The Jaw-Dropping Showcase Of Cinema At the 1900 Paris Exposition

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:

:-O

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.

I found one! (From Emmanuelle Toulet’s book Birth of the Motion Picture.)
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The Miraculous Nature Of “The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight” (1897)

“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.
Thanks for the image, Alamy!

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.

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Fun Facts And Murky Legends About “The Arrival Of The Train At La Ciotat Station” (1896)

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!

An…accurate?…recreation from Hugo (2011).

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?

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The Mysterious Disappearance of Louis Le Prince

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.

The mystery of Louis Le Prince | National Science and Media Museum
The distinguished-looking Le Prince.
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What Are The Top 10 Oldest Films? (That Still Survive)

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?

Today in History - August 31 | Library of Congress
Image credit: Library of Congress

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).

Lumiere Cinematographe, 1895. at Science and Society Picture Library
The Lumière cinematograph.

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:

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To Capture “Life Itself”–The Very Early Days Of Cinema

Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) – The Public Domain Review

A Mind Exercise

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.

Traveling with Vaudeville Performers | Historic theater, Cincinnati,  Cincinnati ohio

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.

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