Friday, September 5, 2014

Early Film and Brass-Era Automobiles

"Automobile Parade"

The Mechanical Arts and the Coming of the Machine Age
            To a large degree, modern culture as we understand it owes much to the concurrent emergence of the automobile and motion picture. Introduced at roughly the same time, cars and film grew in a synergistic relationship with one another. One would be hard pressed to find a film depicting modern life where the automobile does not carry some bit of significance in the progression of the story. From simply transporting people from one place to another to conveying nostalgia, creating the elaborate chase scenes found in so many modern action films, or enabling characters to enter in a dialogue while in an isolated space, the automobile has an established role in film.
            Thus, it is virtually impossible to understate the significance of the automobile in the evolution of film. From being a vehicle for transporting characters from scene to scene to a weapon in the hands of a demented driver, much drama, comedy and tragedy in film have taken place in and around the automobile. Despite this, the topic of automobile and film has been rarely addressed systematically or comprehensively. Film can sell automobiles and automobiles can sell a particular film. The automobile strongly influenced the film industry, from being a major “character,” to shaping film techniques involving motion and camera angle.
            Several decades ago, film scholar Julian Smith drew on the vast collection at the Library of Congress to survey hundreds of films made before 1920. Smith’s work uncovered short documentaries like Automobile Parade or the 1902 one reel, A Unique Race Between Elephant, Bicycle, Camel, Horse and Automobile. Each of these short films featured mechanical novelty associated with the early automobile.45 The first film to depict the automobile was Thomas Edison’s 1900 short, Automobile Parade. It featured cars driven by Newport, Rhode Island’s motoring elite, along with stray pedestrians, horse-drawn carriages, and bicycles and tricycles.46
            Cars were first featured in the 1903 narrative film Runaway Match. This work employed a theme that was to recur again and again – a rebellious couple elopes in a car to avoid the insensitive opposition of her rich father to their intentions to marry. Because of the car, young lovers, characteristically never thinking of the long term, escaped from a father, who was perhaps more wise and practical than given credit for. Thus, traditional courtship patterns were challenged by the possibilities of flexible transportation. Now a middle-class man had the same freedom as one more affluent, and glandular impulses were triumphant.
            Racing was critical to early technological developments, enhancing a manufacturer’s reputation as well as fueling popular enthusiasm for the automobile among all classes. In October 1904 the Vanderbilt Cup races on Long Island, New York were filmed for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. The scenes in this film are remarkable, and include an international cast of cars, what appeared to be a challenging road course, and a variety of camera angles. It set the standard for the hundreds of racing films that would follow.47
            Early films played off the dangerous side of the automobile. The portrayal of risky accidents evidently enhanced a sense of adventure; however, accidents as depicted in the crashes contained in the 1909 Edison film Happy Accidents rarely killed anyone in action-adventure films and certainly not comedies. With few exceptions, the villain got what he deserved. Slapstick accidents, a staple of early comedy like Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kop series, trivialized crashes – they resulted from clear incompetence rather than automobile design, and driver and passengers were never killed or seriously injured.48

            One such example was Sennett’s Gussle’s Day of Rest, produced in March 1915 and featuring a Ford Model T. The day at an ocean resort begins with an accident in which Gussle’s plain-looking, overweight wife is run over by a Model T driven by a middle-aged man with a beautiful young companion at his side. Perhaps the first message of the film is that a car – even a Ford Model T – can take you far with attractive women. But this blonde has eyes elsewhere, including for Gussle, who ends up trying to escape from his wife and the woman’s friend by taking the Ford on what becomes a rollicking chase. A second theme might be that while you can attract girls with a car, you might not be able to keep them. Ultimately, Gussle and his blond companion are buried in a landslide, and the story ends with a grin.49

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