Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Lumiere Brothers

Arab Cortege, Geneva (1896)

One hundred twenty five years ago, a curious cross-cultural display was captured by one of the cameramen sent out by the Lumière brothers to capture interesting sights and sounds on their new motion picture camera, for display to curious audiences. This little snippet of film suggests much more to us today than what it shows, but it is a great historical snapshot nonetheless.

Arab Cortege

A stationary camera looks across a busy corner toward a store front marked “The Divan.” The words “des fees” are beneath. The street is crowded, with people walking in both directions, and a number of people in European garb (Genevans, presumably) line the sides of the street, looking at the passersby. In the foreground, a party of people in robes, fezzes, and other traditional “Arab” clothing parade by. Some of them are playing drums, horns and other instruments. In the background, you can see people walking in the other direction, and if you pay attention, you notice that there are Black people mixed with white. There is a brief lull in which several Swiss men in straw hats and large mustaches stare at the camera, and then a group of native-garbed Africans come past from the other direction. A woman in European clothing pulls a small child past them. Suddenly, the “staged” part of the movie evidently over, the street is filled with white people in European clothing.

Arab Cortege1

As an early film, this would have held much interest for the European audiences it targeted – the scene would be “exotic” and probably was accompanied by a short narration explaining the presence of these foreign people in the city of Geneva, and noting their “otherness” to the crowd. While Switzerland was a less multi-cultural society in the Nineteenth Century than it is today, the presence of the International Red Cross there, and the historical development of the Geneva Conventions, meant that it was a place where many diplomatic missions from around the world would converge. This scene doesn’t seem to represent a random sampling of foreigners walking down a Geneva street, however, it seems staged. Particularly the presence of the musicians in the original party of Arabs seems to suggest a deliberate spectacle, possibly in connection with an international event like a World’s Fair, or possibly the director, Alexandre Promio, set the whole thing up somehow. For us today, simply seeing the street of a European city from 1896 is exotic, with or without the presence of non-Europeans.

Director: Alexandre Promio

Camera: Alexandre Promio

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 Secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Loading a Boiler (1896)

One of the very first films made by Auguste and Louis Lumière, this movie takes advantage of their industrial background to depict an activity that was striking but also typical of the late-nineteenth century. It seems perhaps that the Lumière brothers were still learning some of the basics of film “grammar” as they made this.

Loading a Boiler

The single-shot film depicts a huge industrial boiler suspended by ropes over the deck of a ship, evidently having been lowered onto a huge trolley or wheeled cart on a track. A ladder is propped up against it facing us, and three men climb down the ladder while others seem to check the lines and hold it steady. The ladder is removed and hauled away, and the men mill around, possibly being instructed to keep moving until the film runs out.

One gets the impression that Lumière (whichever one it was running the camera) started this shot a bit too late to get the real drama of this huge thing being swung over the deck of the boat, and tried to make up for it by having the men “look busy” after the fact. It’s also possible that, since tracking shots and pans hadn’t yet been invented, they couldn’t think of a good way to film that, and settled for this. The English title was a bit deceptive to me; I had assumed that someone would be loading coal into a boiler, not that they were loading the boiler itself onto a ship, though that is literally what “loading a boiler” means.

Director: Auguste and/or Louis Lumière

Camera: Auguste or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Photograph (1896?)

This very brief comedy from Auguste and Louis Lumière establishes some of the visual language that would be used by slapstick comedians until the development of sound. The movie confirms that even very early in the history of cinema, movie makers were thinking of ways to create short scenarios, not simply photographing commonplace reality and reproducing it for audiences.

Photograph

The frame is set up so that we can see two men clearly, from head to foot. They appear to be in a garden or yard behind a private dwelling. One man (Auguste Lumière) sits in a chair, wearing fine clothing. His hat lies on the ground. The other (who I’m pretty sure is not Louis) stands behind a large camera, preparing to take his portrait. The seated man fusses with his hair and the other man poses him and runs back to his camera. As he tries to take the picture, the other man continues to fuss and squirm, preventing him from getting a good shot. Finally, when the seated man takes out a handkerchief and blows his nose, the photographer runs over in frustration, seeking to pose him again, but as he does, he accidentally knocks over a leg of his camera tripod, causing the camera to crash on the ground. The photographer gestures in despair as the seated man gets up to retrieve the camera, which is now wrecked.

Like “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie takes advantage of its short running time to depict a simple mishap and give the audience a quick laugh. No doubt it would have been shown with live narration, the speaker playing up the situation and incident so that the audience was ready for the big crash. Even without this embellishment, it is easy enough for a modern audience to follow and get the joke – so long as they can recognize the large box-shaped thing for a still camera! I’ve had to include a “?” in the date, because Kino’s “The Movies Begin” collection does not indicate its release information, aside from telling us that it is “Lumière #118.” To make matters worse, on Youtube a different movie claims to be “Lumière #118” and says it was released in 1895, which seems too early for such a high number – only ten of their movies were included in the famous screening at the end of that year. It probably is a remake of this movie, using different actors. The Lumières often remade their more successful pictures (I believe there are three distinct version of “Workers Leaving the Factory,” for example), and the Youtube video is longer and does not star either of the Lumières. 1896 seems like a reasonable guess for this version, but it is still speculation.

Director: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Camera: Unknown, possibly Louis Lumière

Starring: Auguste Lumière

Run Time: 35 secs

You can watch it for free here.

Children Digging for Clams (1895)

This very short film by Auguste and Louis Lumière is typical of their early films demonstrating daily life in motion. It provides a bit of a look at the world of 125 years ago, though mostly leaving you wanting to see more.

A dozen or so children are in a tide pool, using a variety of devices to try to locate clams. Fairly little actual digging takes place; the more prominent children are using something like a spaghetti strainer on a stick to strain through the watery sand and try to pick out larger objects. Some of the older children are paying more attention to the camera than to their ostensible work, though the little ones remain intent on finding clams. A group of adults, mostly women, stands in the background watching. All of the women are dressed in full-length dresses with feather hats, making me wonder if it was a cold day at the beach or if this was just how everyone in France dressed for a day on the beach at the time. The children (mostly girls) have hiked up their skirts in order to wade in the tide pool, and one or two little boys are in short pants. All of them, apart from one very small toddler, are also wearing hats, probably to protect from the sun. Early on in the movie, a mule-drawn cart passes by in the background, filled with children who are enjoying the ride. I get the impression that this represents middle-class children’s entertainment, not the tasks of hard-working French children who hunt clams for a living.

Director: August Lumière

Camera: August Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 45 secs

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.

Card Party (1895)

One of the first films shot by the Lumière brothers (although not included among the original ten screened at the first screening of their movies in December, 1895), this movie was remade by Georges Méliès and also by the Lumières themselves.

A group of three men sit at a table on a porch or patio, rapidly throwing cards down as their game progresses. One of them calls over a waiter while the others collect up the cards for a new hand. The waiter scurries off and returns with wine and some glasses on a tray, setting the whole out in front of the man who ordered. He opens the wine and begins pouring while the waiter watches the other two men playing. The wine is distributed among the men after another hand rapidly concludes, and the waiter gestures with excitement as one of them card players wins. Each man downs a good bit of wine, and the waiter continues applauding. The men set down their glasses and begin another hand as the film ends.

The waiter is really the most interesting character in the movie. He is very animated in his interest in the game, and gives the audience a kind of emotional center to what would otherwise be a pretty boring minute of footage. He seems much more invested in the outcome of the game than either of the players, and is also very eager to run and get the wine. The other men are much more subdued, although they do take a healthy draught of their wine.

Director: Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably Louis Lumière

Starring: Antoine Lumière, Antoine Féraud, Félicien Trewey, Alphonse Winckler

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.

Transformation by Hats (1895)

This short film by Lumière confirms that the French company had realized at least some of the comedic possibilities of film, despite mostly being remembered for actualities today. Along with “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” this movie stands as among the very first attempts at intentionally funny cinema.

A man sits on a stool and places one hat after another on his head, often adding false whiskers, noses, or wigs to transform his appearance. With each new headpiece, he displays a different personality, often obviously campy or goofy. His first performance involves driving a team of horses. His second appears to be taking or tearing tickets. The third is a sea captain or officer. The fourth wears a tall white top hat and a large nose, and he sneezes into a handkerchief. The fourth is a black top hat with a mustache, and he seems to be telling an amusing story. The final performance ages him into an old man, also interacting with someone off-screen.

All of this in less than a minute! It’s a shame that this performer’s name appears to be lost to history, because he might be said to be the first film comedian. His performances are frenzied and brief, but it’s pretty impressive how he transforms himself under the camera’s eye and instantly gets into character. The characters are often somewhat similar (the last two make nearly identical gestures, for example), but he obviously has a range of ability. It’s conceivable that the Lumière brothers imagined that one day actors would use film reels like these as resumes to demonstrate their range to producers.

Director: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Camera: Probably August or Louis Lumière

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.