Erik Barnouw (Tube of Plenty et al.) tells an engaging story to introduce this scholarly lark: in high school, Barnouw...



Erik Barnouw (Tube of Plenty et al.) tells an engaging story to introduce this scholarly lark: in high school, Barnouw catalogued magician John Mulholland's books on magic and, meeting him decades later, mentioned ""how often, in exploring film history, I had come across names I had first met in his books. Had magicians had a larger role in the evolution of motion pictures than was generally recognized?"" A rhetorical question, it quickly seems, as Barnouw conjures up--to the accompaniment of eerie posters and other archival trove--an era when ""every new scientific invention had magic possibilities""; the magic lantern made apparitions materialize; and one after another future filmmaker experimented with optical trickery. Then came the CinÉmatographe (1895), and the scramble ""for wealth and glory""--led by magician/impresario/master of special effects Georges MÉliès. Also in the running were Billy Bitzer, D. W. Griffith's chief cameraman-to-be; Albert E. Smith and J. Stuart Blackton, founding partners of American Vitagraph; and the great Houdini himself--who turned his celebrated stage feats into film climaxes. . . which, by camera magic, anyone could now perform. The irony, as Barnouw notes, was that the films displaced the magicians. Looking at the films themselves (thanks to another happy accident--the Paper Print collection at the Library of Congress, Barnouw's present base), he traces the magic/ film intersection through several stages--from the first ""actuality bits"" (which people ""readily accepted as magic""), through filmed magic ""beefed up by film trickery,"" to the trick film: ghosts, vanishings, metamorphoses, ""cheerful"" mayhem--the realm of severed heads and severed limbs. Plus: devices special to the film, like reversals, slow motion and accelerated motion. A few concluding words ponder--with reference to the ""media""--the acceptance of illusions, now, as ""something real."" A spiffy little addition to early film history, with outsize implications.

Pub Date: June 1, 1981


Page Count: -

Publisher: Oxford Univ. Press

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1981