Monday, August 24, 2015

The Silent Image In Modern Medium: "Uncle Grandpa" and The Funny Face Party

I just happened to be watching a streaming episode of the very quirky and strangely entertaining cartoon Uncle Grandpa yesterday, which features the funny face party of season one.  I immediately thought of  a Georges Melies film of 1901 that goes by several names, the two most famous being The Man With A Rubber Head or The India Rubber Head (L'homme á la téte de caoutchouc) , which had to be both the inspiration for the episode and an out and out homage to the Melies.  Both are hilarious and speak for themselves as imagery.  

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Classic Cover: Moving Picture World

Cover of the independent film journal "Moving Picture World" from January 4, 1913 at it's height of popularity and significant influence.  For a brief history, click here.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Magical Magic Laterners

Vintage English illustration claiming Friar and Philosopher Roger Bacon created the first Magic Lantern in the 13th century.  From Princeton's Cotsen Children's Library
In our modern world filled with the moving images everywhere from phone to live streaming, it's hard to appreciate the beginnings of the motion picture.  When most are asked to conjure up where they think movies came from, the first thing that comes to mind is that photography came first.  In fact, projection came first and pre-dated actual photography by around 2 full centuries.

Advertisement for a triple lensed "Triple Lantern" projector from  1886 London newspaper.  The device featured "transitional dissolve," which is achieved through it's three lenses. Found on Wikipedia Page.

The question as to the true inventor of the first projection magic lantern is a bit veiled in historical mystery and slight controversy as what is properly the first true lensed projection device, however, it is popularly attributed to 17th century Dutch astronomer and mathematician Christian Huygens, who is said to have invented it to amuse his children.  [Just as an aside, with a look at fire lamp lit Magic Lanterns, it is easy to imagine that lantern's of the type illustrated above could have been invented much earlier--whether Roger Bacon actually achieved this can not be known at this time--he is credited with all sorts of "magical" discoveries and inventions--some of which he most certainly had nothing to do with. All one would need is a metal lamp with a carved out image in the middle front section--with a candle providing the light from within.]  By the 18th century, these machines were even employed in seances to help dupe the unwary into seeing "real ghosts."

A painted glass slide for early Magic An example of a simple story of a boy falling into a honey pot.

The early lanterns made use of painted glass panels that were drawn across the light source and with the use of lenses, then projected at a distance.  As with the panel above, they told cute little stories mostly intended for children.  Again, this is two centuries before photography.  Of course, with the invention of photography, the advancement in these early slide projectors was quite rapid. And with the invention of, by Muybridge, of true series photography, it is not hard to see where inventors such as Edison and his cohorts in the US, and others such as the Lumiere Bros. in France already had a concept of true moving picture through projection (though early films made use of other forms of viewing apparati--such as the Kinetoscope).  In fact, these machines could actually project early forms of motion photography.  Thus the movies actually began with projection and not photography. It is also worth noting that once the machines were used to project photographs, the notion of hand coloring individual photo stills caught on almost instantly--thus the notion of hand coloring early movies came from this technology as well.  To see these machines is action, please check out this fine page from Jack & Beverly's Optical Toys.

Lamp lit Magic Lantern (from the collection of the Children's Museum, Indianopolis.

A Magic Lantern dating from 1818, found in the collections of Musée des Arts et Métiers in Paris

A primitive plate Lantern found in a museum in Wymondham, England

A Lantern owned by the Smithsonian

A Lantern in a collection from The Netherlands

A Biunial Lantern

A Triunial Lantern from the collection of the Museum Victoria, Australia

Another much earlier Lantern in the Museum Victoria collection.

Another Museum Victoria lantern, much, much later; dating from between 1913 to 1920, note that it's electric.

For More:  Magic Lantern Society
                  Lantern Gallery From The Netherlands

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The MGM Logo Evolution Starting In 1917

I'm posting this for my son, who is a little logo freak!  So, this one is for "Peanut" AKA Mr. P.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

The Next Studio Innovation: Glass Ceilings

Interior of a very early glass ceiling studio
When you need lighting--what better way to get it than from the sun?  While the very first studio, Edison's Black Maria, was covered completely in tar paper and had more in common with early photographic rooms in the 1830's than it did with what we would think of as a film production studio, it quickly became clear (literally) that as films got longer in length, a better source of lighting was required and artificial light was not really an option given the technology of the day (the Black Maria did actually have a roof that could be opened to the sun).  Glass ceilings were the solution.  As they evolved some studios were eventually made entirely of glass plates. And thus became known as "greenhouse studios."

Back lot of a studio in Fort Lee NJ after 1915.  Not the multiple large glass plated buildings.

As the studio systems and company began their permanent westward migration out to California, many of these massive structures left behind on the east coast were then converted into storage space for early films (note:  early Hollywood had some glass paneled studios of their own in the early days).  This proved to be disastrous for FOX, when in 1937 the nitrate film stored a New Jersey facility spontaneously caught fire and burned almost the entire FOX silent catalog (almost all of Theda Bara vamp films for them went up in flames), the fire also claimed the life of one person, and severely injured two more (anyone who has seen Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, is familiar with the extreme flammability of nitrate film!).

Kinda Spooky!  The very first Universal studio under construction on Main Street in Fort Lee, NJ.  It's easy to see where the glass paneling is meant to go.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


Formerly Lost Films

A nearly complete copy was found in Russia in a condensed featurized format formerly owned by famed silent Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein.  The feature is minus the spy material--evidently removed because it was considered propaganda.  Eisenstein was a huge fan of star Pearl White.  A newly restored copy was released on DVD May 25, 2015.  Only a couple of the original intact episodes are known to have survived.  Filmed in the "first Hollywood" Fort Lee, NJ, directed by George B. Seitz for Astra Film, distributed by the famous Pathé Fréres.  

A nearly complete copy of this 15 part serial directed by Aubrey M. Kennedy (who would go on to be a major studio executive at Goldwyn) was found in 2003 in the home of a former projectionist in Pennsylvania.  One reel was completely deteriorated, but most of the rest of series was there.  Curiously, the film had been edited by the projectionist himself to turn it into a continuous feature; so other parts of some episodes appear missing owed to their having been cut in the editing process.  This is just a theory.  Nonetheless, what was left was restorable and has been released on DVD, but is unavailable as of this writing.  This is remarkable for another historical reason, as it represents the earliest surviving film footage of Boris Karloff, who plays a Mexican in a bar in the 2nd episode.

This Frank Capra romantic comedy was famously lost until a nitrate print was discovered in the 1990's in France's national Cinematheque Francais.  Further print material were located in the Centeca de Bologna.  Restoration efforts were undertaken with great success.  The Academy Film Archive now houses a nearly complete print.  About 5 minutes of the film remains missing.  

For decades, Fritz Lang's Metropolis was the most famous partially lost film (and about 5% of the original uncut film is still missing).  Lang was insistent on his personal hand in editing the film to his desired length and a look--his Citizen Kane long before their WAS a Citizen Kane.  One of the major criticisms of the film upon it's release was that it was simply too long; which lead to efforts to cut it to lengths at theaters to a more acceptable running time.  This of course, incensed Lang; and also lead to the inevitable, that the original edit of the film would be lost to history.  Which, sure enough, it was.  That is, until 2008, when a well worn and damaged print of Lang's original cut of the film was discovered tucked away in a Museum in Argentina.  After two years of very slow and careful restoration, the restored print was returned to the silver screen on the 12th of February 2010 at simultaneous showings in Frankfurt and Berlin.  This film was later released on Blu Ray by Kino.  

This film represents on of the last films to be shot in the Technicolor Two-Strip Process and it was thought that the color print of the film was permanently lost, when in the 1950's studios began searching for a copy to transfer for print to be shown on television, one could not be found in any of the locations known to have had a copy.  Instead the surviving black and white version was used for broadcast.  People did not, however, stop looking.  The first glimmer of hope that copies did indeed survive came when the London Warner exchange reported that they had a copy that had been screened in the 1940's, long after all other prints were reported destroyed.  Then, at Technicolor labs itself another print was known to have been saved, and was, in fact, screened privately in the 1960's (that copy is now in the possession of the Academy Film Archive).  Finally, when Jack L. Warner died in 1978, he was found to have saved back a copy in his private collection.  That print was touched up and screened at Grauman's Chinese Theater in Hollywood, with Fay Wray in attendance.  The film has since been released on home entertainment mediums of all sorts, and regularly shown on television as well. 

Considered permanently lost, a copy was found in 1996 in, again, in Moscow by German film researchers that were searching Russian archives.  It was a deteriorated black and white copy, not an original nitrate (original nitrates in any condition are extremely rare!).  Curiously it had rushed new scenes added on and was renamed "Jerusalem's Storm."  A copy was successfully made, with scene corrections and re-tinting following the original tints from the 1920's.  In an very odd twist of fate, the proper corrections in scenes could be made because of detailed notes taken from German Censor's Archives, some of which reportedly included descriptions of "objectionable material" notes made by members of the Nazi party in Bavaria.  In that area, at the time, they had effectively had the film banned.  This one features the "in"famous actor Max Schreck, who is remembered now only as the vampire Count Orlok from Nosferatu (also from 1922).  Here he plays a templar.

Richard III (1912) IMDb

This was one of the most famously lost films in motion picture history!  Laments of it's loss to the world in it's entirety was written in numerous books on silent films in all aspects.  It's loss was early as well; it was reported permanently lost in 1922.  This again another story of a projectionist having a personal copy in their home.  A full print was discovered in the home a former Bluebird Theater projectionist William Buffum in Portland, Oregon--actually he donated his full nitrate (that's right NITRATE) copy of the film to the American Film Institute (it is unclear if he did, indeed, remember that he had the copy all along or not).  The AFI was able to successfully transfer the nitrate copy to a stable medium and retouched the tinting in the restoration process.  In June of 2001, Kino International released the film on DVD with a new soundtrack by famed film composer Ennio Morricone.  I have a blog post for a blogathon that I was privileged to be a participant in last year, that can be found here.  The film now represents the oldest surviving American feature length film and is thought to have been the world's first feature length film based on a Shakespeare play.

Victor Sjöström directed film from Sweden, that he starred in himself, was actually the very first film to be banned in Sweden.  The film was famously lost until 1979 when a copy was found in a archive somewhere in the U.S.  The film was restored and premiered in Stockholm on the 14th of October in 1980.


This Phil Rosen directed drama starred the like of Irene Rich and Clara Bow.  A print was discovered to have survived at Lobster Film in France.  No word on plans for restoration and release or screenings.

Considered another casualty of the infamous Fox Film fire, a copy of this lost anthology was discovered and is now in the considerable collection of films at the UCLA Film and Television Archive (note:  there isn't a great deal of information as to where the film turned up--it's possible that a copy had been at UCLA all along before someone rediscovered it there).  The film was directed by Charles Brabin, who was Theda Bara's husband.  It is a 3 part anthology that stars Estelle Taylor and Marc McDermott.  It's running time is 1 hour and 20 minutes.  As of this writing, it does not appear to have been released in any format for home viewing; but UCLA has screened it more than once.  

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

A Short Bit About Muybridge And The Horse Photography

The very earliest "movies" can be seen in the rise of something of a in-between technological advance in photography and true motion picture cameras:  it's called series photography and it's inventor was one Eadweard Muybridge (who was actually born in UK [Kingston-upon-Thames, England] as Edward Muggeridge.) 

Muybridge after the invention of series photography.

The first, and most famous of these, is the series of horse photographs dating from 1877 (see plate above).  Though photography had been around since the 1820's, the amount of exposure time needed to produce these images was rather encumbering in terms of portability (actually an understatement).  As the the 19th century advanced, so did technologies within the photographic world.  The reduction of exposure time from a full 15 minutes to 1/100 of a second by the 1870's, made photography a more portable and out door affair; however, it was really the change in photographic plates that made what Muybridge would conceive of as possible.  The introduction of gelatin dry plates made outdoor photography a much portable and cheaper affair (the plates before these had been wet silver plates, which didn't travel nearly as well and were much more expensive).  The new advances also improved the quality of outdoor photography especially.  

Another plate showing a series of horse photographs by Muybridge is states of motion, and one stationary photo, with measurements.
Still it took Muybridge some 5 years to work out how to achieve this (not that he was devoting his time during this period to just this venture--he traveled as a hired a photographer, amongst other things during the stretch).  It all started when he was hired in 1872 as a well known photographer by one Leland Stanford (tycoon and, yes, the namesake of the university) to prove that at some point in the stride, or gallop, of a horse, all four hoofs were off the ground at once.  It took until the summer of 1877 to pull this off.  He did so by setting up a string of electrically powered cameras at a racetrack in Sacramento California, pulling wires across the track at each camera so that when the animal ran through the string, the shutter would be tripped.  What he captured more than proved that horses do indeed have all four legs off the ground at times in full gallop; but it also sparked an idea.  By finding a way to arrange the photographs in an electrically controlled flip type machine (a perfection that he would later call a zoopraxiscope), he could actually show the animal and rider in motion.  Well hey presto, the motion picture industry was born.  Inventors like Edison, the Lumiére Brothers and others got their cogs turning independently from each other.  Taking photography to the next level of creating a moving picture which could be viewed without the use of a visible mechanism was the next stop.  Here come the movies.  Below is an embed that shows some of this horse photography in animated action.