It’s a wonder that any old films have survived into the 21st century, given the materials used to make them. Luckily for us, some real gems do still exist.
During these quiet winter Saturdays let’s look, not only at Ned Kelly’s gang, but also at Pauline’s perils, Helen’s hazards and Elaine’s exploits, even though, unfortunately, none is complete.
The situation with those movies is the same thing as if only a few truncated pieces of the original Star Wars trilogy remained now – that’s how popular they once were and how quickly they vanished over roughly three decades.
This is where the materials come in.
The Star Wars movies are digital, but back in the old analog days, early film pioneers had to save images on a photosensitive emulsion that wasn’t sturdy enough to run through a camera, let alone a projector. It only worked when a strong but flexible film base carried the emulsion
At first they used a paper base, but that was very fragile and required complicated machinery – or maybe paper just wasn’t flammable enough? Anyway, for some reason they switched over to nitrocellulose, a/k/a/ guncotton.
Nitrocellulose can be the explosive part in torpedoes and mines as well as smokeless gunpowder, and if you’re Jules Verne you can also use it to launch a craft to the Moon.
However, by the start of the 20th century it also already had a long, peaceful history in photography. People like Matthew Brady had been using it for years, thanks to its usefulness in the wet collodion process.
Plasticized with camphor, nitrocellulose made the perfect film base when motion pictures first became a thing. You just had to be careful around it.
Sometimes, though, careful wasn’t good enough. Nitrate film could auto-ignite in the projection booth. Several horrific fires happened at movie screenings. It was such a problem, in fact, that they eventually started lining projection booths with asbestos, giving the unlucky projectionist a choice between flames and mesothelioma.
Besides being a fire hazard, nitrate film decayed very quickly, leaving behind equally flammable gas and dust.
What with fire and decay, the intentional destruction of played-out movies by the studios, and fires in the National Archives and the George Eastman House nitrate film vaults in 1978, it’s estimated that 85% to 90% of all films made during the silent era are gone forever.
This is a real tragedy.
Recycling film fragments has been attempted, with interesting results, but it doesn’t really have mass appeal:
Hey, is that a clip from The Wrath of the Gods in there? Yes, it is.
Unlike the other fragments Bill Morrison used to make Decasia, researchers were able to salvage enough of today’s movie for us to see what the original must have been like.
The first full-length feature film
The first feature film ever made was a rousing adventure tale – what survives of The Story of the Kelly Gang today shows that the complete version might have ranked alongside Indiana Jones and other modern action films.
This isn’t hyperbole. It had the box office results to prove it.
In 1906, the Australian production companies of J. & N. Tait and Johnson and Gibson, working on a very low budget, made a one-hour film about the legendary bushranger Ned Kelly, who had been hanged 26 years earlier.
Although banned in a few places for supposedly causing juvenile crime and glorifying the criminal way of life, the movie was wildly successful. They made their budget back in the first week, and The Story of the Kelly Gang went on to earn 25 times its budget during a 20-year run in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland and Britain.
Then people forgot about it. By the mid-1940s it was considered lost. However, fragments started surfacing in the 1970s, and “[t]hanks to some lucky finds and painstaking work by the N[ational] F[ilm and] S[ound] A[rchive],” a coherent narrative was put together that runs for about a quarter of the original length.
Here is that film.
There’s just something so fresh about this 107-year-old movie.
The actors don’t use many embellishments. A few of them even stare at the camera. However, they all obviously know the story, and since there’s no film precedent, they’re basically just reenacting their own history and with such gusto that it more than makes up for a lack of the sort of professional finish that Hollywood has trained us to expect.
Imagine the Indiana Jones movies filmed this way. Sure, they would be quite different, but they would also have this intangible feeling of authenticity and still be very, very good.
At some points The Story of the Kelly Gang looks like a documentary, giving us a window into the times. People a century ago looked very different, but they were just like us in how they moved, organized themselves socially, and so forth. Ned Kelly and his gang obviously were rips, but the sisters also had spunk, and that preacher had guts.
Speaking of the preacher, the actors who play him and the wounded man are courageous, too – that is literally a burning doorway they walk through, slowly and dramatically just like the story calls for, when common sense no doubt is calling for a long jump and a rapid sprint.
But it’s the following image that really shows why I like, not just The Story of the Kelly Gang, but all of the old silents so much.
That woman is doing something no one today can duplicate. She’s riding a horse side-saddle at some speed through a river and really enjoying herself.
Today people would tell her that it’s too dangerous for her and for the horse. Some people would tell her she shouldn’t ride side-saddle as it’s a sign of inequality. Her dress is too heavy and long. Egad, it’s a dress! She’s probably wearing a corset, to make things even worse, and let’s not even get started on the matter of safety headgear.
But look at her face. She’s having a ball. It’s not in character – supposedly she’s one of Ned’s relatives on her way to warn him of approaching danger – but this is clearly one of the greatest experiences she’s ever had.
It’s not hard for her to ride that way – all women do. The corset – well, that’s fashion, too. She’s handling it all like you or I would handle a milk run to the convenience store. None of that’s anything out of the ordinary to her.
To her, the big deal is that she’s in a movie.
But for us it’s a very special look back into a long-vanished time. No one in our time will ever ride like that, or dress like that, but these fragile film fragments allow us to see that once, somebody did.
I love silent films because they’re entertaining and also because they keep our long memories alive. It would be a shame to lose them all forever.
Next Saturday, we ‘ll take a look at damsels in distress and the first action heroines.