Saturday, February 28, 2009

Theatre and Early American Films Part 2: Comedy. (Visual Documents About Lost ways to Perform in Theatre)

Introduction *

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 what we considered extinct ways of acting. I was greatly surprised when I found in the Library of 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.

Comedy Films

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

Comedy acts in various forms--including monologists, two-person acts with a straight man/woman and a comic foil--and broad farcical sketches were dominant forms of variety stage entertainment. When these comic sketches were translated to silent film, however, the important element of dialogue was omitted. The examples found in this collection, therefore, largely feature non-verbal humor that could be easily understood in screen.

While these examples are certainly typical of vaudeville humor, there is unfortunately no way of knowing whether these particular skits were actually performed on the stage. It is possible that some skits were adapted for use in these motion pictures or that only the less verbal parts of the acts were used. These motion pictures did, however, use typical vaudeville sets, humor, and stereotypical characters from the vaudeville stage.

Some of the acts featured in this collection were based on characters from comic strips, including Alphonse and Gaston, the Happy Hooligan , and Foxy Grandpa. These characters were also used in stage shows. (...)"

Alphonse and Gaston, a comedy sketch filmed in 1903

* I repeat the same introduction I wrote for the first part of this series of entries on early American films.

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