A Century Ago: Films of 1912 — Part One

ONE

In mid-December, as film critics and studios were beginning to tout their “Best Of  2012” lists, Randy Haberkamp, managing director of programming at AMPAS, hosted an evening of extreme “counter programming” at the Academy’s Vine Street Dunn Theater: The Films of 1912: A Century Ago. It was the tenth year of this series —and it was sold out.

1_films of 1912

An added fillip, if one were needed for the eclectic mix of silent film buffs, students, and preservationist/archivists in attendance, was the piano accompaniment of Michael Mortilla. But the real headliner that evening was Joe Rinaudo. Dressed in full period costume and standing at the back of the theater, Rinaudo was hand-cranking his restored “1909 Power’s Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine” as the projector’s reflected light bathed him in a soft nimbus. For those sitting nearby, the rhythm of the film threading through the gate with its intermittent clickety clack, was easily audible above the piano, the scene being an evocation of the earliest days of movie exhibition when projector and projectionist stood center aisle in the theater. Rinaudo’s presence on the floor created an immediacy that seemed to make a century of film history evaporate. Afterwards, he was swamped by young and curious film buffs intent on discussing the films and the steampunk stylings of his restored, chromed projection device.

The Power Model 6 projector: note the two blade shutter in front of the lens.
The Power Model 6 projector: note the two blade shutter in front of the lens.

Before the films unreeled, Haberkamp, in his introductory remarks, contextualized key historic events of 1912, including the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic. Significantly, he pointed out that the year saw the beginning of a new era in American film: longer, near feature length, movies began to appear alongside the staple one-reelers. The program, however, consisted entirely of ten to fifteen minute one-reelers. Haberkamp introduced each film, giving Rinaudo and his associate Gary Gibson a break to change reels and to shake out their whirling right arms. Here is the evening’s program with the production studio and release date:

Films of 1912: the program.
Films of 1912: the program.

A friend of Rinaudo’s posted this brief, shaky video of the projectionist in action. I believe the film is "Two Tars" with Laurel and Hardy.

The key film of the December 13 event was An Unseen Enemy, a 16-minute “crime thriller” directed by D.W. Griffith and photographed by Billy Bitzer. It was the first movie starring the Gish sisters, and one of twelve that the elder Lillian, then aged 19, made with Griffith that year. Though a YouTube embed of this movie can’t replicate the experience of the actual screening at the Dunn, especially with the poor frame stability and uneven contrast in this video—it is worth viewing. Especially beautiful is a brief scene at five minutes, with the two girls in a windy, backlit cornfield with Dorothy’s beau, Robert Harron; there is also a startling ECU of a pistol at about nine minutes, followed by dramatic shots of the sisters cowering in the corner of a room as the gun is fired through a hole in the wall:

TWO

Joseph Rinaudo may be known by his fans for his multi-faceted commitment to silent era cinema (especially YouTube viewers for his vibrant performances at the keyboard of the American Photoplayer); but to the larger film community he is known via his email moniker: “lamp guy.” His company, Rinaudo’s Reproductions, supplies vintage and reproductions of Victorian and Edwardian era light fixtures. One of his favorite long time customers was the late production designer Henry Bumstead.

I contacted Joe and asked if I could come by for a chat. When I walked into his shop on a narrow street in Montrose just off the Glendale Freeway, this is what I saw.

Joe Raimudo's lamp room.
Joe Rinaudo's lamp room.

Rinaudo also has a small machine shop for maintaining and restoring hundreds of lamp fixtures; it reminded me of my dad’s own place where I worked summer vacations earning money for my college tuition.

Joe in his shop with a trio of drill presses.
Joe in his shop with a trio of drill presses.

The real pride of place here is a back room where an immense draped object is stored. Rinaudo cast back the cover to reveal a 17-foot long behemoth called the American Photoplayer. It’s a player piano on steroids—with an added pipe organ and dozens of pedals and pulls that activate a litany of sound effects operated by the player improvising in sync to the screen action. About ten thousand of these beasts were installed in theaters in the decade between 1915 and 1925. Today, only a handful survives. One is in Joe’s home theater where he gives occasional performances. As for the draped player in his shop—he is restoring it for AMPAS. Rinaudo has uploaded many YouTube videos seated at the American Photoplayer keyboard. Here he is with Ghost Parade by John Scott:

Okay. How cool was that?

THREE

Before the program at the Dunn began, I came by to watch Joe set up and oil the Power’s projector. The available light was not very good but I did manage a few pictures of the mechanism with my iPhone.

Overhead view of the projector: film at top center.
Overhead view of the projector: film strip at right center.
Steampunk gears of Power's projector.
Steampunk gears of the Power's projector.

Shortly before the theater doors opened, Haberkamp told me that a relative of silent film star Francis X. Bushman was sitting in the theater. Joe was going to show him the short film The Cat’s Paw starring the great silent era star. Several minutes into the reel, Joe turned to me and asked, “John, you want to try it?” I avidly grabbed the crank from him mid-swing and unspooled the rest of the film—but only by switching arms several times.

When I was a film student at USC in the mid-60s, Paul Rayton and I shared most of the projection duties for Cinema Department classes in the main theater, Room 108. It was a ramshackle space, long and narrow, wedged at the north end of the quadrangle adjacent to the sound department. Two decrepit 35 mm. Simplex projectors were installed in a fetid booth along with a more streamlined 16mm Eastman Kodak Model 25. The Simplex machines had interlocked motors to run “unmarried” sound and picture on the two separate machines; the motors had to be synced and locked even for single machine projection of composite prints—often the interlock failed with the machines running away at something like 60 fps. Few release prints survived the trauma.

The most anticipated weekly screening was critic Arthur Knight’s class for non-majors—a kind of “basket weaving” course held in high disdain by cinema students. We dubbed it “Thursday Night at the Movies.” But for me it was an opportunity to see a new film each week with a featured producer or director. Otherwise, there were few opportunities for us to engage Hollywood mainstream filmmakers in an era before today’s cozy film school/studio pipeline.

The projection booth of a traditional movie house has always seemed to me both a refuge and a trap; there is a kind of solace in being so close to the physical artifact of the movie—2000 ft. rolls of perforated plastic, storing tens of thousands of photographic images. You can hand spool the reels on a rewind bench and actually study the cut points. But the booth was also a hot, oily, smelly, claustrophobic cauldron—all of which is non-applicable to today’s multi-plex projection booths, where servers quietly run DCPs with little human interface.

The night of the Films of 1912, while standing at the Power’s projector, hand-cranking a century old machine, focusing (as Joe had suggested) on a single onscreen figure as a motion referent, I felt suddenly inside a time warp. In the earliest days of film exhibition, the projectionist, like the pianist playing near the screen, was part of the audience, on the floor--- as a performer. It was a sensation I never felt from inside an elevated booth looking down at the audience through the glass projection ports. But here I was subtly adjusting my cranking frame rate to interpret action—much as the cameramen of the time had done. (Joe explained that the nominal frame rate, 16fps, was subject to individual interpretation.)

A few hours later, back at home, I reflected on that brief silent era of less than three decades, which was followed by the transition to sound, to color and 3-D, and to the 50s period of multiple widescreen and anamorphic formats. Change and evolution have always been norms in the movies. But my encounter with cinema's ground zero origins that evening at the Dunn, hand cranking a one hundred year old movie, spurred me to reflect on the broader theme of a century’s filmmaking, and of my own small part in that pageantry—that despite all this technological evolution, in many fundamental ways movies had remained essentially the same.

We are at a period now which many pundits and critics insist is fading out: one in which a determinedly visual medium of real photographs embedded on an emulsified plastic strip is being supplanted by a mathematical, abstract one that consists of millions of encoded zeroes and ones stored in sealed containers small enough to stick in your coat pocket.

I am straddling a real divide as I continue to work as a cinematographer—one foot rooted on familiar terrain, even as the other seeks ground on still shifting new soil. My ruminations on this subject, as I have lived it this past year, will be the second part of this essay.

John, a leftie, hand cranking the projector with his right arm.
John, a leftie, hand cranking the projector with his right arm.

Next: Part Two: A Century Ago: 100 years, from the hand-crank to the Alexa

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