When I was first putting my Century+ project together, I hesitated over how to divide up the silent period, or whether even to divide it up at all. I ended up deciding to cover the first fifteen years of cinema history, from 1895 to 1909, as one “decade” and then look at the 1910s separately in February. Of course, that was when I thought this post would actually go up in January. Thank god we have one extra day in February this year.
In any case, this division seemed to make sense, since in my initial research it looked like the year 1909 served as a transitional year, when films shifted significantly in length, moving from being extremely short shorts (1–6 min), to more of a mid-length short (12–15 min). I have since realized that that is not exactly the case and the cut-off year for this decade is really just as arbitrary in terms of film content and style as any other decade.
Besides covering more than ten years of cinema production, this post will also be different from my other decade posts in months to come because it is really more about the industry than the films themselves. Because, while I enjoy watching (some of) these films, and would certainly consider many of them essential, they are not generally going to make anyone’s top ten list of all time.*
So, a bit of cinema history…
Birthplace(s) of Cinema
There are numerous national claims to being responsible for the first film, but any consideration of the early silent era basically comes down to two countries—France and the United States. In the United States, with the development of the Kinetograph and Kinetoscope in 1891–1893 by Thomas Edison and William Dickson, we see the first moving pictures, albeit in the form of a peepshow device available to only one person at a time. In France, with the Lumière brothers’ first projection of films for an audience in March 1895, and then a paying public in December of that same year, we see the birth of cinema, that is, the experience of watching films together in the dark.
French Industrialists and Innovators
We begin in France since it is developments there that are responsible for the spread of this technology and form of entertainment so quickly across the globe and French production companies dominate the industry until the early 1910s.
Auguste and Louis Lumière
The cinématographe, which gave its name to the new medium, was invented in Lyon, France, by Auguste and Louis Lumière, the two eldest sons of Charles-Antoine Lumière, a photographer by trade. When his sons were rather young, Charles-Antoine had opened a factory to produce photographic plates; however, he wasn’t very successful until his sons returned from technical school and essentially took it over. While still in his teens, Louis invented and patented a new type of photographic plate that reduced the need for darkroom development, essentially setting up the Lumière company (and families) for life. It was his father, however, who first saw moving pictures in a Kinetoscope and encouraged his sons to figure out a way to improve upon that invention.
Of course, the Lumière brothers were not the only inventors to be working on developing a mechanism to project moving pictures—other pioneers include Max Skladanowsky who debuted his invention in Berlin in late 1895—however, the brothers’ invention had three key advantages over its competitors: 1) the camera served as both a projector and film developer; 2) it was hand-cranked and illuminated by limelight and so did not rely on electric current; and 3) it was relatively light. This meant that the cinématographe was much more portable and adaptable than anything else on the market. The brothers further capitalized on these advantages by training twenty or so cameramen/projectionists to go out and make and show motion pictures on site throughout France and abroad. Not only did this put their incredible machines on display for a larger number of people, but it also provided a large supply of varied films.
The Lumière brothers referred to their films as actualités, which is a word used today for the news, and is usually translated as documentaries, but they are not what we think of as documentaries today. Rather, these films, which are all about fifty seconds long (because that’s how much film stock could fit in the camera), mostly document scenes and events of daily life: a train arriving at a train station, two parents feeding a baby, or simply workers leaving the Lumière factory. That is not to say these films don’t tell stories, one of the most famous Lumière films is L’Arroseur arrosé, a short comic play in which a boy plays a trick on a gardener, and which Louis filmed in three different versions, my favorite being Arroseur et arrosé (1897), where the gardener delivers a little payback.
In all these films, like most others of the early period, the camera remains in a fixed position, but, given the photography background of the brothers, these images display a strong command of black & white photography and sense of composition within the frame, often playing with diagonals and planes. Two of my favorite films of theirs do this: Lancement d’un navire (The Launching of a Ship), which use three planes of depth of field (the foreground of the crowd, the middle ground of the ship, and the background of the people on the other side as the ship slips away into the water) and Laveuses sur la rivière, which has three vertical planes of action. In many ways, the Lumière films are the “prettiest” of the early films. [Side note: I was wondering how the clip I picked out below was so much sharper than other versions I found online and then Ricky alerted me to this, so maybe the same thing was done here? Anyway, it was the composition choice I wanted to highlight.
Of course, for the first audiences, just seeing these everyday events depicted on screen was a visual spectacle in and of itself. Although, despite reports to the contrary, audiences did not flee in terror at the sight of the oncoming train in L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat.
Top Ten Lumière Films Ranked:
L’Arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat (1896)
L’Arroseur arrosé (Tables Turned on the Gardener) (1895)
Laveuses sur la rivière (1897)
Lancement d’un navire (1896)
Barque sortant du port (1895)
Water-to-bogant (Montagnes russes sur l’eau) (1896)
Danse serpentine (1897)
Quai de l’Archevêché (1896)
Bataille de boules de neige (Snowball Fight) (1896)
Sortie d’usine (Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory) (1895)
Georges Méliès, a magician by trade, and one of the first to see the cinématographe in action, immediately saw the potential of this new invention. By 1896–97, he had established a production company and built his own studio just outside Paris. Of all the French film pioneers, Méliès was simultaneously the most interested in visual spectacle and theatrics while also remaining the most studio-bound, often relying on trick photography to create fantastical tableaux, similar to what he must have wanted to do on the stage as a magician. As a result, his work is very stagey and, to me, his early short works seem very repetitive. Let’s just say there are a lot of disembodied heads in Méliès.
This is not to say that his stop-motion effects aren’t cool—they are—but, much like Marvel movies, the films just all seem to blend into each other after a while. I can only see a devil (or a scantily clad lady) appear, do a dance, and disappear so many times. Still, some of his tableaux are really beautiful, especially the longer color-tinted ones, so you should seek out at least one or two to see how inventive he was for the technology available. If your taste runs more in a Jules Verne direction, check out Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) or Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage). If classic boys adventure is more your thing, try Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé (Robinson Crusoe) or Le Voyage de Gulliver à Lilliput et chez les géants (Gulliver’s Travels). If fairy tales are to your liking, try Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard), Le Royaume de fées (The Kingdom of Fairies), or his 1912 version of Cinderella: Cendrillon, ou, la pantoufle merveilleuse.
Occasionally Méliès did stray from the realm of sci fi-fantasy and present straight historical subjects, such as his nine-part series on the Dreyfus Affair and his Jeanne d’Arc, each about ten minutes total and these are well worth watching at least once. My favorite of his purely trick films is probably Le Bourreau turc (The Terrible Turkish Executioner), which was rather disturbing, but made me laugh anyway. Really, you have to give him props for showing what was possible so quickly. However, given his emphasis on special effects, it is perhaps not surprising that when the film industry begins to transition at the end of this period towards a more narrative-based medium, his type of novelty film quickly fell out of favor and his Star Film Company was bankrupt by 1913.
Top Ten Méliès Films Ranked:
Le Royaume de fées (The Kingdom of Fairies) (1903)
Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902)
Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc) (1900)
Cendrillon, ou, la pantoufle merveilleuse (Cinderella) (1912)
Le Voyage à travers l’impossible (The Impossible Voyage) (1904)
Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard) (1901)
Le Bourreau turc (The Terrible Turkish Executioner) (1904)
Cendrillon (Cinderella) (1899)
L’Affaire Dreyfus (1899)
Le Mélomane (The Melomaniac) (1903)
I’ve written at length about Alice Guy-Blaché (The Great Unseen 1: Matinée Idle) so I won’t go into detail about her career here, but suffice it to say that after watching a whole slew of films in this era (before Guy married and moved with her husband to the United States), I remain absolutely committed to the idea that she fully belongs alongside the Lumière brothers and Georges Méliès in the French pantheon. In fact, of the three, only Guy breaks into the 1910s in any lasting way. Not only was she one of the very first to make a narrative fiction film (La Fée au choux, of which only later remakes survive), but she conducted early sound experiments with Gaumont’s Chronophone sync-sound system and, in 1906, made a big-budget religious epic with La Naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ, which used three hundred extras.
Guy’s work during this period also represents a nice bridge between the actualités of the Lumière brothers and the fantasy films of Méliès. She really does it all: comedy (Chez le photographe), drama (Sur la barricade), dance (Danse serpentine and Le Tango), fairy tales (La Fée aux choux), epics (La Naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ), social satire (Les Résultats du féminisme), travelogues (Spain), and even trick films (Comment Monsieur prend son bain). If you want to learn more about Guy and her work, I highly recommend last year’s documentary on her, Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, available on Kanopy.
Top Ten Guy Films Ranked (1897–1907 only):
Les Résultats du féminisme (The Consequences of Feminism) (1906)
Danse serpentine (Serpentine Dance by Mme. Bob Walter) (1897)
La Naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, Life and Death of Christ) (1906)
La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy) (1900)
Chez le photographe (At the photographer’s) (1900)
L’Espagne (Spain) (1905)
Comment Monsieur prend son bain (How Monsieur Takes His Bath) (1903)
Saharet, Boléro (Saharet Performs the Bolero) (1905)
Sur la barricade (On the Barricade) (1907)
Le Matelas épileptique (The Drunken Mattress) (1906)
Gaumont and Pathé-Frères
Alice Guy worked as head of production for Gaumont, a newly established company of photographic equipment that quickly moved into film production after the debut of the cinématographe. When Guy married and moved to the United States in 1907, she was replaced by her protégé, Louis Feuillade, who would work for the company until 1918. It was while working at Gaumont that Feuillade made the serials he is best known for: Fantômas (5 episodes, 1913–14), Les Vampires (The Vampires) (10 episodes, 1915), and Judex (12 episodes, 1916), at least one of which I will try to watch in February. In this period, I particularly enjoyed his Le Récit du colonel (The Colonel’s Account) (1907), in which an old colonel reenacts the Franco-Prussian war for his dinner guests, and Une Dame vraiment bien (A Very Fine Lady) (1908), which uses ten different shots edited together to make it seem like the camera is following a young woman’s walk through the city, where she is constantly distracting men (carrying firehoses, guns, ladders, etc.) so they trip over themselves or otherwise cause injury to themselves or others.
The other major French company to emerge in the 1890s was Pathé-Frères. Pathé was founded in 1896 as a maker of phonograph equipment and a network of recording studios. Pathé immediately made a place for itself in the film industry by an aggressive system of acquisition, expansion, and exportation. The company acquired the Lumière patents in 1902 and the Méliès company just before World War I. They were often the only company to have a presence in developing countries and the Pathé rooster quickly became an international cinematic emblem. This market domination did not exclude the United States. By 1908, Pathé distributed twice as many films in the U.S. than all American companies combined. This is likely a key reason for the consolidation and monopolization of the industry engineered by Edison at the same time. Pathé’s roster of directors included head of production Ferdinand Zecca, Albert Capellani, Louis J. Gasnier, Max Linder, Gaston Velle, and cinematographer Segundo de Chomón, who would go on to photograph Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914).
If you watched the first episode of The Story of Film, as I recommended in my post on silent film resources, you’ve seen at least one Pathé film, Le Cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse), which demonstrates both intercutting and parallel editing to advance two stories at once. This film is a key example of the strides made in the transitional period from 1902 to 1907 where cinema moves firmly into the realm of multi-shot fiction narratives. Though the director of this film is somewhat disputed, the company itself is solidly represented in my list of essentials, with six films on the list.
Both Gaumont and Pathé remain working in film production to this day.
Top Ten Pathé Films Ranked:
Le Médecin du château (A Narrow Escape) (1908)
Vive la vie de garçon (Troubles of a Grass Widower) (1908)
Premier prix de violoncelle (1907)
Ali Baba et les quarantes voleurs (Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves) (1902)
Le Cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse) (1907)
Aladin ou la lampe merveilleuse (Aladin, or the Wonderful Lamp) (1906)
La Poule aux œufs d’or (The Hen That Laid the Golden Eggs) (1905)
Pied de mouton (The Talisman) (1907)
Par le trou de la serrure (Peeping Tom) (1901)
Histoire d’un crime (The Story of a Crime) (1901)
Since I was aware of much of the above history from my graduate school days, the real discovery of this period for me were the British film pioneers, which, in comparison to the work going on in both France and the U.S. just seems remarkably refined in terms of technique and storytelling. In my research, three names stand out, George Albert Smith, James Williamson, and R.W. Paul. Smith and Williamson were both part of what would later be termed the Brighton School, which pioneered the use of film editing and close-ups, while Smith was a London electrical engineer who took advantage of the fact that Edison didn’t patent his Kinetograph abroad to make his own camera. When Edison cut off the supply of films, Paul went into production for himself.
Smith, who originally worked on stage as a hypnotist and psychic, made extremely innovative films including A Kiss in the Tunnel, a scene made to be edited into a “phantom ride” film (a popular genre in the early 1900s whereby the camera was mounted on the front of a train), The Sick Kitten, which featured a close-up of a kitten on a little girl’s lap being fed medicine from a spoon, and Santa Claus, likely the first Christmas movie, which uses double exposure to show Santa Claus visiting a house on Christmas Eve. My favorite film of his is Mary Jane’s Mishap; or, Don’t Fool with the Paraffin, a comedy in which a kitchen maid causes an explosion by putting paraffin on the stove. After she is blown up through the chimney with her remains scattering on the ground, we cut to a cemetery and her ghost rising from a grave marked “Rest in Pieces” to seek out her beloved paraffin can before going to her final reward.
Williamson, who is best known for The Big Swallow—a trick film whose innovative use of extreme close-up represents an ingenious meta commentary on the subject-spectator relationship—was also perhaps the first action director. With the films Fire! and Stop Thief!, he enacted multiple-shot narratives containing chase sequences, comedic and dramatic elements, and a remarkable amount of suspense. It is truly incredible that all three of these films were made as early as 1901.
R.W. Paul was extraordinarily clever in both the way he shot films and the tricks he learned. See, for example, the framing of A Chess Dispute or the trick photography of Extraordinary Cab Accident (both in the second volume of The Movies Begin: A Treasury of Early Cinema, 1894–1914). Paul’s engineering background also led him to innovate when it came to the camera itself, using a double Maltese cross system to advance the film in his camera, reverse cranking to allow for multiple exposures, and rudimentary panning and dollying mechanisms. He also produced Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost, the oldest known adaptation of A Christmas Carol, a remarkable condensation of the story and the first known use of intertitles.
Top Ten British Films Ranked:
A Photographic Contortion (The Big Swallow) (1901)
Mary Jane’s Mishap; or, Don’t Fool with the Paraffin (1903)
Stop Thief! (1901)
Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901)
Sick Kitten (1903)
A Chess Dispute (1903)
Santa Claus (1898)
Extraordinary Cab Accident (1903)
An Interesting Story (1905)
American Inventors and Storytellers
As noted above, France dominates the film industry throughout this period. However, Edison’s contributions, or rather the contributions of people who worked for Edison, especially William Dickson and Edwin S. Porter, cannot be discounted.
William Kennedy Dickson
William Dickson is the person who shared the patent for the Kinetograph, built the “Black Maria” studio in New Jersey, and directed the first films shown in the Kinetoscope parlors of New York. Of course, this didn’t stop Edison from claiming the cinema was his invention, even though for him the cinema seemed to mostly be about profit and litigation and he would be the main driving force in the attempt to consolidate the industry through patent control by forming the conglomerate commonly known as the Edison Trust in 1908. This, combined with the fact that the United States has almost always been the single greatest market for films, would result in the United States eventually taking over the industry through a vigorous export policy, new techniques and inventions, and industry consolidation. With the move to Hollywood in the early 1910s, and then the advent of World War I, this shift was complete.
As in France, the first subjects of the Kinetograph weren’t really narratives but rather focused on simply capturing something, anything, on camera—for example, Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894, or The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss in 1896. In the case of Edison, this mostly meant New York vaudeville and other performers whose acts were captured in his New Jersey studio. After Dickson left Edison to work with the Latham brothers (What is it with brothers and the early film industry anyway?) and help invent the Latham loop, a projection system that would allow for longer strips of film, motion pictures could become more focused on narrative. One of the first was Rip Van Winkle (1896), starring venerated actor Joseph Jefferson (Remember him?). Dickson is also one of the founders of Biograph, which would become the first home of director D.W. Griffith. Despite Dickson’s incredible achievements in getting motion pictures off the ground, he was really more inventor than storyteller and it was another key director working for Edison who would go on to create the films we think of as representing the best of American early silents.
Edwin S. Porter
Originally a projectionist and exhibitor, Edwin S. Porter made trick films in the style of Méliès as well as documentaries in the style of the Lumière brothers, but his two best-known films fall into neither camp: Life of an American Fireman depicts the full sequence of a fire and rescue, from the close up on a fire alarm box to the life-saving actions of a fire crew, and The Great Train Robbery is considered both the first action film and the first western, using multiple locations and cross-cutting to show action happening simultaneously. The Great Train Robbery famously ends with one of the robbers turning the gun on the audience.
Porter also directed a version of The Night Before Christmas and A Winter Straw Ride, both of which appear in the A Christmas Past collection on Kanopy, and Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, based on the well-known comic strip by Winsor McCay, who would go on to make animated films in the 1910s. However, my absolute favorite Porter film is The “Teddy” Bears, made with cinematographer Wallace McCutcheon. The film tells the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears and features, among other things, a “teddy bear” belonging to Baby Bear—seen through a keyhole in a humorous stop-motion animated sequence that took Porter a full week to photograph—and a chase sequence that ends in a scene of dark political satire with Teddy Roosevelt as a hunter.
D.W. Griffith and the Transition from the Early Silent Period
After the initial development of Edison’s Kinestoscope and the first narratives of Edwin S. Porter, we sort of hit a fallow period. This is likely just the result of the fact that more than ninety percent of the silent films of this period are now lost. However, it is clear that by the latter part of the decade change was in the air. Films started to move away from being strictly a novelty item and toward a longer narrative format that depicted more realistic stories of daily life.
This is when D.W. Griffith comes on the scene. I will have a lot to say about this director in my next post, but one can see already in 1909 that Griffith is a great story teller. Of course, from a film history perspective he also had the good fortune to work at Biograph, which deposited film prints on paper for copyright at the Library of Congress and whose nitrate negatives were rescued by MOMA’s film department in the late 1930s. Because over four hundred of Griffith’s films survive, many early film histories credit him with inventing almost everything (from close-ups, backlighting, and masking, to parallel editing, the dolly shot, and changing camera angles) and this has been repeated ad nauseum over the years. We now know that Griffith was not really a great innovator, but could certainly use the medium well to wring the most out of any drama.
And what drama! From Corner in Wheat, an adaptation of Frank Norris’s The Pit, to The Sealed Room (1909), an extremely melodramatic Balzac adaptation about a French king walling in his wife and her lover, to The Country Doctor (1909), where a doctor chooses to leave his sick daughter to treat a poor child instead, someone always seems to be dying a horrible death. Even the somewhat comic A Trap for Santa (1909) starts off by focusing on a family so impoverished that the unemployed alcoholic father leaves because the family will be better off without him. The only pure comedy by Griffith I saw from this period was Those Awful Hats, a shorter film featuring a parade of women in comically large hats looking for seats in a theater.
Top Ten American Films Ranked:
The “Teddy” Bears (1907)
Corner in Wheat (1909)
Life of an American Fireman (1903)
From Leadville to Aspen: A Hold-Up in the Rockies (1906)
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
A Trap for Santa (1909)
Those Awful Hats (1909)
Jack and the Beanstalk (1902)
The Country Doctor (1909)
The Kiss (The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss) (1896)
To close out an already ridiculously long post, a word on the “essentials” for this period. I realized while catching up with the new-to-me films on my list that this era was far richer in innovation than I ever would have given it credit for and that I should therefore expand my list of “essential” films for these early decades from twenty to twenty-five. In addition, I ended up removing five films from my original list to make way for other films. Sadly, this meant removing a number of perfectly fine examples of the art—Panorama du Grand Canal vu d’un bateau (1896) by Alexandre Promio (the first traveling shot), Le Départ d’Arlequin et de Pierrette (Pierrette’s Escapades) (1900) by Alice Guy-Blaché, Aladin ou La Lampe Merveilleuse (1906) by Albert Capellani, the hilarious Premier prix du violoncelle (First Prize for Cello) (1907), and A Trap for Santa Claus (1909) by D.W. Griffith—but resulting in a more diverse selection of films and filmmakers.
My final proposed list is as follows:
Essential Films of the 1890s–1900s
L’Arroseur arrosé (Tables Turned on the Gardener), Louis Lumière, 1895
L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat, Louis Lumière, 1896
Danse Serpentine, Auguste Lumière & Louis Lumière, 1897
La Fée aux choux (The Cabbage Fairy), Alice Guy, 1900
Jeanne d’Arc (Joan of Arc), Georges Méliès, 1900
Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard), Georges Méliès, 1901
Fire!, James Williamson, 1901
Histoire d’un crime (History of a Crime), Ferdinand Zecca, 1901
A Photographic Contortion (The Big Swallow), James Williamson, 1901
Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon), Georges Méliès, 1902
The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter, 1903
Life of an American Fireman, Edwin S. Porter & George S. Fleming, 1903
Le Royaume des fées (The Kingdom of Fairies), Georges Méliès, 1903
Mary Jane’s Mishap; or, Don’t Fool with the Paraffin, George Albert Smith, 1903
The Sick Kitten, George Albert Smith, 1903
La Poule aux œufs d’or (The Hen That Laid the Golden Eggs), Gaston Velle, 1905
La Naissance, la vie et la mort du Christ (The Birth, Life, and Death of Christ),
Alice Guy, 1906
Les Résultats du feminisme (The Consequences of Feminism), Alice Guy, 1906
Pied du mouton (The Talisman, or Sheep’s Foot), Albert Capellani, 1907
The “Teddy” Bears, Wallace McCutcheon & Edwin S. Porter, 1907
Le Cheval emballé (The Runaway Horse), Louis J. Gasnier, 1907–1908
Le Médecin du château (The Physician of the Castle/A Narrow Escape), 1908
Vive la vie de garçon (Troubles of a Grass Widower), Max Linder, 1908
Une Dame vraiment bien (A Very Fine Lady), Louis Feuillade, 1908
Corner in Wheat, D.W. Griffith, 1909
For those that took up my Century+ challenge, are there any essentials you think I have missed? Let me know in the comments.
*Though it should be noted that Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) by Georges Méliès does appear in the Sight & Sound Top 250.
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