Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Theatre and Early American Films Part 4: Acrobatics. (Visual Documents about Lost Ways to Perform in Theatre)


As I talked 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.

Acrobatic Films

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

Physical culture

Physical culture acts include acrobatic performances, contortionists, boxing, strongmen, iron jaw acts, and other exhibitions requiring physical prowess or dexterity. Several of the acrobatic acts featured here probably would have been the opening or closing acts of vaudeville bills. They were known as "dumb" acts, because they contained no dialogue and were, therefore, deemed appropriate for the opening and closing of shows when people would be noisily milling in and out of the theater.

Some of the acts in the motion pictures selected are advertised by the film production companies as being vaudeville or circus performers, implying that they were indeed professional performers who appeared on the variety stage. These include the "Japanese Acrobats," the Three Buffons in the comedic "Three Acrobats ," Neidert of "Bicycle Trick Riding, no. 2 ," and Hadji Cheriff from the Midway Plaisance at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition (" Arabian Gun Twirler").

Other film selections feature acts that were described in advertisements or short articles in The New York Clipper. These include the "Gordon Sisters" with their "bag punching and scientific act;" Treloar, a Harvard graduate and ex-varsity oarsman who later won a prize for being the most perfectly developed man in the world; and Latina, who strongman Eugene Sandow describes as a type of "the perfect woman." Sandow, billed as "The Most Powerful Man on Earth," was an immensely popular attraction on the variety stage and is shown in these selections flexing his muscles and doing a back-flip.

The later Spanuth films feature performers of even greater skill. For example, the " Kawana Trio" perform difficult acrobatic stunts with their feet, and " Three Jumping Tommies" execute a series of impressive acrobatic stunts on the floor."

Bicycle trick riding. A film by Thomas A. Edison. 1899.

Arabian gun twirler. A film by Thomas A. Edison. 1899

Japanese Acrobats. Film by Edison. 1904.

Three acrobats. A Film by Edison. 1899.

Trapeze disrobing Act. Film by Edison. 1901.

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

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