I’ll fully admit to this being a bit of a compromise. There was one serial I wanted to have on this list (I’m sure everyone who knows me or the blog knows exactly which one it is), but it wasn’t from 1913. And the year it came out, there’s a choice that has to be used, which means I wasn’t able to.
So, I compromised and put my serial here. Which actually works out. Since 1913 isn’t the strongest of years. There’s no definitive choice. Plus it’s perfectly situated between the two-reel films and features, which works given the type of film the serial is.
And plus, serials are such an important part of film history, and are essentially the forerunners of television, so they had to be represented somewhere. And this serial is really famous and was directed by the same guy who directed the serial I wanted to use, so really it all worked out. (more…)
This movie is a masterpiece.
I knew nothing of this movie until I took a class specifically on silent film my junior year. It was introduced to me (as I’m sure it’s usually introduced to people), as a huge influence on Scorsese. And when you see it, you can tell. This is the original New York gangster picture. And it really just jumps off the screen, even though it was made now over 100 years ago. It’s absolutely tremendous.
It’s a simple story. Poor couple in New York, in love. He’s a musician, and she… pretty much sits around the apartment with “ma.” (But since all Ma does is sit around in a chair in the center of the frame, we know she’ll be dead before the end of the movie. Which, pro tip… if any character in a movie pre-1915 is sitting lethargically in a chair or laying down in a bed in the front of the frame… they’re going to die.) There’s actually a great shot at the beginning of the movie where we have this whole scene with the two of them talking, and then he leaves and we realize, “Holy fuck, there’s an old woman who’s been sitting in a chair in the room right behind where they were standing the entire time.”
Which is something I like to see in all my movies. (more…)
This is a combination of a personal choice, a logical choice and a “what the hell else” choice.
1911 really doesn’t have too many choices. At this point, the one to two reel films are in full effect, and people have that stuff down pat. They know how to make them. Kind of like how, by 1924/25, people knew how to make silent features. It was down to a science. And they could just churn them out. So really the only choice was picking one of those that’s memorable, which most likely would’ve ended up with another D.W. Griffith choice. And I already said, I want more difficult choices, and I want to mix things up when I can.
Plus, it’s not like this is a strange choice at all. L’Inferno is one of the first feature films ever made. It’s 68 minutes long (and to be a feature, you have to be an hour long. Those are the rules. They wrote them on stone tablets and Walt Disney curb stomped a Jew on them. Or something like that), and is released four years prior to the film most people think about when they think about the “first” feature film. (I’m talking, of course, about Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood.)
This was a blockbuster film for its time. And was the first feature-length film made in Italy, which is kind of a grande deal. (more…)
This film is a wonderful example of the unexpectedness of film. It really shows you how you never know what you’re going to get once the cameras are rolling.
The film seems as though it was originally planned as something to show you an airplane taking off and flying around. Air travel was distinctly new at this time, which is why it hadn’t been filmed before this. The Wright brothers only flew in 1903, and planes had only been manufactured for less than 7 years. So this film was a bit of a return to the cinema of attractions/actuality days in that they were going to show you a plane taking off for nothing more than pure wonderment.
Because – yeah. If you lived in the places these movies were shown… New York City, Chicago, etc, then you had almost zero chance of seeing planes take off on a regular basis. Not many people did. So here, you’d be able to actually see one take off. Which would be awesome. That’s how they envisioned this film.
Unfortunately, a lot of films are envisioned one way and turn out as something else.
How else do you explain The Wicker Man? (more…)
I love this movie, so much. To the point where even people who barely watch movies know about this and/or have seen it purely because I made them. It’s a brilliant movie. And shit, they even referenced it in Wall-E. And who are we to argue with that?
It’s another D.W. Griffith film, and what can I say? The man just made iconic movies. It’s another one of those “message” films, that is ultimately about something wrong with society. Though this one is pretty overt about it, rather than getting to its point later on, like The Kleptomaniac did.
It starts (and ends) with one of the most famous shots in all of cinema. And it’s actually a very well-structured film. (more…)
All right, now we’re changing eras. Or, at least, eras within the eras. Since we’re still in the silent era. But now we’re getting into the one-reel era.
If you’ve studied silent film, and have gotten into this era, the one name you’re going to hear all the time is D.W Griffith. Academically speaking, he’s the one person people use as the example of film growing from five minutes to feature length. Mostly because he was responsible for pioneering certain camera techniques and narrative devices. (Either that or he’s the only one whose films are left standing who used them.)
He started making movies in 1908, and began with this one, The Adventures of Dollie. (He also did act in a movie before this, though. Called Rescued from an Eagles Nest, where he, no joke, fights with an eagle who steals a baby. It’s awesome.) But, from here on through his first features, he made what must have been a hundred short films. And they’re really great examples of staging, storytelling, and even basic expansion of narrative. (more…)
1907 was kind of a no brainer year for me. There wasn’t too much to choose from, and essentially I was choosing between films built around a joke (of sorts), so I figured, why not go with this one?
This is a simple film. One that, when shown in film classes during those days when you burn through a bunch of silent films, will always elicit a positive reaction. Basically, the premise is – a guy plays a joke on his nephew at dinner. He puts a bunch of pepper in the kid’s food, causing the kid to start sneezing. And it’s hilarious to him. So, in revenge, the son puts pepper on everything the guy owns. This causes him to sneeze so violently that everything in the room shakes and gets knocked over.
And the rest of the film is nothing but this guy going around different places, sneezing more violently throughout the rest of the day. It’s literally a series of, “Let’s watch the guy sneeze and blow out some windows,” “Now let’s see him blow through a fence.” And it gets increasingly violent and more interesting, to the point where they really start to play with form. (more…)
This feels like a late addition. I’m trying to remember what I had for this year before this came on. I think it was A Trip Down Market Street, so I could talk about the actuality and maybe mention the Phantom Ride films as well. But this is basically the same thing and adds a lot more novelty to it.
Now that I’m looking, other options were other Melies films (redundant), The ‘?’ Motorist (which is nice, but more of a combination trick film and fantasy film), and Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (which doesn’t provide much to talk about). This one really manages to check all the boxes.
This film is basically one of the first documentaries. The great San Francisco Earthquake happened in 1906 (which became the climax of its own film, thirty years later, starring Clark Gable, Jeanette MacDonald and Spencer Tracy), and after it was over, someone took a camera and started filming all of the destruction. So they actively thought, “Let’s document this on film.” Which is essentially what a documentary is. And it captures incredible footage for the time of the destruction caused by the earthquake. (more…)
The Kleptomaniac is a really interesting film. It’s one of the first overt “problem” films. That is to say, it’s a film that highlights an injustice that is carried out daily in America, and attempts to shine a light in it through the medium of film. Think of this as an extended Crying Indian commercial.
It really stands out among this era, because it really packs quite a punch in its brief run time. Sure, it’s not the greatest film, staging-wise, and it’s nearly impossible to figure out what’s going on unless you’re really paying attention, but the end of the movie is really quite powerful, and it’s that final image that we’re left with that moves it ahead of the pack of anything else I could have chosen this year.
The film essentially highlights two women. The first is a rich woman, who goes out shopping. And while she is out shopping, she (because she is a kleptomaniac, apparently), can’t help but shoplift an expensive item from a store. This scene is done entirely in a single take, and I’m telling you, with so many people moving around the frame at once, it’s either completely stupid or completely brilliant staging. Because either it’s a slice of life, or this is them really not realizing we won’t be able to figure out who the woman we’re supposed to be watching is among the people in the frame. (more…)
And we’re back to Papa Georges.
I mentioned in my Trip to the Moon article that Melies’ films can essentially be broken down into two categories – spectacles and trick films. This would be the latter category.
The trick film is essentially… editing. It’s about people who learned what editing is and what it can do before everyone else did. Edison pretty much just showed you stuff. Here’s a cockfight, here’s a staged boxing match. And now here’s a short film about people kissing in a train while it’s going through a tunnel. He didn’t really branch out so much in terms of storytelling. And it’s people like Melies, and some of the filmmakers who experimented with form (which we saw with films like How It Feels to Be Run Over and The Big Swallow) that really started to figure out the many ways there are to tell a story on film.
Essentially the idea behind the trick film is, when you stop cranking the camera, the movie stops. So you can stop your movie at any point, and start it up whenever you want. And when you move things during that time, it appears as if they’ve disappeared. Now, we can do it with a pause button. So filmmakers who understood the power of editing could use these tricks to their advantage. That’s entirely what this movie is. A series of editing tricks. (more…)
It’s nice to have certain years where you know there’s only a single choice. It’s always nice to have anchors. For 1903, this is the only choice. This is one of the five most important films made before 1910. This is one of the ten most important films of the entire silent era.
And you know this movie. Even if you haven’t seen it, you know it. (Ever see Goodfellas? Then you recognize the image that was the Pic of the Day.) (Which is also a nice little coincidence… two movies on consecutive days referenced in Martin Scorsese films. And if you really wanted to know how important and awesome the silent era is, know that Martin Scorsese built an entire film around the era, and references the era constantly. And if it’s good enough for a man considered the greatest living director, it’s good enough for you and your “Raiders of the Lost Ark is the best movie ever made” watching ass.)
Aside from Georges Melies, no one was working this long in 1903. In terms of American filmmaking, maybe five, six minutes was as long as you were gonna get. And even then, there weren’t that many at the time. That’s one of the reasons this film is considered so much of a milestone. It’s ten minutes, and tells a complete story. (Plus it’s also one of the first westerns ever made, and considering that is the American genre, that’s a huge deal in and of itself.)
Porter makes use of multiple locations, even multiple characters, and manages to use editing and staging to tell a complete story in an era that really doesn’t do much of that, and doesn’t try to do that. This would be like, during the era where everyone was crawling, or half fish-people or whatever, the first dude to get up and start walking around. Or, the first monkey in 2001 to pick up the bone and beat the other monkey to death with it. It’s a real achievement. (more…)
There was really only one choice for 1902. Put it this way… the movie Hugo is basically a love letter to this film. This is a movie that came within about twenty feet of Best Picture, and the reason it exists (well… the reason the book the movie is based on exists) is because of this movie. Essentially.
And it’s iconic and all of that. You can’t make it out of a film history class without seeing this image. Hell, you probably can’t make it through life without seeing this image. (Because if you’ve seen The Honeymooners… they got that from this.) I knew this image from when I was like, 8, or something. I got a puzzle of all famous movie people and images and stuff, and right at the top was this.
So, if you’re going to talk about the early silent era, that is, pre-1908, you’re going to come up with about four or five names. Edison, Lumiere, William K.L. Dickson, and Georges Méliès are the immediate four that you will always come up with. The others are important, but not as important as these four. Plus, given what little survives of this era, I’m pretty sure at least 80% of all surviving films from 1895-1903 are entirely Edison, Lumiere or Melies films. It’s astounding how many Melies movies have survived. I must have seen at least fifty of this dude’s films. (more…)