"Return of the Dream Machine" Over a Century Later: A Night out at the Movies, Early 1900s Style
April 21, 2015
As I suspected, one of my must-see events at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, "Return of the Dream Machine," turned into a festival highlight for me.
The presentation was very TCM-esque and highlighted what the network does best at their annual festival: bringing together experts to create an atmospheric, memorable evening that brought film history to life. Randy Haberkamp, Joe Rinaudo, Gary Gibson, Galen Wilkes and Michael Mortilla all contributed in their own unique ways to transform an ordinary Saturday night into an evening out at the movies, early 20th century style. This screening made me particularly grateful for my pass this year, because without it, I would have been shut out; once again, the Chinese Multiplex House 6 reached capacity before the standby line even had a shot.
The star of the evening: the 1909 hand-crank power’s Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine. Seriously, everyone was flocking to it when we were let into the theater! (Picture by Kim Luperi)
The lineup for the evening was partly filled with the ordinary suspects, several of the most famous shorts from cinema's early history, such as The Great Train Robbery (1902), A Trip to the Moon (1903), A Corner in Wheat (1909), and Suspense (1913). Lesser known titles included Those Awful Hats (1909), Four Troublesome Heads (1898), Winsor McCay, The Famous Cartoonist of the N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics (1911), and the bizarrely frightening The Dancing Pig (1907).
A very cool photo from the back of the theater featuring Gary Gibson, the projector, and Joe Rinaudo. (Photo credit TCM)
The machinery in the theater brought the room temperature up to a slightly sleep-inducing warmth, which led many people (at least 10 I spoke to after) into a short slumber, primarily during the longer, more well-known pieces. While classics like A Trip to the Moon, complete with voiceover provided by Haberkamp (as the short originally screened), are always fun to watch, I thoroughly enjoyed reveling in the 100-year-old-new-to-me shorts, all of which delighted with early illusions, special effects, animation, trials with color, and simple cultural and generational nuances.
These selections, along with the established classics, reminded me of just how much talent, resolve, and imagination existed in those early years. It's remarkable to think that some of the facets of filmmaking that we take as a given today - color, editing for action, sound, special effects, and more - were all being experimented with at the dawn of the 20th century. Those early pioneers walked into the industry with a blank slate and endless opportunities in front of them; how awe-inspiring, motivating, and (just a wee bit) daunting that must have been!
Randy Haberkamp, on the left, speaking while the reels were being changed out, and Michael Mortilla, on the right, manning the keyboard. The glass slides projected on screen from the Magic Lantern attached to the projector were similar to those audiences would have seen in the early 1900s. (Photo credit TCM)
I also really admired the team in the theater and all of those behind the scenes for working so hard to make the evening as authentic as possible. As we walked in, Galen Wilkes stood by the screen, manning his 1908 Edison Phonograph, which played period music. Joe Rinaudo and Gary Gibson, dressed in what they said was turn of the century projector garb (complete with top hat), took their spot in the back of the theater beside the 1909 hand-crank power’s Model 6 cameragraph motion picture machine, switching off the hand cranking duties as Michael Mortilla supplied live musical accompaniment in the front. As Rinaudo and Gibson changed film reels between the shorts, a Magic Lantern, which was attached to the projector, shuffled through humorous glass slides to keep the audience amused. In between the shorts, Haberkamp also provided insightful commentary on each selection, complete with a mini rundown of the history of the medium as it applied to the topic at hand.
Galen Wilkes with his 1908 Edison Phonograph. (Photo credit TCM)
To make things even more exciting, before the show began, Rinaudo gave a brief clarification as to how he and Gibson would crank the films. He explained that there really was no customary frame rate back then; though 24fps is standard today, some of the shorts he would project that evening were shot at 12 or 18fps, and sometimes the speed even changed within the movie itself, like A Corner in Wheat. Both Rinaudo and Gibson were trained to know exactly when to slow down or speed up, which was an adjustment we could hear and see (by the shadow on the screen) as well. It was not uncommon to watch audience member's heads turn from the front of the theater to the back during the shorts. Both ends of the room provided immense entertainment that evening, and I saw many people (myself included) splitting their focus between the picture and Rinaudo and Gibson on the projector.
Joe Rinaudo working the projector. This was just as fun to watch as the movies themselves! (Photo credit TCM)
Below are some highlights and historical tidbits from the evening, moreso from the commentary as opposed to the films themselves (most of the films can be viewed on DVD and at the very least, YouTube):
With the industry still in its infancy, copyright law didn’t cover motion pictures yet. Consequently, duplicates were made…constantly. After viewing a short, some companies would even shoot their own version and release theirs with the exact same title! Can you imagine the gall? Nothing like that could ever happen today, but back then, without legal protection, the practice was commonplace. Certain companies, such as Star Film, placed their logos on sets in an attempt to protect their property, but legally this provided no protection. Below you can (barely) spot the Star Film logo in a screen grab from A Trip to the Moon.
It's kind of difficult to see, but the Star Film logo is on the bottom of the rocket.
The French Reign
Cinema's early years saw a phenomena that would never again be repeated in American movie history: a huge reliance on imported films; in fact, 60% of the pictures released in America in 1907 came from foreign countries. The concept of title cards had yet to be born, so the story was told completely through visuals, which meant that for the first and only time in the medium's history, movies could flow freely across countries and continents - and be understood! - since language was not yet a barrier.
Consequently, the only real distinction was quality. At the time, France was the undisputed leader of the industry, with a very strong artistic sense that gave the country an edge over the US market. Furthermore, Pathé, the leading French film company, owned three studios outside of Paris, two of which had two separate stages, and the company also boasted three director units, all of which enabled them to have several films in production simultaneously. Using this pioneer studio system method, Pathé printed an average of 40,000 feet of positive film stock each day and released 12 films a week. A good amount of those Pathé films were shipped to the US (sometimes 75 copies of each) while American companies were just starting to implement consistent production methods.
Touching above the aforementioned issue of copying films, it was recorded that 75 illegal dupes of Pathé titles were made out of a select 90 Pathé movies - a sad fact, yes, but one that signaled to Pathé that they were doing something right!
The Dancing Pig
By far, the most out-there-what-the-hell-did-people-find-entertaining/appropriate-100-years-ago short was 1907's The Dancing Pig. It's at once creepy, disturbing, and yet weirdly fascinating. If you feel like subjecting yourself to this strange type of torture, it's probably better viewed than described - you can watch a YouTube video from Flicker Alley here. Warning: the close-up in the last 20-30 seconds is particularly distressing. I am 99% sure those eyes, fangs, and tongue will show up in my nightmares one day soon.
The Dancing Pig was actually filmed many times by several different companies, though the one we saw was produced by Pathé. The 2-3 minute short is a throwback to the vaudeville tradition and music hall routines that were still popular in those days and relies heavily on one (terrifying) sight gag. I recall someone close to me utter "that's disgusting" under their breath, right around the close-up of the pig's face, naturally. When the lights came up and the chuckles ceased, Haberkamp remarked with a laugh that "things were different" back then. You can sure say that!
The tongue was the most disturbing part, and it's even worse when you watch it move. Did the French really enjoy this in 1907?
My artistic talent begins and ends with crude stick figures, so the fact that animation exists blows my mind - not to mention how the art form found its way into the movies so quickly. One of first companies to regularly feature animation in their pictures was Vitagraph. Unfortunately, Vitagraph's contributions to film history, including high quality comedies, contemporary dramas, adaptations, and the aforementioned animations, are sadly largely forgotten due to deterioration and a devastating July 1910 fire that destroyed their Brooklyn studio.
Several Vitagraph films combined a documentary style with hand drawn animation, which was evident in the Winsor McCay short, in which the artist is hired to create loads of comics to turn in to animations. The process is laid out quite simply for the audience to follow - seriously, even I understood it - and I can only wonder what 1911 audiences thought of animation considering moving images themselves were still so new!
That's a lot of paper and ink, Winsor McCay.
Women in Charge
Though sadly forgotten by the masses today, a few female writers, directors, and producers toiled and experimented alongside the men during cinema's infancy, including Alice Guy Blaché and Lois Weber. The one female-helmed short of the evening was 1913's Suspense, written, co-directed, and starring Lois Weber, who started off as an actress working under Blaché and moved on to directing in 1911, frequently working with her husband Philip Smalley.
Though D. W. Griffith still reigned as the most famous director in America and excelled in experimenting with novel editing techniques, Weber stood out for her focus on women's issues, many times throwing her unique social perspective in the mix. With Suspense, Weber also challenged audiences with a technical rarity for the time: a triangle screen to keep the spectator in the know (at times) while all three stories unfold. Even at 100 years old, the film still packs an element of surprise and tension when viewed today.
The triangular split screen used to key viewers in to all three stories at once in Suspense.
One Last Thing...
Before the evening was over, there was one more surprise in store for us: the premiere of a long-thought-lost (in full) serpentine dance filmed by Pathé in the early 1900s, unseen in about 110 years. Though the short only lasted about two minutes in length, the woman on screen, fluttering her arms in a frantic yet incredibly graceful fashion so the flowing fabric of her dress billowed around her, each frame changing color just as quickly, was a sight to behold.
Yes, it's true that most of us were fighting to keep our eyes open at that point. Yes, most of us had probably already seen other similar serpentine dances filmed by other studios around the same time. But the fact that we were among the first to see this short in its entirety after such a long time added an extra special layer to the finale, taking us back to the early 1900s when the magic of movies elicited pure excitement and astonishment from audiences.
If you attended the presentation, which part was your favorite?
This is not the Serpentine dance we saw, but this is another version in the same vein - the style, the color, etc.