Category Archives: Fantasy

Wizard of Oz (1910)

I chose Wizard of Oz for the specific purpose of comparing it to the much-beloved musical from 1939. Then, while watching the elder version, I realized I didn’t remember enough detail from the re-make to contribute any thoughtful or educated comparisons. I’d call my recollection of the Judy Garland classic a bit more iconic and nostalgic than ‘accurate’, so you’ll have to bear with me, since I don’t feel like renting and watching it just for the sake of comparison.

Up to this point, I haven’t paid much attention to the narrative content of early 20th-century films, and I think I’ve done so for a number of reasons. The most prominent and (perhaps) most conceited is the relative simplicity of these early films. It’s impossible to ‘de-contextualize’ yourself from the cultural viewing habits established from a lifelong diet of television and film. The ‘language’ (for lack of a better word) of cinema is taken for granted by modern eyes. While this is a shame in that we can never see a film as it was seen by the early 20th century viewer, it’s also a blessing in that a shared ‘language’ allows filmmakers and audiences alike to experiment with, manipulate, and subvert these assumptions to make ever better and more challenging cinema.

So, yes, this early version of Oz is simplistic by modern standards (and even those of the 1930s), but it also provides some insight into early cinematic viewership. As I mentioned in my post on the Teddy Bears, these early reels relied heavily upon known stories, either from shared folklore or popular culture. Oz is no exception, as it excises significant chunks of the story in favor of elaborate set pieces and whimsical ‘musical’ numbers (a strange designation for silent films, but remember that they were accompanied by live or recorded musicians at the theater). Those decisions play to the film’s strengths, as the setting and costuming are magnificent, even by today’s standards. The scene at the witch’s cottage involves no less than twenty actors dressed in an array of animal and monster costumes, all fighting amongst themselves, while the witch ascends toward the roof above. Likewise, the cyclone scene has a really excellent scrolling backdrop, which pops even in black-and-white. See below:

Wizard of Oz stillWizard of Oz still #2

Still, this and other scenes betray a kinship between cinema and theater that I rarely see discussed (though that’s probably due to my lack of research rather than a lack of relevant scholarship). The framing of each scene in Oz is clearly theatrical, as the actors play to a defined audience space, where an unmoving camera is substituted for actual people. It’s no surprise that Oz began its life as a stage musical and it’s clear that much of the film’s narrative is adapted from that source. Certainly, cinema hadn’t yet embraced its unique ability to convey narrative expression through montage and camera movement, but I believe part of that had to be a concession to an audience more familiar with theater than film.

So how, then, do we make a distinction between these two art forms? It’s a moot point now, but I’m sure the argument of film vs. theater was a little more difficult to manage a century ago. I’ll offer three of my own thoughts:

1. Economics. A stage musical the size and scale of Oz would be extravagant by any standard. Plus, you have the employment of actors, stage hands, producers, etc. for a stretch of weeks or months. Cinema may not defray the cost of sets and costuming, but it does capture a single performance that can easily be distributed, copied, and replayed. (Note: Digital reproduction magnifies this advantage by the order of millions. It’s never been easier to see a movie in so many places and formats.)

2. Flexibility. Set and costume changes takes time in a theatrical production. With cinema, these changes are instantaneous and interchangeable. Continuity is malleable in cinema.

3. Spatial relationships. In ‘traditional’ theater, the stage’s location stays constant. That means the audience’s proximity to the actors remains constant as well. Cinema introduces a new set of spatial relationships between actors and audience. This isn’t utilized effectively in Wizard of Oz, since we never get a proper close-up on the actors, but it’s at least hinted at when we’re shown the Wizard’s written proclamation. To share a similar written article in a play, an actor would need to read it (or project it somehow). Cinema allows us to ‘see with our own eyes.’ Or, more accurately, the camera’s eye.

I’m sure we’ll continue to see an even greater set of distinctions as we continue through the century.

Princess Nicotine (1909)

While we’re still in the realm of public domain, I’ll embed the film below:

(If you find youtube’s quality unbearable [I did], try the Internet Archive instead.)

I’m sure you’ll agree upon first viewing that the Library of Congress was correct to deem this film ‘significant’ and preserve it in the National Film Registry. As Wikipedia notes, there’s an impressive display of special effects, including the forced perspective technique achieved using a combination of trick mirrors and deep focus, as well as some stop-motion animation. Likewise, we see our first instance of tobacco product placement, as sponsored by Sweet Corporal (perhaps this was recognizable by its distinct packaging, as I don’t see any discernible product name).

Though these are important distinctions, they aren’t groundbreaking, even at this early date. We’ve already seen this level of animation in previous shorts, and Méliès had pretty much written the book on special effects with A Trip to the Moon in 1902. What’s more interesting in Princess Nicotine is its psychoanalytic subtext.

In the early 20th century, Freud’s pioneering work in the science of psychiatry was quickly gaining momentum. Much of the psychoanalytic vocabulary we take for granted today was beginning to capture the public consciousness (<– see?), especially in work concerning the interpretation of dreams, the unconscious, and sexuality. Since many of these ideas would really pick up steam with the Surrealist movement in art and literature during the 1920s, it’s reasonable to assume that their influence could filter into film as well.

In Princess Nicotine, we are led to believe that the bulk of the film takes place in a dream or a dream-like state. After the smoker nods off, the fairies appear, objects move on their own, and the scenery changes (although I’m not quite certain why this happens approximately halfway through the film, rather than directly after he falls asleep — perhaps to accommodate a change in special effects?).

As many of the film’s images were intended to be whimsical, I won’t attempt to unpack any significant meaning or symbolism from them, but I will say that there’s at least some psychosexual imagery at play. The most significant, I think, is the animation sequence, which shows the metamorphosis of the flower into a cigar. These are typical masculine/feminine symbols, made more apparent by the fairy’s concealment in the flower and the male protagonist’s identity as ‘the smoker.’ This theme of female entrapment or titillation (the bottle, the cigar box, the lifting of the skirt, the difference in scale) and male frustration (continually trying to unveil or transform the elusive feminine) finally comes to fruition in a fitting final scene: the smoker quells the flames with a spray of his seltzer bottle, which eventually bursts forth uncontrollably.

It’s the end of the dream; the nocturnal emission. Freud would approve.

The “Teddy” Bears (1907)

This bizarre silent reel, helmed by Edwin S. Porter (photographer of the technically impressive Great Train Robbery) and produced by the Edison Mfg. Co., was a contemporary re-imagining of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Though only thirteen minutes in length, Porter manages to pack in a fairy tale narrative, an oddball political satire, and even an impressive bit of stop-animation. The bulk of the reel is a straight-forward re-telling of the Goldilocks tale, interrupted by a short animated section with acrobatic, Exorcist-esque teddy bears, and finishing up with a Teddy Roosevelt-impersonating hunter ‘saving’ the day by massacring Ma and Pa Bear. Fortunately, the cub is spared, alluding to Teddy Roosevelt’s real-life compassion toward a bear cub that led to the ‘teddy’ bear craze of the early 1900s.

The reel is obviously crude, with its few highlights including nice costuming and set pieces, the painstaking animation process (apparently shot frame by frame during a grueling week-long filming session), and a set of exterior shots in the snow. The real point of interest, I think, is the compelling amalgam of genres and narratives at play within such a short film. Such bold dismissal of coherence rarely exists today, nor did it exist much further into the subsequent decades, as films became longer and more complex. Part of this is due to technological limitations; the short reel format didn’t have a lot of room for storytelling, and therefore relied heavily upon an audience’s understanding of the narrative. Thus, we have the odd mixture of fairy tale, marketing, and politics.

This is also important to keep in mind when we consider the emergence of film as its own unique art form. As with any new media, there are initial struggles to be taken seriously as ‘art’ and also to distinguish itself with unique contributions independent of other media. We see similar experiences throughout the 20th century: photography’s effort to find a footing within the art world, then eventually supplanting painting in the realist genre, instigating painting’s move toward abstraction; the gradual acceptance of Internet art into the museum system; and even the current debates questioning whether video games can be art (Ebert says no, in case you haven’t heard).

Each genre reaches a certain critical tipping point or threshold, often represented by a landmark media event (e.g. Birth of a Nation, Citizen Kane, etc.). In 1907, film hadn’t quite reached that point. However, many critical indices were falling into place, and some of the most important of these were the ability for mainstream capitalism, politics, and popular culture to appropriate the new art form for its own uses. All are present in The ‘Teddy’ Bears: Teddy bears were a popular fad and a clever marketing device (no surprise, coming from Edison’s studio) and New York department stores featured the reel after its initial theatrical run. And, though its satirical potency is difficult to gauge now, we do have some form of commentary on President Roosevelt as well. This, and other shorts like it, showed that the emerging media of film was available for use as advertising, popular culture, and propoganda, and therefore taken seriously by an increasingly mainstream audience. These are all important milestones in the transition from novelty to art.