Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1897

Sea Fighting in Greece (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès combines his knowledge of special effects with his interest in recreating contemporary events, in the style of newsreel footage, for the edification of audiences. Here, Méliès takes on the depiction of a foreign war for an audience safe and sound in peaceful Paris.

Sea Fighting in Greece1

A backdrop shows a seascape, complete with a battleship in the background, while the foreground is an articulated stage that rocks side to side, in semblance of the deck of a ship. A single cannon points stage left, and Méliès himself, in the coat of an officer, peers through a spyglass. Suddenly, he summons his crew to the deck and they man the cannon, firing at an unseen enemy, apparently to the port side of the ship (assuming that it is understood to be sailing away from the camera). Now, Méliès turns his spyglass toward the camera and the drew looks intently in our direction, apparently sighting another enemy. There are two bursts of smoke, and one of the crew falls to the deck, apparently hit. Smoke billows out from the deck. The other men scamper to form a bucket brigade, tossing water at the smoke, while one tends to his fallen comrade.

Sea Fighting in Greece

This movie was intended to represent the Greco-Turkish War, which was raging in another part of Europe at the time, making this a “ripped from the headlines” movie. In fact, naval battles were not a major factor in this war, but it was expected that such fighting could break out at any moment, and Méliès may simply have been interested in anticipating this, or in trying out the technique of the rolling ship and the cannon blasts. The articulated stage would be used again in Star Film #112 (this was released as #110), “Between Dover and Calais”, where it is mobilized for comedic effect rather than action and suspense. While audiences were less experienced in decoding motion pictures at this time, it seems likely that most understood this to be a dramatic recreation of events at sea, not the real thing.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 3 secs

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

The Last Cartridges (1897)

This early short film from Georges Méliès lacks any camera trickery or stage magic, and might even be mistaken by a modern viewer as a docu-drama, or recreation of an event from history for educational purposes. A bit of investigation shows it to be even more interesting.

The stage is set as a proscenium-style arch, appearing to depict the upper-floor interior of a partially-ruined dwelling. Several men in tattered and unmatched uniforms enter from a window via a ladder and they run about with guns, firing out the window at an unseen opposition. One of the combatants is Méliès, who appears to be wearing a fez. Some of the men ascend another ladder at stage right, apparently taking to the rooftop. Smoke indicates when they fire, and also traces bullets flying in from outside. At one point, a puff of smoke suggests the explosion of a mortar shell in their midst, and one of the men falls over. He is assisted away from the battle to the rear of the room, and at the end of the footage a nun comes in to see to him.

The original painting.

This movie is one of the relatively few examples of a film reproduction of a painting, using the addition of motion to bring to life an image that people were already familiar with. Of course, such movies quickly went out of fashion with the addition of longer narratives, and filmmakers more often turned to literary sources or stage plays for inspiration, but this is a great early example of a director “thinking visually” instead of trying to bring visuals to pre-existing words. In this case, the picture is an 1873 painting by the French artist Alphonse de Neuville depicting a battle during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. This movie was produced in 1897, so most of the adults in the French audience remembered the war, and those too young to remember surely had learned about it in school or from their parents. The painting and the movie are intended to show the determined patriotism of the defenders, the hardships they had endured, and to give the French an opportunity to celebrate their nation despite  crushing defeat by German forces. The one thing that is missing for us today is the color, which really makes the film seem ineffective next to the painting, but apparently this occurred to someone else; according to “The Silent Era” a remake of this movie at Lumière may have been the first to have been hand-painted, which became a standard for Méliès films in later years. Alas, I have not found any recreation or preservation of the original color version.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown.

Run Time: 1 min, 11 secs

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

On the Roof (1897)

This early short from Georges Méliès has no special effects to speak of, but demonstrates his use of film to show comedic narrative with minimal time and structure.

We see a set dressed a typical Parisian rooftop, framed as a proscenium. At the lower right of the screen, a window looks into the bedroom of a woman preparing for bed. Two burglars crawl along the roof of this house, breaking in through a skylight. The woman shrieks and protests, but the two overpower her and drop her from the roof. The two men proceed to fill sacks with the belongings they find in the room, while Méliès, dressed in a rather gaudy uniform, ascends the roof from the opposite side. He nearly reaches the top when a chimney he is holding onto gives way, causing him to tumble down the side of the rooftop and have to start over. Meanwhile, the thieves, alerted by all the noise he has made, prepare for his arrival. When he starts to try  to get through the skylight, they grab him and tie a heavy weight to him, immobilizing him half-in and half-out of the apartment. While he pulls out his sword and tries to free himself, they escape, although one sneaks back to steal his boots while he is in this compromised position.

This is a light, amusing comedy, probably with families and children as the expected audience, and quite possibly similar to clown acts that would have appeared on the stage of the Robert Houdin Theatre in years before Méliès started making movies. The only illusion involved is the construction of the tiny set to represent an outdoor urban space and the entrance to a full apartment, very much in line with the sort of sets that are possible on a stage, with the benefit of the camera’s inability to see the “sides” of the set, where it cuts off and becomes a stage. The narrative is minimal, with the characters lightly sketched, but it is a story, unlike much of cinema from the 19th century, and it has a beginning, a middle, and a (somewhat abrupt) end.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 9 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Snowball Fight (1897)

This short movie from Lumière depicts an outdoor scene with many people in motion, which would have been visually exciting at the time. It is typical of their ability to take cameras on location in the very early days of film making, something which their American competitors at Edison were still finding difficult.

The camera is focused on a pathway made through a snow-covered city street. On both side of the pathway, several men and women are engaged in a snowball fight. A cyclist comes forward upon the path towards the fight, and is hit by a couple snowballs as he approaches. He continues riding towards the snowball-armed melee and is struck successively by several nearby participants as he comes between them, losing control of his bicycle and falling to the ground. His cap is flung onto the pathway. One male participant in the engagement grabs a hold of the cyclist’s bicycle and lifts it off the ground, and the fallen cyclist scrambles to his feet and yanks his bicycle away from the participant. After retrieving possession of his bicycle, the cyclist gets atop and rides away from the fight in the same direction he came from. He leaves his cap behind at the scene of his fall.

When I saw the title of this film, I expected another Lumière movie featuring children, but in this case most of the characters appear to be adults or at least teenagers. Most of the men have mustaches. Unlike the Edison pillow fight movies, I don’t think that there was intended to be anything racy about this fight – the participants are heavily bundled up and the spirit of the thing seems to be mostly in good fun. It holds up in that sense 120 years later.

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 (no music).

Seminary Girls (1897)

This was not the first or last time that the Edison Studio would produce a movie about girls in their nightclothes having a pillow fight. Presumably such titillating releases had an appeal for Kinetoscope audiences at the end of the nineteenth century.

The very short film shows a group of young women in a simple set with two beds, a dresser, and a door. They are already engaged in their “frolic” when the movie begins. They pick up pillows and begin hitting each other. One of them, devoid of a pillow, seems to be trying to defend herself with a sheet. Another tries to hide behind the dresser. Soon, a taller women (or possibly a man in drag) comes in through the door carrying a candle. She scolds them and is pummeled with pillows for her efforts, but soon has one of the miscreants by her toe as she tries to hide under the bed.

There’s not much to this film, but it’s pretty typical of the short film strips viewers could see in Kinetoscope parlors before projected film became standard. Presumably, most people dropping a nickel into a machine marked “Seminary Girls” were hoping for something a bit racier than what they got, but after all, it was still very much the Victorian Era. I note that the set, while still very simple, is a bit more advanced than in the earlier movie “Pillow Fight,” which didn’t even bother with walls or a door, just the usual black background of the Black Maria.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Return of Lifeboat (1897)

This short from Edison studios is actually an early example of editing, and it also takes advantage of the mythology surrounding rescue and safety activities as well as the drama of the open sea.

Return of LifeboatWe see a stormy ocean, apparently shot from the beach, as breakers are visible coming towards the camera. The scene is dark, and it is difficult to make out details, but eventually a small boat becomes visible amidst the waves. A cut brings the boat closer, and into clearer focus so that we can see oars off the sides, and with another cut we can see men in raincoats sitting on the open deck, rowing against the tide. A final cut shows the boat nearly pulling into shore, with the clearest view of the men aboard, who remain indistinct in the low-exposure.

While many films up to this time had consisted of a single shot, this one stitches together several, although they are all taken from the same angle, resulting in a series of jump cuts. Each piece is only a few seconds long, resulting in much faster cutting that would be normal in the years afterward. The catalog entry for this movie emphasizes the accurate depiction of the “methods” of the Pacific Coast Life Saving Service, although all we really see is a tiny row boat being tossed about by the sea for a brief period. Presumably, it would have been shown with narration emphasizing the bravery of the men who ventured out in such conditions. Certainly, it looks like hard and dangerous work, from what we can see here.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Frederick Blechynden

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (1897)

This short vignette speaks to the popularity of Thomas Edison as a figure and also to the relationship that his film studio had to him. Not a location film or an actuality, this is a staged performance to confirm the image of Edison in the public mind as a genius and creator.

Mr Edison at Work

We see a set against a black backdrop, with bottles and tubes and various chemical paraphernalia. At the center of it stands Thomas Edison, a large, imposing, and dignified figure in a long white coat. He picks up a bowl and stirs the contents, putting it back down on top of a Bunsen burner. He then picks up a large test tube and begins to pour from it into a series of funnels before the film ends.

Charles Musser, in his commentary from “Edison: The Invention of the Movies,” says that this film was used as a kind of “signature” for screenings of Edison films, often shown at the end of a presentation to make sure the Edison brand was firm in the mind of the audience. He also points out that the attachment of Edison’s name often gave audiences the sense that he was directly responsible for making the films, perhaps even running the camera, which was certainly not the case. As with many of his firm’s projects, his involvement was more administrative and indirect. Musser refers to it as a kind of “paternalistic oversight.” Certainly he was interested enough to come down to the Black Maria and participate in this film shoot. From the studio’s point of view, the Edison name was a big selling point for their products, and they wanted to play up his myth (and maybe even the perception that he was making the movies) as much as possible.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Thomas Edison

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fifth Avenue, New York (1897)

This short film from Edison shows a famous area of the famous city closest to the studio. It is a location shot, but was probably cheap to produce.

Fifth Avenue New YorkThe film we see consists of two shots. The first is a pan across a mostly stationary crowd standing on some steps, possibly to get a view of a parade or other event taking place in the street proper. We don’t see what they are looking at, only the crowd and people walking on the sidewalk. I’m not certain, but it’s possible these are the steps to the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Branch at Fifth Avenue. The second shot is stationary and doesn’t show the steps, but appears to be taken close by. Here we just see crowds of people walking past the camera in both directions.

Apart from the clothing styles, this could be a shot of Fifth Avenue taken today. Most people look well-to-do, they walk in groups, and they seem to be able to navigate crowds comfortably. A few people turn and stare at the camera, but most seem to be concentrating on getting where they are going, or on watching whatever is happening in the street that we can’t see. The existing print is rather over-exposed, but I don’t know if that’s damage after the fact or a problem with the original. Some sources cite this as the “first camera pan,” which is possible, but I’m dubious.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

After the Ball (1897)

This is a rather shocking early short by Georges Méliès which shows “simulated” nudity, as well as more actual flesh than one expects in 1897! Intentionally or otherwise, Méliès proves to be a pioneer in the area of erotic fantasy as well as the child-friendly fairy tales for which he is remembered.

Apres_le_bal_(Star_Film_128,_1897)We see a set of what seems to be an upper class lady’s bedroom, decorated with rococo flourishes. A woman in an elaborate ballroom dress is center stage and another woman, dressed as a maid, accompanies her. The maid assists the lady in removing the dress, her slip, a corset and stockings, finally resulting in a bodystocking intended to simulate nudity. The woman faces the wall and steps into a tub and the maid pours water over her (actually it looks more like black powder, but this was probably to keep the bodystocking dry) from a pitcher. The maid covers her in a towel and the two exit stage left.

This movie stars Méliès’s future wife, Jehanne d’Alcy, who would marry him almost thirty years after this movie was made, in 1926. At the time, Méliès was married to Eugénie Génin, the mother of his children, so this may be the first “scandal” in film history as well. The movie is clearly a “strip show” – nothing happens except for a woman removing her clothes – and there is no attempt to disguise this by framing it in terms of a plot device. It’s worth noting that the nude female form was an accepted subject in painting and other visual arts (and the male nude had made a bit of a comeback with the re-discovery of the Ancient Greeks in the 19th century), so Méliès may have been thinking of this as an area where cinema could become more sophisticated by emulating those art forms. The woman is both mature and rubenesque, as opposed to the very young, skinny women that would be more popular in US movies in later eras, and this seems appropriate to the time and place. I have to assume that the film was not a tremendous success, because none of the other surviving Méliès films repeats the experiment, and it may be that he had difficulty in exporting it to countries that were less tolerant of French morality.

Alternate Title: Après le bal, “After the Ball, the Bath”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown, possibly Georges Méliès

Starring: Jehanne d’Alcy, Jane Brady

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Between Calais and Dover (1897)

This short comedy from Georges Méliès demonstrates his developing ability to use the camera to create illusionary settings. In this case, a ship in bad weather is recreated through set design and use of the camera.

Between Calais and DoverWe see a set made to suggest the upper deck of a small craft. It rocks back and forth, and the passengers tumble about. Some retreat to the interior, a woman to the left side of the stage gets sick into a basket or bowl, and the captain steadfastly clings to the railing as he rides it out. One man in center stage is still trying to get the steward to bring drinks and a meal. His table topples over before the food arrives, but he rights it and the steward unsteadily delivers the order. The man begins to eat and drink when an especially strong wave bowls him into the table. Finally, everyone on deck decides it’s time to go below.

The big question, that I was unable to answer for certain after repeated viewings, is: Did Méliès rock the set back and forth or simply the camera? It would be more innovative and clever to realize that you could achieve the same effect by rocking the camera, but Wikipedia simply says he used “a special articulated platform,” which sounds more like the set was on a platform, but I’m not certain. If you pay attention, you’ll see that the table falling over, the motions of the open door, etc appear to be managed by the actors themselves – nothing seems to fall over by itself, so it could be the camera, but I can’t be sure without more research. The “First Wizard of Cinema” DVD describes this as “actuality/reenactment,” but to my mind it is neither. It is clearly a scene created in a false environment for entertainment purposes, which is why I’m calling it a comedy. It is conceivable that it was intended to reenact a recent news-worthy storm, but without the original narration, we’ll never know. The fellow who grabs our attention is again played by Méliès himself, once again showing off his great screen presence: his checked suit is padded to make him look fatter and he wears a deerstalker cap, apparently not an homage to Sherlock Holmes but perhaps intended to make him look more English. Note that the ship has a prominent label reading “Robert-Houdin/Star Lines.” Star Films was the name of the company Méliès created to distribute his movies, and the Robert-Houdin was the theater in Paris where he exhibited them.

Alternate Titles: Entre Calais et Douvres, Between Dover and Calais

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, Georgette Méliès, Joseph Grapinet

Run Time: 1 Min, 7 secs

You can watch it for free: here.