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Classic Hollywood: A silent revolution in 'Films of 1912'

The Film Academy's ongoing 'A Century Ago' program will screen a collection of vintage films from 1912 that show a movie industry growing and gaining traction.

December 09, 2012|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Unidentified projectionist in the projection booth at the Stockton Theatre in Stockton, Calif., 1912. A paper calendar on the wall is open to the first week of July 1912."
Unidentified projectionist in the projection booth at the Stockton Theatre… (AMPAS )

Even in 1912, movies audiences had their favorite stars.

Like Maurice Costello, the great-grandfather of Drew Barrymore. In the lighthearted "The Picture Idol," a devoted fan can't stop following him. So Costello sets up a clever ruse of introducing the female admirer to a phony wife and child so she will leave him alone.

"The Picture Idol" is one of the many films screening during the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' program "A Century Ago: The Films of 1912" Thursday evening at the Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood.

Michael Mortilla will provide live musical accompaniment on the piano while the films are presented on a 1909 hand-cranked Power's Model 6 Cameragraph Motion Picture Machine, restored and cranked by Joe Rinaudo.

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Thursday's program also marks the 10th anniversary of the academy's "A Century Ago" series, created and hosted by Randy Haberkamp, the organization's managing director for programming, education and preservation.

Also screening are "Ida's Christmas," which stars Costello's young daughter, Dolores; D.W. Griffith's "An Unseen Enemy," which marked the film debut of silent superstar Lillian Gish and her sister, Dorothy; the Mack Sennett comedy "At Coney Island"; "Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress," with G.W. Anderson; the newsreel "Los Angeles" and a comedy called "Canine Sherlock Holmes," starring a Jack Russell terrier whom Haberkamp says "gives Uggie a run for his money."

The movies came from the Academy Film Archive, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the Nederlands Film Museum and UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Movies started to grow up in 1912. Films began to expand from one-reel shorts to one-hour features. More production moved from New York, New Jersey and Chicago to the West Coast, and directors such as Griffith were expanding the cinematic language through innovative editing and the use of close-ups and location shooting.

"They were being influenced by some of the Italian and French epics that were being produced," Haberkamp said.

And filmmakers realized movies were a way to implement social change.

"There was a lot of social consciousness going on," Haberkamp said. "Some films were being commissioned by people who were interested in homelessness in Chicago or child labor. There was certainly an awareness of using social themes to attract a more intellectual crowd and also to affect change — to use movies to educate in a more popular sense. Before, movies had been much more a part of vaudeville — a curiosity. People were really taking movies seriously at this point."

Even the way movies were exhibited changed. Nickelodeons were disappearing.

"Theaters were really starting to get much more sophisticated, much larger and going less from a kind of storefront feel," Haberkamp said.

"Theaters were being built all over the country," he noted. "They were what we would think of now as a neighborhood theater."

Women were involved in filmmaking. Alice Guy-Blaché and Lois Weber were directing. Famed writer Anita Loos ("Gentlemen Prefer Blondes") penned her first screenplay, "The New York Hat," starring Mary Pickford and directed by Griffith. Gene Gauntier was starring and writing movies for the Kalem Co., including "From the Manger to the Cross," shot on location in Palestine.

Filmmakers and audiences were tired of stage-bound plots shot against painted backdrops.

"There was much more a sense of real-life locations," Haberkamp said. "Westerns were very popular, and people were looking for more authenticity."

So there was a rapid expansion in 1912 of studios in Los Angeles.

"It had gone from being one studio to a dozen or more," he said. "There was a lot of activity."

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