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Biograph and Its New Fourteenth Street Studio

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Biograph was in the forefront of this revival. Production had slowed to a virtual standstill during late 1902 and early 1903 while personnel devoted much of their energies to building a new indoor studio at 11 East Fourteenth Street. This ambitious and expensive undertaking was the first motion-picture studio in the world to rely exclusively on artificial light, depending on banks of long, tubular lights, supplied by Cooper-Hewitt, to illuminate the stage. 1 These powerful lights had a greenish cast that made them highly desirable for photography and cinematography since film emulsion was orthochromatic and insensitive to the red end of the light spectrum. As one trade journal subsequently described this new technology:

The very quality of eliminating the red rays is what makes the Cooper-Hewitt lights so valuable in photography. Pictures made … [with them]

stand out as clear and sharp as any daylight pictures ever made ( Film Index, 15 December 1906, p. 4).

The lighting, however, tended to be flatter and more diffuse than sunlight.

The first tests were made in late March with FOR THE UPPER CRUST (No. 2342) and SPILT MILK (No. 2343), but it was not until May that the studio went into full operation, perhaps with A SHOCKING INCIDENT (No. 2355), a one-shot, 85-foot film in the bad-boy genre. According to the Biograph Bulletin, “Willie attaches the wires of an electric battery to the legs of a turkey which Bridget is preparing for dinner. Bridget takes hold of the legs with disastrous results.” Many ensuing comedies dealt with risqué subjects; THE PAJAMA GIRL (No. 2366), for example, presented “a young and shapely girl in pajamas taking her morning bath.” But at the other end of the spectrum, “I WANT MY DINNER” (No. 2362) showed Wallace McCutcheon’s two-year-old son Ross “first crying for his dinner and then devouring a big bowl of bread and milk with the utmost satisfaction.” The film was a hit. According to one manager, it was “scoring as much laughter and receiving as much applause, proportionately, as any act on the bill.” 2

Once Biograph had its new studio in working order, its production output easily exceeded that of the Edison Company. Between 1 May 1903, and 1 May 1904, Biograph listed 653 new subjects in its production records (Nos. 2351–2904). These were not only more numerous than at the turn of the century but in many cases much longer and more ambitious: during the same period, Edison copyrighted only 129 films. 3 Although Robert K. Bonine left the Biograph Company when the new studio was being put in working order, Biograph retained a large staff of photographers. Its two principal cameramen, G. W. Bitzer and A. E. Weed, not only worked extensively in the studio but also took actualities and other films on location. At times Wallace McCutcheon assumed control of the camera, perhaps when these two were otherwise occupied. In addition, Fred Armitage and Arthur Marvin were sent afield for special projects, and Herbert J. Miles continued to provide Biograph with a few films taken on the West Coast.

A remarkable burst of creativity came out of the Biograph studio in the year and a half following its opening. This flowering was the responsibility of a collaborative team, with Wallace McCutcheon and Frank Marion, his friend and one-time housemate, playing crucial roles in the production process. 4 McCutcheon sometimes wrote (with or without Marion), usually directed the actors, and occasionally even did the camera work. Marion wrote and frequently produced. Bitzer, now an experienced electrician, and Weed undoubtedly contributed as well. Freed from the restrictions of a large-format film and the conception of cinema as a visual newspaper, Biograph quickly regained its reputation for quality productions.

While the first films made under electric light were primarily short comedies, Biograph was eager to sell more ambitious “headliners,” which an exhibitor could use to promote his show. This was evident in the release of RIP VAN WINKLE in mid May. This 200-foot, eight-shot subject featuring Joseph Jefferson was a collection of scenes taken in 1896. When first made, they were shown separately on vaudeville bills, but now Biograph released them as a single package. The first fiction headliner to be made in the new studio was THE HAYMARKET (No. 2400), shot on 20 June. According to the Biograph Bulletin, “It depicts in six scenes, six lively hours at New York City’s famous Tenderloin dance hall.” The spatial and temporal relations between the shots remain imprecise; even though they clearly exist as action moves from one location to another, these relationships lack the kind of obvious continuities that Porter and Méliès had laid out. Beginning with the opening of the dance hall and ending with a police raid, THE HAYMARKET emphasizes daily life and the re-creation of a real world rather than melodramatic narrative. 5

Other multi-shot dramatic films quickly followed, though the company did not always assume control over the editorial process. THE DIVORCE , shot 2 July 1903, was a three-part narrative in which each scene was listed and sold individually. In the opening "D ETECTED " (No. 2410), the husband bids his wife and child good-bye but drops a compromising letter that she reads. In "ON THE TRAIL " (No. 2411), the wife visits a detective agency and makes the necessary arrangements. In "EVIDENCE SECURED " (No. 2412), the detective is in a hotel corridor and peeks through a keyhole. Calling the wife to the scene, the sleuth bursts into a bedroom, exposing the husband and his lover. These scenes were sold separately, in part, so that the exhibitor could introduce each one with a lantern-slide title, as Biograph had been doing since its inception. These title slides, which could be made up inexpensively by the exhibitor, were used like intertitles in later silent films. THE UNFAITHFUL WIFE (Nos. 2427–2429) was a similar three-part subject that focused on a wayward woman. Both films conveyed a strong moral message.

THE AMERICAN SOLDIER IN LOVE AND WAR (Nos. 2418, 1575, 516, 2419, 2420) consisted of three newly filmed studio scenes that were “used in connection with two war views to make a complete story in one film for projection.” 6 During the United States’ war in the Philippines, a soldier bids farewell to his sweetheart as he goes off to fight. The recycled second scene (FIFTEENTH INFANTRY , USA, No. 1575) shows troops at Governor’s Island as they march off to war, while the third (PRACTICE WARFARE , No. 516) is realistically staged battle footage. These segments provided a credible milieu for the story, especially in contrast to the following studio-created jungle scene in which the wounded soldier is saved from certain death by a Filipino woman who intercedes with his captors. In the last scene, two native women are caring for the convalescing soldier when his sweetheart arrives. After learning that one of the women saved his life, the American woman gives her a necklace. As at Lubin and Edison, the filmmakers displayed little interest in trying to create a consistent mimetic world. The picture’s system of representation thus relied on disparate, syncretic elements and was rooted in the practices of exhibitor-dominated cinema.

In all three of the films discussed above, continuity operates almost exclusively on the level of narrative and performance. Although this continued to be the case with other multi-part subjects, such as THE KIDNAPPER (Nos. 2442–2444) and THE WAGES OF SIN (Nos. 2445–2446), Biograph placed increasing emphasis on constructing a spatial/temporal world through the organization of shots, as Porter, Méliès, G. A. Smith, and others were already doing. The two-shot A DISCORDANT NOTE (No. 2404), which was taken by Bitzer on 26 June, uses a temporal overlap to show the climactic moment from two different perspectives. It begins with the interior of a private house where a pleasant party is interrupted by an amateur singer. After a frustrated listener throws the singer out, through the window, the film cuts to an exterior view of the house, where the singer again crashes through the window and lands in the street. A similar construction is used in NEXT ! (No. 2678), a live-action comedy that was shot in early November. Cartoon characters Alphonse and Gaston are in a barbershop. When each repeatedly defers to the other rather than exiting through

the door, the barbershop patrons throw both through the window, one after the other. An exterior view of the shop shows them again crashing through the window in the same fashion. 7 THE BURGLAR (No. 2491), taken by A. E. Weed in August, was described by Biograph as “a very humorous picture in two continuous scenes.” 8 The burglar sneaks from the bedroom to the adjoining room. Again there is a temporal overlap, although this is apparent to spectators only if they assume that the two rooms are contiguous spaces, as the catalog specifies.

A SEARCH FOR EVIDENCE (No. 2433) used a visual device similar to the looking glass in GRANDPA’S READING GLASS , in this case a keyhole. Elaborating on the scene "EVIDENCE SECURED " from THE DIVORCE , a detective and a woman search a hotel corridor for her husband. Each time she looks through a keyhole, the scene cuts to a new view with a keyhole mask. From her point of view, the spectator sees a young man taking care of a baby, a rube trying to light a match on an electric lightbulb, and so forth. The same set and shot-setup and are repeated (with only the numbers on the door changing) as the wife and detective move down the hall. Finally, at room 13, she discovers what she is looking for—her husband. Point-of-view motivation is used twice as the wife and then the detective peer through the keyhole. The final shot, from inside the bedroom as the wife and detective confront the husband and his lover, is from an angle perpendicular to the previous scene of the hallway. The temporal relationship between the shots is not precisely delineated (it could be a match-cut with linear continuity but it also could involve some overlap of time).

Biograph’s commercial situation was affected by the fate of its sister companies overseas. The British Mutoscope & Biograph Company made little effort to adopt the 35-mm format and continued to supply the parent American company with 70-mm films well into 1903. When American Biograph made a complete switch to standard gauge, the British company rapidly faded. In 1904, the rights to its films were taken over by Gaumont, and Dickson returned to inventing. 9 Biograph retained good contacts in Britain, however, particularly with the American Charles Urban, who left the Warwick Trading Company to start his own enterprise, the Charles Urban Trading Company, early in 1903.

As Biograph switched to a 35-mm format, it introduced a three-blade shutter that greatly improved projection quality. Previous shutters had blocked the projected light whenever the film in the gate was moving, so that the alternation of image and its absence coincided with the number of frames per second. As the number of frames per second became fewer, the flicker effect became worse. With the three-blade shutter, the picture was blocked for fractions of a second even when the film strip was not being moved. This tripled the alternation of image and non-image, and since the eye synthesized this rapid alternation more readily, the flicker effect was considerably reduced. The device was developed by John Pross, working with Marvin and Casier in Canastota, New York; Biograph submitted a patent application on 19 January 1903, and it was granted on 10 March 1903. Biograph, though not making its own 35-mm projectors, adapted the shutter to its Urban bioscopes. 10 The use of a three-blade shutter in conjunction with its new and often exclusive productions soon gave the company an opportunity to revive its exhibition service.

By mid July, Biograph had won a new contract with Keith and returned to his circuit’s Boston and New York theaters on 27 July; the following week, it was in Keith’s Philadelphia theater as well. The reaction from the managers was initially mixed. In Boston, M. J. Keating complained:

The show was greatly hurt by the inability of the Biograph people to perform this work. For two weeks I have been at them anticipating some trouble, and felt that I had forestalled any possible accident but after promising me that they would be ready to give a performance today, at the last moment they failed. As a consequence the entire show was delayed twenty or twenty-five minutes (Keith Reports, week of 27 July 1903).

The New York manager, meanwhile, stated, “While there is no question but that the biograph machine pictures are very fine from a mechanical standpoint, the list of views that they sent us this afternoon is rather ordinary.” But the following week, the Philadelphia manager reported, “Pictures are smaller than Vitagraph; pictures are clearer. Views this week were good,” and the New York manager announced, “The selection of views they have furnished us this week is a great improvement over that of last week, nearly all of them are new and all are good.” 11 After two years of disruption and declining prospects, Biograph’s commercial position was once again on the rise.

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