Seeing the Light: Serge Bromberg Unveils Cinematic Treasures by the Seine

sergenitrateThe film strip burst into a jet of bright yellow flame, cutting into the damp riverside air. As photographers snapped furiously, the nitrate exhaled its cloud of potentially toxic heat, sending waves of undulating shadows across the huge inflatable screen.

These pyrotechnics put the literal flamme in Serge Bromberg’s show Retour de Flamme—the play on words also means “backfire” or “flashback”—an anecdotal foray into film history through rare and recently discovered old movies.

When Bromberg lights up some nitrate stock, he’s not just performing a parlor trick. Rather, he’s reminding audiences of what might have happened to many of the precious films that he has spent his life hunting. As the director, producer, and founder of Lobster Films explained, “Classic cinema is an endangered part of our heritage. About half of the movies ever made have been lost.”

However, last night at the Berges de Seine Bromberg gave the crowd hope for the future of film preservation. Movies consigned to oblivion until a few months ago—or even a few weeks ago—saw the light again. And, more important, those movies elicited laughter and gasps of excitement from their spectators. Projected onto an enormous blow-up screen and accompanied on a piano by Bromberg, the strange assortment of once-lost films did what they were intended to, what their makers wanted them to: they entertained.

If movies have souls, and I suspect that they do, a few more just escaped from limbo.

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The presentation opened with “Paris sous les eaux,” an actualité documenting conditions in the city following the calamitous 1910 flood. As the footage showed, entire streets were submerged, turning Paris into a temporary Venice, only navigable by boats. Groups of mustachioed municipal workers paddled down the rues, pushing debris aside to clear passage.

Diving into his selections, Bromberg celebrated the centennial of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp by screening Lobster Films’ new restoration of the two-reeler A Night in the Show (1915). The rowdy comedy showcases early Chaplin at his most disruptive, playing a tuxedo-clad drunk bent on upstaging a vaudeville performance with his own antics.

anightintheshowAs Bromberg noted, from 1908 to 1913 Chaplin’s performance of an almost identical scenario in Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds sketch, a hit since 1904, gave the young comedian his first taste of fame and paved the way for his cinema debut. After establishing the Tramp as a character in 1914, Chaplin returned to material from his stage career, but altered the sketch enough to avoid being sued by Karno.

Remastered from many elements, including some from the Musée d’Art Moderne and the Cinémathèque Française, the image quality of A Night in the Show was astonishingly sharp. After years of fuzzy, crackly Chaplin viewings on YouTube, I was amazed to see every spangle on Edna Purviance’s headdress! Plus, the pearlescent clarity of the restoration brought out the surprisingly refined feel of the short comedy—making the slapstick bits that much more hilarious.

Next, Bromberg dazzled audiences with a world premiere. About a month ago, he stumbled across a length of film on an online auction site and bought it for 7 euros. Well, actually, with shipping it turned out to be 11 euros, but that’s still a small price to pay for a complete version of Émile Cohl’s Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908). The second animated cartoon ever made, this groundbreaking work was thought to exist only in damaged fragments before Bromberg’s discovery.

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Restored to its trippy glory, Le cauchmar de Fantoche or The Puppet’s Nightmare provokes a mean case of the heebie-jeebies. With a series of simple white figures on a black background, Cohl captured the bizarre logic of bad dreams where clocks turn into boogiemen, hats morph into prisons, and huge lobster claws prowl in search of the unfortunate Fantoche. The imagery is unremittingly morbid; for instance, a butterfly becomes a spider and spins a giant web across the screen. The short cartoon ends not with Fantoche waking up in his bed, as I anticipated, but with a huge knife cutting him in half.

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Émile Cohl, father of the animated cartoon and cultivator of fine moustaches.

Fluid transformations explore the potential of animation to show the impossible and foreshadow similar madness in Fleischer and Disney cartoons two decades later. As Bromberg noted, “It’s absolutely stunning to imagine that one man alone could invent the animated cartoon and then create an animation of this quality in a month.”

Cohl’s cartoon seemed like a tough act to follow, but Bromberg then projected a film that even he calls “époustoflant”—in English, we might say mind-boggling.

We know that Chaplin cribbed his basic premise for A Night in the Show from Fred Karno’s vaudeville number Mumming Birds, but he took pains to modify the scenario and avoid legal infringement. By contrast, in 1907 Charles Pathé had no qualms about copying the act more or less exactly for the short film Au Music Hall. Because Pathé did run into legal troubles, the one-reeler had been presumed lost for years.

Until about two weeks ago, when Bromberg’s research led to a print in Mexico among UNAM’s holdings.

A Pathé reproduction of a famous stage act might not sound particularly historic, but this one occupies an unusually sacred place in film history, uniting two great film artists. As Bromberg told the audience, “Frankly, what you’re going to see is a miracle. In fact, it’s probably a film that Charlie Chaplin saw before he started his vaudeville career. It might have inspired him to join Karno’s troupe, take on the famous act, and become Charlie Chaplin.”

And who else could have inspired Chaplin to become Chaplin… but the great French comedian Max Linder?

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 “Qui? Moi?”

So, for the first time in probably more than 100 years, an audience watched Max Linder shamble though the Mumming Birds routine, giving a performance that likely lodged itself in Chaplin’s memory.

In Au Music Hall, Linder plays a prototype of the disastrous dandy persona that would make his fortune. Drunken Max falls out of his carriage and stumbles into a vaudeville theater. Proceeds to heckle or hinder every stage act put before him, he squirts a singer with a seltzer bottle, spoils a magician’s trick, and smooches an exotic dancer. Finally, when a strongman wrestler enters the stage with a lifesize doll for demonstration, Max tackles the doll… and loses the fight. Undaunted, the pint-sized fop tears off his jacket and goes fisticuffs with the wrestler, before ultimately being carted away by the theater manager.

chaplinlinder1918Primitive though Au Music Hall seems on the surface, and it’s basically two shots, Linder’s surprisingly graceful drunk routine and well-timed pratfalls elevate the short and hint at the future of screen comedy. Whereas vaudeville sketches and early films often relied on interchangeable stock characters, Linder conveys the impression, even in long shot, of somebody we want to get to know better. His little bits of business, like repeatedly conking his head on a tassel in his theater box or flipping a mass of unruly black hair out of his face, cry out for a close-up or two.

Chaplin called Linder his “professor” for a reason. In 1907, this little Englishman may well have watched this little Frenchman and seen a glimmer of personality, of photogénie to which he could aspire.

Bromberg’s following selection was the only part of the program announced ahead of time: Buster Keaton’s The Blacksmith with recently rediscovered footage.

If you’ve seen The Blacksmith as it’s been circulating for years, you might have noticed a flaw in the comic structure. After squirting oil all over an immaculate white horse, Buster pulls almost the same routine on an immaculate car. I love Buster Keaton for his refreshing versatility of gags, so this repetition always fatigues me a little.

The rediscovered footage really creates an alternate version of the film—and a superior one, in my estimate, complete with an action sequence, some risqué humor, and a very Keaton proposal scene. Although the endings of the two versions vary slightly, the main difference occurs in the early middle of the film.

In the cut I saw last night, Buster leaves the confines of the blacksmith shop and takes his burly, surly boss’s beloved car for a joyride. Alas, Buster runs into Mr. Surly himself who futilely gives pursuit. They only pause to sit down and admire the silhouette of a nubile young lady disrobing in front of her window. When she prematurely turns out the light, the chase is on again, until Buster locks Mr. Surly into a shed.

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Not only does this sequence inject more movement into the film, but it also strengthens Buster’s relationship with the snooty equestrienne he ends up marrying. In all previous versions, Virginia Fox’s character interacts with Buster only towards the beginning and then at the end of the film. Gorgeous though Buster is, I don’t quite buy that Miss Snooty would elope with him on the basis of two meetings. Well, in the rediscovered footage, while fleeing Mr. Surly and running around a house, Buster bumps into Miss Snooty, drops to bended knee, and proposes… before running around the house again to elude Mr. Burly… and then he proposes again. And so forth. This charming vignette lends just enough credibility to the romantic subplot without wasting a second of screen time.

Bromberg recounted how this extraordinary footage, instead of hiding out in an attic or a basement all these years, was waiting in plain sight—in a film archive, no less. After receiving a phone call from Fernando Pena, who also found the full cut of Lang’s Metropolis, describing the alternate Blacksmith, Bromberg asked him to bring the footage to France so that he could examine it.

Pena, however, suggested that wouldn’t be necessary: the alternate version was probably the print of The Blacksmith that was generally distributed through Europe in 9.5mm, a home viewing format. Bromberg checked the 9.5mm version at the Centre National de la Cinématographie and there, sure enough, was the alternate cut—as well as a 35mm version with yet more unseen footage. It had been there for years. Moral of the story: never take anything for granted.

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I get the feeling that somewhere Buster is laughing at us.

To wrap up the program, Bromberg played two wacky trifles that I won’t soon forget: Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912) and Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969). The former, a short British crime thriller, lives up to the promise of its title with a hyperactive Jack Russell terrier who thwarts a group of bank robbers. This manipulative little pooch even gains entry into the bad guys’ lair by curling up in the middle of the road and pretending to have been run over. Could anyone—even a hardened criminal—resist the desire to nurse little Spot the Dog back to health?

In the latter film, animator Marv Newland makes good on his title when Bambi, after grazing in a field of flowers for the duration of the credits, is smashed by a reptilian foot from above. “We gratefully acknowledge the city of Tokyo for their help obtaining Godzilla in this film.” The End.

The end of Bromberg’s spectacle arrived just as abruptly for this spectator, who could have stayed at the Berges watching classic film snippets until dawn.

Sitting scrunched up in a beach chair by the Seine as the night breeze floated off the water, I witnessed film and life mingling mysteriously. Boats passed, sirens warbled in the distance, cooing couples walked on the quai above. At one point, a gaggle of inebriated young ladies started singing and calling out to the screen. They didn’t realize that they were echoing Chaplin via Linder via Karno, but they added another layer Mumming Birds-esque commentary to the show.

As the sights and sounds of the world now gently (or not so gently) filtered into the world then as projected in front of me, I pondered the strange lives of the films themselves.

Not unlike a human life, a film destroyed forever unravels the fabric of time in a way that cannot be repaired or even entirely understood. A work of art is never lost alone; it wipes out a network of influences, preparations, moments, dreams, footnotes, and possibilities.

Conversely, a lost film found might knit together the threads of innumerable lives. Charlie Chaplin watched Max Linder, so now when I watch Max Linder, I’m watching Chaplin through Linder. When I watch Chaplin, I watch Linder through Chaplin. The next time I watch Godzilla, I’ll think of Bambi. And the next time I watch Sherlock, I’ll think of Spot the Dog. Even the curiosities, the baubles, the trinkets of film history affect our brains—and sometimes our culture as a whole—in powerful and unpredictable ways.

As a film event, Bromberg’s Retour de Flamme resonates so profoundly, I believe, because it alerts audiences to the mystical dialogue between movies themselves and between movies and lives.

May the yet-undiscovered nitrate reels remain stable, but may the cinephile flame keep on burning. Amen.

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Remembering Carla Laemmle (1909–2014)

phantom“If I should live to be a hundred, I should always hear the superhuman cry of grief and rage which he uttered when the terrible sight appeared before my eyes…”

The Phantom of the Opera, Gaston Leroux

On June 12, Carla Laemmle passed away at the age of 104. Beloved of cinephiles worldwide, this remarkable woman danced in the original version of The Phantom of the Opera, spoke the first lines of Dracula, and was the last surviving cast member of both films. There’s an African proverb that goes, “When an old man dies, a library burns to the ground.” Hearing of Laemmle’s death, I feel as though a whole nitrate archive had combusted.

Speaking for movie geeks everywhere, I like to think of Carla Laemmle as the high priestess of Universal horror. She was an unusual horror icon, for sure: a glamorous, sunny centenarian made more famous by documentaries about old Hollywood chillers than by her appearances in the original classics. A witness to film history, Carla Laemmle possessed the power to transport fans to the silent or early talkie eras with a vivid anecdote or observation.

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Carla, dancing on the Universal backlot, c. 1920s

As anyone who’s ever watched her in an interview or a behind-the-scenes featurette can tell you, Laemmle could summon some of the greatest gods and monsters of the past century at will—and she didn’t need the Scroll of Thoth.

One of her earliest memories, of the indelible flashbulb kind, stretched back to 1912: she could picture a newspaper headline about the sinking of the Titanic and recalled her parents’ shocked faces. In 1922, she’d seen Universal’s extravagant Monte Carlo set illuminated by every arc light on the lot for the fiery finale of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives. A year later, she watched Lon Chaney as Quasimodo swinging from a gargoyle on the studio’s colossal Notre Dame duplicate.

Born on October 20, 1909 in Chicago as Rebekah Isabelle Laemmle, she changed her name to Carla in 1931 as a tribute to her uncle, Universal Studios founder Carl Laemmle.

Ogden Nash’s doggerel about Carl Laemmle lavishing jobs on his “very large faemmle” has unduly tarnished the mogul’s accomplishments. Uncle Carl—as even employees knew carlhim—was a visionary who invested his savings in a Nickelodeon parlor and grew it into an entertainment empire. He gave opportunities to female filmmakers as early as the 1910s, took chances on first-time directors, and brought Irving Thalberg into the picture business. During his retirement, he leveraged his time, money, and prestige to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.

In the fascinating documentary Universal Horror, Carla praised her uncle’s kindness and approachability: “He was a wonderful human being. He was very democratic. He would talk to everybody and listen to everybody… If they [employees] needed any financial help, he would give them help.”

It was Uncle Carl who urged Carla’s father, Joseph, to move his branch of the family from Chicago to Hollywood in the early 1920s to improve his weak health. Carla and her parents lived on carladancethe expansive studio grounds, known as Universal City. Almost a century later, she remembered exploring the backlot’s spectacular sets, playing in “New York”, “Monte Carlo”, or “Paris” on any given day, depending on her mood. As she recounted to Gregory William Mank, author of Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration:

“There was a zoo, and almost every morning I’d wake to the roar of the lions—they were hungry for their breakfast! They had tigers, monkeys, an orangutan, and even two elephants. They had a camel, which was funny—this camel would get away and make the trek all the way up to our bungalow and graze on our vast green lawn. I named him ‘Houdini’ because he always got away. I’d go out with oats and lure him into the garage and then call down to the zoo and tell them, ‘Houdini is here!’” 

To this little girl, Universal’s fiefdom “was a fairyland.”

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Our clearest view of Carla (center left) in The Phantom of the Opera

In 1925, choreographer Ernest Belcher, also Carla’s dance teacher, cast her as the prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera, Universal’s new deluxe “Super Jewel” production—a huge undertaking for a studio that mostly focused its resources on low-budget Westerns and comedies.

Sixteen-year-old Carla was undaunted: she had been taking dance lessons since early childhood. Instead of being scared, she remembered that dancing for the camera was “a big thrill” to her. “It was a very elaborate, very expensive production. The stage was an exact replica of the Paris opera house.” Rigorous rehearsals often took place on that enormous stage with the real orchestra featured in the movie playing for the dancers. During filming, a full audience of nattily dressed extras would watch and applaud at each take. “It was like performing in a real opera,” she said.

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When not working, Laemmle would watch her longtime friend Mary Philbin and Lon Chaney from the sidelines. She told Michael Blake, author of A Thousand Faces: Lon Chaney’s Unique Artistry in Motion Pictures:

“I remember seeing Lon in his makeup and it was pretty scary. I’d say it was ghastly. I don’t know how Mary was able to work next to that face every day. It probably helped her when she was to look frightened! As I recall, the color of his makeup was a chalky white.”

Just to put this into perspective, Chaney’s makeup design was so secret that his face was blanked out from all publicity photos sent to the press. Carla Laemmle was thus one of very few people given a preview of his bloodcurdling phantom.

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As for Laemmle’s second famous tie to horror history, her brief part in Dracula remained something of a mystery to her. She was simply told to report to the casting office and given the role.

By 1931, Carla’s cousin Carl Laemmle Jr. was running Universal, having been given the studio by his father on his 21st birthday in 1929. However, as Carla explained, the change in leadership brought about an aesthetic shift that the studio founder hadn’t foreseen:

“Carl Laemmle Jr. loved horror. When he was a little boy he was crazy about anything that had to do with the macabre… so, he thought it would be a great idea to make movies like that. But his father was dead against it.

So, perhaps Junior wanted please his father and win his blessing by putting a little more of the Laemmle clan into the picture.

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Interviewed by Leonard Maltin at the TCM Classic Film Festival in 2012, Laemmle revealed that she was allowed more or less to create her costume and she went for a note of self-effacing humor, selecting a dowdy suit, an out-of-style cloche, and Harold Lloyd-ish glasses. Ostensibly the secretary of a wealthy woman on tour, Carla’s character reads from a guidebook in the opening coach scene, before being jolted out of her seat by those inhospitable Transylvania roads.

Her klutzy pratfall and schoolgirl reading of the local lure adds enough humor to pull audiences into a film heading towards uncharted waters. After all, in 1931, a film where the bad guy really did turn out to be a vampire, not a criminal pretending to be one, was downright revolutionary.

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Little did Carla know at the time that she was speaking the very first lines of the first important sound horror movie, kicking off Hollywood’s first major foray into the supernatural, and launching a classic that, like Dracula himself, will probably never die.

Outside of the horror genre, perhaps Laemmle’s most notable appearance was in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, an MGM production. She emerges like Venus from a seashell, hollywood revuesinuously dances in a proto-bikini, and beckons suggestively to the camera, every inch the pre-Code cutie. She continued to dance onscreen and to play small film roles through the 1930s, before ultimately opting to perform in live venues.

As the heady heyday of classic Hollywood drifted into the past, film historians began to draw on Carla’s increasingly valuable first-hand accounts of the golden age. Reintroduced to viewers through making-of featurettes, she continued to received fan mail from around the world, which she considered a testament to the enduring spell of Dracula. Into her 104th year, she could recite the lines of dialogue that made her such a cherished cult figure:

“Among the rugged peaks that frown down upon the Borgo Pass are found crumbling castles of a bygone age…” 

Laemmle brought two layers of awe to her interviews and documentary appearances: she was a wonder herself, but she also communicated her own wonder at that bygone age (to borrow a phrase from her famous line) that she had witnessed. What she saw was impressive then—and it’s even more impressive over a century later.

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Longevity was nature’s gift to Carla Laemmle, but she chose to make it a gift to film lovers everywhere by cheerfully recounting the early days of Hollywood filmmaking. Not only could she clearly recall moments so far away that even celluloid might buckle under the impact of the years, but she also shared them with contagious enthusiasm and joy.

Her personal affection for the creepy classics resonated with new generations of fans like me. She echoed our love of the horror flicks produced by Universal when she confessed, “I never got enough of them. You got scared, but you enjoyed it.”

Recommended Online Viewing:

On YouTube: Laemmle remembers The Phantom of the Opera in clips from an interview with David J. Skal

On YouTube: Laemmle discusses Dracula and Universal with Leonard Maltin at TCMFF 2012

On YouTube: in conversation with her niece Antonia, Laemmle talks about her family history and old Universal City

And, of course, at the Internet Archive: The Phantom of the Opera, with restored 1929 tinting, toning, and two-strip Technicolor sequence. Keep an eye out for Carla. She is on the stage, held aloft by a male dancer just as the curtain closes. However, you can spot her more easily in a backstage scene immediately after this intertitle: “The Phantom! The Phantom is up from the cellars again!”

Just Dandy: The Art of Max Linder

maxyHe was the first international movie star. The man Charlie Chaplin called his “professor.” A visionary writer-director.

And in 1925, Max Linder—sickened by war wounds, maddened by post-traumatic stress, and increasingly neglected by the audiences he had once delighted—died by his own hand. It was a very sad end for a very funny man.

Linder deserves perhaps more credit than anyone else for refining that curious alchemy that we now recognize as great screen comedy. His cocktail of uproarious pratfalls, farcical situations, surreal gags, and wistful, tender humor was utterly unlike anything that came before.

Over the course of hundreds of film appearances from 1905 to 1925, many of which he directed, he developed a signature mischievous, urbane style of physical comedy. In a 1917 interview, the comedian himself commented on this intentional, yet intuitive mix of high and low: “I prefer the subtle comedy, the artistic touch, but it is a mistake to say I do not use the slapstick. I do not make it the object; I do not force it; but I employ it when it comes in naturally.”

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Max Linder shows his affection for cats of all sizes.

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At five-foot-two, Linder looked tiny even in his splendid high hat. His dainty features, his fussy feline mustache, his spindly legs, and his glistening immaculacy of dress all gave the diminutive comedian the aura of a pretty wind-up toy. Such a comedic creation, a dapper, accident-prone bourgeois, could easily have fallen into the sort of frivolous comedy that sours as quickly as cheap champagne. However, Linder endowed his Max with a romantic fire and a befuddled enthusiasm that transcend time.

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Linder understood that only a proper man could ever truly be improper. In his full regalia, he dazzled viewers with head-to-toe elegance at the beginning of his films—and wound up sullied almost beyond recognition by the end of the reel. He didn’t look like the sort of man whose shoes would catch on fire, who would end up sharing a cage with a lion, or who would get trapped on the fender of an automobile. Which made it all the funnier when he did.

Unlike raffish Chaplin, woebegone Keaton, or boy-next-door Lloyd, Linder infused his onscreen persona with an upper-class whimsy. He does what he does not necessarily because he has to, but often because he damn well feels like it.

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Max wants to be a bullfighter? He grabs a rug hanging out to dry nearby and brandishes it like a matador, imagining an unlucky oncoming cyclist as his bull.

Max wants to woo two women? He does—and somehow in the process punches a friend, clocks a stranger on the head with a rotten apple, and starts a duel.

Max wants to take a bath? He can’t get the huge tub into his room, so he deposits it in the lobby of his apartment building, scandalizes the other tenants, and ends up fleeing the cops with the porcelain tub on his back like a turtle’s shell.

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Linder’s screen Max is a miraculous bungler, a sprite, a magical creature who happens to frequent mundane places of respectability. In his top-hatted silhouette, seemingly on equal terms with the Eiffel Tower in “L’anglais tel que max le parle,” we recognize a kind of transitional icon, the bridge between chivalry and modernity, between the 19th century gentleman and the 20th century superstar.

There is something heroic in the quixotic desires that stir him. And life imitated art. We’re talking about a man who wore three different suits per day and travelled with 46 trunks of clothes and accessories. Who fought a bull in Spain—and won to the joy and amazement of ecstatic crowds. A man who, although he could’ve avoided military service, volunteered for his country during World War I and had to be practically blown up, frozen in an icy bomb crater, shot twice, and reported dead before he would accept his honorable discharge.

His beautiful impracticality, his slavery to caprice, his cavalier courage all make him a true dandy and a great artist.

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Stand in front of an oncoming train? Pas de problème. Wear ugly boots? Quelle horreur!

In his pre-WWI short films, Linder already showcased a guillotine-sharp knack for conceptual, innovative gags. In “Le roman de Max” (1912), for instance, our man-about-town arrives at a hotel resort at the same time as a beautiful woman. We feel the electricity between the strangers as they wordlessly walk side by side up a series of staircases and lodge in adjacent rooms. However, no sooner do they place their dirty boots in the hall and close their doors than these shoes come to life.

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In an early example of pixilation (the animation of an inanimate object on film), the pointed toes wiggle and rub against each other in a strikingly erotic kiss. This trippy courtship image could never exist on a stage; it both mocks and poetically celebrates the intimacy of the film medium. It’s a trick borrowed from another early short, of course, but Max frames it and milks it for all its tenderness and charm. The next day, Max and the mysterious belle are hilariously drawn to each other by the insistent magnetism of their soles.

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Max Linder was likewise one of the first comedians to explore the humor of dream logic and the possibility of recreating it through editing. In “Max asthmathique” (1915), our little gentleman sojourns in the Alps and decides to do some skiing. Once he gets to the top of the slopes, he comes speeding down with such celerity that he careens over the mountain peaks, over the ocean, over the rooftops of Paris… only to wake up in his bed. The trick backgrounds and Méliès-ish editing as Max “flies” on skis over various terrains foreshadows Buster Keaton’s montage frolics in Sherlock Jr.

chaplinlinder1918Although the great silent comedians who followed Linder were pioneers in their own right, their debt of gags and comedic “grammar” to the Man in the Silk Hat isn’t hard to discern. Consider Max’s burlesque attempts at suicide (though less funny in retrospect) in “Max in a Taxi” (1917), Linder’s first film made in California.

Disowned by his father for bad behavior, the prodigal fop decides to end it all by lying down in front of an oncoming train. We see the train approaching in long shot, far away. Max, sartorially obsessed even in the face of death, flicks some of the dirt away from the train tracks and lies down. The train chugs forward—and turns onto a different track at the last possible second. Cut to: a very disappointed and outraged Linder in close-up.

If this description triggers a sense of déjà vu, that might be because Harold Lloyd famously included an almost identical sequence in “Haunted Spooks” (1920). Lloyd’s bespectacled boy loses “one of the only girls I’ve ever loved” and plunks himself right in the path of an oncoming trolley, with his back to the streetcar… which promptly veers in the other direction. Cut to: a medium close-up of Lloyd looking dazed. Certainly, Lloyd adapted the gag to his own particular tone (it’s part of a long sequence of suicide attempts), but one can detect strong echoes of Linder’s concept and timing. Keaton would also film a variation on this scene in “Hard Luck” (1921), in which the oncoming trolley backs up, leaving hapless Buster no choice but to find another way to off himself.

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The perennial richness of this routine seems all the more impressive, given that Max was forced to stay in a sanatorium for a relapse of his lung troubles shortly after the making of “Max in a Taxi.” And all the more sad, given the way some critics panned the film.

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Linder transitioned gracefully into comedy features. In Seven Years Bad Luck and Be My Wife, both made in 1921, comedy set pieces flow harmoniously into each other as the slightly sanitized Max curbs his roving fancies and tries to win just one dream girl. The better-known of the pair of films, Seven Years Bad Luck features Linder’s famous mirror routine, in which one of his servants tries to cover up the breakage of a mirror by pretending to be Linder’s reflection. You might have seen it… in Duck Soup, made over ten years later.

Be My Wife features a similar act of doubling, a scene in which Max, hoping to impress his lady love’s disapproving aunt, stages a fight behind a curtain. Pretending to fend off an unseen criminal, Max becomes a brawl of one. He even goes so far as to put another pair of boots on his hands and walk on all fours, giving the impression of two men tussling. However, the funniest part isn’t that Max is basically beating himself up. What’s most amusing is that he feels the need to do it in character—jumping from spot to spot, playing both the bad guy and the good guy with a flamboyant theatricality just for his own benefit.

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Linder’s life of comedy came to a tragic end. As he had observed, “They are closely akin—the tears and the smiles.” He explained shortly after returning from the war, “This great sadness has made me wish to bring more joy into the world. I want to make people laugh as never before.”

And 130 years after his birth, he is still doing exactly that.

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Absolutely no article on Max would be complete without mentioning his daughter, Maud Linder, who has tirelessly worked to preserve her father’s film legacy and to restore his place in cinema history. She is doing amazing work and everyone interested should buy the DVD “Laugh with Max Linder,” which showcases a few of his shorts and Seven Years Bad Luck in gorgeous condition.

As for the offerings you can find on YouTube, here are my recommendations for those just getting started on Linder’s brilliant filmography:

1910 – Max prend un bain

1912 – Max reprend sa liberté

1912 – Le roman de Max

1916 – Max entre deux feux

1917 – Max in a Taxi

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Film History for Free: 10 Entertaining Early Cinema Trick Films

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“I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. Because the very earliest people who made film were magicians. One of the aspects of it was the idea of an illusion, a magical illusion, in the early days of movies.”

—Francis Ford Coppola (from an interview you can watch here)

Admittedly, not all of these films are pure trick films, that is, they don’t exist purely to show off visual pyrotechnics. But enjoy watching the evolution of early special effects in the selections below.

Démolition d’un mur (1896) — the Lumière brothers

A wall being knocked down by a bunch of laborers doesn’t sound like much of a premise for special effects. Like many of the Lumières’ films, the strong documentary quotient of what we’re seeing (real workers, a real neighborhood) would suggest that we’re just supposed to kick back and appreciate what life, once removed, looks like.

And yet, only after the film was printed, magic happened. During exhibitions, the quaint actualité was played once through, then shown backwards, with the strip fed in reverse through the projector. Miraculously, the wall jolted back to its original position as particles of dirt and dust were sucked back into place. This groundbreaking idea turned an everyday sight into a spectacle of the fantastic. Although there’s technically no camera or editing trick, the cinema itself becomes a trick for its ability to manipulate time and weave fragments of truth into an impossible fake reality. Indeed, the surrealists would later tap the power of reversed footage (most spectacularly in Cocteau’s Orphée). But the trick was never more startling than it is here.

The X-Rays (1897) — George Alfred Smith

Call me morbid, but trick films often seem to focus on death. Cinema, of course, is a close cousin of death. In her spooky realm, the long departed can still amuse and delight us. The X-Rays, a whimsical entry in the trick film canon, displays a sardonic, typically British gallows humor. After all, it was Webster who, according to T.S. Eliot always saw “the skull beneath the skill.” Well, this short follows in the same vein. When shot through with “X-rays,” a wooing couple suddenly appear as two skeletons. Really, it’s just a well-timed cut, a change of lighting, and black body suits decorated with white bones that provide the illusion.

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Once reduced to posturing wraiths, the cute couple acquire a new level of comic irony. It’s hard to believe in love and romance when you can see that, under it all, we’re nothing more than bags of bones. Under the surface of this charming trick film, you’ll find a genuinely chilling memento mori.

Un Homme de têtes (1898) and L’homme à la tête au caoutchouc (1901) — Georges Méliès

In this pair of similar shorts, Georges Méliès gets a head. Several, in fact. Because he was the master of the trick film, I have to include two shorts from this infectiously enthusiastic trailblazer.

Not only was Méliès a true visionary who understood the importance of shaping cinema into entertainment medium, but he was also one hell of an energetic guy! I find that watching him star in his own short films provides a fool-proof pick-me-up. He’s like Prozac with a Belle Époque beard. Unlike some early cinema performances, which show that the actors did not yet grasp that you need to move in the movies, Méliès’s appearances remain as exuberant and joyful as they were a century ago. Rather than “acting” all of the time, Méliès miraculously manages to cultivate a similar presentational relationship to what you get between a magician and his audience. In one of my favorite Méliès films, we can savor the spectacle of not one Méliès… but up to five of him at any given time. Bask in his energy.

 The Big Swallow (1901) ­— James Williamson

This daft little film shows a distinctly ticked-off camera subject proceed to eat the cameraman! Clearly, this doesn’t make a huge amount of sense, but it sure is unexpected. Moral of the story? Ask permission before you start turning, or you’ll end up in some stranger’s stomach. This entry also contains the first extreme close-up in cinema history.

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The Haunted Curiosity Shop (1901) — W. R. Booth 

Well, here’s some good, ol’ fashioned nightmare fuel for you! Because who hasn’t seen at least one horror movie about an antique shop where the objects come to life? From hidden cuts to superimposition, this atmospheric film uses practically the whole bag of then-available tricks to portray a possessed store. The proprietor of the curiosity shop even seems to cultivate these playful, if creepy gnomes, ghosts, and apparitions to pop up and vanish at will.

Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902) — Edwin S. Porter

Hapless, roly-poly Uncle Josh holds the distinction of being the first recurring character in film history, providing fodder for a series of three surviving kooky adventures. In the most innovative Uncle Josh film, the hammy fellow goes to a program of movies (and, surprise, surprise, Edison movies!). Attempting to join an alluring Parisian dancer, Josh lurches onto the stage in front of the movie screen and starts to jig. The film soon changes to The Black Diamond Express.

When Uncle Josh tries to get a closer look at the oncoming train, he leans into the movie frame, entering the world of the film—or so he assumes. In a clever spoof of the hysterical reactions of early cinema audiences (who supposedly expected onscreen trains to come off the screen and hit them), Uncle Josh genuinely thinks he’s about to be run over by the locomotive as it appears to hurtle towards him! Again trying to interfere in onscreen events, Uncle Josh finally tears down the screen and starts a brawl with the projectionist.

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This silly film is not actually a trick film. Sorry. (The first installment of the series, Uncle Josh’s Nightmare, is though.) It’s more about how cinema can trick us. But it foreshadows Sherlock Jr.—not to mention the many, many other movies to follow that featured people sliding into a filmic parallel universe. The “meta” elements of this film—especially the references to other Edison actualities—make this film one of the most modern and complex of the trick films I’m presenting, even if the double-exposure techniques don’t stun us as much as they perhaps could. The true paradox of this film lies in the fact that Uncle Josh both psychologically “enters” the diegesis of the films he’s watching and reveals the illusion inherent in cinema when he tears down the screen. His reactions parallel those of the audience—who, while somewhat absorbed in the movie tricks they were watching, still wanted to know how the filmmaker did it.

La charité du prestidigitateur (1905) — Alice Guy

Trick films may enchant and astound you, but when it comes to plot, they haven’t earned much of a reputation for warmth and well-developed characters. I mean, Méliès even observed, “As for the scenario, the ‘fable’ or ‘tale,’ I only consider it at the end. I can state that the scenario constructed in this manner has no importance, since I use it merely as a pretext for the ‘stage effects,’ the ‘tricks’ or for a nicely arranged tableau.”

While this emphasis on exhibition and flamboyance over story shouldn’t be held against the subset of early cinema (which wasn’t yet conceived of in terms of narrative cinema), I rejoice to find a trick film with a heart, directed by the sublime Alice Guy.

In this cozy, if cautionary fable, a magician encounters a beggar and, moved to compassion, he conjures a luxurious feast and a swank set of clothes for the vagrant. When the homeless man walks away feeling cocky and refuses to help another beggar, the unfeeling lout transforms back into his old self. The second beggar was just the magician in disguise—oh, snap! The message about sparing kindness for people in situations that you once suffered through elevates this convivial film among the rest. Alice Guy integrated the syntax of the trick film into a more narrative format with breathtaking ease and glorious humanity.

 Plongeur Fantastique (1905) — Segundo de Chomón

Admittedly, this film strikes me as a major one-trick horse. A man dives into a pond. Suddenly, the waters part and he flies backwards to the place where he had been standing a moment ago. He dives in again. And so it goes for almost two minutes. Yawn. I would  like to point out, though, how similar this repetitive film is to the modern phenomenon of the GIF, which fulfills our human desire to play certain interesting moments on an endless loop. When I watch early films, I often find them quite gif-able, because of their “money shots” or moments of total “LOOK AT THIS” spectacle. The silly reversibility of the short film also reminds me of what I call GIF mentality. (And if you don’t believe me, try Googling “reverse running gifs.” You’re welcome. Or maybe you want to hunt me down with a pitchfork. Which is why I blog anonymously, by the way.)

However, I choose to feature this film primarily because it brings us full circle back to the first film, Démolition d’un mur. The trick, accomplished through reverse projection, goes nuts with a technique not even a decade old at the time. And it’s boring! Because it’s all special effects and no plot… like a lot of movies made nowadays.

La Grenouille (1908) — Segundo de Chomón

Okay, I feel really bad about what I just wrote. I don’t mean to slight Segundo de Chomón, an exquisitely talented maker of elaborate, cuckoo-bananas trick films, which you totally need to watch. So, I’m including this late trick film fantasy, about a psychedelic frog. If you consider Méliès pretty wild, watching de Chomón is like watching Méliès while trippin’. Not that I’d know, of course…

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Thanks to all the marvelous people who upload these films on YouTube. I also gratefully acknowledge Tom Gunning’s “The Cinema of Attraction”, which, in part, inspired this post.

A Reel Diva: Assunta Spina (1915)

bertini“It had been my idea to wander around Naples taking ordinary people from the streets. Now everyone’s invented Neorealism! The real Neorealist film is Assunta Spinta!” —Francesca Bertini in 1982

Even in her nineties, Francesca Bertini, the first great star of the Italian cinema,could’ve made Norma Desmond look like Courtney Love. Beyond the trappings of her wealth and glory—the designer dress, the lacquered nails, the perfectly coiffed hair—La Bertini radiated every bit as much vitality and trenchant perceptiveness as she’d exhibited onscreen in the 1910s.

No self-doubt, no pandering humility, not a trace of maudlin auto-elegy crept into her brisk demeanor as she faced down cameramen in the early 1980s—advising them on how to shoot her for a documentary. Telling men sixty years her junior to “Get with it!” she berated film archivists for not transferring nitrate originals of her films onto prints that could be exhibited. She expressed her wish that her work be shared with a younger generation through television. She was the sort of woman who, when she told you she was The Greatest That Ever Lived, you wouldn’t question the fact.

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One look at Bertini at any age and you’d know: this is a goddess. A diva. A woman demands and deserves to be respected, obeyed, worshipped. An actress, an intellect, a force to be reckoned with.

At the height of her fame, Bertini owned a production company and handpicked her roles. When she made Assunta Spina in 1915, she was the highest-paid woman in the world—even Mary Pickford didn’t make as much then.

The strengths Bertini projected in her roles were far from celluloid charades. The passion, the grandeur, the ferocity you witness in her surviving films must have blazed forth from her soul, for these qualities continued to illuminate the diva from within—even when her body grew as frail as a paper lantern.

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Francesca Bertini in 1982

Bertini’s creativity and resolution brought her best-remembered movie, Assunta Spina, into being. While walking through Naples one day, it occurred to her that the story of Salvatore di Giacomo’s famous play would translate ideally to the screen with its colorful scenes of working-class romance and betrayal. Bertini contacted di Giacomo who gave her his blessing to film an adaptation.

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I cannot overstate the importance of this film—and of Bertini as its auteur. With some help from her leading man, Gustavo Serena, she directed the film. She collaborated on the screenplay. She corralled ordinary Neapolitans to appear onscreen and infuse the film with an authentic flavor. She insisted on authentic locations wherever possible. To watch Assunta Spina is to witness neorealism being born—decades before anyone spoke of neorealism.

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Real policemen escort actor Gustavo Serena down a real Neapolitan street

Unlike the colossal period films or sophisticated melodramas that dominated early Italian cinema, Assunta Spina has dirt under its fingernails. This peasant dance of violence and perversity stabs right to the heart of what Italy really was in the 1910s: a place where corruption, monotonous poverty, and primitive codes of honor constricted the pursuit of happiness (especially the happiness of women) like a sweaty corset.

This sordid tale revolves around Assunta, a spirited young woman who runs a laundry. She loves Michele, a simple butcher, but her flirtatious nature and sensual obstinacy inflame his jealousy. The fact that Assunta’s spurned suitor has been anonymously accusing her of infidelity doesn’t help. About to be married, Assunta dances with another man in defiance of Michele’s hotheadedness.

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He responds with a typically grisly manifestation of Italian machismo and slashes her face with a knife. In spite of Michele’s brutality, Assunta defends him at his trial, in vain. Desperate to keep Michele in Naples, even if he’s behind bars, Assunta agrees to become the mistress of Don Frederigo, an unscrupulous politico. (That’s Italy, folks.)

But what’s going to happen when Michele wins his release and finds out? Nothing warm and fuzzy, I assure you.

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Assunta Spina opens with a shot of the Bay of Naples, white buildings gleaming and water rippling. Then, slowly, a dissolve makes a striking woman in white materialize out of thin air onto one of the docks.

A shawl wrapped around her shoulders, she looks into the distance, as if foreseeing the tragedy in her future. The figure turns to the camera and looks practically at the audience, before slowly pivoting away.

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Out of context in terms of plot, this lilting yet vaguely tense shot testifies to the power of Bertini’s presence. With hardly a motion and, of course, no words, she conveys that all we need to know about Assunta—a woman of unexpected depth, a troubled low-caste beauty, a part of Naples just as much as the sea and the sun.

Like some of the best neorealist films (Bicycle Thieves comes to mind), Assunta Spina can sustain mildly surreal touches such as that dissolve… before veering back to gutter realism. After all, isn’t life like that too? Don’t we find that the surfaces of our daily existence serve as mirrors for what’s going on in our souls? For instance, Michele’s “Bucheria” (“Butcher’s Shop”) sign looms prominently in the background as his jealousy flares up and foreshadows his act of unthinkable hate against the woman he loves.

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Assunta’s strangely distorted and warped reflection in the door of her laundry elegantly conveys her divided loyalties.

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These symbolic hints, rather than diminishing the documentary importance of Assunta Spina, elevate the film as a whole. These psychological insights teased from quotidian existence demonstrate that, as André Bazin would later suggest, realism can coexist with more metaphysical and spiritual explorations of humanity.

Cameraman Alberto G. Carta, who worked with Bertini on her most acclaimed vehicles, including Tosca, Lady of the Camellias, and two versions of Odette, imbued Assunta Spina with an ominous lyricism. Naples street scenes take on a jagged, fragmented look in contrast to the all-engulfing skies of sequences near the Bay.

Negative space, dead space often gobbles up most of the screen as we struggle to look at the main characters—taking up only a small segment of frame in a long or medium long shot.

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The lack of close shots in the film reflects Bertini’s belief that they distract from the drama of the moment and can actually prove disruptive to the audience’s identification. Admittedly, I don’t think that close-ups had acquired a truly important place in Italian cinema at that time. Even so, the decision to keep editing to a minimum and to allow scenes to unfold in long takes enhances the realistic ambiance of the work: undivided space, unabbreviated time.

Cutting doesn’t micromanage or pre-digest the performances, which inhabit and fill each long take with searing drama. For the most part, the audience must dwell with the characters in real time (apart from the occasional cut or intertitle) and scan the screen for signs of rising tempers and escalating grudges.

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More importantly, Carta’s camerawork emphasizes a certain pattern in staging. This film’s visual refrain consists of variations on the image of Assunta in the foreground with a man—whether her lover, her spurned suitor, or her “protector”—standing sinisterly in the background.

Not only does this recurrent compositional choice create suspense and tension within a single frame, but it also suggests the theme of a woman haunted and threatened by unappreciative and predatory men.

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(See Raffaele in between Assunta and her father here?)

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And yet, Assunta Spinta does not linger on a “women’s weepie” tale of victimization as much as it traces a tough proto-feminist narrative. This flawed but enduring woman possesses more positive traits than any of the men in her life. She bravely lives down the consequences of the tragedy that unfolds around her and shows agency in her struggle to respect the one man she truly cares about.

The men who hover around Assunta seem at times like exteriorizations of her inner anguish. Like furies, they torment her and give her no peace. Each man serves to bring out a different facet of her personality: the tender bride-to-be with Michele, the coquette with Raffaele, and the femme fatale with Frederigo.

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One woman, three personas: with Michele…

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…with Raffaele…

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.54.09 PM…and with Don Frederigo

Whereas her different admirers possess rather one-track motivations, Assunta’s multi-layered psyche defies you to interpret her. Bertini’s earthy, beguiling performance eschews all neurotic hand-wringing while conveying the enigmatic, passionate nature of her character.

Why does Assunta form emotional bonds with men who hurt and use her? Why does she play with men’s affections? We receive no clear answer; affection, love, physical attraction, preconceived notions about martyrdom, the desire for sexual power, and the hope for a happy home all compete within her.

Screen Shot 2013-06-26 at 8.38.43 PMThis visual motif of men in the background while Assunta silently wrestles with herself in the foreground also provides some of the most oddly composed shots in the film. Characters stand too close or too far from the camera for comfort, as though distant slices of reality were stacked on top of each other.

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It’s almost as though these men are just figments of her imagination—they exist only by virtue of their relationships with her. Unlike films that try to capture “a woman’s world” or some such hermetically-sealed cliché, Assunta Spinta gives us reality as a woman and a woman as reality. Admittedly, that sounds like a paradox: how can a single person represent reality? Wouldn’t that be allegory, sort of the opposite of realism?

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At the risk of generalizing, I would argue that, whereas narratives revolving around men tend to be goal-oriented, narratives about women often seek to unlock the truth of social conditions. Even the fact that Assunta’s body is made to feel and carry the signs of her ordeal—being scarred by the man she loves, forced to surrender her virtue to a slimy Don—links her as a character directly to irrefutable impact of her suffering, to the empirical evidence of poverty and abuse.

Reality leaves its mark on her, inside and out.

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Assunta, marginalized and forsaken

Moreover, the film’s intense attention to the textures of slum life somehow seems to echo Assunta’s own unflinching ability to size up a situation.

When Michele slashes her cheek, for instance, she immediately calls for a mirror. This scene didn’t exist in the play or the book. Bertini added it. She understood that this woman needs to see. Neither we, the viewers, nor Assunta herself can look away from the collision course of her sad destiny.

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Much of the movie consists of shots of Assunta simply sitting or standing, mulling something over. Her internal world—not one of imagination and fantasy, but of grim decisions and common sense—is echoed in the grime and roughness of Neapolitan streets and the ironic whiteness and bustle of Assunta’s laundry.

I once saw an old religious painting (I can’t for the life of me remember its title, shame on me) where one of the people in the composition is staring off into space but, from the expression on his face, the viewer immediately comes to the conclusion that the figure is somehow seeing the entire scene within himself. We perceive the connection between Assunta and reality through a similar intuition.

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In fact, she delivers the most important “line” of the film, at the very end, mostly offscreen. As she’s led away while the camera lingers on the empty set—as though the realism of the scene speaks for her, as if its textures had absorbed her, imbibed her. As if she were the environment and the environment was the most eloquent possible elegy for her.

The subtle psychological probing of the film, coupled with its insistence on verisimilitude (real locations, non-actors, dialect, an immersion into Neapolitan culture), make it a potent forerunner of post-WWII art cinema.

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And through it all, Bertini owns the screen. The cinema is her home, her country, her fiefdom. The camera was infatuated with this firestorm of a woman whose naturalistic, yet vividly theatrical style must have been to the 1910s what Magnani’s exothermic charisma became to a later generation. So many Method-like details combine to produce a believable human being—not an actor—before us.

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The way she pops a piece of bread into her mouth and chews it disdainfully. The way her hand clings to the side of a wall as she begs a man not to desert her. The way she can’t bear to look at Michele as she confesses what she did to keep him close to her. The dignified honesty of her every movement justifies why she was not only one of the cinema’s first great stars, but also one of its first great artists.

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If you appreciate the hardboiled poetry of Neorealism, make a point of tracking down Assunta Spina. Kino’s edition comes with a documentary on Bertini, L’Ultima Diva, in which she, in her nineties, sits down with interviewers, watches Assunta Spina, and offers, basically, a commentary track on her masterpiece. Listening to someone provide a minute-by-minute explanation of movie’s production a century ago—can you imagine a better portal into film history? And Bertini’s vibrant descriptions and blunt opinions revive this key moment in cinema’s development.

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She was the godmother of Neorealism, the idol of an era, and one of the most versatile, sublime women to electrify the screen. And she knew it, too.

Now, that’s a diva.

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I did this post as part of my Italian Film Culture Blogathon. Be sure to check out what the other bloggers have been getting up to!

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Film History Firsts: 10 Milestone Films You Can Watch For Free

1888 – “The Roundhay Garden Scene” – First Ever Film

Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty brazen assertion—as if I can 100% conclusively say “motion pictures started here,” because in some form they existed for centuries! As the great critic André Bazin noted, humans have dreamed of perfectly capturing and preserving the appearance of life since time immemorial. Cinema existed in the mind long before it could be realized. Thaumatropes, zoetropes, and other optical entertainments foreshadowed the birth of movies. Some would argue that the live action motion-capture photographs that naturalists like Muybridge and Marey created really mark the inception of film.

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However, if I have to put my money down on one person as the inventor of film, it’s going to be Louis-Aimé Augustin LePrince. This French-born innovator struggled for years to sell his motion picture camera only to vanish without a trace on the cusp of becoming internationally famous. According to Donald Cook’s History of Narrative Cinema, LePrince projected motion pictures as a demonstration for functionnaires of the French government at the Paris Opera in 1890—five years before the Lumière brothers would exhibit their camera-projector, the Cinematographe.

His uncanny disappearance has sparked your typical range of crackpot theories; some have speculated that ruthless entrepreneur Thomas Edison, whom we remember as a great inventor, a perpetuator of animal cruelty, an occasional idea thief, and an all-round nice guy, had LePrince killed. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

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What has come to be known as “The Roundhay Garden Scene” represents the first successful attempt to make motion pictures, not just to record motion through a series of still images. The fact that an ordinary middle class British family serve as the subject of the first ever film also imbues the fragment with a sense of warmth and nostalgia, hinting at the human dimension latent in the technological advance. Unlike the scientific gaze of many early photographic motion studies, the quaint backyard location and lawn game ambiance of the few seconds of film opens a window in time. Travel back to 1888 and witness the grainy power of LePrince’s vision.

1895  – “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” – First Film for Commercial Projection

Film historians tend to consider Lumière Brothers the founders of the medium even though Edison’s studio was producing films before them. Why? Because Edison’s ideas about film and how it could be marketed and distributed were comparatively limited. His camera couldn’t easily be transported, so Edison’s films were made indoors in a studio called the Black Maria. His Kinetoscope exhibition method relied on a peep-hole scenario where the viewer had to put his eye up against a tiny screen and watch the movie. By contrast, the Lumières’ highly portable camera-projector enabled them to capture footage outdoors and to share the images with many people at once. They were the first to conceive of film as a form of group entertainment.

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However, with the proliferation of online video, the dominance of small screens, and the increasing commonness of media enjoyed in isolation, I can’t help but notice that film actually seems to be shifting away from the shared experience of the Lumière model and back towards the individual experience of Edison’s Kinetoscope.

That is an observation, not a judgment. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this turns out.

1895 – “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots” – First Film Edit

The first edit within a movie was a cut in more ways that one! To recreate a bloody historical event, “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots,” Alfred Clark at Edison Studios used a hidden cut. We see Mary kneel to put her neck on the block, the axe swings upward, and, then, in the blink of an eye, Mary gets swapped out for a pre-chopped mannequin. Off with her head!

Not only does this film remind us that editing itself can constitute one of the most powerful special effects, but it also reveals how editing and violence have always gone hand-in-hand. It’s hard to imagine some of the most masterful, yet violent sequences in film history—the Odessa Stairs massacre from Battleship Potemkin, the shower scene from Psycho, the Ride of the Valkyries sequence from Apocalypse Now—without torrents of rhythmic cuts. And it all started here, even if you’re not supposed to notice that cut. Audiences were appropriately horrified and the relationship between film and extreme violence was born.

1895 – First Film with Synchronous Sound

Long before Al Jolson exulted, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in the so-called first talking film, The Jazz Singer (1927), movies had actually been making noise for quite some time. In late 1894 or 1895, William Dickson of Edison Studios actually timed a film recording with synchronous sound captured by a wax cylinder. Long considered lost, the cylinder was found and recently restored so we can hear Dickson himself playing the first piece of synched movie sound, a bit of violin music.

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Incidentally, we might giggle at the sight of two men dancing in a 19th century film, but homosocial dancing was not a particularly unusual thing for that era. Men in the army, on boats, and in isolated locations like prairies often danced with each other in a way that implied camaraderie and friendship, since dancing was one of the most popular ways to pass time.

I know this sounds strange, but I find this film the most poignant of all of the ones I’m featuring. I nearly started crying the first time I heard the clear vibration of a violin that ceased to play over a century ago.

1896 – “The Cabbage Fairy” – First Film by a Female Director

I hate to trivialize Alice Guy-Blaché by referring to her as a “female director,” as though her only claim to fame was doing something that men mostly do. In fact, she possessed an extraordinary imagination on a par with Méliès, a deliciously cheeky sense of humor, and sensitivity to the emotional nuances of narrative that foreshadowed Griffith’s masterpieces. She worked with cutting edge technologies like superimposition and synchronous sound at the turn of the century. She oversaw production at early film giant Gaumont and, after she moved to America, she bought and ran her own studio, Solax.

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Unfortunately, her first film, “The Cabbage Fairy,” a version of a myth about where babies come from might not exactly stoke one’s enthusiasm for her oeuvre. It features a scantily clad lady (Guy herself!) plucking naked live babies out of exaggerated cabbage patches. Nevertheless, the whimsical set design, the fantasy quality, and the sheer surreal weirdness of visually representing a legend all speak for this film’s historical value. But Alice would go on to make much better!

I encourage you watch other films by Mme Guy-Blaché. I recommend “Madame’s Cravings,” about a pregnant woman gone wild, “The Consequences of Feminism,” with its wry gender inversions, and “Falling Leaves,” a heartwarming family movie. Plus, click here for a fascinating behind the scenes peek of Mme Guy arranging a film.

1896 – “The Haunted Castle” – First Ever Horror Movie

Thanks to Scorsese’s Hugo, a much wider audience has come to appreciate Georges Méliès and his contributions to cinema. Set designer, magician, inventor, actor, and much more, diablethis multi-hyphenate also gave the world the first horror film.

And guess what?

The plot sounds frighteningly similar to 90% of the scary movies coming to a theater near you: two travellers happen to wander into a haunted castle and fend off attacks from shape shifting ghosts led by the Devil himself. Savor the zany camera tricks as bats turn into humanoid demons and beautiful damsels transform into ugly old hags. 

1900 – “How It Feels to Be Run Over” – First Use of Intertitles

Intertitles—those text screens that pop up between images in silent films—get a raw deal. Long bewailed as an explanatory enemy to true art, they clarified plot points and added dialogue to silent film and often revealed just how artistically text can be integrated with images. In Cecil Hepworth’s “How It Feels to Be Run Over,” a carriage rushes by the camera, then a car rushes right into it as though we, the viewer were being run over. The closing intertitle combusts with exclamation points and an ironic “Oh! Will be pleased!” The dynamic multiple title cards convey the shock and energy of the collision. Not bad for 1900. The BFI has done a nice write-up on this significance of this film.

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1900 – “Grandma’s Reading Glass” – First Point-of-View Close-Up

George Albert Smith, a British filmmaker, produced some very interesting, playful films that display a forward-thinking grasp of how the camera itself can be incorporated into films—not just used as a passive recording instrument. In “Grandma’s Reading Glass,” a little boy uses a magnifying glass to examine the world around him—newsprint, a canary, a house cat, and even his Grandmother! Her huge eye filling the screen must’ve come as a shock to viewers accustomed to pretty long shots. What’s more impressive is that the film puts us, the viewers, in the place of the little boy, demonstrating cinema’s magical capacity to encourage identification with characters and their experiences.

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1902 – First Ever Color Film

The silver lining to every lost film, to every forgotten breakthrough is the hope that we will someday share the joy of rediscovering it. This past fall, the Internet buzzed with excitement over the first ever color film, created by Edward Turner. According to the coverage by the UK Telegraph, which I strongly recommend reading and watching, Turner had developed a process that entailed “recording successive frames through red, green and blue filters then projecting and superimposing them on top of one another.”

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So, unlike the stenciled hand-coloring process that made Méliès’ films, Turner’s method was much more closely related to the multi-strip Technicolor that would revolutionize film in the late 1920s and 1930s. The film shows Turner’s children playing with flowers and a goldfish bowl. If you look closely, you can see the yellow goldfish gliding around.

1903 – “The Great Train Robbery” – First Western

I would have preferred to feature an earlier Edwin Porter film, “Life of an American Fireman,” but the influential cross-cut version has not, to my knowledge, been uploaded to YouTube. So, I’ll fall back on this no less extraordinary film which bequeathed one of the most enduring genres, the Western, and a stronger sense of filmic narrative than probably any previous film.

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Bonus Film!

1912 – “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” – First Ever Gangster Movie

I couldn’t in good conscience end this post without including a D.W. Griffith film. In spite of his flaws, and they were many, he made some iconic movies. So, roll with the big boys—1912 style.