Wallace McCutcheon

Active - 1904 - 1907  |   Born - 1858   |   Genres - Avant-garde / Experimental, Children's/Family, Comedy

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Wallace "Old Man" McCutcheon was an early American director and cinematographer whose work had a decisive impact on the early history of American film. However, his credits -- amounting to literally hundreds of titles -- are frequently confused with the mere handful of pictures directed by his son, Wallace McCutcheon Jr. (1884-1928).

Wallace McCutcheon Sr. established himself as a pitchman and demonstrator. He joined the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company in New York in early 1897, after Biograph founder W.K.L. Dickson left to establish the company's subsidiary in London. Placed as head of production for the fledgling movie concern, McCutcheon's main job was to assign cameramen to film various subjects in the field, but in a relatively short time McCutcheon was also writing and directing films himself. McCutcheon quickly learned to operate a Biograph camera and was, to some extent, photographing his own subjects, such as The Fastest Wrecking Crew in the World (1897), which is an extremely early example of the technique of "undercranking."

In September and October 1903, Biograph released two McCutcheon films, The Pioneers and Kit Carson, both wild-west action stories told in four and then ten scenes, respectively. These films were the first true movie Westerns and preceded Edwin S. Porter's The Great Train Robbery, which did not appear until December 1903; however, it was the Porter film that ultimately caught on with the public. In November 1903, McCutcheon produced The Escaped Lunatic, a primitive chase film that proved very popular. McCutcheon expanded upon this concept with Personal (June 1904), a huge hit that made such a powerful impact upon its audience that Buster Keaton essentially re-created it in the film Seven Chances more than 20 years later. Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (April 1905), one of the final Biographs of McCutcheon's first stretch with the company, is a striking and strange combination of multiplicitous businesses occurring in different fields of the frame -- multiple viewings reveal more detail each time. In one scene, a pig rolls upwards into the chimney of a house, in a shot that was probably shot upside down.

In May 1905, McCutcheon was wooed away to the Edison company and began to work with Edwin S. Porter. McCutcheon may have had some input into the special effects used in such Porter-Edison films as The Night Before Christmas (December 1905) and The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (February 1906). The quality of Biograph films, however, went into a tailspin with McCutcheon's departure, and by late 1907, he was back at his old job. He directed Bobby's Kodak (February 1908) which featured the film debut of silent film star Robert Harron, and The Sculptor's Nightmare (May 1908), perhaps the earliest example of so-called "claymation" known in the movies.

Around this time Wallace McCutcheon took seriously ill, and suggested that his eldest son, Wallace McCutcheon Jr. step into his shoes as a Biograph director. The younger McCutcheon was a rootless, undisciplined playboy who proved a poor director, and after about a dozen titles, his place at Biograph was taken by an another actor, David Wark Griffith. With D.W. Griffith as director, Biograph became the top American producer of motion pictures in terms of popularity, and Griffith proceeded to undertake the next critical phase of artistic development in American cinema. The elder McCutcheon, once recovered, decided to cast his lot with Gaston Méliès' fledgling Star Film Company based in Fort Lee, NJ, ultimately directing all of the Star films produced by Méliès in that city.

In 1910, Wallace McCutcheon went to San Antonio, TX, to scout a new location for the Star Film Company. With Gaston Méliès, McCutcheon coordinated the move of the entire company from Fort Lee to the Star Film Ranch outside of San Antonio. McCutcheon is also known to have scouted locations in Texas for the Gaston Méliès-produced film The Immortal Alamo (1911), but did not direct it. Wallace McCutcheon just simply disappears from the historical record shortly after his arrival in Texas. He may have died at that time, or perhaps left the company, but his whereabouts afterward are unknown.

Surprisingly, many of Wallace McCutcheon's films are still extant, bearing witness to his expertise among early filmmakers and his tendency toward innovation in his use of special effects and mulitple-shot storytelling. In 1969, underground avant-garde filmmaker Ken Jacobs created a 90-minute homage to Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son, re-photographing it from different angles and editing it into a plotless, purely visual tour de force. The work of Wallace McCutcheon was also a major factor in the 2002 touring package "Unseen Cinema," curated for the Whitney Museum by Anthology Film Archives in New York. Though, in the past, his reputation was always overshadowed by D.W. Griffith, Edwin S. Porter, and even his n'er-do-well eldest son, Wallace "Old Man" McCutcheon is finally starting to get his due as one of American cinema's true pioneers.