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1904 –1905 Movies and Chasing the Missing Link(s) ANDRÉ GAUDREAULT As far as the development of motion pictures is concerned, 1904 and 1905 could be seen as years of revolution and, at the same time, of consolidation of production and exhibition. As far as production is concerned, these are the years when the chase film came on the scene; it would play a key role in the evolution of what we call “film form.” With respect to exhibition, these are the years in which itinerant exhibition gave way to fixed-venue exhibition. These two developments were the most emblematic of the transformations—mutations, we might say—taking place in the newborn world of kinematography in the early years of the century. The importance of the chase film has by now been well established. Charles Musser even makes the audacious claim that, with the 1904 chase film Personal, “the Biograph Company was the first in the United States, if not the world, to make the decisive shift toward fiction ‘feature’ films— headline attractions that filled at least half a thousand-foot reel” (Emergence 375). This claim is indicative of the capital importance for film historians of the chase film at this crucial point in film history. Establishing its structure as indispensable, as an inescapable model, the chase film encouraged filmmakers to conceive of animated views as a series of juxtaposed tableaux in need of stronger links between them. For several years, the first multi-shot films (in contrast to single-shot films) had been presenting the viewer with a significant narrative challenge: the large gaps that the narrative left between tableaux made understanding the film difficult in the absence of adequate links. Viewers had to fill in these gaps if they were to grasp the gist of what they were seeing, although a well-placed intertitle, a benevolent lecturer, or familiarity with the story being told sometimes made this challenge less insurmountable. Generally speaking, the chase film is the essence of simplicity. It poses no such problems of comprehension, if only because its structure is based on repeating the same basic set-up, shot after shot. An initial shot shows an 133 event that sets the chase in motion, and the tableaux that follow almost invariably show the same action: a character (or sometimes several characters ) runs toward the camera (and thus toward the viewer) and then leaves our field of vision, at which point several (rarely just one) characters appear in the background in pursuit, following the same route. This is how Personal unfolds, as do the following American films, some of the best known of the entire period: The Bold Bank Robbery (Lubin), The Escaped Lunatic (Biograph), How a French Nobleman Got a Wife through the New York Herald “Personal” Columns (Edison), The Lost Child (Biograph), The Maniac Chase (Edison), and The Suburbanites (Biograph), all from 1904; and The Counterfeiters (Lubin), Stolen by Gypsies (Edison), Tom, Tom, the Piper’s Son (Biograph), and The White Caps (Edison), from 1905. In the exhibition sector, the transition from itinerant to fixed-venue exhibition came about, in particular, through the introduction of another kind of link (a “missing link” in this case) between the film producer and the exhibitor: the film renter (known as film exchanges). Somehow, films had to make their way from the producer to the exhibitor’s projection facilities in an economically sensible way. The mere presence of this new intermediary between the producer and the exhibitor, with its built-in predictability and regularity of operation, made possible, late in this period, the appearance of a specifically American institution: the nickelodeon, the first form of specialized moving picture theater. As I explain below, the creation of links, even tenuous ones, between the tableaux in multi-shot films and the rise of the missing link between film producers and exhibitors transformed the emerging world of kinematography. The very nature of the chase film fits quite well with the project of creating specialized moving picture theaters. We might even say that chase films and the nickelodeon were two sides of the same coin: both are clear signs of the predominant role that stories were beginning to take in films, or, put a little differently, of the predominant role that story films were beginning to take in cinema. In order to grow and spread, nickelodeons needed narrative films such as chase films, which depicted fairly breathless adventures and comic incidents and made it possible to introduce unexpected situations...


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