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The Arrangement of Scenes

biograph niagara films falls

Exhibitors were also responsible for the arrangements of films. At first, they evinced very limited concern with the issue of editing, in the sense of juxtaposing one film to the next. This was particularly true for the early vitascope screenings. Each scene was a completely self-contained, one-shot unit, unrelated to the preceding or following film. Generally, no thematic, narrative, spatial, or temporal relationships existed between scenes. Only a few possible exceptions to this practice were reported in the first months. When showing scenes of Niagara Falls in June and SHOOTING THE CHUTES in July, vitascope exhibitors presented two or more scenes of the main attraction on the same bill. 29 Even then, however, it is not certain that the related films were shown successively to create any kind of continuity.

Rather, exhibitions were initially organized along variety principles that emphasized diversity and contrast even while the selections often built to a climax and ended with a flourish. In this regard, vitascope exhibitions represented only an extreme instance of a general trend: even exhibitions on the Lumière cinématographe, which was technically incapable of showing films as loops, operated within the same conceptual framework. Surviving programs from the period suggest the extent to which exhibitors favored variety over possible spatial, temporal, narrative, or thematic continuities. At Proctor’s Twenty-third Street Theater in March 1897, the Lumière cinématographe was listed as showing the following twelve subjects:

  1. Lumière Factory.
  2. Columbus Statue, Entrance Central Park.
  3. A Battle with Snowballs.
  4. Niagara Falls.
  5. Children Playing.
  6. Dragoons of Austrian Army.
  7. Brooklyn Bridge.
  8. French Cuirassiers.
  9. Union Square.
  10. The Frolics of Negroes While Bathing.
  11. Card Players.
  12. Shooting the Chutes. 30

The four scenes of New York were scattered throughout the program. The military scenes were also separated. CHILDREN PLAYING was far removed from CARD PLAYERS . Clearly, in this instance, discontinuity was preferred to other editorial possibilities, but in the course of the novelty year, a range of editorial techniques emerged to permit the exhibitor to organize shots into sequences.

When Biograph first exhibited at Koster & Bial’s, during election week, it offered this program:

  • Stable on Fire
  • Niagara Upper Rapids
  • Union Square at Noontime
  • Trilby and Little Billee
  • Joseph Jefferson—Toast Scene from Rip Van Winkle
  • A Hard Wash
  • Niagara American Falls
  • Empire State Express, 60 Miles an Hour.
  • McKinley and Hobart Parade at Canton, O.
  • Major McKinley at Home. 31

Rather than grouping NIAGARA , UPPER RAPIDS ( UPPER RAPIDS FROM BRIDGE , NIAGARA FALLS , No. 71) with NIAGARA , AMERICAN FALLS (possibly AMERICAN FALLS , LUNA ISLAND , No. 63), Biograph separated them. M C KINLEY AND HOBART PARADE AT CANTON , O. and MAJOR M C KINLEY AT HOME , however, were shown one after the other. Both dealt with the same subject and were photographed in the same town at approximately the same time. Here, the juxtaposition served to emphasize the McKinley pictures as the headline or feature attraction. But the general organization still suggests a return to “the old-fashioned, spasmodic, hitchy way” of showing images that was described by a lantern exhibitor in the 1870s (see page 38). Now the perfected continuity of successive film frames in each “series of images” or scene allowed for discontinuity to be reasserted on another level.

By the fall of 1896 W. K. L. Dickson at Biograph and James White at Edison were regularly producing groups of subjects that exhibitors could select and sequence. Such production was highly practical since filming different aspects of the same subject was easier and cheaper than filming the same number of unrelated ones. It also anticipated the desires of exhibitors. Lyman Howe’s first film program in December 1896 was remarkable for its interweaving of variety techniques with narrative and thematic relationships between shots. Howe grouped his fifteen films into two series. In the first series, two films of police activities in Central Park, MOUNTED POLICE CHARGE and RUNAWAY IN THE PARK , were shown successively—thus maintaining continuities of subject and place. In the next series, three fire-rescue films were shown in succession to create a clear, brief narrative on which Howe later elaborated by adding new scenes. At the same time, this fire sequence was framed by two comedies, both scenes involving water play (TUB RACE and WATERMELON CONTEST ). Both “series” ended on high points with two very popular subjects, THE MAY IRWIN KISS and OLD OCEAN OFF MANHATTAN BEACH (probably SURF AT LONG BRANCH , an Edison remake of ROUGH SEA AT DOVER ).

To maintain its hold on the public, the Biograph Company increasingly relied on establishing continuities between shots. In early April, it offered the following views in succession: INAUGURAL PARADE, 71ST REGIMENT , NEW YORK (No. 142); THE GOVERNOR OF OHIO AND STAFF (No. 147); and TROOP A OF CLEVELAND AND THE PRESIDENT (No. 143). As was the Biograph custom, each film was preceded by an announcement slide projected by the magic lantern. Since Biograph had only a single, ponderous camera, these scenes were all taken from the same camera position and did not create a spatial world with different perspectives. When Biograph showed scenes of Queen Victoria’s jubilee several months later, it was announced that the views—apparently also shot from a single camera position—"are three in number, but will be exhibited as one continuous picture." Editorial contrast, which relies on establishing many similarities to pinpoint specific differences, was also employed. Thus a Biograph series featuring the Chicago electric train was “in two sections, and affords the spectator an opportunity of seeing the contrast between steam and electric power.” 32 Editorial technique became increasingly elaborate as the novelty year progressed.

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