Tag Archives: early films

The Flying Train

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.

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Retro Quote – Texas Guinan

“A politician is a fellow who will lay down your life for his country.”

– Texas Guinan


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A Creative Little Theatre

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 ChomónBob’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).


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A Kiss Is Still a Kiss

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

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“Birth of a Flower” (1910)

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.

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A Jewel of Black Film History Appears

Bert Williams courts Odessa Warren Grey in this untitled 1913 film.

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.

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Dead Bugs and Other Classics of Early Stop-Motion Animation

Bugs cavort in Wladyslaw Starewicz’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge.”

Bugs cavort in Wladyslaw Starewicz’s “The Cameraman’s Revenge.”

As a film buff and former film student, I have a natural affinity for silent movies.  They’re a mark of cultural history, even though in those early days, many considered the medium little more than a passing fad.  But, almost from the start, film captured some historical events; such as the 1896 coronation of Nicholas II, the last tsar of Russia, and the moments before Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria – Hungary and his wife, Sofia, were assassinated in 1914 – an event considered the trigger for World War I.

But, many early filmmakers also saw the potential in cinema.  Among them was Wladyslaw Starewicz, a Russian-born artist now considered one of the pioneers of film animation.  In 1912, he produced “The Cameraman’s Revenge,” which combined his fascination with insects and the then-revolutionary stop-motion method.  The result is amazing, even by today’s standards.

The earliest stop-motion animated movie, “The Humpty Dumpty Circus” from 1898, has been lost.  But, a 1902 piece, “Fun in a Bakery Shop,” made by Edwin S. Porter and produced by Thomas Edison, has stop-motion animation elements.  Porter is best known for “The Great Train Robbery,” which came out in 1903, and has a scene where a character fires a gun directly at the camera lens; a stunt that terrified audiences and made them duck.

Also in 1903, Edison produced the first example of claymation with “Dream of a Rarebit Friend.”

In 1905, Spanish filmmaker Segundo de Chomón released “El Hotel Electrico,” which features bags flying around.

In 1906, Edison presented “Humorous Phases of Funny Faces,” which features the first example of direct digital manipulation: an image is moved, changed, or erased in each frame.

All of this proves you don’t need fancy graphics or design to make good animation – just a great story and a wild imagination.

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Fantasmagorie is a 1908 French animated film by Émile Cohl.  It is one of the earliest examples of traditional, hand-drawn animation, and considered by film historians to be the first animated cartoon.


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