A quintuple shot of antique horror

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Jehanne d’Alcy, star of lost film Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb

As always, my yearly October salute to vintage horror films celebrating landmark anniversaries kicks off with grand master Georges Méliès. Sadly, two of his 1899 films represented here are lost.

Robbing Cleopatra’s Tomb (known in its original French as simply Cléopâtre) stars Méliès as a tomb-robber and Jehanne d’Alcy as Cleopatra’s ghost. Our dastardly tomb-robber chops Cleopatra’s mummy into pieces, then “produces a woman from a smoking brazier.”

D’Alcy was the first film actor to portray Cleopatra VII (albeit as her ghost). She and Méliès later became one another’s second spouses.

On 22 September 2005, it was announced this film had been found, but alas, it turned out to be a different film with the robbing of an Egyptian tomb.

In The Devil in a Convent (Le Diable au Couvent (1899), Satan arises from what appears to be a baptismal font and disguises himself as a priest delivering a sermon to nuns. They flee in fear when he transmogrifies back. When he’s alone, Satan conjures up several demonic statues, a large mask, and many other devils.

Their fun in the convent ends when the nuns return. The other devils flee, and Satan is pursued by many priests. An angel statue comes to life and slays him with a sword, and Satan vanishes in a cloud of smoke.

In 2010, Cinémathèque Basque received a box of 32 films in 35mm, including hand-coloured copies of The Devil in a Convent and another 1899 Méliès film, The Mysterious Knight. These films were rescued from a rubbish bin in Bilbao, Spain in 1995.

The Pillar of Fire (Danse du Feu) (1899) was originally released in the U.S. and U.K. as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire. The Devil, dressed in green, leaps out of a cauldron and begins creating smoke all over the room with a bellows. He then conjures a young lady who performs a serpentine dance before disappearing in a column of smoke.

This was the first film based on British writer H. Rider Haggard’s 1887 novel She: A History of Adventure. Given the scant length of films in this era, Méliès chose to use title character Ayesha (not the protagonist) as inspiration for one of his famous trick films. There are at least ten other film adaptations of this book.

Occultist Count Alessandro Cagliostro, né Giuseppe Balsamo (1743–95)

Cagliostro’s Mirror (Le miroir de Cagliostro) (1899) is sadly lost. It depicted a basket of flowers appearing in large frame on a wall, followed by a beautiful young lady’s picture. Her picture becomes animated, and she begs to get out of the frame. A visitor starts to comply, only to see her turning into a skeleton and huge devil’s head.

Faust and Marguerite (known in French as Damnation du Docteur Faust) (1904) was Méliès’s fourth and final film adaptation of the German legend of Faust, a scholar who makes a deal with the Devil and finds himself in way over his head after the initial thrill wears off. Once more, Méliès played the part of Mephistopheles, the Devil.

Unfortunately, this film isn’t widely available to the general public in its 15-minute entirety. A print with some missing scenes is held at the Paper Prints collection in the Library of Congress, and a short fragment of the 15th and 16th scenes is in a private British collection.

Like many of Méliès’s other films, this one too is meant to be played alongside spoken narration. It can be difficult to figure out exactly what’s going on without this narration. Those who’ve seen F.W. Murnau’s classic 1926 Faust will be familiar with the storyline, though there are some divergences.

This particular Faust adaptation is based on Charles Gounod’s 1859 opera. Méliès’s 1903 version was based on Hector Berlioz’s 1846 opera.

Celebrating 130 years of film

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French inventor Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene, filmed and released on 14 October 1888, is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving film. Later that same month, he filmed Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Accordion Player. Though he did make an earlier film, 1887’s Man Walking Around a Corner, that was shot onto a glass plate instead of paper film.

Roundhay Garden Scene features Le Prince’s in-laws, Joseph Whitley (1817–12 January 1891) and Sarah Robinson Whitley (1816–24 October 1888), and Annie Hartley, a friend of Le Prince and his wife Elizabeth. Sadly, Sarah died ten days after the film was shot.

Though the Lumière Brothers usually get all the credit for inventing the movies as we know it, Le Prince had them beat by seven years. While Le Prince’s early films obviously didn’t lead to the commercial popularity of cinema, he was still making films well before 1895.

Sadly, he mysteriously disappeared from a train in France on 16 September 1890, and thus was unable to stage a planned public demonstration of his work in the U.S. His body and luggage were never found, and he was declared dead in 1897.

In 2003, a photo of an 1890 drowning victim resembling Le Prince surfaced (no pun intended) in Parisian police archives. Multiple theories about the reason for his disappearance vary—suicide to avoid impending bankruptcy; assassinated in a motion picture patent war; ordered to leave by his family because he was allegedly gay (though zero evidence exists of his supposed homosexuality); murdered by his brother in a dispute over their mother’s will.

In 1898, Le Prince’s son Adolphe testified in a court case between Thomas Edison and the American Mutoscope Company. Edison named himself as the sole inventor of cinematography, and claimed he deserved royalties from his former employee William Kennedy Dickson’s rival company.

Adolphe wasn’t allowed to present his father’s two cameras as evidence, and the court ruled in favor of Edison. A year later, the ruling was overturned.

In the same period of 1888–90, William Friese-Greene (who awesomely added his wife’s surname to his with a hyphen!) and Wordsworth Donisthorpe also invented early moving picture cameras, but Le Prince still beat them to the punch with successfully capturing moving images.

The surviving ten frames of Donisthorpe’s first successful film, 1890

In Leeds, England, Le Prince is celebrated as a local hero. On 12 December 1930, a bronze memorial plaque was unveiled by his former workshop at 160 Woodhouse Lane, which was also the BBC’s Leeds station till recently. It’s now part of the Leeds Beckett University Broadcasting Place complex. A second, blue plaque there celebrates his work further.

Copyright KGGucwa

In 2003, the University of Leeds Centre for Cinema, Photography, and Television was named after Le Prince, and in France, an appreciation society exists in Lyon. His life has been the subject of several books and documentaries, most recently 2015’s The First Film.

On 8 September 2016, The First Film had its U.S. début by the Morris-Jumel mansion in NYC, where Le Prince’s first public film screening would’ve taken place in 1890, had he not disappeared.

Who would’ve guessed a two-second film of people in a Leeds garden would lead to 130 years, and counting, of cinema?

Happy 115th birthday to The Great Train Robbery!

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Side note: The Roaring Twenties (1939) is one of my two favoritest Cagney films I’ve seen to date, the other being the indescribably awesome White Heat (1949)

Legendary, pioneering director Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery, released 1 December 1903, is perhaps his best-known film. Though there were no credits during this era, we know the stars included Broncho Billy Anderson (the first film Western star), who plays three roles; Justus D. Barnes (the outlaw who famously shoots at the screen); Alfred C. Abadie (the sheriff); and B-movie Western actor Tom London (the conductor).

Bandits hold up a railway telegraph worker, forcing him to stop a train and order the engineer to fill the coal car at a water tank. The bandits then knock out the operator and tie him up.

The bandits board the train when it stops. Two of them enter a passenger car, kill a messenger, and dynamite open a box of valuables. The other two bandits kill a fireman and make the engineer stop the train and disconnect the locomotive.

The passengers are then forced off and searched for valuables. One brave soul tries to escape, but is killed.

The bandits make off with their booty, and come to a valley where their horses are waiting.

Back in the telegraph office, the operator comes to, and quickly passes out again. Then his young daughter arrives, prays over him, cuts his restraints, and throws water over him.

At a dancehall, locals mirthfully make an Eastern greenhorn dance as they fire at his feet. The merriment is interrupted when the operator bursts in to relay news of the robbery.

The menfolk waste no time in banding together and riding to the rescue. They catch the bandits, overtake them, and recover the loot.

The closing shot (which some theatres chose to play at the beginning) is one of the most iconic of cinematic history, right up there with the spaceship in the eye of the Moon in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902), Harold Lloyd hanging from the clock in Safety Last! (1923), and King Kong on top of the Empire State Building.

The film was shot at the Edison studios in NYC; New Jersey’s South Mountain Reservation; and along the Delaware, Lackawanna, & Western Railroad, in November 1903. Some prints feature hand-coloured frames (e.g., the outlaw’s green shirt in the final shot; the orange and pink vault explosion; clothes in the dancehall).

The Great Train Robbery had its début by NYC’s Huber’s Museum and Theatre, which is now an NYU dorm. It was then shown by eleven other city theatres. The film was a huge, immediate success, one of the very first blockbusters and Westerns.

Indeed, it was one of the most popular films of that era, until The Birth of a Nation came along twelve years later and smashed all records.

The budget was about $150, equal to $4,153, or £3,238, in 2017 money.

Just one year later, a remake with the same name came out, from Siegmund Lubin’s Lubin Manufacturing Company of Philadelphia. Piracy and unauthorised remakes were a huge problem in this era, since copyright protection for films was legally murky. Only in 1912 were films legally classified as protected works.

The Great Train Robbery has inspired many other Westerns over the years, as well as scenes in other films and TV shows. Director Edwin S. Porter also parodied his own film in 1905’s The Little Train Robbery, which featured an all-children’s cast.

This is truly one of those films everyone should see at least once.

Quadruple antique horror

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Welcome to this year’s celebration of classic silent and early sound horror films with landmark anniversaries! As always, I’m kicking off with master Georges Méliès. Sadly, his one 1898 horror film, The Cave of the Demons, is lost, so I’ll have to start with 1903.

I know the soundtrack isn’t the most appropriate, but I wanted to show an HD version

The Monster (Le Monstre) released 30 June 1903, and tells the story of an Egyptian prince who wants to resurrect his wife. A priest (Méliès) produces her skeleton from the coffin and prays over her. The skeleton then starts dancing, and the priest wraps her in cloth.

This shrouded creation shrinks, grows, and stretches, until finally turning back into the dead wife. The priest picks her up, then throws the shroud at the prince. Out falls the skeleton, and the prince runs after the priest.

The Monster is an inversion of Méliès’s 1896 trick film The Vanishing Lady, in which a magician’s assistant turns into a skeleton and back again. This was an era in which Egytomania was very much in vogue.

The Infernal Cauldron (Le Chaudron Infernal) is set in the Renaissance, and depicts Satan throwing three people into a cauldron. Each time, flames rise up. Satan’s assistant quells the flames, and the victims’ ghosts rise into the air. The ghosts then burst into dancing flames, and Satan leaps into his own cauldron.

Starting in 1903, Méliès began producing two negatives of each of his films, for domestic and foreign release, to stop the rampant piracy of his films. Towards this purpose, he built a special camera simultaneously using two reels of film and two lenses.

In the early 21st century, researchers discovered this two-lens system was an unintentional stereo film camera. Thus, 3D versions of Méliès’s films could be created by combining the two prints. In 2010, The Infernal Cauldron and The Oracle of Delphi were screened in 3D at Cinémathèque Française, and in 2011, those two films plus The Mysterious Retort (1906) were screened in 3D at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

The Oracle of Delphi (L’Oracle de Delphes) is also set in Ancient Egypt. A priest brings a fancy box into a temple and locks the doors. After he leaves, a thief breaks in and steals the box, only to be caught by a strange bearded figure who appears out of thin air.

The bearded man rescues the box and turns the two Sphinxes by the doors into women. They attack the thief, whose head turns into a donkey’s head. After this, they return to statues, the bearded man disappears, and the thief is left stunned.

The Damnation of Faust (Faust aux Enfers), released December 1903, was Méliès’s third film adaptation of this famous story, and wouldn’t be his last. He made one more direct adaptation in 1904, and two other films, in 1906 and 1912, inspired by Faust’s story. The 1903 version was supposedly directly inspired by Hector Berlioz’s 1845 musical La Damnation de Faust.

The film starts with Faust’s descent into Hell with Mephistopheles (Méliès). When they arrive at the Devil’s Hall, Mephistopheles commands goddesses forth from the ground to perform a ballet. Then the dancers vanish, shortly replaced by a cascade of water with maids floating in the air.

Next appears a seven-headed Hydra, which frightens both Faust and Mephistopheles. In turn, this beast is replaced by dancing demons. When they also disappear, Mephistopheles wraps Faust in his cloak, and both disappear into the ground. They arrive in a grotto of fire and flames, and Faust is hurled into a furnace as demons dance.

Mephistopheles rises above the crowd in the form of a bat at the end.

The dancing masked demons’ costumes were reused from an earlier 1903 Méliès film, The Infernal Cake Walk. Like many of his other films, this too makes wonderful use of special effects like substitution splices, dissolves, pyrotechnics, and superimpositions on black backgrounds.

The Jazz Singer at 90, Part VI (The history of sound on film)

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The Dickson Experimental Sound Film, 1894 or 1895

One of the myths about the early sound era is that The Jazz Singer was the very first talking picture. While it was certainly the most successful up to that date, and has become the best-known early talkie, it was far from the first experiment.

The thing that elevated TJS above all over sound-on-film experiments was Al Jolson’s incredible star power, charisma, personality, talent, personal affinity with the story. Had George Jessel’s demand for a higher salary been granted, silent cinema may have continued much longer.

This is a Kinetophone (or Phonokinetoscope), the technology used to create The Dickson Experimental Sound Film. It was Thomas Edison and William Kennedy Laurie Dickson’s attempt at creating a sound-on-film system, a Kinetoscope accompanied by a phonograph. A Kinetoscope is a single-user film-viewing device with a peephole.

The Kinetophone didn’t attempt to synchronize sound and image. Instead, people listened to the phonograph through a tube. Only 45 were ever made, and only three Kinetophone films are known to survive. The others are Nursery Favorites (1913) and a 1912 demo.

Other early sound-on-film systems included Phono-Cinéma-Théâtre, Théâtroscope, and Phonorama (or Cinemacrophonograph), all used by the 1900 Paris Exposition. While interesting experiments and novelties, they weren’t practical or popular.

Lack of efficient synchronization was the main problem. Audio and visual images were both recorded and projected with different devices, and thus rarely worked in exact harmony. Proper playback volume was also difficult to achieve, particularly in large theatres.

Sound recording systems of this era were of generally low quality, unless the performer were planted right in front of the clunky acoustic horn. In the early sound era, this dilemma manifested itself again.

In 1902, Léon Gaumont, a pioneer of the French film industry, demonstrated his sound-on-disc Chronophone system to the French Photographic Society, using an electric connection he’d patented. In 1906, he débuted the Elgéphone, which used compressed air for amplification. The Elgéphone was based upon the British Auxetophone.

U.S. inventor E.E. Norton’s Cameraphone was Gaumont’s systems’ main competition, though neither adequately addressed the three main issues with sound-on-film technology. They were also too expensive.

In 1907, Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee, got the first sound-on-film technology patent. His system transformed sound into lightwaves which were then photographically recorded directly onto celluloid. However, he never made effective use of this.

In 1913, Edison débuted a new cylinder-based sound-synching system, also called the Kinetophone. Unlike the earlier Kinetophone, this one projected films onto a screen instead of necessitating individual viewing through a peephole.

An intricate pulley system connecting the projector and phonograph enabled synchronization, though conditions weren’t often ideal. After barely more than a year, this system too was retired. Popular interest in sound-on-film had also abated.

The Photo-Drama of Creation (1914), a four-part, eight-hour Jehovah’s Witnesses’ film, synchronized live action and slides with music and lectures on phonograph discs. This was the first major film of that type.

Over nine million people in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand saw it. The budget was $300,000 ($7,173,000 today).

Slides used in The Photo-Drama of Creation

In 1914, Eric Tigerstedt (one of early 20th century Finland’s most important inventors) got a German patent for his sound-on-film innovations, and demonstrated this to scientists in Berlin.

In 1918, Hungarian inventor and engineer Dénes Mihály submitted his Projectofon system to the Royal Hungarian Patent Court. He received his patent in 1922.

In 1919, U.S. inventor Lee De Forest got several patents which led to the first optical sound-on-film system with commercial potential. Soundtracks were photographically recorded onto a filmstrip’s side to create a composite print. If audio and visual were properly synchronized while recording, it would be accurate in playback.

Another system came from research engineer Joseph Tykociński-Tykociner. In 1922, he demonstrated it to the American Institute of Electrical Engineers, but it was never used commercially.

15 April 1923 by New York’s Rivoli Theater, De Forest Phonofilms gave the very first commercial screening of sound films. A series of shorts accompanied a silent feature.

Though the company created some original films, most of them were celebrity documentaries, and comedy and musical performances. De Forest’s sound-on-film system was used through 1927 in the U.S., and till the end of 1930 in the U.K., but Hollywood remained skeptical.

In 1919, German inventors Josef Engl, Hans Vogt, and Joseph Massolle patented the Tri-Ergon system, and gave a public screening 17 September 1922, by Berlin’s Alhambra Kino. This became Europe’s dominant sound-on-film system.

In 1921, Orlando Kellum created Photokinema, which was used for a few shorts. It was most famously used for sound effects, singing, and an introduction in D.W. Griffith’s bomb Dream Street.

In 1923, Danish engineers Axel Petersen and Arnold Poulsen created the Cinéphone system.

Things began changing with the advent of Vitaphone. In 1925, Sam Warner of Warner Bros. saw the potential of Western Electric’s sound-on-disc system, and convinced his brothers to experiment with it by New York’s Vitagraph Studios, which they’d recently bought.

They renamed the system Vitaphone, and publicly débuted it 6 August 1926, with a full-length synchronized soundtrack and sound effects for Don Juan. The film was accompanied by eight musical shorts and a four-minute introduction by the infamous Will Hays, president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

While sound-on-film technology ultimately triumphed, sound-on-disc was initially superior due to lower costs and greater audio quality. More and more films were released with synchronized soundtracks and sound effects, along with more Vitaphone shorts, until the historic night of 6 October 1927.