Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Albert E Smith

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.

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women (1899)

This short from Edison contains action and suspense, and even the beginnings of a plot as the bravery and selflessness of rescue teams is put at the forefront. While the melodramatic adulation of fire fighters may seem quaintly nineteenth century to us today, it is worth remembering that 9/11 raised similar emotions in audiences quite recently.

firemen-rescuing-men-and-womenWe see the front of a building, with four windows visible and ladders propped against it. Smoke billows from all of the window, and two teams of firemen work from the highest ones, helping people in civilian clothing out the windows and onto the ladders, where they descend below the frame line. At one point, a fire fighter tosses a doll out the window to one of his fellows on the ladder. He then tosses it casually to the ground. After two men and a woman have been rescued, the fire fighters themselves go in and out of the windows, seemingly uncertain, for a few seconds.

The original catalog entry by Edison emphasizes “the efficiency of modern life-saving methods and apparatus now in use by the fire departments.” All it looks like is a few men on ladders, but presumably this emphasis on modern efficiency would have carried over to the live narration an exhibitor would have used to accompany this film. I assume that this was a staged event or a training exercise, and not a real fire, although it might have been presented to audiences as authentic, and there’s nothing that actually proves it fake. The doll being tossed from the window is the one odd bit, and I wonder if it was intended to help simulate a child-rescue, but the performers didn’t understand this and just tossed it quickly aside to get to the “real” rescuing.

Director:  J. Stuart Blackton

Camera: Albert E. Smith

Starring: Unknown

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).

Searching Ruins of Broadway, Galveston, for Dead Bodies (1900)


At the tail end of the Nineteenth Century, a devastating storm swept over the coast of Texas, hitting the small community of Galveston and effectively wiping it from the map. As the official death toll mounted (eventually reaching 8000), Americans were stunned at the concept of an untamed nature that could still bring such tragedy to a scientifically advanced society. As well as being one of the great tragedies of American history, this was a tremendous media event. Reporters swarmed the area, and Edison Studios sent a man down with a camera to cover the wreckage. This in spite of martial law, and the threat of arrest or shooting for anyone seen taking pictures. It’s interesting now to view this early newsreel footage, in light of our changed expectations of privacy and publicity. I assume that the ban was enacted out of a sense of respect for the dead and their families, to prevent “vultures” from swooping in to profit from their loss. Today, when an event like this takes place (think of Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy), we as a nation assume the right to participate remotely, to grieve along with those who are suffering. We also understand the power of images of destruction to bring financial support and to urge the government to take action. These images of this particular tragedy help us to record a changing sense of journalistic ethics as a new era of media engagement began.

Director: Albert E. Smith

Run Time: 50 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.