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Essential Films
Chapter 6

Buy this film
(Edison - The Invention of the Movies 1891-1918, DVD)

The Execution of Mary Stuart
Alfred Clark
Edison Manufacturing Company / USA / 1895

Starring: Robert Thomae
Produced by: Thomas A Edison
Cinematography by: William Heise


Ion Martea
posted 16 June 2006

The commercial success of moving pictures allowed the medium to expand beyond its primary function of simply capturing movement. By mid-1890s, filmmakers understood that the only way to generate a continuous flow of cinema-goers was by delivering material that was exciting not only because of the medium's novelty, but also because of its content.

Particularly in the US, film slowly developed into the engine of celebrity culture. Eugene Sandow, Annie Oakley, Annabelle Moore, Ruth St Denis - stars in their own right before the appearance of film - were joined by J Stuart Blackton, Fred Ott and others, who were made famous primarily through their continuous appearance in movies, usually as themselves rather than fictional characters. The medium, in consequence, took a back seat, leaving the action on screen to bring the financial benefits. However, these short films that made these stars' names seem to have been commercial tools, rather than being capable of narrative creation. Clearly, the format of a single uninterrupted shot did create certain inconveniences in shooting a story. Therefore, the emergence of artistic fiction on screen had to wait for technical developments in the field.

This conclusion is a tempting one if we consider Alfred Clark's The Execution of Mary Stuart. The idea of the film was to reproduce the historical event using trained actors, not appearing as themselves, but as characters in a story. The issue of performance appears for the first time, allowing cinema to enter the realm of interpretative art. Unquestionably, Clark was a groundbreaker in the history of the medium, but the quality of the film as an artistic piece - which is also specifically cinematic - is not based primarily on his introduction of acting, so much as his introduction of editing.

Clark had two options in choosing the format for the film, which in terms of plot does nothing more than what the title suggests: Mary Stuart (played by Robert Thomae) is decapitated, and her head is raised as evidence of her death. The first option would have been a continuous shooting of the scene using a theatrical setting with on-set special effects. This, however, does not exploit the medium to its potential, as there is nothing in the technique (aside of the simple visual recording) that differentiates it from theatre. The second option involves editing, more specifically a jump cut. Thomae kneels for the decapitation, the axe is raised prepared for the execution; however, after the cut we see the axe decapitating the actor and a head raised as evidence.

The difference in the second option is that for the first time it became possible to do away with the limits of theatre as a live experience, and explore the potential of film to distort time - the final film sequence, despite appearing in real time, is really a juxtaposition of two distinct periods. The brusqueness of the cut, together with the smoothness of transition (unquestionably effective for the film's contemporary audience), showed that beyond its ability to reproduce movement, film was now a form of entertainment with its own unique possibilities.

As a theatrical representation (ie by using a continuous shot), The Execution of Mary Stuart would have been classified as a historical drama in the Shakespearean tradition. (The fact that Mary Stuart is played by a man reinforces this sense.) But its quality as a film means its historical setting is secondary to the effect the film has on its audience. Even though a close inspection shows a rather poor use of editing, containing serious continuity problems (such as the positioning of the spears in the background before and after the cut), because our attention is centred on Mary's head, we don't notice the cut. Therefore, at first viewing we are haunted only by one emotion - that of horror. In this film, Clark not only developed the technicality of making movies (by introducing performance, editing and visual effects), but that technology was used to create the first genre film in the history of cinema.

It is not surprising that throughout most of 20th century some of the most productive discourses in cinema were centred on film horror. Arguably, this was the only dramatic genre that achieved a significant boost in its visual representation with the development of film, particularly through its possibility of creating post-production effects. The effectiveness of horror is primarily in the realism of film image. As in Clark's film, we first engage with Mary Stuart, we understand the position she finds herself in, that at the moment we see the dummy head next to an immobile body, we accept the death of the character as a true possibility. Thus, the film manages to hide the fake elements behind the emotions we are forced to experience.

Violence repulses us (hopefully!), and in doing so, it makes us want to rationalise it. But in horror, we do not engage cold-heartedly with the events in a story. The Execution of Mary Stuart is a powerful example of this. We are not interested so much in the facts that led to the execution, with all the political and historical details, but primarily in the emotions that haunt the prisoner and her executioners. It is a question of internalisation of emotion, which does not necessitate any factual background for us to grasp the meaning of what is happening. Our reaction would still be similarly powerful if Clark named his film as 'The Execution of a Woman', due to our primordial knowledge of the human relationship with our bodies.

Hitchcock, that master of horror, considered that we want to watch horror in order to avoid it in our daily life. For him it is both a toughening of spirit, but also a desire to return to the original horror experienced as a babe when the mother jokingly scares us with a 'Boo!'. Fear, expressed through the lack of security over our life, is an emotion so universal, that film, particularly the successful cases, need do very little in order to re-kindle it in us.

The interesting question to consider is the historical approach to film horror, but most specifically to violence. The Execution of Mary Stuart was an effective piece of cinema that might have triggered the development of slapstick comedy a la Chaplin, which was successfully adapted by children's favourites such as Tom and Jerry and Bugs Bunny. At the same time, Carmencita (William KL Dickson/USA/ 1894) showing a rather sensual Latin dance, and most famously The Kiss (William Heise/USA/1896), in which May Irwin and John C Rice re-enact a close-up kiss from the Broadway production of John J McNally's The Merry Widow, were the first films to be banned for reasons of public morality.

Audiences are more likely to take offence at something if the style of portraying it is ingenious and novel. The originality factor in this respect does not usually refer to content, but rather the technology of giving offence. Unquestionably, this comes down to a directorial decision, irrespective of whether the auteur consciously concentrates his energy on plot or technology. The question of whether film as an art was developed by technical craftsmanship is meaningless as such, as behind any form of experimentation lies a human desire to achieve a particular result. Arguably, we are talking about entertainment. However, as films such as The Execution of Mary Stuart show, by 1895 cinema was already capable of using the word in its widest meaning.


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