Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Period Comments on Talking Pictures, 1905-1908

This is a series of short notices on the practice of producing talking pictures by placing actors behind the screen. The first item, cited by Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema (1994), p. 264, shows that the practice in use as early as 1905.
A distinct novelty on the bill was the first appearance here of Havez and Youngson’s Spooks Minstrels, in which moving pictures are used in a novel way. The pictures show a minstrel company going through a performance, and as the various numbers are presented the songs, jokes and dances are given by men who stand behind the screen and follow the motions of the men in the picture very accurately. The act is original and novel and was highly appreciated (New York Dramatic Mirror 25 February 1905).
The practice became very popular in 1908, and there was extensive commentary about it in the trade papers and newspapers. As the following notice indicates, the reaction in the trade papers was initially quite favorable.
The tragic story of “Francesca di Rimini, or, The Two Brothers,” has received frequent applause for the good acting, but nothing like the rounds of applause it is getting from crowded audiences this week in a theater not a thousand miles from New York. The reason is that the dialogue between the leading actors in the plot is carried on in a realistic manner by people behind the screen. This idea could be well applied to many subjects which require more than pantomime to explain the situations (“Films that Please,” Moving Picture World 21 March 1908, 233).
George Kleine, an impressario and film distributor who would also dabble in film production, opted to try an elaborate version of such talking pictures in March of 1908. He argued that his production represented "the limit" of what could be accomplished in the moving picture field.
Everything is in readiness for the commencement in Chicago Sunday of a unique experiment. George Kleine, the big American importer of foreign independent films, George Lederer and Henry Lee, the impersonator, have entered into a partnership to give a novel moving picture show in the Auditorium, Chicago, the big show house which played “Advanced Vaudeville” for a time last season.

When the subjects thrown upon the white screen by the projecting machine call for it, a big company of actors and supernumeraries will be stationed behind to work effects. For example, when a mob scene is shown a carefully rehearsed crowd of supers will be present to make the appropriate noises. When singers are required they will be provided and a choir will be on hand to discourse incidental music when the film gives opportunity for such an effect.

The idea involved in the “talking pictures” which have so recently established themselves widely in the important picture houses, here reaches an elaboration which is described as “the limit.”

Mr. Lee will have charge of the practical end of the stage management together with George Lederer, while Mr. Kleine will direct the film supply department.

Chicago is even more generously supplied with picture shows than is New York, but the promoters of the newest enterprise have calculated that with the immense seating capacity of the Auditorium (4,000) they can do an enormous gross weekly business, large enough to warrant the expenditure of large sums on the entertainment.

In addition to the pictures the shows will offer vaudeville and musical features (“‘The Limit’ in Mommoth Moving Picture Place,” Variety 30 May 1908, 11).
An article in Variety quoted Kleine at length speaking about this production:
Here at last we have the moving picture playing something like the part it derives to play in the amusement field. I regard this as an epoch-making event, destined to be the forerunner of greater things to come until at last cinematography shall reach the position of dignity and popular recognition to which it is entitled.

To bring about this very desirable consummation we must encourage the natural trend of the business toward the increasing use of large and important theaters.

This is an essential point, for when an amusement caterer desires to put on motion pictures with adequate effects and incidentals he must command an enormous seating capacity to get anything like a return upon his enterprise. This factor alone will force the motion picture man to seek the big houses for his shows.

The show at the Auditorium requires a large force behind the screen, for example. This force is necessary to obtain the effects. At the same time such an entertainment involves a proportionate expense, although, of course, the company is smaller than such a one as would be required to give a conventional drama or musical comedy in the same house.

I find a surprising amount of interest among managers of large theatres in the growing possibilities of the moving picture. They have watched it grow from small beginning and disrepute to this staggering proposition which employes a house seating four thousand persons, and you may be sure they are drawing their own conclusions.
Of course, it is nice to call the Auditorium show “The Limit” of the moving picture’s possibilities, but bigger things yet may develop. The future of the film is almost unlimited (Kleine quoted by Frank Wiesberg, “The Limit in Moving Pictures Success at Auditorium,” Variety 6 June 1908, 11).
Toward the end of July, Moving Picture World ran the following summary of the Kleine "experiment.":
Just as we go to press we receive a neatly printed pamphlet entitled “The Mimic World” from the Kleine Optical Company. Of the 24 pages, which are bound with silk cord and between illuminated covers, 20 pages are taken up with press notices of the picture show with talking effects which was such a success at the Chicago Auditorium, under the direction of Henry Lee, impersonator. While these shows have been discontinued on account of the Summer season, the period of their run demonstrated that a picture show, when properly presented, is sufficient attraction to fill a large theater. Another thing which was fully demonstrated and which really instigated the experiment, was that independent films as supplied through the Kosmik Film Service of the Kleine Optical Company, are fully equal to the demands of the most fastidious and the line of subjects are most varied and complete (“The Kosmik Film Service,” Moving Picture World 25 July 1908, 63)