Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1897

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).

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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.

The Surrender at Tournavos (1897)

Alternate Titles: La Prise de Tournavos, La Prise de Tournavos par le Troupes du Sultan

This is a reenactment of a current event done by Georges Méliès in a studio. Similar to “The Dreyfus Affair,” Méliès created a kind of newsreel by having actors portray action from newspapers in motion for the screen.

Surrender of Tournavos_(Star_Film_106,_1897)We see a fairly small stage, showing the interior courtyard of a fort with four defenders, who are firing over the wall at an unseen enemy. Soon, the enemy breaks in through a gate, and the defenders run inside a building (exit stage left). The attackers, who we can see are wearing fezzes, run in through the gate and find their way blocked by a locked door. Most of them run back out the gate while a demolitions man places a bomb on the door to the building. It explodes and the attackers run back in, an officer urging them on as bullets start to fly from inside. The officer is hit and goes down but the soldiers press the attack as the movie reel ends.

This movie is quite action-packed, and like action films ever since, no one is ever seen to reload, although we see impressive bursts of smoke from their guns. The event it portrays is a scene from the Greco-Turkish War of 1897, which would for European audiences invoke the image of a Christian nation besieged by Muslim invaders, a common theme in literature and history. Méliès dispenses with his fanciful set design to make a quite realistic fort set, although to any modern viewer it is still obviously a set. Great care also seems to have gone into the uniforms of the Greeks and the Turks. As far as watching it today, it’s important to remember that it would most likely have been accompanied by live narration that explained what was on the screen and also that an audience in 1897 would probably be familiar with the situation from reading the newspapers. Viewed in silence, without context, it doesn’t seem to “mean” much to us today, but it would have been quite thrilling at the time.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès)

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès)

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Serpentine Dance with Mme. Bob Walter (1897)

In the course of this project, I’ve reviewed a number of serpentine dances, from at least three countries. They were popular subjects with early filmmakers because they emphasized hypnotic movement, could be shown to almost any musical accompaniment, and could be “looped” to play for extended periods with no obvious beginning or ending.

Serpentine DanceThis Serpentine dance goes on longer than a minute (almost two) which is a pretty good run for the time. The dancer smiles and seems to enjoy herself, although one doesn’t get a strong sense of “professionalism” from her movements or her demeanor. At one point near the middle, a good portion of her leg is visible, which may have been an added attraction for male viewers.

Serpentine Dance1Watching this, the first thing I wondered is whether it was also released with hand-painted color. The version I have is in black and white, which is much less striking than the color serpentine dances I’ve seen. Still, for audiences of the day, seeking the thrill of moving pictures in and of itself, this would probably have been all that was needed. French Wikipedia seems to mention a dispute over the authorship, but since I can’t read French I cannot comment on it.

Director: Alice Guy (so far as I know)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Alice Guy

Starring: “Mme. Bob Walter”

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

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

Bathing in a Stream (1897)

This short film from Alice Guy‘s first year working at Gaumont makes a nice follow-up to yesterday’s film. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if they had been shot on the same day, or even within a few minutes of one another.

This time, we see a group of boys in striped swimming trunks, climbing on some rocks in a stream. There is a dog with them, and all of them, human and cainine, seem happy for the cool water, suggesting a very hot day and a respite for the bathers. The boys splash each other, scamper over the rocks, and occasionally tug their suits back into place.

Bathing in a StreamThe swimsuits, again, seem very revealing for the nineteenth century, and one wonders if women would ordinarily be able to see such a spectacle. In that sense, Alice may be showing us a rare un-fettered example of the “female gaze” at male semi-nudity. There is an older man in the background, also in trunks, and he may have been the victim of these boys in “The Fisherman at the Stream.” If so, Alice has at least thought to re-position her camera, in order to make it less obvious that these are the same streams, which is more than Edison’s filmmaker’s thought to do when making fake newsreels of the Spanish-American War a year later. What the movie reminds me of the most, however, is the Lumière film “La Mer” which I reviewed last summer. It shows the innocence of childhood play, and also the freedom of summertime, just as that movie does, but in a different way.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Aice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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