A Forgotten Clown: Ernesto Vaser

I bottoni delle bretelle
R: Unknown. D: Ernesto Vaser. P: Itala Film. It 1912
Print: Museo Nazionale del Cinema / EYE collection

Attenti alla vernice!
R: Unknown. D: Ernesto Vaser. P: Itala Film. It 1913
Print: Museo Nazionale del Cinema / EYE collection

“Divenuto molto popolare, fu uno dei primi attori teatrali ad avvicinarsi al cinema, e nel 1905 iniziò a girare le prime comiche, sotto la direzione di Arturo Ambrosio. In un cinema italiano come quello di allora, cioè agli inizi, e con attori protagonisti stranieri, Vaser fu quasi certamente il primo attore comico italiano della storia del cinema nazionale.
Da Ambrosio fu poi ingaggiato per lavorare nella casa cinematografica da egli fondata, la Ambrosio Film, prestando la sua interpretazione ad alcune importanti pellicole, di altri generi, come Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei. Della società torinese, Vaser divenne comunque uno dei suoi attori comici principali, il secondo dopo lo spagnolo Marcel Fabre (Robinet), e tra il 1910 e il 1916 interpretò il ruolo del comico personaggio Fricot in diversi cortometraggi, anche da protagonista.”

“Ernesto Vaser was a popular clown who is practically forgotten today. Coming from a theatrical family – his father was stage actor Pietro Vasar and brothers Vittorio and Ercole also ended up in the movies – he entered films in 1905 for the Ambrosio Company. Tubby and pop-eyed, Vaser became known as Fricot and often appeared with, and was directed by, Marcel Perez as Robinet. By 1912 he had moved to Italia and continued his misadventures there under the name Fringuelli. Also directing many of his shorts as well, his career lasted until 1920.”
Ben Model
Cruel and Unusual Comedy

Fricot e l’estintore
R: Ernesto Vaser. D: Ernesto Vaser. P: Società Anonima Ambrosio. It 1913
Print: Museo Nazionale del Cinema

>>> Vaser in Buon Anno!, Al cinematografo, guardate… e non toccate

A Robust Western New Woman

The Girl of the Golden West
R: Cecil B. DeMille. B: David Belasco (play), Cecil B. DeMille (scenario). K: Alvin Wyckoff. D: Mabel Van Buren, Theodore Roberts, House Peters, Anita King, Sydney Deane, William Elmer. P: Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company. USA 1914/15

“Much of the film was shot at the then-new Lasky ranch. DeMille wrote in his autobiography that the film was shot in eight days, and that some filming was done near Mt. Palomar in San Diego County. According to modern sources, DeMille was the film editor, as well as the director. The film was re-released by the Famous Players-Lasky Corp. in their Success Series on 15 Sep 1918.”

“David Belasco (1853 – 1931) was an impresario, director and playwright from San Francisco. Throughout his long career, stretching from the 1880s 1930, Belasco either wrote, directed, or produced more than 100 Broadway plays including ‘Hearts of Oak’, ‘The Heart of Maryland’ and ‘Du Barry’, making him one of the most powerful personalities on the New York City theater scene. He is perhaps most famous for having adapted the 1898 John Luther Long short story ‘Madame Butterfly’ into a 1900 play with the same name and for writing ‘The Girl of the Golden West’ for the stage in 1905: both were turned into operas by Giacomo Puccini (1904, 1910). More than forty motion pictures have been made from Belasco’s works. (…) Giacomo Puccini saw the play in New York in 1907, and was entranced. He immediately decided that it should be turned into an opera. Carlo Zangarini and Guelfo Givinni began work on a libretto. ‘La Fanciulla del West’, the first piece to be commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera, premiered at New York in 1910, with Belasco as stage director and a stellar cast of singers: Toscanini conducted; Enrico Caruso, Emmy Destinn and Pasquale Amato sang the leads; and Puccini, alone in his box, surveyed the scene. It was received very well. The Girl of the Golden West was made into four films: silent movies in 1915 and 1923, a talkie in 1930 and a Jeanette MacDonald/Nelson Eddy musical in 1938. The opera has been given many times since and remains one of Puccini’s finest, if perhaps underrated works.”
Jeff Arnold’s West

>>> Belasco’s play

“Set in concocted California mining town called Cloudy during the postwar interregnum, DeMille’s The Girl of the Golden West focuses on a love triangle between ‘the Girl’ (a.k.a. Minnie), Sheriff Jack Rance of New Orleans, and the Murrieta-type outlaw leader named Ramerrez, forced into banditry due to the dispossession of the Californios. The Girl, who runs the town’s rough-and-ready saloon, is a robust western new woman who nonetheless ‘has preserved her maidenly modesty’. Her compassion, strength, and love transform Ramerrez, whom she believes is Dick Johnson, a gentleman thief. (…) The film thus grapples with thorny racial and social relations in the borderlands after the Anglo-American colonization of California and the influx of forty-niners. At the same time, it evinced the reformist tenor of the Progressive Era, as well as the contested nature of whiteness in the early twentieth century; the light-skinned Ramerrez easily passes for the Anglo-American stranger Dick Johnson.”
Dominique Brégent-Heald: Borderland Films: American Cinema, Mexico, and Canada During the Progressive Era. University of Nebraska Press 2015, p. 186/87

>>> DeMille’s first film: The Squaw Man

The Mexican Villain

A Bit of Blue Ribbon
R: Rollin S. Sturgeon. B: Hanson Durham. D: Mary Charleson, Charles Bennett, Anne Schaefer, William Eagle Eye . P: Vitagraph Company of America. USA 1912/13
Print: EYE collection
Dutch titles

“Senor is only a horse, a thoroughbred, and winner of many blue ribbons. On account of old age, Jim Hartwell, the ranch owner, orders Steve, an employee, to take the old horse into the foothills and shoot him. Kitty, Hartwell’s daughter, loves old Senor and claims him for her personal property. Steve loves Kitty and refuses to shoot the horse. In anger, Hartwell discharges him. The ranch owner, mounting his horse, leads Senor to the foothills. He takes the bit of blue ribbon which Kitty had tied in Senor’s foretop, and throws it aside. Just as he raises his revolver to shoot, he sees a Mexican creeping towards his horse in the act of stealing it. He turns his attention towards the thief, who shoots Hartwell. Steve appears, and fires at the Mexican, who in turn, shoots Steve and escapes. Steve, not seriously wounded, turns his attention to Mr. Hartwell. The Mexican makes his way afoot across the hills and comes across a party of range riders. He notifies them that Hartwell is dead and that he saw Steve shoot him. Steve is found bending over Hartwell. Mr. Hartwell is taken back to his ranch and Steve is delivered to the sheriff. Hartwell regains consciousness, but has lost all recollection of what has happened. (…)”
Moving Picture World synopsis

“This is another Vitagraph filmed in California. By now the company had moved to a new studio in the Los Feliz area of Los Angeles, located near hills and open country: likely a factor in the move.. The film has what seems an unusual plot and the print we viewed was only 741 feet, apparently with missing shots and title cards. So the opening of the film is unclear. It seems that Kitty (Marty Charleson), the daughter of a ranch owner, has a favourite horse Seňor: she also has a human sweetheart, Steve (Robert Burns). The father Hartwell (Charles Bennett) orders Steve to shoot Seňor, though why is not clear.”
Early & Silent Film

Rollin S. Sturgeon on this website:
>>> The Courage of the Commonplace
>>> The Greater Love


San Francisco, Chinatown 1912

Seeing America’s Greatest Chinatown: San Francisco (Part I)
R: “Captain” H.J. Lewis. Contributers and Production unknown. USA 1912

Captain Lewis was a licensed Chinatown guide; these films represent what was salvaged from a multi-reel film. (Internet Archive)

The films are from Prelinger Archives, San Francisco.


Photo: Arnold Genthe/Library of Congress Judy Yung

“The way Chinatown guide H.J. Lewis actively used film around 1912 illustrates the relation between tourist guides and motion pictures as well as the possibilities the new medium opened. ‘Captain’ Lewis began conducting guided tours through San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 1880s. The ‘San Francisco Call’ devoted a small article to him and ‘his experience taking parties through (the) local orient.’ According to the article, Lewis was a licensed guide who spoke Chinese fluently and had contacts with many people in Chinatown. (…) Apart from his on-site tours, Lewis made use from the film medium and created a new way to experience Chinatown on the silver screen. His films mark an early example of the connection between film and tourism. To create his cinematic version of a trip to Chinatown, Lewis shot several scenes in San Francisco that corresponded roughly to the stations of his tours – that is, street scenes, restaurants, tenements, Joss houses,  bazaars, and stores. The collection of scenes was titled Seeing America’s Greatest Chinatown: San Francisco and formed the basis for his ‘Oriental travelogue’, a show that included the screening along with introductory remarks and anecdotes by Lewis.”
Björn A. Schmidt: Visualizing Orientalness: Chinese Immigration and Race in U.S. Motion Pictures, 1910s-1930s. Böhlau Verlag Köln / Weimar 2017, p. 159/160

Seeing America’s Greatest Chinatown: San Francisco (Part II)

>>> San Francisco, 1906 on this website

>>> Urban Life


India’s First Long Film

Raja Harishchandra (Frgm.)
R: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke. B: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, Ranchhodbai Udayram (story). K: Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, Trymbak B. Telang. D: D.D. Dabke, P.G. Sane, Bhalachandra D. Phalke, G.V. Sane. P: Phalke Films. IN 1913
Engl. titles

“Directed and produced by Dadasaheb Phalke, the ‘father of Indian Cinema’, this 40-minute-long silent film is the very first full-length Indian feature — the beginning of Bollywood. The narrative of the film is based on the eponymous legend recounted in the Sanskrit epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. The story centres around the hero Harishchandra, a noble king, who, to honour his promise to the sage Vishwamitra, sacrifices his kingdom, his wife, and eventually also his children. By the end, however, having pleased the Gods with his actions, Harishchandra’s former glory is restored.
Phalke was apparently inspired to make films after watching the French film The Life of Christ (1902), twice in one day. He quit his job at a printing press and went to London to learn the technical ins and outs of making a film. Returning to India, he pledged in his life-assurance policies and his wife sold her jewellery to raise the capital needed. Struggling to find women willing to act in the film, Phalke had to instead cast men in the female roles, including Anna Salunke as Harishchandra’s wife. (…) Unfortunately, Raja Harishchandra only exists now in fragments.”
The Public Domain Review

“It took Phalke and his team over six months to complete filming Raja Harishchandra. (…) Since working in a film was considered taboo in those days, Phalke instructed his team to tell people that they were working at the ‘Harishchandrachi Factory’. One of the biggest roles in the film’s production can be attributed to Phalke’s wife, Saraswati. She was responsible for feeding the entire production team, washing actors’ costumes, painting the film’s posters, and taking care of many other technical details of the film. It is believed that she used to cook for 500 people every day, without any help.

Phalke was well aware of his limitations of making a silent film. In order to better the audience’s understanding of the movie, he inserted title plates between scenes. These plates explained parts of the story in both the English and Hindi languages. Along with this, Phalke used live music to accompany the moving imagery on the screen. Raja Harishchandra was screened in a single theatre – Coronation Cinematograph. On its first screening, Phalke invited the press and many other people to watch. He promoted the movie with a catchy phrase – ‘Raja Harishchandra: A performance with 57,000 photographs. A picture two miles long. All for only three annas.’ In order to increase the attraction for people, he also hired two European dancers to perform before the film begun, for the first few screenings. Needless to say, people came, watched, and went home saying good things about the ‘57,000 photographs’. The first full-length feature film was a success and ran for 23 days in the Coronation Cinematograph. A year later, the movie was screened in London as well.”

The beginnings of cinema in India

“The movies arrived in India on 7 July 1896, barely seven months after the Lumiere brothers’ first ever screening of a motion picture in Paris the previous December.  The location was the somewhat upmarket Watson Hotel in Bombay (now Mumbai) where Marius Sestier, employed by the Lumiere brothers to demonstrate their cinematograph abroad, screened six short Lumiere films.  Amongst the largely European audience was an Indian national, H S Bhatavdekar (more commonly known as Save Dada) who was inspired by the screening to go out and order a camera of his own from the UK.   With his newly acquired camera (but having to return the film to Britain for processing) Save Dada shot India’s first short film, The Wrestler (1899), simply a filmed record of a wrestling match.  Dada went on to film other notable events, including the reception given to mathematics scholar R. P Paranjpye who achieved a First at Cambridge University and a Darber coronation in Delhi in 1903, in effect establishing himself as an early newsreel photographer. (…) India’s first film studio, the Elphinstone Production Company, was established in 1907 by J F Madan who had made his money up until then as a successful distributor and exhibitor of imported films.  He also opened India’s first purpose-built cinema the same year, the Elphinstone Picture Palace, in Calcutta.  Madan’s film businesses grew to dominate the Indian film industry in the 1920s and 1930s.

>>> Gabriel Veyre, Lumière operator

Shooting. 50 feet. $7.50

Shooting captured insurgents
K: William Heise. P: James H. White / Edison Manufacturing Co. USA 1898
Print: Library of Congress

Reenacted ca. July 1898, probably in New Jersey.
Sources used: Copyright catalog, motion pictures, 1894-1912; Musser, C. Edison motion pictures 1890-1900, 1997, p. 458; Niver, K.R. Early motion pictures, 1985; Edison films catalog, no. 94, March 1900, p. 10 [MI]; Edison films catalog, no. 105, July 1901, p. 34 [MI]
Library of Congress Control Number 00694305

From Edison films catalog: A file of Spanish soldiers line up the Cubans against a blank wall and fire a volley. The flash of rifles and drifting smoke make a very striking picture. 50 feet. $7.50.
Library of Congress

>>> Spanish-American War 1898  on this site

>>> WAR

Méliès: His (Self-)Decapitations

Un homme de têtes
R: Georges Méliès. D: Georges Méliès. P: Star-Film. Fr 1898

“‘The Four Troublesome Heads’ (i.e. Un homme de têtes) is a nice intro to Méliès’s talent and goofy sense of humor. (…) He used substitution splicing, a.k.a. stop-substitutions a.k.a. stop-tricks, every time he takes off his ‘head’. This meant stopping the camera and placing a dummy head in his hands and what appears to be a dark cloth or bag over his real head. The multiple ‘heads’ were photographed using the wonders of the multiple exposure and split-screen techniques. Méliès had used substitution splicing earlier in ‘The Vanishing Lady’ (1896) and the lost ‘The Cabinet of Mephistopheles’ (1897), but this is his most elaborate use of the effect so far. Other filmmakers, at least George Albert Smith, had also tinkered with these kinds of effects, but Méliès was probably the most fascinated by their many possibilities. (…) Look at how the two on the left table start chatting with each other – this was very tough to do, since Méliès would’ve had to rewind the film several times to capture his different performances while remembering his exact expressions and movements in the previous few seconds. Remember, this was over two decades before performers such as Buster Keaton would try doing the same thing.”

L’homme à la tête de caoutchouc
R: Georges Méliès. D: Georges Méliès. P: Star-Film. Fr 1901