Thanhouser's The Star of Bethlehem (dir. Lawrence Marston, 1912) originally ran to three reels, but only around one reel's worth of footage (~1000ft) has survived. Thankfully this is one of the many silent films that the present day Thanhouser has made available to view for free on Vimeo.
In some ways it's a shame that much of this footage has been lost. Marston and scenario writer took the unusual approach of prefacing the film with material from the Hebrew Bible including footage of Isaiah and Micah. Whilst The Living Bible Series and Rossellini's Il Messia also take a similar approach this is the only time that Micah has ever been depicted on screen as far as I am aware.
The remaining footage begins in the court of King Herod in the middle of "revelry" (to quote the intertitle card) with the three wise men about to arrive. The opening shot allows the time to soak up the atmosphere of Herod's court before the we move outside where the magi arrive and mange to persuade the guards to grant them an audience with the king. The film's two nicest shots feature here as the wise men walk past a company of guardsmen in one shot and then emerge through the crowd in Herod's court room in the next. In both shots they enter from the back of the shot and work their way towards the front; in the first progressing along the right third of the screen in contrast to the static guards in the leftmost two thirds; in the second entering from deep centre whereby the crowd parts to let them through. Whilst the camera here is static, the depth of focus and composition of these shots is a little ahead of its time particularly in the way that the balance of the composition of the shots only fully works as the image is moving.
Having been permitted by Herod to seek the child and instructed by him to report back the three head off in pursuit of the star managing to bump into the shepherds just as the angel of the Lord appears. Rather touchingly the mixed group of shepherds and magi team up and head off towards the stable together. It's an unusual move but given the apparent difference in wealth between the two groups the way these barriers are never even an issue rather emphasises the fact that all are equal before God.
The inside of the stable is tightly composed with a rather ethereal-looking Joseph at the front of the shot. Whilst almost all film Josephs and Jesuses are usually dark-haired, bearded thirty something men, there's a certain something about this Joseph that makes him appear unusually Jesus-like.
The climax of this shot (and, indeed of this remaining fragment) sees the group hold their pose in adoration whilst a group of super-imposed angels appear at the top of the shot. I don't know where the original film ended, but this seems as perfect an end point as I can imagine, particularly for a film that was originally released on Christmas Eve.
The Vimeo page for this film includes a good deal of extra detail about the film which I've included below not only for interest but also as occasionally these things disappear from the web after a few years (looking at you BFI archive...)
The Star of Bethlehem: One reel, released December 24, 1912.
Biblical tale about the birth of Christ told with a cast of 100's, one reel British version edited from original three reel release.
Directed by Lawrence Marston. Production supervised by Edwin Thanhouser. Scenario by Lloyd F. Lonergan. Original length three reels (3,000 feet); surviving version edited to one real (1,000 feet)
Print source: British Film Institute National Film and Television Archive, 15 minutes, 13 seconds.
Cast: Florence LaBadie (Mary), James Cruze (Micah, Joseph), William Russell (Herod), Harry Benham (Angel Gabriel), Justus D. Barnes (Gaspar, one of the Magi), Charles Horan (Melchior, one of the Magi), Riley Chamberlin (Balthasar, one of the Magi), Harry Marks (scribe), N. S. Woods (scribe), Lawrence Merton (scribe), David H. Thompson (Pharisee, rabbi), Lew Woods (Pharisee, scribe), Joseph Graybill (Roman messenger), Carl LeViness (shepherd), Frank Grimmer (shepherd), Ethyle Cooke; total cast of 200 persons.
Original music composed and performed by Andrew Crow (thanhouser.org/people/crowa.htm.)
Thanhouser's ambitious Star of Bethlehem was one of the first steps toward true feature-length films (more than two reels long). It appeared the year before the Italian epic Quo Vadis? was viewed in the U. S., and two years before the first Hollywood feature, The Squaw Man. The original negatives were destroyed in the Thanhouser studio fire just three weeks after its first release.
Preparation of this epic was one of the last duties of Edwin Thanhouser before leaving the studio that bore his name. He had sold it to Mutual in April of 1912 and continued to work as studio manager until he "retired" in November, 1912, only to return in 1915. Thanhouser's biggest production up to that point in time, the film required a one-month shooting schedule, employed a cast of 200 (including forty principals), and cost a hefty $8,000. Special effects alone took a full week's work.
Thanhouser studio's flair for sumptuous costumes, crowds of actors, and rich staging is evident in this epic. Some of the larger scenes reportedly were filmed with two or even three cameras shooting from different angles. The ratio of two-and-a-half feet of film exposed per foot of film used is modest by today's standards, but was extravagant for 1912.
This film is available on DVD from Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc. at thanhouser.org.