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Martin Chuzzlewit (Edison)

December 19, 2012
Advertisement for the film Martin Chuzzlewit in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 19 December, 1912, 8.

Advertisement for the film Martin Chuzzlewit in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 19 December, 1912, 8.

Martin Chuzzlewit, directed by Oscar Apfel, was one of the General Film (distribution) Company’s “Special Feature” films. Drawing from the name-recognition of Charles Dickens, the Edison Company targeted this films to exhibitors who sought to cultivate an air of legitimacy for their establishment –to make their presence in the community more on par with the opera house than the saloon.

This 3-reel (about 30 minutes) “vivification” of the Dickens novel is now lost. But we can imagine what it looked like the people who watched this film in Honolulu, Hawaii 100 year ago thanks to the Media History Digital Library, which provides online access to digital copies of The Moving Picture World in which stills from the film were printed (see below).

In advertisements in The Moving Picture World the Edison Company proclaims that the film is “a clear effective drama” that viewers will be able to follow even if they have not read the book. But regular contributor Epes Winthrop Sargent, urged exhibitors to read the novel so that they can explain it to their customers who don’t “catch the story from the picture.” It sounds strange to expect that people would leave a movie confused about the story, and even more strange that their impulse would be to ask the theater manager for clarification.

But adaptation films in 1912 were a bit different than they are today. Audiences didn’t necessarily expect these films to stand on their own. Rather than attempt to tell the entire thing from start to finish, like say, Peter Jackson’s “vivification” of The Hobbit, films like Edison’s Martin Chuzzlewit
sought to illustrate some of the major themes of the story by bringing characters to life and staging important scenes amidst authentic-looking sets. That the Edison advertisement promises the film will hang together for audiences who never read the book points towards the ambitions that many in the industry had at the time to develop a universal visual language that could communicate without words.

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