Early Film Pioneers: Alfred Clark and the Birth of the Historical Reconstruction Film

Alfred Clark

One of the most remarkable cinematic innovations (technically and artistically) effected by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1895 seems to have come about more or less by happenstance and to have passed almost completely unnoticed in the U.S. itself. By August, Raff and Gammon, the firm primarily responsible for marketing Edison films and equipment in America, faced by Edison’s continued refusal to abandon the notion of the “peephole” viewer and investigate the possibilities of projection, were becoming increasingly alarmed at the continuing decline in sales and the resultant decline in film-production. They urged the development of new subjects and Edison assigned the task to one Alfred Clark. Clark (1873-1950) does not seem to have been, as Charles Musser suggests, a Raff and Gammon employee, but an employee of the Edison Phonograph Company. He had previously worked for Edison’s chief rival, the North American Phonograph Company, which Edison destroyed with his habitual dirty tricks and legal chicanery. His main interest was in sound recording, an area in which he was something of an expert.

      Imaginatively Clark made two films for Edison in August 1895, both based on dramatic historical scenes, Joan of Arc, showing the burning of the French heroine, and The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, which made a very early use of the stop-action technique to film the beheading of the queen (played, not as Charles Musser states, by a man, but by the wife of Robert Thomas, secretary and treasurer of the Kinetoscope Company). Presumably, however, it was not Clark himself, but the regular Edison cameraman, William Heise, who was actually responsible for the filming, but nothing in Heise’s previous or subsequent career, suggests that he would have had the imagination to conceive such films and it seems reasonable to suppose that, in this sense, Clark was the “director”. He and Heise also made Duel Between Two Historical Characters and three scenes from U.S. history, Rescue of Capt. John Smith by Pocahontas, Indian Scalping Scene, and A Frontier Scene (later retitled Lynching Scene). Of Clark’s films, only The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, filmed on August 28, 1895, appears to survive.

 

bbbClark’s experiments in historical reconstruction mark an interesting departure but seemingly met with little favor. Clark himself went to France in 1899 as an Edison representative, but left the company to found his own Compagnie de Gramophone Française. He subsequently settled in Britain where he became chairman of the newly-formed EMI and was, in his spare time, a celebrated collector of Chinese ceramics. His innovative concept of the historical film was never followed up but left, like so many other ideas, for the French and Italians to develop further.     

       The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots was seemingly a very popular film, particularly in the French fairgrounds. It (or a film of the same name) was shown in Arras on 8 July 1896 by an exhibitor purporting to be “Le Cinématographe” (almost certainly the ubiquitous Henri Joly). It was shown, again by Joly, in Saint Quentin on the 8 September (as La Décapitation d’une femme) and in Nîmes on 14 November. In 1897 it was even shown in Havana, Cuba. One French newspaper, L’Indpendant des Pyrrénées Orientales, found it a moving spectacle – “La hache se lève, le sang jaillit, la tête roule sur le sol et le bourreau la saisit aux cheveux pour la montrer à son entourage” (The axe is raised, blood spurts, the head rolls on the ground and the executioner seizes it by the hair to show to those around him). Good wholesome family entertainment, in other words. In the light of this, one has to be a little skeptical of Georges Méliès’ claim (or acceptance of the claim) to have invented the technique of “stop-motion” or to have stumbled across the idea accidentally. He may very well have known Clark’s film.

 

Gabriel Veyre

Gabriel Veyre is exceptional amongst the Lumière cameramen abroad in that, from the outset, he experimented with films that are “fictional” in the sense of being staged reconstructions. The most famous, Duel au pistolet (1896), a reconstruction of a duel between two Mexican deputies, must have been amongst the very first batch of films made by Veyre since it was already on show in France in September. The film, when it was shown in Mexico, caused some outcry in the press there, not, as is so often foolishly repeated, because people could not tell the difference between the real and the fictional but, on the contrary, precisely because they could tell the difference and were uneasy at the ethical implications of a non-explicit blurring of the two. Veyre also filmed the reconstruction of a military trial and execution by firing-squad, Proceso del soldado Antonio Navarro(1896) which, in the context of Veyre’s closeness to President Porfirio Diaz, very justly gives grounds for qualms. There is something distinctly exploitative about Veyre’s film-making which is similarly apparent in the very marked “orientalism” of his films later shot in the Far East. Un duel au pistolet was a popular film as witness a second duel scene (Un duel au pistolet II) which was shot back in France by another Lumière operator probably later the same year or early in 1897. A dueling scene, Duel Between Two Historical Characters had been made by Alfred Clark and William Heise for Edison in 1895 and Veyre’s Proceso del soldado Antonio Navarro also puts one in mind of a whole series of historical execution scenes made shortly afterwards for Lumière by Georges Hatot and Gaston Breteau [Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc (1898), La mort de Robespierre (1897), and Mort de Charles Ier (1897)].

 

Author David Bond is a historian who specializes in the study of cultural history. Subjects of interest, past and present, include late seventeenth-century English drama, early English paperback publishing, the French graphic novel (bande dessinnée), Jamaican popular music (not just the “r” word) and cinema – of all periods and all traditions but with a special interest in the period prior to the (mitigated) disaster of what is popularly known as “sound”.

Visages d’enfants (1925) Faces of Children

visages d'enfants (faces of children) film review

A few French filmmakers in the early twenties utilized rapid-fire editing montage techniques that would later be taken up by Russian filmmakers, most notably Sergei Eisenstein. The earliest example I’ve yet to see is Marcel L’Herbier’s El Dorado (1921). Abel Gance’s La roue (1923) took the technique even further. Jacques Feyder’s Visages d’enfants, which was begun in 1923 but not released until 1925 due to a conflict with a distribution company, also opens with a visually arresting montage sequence before settling, like the other films mentioned, into a more conventional storytelling style. The story is about a young boy who has a difficult time adjusting to to his father’s remarriage after the death of his mother. His father and new stepmother are insensitive to the boy’s profound and unresolved grief. His resentment grows when he is moved to a shabby back room in the house while his new sister is given a nicely decorated room. He breaks down crying when he sees his stepmother wearing his mother’s brooch and spitefully destroys one of his mother’s old dresses when the stepmother decides she’ll make new dresses for her daughter with the material. Eventually the boy’s resentment leads to near-tragic consequences. The film is beautifully photographed in the Swiss Alps and its realism and naturalistic acting, especially by Jean Forest, who played the boy, make the film feel more modern than other films from the era. The DVD is one of a set of three from Image Entertainment featuring outstanding restorations of films by Jacques Feyder and includes an exquisite newly commissioned score which complements the story and atmosphere perfectly.  

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Visages d’enfants at imdb.com

As of December, 2016 Visages d’enfants is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.com.

La roue (1923)

la roue film review

Akira Kurosawa: “The first film that really impressed me was La roue.”

Jean Cocteau: “There is the cinema before and after La roue as there is painting before and after Picasso.”

French director Abel Gance is probably best known for his epic 1927 film Napoleon. After the international success of his 1919 anti-war film J’accuse, Gance was considered one of the finest and most innovative directors in France and possibly in the world. With the financial backing of the Pathé studio he embarked on La roue (The Wheel), which took three years to complete and in its original form ran for seven and a half to nine hours (sources disagree). During the production Gance was deeply affected by the fact that his companion Ida Danis was dying of tuberculosis and his friend and lead actor in the film, Séverin-Mars, was also severely ill. Both died shortly after shooting completed. Like Erich von Stroheim, Gance insisted on authenticity which meant sets were built on location; railroad yards for the first half of the film and on Mount Blanc in the French Alps for the second half though the decision to shoot in the Alps has been attributed to Ida’s need for alpine air.

The film is notable for its groundbreaking cinematic techniques, especially the use of of rapid montage which was studied and implemented by Eisenstein, Dovzhenko, Pudovkin et al at the Moscow Academy. It appears that Gance was the first filmmaker to utilize this technique in order to represent an extreme state of mind or build tension though the opening Marcel L’Herbier’s 1921 film El Dorado makes similar use of rapid cutting but not to the same degree. The story, however, is a rather maudlin melodrama about a widower railroad engineer, Sisif, who rescues a little girl from a train wreck and finding she has no parents, adopts her as his own. Flash forward fifteen years and the little girl, Norma (played by English actress Ivy Close), is a stunning beauty with whom everyone is in love with including Sisif and his son Elie, who thinks Norma is his sister. Even the four and a half hour version available on the Flicker Alley DVD is a bit of an ordeal to sit through and seems repetitious at times so it’s difficult to imagine how Gance managed to stretch the story into a film almost twice that length in the original cut.

★★★★★★☆☆☆☆ (6/10)

La roue  at imdb.com

As of October, 2016 La roue is available to rent on DVD from Netflix.

Miquette et sa mère (1950)

Miquette et sa mère film review

The general consensus seems to be that this is the weakest effort from French director Henri-Georges Clouzot who is probably best known for The Wages of Fear (1953) and Diabolique (1955). According to Wikipedia, Clouzot only made the film to fulfill a contract and it was neither a financial nor critical success. It is based on a comedy first produced on the stage in 1906 about a naive young girl, Miquette (Danièle Delorme), who works in her mother’s variety store in a small town and dreams of being an actress much to her mother’s disapproval.  She catches the eye of Monchablon (Louis Jouvet), the hammy leader of a traveling theatre group when he stops in the store. She reveals her theatrical aspirations to him and he invites her to contact him if she ever visits Paris. Urbain (Bourvil), the awkwardly shy nephew of the town’s wealthiest citizen, Le marquis (Saturnin Fabre), is in love with Miquette but his uncle is pressuring him to marry an ugly heiress. When Le marquis catches the two together he chases his nephew off and, finding himself attracted to Miquette, takes her to Paris to fulfill her acting ambitions with hopes of making her his wife or mistress. In Paris she joins Monchablon’s group and begins acting in comedies. Her mother arrives in Paris intending to take her back home but ends up joining the the theatre group as well. Meanwhile, Urbain, still in love, sends anonymous gifts and attends her performances. The play performed by Monchablon’s group is cleverly blended with the story in the film. The use of intertitles setting the scenes and the actors making asides to the film audience lend a vaudevillian aspect. As this is the third film adaptation of the play perhaps the story was overly familiar to the French when the film was released but I found it witty and amusing. It’s lightweight material, a style of entertainment the French term boulevard theatre, but if you haven’t seen Clouzot’s other films or if you can watch it without expecting something on par with The Wages of Fear you may be pleasantly rewarded.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Miquette et sa mère at imdb.com

Although there is a DVD available on the French amazon.com I believe the only version available with English subtitles as of July, 2016 is streaming at rarefilmm.com.

Last Known Address (1970)

last known address Dernier domicile connu film review

Last Known Address (Dernier domicile connu) is based on the eponymous novel, part of a trilogy of police procedurals featuring a police inspector and his rookie female partner by American writer Joseph Harrington. Lino Ventura plays the inspector, Marceau Leonetti, an efficient but sometimes brutal cop. An influential lawyer manages to malign his reputation which causes his demotion after Leonetti arrests his son for driving under the influence. Relegated to a position in a small town, Leonetti is paired up with novice Jeanne Dumas (Marlène Jobert – whose best claim to fame these days probably is being Eva Green’s mother) to catch perverts in movie theaters. Their work becomes more interesting and dangerous when they are assigned to track down a witness to a murder who has eluded the police for five years. The murderer, the head of a criminal gang, is due to stand trial in a week and his henchmen are out to kill the witness before he can testify. The suspense is built in and the noir atmosphere and downbeat ending make the film seem fresh despite its age though the investigations that turn out to be dead ends felt a bit repetitive. The only things that date it are some parts of the score, editing, and camerawork. The director, José Giovanni, whose real name was Joseph Damiani, was sentenced to death for collaborating with the Nazis, blackmail, and murder but ended up spending only eleven years in prison. Upon his release he wrote his first novel Le trou, based on his attempt to escape prison. Le trou and his third novel Classe tous risques were both adapted for films which were released in 1960. Dernier domicile connu is his third directorial effort.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

Last Known Address at imdb.com

As of June, 2016 Last Known Address is only available on a Region 2 DVD without English subtitles. However, a version with English subtitles is available for streaming at rarefilmm.com.

I Sent a Letter to My Love (1980)

i sent a letter to my love film review

I Sent a Letter to My Love (Chère inconnue) is a showcase for three talented actors. Simone Signoret (Diabolique, Room at the Top, The Army of Shadows) and Jean Rochefort (The Hairdresser’s Husband, Ridicule, Man on the Train) play a brother and sister living out their lives together in their deceased parent’s home that overlooks the beach on the coast of Brittany. Gilles, the brother, has been confined to a wheelchair since childhood and Louise, his sister, has grown old looking after him. Gilles is a bit of a slob and Louise resents having to clean up after him all the time which leads to continuous bickering. They are visited every day by their only friend, Yvette (Delphine Seyrig – Last Year at Marienbad, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie), though at times she is the victim of their irascibility. Like Louise, she seems destined to remain a spinster. When Gilles has a brief but serious bout of ill health, Louise realizes that she’ll be left alone if Gilles should pass away. She puts a notice in the local personals column seeking a pen pal in hopes of finding a husband. When she receives a letter, which turns out to be from her brother and in which he pours his heart out, Louise starts being more compassionate towards her brother. Things get complicated, however, as they begin corresponding regularly and Gille insists on meeting in person with the intention of entering a physical relationship. The plot device may be overly familiar but the situation makes the outcome unpredictable and intriguing.

★★★★★★★☆☆☆ (7/10)

I Sent a Letter to My Love at imdb.com

As of June, 2016, I Sent a Letter to My Love is available on a Region 2 DVD from Amazon.fr though at the moment it appears that the only way to see it with English subtitles is at rarefilmm.com.

Death Watch (1980)

death watch film review

Original title La mort en direct. This French/German production wasn’t released in America until 1982 in an edited version that made significant changes to the story. It was digitally restored and released on DVD in 2012 with director Bertrand Tavernier’s original cut. It is based on a novel by British science fiction writer David Compton called The Unsleeping Eye which takes place in the near future when science has all but eliminated illnesses. Harry Dean Stanton plays an unscrupulous T.V. show producer, Vincent Ferriman, who tricks a popular romance novelist, Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider), into believing that she has contracted a rare illness for which there is no cure and offers to buy the rights to film her demise for his reality T.V. show called Death Watch. After initially refusing the offer she changes her mind but then disguises herself and goes on the run in order to die in private. Ferriman hires Roddy (Harvey Keitel), an insomniac who has had a camera surgically implanted in his eye, to befriend Katherine and film her without her knowledge. Max von Sydow has a small role at the end of the film as Katherine’s ex-husband Gerald Mortenhoe, a musicologist who muses philosophically about the human tendency to dramatize our lives which are in reality insignificant and meaningless. Despite the presence of Stanton and Keitel and the fact that the dialogue is in English, the film has a European art film flavor evident in its pacing and emphasis on characters and ideas rather than action and props. No real attempt was made to create a futuristic setting. In that respect the film is more along the lines of Nicolas Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth (1976) or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).

Beautifully shot on locations in and around Glasgow, the gray skies and gritty settings gradually give way to sunnier hues as Katherine and Roddy make their way to Gerald’s home near Land’s End. Antoine Duhamel’s beautiful score accentuates the story’s tragic aspects. He created a motet by a fictional Renaissance amateur composer which was discovered by the character of Gerald in the film which caused some moviegoers to seek recordings of the fictional composer’s work in record shops.

Today, when reality television shows like the television show in this film have become prevalent and in a society where documenting one’s experiences has become more important than the experience itself, Death Watch provides an accurate mirror of a culture debased by its own vulturous media.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Death Watch at imdb.com

As of January, 2016 Death Watch is available on DVD/BluRay from Amazon.com.

Eden and After (1970)

eden and after film review

Alain Robbe-Grillet was born in France in 1922 to a family of engineers and scientists. He was trained as an agricultural engineer and embarked on a career of scientific research. At age 30, however, he turned to writing novels and in 1961 collaborated with Alain Resnais, writing the screenplay for Last Year at Marienbad (1961). L’Immortelle (1963) was his first film as writer and director. Eden and After was his fourth effort as auteur and his first film in color. As one reviewer at imdb states, Robbe-Grillet set out to be “hostile to the very idea of a narrative” early on in his career. Like Last Year at MarienbadEden and After doesn’t have a straightforward narrative. It concerns a group of college students who frequent a cafe where they stage various scenarios some of them involving Russian roulette and gang rape. Enter Duchemin, a stranger, who offers them something he discovered in Africa, a powder of fear. One of the girls, Violette (Catherine Jourdan), tries the powder and from that point on it’s difficult to tell whether what follows is supposed to be reality or hallucination. The structure of the film is based on Arnold Schoenberg’s twelve-tone technique which does away with a tonal center in music and utilizes all twelve tones in a set but randomly chosen order. What Schoenberg did with pitches, Robbe-Grillet did with images. Whether or not you enjoy this type of experimental fare the film is beautiful to look at. His use of color is striking and much emphasis is placed on composition. The cinematographer was Igor Luther, who also shot The Tin Drum (1979). There’s quite a bit of female nudity, especially towards the end which has led some to consider this film nothing but highbrow softcore but in my opinion it deserves to be considered a work of art.

★★★★★★★★☆☆ (8/10)

Eden and After at imdb

As of August, 2015 the film is available on BD from Amazon

Also streaming at Fandor