Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Silent Oscars: 1914

It was the Italians who proved most willing to experiment with the long-form film. Italian filmmakers had come late to the party, with the country not producing its first fiction film until 1905. To distinguish their product from the French films that dominated the early marketplace, they focused on subjects with a distinctly Italian flavor, such as the country's recent unification, well-known historical events such as the last days of Pompeii, and notorious figures from Rome's glory days such as Nero and Messalina.

The best of these Italian epics was Giovanni Pastrone's Cabiria, a landmark achievement in style and spectacle, and the first truly great long-form film. The culimination of the long-form movement in Italy, Cabiria took two years to film and boasted mammoth sets and elaborate special effects. Its epic scope influenced Griffith's Intolerance and anticipated the pomp of De Mille's later Bible and history spectacles.

"The film was made with limitless scope and ambition," Roger Ebert wrote for his Great Movies series, "with towering sets and thousands of extras, with stunts that (because they were actually performed by stuntmen) have an impact lost in these days of visual effects."

Set during the Second Punic War between Rome and Carthage—a subject of great interest to Italian audiences on the eve of World War I—Cabiria is an epic on a grand scale, tracing the life of young woman from childhood to early adulthood against the backdrop of Rome's struggle to establish an empire of its own. The movie opens with the spectacular eruption of Sicily's Mt. Etna, and boasts a tracking shot of refugees trekking across the face of the erupting volcano that rivals any image previously filmed.

"For Cabiria," wrote Cole Smithey, the self-styled "smartest film critic in the world, "Pastrone pioneered the use of deep-focus filming and the since-ubiquitous 'tracking-shot'—two years before D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation would employ similar techniques."

The movie includes kidnappings, piracy, ritual sacrifices, slave revolts and even Hannibal and his elephants. It also introduced the "Maciste" character—the Herculean hero played here by Bartolomeo Pagano in a star-making performance, and later by such actors as Steve Reeves—who proved so popular in low budget sword-and-sandal films between 1914 and the 1970s.

Even though the finished film wouldn't premiere in theaters until April 1914, word of Pastrone's project leaked out of Italy and directors worldwide scrambled to make their own long-form films.

winner: Cabiria (prod.Giovanni Pastrone)
nominees: Gertie The Dinosaur (prod. Winsor McCay); Judith of Bethulia (prod. D.W. Griffith); The Perils Of Pauline (prod. Pathé Frères); Tillie's Punctured Romance (prod. Mack Sennett)

winner: Henry B. Walthall (The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill")
nominees: Charles Chaplin (The Keystone Comedies)

winner: Blanche Sweet (Judith Of Bethulia)
nominees: Marie Dressler (Tillie's Punctured Romance); Pearl White (The Perils Of Pauline and The Exploits Of Elaine)

winner: Giovanni Pastrone (Cabiria)
nominees: Cecil B. DeMille (The Squaw Man); D.W. Griffith (Judith Of Bethulia and The Avenging Conscience: or "Thou Shalt Not Kill"); Mack Sennett (Tillie's Punctured Romance)

winner: Bartolomeo Pagano (Cabiria)
nominees: Roscoe Arbuckle (The Rounders)

winner: Mabel Normand (Tillie's Punctured Romance)
nominees: Mae Marsh (Judith Of Bethulia)

winner: Hampton Del Ruth, Craig Hutchinson and Mack Sennett, from a play by A. Baldwin Sloane and Edgar Smith (Tillie's Punctured Romance)
nominees: D.W. Griffith, Grace Pierce and Frank E. Woods, from a poem by Thomas Bailey Aldrich (Judith Of Bethulia); Cecil B. DeMille and Oscar Apfel, from a play by Edwin Milton Royle (The Squaw Man)

Winsor McCay (Gertie The Dinosaur) (Animation); Segundo de Chomón, Eugenio Bava, Giovanni Tomatis, Augusto Battagliotti, Natale Chiusano and Carlo Franzeri (Cabiria) (Cinematography); Segundo de Chomón and Eugenio Bava (Cabiria) (Special Effects); Camillo Innocenti and Luigi Borgnono (Cabiria) (Set Design)

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