How Special Effects Work #5: Mary Pickford Kisses Herself

This is the latest in a long-running, very occasional series of posts about special effects but this is the first time (I can’t promise it will be the last) where my starting point is a trick I can’t explain. Of course, I know that the shot (see above) from Little Lord Fauntleroy, in which Mary Pickford, playing two roles, appears to kiss herself, was created using a double exposure, but I don’t know exactly how they got it to look so seamless. I would be grateful for any inside information, and interested in any speculative theories, about how this magnificent special effect was achieved. Much of this post was derived from out-takes of research for a chapter on special/visual effects in the silent era, for a forthcoming volume of the Behind the Silver Screen series from Rutgers University Press, which should be available some time next year. Continue reading

Fragment #25: The Vitagraph Girl

Florence Turner (1887–1946), one of the most popular performers at the Vitagraph Studio in its early years, made her debut in 1907 and was soon starring opposite Maurice Costello. She soon be- came known as “The Vitagraph Girl” and was the subject of a song. Turner left Vitagraph in 1913 to make films in England with Larry Trimble. She was Buster Keaton’s mother in College (1927).

“The Vitagraph Girl” is a 1910 song by J. A. Leggett (words) and Henry Frantzen (music), the first song about a movie star. When audiences began asking for pictures starring “The Vitagraph Girl,” the studio commissioned this song as a pro- motional gimmick. It became popular as a sing- along when Turner introduced it theaters. The lyrics ask, “Who hasn’t been to a picture show and gazed with surprise and delight at scenes that are happy and sad?” and go on to say that the “great- est feast for the eyes is the Vitagraph girl. I’m in love with the Vitagraph girl, the sweet little Vita- graph girl.”

Ken Wlaschin, The Silent Cinema in Song, 1896 – 1929 (McFarland, 2009)

[Click on any image for a larger view, and to read lyrics.]


Picture of the Week #73: Charlie Chaplin Colour Portraits by Charles C. Zoller

To mark what would have been the 122nd birthday of Charlie Chaplin on 16th April, I present these three magnificent colour photographs of Chaplin, taken around 1917- 18 by Charles C. Zoller (1854 – 1934) and currently held in the George Eastman House Still Photograph Archive. They look like they were shot on a film set, and Chaplin looks relaxed in the first picture, and more definitely “in character” in the others. It’s a treat to see the tramp costume in colour, and to see Chaplin isolated and working under someone else’s direction. Such candid shots of Chaplin in costume, sapped of pantomime and the energetic grace he had when in motion, give a very different sense of so familiar a star. He looks even more vulnerable than usual, and in colour the outfit looks faintly silly, even more like a protective armour against the indignities of the tramp’s tumbling social status. Also, the faded quality of the pictures, which were taken using the Autochrome process patented by the Lumière Bros in 1903, looks now like a home movie or amateur portrait, offering us more immediate access to a glimpse of Chaplin at work.

I’m not sure which film Chaplin was shooting at the time these photos were taken, and the records for the pics don’t say so either. I would bet, though, that it’s A Dog’s Life. This was Chaplin’s first film following his contract with First National signed in June 1917, which matches the time frame, and the setting and costume (admittedly, they are very similar across a number of films), seem to match this wonderful footage:

Fragment #20: To The Motion Picture: An Appreciation

Film magazines, it seems, used to publish a lot more poetry than they do today, if this piece from the April 1914 edition of The Famous Players Review is anything to go by:

Marvel of science, mirror of art, product of the ingenuity of man and the inventive power of the mind – we speak to you, the Motion Picture!

Not with the sword, not with the oppression and persecution of cruel might, but with mere human sobs and smiles, you have conquered the world.

You are the struggle and the victory! You are Aspiration and Achievement – Hope and Realisation!

You are King in the Land of Mechanical Wonders, supreme in the domain of daring dreams!

Your silence speaks of the genius of man, the strength of his purpose, the courage of his endeavours, and the wealth and worth of his labours. You are the mute voice of progress, the echo of creative potency, the symbol of constructive force.

You are the soul of skill and the spirit of Service, the essence of energy, and the germ of enterprise. You thrill with the common sympathy of the universe, and throb with the throes and thralls of united humanity.

You translate the world’s sorrows, and delineate life’s joys. You bear the burden of the earth, the load of care and misery and evil, the pathetic definition of futility and fatality; yet you catch the gleam of a sunbeam, the lilt of a song – and we laugh!

YOU TEACH! You distribute knowledge, diffuse the secrets of science and the glories of art; you spread civilisation. You bring light where darkness, and life where is only existence. You banish ignorance; you cheer and comfort.

YOU PREACH! Your pulpit is the hearts of the world, your creed faith and sympathy.

Motion Picture you are great! You are the agent of the age, the messenger of futurity!

You are great – and we are grateful!

Picture of the Week #65: The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots

Yes, I know it’s a video, not a ‘picture’, but to celebrate the birthday of Thomas Edison, here’s a barely appropriate reminder of The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, filmed in New Jersey for the Edison Manufacturing Co. on 28th August 1895, by Alfred Clark. I could have chosen any number of Edison shorts to mark the man’s birthday, but this is a favourite of mine for its early use of a trick effect in a historical re-enactment. This is probably the first substitution cut, when the actor playing Mary (the Library of Congress lists this as one Robert Thomae) is replaced with a dummy for the moment of death. You can see the join, but it’s still quite skilfully done. This film would have been watched, one viewer at a time, on an Edison kinetoscope, and it apparently caused a bit of a stir, with some viewers allegedly fearing that somebody really had died for their art. I somehow doubt this, but it makes a nice story, and inaugurates the undying myth of the snuff film.

The film is not historically accurate – an eyewitness to the beheading on 7th February 1857 records that it took three strokes to decapitate Mary, while the film makes it all look smooth and easy. Right at the end of the film, you can see the executioner holding up her head for the watching crowd: this is most likely true; he also removed the head-dress from her severed head and revealed the secret that she’d hidden during her long imprisonment (19 years) at her cousin’s pleasure – her hair had turned completely white. Either that, or he dropped the head, having tried to pick it by the wig that Mary wore – accounts vary.

I’m not sure what involvement, if any, Edison himself had in the making of this film, but it definitely marked the start of an escalation in the sensational spectacles recorded for the kinetoscope. Alfred Clark made a few more grisly shorts, including The Burning of Joan of Arc, also produced in 1895. It reached a peak in 1903 with the notorious and self-explanatory Electrocuting an Elephant, which you can read about here: it’s a fascinating story, even if you don’t want to watch the film itself.

Fragment #17: How to be a Motion Picture Director

Perhaps you secretly harbour a desire to be a film director. Maybe you’re already working towards your goal and making your own shorts. But don’t take another step until you’ve heard the invaluable advice of Marshall Neilan (1891 – 1958), the prolific actor, writer, director and one-time husband of the magnificent Blanche Sweet. This is taken from July 1925 issue of Photoplay. Just remember: “By no means act normal.”

[Click on the image above for a larger view.]

Fragment #14: Alfred Hitchcock’s Alternative Ending for Blackmail

[In Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail, released in silent and talkie versions in 1929, Alice White (Anny Ondra) kills an artist who has attempted to rape her. She is protected by her boyfriend, a London detective, but blackmailed by a petty thief who had witnessed her leaving the scene of the crime. In the original ending, the thief dies being pursued by police when he becomes the prime suspect for the murder. Here, Hitchcock outlines how he would have preferred the film to end.]

The blackmailer was really a subsidiary theme. I wanted him to go through and expose the girl. That was my idea of how the story ought to end. I wanted the pursuit to be after the girl, not after the blackmailer. That would have brought the conflict on to a climax, with the young detective, ahead of the others, trying to push the girl out through a window to get her away, and the girl turning round and saying: “You can’t do that – I must give myself up.” Then the rest of the police arrive, misinterpret what he is doing, and say, “Good man, you’ve got her,” not knowing the relationship between them. Now the reason for the opening comes to light. You repeat every shot used first to illustrate the duty theme, only now it is the girl who is the criminal. The young man is there ostensibly as a detective, but of course the audience know he is in love with the girl. The girl is locked up in her cell and the two detectives walk away, and the older one says, “Going out with your girl to-night?” The younger one shakes his head. “No. Not to-night.”

That was the ending I wanted for Blackmail, but I had to change it for commercial reasons. The girl couldn’t be left to face her fate. And that shows you how the films suffer from their own power of appealing to millions. They could often be subtler than they are, but their own popularity won’t let them.

Alfred Hitchcock, “Direction” in Charles Davy (ed.) Footnotes to the Film. London: Lovat Dickson Ltd, 1938.

A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

[First Published 8 October 2008; Updated 12 February 2009; 10 June 2010; 24 February 2012; 27 March 2012]

a_trip_to_the_moon_poster[I’ve been adding to this post occasionally since I first published it on 8th October 2008. I tagged it as a work in progress, but now that I’ve commented a little on every shot, I thought I’d publish the updates (it has more than doubled in length since it first appeared) and declare it (almost) finished. I will continue to update it every once in a while, but I hope you find it interesting and informative in its present form. I still invite comments or further information from anyone who’d like to add to the essay, or who has links or bibliographic references to recommend.]

For the benefit of anyone who is studying this film or just fascinated by it, I’m going to attempt a shot-by-shot commentary on Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon, released in France on 1st September 1902. It might start out rudimentary and descriptive, but as I add to and re-edit it from time to time it will be embellished with notes garnered from further reading and visitors’ commentaries (feel free to add your observations at the bottom of this post), to see if we can gather together some useful critical annotations for each shot of the film. I’ve included lots of links, some of which expand upon a key point, while others offer a surprising but interesting digression, I hope.

Click here to read my analysis of the film…