Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)
This actuality short from Edison depicts part of the wave of immigration that hit US shores in the early Twentieth Century, forever changing the face of the country. It’s a bit longer – and involves more shots – than earlier Lumiére documents of people disembarking boats and trains, but doesn’t really surpass them in narrative.
The first shot shows a ferry carrying people to Ellis Island from the docks where their ships put in at New York harbor. The ferry is clearly full of many people, but it looks comfortable and clean, possibly better than the conditions many had sailed over with. As it draws past, we read the name of the company, “Wm Myers.” The second shot is taken directly in front of the gangplank, so that we see the first departures off the boat coming right at the camera. They are carrying their bags, and seem intent on getting where they are going. This shot is rapidly replaced by a shot at a 30-45 degree angle, allowing the passengers to pass in front of the camera over more time. This lets us get a look at their clothes and condition. The first to pass appear to be wearing middle-class Western clothes, but they are soon followed by a number of girls with scarves over their hair, looking more like Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidic). We see a lot of women, in varying clothing, some carrying babies or accompanied by children. Although most are carrying bags or luggage of some kind, none appears to have a lot of possessions, and we rarely see a family with both an identifiable mother and father together, although both men and women pass by individually.
Ellis Island was a port of entry for a tremendous number of immigrants from various parts of Europe from 1892 until the late 1920s, when restrictions on immigration reduced the influx, and it remained in operation until 1954. It appears to me that the cameraman chose groups of “exotic”-looking immigrants for his subject, although each ferry would have brought over people from a variety of ships and locations, so this probably wasn’t difficult. There doesn’t seem to have been a political motivation for this movie – the passengers are not depicted as particularly threatening or as especially noble, they’re just people. The Edison cameraman was probably aware that Ellis Island was a “famous” location in New York and was taking advantage of its familiarity to produce a film with some potential for sales. In that sense, it becomes a valuable document of the country as “a nation of immigrants,” and a simple connection with history. Many of the people reading this blog probably had ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, and this allows us to see a part of what they experienced. It’s interesting that, compared to other movies taken in public places at the time, there seems to be less interest in the camera, although a few of the passengers do stare very hard at this contraption of their New World as they walk past.
Director: Alfred C. Abadie
Camera: Alfred C. Abadie
Starring: Unknown aspiring immigrants
Run Time: 2 Min, 5 secs
You can watch it for free: here.