Pioneering

07 01 alice guy blacheToday is the birthday of Alice Guy-Blaché, who was born in France in 1873. You may not have heard of Alice, but she was a pioneer of French cinema. The first female director and writer of narrative fiction films.

Alice’s family lived in Chile, where her father owned a publishing company and a chain of book stores. She had four older siblings who were all born in Chile, but they all travelled to France for the birth of their fifth child, Alice Ida Antoinette Guy. She said it was her mother’s last attempt to make sure one of her children was French. After she was born, the rest of the family took off back to Chile, leaving Alice in the care of her grandparents until she was three or four. Then, she too went to live in Chile, where she learned Spanish. At six, she was sent to school in France. Her father’s business collapsed and he died in 1893, leaving Alice to support herself and her mother.

She trained as a stenographer and typist, which was then, still quite a new profession. In 1894, she was hired by Léon Gaumont as a secretary for a company working with still photography. The following year, they went bust and Gaumont bought up the equipment and started a new company along with an astronomer called Joseph Vallot and Gustave Eiffel, of tower fame. Gaumont was fascinated by photography and great at building precision instruments. He was very interested in building a device that could both film and project moving images. In March of 1895, he was invited to the Lumière brothers to the screening of their first film: ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory‘. Alice was invited along because she happened to be in the office at the time. Gaumont was disappointed to be beaten, but also began to make his own films. Like the Lumières, his films were everyday scenes: people in the street, trains coming into stations. But Alice saw a different possibility.

Alice’s father had been a book seller, she loved books, she loved stories. She didn’t see why a film shouldn’t tell a story too. Alice asked Gaumont for permission to make her own film. He told her yes, as long as she didn’t let her secretarial work drop. Her first film, ‘La Fée aux Choux’, about a woman who grows children in a cabbage patch, was made in 1896. It is a possible contender with the work of Georges Méliès for the first ever narrative film. From then on Alice was made head of production. She not only wrote and directed her own film but also oversaw those filmed by others. Between 1896 and 1906 she was probably the world’s only female film director. She also made travel films and dance films, like this one, which were popular in music halls. Alice used a device invented by Gaumont called ‘Chronophone’, which recorded sound onto a disc along with the film. She used it to produce what might be described as the first music videos.

In 1907, Alice married Herbert Blaché who despite his name, was English. She said she wasn’t quite sure, at first, if she wanted to marry an Englishman, because “they are not noted for their joie de vivre”. Shortly after that, they moved to New York where Herbert was to look after Gaumont’s operations in the United States. In 1908, she gave birth to their first daughter and gave up work for a time. She soon missed it though and, in 1910, she set up her own film company, ‘Solax’ with her husband as production manager and cinematographer and herself as artistic director. Despite being, at this time, pregnant with her second child, she was producing between one and three films a week. Her films were very popular and people were delighted to learn that the company was run by a woman. In 1912, she was the only woman to earn $25,000 a year and they built a new studio in New Jersey which was the largest in the US. This was way before people were making films in Hollywood. She said that, at that time, Hollywood was a small town where they had signs on the doors that said ‘no dogs and no actors’.

Alice was an innovative film maker. She made film versions of ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ and ‘The Pit and the Pendulum’. People were impressed by her sets, her costumes, her lighting. She used special effects like double exposures, masking and running the film backwards. She always strove to create more spectacular scenes. If a boat needed to be blown up on screen, she didn’t make a little model, she blew up a real boat. But most of all she encouraged her actors to ‘be natural’. Alice directed melodramas comedies, love stories and westerns, but the film I really want to tell you about today was called ‘A Fool and his Money’. It is about a poor man who falls in love with a rich woman but has a rival who is much better off than him, it’s a universal story. But then, he finds a lot of money. He buys himself fancy clothes, spends ostentatiously and throws a huge party where he plans to ask her to marry him. But at the party, his rival cheats him out of all his money in a poker game and he is poor again. What’s particularly interesting about this film is that is features an entirely African American cast. The film was thought lost, but a copy has been recently rediscovered. You can watch a little video about it here.

In 1918, her husband left her and ran away to Hollywood with an actress. Alice directed her last film in 1920 and, in 1922, she was forced to sell her studio and move back to France with her children. After that she struggled to provide for them by writing children’s stories and articles for magazines. She never made another film. Alice Guy Blaché wrote, directed and produced around 700 films in her 26 years in the film industry. Her career was longer than that of any other film pioneer, yet most of her work has been lost and her legacy has, until quite recently, been largely forgotten by the industry. She wrote her biography in the 1940s, but it was not published until after her death and not published in English until 1986. If you want to learn more about Alice, there’s a lovely documentary here. There is film footage of Alice herself and it is partially narrated by her granddaughter.

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Seen Here First

06 19 nickelodeonToday, I want to tell you about the first Nickelodeon, which opened on this day in 1905 on Smithfield Street in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It was the first venue to be dedicated solely for the showing of film. Previously, films had been shown as part of a programme of entertainment featuring otherwise live performers. Only ten years after the Lumière brothers had projected their first moving pictures, people were growing tired of the medium and the film was often shown at the end of the evening as a signal that it was time to clear the building. Things were, in America, not looking great for cinema.

Then two brothers-in-law called Harry Davis and John P Harris decided to open a small store front theatre. Both were already in the entertainment business. Davis was a one time carnival hustler who owned several dime museums, penny arcades and playhouses in the city. Harris and his father ran a company that produced vaudeville shows and had screened Pittsburgh’s first moving picture in 1897. They named their new enterprise ‘Nickelodeon’. ‘Nickel’, because that was how much it cost for a ticket and the ‘odeon’ part came from the Greek word ‘odeion’, which meant enclosed theatre. Their theatrical connections meant they were able to decorate the interior building in an opulent theatrical style, relatively cheaply. They created an atmosphere that most of their clientele could not otherwise hope to experience. Their tiny theatre though, could accommodate only ninety-six people seated on folding chairs with standing room for more. They showed a programme of short films totalling about fifteen minutes in length. They opened at eight o’clock in the morning, closing at midnight. It was incredibly popular. On the first day 450 people turned up, on the second day there were 1,500. soon they had more than 7,000 visitors a day. Their audience were queuing round the block day and night. Opening on Sundays meant that people could also come on their day off.

It was such a great idea that loads of people started opening five cent theatres. Four years later, there were 8,000 of them. By 1919 there were 20,000 moving picture houses in the United States. Shortly before the First World War, there were so many cinemas that all those five cents added up to around 150 million dollars a year. In Pittsburgh alone, there were over a hundred five cent cinemas. Film production companies flocked to the city. So did film exchanges, which hired out film reels to the new cinemas. Production companies vied with one another to make more and more elaborate films. That meant that films became longer, which was good for everyone. Distributors were paid according to the length of the film, so they made more money. The cinema owners found it easier because they didn’t have to spend so much time editing a complicated programme of short films and, for film makers, it was a whole new opportunity to experiment with the medium. So, that’s how a multi-million dollar industry was built up, five cents at a time.

Silent film was wonderful entertainment for newly arrived immigrants who didn’t yet have much grasp of the language. All kinds of people flocked to see comedies, dramas, adventures and a sort of early documentaries called ‘actualities’. The film could be speeded up to show the opening of a flower or slowed down show the beating of a hummingbirds wing. There is a rather long and florid article written in 1919 which concludes “…the mass can be taught by pictures when it would not read books and will understand pictures when it would have small comprehension of, or interest in books.”

Not everyone was in favour of the Nickelodeon though. There were those who were not happy about men and women being allowed to spend such a long time sitting together in the dark. Some called for the films to be shown with the lights on, others gathered together to form ‘film review boards’ to judge the morals of the film being shown. There were plenty who concerned that seeing violent films was having a bad influence on children. The Nickelodeon was though, eventually, a victim of it’s own success. As films became longer, ticket prices doubled. That led to the building of larger and more comfortable cinemas. The original Nickelodeon on Smithfield Street was demolished after only five years to make way for a bigger movie theatre.

Villains

05 27 christopher leeMostly, I write about people who are long dead. But today I am writing about a person who is, for the first time, not around to celebrate his birthday. So I’m also feeling sad for his family and friends who must be missing of him. After writing such a long post about vampires yesterday, It was lovely to find out that today is the birthday of Sir Christopher Lee who played the part of Count Dracula for Hammer Films, for a little bit longer than he would have really liked. I have a bit of a soft spot for Hammer Horror. They were the films my friends and I dared each other to watch back in the 1970s. Their first Dracula film was well received by both audience and critics, but after that, things went rapidly down hill. The sequel, ‘Dracula: Prince of Darkness’ had such an awful script that Lee refused to speak. He hissed his way through the whole part. The film’s script editor insisted that he had never written any lines for the Count in the first place, but this seems unlikely. Lee appeared in a total of seven films for Hammer in the role of Dracula. He knew they were awful, but he kept doing it because they kept reminding him how many people would be put out of work if he didn’t do it. He begged to be allowed to speak a few lines from Stoker’s original story and sometimes he even managed to sneak a few in.

05 27 charlemagneChristopher Lee was born in 1922 in Belgravia, London. Through his mother, he could trace his ancestry back to the first Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne. Take a look at this portrait of him, you can really see a family resemblance. Lee’s early life was packed with genuine horror. When he was only seventeen, he witnessed the last public execution by guillotine in France. During World War II, he was attached to both the Long Range Desert Group and the Special Operations Executive, otherwise known as ‘The Ministry for Ungentlemanly Warfare’. Both were forerunners of the present day SAS. He, quite rightly, never spoke specifically about anything he had done, but his work would have included espionage, sabotage and reconnaissance. It would have been dangerous and it would have been horrifying. He did all this before he was twenty-five.

After his experiences during the war, he couldn’t really see himself in an office job and he took up acting instead. For a long time, he found it difficult to get cast in major roles because, at 6′ 5”, people thought he was too tell to be an actor. He thought that was stupid: ‘It’s like saying you’re too short to play the piano.’ But, in 1952, he got a break when he appeared in several films for a series called ‘Douglas Fairbanks Presents’ which was filmed at Elstree and where he played alongside Buster Keaton.

It was at Hammer, between 1957 and 1976 that he really became typecast as a villain. Their films might seem very dated and terribly camp now, but I defy you not to enjoy his ‘Sir Henry Baskerville’ in ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ or his ‘Nicholas, Duc de Richleau’ in ‘The Devil Rides Out’. One of his favourite roles, and probably mine too, was not for Hammer at all, but for British Lion Films when he played the part of Lord Summerisle in ‘The Wicker Man’.

Feeling typecast in horror films, he moved to Hollywood in 1977 but never really got away from playing villains. But he was really good at it and they are the best parts. He has played the James Bond villain ‘Scaramanga’ he has been the Devil, he has even played the part of Death himself.

Lee was a huge Tolkein fan. In fact, he once ran into the author in a bar and managed to persuade him that if ‘The Lord of the Rings’ was ever filmed, he’d be a great Gandalf. When he heard that it was going to be made by Peter Jackson, he deliberately accepted a part as a wizard in a terrible television series about Robin Hood, just to prove that he would make a good wizard. Then he sent a personal letter to the director, along with a picture of himself, dressed as a wizard. But, because he was a natural villain, the part of Gandalf eluded him, but he did make a brilliant Saruman.

05 27 vincent priceI cannot let today go by without telling you that today is also the birthday of one of his co-stars in the horror genre. Vincent Price was also born on May 27th, in 1911. Vincent was cast in some very over-the-top films such as ‘The Abominable Dr Phibes’ and ‘Theatre of Blood’. If you haven’t seen it, I truly recommend ‘The Tingler’ from 1959. It still feel a little disturbing, even now. Its director, William Castle, was a master of the cinema gimmick. If you’d gone to see it when it was released you would have found a nurse at the cinema, ready to treat anyone who fainted with terror. You might also have found you were sitting on a seat that vibrated suddenly and unexpectedly, to make you jump out of it.

Vincent loved a practical joke. He once stood in for his own wax dummy at a museum. He suddenly moved and squirted the visitors with a syringe filled with water. As they shared a birthday, he, Christopher Lee and also Peter Cushing, who celebrated his birthday the day before on May 26th, all hired out the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussaud’s for a party. He said: “It was wonderful fun. You couldn’t tell who were the actors.”

American Beauty

05 25 marie doro 3Today is the birthday of this lady, a long forgotten star of silent film called Marie Doro. She was born Marie Katherine Stewart in 1882, in Duncannon, Pennsylvania. Like most early film stars, she began her acting career on the stage. Also like most stage actresses, she began working in the chorus. By 1901, she was appearing in a play by David Belasco called ‘Naughty Anthony’. It doesn’t seem to have been one of his better plays and she appears to have been the best thing in it. She played a hosiery model who, in one scene, has put on a pair of silk stockings and is demonstrating their fit to three shocked Salvation Army women, when… a man walks in. It doesn’t sound like much to you and me, but in 1901, it was pretty scandalous.

In 1903 she was spotted by impresario Charles Frohman who took her to Broadway. In 1905 she travelled to London where she worked alongside William Gillette in a play called ‘Sherlock Holmes’. Gillette was the first man to play the role of the detective. I mentioned this play when I wrote about Charlie Chaplin back in April. The sixteen year old, then unknown, Chaplin also had a small part in the play. He still remembered seeing her for the first time when, years later, he wrote his autobiography. He said:

“She was so devastatingly beautiful that I resented her. I resented her delicate, pouting lips, her regular, white teeth, her adorable chin, her raven hair and dark brown eyes… But oh God, she was beautiful. It was love at first sight.”

And who can blame him? The photograph below was taken around 1902 by a Broadway photographer called Burr McIntosh. It’s a wonderful picture, she is indeed, radiant.05 25 marie doro 2 I was glad I managed to track down the name of the photographer. I only wish I could tell you who was responsible for her costume.

Ten years later, Marie and Charlie were both in Hollywood. Marie told a friend that she was a huge fan of Charlie Chaplin and would like to meet him. She had no idea that they had once acted together. When they were introduced he said: ‘But we’ve met before. You broke my heart. I was silently in love with you.’ She answered ‘How thrilling.’ He told her how he had timed exactly when she would leave her dressing room, just so he could meet her on the stairs and gulp ‘Good evening’.

Marie appeared in several plays alongside Gillette, including one he wrote himself called Clarice in which she had the title role. It is about a doctor and his young ward who are in love but neither knows the other’s feelings. There are some suggestions that Gillette wrote the play with her in mind. Frohman and Gillette exerted a strong influence on her development as an actress and she later admitted that she had been ‘hypnotised by them.’ She was rather typecast as the weak and pretty woman but people who knew her described her as very intelligent and funny. She was an something of an expert on the work of Shakespeare and on Elizabethan poetry.

After Frohman was killed in the sinking of the Lusitania she made a sideways move into cinema. She appeared in eighteen films all together, almost none of which survive. Old films were shot on cellulose nitrate film which tends to rot away. Either that or it spontaneously bursts into flames. It will carry on burning, even if you submerge it in water. Maybe 75 % of all American silent films are lost. The titles of her films are intriguing, I’d love to be able to show you a clip from ‘The Mysterious Princess’ orMidnight Gambols’, but I can’t. She does have the honour of having appeared in the first 3D film to be shown to a paying audience, in 1915. It was just a few test shots, but still, that’s quite a claim.

I can’t tell you a great deal about Marie Doro’s life. She married in 1915, was divorced quite soon after. She never married again. She never had any children. In the 1920s, she became disillusioned with Hollywood and left. Marie later made a few films in Italy and at least one in the UK. After returning to New York, she became increasingly reclusive and died in 1956, leaving $90,000 to the Actors Fund, which provides financial support for workers in the performing arts and enntertainment industry. Her life and career may be lost to us but, thanks to Burr McIntosh, we still have these lovely images…

05 25 marie doro 1

Silence is Golden

04 16 charlie chaplinToday is Charlie Chaplin’s birthday. He was born in Walworth, South London in 1889. His early years were very difficult. His parents were both music hall entertainers, neither provided a stable family home and they had separated by the time he was two. He, his elder half-brother, Sidney, and his mother, Hannah, lived in extreme poverty. He was admitted to the workhouse once at the age of seven and again at nine. After that, Hannah was admitted to a mental asylum and remained there for two months. Charlie and Sydney were sent to live with his father who had become an alcoholic. Their life with him was so bad that the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children intervened.

Hannah was hospitalized again in 1903 and for a final time in 1905. She remained in care for the rest of her life. During the times she was well, she encouraged Charlie when he showed an interest in acting. She used to sit by the window and mimic passers-by and from her, he learned to express emotions with gestures and also how to study people. He first appeared on stage at the age of five. His mother was performing and he was watching from the wings. She was booed off and he was pushed on as a replacement. He remembered it going quite well. People laughed. By the time he was ten, he was performing with a clog-dancing troupe called ‘Eight Lancashire Lads’, despite being from nowhere near Lancashire.

At fourteen, he signed with a theatrical agency. He landed a successful role as Billy the page boy in a play about Sherlock Holmes which was touring the provinces. His performance was so well received that he was called to London to play the role alongside William Gillette, the first person ever to play Sherlock Holmes on the stage. Gillette had also co-written the play with Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle. Chaplin was Billy the page boy for two and a half years. After that he toured with a couple of companies developing his skills as a comic performer. In 1908 he joined Fred Karno‘s company, where his brother Sidney had been working for two years. By 1910, he was playing leading roles and was chosen as one of a group of performers who went on a tour of North America’s vaudeville circuit. He got on very well there. Reviewers described him as the best pantomime artist they had ever seen. When the troupe returned to England in June 1912, Chaplin felt a bit flat. When they returned to America in October for a second tour, he was offered a contract with Keystone Studios.

He wasn’t terribly happy with his first film, but for his second, he picked out the costume that would define him. A jacket that was too tight, trousers that were too baggy, a hat that was too small, shoes that were too big and a cane. He added the moustache as the studio were worried he looked too young. He thought it would make him look older without hiding his expressions. For Keystone, he produced short films at the rate of about one a 04 16 chaplin with dollweek and, by May 1914, he was also directing. After a year with Keystone, he moved to Essanay. Here, he developed his tramp character into a more gentle, romantic figure. A character people could sympathise with as well as laugh at. By 1915, everyone had gone crazy for Charlie Chaplin. There was Chaplin merchandise, comic strips and cartoons. Songs were written about him and he became the first international film star. Next, he moved to Mutual and then First National and in 1919, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D W Griffiths he formed United Artists. It was a company that allowed film makers to personally fund their own pictures, thus retaining complete creative control.

04 16 the kidChaplin made so many films, I can’t possibly mention them all. I’m very fond of ‘The Kid’ which he made between 1919 and 1920. In it, his famous tramp character becomes responsible for an abandoned baby. He probably drew on his own experiences of childhood poverty. There is a part where the child is taken off to an orphanage that it genuinely heartbreaking, especially when you realise he probably knew what that felt like. His co-star, five-year-old Jackie Coogan, was also a vaudeville performer. When he grew up, he went on to play ‘Uncle Fester’ in the 1960’s TV series ‘The Addams Family’.

04 16 the gold rushChaplin’s ‘The Gold Rush’, which was released in 1925, made a strong impression on me in the days when the BBC used to run old black and white films in the afternoons. It is set in the time of the Klondike Gold Rush. His character being reduced by starvation to eating his own boot is probably one of my earliest film memories. He manages to make the scene sad and funny at the same time and his character always remains kind and upbeat, no matter how life treats him.

Chaplin had made his name in silent film and he resisted the coming of sound to the industry for a long time. His character worked through facial expressions and through physical performance. He didn’t think it would work with sound and I think he was right. His film ‘City Lights’, released in 1931, had sound but nobody spoke. Or if they did, they spoke through a kazoo. ‘Modern Times’ released in 1936, almost had dialogue, but it didn’t really work and he abandoned the idea. Because it deals with the plight of workers in an industrialised society, it was less well received that his previous films. Not everyone liked the political message.

In 1939/40 he made his first proper ‘talkie’, ‘The Great Dictator’ in which he parodied Adolph Hitler. He played both the dictator, ‘Adenoid Hynkel’ and a persecuted Jewish barber. The similarity between Hitler and Chaplin’s tramp had been remarked upon. Both had a toothbrush moustache. Both Chaplin and Hitler had risen to prominence from poverty, and they had been born only four days apart. He was haunted by their similarities. One a madman, the other a comic. What if it had been the other way around? I’ve read mixed accounts of how the film was received, one that it went down well in allied countries, another that people didn’t like the speech at the end. Some mark it as the beginning of his decline in popularity. It is a wonderful speech which is always worth revisiting, but it seems particularly poignant in the current world climate. You can find it here.

Chaplin’s 1947 film, Monsieur Verdoux, had quite an anti-capitalist message and he wound up leaving the United States after being accused of communist sympathies. The last film he made in the US, ‘Limelight’, was very autobiographical, alluding to his life with his parents and to his failing popularity. It is also the only film in which he appears alongside my other favourite silent film star, Buster Keaton. The film was boycotted in America and was not widely shown until 1972, when it received an Oscar for its music score, which was also written by him.

There’s No Future in It

03 19 workers leaving the factoryOn this day in 1895 the Lumière brothers, Auguste and Louis made their first film. ‘La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon’ is a forty-six second film showing workers leaving a factory in Lyons which belonged to their father Charles-Antoine. The Lumières were manufacturers of photographic equipment. Louis had invented a new way of producing photographic plates which was particularly popular and their factory turned out about fifteen million plates a year. This made Antoine a successful business man and, in 1894, he was invited to a demonstration of Edison’s new Peephole Kinetoscope in Paris. He was impressed but he thought it was horrendously expensive. He also felt his sons could do better. There were two basic problems with Edison’s machine. Firstly, it was absolutely enormous and could only be used in a studio. Secondly, it could only be viewed by one person at a time.

03 19 lumiere brothersThe Lumière brothers’ film is often referred to as the first ever moving picture, but this is not really true. Louis le Prince, whose work and subsequent mysterious disappearance I mentioned back in October, had filmed his ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’ some seven years earlier. I’ve no idea if the brothers were aware of le Prince’s work, but they certainly built upon the work of other earlier experimenters and their contribution is worth celebrating today too. Within months, they had come up with a machine that could capture images on film, develop them and also project the results. The camera was, compared to Edison’s, lightweight and portable, so they could film anywhere. The addition of a projector meant that they could show their films to a large audience. They called it the ‘cinématograph’.

The name cinématograph, they had from another French inventor, Léon Guillaume Bouly, who had also invented a camera that shot, developed and projected film in 1892. It’s hard to say how successful Bouly’s camera was, but by 1894 he was no longer able to keep up the patent and the Lumières bought it. They made one significant improvement. They added perforations to the edges of the film which allowed it to move through the camera much more steadily.

Auguste and Louis had the idea of adding perforations from Charles-Émile Reynaud who had made the first animated projected films. In 1877, Reynaud had improved on the zoetrope by adding a circle of mirrors in the centre of the machine. This meant you could view the moving images in the mirrors rather than squinting through a tiny slot in the side. He called it a ‘praxinoscope’. Two years later, he added a glass viewing screen through which you could see the reflection of a background scene. When the moving images were spun into life, they were superimposed against the background. By 1880, he 03 19 reynaudhad been able to use lamps to project both background and images onto a screen by using glass plates for his hand-drawn images. In 1888, he patented his ‘Théâtre Optique’ which was on a much grander scale. He abandoned the circular design in favour of using a much longer strip of film which was wound onto a spool. Glass was obviously not suitable, so he painted each image onto squares of gelatin. He fastened them all together with leather strips and added a metal strip with holes between each image. These holes engaged with pins in a revolving wheel and made sure that each image was lined up correctly. Reynaud back projected his images onto a translucent screen and was able to move his film strip backwards and forwards by hand. Although his Théâtre Optique was very popular to begin with, he was quickly overtaken by the Lumières’ Cinématographe. Sadly, little survives of his work because, in a fit of depression, he smashed up his machinery and threw all but two of his picture bands into the Seine.

The Lumière brothers films were an immediate and huge success. They had more cameras built and sent them all over the world, to film and to screen what they saw. Most of their films, like Workers Leaving the Factory, were documentary in nature, but they also produced the first comedy film. ‘L’Arroseur arrosé’, the sprinkler sprinkled, shows a gardener watering his garden with a hose. A boy steps on the hose. Gardener looks down hose, boy steps off, gardener gets sprayed in the face. It’s a classic really and probably the first film that might have had some sort of script. You can see it here. Despite this, they really saw no future in narrative film. They thought it was frivolous nonsense and refused to sell a camera to Georges Méliès when he wanted one.

In fact, they thought the whole thing would be a bit of a flash in the pan and quickly moved on to other things. In 1903 they patented ‘Autochrome Lumière’, a way of producing colour photographs. The images were on glass plates and could be projected, but it seems they never thought of making colour film. Autochrome photography was still popular up until the 1950s, even though other colour processes had been developed. Film, however, has lasted rather longer.

Dystopia

01 10 robot metropolisOn this day in 1927, Fritz Lang’s film ‘Metropolis’ premièred at the Ufa-Palast am Zoo in Berlin. Metropolis is a hugely important film in the history of science fiction. Unfortunately, as it’s still under copyright, there aren’t a lot of images I can show you. However, I feel almost certain that, even if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have seen stills from it elsewhere. I can show you this robot though and you will probably recognise its influence on C-3PO in Star Wars.

Metropolis is set in the year 2026, not so far away now. It shows us an urban dystopia where the rich live in a futuristic city that is powered by workers who toil all day at huge machines and are forced to live underground. I don’t want to spend too long on the plot. It would take a long time and it isn’t really the film’s strong point. Basically, Freder, the son of the man who runs the city falls in love with a working class prophetess, Maria, who wants to bring both sides of the society peacefully together. There’s a bad man, who has the wonderful name of Rotwang, with a robot and he uses it to create a double of Maria, who causes all sorts of trouble. She incites the workers to destroy their machines, which causes their underground city to flood, threatening the lives of their children. Obviously, there’s a lot of stuff about mistaken identity but the right Maria (bad robot Maria) gets burned at the end. The good Maria, Freder and a splendid fellow called Josaphat save all the children and everyone is very sorry, except Rotwang who falls off a roof.

Although it is now considered one of the greatest films of the silent era, and pioneering in the genre of science fiction, not everyone shared this opinion at the time. The New York Times called it: “A technical marvel with feet of clay.” HG Wells was similarly unimpressed. He thought Lang had failed to appreciate that the point of machines was to free people from drudgery, not to make their lives harder. He thought it was a silly film. Even Fritz Lang wasn’t that keen on it once it was finished, but there may be other reasons for that. The book on which it was based was written by his then partner, Thea von Harbou, who became, in later years, a very enthusiastic Nazi. Also the Nazis loved the film, which could have been another reason he grew to dislike it.

However, all that said, Metropolis is indeed a technical marvel. It was one of the first feature-length films and in its original version ran for 152 minutes. Its cast was largely unknown and Brigitte Helm, who played both Maria and the robot, had no previous film experience and was only nineteen years old. There are some glorious sets designed by Erich Kettelhut, Otto Hunte and Karl Vollbrecht. The huge machinery is amazing and the very utilitarain underground workers city is contrasted by the soaring Art Deco city above ground. There is a dark, gothic cathedral and Rotwang’s house and laboratory are different again. Special effects expert, Eugen Schüfftan, created pioneering special effects for the film, including one which was named after him. Parts of the city were built in miniature and the Schüfftan process uses mirrors so make it seem as though the actors are occupying the tiny sets. It was a technique that was widely used in the first half of the twentieth century. Although it has now largely been replaced by green screen, it was used as recently as 2003 in ‘Lord of the Rings: The return of the King.’

Another triumph was the robot’s costume. It was made over a life cast of the actresses body and, when it was realised that the original plan of using beaten copper would be far too heavy, sculptor Walter Schulze-Mittendorff happened upon plastic wood filler. He found he could roll it flat and drape it over the cast, then cut it to make a sort of armour. He then sprayed it with a mixture of resin and bronze powder. Although it allowed for a little movement, it was still very difficult to wear. Brigitte Helm was terribly scratched and pinched by it, despite many attempts by the stage hands to file down all the sharp edges. People felt so sorry for her that they kept posting coins through the slots in her costume which she used to buy chocolate in the canteen. During the transformation scene, she fainted because it took so long and she couldn’t breathe properly. Brigitte couldn’t really see why it had to be her inside the costume at all, it could be anyone. No one would even know. Lang’s answer was that he would know.

Brigitte wasn’t the only one to suffer during the production. It took over a year to film and Lang made them repeat many of the scenes over and over. By the time Gustav Fröhlich, who played Freder, had spent two days throwing himself at the feet of Brigitte, he could barely stand. Spare a thought also for the five hundred child extras, who were from the poorest parts of Berlin. During the scenes when the underground city floods, they spent two weeks struggling in a pool of water that was intentionally kept rather too cold by the director.

As for the famous robot transformation scene that was so difficult for Brigitte, it isn’t clear, even now exactly how it was done. The circular lights that move up and down over the robot were not added afterwards, as they would be today, but filmed directly into the camera. It definitely seems to have involved circular neon lights, probably moved up and down with invisible wires, and putting the film through the camera many times.

Metropolis is a visually beautiful film, if a little slow by today’s standards. It has been much cut about both to make it shorter and to get rid of some of the elements in the original that were not liked. For example, it was all a bit communist for an American audience. The original cut was thought to be lost, but an uncut version was found in Argentina. It has suffered rather over the years but has been restored and an almost complete version was released in 2010. It’s been interesting to watch this film again knowing about all the inventive techniques and the difficulties everyone had to put up with just to get it made. The actors must have felt, at times, as though they were really living in a city that was ruled over by an uncaring despot.