Programme 3: America in Transition
Ancient Temples of Egypt (1912)
Princesss Nicotine, or the Smoky Fairy (1909)
A Tin-Type Romance (1910)
The Usurer (1910)
The Dream (1911)
Winning an Heiress (1911)
First Air-Mail Delivery (1911)
In the first two decades of the cinema (1895-1915), screens throughout the United States were flooded with a wealth of experimental works as filmmakers began to explore the limits and resources of this new medium. Tragically, many of these innovative films have been lost - others survive thanks to the ongoing efforts of dedicated film archivists. These rare works of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, many of which have been recently discovered and preserved, constitute an unusually important part of American aesthetic and cultural history, but the vast majority have not been seen by either the general public or by most film scholars since their initial turn-of-the-century release.
To present today's audiences with a sampling of films from this formative period in American film history, co-curator Charles Musser and I reviewed the holdings of the five preeminent film collections in this country: the American Film Institute, the International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, and the UCLA Film Archive. We were aware of the rich examples of films from this period entrusted to their care; as well, each of these archives had increased its collection through vital attention to preservation and restoration, adding to the quantity of materials which our choices could be made. Thankfully, all agreed on the value of a traveling exhibition of films to acquaint audiences at cultural institutions across the country with the earliest years of American filmmaking.
Several factors determined our selections for the Before Hollywood exhibition. We certainly wished the films to convey the same visual quality experienced by their original audiences. We also looked for the unexpected, the surprising: the early American film's innovations are internationally acclaimed, but few moviegoers today know firsthand, for example, the lovely handcolored dance films enjoyed by early viewers. We include little-known examples of the work of America's most celebrated film pioneers (e.g. Edwin S. Porter, D.W. Griffith, Cecil B. DeMille), but also sought discoveries by lesser-known directors. In so doing, we felt obligated to go beyond mainstream entertainment films to explore other turn-of-the-century movie fare: news subjects, animation, trick films and comedies. We were rewarded greatly in these efforts: among the art forms that illuminate the mores, values, and conditions of an era, film is especially revealing, and many of the "little" films of the Before Hollywood period offer the biggest revelations. Just as the narrative elements of this popular art tell us much about the audience for which it was produced, so its photographic qualities document the time and place in which it was made: inThe Black Hand(Biograph, 1906), for example, immigrant values are celebrated in a drama shot with hidden cameras on the streets of Manhatten. Here are sharp observations on the attitudes and life of turn-of-the-century America. Finally, we attempted to represent as full a range of early cinema genres as possible - actualities (including documentaries and travelogues), comedies (including trick films, chase films, and animations), dramas and melodramas, and socially aimed films - from a broad sampling of production companies.
The times in which these films were made is reflected in their stories and images, and time - or most properly, production dates - determines the rough chronology of Before Hollywood's six programs. Beyond this, programs have been organized into topic areas of special significance to American life at that time: "clusters" that show variations on a subject (e.g. fascination with movement, patriotism, courtship and marriage, Americans at play, crime and criminals, changing perceptions of women, the frontier spirit etc.) or method that had brought success. We attempted in this way to give some impression of these years' swift current of inventiveness and surprise that kept nicleodeon spectators coming back for more. The five major archival collections that agreed to act as loan sources for the Before Hollywood project have acquired and preserved films that in and of themselves are important documents in the history of cinema, and also serve to illuminate the historical and cultural context of the period from which they emerged. Unfortunately, film preservation work can never keep pace with the rapid rate of nitrate deterioration that afflicts all films made prior to the 1950s. Thus, much of those films that have been preserved remain unseen except by a small group of scholars and specialists. The brief films of Before Hollywood constitute and important, otherwise unavailable part of our cultural history. (Jan Leyda)
United States of America