Historians usually date the “birth” of the cinema to December 28th 1895, when August and Louis Lumiére hosted the first public showing of their films to a curious audience in Paris. The idea of movies (however “primitive”) existing in the 1890s surprises us today, yet amazingly enough, movies have been around even longer than that.
We don’t know exactly what the first film ever recorded was–but we do have the earliest surviving film. As there’s only a fragment of it remaining, to be precise we better call it the world’s oldest piece of film. This is what has been named The Roundhay Garden Scene, dating from–wait for it–1888.
D.W. Griffith was thirteen at the time. Charlie Chaplin would be born the following year. Lillian Gish would be born five years later; it would be seven years before the birth of Buster Keaton.
The fragment is only 2.11 seconds long, and shows just a glimpse of four people walking around a garden on a sunny day. They appear to be moving around in circles (the older gal is walking backwards) just so the camera can capture some sort of action. That’s about all we can speculate, anyways.
It was filmed on October 14, 1888, by Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince (let’s just call him Louis Le Prince) with his single lens camera-projector–that’s right, a two-in-one machine. Le Prince had designed the machine himself; it survives today and is roughly the size of a stubby refrigerator.
It used light-sensitive rolls of paper film, and was an improvement over his earlier invention–a camera that used sixteen lenses. On that sunny fall day Le Prince filmed at the rate of 12 frames per second in the garden of Oakwood Grange, situated in the suburb of Roundhay in Leeds, England.
The Roundhay Garden Scene is often described as the “world’s first film.” Technically, we can’t know this for sure. Since it presumably takes some trial and error to invent a new type of camera, as well as to create one that’s fine-tuned enough to be patented, no doubt Le Prince had to experiment before his product was complete.
In fact, to further muddle matters his invention wasn’t 100% unique. Many early forms of “moving” pictures dated as far back as the 1860s. The ones most like our modern films were various “magic lantern” type inventions, involving series of pictures that would appear to “move” if they were shown in rapid succession (similar to a flipbook). These images were painted on the edge of spinning disks, put inside spinning cylinders and viewed via a slit and inside mirrors, etc. And if we’re going to get even more technical, flipbook-style animation and other optical illusions seem to have been around for centuries. (Let’s not get started on the theory of cave art “animation”…that’s a topic for another article!)
Still, in spite of all this we can give Le Prince credit for being the first to successfully use light-sensitive rolls of film to capture real life–the same kind of method we’ve been using ever since (well, at least until digital started taking over).
So if we recognize Roundhay Garden Scene as being the world’s earliest surviving film, then that can mean only one thing…the people in the film are our very first movie stars!
In a sense. Who were they? The young man is Le Prince’s son, Adolphe (ah, the olden days, when Adolph was a common name), the young woman is friend Harriet Hartley, and the older couple are Le Prince’s parents-in-law Sarah and Joseph Whitley (the owners of Oakwood Grange).
Harriet wears a fashionable dress and hat, and Joseph has on a long coat with tails that fly out as he turns (just like something Dickens might have described!). They’re all simply strolling around for the camera, being themselves–including Sarah, who seems to be walking backwards as a joke. The film is so brief, so fuzzy, scratchy, and warped, that it almost seems like it captured a dream of reality, rather than a real scene with real people.
But real people they were, and when Le Prince stopped cranking the camera life went on for them. Or nearly all of them. One of the most surprising (and slightly sobering) trivia about this film fragment is that a mere ten days later Sarah Whitley died at age 72. Thus, one of the very first people to be captured on film became the first deceased person whose image was preserved on film, to our knowledge. One wonders–did the family project Roundhay Garden Scene later on, just to see her again? Did they consider the cutting-edge new invention to be a blessing because of this? Or was it difficult and strange for them to watch, knowing Sarah was in her grave? Such a thing can only be speculated. There was no one else in the world, back in 1888, who had yet gone through that exact situation.
An equally sobering fact concerns the fate of Le Prince. In 1890 he decided that he was ready to patent his new camera. He made plans to go to England to get the patent (although he worked in England, Le Prince was a native Frenchman) and then go on a trip to the U.S.A. to publicize his invention. He left Bourges, France, on September 13, bound for Paris. On the way he stopped to see his brother Alphonse in Dijon for a few days. When the train from Dijon arrived in Paris on September 16, Le Prince was not on it.
He was never seen again–literally, for neither his body nor any trace of luggage was ever found. The last person who ever saw him was Alphonse, who had watched him board the train in Dijon.
Several theories for his disappearance have been put forward, with varying levels of plausibility–everything from Evil Edison crushing his rival to fratricide (sheesh). In 2003 an 1890 photo of a drowned man who looked like Le Prince was found in a Paris police archive. However, whether the drowned man in question is Le Prince is still only a theory.
Whatever the case, despite fate denying him his patent Le Prince has had the last laugh. Many historians today credit him as being the true father of motion pictures, over the Lumiére Brothers and over Edison. And his Roundhay Garden Scene is acknowledged as the film that truly “started it all.”
Today you can go to Leeds, England, and visit the cemetery of St. John’s of Roundhay.
There you can visit the graves of Sarah and Joseph Whitley, two of the very first people to ever appear in a film. And you can stand there and wonder if they had known just what they were helping to start on that sunny fall day.
Note: Lest we started jumping to Poltergeist-level conclusions, I waited until now to say that in 1902 Adolphe Le Prince also died, from a gunshot in Fire Island, New York.