This is a version of an article I wrote for Classic Movie Hub a few years back. I hope you find it as interesting as I did while researching it! And if you’re interested, I also published a piece on Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) back in the early days of Silent-ology.
We’ve all seen clips of scratchy, very early films showing women dancing or blacksmiths at work, films that are more like experimental documentaries than anything else. But have you ever wondered: what were the top 10 earliest films ever made?
It’s not an easy list to make, anymore than it’s easy to decide which of the many Victorian inventors receives the most credit for the cinema (Marey? Edison? Muybridge? Friese-Greene??). First we have to determine what counts as “film.” After all, before the use of light-sensitive paper and celluloid several photographers had invented cameras capable of taking multiple photos in quick succession. These could capture, say, an animal’s precise movements one quick shot at a time. (Eadweard Muybridge pioneered this method.) But it’s often agreed that the earliest true films were the ones shot on light-sensitive strips of material much the way they are today (or were, until digital started taking over).
It’s also tough to determine an exact chronology for the earliest films since every studio would’ve had a period of experimentation, and presumably many of those experiments didn’t survive. So the following list should be considered a little less Gospel than guideline on what we know exists. In cases where a “series” of brief films were shot by the same studio in the same vague time frame, I’ll be counting them as a single entry.
So let’s start with the very oldest surviving film in the entire world:
1. Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)
The one that started it all. While in Leeds, England on October 14, 1888, French inventor Louis Le Prince decided to try out his stubby refrigerator-sized camera in the garden of his in-laws Joseph and Sarah Whitley. We see Joseph, Sarah, friend Annie Hartley, and Le Prince’s son Adolphe apparently strolling around in circles just to give Louis some “action” to shoot. (Sarah’s laughing and walking backwards.) Only 52 frames survive, but I’m sure you and I can agree that we’re grateful for those two seconds or so of footage!
2. Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge (1888)
This was the second film shot by Le Prince, probably shortly after Roundhay. He filmed from an upper window of what was then called Hicks the Ironmongers. Today the light-colored brick building is an estate agency and bears a blue plaque commemorating Le Prince’s day of filming.
3. Accordion Player (1888)
The third work by–guess who?–our friend Le Prince. This is apparently his final film (that survives, anyways) and depicts his son Adolphe playing an accordion near Joseph Whitley’s front steps. Why was this the final Le Prince film? Not long before he was to embark to the U.S. for a promo tour of his new camera, he got on a train to Dijon, France, and…was never seen again. This disappearance remains a mystery to this day (theories range from regular ol’ murder to the very dubious idea of fratricide).
4. Monkeyshines No. 1 and 2 (1889)
Filmed in Thomas Edison’s famed Black Maria (the world’s first film studio), the two very warped and scratchy Monkeyshines films were essentially camera tests running a few seconds in length. No. 1 shows a figure in white gesturing against a black background, and No. 2 shows the same figure waving his arms and bending from side to side. A third Monkeyshine (a slang term for “mischief making”) is lost. Some historians dispute whether the films were made in 1889 or 1890, but they do seem to be the very first ones ever made in the U.S.
5. London’s Trafalgar Square (1890)
This tiny documentary, shot at 10 frames per second, is not only one of the world’s oldest films but is the earliest footage ever shot of London. Interestingly, filmmakers Wordsworth Donisthorpe and William Carr Crofts decided to capture the action with a circular frame over the lens of their “kinesigraph.”
6. Mosquinha (1890)
Étienne-Jules Marey used his chronophotographic gun–a camera which looked, well, exactly like a chunky gun–to take this closeup shot of a fly taking flight. Marey’s invention took sequences of photographs in a similar way to the famous ones by Muybridge, and by 1890 he had figured out how to operate the “gun” with film strips, making him officially one of our earliest filmmakers.
7. Dickson Greeting (1891)
Inventor William K-L. Dickson, one of Edison’s most skilled employees, created this little film to demonstrate Edison’s kinetograph–making it the first American film intended for public screenings. Three seconds of it survive today, showing the mustachioed Dickson passing his hat from one hand to another. Apparently in the full original film he also bowed, smiled and waved at the camera.
8. Duncan films (1891)
James C. Duncan was a member of Edison’s staff and “starred” in several of the earliest Black Maria experimental shorts: Duncan Smoking; Duncan and Another, Blacksmith Shop; and Duncan with Muslin Cloud (all 1891). The titles are pretty self-explanatory.
9. Newark Athlete (1891)
A young local athlete does an Indian club-twirling demonstration for the camera, although we only see a few seconds of it (these clubs were popular for strength-training exercises). This was yet another Edison product, and we can assume the original probably showed a longer demonstration.
10. Je vous aime (1891)
Georges Demenÿ was an assistant to Étienne-Jules Marey, and was perhaps the earliest filmmaker to pursue the commercialization of moving pictures (rather than just using them for scientific purposes). Hector Marichelle, professor and director of the National Deaf-Mute Institute in France, had asked Demenÿ to make films that would help instruct deaf and mute students how to lipread. Demenÿ took this closeup of himself saying “je vous aime” (“I love you”). The experience lead Demenÿ to feel that commercialization was a part of cinema’s future, which lead to a break with Marey. You might say that Demenÿ was the more prophetic one.
While these films were merely very simple, no-frills exercises in the new motion picture technology, they are incredibly important pieces of our cultural history. We can only imagine–and hope!–that as the decades go by, stretching into centuries, their value will become nearly incalculable to future generations.