Monday, March 08, 2010

Alfred Clark: Narrative and Special Effects Pioneer

In late 1895, Thomas Edison replaced W.K.L. Dickson with Alfred Clark as supervising director of his film division. Dickson, of course, is the man generally credited with the actual invention of the Kinetoscope, the device patented and distributed by Thomas Edison as a peep-show viewer for the earliest films produced in the United States.

Comparatively little has been written on the contributions of Alfred Clark to the early American cinema, but this film, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots”, which he produced in 1895, is a testament to the innovations in storytelling that Clark brought to the medium.

This is one of the earliest films to feature a historical re-creation of a scene. Earlier Edison films, of course, featured re-creations of contemporary scenes (“The Barbershop”, dating from 1893, for instance). Perhaps the only other film to pre-date this in terms of staging a historical re-creation was “Blacksmithing Scene”, which -- as Charles Musser has noted* -- depicts an earlier era of the blacksmith shop, with the three men passing around a bottle of beer.

In any case, “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” can safely be called the first historical film in the sense we have come to think of it. Clark stages in the action against a white backdrop, suggesting that this is also one of the earliest Edison films to be photographed outside of the Black Maria. Clark conveys a sense of distance by dividing the frame into four rows of actors: Mary, in the front; the executioner directly behind Mary; two officers behind the executioner; and finally, a row of four guards in the very background. This creates a much greater sense of spatial dimensions than was commonly scene in the Edison films shot against the flat, black backdrop of the Black Maria, which utilized very little sense of depth at all.

There is, of course, the fact that by staging a historical re-enactment, Clark is also working with a heightened level of narrative. The story, as it is, is quite simple-depicting a single event. But rather than the documentary-like subjects that Edison had showcased in the months priors (“Sandow”, “Annie Oakley”), this film features actors portraying characters, and acting out a very rudimentary scenario.

Mention should be made, too, of the special effects; in this case, stop-motion. Clark may very well have been the first filmmaker to utilize this technique. The effect is actually quite convincing here, as Mary (actually played by a male actor) kneels down, the cut is made as she is replaced with a dummy, whose head is (quite realistically) severed right in front of the viewer’s eye. It’s difficult to know how viewers in 1895 would have responded to this. It’s hard to imagine that they could have been technically savvy enough to understand the way in which the effect was achieved, even if they believed (or wanted to believe) that a real human head wasn’t actually being severed.

The film was produced on August 28, 1895, predating the Lumiere screenings at the Grand CafĂ© by exactly four months. It’s worth noting that, while the Lumiere films screened at their December 28th show are often heralded as the “birth” of the motion picture, Edison, Dickson and Alfred Clark had already achieved a remarkable degree of technical sophistication.

Largely overlooked in the history of both narrative and special effects, Alfred Clark’s “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” stands as an important, early landmark film in its use of both techniques. It’s rather unique among the other Edison films of the period. Alfred Clark is one filmmaker of the early American cinema whose reputation is ripe for re-appraisal.

*See Musser's program notes on "Blacksmithing Scene" included on the DVD Edison: The Invention of the Movies (Kino International, 2005).

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