Cinematic Firsts: The First Trailer (& The First Shakespeare Film Adaptation) - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Trailer (& The First Shakespeare Film Adaptation)

Heaven take my soul, and England keep my bones!

Often credited as the person behind the first 'trailer' or 'preview of a coming attraction', Nils Granlund, the advertising manager for the Marcus Loew theater chain, produced a short promotional film for the musical The Pleasure Seekers, opening at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway, which was shown in an American film theater in November 1913.

As reported in a wire service story carried by the Lincoln, Nebraska Daily Star, the practice which Loew adopted was described as...
" entirely new and unique stunt. Moving pictures of the rehearsals and other incidents connected with the production will be sent out in advance of the show, to be presented to the Loew's picture houses and will take the place of much of the bill board advertising".
This "entirely new and unique stunt" was not as new as the Lincoln, Nebraska Daily Star may have thought. It is true that this 'trailer' was the first to be shown before the main feature an audience had paid to see, but a promotional advertisement for a coming stage attraction was actually produced 14 years before Granlund's preview film, back in 1899. This one, however, was displayed for audiences all by itself when moving pictures were in their infancy.

The trailer in question was filmed in London, England, in September 1899, at the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company's open-air studio on the Embankment. It was a silent film made from four very short separate films, each of which showed a heavily edited scene from the forthcoming stage production of the Shakespeare play King John, which was to be opening at Her Majesty's Theatre London.

Directed by and starring the English actor and theatre manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree as King John (who, fact fans, was Oliver Reed's grandfather), he was joined by the other members of the stage show cast. The first film was of The Temptation Scene with John, Hubert, and Arthur, the second of The Lamentation Scene with Constance, Philip of France, Lewis, and Pandulph, the third of King John's Dying Scene with John, Henry, Pembroke, and Salisbury, and the fourth of King John's Death Scene with John, Henry, Falconbridge, Pembroke, and Salisbury.

Sadly, three of the four short films have been lost to time, with only four still images existing from them (from top to bottom of this page: King John's Dying Scene, The Temptation Scene, The Lamentation Scene, and a second still from King John's Dying Scene).

Only the film of the third part, King John's Dying Scene, still exists within the BFI Film Library, and even that is not quite complete, missing the last few seconds...

Although it was four short films this was solely down to the limitations of the medium of the day, each scene running for the maximum amount of time the film allowed.

The 'trailer' was put together at a time when popular wisdom was that Shakespeare productions would lose money, but Herbert Beerbohm Tree had proved otherwise. In 1898 his first Shakespeare production of Julius Caesar had run for 165 consecutive performances at Her Majesty's Theatre and sold 242,000 tickets. King John was to follow this, and Tree seized upon the opportunity to promote the stage show to a wider audience, including those fascinated by this new moving picture medium.

It worked as Tree's production of The Life And Death Of King John was a hit, securing a further 15 years of Shakespeare stage adaptations heralded by Tree, with his longest-running revival, Henry VIII, opening on September 1st 1910 and running for a sensational 254 consecutive performances through to April 8th 1911.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree may well be primarily remembered for his contributions to theatre, for which he was knighted for in 1904, but the promotional film for his stage show is not only the first filmed trailer but also the first cinematic Shakespeare adaptation. For that he deserves to receive credit in history books of cinema.

View all our Cinematic Firsts articles here.

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