History of Cinema: The International Expansion (1906-1912)

Pathe Brothers Poster

"The world-wide spread of cinema has been dominated by the distribution and exhibition of Hollywood movies, despite the fact that film production has taken place around the world since the turn of the century. The first means of film production and projection were developed virtually simultaneously in France, Germany, and the United States in about 1895, with the earliest films typically comprising single shots of single scenes or incidents. Many of these early movies delighted audiences with their authentic rendering of snippets of 'reality', and French innovators Auguste and Louis Lumière seized upon the commercial possibilities inherent in the documentary capacities of the new medium. They trained a team of cameramen/projectionists to demonstrate their Cinématographe internationally, recording new footage as they went. By the end of July 1896 they had carried the invention to London, Vienna, Madrid, Belgrade, New York, St Petersburg, and Bucharest, creating widespread interest with their cinematic revelations of both the exotic and the familiar. By the end of the year they had been around the world, introducing the phenomenon of cinema to Egypt, India, Japan, and Australia. In the mean time Thomas Edison's projector, the Vitascope, was also popularizing the medium in the United States and Europe. At the turn of the century motion picture production was essentially a cottage industry, accessible to any enthusiastic entrepreneur with a modicum of capital and know-how. The world's first feature film of over an hour's duration was made not in France or America but in Australia, where The Story of the Kelly Gang was produced in 1906; the theatrical company J. & N. Tait made the film without the benefit of any industrial infrastructure whatsoever. By 1912 Australia had produced thirty features, and feature-length productions had also been made in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary (with fourteen features in 1912 alone), Italy, Japan, Norway, Poland, Romania, Russia, the United States, and Yugoslavia.

The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)

Despite the energy and commitment represented by this early flurry of film-making, singular achievements in the area of production were to prove less important than innovations in business organization in determining the shape of international film commerce. Again France was the first to seize the initiative in terms of foreign distribution. By 1908 the production company Pathé Frères had established a network of offices to promote its products - mainly short dramas and comic scenarios - in areas including western and eastern Europe, Russia, India, Singapore, and the United States itself. In fact. in 1908 Pathé was the largest single supplier of films for the American market. Films by other French companies, as well as British, Italian, and Danish productions. were also circulating internationally at this time. By contrast, relatively scant foreign business was conducted by American production houses. Although the American companies Vitagraph and Edison were represented in Europe, their agents were more interested in buying European films for circulation in America than in promoting their own products abroad".[1]

"Between 1907 and 1913 the organization of the film industry in the United States and Europe began to emulate contemporary industrial capitalist enterprises. Specialization increased as production, distribution, and exhibition became separate and distinct areas, although some producers, particularly in the United States, did attempt to establish oligopolistic control over the entire industry. The greater length of films, coupled with the unrelenting demand from exhibitors for a regular infusion of new product, required this standardization of production practices, as well as an increased division of labour and the codification of cinematic conventions. The establishment of permanent exhibition sites aided the rationalization of distribution and exhibition procedures as well as maximizing profits, which put the industry on a more stable footing. In most countries, early cinemas held fairly small audiences, and profits depended upon a rapid turnover, necessitating short programmes and frequent changes of fare. This situation encouraged producers to make short, standardized films to meet the constant demand. This demand was enhanced through the construction of a star system patterned after the theatrical model which guaranteed the steady loyalty of the newly emerging mass audience".[1]

Pathé vs. Gaumont

Méliès’s decline was assisted by the industrialization of the French and, for a time, the entire European cinema by the Pathé Frères company, founded in 1896 by the former phonograph importer Charles Pathé. Financed by some Max Linder and Charlie Chaplin

of France’s largest corporations, Pathé acquired the Lumière patents in 1902 and commissioned the design of an improved studio camera that soon dominated the market on both sides of the Atlantic (it has been estimated that, before 1918, 60 percent of all films were shot with a Pathé camera). Pathé also manufactured his own film stock and in 1902 established a vast production facility at Vincennes where films were turned out on an assembly-line basis under the managing direction of Ferdinand Zecca. The following year, Pathé began to open foreign sales agencies, which would soon become full-blown production companies-Hispano Film (1906), Pathé-Rousse, Moscow (1907), Film d’Arte Italiano (1909), Pathé-Britannia, London (1909), and Pathé-America (1910). He acquired permanent exhibition sites, building the world’s first luxury cinema (the Omnia-Pathé) in Paris in 1906. In 1911 Pathé became Méliès’s distributor and helped to drive Star Film out of business.

"By 1905, Pathé employed six filmmakers, each making a film a week. The films encompassed a variety of genres: actualities, historical films, trick films, dramas, vaudeville acts, and chases. During 1903 and 1904, Pathé created an elaborate system for hand-stenciling color onto release prints. Stencils were painstakingly cut from a copy of the film itself, with a different stencil for each color. Assembly lines of women workers then painted the colors frame by frame on each release print. Pathé reserved color for trick films and films displaying flowers or elegantly dressed women. Such hand-coloring continued until the early sound era.

Among Pathé's most profitable films were series starring popular comics : the "Boireau" series (with Andre Deed), the "Rigadin" films (with the music-hall star Prince), and, above all, the Max Linder series. Linder's films reflected the industry's growing bid for respectability by being set in a middle-class milieu. Linder's films were enormously influential. Charles Chaplin once referred to Linder as his "professor" and himself as Linder's "disciple". Linder worked in both the United States and France from 1909 until his death in 1925".[2]

Pathé’s only serious rival on the Continent at this time was Gaumont Pictures, founded by the engineer-inventor Léon Gaumont in 1895. Though never more than one-fourth the size of Pathé, Gaumont followed the same pattern of expansion, manufacturing its own equipment and mass-producing films under a supervising director (through 1906, Alice Guy, the cinema’s first female director; afterward, Louis Feuillade). Like Pathé, Gaumont opened foreign offices and acquired theatre chains. From 1905 to 1914 its studios at La Villette, France, were the largest in the world. Pathé and Gaumont dominated pre-World War I motion-picture production, exhibition, and sales in Europe, and they effectively brought to an end the artisanal mode of filmmaking practiced by Méliès and his British contemporaries.

The Assassination of the Duc de Guise

"Following Pathé's lead, other companies and entrepreneurs opened film theaters, aiming at affluent consumers. Such theaters often showed longer and more prestigious films. Prosperity in the French industry and in film exports led to the formation of several smaller firms during this period. One of these had a significant impact. As its name suggests, the Film d'Art company, founded in 1908, identified itself with elite tastes. One of its first efforts was The Assassination of the Duc de Guise (1908, Charles Le Bargy and André Calmettes). Using stage stars, a script by a famous dramatist, and an original score by classical composer Camille Saint-Saens, the film told the story of a famous incident in French history. It was widely shown and had a successful release in the United States. The Assassination of the Duc de Guise and similar works created a model of what art films should be like. The Film d' Art company, however, lost money on most of its productions and was sold in 1911. On the whole, the French industry prospered. By 1910, the traveling fétes foraines had dwindled, and large film theaters were the rule. During the same era, however, French firms were facing challenges in the lucrative American market and would soon lose their dominance over world markets".[2]

England and the Brighton School

"After the first public film screenings in early 1896, film exhibition spread quickly in England. At first, most films were grouped together to be shown as a single act on the program of a music hall (the British equivalent of American vaudeville theaters). Beginning in 1897, short, cheap film shows were also widely presented in fairgrounds, appealing to working class audiences. At first, most English filmmakers offered the usual novelty subjects. Topicals showing the annual Derby were popular, and both the parade celebrating Queen Victoria 's Jubilee in 1897 and events relating to the Boer War in South Africa were widely circulated. Some of these early newsreels consisted of more than one shot. The operator might simply stop and restart the camera to capture only highlights of the action, or he might actually splice bits of film together to hurry the action along. Similarly, some scenics were influenced by the Lumière films' placement of the camera on moving vehicles.

Cecil Hepworth

Early English films became famous for their imaginative special-effects cinematography. For example, Cecil Hepworth began producing on a small scale in 1899 . At first he concentrated on actualities, but he soon directed trick films as well".[2] His technical knowledge of photography equipment and the art of moving pictures, built up from the many lectures he attended as a child, led Hepworth to publish the first handbook on the medium of film entitled 'Animated Photography' and it was in 1898 when he began making films for Charles Urban, who had recently arrived in London as manager of what would eventually become the Warwick Trading Company.

Hepworth set up a laboratory in 1899 and by 1900 he was releasing a hundred films a year. He was primarily a producer more than an actual film-maker but did on occasion, write, direct, edit, photograph and star in many films, however many of the films credited to him were in fact the work of his associated Percy Slow and Lewin Fitzhamon, the latter co-directed perhaps Hepworth’s most celebrated work Rescued by Rover (1905) which is regarded by many historians as the most skillfully edited narrative produced before the Biograph shorts of D.W. Griffith, as well as other inventive comic films such as The Other Side of the Hedge (1905) and That Fatal Sneeze (1907).

Hepworth was a dedicated film pioneer and the driving force, many believe, behind the origins of the British Film Industry. Hepworth’s skill with publicity and his ability to charm his stars to appear in many of his films made his company the only British Film Company to compete well with the wealth of foreign imported films. He returned to directing in 1914 and continued into the 1920’s where he began to fall behind the times in terms of film techniques - it was this that contributed to his bankruptcy in 1924. He ended his film career directing trailers and advertisements.

The Big Swallow (1901)

"There were other producers scattered around England, but the most notable were those in the small, but influential, group later dubbed the Brighton School because they worked in or near that resort town. Chief among them were G.A. Smith and James Williamson, both of whom were still photographers who branched into filmmaking in 1897. They also built small studios that opened at one side to admit s unlight. Both explored special effects and editing in ways that influenced filmmakers in other countries.

Williamson's 1901 film The Big Swallow is a good example of the ingenuity of the Brighton filmmakers. It begins with a view of a man, seen against a blank background, gesturing angrily because he does not want his picture taken . He walks forward until his wide-open mouth blots out the view. An imperceptible cut then substitutes a black backdrop for his mouth, and we see the cinematographer and his camera pitch forward into this void . Another concealed cut returns us to the open mouth, and the man backs away from the camera, laughing and chewing triumphantly.

Smith's 1903 grotesque comedy Mary Jane's Mishap uses editing in a remarkably sophisticated way. One basic distant framing of a slovenly maid in a kitchen is interrupted by several cut-ins to medium shots that show her amusing facial expressions. Although the actor's position is usually not matched well at the cuts, there is a general attempt to create a continuous action while using closer shots to guide our attention . This principle would become one basis for the dominant continuity style of filmmaking that developed over approximately the next fifteen years. The English cinema was innovative and internationally popular for several years early in the history of motion pictures, though it would soon weaken in the face of French, Italian, American , and Danish competition".[2]

Italy: Growth Through Spectacle

"Film production in Italy began relatively late in comparison with other European nations. The first fiction film - La presa di Roma, 20 settembre 1870 (The Capture of Rome, 20 September 1870), by Filoteo Alberini - appeared in 1905, by which time France, Germany, Britain, and Denmark already had in place well developed production infrastructures. After 1905, however, the rate of production increased dramatically in Italy, so that for the four years preceding the First World War it took its place as one of the major powers in world cinema. In the period 1905-31 almost 10,000 films - of which roughly 1,500 have survived - were distributed by more than 500 production companies. And whilst it is true that the majority of these companies had very brief life-spans, and that almost all entrepreneurial power was concentrated in the hands of perhaps a dozen firms , the figures nevertheless give a clear indication of the boom in this field in a country which, though densely populated (almost 33 million in 1901), lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of economic development".[1] "Although films were produced in several cities, Rome's Cines firm (founded in 1905) and Turin's Ambrosio (1905) and Itala (1906) soon emerged as the principal companies".[2]

L'inferno (1911)

"Ambrosio, Itala, and Cines all developed an aggressive policy of documentary and real life film-making, sending specialized film-makers to areas of natural beauty which had not yet been covered by Pathé, Éclair, and Gaumont, as well as to areas struck by natural disasters (such as Calabria and Sicily after the 1909 earthquake). Of particular note were Giovanni Vitrotti, who worked for Ambrosio in Italy and abroad, and Roberto Omegna, who began with Milano Films a career in scientific documentaries which lasted for several decades. It is not unusual to find in these non-fiction films interesting elements of technical innovation. In Tra le pinete di Rodi (The Island of Rhodes, 1912) the final view of a shooting cannon transforms this travelogue into a pretext for colonial propaganda when the film is suddenly flooded with red, white, and green, the colours of the Italian flag. An unidentified film made by Ambrosio probably around 1912, and known by the apocryphal title Santa Lucia, has shots with a split screen divided into several differentsized sectors".[1]

"The new firms were handicapped by a lack of experienced personnel, and some lured artists away from French firms. For example, Cines hired one of Pathé's main filmmakers, Gaston Velie, as its artistic director. As a result, some Italian films were imitations, even remakes, of French movies".[2] "In the field of comedy, the Italian response to the overwhelming influence of the French was initiated by Giovanni Pastrone, who travelled to Paris in 1908 in order to entice a well-known actor back to Turin. The two principal candidates, both employed by Pathé, were Max Linder, who was already on the way up, even if not yet arrived at stardom, and André Deed (pseudonym of André Chapuis), who had served a brief apprenticeship under Georges Méliès before moving on to Pathé and immense success in the role of Boireau. Pastrone chose Deed, changed his nickname to Cretinetti (or Foolshead in Britain and America), and, from January 1909 onwards, produced a series of around 100 short comedies, interrupted only by the actor's temporary return to France (1912-15), and closed with the 1921 feature L'uomo meccanico (The Mechanical Man)".[1] "Other companies found French or Italian comics to build series around, such as Ambrosio's Robinet and Cines's Polidor. These films were much cheaper than epics. They were also livelier and more spontaneous, and they became internationally popular. Hundreds of such films were made, but the fad gradually declined during the 1910s.

The Last Days of Pompeii

Exhibition also expanded rapidly. Italy depended less than other European countries on films being shown in traveling fairs and other temporary venues. Instead, many permanent theaters opened. Thus, in Italy, cinema won respect as a new art form earlier than in other countries. Italian producers moved toward art films at about the same time that Film d' Art was making The Assassination of the Duc de Guise. In 1908, the Ambrosio company made Gli ultimi giorni di Pompeii (The Last Days of Pompeii), the first of many a daptations of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's historical novel. As a result of this film's popularity, the Italian cinema became identified with historical spectacle.

By 1910, Italy was probably second only to France in the number of films it sent around the world. Partly because Italian producers catered to permanent film theaters, they were among the first who consistently made films of more than one reel (that is, longer than fifteen minutes). For example, in 1910, a major director of the period, Giovanni Pastrone, made II Caduta de Troia (The Fall of Troy) in three reels. Despite its hostile reception by Italian critics, the film was greeted with unprecedented public approval in Europe and America, inspired by its spectacular monumental reconstructions of classical architecture, filmed using depth of field rather than two-dimensional backdrops, and by its unashamed aspiration to artistic grandeur. The triumph of this and similar films encouraged Italian producers to make longer, more expensive epics, a trend that culminated in the mid-1910s".[2]

Denmark: Nordisk and Ole Olsen

Capital Execution (1903)

"On 17 September 1904 Constantin Philipsen opened the first permanent film exhibition hall in Copenhagen. Danish fiction film production had already got under way a year earlier when the photographer to the royal family, Peter Elfelt, had made Henrettelsen (Capital Execution), which still survives today".[1] "That a small country like Denmark became a significant player in world cinema was largely due to entrepreneur Ole Olsen. He had been an exhibitor, initially using a peepshow machine and later running one of the first movie theaters in Copenhagen. He set up the Nordisk Films Kompagni, which was to playa fundamental role in Danish cinema throughout the silent period, and indeed in international cinema for a good part of the 1910s. Nordisk's breakthrough came in 1907 with Lion Hunt, a fiction film about a safari. Because two lions were actually shot during the production, the film was banned in Denmark, but the publicity generated huge sales abroad. The company's New York branch, established in 1908, sold Nordisk films under the brand name Great Northern.

Nordisk films quickly established an international reputation for excellent acting and production values. Nordisk specialized in crime thrillers, dramas, and somewhat sensationalistic melodramas, including "whiteslave" (prostitution) stories. Olsen had a circus set permanently installed, and some of the firm's major films were melodramas of circus life, such as De fire djævle (The Four Devils, 1911) and Dødsspring til hest fra cirkuskuplen (The Great Circus Catastrophe, 1912)".[2]

"By 1910, Nordisk was considered the world's second largest production company after Pathé; its first studio, built by the company in 1906, is the oldest surviving film studio in the world. Most of the fiction films of the early period were directed by exstaff sergeant Viggo Larsen, and shot by Axel Sørensen (renamed Axel Graatkjær after 1911). Of the 248 fiction films produced between 1903 and 1910, 242 were made by Nordisk".[1]

Nordisk poster

"Although a few smaller companies started up during this period, Olsen eventually managed either to buy them or to drive them out of business. Nevertheless, it was one of these short-lived small firms (Biorama of Copenhagen and Fotorama of Aarhus, both founded in 1909; and Kinografen in 1910) that made the two-reeler Afgrunden (The Abyss, 1910), which brought instant fame to actress Asta Nielsen. Indeed, like Max Linder, she was one of the first international film stars. Dark and thin, with large, intense eyes, she possessed an unconventional beauty. She often played women destroyed by love: seduced and abandoned, or sacrificing themselves for the happiness of the men they love. Nielsen was equally adept at comedy, however, and, although she had trained in the theater, she was one of the earliest screen performers whose style seemed to owe nothing to the stage. Nielsen went on to work in Germany, where she became one of the mainstays of the industry".[2]

"In 1910 a Fotorama film called Den hvide slavehandel (The White Slave Trade) marked a turning point in the evolution of fiction films not only in Scandinavia but throughout the world. The film dealt with the theme of prostitution in previously unheard of explicit terms, and thereby inaugurated a new genre - the 'sensational' film, set in the world of crime, vice, or the circus. One important consequence of the move towards 'sensational' drama was the development of new techniques in lighting, in camera-positioning and in set design. The case of Den sorte drøm (The Black Dream), by Urban Gad (Fotorama, 1911), is particularly noteworthy in this regard. For the high anxiety of the most intense scenes, the reflectors were taken down from their usual stands and laid on the ground, so that the actors threw long, dark shadows on to the walls. The use of a hand-held lantern, clutched by the protagonists as they struggled forward in the dark, was deployed to great effect. A variant on this effect was to have a character enter a dark room and turn on the light. The shooting was suspended and the actor blocked as the lamp in shot was about to be turned on; the scene was then lit as if by the lamp in question and shooting recommenced. Often the two segments of the shot were tinted in different colours, usually in blue for darkness and ochre for light. Another powerful effect, hardly seen outside Denmark before 1911, was the silhouette outline, shot from an interior with the lens pointing towards an open or half-open door, or a window. These ideas, which characterize two films directed by August Blom for Nordisk - Ungdommens Ret (The Right of Youth, 1911) and Exspeditricen (In the Prime of Life, 1911) - are taken to an extreme in Det hemmelighedsfulde X (Sealed Orders, 1913), the first film by the greatest Danish director of the silent period besides Carl Theodor Dreyer, Benjamin Christensen (1879-1959).

The Abyss, 1910

Another frequent trick was to show a character who was out of range of the camera's field in a mirror: for example, in Ved Fængslets Port (Temptations of a Great City, 1911) by August Blom-starring the most famous male lead actor of the time, Valdemar Psilander-and in For Åbent Tæppe (Desdemona, 1912). In all probability, the mirror was used as an expedient to avoid the need for montages of several shots in a scene (since Danish directors seem not to have been keen on elaborate editing techniques), but nevertheless, its allusive and symbolic impact enriched the treatment of sexuality in films such as the frank and open Afgrunden by Urban Gad (The Abyss, 1910).

Early Danish film-makers paid relatively little attention to the narrative dynamic of their films: before 1914 tracking shots, flashbacks, and close-ups were very rarely used. They thus fell well short of the fluidity and naturalism typical of American cinema of the same period. However, the Danes had a profound and lasting influence on film production on an international scale. On a general level, their most significant contribution was in the development away from short-length narrative films to films of three, four, or even more reels and in the cultural legitimization of cinema, which was encouraged by the appearance of established actors and actresses from classical theatre".[1]

Pre-revolutionary Russia

"Original as it may seem in style and subject-matter, film production in Russia started as an offshoot of international trade. Because neither cameras nor film stock were manufactured in Russia in the 1910s, Russian production companies developed in a very different way from the major film companies in the west. Rather than being a corollary of the equipment industry, national filmmaking in Russia was actuated by importers (in the first place), distributors, and (in rare cases) theatre owners. With the notable exception of the ex-photographer Alexander Drankov, the importer was the key to the first production companies in Russia. The importer was a go-between linking foreign film producers and local exhibitors; the more companies an importer was able to enlist, the more chances he had to launch his own production. From 1908 and the first Russian-made movie (Drankov's Stenka Razin) until 1913, the two main competitors were Khanzhonkov & Co. and Pathé-Frères.

Stenka Razin, 1908

The first home-produced films appeared when the distribution system was fully established on the Russian film market. Combining production with distribution in this way was the only hope of success for a film-producing company in Russia in the 1910s. A vertically semi-integrated system allowed Russian studios to invest the money they earned from distributing foreign films into native productions - a system that would be used, with variable success, by the stock-holding company Sovkino in the mid-1920s.

Two types of strategy - disruptive and competitive - were employed by studios competing for the Russian market. Disruption (sryv), was a notorious gimmick whereby a competitor's production was undermined by a cheaper (and sloppier) version of the same subject (story, title) released earlier or on the same day. Borrowed from the theatre entrepreneur F. Korsh (who used the method to rob competitors' first productions of their novelty value), disruption was systematically employed in the film industry by financially insecure companies. This policy achieved little beyond hectic production races and a pervasive atmosphere of paranoid secrecy. Distinct from disruption, a strategy of competition, developed by studios with solid financial backing consisted of promoting the idea of 'quality pictures' and turning a recognizable studio style into a marketable value.

Pikovaya dama (1910)

From its very beginning, early Russian film-making was marked by dependence on non-cinematic culture. This can be explained partly by the belated start of Russian production. Because the first Russian film, Stenka Razin, was made in the same year as L'assassinat du duc de Guise (The Assassination of the Duc de Guise) Russian film skipped the entire period of tricks and chases which formed the basis of all other key national cinemas, and started by trying to match the success of the film d'art. Film d'art style exercised complete sway over the first period of Russian filmmaking. This tendency coincided with (and was maintained by) the foreign policy of Pathé-Frères, which was to produce culturally specific art pictures, mainly historical costume dramas and ethnographic pictures from peasant life. Khanzhonkov & Co on the other hand aimed its product at the domestic market, boasting cultural and ethnic authenticity in the form of screen versions of Russian classical literature, directed by the studio's leading director Pyotr Chardynin. The literary orientation of Khanzhonkov's style was the trump card in their game against Pathé, to which the latter responded with live tableaux staged after famous Russian paintings.

From 1911 the influence of the film d'art style on Russian filmmaking began to wane. With Pathé and Gaumont production removed from the Russian scene, Russian filmmaking found itself under the influence of the Danish and Italian salon melodrama. The scene of action shifted from past to present and from the countryside to the city and serious costume drama gave way to sophisticated melodrama with a decadent flavour".[1]


"Following the tradition of the magic lantern show, or utsushie, early films were shown at variety halls, rental halls, or ordinary theatres, alongside presentations in different media. Many of the first Japanese films recorded scenes from kabuki: in 1897, Momijigari (Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves) and Ninin Dojoji (Two People at Dojo Temple, 1899) were filmed by Tsunekichi Shibata, and Tsuneji Tsuchiya made Nio no ukisu (The Floating Nest of the Little Grebe, 1900). Momijigari, a film of the kabuki play, featuring the legendary actors Danjuro Ichikawa IX and Kikugoro Onoe V, consisted of three shots and already showed a primitive form of film narrativity. The film was kept from public view, as had been Danjuro’s wish, but a year later it was shown to an audience of kabuki actors. According to historian Hiroshi Komatsu, the film was first shown to a general audience on 7 July 1903 when Danjuro fell ill and was unable to appear on stage. He died in September of that year. Happily the film has survived for posterity to treasure (it is held by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo). Ninin Dojoji was the first tinted film ever made in Japan. It was coloured by the Yoshizawa Company, manufacturers of magic lantern apparatus and slides, who later became one of the first Japanese film production companies. When Ninin Dojoji was projected at the kabuki theatre in August 1900, the sponsor created a mock-up of a valley in front of the screen, with a fishfilled pond between the rocks, and a cool breeze generated by an electric fan wafting over the audience. Such extrafilmic devices were an important feature of early Japanese cinema.

Japanese audiences were hungry for domestic subjects, but even as late as 1904 there were no production companies to fulfil their needs. The Komatsu Company, established in 1903, made some subjects for travelling exhibitions in the provinces, but even Yoshizawa Company, the most active, filmed only news subjects, landscapes, and geisha dances, and foreign films, especially from France, still dominated the market. It was the outbreak of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 that vitalized domestic production. A number of journalists and cameramen were sent to the Asian mainland to report on the war, among them motion picture cameramen Tsunekichi Shibata and Kozaburo Fujiwara, whose war films, along with those shot by British cameramen, became extremely popular in Japan. The popularity of war films led to the production of Japanese-made fake documentaries, and, in a similar vein, in 1905-6 a number of French 'reproduction of war' films were released. These fake documentaries of the Russo-Japanese War drew audiences' attention to the differences between fiction and non-fiction films, a distinction that had not been visible in the Japanese film industry up until that point.

Momijigari, 1897

Until 1908 there was no film studio in Japan, and all films were shot in the open air, including the kabuki films that required painted backdrops. However, after visiting the Edison studio in the USA, Kenichi Kawaura, the head of Yoshizawa Company, built a glass studio in Meguro, Tokyo, completed in January 1908. Soon afterwards, Pathé built a film studio in Okubo, Tokyo, the Yokota Company followed suit in Kyoto, and a year later the Fukuhodo Company started film-making in the Hanamidera studio, also in Tokyo. From 1909, then, systematic film-making, particularly of fiction films, could begin, and these four companies formed the mainstream of that production in the early years.

The Japanese developed a unique way of showing films, borrowed from the traditions of the staged kabuki and Noh, which lasted throughout the silent period; a benshi, who explained the filmic image to the audiences, attended each performance. In the primitive era they introduced the films and told their outlines to the audience before the show began. But, as the films became longer and increasingly complex, the benshi explained the scenes and spoke the dialogue, accompanied by Japanese music, while the silent images flickered on the screen. The system of one or sometimes several players narrating from outside the filmic image prevented Japanese cinema's complete assimilation to the western form of film practice. The narrative function of the intertitles and the shot organization tended to be simplified as much as possible to emphasize the skill of the benshi in describing the narrative development of the film, the meaning of the scene, the atmosphere. and the feelings of the characters. There were few intertitles in Japanese films even in the late 1910s. and in most cases they functioned only as captions to each chapter of the story. Similarly. the dominance of the benshi's voice obliged the exclusion of the short take and any rapid action by the actors. By the 1910s. the popularity of the benshi became so enormous that they exerted as much power over the finished look of a film as any of the production companies, if not more.

This is not to say, however, that Japanese films did not adopt any western influences. However, similarities with western cinema were superficial, and Japanese films preserved a unique flavour throughout the 1910s. The existence of the benshi as a narrator 'outside' the film meant that the primary purpose of the mise en scène of Japanese cinema was representing the characters' interactions and changes of feeling and mood within each scene. rather than constructing an illusion of a smoothly developing story. There were some, however who did attempt to assimilate western filmic forms into early Japanese film; Shin hototogisu (The Cuckoo: A New Version, 1909). directed by Shisetsu Iwafuji, used flashbacks, and Matsu no midori (The Green of the Pine, 1911) used a film-within-a-film as the climax of the narrative. Even these works. however. adopted the traditional theatrical rule that the female role was to be played by an oyama. the special male actor who always played the women's roles. Until the early 1920s. there were very few actresses in Japanese cinema. because it was believed that femininity could be rendered more effectively by an oyama than by a real woman".[1] The first female Japanese performer to appear in a film professionally was the dancer/actress Tokuko Nagai Takagi, who appeared in four shorts for the American-based Thanhouser Company between 1911 and 1914.

Related Articles

Melies Sir Arne's Treasure (1919)
The Early Years (1895 - 1906) National Cinemas (1913 - 1919)
Die Nibelungen: Siegfried (1924) Intolerance (1916)
The Late Silent Era (1919 - 1927) Silent Hollywood (1895-1927)