Is “Matches: An Appeal” The Oldest Surviving Animated Film?

What is the world’s oldest animated film? Or rather, knowing film history–what’s the world’s oldest surviving animated film? Many sources will point to the cartoon Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906) or “trick film” The Enchanted Drawing (1900), which used stop motion to make a cartoon face change expressions. But chances are you might’ve stumbled across a few sources making the case for an obscure short called Matches: An Appeal–said to have been produced in 1899. 

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It’s a pretty cute little film, too. Via the magic of stop motion, two small figures made of matchsticks work together to write an “appeal” asking the public to donate money to send matches to needy soldiers. To be precise, they write: “For one guinea Messrs Bryant & May will forward a case containing sufficient to supply a box of matches to each man in a battalion with the name of the sender inside. N.B. Our soldiers need them.” The stop motion is surprisingly sophisticated for its early date–perhaps a little too sophisticated.

Time to fall down a research rabbit hole! Always one of my favorite hobbies. Continue reading

Obscure Films: “The Policemen’s Little Run” (1907)

Need a little pick-me-up after a long, hard day? Looking for some good old-fashioned slapstick nonsense that’s blissfully short? Have a particular craving for, say, a 1900s French comedy short that your friends (and possibly you) have never heard of?

Well that’s easy enough–The Policemen’s Little Run (1907) it is!

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Seen here in blurrymotion.

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Obscure Films: “The Home Maker” (1925)

And now that my new laptop is up and running, we’re finally back in business! I’ll try and get some extra posts out this month, too. 🙂

Some of the silent era’s finest gems weren’t big epics or artsy Expressionist dramas, but smaller, quieter pictures, set in modest parlors, humble tenements, and kitchens where a full tea kettle was always sitting on the stove. Intimate melodramas like True Heart Susie (1919) or Master of the House (1925) gently examined the most relatable and engrossing stories of all: the triumphs and travails of “regular folks.”

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And people loved those kinds of films back then, too. While largely forgotten today, Over the Hill (1920) and Tol’able David (1921)–melodramas with intimate storytelling and salt-of-the-earth characters–were two big hits of the era. Actors like Charles Ray made careers out of “gosh and golly” personas, and after filming his mighty epics D.W. Griffith was happy to turn his attention to “little” pictures like A Romance of Happy Valley (1919) and The Greatest Question (1919). Many of these dramas that survive can still captivate us. After all, as spoiled as we may be by high-quality CGI, brilliant colors and swooping camera movements, we still can’t resist a plain good story. Continue reading

Obscure Films: “The Portrait” (1915)

There’s something about old portraits that inspires the gothic side of our imaginations, especially if the portraits are sufficiently somber or darkened with age. Looking into the steady eyes of a subject long dead has inspired many a horror writer–and more than one filmmaker, too.

One example of that inspiration is the little-watched drama The Portrait (1915), which I stumbled across recently. While it’s sadly only a fragment of a lost film, it contains some pretty neat imagery and is capable of leading us down some of those delightful research rabbit holes.

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Obscure Films: “Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene” (1899)–Likely The World’s First Western

Have you ever wondered: What was the very first western ever made?  It would have to be a film older than a Tom Mix or William S. Hart flick, and even older than the mini-dramas by Biograph or Vitagraph. Many who’ve debated this subject will point to an Edison short, Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene, which is less than a minute long, is more “vignette” than “plot-driven,” and was shot a swell 120 years ago. I’m gonna point to it, too.

I’ve been drawn to this ancient little film in the past mainly because of one thing: this still photo, likely taken so Cripple Creek could be registered for copyright. Let’s take a minute and just look at it.

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Obscure Films: “Genuine: A Tale Of A Vampire” (1920)

Man, I couldn’t help cringing while writing the title of this post–because from that alone, this film sounds so cool. This is a vampire tale? From the year 1920? And it’s a German Expressionist film, you say? By Robert Wiene, the director of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, you say?! This must be a forgotten gem!! An obscure work of genius, just begging to be rediscovered by eager new audiences and then extolled as one of the unsung masterpieces of early experimental cinema!!

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HOLY FREAKIN’ HARRY LANGDON, LOOK AT THAT ART DESIGN!!

Well, I’m here to confirm that it’s………..not. It’s just not. It’s not any of those things. Well, okay, it is a German Expressionist film from 1920 directed by Robert Wiene, but a cinematic masterpiece? Oh good heavens, no.
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Obscure Films: “The Blue Bird” (1918)

In its review of The Blue Bird back in 1918, The New York Times declared, “…It is a safe assertion to say that seldom, if ever, has the atmosphere and spirit of a written work been more faithfully reproduced in motion pictures.” This observation holds true today, but with a twist for “we moderns.” For this film embodies the spirit of Edwardian fairytales and indeed many old European fairytales so thoroughly that for us, it could almost be from another planet. And for those of us willing to experience The Blue Bird today, that’s a good thing.

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Image Credit: Nitrate Diva

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Obscure Films: “The Merry Frolics Of Satan” (1906)

One of my very favorite Georges Méliès films is Les Quat’Cents Farces du diable, literally translated as The 400 Tricks of the Devil. We just call it The Merry Frolics of Satan (1906), which is a title truly of its time. So is the film itself, but that’s why I love it so much.

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While not as widely discussed as A Trip to the Moon and more familiar from clips turning up in documentaries on early cinema, it’s one of Méliès’s most elaborate works and a real treat for the eyes. Its plot can be…quite mystifying even if you’re paying close attention, so here’s a detailed recap (I believe some of the information originally came from the Star Film Company’s catalog): Continue reading

Obscure Films: “Behind The Door” (1919)

If you mention Behind the Door to a silent film fan, they’ll react in one of two ways: the blank, racking-their-brains-have-they-heard-of-it-maybe-actually-nope-never-heard-of-it look, or a sudden widening of the eyes and a little gasp: “You’ve seen it?!

Because it’s that kind of film, my friend. Its notoriety precedes it, and once you watch it you’ll know why. The screen doesn’t show anything graphic, but the implications are crystal clear…and stomach-churning.

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Obscure Films: “Shot In The Excitement” (1914)

There are some silent comedy shorts that are so of-their-time silly that you aren’t sure if a newbie could handle them. They’d probably think to themselves, “This is what silent comedy was like? Lots of grimacing and flailing around? Humor was, like, so primitive back then. And look at those special effects–why did they even bother before CGI?”

Um, CGI could never improve on Al St. John, for one thing.

What this newbie doesn’t know is that there’s more to these “primitive” comedies than meets the eye. Well, a little more, anyways. If you chuck aside your “21st century cynicism” glasses for about 15 minutes, you can have a delightful time experiencing the supreme Awesomeness of a short like Shot in the Excitement (1914). Allow me to give you a tour. Continue reading