Things in Silent Movies
A collection of scenes, people, and other details from the days before sound came in and spoiled it all.
Monday, 22nd March 2010
In 1895, the Lumière brothers took their camera to a meeting of the Congress of Photographic Societies. They filmed the members’ arrival at the conference, and then developed the footage and showed it to them that afternoon.
Although these were the very early days of film, the reaction of the subjects to the camera doesn’t seem all that different to the way people react today: some stare, some studiously ignore the camera’s presence, some pause to wave and show off, while others hurry past, head down.
As Arrivée des Congressistes à Neuville-sur-Saône is now in the public domain, you can watch it for yourself below.
(These early films tend to have a variety of names; this site uses the ones suggested by the British Film Institute.)
I’m sure that if you looked hard enough online, you’d find all kinds of nonsense written about symbolism and social order in this short film from the Lumiere brothers. Theory and analysis are all well and good, but at times they can rob a film of its more simple pleasures.
You may therefore prefer to simply enjoy watching the fine people of Lyon having a fine old time chucking show at each other in the street, probably filmed in the winter of 1896/1897:
Dating back to 1895, the Lumiere brothers’ Le jardinier et le petit espiègle is generally regarded as the first fictional film ever made. Some claims are more cautious, qualifying it as the first comedy ever made, or the first fully staged fictional comedy film ever made and shown to the public, but you get the idea. This was when the cinema began to make up stories.
The film is less than a minute long, and the gag is familiar enough: a gardener is watering his garden, when a boy creeps up behind him and steps on the hose to stop the water; gardener looks into hose, boy releases foot, gardener gets soaked (and, in this case, administers the boy a savage beating).
Le jardinier et le petit espiègle (also known as L’arroseur arrosé, although technically this was the title of a later in-house remake) has long since been in the public domain, you can watch it below in its entirety. The camera was in a fixed position, so the gardener has to drag the boy back to the starting point for his punishment.
There’s a rumour that F.W. Murnau’s classic vampire film Nosferatu features actor Max Schreck in not one but two roles. He is of course the vampire himself, but – the rumour goes – he also appears briefly in another role near the beginning of the film, as a clerk in the office where Hutter works. (Nosferatu was an unofficial adaptation of Dracula, and the character names were changed in an unsuccessful attempt to avoid incurring the wrath of Bram Stoker’s estate. Hutter in the film is Jonathan Harker in the novel; Dracula becomes Count Orlok.)
There’s a still of the clerk above, and of Schreck as Orlok below, and plenty more images of Schreck in and out of make-up online.
It’s a tricky one. The clerk seems to have Schreck’s height, his narrow shoulders, and certain mannerisms. There’s something similar about the area around the eyes, too. The clerk’s head looks more rounded in the still above, but as he lowers his face at the end of the shot, it takes on something of Orlok’s length, before being hidden (very pointedly) behind a large hat. The forehead seems different, but as Orlok this would be hidden by make-up or prosthetics, and the prosthetic teeth would lengthen Schreck’s face.
Ultimately, there’s nothing here to either provide a definite ‘yes’ or a definite ‘no’. The only source I can find for the rumour is on IMDb, under Nosferatu trivia, which is user-submitted, and so not really authoritative. A discussion on the boards there is indecisive, and raises the question of who added the fact and what their source was.
Sometimes, when an effect is particularly difficult to pull off, it helps to look at things from another direction: backwards.
FX artists are always discovering that the impossible isn’t so impossible if you do it backwards, using a technique known as reverse motion photography: in An American Werewolf in London, when filming the werewolf transformation scene, they discovered that it’s much easier to pull hair in through the prosthetic skin than it is to push it out. In Hellraiser, the birth of a corpse from a blood puddle was created by melting it into a puddle and running the film backwards. Go back to 1910, though, and you’ll find what must be one of the first uses of this technique.
The Edison Studios Frankenstein is only around twelve minutes long, and much of this is dedicated to the dramatic birth of the creature: here again, the effect was created by burning a model creature, and reversing the footage. It’s pretty rough (although you could argue that the resulting movement of the smoke downwards contributes to the sense of something unholy coming together), but nonetheless interesting to see the early use of an effect that would still be in use almost a century later.
And see it you can: this film is now in the public domain, and viewable at the Internet Archive, here: Edison’s Frankenstein.