For the fourth year in a row, Randy Haberkamp of the Motion Picture Academy came to the Rafael with an overview of one-hundred-year-old films. For the first time, I was there to see it.
Haberkamp introduced and presented seven one-reelers (pretty much all there was in those days) from 1910—six of them narrative fiction. Despite the Rafael site’s promise that “the program spotlights evolving cinematic storytelling methods,” he talked mostly about the studios and the filmmakers, and only occasionally about how the art evolved over that year.
Nor did he arrange the films (all American, by the way) in any sort of order that would suggest an evolution—either chronologically or working from the most primitive to the most advanced. In fact, the most primitive film shown, “The Wonderful World of Oz,” was fourth on the program.
“Oz” was also the biggest revelation for me, which is odd because I’d already seen it. In fact, I have it in two different boxed sets. It’s in the More Treasures from American Film Archives collection, and is on a Wizard of Oz (1939) supplemental disc. Clearly made up of scenes from a stage production–with painted backdrops even for exteriors, and shot from a single, never-moving, straight-on camera–it looks more like a movie from 1905 than 1910. I never cared for it.
But seeing it in 35mm, projected onto a large screen, with Michael Mortilla tickling the ivories and an enthusiastic audience, I could enjoy it for what it was. Yes, it was crude as cinema, but it recorded scenes from what must have been a very fun stage production—full of clever sets, slapstick, and dancing.
The program wasn’t all painted sets. A western called “The Sergeant” was shot in Yosemite, and takes full advantage of the scenery. Thought to be lost, a print of the “The Sergeant” recently turned up in New Zealand, and the movie has just been restored. We were among the first people to see it screened in close to a century.
My favorite? “A Tin Type Romance,” a slight romantic comedy from Vitagraph. and staring Florence Turner. Movie actors weren’t credited in those days, and she became known as the “Vitagraph Girl.” She had a wonderfully expressive face and almost as expressive feet. On the other hand, her charisma wasn’t strong enough to keep a dog from stealing the picture.
Haberkamp brought up two interesting evolution-of-the-form issues. One involved intertitles. In 1910, the vast majority of them told you what you were about to see—”Ramona finds out that she’s part Indian”—and that really hurts the story. Filmmakers were only just beginning to experiment with more effective uses of the printed word, and very little of that was seen in these examples.
The other issue was more complex stories. In many of these pictures, the filmmakers are clearly suffering from a need to burst out of the one-reel form. After all, the last film of the evening, D. W. Griffith’s “Ramona,” was based on a 500-page best-selling novel.
Actually, in 1910, the one-reeler had only just become the standard length. During the Q&A, Haberkamp admitted that one of the challenges in putting this year’s show was the length of the films. In earlier years, the films seldom filled a reel, and he could show more than seven.
That makes me wonder how long he can keep this series going. By 1913, much of the cinema’s important evolution was happening in features.