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'Trick of the Light': The Hollywood Pioneers

By: John Bailey | November 2, 2015

\'Trick of the Light\': The Hollywood Pioneers

In 1980, Thames TV broadcast a 13-part history of Hollywood silent movies titled simply Hollywood. It was written, produced and directed by David Gill and Kevin Brownlow. Since the publication in 1968 of Brownlow's first book, The Parade's Gone By, a lavishly illustrated account of the pioneers of silent cinema, Brownlow has been the veritable point man on the era. His many surveys, his actor and film biographies and monographs, and his historical documentaries have influenced several generations of archivists, critics and lovers of early cinema. In 2004, the American Society of Cinematographers presented Brownlow with a special award of recognition, and seven years later, on Nov. 13, 2010, he received an honorary Oscar at the Academy Governors Awards.
A decade ago, well into the DVD era, there was an attempt to remaster and release the Hollywood series on DVD in higher resolution than the videocassettes and laserdiscs then available. But it faltered over licensing fees, well beyond what the filmmakers could provide, depriving us of the beauty of current digital restoration techniques. Today, even those low-NTSC-resolution sets will, if you can find them, cost about $400.
The book The Parade's Gone By presents a coherent history of early American cinema, and it does so largely through individual, focused profile interviews with many pioneers who were still alive in the late 1960s.
Many of those interviews were filmed as well - provided aging movie stars like the gracious Colleen Moore and beautiful Lillian Gish could overcame resistance to being photographed as senior citizens. Many of these filmed interviews found their way into Brownlow and Gill's documentary Hollywood.
Chapter 17 of The Parade's Gone By is titled "The Cameraman." The next chapter is a profile of Charles Rosher, Mary Pickford's longtime cinematographer, the artist who shared the first Academy Award for cinematography with Karl Struss for Murnau's Sunrise.
Rosher gives Struss only a small mention in his profile, analogous to the smaller shared-credit title in Sunrise.
Episode 11 of Hollywood is titled "Trick of the Light," and it is dedicated to a survey of early cinematography. Several of the era's cameramen are interviewed, including Byron Haskin, a pioneer better known today as the director of the 1951 War of the Worlds, one of several films he made with George Pal. Haskin was a noted visual-effects artist who received three Academy Award nominations. I knew of him from Treasure Island, a feature film he directed for Disney in 1950 starring Robert Newton and Bobby Driscoll; this was most widely seen by my generation a few years later as two episodes of the TV series Disneyland.
In the 1915 film The Cheat, cinematographer Alvin Wyckoff introduced low-key lighting, soon called "Lasky lighting." Along with contributions of art director William Buckland from the Belasco Theater in New York, this dramatic "theatrical" light came to new prominence in Hollywood films. A few years later, it was a signature style in large-budget pictures like the epic features of cinematographer John F. Seitz, whose work with director Rex Ingram in Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Scaramouche, Mare Nostrum and The Prisoner of Zenda paved the way for artists like William Daniels, Oliver Marsh and George Barnes, avatars of the cinematographer-as-artist with defined, individual styles.
In a short vignette, Lee Garmes explains lens exposure before photocell-sensitive light meters, while George Folsey explains how the painful eye burning of "klieg lights" was solved by the simple introduction of a single pane of glass. (Folsey was teaching cinematography at the AFI when I was engaged to shoot an AFI thesis film - though I was not a Fellow - and he loaned me a set of his Scheibe diffusion filters. It is my solitary material link with that first generation of cinematographers.)
Another cameraman featured in this Hollywood episode is Karl Brown, who at age 77 published a memoir of early Hollywood, the must-read Adventures with D.W. Griffith, the most compelling account of Griffith and Billy Bitzer's 1913 move from Fort Lee, N.J., to Hollywood, and the major films they made there, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance. Brown was a 17-year-old assistant at the recently defunct Kinemacolor lab near the five-point intersection of Virgil, Sunset and Hollywood boulevards when several cars carrying Griffith's entourage arrived from the train station. With nudging from his mother, the shy Brown asked Bitzer for a job. Bitzer insisted he made all his own stills, and the lab was already in place. "Couldn't I be your assistant or something? I don't cost much, and I work long hours." Bitzer replied, "Look, kid, all I require of an assistant is a strong back and a weak mind. You don't strike me as being the type."
Foreground to background: D.W. Griffith, Billy Bitzer and Karl Brown.
After Brown invoked the names of Alvin Wyckoff and Johnny Leezer as references, Bitzer recanted. "Report for work tomorrow morning at 9, and I'll show you what you have to do." Brown went on to become a major cinematographer of the era, with credits that included the epic James Cruze Western The Covered Wagon (1923).
Like Haskin (and a long list of cinematographers-turned-directors such as George Stevens and Guy Greene), Brown went on to direct a dozen films and wrote more than three-dozen produced scripts, including episodes of the popular series Death Valley Days.
However, it's his memoir of his five years with Griffith and Bitzer that is a bedrock document of the era.
Griffith returned to New York. Brown married the actress Edna Mae Cooper and went to work for Lasky. Half a century later, at Brownlow's suggestion, Brown wrote his memoir. Brownlow had conducted a long search to find Brown after an AFI screening of Brown's first writing/directing venture, Stark Love (1927). This long-overlooked film was placed on the National Film Preservation Board registry in 2009. It is available as an on-demand DVD from Amazon.
"Trick of the Light" concludes with an extended look at the cinematography of Ben-Hur (1925), including its technical innovations in miniatures and its stunning action sequences. (Up to 42 cameras were used for the chariot race.) The film was a high-water mark of cinematography in the silent era, its heady freedom of camera movement and dynamic coverage soon to be smothered in the first decade of the sound era. One of the film's four credited cinematographers is Karl Struss.
It is a facile, maybe even irresponsible posture to look on the silent era with a kind of grudging resignation, as though we're being required to read fustian poetry like Alexander Pope's. Much of that attitude has changed in the past decade, as archivists have employed miraculous digital restoration tools to bring stunningly alive "old" images to us anew. As well, film festivals, museums and especially TCM's "Silent Sunday Nights" have introduced the sophistication of silent films to new audiences.
The "Trick of the Light" episode of Hollywood is available on YouTube:
As a cinematographer who is becoming more and more intrigued by the history of the camera and the evolution of lighting, the camera and its technical intricacies draw me in. The ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood bears stunning witness to this history, with dozens of photos and cameras on display. And soon, thanks to a long-term loan from the Cinématéque Franšaise, the ASC Clubhouse will also display one of the original Lumiére cameras, sure to occupy pride of place alongside its lauded 3-strip Technicolor brother.

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