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22/11/1897: Passion

Jesus Christ made his movie debut in this year, appearing in at least three Passion Plays.   The first was the Horitz Passion Play, the rights to which were purchased by the producers Klaw & Erlanger.   The Passion Play was actually only held once every ten years, but the then-Austrian (now Czech) village of Horitz staged a special performance for American film-maker W. B. Hurd.   Jordan Willochko enjoyed the honour of being Cinema’s first Jesus, with Anna Wenzieger and Joseph Frephies playing Mary and Caiaphas respectively.  The film, which opened at The Philadelphia Academy of Music on the 22nd November, was shown as part of a 90 minute presentation which included lantern slides, choirs and a spoken commentary, and was a huge success.

One man who wasn’t impressed, however, was Richard G. Hollaman, President of the Eden Musée, who had competed with Klaw & Erlanger for the rights to the Passion Play.   Undeterred by his failure to acquire the rights, Hollaman decided to produce a film of the Oberammergau Passion Play, although the version he produced was based on an old play by Salmi Morse which bore little resemblance to the real thing.   Unable – or unwilling – to pay for location shooting, Hollaman had director William Paley shoot the film on the roof of the Grand Central Palace on Lexington Avenue with Frank Russell playing the part of Jesus.   The film is actually credited to theatrical director Henry C. Vincent who was originally hired as director.   Unfortunately, Vincent had no idea of how to direct for the camera.   Even worse, he refused to believe so, which meant Paley and the rest of the crew had to shoot the film when the unwitting Vincent wasn’t around.   Filmed in 1897, the movie didn’t premiere until the 28th January 1898 and, like Hurd’s effort was hugely successful, even after the true location of the shoot was discovered. 

The third story of Christ made in 1897, was the thirteen-scene Vues Representant la Vie et la Passion de Jesus Christ which was shot by director Georges Hatot at the Lumiere’s studio in the rue de Surmelin under the supervision of Antoine Lumiere. [ADD]


The filming of Hollaman's Passion Play:

"One of the major difficulties encountered arose from the fact that the director, the aged and authoritative Vincent, believed that he was making a series of lantern slides for stereopticon presentation. All efforts to explain to him that the camera recorded motion continuously failed entirely. It was Vincent's practice to put the company into rehearsal and when a striking moment arrived to dash out before the camera and scream 'Hold it!' Filming took six weeks. Using subterfuge, the Musee's cameraman William Paley and the actors finally shot twenty-three scenes, totaling approximately 2,000 feet. These were projected at approximately thirty frames per second, giving roughly nineteen minutes of screen time."

as described in Terry Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights.








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