Early movies from the Met 1.

17th March 2020

John Wyver writes: Since it appears as if we’ll be spending even more of our time with our screens in the coming weeks, I thought I’d return to the blog with notes on some of the more obscure films and videos that you can find online. I’m especially interested at present in films and videos that circulated alongside the mainstream structures of film distribution and broadcasting, and perhaps especially that category of productions called ‘useful cinema’. (For more on the definition of this – and for the importance of having the term embrace electronic images and non-standard forms of television – look out for a future post.)

Today (and likely for the next couple of days) my attention is on a handful of early films made by New York’s Metropolitan Museum in the interwar years, and specifically the 1925 epic The Gorgon’s Head, which I am delighted to embed here in its full 17 minute glory.

The Gorgon’s Head has gone online thanks to a Met initiative to mark the museum’s 150th anniversary. The Met has an archive of more than 1,500 films which it has either made or collected, and for The Met 150 it is releasing one or two each week across the year under the title From the Vaults (the link takes you to all 9 that to date are on Youtube). The tale of Perseus and Medusa is the earliest production to be released so far, and there are two others from the interwar years, Behind the Scenes: The Working Side of the Museum (1928) and Tapestries and How They Are Made (1933). We’ll take a look at each of those later in the week.

A simple and stylised mute drama, The Gorgon’s Head still manages to feature three old grey women (above, and that’s how they’re billed), a trio of lithesome, very 1920s-looking nymphs (header image), a nasty-looking Medusa (below) and – much like many video games today – a pair of wingèd sandals, a magic pouch and a cap of invisibility. The latter is demonstrated with stop-motion disappearance and re-appearance that had been standard since the films of George Méliès. Then, before her head is stored in the pouch, the gorgon is reflected in Perseus’ shield with basic image superimposition. Maybe I missed it but I’m not sure what part in the narrative was played by the wingèd sandals (although the acute accent is a nice touch).

In contrast to the fantasy world in which much of the film takes place, it begins in a cramped approximation of the Met’s Greek galleries (presumably filmed not on location but in a studio). Among the visitors is an eager young man who sits before a specific Greek vase to copy an image. We learn nothing about the vase, w don’t see it clearly, and it is not even clear if it is an actual vase in the collection (from the online catalogue I can’t identify a candidate). As he stares into the case he drifts off into a reverie and from the vase the film cuts first to a drawing of the image and then to a tableau recreating the scene.

Danae is with her son Perseus, and the two figures come to life to begin a drama in which Perseus is charged by King Polydektes to kill the most fearsome of the gorgons, Medusa. Which he does, after encountering Hermes, the old women and the nymphs, and then cavorting for a while with Andromeda after killing the monster threatening her. Perhaps it’s not too much of a spoiler to reveal that Andromeda is abandoned so that Perseus can rush home to rescue mama from an imminent marriage to the evil king.

The drama is filmed as if on a narrow stage that approximates to the shallow space of a frieze. Minimal plants, a cardboard column and painted rocks contribute to the stylisation and the background is simply a grey cloth. Frontal long-shots alternate with similar mid-shots and there is no attempt to employ a classical grammar of filmmaking that by the mid-1920s was fairly standard for Hollywood. The rudimentary filmmaking on display would have looked old-fashioned even a decade and a half earlier.

Taking the role of Danae is Edith Wynne Matthison who was born in England in 1875, and who played in Ben Greet’s classical company. According to Wikipedia she was on stage in The Merchant of Venice with Henry Irving on the night he died: ‘Irving nearly died in Matthison’s arms.’ In 1898 she married the American playwright Charles Rann Kennedy, who, engagingly, is King Polydektes in the film. In contrast to their characters, they apparently enjoyed a happy marriage for some 50 years. Perseus is Geoffrey Wardwell, who a few years later was to play Hortensio in the Douglas Fairbanks-Mary Pickford The Taming of the Shrew (1929)

‘Big, fast museums / small, slow movies’ is a fascinating essay by Haidee Wasson in the the excellent collection Useful Cinema edited by Wasson and Charles R. Acland (Duke University Press, 2011). As Wasson states,

Alongside its rhetorical efforts towards the timeless and universal, the Met has also long adopted so-called new technologies and display techniques in an effort to engage and educate its public… Alongside its art museum peers, the Met adopted film reasonably early, and by 1925 [when The Gorgon’s Head was released] made and showed its own movies at the museum, as well as distributed and exhibited these (and titles made by other organizations) to interested instiutions.

Wasson is writing about cultural organisations in North America and I know of no comparable filmmaking in any British museum before the Second World War. But in the States this was a fairly widespread practice, including at the Met where the film programme was run by Huger Elliott, director of educational work, and Ralph S. Hawkins, assistant in charge of cinema work. Neither appears to have been an experienced filmmaker, although according to his 1944 New York Times obituary Hawkins was at one time president of the New Rochelle Camera Club.

The Gorgon’s Head features in an interesting booklet, a .pdf of which is available online, published by the Met in 1929, Cinema Films: A List of the Films and the Conditions Under Which They Are Rented. (There’s also a 2015 associated blog post by William Blueher, which frustratingly has a number of film links that are no longer active.) If you hired the films on flammable 35mm stock, a practice that was soon to be discontinued, you paid five dollars a reel for each showing, as well as being liable for transport costs and damage. 16mm copies, which would soon become standard, went out at half this price.

Also featured in the catalogue are the two-reelers Pyramids and Temples of Ancient Egypt and The Daily Life of the Egyptians – Ancient and Modern. In The Hidden Talisman (also to be the subject of a later blog) ‘After being shown views of the buildings and grounds [of the Met’s annex The Cloisters], one sees the ghost of a fifteenth-century French lady searching for a talisman which she had hidden in a bit of carving.’ And then there’s The Spectre, shot in the rooms of the Met’s American wing:

This Colonial fantasy tells of a malign apparition which appears to the superstitious eyes of a seventeenth-century New England family. According to the belief of the age it is exorcised by the crossing of water and the reading of the Bible.

Before developing a specific argument, to which we may return, Haidee Wasson provides a good round-up of the scholarship about films in museums:

Previous work on museums and cinema has emphasized the ways in which museum educators used films to enliven and even sensationalize museum content, or to immerse museum-goers in a kind of wondrous technological sublime. Such goals, of course, were mediated by the museum’s foundational status as a site of authoritative knowledge and respectable leisure.

Alison Griffiths^^ and more recently Theresa Scandiffio^^^ have shown definitively that film and its cognate media have long been an integral element of American museums’ efforts to simultaneously differentiate themselves from entertainment and spectacle, and, yet to borrow from these same sites in order to engage and educate as wide a public as possible… In concert with this scholarship, it must be said that some of the Met’s individual films are helpfully understood by resorting to ideas about the exotic, the imperial, and to a lesser degree the sensational.

It’s interesting to consider The Gorgon’s Head in terms of these categories of ‘entertainment’ and ‘spectacle’ and the ways in which the film perhaps borrows from Hollywood but also sets out to differentiate itself from the film industry. In its fantasy scenes it puts on screen an attractive cast and employs modest special effects but at the same time with the cardboard sets it very clearly distinguishes itself from any sense of realism and the special effects (invisibility, Medusa’s head) are indeed very modest. The style, the acting and the staging of the film all refer far more strongly to the stage, which in its classical incarnation, carried associations of ‘respectability’. Or at least it did when compared with the populist mass culture of film. There are budgetary and resource factors at play here as well, of course, but no-one could have mistaken The Gorgon’s Head as a product of the contemporary dream factory.

I aim to keep this discussion going in a couple of further posts later this week.

^^ Alison Griffiths, Wondrous Difference: Cinema, Museums and the Immersive View, New York: Columbia University Press, 2008.

^^^ Theresa Scandiffio, ‘”Better’n any circus that ever come to town”: Cinema, visual culture and educational programming at Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, 1921-35’, Ph.D. dissertation, University of Chicago, 2008.

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