“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.
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.
It’s less than minute long, was filmed over 120 years ago and simply shows a dancing skeleton who keeps falling to pieces and magically reassembling itself. Silent film fans, any guesses about the director?
Nope! It would actually be these staid gentlemen:
Who probably never pictured themselves being part of a Halloween-themed month, gravitating more towards the documentation of departing factory workers, arriving trains and the like. But they filmed a skeleton, and skeletons are great Halloween decorations, so if you ask me that counts.
The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!
–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show, Conestoga Magazine, 1907.
Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.
Not too long ago my fellow blogger Crystal, who runs the fine site In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, contacted me with an idea: How about we cohost a blogathon in honor of Silent Movie Day? Well well well, that sure sounds right up my alley.
“Wait, ‘Silent Movie Day’? Is that a real thing>” you ask. Why yes, it certainly IS a real thing! Just this past January, Chad Hunter, executive director of Video Trust and director of the Pittsburgh Silent Film Society, archivist Brandee B. Cox of the Academy Film Archive, and archivist Steven K. Hill of the UCLA Film & Television Archive all put their heads together and decided to create a National Silent Movie Day. Described simply as “a day to celebrate and enjoy silent movies,” it will be held on September 29. And it won’t be celebrated just this year, but every year! As its founders wrote:
Anyone can participate! Ask your local cinema to show a silent picture with live music; watch a silent movie on a streaming platform or on disc; write a blog or an article for your local newspaper; read a book about your favorite silent movie star; or create a podcast. Use your imagination and post on your social media on September 29 to show how you celebrate the day. This is our moment as silent movie fans, academics, programmers, and newcomers to share our mutual love and appreciation for this unique period in motion picture history. It is also an opportunity to rally around surviving silent pictures that are still in need of preservation.
So in honor of this brand-new rival of Easter and Christmas, Crystal and I are hosting a one-day Silent Movie Day Blogathon–and all bloggers are invited!
Judy Canova, Minnie Pearl, Louise Fazenda, Gale Henry, Mabel Normand, Lucille Ball in those I Love Lucy episodes where she blacks out teeth and wears hillbilly clothes–all of these talented ladies had fun bringing “country bumpkin” characters to the screen. Some did it part time (like Mabel) while others turned their rube characters into a full time career (like Minnie).
And those pigtails, funny hats and gingham dresses have hollered “bumpkin” to us ever since. But how often do you hear about their direct ancestor, Sis Hopkins? This great-grandmother of movie hillbillies was the creation of comedy pioneer Rose Melville. Her Sis was a very familiar character to audiences, debuting in the 1890s and appearing regularly in theaters across America for two straight decades.
I may have mentioned my great love for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which I try my darnest to attend every year (I also try my darnest to see every single showing–last year I finally succeeded!). Probably mentioned it once or twice…or fifty times. (They deserve frequent shoutouts!)
One of the many bonuses of this grand festival is their annual “Amazing Tales From the Archives” presentation, which is always free to attend and always full of interesting info on the exciting projects archivists are working on. The 2019 festival had one presentation that charmed my socks off: about Léon Beaulieu’s teeny tiny cinema flipbooks he manufactured for his unique 1890s “pocket cinematograph.”
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.
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 →
Imagine you have a small film studio, and you’ve set up a table-sized platform with an artfully-arranged miniature landscape on top. A couple figurines–maybe dinosaurs–are posed among snippets of shrubs and tree branches serving as a jungle. There’s a painted backdrop of mountains and sky, and everything is lit brightly with hot lights; your hand-cranked camera is in the exact spot you need it, ready to go. You carefully adjust the figurines, then crank the camera–only turning the handle once. You adjust the figurines again, and again crank the camera handle once. You adjust them again–but not because they don’t look right to you.
Indeed, the amount of savagery is just right.
Nope, this is your peculiar, unique art form, requiring complete dedication, patience, and foresight–stop motion animation. Full work days go by as you patiently adjust the figures under the hot lights again and again, now and then stopping to repair them as their latex skins start showing signs of wear and tear. After a few weeks, you’ll have a sequence a few minutes long–and on film, the miniature scene will be full of life.
After conducting my official “pull names written on slips of paper out of my cloche-style hat” drawing for the copy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival ’19 program, I’m happy to announce that the winner is:
Congrats, Jim! If you don’t hear from me first, you can contact me through the form on the About Silent-ology page. Once I have a mailing address I should be able to send it to you in the next few days. And now, my latest post (a version of this article has appeared on Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column):
We’ve all seen pictures of beautiful 1920s movie palaces complete with columns, statues and enormous lit-up marquees. And their ancestor, the nickelodeon, is fairly well known too–those small, crowded little theaters that charged a nickel to see the latest show. But before the late 1900’s heyday of the nickelodeon and even before the existence of Hollywood itself, many people first saw films at travelling motion picture shows.
A Vitascope projector show at an existing theater.
These seem to have popped up in the 1890s and were popular throughout the 1900s. Descended from magic lantern shows, they were also similar to the fancy exhibitions put on by inventors to showcase their newly-patented cameras and projectors to genteel audiences. But the wonder of the moving picture couldn’t be contained in those staid lecture halls for long. To many enterprising men in the Victorian era (mainly gents were interested in this line of work), the novelty of cinema presented a unique and interesting way to make a living.Continue reading →