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The Original Movie projected onto a boulder

The Original Movie

1922. Dawley Productions. Directed by Tony Sarg. Photographed and edited by Herbert M. Dawley.


1920s-era sophistication is still accessible to us, its collegiate irreverence erratically perceptible these 80 years later. Tony Sarg's The Original Movie is a good example. This animated short transposes modern movie-making to prehistoric times, with a (literally, for once) Neanderthal producer, scenarios written on scrolls, and dinosaurs used as camera dollies. Sarg, a puppeteer, made a series called Tony Sarg's Almanac that traced features of modern life back to prehistoric times with apparently hilarious results (the only other one that survives is called The First Circus).

The Original Movie starts by breezily discounting the official story about the birth of motion pictures. "This is way everyone believes motion pictures were first made," says a title introducing a brief Leland Stanford/Eadweard Muybridge/ racehorse sequence. Then it asks, "But what about the troubles of movie authors and producers in the cave days?" and flashes back to movie production at the Stonehenge Film Company. It finds arch, self-congratulatory humor in re-imagining 20s technology in stone-age terms. The cameraman drives the camera by pedaling, bicycle-like, and the actors are recognizable vamps and lounge-lizards clad in animal skins. The underlying joke is that, then as now, insensitive producers, undisciplined performers, and ham-fisted censors destroy a writer's work; the put-upon scenarist doesn't recognize his story when he sees the finished film projected onto a boulder.

Mating a stone-age setting with a contemporary sensibility is amusing ("The Flintstones" ran for years on just this premise). But a more significant historic dislocation in this movie may be one that Tony Sarg didn't actually intend. Sarg worked in a style that he called "shadowgraph" animation. The entire story is told in silhouette, like an Indonesian puppet show, just black shapes against a white or gray background. The effects are quite beautiful and surprisingly expressive. And inescapably these shadowgraphs recall earlier, pre-mechanical forms of moving pictures—living statues, shadow plays, and magic lantern shows. It's not just nostalgia, it's a different kind of "motion picture," more pictorial, more stylized, more participatory than the photographed reality that by 1922 had clearly won out.

For all its facetiousness, there is something poignant about The Original Movie, constructed as it is from cut-outs, shadows, and silhouettes. It actually does show the origin of motion pictures—not in the comical "cave days," but in the novelty-loving 19th century.

 

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copyright ©2005 Barbara Bernstein