Early American Cinema: Selected Films of 1900 and 1901

capture-of-boer-battery-by-british

 

The Second Boer War (1899-1902) pitted Great Britain’s Cape Colony against the South African Republic and the Orange Free State; Capture of Boer Battery by British (directed by James H. White) shows the Gordon Highlanders (a line infantry regiment) holding the line. By 1900, American films were getting steadily longer, with this one reaching a minute or so in length – the previous decade saw the first feature-length film, The Corbitt-Fitzsimmons Fight of 1897 (only fragments remain of it), documenting the titular boxing match between James J. Corbitt and Bob Fitzsimmons on St. Patrick’s Day, and Thomas Edison’s Black Maria studio remained an important place for cinematography. As can be seen in Capture, the wide shot became one of many innovative techniques introduced in the nascent years of cinema – documentary films carried over from the 1890s, and fictional narratives became more commonplace as the 20th century dawned.

 

the-enchanted-drawing

 

In fact, one of the first animated films in U.S. history debuted in 1900 – J. Stuart Blackton’s The Enchanted Drawing features an abrupt cut between shots to show a drawing of a glass and beer bottle becoming real. Georges Méliès utilized the substitution splice for similar effect – here, the cameraman likely stopped the camera entirely for a moment, then resumed once the props were in place. Blackton may not be familiar to modern audiences, but he became a pioneer in the early days of American cinema – co-founder of Vitagraph, he went on to direct many short films in the silent era,  some of them utilizing stop-motion animation (such as 1897’s The Humpty Dumpty Circus). With The Enchanted Drawing, Blackton capitalizes on the camera to introduce new objects; Méliès used that to greater effect in his films, and Drawing feels rather pedestrian once you watch other works such as A Trip to the Moon.

 

the-artists-dilemma

the-cooks-revenge

the-gordon-sisters-boxing

kansas-saloon-smashers

 

1901 saw much more diversification, with the cinematic market becoming larger (if Wikipedia is any indication) through the release of numerous films; of note are those illustrated above. Edwin S. Porter began his career around this time – Kansas Saloon Smashers happens to be one of his, along with An Artist’s Dilemma. The former hearkens to Carrier Nation, who went around saloons and breaking bottles with her iconic hatchet; this was before the advent of Prohibition, when Christian temperance movements sprang up across the country. Film had by this point echoed popular sentiments – like any medium, cinema was quick to pick up on trends and dramatize them for social/moral purposes. At the same time, vaudeville acts were still all the rage; The Gordon Sisters Boxing (third from top in the above screenshots) illustrates that rather well.

 

Such films as these helped make the point for cinema being a viable medium for telling stories and introducing audiences to a new format with new technological possibilities – even though it remained a novelty by 1901, directors such as Blackton, Porter and Melies saw the capacity for film to relate stories through a lens, being able to fiddle with new technology in such a way as to present narratives in different ways. The 1890s and early 1900s (through to the 1920s) saw so much occur that it would take quite some time to fully go over the details. Suffice to say that 1900 and 1901 saw a great diversification of films, with fiction coming onto its own both in the U.S. and abroad; films such as The Artist’s Dilemma and The Cook’s Revenge (the latter by Melies) illustrate the inventiveness of early directors, who had their hands on the pulse of cinematic techniques, while others such as Gordon Sisters illustrate the appeal of vaudeville-style romps, as directors can bring acts to the masses through the big screen.

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