent spaces, as is the desert site of the underground grotto (episode 3/shot {3}). Although the cuts depicting the characters’ movements among these spaces are not always adequately matched, the filmmakers clearly intend not only to create a coherent fictional space, but to reveal and use it according to the actions of characters in a story.”
* This is an error. Correct: “Aladin’s house…”

Exquisite interiors, magnificent exteriors

Revolutionsbryllup (The Heart of Lady Alaine)
R: August Blom. B: Sophus Michaëlis. K: Johan Ankerstjerne. D: Philip Bech, Johanne Fritz-Petersen, Volmer Hjorth-Clausen, Frederik Jacobsen, Torben Meyer, Betty Nansen, Valdemar Psilander. P: Nordisk Film Kompagni. Dk 1914/15
Print: Danish Film Institute (DFI)
Span. subtitles

“The Danish film company Nordisk avoided costume pictures almost entirely from 1911, when they adopted the feature-length drama as their standard, until 1919. Revolutionsbryllup was one of the few exceptions. It was based on an internationally successful play by the author Sophus Michaëlis, which Nordisk had already adapted as a single-reel film in 1909 (now lost). Michaëlis proposed a feature-length remake, warning that Max Reinhardt was considering a German film version. Nordisk spent lavishly on the film, which had a budget three or four times that of a regular feature. They also put their biggest stars in it: Valdemar Psilander and Betty Nansen. Nansen (1873-1943), then the prima donna of the Danish theater, had played Alaine on stage in 1909, and Nordisk had big hopes for her as a screen star, but although she got a contract with Fox and made several films (all lost) in the United States in 1914-15, her film career was brief and disappointing. The film has some nice sunlit exteriors, but it mostly takes place indoors. The expensive sets are sometimes subtly lit. The film is shot in relatively long, continuous shots with the camera set very far back; when, at the moment Alaine touches Marc-Arron, the film cuts in to a closer shot of the two (which still includes their upper legs), the effect is appropriately electrifying. The characters tend to face the camera, listening to people speaking beside or behind them while revealing their emotions to us. Combined with the formal poses struck by many of the actors, this gives the film a somewhat theatrical feel.”
Casper Tyberg
Il Cinema Ritrovato

“In Great Britain, the ‘London weekly Pictures’ and the ‘Picturegoer’ ran advertisements during 1915 Nordisk Exlclusives, one of which read, ‘Don’t on any account fail to see charming Betty Nansen in the marvellous four part drama A Revolution Marriage. This wonderful picture is a dramatic and photographic masterpiece. It cannot fail to thrill you through and through with sheer delight.’ During 1915 ‘Motion Picture News’ printed ‘Great Northern Brings Out Betty Nansen Subject’, which ran, ‘The vast number of admirers of Betty Nansen are afforded an unusual treat in seeing this star in a masterwork produced by the Great Northern Film Company entitled A Revolutionary Wedding by the famous Danish author Sophus Michaelis,

470-Betty Nansen
The Moving Picture World, July 3, 1915


which under the title A Son of the People had a long successful run. With the superb acting of Betty Nansen as Alaine de l’Etiole…the rich and beautiful settings of the Great Northern Film Company, the production is justly meriting the enthusiasm of all who view.’ Great Northern advertised the film as The Heart of Lady Alaine, ‘The new four part Betty Nansen photoplay has been unanimously proclaimed by critics to be a supreme accomplishment. It is genuinely perfect in every respect. The exquisite interiors, magnificent exteriors, unexcelled acting,   strong and fascinating story challenge comparision.”



Colonialism: India 1906-1910

A Native Street in India
P: Walturdaw. UK 1906
Print: BFI

“The Walturdaw Film Company began trading in 1904, its name deriving from the surnames of its founders, J.D. Walker, E.G. Turner, and G.H. Dawson. Walker and Turner had first formed a partnership in 1896, and they were the first people in Britain to rent out films (McKernan). The Walturdaw company was itself originally formed as a film rental business, but began to produce its own films in 1905. Prior to the First World War it was considered to be one of the leading film companies in Britain.
The early twentieth century was a period in which British and Indian life in the sub-continent was at its most segregated. Judith Brown has commented that, while Britons and Indians had mingled more freely in the earlier years of colonisation, by this period the British had become ‘a separate case in an already segregated society’ (Brown, 1994, 99). She writes of a ‘spatial segregation of British homes from areas where Indians lived, both in town and countryside’ (Brown, 1994, 98).”*
*Brown, Judith M., Modern India: The Origins of an Asian Democracy, 2nd edn (Oxford: OUP, 1994)

“A camera placed in a single, static position records people walking towards it. The street and town are unnamed and unidentified, almost without any obvious distinguishing features. People walking along the street are probably encountering a film camera for the first time. They stare into the lens and right back at us 109 years later. It’s a moving and hypnotic experience, connecting us to people who died many decades ago. It’s more potent than any photograph, like an Indian equivalent of one of Mitchell and Kenyon’s Edwardian films of workers leaving the factory for the day.”
Robin Baker: Exploring India on Film, 1899-1947

Delhi grande ville de l’Inde Supérieure (Delhi, Great Capital of India)
P: Pathé Frères. Fr 1909
Print: BFI

“‘Delhi at the time of a great Muslim religious festival’ is the helpful – to a point – context to this film offered by Pathé’s catalogue of the time. Which festival, we’re not told. Certainly the streets throng with people and floats, while a number of street performers are on hand to entertain (and presumably profit from) the faithful. From there, the camera moves on to the magnificent Jama Masjid mosque, where worshippers wash themselves in the courtyard’s waters before assembling for prayers.
This was one of a great number of films made in exotic locations by the Pathé Frères company to showcase its often breathtakingly beautiful stencil-colour processing. Though the images here are mostly well-preserved, time hasn’t been altogether kind to the colours of the BFI National Archive’s copy, which aren’t as radiant as they would once have been.”

Le Vieux Delhi et ses ruines (Ruins of Delhi)
P: Pathé Frères. Fr 1910
Print: BFI

“This attractive travelogue, by turns picturesque and statuesque, is centred on the imposing ruined structures of the Qutb complex at Mehrauli in south-west Delhi. The filmmakers also film scenes of the community life surrounding the complex – images with a distinctly pastoral flavour.”

>>> more films about Colonial India on this site: Panorama of Calcutta, Repas d’Indiens

Love, powered by Otis Company

An Elevator Romance
R: Unknown. D: William Garwood. P: Thanhouser Film Corporation. USA 1911
Print: EYE
Dutch titles

“A wealthy, hustling young Westerner comes East, and immediately calls up his boyhood chum, now a staid businessman in a New York skyscraper. The Westerner is charmed by the sweet voice of the telephone girl who answers his call from the office switchboard, and determines to make her acquaintance. In fact, one of the first things he does after reaching his friend’s office is to make inquiries, and he is made happy by an introduction. He soon finds that while the voice is charming, the girl’s appearance and manner are much more so. But the girl, being modest and retiring, does not approve of such an informal acquaintance. She practically snubs the Westerner, and he sees that he has made little progress in his suit. And time is valuable for he soon must go back to his home, and he has already decided that he will take a bride with him. Love finds a way, as it usually does. The energetic suitor bribes the elevator man to let him take his place for an hour, picking out the time when he knows a girl will go to lunch. She is the only passenger in the car in that trip (although it takes energy to accomplish it), and by some mishap, the elevator gets out of order between floors. (…)”
The Moving Picture World, April 29, 1911

“The impossibility of this farce injures its ultimate chances of any real success. To begin with the girl would at once recognize the hero even in his disguise as the elevator boy, while the transition from coldness to a friendly regard is unseemingly rapid. A fine effect was missed in this elevator scene as it might easily have been shown in motion of descent, which was not done save for a brief second or so and then but poorly. The constant posing of the leading man each time he passed in front of the camera, his long drawn out sighs and forced facial expression ruined his work and spoiled his otherwise pleasing personality. The office scene is well staged and the acting of the employer and the old bookkeeper deserve praise. The fire was also well done.”
The Morning Telegraph, April 30, 1911

The history of modern elevators
The first electric elevator was built by Werner von Siemens in 1880 in Germany. The inventor Anton Freissler developed the ideas of von Siemens and built up a successful enterprise in Austria-Hungary. The safety and speed of electric elevators were significantly enhanced by Frank Sprague who added floor control, automatic elevators, acceleration control of cars, and safeties. His elevator ran faster and with larger loads than hydraulic or steam elevators, and 584 electric elevators were installed before Sprague sold his company to the Otis Elevator Company in 1895. Sprague also developed the idea and technology for multiple elevators in a single shaft. (…) In 1874, J.W. Meaker patented a method which permitted elevator doors to open and close safely. In 1887, American Inventor Alexander Miles of Duluth, Minnesota patented an elevator with automatic doors that would close off the elevator shaft. (…) By 1900, completely automated elevators were available, but passengers were reluctant to use them.”

Nestor, the first Hollywood Studio

Her Indian Hero
R: Al Christie, Jack Conway, Milton J. Fahrney. D: Jack Conway, George Gebhardt, Dorothy Davenport, Victoria Forde, Russell Bassett, Eugenie Forde. P: Nestor Film Company. USA 1912
Print: Prelinger Archives

“Although William Selig is usually credited with building the first studio in Los Angeles and shooting the first feature in the city, the first studio in the city of Hollywood was the Nestor Studio, established by David Horsley. Not having obtained a license to use filmmaking equipment from Thomas Edison’s East Coast Motion Picture Patents Company, the Nestor Studio (formerly the Centaur Film Company of Bayonne, New Jersey) moved to California in 1911. Through a contact they made on the train to the west coast, Horsley and writer-director Al Christie met the owner of the Blondeu Tavern. Located at the northwest corner of Sunset and Gower, the small roadhouse was struggling as a result of Hollywood’s recent liquor ordinance. The Nestor Company leased the building for thirty dollars a month, and built the first Hollywood film stage ever on the site. (…) They began creating the first movies ever made on a Hollywood stage – including Her Indian Hero and The Law of the Range. The studio would often shoot a couple one-reelers or two-reelers at a time, filmed from scripts usually written the night before.”
Steve Lee
Hollywood Lost and Found

“On October 27, 1911, Nestor opened the first movie studio actually located in the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. (…) Other East Coast studios had moved production to Los Angeles, prior to Nestor’s move west. The California weather allowed for year-round filming and the ambitious studio operated three principal divisions under its Canadian-born general manager, Al Christie. Christie moved permanently to Southern California from the East, where he had been working with the Horsleys creating the popular silent-era Mutt and Jeff comedy shorts. One division at the Hollywood location, under director Milton H. Fahrney, made a one-reel Western picture every week while the second division, under director Tom Ricketts, turned out a one-reel drama every week. In addition to running the operation, Christie oversaw a weekly production of a one-reel Mutt and Jeff episode. (…) On May 20, 1912, the Nestor Film Company merged with the Universal Film Manufacturing Company headed by Carl Laemmle. Several other motion picture companies, including Laemmle’s Independent Moving Pictures (IMP), merged with Universal, which had been founded in April 1912. Nestor became a brand name that Universal used until at least mid-1917.”

469-Nestor Nestor Film Company

>>> the Nestor production By the Sun’s Rays with Lon Chaney on this site

Children versus adults

The Skeleton
R: Unknown. D: Early Gorman, Charles Manley, Matty Roubert, Mai Wells. P: Powers Picture Plays. USA 1912

The Magic Glass
R: Hay Plumb. D: Reginald Sheffield. P: Hepworth. UK 1914

“An X-ray magnifying glass? What could possibly go wrong? This story – one of numerous early films to make comic hay with mad inventions – relies on a common cinematic trick. A vignette shows the view through the magnifying glass in a ‘door’ or ‘wall’, so the inventor spies his son stealing food from the cupboard or the maid helping herself to the brandy. Inevitably the tables soon turn…
This comedy from the studio of Cecil Hepworth was one of many directed in the early 1910s by Hay Plumb with the same cast and crew.”
BFI player

>>> Hay Plumb’s Hamlet on this site

>>> Hay Plumb as actor: Tilly the Tomboy Visits the Poor

Ford Sterling

Double Crossed
R: Ford Sterling. D: Ford Sterling, Emma Bell Clifton, Mack Swain, Chester Conklin, Al St. John. P: Keystone Film Company. USA 1914

“Sterling took to the farcical, fast-paced world of Sennett’s new Keystone Film Company like a fish takes to water. There his stage training, his acrobatic experience, and penchant for silly faces that only a cartoonist could perfect would not only come in handy, but make him famous. He starred in many of Keystone’s earliest releases, including the very first one that was likely filmed, At Coney Island (1912) and the first one Sennett released, Cohen Collects a Debt (1912). Mabel Normand and Fred Mace were frequent co-stars. Sterling seems to have portrayed a comical Jewish character for some of these films, although in a short time he would be identified – perhaps forever – with his ‘Dutch’ character. This character, often called ‘Schintzel’ or other German-sounding names, had a frock coat, a battered top hat, round wire frame glasses and a chin beard. This was merely his look; what made the characterization pure Ford was a hammy, cartoony, go-for-broke performance style complete with his crowning glory: goofy faces. These were his ‘trademarks’ in a sense, even used to advertise his talents.”

Stolen Glory
R: Mack Sennett. D: Ford Sterling, Fred Mace, Alice Davenport, Charles Avery, Victoria Forde. P: Keystone Film Company. USA 1912
Print: BFI

“Mack Sennett, Keystone’s presiding genius, ran his studio as an assembly line, pumping out comedies by the yard, with an accomplished, hard-wearing troupe of performers able to fit themselves perfectly into the rigours of whatever routine Sennett had dreamt up for them this week. Three things were particularly noticeable about the films: the unquenchable vitality of the performers, the opportunistic taste for sketches to be devised out of some local event or eye-catching piece of scenery, and the phenomenal speed. One knows all about the knockabout thrills of American slapstick, but looking at a film like Love, Speed and Thrills (1915), the sheer number of shots, angles and different set-ups was prodigious, and seemed to run counter to the demand for getting out the films cheaply and quickly. They made such work for themselves, simply by the pursuit of comic excellence. Not that one could call all of the films strictly funny as such – not funny now, that is – and that the grotesquely gesticulating Ford Sterling was ever revered as a comedian has left posterity baffled. Sterling pulled every face known to man (and a few that man has now happily forgotten) in his efforts to draw laughter out of the curious Stolen Glory (1912), where he and Fred Mace play warring Civil War veterans, filmed interrupting a genuine war veterans’ parade, apparently without any protest from the participants.”
Luke McKernan
Pordenone diary 2008–day four
The Bioscope