The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)We’re off to see the Wizard…

Young Dorothy discovers that the scarecrow on her family’s Kansas farm is alive. When a cyclone arrives, they are transported to the Land of Oz, where they meet a Tin Woodsman and a Lion. Travelling through a forest, they are captured by Momba the Witch…

L. Frank Baum began his career as an actor and writer in the theatre and was an unsuccessful storekeeper and newspaperman before hit the jackpot with his children’s novel ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’ (1900). It was launched with the help of a Broadway musical stage play, and eventually became a global phenomenon. Unfortunately, Baum’s financial acumen was not as great as his literary prowess and, after the failure of his ambitious stage version in 1908 (which incorporated excerpts of film), he was declared bankrupt in 1910. As part of the settlement, Baum lost the rights to some of his books and this film was produced without his input.

This 13-minute silent is the earliest surviving cinematic version of the story, with Baum’s 1908 footage being lost. It was loosely based on the original 1902 musical, although the story focuses far more on the conflict with the wicked witch. Obviously there are no songs, but there is one sequence where Dorothy does a few dance steps and the principals set off skipping two by two into the forest, although there’s no yellow brick road in evidence. Essentially what we get is a static camera shooting actors against painted studio backdrops that have very little depth, and animal costumes wouldn’t look out of place in the school pantomime.

As might be expected, what photographic effects there are recall the ‘stop the camera/start the camera’ tricks of French pioneer Georges Méliès, although there is a nice dissolve at one point as a character slowly vanishes. Costumes and settings are nowhere near as elaborate as Méliès’ creations, and it’s fairly obvious these filmmakers don’t possess his flair or expertise. The credits of the film are actually lost, and the identity of those involved is disputed by film historians. Otis Turner is usually given the nod as director but, more controversially, many believe that Dorothy was portrayed by a young Bebe Daniels. She played opposite Rudolph Valentino in ‘Monsieur Beaucaire’ (1924) and later became a star in early musical ’42nd Street’ (1932). Having married British actor Ben Lyon, the two relocated to England where they became stars all over again, along with members of their family, on radio, TV and film in the highly popular ‘Life With The Lyons’ show.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910)

‘Once more into the breach, dear Munkins…’

Of course, the film has little but curiosity value now, but there are some touches that are likely to raise a smile. Toto the Dog has been replaced by Imogene the Cow (apparently from the 1902 stage show), the Wizard produces doves from his top hat like a stage conjurer and his female assistants refuse to help him with his retirement plans because union rules mean they can’t work after noon.

Sequels quickly followed: ‘Dorothy and the Scarecrow in Oz’ (1910), ‘The Land of Oz’ (1910), and ‘John Dough and the Cherub’ (1910), all usually attributed to Turner as director. Unfortunately, to this date, they are all lost films. Baum regained the rights to his fictional world shortly afterwards, and formed his own film company, releasing three longer movies in 1914, one of which just about ran to feature length. Baum wrote 17 novels based in Oz, but his fortunes continued to fluctuate through the remainder of his life, mainly because of his love of bankrolling theatrical shows, several of which flopped. He died after a stroke in 1919.

An interesting fragment of film history, which may possess little merit in its own right, but was one of the important first steps down a very familiar road.

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Himmelskibet (Heaven Ship) (1918)

Himmelskibet_(1918)The Danes go to Mars!

A young aviator builds a spaceship and flies to Mars, despite opposition from the scientific establishment. As the weeks pass, his crew threaten to mutiny, and when they arrive on the red planet their actions aren’t too clever either. Luckily, it takes more than a few crude earthlings to upset the indigenous population.

At a length of approximately 80 minutes, this Danish picture is quite possibly the first full-length feature ever made that portrays space flight and landing on another planet. Inevitably, the science is pretty wonky with our vehicle looking like a cross between a shed and a sea plane and likewise horizontal flight to escape Earth’s gravitational pull is rather quaint. The interior of the ship resembles a submarine, which is understandable given the technology of the time, and at least there is some effort to make it look functional with various dials and switches.

Our young, ambitious hero Avanti Planetaros (Gunnar Tolnæs) recruits his father to help out with his interplanetary project as somewhat conveniently he happens to be a scientist/astronomer. His sister’s boyfriend is also one of the white-coated brigade, and is happy to come along for the ride. Unfortunately, the rest of the crew are a motley bunch of volunteers and includes Dan the Dane, who’s a big, rough looking chap who likes his ale. I couldn’t help but wonder what his actual duties were on the ship. Anyway, our Earthbound villain is Professor Dubius, who is err… a bit dubious about the whole thing, and doesn’t mind letting people know about it, both at meetings and in the newspapers.

Despite all these problems the expedition finally reaches its goal, helped over the last few yards by the Martians themselves. These prove to be a bunch of insufferable old hippies, who hang around in flowing robes and carry tree branches. Mars is a utopia (’Heaven’ possibly?) where no one actually does any work and the young girls do the ‘Dance of Chastity’ (stop sniggering at the back, it’s actually rather cute). Scenes of this rural idyll are intercut with scenes of life back on Earth, mainly featuring drinking, violence, inappropriate dancing, and other sinful pursuits. ‘Love is what you call God’ the Martians sing, making us quite grateful that this is a silent movie.

But, despite all this loveliness (or perhaps because of it) the crew want to go back home. This Martian utopia looks all well and good, but of course it’s not exactly a thrill a minute. Our hero has fallen in love with the Headman’s daughter (the angelic Lilly Jacobson) which complicates things a tad, until she decides return with him to spread the word of the Martian’s creed of love and peace. Good luck with that!

Himmelskibet_(1918)

‘For God’s sake, reconfigure the lateral sensor array!’

This film is actually most interesting for its pacifist stance. Produced towards the end of the Great War in Europe, the slaughter in the trenches must have had a profound effect on society; so much so in fact that everyone waited a whole 20 years before doing it all over again. But, to be fair, there’s nothing wrong with wearing your heart on your sleeve and the Danish filmmakers do it unapologetically here. It may seem a little naive and dated to a modern day audience though.

As a drama this is so-so stuff, but it does have some noteworthy aspects. And obviously meteors had yet to infect interstellar space in the overwhelming numbers that were present during the 1950s.

Worth a look if you are interested in the early evolution of cinematic science fiction.

A Trip To Mars (1910)

A_Trip_To_Mars_(1910)The first American Science Fiction movie…

A scientist discovers a substance in his laboratory that reverses the effect of gravity. Covering himself with it, he floats off into the sky, eventually reaching the planet Mars where he meets its giant inhabitants.

This 10 minute short is America’s first ever science fiction film, courtesy of Thomas Edison’s studios. It was released in the same year that they gave the world the first ever cinematic interpretation of ‘Frankenstein’ (1910). Unsurprisingly, it’s heavily influenced by the pioneering work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès, with whom everyone active at the time really has to be compared. The basic plot also borrows from H.G. Wells to some extent, with the magical anti-gravity material reminiscent of ’Cavorite’ from his novel ‘The First Men In The Moon’ which was published 9 years earlier.

The effects and design are acceptable, given the vintage of the film and the primitive techniques employed. However, it does lack the Gallic charm of Méliès’ best work, especially if it was supposed to be a tongue-in-cheek fantasy in the same mould. That seems likely as it’s hard to credit the finished film as serious science fiction speculation, given that the hero simply floats off to another planet. We don’t see a lot of the red planet actually, save for the giant plant-like creatures that live there, one of which picks up our hapless hero for a closer inspection.

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‘Pleased to meet you, hope you guess my name…’

Facially, the Martian somewhat resembles a satanic caricature, and it’s possible there may have been an intention to draw a religious parallel concerning the inadvisability of space travel (and meddling in things that man should leave alone). Of course, it’s impossible to be sure about that over 100 years later, although that general theme was the cornerstone of nearly every fantasy film to come out of Hollywood in the ensuing decades. The Martian dispatches our hero on his way, and he returns to Earth perhaps a wiser and less adventurous man.

Of course this is all very basic stuff; baby steps in the early days of science fiction. But, based on this evidence, it does appear that the Americans had some serious catching up to do, Méliès work had far more flair, visual sense and invention than that displayed here. Narrative films of greater length had already been created in the U.S. by the time of this production; some to massive box office success such as ‘The Great Train Robbery’ (1903). But science fiction was a latecomer to that party, to some extent inevitable with the technical limitations of the time.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Saturnino Farandola (1913)

Saturnino_Ferandola_(1913)Farandola against Fileas-Fogg!

Saturnino Farandola is shipwrecked on a desert island as a baby and raised by a group of monkeys. When he grows to maturity, he is rescued by a ship, and becomes a naval officer. Some serious globetrotting and wild adventures follow.

ltalian silent comedy, which riffs heavily on Jules Verne’s ‘Around The World In 80 Days’ (1873) and throws in a dash of Science Fiction at the end. Based on a novel with an even longer title by Albert Robida, it’s pretty obvious from the start that we’re not to take all this very seriously. The monkeys who nurture our hero through his formative years are obviously actors in black body stockings with stuck-on tails and holes cut for eyes, nose and mouth.

After that, in a random, scattershot approach, the film crams in a bewildering succession of exotic and melodramatic situations; which include a search for the source of the Nile, an attack by pirates, an army of women (quite funny, apparently), an escape in barrels that apes ‘The Hobbit’, casual racial stereotyping (not too offensive), and a battle fought by troops wearing diving helmets.

There are some underwater sequences, featuring a giant whale, and these are pure Georges Méliès. Ironic, given that the French master had made his last ever film, ‘Conquest of the Pole’ (1912), barely a year earlier, and was now financially ruined. Intriguingly, in this film it looks as if there are real fish swimming in the foreground of the shots in the aquatic sequences, probably meaning they were filmed through a glass tank. This may be the first instance of that particular special effect.

Saturnino_Ferandola_(1913)

The party had got a little out of hand…

Director Marcel Perez also stars, and his tall tale is entertaining enough, if a little unevenly paced. The Science Fiction element arrives at the end, with a battle fought by protagonists in hot air balloons. Most of the unfriendly fire comes courtesy of hand-held revolvers, although one cannon has actually been mounted on the top of a balloon. Aerial warfare was strictly fantasy at the time; with planes in World War I initially intended for reconnaissance only, but obviously that was soon to change.

Bearing in mind the age of this film, it’s a mildly entertaining experience, but the satire and silly comedy make for little emotional involvement with our hero and his gal, who lurch from one ridiculous scenario to another. At the end of the film, one of the monkeys sits back in a rocking chair and enjoys a quiet cigar. Job done.

A Message From Mars (1913)

A_Message_From_Mars_(1913)The world’s first feature-length Science Fiction movie.

Produced in the U.K. shortly before the outbreak of World War I, this is basically a simple re-telling of Dickens’ ‘A Christmas Carol’ (1843), but with a Martian instead of the ghost of Jacob Marley.

Our Scrooge character is the well-to-do businessman Horace, played by famous English stage actor Charles Hawtrey. No! Hang on! Charles Hawtreyl? That weedy bloke from all those ‘Carry On’ comedies?I It can’t be him, surely! Well, no, actually it can’t. The two weren’t even related, although the 1960s comedy star deliberately adopted the name and often claimed to be his grandson. Very naughty. What would matron think?

Inevitably there is a level of theatricality to the proceedings; these are stage actors after all, and the finished product often resemblances a filmed play, especially when the action is located in Horace’s front room. There are some exteriors though, and we do get a couple of slow panning shots, so the camera isn’t completely static. There’s also an intriguing mixture of horse-drawn vehicles and ‘new- fangled’ motor cars on the street, one of which sideswipes a cast member in a less than convincing example of early stunt work.

Back at the story, Horace begins as a good little capitalist, viewing everything in terms of financial gain and money, alienating everyone around him. I feel a certain amount of sympathy for grumpy old git, actually. He tries to get some innocent amusement by watching a puppet show in the street, and is hassled by beggars. He wants to spend a quiet night in by the fire and gets interrupted by his fiancée and her mother who want to go to a dance. A hooray Henry friend of the family turns up to offer everyone a lift. A tramp knocks on the door because he wants a job, and then this bloody Martian turns up… After a few ineffectual attempts to persuade Horace to mend his ways, the Martian turns him into a beggar, which eventually alters his perspective on things somewhat. It does seem an unnecessarily harsh thing to do to a sour old man really; it’s not as if he’s actively persecuting the poor like a politician or a banker.

The storyline and resolution are very simplistic, of course, and the old grouch’s transformation into a kindly soul is a little overdone at the end. Not only does he save a poor family from a house fire, he takes them into his own home afterwards!

A_Message_From_Mars_(1913)

Nights out down the pub with the Martian always ended in tears before bedtime.

SFX are of the Georges Méliès’ school of ‘stop the camera, put the actor in the shot, start the camera again’ variety but there is an intriguing moment when our Martian hero strikes the hapless Horace. The entire picture seems to flex. It may possibly be a deficiency of the surviving print, but it looks intentional and, if so, is the best thing in the film. Mars looks like an empty stage with a painted backdrop, and the Martians wear tights, and flowing, hooded jackets (with tails!) The Egyptian Ankh is their symbol of brotherhood.

The print I saw is in beautiful condition, thanks to the tireless efforts of the British Film Institute, and the hour length suits the subject.

A fascinating relic of a bygone age.

Verdens Undergang (The End of the World) (1916)

Verdens Undergang (1916)‘Tonight when the sky is in flames, we will let the stars dance for us.’

An astronomer discovers a new comet and calculates that it will enter the Earth’s atmosphere and cause widespread death and destruction. A financier suppresses the news in order to make a killing on the stock market, but even riches cannot protect him when the apocalypse comes.

Danish silent film that was the first cinematic depiction of the end of days. Our focus is mainly on a rural mining community, in particular on the family of the colliery manager. He has two daughters; one virtuous and kind, the other flighty and sinful. These archetypes are pretty clearly defined; subtle shadings of character not being all that common in silent cinema. So it’s no surprise when the naughty one runs off with the owner of the mine to the big city. There she lives a life of luxury and indolence, her wellbeing apparently entirely dependent on expensive gifts. Virtue stays home, of course, pledging her troth to her childhood sweetheart, who becomes a sailor.

However, the mine owner isn’t content with just corrupting young girls, although let’s be honest, the girl in question didn’t take a lot of persuasion! No, now he sees a chance to make millions on the markets after being clued in to the details of the upcoming apocalypse by his stargazing cousin. The editor of the local newspaper joins in for a cut of the pie, displaying the kind of journalistic integrity we’ve come to expect from the mass media. All of this is only made possible by the fact that his cousin is seemingly the only astronomer on the entire planet who has his telescope pointed in the right direction.

When the apocalypse arrives, it’s surprisingly well presented, considering the vintage of the film. There are some big crowd scenes, flames in the sky and falling rocks. This is all supposed to be ‘fire and brimstone’ of course, as the presence of a local preacher throughout proceedings has left little doubt that the hand of god has been guiding the meteor in its wayward course across the heavens. And as our sinful duo host a wild party to celebrate Armageddon, complete with a banquet and dancing girls, while the poor miners run through the streets, it doesn’t take a genius to know how things are going to turn out for all our protagonists.

Verdens Undergang (1916)

The hills were alive…oh, hang on…

Throughout the film there are a surprising number of exterior scenes, and these are well composed and handled. These serve to sidestep the stilted appearance of many silent movies of the period and lend an air of accessibility to a modern audience. The sanctimony and religious subtext is pretty overt but it’s not overly preachy and doesn’t detract from the proceedings in general.

Performances are rather of the period, of course, but there’s a high level of all-round professionalism and the scenes of aftermath are quite effective. It all makes for quite a satisfying experience and the exisitng print, preserved by the Danish Film Institute, is in wonderful condition.

It’s no classic, but it does set quite a high benchmark in very early science fiction cinema.

Der Student Von Prag/The Student of Prague (1913)

Der_Student_von_Prag_(1913)‘I give to Mr Scarpanelli the right to take whatever he wants from this room.’

When a mysterious old man offers a penniless student a bag of gold, he sees the opportunity to move into society and woo a rich countess who he has saved from drowning. All the old man wants in exchange is any item from the student’s flat. But then he takes the student’s reflection out of the mirror.

Often cited as the first narrative horror film, this German early silent is rooted in the myth of the doppelgänger; a theme that had already inspired Dostoevsky’s ‘The Double’ (1846) and Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘William Wilson’ (1839), the latter being credited as the source material here. There are other obvious touchstones too; the legend of ‘Faust’ selling his soul to the devil and the good/bad human dichotomy encapsulated by Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886), which had already been filmed several times in America by then, although only as very short subjects.

The star here is Paul Wegener; a respected young stage actor making his first steps into film, along with the similarly inexperienced director Stellan Rye. More significantly, however, a film of this length and narrative complexity was ground-breaking, which probably explains the uneven results. Far too much time is spent on the dreary romantic subplot between Wegener and the colourless Grete Berger and the film drags as a result. However, there are compensations in the supporting cast with Lyda Salmonova bringing a cheeky personality to her role as a flower girl and John Gottowt understated as old man Scapinelli.

Although it’s often mentioned as a forerunner of the German Expressionist cinema of the 1920s, the only real connection is thematic, rather than stylistic. It is possible to interpret the story as a symptom of the student’s disintegrating psyche, a repeated theme in German cinema of the time, rather than as a series of actual events. Perhaps we are witnessing the birth of multiple personality being rationalised in the student’s mind as the work of outside forces, or simply a struggle between the opposite sides of his personality? The remake, also called ‘The Student of Prague’ (1926) apparently leaves much less room for interpretation with early sequences clearly showing Scapinelli as a sorcerer. It also re-teamed Conrad Veldt and Werner Krauss from ‘The Cabinet of Dr Caligari’ (1919). The story was also remade by Louis Malle, much more effectively, as his segment of the otherwise disappointing portmanteau film ‘Spirits of the Dead’ (1968).

Der_Student_von_Prag_(1913)

‘What do you mean you want it in blood? Won’t biro do?’

Wegener went on to bigger things. Just a year later he wrote-directed and starred as ‘The Golem’ (1915), a huge international success but sadly now lost but for fragments. The clay figure brought to life by Rabbi Loew in the Jewish ghetto was good for two more films: comedy ‘Der Golem Und Die Tanzerin’ (The Golem and the Dancing Girl) (1917) (also lost) and prequel ‘The Golem: How We Came Into The World’ (1920), which has thankfully survived the ravages of time.

Salmonova went along with Wegener for the ride; appearing in all 3 ‘Golem’ films, probably because they were married at the time. It didn’t last, however, and perhaps she should have known as it turned out she was number 4 out of 5!

What remains most notable about ‘The Student of Prague’ (1913) today is the trick photography. Wegener is able appear twice in the same frame as his apparent reflection walks out of the full- length mirror. It’s quite a staggering sequence, considering the vintage of the film. It was a signpost of what was to come in the 1920s, when German cinema eclipsed Hollywood and the rest of the world in both technical expertise and artistry.