Using either two short films from film’s silent period (pre 1929), or one short film and an extract from a longer film (both of which should also be pre 1929) discuss what they can tell us about the early developments of narrative cinema.
Early development of narrative cinema pre 1929 (silent films)
Films have changed a great deal since the earliest productions in the silent era of around 1898 to around 1929, when the development of sound was conceived. Many advances in film have enhanced the viewing pleasure, from the almost alien productions created nearly a hundred years ago, for example Georges Melie’s ‘Voyage to the Moon’ (1902), to the familiar films of our generation, such as James Cameron’s ‘Avatar’. This essay will discuss the changes made from a visual and aesthetic cinema to a structured narrative cinema. Also how films may have evolved in both plot and story, and also how the development of the narrative form changed, in some respects, films viewing purpose and audiences expectations. Analyzing why films which contain narratives and the ability to derive tension from their audience overtook the medium most popular at the time, the cinema of attractions, will help us to understand how films viewing changed.
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By comparing two very different silent films, Rescued by Rover (directed by Lewin Fitzhamon 1905) and Broken Blossoms (directed by D .W. Griffith 1919) one would expect to see a great many differences, not only technological (such as the length of the films, and editing advancements) but also such things as character development, and character’s emotional drives along with the variety of devices which drive the narrative forward. Comparing the entirety of Rescued by Rover with just a short scene from Broken Blossoms will enable us to select the clear advances in narrative structure and understand their development from the simple action and consequence format to the in-depth emotional build up created by films made later during the silent film era.
The early 1900’s saw change and growth, in both the production of short films and the demand. Thomas Elsaesser discusses this notion in his book ‘Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative’ suggesting that 1905 saw the production of many stable ‘permanent theaters’ being set up as well as the film industry trying to knit developments together, such as the first full film reel and a number of film theaters allowing the exchange of films as a means of distribution. These and other developments, took place in order to try and produce a stable industry.
The introduction of films containing narratives has played a significant role in the popularity and production of films. Short silent films shown just before and during the very early 1900’s did not focus on the need to tell a story as much, maybe because the development of film only really began a decade before. However, on March 22, 1895, in Paris, France, the Société d’Encouragement à l’Industrie Nationale (National Society for the Promotion of Industry) gathered to watch a film depicting factory workers leaving for their dinner hour, which although may seem primitive to an audience of today, must have been an impressive show and indeed an exciting step forward from the kinetoscope. The film, screened and viewed in front of an audience, was an innovation created by brothers Louis Lumière (1864-1948) and Auguste Lumière (1862-1954). Loius Lumiere made many short films which included, L’Arroseur arrose’, known in English as ‘The Gardener and the Bad Boy,’ which unlike the previous films contained a comic narrative structure. Joel. W. Finler in his book ‘Silent Cinema: before the coming of sound’, states that “although shot from a fixed camera position, the picture demonstrates a sophisticated use of the film frame, suggesting that the film had previous planning and each frame had been structured for both characters so that they would fit nicely, showing early attempts to add to the film aesthetically.”
Rescued by Rover was made in 1905. It was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Lewin Fizhamon and the Hepworth manufacturing company was the production company. The short film is about a baby who is kidnapped by an old woman, but luckily the family collie rescues the baby. The film is very easy to follow, containing a variety of simple shots all helping the viewer to follow the narrative. The first shot is of the baby and the dog sitting quietly together, then the mother is seen wheeling the baby up a path in her pram, a nasty old woman approaches the mother begging, but the mother walks on, ignoring the old woman. In the next shot the mother is distracted by another man talking to her. They both chat while sneakily the old woman steals her precious baby. This is a simple example of film’s early jump to the narrative structure.
In narrative it is all the events, both explicitly presented and inferred that make the story, an example of this is provided in ‘Rescued by Rover’. Three shots are used to set up the plot,( the baby and dog together, the mother pushing the baby the baby is taken.) followed by another sixteen shots showing Rover tracking down the child, these sixteen shots are repeated twice more to show, (in reverse) the dog returning home and then again when rover takes the father with him, however a forth repeat of the sequence is not shown (the dog, the father and the baby returning home together) and instead a shot of the kidnapper returning to her room, followed by a shot of the reunited family is provided. The film assumes that the audience does not need to see the Father, baby and dog returning home, but that the audience is able to identify that this was happening while the shot of the beggar woman returning to her house was shown.
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The film’s ability to involve itself with the audience and coherently ‘lay’ each relevant character’s plight, initiates an emotional response, such as sympathy for the baby and sorrow for the mother when she loses her baby. Films like ‘The Gardener and the Bad Boy’ and ‘Rescued by Rover’ are clear examples of why the demand for narrative films grew. Bernard F Dick discusses narrative films advance in his book ‘Anatomy of Film’, Fifth edition, saying “the narrative film came about when film makers discovered the medium could do more than just record whatever was in front of the camera. The next step was not only to capture it but to re-create it; to show what could or might be; in other words to tell a story”. This suggests that films such as ‘Rescued by Rover’ and ‘The Gardener and the Bad Boy’ where successful experiments in the field of narrative cinema and led to much more in-depth narrative films.
‘Broken Blossoms’, the film directed by D W Griffith, stands proudly among the greats of the ‘silent film era’, and unlike ‘Rescued by Rover,’ uses intertitles. Bernard. F.Dick, in ‘Anatomy of Film’, discusses this notion when commenting, “Printed material that appeared on the screen periodically during the course of the movie, the intertitle was one of the ways in which the silent filmmaker supplemented the narrative or clarified the action; it is also a reminder of film’s early dependence on printed word. D.W.Griffith used intertitles for a variety of purposes, not just to reproduce dialogue and identify characters”.
One clear difference in the two films, ‘Rescued by Rover’ and Broken Blossoms, is the ability to develop a much more in-depth relationship between the character and the viewer. ‘Broken Blossoms, contains both a larger plot and story opening up to a wider range of audiences, because of its variety in characters (the poor lost girl with what seems like no hope, and the wandering Chinese man whose fame and respect are as nothing in a cruel foreign world.) ‘Broken Blossoms’ also uses different advances in camera work: to better tell a story, such as the scene in which the poor girl’s ghastly father finds her sleeping in the Chinese mans bed, the scene cuts backwards and forwards from shots of the fathers face getting more and more angry, to the girl becoming more and more scared shot and the scene is edited correctly for convincing continuity, and the correct level of tension has been created. However D.W.Griffith has allowed for emotion to be displayed though character’s actions as well, instead of only using Intertitle’s in the scene where the father discovers Lucy in the Chinese man’s room, such as “You! with a dirty chink!” and “Tain’t nothin’ wrong! Tain’t nothin’ wrong! I fell down in the doorway and – it wasn’t nothin’ wrong! Different shots are given to display the emotions of the father and Lucy, several close up shots of both Lucy and the father are provided. The tension is built up by the shots of their faces getting closer and closer until the audience is shown an extreme close up of their eyes, this serves to drive the plot and create emotional response from the viewers.
From viewing early silent films and analyzing both ‘Rescued by Rover’ and ‘Broken Blossom’s’, one conclusion dominates above others: the progression narrative film has taken in film makers’ ability to tell a story, from a simple plot such as a dog saving a baby, to the elaborate plot of ‘Broken Blossoms’ and its ‘Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet-esc plot, filled with emotionally provoking moments. The development of a simple narrative working within a film has enabled us to make, and watch films with far more complex narratives. The simple narrative films of the past have paved the way for the future and the coming of sound and colour, bringing films to life with a vivid and beautifully developed mode of story telling.
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