Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1898

Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass (1898)

This short film from Edison depicts a piece of an important historical event – the Klondike Gold Rush – as it was seen by news consumers at the time. By 1898, location shooting made it possible to see bits of news events in motion, rather than just as still images in the paper.

What we see is a winding trail from the point of view of a camera placed behind a bush, just off the trail. The pack train approaches us, led by a man on a horse, with several heavily-laden mules following. The train continues for some time, alternating a series of mules with a man on a horse every few seconds. The pack train does not finish passing the camera before the film runs out; it seems to continue forever. Towards the end, a man appears atop a rock to the left side of the trail, looking down at the train, and seems to interact with the men on horseback.

The Chilkoot Pass was a critical artery connecting people to the Klondike, and at times it was filled with streams of gold-seeking migrants. Some very famous images of this event were used or reproduced in later movies, such as “The Gold Rush” (1924) starring Charlie Chaplin. However, this image is fairly dark and blurry (possibly it just hasn’t aged well) and is otherwise unfamiliar. Perhaps it inspired gold fever in some viewers, who decided to try their luck in the Klondike, but it really shows how much competition there already was there by the time the movie was released.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cavalier’s Dream (1898)

I’m jumping back a bit in my “history of horror” this October because I just found this early Vitagraph short that is clearly an attempt to imitate Georges Méliès, even though it’s still very early in his career as well. It’s not a terribly frightening film, but it is an example of an American movie showing the supernatural.

The “cavalier” of the film is a man with a long ponytail dressed in knee breeches and a frilly shirt. The movie begins with him bent over a table in a large room or hall. A figure in a hooded cowl approaches his sleeping form. She wakes him up by poking him and when he gets up, the table is suddenly filled with food and the witch has disappeared. When he sits to eat, the figure of the Devil appears and confronts him, and the witch reappears in the seat across from him. He approaches her and she turns into a woman in ordinary dress. He goes to embrace this new figure and suddenly she turns into an old crone. He turns to leave and suddenly two witches and the Devil appear in front of him. He tries to go the other way and a new witch and the Devil appear at that side. Now the Devil climbs atop the table and he is flanked on all sides by the hooded figures. He collapses into the chair and they dance in a circle around him. Then the Devil gestures and all of the apparitions disappear. The cavalier awakes to find himself alone.

The original Edison catalog emphasizes the “startling and instantaneous” transformation effects achieved through stop trick photography. This had been pioneered by Méliès in just the previous years, although Edison used it for a “horrific” effect in “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots” even earlier. Like many of these early films, one expects that the intention wasn’t so much to frighten to audience as to fascinate them, but this film does seem to have a somewhat darker atmosphere than Méliès movies of the same period. The Devil isn’t “funny” per se, nor do the dancing figures appear to be having fun so much as acting to threaten. Perhaps the American attitude towards horror was already a bit more serious than the French, even at this early date.

Director: Unknown, sometimes attributed to Edwin S. Porter (though Charles Musser says not possible).

Camera: Unknown, possibly J. Stuart Blackton or Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Four Troublesome Heads (1898)

Alternate Titles: Un homme de têtes, Four Heads Are Better Than One.

This is one of the best-known early shorts from Georges Méliès. It demonstrates considerable creativity and a sophisticated use of special effects.

four-troublesome-headsGeorges Méliès enters the frame and stands between two tables. He removes his own head and puts it on one of the tables, where it starts talking and looking around. Méliès, momentarily headless, has a new head appear on his shoulders, and he crawls underneath the table with the head on it to demonstrate that there is no person there. Méliès repeats the action twice, with a new head appearing on his shoulders each time, until four identical Méliès heads are presented at once – three on the tables, and one on his shoulders where it belongs. Méliès then plays a banjo, and the three additional heads sing along. He appears annoyed by their singing, and smashes two of the heads with the banjo, then pulls his own head off and punts it offscreen. Finally, he reattaches the remaining head and takes a bow.

This movie is technically impressive, considering the number of takes he had to do (at least four) in order to get the multiple-exposures right. Each of his heads is animated and they do seem to interact with one another as well as the full-bodied Méliès. When he takes off his head, he holds a mannequin-head in his hand (nicely painted so it does look like him, but not animated), and the space above his shoulders is blank. It looks to me as if he wore a hood or a sack over his head for these shots, but the multiple-exposure makes it transparent so that you can still see the dark curtain in the background. This is probably the reason he used such a drab backdrop, instead of the usual highly stylized painted sets he usually has, because it would have been much harder to hide the hood as it moved in front of the details. Despite that aesthetic lack, however, this remains a much more creative use of the camera than the typical appearances and disappearances we’ve seen in most of his early experiments. I note again that the Star Films Catalog gives a description of a much more exciting climax than what we seem to have today, though in this case it doesn’t look like anything is missing. I think perhaps they were just talking it up.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Adventures of William Tell (1898)

Adventures of William Tell (1898)

Alternate Title: Guillaume Tell et le clown

This short trick film from Georges Méliès is an early example of slapstick, incorporating elements of circus performances into a short comedy routine. Although slapstick had been done before on film, especially with Edison’s release of “Robetta and Doretto,” this is one of the most violent of Méliès’s early films.

adventuresofwilliamtellThe movie starts with a clown building a mannequin by placing a torso onto a pair of legs, then a head and finally a pair of arms. The clown and mannequin are on a small set with a medieval theme, and there is a stool with a crossbow leaning against it to the left of the screen. The clown takes a round object (possibly a head of lettuce) from the stool and places it on top of the mannequin’s head, then goes back to get his crossbow. Suddenly, the mannequin comes to life and hurls the lettuce at the clown from behind. The clown jumps up and runs over to the mannequin, which has become inanimate again, and pulls off an arm, inspecting it and placing it back onto the mannequin. When he turns around to pick up the crossbow, the mannequin again comes to life and smacks him. This time the clown takes off the mannequin’s head and kicks it then puts it back on the mannequin, which immediately comes to life and grabs the clown, throttling him and tossing him about (the clown is now an inanimate doll, while the mannequin is played by a person). After stomping on the husk of the clown, the mannequin-figure runs out a door. The clown gets back up and picks up his crossbow, with the film ending with him in mid-motion.

According to the Star Films catalog entry for this movie, we are missing some of the end. Supposedly, the clown shoots himself with the crossbow, which then explodes, “producing some very fine smoke effects.” This would add to the violence and supply a bit more resolution to the action. The main special effect Méliès uses here is substitution of living actors and mannequins. Otherwise, nothing appears or disappears by magic, nor are there any other effects, apart from the exploding gun we didn’t see. It still appears to me that Méliès is not managing to create very coherent narratives for his movies at this point – he is just filling the sixty seconds or so of run time with as much action as possible, as he did with “The Magician” and “The Famous Box Trick.”

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (possibly Georges Méliès).

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Famous Box Trick (1898)

Alternate Title: Illusions Fantasmagoriques

This is another of the early shorts of Georges Méliès, and like many of them it is not so much a story as a one-minute magic act. Méliès uses the camera tricks he has learned up to now to make things appear and disappear, to turn them into other objects, and to cause a simple wooden box to become a source of wonder.

famousboxtrickWe see a tightly-framed proscenium-style set with elaborately decorated backdrops. Toward the back of the stage but prominently visible is a table with a large wooden box on it. Méliès himself is dressed as a magician or “conjurer” (according to the Star Films catalog) on the stage, and as the movie begins he is performing esoteric gestures with his hands. Suddenly a live dove appears in his hand, and he bows quickly and puts it in the box. He adds two handkerchiefs and makes more mystical motions with his hands and – voila! – a boy in a clown suit appears. Méliès lifts him down, then puts him on a stand, and takes a large axe and swings it at him! Of course, there is a jump cut and instead of a single brutally mangled child we now see two which are completely unharmed. They begin fighting and Méliès separates them. He picks one up and the boy disappears and is replaced with some papers which Méliès tears up. He then puts the other boy back into the box. He now produces a hammer and smashes apart the box, but the child has disappeared. He reaches down to the floor, where one of the panels of the box rests and pats it, causing the boy to reappear. He twirls the boy around and picks him up, and suddenly the child turns into two flags, which Méliès waves vigorously. He drops them and disappears in a puff of smoke, but he comes back onstage from a rear door to take a bow.

Similar to “The Magician” of last week, this is a fast-paced series of trick shots with no plotline or logic. It all happens so quickly that you can imagine an audience of children laughing and applauding with each new wonder. There are implications of violence that some adults would not approve of, but in the end no one is really hurt and all the tricks are just for fun. It’s easy to imagine that some of these tricks had already been worked out by Méliès on the stage, but that he found them easier to perform with the magic of stopping the camera. An interesting point is the flags at the end. I tried watching it frame-by-frame to verify what nationalities they were. The Star Films Catalog claims they are “an American and an English (sic) flag.” I’m pretty sure the one on stage right is actually American, while the one to our left has a small Union Jack in a dark field, which is neither British nor “English,” as I understand it. It could be an Australian flag, but I never could spot the Southern Cross. At any rate, it seems odd that he would have used these rather than the French Tricolour, but perhaps he was already aware that his most important audience would be Anglophones? If any vexillologists want to chime in, please do so in the comments.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès, unknown children

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Magician (1898)

Alternate Title: Le Magicien

This early short from Georges Méliès displays his wizardry (pun intended) with camera trickery, but seems to fall short in the department of a coherent storyline. It’s a pretty fascinating experiment nonetheless, and has a particularly interesting (if inexplicable) transformation midway through.

magicianThe movie begins with a man (I think it’s Méliès) dressed up in traditional “magician” garb, including a white beard, and a cap and robe with stars and crescent moons printed on them. He is on a small set with a stone arch painted in the background, however note that the camera is closer than usual for this period: we cannot see his feet. He makes a table appear center-stage, then conjures up a box on top of the table. He backs up toward the camera, then takes a running jump at the box, disappearing before he hits it. The box now falls apart and a child dressed as a clown or a Pierrot figure jumps out. His clothes are overlong, apparently intended for a grown man. He jumps down from the table, and when he gets to the ground, he suddenly turns into an adult! He then dances around for a while and makes motions to indicate that he is hungry and wishes there were food on the table. He sits down on a stool next to the table, looking sad, and a whole meal suddenly appears before him. He reacts in surprise and pleasure, and prepares to dig in, but when he sits down again, the table, stool, and meal all disappear and he falls to the floor. When he jumps up, suddenly the Devil is behind him and puts a hand on his shoulder, terrifying him. Suddenly he turns into a man in a robe that makes me think of Dionysus, but is apparently a sculptor. There is a bust of a woman on the ground and a tall tripod stand as well, He puts the bust on the tripod and prepares to chisel on it, but it turns into the real top part of a woman and grabs the chisel away from him. Suddenly she turns into a full-bodied woman in a robe with a lyre, and the sculptor attempts to embrace her. Each time he does, she disappears and appears behind him in a new pose. Finally she turns into a puff of smoke. The Devil appears behind the sculptor and kicks him in the butt. The end.

magician1All the action I described above takes just over a minute, and it’s very hard to follow on a first viewing. I watched it four times and practically had to go frame-by-frame to write out the summary. The movie was probably narrated by Méliès when he screened it at the Robert-Houdin Theater, and it may have made a bit more sense that way, but I think he was mostly just having fun combining a bunch of different stunts and camera tricks in a way he knew would make children laugh with surprise and joy. The story (and title) would make a little more sense if the magician character returned at the end. Since the different characters mostly seem baffled by the magical goings-on, I assume that they are not all intended to be the magician in different disguises. Anyway, the thing that I find most interesting about this movie is the transformation of the child into the adult. I’m not sure why he has that happen, but I almost think it was because he needed someone short enough to be fully in frame for the part where the clown is standing on the table, and then didn’t want to lose him when he jumped down. In other words, this whole magical effect was a replacement for a camera tilt, which his tripod probably couldn’t handle. I’m not even sure if audiences at the time would have noticed the difference between the two figures, they are on screen for so short a time, unless Méliès pointed out the magical effect in his narration.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Panorama from the Top of a Moving Train (1898)

This early experiment from Georges Méliès contradicts some of the preconceptions we have about his work: that it was always shot from a stationary camera on a sound stage, that it always involves fantasy or magic, or that he was always in front of the camera, for example. It’s certainly true that these descriptions are true for most of his later movies, but not because he lacked imagination or had never thought of trying anything else.

panorama-from-the-top-of-a-moving-trainWe see the top of a train, as the title suggests. The camera faces forward, so as the train moves we get more of a tracking shot than what is today called a “pan” (short for “panorama”), but the we do see dynamic movement and some of the streets of Paris as seen from the train tracks. The most exciting moments come as the train passes underneath bridges – even for a modern audience there is a moment of wondering if the lower bridges might hit the camera. Smoke billows back from the chimney into the camera lens, obscuring our vision at times. The film ends just as the train begins a turn that allows a view of  river, possibly the Seine.

This isn’t an especially skillful example of an actuality film. Méliès’s decision to point the camera forward on the train robs us of a clear view of most of the scenery, and the beginning and end points appear random, rather than chosen to make the most interesting picture. Most of the appeal had to be the simple fact of movement captured on film, plus the drama of wondering what will happen if the bridge is too low. Still, by moving the camera itself, rather than taking an image of a train in motion from a stationary position, Méliès has already in 1898 shown that the audience need not be treated only to shots of a proscenium with actors making entrances and exits. I don’t believe that Méliès invented the “panorama,” however, nor was he the first to put a camera on a train. This was done quite early on by cinematographers working for the Lumière brothers and many other filmmakers copied the style when audiences responded well.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Burglar on the Roof (1898)

An early narrative short from Edison Studios, this film seems to have comedic intentions. While it’s too short to give a developed plot or characters, it shows that expectations of some kind of story were beginning to develop quite early in cinema.

burglar-on-the-roofWe see a man hunched over a skylight, removing coats and other objects. Two women walk up from behind him and one begins swatting his bottom with a broom. He falls to his knees, and then some men rush up and engage him in fisticuffs. At first, he acquits himself well, but his opponents overwhelm him and the woman continues hitting him with the broom while he is held in place.

I’d call this movie an early example of slapstick, since it relies on simulated violence for its humor, although it is not reliant on difficult or dangerous stuntwork to make this point. The audience presumably is meant to get pleasure from seeing the burglar get his comeuppance and there is a “vulgar” element in that he is hit on his behind by a woman at first – hardly noticeable today, but far from “proper” in the nineteenth century. It’s worth noting that Alice Guy was also making movies about burglars on rooftops the same year, although I  don’t know for certain which came first.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 30 secs

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

US Troops Landing at Daiquiri, Cuba (1898)

Another short Edison film documenting the Spanish-American War, this movie comes from a location most Americans would never see. As with “Shooting Captured Insurgents” and “Troop Ships for the Philippines,” this shows the embryonic film industry’s eagerness to participate in nationalist celebration as the country entered conflict.

US Troops Landing at DaiquiriWe see a dock from a slight angle, as if the camera is on shore and slightly off-set. Uniformed soldiers are marching down the dock towards us. Some of them carry flags. In the background, we see a large rowboat approaching the dock, full of more soldiers, and behind that a ship is moored to a larger dock, apparently intended for unloading cargo. As the men walk towards us, an officer comes into view, walking away from the camera down the dock, apparently reviewing the new arrivals.

There are a lot of movies of parades of various kinds from this period, especially from the USA. Apparently filmmakers, looking for subjects that moved rather than standing still, found them an easy sell for early exhibitors, and cheap to produce: So long as the parade was already scheduled, all you had to do was show up with a camera. To us today, watching people march past a camera gets boring pretty fast, but in cases like this it clearly connected the audience to news-worthy events that otherwise they could only read about, or see depicted in still images. It’s not like we don’t see images of parades on our screens today, we simply associate them with a broader multi-media experience, at least including narration. And, the audiences of 1898 would likely have had a live narrator, speaking to them about the historic significance of the event and the names of battalions and leaders, etc. The Edison catalog entry for this film claims that this image shows the first US troops to land on Cuban soil during the war, which may be mere ballyhoo, but would have piqued people’s interest at the time.

Director: William Paley

Camera: William Paley

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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

Note that the quality of the copy on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD is much lower than that of the Library of Congress online version linked above, however, this version plays at a higher frame rate, making the movement appear more natural.

Troop Ships for the Philippines (1898)

This short film from Edison documents the rising tide of patriotism associated with the Spanish-American War, the first war to be “covered” by motion pictures in the USA. Here we get a chance to see soldiers from the nineteenth century as they set off for a conflict far from home.

Troop Ships for the PhilippinesWe see a long troop ship sail past the screen from left to right, packed with young men who are cheering and waving in our direction. The camera appears to be on another ship, and it gently bobs up and down with the wake of the passing military boat. It also pans slowly to keep up with the passing ship and allow us a longer view of its occupants. The men are too far away to distinguish features, but appear as silhouettes against the bright background. At one point, some American flags, apparently being waved by onlookers, obscure our view of the ship slightly. At the very end of this ship, we can read that it is the S.S. Australia. There is an edit, and we are facing anew angle. Another ship sails by, this time from left-to-right, at a much greater distance so we can see the entire ship on screen at once, though we really can’t make out anyone on deck. It is flanked by two tugboats, and after a second edit, we see the tugboats from behind, following the ship as it heads out to sea.

War was good business for Edison and other early filmmakers, and gave the movies something to capture the American audience’s imaginations at a time when the movies were beginning to seem less novel. History remembers the Spanish-American war as a product of yellow journalism and the jingoism associated with the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, but the new media of cinema jumped eagerly on the same bandwagon. This movie is a kind of “parade” in honor of the troops, always a good way to build up patriotic sentiment. It’s also interesting to me that this movie and the “Return of Lifeboat” were both shot by Frederick Belchynden, who I’m starting to think of as the “nautical” cinematographer at Edison. Maybe William Heise had a fear of the water! This movie was shot in San Francisco, however, so he may have rather been their West Coast stringer.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Frederick Blechynden

Starring: Unknown

Run time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music). Note: an edited version, which only shows the S.S. Australia, can be seen on Invention of the Movies.