Category Archives: Classics

Solar Magic

While standing in a somewhat alien landscape called North Carolina (perhaps, at least to him) on May 28, 1900, Nevil Maskelyne probably thought of his artistic predecessors.  The British magician knew that, just a century or so earlier, many people still thought a solar eclipse was an omen.  But, for people like Maskelyne, an eclipse was the grandest trick of all – even if it was a natural phenomenon and not sleight of hand.  And, in 1900, Maskelyne had a new device that he could surely add to his chest of magic: a celluloid camera.

Now, more than a century later, Maskelyne’s short film of that extraordinary celestial event has been digitally scanned and preserved in a collaboration between the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the British Film Institute (BFI).  Simply titled “Solar Eclipse”, it is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving astronomical film.

As a practicing magician, it’s no surprise Maskelyne realized the potential moving pictures bore, even at the dawn of the 20th century.  He recognized the possibilities for both entertainment and education.  His own interest in astronomy had led him to the RAS, where he became a fellow and traveled to North Carolina with an expedition to view – and record – the eclipse.

Viewing the eclipse – as people had done for millennia – was simple.  But recording it with this new technology was not.  The intuitive Maskelyne, however, didn’t let that deter him.  Perhaps foreseeing the difficulty, he had designed a special lens attachment called a cinematograph telescope.

“He had previously taken out a patent for engineering equipment, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he may have developed his own camera to capture this event,” said Bryony Dixon, BFI curator of silent film.  But as the original British Astronomical Society report about the film doesn’t mention whether Maskelyne used a camera of his own invention to shoot the eclipse, “it’s something we’ll probably never know for sure.”

Despite the challenge, Maskelyne was still able to capture the exposure changes that occur throughout an eclipse.

“The diamond ring effect of the corona at totality* affects the exposure of the image,” Dixon said.  “Maskelyne was able to change the exposure and camera aperture as the event occurred, tracing the gradual fading of the corona in increasing sunlight.”

After capturing the eclipse, Maskelyne screened the film for the Royal Astronomical Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly – London’s most popular magic stage at the time – as part of a larger program of magic illusionist acts.

In 2018 RAS archivists handed the film over to preservationists at the BFI, where they began the delicate process of digitalizing it.  Each frame had to be meticulously and carefully copied onto 35mm film.

Although at only one minute long and in scratchy black and white, “Solar Eclipse” is yet another one of those rare treasures of early cinema; a moment that puts you back in time, more than a century ago, when the new medium of film held the promise of a new world of surprise and…well, magic.  A door between the “old world” and a new century had opened.

*This refers to the “path of totality”, which is the track of the umbra (the fully shaded inner region of a shadow cast by an opaque object) on the Earth’s surface during a total eclipse.

See also: “Three Generations of Maskelyne Magicians”.

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A Creative Little Theatre

Followers of the Chief surely know of my fascination with the early days of cinema.  Recently the UCLA Film & Television Archive preserved and restored a 1906 piece by pioneering Spanish film director and cinematographer Segundo ChomónBob’s Electrical Theatre (also known as Miniature Theatre) features puppets engaging in a variety of routines, including wrestling and fencing.  It’s a follow-up to Chomón’s 1905 The Electrical Hotel, a short about a modern hotel, where luggage appears to unpack itself.

Both film and electricity were new inventions at the start of the 20th century and were naturally synchronous.  Chomón’s made innovative use of early splice-based tricks, which complimented his penchant for optical illusions.  He is often compared to another pioneer of animated films, France’s Georges Méliès.  Méliès is best known for such classics as “The Vanishing Lady” (1896) and “A Trip to the Moon” (1902).  Though there are similarities between the two, Chomón differs from Méliès in the variety of his movie subjects and his overall use of animation, an art form he played a key role in developing.

Although Bob’s Electrical Theatre is one of the earliest stop-motion puppet films ever made, it is sophisticated and unique.  The lifelike use of puppet dolls here predates the work of Ladislas Starevitch, another pioneering stop-motion puppeteer, and Willis O’Brien who is best known for such classics as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).

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A Kiss Is Still a Kiss

Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown in the newly-discovered “Something Good–Negro Kiss”.

Little treasures from the early days of cinema keep popping up.  That’s what Dino Everett, an archivist at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered in a 19th-century nitrate print hidden among a batch of silent films originally owned by a Louisiana collector. The clip, shot on a Lumière Cinématographe, turned out to be an 1898 short entitled Something Good–Negro Kiss, which is now the earliest documented film of open affection between a Black man and a Black woman.

Everett later told his students, “I think this is one of the most important films I’ve come across.”  He really had no idea.

Everett contacted the University of Chicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, an expert on African-American cinema.  Using inventory and distribution catalogues, Field traced the film to Chicago and learned it had been shot by William Selig, a pioneer in film production and a former vaudeville performer.  With help of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Field also identified the performers: Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown.  Suttle is dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, while Brown dons an ornate dress — costumes that Field says were typical of minstrel performers.

Something Good is a restaging of Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896), one of the world’s earliest motion pictures.  Scandalous for its time, The Kiss featured stage performers John C. Rice and May Irwin engaging in a graphic display of physical affection.  Both Rice and May were popular figures of the minstrel entertainment circuit, and perhaps the title of this newly-discovered film, Something Good–Negro Kiss, is deliberately subverting the racism inherent in American minstrelsy.

A 120-year-old classic moment in cinematic time:

 

Image and video courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts

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“Birth of a Flower” (1910)

We modern movie-goers are so accustomed to visual effects in films that it’s almost difficult to imagine the awe people felt when they first witnessed such things as traveling shots and fade-outs.  But, just as soon as moving pictures became a new form of entertainment at the start of the 20th century, some creative individuals began pushing it to new levels.  One was Percy Smith, a London native who found his career as an educator boring and unfulfilling.  He turned to the medium of film by going to work for Charles Urban, another cinematic pioneer, before creating his own films.  Smith began experimenting with a variety of innovative techniques.  Among them was time-lapse.

In 1910 Smith shot the world’s first time-lapse film, Birth of a Flower, which showed an array of different flowers blossoming.  It became an international sensation.  Smith’s name may have been lost to movie history, but his desire to stretch filmmaking into unknown regions helped transform a novelty into an art form.

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F This!

oldest-F-word

Just when you think something is new, researchers prove you wrong. For example, I thought American cowboys invented the ‘F’ word. Then I heard rumors someone in my family came up with it during a baptism, but that’s another story. A British historian, however, has found the earliest written record of this vocabulary gem in a court document – from 1310.

The item refers to a man named “Roger Fuckebythenavele,” and was discovered accidentally by Dr. Paul Booth, a historian at England’s Keele University. Booth was examining medieval court cases, when he stumbled upon the unfortunate moniker. Roger wasn’t actually born into a family called “Fuckebythenavele.” He was branded as such because he was an incompetent copulator. Usually that refers to most politicians, but Booth informed the local press, “Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with the navel, or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex.”

Apparently Roger was so bad at sex he was considered an outlaw and would be tried under judiciary circumstances. Before Booth’s discovery, the earliest documented example of “fuck” was in a 1475 poem titled “Flen fyys.” The line in question reads, ““fvccant vvivys of heli,” which can be translated to “they fuck the wives of Ely.”

Booth has contacted the Oxford English dictionary people to advise them of his discovery; whereupon they should then make the appropriate updates to the historical etymology of the “F” word. As of now, Booth hasn’t received a reply. In that case, just tell them to…have a nice day. Dagnabbit!

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A Jewel of Black Film History Appears

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

If anyone involved with film in its earliest days realized how important their work would become, they probably would’ve taken greater care to preserve the medium for future generations. But, at the time, few seemed to believe cinema would last beyond its initial novelty. So, when a silent film surfaces, it’s cause for celebration. Such is the case with the recent discovery of an untitled, unreleased film from 1913.

Comprised into 7 reels, the movie is unique for two reasons:

  • it’s an early concerted attempt at a feature-length project;
  • it stars a mostly-Black cast.

At the start of the 20th century, film was still expensive, and movie studios – really just a gathering of adventurous artists – put out “shorts” that would often last only a few minutes. In this particular film, refurbished by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, we see a rare depiction of a Black middle class. It features Bert Williams, the first Black star on Broadway, and already a veteran of music and stage. Williams competes with other men for the affections of a young woman played by Odessa Warren Grey. The film had three directors; one of whom was Black. With titles, it would have run for about 35 minutes. The movie was made in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary period beginning in the 1890s when a variety of Black artists – writers, singers, dancers – expounded upon their creative intellects and showed the world that they and all Blacks were human, too.

The film is part of a collection of 900 unprinted negatives produced by the now-defunct Biograph Company of New York. In 1939, Iris Barry, MOMA’s founding film curator, acquired the cache in 1939. In 1976, a MOMA film curator began copying the film and realized its historical significance when he spotted Williams amidst the characters. But, not until 2004, did the museum begin both restoring the film and searching for its origins. The research team showed the material to film historians; looked through a number of old movie trade papers; and even hired a lip reader to extract potential clues from the movie scenes themselves.

Their efforts have paid off. Now, we know the names of just about everyone appearing in the film, as well as its producers. It’s been fully restored and is scheduled for a premier showing this October 24.

A strange fact is glaringly obvious: Williams, of all people, appears in black-face; the antiquitous cosmetic concoction often used by White performers on stage and in film at the time to portray Black characters. Why Williams did that is unknown. It may have been a mockery of the technique itself, or perhaps an attempt to make him more appealing to White audiences. Regardless, this is an important historical find and it should be treasured for the cinematic gem that it is.

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Maidens of the Medieval Seas

Two years ago the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration declared once and for all that mermaids – now known by the politically correct term of “aquatic humanoids” – do not exist. But, considering that tales of the luscious watery vixens have existed for eons, it’s not likely people will stop believing in them any time soon. Drunken sailors notwithstanding, these mythical figures have appeared in Paleolithic (Stone Age) cave drawings, dating some 30,000 years ago. They also show up in stories from the Orient where they were the wives of sea dragons; in Australian Aboriginal folklore where they were often called “yawkyawks”; and, of course, in Homer’s classic “The Odyssey.”

Mermaids took on a more evil persona in medieval Europe where – not surprisingly – the Roman Catholic Church viewed them as the diabolical spawn of Eve; proof, they declared from their ivory towers, that women were harbingers of doom. Drawings of the creatures during this period often show them with mirrors and combs; both signs of vanity and lust. But, there are plenty of them! It seems that, while mermaids were viewed with some level of disdain, they still fascinated scores of medieval artists.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

Depiction of Atargatis, chief goddess of Northern Syria, from the medieval text “Oedipus Aegyptiacus,” 1652.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

A stone replica of Atargatis who is considered the Syrian counterpart to the Greek Aphrodite.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Mermaid in the margins of “Calendarium, Decretals of Gregory IX,” a medieval text now housed in the British Museum.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Wood carving of a mermaid on a bench in the Church of St. Senara, in the village of Zennor, West Cornwall, England.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

Stone delineation of a mermaid in the Monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll, Spain, which was founded in A.D. 879.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

A mermaid on the roof of Exeter Cathedral in Exeter, England, c. 1400.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Cathédrale Sainte-Eulalie-et-Sainte-Julie d’Elne in Elne, France, which was consecrated in A.D. 1069.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

From the Church of Arles Saint Trophime in Arles, France, built between the 14th and 15th centuries A.D.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid spearing a man’s heart in “Book of the Holy Trinity,” 15th century Germany, München, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Cgm 598, fol. 2r.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Mermaid and dolphin in the “Roman Book of Hours,” late 15th century, made in either Venice or Padua, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 – 1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Pendant (enameled gold, pearls, diamonds and rubies) of a mermaid from Germany, c. 1580 –
1590, housed at the Museo degli argenti, Florence, Italy.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

Mermaids besiege a ship and its crew in another medieval text.

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