Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Actualities

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.

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Manhattan Trade School for Girls (1911)

This short documentary about a New York school was evidently made for fundraising purposes. It shows the day-to-day activities at a progressive institution attempting to give working class and especially immigrant women a chance at making enough money to support themselves in an urban, industrial economy.

The movie begins with a series of intertitles that inform us of the difficult economic situation that many young women found themselves in when they left compulsory education. In “blind alley” jobs in shops and factories, they often earned 2 or 3 dollars a week, and had little opportunity for raises or advancement. The one-year program at the Manhattan Trade School can teach them skills, particularly in running sewing machines or other industrial machines that will give them an edge in employment. We see a group of girls filling out applications at their elementary school and then going to the Trade School for the first time. We then begin to see the program of classes.

Interestingly, the first shots of the school’s program emphasize the physical education that is included. We see girls tossing a ball, having their backs measured for posture, and engaged in a simple folk dancing class. This probably reflects the progressive sense that urban living was unhealthy and the importance of physical fitness, though it may also have been intended to perk up the interests of male donors – the girls are shirtless (though covered) for the “back-straightening exercises” sequence. Continuing our interest in the girls’ health, we then see girls preparing “nourishing meals” in the community kitchen. Two girls carefully measure the amount of batter to be added to a tin, using a scale to determine when it is enough, while another peels endless potatoes.

After this the focus is on more the kind of classes we expected to see. The girls are introduced to us by name, and many of them appear to be immigrants and/or Jewish (“Millie Spiro,” “Rosa Pasquale,” “Miriam Levy”). They learn basic sewing, millinery, dressmaking, “novelty box decoration,” “sample mounting,” machine operating, etc. They also receive instruction on personal economy and frugality – how to make the most from their low wages. The working conditions look bleak by our standards today, but there is enough light and air and no one appears to be in physical danger. Older women are on hand to supervise and offer suggestions, and the girls appear to be intent on getting their work done, not particularly distracted by the camera or interested in slacking. At the end of the movie, we see the girls receiving their certificates, and an intertitle tells us the salaries of their first jobs  – one is making $20 per week at “straw operating!”

To put this movie in perspective, it’s worth mentioning that it came out the same year that the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire took the lives of 123 young women who were working in the most appallingly unsafe industrial conditions in a sweat shop in New York City. Many of these women were immigrants, and many immigrants continued to work under unsafe conditions even after new laws were passed to protect workers. The Manhattan Trade School was intended to be a more positive solution to this situation. Children could leave school legally at age 14 and many working class boys and girls would immediately take work to support their families at that age. Some, especially in immigrant families, didn’t even get that far. The Trade School’s brief program was supported by grants to make it possible for the students to receive small stipends and the work they did in classes was sold to support the school as well. The “trades” taught at this school were not, for the most part, seen as professions, but as better alternatives to low-paying jobs for unmarried girls until they found a husband. Some probably did continue piecework of one kind or another from the home as well, which may explain the emphasis on “novelty box making” or “artificial flower making” we see here. This movie is a very interesting glimpse into the reality of life for many people at the time, although of course it is carefully edited to make the school look as good as possible!

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Sadie Smith, Mary Johnson, Millie Spiro, Rosa Pasquale, Miriam Levy

Run Time: 16 Min

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

Aeroplane Flight and Wreck (1910)

This movie was probably used for stock footage many times in years to come in those movies mocking early efforts to achieve air travel. An inventor demonstrates his new aircraft to the camera, but the title spoils the ending for us.

The movie stars one “M. Cody,” who is presumably the inventor of the biplane we see displayed. He arrives by horse and carriage and pulls the huge biplane out of its hanger by hand (evidently it doesn’t weigh that much). He and his assistants check over the motor and try to get the propeller started. We cut to a shot of the propeller at full speed, then back to a long shot of the men pushing the machine out onto the field into position for takeoff. Cody puts on goggles and gloves and gets into the seat. Then the plane begins its long taxi down the field (seen from multiple camera positions). It bounces along a bit, but never achieves flight before tipping over and crashing nose-first into the ground. The camera lingers on the wreckage.

When I was a kid, it seemed like the most frequent “old movie footage” on television was images of people with wings strapped to their backs or sitting in bizarre contraptions of one kind of another that were supposedly early attempts to fly. I suspect that most of them were filmed solely for comedic effect. This movie does look like a more convincing piece of newsreel footage, although the editing and camera angles suggest that there was a good deal of preparation put into it. Cody seems to be alright at the end, but the wooden structure of the plane has suffered quite a bit of damage from the impact. It’s important to remember that by 1910, powered flight was already accomplished, but, like the motion pictures, it was still a wide-open field of pioneers and experimenters. This fellow’s model didn’t work out, but he may have learned something useful in the attempt.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: M. Cody

Run Time: 4 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

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.

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).

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.

Demolition of a Wall (1895)

This short film from Lumière shows a bit of demolition techniques from the fin-de-siécle, and gave Auguste Lumière a chance to appear before camera. Dramatic tension is built as we watch the work proceed to its inevitable climax.

Lumière stands with his back to the camera, overseeing some workers as they attempt to push over a thick section of a wall in an already-partially-demolished building. One worker is pressing the wall inwards with a jackscrew, while another is pushing it with a pick. Finally, the wall collapses, and hits the ground, throwing up a cloud of dust. The workers now begin breaking it apart with their picks, both the collapsed portion and a small still-standing section below where the wall broke as it fell.

I assume that the Lumières chose this subject as a part of their ordinary work day, bringing the camera along to document something that was going on anyway, which they hoped would provide some visual interest. They had the freedom to do this because their camera was small and light weight, while the Edison camera was pretty well confined to the Black Maria. Seeing this made me reflect on how interesting it would be to have recordings of day-to-day operations at the Edison plant, but unfortunately, no such movies were made that I know of.

Director: Probably Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

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.