Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1896

New York: Broadway at Union Square (1896)

This imagery of the 14th Street area that would soon become a hub for the American film industry was actually taken for the French film company Lumière, who had sent out “stringers” with cameras all over the world to get exotic and exciting footage. What is perhaps most exciting today is that the area still looks familiar.

The camera is set up across from the park, apparently facing Fourteenth Street from somewhat north, and angled slightly to the East. We can see two buildings (one is under construction) and the edge of a third on the left hand side of the screen. Buildings to stage right are obscured by trees. There is a corner (15th street, if my geography is correct) with a lamppost visible, and streetcar tracks wind around that corner There are several people visible at this corner, including a policeman and a man in a different uniform, possibly a streetcar conductor. We see a streetcar wheel around the corner as the policeman directs pedestrian traffic. Once it is gone, a large number of men and women in various kinds of clothing cross the street. Wagons pulled by horses go by and other streetcars travel up the street without turning at the corner.  The man in the other uniform sometimes appears to assist in conducting pedestrians safely across the street. At the end, the policeman, the conductor, and another man all stare at the camera as another streetcar goes by.

I always enjoy seeing these early movies of the city I grew up in. The scenes are both familiar and unfamiliar. At the time of this movie, Emma Goldman had not yet given her anti-war speech at Union Square, but it was obviously a thriving and busy part of the city. This is one of the most active of the early Lumière pictures, with something going on in nearly every part of the frame, and you have to watch it a few times to catch everything. This is a great movie to contrast with the films shot in Paris by the Lumières, both in terms of the fashions, and the bustle of New York as compared with the often leisurely pace of Parisians.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Poultry Yard (1896)

This simple actuality short from Lumière shows a common agricultural activity, where others like “Workers Leaving the Factory” and “Carmaux Drawing Out the Coke” show common industrial ones. This represents the life of a great many French people at the time it was recorded.

We see two small girls in a yard behind a farmhouse, throwing bits of grain among a large flock of birds, most of which appear to be ducks, although I see at least one chicken in the mix as well. A grown woman passes in the background, briefly looking at the girls as they work, then moving out of camera range. The older girl has her grain in a bucket, the younger one’s grain is in her apron. The younger girl frequently looks at her sister, seeming to try to imitate her movements, as if she is not quite certain how to perform the task.

This movie is similar to the Edison film “Feeding the Doves,” although it gives a more domestic view of farm life by showing children and (possibly) their mother as sharing in the chores. That said, it seems to have less historical interest, just showing that both companies were looking for subjects in day-to-day activities, and not yet all that worried about stories or even especially interesting images.

Director: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Carmaux, Drawing Out the Coke (1896)

This industrial actuality short from Lumière shows the work environment that the factory owners who invented motion pictures took as standard. We see part of the process of refining coal for fuel.

A stationary camera faces the opening of a smelter, and a large brick of coke comes out of the opening slowly while a man sprays water to cool it. Other workers hit it with rakes to break it apart and spread it out. Meanwhile, the bustle of labor goes on in the background as other workers pass through the frame.

For someone studying industrial processes from the turn of the century, this might be of some interest, but it’s not an especially outstanding Lumière brothers movie. I was hoping for a dramatic spray of steam when the water hit the coke, but there was no such reaction. The most interesting part is seeing the workers break it apart, but even at fifty seconds, this one is sort of dull. Still, where a process like this would surely be automated today, in the late nineteenth century, the work was still done with human hands, and that makes it a bit more interesting.

Director: Unknown, probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Lion, London Zoological Garden (1896)

This early short from Lumière demonstrates the conditions at London zoos at the turn of the century, and also serves as an early nature documentary. It is one of the “location” movies that the Lumière brothers made by sending men with cameras all over Europe and the world.

A male lion is shown in a cage at quite close range, while a zoo attendant tosses small pieces of meat into the cage. The lion eats them, but also takes occasional swipes at the attendant’s hand when he is too slow to toss fresh pieces inside. The attendant moves around the cage, trying to find a better position from which to toss, but has to move back when the lion follows him out of camera range.

The small lion cage will probably upset animal lovers today. It reminds me of the cages that big cats were kept in at the Central Park Zoo when I was a child, though happily that zoo has become more humane in recent years. I suspect that the zoo worker would have preferred to stand at a better distance from the cat’s claws, but for the purposes of the film he needed to be close. The animal is quite impressive and large, and looks like he could take the worker’s arm off if he wanted to. I also imagine that the small pieces of meat were a convention of the movie – surely you would usually give an animal this size something more to chew on.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Childish Quarrel (1896)

This short Lumière film shows the propensity of the Lumière brothers for showing films of family life, which were comparably rare from Edison at the time. Two infants are shown having difficulty learning to share.

Two babies in high chairs are next to one another with trays that seem to hold food and toys. They are wearing similar petticoats and hats. One is playing with a large spoon, and the other (who seems to be slightly larger) reaches for it. When her sister will not relinquish the spoon, she starts to hit, eventually wresting the spoon away from her. Now the smaller one begins to cry, and the elder seems to feel some remorse. She tries to give the spoon back, but the other child is too deep into her tantrum to notice.

This movie will probably remind parents and others who have been around small children of many similar situations. I couldn’t tell for certain whether either of these children was Andrée Lumière, who we saw in “A Baby’s Meal,” but I suspect that one of them is. The elder child looks to the camera from time to time, and looks as though she may be receiving coaching from off camera as well. Hopefully no one told her to hit her sister!

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown, possibly Andrée Lumière

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Promenade of Ostriches, Paris Botanical Gardens (1896)

This early short movie from Lumière gives a view of Parisian leisure and childhood at the fin-de-siécle. The fashions will probably fascinate modern viewers more than the animals did at the time.

A parade of animals bearing children is shown at an angle on a path in a park. First there is a cart drawn by an ostrich, with two girls and a boy in it. The ostrich is led by a man in work clothes, but the children are decked out in their Sunday dress, including large hats. Next in line is larger cart drawn by two donkeys, with four passengers, who appear to be older girls, and a male driver. They are followed by two ponies, each with a rider (one girl, one boy), also being led by a zoo worker. A camel with a very small child on top is led by the next man. She seems to be accompanied by her mother or an older sibling, but we only get to see the legs of the second camel rider. Bringing up the rear of the parade is two elephants with riders (one is a baby), but they are mostly out of frame so we only get a glimpse of the kids bouncing up and down on the platform on the larger elephant’s back. The film continues for a few seconds after the parade passes, so we get to see several Parisian adults taking strolls with parasols in the park, and also a view of this section of the park in more detail.

There is a powerful view of class at work in this movie, as we contrast the simple work clothes of the zoo workers with the elaborate frills of the children and the long dresses and silk top hats worn by some of the other park-goers. We do see a couple of men in straw hats and simple jackets who pass in front of the camera as well, giving one more view into the fashion of the time. The children all seem to be well behaved and mild – none are excited or crying – and the workers frequently look into the camera as they approach. This movie is listed as “Lumière #4” on the DVD I saw it on, but it was not one of the original ten movies screened in December, 1895, so I’m assuming that imdb is correct in identifying it as an 1896 film.

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Dragoons Crossing the Sâone (1896)

This early short film from Lumière shows a simple military maneuver on horseback. It has some nationalistic implications, but was probably chosen as a subject mostly because it would demonstrate motion effectively.

The camera is set up on the bank from which horsemen are entering the water, facing a pier on the opposite side with two officers watching the crossing. Four horsemen enter first, all shirtless, and proceed to near the middle of the river before others follow. Some of the men fall off their horses and swim alongside as they proceed. Others are able to stay mounted. The film is not long enough for us to see any of them make it onto the other shore, it cuts off as they reach roughly the same line as the pier.

Because of the chosen camera angle, we do not see these soldiers’ faces, just their shirtless backs. In 1896, partly-nude young men might have been a bit of a thrill, at least in some quarters. The movement of the water laterally across the screen contrasts with the movement of the horses and men away from us at a slight diagonal. Simple visual effects like these were common in Lumière actualities – even the angle of the “Train Arriving at La Ciotat Station” seems to be deliberately artistic.

Director: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Morning Alarm (1896)

This short from Edison Studios emphasizes motion and the excitement of a fire alarm to provide a thrilling “local view.” Shot in Harrisburg, as was “The First Sleigh Ride,” it is part of the location shooting that Edison engaged in to attract local audiences to screenings.

Morning Alarm_T1We see a street at a forty-five degree angle, on a cold day with snow on the ground. There are warmly-dressed spectators (apparently all men) lining the side of the street we can see. Horse-drawn vehicles charge past the camera, some with ladders or tanks of water, others carrying uniformed firemen. One of the tank-carriages belches smoke or steam as it races by. During a gap in the vehicles, several spectators enter the street to look up and see the next carriage approaching. A policeman ushers them back to the sidewalk before the horses arrive.

Morning Alarm_TThis movie is often confused with the one I’ve labeled as “A Morning Alarm,” and in fact the Library of Congress has this listed as “A Morning Alarm” and claims it was shot in Newark. I’m following the information from the DVD set “Edison: Invention of the Movies,” which tends to confirm information from Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. LoC could be right, however their description of “A Morning Alarm” mentions “the opening of the engine house doors,” which is visible in the other movie, but not this one, so I’m trusting Musser. The spectators in this movie are clearly interested in seeing the spectacle of their local fire department in action – they pay some attention to the camera, but actually endanger themselves to see the fire trucks, so I don’t think they are actors.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

First Sleigh Ride (1896)

This is another example of an Edison studios location shoot, this time in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The movie emphasizes movement and contrast, as much as its location, to capture the attention of audiences.

First Sleigh RideWe see a busy street with light snow cover. A series of horse-drawn vehicles rush across the screen, past a small crowd of gathered onlookers. The second of these is the “sleigh” mentioned in the title, while the other two have wheels. As the sleigh goes by, one of the bystanders waves his hat in encouragement, as if observing a race. In the background you can see a trolley sitting in the street – no horses in evidence, possibly it is electric.

This short film was made while the Edison company was in town to shoot exclusive footage for the Bijou Theater which was exhibiting the “projectoscope” – an advance over the kinetoscope that allowed the projection of movies onto a screen. Charles Musser cites a catalog entry which states it was taken “after the first fall of snow and shows an exciting race along the river road.” The Library of Congress gives a different catalog entry that says “This subject taken just after the recent first fall of snow, shows two enthusiastic horsemen indulging in a ‘brush’. with their respective horses and cutters.” Both descriptions suggest a competitive race, as suggested by the onlooker waving his hat, but to me it just looks like three vehicles driving normally down the street. Perhaps my view is spoiled by years of modern car chases and other high-speed spectacles.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

American Falls from Above, American Side (1896)

This early location film is perhaps the first “scenic view” provided by the Edison Studios. By traveling to Niagara Falls in upstate New York, they were able to provide a view that would be exotic to viewers even in New York City and certainly in the rest of the world.

American FallsWe see a view that includes the top portion of the falls and looks down upon a group of men near a tripod. Two of the men point at various features of the landscape and another seems to tinker with the camera. Throughout, the falls roll majestically on. The background shows that it is a cold winter day, with snow on the trees and the ground.

I said earlier that audiences may have become somewhat jaded about just seeing movement by 1896, but to our eyes today, this movie might seem to contradict that. Nothing happens, it just demonstrates movement by showing a waterfall. However, it’s important to remember that the opportunity to see a natural wonder in motion was very new at the time, and that many of the viewers of this movie would never, or maybe only once in their lives, have an opportunity to visit Niagara Falls. Movies like this helped to give people a sense of what it was like to be able to travel easily around the nation, and even contributed to a sense of national unity by bringing exotic locations directly to the people, as it were. While a good quality photograph lets you know what a place looks like, seeing it in motion brings it to life in an entirely new way.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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