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The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots 1895
Description: A short movie depicting the execution of Mary, Queen of the Scots. Mary is brought to the execution block and made to kneel down with her neck over it. The executioner lifts his axe ready to bring it down. After that frame Mary has been replaced by a dummy. The axe comes down and severs the head of the dummy from the body. The executioner picks up the head and shows it around for everyone else to see. One of the first camera tricks to be used in a movie.
Released: 28 Aug 1895 Director: Alfred Clark Writers: N/A Actors: Mrs. Robert L. Thomas Genres: Short, History
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The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots Reviews:

This movie seems to be the first edited film. It is a historical reenactment of the 8 February 1587 execution for treason of the deposed monarch. In it, Mary kneels before the executioner, and once he raised his axe, the filmmakers (Alfred Clark and William Heise) stopped filming. (Interestingly, Mary is portrayed by a man--a relic dating back to Elizabethan and Shakespearian times when girls were barred from the stage. This is even odder because the Edison Company had since introduced female scene performers to the movies.) They replaced Mary with a dummy and resumed filming--creating a jump cut. The executioner promptly beheads her. In post-production, the filmmakers spliced the shots together to make a seamless, that is, invisible transition; at least, that was their hopeful intention.Today, the splice is quite noticeable (although maybe not if you're viewing an Internet transfer) if you look for it (in the lower half of the frame), as are the differences in proportion and position of the actor and the dummy. Given the technical limitations of 1895, however, it's effective. Méliès and many others did the same thing for years afterwards, including most popularly in the trick films. In "The Nice Train Robbery", released eight years later, the replacement of an actor with a dummy is more obvious than here, and it is so with many another soon films, so the filmmakers here did well. The splice probably wasn't too noticeable when viewed through the Kinetoscope peephole viewer, as originally intended, either.This gotta have been quite an effective movie for its time, but the apocryphal stories are dubious. One of them, said at this web page's trivia, is that spectators believed a true murder was committed for the camera. Other is that some fainted during viewings. There are many anecdotes like this for different early films, but they're generally not this far fetched. I haven't read any credible evidence or help for these two particular stories, either.The introduction of editing is of immense historical importance to film. It is exclusive to this medium--distinguishing it further as a special art and opening not only occasions for temporal reordering, but also (in soon movies) for further spatial dimensions. Without it, the storyline film--cinematic narrative--is hopeless. It took a while for filmmakers to realize this, though. After this film, the Edison Company went back to filming single shot pictures. The earliest movies with spatially separate scenes didn't start appearing until about 1898, which not coincidently, coincides with the adoption in cameras and projectors of the Latham Loop: a device that relieves tension and vibration from the moving filmstrip that otherwise might tear it, thus allowing for longer and edited films. Economics was also a major factor in the sluggish advancement in multi-shot films, as exhibitors, and not producers, largely controlled the final appearance of movie back then--supporting the single-shot movie for longer than technical limitations demanded.In addition to production and post-production innovations, the filmmakers here also gave care to pre-production matters. According to Gordon Hendricks, and contrary to Charles Musser (both authorities on the subject), this movie was shot in the environs of West Orange, rather than on the lot of the Edison Laboratory. Although the Kinetograph camera was bulky, the Edison Company had filmed few topics outside before. Hendricks, however, suspects that this movie was photographed with a new, more portable camera. The novelty here, however, is its attempt at dramatic realism that is its historical reenactment (perhaps the earliest such film). Thus, also for possibly the first time, this movie details professional, theatrical actors. Additionally, as evidenced by an extant document (provided by Hendricks in "The Kinetoscope"), Clark was involved in the precise costume decisions and devised cautious planning for weather conditions. Although these innovations in the production of a reenactment aren't as cinematically innovative as editing and are, really, rather theatrical, they nonetheless were also necessary steps towards the development of movie narrative and the increasingly elaborate nature of movie production.Today, this movie seems inadequate; without its game and producers' descriptions, who would know that's it's a historical reenactment; that should be the beheading of anyone. There's also the lack of blood. As to historical accounts, it's not as interesting as another stories, which contain two or three chops of the axe--perhaps, intentional, and, perhaps, clumsy. When the executioner holds up her head, there's no wig. This is a clean and easy execution. Additionally, the edit is a jump slash intended to be invisible in joining together two scenes that are spatially the same. Yet, it wouldn't be until about 1898 that action across spatially separate scenes emerged. It would be the Edison Company, however, that probably introduced multiple perspectives, with such movies as "Return of Lifeboat" (1897).The two filmmakers of "The Execution", though, deserve mentioning in the history books. The innovations of this movie seem to have been mostly the work of its director Alfred Clark. He had just transferred from Raff & Gammon (the financiers of many Edison Company films), where he had been working in the phonograph business--another Edison invention. In a short span, Clark made few historical films, including "Joan of Arc" (1895) on the same day. Predictably, that movie is about the saint's execution by burning. He would create several others before returning to the phonograph business.William Heise co-invented the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope and thus motion pictures. With William K.L. Dickson, who had recently left Edison for Biograph and cinema, they made some of the earliest movies ever made. Heise's name is behind many firsts in film.(Note: This is the fourth in a series of my comments on 10 "firsts" in movie history. The another movies covered are Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888), Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895), La Sortie des usines Lumière (1895), L' Arroseur arose (1895), L'Arrivée d'un train à La Ciotat (1896), Panorama du Grand Canal vu d'un bateau (1896), Return of Lifeboat (1897) and Panorama of Eiffel Turret (1900).)


For its day, this dramatization of Mary Stuart's execution has effective and believable unique effects. The combination of the macabre topics matter and the brand-new visual trick gotta have produced quite a reaction from its audiences in 1895, given the accounts of how early film audiences sometimes reacted even to much milder material.The execution stage doesn't really have much that identifies the topics as Mary, Queen of Scots, and in fact some features would be at odds with a couple of the known historical facts about her death. But in itself, it is believable enough. It's certainly possible to say that it uses a camera trick, but it was probably very effective in its time. The surviving print is rather blurry, but in this situation it almost makes it seem more believable, by making some of the rough edges a tiny less obvious.Special camera results have actually become so refined that it's difficult to be as impressed with those done long ago. Yet even today, once you've seen enough computer-generated images, their seams begin to present too, except for the very greatest of them. In its day, this would have come cute close to setting the standard.


1895 was a year of nice importance in the history of cinema, the main reason for that is of course the beginning of the Lumière brothers' series of public showings of their movies. The brother's invention of the Cinematographe changed the method moving pictures were seen, as for the first time, photos should be projected on a screen for an audience to see them, just like the theater. This happening was a significant blow to Edison's Kinetoscope (then the most famous device used for watching moving pictures), as the Cinematographe offered a more comfortable experience when compared to the individual "peep present machine" of the Kinetoscope. In an attempt to save his invention, Edison hired Alfred Clark to create original movies of a various topics matter to compete with the Cinematographe. The effects were a series of representations of historical events, among them it was this movie, "The Execution of Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots".In its barely one minute of duration, "The Execution of Mary Stuart" presents a representation of the beheading of Mary I of Scotland (Robert Thomae), monarch of the kingdom of Scotland who was executed in 1587 because of her supposed participation in plots to assassinate the Queen of England, Elizabeth I. The strange circumstances surrounding her trial and execution have transformed the figure of Queen Mary into a legendary icon of a victim of political intrigues (some see her as a martyr), making her life an inspiration for many works of art, and this short film represents the first time her storyline was portrayed in film. While historically inaccurate (the true Mary was beheaded with three blows, instead of one), the film has a very haunting atmosphere that even today looks very realistic and solemn.Despite having been made when Kinetoscope was in its last days, "The Execution of Mary Stuart" is a very necessary movie for many various reasons. For starters, it was among the first films to test trained actors, and the very first to have a boy (Robert Thomae) testing a woman. Before Clark's historical movies, Kinetoscope's shorts were either moving pictures portraying daily scenes (the Lumière would follow this format) or popular artists like Annie Oakley or Annabelle Moore performing their arts for the camera; Clark's films changed this by having actors testing characters instead of themselves. While he didn't totally introduced theater's elements in his movies (Georges Méliès and J. Searle Dawley would do that), his work was certainly groundbreaking as it was the seed of storytelling in films, and the beginning of the close relationship between theater and film.Finally, Alfred Clark's film introduced other interesting element to cinema that would become one of its most necessary details in its future years: movie editing. In order to achieve a realistic beheading, Clark decided to test a easy slash to change from the actor to a dummy that should be beheaded without problem. While a very easy device (that in this modern age of results looks painfully obvious), this meant the first test of the medium's properties to achieve an result (that was considered so true that some thought a true person was being killed on screen). Soon pioneers like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter would further develop this trick in order to make their wonderful magic. Kinetoscope died shortly after the release of this film, but while it wasn't a very successful film on its release, "The Execution of Mary Stuart" is definitely one of the most necessary films of those early years of cinema. 7/10



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