After watching so many of these ancient movies, it seemed like a good idea to memorialize what I have seen. Many were not outstanding by today’s standards, although at the time they were all novel. Many were slow in terms of pacing and at times difficult to get through. With all of that said, it is interesting to see where the industry started and how it has changed. This era was also not just the beginning for film in the US, but around the world.
The proliferation of filmmaking around the world is likely linked to the widespread distribution and use of the Kinetoscope. It appears that once it was out, there was no stopping film and the cinema experience. The stage had been set for filmmakers to appeal to and engage with audiences. Everything was still new, fresh, and untested in the early 20th Century and many big players needed to arrive in order for film to thrive.
The 1910’s are years filled with major players moving to Los Angeles and starting the foundation of Hollywood, other countries around the world creating their first films, and the film industry setting the stage for what will become a blossoming industry in the 1920’s.
The concept and product of film was still in its infancy in the early 1900’s and that is clear when you watch these movies. Many are short, simple in their story and execution. At the same time you have the films and players that are starting to make a splash and show what the film industry will start to become. These are films like Birth of a Nation, Carmen, The Cheat, Traffic in Souls, Der Student von Prag, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and many others.
This time also saw the creation of film studios around the world. US based companies like Universal, Paramount, and United Artists got their start, to name a few. Studios and production companies popped up in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, Sweden, and just about everywhere else it seems.
In the US there is the emergence of prominent filmmakers and film stars. Players like D.W. Griffith, Cecille B Demille, Charlie Chaplin, Lilian Gish, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe Arbuckle, and so many others make their way on the scene in big ways. The films they create begin to establish box office metrics and push the boundaries of what audiences will tolerate and enjoy.
In Europe, World War 1 takes a front seat to filmmaking, but filmmaking is still happening. The German Expressionism movement begins to take off with the release of Der Student Von Prag and Italy begins to master the Epic genre with films like Quo Vadis? and L ‘Inferno. There are interesting paths that film begins to take during this era and everyone is doing things for the first time and experimenting with the process and foundation of what can be done.
It makes sense to start with the primary institutions that allowed film to flourish, the production companies and cinemas that brought the films to the audience. The United States had a quick boom of filmmaking happening in the first two decades of the 20th century. There was the establishment of many production companies and the frameworks were created for filmmaking. Some long lasting production and film related companies hit the scene, like: Universal Studios, Paramount Pictures, United Artists (established by Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks), Metro Pictures, Goldwyn Pictures, and Louis B. Mayer Pictures, and Fox Film Corporation, to name a few. Many others were getting their feet wet and getting ready to make a splash, like: Warner Bros. and Walt Disney. Movie theaters popped up around the country starting at the turn of the century and have been continuing to this day, perhaps with the exception of the covid years…
The industry did not start on the west coast, but on the east coast. New Jersey was home to some early production companies in the late 1800’s, like: Thomas Edison’s production company and Hudson Palisades. Many other production companies sprouted up in the area surrounding New Jersey and slowely made their way west where the weather was more suitable for filming year round.
The early years of film, in the US and around the world, were filled with what we would consider short films today, running 5 – 20 minutes long. They were primarily derived from books, known stories, or comedic and simple displays of sketches or everyday life. Some notable early short films are Ben-Hur, The Adventures of Dollie, Mr. Flip, Suspense, Frankenstein, Little Nemo, to name a few.
The films all had similarities in that they were short, black and white, silent (generic music playing along), with intertitles. Although, it was interesting to see how some films stood out. For example, I watched Ben-Hur by Sidney Olcott, who was a noteworthy filmmaker at the time, and found the 15 minute long film hard to get through. I then watched Adventures of Dollie, D.W. Griffith’s debut film, as well as Suspense, by Lois Weber who was the first female filmmaker. Both of those movies were engaging films that I would recommend to movie watchers today.
Several big name filmmakers had their start in this time period as well. I already mentioned D.W. Griffith, who would go on to have infamous fame for Birth of a Nation and later Intolerance and Broken Blossoms. He also gave Lilian Gish her star roles. Other major filmmakers getting their start were Cecile B Demille, with his films The Cheat and Carmen being extremely successful, Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who was the big name in comedy and mentor for future stars Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd, and Douglas Fairbanks was rising to stardom.
Roscoe Arbuckle was a major influence in comedy with his films in the 1910’s and by his influence on future superstars Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. Arbuckle reached superstardom in the 1910’s as a part of Paramount pictures, making films like: Coney Island, Good Night, Nurse!, The Butcher Boy, and over 100 others. Unfortunately, he was falsely accused of rape in the 1920 and his career never recovered, even after he was acquitted, and he died young in 1933 at the age of 46. His influence changed films forever and allowed the talents of Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd to flourish in the 10’s and take off in the 20’s.
Charlie Chaplin worked early on with Arbuckle in the early 1910’s and quickly moved to riting, starring, and directing his films. This era saw big Chapin films like: The Immigrant, A Dog’s Life, and Shoulder Arms, to name a few. By the end of the 1910’s Chaplin would be forming United Artists with D.W.Griffith, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks.
In the mid 1910’s films started to get longer thanks to the success of Birth of a Nation, at over 3 hours. A huge change from 5 – 20 minute long films. Three hours did not become the norm, but the success proved that the attention spans were there for longer films. That success clearly opened the door for more money and resources being placed on longer film projects and film in general.
The most noteworthy US films that I watched in this era would be The Cheat, Suspense, Little Nemo, and Frankenstein. These films speak to the essence of era and show how the transition from the theater to film had begun in a large way. Stories can be told in a much different way on film, then they can in the theater, for better or for worse. Some filmmakers were able to identify that early and challenge a budding industry extremely early.
Films were able to tell some of the same stories that were being told in the theater, except with an added level of realism. Stories were being told that could incorporate special effects and visual tricks that could never be created in a theater or any other form of entertainment. This era began to set the foundation for the future of film, but it did not finish it. There was still a lot of experimenting and evolving in front of and behind the screen and a lot of drama and changes happening off the screen. It was a brand new industry and everyone was just beginning to get a taste of what would come.
Most of the movies that I watched in this era made it to some other post, however there were a few that I watched that did not spark enough interest for me to write about them. Others were either difficult, or impossible, to find and that is true for films around the world as well.
Mr. Flip – (1909) – 4 minute long short film. It features short vignettes of Ben Turpin as “Mr. Flip” as he obnoxiously harasses women. This film is barely worth noting and the only reason it is at all is the fact that it is the first film where someone is hit in the face with a pie, Mr. Flip. Beyond that it is just a weird short film following a guy groping women and them fighting back.
From the Manger to the Cross – (1912) – A Sydney Olcott film, same director as Ben-Hur (1907). This film was the first major US film to be filmed far away, on location in Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and other areas in Palestine.
The Mothering Heart – (1913) – The first D.W. Griffith film that stars Lillian Gish.
Traffic in Souls, or While New York Sleeps – (1913) – A film about prostitution, or white slavery, a topic that seems unusually risqué for the time. It does remind me of another film around this time, Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, out of Russia (below). The cinematography work is noteworthy as many of the shots have a more “modern” feel in that they are not all shot head on like you would expect in a stage play and there are some slight uses of panning in the film as well. I have not seen any films around this time that use that technique.
Carmen – (1915) – Cecile B. DeMille film based on the Opera of the same name by Georges Bizet. It stars Geraldine Farrar as Carmen, who played the role on stage in New York. The film shines with her performance as a captivating female renegade and individualist and is dulled by the use of blackface.
20,000 Leagues Under the Sea – (1916) – A Jules Verne classic that features some novel underwater filming techniques.
Mickey – (1918) – An unrefined orphan named Mickey, played by Mabel Normand, gets sent to live with her well-to-do Aunt. When the aunt finds out that Mickey is penniless, she puts her to work. A love triangle weaves the characters together through an adventurous tale. Mickey was the highest grossing film of the time and was not surpassed until Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1938, which would hold the record until 1946.
The Homesteader – (1919) – a lost film and debut by Oscar Micheaux, the first major African American filmmaker. It is based on a story that he wrote and later adapted to film and directed. His second film Within Our Gates is more accessible.
I was expecting to find a bountiful collection of French films in the beginning of the 1900’s, and that is what I got. Considering the influence of the Lumière brothers and their contributions to the birth of film and cinematography, I expected there to be more from them. However, I was surprised to find out that the Lumière brothers went the direction of film products and not production. Thousands of films were made in France during this time, although World War I made it difficult for the entertainment industry to thrive in France. On top of that, the US was less hindered in the post World War 1 era and was able to export films that made competition tough in Europe in general.
Some major players were established in France in this time period, like: Gaumont Film Company and Société Pathé Frères, or Pathé! as it is known today. Gaumont is the oldest film production company in the world, established in 1895, and Société Pathé Frères is the second, established in 1896. Both production companies were in control of the film industry in France and Europe. Many other production companies were built at this time, but these are the big ones.
Both of these companies had their heavy hitting filmmakers as well. Gaumont had Louis Feuillade, who made the famous crime/thriller serials: Fantômas, Les Vampires, Judex, and later Tih Minh, as well as Léonce Perret, who was an innovative filmmaker that made films in several genres. Feuillade and Perret alone produced over 1000 films with Gaumont.
Louis Feuillade began working at Gaumont in 1905 and rose quickly in the ranks to become the artistic director in 1907. Before releasing the films he would be most remembered for, he created several dramas with some social commentary and films that were designed as entertainment for a wide audience. These were films like: La Tare, Le Trust, ou les batailles de l’argent, and La Hantise, to name a few. These films would set the stage for the serial crime thrillers he would release starting just before and throughout World War 1.
Fantômas (5 episodes), Les Vampires (10 episodes), Judex (14 episodes), and Tih Minh (12 episodes) were released between mid 1913 through 1918 and consisted of 41 episodes between all three storylines. Fantômas and Les Vampires followed, and glorified, gangs and villains, and Judex and Tih Minh did not have the criminal as the protagnosit. Judex instead took the characteristics of the cunning thief and put them into the hands of the hero and Tih Minh was a treasure hunting adventure.
Léonce Perret was also an influential and innovative filmmaker within the Gaumont ranks. One of his legacies is that he was one of the early proponents of having the directors and actors named in the beginning of the film, what would become opening credits. Perret did not stick to the same genre. He made romantic comedies, like: Le Chrysanthème Rouge; dramas, like: Le Coeur et l’argent and Le Roman d’un Mousse; and crime thrillers, like: Le Mystere des Roches de Kador, Sur Les Rails, L’enfant de Paris. He worked close with Feuillade and even collaborated on the film Le Coeur et l’argent.
Pathé had Georges Méliès, for a little while, Max Linder, turning out comedies, Able Gance’s more serious films, and Alfred Manchin, who was sent off to establish the subsidiary Belge Cinéma Film and released the first Belgian feature film, Le Diamont Noir, along with many others.
Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon (1902), The Kingdom of Fairies (1903), and The Impossible Voyage (1904) were early examples of science fiction filmmaking as well as being successful and popular internationally. In 1910, Georges Méliès made a deal with Pathé and would go on to make several films with them, including: Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchausen, Le Vitrail diabolique (magie vénitienne), Cendrillon ou la Pantoufle merveilleuse, and a few others. Les Hallucinations du baron de Münchausen has some cool effects and film techniques, but they are not the same level as L’Inferno, which would come out the following year in Italy. All were ambitious films that never brought him the success of his early work. The financial failure from these films led him to loose his wealth and standing in the film industry.
Gabriel Leuvielle, known as Max Linder, was a comedy film star that made hundreds of films. Linder was a huge success with his character “Max”, a dapper character with similarities to Charlie Chaplin’s later character “The Tramp”. World War I put a pause in his filmmaking and a move to the US after the war marked a decline in his film career. He died in 1925 with his 19 year old wife in what reports say was either a suicide pact or more likely a murder-suicide.
The French certainly did a great job continuing to advance filmmaking after establishing it. It would be interesting to see how filmmaking would have changed had there not been a war throughout Europe during this pivotal time in film.
La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) – 1896, 1900, & 1902 – A short film released three separate times. The film was written and directed by Alice Guy-Blaché, making it both arguably the worlds first narrative film and the first by a woman.
L’Enfant Prodigue (The Prodigal Son)- 1907 – Directed by Michel Carre and was the first feature length motion picture produced in Europe.
Le Trust, Ou Les Batailles de L’argent (The Trust, Or The Battles of Money) – 1911 – Louis Feuillade precursor to Fantômas, starring René Navarre.
La Hantise (The Obsession) – 1912 – Another Feuillade film, starring René Navarre and Renée Carl. A palm reader tells a woman that her husband will die right before he boards the titanic. She frantically tries to stop him and is distraught when it sinks, only to find out that he survived.
Germinal (The Toll of Labor) – 1913 – Germinal is an adaptation of Emile Zola’s novel of the same name that tells the story of coalminers striking in France. Directed by Albert Capellani, Germinal is one of the first films over 2 hours.
Le Diamant Noir (The Black Diamond) – 1913 – Pathé sent Alfred Manchin to Belgium in order to establish an industry there. During his stay he created this film about a man falsely accused of stealing and decides to leave the country.
Les Dents de Fer (The Iron Teeth) – 1913 – Léonce Perrot directs a film where he plays a doctor that must amputate his hand that is stuck in trap so that he can get to a severely ill child.
La Dixieme Symphonie (The Tenth Symphony) – 1918 – A melodrama surrounding a nefarious man that manipulates the wife and daughter of composer Enric Damor. The unfolding drama leads Enric to compose his masterpiece, his Tenth Symphony. The film is directed by Abel Gance.
J’accuse – 1919 – Directed by Abel Gance, this film deals with the horrors and tragedies of war through a love triangle that takes place during World War I.
It appears that many film production companies and filmmakers were ready to jump on filmmaking right out of the gate in Italy. A quick google search provided me with many film companies of the time, like: Ambrosio Film, Itala Film, Società Italiana Cines, Milano Film, and Novissima Film. Each of these production companies put out some successful films that helped identify this era in Italian film as one filled with epics and some more avant-garde films, especially when compared to films in the United States.
One of the earliest major feature films in Italy was L’Inferno and it tackles a pretty ambitious story. Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe de Liguoro created a technologically advanced film for the time. There are so many different effects, costumes, and thoughtfulness on capturing the narrative on film that it really stands apart from many films for easily a decade.
In 1913, Italy saw the release of Ma l’amor mio non muore! (Love Everlasting -English Title) and Quo Vadis?. Mario Caserini’s Ma l’amor mio non muore!, capitulated Lyda Borelli to stardom with her grand emotive gestures, causing her to become one of the earliest Diva’s in film history. Quo Vadis?, directed by Enrico Guazzoni, was an early blockbuster film. A film with many extras and over 90 minutes long. Quo Vadis? was one of the earliest epics.
Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria came out the following year and took the epic genre to the next level. The film is over 120 minutes long, tons of extras, has shots of a volcano erupting, a depiction of sacrifices to Moloch (reminiscent of Metropolis), and large battle sequences, and all of this is in the first 30 minutes of the film. Cabiria is one of Italian silent eras most famous films and it makes sense why.
Cabiria also uses dolly shots frequently throughout the film. It is unlikely that this is the first use of a camera dolly, but it is a technique that is not common in the films I have been watching. I was surprised to see the camera pan in Traffic in Souls, so the dolly shots definitely stood out here.
In 1916, Novissima Film released Thaïs, directed by Anton Giulio Bragaglia. Thaïs is a film about a femme fatale (Thaïs) that seduces married men. She seduces the lover of her best friend, leading to her friends death and Thaïs’ suicide. The film has a bold visual nature that is clearly a forerunner for films like Metropolis and other German expressionist films. Thaïs is one of the more, if not the most, avant-garde films of the era.
German filmmakers were early pioneers in the industry and made some significant contributions to the legacy of film. German brothers Max an Emil Skladanowsky brought one of the earliest film projectors to life, the Bioscop. This set the stage for production companies like Deutsche Eclair, later Decla Film, and famed Babelsberg Studio to emerge.
This period also saw the rise of filmmakers like Robert Wiene, Fritz Lang, Robert A. Dietrich, Paul Wegener, and many others. Wegener’s project The Student of Prague was released in 1913 and marked the beginning of the German Expressionist movement that would lead to later films like: The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Metropolis, Nosferatu, The Golem: How he came into the world, and many others. Most of these films were created during the Weimar Era in Germany.
The German Expressionist movement would influence society and films for decades to come. In a more contemporary sense, it influenced art movements like Dadaism and social commentary on the battle between bourgeoise and proletariat classes. The longer lasting influences, related to film, can been seen through films created by Tim Burton and David Lynch. The avant-garde, asymmetrical, and rejection of typical logic and reason are aspects that encompass the unusual style.
Fritz Lang was also hitting the scene with his first major success , Die Spinnen (The Spiders). He would later go on to make the films: Dr. Mabuse Part 1 & 2, Metropolis, M, The Big Heat, Man Hunt, Scarlett Street, and many others. Fritz Lang had major success in both German and in the US.
I only watched a couple films from this time period that were made in Russia, or within the Russian Empire. I had a hard time finding Russian films in this time period and I expect that I will stumble across some more down the road. One film was Stenka Razin, directed by Vladimir Romashkov and produced by Alexander Drankov and his production company A. Drankov’s Atelier. Stenka Razin was released in 1908 and is really short, at just 10 minutes long. It is marked as the first fictional narrative film and really just seems to show that films were actively being created in Russia at the time. It pales in comparison to films that were to come in the 1920’s, like: Battleship Potemkin or Man with a Movie Camera.
Another film that stood out more to me was Twilight of a Woman’s Soul, released in 1913. The film quality is better in that 5 year span since Stenka Razin and the story is much darker. Twilight of a Woman’s Soul follows Vera a young rich woman trying to mix up her lonely and mundane life. While helping out the poor, she ends up being conned into visiting a man by herself and ends up being raped and then killing him. When she later tells her husband the story he rebukes her story and she leaves. He attempts to win her back and when that fails he ultimately commits suicide. The story is unlike any other that I saw, at least at this time period.
It seems like that kind of story would be too edgy for film. Although, this is so early there was not much this could have been compared with and the story is compelling. With that said, none if it is particularly graphic. Still it is an interesting film considering the time and place.
Another interesting Russian film from this time period is The Cameraman’s Revenge. It is a stop motion animated film using actual dead insects. The story follows a cameraman grasshopper as he catches a beetle cheating on his wife with a dragonfly. I am surprised they were able to get the bugs to stay in one piece…
The Portrait (Портрет) – 1915 – A man purchases a painting that comes to life in his dreams. The short silent film is directed by Vladislav Starevich and is an early example of the horror genre.
Early film in Sweden seems to surround a few central players: Svenska Biografteatern, a film studio established in 1907, Victor Sjöström, a prominent film director, and Mauritz Stiller, a prominent film director that brought Greta Garbo to the US.
Svenska Biografteatern, also known as Svenska Bio, was a swedish film production company ran by Charles Magnusson. This studio produced major Swedish films like: Ingborg Holm, Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru (The Outlaw and his Wife), and Herr Arnes pengar (Mr. Arne’s Money). The two main directors for Svenska Biografteatern were Victor Sjöström and Mauritz Stiller, however, Carl Engdahl, Gustaf Linden, Robert Olsson, and George of Klercker, also made films with Svenska Bio.
Victor Sjöström made several films as a director as well as an actor. During this time period he made films like: Ingborg Holm, The Outlaw and His Wife, and dozens more. He would later make one of his most lasting films, The Phantom Carriage , in 1920. After his pioneering presence in Sweden in the 1910’s, Victor went to the United States to work for MGM and would go on to make He Who Gets Slapped starring Lon Chaney and the first film to be produced by MGM as well as the first to feature the Lion Mascot.
Mauritz Stiller was another prominent contributor to the early film industry in Sweden. He focused less on acting and more on the writing and directing aspect of early filmmaking. Much like Sjöström, Stiller made dozens of films in Sweden and helped establish the Swedish film industry and then was offered a job to work for MGM in the US. When he came over he brought Greta Garbo who would later be a superstar of classic Hollywood cinema.
Ingeborg Holm – 1913 – An influencial film by Victor Sjöström. It tells a sad story of a woman that becomes a single mom and widow and is forced into living in a poorhouse where she loses her kids. She eventually and goes crazy until she is reunited with one of her kids. The film sparked a conversation about social security in Sweden.
The Outlaw and his Wife (Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru)- 1918 – Another Victor Sjöström film that tells a trageic love story of Ejvind, the outlaw, and his wife, Halla.
The first two decades of the 20th century marked Denmark’s Golden age of filmmaking. The early films of Denmark were popular not just in Denmark, but all around Europe. The industry had success early on with more erotic, considering the time, melodrama’s, like Afgrunden, starring Asta Nielsen, that led to both her fame and the further development of “erotic” themed filmmaking. These films were not explicit in the sense of being pornographic, they were just not as prude as other film industries of the time.
One of Denmark’s early film production companies was Nordisk Films, and it is still in operation to this day. Founded by Ole Olsen, Nordisk is the oldest continuous film production company at 114 years of continuous operation as of the day of writing this. Other film production companies were, Århus Fotorama, Kosmorama
Prominent film directors during this golden age of film in Denmark included: Peter Elfelt, August Blom, Benjamin Christensen, Viggo Larsen, Urban Gad, Benjamin Christensen (who would go on to make Haxan), and Carl Theodor Dryer got his start as well, to name a few.
Atlantis – (1913) – Directed by August Blom, this film tells the story of a large ship sinking in the ocean. Surprisingly enough, the story is not based on the Titanic, which sank the year prior to this film. It is a long feature length film that depicts the evacuation and sinking of a large ship.
Not a lot happened in the early years of film in Finland. There was the establishment of a few film production companies and some films were made. However, Russia apparently did not want Finland making films and so very few were put out until Finland’s independence in 1917.
Most of the films came out of Atelier Apollo, formed by K.E. Ståhlberg, and Oy Maat ja Kansat formed by Axel Backman, Rafael Harberg, Arthur Johannes Forsander, and Arthur Prikander. Teuvo Puro was an early filmmaker that teamed up with Swedish Painter, Louis Sparre, to put out Salaviinanpolttajat, also known as The Moonshiners. This film is known as the first fiction film to come out of Finland. It’s predecessors were primarily documentaries or stories without narratives.
Hundreds of films were released in Finland, but many did not survive. Part of this is due to the fact that Finland was under the control of the Russian Empire and officials forced them to stop making films. I was not able to find much of any footage from films from Finland during this time period.
I only watched a couple films in this era of Indian film. I was not able to find many of the films I looked up and I am not sure if that is due to them not being available online or if the films themselves have mostly been lost to time. Either way, India is a major player in film and has been contributing to the legacy since the late 19th century. The future powerhouses of Bollywood (films made in and around Mumbai, formerly Bombay), Mollywood (films made in the Malayalam language in the state Kerala in southern India), and other Indian filmmaking sectors (broken up geographically and by language), had their own humble and early starts like the rest of the world. Some of the early players in the Indian film industry were Harishchandra Sakharam Bhatavdekar with his short films in the late 1890’s, Dadasaheb Torne, Dadasaheb Phalke, Rangaswamy Nataraja Mudaliar, Baburao Painter, to name a few.
Maharashtra Film Company and other Mumbai based film companies and filmmakers are noted as the early pioneers in India. A couple of influential films, that are considered to be the first films in India, were Shree Pundalik, by Dadasaheb Torne, and Raja Harishchandra, by Dadasaheb Phalke. I was not able to find Shree Pundalik. However, I was able to find Raja Harishchandra. Raja Harishchandra clocks in at around 40 minutes and is full what what would later become staples of Indian cinema, like: choreographed dances, storylines centered around gods, and extravagant and intricate set designs and costumes.
Dadasaheb Phalke released several films over his career in film. Another noteworthy one is Shree Krishna Janma, it features some interesting special effects. For example, there is a sequence with a young Lord Krishna riding on the back of a large snake and another where a guy’s head levatates off of his body and then comes back down and reattaches.
While trying to find Japanese films from this time period I kept finding the same information over and over again. First, that most of the films of this time period are lost. Many were lost during the earthquake in 1923 and others just simply lost to time.
…except for a scant amount of mostly fragments and reconstructions, the actual films made during this period are believed lost. Today the people who worked on these films and the studios where they made them are identifiable by name only. Other than in the pictures in print materials, whole genres exist solely in our imagination, coloured by what we read about them, contemporary with the time or otherwise. Because of this, Japanese cinema of the 1910s is more than anything else a cinema defined by loss. (Bernardi, Joanne. Film History Vol. 9: Norimasa Kaeriyama and The Glory of Life. pp. 365.)
Second, that films started by imitating theater and then there was a shift away from the filmed kabuki and shinpa styles. The films apparently lacked a dynamic that film can bring to the table when used properly. There was also apparently a tendency for the females characters to be played by men, known as onnagata. This sparked a “pure movement” of film in Japan in the late 1910’s that led to what would become more conventional filmmaking.
The earliest thus reviewed is “The Glory of Life” (“Sei no Kagayaki“), a 1918 film which marked both the directorial debut of Kaeriyama Norimasu and also the introduction of detailed scripts and the use of actresses rather than oyama, actors who traditionally played female roles. 1
Another aspect of the early Japanese films that saw criticism was the use of Benshi, narration done during the playback of silent films. By leaning on Benshi, many of these films likely were not pushed to their full potential. If a live narrator is able to fully articulate everything on the screen, then the players on the screen, and behind, do not need to work as hard to tell the story.
It is too bad that there are not many films that have survived from this period, or at least that are not available online. I will keep an eye out for these films if any surface over the years. Since I am not able to watch any of these I will simply echo comments I have read about films and of the era.
This period marks the introduction of the jidai-geki genre of film, or Japanese period drama’s primarily set in the Edo period (1603 – 1867). These films tend to feature samuarais and the storylines surrounding people of the time. The genre was crafted by filmmaker Shōzō Makino and actor Matsunosuke Onoe. The pure movement led to an alternative to jidai-geki and that was gendai-geki, films were those set in the modern time.
One of Japan’s first film production studios was Yoshizawa Shōten, later Nikkatsu. It was around in the late 1800’s in the magic lantern business, and was able to transition into film at the turn of the century. The company was successful with documentary films following the Russo-Japanese war and with theaters throughout Japan.
Kintaro Hayakawa, known as Sessue Hayakawa, was a Japanese film star in the United States. He was made famous quickly with films produced by Thomas Ince, The Typhoon and The Wrath of Gods. He became a superstar after the film The Cheat, by Cecile B. DeMille. He continued to be a star for many years and even started his own production company, Haworth Pictures Corporation. Hayakawa kept making films into the 60’s and died at age 87 in 1973.
The Glow of Life (生の輝き, Sei no Kagayaki)– 1918 – The film was directed by Norimasa Kaeriyama and is an early example of the transition to the “pure movement”. It was one of the first Japanese films to cast an actress, in this case Harumi Hanayagi.
The Captain’s Daughter (大尉の娘, Taii no musume)– 1917 – Masuo Inoue’s film used techniques that were new and innovative, such as the close-up and cut back. Further stepping away from the earlier Japanese film traditions that were closer to filmed versions of stage plays.
UNITED KINGDOM FILM
The first film ever made was filmed in the UK in the late 1880’s. Louis filmed several sequences, Man Walking Around A Corner (1887) and Roundhay Garden Scene (1888). He mysteriously went missing in 1890 and so he did not continue to make films.
Early prominent film production companies and studios were: Ealing Studios, Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, Hepworth Studios, and Gainsborough Studios. Ealing Studios was established in 1902 and is the longest continuously operating film studio in the world. Gaumont-British Picture Corporation was a subsidiary of France’s Gaumont. Hepworth Studios was an early and prominent maker of documentary style films and the first rendition of Alice in Wonderland (1903). Cecil Hepworth’s company declared bankruptcy in 1923 and the films were later destroyed for their silver. Most of the films are thus gone forever. Gainsborough Studios, or Islington Studios, in London, was where Alfred Hitchcock got his start making intertitles. This studio would go onto to produce his later thrillers.
The biggest British film stars was actually based in Hollywood. To see more scroll up and read about Charlie Chaplin…
A Daring Daylight Robbery – 1903 – An early example of a police chace sequence. This film, directed by Frank Mottershaw, is said to be an influencer of The Great Train Robbery.
Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost – 1901 – The earliest adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella, A Christmas Carol.
Like most other countries, the spark of the film industry was started by the presentation of the Lumière Cinématographe in the late 1890’s. This led Czech born Brazilian, Friedrich Figner, who ran a commercial recording company using edison technology, and French cameraman, Eugene Py, to start making films. Figner would create and show his three short films, Vistas de Palermo, La Avenida de Mayo and La Plaza de Mayo, screened in November 1986. Py would release his patriotic film showing the waiving of the argentinian flag in 1897.
Other prominent filmmakers of this early era were, Eugenio A. Cardini, Mario Gallo, Ernesto Gunche, Enrique Garcia (who made the first feature length film Amalia), and Quirino Cristiani (who made the worlds first feature length animated film in 1917).
Don’t get me wrong, these movies are really old and have a long way to go to match the drama, action, suspense, visual effects, and every other facet of movie making that you see in the modern era. Even though there are some unique films of the time that push these boundaries when compared to contemporaries, they are barely in the shadow of films 100 years later. With all of that said, some of these films have some interesting themes, costumes, and camera usage and I recommend any film lovers out there to explore some of these ancient movies of old.
1 – Richie, Donald. “Uncovering Lost Works of Japanese Film.” Japan Times, 2003, japantimes.co.jp/culture/2003/09/14/books/uncovering-lost-worlds-of-japanese-film/. Accessed 2021.