Showing posts with label silent shorts. Show all posts
Showing posts with label silent shorts. Show all posts

Monday, May 23, 2016

How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900)

I’ve always had a penchant for British humor, but until recently, I had no idea that it extended back to the beginning of the film industry. My knowledge of early film has always been focused on France (Georges Méliès and the Lumière brothers), the United States (Edison and Edwin S. Porter), and the filmmaker-without-a-country, Segundo de Chomón. Thanks to Cecil Hepworth, I’m now embarking on a crash course (no pun intended) in early British film, and I’m downright giddy about it. 

From How It Feels to Be Run Over. You'll be finding out very soon.


While researching a film for my book on lost horror films recently, I fell into one of those rabbit holes of research that so frequently derail me from the task at hand. The lost film I was investigating was The Doll’s Revenge (a 1907 comedy short with some horrific overtones—the granddaddy of Chucky and other dolls on the rampage). Without much information on the film, I started investigating relevant threads, such as the young star of the film, Gertie Potter, and the director, Cecil Hepworth. That’s how I came across Hepworth’s memoir, Came the Dawn, a highly-readable remembrance of his days as a pioneer of the British film industry from the late 1800s until 1923 when his company went bust. Hepworth’s original negatives—amounting to around 2,000 films—were destroyed and sold for the silver content to pay his debts. Most of his feature films and shorts remain lost.

What interested me most were the stories of his earliest films, mainly comedy shorts that he made in the early 1900s. Unlike guys like the Lumières or Georges Méliès who had professional careers in other capacities before getting into the film biz, Hepworth was a youngster whose very first business was film. What I gleaned from the anecdotes in his bio is that there was very much a DIY spirit to his film company, made up mostly of amateurs, with he and his friends playing the roles, and whoever was free at the moment running the camera (sometimes that might even be one of the children). When some of his comedy shorts became popular, they went nuts coming up with ideas to film, and the wackier the better. Shorts were only a minute or two in length, so it only took one simple gag to carry a film, and I can almost hear the crew around the table: “What if someone falls in the water? No, what if a lady falls in the water? Hey, what if we have Cecil dress up as the lady? … Okay, let’s film it.”

Hepworth in a 1915 issue of Pictures and the Picturegoer.


It was during this frenzied period of comedy filmmaking that Hepworth’s memoir makes reference to a short with possibly the best title ever: How It Feels to Be Run Over. It became immensely popular, and it led to a follow-up called Explosion of a Motor Car. Both films were made in 1900, and not only was this an early year for film, it was an early year for automobiles. Consider what a wild novelty Toad’s motorcar is in Wind in the Willows, and it was written eight years later. Hepworth was capitalizing on not only a brand-new trend, but one that had a lot of people concerned for public safety. How It Feels to Be Run Over, then, is taking people’s fear of new technology and making it into a colossal joke.

That DIY spirit is in evidence here, as Hepworth himself is driving the motor car. He’s credited with the cinematography, so he no doubt set up the camera, but there’s no telling who’s actually behind it. His passenger is May Clark, by the way, who would star as Alice in the first film version of Alice in Wonderland, filmed by Hepworth in 1903.

Go ahead and watch it now; I’ll wait. It’s only 40 seconds long. (The version I’m linking has, for some reason, the beginning of another short attached to it, but this is the only online version that isn’t missing a crucial frame. You can stop at the :40 mark.)

 HOW IT FEELS TO BE RUN OVER - CECIL HEPWORTH - 1900



There’s a lot here for a forty-second film, and not just the newness of the automobile. It’s filmed in a single shot, for starters. We first see a horse and buggy, making the point that the old-fashioned way is plenty safe, before we see the car not only careening toward the viewer, but doing so on the wrong side of the road (this is England, so there’s no good reason for it to be on the right). There’s also the creative use of the POV shot, letting us see the car from the perspective of its victim. And then there’s the bizarre punchline: “Oh, mother will be pleased.” According to most sources, it’s the first known use of an intertitle in a silent film. Technically, it’s not an intertitle, as it comes at the end, so there’s no “inter” about it, but it does something you don’t otherwise see in film of this era: it communicates the inner feelings of a character. It’s believed that the words are scratched right into the film itself, and it certainly appears that way.

Cinema's first intertitles?


Just about anyone who watches the short has an opinion on what that line really means. Most agree that it’s meant as sarcasm, and that his mother most certainly will not be pleased. Some take it at face value, and think the joke is that he’s not well-liked by his mother, or even that she might be impressed at his collision with such a new-fangled machine. I think the real meaning is a lot simpler, and it’s one I haven’t seen explored. In Hepworth’s original catalogue description of the film, he describes the ending like this: “ … the car dashes full into the spectator, who sees ‘stars’ as the picture comes to an end.” From this description, it seems clear that the pedestrian’s words are not so much sarcasm as they are the nonsensical words of a guy with a bad concussion—the verbal equivalent of seeing stars. (I suppose you could say he’s speaking stars.)

Rescued by Rover made Hepworth famous—though his daughter Barbara was eclipsed by the family dog, Blair.


Hepworth went on to become an enormous success, and five years later, his Rescued by Rover made a star and a household  name out of Hepworth’s family dog. (It’s said to be Britain’s first major fiction film, and is the reason “Rover” became such a ubiquitous dog name.) It’s a tragedy that so much of his output is lost, but I’m grateful that 116 years later, his memoir has not only given me tons of amusement (so many great anecdotes—you really must read it), but he’s introduced me to the world of early British cinema. I won't be leaving it soon.


Monday, October 12, 2015

The Short, Spooky Films of Segundo de Chomón, “The Spanish Méliès”

Today’s silent horror film for 31 Days of Silent Horror Films is actually more than one film. To coincide with today’s Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon, I’m focusing on the short films of Spanish film pioneer Segundo de Chomón, who also happens to be a pioneer of silent horror.

I always find it odd that horror films as a genre are seen as a niche interest, or at least considered to be outside of the mainstream. It’s a little puzzling considering that many of the very first films ever made featured supernatural themes and horror characters. Georges Méliès’  Le Manoir du Diable (The Devil’s Castle) from 1896 depicts a skeleton that turns into a bat, then into the Devil, who conjures up a host of spooky spectres. It’s one of the earliest films in existence, and it’s decidedly horror. Even Edison took a stab at horror with his famous 1910 version of Frankenstein.

Spanish silent film pioneer Segundo de Chomon.

But, while pioneers like Méliès and Edison are known outside of silent film geekdom, not many people are familiar with the name Segundo de Chomón. De Chomón, who not only was a master of early film techniques, but also an innovator of horror special effects, is often referred to as “the Spanish Méliès,” but in many ways surpassed the achievements of the more famous filmmaker. Whether or not you agree with his superiority to Méliès, de Chomón is inarguably the most important Spanish director of silent films.

Aragon-born de Chomón was lured into the film world by his wife, French actress Julienne Mathieu. One of the earliest French film actresses, Mathieu appeared in a slew of early early Pathé Frères productions. De Chomón became an agent for Pathé Frères films in Spain, and by 1901 was producing his own actuality films of Spanish locales. He soon learned to hand-tint films and ultimately helped develop the Pathéchrome process. Inspired by Méliès, he began working on trick films, and Pathé was happy to support his efforts, hoping to compete with the French filmmaker’s popular projects. 

Claymation head from de Chomon's Haunted House.

De Chomón quickly moved past mere mimicry of Méliès work with stop-motion and double exposure effects and developed his own camera tricks. His films display his innovations in hand-drawn animation and silhouette animation, the latter of which he was among the first to use. De Chomón developed his own methods of single-frame techniques, optical dissolves, and traveling shots, taking it all farther than Méliès ever did. In fact, when Méliès company was beginning to fail, de Chomón was gaining even more steam. He accepted an invitation to work on films in Italy and directed the special effects on notable full-length films like Cabiria  and Maciste in Hell  (Film #10 in the 31 Days of Silent Horror Films event). Filmed using a tracking camera of de Chomón’s own invention, Cabiria is said to feature the first ever “dolly” shot in film.

Special effects aside, one of the other ways de Chomón pushed the envelope further than Méliès is with his stories, and that’s where his importance as a horror filmmaker comes in. De Chomón played more with fantastic narratives and surreal elements, weaving them into a story, rather than just presenting them for the sake of a special effect. Sometimes those elements are downright gruesome, such as the worms that appear inside a cake in Panicky Picnic. Even by today’s standards, his horror elements are often eery and unsettling (the face that appears in the mirror in La Maison Ensorcelée is still nightmare-inducing today). 

Animated silhouettes of demons interspersed with live action shots.

La Maison Ensorcelée (1908) or The Haunted House is a prime example of what made de Chomón so special in his time. It’s loaded with special effects, and some of them are effects that continued to be used in horror film for decades to come. Enchanted clothing would still seem like a pretty neat trick when Bedknobs and Broomsticks came out 63 years later. Also notable are the multiple kinds of animation techniques used in the short (plus the fact that it’s blended in with live actors): hand-drawn animation, silhouette animation, miniatures, and claymation all make an appearance in the film. While stop-motion animation was around before  de Chomón came along, the enchanted breakfast in La Maison Ensorcelée is still one of the best examples of it in early film, with self-slicing sausages and tea that pours itself. Lest it all seem more quaint than horrifying, that spooky character from the mirror shows up again for a frightening finale.





One of the other de Chomón films of particular interest to silent horror film fans is Satan S’amuse (1907) or Satan at Play. On the surface, it’s a magic act, similar to the many shorts of Méliès or other magicians-turned-filmmakers like Walter Booth. De Chomón has added some horror touches that go beyond the skeleton costume of the titular demon. Particularly grim is a levitation act performed with two (for the time) attractive women. Each woman is wrapped in a swath of dark paper, rather like a giant cigar, before she is levitated, then set aflame. We see the bundles begin to disintegrate before our eyes just as they vanish, taking the presumably charred bodies of the women with them. By the end of the macabre magic show, the Devil sets the entire set on fire. (While not a horror element, I was particularly pleased to see the Pathé rooster appear briefly on one of the illusions. The rooster served as a way of copyrighting the films, and it’s always fun to spot it when it turns up. This is one of the most clever uses of it I’ve seen.)




As a bonus, I’d like to mention La Grenouille or The Frog (1908). It’s a fun bit of surrealism that proves just how influential De Chomón still is today. Those who follow pop music will recognize that Lady Gaga borrowed several elements from the film for her video to the song “Applause,” right down to the tinted smoke and the clamshells (and of course the obvious spinning head).



 

It’s hard to know for sure why de Chomón’s name is not as well-known as that of Méliès, but some speculate that it’s because he was from Spain but did so much work in France, thus no country ever really claimed him as their own. There’s also the fact that he was largely forgotten after his death, while several people worked to champion Méliès after his death and preserve his work. And, of course, modern audiences know Méliès thanks to the movie Hugo. Regardless of why he was forgotten, Segundo de Chomón needs to be rediscovered and remembered for his contributions to horror films and to all films with special effects. He was indisputably a master. 


 

This post is a crossover post for both Hollywood’s Hispanic Heritage Blogathon ...