Pictured above: a brilliant image from The Golden Beetle (dir. Segundo de Chomon, 1907), which I watched last night as part of a program of silent shorts that also included films by Melies, Porter, Edison, Griffith, and les frères Lumiere. The Golden Beetle is a good example of early cinematic spectacle: it exists solely to wow its audience with its colors and special effects. Meanwhile, the appeal of something like the Lumieres’ Baby’s Breakfast (1896), pictured below, has to do with the recognition of some inconsequential bit of human business—in this case, a baby offering his cracker to the parents who are trying to feed it to him, and also maybe to the camera operator. Before the movies had complex plots and stories, their power lay in individual images that either exchanged reality for the spectacular (as in The Golden Beetle) or found spectacle in the texture of the everyday (as in Baby’s Breakfast).
By the time you get to Griffith—as I did in the second-to-last film on last night’s program, The Girl and Her Trust (1912; pictured, bottom)—you can see how the human touches of Baby’s Breakfast have been extended to whole characters and stories, in this case a two-reel action thriller in which Our Girl first fends off pesky suitors, then a pair of varmints looking to rob the train station where she works. I had forgotten that the film is book-ended by two bits of throwaway business that are so funny they both made me laugh out loud. In the first, a slack-jawed yokel carrying the torch for Grace woos her by making her a gift of a bottle of soda (and a straw). In the second, having been rescued by the more capable and handsome of her admirers, Grace cheerfully agrees to share his sandwich with him. It’s not just a cheap joke on which to end the film—it’s genuinely funny because of the off-hand way in which Grace and her new beau, both breathless with relief, suddenly realize they’re both hungry. It was this fusion of narrative drive with rich and subtle humanity that would come to dominate the next hundred years of world cinema.