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Monday, May 18, 2020

You Tube Time Travel

Make It 1911 Again

I long had this bug in my head that said nickelodeon shorts were hopelessly primitive, and so were folks that went to see them. The image is persuasive, dirty sheets or chipped paint upon walls they watched, stench of revolving unwashed come to be loud or sleep off disease/drunkenness. Fewer, it seems, rhapsodized for a “Golden Age” of nickel theatres. Maybe they weren't so nostalgia-soaked as us, being buffeted by constant change that kept recall at bay. Myth suggests no one but then-outliers liked flickers. To that, I now come much enlightened, thanks to You Tube and elsewhere exam of 1911, a time not altogether spent bending backs over a plow until typhoid or whooping cough took you out. Survival was still an only coin of the realm for most, but what of Little Old New York as captured by a Swedish camera crew that year, footage kept pristine since, and lately upscaled by You Tube magicians to 4K at 60 frames per second, subdued color and sound effects added for the trip back. I’ve never seen historic footage so vivid, nor arrived at such understanding of lives lived modern during what too long was thought a fallow, at least deprived, period (tough times, and then down goes the Titanic). Here is a closest to stepping among these people and seeing how they lived, fit humbling to knock me off a century-later high horse. Watch this enough and you may merge a la Twilight Zone into time past and view from the screen a formerly smug self who thought times were in all ways improved since then.

I wanted to look at the 1911 tour several times and then watch a film from that year, my choice a Griffith-Biograph called The Battle (a Civil War reel), these toward understanding what kind of people were going to movies and what sort of circumstance at least some of them lived in. Gotham at the time had streetcars plenty, elevated rail service, motor vehicles passing alongside horse drawn carriages. I was surprised by how here-and-now they seemed, a reaction helped by amazing clarity of these images and addition of color, latter muted to pleasing and authentic effect. There was unhurried grace to 1911, at least it seemed so with men in straw boaters, all wearing suit/tie, women kitted with glorious hats and some with parasols. I waited for Judy and Fred to walk down the avenue and join their Easter Parade. We could envy the era for sights like these alone, but all is not quaint. This is life racing toward what it would become for us, startling to realize that here too were folks going to nickelodeons well along a takeover of leisure hours spent. I sat looking at this passerby parade knowing most of them had at least sampled movies. 1911 was fifteen years into public-attended shows. Infancy were arguably behind the picture industry. Single reels, sometimes two, were still the norm, features waiting around a corner. Informality of filmgoing helped the habit along. You could go and stay, make it a day, or pass a lunch hour, relax from shopping or having your hat blocked. Shorts being short effected a same needle-drop mentality as vaudeville, a dud segued to something good because nothing lasted long. Here were penny arcades grown up, with everyone sat before a same strip of celluloid. That drew crowds unprecedented, and the more movies improved, the more intense loyalties got. Each year was a vault over ones before. Critics disdainful of film knew they would have to take it seriously … and soon. Companies like Biograph were delivering goods to command attention, and woe betide a press ignoring them, lest you become irrelevant as competing entertainments soon would be.

Trade paper columnists were earliest to regard films seriously. Many moved from industry boosting to individual review of reels thought a humblest of fare even by those who made them. Frank Woods was one who early-understood the power of film. He wanted and got his own New York Dramatic Mirror column, starting in 1909. Within a year he’d know a “strange power of attraction possessed by motion pictures.” Woods observed the “impression of reality the motion picture exerts on the minds of the spectators, an influence akin to hypnotism or magnetism by visual suggestion.” Woods took his position a bold step further by citing this influence as “more powerful … than is possible in any sort of stage production or in printed fact or fiction.” As Woods saw it, and few followed the “mental attitude” of early screen spectators so closely, there was more than casual viewing at play, the average nickel patron “looking at what his mind accepts as reality.” So far as Woods saw it, the stage could not, would never, exert such impact. I like how he avoids arguing for film as art, proposing it instead as a conductor for emotions unique to this developing format. By classifying the appeal of movies as magic, which certainly it was, still is, Woods relieved himself of further duty to explain broader meaning of what audiences saw in 1911. Maybe we would have been better off leaving it at that rather than strangulating over "art" aspect of movies. Woods backed his radical position by writing scenarios for the Biograph Company he so admired, eventually becoming a close associate to D.W. Griffith. His foresight stood Woods well, Griffith’s wife reporting years later that his accumulated wealth enabled purchase of an entire California town, called “Linwood,” after Mrs. Woods. Frank Woods clearly had realities figured out far ahead of most.  

The Battle was sure instance of movies as magnet, reality of Civil warring shown full on and outdoors as opposed to a stage thing that had to be accepted on imagined terms. D.W. Griffith directed The Battle for Biograph. Many thought it his best so far and remembered it so right up to opener day for The Birth Of A Nation. In fact, The Battle was tabloid warm-up to Birth, with not a little of power fuller realized by the four years later epic. I watched The Battle and visualized customers stepping off trams, or maybe a horseless carriage, to attend. Films had matured by 1911, were more ambitious. The Battle serves its title with big scale action, constant movement in foregrounds, plus more to the rear of principal focus, so that eyes are engaged by multiple levels of drama. Almost offhand is troop marching and parades beyond a fence where Blanche Sweet says farewell to her departing sweetheart, Griffith spectacle incidental to the narrative rather than dominating it. If someone told me Matthew Brady shot newsreels in addition to his Civil War still photos, I might swear it was him behind Griffith’s camera, the whole thing happening in 1863 rather than recreated for 1911. The Battle turns on events unique to our war between states, such as men gone to fight a foe mere miles away, or closer. A highlight sees Blanche Sweet confronted by combat right off her front porch, the man to whom she has pledged troth fleeing for refuge behind Sweet skirts. Balance of action is him clearing the yellow stain through a heroic mission to secure ammo. The Battle tells a fast, crisp story, and movement is profuse, staying in no one place too long. This was the kind of subject that justified nickelodeons raising admissions to a dime, or more, at venues less rattle-trap than real theatres they would become. Product at a level of The Battle made such upgrades supportable, movies pulling up even with advances other aspects of modern life were achieving. So I got much from my You Tube visit to 1911, and recommend the twenty or so minutes to anyone inclined to make a similar jump. “A Trip Through New York City in 1911” is here, and The Battle, also HD and very nice despite a bar code in the frame, is here.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

You can add Paris: .

The color adds much.Do you know if this is colorized or if a color system was used.

Thanks. Great way to start the day: seeing something new (that's old).

7:47 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

8:09 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I was never a fan of colorization or artificial sound effects. But, as a New Yorker, I think the YouTube upgrades are extraordinary. There are also films circa 1929 with authentic sound of Times Square that are the closest we'll ever get to a time machine.

9:13 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Your cover picture of the Castle Films 8mm edition of FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN took me instantly back to my teens. It's hard to imagine kids looking at VHS and digital COMPLETE copies felt anything near the thrill we felt looking at those silent abridgements of the movies we loved.

We have come a long way since then. You and I were there for every step.


9:23 AM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

The 1911 footage is colorized.

4:22 PM  
Blogger Randy A. Riddle said...

This is one of my favorites - 45 minutes of 1930s New York City home movies in color. The only bad part is they used YouTube's filter to auto-steady the film, so some shots look rather odd.

5:14 PM  

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