If you see some of the earliest films, one characteristic is almost always obvious: they often appear to be in stop-motion. But footage in “The Flying Train” from 1902 is as impressive as the feat of engineering it captures. Depicting a ride on a suspended railway in Germany in 1902, it gives the contemporary viewer a sense of 21st-century drone footage. Throughout the two-minute film, riders see residents of Wuppertal (Wupper Valley), Germany walking across pedestrian bridges and down dirt roadways beneath the city’s schwebebahn – a style of hanging railway that’s unique to Germany and first appeared in 1901.
The Museum of Modern Art recently pulled the film from its vaults and – upon closer examination – were surprised to learn it had been shot in 70mm, instead of 68mm. While the difference may seem small, it’s considerable in the technology of film formatting. It’s also a unique footnote in cinematic history, since 35mm has been the standard for decades. But many of those early films by studios such as Biograph were recorded on either 68 or 70mm and displayed on then-state-of-the-art devices like a Kinetoscope or a Mutoscope. These larger formats provide a larger image area affords stunning visual clarity and quality, especially compared to the more standard 35mm or 16mm.
There have always been and always will be people who step boldly from the shadows of their environment, regardless of the risks or the criticisms, and challenge what is known and accepted. Shirley Chisholm was one of those individuals. In 1968, she became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, representing New York’s 12th Congressional District. In 1972, she went even further, when she made a concerted effort to secure the Democratic National Party’s presidential nomination. It induced the usual cacophony of snickers and eye-rolling from the party elite, but Chisholm remained undeterred.
“I am not the candidate of black America,” she noted in her official candidacy announcement in January of 1972, “although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women’s movement of this country, although I am a woman and equally proud of that. I am the candidate of the people and my presence before you symbolizes a new era in American political history.”
Despite an underfunded campaign and struggling to be taken seriously by anyone in the political world, Chisholm persevered. She didn’t even come close to earning the Democratic Party’s nomination, but her efforts paved the way for countless numbers of future non-White and female political candidates.
Chisholm passed away in 2005 and received the Presidential Medal of Freedom a decade later.
The current COVID-19 crisis has been compared to the “Black Plague”, which ravaged much of Eurasia in the middle of the 14th century C.E. Historians and scientists now believe the scourge first appeared in Western Asia in the 1330s, before storming into India and the Middle East via the legendary “Silk Road” and then into Europe and Northern Africa. It even reached the Danish outpost of Iceland. It’s a wonder, I believe, it didn’t make it to North America, as Viking explorers had already reached what is now Newfoundland. Europe was the hardest hit region, with some 50 million estimated fatalities. Overall, it killed roughly 350- 375 million people. But, since they had no accurate population counting system at the time, the death rate very well could have been several times worst.
There are some chilling similarities to the COVID-19 debacle. It began in Asia and seems to have struck Italy first. Back then religious leaders convinced their ignorant, illiterate followers that the pestilence was God’s condemnation for whatever sins they’d committed. On top of that, national commanders initially didn’t realize the severity of the pandemic and concocted whatever excuses sounded plausible.
Politics aside, one other element remains relatively unchanged: the love of music and dance. We’ve seen people across the globe cope with isolation and mandatory quarantines by singing and dancing; playing music on their doorsteps or balconies for neighbors to hear; connecting with family and friends through cyberspace to share melodies. Again, there are similarities with the “Black Plague”.
Medieval Europeans also often used music and song to celebrate life’s various events. I find music from this time and place beautifully intriguing and even somewhat familiar to current musical trends. As usual, Italians always rose to the occasion; creating a number of songs and dances to express the beauty of life. The saltarello is a perfect example. An Italian dance style dating to the 14th century, it involved leaping and skipping and was performed to music done in a triple meter tempo; usually accompanied by tambourines, guitars, and singing. Saltarello survived into the 18th century and, by then, had become a popular folk dance. Saltarello rhythm and energy bears similarities to tarantella; another popular Italian folk dance also often performed at weddings and dating to medieval times. A well-known contemporary model appears in the final movement of Felix Mendelssohn’s ‘Italian’ symphony.
The sight of various medical personnel clad in head-to-toe coverings to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus has become common in recent weeks. It used to be frightening to see something like that; images that were usually relegated to toxic waste dumps and crime scenes. But such garb is nothing new.
Beginning in the 17th century C.E., as more epidemics of bubonic plague swept Western Europe, doctors often wore a variety of outfits to protect them from the miasma, or “bad air”, then believed to carry disease. This was still a time when most people believed health scourges were acts of God and not the result of microbes gone awry. (Some people – even in so-called developed nations – are still stupid enough to believe that! The AIDS epidemic is a perfect example.) It was long before people realized the importance of basic health measures: handwashing, sanitation, not listening to politicians or religious leaders.
These long-ago costumes look theatrical (almost comical) now, as they typically consisted of a head-to-toe leather or wax-canvas garment; large crystal glasses; and a long snout or bird beak, containing aromatic spices (such as mint and cloves), dried flowers (usually roses or carnations), or a vinegar sponge. The strong smells of these items — sometimes set aflame for added advantage — were meant to combat the contagious miasma that the costume itself could not protect against.
They attire wasn’t just fanciful. The ankle-length gowns and beaked masks could offer some protection against germs. The design of these particular outfits has been credited to French physician Charles de Lorme who may have developed the concept around 1619. By the time the “Plague of 1656” ravaged Italy (which was then a collection of city-states) and killed an estimated half-million people, the beaked coverings had become mostly mandatory.
Terrifying in centuries past, they make for good Halloween apparel today!
While standing in a somewhat alien landscape called North Carolina (perhaps, at least to him) on May 28, 1900, Nevil Maskelyne probably thought of his artistic predecessors. The British magician knew that, just a century or so earlier, many people still thought a solar eclipse was an omen. But, for people like Maskelyne, an eclipse was the grandest trick of all – even if it was a natural phenomenon and not sleight of hand. And, in 1900, Maskelyne had a new device that he could surely add to his chest of magic: a celluloid camera.
Now, more than a century later, Maskelyne’s short film of that extraordinary celestial event has been digitally scanned and preserved in a collaboration between the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) and the British Film Institute (BFI). Simply titled “Solar Eclipse”, it is believed to be the world’s oldest surviving astronomical film.
As a practicing magician, it’s no
surprise Maskelyne realized the potential moving pictures bore, even at the
dawn of the 20th century. He
recognized the possibilities for both entertainment and education. His own interest in astronomy had led him to
the RAS, where he became a fellow and traveled to North Carolina with an
expedition to view – and record – the eclipse.
Viewing the eclipse – as people had done for millennia – was simple. But recording it with this new technology was not. The intuitive Maskelyne, however, didn’t let that deter him. Perhaps foreseeing the difficulty, he had designed a special lens attachment called a cinematograph telescope.
“He had previously taken out a patent
for engineering equipment, so it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that he
may have developed his own camera to capture this event,” said Bryony Dixon,
BFI curator of silent film. But as the
original British Astronomical Society report about the film doesn’t mention
whether Maskelyne used a camera of his own invention to shoot the eclipse, “it’s
something we’ll probably never know for sure.”
Despite the challenge, Maskelyne was
still able to capture the exposure changes that occur throughout an eclipse.
“The diamond ring effect of the corona at
totality* affects the exposure of the image,” Dixon said. “Maskelyne was able to change the exposure and
camera aperture as the event occurred, tracing the gradual fading of the corona
in increasing sunlight.”
After capturing the eclipse, Maskelyne screened the film for the Royal Astronomical Society at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly – London’s most popular magic stage at the time – as part of a larger program of magic illusionist acts.
In 2018 RAS archivists handed the film
over to preservationists at the BFI, where they began the delicate process of
digitalizing it. Each frame had to be meticulously
and carefully copied onto 35mm film.
Although at only one minute long and in scratchy
black and white, “Solar Eclipse” is yet another one of those rare treasures of
early cinema; a moment that puts you back in time, more than a century ago,
when the new medium of film held the promise of a new world of surprise and…well,
magic. A door between the “old world” and
a new century had opened.
*This refers to the “path of
totality”, which is the track of the umbra (the fully shaded inner region of a
shadow cast by an opaque object) on the Earth’s surface during a total eclipse.
Followers of the Chief surely know of my fascination with the early days of cinema. Recently the UCLA Film & Television Archive preserved and restored a 1906 piece by pioneering Spanish film director and cinematographer Segundo Chomón. Bob’s Electrical Theatre (also known as Miniature Theatre) features puppets engaging in a variety of routines, including wrestling and fencing. It’s a follow-up to Chomón’s 1905 The Electrical Hotel, a short about a modern hotel, where luggage appears to unpack itself.
Both film and electricity were new inventions at the start of the 20th century and were naturally synchronous. Chomón’s made innovative use of early splice-based tricks, which complimented his penchant for optical illusions. He is often compared to another pioneer of animated films, France’s Georges Méliès. Méliès is best known for such classics as “The Vanishing Lady” (1896) and “A Trip to the Moon” (1902). Though there are similarities between the two, Chomón differs from Méliès in the variety of his movie subjects and his overall use of animation, an art form he played a key role in developing.
Although Bob’s Electrical Theatre is one of the earliest stop-motion puppet films ever made, it is sophisticated and unique. The lifelike use of puppet dolls here predates the work of Ladislas Starevitch, another pioneering stop-motion puppeteer, and Willis O’Brien who is best known for such classics as The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933).
Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown in the newly-discovered “Something Good–Negro Kiss”.
Little treasures from the early days of cinema keep popping up. That’s what Dino Everett, an archivist at the University of Southern California (USC), discovered in a 19th-century nitrate print hidden among a batch of silent films originally owned by a Louisiana collector. The clip, shot on a Lumière Cinématographe, turned out to be an 1898 short entitled Something Good–Negro Kiss, which is now the earliest documented film of open affection between a Black man and a Black woman.
Everett later told his students, “I think this is one of the most important films I’ve come across.” He really had no idea.
Everett contacted the University of Chicago’s Allyson Nadia Field, an expert on African-American cinema. Using inventory and distribution catalogues, Field traced the film to Chicago and learned it had been shot by William Selig, a pioneer in film production and a former vaudeville performer. With help of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Field also identified the performers: Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. Suttle is dressed in a dapper suit and bowtie, while Brown dons an ornate dress — costumes that Field says were typical of minstrel performers.
Something Good is a restaging of Thomas Edison’s The Kiss (1896), one of the world’s earliest motion pictures. Scandalous for its time, The Kiss featured stage performers John C. Rice and May Irwin engaging in a graphic display of physical affection. Both Rice and May were popular figures of the minstrel entertainment circuit, and perhaps the title of this newly-discovered film, Something Good–Negro Kiss, is deliberately subverting the racism inherent in American minstrelsy.
A 120-year-old classic moment in cinematic time:
Image and video courtesy of USC School of Cinematic Arts
We modern movie-goers are so accustomed to visual effects in films that it’s almost difficult to imagine the awe people felt when they first witnessed such things as traveling shots and fade-outs. But, just as soon as moving pictures became a new form of entertainment at the start of the 20th century, some creative individuals began pushing it to new levels. One was Percy Smith, a London native who found his career as an educator boring and unfulfilling. He turned to the medium of film by going to work for Charles Urban, another cinematic pioneer, before creating his own films. Smith began experimenting with a variety of innovative techniques. Among them was time-lapse.
In 1910 Smith shot the world’s first time-lapse film, Birth of a Flower, which showed an array of different flowers blossoming. It became an international sensation. Smith’s name may have been lost to movie history, but his desire to stretch filmmaking into unknown regions helped transform a novelty into an art form.
The item refers to a man named “Roger Fuckebythenavele,” and was discovered accidentally by Dr. Paul Booth, a historian at England’s Keele University. Booth was examining medieval court cases, when he stumbled upon the unfortunate moniker. Roger wasn’t actually born into a family called “Fuckebythenavele.” He was branded as such because he was an incompetent copulator. Usually that refers to most politicians, but Booth informed the local press, “Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with the navel, or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex.”
Apparently Roger was so bad at sex he was considered an outlaw and would be tried under judiciary circumstances. Before Booth’s discovery, the earliest documented example of “fuck” was in a 1475 poem titled “Flen fyys.” The line in question reads, ““fvccant vvivys of heli,” which can be translated to “they fuck the wives of Ely.”
Booth has contacted the Oxford English dictionary people to advise them of his discovery; whereupon they should then make the appropriate updates to the historical etymology of the “F” word. As of now, Booth hasn’t received a reply. In that case, just tell them to…have a nice day. Dagnabbit!
Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.
If anyone involved with film in its earliest days realized how important their work would become, they probably would’ve taken greater care to preserve the medium for future generations. But, at the time, few seemed to believe cinema would last beyond its initial novelty. So, when a silent film surfaces, it’s cause for celebration. Such is the case with the recent discovery of an untitled, unreleased film from 1913.
Comprised into 7 reels, the movie is unique for two reasons:
it’s an early concerted attempt at a feature-length project;
it stars a mostly-Black cast.
At the start of the 20th century, film was still expensive, and movie studios – really just a gathering of adventurous artists – put out “shorts” that would often last only a few minutes. In this particular film, refurbished by New York’s Museum of Modern Art, we see a rare depiction of a Black middle class. It features Bert Williams, the first Black star on Broadway, and already a veteran of music and stage. Williams competes with other men for the affections of a young woman played by Odessa Warren Grey. The film had three directors; one of whom was Black. With titles, it would have run for about 35 minutes. The movie was made in the midst of the Harlem Renaissance, an extraordinary period beginning in the 1890s when a variety of Black artists – writers, singers, dancers – expounded upon their creative intellects and showed the world that they and all Blacks were human, too.
The film is part of a collection of 900 unprinted negatives produced by the now-defunct Biograph Company of New York. In 1939, Iris Barry, MOMA’s founding film curator, acquired the cache in 1939. In 1976, a MOMA film curator began copying the film and realized its historical significance when he spotted Williams amidst the characters. But, not until 2004, did the museum begin both restoring the film and searching for its origins. The research team showed the material to film historians; looked through a number of old movie trade papers; and even hired a lip reader to extract potential clues from the movie scenes themselves.
Their efforts have paid off. Now, we know the names of just about everyone appearing in the film, as well as its producers. It’s been fully restored and is scheduled for a premier showing this October 24.
A strange fact is glaringly obvious: Williams, of all people, appears in black-face; the antiquitous cosmetic concoction often used by White performers on stage and in film at the time to portray Black characters. Why Williams did that is unknown. It may have been a mockery of the technique itself, or perhaps an attempt to make him more appealing to White audiences. Regardless, this is an important historical find and it should be treasured for the cinematic gem that it is.