alfred clark early film pioneer

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”.

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