1910 Was the Best Year in American Film to That Point
Note: This is the fifty-ninth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite 1910 film, A CHRISTMAS CAROL, directed by J. Searle Dawley, Charles Kent, and Ashley Miller.
Perhaps it’s fitting that the first year on my favorite films list entirely dominated by five American films is a relatively weak year for film sandwiched between two pretty strong ones. 1910 is, also fittingly, a turning point year, as American film production began to look west and take on the structure of the shorts of pre-THE BIRTH OF A NATION (1915) Hollywood. As I’ve written my essays for the year, I feel like I’ve been beating a dead horse with this point. But it cannot be understated: American film took on a relevance, at least in hindsight, that it never had before in 1910.
On one hand, that may be an obvious statement; of course American film was consistently growing. On the other, it may belie the technical and commercial innovations spurred by, at first, Thomas Edison and his studios and a wellspring of subsequent of entrepreneurs. But artistically, 1910 might just be the first year that American film wasn’t incredibly outclassed by not only French films, in my eyes the film capital of the world at the time, but other European offerings. At least from the perspective of this series, that’s due to strong adaptations of well-known stories.
But it’s also because the trend of obscuring the stars and directors of films was being broken by American films. Let me be clear: I’m not ridiculously implying that anyone really got credit in 1910! But with epithets like the “Vitagraph Girl” and “Biograph Girl,” performers like Florence Turner and Florence Lawerence were being at least physically recognized in the films, if not by name. And the second Biograph Girl did indeed break into the star stratosphere. While Lawrence began to get credit before her, Mary Pickford truly became the first Hollywood star in the way we know it today. Her relationship with D.W. Griffith, in which she was succeeded by Lillian Gish, could also be said to have lifted his status to that of the first respected auteur, especially in America. Of course, great pioneers preceded him, but Georges Méliès, Alice Guy-Blaché, and others like them were never recognized during their time in the sun by the general public.
This is all to beat that dead horse some more and say Hollywood was coming. Soon. And films like A CHRISTMAS CAROL (1910), and the others I’ve already written about for this year, represented that.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL was the third adaptation of Charles Dickens’ novella, and I’ve written about the first before. Nine years later, J. Searle Dawley, Charles Kent, and Ashley Miller’s approach is not that different, just slightly longer. Dawley’s already been featured quite a bit recently for his other literary adaptations for Edison, which were actually admirably ambitious projects for 15 minute films. Kent, a latecomer to film the same year as Dawley (1908) after years of acting on stage, also co-directed A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1909) with Dawley. Not much information about Miller exists, but knowing he was over 40 before he had his first film credit for Edison in 1909, it would appear he was in the same boat as his co-directors. It’s not clear, though, why these three men who had proven reliable enough to direct films on their own, or even in pairs, were brought together in a three-way directing assignment. It may just boil down to retroactive crediting confusion; Dawley is often credited as sole director, but IMDB lists the three.
In any event, this is also great insight into the burgeoning film industry; it needed more talent, and it needed talent that could make it, at least to the point of increasing profitability, more artistically legitimate. Audiences wanted more than simple novelties by then, and this transition period represented producers’ efforts to give them the time-tested appeal of stage-like experiences. Not until the French and Italian directors (and yes, Griffith) of the mid 1910s was the film industry able to bridge that stage-like experience (in depth storytelling, buttressed by feature length capabilities) with true cinematic language.
In the meantime, though, filmmakers continued to try to create those deep, stage-like experiences with limited time and, I guess fittingly, stage bound sets and cinematography. This stretching only stressed how cramped the traditional filmmaking style was. Although American film was improving, its exclusive presence on my 1910 list indicates how underwhelming it can be. Being similar to a Christmas Carol film made in 1901, as I mentioned, is not truly favorable to the 1910 A CHRISTMAS CAROL.
To be fair, Marc McDermott’s performance as Ebenezer Scrooge is significantly better than Daniel Smith (unclear) in Walter R. Booth’s SCROOGE, OR, MARLEY’S GHOST (1901). In fact, it’s one of the more notable examples so far of a film performance I really paid attention to. Oh, it’s not nuanced or Oscar-worthy, but it’s convincingly theatrical, instead of…well, unconvincingly theatrical as much of film acting was at the time. His mannerisms towards the end of the film, when Scrooge is happy, are amusing, especially when he gives Bob Cratchit (played by Charles Ogle of FRANKENSTEIN) a little pat on the ass.
Otherwise, the film’s use of special effects are the most standout components. The double exposure isn’t anything new (although Booth’s film didn’t use it to nearly the same extent), but the blend of past/present/future scenes onto “real” scenery to one side of Scrooge is an intriguing sight, and the costume design of his ghostly teachers is fantastical and somewhat of the fée.
A CHRISTMAS CAROL is a stolid thing, even more unbending than the by-the-books adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by fellow Edison director Edwin S. Porter released the same year. It does Dickens’ story well, as well as it can for its time, and that’s fine. It’s just a fraction of the piece of the puzzle of a key time in American film, and film in general, but it does deserve mention as an important part of the growth of the medium. That’s the intent of these essays, and my list; the films I list I list not only because of personal preference, but also because they provide an indication of the art form at their given time. A CHRISTMAS CAROL is not something I’ll turn on to find comfort in the Christmas spirit, or even necessarily the films of yesteryear, but it is educational and, yes, important.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.