Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Frederick Blechynden

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.

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).

Sunset Limited, Southern Pacific Railroad (1898)

Sunset Limited

While this could be seen as a simple remake of “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” or for Americans, “Black Diamond Express,” it is also a bit of a demonstration how far movies had come in the short time since those films. While it does depict a train pulling onto the screen and rolling across it, there is more going on here. For one thing, the prominent placement of a sign informs us that this is a deliberate advertisement for the “Sunset Limited,” a train whose name was intended to draw moneyed tourists from the cold North to spend their winters in sunny California. The Edison company catalog emphasized this point as well, proclaiming that the movie offered “special inducements to winter travelers.” The landscape is obviously as important as the moving train to the cameraman, so we get a pleasant Western vista in the background. The people standing by the side of the tracks are not mere spectators, either, but seem to be aware of their roles as actors before the camera, making a point to wave as the train rolls by. Finally, we are treated to a primitive editing technique, for once the train rolls offscreen to the left, a sudden jump occurs and a new train comes on, heading to the right along the same track.

Director: James H. White

Camera:  Frederick Blechynden

Run Time: 1 Min, 24 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.