Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: August, 2016

A Morning Alarm (1896)

I mentioned yesterday that firefighters were a popular subject in early film, and this short film, apparently shot the same day at a slightly different time and location, confirms that. Also made by Edison Studios, this movie once again shows off the development of a camera light enough that it could be taken out of the Black Maria and into the streets.

Morning AlarmA crowd of people lines a street, and we see them from the opposite side, at a slight angle. A horse-drawn carriage charges out of one of the buildings, with a long ladder attached to it side. It is followed by a carriage with a water tank, and another carrying several men in firefighters’ gear. The horses are not up to speed yet, just getting started on their run. In a way, this movie could be seen as a “pre-quel” to “Going to the Fire.”

There’s a fair amount of confusion about the titles of these Edison firefighting movies, and that’s understandable, given that they are so nearly identical, so short, and released at the same time. I’m using the titles given by Charles Musser in his “Before the Nickelodeon” book and confirmed on the DVD collection “Edison: The Invention of Movies,” but note that the Library of Congress has them listed differently. It occurred to me as I watched this that it’s possible this was shot almost at the same time as “Going to the Fire,” but that would have required two cameras to be set up on the same Newark street, and I don’t think they could do that, yet. I don’t know whether the crowds gathered every time there was a fire alarm, or if they’re there because of the camera.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Going to the Fire (1896)

This short from Edison studios appears to be an actuality shot on location on a city street. Again, it emphasizes movement and action to hold the attention of an audience that is becoming a little jaded about “moving pictures” already.

Going to the FireWe see a street in Newark shot at a 30-degree angle, so that oncoming vehicles cross the screen as they get closer. A man runs towards us and several horse-drawn carriages follow. One is quite large, and carries tall ladders as well as several men in fire fighter’s outfits. The last one carries a large water tank and hoses. At one point, a policeman begins to walk out into the street, turns and looks at the camera, and then backs out of the shot.

The catalog entry for this movie plays up the action: “This scene shows almost the entire Fire Department led by the Chief, responding to an alarm. The horses, said to be the finest of their kind in the country, present a thrilling spectacle as they dash rapidly by, flecked with foam, and panting from the exertion of their long gallop.” Clearly, it is becoming necessary for movies to stand out from the crowd and for advertisers to find good reason for people to be interested. Fire departments and fire alarms were a very popular topic for film in the late nineteenth century. In this case, it appears that the Edison camera crew may have set up a little way down the street from a fire department and waited for an alarm, although they may have arranged the shot with the fire department. There are large number of spectators gathered on the sidewalks, giving a sense that this was considered a big event in the community at the time.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Mounted Police Charge (1896)

This short film from Edison studios takes advantage of New York location shooting and the cooperation of the Central Park Police Force to create a “dramatic” effect very quickly.

Mounted Police ChargeWe see a road in Central Park, apparently facing south near the bottom of the park. A troop of mounted police gallop from a distance toward the camera, charging past a carriage going in the other direction and then stopping within a few feet of the camera. They halt and look into the camera for a few seconds before the end.

It’s hard to be certain exactly where this was shot, both because the area has changed and because the background is washed out and blurry on this print. That could be a result of damage to the film or just the limitations of the camera and film of that time. It appears to be near Central Park South, but I’m not sure. The policemen all wear Keystone-Cop-style rounded helmets and all seem to have full mustaches. No doubt it was easy enough to get them to spend a couple of minutes making the movie, and they may have been excited to be involved in a technological wonder like moving pictures. This was probably as thrilling to audiences as seeing trains coming at the camera, and the opportunity to see police on parade may have also been an appeal.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown police officers

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

The Burning Stable (1896)

This Edison short was shot on location and purports to be an actuality film, although it’s hard to be sure whether it was staged or not. It shows the increasing flexibility of the early cameras used in the United States.

Burning StableWe see a pair of barn doors with smoke billowing out. Men in fire helmets run out of the barn, leading horses, they are followed by men in civilian clothes, also taking out horses, and at last a man drags a large wagon behind him. Each person runs with his charge to one side or the other of the frame and leads them offscreen.

While it is possible that the Edison company camera crew heard a fire engine and followed it to an actual burning building, it also seems possible that they set this up in advance and used a smoke generator of some kind. It’s hard to say which would be easier – certainly given their ability to recreate blacksmithies and barber shops, it would seem possible that they had some fireman suits on hand, but the smoke effect would take some work and might not have been in their capacity. The original catalog entries refer to the action of the scene and the “realistic effect” of the smoke – although this kind of language doesn’t necessarily indicate that the smoke was faked, it is just the way the promotional materials spoke of moving pictures at the time. No doubt the narration that accompanied the film would provide more context, but probably would leave the question muddy.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).