Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Theatre and Early American Films Part 1: Vaudeville, Melodrama, and Tragedy. (Visual Documents About Lost ways to Perform in Theatre)


As I said in my post "Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse, Audiovisual Documents on the Net and An Extinct Way of Playing", early silent films are real documents about that we considered extinct ways of acting. I was greatly surprised when I found in the Library of US Congress site a big collection of early American films, most of them simple transposition of short stage performances or dramatic excerpts: comedy, acrobatics, dance, "melodramas", and even some kind of tragedies.

The difference with other early cinema shorts filmed by Edison or Meliès (documentary images or camera tricks, even stories made especially for cinema) was that these I am showing here were chosen because were interesting "stage performances" for the eye, workable and practical for the new only visual Media, Cinematography, but also because were common and successful theatre performances at the time; some of them based in plays but staged on cinema set and, of course avoiding text or voice (some of the comedy sketch possibly), but the change was in place but not in style. The American Mutoscope & Biograph Company changed its simple style of doing things when DW Griffith entered to direct the company and when Edison's company joined (buying a big part of Mutoscope) to make a big Cinema Enterprise.

So, we have here some real documents about physical movement and performances on theatre from the end of 19th century and beginning of 20th. These are not playing by the best of the time nor even the stars but for common actors and performers.

We can quietly and calmly watch positions, chains of actions, gestures, even tempo and rhythms utilized on American stage more than one century ago. Once more, and that has been my own objective publishing, we can se"e this film-documents as one different point of reference for a new appreciation to what we have called "good playing" and "bad playing" during the "dictatorship of Realism" in the 20th century.

Drama Films

This is what The Library of Congress site says about its drama films collection:

"Dramatic excerpts, dramatic sketches, and tableaus

Short dramatic sketches or scenes from long dramatic pieces were often performed as vaudeville "turns," or acts. The examples in this category, "Duel Scene, By Right of Sword' ," "A Ballroom Tragedy," and "The Society Raffles ," are typical of the fare seen on the stage during this period. The latter two were obviously chosen because of the strong visual qualities of their stories. "Fights of Nations" is a patriotic piece that features a series of vignettes leading to a grand finale that conveys the philosophy of the United States as a melting pot. (Several nations are depicted through stereotypes in a series of altercations that culminate in the peaceful representation of a United States with Uncle Sam presiding over all. Notably absent from this final peaceful picture are African-Americans; a Native American woman is shown kneeling in a subjugated position.)

Tableaus, or living pictures, were also popular on the vaudeville stage. While "Spirit of '76" is not technically considered a tableau because it incorporates movement, it still serves as a representative sample of famous scenes being brought to life on stage--in this case, the well-known painting by Archibald M. Willard."

The Society Raffles, a vaudeville filmed in 1905

The next film shows an interesting moment, after the jealous lady have killed her adversary, stopped moving and keept a posture showing the knife, then run away from the scene. A simple but effective technique, unique in this kind of scenes. Today this image would be ridiculed by everyone; we just have to remember that most of oriental theatres, Kabuki and Chinese Opera make use of this "stop motion postures".

Ballroom Tragedy, a performance filmed in 1905

A Duel, an American vaudeville filmed in 1904

Fights of nations (Part 1) an American drama filmed in 1907

Fights of nations (Part 2) an American drama filmed in 1908

Fights of nations (Part 3) an American drama filmed in 1909

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