Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: travel films

A Visit to Los Angeles (1916)

In anticipation of my coming visit to Hollywood later this week for Cinecon, I thought I’d check out this old depiction of the city from 101 years ago. Produced by the still-young Ford Motor Company, it’s part travelogue, part advertisement, with an emphasis on the effects and benefits of the automobile on a major Western city.

The movie begins, after a pompous Intertitle, with a panorama of the downtown area taken from the top of a tall building. This would have been pretty exciting for an audience that didn’t get to the tops of skyscrapers very often, and it gives us a good view of the range of architecture that was present at the time. We then cut to the Hall of Records and the Old Court House, which combine monumental size with gothic style fairly effectively. I was surprised by the number of windows on the Hall of Records – at least it looked like you could work with plenty of light in there! We then turn to “Broadway, in the heart of the business section.” We see a crowded street from above (possibly it’s the same vantage as the first shot, simply tilted downward more extremely). Here, we see streetcars and automobiles vying for space on the crowded streets as pedestrians risk their lives trying to cross against traffic that rarely stops. The next shot is of Clune’s Auditorium, which seems to be an imposing structure across the street from a small park. The next shot shows “Central Park,” again from above, but this appears to be a more carefully manicured park than the one in the previous shot. It  is also crowded with people, like its namesake in Manhattan. After a brief panorama, we cut to a ground-level shot of the park, and people pack the pathways, many stopping to sit and smoke at a fountain. Notable in these shots are what appear to be electric streetlamps on the sides of the paths. Now we cut to a street-level shot of a large department store. The Intertitles point out the window boxes with plants visible at every level. The next cut takes us to what looks like a train station, though no Intertitle gives us context here. Now we see Angel’s Flight Inclined Railway, which I didn’t know was so old, as well as the tunnel under the hill that allows you to bypass it. Then a quick pan of the University of California (UCLA), which probably didn’t have a film program at the time. Then California Hospital, which is virtually indistinguishable from the University.

Now, we travel to Chinatown, where we see the only unpaved streets in the movie, and buildings constructed mostly of wood rather than stone. No autos are in evidence, and these are the least crowded streets we’ve seen in the whole movie. A few jabs at the obscurity of Chinese ideograms serves as the segue to a visit to the Old Plaza and the Mexican section of the city (never mind that the whole city had been Mexican within living memory!). Men with long mustaches and heavy suits lounge and stare languidly at the camera in a park. We also see the Plaza Church where the “Mexican population” is said to worship.

We return to the theme of automobiles with a shot of the North Hill Street “double barreled” tunnel, which seems to consist of one barrel for cars, one for streetcars. Then we see a large Masonic temple, before returning to the automotive theme with a view of Broadway in fast motion, the emphasis on the busy traffic. A single policeman in the center of a street  crossing directs what seems like impossibly fast and incessant traffic. Somehow pedestrians occasionally make it safely to the other side. We then see this same corner at regular speed, and get the sense that traffic moves infuriatingly slowly. In perhaps the oddest section, we now see large pipes that are part of the elaborate (and expensive) system of bringing water to the desert community. For scale, a human figure walks on one of the pipes. Then, they show a man driving a Ford car on one of the pipes, to demonstrate how large they really are! Speaking of cars, we now get to see the oil fields of Los Angeles, where a variety of derricks are pumping up the precious liquid in vast quantities. We are told that many industries have shifted from coal-burning plants to oil-burning. Finally, a shot of “bungalows” (actually, quite large houses) from the back of a car demonstrates the thrill of driving in LA. Men wear heavy coats in what seems to be the heat of a California day, and carry papers as they leave their bungalows for work.

This movie is pretty basic, so far as travel films go, but it shows off a lot of LA from a period when it was just beginning to boom as a city. The film industry would have been a going concern already by 1916, but this movie has no interest in that, choosing to emphasize downtown architecture, crowded city streets, ethnic neighborhoods, pipelines, automobiles and oil. Those last two can be seen as particular interests of its production company, so no great surprise perhaps. But one would think that movie audiences would be obvious targets for movies about movie-making. Perhaps no one at Ford thought so, or perhaps the distance to the studios from the locations where this movie was shot made it not worthwhile to them. Anyway, the result is that we see a lot of the old LA that the movie companies tended not to document so well, and the result is interesting if not always terribly entertaining.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min, 30 secs

You can watch the first two minutes for free: here. Those with University affiliations may be able to access the file via their libraries. Worldcat link: here.

American Falls from Above, American Side (1896)

This early location film is perhaps the first “scenic view” provided by the Edison Studios. By traveling to Niagara Falls in upstate New York, they were able to provide a view that would be exotic to viewers even in New York City and certainly in the rest of the world.

American FallsWe see a view that includes the top portion of the falls and looks down upon a group of men near a tripod. Two of the men point at various features of the landscape and another seems to tinker with the camera. Throughout, the falls roll majestically on. The background shows that it is a cold winter day, with snow on the trees and the ground.

I said earlier that audiences may have become somewhat jaded about just seeing movement by 1896, but to our eyes today, this movie might seem to contradict that. Nothing happens, it just demonstrates movement by showing a waterfall. However, it’s important to remember that the opportunity to see a natural wonder in motion was very new at the time, and that many of the viewers of this movie would never, or maybe only once in their lives, have an opportunity to visit Niagara Falls. Movies like this helped to give people a sense of what it was like to be able to travel easily around the nation, and even contributed to a sense of national unity by bringing exotic locations directly to the people, as it were. While a good quality photograph lets you know what a place looks like, seeing it in motion brings it to life in an entirely new way.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Spain (1905)

Alternate Title: Espagne

This travel film from Alice Guy is stylistically different from most of what I’ve reviewed by her so far. It is twice as long as the next-longest movie I’ve seen by her, relies heavily upon camera movement, and is shot on location, not on a studio sound stage. The result is interesting enough, but a surprise discovery early in the film makes it even more valuable.

Crowded Madrid

Crowded Madrid

The movie is a travel documentary, showing a series of panoramas captured in tourist locations in Spain. Our first stop is Madrid, the capital, where we see a crowded street at the Puerta del Sol, the fountain of Cybele at Prado, the front of the Palacio Real, and the outskirts or “environs of Madrid,” where peasants go about their daily routines. Next stop is Granada, where we see a panorama of the Sierra Nevada and the Alhambra, as well as views of the Albaicin Quarter. Then, a quick stop in Seville for a look at the Guadalquivir River. And the last location is Barcelona, where we see the Monastery at Montserrat. The rest of the film (about half) shows “Gypsy” dances with people in colorful traditional dress. The first dancer is a girl of about twelve, who seems to greatly enjoy the attention, the second is an older woman in perhaps her forties, who is more businesslike.

Who's this?

Who’s this?

I mentioned a “surprise” in the film, and it comes with the visit to Granada. At the beginning of the view, there is a woman with a cluster of children around her. An Intertitle tells us that this is “Alice Guy, surprised by her cameraman Anatole Thiberville!” This is followed by a zoom in on that part of the film. Obviously, this was added by Gaumont for the DVD release, so this isn’t exactly as audiences saw it in 1905, but it is fun for us! The especially exciting part for me is that they (finally) ID’ed the cinematographer. It’s quite possible that he has shot many of her movies to this point, but since there’s no definite record, I’m not going to go back and change them all, I’m just going to include him as “possible” for any that are left to review.

Spain2Travel movies were very popular, especially when it was possible to capture locations that many movie audiences (mostly working people) would never see. The movies were a way to imagine travel without the expense. Spain was within the reach of many French travelers, but by the early Nickelodeon era, US sales were becoming increasingly important for French film companies, and images of Europe would sell well overseas. Going to Spain was a moderate cost for Guy, and the profit was probably great. As I’ve mentioned, most of these shots (except for the dancers) are slow pans, trying to show up to 360 degrees of what was at each location. The locals often become fascinated by the camera, and in the first crowd scene in Madrid they rush to keep ahead of it, keeping certain people in the image for almost the entire time. The dancers are more typical of the kind of stage performances we see in other Guy films, but shot on location with backup from the rest of the community, who clap in time to the dances.

Spain3What I enjoy about these movies is seeing the appearance of places and people from so long ago, yet moving. We see the distinction between working class and wealthier attire, we see the complex and heavy dresses women wore in public, and we see common modes of transportation, like the many streetcars in Madrid or the carriages in the “environs” area. We, too, get to be vivacious tourists, tourists in time as well as space, with these Century Films on hand.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Anatole Thiberville

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

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