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Philippine Theater Before the Advent of Cinema

       Long before the coming of cinema in the Philippines, theater originated in the culture of the country’s early societies. Their theatron was on the ground within the community. The ritual practitioners in their dance-dramas used imitative dances to propitiate the supernatural powers that were believed to control forces to regulate the seasons and elements; to ensure the earth’s fertility; and to grant the tribe success in hunting and warfare.

       At the turn of the 19th century, the zarzuela, a traditional Spanish one-act comic opera with satirical theme; and the vaudeville, a stage show consisting of various acts, such as singing,dancing and comedy, became famous and prominent among the Filipinos. These were shown and performed at town fiestas where Filipino viewers go eagerly from different parts of the province so as not to miss the stage plays.

       The Spanish Operetta or musical comedy introduced by a political deportee from Spain, Don Narciso de Escosura, at Teatro de Binondo or Castellano in 1848, was given impetus by Don Alejandro Cubero, the father of Spanish zarzuela in the Philippines, at Teatro Filipino on Calle Echague.

       The Tagalog zarzuela found a home at Teatro Zorilla, the only surviving 19th century theater located at the corner of Calle San Pedro ( now Evangelista ) and abbreviated the Iris which formed part of Calle Azcarraga (now Recto). It provided ready material for the nascent Filipino silent motion picture.

The Advent of Cinema in the Philippines

       During the last decade of the 19th century, in 1896, a Spaniard by the name of Pertierra, prepared to launch his first movie show in Manila at Christmas Time. The venue was to be at Salon de Pertierra, which he established nine months earlier as the Phonograph Parlor on the ground floor of the Casino Espanol at Calle Perez, off the Escolta. But for some reasons still unknown to this writing, Pertierra failed to make his presentation despite several published announcements to this effect. The show kept being postponed until the New Year.

       Finally, on January 1, 1897, the first four movies namely, Un Homme Au Chapeau (Man with a Hat), Une scene de danse Japonaise (Scene from a Japanese Dance), Les Boxers (The Boxers), and La Place de L’ Opera(The Place L’ Opera), were shown via 60mm Gaumont Chrono-photograph projector at the Salon de Pertierra at no. 12 Escolta.

       Other countries, such as France, England, and Germany have their claims to the introduction of publicly projected motion picture but the corresponding credit  should have been given to Mr. Pertierra and the centennial anniversary of the first movie shown in the Philippines should have been commemorated on January 1, 1997

The Arrival of Lumiere Cinematograph

       Antonio Ramos, a Spanish soldier from Alhama de Aragon, who had arrived earlier in the year with the “Batallon de Cazadores” (Hunter’s Batallion), which had been sent to quell the Philippine revolution, was able to import a Lumiere Cinematograph from Paris. With it he bought 30 film titles. He did the acquisition with his savings, and evidently, with the financial backing of Liebman and Peritz.

       By August, 1897, Liebman and Peritz presented the first movies on the Lumiere Cinematograph in Manila. The new cine was set up at Escolta, corner San Jacinto, the hall formerly occupied by the Ullman Jewelry shop. A test preview was presented to a limited number of guests on August 28. The inaugural show was presented to the general public the next day, August 29, 1897.

       During the first three weeks, Ramos had a selection of ten different films to show, but by the fourth week, he was forced to shuffle the 30 films in various combinations to produce new programs. These were four viewing  sessions, every hour on the hour, from 6:00 P.M. to 10:00 P.M. After three months, attendance began to slacken for failure to show any new feature. They transferred the viewing hall to a warehouse in Plaza Goiti and reduced the admission fees. By the end of November, the movie hall closed down.

The First Movie Shot in the Philippines

       Impelled desperately to attract patronage and as a matter of survival,  Ramos, using the Lumiere as a camera, locally filmed Panorama de Manila (Manila landscape), Fiesta de Quiapo (Quiapo Fiesta), Puwente de España (Bridge of Spain), and Esceñas Callejeras (Street scenes), in 1898. Notwithstanding the possibility that some cameramen aboard an ocean liner or naval expedition might have earlier filmed the enchanting panorama of Manila, Antonio Ramos thus became the first motion picture producer in the Philippines.

       Among the pioneers who left documentary evidences of their visits to the Philippines were: Burton Holmes, father of the “Travelogue” who made the first of several visits in 1899; and made the Battle of Baliwag; Kimwood Peters who shot the Banawe Rice Terraces and Raymond Ackerman of American Biography and Mutoscope who filmed Filipino Cockfight and the Battle of Mt. Arayat.

       In 1905, Herbert Wyndham, shot scenes at the Manila Fire Department; Albert Yearsly shot the Rizal Day Celebration in Luneta 1909; in 1910, the Manila Carnival; in 1911, the Eruption of Mayon Volcano; the firstAirplane Flight Over Manila by Bud Mars and the Fires of Tondo, Pandacan and Paco; and, in 1912, the Departure of the Igorots to Barcelona and the Typhoon in Cebu.

       Filmmakers, indeed, covered wide ranges of the Philippines: Zamboanga children diving for coins thrown from the ship’s deck; Muslim ladies ogling at the camera; fiestas, carabao races, fluvial parades, religious processions, panoramic shots of Philippine cities and towns; gold mining in Paracale; concerts at the Luneta, or the construction of the Manila Hotel on land reclaimed from the Manila Bay.

The Establishment of Movie Houses

       Film showing was not resumed until 1900. The man who opened the first hall exclusively for movie viewing that year was a British named Walgrah who naturally called his establishment Cine Walgrah, located at No. 60 Calle Santa Rosa in Intramuros. The second movie house was opened in 1902 by a Spanish entrepreneur, Samuel Rebarber, who called his building, Gran Cinematografo Parisien, located at No. 80, Calle Crespo, Quiapo. In 1903, Jose Jimenez, a stage backdrop painter, set up the first Filipino-owned movie theater, the Cinematograpo Rizal. This was located on Azcarraga street, in front of Tutuban Train Station

       The assurance of abundant and continuous supply of films at cheap introductory prices brought a landslide  of movie theaters. The first of these was Cine Anda which opened on August 8, 1909, operated by two American Manila Policemen, Frank H. Goulette and Eddie Teague, others followed: It, Paz, Cabildo, Empire, Majestic,Comedis, Apollo, Ideal, Luz and Gaity appeared between 1909 and 1911. Zorilla, the vanguard of zarzuela and opera presentations, switched to showing films in late 1909, while Grand Opera House began to include movies in-between vaudeville number in 1910. Likewise, moviehouses mushroomed in the Provinces which had electricity . To date, among Asean countries, the Philippines has myriad moviehouses established from the urban to the remotest rural areas.

First Feature Film Produced in the Philippines

       The first story film made in the Philippines- Rose of the Philippines may have been produced on location in Manila in 1909 by the IMP Company– Carl Laemmele’s Independent Moving Picture Company, out of which grew the Universal Pictures Corporation. Some film historians dispute this contending it must have been a slide show. But the IMP released this 760 foot film (eight minute’s screening time) in the U.S. theaters in January, 1910. When it was released in Manila in 1911, Rose of the Philippines, was advertised in the Manila Times as “among the first films produced locally-a dramatic story  from the days of the Empire.”

The First Movie with Sound

       The first picture with sound reached Manila in 1910, using the Chronophone. But, remember, the silent movies were never shown in silence starting with the first show in 1897. There  was always a gramophone, a piano, or a quartet, or when Caviria was shown at the Manila Grand Opera House– a 200 man choir.

       By 1930, the talking pictures was already one year old in the country with the showing of Syncopation, the first American sound film, in Radio theater, Plaza Santa Cruz. The event naturally incited competition among local producers and filmmakers as to who would create the country’s first talkie. On December 8, 1932, an article came out in Graphic magazine featuring the movie, Ang Aswang (The Vampire). The feature enthused that the said film will be the country’s first talkie. Apparently, as attested by those who remember, the film did not turn out to be a completely sound film. In all likelihood, the honor of having made the very first talkie properly belongs to Jose  Nepomuceno. His Film Punyal na Guinto (Golden Dagger), which premiered on March 9, 1933, at the Lyric theater, was credited as the first completely sound movie to all-talking picture.

The Film Marketing in the Philippines

       In 1912, New York and Hollywood film companies started to establish their own agencies in Manila to distribute films. By 1915, the best films of both Europe and U.S. were being enjoyed by Filipino audiences in Manila and the Provinces.

       When World War I (1914-1918) choked off the production of European studios, Manila theater managers turned to U.S. for new film products. With the variety they offered, American Production-distribution-exhibition combinations quickly dominated the Philippine film market. It has stayed that way since then– until now!

The Golden Episodes in Philippine Cinema

       In 1937, the first Filipino movie to achieve international plaudit was Zamboanga, a picture starred in by Fernando Poe and Rosa del Rosario. Hollywood director Frank Capra praised the film as the most exciting and beautiful picture of native life he had ever seen. Manuel Conde’s Genghis Khan, released in 1950 was a rave at the Venice Film Festival in 1952; and dubbed in French, it was shown in Paris in 1954. Inspired by  Conde’s picture, Hollywood remade Genghis Khan, with John Wayne as its lead actor. The people who had seen both pictures adjudged  that the latter was incomparable to the former in terms of authenticity.

       Undoubtedly, the 5th and the 6th decades were the Golden age of Philippine cinema with subsequent films making a mark in the overseas scene: Kandelerong Pilak, Ifugao, Anak Dalita, Badjao, Anak ng Dagat, to name just a few, swept awards at the Cambodian, Asia and Berlin Film Festivals. Even at the annual Asian Film Festival with a dozen countries taking turns in hosting the major filmfest (now the Asia-Pacific Film Festival with 18 countries), there was a tacit acceptance that the Philippine cinema was, at the time, the undisputed leader in the continents film scene.

The First Color Film in the Philippines

       A British film crew also visited the Philippines, and filmed, among other scenes, the Pagsanjan Falls (Oriental, 1911) in kinemakolor. Bert Yearley’s Oriental Films, which commissioned this production, generated some excitement by offering six months free movie passes to the lucky movie patron who could guess to the closes minute the arrival of the steamship “Empress Russia” which was bringing the processed film from London. During the 5th decade of the 20th century, Filipinos awesomely seen Hollywood’s first full length picture in living Technicolor. Filipino local producers presented too, during this period, their own full length pictures in color and one of which was Prinsipe Amante (Prince Amante). But inevitably, the color was imperfect due to technical deficiency. However, Filipino technicians were quick to cope up with the fast technical development, so that by the turn of the 6th decade, they succeeded in presenting to the public some full length pictures in living Eastmancolor, one of which was Ito ang Pilipino, by J.E. Production. The lead actor was Mr. Joseph Estrada himself. By the turn of the 7th decade, local producers and filmmakers ceased to produce pictures in black and white.

Censorship and Taxes on Philippine Cinema

       The Government established the Board of Censors for cinematographic films in 1912, It was in constant operation until it was superseded by the Board of Censorship for Moving Pictures in 1929. This is now the Movie and Television Review and Classification Board (MTRCB).

       The government also imposed the first taxes on film in 1915, the same year income taxes were imposed. Direct taxes were slapped by the national government on “kinetoscope, biographs, cinematographs, magic lanterns and similar picture-projecting devices.

       Decrying that the imposition of government amusement tax (G.A.T.) was confiscatory, the film producers and distributors pleaded: “Moving pictures have provided more people in every country of the world with wholesome amusement and at a price that the poorest can pay than any amusement invented since the world began, and have become almost a necessity to a great many people of all classes, and nowhere are they considered a luxury.” Nevertheless, the Bureau of Internal Revenue started collecting taxes on film in 1916.

The First Film Producers Association

       The first association of motion picture producers and distributors was organized in 1911– by American, Spanish, Filipino producers and theater managers– to fight the impending imposition of censorship, and later to lobby against taxes. It was censorship that caused them to unite; it was taxes that made their union permanent.

       During the 5th decade, however, film productions became one of the major industries of the country. It contributed to the national government hundreds of million pesos in terms of revenues. The hope of the filmmakers and distributors to eliminate taxes waned out as their enthusiasm in the struggle to fight censorship withered away.

The Creation of the Film Academy

       Realizing the importance and the contributory value of the movie industry to the government; and to have a closer supervision and extend the much needed assistance to the industry, a Presidential Decree was issued creating the Film Academy of the Philippines. Under its umbrella are the different organizations and guilds of the industry’s working forces, to wit:

  • MOWELFUND – Movie Welfare Fund
  • KAPP – Katipunan ng mga Artista ng Pelikulang Pilipino
  • KDPP -Kapisanan ng mga Director ng Pelikulang Pilipino
  • DGPI – Directors Guild of the Philippines, Inc.
  • SGP – Screenwriters Guild of the Philippines
  • FEGMP – Film Editors Guild for Motion Pictures
  • PDGP -Production Designers Guild of the Philippines
  • STAMP – Sound Technicians Association for Motion Pictures
  • ADPM – Assistant Directors and Production Managers
  • FSC – Filipino Society of Cinematographers
  • UFIMDAP– United Film Music Directors Association of the Philippines
  • OSFILM – Organization of Specialized Filmmakers
  • AFW – Actor’s Workshop Foundation
  • PMPPA – Philippine Motion Picture Producers Association
  • MPDAP – Movie Producers & Distributors Association of the Philippines

Film as an Effective Medium

       It was Jose Nepomuceno who came on the scene and realized the challenge and promise of cinema from a different perspective. He saw cinema, not only as a profitable entertainment fare, but as a unique medium with which to document the unfolding development of the Philippines.

       It is interesting to read an observation of a film reviewer in the “The Citizen” who, after seeing Nepomuceno’s Dalagang Bukid in 1919, was convinced that excellent local movies could project the Philippine condition abroad as no other medium could. To quote:

       “It is a sad truth to mention that our country is practically unknown in most part of the globe. Now, more than ever, the world needs much enlightenment with regard to our situation so that our foreign commerce may expand and tourists may visit our shores. We hope to make the Philippines the veritable Garden of the Far East in the eyes of the commercial world, and to enhance this idea, the motion picture is an essential factor. Pictures depicting the various phases of Philippine life and customs, if exhibited in China, Japan, India,America, Australia and Europe, will do much toward giving the people of these countries a fair and correct view of our home affairs. It appears therefore, highly propitious to develop this all important industry which, if realized, will assist materially in putting the Philippines on the map as an enlightened, progressive and industrious nation.”

       Seventy five years later, (and to the present) the coveted objective of the patriotic reviewer, is still a goal of the Philippine film industry.

Government’s Recognition of Cinema’s Relevance

       The Philippine Commission recognized early the potential of cinema as a tool of communication and information, so that in 1909, the Bureau of Science bought a complete filmmaking unit and laboratory from Pathe, and sent its chief photographer, the American, Charles Martin, to France to train for a year. When Martin completed his training, he resolved to document, in motion pictures, the varied aspects of the Philippines — its folkways and dances, for instance, or its natural resources. He had many lucky breaks; his film crew was at Taal Batangas, when the Taal Volcano erupted in 1911. His film of this visually exciting natural disaster was shown around the world.

       Government filmmaking ranged from recording life among the cultural communities for  the Department of Interior to making “how-to” movies for the Bureau of Health and Education. By 1914, the U.S. colonial government was already using films as a vehicle for information, education, propaganda and entertainment. The Bureau of Science tackled subjects designed to present an accurate picture of the Philippines before the American public, particularly the U.S. Congress.

       For example, the acclaimed films exhibited at the Panama Exposition in 1915 depicted “several industries of the city and provinces, among them hat-making, salt manufacture, nipa cultivation and manufacture in its many phases, rice cultivation, the many kinds of weaving by Christians and non-Christians, native blacksmithing, the Chinese macaroni and chocolate making, and scores of others.”

       The Manila publication, “The Citizen” credits cinema advertisements flashed in movie theaters for he success of the national campaign to raise funds to buy one submarine for the American war effort during World War I.

       The national government made plans to produce its own films as the most effective means of reaching the masses. At the same time, it resolved to establish a national repository for films, as a treasure trove for future generations.

The Effect of Global Economic Trends on Cinema

       The nascent shifting of industrial society to information society has resulted to a single economy in the world; and because of this unprecedented period of accelerated change, the players and participants of the global economy has become individuals and small entrepreneurs. The shift is an economic reality, and not an intellectual abstraction. The innovations in communications and computer technology accelerated the pace of change by collapsing the information float. New information technologies give birth to new activities, processes, and products. Huge business companies are forced to downsize in order to survive in this global economic trends.

       Big movie studios in Hollywood, such as 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount, Columbia, Universal; and in the Philippines- the famous Big-Four- Premiere Production, Sampaguita Pictures, LVN Studio, Lebran Production, are all virtually closed down due to the proliferation of individual and collective modes of film production. Nevertheless, the film industry remains steadfast. Like an old soldier, it may fade for a while, but it shall never die!

About the Author:
Arsenio “Boots” Bautista is a native of Cotabato who writes and directs for television and movies.He has been directing for IBC-13 since 1989.