September 30, 2009  |  An Auteurist History of Film
An Auteurist History of Film: “Lesser-Known Pioneers of Cinema”

Charles Silver, a curator in MoMA’s Department of Film, presents a series of writings to supplement the film exhibition An Auteurist History of Film. The following post accompanies the "Lesser-Known Pioneers of Cinema" program, which screens on September 30 and October 1 in Theater 3 and October 2 in Theater 2.

A great number of films were made before D. W. Griffith came along in 1908, and a great number of these have been lost. So piecing together the puzzle of this early period is always going to be unsatisfactory. Still, enough survives to try to give some credit to at least a few of the worthy pioneers.

Ferdinand Zecca (1864–1947) would turn out to be a rival of Georges Méliès (whose work will be screened next week). Much of his work was “derivative” (stolen), and he finally found his true calling as head of Pathé, a career path that included a distribution stint in New Jersey. In a matter of months, Alice Guy (after 1907, Alice Guy-Blaché) (1873–1968) went from being a secretary at Gaumont to becoming the world’s first female director. At one point she was, in effect, the production head of that venerable studio—the only studio from the period that’s still in existence today. Coming to America, Alice and her husband Herbert Blaché established their own studio, Solax, in Flushing, Queens. She continued to make films for various studios after Solax (like Edison, Biograph, Thanhouser, and others before it) failed. Following her divorce in 1922 she returned to France where she had been all but forgotten. After failing to get work, she lived out her long life mostly unknown, although she did receive the Legion of Honor in 1953. She finally died in Mahwah, New Jersey, at age ninety-five. Frankly, little is known of her films (MoMA has hardly any in its collection), but this will soon be remedied by an exhibition of restored films to be exhibited at the Whitney Museum beginning on November 6.

Religious subjects were popular with film audiences, who perhaps had to rationalize their patronage of this lowly art form with higher aspirations. Both of the two Christ films in this screening (by Zecca, 1902, and Guy, 1906) are probably more typical of the limitations of the period than of either director’s later output, and it is hard to draw any major conclusions on either director’s talent. Both engage in respectful tableaux that emphasize the static nature of the camerawork and the overly grand gestures of the actors. The use of exteriors helps lend authenticity, and sometimes the elaborate sets contribute to a fairly imaginative effort at creating depth of field. For delicate sensibilities, the scourging of Jesus is like a walk in the park compared to the standards later set by Mel Gibson. Méliès-esque special effects like superimpositions, used elsewhere for magic and comedy, here become means of expressing the sacred and holy. Contemporary audiences probably found both films ambitious and spectacular, and one assumes that many a pastor went to considerable trouble to show them in their churches whenever attendance at their sermons flagged. (One wonders if they would appreciate the irony of the cinema’s soon becoming the alternative religion of the twentieth century.) A similar phenomenon would occur in the 1960s, when a non-theatrical distributor by whom I was employed made a mint from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Gospel According to Saint Matthew, in spite of the director’s Marxism and homosexuality.

J. Stuart Blackton (1875–1941) was born in Britain, but he had a fortuitous meeting with Thomas Edison as a young man in New York. With two other men he formed the Vitagraph Company, which soon led to the construction of a glass-enclosed studio in Brooklyn. (The building still stands on Avenue M). Vitagraph’s output was eclectic, ranging from pseudo-newsreels to animation, and Blackton pioneered comedy before Mack Sennett. As film historian Ephraim Katz suggests, “Next to Griffith, Blackton was probably the most innovative and creative force in the development of the motion picture art.” He also brought culture and respectability to film through literary adaptations. His 1909 The Life of Moses is generally considered the first feature film, although it was released as a five-part serial. He was influential in experiments with sound and color film, but was forced to retire when Warner Bros. acquired Vitagraph in 1926. As with so many others of the time, his status as an auteur is hard to evaluate, and like Thomas Ince, he had a diverse portfolio that often included being a director, producer (closely supervising the nominal director of important films), actor, animator, editor, and entrepreneur. Which hat he may have been wearing on a given day on a given film is difficult to ascertain. Albert E. Smith, Blackton’s business partner, summed things up by saying, “Griffith was like an artist who paints one picture—Vitagraph was like a magazine or a newspaper, who has a clientele that it must furnish a supply to regularly.” Highly recommended is Anthony Slide’s book The BIG V: A History of the Vitagraph Company.

In any case, The Automobile Thieves (aka The Bold Bank Robbery) and Francesca di Rimini should be seen as a token marking of Blackton’s place, rather than as a measure of his talent. The former film reflects the popularity of crime films (seven years after Porter’s The Great Train Robbery), with its excessive gunplay and moving-camera chase scene, as well as a suggestion that the automobile was still as novel as movies themselves. Griffith’s The Lonely Villa (1909) was already further advanced, and he would lend more sophistication, credibility, and close-ups—not to mention fewer histrionics—to the genre with The Lonedale Operator (1911) and An Unseen Enemy (1912). Look for the shadow of the cranking cameraman, an indication of how casually these films were produced. Francesca, one of Vitagaph’s popularized “classics,” has the earmarks of a low-budget Victorian stage production.

Wallace McCutcheon, the Biograph house director before Griffith, is of slight importance. As Eileen Bowser has suggested, his At the Crossroads of Life “is of interest chiefly because it shows the primitive state of most film-making at the time.” She suggests that Griffith might have drawn on his personal experience as a stage actor in writing the scenario and (over)playing the stage-door seducer. (McCutcheon was to return to his own theatrical roots shortly.) The film comes alive for a single exterior shot and clearly illustrates how quickly Griffith would, in the months ahead, transform the medium. Old Isaacs, the Pawnbroker is unabashed in its use of caricature, but this was to remain a staple of melodrama even into the sound era. Some of the ugliness of life is reflected in the ugliness of the mise-en-scène, but there is a certain redemptive quality to the film in having the kindly old Jew, however stereotyped, come to the rescue. It is also an instructive lesson in film preservation to see the effects of nitrate deterioration, which decimated much of the imagery before it could be salvaged by transference to a more durable film stock. Only weeks after At the Crossroads of Life, Griffith would cross his personal Rubicon and move behind the camera.