Disappearing tricks

Published this month by the University of Illinois Press is Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, by Matthew Solomon. It revisits the golden age of both theatrical magic and silent film to reveal how professional magicians shaped the early history of cinema. This is a subject which is often referred to but seldom give book-length treatment. The classic study for years now has been Erik Barnouw’s The Magician and the Cinema, while Dan North’s Performing Illusions ties together the illusions of the pre-cinema and early cinema worlds to the CGI and SFX of today. Matthew Solomon focuses on the work of those professional illusionists who transferred from stage to screen between 1895 and 1929, looking in particular at the work of Georges Méliès and Harry Houdini. The book also investigates “anti-spiritualism and presentational performance in silent film … highlighting early cinema’s relationship to the performing body, visual deception, storytelling, and the occult”.

So, who were those illusionists? The Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site has biographies of the leading figures from the 1890s, which was the main period in which magicians made their mark on the new medium:

  • ‘Professor’ Phillip Anderson – magician who toured India and South Asia, ading films to his act in 1898
  • Billy Bitzer – D.W. Griffith’s cinematographer started out pursuing his interest in magic and developing novelty toys before branching out into film
  • J. Stuart Blackton – the co-founder of Vitagraph had a cartooning and conjuring act with Albert Smith before they established one of the leading early American film companies
  • Walter Booth – British conjurer who turned trick filmmaker for Robert Paul and Charles Urban
  • David Devant – famous British magician who made film a part of his act in 1896
  • John C. Green (‘Belsaz’) – magician who tourned Canada and the USA, adding film to his act in 1896
  • Carl Hertz – American magician who introduced films to South Africa
  • Emile and Vincent Isola – Franch magicians who added film to their Paris act at the Théatre Isola and were rivals to Georges Méliès
  • John Maskelyne – famous British magaixian who re-invented the art as theatrical performance and who became interested in film as exhibition and on the invention side
  • George Méliès – French magician turned cinema illusionist of the highest order
  • John Schuberg (‘Johnny Nash’) – Swedish magician and film showman who operated in Canada
  • William Selig – American magician and minstrel show operator turned film producer
  • Albert Smith – British conjuror whose double act with J. Stuart Blackton led to their forming the Vitagraph Company of America
  • G.A. Smith – Started out with a ‘second sight’ act which led to his being used as a subject by the Society for Psychical Research, before he became innovative filmmaker and inventor
  • Félicien Trewey – French shadowgrapher (hand shadows), entertainer and friend of the Lumières, he introduced their films to Britain
  • Alexander Victor – Swedish magician who exhibited films in the USA from 1897, founded the Victor Animatograph Co. and invented successful devices for amateur film production

Just outside the Victorian period was Gaston Velle, magician and the son of a magician who directed fantasy films for Pathé in the early 1900s.

Harry Houdini was unusual in being a magician/illusionist from a later era who made a strong impact upon cinema (or else it made a strong impact upon him). He was a one-man thesis on the boundaries between illusion and reality, being magician, escapologist, actor, film producer and someone dedicated to exposing frauds such as spiritualism. He included films as part of his vaudeville act from the mid 1900s, then starred in a serial which showed off his skills in escaping from impossible perils: The Master Mystery (1919, in 15 parts), followed by two feature films for Paramount, The Grim Game (1919) and Terror Island (1920). He formed the Houdini Picture Corporation to make The Man From Beyond (1921) and Haldane of the Secret Service (1923), but cheap production and a lack of real film presence in Houdini himself meant that his film career petered out. His stunts also featured in newsreels of the period. Kino Video has a 3-DVD set Houdini: The Movie Star, which includes The Master Mystery, Terror Island, The Man From Beyond, Haldane of the Secret Service, a five minute section from The Grim Game, and assorted archival films of Houdini in action.

In 2006 Matthew Solomon curated a section of the Pordenone silent film festival programme on magic and film. You can find the list of films and his notes on the festival catalogue, here.

Alice – random but cool

Alice in Wonderland (1903) from http://www.youtube.com/user/bfifilms

It has been fascinating to watch what has been happening to the BFI’s latest online video release of Alice in Wonderland (1903). Restored and issued a few days ago to coincide with the release in the UK of Tim Burton’s new Alice in Wonderland feature film, made for Disney, the film has enjoyed a remarkable reception. Since 25 February it has attracted 123,564 hits on YouTube and has been embedded on numerous other websites (now including this one). Blogs have commented on it, websites have reviewed it. The link has been passed on goodness knows how many time via Twitter, and again and again the reaction from all kinds of people has been positive about the film. The line that keeps on being repeated is that the film is superior to Burton’s bloated effort, but there is more enough evidence of genuine appreciation for what could be achieved in 1903. Here are some sample tweets:

jolie_jolie In anticipation for the Alice in Wonderland movie, here’s the very first film, from 1903 – over 100 years ago! http://tinyurl.com/ydc4kp2

sillyjilly81024 RT @ohnotheydidnt Random but cool: silent Alice in Wonderland from 1903: Just in time for Tim Burton’s new, some… http://bit.ly/bUOhYZ

alisongang RT @neatorama Alice in Wonderland – 1903 version – Neatorama http://bit.ly/aJQe0x

RadioNikki The VERY FIRST Alice in Wonderland film from 1903 !! http://wmee.com/AirStaff/NicholeRoberts.aspx

katejcrowley The first Alice in Wonderland movie ever made. We’ve come a long way! Pretty cool though. From 1903: http://bit.ly/bvhaJL via @addthis

I read this as meaning that the general audience of 2010 is more than capable of appreciating the creative strengths of early cinema. There is delight at its invention alongside amusement at its quaintness. There is genuine appreciation of its proto-special effects with an understanding of how they fit into an ongoing history of film fantasy.

How different from the ways such films were disseminated and received only a few years ago. Alice in Wonderland has been in the BFI National Archive for years, and the common ways in which we were able to present such films to an audience were at very occasional screenings at the National Film Theatre as part of early cinema programmes (attended by a couple of dozen people if you were lucky) or at festivals and exchange screenings with other film archives and institutes. Sometimes we just viewed the films by ourselves and bemoaned the fact that so few people could see them, or might ever want to see them. Only we understood their true value – or so we believed. VHS and DVD came along to help spread the message, but it was always a tough proposition to sell a compilation of early films. What one seldom had the opportunity to do was to show such films individually.

Now look where we are. Alice may well have garned more views in the first week than it received on its original release in 1903 (does anyone know how many people got see an individual film in 1903? I’ve no idea). Moreover it is being seen by such a wide range of people. It has been taken out of its specialist field into general appreciation. This is what YouTube does, and what other film archives need to take note of. It establishes a common platform that is so much better for these films than the specialist ones that we have created for them in retrospectives, festivals and niche DVD releases. When these films are shown to the afficionados or those deemed to know best how to appreciate them, we learn little about them that is new. They are constrained by their select surroundings. Make them available among the skateboarding cats, comic skits, rants and ravings, music videos and TV clips that make up YouTube’s mad mix (all of them short films, just like early cinema) and they are given new life through new audiences. The reactions will be wild at times, there will be plenty of misinterpretation or ignorance of ‘proper’ film history, but the positives far outweigh the petty negatives. The positives are that the film is available to all, that it will be placed in contexts that we as curators or custodians might never think of, that it is exchangeable and shareable as information, that it belongs to today as much as yesterday. And since I started writng this post two hours ago, the number of views has risen by nearly 5,000 to 128,285. While I’ve been rambling, others have been watching, and sharing.

For the record, Alice in Wonderland was produced in Britain by Cecil Hepworth (left), whose studies were in Walton-on-Thames outside London. Denis Gifford, in his British Film Catalogue, credits the direction to Hepworth and his regular director at this period, Percy Stow. Mabel (May) Clark, who had joined Hepworth as a film cutter, plays Alice; Hepworth himself plays a frog, his wife Margaret plays the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts, while future director of Irish films Norman Whitten plays the Mad Hatter and a fish, while cinematographer Geoffrey Faithfull and his brother Stanley are two of the playing cards. The film was originally 800 feet or twelve minutes in length (though it was divided up into sixteen scenes which could be bought separately). Eight minutes survive today, in a somewhat ragged state. It was the longest British film yet made.

Alice was made with close attention to Tenniel’s original drawings, though it was bold enough to include its own additions to the narrative, giving Alice a magic fan (Tim Burton adds the Jabberwock to his version of the tale, which seems a somewhat greater liberty to take). Its special effects, achieved using optical printing and some ingenious use of scenery, allow us to see Alice grow large and small with impressive effectiveness. But perhaps the most delightful element is the procession of playing cards (filmed at the Mount Felix estate at Walton), which seems to have involved the participation of a local school. The narrative makes no sense when viewed with cold logic, but then neither does Lewis Carroll’s original. In short it is random – but cool. Now go tell someone about it.