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American Movie: From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

Exactly what role Bible-based Christian faith played in the founding and formation of the United States is a point of contention in certain circles. However, as far as I know, no one argues that the Bible and Christianity have ever been less than a major presence in American culture. It is no surprise, then, to discover a film about the life of Jesus Christ among the oldest surviving American features*. So old, in fact, that it dates from a few years before multi-reel films were the norm, and thus (to some extent) serves as part of the transition that brought about that most-significant development.

Of course, various factors prompted the complete transition from the 10-minute (or shorter) scenarios favored by the conservative business side of the fledgling movie industry to 1- and 2-hour narrative movies, but I like to think that the decisive factor was pure artistic innovation bursting the suffocating boundaries of the single-reel format. To be sure, great paintings exist on small canvases, but it would be a sad, Sistine Chapel-less world if all painters were restricted by size. Similarly, many short stories are recognized masterpieces, but what would literature be without the novel? Whatever else contributed to the evolution of narrative films beyond the constraints of extreme brevity, surely filmmakers were always destined to use the art of cinema to tell longer stories.

Although Australia was responsible for the first feature-length film in 1906, it was the Italians who succeeded in genuinely captivating American audiences with longer films. One film in particular, Dante’s Inferno (possibly Italy’s first feature, 1911), was enormously profitable in the United States thanks to its impressive scope, large cast, extremely sophisticated effects, and the unassailable respectability of its literary source. It is an early example of consummate form and craftsmanship, full of emotion and spectacle and edge-of-your-seat terror, and must have ignited jealousy, ambition, and imagination in any serious filmmaker who saw it. And, yes, its financial success didn’t hurt at all.

In 1912, the business side of the American film industry was embroiled in a full-scale war between Thomas Edison’s iron-fisted Motion Picture Patents Company (MCCP, or simply “The Trust”) and dozens of tiny independents trying to carve out their own share of the pie. The Trust was formed years earlier thanks to nearly a decade of abuse of the American legal system by Edison and his bottomless pockets. In short, Edison leveraged his patents into a string of endless lawsuits which, even when he lost (which he frequently did), threatened his competitors with bankruptcy.

In 1908, all of the major players were ready to capitulate, and the result was the MCCP: an alliance of 9 production companies in control of all the key patents for both making and exhibiting films. They limited sales of all American raw film stock to licensed producers only, and those producers’ films could only be handled by licensed distributors, and shown only by licensed exhibitors, who were permitted to show only licensed films. It was a good old-fashioned monopoly from top to bottom. Fortunately for the future of movies, Edison’s vision for the industry ultimately set the stage for his own demise.

The Trust sought to reshape film culture (and increase profits) by appealing to a better class of audience. On the distribution and exhibition side, this meant throwing their considerable weight, and best-quality prints, behind nicer theaters in upscale neighborhoods. On the production side, it meant attracting the desired audience with more sophisticated, respectable films. Longer films could even go on tour to appear in nicer venues and command higher ticket prices.

This strategy led them to simply ignore thousands of cheap, independent operations in smaller towns and poorer neighborhoods, expecting them to fold without the supply of fresh, new films that the MCCP now controlled almost entirely. These early nickelodeons made their money through sheer volume of patrons, which required a program of short films that changed on a daily basis. Their demands were therefore as enormous as their audiences’ appetites, and Edison hoped to starve them of their product.

However, far from killing off independent film production, this environment actually sparked greater ingenuity and innovation. For any filmmakers who could find a way around Edison’s “blockade” (as Robert Sklar so aptly terms it), these theaters represented an irresistibly lucrative market. Edison had effectively challenged all comers to outwit him or face extinction, and opportunistic entrepreneurs came swarming forth to face him, often by surreptitiously using Edison’s own patented technology. When Edison showed that he was not above responding with gangs of thugs, the independents simply traveled beyond his reach to out-of-the-way places that no one had ever heard of, like Hollywood, California.

While Edison steadily lost ground to the hydra, the MCCP production companies hummed happily along under his protective umbrella. The Trust largely avoided doing anything radical, complacently sticking to what had worked in the past. One of the nine, however, showed an interest in feature-film production.

That company was Kalem, one of two smaller, newer studios (the other being Essanay) that managed to get into the MCCP. Like many similar organizations, it was founded and run by talented people who left more established companies to strike out on their own. Most of the key people at Kalem came from the stodgy Biograph Studios, another MCCP member. Biograph remained firmly opposed to the production of features until their most talented director rebelled and then departed a few years later.

Under more flexible leadership, Kalem was striking out down new avenues that few others had thought to explore. They played a major but inadvertent role in setting the legal precedent of purchasing film rights after losing a lawsuit brought by the estate of Lew Wallace over the successful, unauthorized 1907 production of Ben-Hur. Their more deliberate contributions included being among the first to pursue year-round production by establishing a studio in a favorable climate.

More importantly, in 1910 Kalem became the first company to travel outside the United States to shoot on location, filming a whole series of shorts in Ireland. The next year, they did it again, to increased acclaim. Audiences and critics nicknamed the travelers “the O’Kalems,” and seemed eager for more. A few months later, with sights set still higher, Gene Gauntier, Kalem’s leading actress and screenwriter, and Sidney Olcott, the company’s principal director, led a crew to the Middle East to film the five-reel From the Manger to the Cross, by far their most formidable undertaking yet.

Unfortunately, the creative spirit of the film seems to have largely been exhausted by this idea. In most other respects, the film is somewhat humdrum, though it may have seemed a bit less-so at the time. Previous Jesus films, in addition to being shorter, hadn’t attempted any narrative, simply staging major scenes from the Gospels “in tableau” instead. From the Manger to the Cross does manage a certain narrative flow, but it still feels more like a series of loosely-related scenes cobbled together.

This is partially because the film is divided into clearly labeled chapters, marked by elegantly illustrated title cards with, for instance, the wise men following the star introducing the Nativity segment. Each individual scene is also introduced by a Bible verse, which may or may not set-up what is about to happen or connect to what came before. I suspect that any audience unfamiliar with the Gospels would find the story somewhat difficult to follow in its particulars, though not the overall arc, without additional exposition.

The film begins with a scene of Mary, played by Gauntier (also the film’s writer), carrying a water jar on her head, briefly introducing her character before she is visited by an angel. All of the events surrounding the Nativity are depicted, and then Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus escape to Egypt, where they do a little sight-seeing at the Sphinx and the Pyramids. Location check! This is likely one of the first times those landmarks were ever filmed.

A few transitional shots (most notably one of a young Christ carrying a beam over one shoulder, casting the shadow of a cross portentously on the ground) connect to Jesus’ encounter with the temple leaders at age 12, in which the young actor chiefly manages to look insufferably self-satisfied. Then, the film skips rapidly on to Jesus’ introduction (though not his baptism) by a suitably wild-looking John the Baptist, and his ministry begins.

The second third of the movie depicts the calling of the disciples and a long string of miracles. The focus is on events that can be effectively staged without dialogue, so the Jesus of this film doesn’t do a lot of preaching or teaching, and when he does, there aren’t any title cards for what he is saying.  Jesus mostly seems to spend his time bumping into people who need to be healed. All of the miracles the film shows are various examples of healing, with three exceptions:

First, Jesus turns water into wine at the wedding in Cana, though this comes after a healing miracle for some reason. Second, he walks on water for no apparent reason. Literally, the title card says, “And in the fourth watch of the night Jesus went unto them, walking on the sea. Matt. XIV:25.” Then, Jesus walks directly across the screen, superimposed over a shot of the water, and the film moves directly to another healing scene without showing where he was walking or why or what he did there.

Third, probably the best scenes in the film are those surrounding the resurrection of Lazarus. Jesus weeps piteously when he hears the news of Lazarus’ death (in a well-staged shot just outside of Jersualem), in one of the few moments that has more emotion than emoting. He journeys to the tomb and calls Lazarus forth, looking very much as you’d expect someone who was just dead to look, while everyone else appears suitably freaked out. It is a very dramatic rendering of what is surely the most dramatic of Christ’s miracles, and one of the few genuinely cinematic occurrences in the film.

Finally, the last third of the film begins with the triumphal entry into Jerusalem and Jesus clearing the temple. The temple incident is depicted as the chief motivation for the plot to put him to death, which begins to take shape at this point. We get the Last Supper, various scenes of trial and torture (some quite graphic, particularly the scourging scene), and finally, the Crucifixion. As the title indicates, the film ends with Christ’s death. The final shot is of Jesus going limp on the cross, followed by a title card with the text of John 3:16.

With their feature-length Jesus film in the can, the Kalem players returned to America to find that Kalem had been named as a defendant in a suit brought by the attorney general of the United States. Four short years after the consolidation of the MCCP, the independents had fought their way to control of nearly half of the American market, and The Trust had suddenly become a convenient political target. Democratic presidential candidate Woodrow Wilson, savaging his opponents, Taft and Roosevelt, for their comfortable relationship with big business, had turned Edison’s movie monopoly into an election issue. In response, the Republican administration finally targeted The Trust for violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act (which seems like a bit of a no-brainer).

As Robert Sklar explains in Movie-Made America:

No other industry, after all, was as vulnerable, or regarded with as great suspicion by the middle-class public, for whose votes the parties were competing. In its defense the [MCCP] argued that the controls it imposed were necessary […] to end the legal conflicts that were diverting their energies from making better pictures, and to protect the morals of the public, as evidenced by their cooperation with the National Board of Review.

As if to add insult to injury, Carl Laemmle, de facto leader of the opposition to The Trust, supported Wilson’s campaign with the new power of the motion picture, producing antitrust political ads through his newly-founded “Universal Film and Manufacturing Company.” The final nail sank into the coffin when The Trust finally lost its case in federal court in 1915 and was forced to dissolve, but by then it had already lost the battle for the industry on virtually every other front.

As for Kalem’s Jesus film, sheer longevity testifies to its significance, and it is widely regarded as the most important silent-era film about the life of Jesus Christ. The depiction of Jesus in such a vulgar medium as “the movies” generated some controversy, and the omission of the Resurrection, for which I have found no explanation, also raised eyebrows.

Still, if some thought it lowered the standing of its principal character, many others felt that it elevated the medium of film. A resurrection sequence, with a completely different actor in the lead, was added some years later, and music and basic sound effects were included after the arrival of synchronous sound. These additions indicate an ongoing demand for the film, and it remained popular in churches and with missionaries for decades after its initial release.

From the Manger to the Cross is indicative of the MCCP’s attempt to reach an audience that had stayed out of the cheap nickelodeons, and even (in many cases) railed against them. The film remains anchored to the biblical text, to the point of being weighed down by quoting it. The extra expense of filming in the Holy Land was a smart gamble for a more cultured class of movie patron, combining the educational qualities of the travelogue with the seriousness implied by authenticity. The film’s visual look, including costumes and sets, was based on “Vie de Notre Seigneur, Jesus Christ,” a series of hundreds of paintings by James Tissot that were exhibited in Paris, London, and New York throughout the late 1890s before taking up permanent residence in the Brooklyn Museum, where they would have been familiar to the upper-class public.

The result is a relic of a time just before the movies became what they would essentially remain up through the present. Helen Geib amusingly observes that, “To watch From the Manger today is to be reminded that the course of development of the feature film was not predetermined. Artistically this film is an evolutionary dead-end; it is a Neanderthal where a competing work by Ince or Griffith is an early Homo Sapien.”

But the analogy is not a perfect one. Certainly, the moribund MCCP fell before the superior adaptability of the American independents, but From the Manger to the Cross, while it is a fossil, is undoubtedly a transitional fossil, and not so different from a type of film that still exists now: the prestige picture. Even in 1912, prestige didn’t necessarily translate into profits, as one exhibitor lamented a few weeks after the film opened:

Fact of the matter is, folks in this town don’t care for the big educationals and classics. They want short snappy stuff, a live Essanay or Edison comedy, a spirited Kalem railroad or adventure film, but let me advertise a religious piece or Shakespeare and it means an off day in the box office.

Some things really never change.

*A quick note about “oldest” surviving American films: In 1996, much to everyone’s surprise and delight, the American Film Institute acquired a complete print of The Life and Death of King Richard III, based on the Shakespeare play, and it was declared the oldest American feature that has survived intact. Richard III was released on October 15, 1912. From the Manger to the Cross premiered on October 3, 1912, but the premier was in the UK (probably shown en-route back from Ottoman-controlled Palestine). The American premier, in New York, is variously listed as October 14 and October 17, which would seem to place the status of “oldest film” in some dispute, were it not for the word “intact.” The surviving copy of From the Manger to the Cross may be the 1919 re-release “edited and presented by” Vitagraph Studios (which ultimately acquired Kalem late in the decade). It is difficult to know exactly what changes, however minor, were made to the 1912 original at any given point, but this effectively removes the film from the running.

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~ by Jared on August 28, 2012.

2 Responses to “American Movie: From the Manger to the Cross (1912)”

  1. […] locations in the Middle East, a major innovation at the time. You can read a lot more about it here, but the upshot of it is, unless you have a personal interest in film history or Bible films, […]

  2. […] many more stretching back even further. One of the oldest surviving feature films in existence, From the Manger to the Cross, is a Jesus movie from 1912, and aside from cosmetic elements like the addition of color and sound, […]

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