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.
A couple stories circulating in the media recently had levels of ridiculousness so high (admittedly an easy bar to reach nowadays) that they inspired me to explore a topic near and dear to my heart: how silent films can help us understand history. Better. Much better, since it helps to, you know, see history, at least from the 1880s onwards. And I want to show how a deeper understanding of history isn’t just some neat perk to help add more trivia nuggets to your noggin, but something that can have huge real-word ramifications–especially today.
Now, I like discussing overall societal trends in this blog in a generalized fashion, but I usually avoid specific news stories. Partly because the blog doesn’t need to get super dated (my blog topic’s already dated, thank yew very much), and mainly because I really don’t feel like bringing the soul-sucking, fang-dripping, grinning, oozing specter of politics into my teensy corner of the blogosphere. That denizen of the Hellmouth can stay in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer universe, okay–and besides, it’s infesting everything enough as it is. So while the following two stories are easy to discuss in a polarizing political fashion, they’re also very much related to general societal trends. I’ll allow it!
First up: the viral Cracker Barrel infographic-of-sorts–my apologies for the smattering of uncouth vernacular therein:
Love cinema, especially obscure cinema? So do I, obviously. I’m always on the hunt for all things quaint and curious, and aside from those random YouTube playlists, there’s one site in particular that has a fascinating library of free films that I highly recommend: The National Film Preservation Foundation’s website.
This foundation, as you suspect, does God’s work. As their site describes:
The National Film Preservation Foundation is the nonprofit organization created by the U.S. Congress to help save America’s film heritage. We support activities nationwide that preserve American films and improve film access for study, education, and exhibition…Our top priority is saving American films that would be unlikely to survive without public support. Over the past decade, we have developed grant programs to help archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and universities preserve films and make them available for study and research. Our grants distribute federal funds secured through the leadership of the Library of Congress and preservation services donated by public-spirited laboratories and post-production houses. Congress increased the authorization for this work in 2005 and 2008. Every penny of these federal funds goes out to the field and we raise operational support from other sources.
Comedies, dramas, cartoons, documentaries, avant-garde, westerns–you can find a little of everything on the NFPF’s site, most films being from the early 20th century. Since it contains a good helping of silents, I thought I’d share nine of my favorite finds (so far). Think of it as suggestions for a DIY at-home film festival: Continue reading →
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.