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Hand-Cranked and Made of Magic: Silent Shorts from the 1900s

One of my favorite adages is “To know where you’re going, you have to know where you’ve been.” It’s a mantra that tells us to remember, appreciate, and learn from the past and our fore-folks in order to appreciate where we are now, and how long the road forward has been. This applies to everything, of course, but as I’m an unabashed cinema hound, I usually apply this message to movies, because old movies can teach us so much about storytelling, camera work, and even special effects.

Last weekend I attended my first ever TCM Film Fest, the annual weekend of classic cinema held in Los Angeles put on by Turner Classic Movies. Whilst I didn’t get to go to as many movies as I would have liked, I did get to see things I never thought I’d get to see on the big screen, and in a lot of cases movies that I’d never even heard of. There were certainly amazing treats to be had, but easily my favorite, and the most special, took place on the Saturday night; it was called “Return of the Dream Machine: Hand-Cranked Films from 1902-1913.” For any math hounds out there, we’re talking about films (shorts, all of them) that were made over 100 years ago; black & white, silent, and no more than 10 minutes long, these films nevertheless represent some of the most innovative and interesting things I’d ever gotten to witness.

Hosted by Randy Haberkamp, the managing director of preservation for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the night featured 8 (really 9) films by some of cinema’s most important forefathers, and to make things even cooler, they were presented with live piano accompaniment by Michael Mortilla, and were shown using a vintage 1909 Hand-Crank Power’s Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine, operated by Joe Rinaudo and assisted by Gary Gibson. This is a machine, and a skill set, that died out long ago, but that are of the utmost import if we’re meant to properly understand these films. This wasn’t just hitting “Play” on a Blu-ray; these actual film strips were projected via an old contraption and cranked at just the right speed. Because 24 frames-per-second wasn’t standardized until much later, Rinaudo had to learn how fast to crank it for the image to appear in the proper speed (this is why sometimes you see silent movies that go way too fast; they’re being cranked or shown at 24fps when they oughtn’t.)


Now, because all of these films are old, they’re in the public domain and hence available on YouTube. I can’t vouch for the quality of these transfers, but the ones we saw were as pristine as one could hope.

Those Awful Hats
Biograph/D.W. Griffith (1909)
This tiny short began the evening and was a turn-of-the-century version of the “Please silence your cell phones” admonishment. It’s good to know that even in the earliest days of movie-going, etiquette was a thing people needed to learn. Particularly cool is Griffith’s use of combining two film elements, with what people are watching on the screen.

We then went in chronological order, and thus began with the man who was a true showman and magician in the world of cinema, using the camera to tell complex and fantastical stories while a lot of people were still just shooting film or horses running. That is Frenchman Georges Méliès whose work is still some of the finest ever in the realm of silent cinema.

Four Troublesome Heads
Méliès (1898)
This boggles my mind. In the 19th Century, he was doing this kind of magic with in-camera tricks and rolling back and re-exposing film. Méliès himself was the star of this one.

A Trip to the Moon
Méliès (1902)
The very first science-fiction film, Méliès showed us things that had literally only been dreamed about in Jules Verne and H.G. Wells’ prose. You’ve probably seen this before, but it’s always worth a look. Look at how cool the sets are, and how intricate the Moon Men’s costumes are.

The Great Train Robbery
Edison (1903)
Another very famous early film, arguably the first western as well, Thomas Edison’s company produced this narrative about bandits stealing a steam engine, shot in the “Old West” part of New Jersey. Note the location filming as well as stagier studio aspects. Also, not to be forgotten, is the merging of actual film of exteriors through the window of the interiors. A pretty impressive effect for 112 years ago.

Next, we had the biggest surprise of the night, and also something that’s haunted my dreams ever since…

The Dancing Pig
Pathé Frères (1907)
Made by one of the oldest still-functioning film production companies, this film is a version a popular (for some reason) music hall act. I’m quite impressed by the detail of the costume/puppet work for 1907, but I’m also terribly troubled by everything else that happens. This got remade many, many times, and I don’t know why.

A Corner in Wheat
Griffith/Biograph (1909)
We followed that by another from D.W. Griffith. This one is a drama about how the price of wheat changing can affect three different groups of people–poor farmers, retailers, and the wealthy mill owners. This one is not at all weird or very magical, but it’s an early example of cross-cutting (for which Griffith often erroneously gets inventing credit) and it was a definite come-down after that damn pig.

Winsor McCay, the Famous Cartoonist of The N.Y. Herald and His Moving Comics
Vitagraph/McCay (1911)
What a great, totally not-cumbersome title. This was a film that showed early hand-drawn animation and how awesome it could look. McCay was known for creating the comic strip Little Nemo and for the short animated Gertie the Dinosaur, which you no doubt have seen. In this movie, which combined live action and animation, McCay himself agrees to draw over 4,000 images for the purposes of showing off animation based on his Little Nemo strip. It’s amazingly complex for just being line drawings. It should be warned that one of the animated characters is, to my 21st Century eyes, pretty racist, but that’s the way things were in 1911, unfortunately.
[NOTE: We watched the below 7 minute cut of the film, but there is a full 13 minute version on YouTube very easily accessed if you’d like to see it]

Lois Weber/Rex (1913)
The final film on the schedule was this very early horror film in which a woman and her child are harassed by a passing tramp and her husband has to race home, stealing a car in order to do so. Directed by Lois Weber (yes, there were female directors even back then, and good ones too), this is an example of cutting for tension and employed a tri-split screen effect at one point. Weber herself plays the wife in the film.

That was all that was listed, but there was a special treat; a never-before-screened complete and re-colored version of a film called The Serpentine Dance was finished being struck literally hours before the presentation. In it, a bat flies in, turns into a woman in a puff of smoke, and then she begins to do a dance using billowing garments, which change color the more she does it. This was an early example of hand-painted film cells and is not available anywhere yet, but similar such things can be found on YouTube by other film pioneers.

The only downside of the evening for me was that TCM Fest’s own archive photographer kept taking pictures during the entire presentation, even during the films, an the sound of his artificial-shuttering camera “ch-ch-ch” about 500 times was incredibly distracting. We were there to listen to live piano and hand-cranked film flicker, not a guy with a digital camera that didn’t need to make any noise at all. UGH.

Regardless, it was a very enlightening night at the movies. I hope you enjoyed this trip into the past of cinema. While a lot of silent experimental films of the day aren’t the most enthralling, TCM Fest did a good job of keeping us entertained by some of the most influential and most engaging.

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