Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1910s

I’ll probably say something like this more than once as we go along, but basically the most significant leap forward in movie history happened during the 1910s. It’s not quite as flashy or obvious as the transition to sound, color, wide screens, gimmicks like 3D, etc., but it’s hard to understate the change from 1910 to 1919.

In 1910, movies were short, less than 15 minutes. 1% of the films that year could be considered “features.” Consequently, stories were basic, simple, even simplistic. The people who made movies and appeared in them were anonymous. A variety of national cinemas were flourishing all over the world, but European cinema dominated. Thomas Edison and his Motion Picture Patents Company had a monopoly on most legitimate film production, distribution, and exhibition in the United States, though the industrious and inventive independents were still doing their own thing. The camera filmed scenes like a stage play, no moving and no zooming. Acting was exaggerated and histrionic.

By 1919, feature-length films had become the new norm, accounting for 50% of the releases that year, though most of them were still under an hour in length. Stories, and ways of telling them cinematically, had increased immeasurably in sophistication. The Movie Star had popped into existence, and names like Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin brought audiences into theaters in droves. Other people had their names in the credits as well, like directors D.W. Griffith and Thomas H. Ince. The Great War had handicapped European filmmaking severely, and American cinema had filled the vacuum. Edison’s monopoly had been legally and financially defeated, and the innovators ruled the field. Filmmakers had learned how to edit, and discovered the value of the close-up. Acting was more subtle, more natural.

So, what kinds of movies did they make in the 1910s? Well, basically I watched three different kinds of movies: serious adaptations, comedies of modern life, and tragedies of modern life. The first category is all about prestige: the Bible, Dante, Shakespeare. These are movies that say, “You can take us seriously as art because we were written by . . .” and although we still have those movies now, this was a decade when movies still needed that kind of leg-up with the culture (or, at least, with the cultured). As you also might expect, these films have, on the whole, very little life in them. Adaptation has come quite a long way since then, but in the days before sound, literary adaptation usually meant a piece of great art entombed in fragments in a piece of mediocre entertainment.

All of the life, naturally, exists in the films about modern life, whether comic or tragic. The cinema of the 1910s appears very socially conscious to my eyes now, probably because the social issues of the day stand out so sharply to me today. In particular, there is a significant concern with the gap between rich and poor, and especially with the plight of the underprivileged: immigrants, orphans, immigrant orphans. And there’s World War I, of course . . . well, “The Great War,” rather. That came up a bit, as well. Not a good time to be a German in America. Or anyone foreign, or especially ethnic, for that matter. There are issues that are part of the social consciousness, and then there are the issues of which society is completely unconscious.

Those are just a few of my impressions. I can’t boil a whole decade down to a few words based on a few movies, of course, but it was fascinating peek inside the times. This time travel thing is working out just the way I hoped. Here are some specifics about the movies that I watched:

L’Inferno (1911)

A lavish Italian adaptation of the great literary work by Dante Alighieri, this was the oldest feature film I could find. The use of special effects and sheer imagination provides a significant wow factor. Static shots and a lack of close-ups make things a bit dull at times, but are typical of the period. The recent DVD release features a score by Tangerine Dream, complete with choir singing Dante’s original text (translated) at key points, which is a nice touch for modern audiences.

From the Manger to the Cross (1912)

This is a straitlaced retelling of the life of Jesus Christ. It’s chief claim to fame, aside from extreme age, is its use of authentic 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, don’t bother. There is very little here that is of any interest to the casual viewer.

Traffic in Souls (1913)

A rather scary “social-awareness” film about the existence of white slavery (i.e. sex-trafficking), with the emphasis firmly on the “white” in terms of actual public interest. The surprisingly cynical plot posits a flawlessly-organized conspiracy that exists at every level of society. There is also excellent use of cross-cutting that generates significant suspense, and the combination of cutting-edge technique and commentary on contemporary life and culture make it easily one of the most significant films of its time.

The Squaw Man (1914)

Cecil B. DeMille’s first film, this is perhaps better known as the first feature film to be made in Hollywood. DeMille went on to successfully remake this movie two more times, a unique accomplishment in film history, but for the life of me, I can’t see what about the story appealed to him so much. A wrongfully-accused Englishman absconds to the American West in disgrace, has Western-ish adventures, becomes a semi-successful rancher, marries an Indian woman, and has a son. His foolish values bring tragedy on his self-sacrificing wife, but everything works out pretty well for him in the end, and its unclear which end we’re supposed to care about more.

The Italian (1915)

A vivacious Italian comes to America to make his fortune so he can marry the girl of his dreams. His shoe-shining brings enough money to send for her, and the two are married happily, but immigrant life is tough, and tragedy strikes. The Italian, once full of the joy of life, finds his spirit completely broken by the hardships and injustices of life in America. This is a hard-hitting, emotional look at the immigrant experience, heightened by the temporal closeness to its subject. This isn’t just historical commentary on an abstract past, its social commentary on a literal present.

King Lear (1916)

I began this film wondering what a silent filmmaker could have hoped to communicate of the magnificence of Shakespeare’s mastery of the English language, and I finished it wondering basically the same thing. The performances, featuring seasoned Shakespearean players, are about as good as they can be, which, without any dialogue, is really not that good. Still, a lack of monologues does condense things a good bit, and Lear’s story is easily told in its entirety in about an hour. So, even if it isn’t very good, it’s also not very long.

Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1917)

Child-like Mary Pickford is a poor girl from a large family sent to live with her grouchy aunts. Her mischievous but cheerful ways transform their lives and the lives of the town in the usual fashion for stories of this nature. There is some good fun here, mostly thanks to Pickford’s boundless charm and energy, despite a story that, even in 1917, was utterly cliche. Pickford made a career out of playing this role over and over again, but watching her play it, you can see how achieved such popularity.

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Charlie Chaplin tramp-walks his way through the trenches of the Great War, to the amusement of all. Accidentally volunteering for an assignment behind enemy lines, he saves a captured comrade (twice), romances a French girl, and captures The Kaiser himself! Too bad it all turns out to be a dream he’s having in his cot back at boot camp. This film, a fascinating look at WWI while it was still ongoing, studiously avoids showing combat, and walks a thin line between comedy and pathos in depicting the misery of trench-warfare. Interesting stuff, and also a lot of fun. You can always count on Chaplin for some big laughs.

Daddy-Long-Legs (1919)

Mary Pickford is at it again, this time as a young orphan living a hard-knock life before her innate beauty and cleverness win her a wealthy patron and a college education. There’s a thick undercurrent of social commentary throughout the first half of this movie, but it is eventually set aside in favor of romantic melodrama. One might even say that a serious consideration of class difference takes a backseat to the American myth of success through talent and hard-work. But then, one might be looking a bit too deeply into shallow waters.

I’m off to the Roaring Twenties!

~ by Jared on September 3, 2012.

One Response to “Movie Screen, Time Machine: The 1910s”

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