As the last post for REALLY Old Films Month, here’s an encore of a piece I originally wrote for Melies Month back in 2017. It seems fitting to end this exploration of early cinema with one of its biggest–and most charming–milestones!
You knew this one was coming! This is the final post for Méliès Month–I hope you enjoyed this extended tribute to one of the essential pioneers of the cinema!
Upward mount then! clearer, milder,
Robed in splendour far more bright!
Though my heart with grief throbs wilder,
Fraught with rapture is the night!
—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “To the Rising Full Moon,” 1828
For thousands of years mankind has gazed at the moon. Deities have been associated with it. We’ve written about it in poems and books, mentioned it in songs and plays, and painted and sculpted its likeness.
So perhaps it’s fitting that one of the earliest milestones of a brand-new artform should feature the elusive moon that’s so haunted our imaginations–a craggy, blinking, papier mache variety with seriously wicked eyebrows, that is.
If I had a time machine and a list of events I’d like to witness, the 1900 Paris Exposition just might be in the top ten. (Or at least the top 25..there’s a lot of things I’d like to see!) If you haven’t heard of it, it was…well…just look at this:
As I took in the wonders of that fabulous Art Nouveau architecture–dressed in a lovely Parisian summer frock and my best hat, of course–I’d hightail it straight to the Festival Hall. For this is where the Lumières had an exhibit demonstrating moving pictures. On a 70-foot wide screen suspended in that vast, beautiful hall. Yes, a screen of that size in the year 1900! For whatever reason, this momentous occasion has practically been forgotten by history–you’re lucky to even find a picture of it.
“The man who would have predicted…that an event of the prior month would be reproduced before the eyes of a multitude in pictures that moved like life, and that lightning would move them and light them, would have been avoided as a lunatic or hanged as a wizard.”
–The Brooklyn Eye, 1897.
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (1897) is exactly the sort of old film you might glance at briefly before moving on to something more exciting, like a charming Méliès picture or one of the eye-catching Serpentine Dance films. It’s footage of a boxing match, after all. They’re boxing, they’re wearing tights, gents in bowler hats are watching–what more do you need to know?
But as anyone who enjoys studying old films knows (the older the better if you ask me), even the simplest “actualities” or the crudest comic shorts have more history to them than meets the eye. Corbett-Fitzsimmons is both an interesting window into a time when society was starting to experience big changes and, in the minds of viewers at the time, a clear example of the miraculous nature of film.
The surviving 3-second snippet of Dickson Greeting (1891) shows a slim, neatly dressed young man with a mustache. He’s in the midst of bowing politely to the camera, about to pass a straw hat from one hand to the other. We barely have time to register his image before the clip ends. But brief as it is, we still get a hint of this young man’s self-assurance.
The young man is William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson (he often shortened it to “W.K.L. Dickson”), and he wasn’t merely the subject of a very early, quasi-experimental film. He’s one of the most significant pioneers of the cinema. Let me be even more clear: he’s one of cinema’s giants, an enthusiastic innovator who helped shape the movies as we still know them today. And we know this not so much from his own recorded words, which became obscure over the years, but because research in recent decades revealed just what an important figure he was.
We’re all familiar with the Lumière brothers’ 50-second early film The Arrival of the Train at La Ciotat Station (1895), which shows exactly what it says it does. Of all the early films screened for fascinated audiences back in the 1890s, Arrival of the Train has become the most legendary. For as we’ve all heard, when people saw that train on the screen steaming into the station for the first time–looking like it was about to roll right off the screen before vanishing outside the frame–the experience was so new and unexpected that they panicked, even fleeing the theater.
It’s easy to see why everyone loves this story. We can’t help smiling at those naïve early filmgoers, frightened to death of a simple moving image, in an age when three-hour action blockbusters are the order of the day and toddlers know how to watch movies on iPads. Just imagine if those delicate Victorians saw something like Aquaman or Mad Max: Fury Road!
Ah, but here’s some food for thought: What if the story of Arrival of the Train was actually more myth than fact? Could its legendary status actually be…just that, a legend?
A version of this article first appeared in my column for Classic Movie Hub, in March 2020. I revised it a bit for REALLY Old Films Month.
If I challenged you to name the first person who ever shot moving images on film, how would you respond? “Thomas Edison”? “The Lumière brothers”? “William K.-L. Dickson,” if you’re a film history buff? Maybe you would try to be smart and shout “Eadweard Muybridge!” Not a bad guess, my friend–but I did say “on film.”
While it’s often debated who should be credited for inventing moving pictures per se–this debate would include Muybridge and the inventors of various optical illusion toys–the first man to shoot images on familiar film strips was the distinguished-looking Louis Le Prince. A true pioneer of the cinema, his story is extraordinary not just for what it tells us about his contributions to a brand-new art form, but for how it ends–in a tragic mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
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:
Imagine that you’re an average person living in the late 19th century. Try hard to really put yourself in the right mindset. You’re probably thinking: “Okay, well, there’s no electricity in my house or smartphones and there’s no modern medicine and…” Those things always leap to our minds first. But what about other everyday details? For instance, what would you do for entertainment? What resources would you have had at home, or nearby?
Long before television and radio, newspapers would’ve been important, with their humor writers, cartoons and other amusements, and there were always various magazines with similar features. There were novels, games, music if you or a family member played an instrument, and of course singing was the freest, most basic form of entertainment of all. Dances, socials, picnics, and other amusements would no doubt be on your schedule too. But your most memorable entertainment experiences of all were probably at the theater.
Theaters, whether they were gigantic with gilt decorations or tiny with just a few rows of seats, were the heart of the entertainment industry–as they had been for thousands of years. Like the generations before you, you crowded inside with dozens of others, found your seats, and–if the show was good–you were transported by a great story, a fine performance, or a beautiful melody. You watched the performers carefully, your imagination filling in the gaps of the stage’s limitations–painted scenery could be a forest, that wall of faux stone could belong to a castle. Perhaps you were in the back rows where you squinted to see the performers; maybe you paid more for a clearer view up front, where you could even see the makeup on the actors’ faces.
Before kicking off REALLY Old Films Month, I wanted to announce that Silent-ology has been “live” for eight straight years! That decade mark is inching closer and closer…!
8 years–and over 500 posts! And many of them run over 1,000 words, with the longest being around 3,000 (can’t get too long!). Fun fact: Silent-ology is sharing this anniversary with the publication centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Right now, Silent-ology’s post word count is roughly the length of two copies of Ulysses. I think Joyce would agree that’s pretty awesome!
Throughout the past year–which, like 2020, was a strange time of ups and too many downs–Silent-ology has not only had a steady readership but I’m proud to say that the numbers have actually been increasing. Lots of interesting mini-discussions have been cropping up in the comments sections lately too, and comments in general have been coming in steadily. You can imagine how psyched I am about all that!