Americas Film Legacy: A Guide to the Library of Congress National Film Registryby Daniel Eagan
America's Film Legacy is a guide to the most significant films ever made in the United States. Unlike opinionated "Top 100" and arbitrary "Best of" lists, these are the real thing: groundbreaking films that make up the backbone of American cinema. Some are well-known, such as Citizen Kane, The Jazz Singer, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Birth of a
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America's Film Legacy is a guide to the most significant films ever made in the United States. Unlike opinionated "Top 100" and arbitrary "Best of" lists, these are the real thing: groundbreaking films that make up the backbone of American cinema. Some are well-known, such as Citizen Kane, The Jazz Singer, All Quiet on the Western Front, The Birth of a Nation, and Boyz n the Hood. Others are more obscure, such as Blacksmith Scene, The Blue Bird, The Docks of New York, Star Theatre, and A Bronx Morning. Daniel Eagan's beautifully written and authoritative book is for anyone who loves American movies and who wants to learn more about them.
The great, the historic, and the lousy (but, alas, influential) all find their place in this engrossing survey of titles selected by the Library of Congress's National Film Registry. Eagan (HBO's Guide to Movies on Videocassette and Cable TV) chronologically catalogues 500 Registry films, from 1893's 30-second Blacksmithing Scene to 1995's Fargo, jumbling Hollywood classics together with obscure art films, cartoon shorts, documentaries, industrial and student films, newsreel footage from the Hindenburg disaster and the Zapruder film. Each entry includes complete cast and credits lists and an engaging one- to two-page historical and interpretive essay. These are packed with biographical thumbnails of actors and directors and making-of narratives-from screenplay rewrites to on-set feuds and hysterics to final-cut showdowns-that buffs and scholars will delight in. Eagan dutifully assesses the artistic merits of each film (yes, even Animal House) in critiques that abound in pithy and sometimes contrarian opinions: he rates Clint Eastwood rather higher than either Orson Welles (Citizen Kane is, merely, "a delightful stunt with the appeal of an eager puppy") or the "glib, cruel" Robert Altman. The result is an erudite, perceptive, always entertaining cinematic encyclopedia. Photos.
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AMERICA'S FILM LEGACYTHE AUTHORITATIVE GUIDE TO THE LANDMARK MOVIES IN THE NATIONAL FILM REGISTRY
By DANIEL EAGAN
Continuum BooksCopyright © 2010 Daniel Eagan
All right reserved.
Chapter OneBlacksmithing Scene
Edison Manufacturing Company, 1893. Silent, B&W, 1.33. 30 seconds.
Credits: Filmmakers: W.K.L. Dickson, William Heise. Filmed before early May 1893. Exhibited May 9, 1893.
Available: Kino Video DVD Edison: The Invention of the Movies (2005). UPC: 738329038328.
Movies would not exist the way we know them today if it weren't for Thomas Alva Edison, the country's most famous inventor. Most of the technical aspects of film-the size, sprocket holes, vertical orientation, etc.-can be traced back to Edison's factory in Menlo Park, New Jersey. Although many inventions and devices exploited the persistence of vision, using shutters to suggest that individual pictures were moving together as one motion, Edison was the prime instigator of a machine that utilized photographs on film.
Edison, inspired by the work of photographer Eadweard Muybridge, embarked on his motion picture project in 1888. In October of that year he wrote, "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion, and in such aform as to be both Cheap practical and convenient. This apparatus I call a Kinetoscope 'Moving View.'" As Charles Musser notes in Before the Nickelodeon, Edison took the phonograph analogy seriously. He originally envisioned a cylinder covered with thousands of tiny photographs arranged in spirals. A microscope lens would pass over them as the cylinder turned. Edison wanted the machine connected to a phonograph, so the user could hear sound while watching what would work out to a half-hour film.
The inventor may also have been inspired by the stereopticon, an extremely popular parlor toy that gave viewers three-dimensional views of almost anything on the planet. It was the single most widespread visual toy for decades, and even today it's easy to find piles of stereopticon slides moldering in flea markets and antique stores. (The devices themselves have become more expensive.) Edison originally saw film as a single-user medium, like the stereopticon, with one person at a time looking through a lens or "peephole" into a darkened area where photographs were exhibited. Possibly he thought the machine would be a consumer item, like the stereopticon.
But the device proved impractical on so many levels that it had to be abandoned. By this time Edison had assigned William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, one of the key figures in early film, to the project. Born in France to British parents, Dickson was fascinated by Edison's work, and paid his way to New Jersey when he was twenty-three in order to work for the inventor.
During a trip to Europe in 1889, Edison saw work by Étienne-Jules Marey, a Frenchman who had found a way to photograph images on a film strip. Edison incorporated Marey's ideas into his designs. In October 1890, Dickson and his assistant William Heise built a camera that advanced a 3/4 inch strip of film through a horizontal feeder. Edison exhibited the device in May 1891. Again, it was a machine that only one person at a time could use.
Dickson and Edison built a vertical-feed motion picture camera in the summer of 1892. This one used a film strip that was 1 1/2 inches wide. (Two apocryphal stories surround the size of film. One has Edison using his thumb and forefinger to indicate the approximate size he wanted, which came out to be close to 35mm. Another, from a Kodak historian, says that readily available 70mm strips were cut in half to supply Edison with film stock.) Surviving footage includes A Hand-Shake (1892), which documents Dickson and Heise demonstrating exactly that.
Musser, the preeminent historian of early film, has reconstructed two of the earliest Edison films from notebook pages covered with photographs. Musser oversaw the re-animation of the photographs, and the results are almost unbearably exciting glimpses into the past. Monkeyshines, as Musser has named the two films, has the inexplicable power and urgency of a nightmare. This is the first recorded motion that survives, a poignant look into vanished lives.
Edison planned to display his invention at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He needed films to show, and authorized construction of the world's first movie studio in December 1892. Finished in February 1893, the tiny, wood-frame building was covered with tarpaper and dubbed the "Black Maria." Its roof could be opened to let in sunlight, and the entire building rotated to follow the sun. Blacksmithing Scene was one of the first films shot there. In fact, it is one of the first extant attempts to "make" a film rather than simply record an action. While photography was still prized by many at the time for recording the "truth," nothing about Blacksmithing Scene is true-not even its title, which was supplied later. The three men in the film aren't blacksmiths, they aren't in a smithy, and they aren't working on metal. (It's also doubtful that they're drinking alcohol.) They are instead performers on a set pretending to be doing something. Even in 1893, Edison's workers are confronted with the conflict between capturing and representing reality. Dickson is well aware of this split, because he plays the scene for laughs.
It's surprising how much attention to detail Dickson, Heise, and the others paid to their sets and costumes, already a crucial part of filmmaking. The anvil and sledgehammers used in the film are real, as are the leather aprons worn by the actors. No one worried about the background, which is left black. The lens Dickson used worked best for medium and medium close-up shots. The camera was probably stationed ten to twelve feet away, enabling the crew to capture the actors in full figure. (Another apocryphal early film story has cameramen shooting full-length shots of people because they were afraid audiences wouldn't understand figures whose feet were out of frame. But Dickson had composed three-quarter and close-up shots before Blacksmithing Scene.) Musser points out the possibly intentional contrast between Edison's state-of-the-art machine shop and the primitive smithy shown in the film, adding a level of self-awareness and irony that we don't usually attribute to early films.
On May 9, 1893, a talk at the Brooklyn Institute compared various motion picture devices, most based on "magic lanterns." Frames from Blacksmith Scene were projected onto a screen, and after the talk the four hundred audience members were allowed to watch the film, individually through an Edison peephole Kinetoscope. That makes Blacksmithing Scene the first film to be shown publicly.
The following April, a kinetoscope parlor opened in Manhattan. Each film cost five cents to see, and Blacksmithing Scene was one of the films on display. Dickson continuted to make films for Edison, notably the Dickson Experimental Sound Film.
Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Edison Manufacturing Company, 1894-95. Sound, B&W, 1.33. 21 seconds at 30 fps.
Cast: W.K.L. Dickson, other unidentified workers.
Credits: Directed by W.K.L. Dickson. Photographer: William Heise.
Additional Credits: Produced between September 1894 and April 2 1895 in the Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey. Note: Title supplied later.
Available: Online at the Library of Congress American Memory (memory. loc.gov) and Internet Archive (www.archive.org) websites. Image Entertainment DVD More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931 (2004). ISBN: 0-9747099-1-3. UPC: 0-14381-2271-2-3.
Inventor Thomas Alva Edison had always envisioned combining sound and images for motion pictures, which, as he put it, would do "for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear." In The Conversations, a series of interviews between Oscar-winning editor Walter Murch and novelist Michael Ondaatje, Murch notes that "Edison's rationale was that people might be interested to see the faces of the people who sang on his records. Cinema began as a music video!"
William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, perhaps the most significant figure in the early development of movies, was also a violinist who assisted in the Edison recording department. This department prepared material for another of Edison's inventions, the wax cylinder phonograph. Dickson later testified that he completed a successful sound film in 1889 in which he greeted Edison upon the inventor's return to his lab after a European trip. This footage no longer exists.
Sometime between September 1894 and April 1895, Dickson synchronized sound to film for what later historians have called the Dickson Experimental Sound Film. He did this by playing a violin into a recording horn attached to a wax cylinder machine and simultaneously filming the scene with a camera. While this film was not intended for public viewing, Edison workers did complete other sound films for a new invention, the "kinetophone." This device combined the single-user kinetoscopes with phonographs. Customers could hear music for films through rubber earphones attached to the machines.
The device was not a success, possibly because of its expense (some $400). According to film historian Charles Musser, by 1900, only forty-five had been sold. By that point the industry trend had shifted from peep show viewers to movies projected onto screens, which made synchronizing sound considerably more difficult. Edison would try again in 1913 with a complicated process that ran cables from a phonograph behind the screen back to projectors, but abandoned this as well by 1915.
When Edison died in 1931, his archives became part of the Edison Historical Site, under the control of the National Park Service. In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art copied the Dickson piece from nitrate to safety film, but it wasn't until 1960 that the accompanying wax cylinder was found in a metal canister by the Edison Historical Site staff. It was labeled "Dickson-Violin by W.K.L. Dixon with Kineto." (National Park Service catalog number: EDIS 30142; E-number: E-6018-1.) Four years later they discovered that the cylinder had broken into two pieces.
In 1998, members of the Domitor society, a group devoted to the study of early cinema, were instrumental in trying to recover sound from the broken cylinder. Funded in part by the Library of Congress, curators rerecorded the sound onto tape. On June 5th, the film was seen with its music track for the first time in a hundred years. Synchronization was poor, but the viewers succeeded in identifying the music being played as the "Song of the Cabin Boy" from Les cloches de Corneville, an 1877 opera by Robert Planquette. It was a popular enough work to be translated in English as The Chimes of Normandy; according to historian Spencer Sundell, the opera had a longer run than the original production of H.M.S. Pinafore.
In 2000, while working on Apocalypse Now Redux, Walter Murch took over the task of synching sound and film. As he wrote on the online Cinema Audio Society Discussion Board, "[The] problem was the film was shot at 40fps [frames per second], not 24, and the sound was running wild on a cracked 1890's cylinder. Plus inter-government agency red tape (the film is in the hands of the Library of Congress, the sound is at the National Park Service). So they sent it to me (neutral mediator) to put in synch, which was easy enough given the time-stretching and compressing powers of the Avid [a computer editing program]." With his assistant Sean Cullen, Murch selected synchronization points-when the violinist starts playing, for example-and then adjusted the music track. "Before the film begins you hear someone say 'The rest of you fellows ready? Go ahead!' (the first 'speed' and 'action' captured on wax)," he wrote. "It was very moving, when the sound finally fell into synch: the scratchiness of the image and the sound dissolved away and you felt the immediate presence of these young men playing around with a fast-emerging technology."
Because the film showed two men dancing together, it has been categorized as a gay film (and the first gay film at that). It's impossible to say with certainty what the intentions of Dickson and his fellow workers were, but there were no female workers in his group, and thus little likelihood that a woman would have been available to join in the filming. "Song of the Cabin Boy," which describes being at sea without women, was an amusingly appropriate choice for their shooting conditions.
To Murch, another appealing aspect of the project was the chance to hear people speaking naturally for the first time. As he explained to Ondaatje, "There's a formality to all recordings of the human voice we have from that period, very much like the photographs of people sitting in their Sunday best, looking right at the camera." Since the original sound fragment was over two minutes long, Murch hopes to use modern technology to one day decipher the conversations muffled in the background.
The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss
Edison, 1896. Silent, B&W, 1.33. Length: 50 feet (approximately 20 seconds).
Cast: May Irwin (Widow Jones), John C. Rice [John C. Hilburg] (Billie Bilke).
Credits: Directed and photographed by William Heise.
Additional Credits: Based on characters in The Widow Jones by John J. McNally. Filmed April 1896.
Other Versions: Edison released a remake of sorts, The Kiss, with different actors, in 1900.
Available: Kino Video DVD, Edison: The Invention of the Movies (2005). UPC: 7-38329-03832-8.
Also known as The Kiss, Kiss Scene, The May Irwin Kiss, and The Picture of a Kiss, The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss is perhaps the most familiar nineteenth-century film. Short and succinct, it shows actress May Irwin and actor John C. Rice enacting the climax to the play The Widow Jones. The actors are shot in medium close-up, against a black background, lit by the sun overhead.
If you don't know the play, the film may not make much sense. It has the immediacy of a home movie. Viewers are dropped into an alien setting, with no explanation of the people on the screen or what they are doing. Filmmaker William Heise doesn't try to define the performers as characters in a story-through the use of props, for example. He assumes that if you are watching The Kiss, you already know about the plot to The Widow Jones. You also already know who these people are, as well as their histories and relationships. For viewers at the end of the nineteenth century, especially those in New York, this could very well have been true.
Largely forgotten today, May Irwin was once one of the most recognizable actresses in the country. Around her name swirl most of the significant theatrical names of the late nineteenth century. She was born Ada Campbell in Ontario in 1862 and educated in a convent school with her older sister Georgia. They attracted some local attention as singers, enough so that their widowed mother brought them to the United States in search of work. Appearing in Buffalo, New York, in 1875, they were named "The Irwin Sisters" by a theater manager. (Georgia by this time was appearing as "Flo.") Two years later they were performing in New York City, for showman Tony Pastor and others.
In 1883, Irwin signed with Augustin Daly, the most influential playwright and producer in the city. His stable of actors included John Drew, Otis Skinner, and Ada Rehan. Irwin developed as a comedienne, appearing in Sir Arthur Wing Pinero's Girls and Boys at the end of the year, and then in a series of Daly's own plays. After touring with Daly's troupe in London, Irwin left to join a Boston theater company, giving up legitimate roles to concentrate on music hall skits. One such farce, Home Rule, was written by former newspaper critic John J. McNally.
In 1893 she was hired by Charles Frohman, one of the primary architects of the "star system," to appear with the highly respected Henry Miller in His Wedding Day. In a comic afterpiece, she introduced "After the Ball," the first song to sell a million copies of sheet music. She would later introduce "A Hot Time in the Old Town."
Starting in 1893, McNally and others began writing full-length "entertainments" for Irwin. These were essentially light comedies with music, and in a way set a template for musical comedies in the early twentieth century. One was The Widow Jones, in which she played Beatrice Jones, a somewhat stout woman who avoided romantic entanglements by pretending to be a widow. In it she introduced a ragtime song, "I'm Looking for de Bully," which she sang in an exaggerated African American dialect, an unfortunate contribution to the growing trend of "coon songs." (It appeared in sheet music as "Mary Irwin's Bully Song," with words and music by Charles. E. Trevathan. Trevathan, a sports writer for a Chicago newspaper, claimed that he heard "Mama Lou" sing it in a St. Louis bordello run by Babe Connors.)
Stout and matronly, Irwin resembles character actors like Marie Dressier or Marjorie Main. It was a coup for Edison and his staff to film her. The motion picture division was in financial trouble, with almost no library of titles to exploit. The idea of selling individual kinetoscope machines had been replaced with the concept of projecting movies onto a screen. Instead of one customer per film viewing, exhibitors could sell many tickets for each screening. In April 1896 this was still a new experience for everyone involved. Films had only recently been shown to the public at all, at Koster & Bial's Music Hall earlier that month.
Excerpted from AMERICA'S FILM LEGACY by DANIEL EAGAN Copyright © 2010 by Daniel Eagan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Daniel Eagan has worked for Warner Bros., MGM, and other studios as a researcher and story analyst. He edited HBO's Guide to Movies on Videocassette and Cable TV (HarperCollins) and MGM: When the Lion Roars (Turner Publishing), to which he also contributed articles. He currently writes for Smithsonian and Film Journal, and lives in New York City.
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