Just Like in the Movies Episode Four:  In Pursuit of Dracula

Micah S. Harris

There can be little doubt that most people know the world’s most famous vampire from the movies rather than Bram Stoker’s novel, even though Dracula has never been out of print since its 1897 debut. Although it was the movies that created “the legend” that light from the sun will kill a vampire, Dracula owes his immortality to another kind of light, that of the illuminated movie screen.

As of 2012, the Guinness Book of World Records found Count Dracula to be the most portrayed literary character on the big screen with 272 appearances.*

However, this month we are concerned with the first two, both silent, both foreign, and both illegal.  

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Just Like in the Movies: Celluloid’s Mitochondrial Eve – The Lost Woman Who Gave Movies the First Screen Story

Micah S. Harris

Who was Alice Guy-Blaché?  Quite simply the mother of movies that tell stories.   This visionary French woman, while still young and working as a secretary, was the first to realize the narrative potential of film. That you have, quite possibly, never heard of her is THE gross injustice in the history of cinema.

Alice Guy-Blaché

Alice Guy-Blaché belongs in the same pantheon of film pioneers such as the Lumières, Griffith, W.K.L. Dickson, Edison, Méliès, and Edwin S. Porter. So, step aside like gentlemen, boys, and let’s give Alice Guy-Blaché her proper, prominent place in movie history.

Alice was a woman of several cinematic firsts, but chief among them is that she is the first person who ever sat down to create a story with the intent that it would be told by projected images on a screen. More, she was the first to take movie storytelling as a “calling,”—and the first to tackle film with the specific agenda of pursuing and exploring its narrative possibilities.

More, she was the first screenwriter to take the reins of her own story material from behind the camera.  You see, Alice also invented modern movie directing, making her the first auteur, almost forty years before Preston Sturges pioneered the role of “writer/director” in Hollywood, and roughly a half-century before her native France’s “New Wave.”

In short, Alice’s DNA is all over modern movie storytelling. But, why, then, you rightly may wonder, have I (probably) never heard of her? Who was cinema storytelling’s Mitochondrial Eve?

Fortunately, she can indeed be found, though she has been the victim of recurrent, aggressive efforts to see that she vanish into the mists of antiquity. Not only have her films been credited in the history books to other people—who never directed a film a day in their lives—but while she was still making them, a colleague tried to have her pushed aside once she all but single-handedly had gotten her employees’ film business up and running and profitable. To say nothing of the head of the studio’s workshop, who went out on a cold winter’s night, took an axe to the standing sets of her film (then in production), and made firewood out of them.

Alice Guy-Blaché on the set of “The Life of Christ”

Alice did not begin by wishing to make movies. She simply wanted a job. While barely more than a girl, she found herself the sole caretaker of her elderly mother, after her father’s death and her sisters’ marriages. A friend suggested to her mother that the eighteen-year old might be able to support them if she learned the marketable new skill of shorthand typewriting (the late nineteenth century equivalent of a woman armed with Macintosh Apple savvy in the ‘80s).

Seeking work as a secretary, one of the businesses she called upon was the Gaumont Brothers’ company.  They were pioneers in early movie technology. Paramount on their agenda was to discover a way to shift the accessibility of moving images through a solitary peephole to that of projecting them on a screen for group enjoyment.

Initially hesitant to hire her because of her age, her prospective employer became charmed by Alice’s combination of girlishness and wit during their job interview (when he mentioned his concern about handing over such important duties to someone so young, the quick Alice replied “I will get over that” to which he laughed and responded “Yes, alas, you will”).  Alice left with the job.

The Gaumonts’ company were beaten in their race to project movies by the rival Lumière Brothers. Alice and her employers were among the viewers at the historic March 22, 1895 first showing of a movie on a screen for an audience (she remembered seeing the Lumières hanging up the sheet that was used).

Alice recalls only seeing one of their series of films that day, that of the workers exiting the factory. Apparently, this was the only short shown on that historic date, the rest of the films, including “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”—the first movie with a plot—were apparently not yet part of the Lumières itinerary. If this is the case, there is no evolutionary link between their creation of screen narrative and the first story conceived for the screen.

In fact, the Lumières’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” immediately became, shall we say, genetically isolated at the genesis of film storytelling—an Adam with no Eve. Many months after Alice saw the Lumières’ work in a truncated presentation, Georges Méliès got full exposure at their first public showing in December of the same year. What impressed Méliès, though, was the theatrical magic potential of the movies, not that the Lumières’ had unveiled a new medium for storytelling.

As Charles Darwin might phrase it, Méliès own movie narratives that followed appeared “incidentally,” primarily as a mechanism to showcase his special effects and not “the point” of the thing. If he advanced the scope of movie storytelling along the way…well, that was nice, too.  And, despite their continuing charm, pioneering film techniques, and iconic imagery, Méliès’ staginess made them an evolutionary dead end in how to tell a story on the big screen.

Fortunately, Alice Guy-Blaché conceived…but not, as so often has been the case, because she found the new boy on the block fascinating. He (“the new boy” being the Lumière brothers “Workers Exiting the Lumière Factory” film in this analogy) only had the advantage of being the only boy on the block.

Still from “The Fairy of the Cabbages”

Which is enough to get a girl’s attention, but that will only get you so far. Not to say Alice wasn’t impressed by this attention-grabbing male specimen…she was impressed with how utterly lacking in imagination it was in its use of this exciting new medium. She feared film would be regulated to merely documenting factual, mundane occurrences. Alice alone saw the potential for putting entertaining stories on film.

I would venture that Alice first grasped the storytelling possibilities of film because this particular woman 1) long had a love of literature (her father had run a bookshop in Chile) and a background in amateur theater, and 2) she brought in a perception outside the common, myopic, left brain orientation of those men laboring in the emerging medium.  There were no males interested in making stories with the movies at their very beginning because their concerns were all technical.

Thus, the narrative possibilities went right by the Lumière Brothers, Alice’s employees the Gaumont Brothers, Thomas Edison, and, to some extent, even George Méliès—who was more concerned about special effects than stories, and certainly more so than the  characters. Alice Guy-Blaché first brought the right side of the brain to movie making.

Alice approached her employers with this idea. They gave her permission to use their equipment to shoot her film…as long as it did not interfere with her secretarial duties. And by Spring of the next year, she was at work on the “The Fairy of the Cabbages,” the longest running movie made at this time (around an entire minute).

Alice Guy-Blaché created the genre of movie storytelling on her lunch hour. Though, more accurately, it was a series of lunch hours which she took to film the short story she conceived around the answer to that age-old question, “where do babies come from?” The answer, of course, being the cabbage patch.

The film is lost (though she remade it twice and at least parts of those versions are available for viewing). To judge from the revisions, the story’s exposition is established by showing a young couple longingly watching a mother with her baby. Presumably, they are unable to conceive. A fairy appears in a nearby cabbage patch. This is a fairy on a mission, one of those of the “intervention-on-behalf-of miserable-humans” variety favored by fairies everywhere. Through a magic dance, she conjures a baby beneath a cabbage, where, for some reason, the wistful mother will be certain to come across it.

Perhaps because she habitually sits among the cabbages and peas? Alas, this bit of plot resolution is lost with the rest of the original version.

Now, this is fairy tale material to be sure, but, I would argue that with only the second movie to be made with a narrative, Alice brought the first psychological realism to a movie character. It wasn’t King Lear, and it was pretty basic psychology (she did only have a minute, after all), but one might argue that her “Fairy of the Cabbages” did for the movies, even in a small way, what Samuel Richardson’s Pamela did for the novel back in 1740.

Interestingly, what Alice Guy-Blaché offers here, in the second narrative tale ever put to film, is in some ways the inverse of the first.

The Lumières’ fictional tale is stereotypically masculine in its subject matter : a story of physical pain, a testosterone-fueled aggressive one, whose slapstick and conflict resolution do, in fact, give us cinema’s first chase scene.

Alice’s story, by contrast, is preoccupied with child bearing and birth, a concern for women in a way that is outside the ken of men. Because the young woman cannot conceive, the pain here is primarily emotional and psychological, that is to say internal conflict, and the story is about relationships—particularly family ones.

So, here we have the first two movies to ever tell a story, one by men, one by a woman. And, in accord with the sex of either’s creator, the Lumière’s movie is exactly the kind of story at the theater many men still tend to enjoy as men and Alice Guy-Blaché’s movie exactly the kind many women enjoy almost 125 years later. Alice’s film also features a dance number as part of the plot resolution, foreshadowing its use in turning the course of countless romantic conflicts in the sundry cinematic musical romances to come.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s “Fairy of the Cabbages” is all very “girly” and it is extremely unlikely that the thought would have ever entered the Lumière brothers’ heads to make anything like it. As unlikely as Alice would have, left on her own in her initial outing, come up with the first “action movie” as they did.

To say the subject matter of “The Fairy of the Cabbages” was stereotypically feminine is not to say that Alice Guy-Blaché was. Her contribution to the developing movie industry was not a pretty face and figure to be filmed. She was, as I said, an auteur, working behind the camera.  She was also a businesswoman, and, to this day, the only woman to have owned her own movie studio.

And when she began, the right for women to vote in France was still fifty years away. The turn of the twentieth-century was very much a man’s world—but she thrived on a particular turf: the fledgling movie industry.  She understood the technical aspects of filmmaking—cinematography, mise en scene and special effects processes—and explored the scope and range and possibilities they presented in conveying a narrative in ways a book or the stage could not.

As can still be seen in her 36 minute, 1906 epic The Life of Christ, Alice evolved past her contemporary George Méliès. There is much of Méliès’ type of presentation here, to be sure. But Christ’s walking on the water scene, done with a location filmed ocean, is an uniquely quiet kind of cinematic spectacle.

Alice figured out how to execute the scene technically, and it is distinctly her cinematic vision. It conveys the Son of God’s power over nature with serenity.  No one ever accused Méliès of “quiet” or “serenity.” The scene of Joseph and Mary among the pyramids and Sphinx during their flight to Egypt remains jaw-dropping imagery (foreshadowing some of director Ken Rusell’s retro-visual sense eighty years later).

Méliès’ evolutionary line of movie storytelling rather Neanderthaled-out. And, as I said earlier, the Lumière Brothers’ premiere narrative film appears genetically isolated from everyone else. Alice evolved.

But all of the above’s contemporary, Britain’s James Williamson, represented the appearance of the Cro-Magnon line of movie storytelling, with his short films Fire! (1901) and Stop Thief (also 1901). That is to say, movie stories first told in an early, if rudimentary so, modern style.

Still from “The Life of Christ”

If the mother of cinematic storytelling, with no evolutionary link to the Lumière brothers’ “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” was an act of special creation, well…the new movie industry still needed its mitochondrial Adam for its Eve.

That Adam would be the complementary visionary to Alice, the American Edwin S. Porter, the immediate descendent in the James Williamson evolutionary line. Porter carried Williamson’s species of moving storytelling forward while Williamson himself devolved back to Méliès’ methods with “The Little Match Girl.”

Porter’s The Great Train Robbery in 1903 was immediately perceived as something excitingly new because of its still-recognizably modern cinematic techniques employed in telling the story. Porter brought something as necessary to the movie genome as needed as Alice’s introduction of visual narrative storytelling, if visual narrative storytelling was going to survive.

But first, there had to be movie stories to tell. It does take two, after all, and a movie maternity test reveals the forgotten Alice Guy-Blaché’s DNA is inextricably combined with Porter’s in every frame of every story created specifically for the big screen today.

Just Like in the Movies: The Origins of Cinematic Narrative

Micah S. Harris

Welcome to our latest column, Micah S. Harris’ Just Like in the Movies. While Harris is a PulpArk New Pulp Awards winning author, well-known for his historical fantasy, in his day job he’s a film professor and historian. On the fourth Thursday of every month, Micah will stop by to speak about film history, and lessons authors can learn from it.

The Lumière brothers were not the first movie makers to project a film on a screen for an audience. That historical honor goes to those shadowy figures of cinema history, the Latham family. They created the sports event “pay-per-view” in May of 1895 by charging an audience to watch a filmed boxing match. But the Lumière brothers, who followed in December of that same year, were the first to project a fictional story on a screen for an audience to enjoy.

It only ran for forty-nine seconds and was but one of several other shorts on the itinerary that evening. Most likely, the audience did not realize that they were witnessing the birth of a revolutionary form of storytelling. Just seeing moving images of the traffic at this time was overwhelming! The short was not singled out as anything special by the brothers who, ironically enough, never really got what all the fuss over movies was anyway, and got out of the business after only a decade (though one of them returned to the medium to pioneer 3-D in the 1930s).

But it did tell a fictional story. Not that it was Shakespeare or anything. And it’s extremely doubtful there was a script. But it was staged (read: “made up”), and possesses basic story construction.

Little Miss Muffet’s Basic Elements of Storytelling

Former Marvel Comics editor Jim Shooter pointed out that a familiar nursery rhyme encapsulates the elements of a plot: “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.”

Here are the basic elements of storytelling. First, “the status quo” as Shooter called it. That is, what is the situation as normal, the state of affairs, the way things are going, when the story begins. This is classically called “exposition.” In this case, it’s Miss Muffet, on tuffet, going a bit heavier on the dairy products than is perhaps proportionate in a well-balanced diet.

Then comes “conflict.” Enter the spider who by frightening her upsets the status quo which our character has expected to continue on as is the norm.

And then we have “resolution:” that arachnophobe little Miss Muffet makes the decision to not stay in this suddenly uncomfortable situation and vamooses, surrendering her tuffet to the triumphant spider.

Exposition, conflict, and resolution in a fictional narrative are all present in the forty-nine seconds of “The Gardner” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”). Take a moment to view this little movie at the link below and see if you can identify all three.

Got it? All right, let’s check your answers.

Exposition: our Gardner (or “Sprinkler” if you will) is watering the lawn. Things are proceeding predictably and then –

Conflict: our “spider” here is the pest of a kid who steps on the hose, ceasing the flow of water our Gardner has come to expect. In the first instance of slapstick projected on a movie screen for an audience, he decides to look down the hose. The predictable occurs.

Resolution: our adorable “imp” leads the Gardner on an abbreviated merry chase, he’s captured, corporal punishment administered, and watering resumed: The End.

Out of all the short films that amazed the Lumière Brothers’ audience that night in late December 1895, this was probably the most popular. At least, it was when the “The Gardner” played in London. Charles H. Webster, a representative of rival film pioneer Thomas Edison’s partner Norman Raff, reported the water-in-the-face bit “caught the house by storm.”  But it’s important to note that the success of this moment of slapstick owed much to being in the context of a narrative which heightened the “banana peel moment.”

Just contrast “The Gardner” with “Horse Trick Riders” which the Lumières subsequently screened that evening, in which a guy repeatedly trying to mount a horse keeps hitting the ground instead. It’s simply there, as though you were observing the embarrassing situation on the spot as you were standing around. There is no set-up, no context, no pacing, no structure: just a 120 year old record of one man’s humiliation.

While “The Gardner” was the first movie to place a fictional narrative on screen for an audience, I can’t say it was especially influential. But it quickly became apparent to those involved that the new medium was well-suited for presenting stories.  The movie storytelling that followed “The Gardner” tended to be along the lines of either a filmed play with stage pageantry and the addition of trick photography, or, as screenwriter Marc Norman has noted in his book What Happens Next, a gag comic strip, particularly a mildly risqué gag comic strip.

Take, for example, “How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed” which brought this (and I quote an exhibitor’s catalogue description) “old and always popular story” to the screen. I do not deem it necessary to delve into the reasons for its popularity, but, as to its antiquity, for the pun to work, this bygone classic can neither possibly be older than the English word “dress,” which enters the language with the French invasion of 1066 nor before it was employed in the sense of “decorate” or “adorn” in the late fourteenth century, the same period as the ascension of Henry the Fourth to the throne, for whom salad dressing is a documented delectation. So we have at least something of a terminus a quo for Bridget in her unfortunate state of dishabille, a victim of her own inability to comprehend syntax. But I undress. Uh, digress.

According to Norman, the first original screenplays tended toward this type of lowbrow subject matter. They were written for short films, twenty some feet in length, to move toward a punchline of some sort. Some sort of “punch” indeed. As in “The Pretty Stenographer; or Caught In the Act,” when a wife walks in on her elderly husband giving his secretary a kiss and drags him by the ear to his knees. (Just to make sure you’re keeping up with our lesson: the wife, of course, would be the spider in this scenario, upsetting her husband and the pretty stenographer’s curds and whey in a resolution given away by its own spoiler of a subtitle. How weighty this compromise of dramatic tension, let the reader decide).

In contrast to these films based on original material (discounting “How Bridgette Served the Salad Undressed,” adapted, as it was, from that “old and always popular story”), screenplays or scenarios in these early days based on source material seemed to tend more to be ambitious, sophisticated, and even lofty in their desired effect on the audience. The first movie adapted from source material was based on Salmi Morse’s Passion Play. It was filmed in 1897 atop a New York office building, complete with camels and a heavenly ascension.

Salmi Morse, sans office building

Other early examples are Méliès’ turn of the century adaptations of Cinderella in 1899 and the Verne and Wells inspired A Trip to the Moon in 1902.

It probably comes as a surprise for the modern theater goer to learn that movies were not initially and universally seen as a medium of storytelling with revolutionary potential for presenting a narrative. They were a novelty, often just one more item on a vaudeville bill of entertainment alongside requisite dogs walking on their hindlegs, ventriloquist routines, and soft shoeing. A tendency to make those movies that did have a story a moving gag comic strip and/or dirty joke would not have lifted this reputation. And the novelty, initially so shocking to naïve audiences in its virtual reality, was wearing off.

What saved movies was the discovery and realization of their unique storytelling possibilities.

The Great Train Robbery

The application of modern film techniques for the first time in the service of a narrative by Edwin Porter with Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery in 1903 created a new vocabulary for the writers as well as technicians of film. Now there were exciting alternatives in storytelling that created a new narrative technique. When these possibilities were actualized, Porter, as someone has said, changed the movies into The Movies.

Subsequent to Porter, in thinking of a screen story, a writer could consider that scenes might be shot out of sequence, different angles could capture the same moment, and cross-cutting in the editing stage could show more than one event happening at the same time. Any constrictions that might have been lingering from transferring the way a visual story was presented on a stage to how it was told on the screen were now completely cast off.

Cinematic storytelling had moved into territory the Lumière Brothers could not have foreseen a mere eight years earlier. Nor, apparently, did they care that they had originated a new narrative genre. Mainly technicians, not storytellers, perhaps they never realized it.

But the rest of the world, leaning forward on its collective nickelodeon bench, had all eyes trained on the screen where our uncompromised heroine was tied to railroad tracks by a man in a black hat, the cross-editing induced tension mounting as to whether the train or the hero would reach her first. Only the remainder of the new century would reveal how far this new form of narrative with its unprecedented storytelling techniques could possibly go.