Film History; Not A Flim-Flam

by Curt Kovener

Undoubtedly a number of Times readers will spend some time over the holidays attending cinemas viewing new release films. Maybe a bit of film history may make your movie viewing a more intense if not educational experience.
It all started in 1887 when the first celluloid roll film was developed by Hannibal Goodwin, an Episcopalian minister from Newark, New Jersey.
Four years later in 1891 Thomas Edison’s company demonstrated the Kinetograph, the first motion picture camera, but never got around to creating a projector for playback. Instead, the company acquired manufacturing rights to a machine called the Vitascope. One of the conditions of the deal was that Edison be credited as the inventor.
•Edison’s early film loops included one showing “cooch” dancers (skimpily clad women dancing suggestively) which may have somewhat influenced Willie Dixon to write ‘Hoochie-Coochie Man”. Another early loop re-enacted the decapitation of Mary, Queen of Scots—arguably the first horror flick.
•In 1908, after indecency complaints, New York City closed down all Kinetoscope (peep-show) movie parlors.
• Many familiar movie sounds are simple audio illusions. Crunchy snow? Ice layered with cornstarch. Birds in flight? Leather gloves flapping. Heads getting squished? Frozen heads of lettuce…getting squished.
•Walla is a term for the murmur of a crowd—another audio illusion. Several people saying “walla, walla, walla, walla” sounds like a large group talking.
•Time reversal is standard film trick. When Moses parts the Red Sea in The Ten Commandments, the moviemakers filmed water pouring into a tank and then ran the footage backward.
• The seat-rattling ‘Sensurround’ effect at the premiere of the movie Earthquake was so intense it cracked one patron’s rib. And it wasn’t even the most dangerous thing in the theater: A large popcorn with butter can pack 1,600 calories. Drinking diet cola with it won’t help.
•Many action movies depend on fire stunts—which, surprisingly, is chilly work. Stunt actors begin by coating their skin with a cool fire- retardant gel, then adding layers of Nomex underwear saturated with the same stuff. The final layer is flammable rubber cement. Because rubber cement fumes are the sort of thing we tell children never, ever to inhale, directors tend to try to shoot burn scenes in as few takes as possible. So, kids, don’t try this at home.
•One of the most famous mechanical stunt actors—the shark in Jaws—was famously balky. Its hydraulics corroded in salt water, forcing Stephen Spielberg to substitute scenes shot from the shark’s point of view…which made it all the more terrifying.
Apollo 13, Armageddon, and Around the World in 80 Days are among the movies NASA keeps aboard the Space Station. So is So I Married an Axe Murderer.
Now that you are edified, go enjoy your holiday motion pictures.