Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Actualities

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.

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.

Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

Coney Island at Night (1905)

This later-era actuality film by Edwin S. Porter should be of interest to people interested in the history of New York and especially Coney Island’s Luna Park. Essentially composed of a few edited pans, it is a testament to two of the “inventions” of Thomas Edison: the light bulb and the motion picture.

The movie begins with a long, slow panorama of the park from a high angle. The nightfall is complete, and the only visible sources of light are the many electric bulbs on the attractions, rides, and signs. Large signs designating “Luna Park” are visible, as are merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and various towers of light. An Intertitle announces a closer shot of “Dreamland” and then another takes us through the causeways of “Thompson & Dundy’s Luna Park.” The starkness of the black background provides a powerful contrast with the bright electric lights, but no human images or narrative is provided.

It’s natural enough that the Edison company would produce movies like this, but were audiences still interested in them as late as 1905? The Edison catalog claimed, this was “An excellent panoramic view of the illumination of the numerous pleasure parks at this famous seaside resort. Starting at Luna Park a panoramic sweep of the western section of the island is made. It brings into view the enormous See-Saw at Steeplechase Park and ends at the great tower in Dreamland. When the tower was reached, the camera was slowly raised and a complete view of the illumination of the tower was made. A most novel and interesting subject perfect photographically.” That’s nice, but were audiences who had thrilled to “The Great Train Robbery” and “A Trip to the Moon” really excited about perfect photography? Certainly this sort of thing didn’t have too many more years coming.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

This short actuality from Edison is a fairly unpleasant film, which will upset some viewers. Fair warning: it does depict the actual death of an animal. It also has been frequently misinterpreted by modern viewers, and therefore is an important part of our study of the history of movies.

electrocuting_an_elephant_edison_film_1903We see an elephant being led from an enclosure in the middle of what seems to be a construction site. Its trunk is bound in a complex harness that almost looks like a bondage garment. The camera pans to follow the elephant and we can see that there are crowds of spectators in the background. After a cut, we see the elephant is strapped in place, apparently roughly in the same place as it was before the edit. Suddenly the elephant stiffens, and you can see a puff of smoke from below its feet. After a few moments, it falls slowly over to the left. It twitches a few times on the ground before the end of the movie.

The story of Topsy the elephant is a tragic one, speaking to why laws regarding elephants in captivity have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. Topsy was a circus elephant who got a reputation for being “bad” after she killed a drunken spectator who deliberately burned her trunk with a lit cigar (classic movie fans will remember “Mighty Joe Young” when reading this story). She apparently became increasingly difficult to handle after this, and was sold by Forpaugh Circus to Luna Park, which was still under construction. There she encountered the abusive animal handler William “Whitey” Alt, who did nothing to improve her temperament. Finally, the owners decided that she would need to be put down, as she was no longer safe to display in a public environment. The original plan was to hang her, but the ASPCA objected, and the idea of electrocution (combined with poison and strangulation) was suggested as more “humane.” This movie depicts that event.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

Now, you can find various places on the Internet that blame Thomas Edison for the death of this elephant. These claims are inaccurate, and result from poor historical study. Having heard that Edison waged a war against alternating current that inflated its dangers and suggested that people would be electrocuted by it, they have concluded that this movie was part of that campaign. It is not. The “war of the currents” was over for more than ten years by the time this was produced, and alternating current was already the standard at Edison’s remaining plants at the time. Because of the early date of the War of the Currents, no movies were produced to support it. The movie “Pan-American Exposition at Night” depicts a display of alternating current lights one year before this movie was made. In short, this movie represents a tragic execution of an animal in no way at fault for its inability to get along with human beings after they had systematically mistreated her, and it exploits the pain of that animal for purposes of spectacle, but Thomas Edison did not use it to make an argument regarding alternating current.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Jacob Blair Smith

Starring: Topsy the elephant

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (viewer discretion advised).

The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy (1902)

Actuality footage of firefighters in action is spliced together in this topical Edison short from the early years of cinema.

burning-of-durlandsThe film was taken on location at a fire in an urban area. The first shot is a pan through the streets which stops at the firefighters spraying their hose into a gigantic cloud of smoke. Some spectators stand and watch, but as the movie proceeds, we see a lot of pedestrians pass by without apparent interest. A few stare at the camera. The second shot is taken from much closer to the group of firefighters and their hose, and seems to be later, as we see ruined walls and piles of rubble, but far less smoke. The camera pans away from them to show a half-collapsed wall and another hose further down the street. It then pans back to the main group of firefighter, training their hose into the midst of the smoke and passes them to find a man with a shovel digging through rubble. A final edit shows us a crowd watching a wall collapse, apparently from quite nearby. Once the dust clears a bit, a few of the men strike at the rubble with picks.

As I’ve noted before, firefighters were popular figures at the time, and we’ve seen them in a number of films, but this is the earliest example so far of them actually fighting a fire. It’s pretty much newsreel footage, nothing seems to have been faked, and the camera shows us what it can of the situation. We’ve moved into an era when Edison camera operators are comfortable with pans, and do them without much planning or preparation, to get as broad a view of the scene as possible. Durland’s Riding Academy was in Manhattan, where the Edison Studios were now headquartered, and the camera was mobile enough to get to the scene in time to get footage of the fire in progress. No doubt this fire was still in the news when this movie was being shown, and people were excited to be able to “see” the news as well as read about it.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: J.B. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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