Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895)


I don’t think any of the original Surrealists ever got to see this, but I suspect that they would have loved it. A man stands in front of a huge horn, a stool behind him unused. He plays a slow, repetitive piece on the violin. Two men without jackets hold one another and dance in circles to the music. At the end, another man, looking sort of like a sailor, comes into view, looking like he plans to take the stool, and then the picture cuts off. None of this was intended to produce the weird effect that it has; it was simply an early attempt to make a film with sound, one that didn’t work out well, because lining up the phonograph to play at the same speed as the film never quite worked. The dancing men are most probably there because it was felt that more movement was needed, and because there weren’t any women at Edison Studios at the time. Despite that, this movie has gained the nickname “The Gay Brothers” among modern viewers, who of course read contemporary agendas into unfamiliar images. It was almost thirty years until synchronized sound became a reality, once again changing film history forever.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Starring: W.K.L. Dickson

Run Time: 21 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Tempest (1908)


This short attempt to bring the Bard to the screen is rather more ambitious than the previous decade’s “King John.” It not only attempts to tell the complete story of one of Shakespeare’s most fantasy-filled stories in only twelve minutes, it even attempts to backfill the story for the audience by going back to Prospero’s arrival on his island, the taming of Caliban and the discovery of Ariel. Each scene is told in a single intertitle followed by a brief period of action, ranging from a few seconds to perhaps two minutes. Magical effects are managed, as per the works of Georges Méliès, by in-camera trickery. This may be the most Méliès-like version of Shakespeare I’ve seen, although there is a seriousness of tone and slowness of pace in comparison to his better-known works. It seems to have been intended for an audience that was familiar with the story; I find it hard to believe that people would follow the subplots of Antonio and Caliban based on what we see here (unless some of it is missing), but it does have a child-like quality that suggests that perhaps it was intended as a way for parents to bring their children to see Shakespeare in shortened version, before submitting them to an entire performance.

Director: Percy Stow

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.