Moving into the 20th century saw a lot of filmmakers try to imitate Méliès’ camera trickery, and soon begin outpacing him. Unfortunately, as innovative as Méliès was in creating the trick film, he never really went past that, never able to break free from his conception of the cinema as filmed stage action, and never realizing the capabilities of the camera beyond stopping and starting time. There are many great Méliès films in the first half of this decade, but it’s not long before they begin to feel tiresome. In this section, we’ll see trick films continue to be central, but other types of narratives and editing techniques will also start to be developed. I cut the date off at 1908 instead of 1909 because 1909 is when D.W. Griffith really started taking off, and marks the shift from trick film to more complex narratives. We’ll catch up 1909 to 1912 in the next post, and then I’ll try to go year by year after that.
Going to Bed Under Difficulties
One of my favorite Méliès subgenres is the haunted inn, where a weary traveler tries to get to bed but he can’t seem to make it – chairs move, the bed disappears, his clothes walk off on their own. In this case, the furniture stays put, but he can’t seem to manage to keep his clothes off. There are many of these, and they’re one of the few types of Méliès films that never got old for me even when I was tiring of him. I also just really love the English title of this.
The Delights of Automobiling
After a near-decade of cinema domination from the US and France, Great Britain jumped on the scene with some decidedly delightful (and macabre) films from Cecil M. Hepworth, including this one which features a motorcar exploding…and look out for what’s falling from the sky. Great example of wry British black humor.
Grandma’s Reading Glass
When the Brits made their way into cinema, they did it in a big way. George Albert Smith contributed this film, said to contain the first closeups. The conceit is that a boy is looking through his grandma’s magnifying glass, then we cut to see what the magnifying glass sees – in closeup. A bird in a cage, Grandma’s eye, etc. Because of the cut to closeup, it’s also one of the earliest films that contains editing! Things like this are why this Chrono Watch has been so rewarding. You don’t notice things like this being so innovative if you see them out of context.
The Enchanted Drawing
J. Stuart Blackton was something like the American version of Méliès, experimenting with trick films and also animation before most people. An illustrator draws a large man’s face and some wine, and the illustrated face changes in reaction to the illustrator’s actions. A lot of very early animation foregrounded the illustrator like this, as in many of cartoonist Windsor McKay’s early shorts.
Just to get back up to speed, here’s a quick rundown of the first couple of decades of cinema, with a few thoughts about some highlights.
Cameras that could take multiple shots in quick succession were just being developed, and the earliest films are more snippets of experiments than anything else. Thomas Edison’s lab was a leader here, though if you delve into the details, he developed almost nothing related to movies – he bought innovations other inventors made and his associates (especially W.K.L. Dickson) worked to improve them.
Roundhay Garden Scene
Considered to be possibly the oldest moving picture, just a few seconds of people meandering around a garden.
There were three of these, experiments done in the Edison lab, of a lone figure. The first is very out of focus and ghostly, the second a bit more defined, and the third one has been lost (be suspicious of videos on YouTube claiming to be Monkeyshines #3). I find these have a magnetic quality, though, perhaps because of the ghostliness of them.
An anomaly for 1892, a stop-motion film at a narrative level which wouldn’t be seen again for several years.
The beginning of the actualities that would be the bread and butter for Edison’s studio, most of them actually made by W.K.L. Dickson – he gets a start on them in 1893 with this one, but there are oh so many more to come.
The Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s)
Actual boxing movies were very popular, a way for people to watch fights they couldn’t dream of attending in person. Their popularity is perhaps the reason for this humorous parody.
Imperial Japanese Dance
Some of Dickson’s actualities were of normal everyday scenes, but many were exotic things like this, showing a snapshot of a world most Americans would never see. I mean, most of them were staged and not authentic at all, but that was the intention anyway.
Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Sound may not have taken over until the late 1920s, but Edison’s lab was experimenting with it as early as 1896! Edison, in fact, thought moving pictures were a novelty, intending to use them merely as supplements for his main product, the phonograph.
Employees Leaving the Lumière Factory
Edison had competition early on from the Lumière brothers in France, whose actualities have a naturalistic quality to them as opposed to Edison/Dickson’s studio/controlled feel.
Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
It’s an urban legend that moviegoers jumped up and ran in fear that the train would hit them, but this is still a very pleasing film due to the Lumière’s sense of composition and angle.
Tables Turned on the Gardener
The Lumières try their hand at comedy, an unusual mode for them, but a delightful one. Many films from this era were copied by others since copyright law was not well-defined in terms of moving pictures, so there is also a version of this directed by Alice Guy. Dueling copycat films continued into the 1910s, and in some cases it’s almost impossible to tell for sure which version is which!
1896-1899: Méliès Ascendant
There are still a lot of solid actualities in this time period, and I’ve included a couple, but 1896 marks the year Georges Méliès sprang onto the scene. Méliès was a stage magician who realized he could stop the camera, change something, and start it again and it would look like magic. He’s justly honored for the invention of camera tricks, and the first several years of his career are tough to beat.
The House of the Devil
This is like a “greatest hits” of Méliès, or at least a precursor to several strands of his future career. Costumes? Check. Conjuring and transformation tricks? Check. A devilish character playing tricks on people? Check. It’s a lot of fun, and a really great introduction to Méliès.
I find actualities like this pretty dang charming – just the Lumière children having a little spat, but it’s cute and realistic and somehow really refreshing. Like home movies from the dawn of (cinematic) time.
The Bewitched Inn
Among the earliest “haunted inn” films, a genre that would serve Méliès very well for many years, and remains my personal favorite type of film he did. The setup is simple – a weary traveler arrives at an inn and settles in for some much-needed rest, only to have his clothes and all the furniture in his room develop minds of their own and move about the room unbidden. This one particularly amuses me because even though he’s mad, he doesn’t seem scared or weirded out by all these things moving of their own volition. It makes it even funnier.
The Dancing Skeleton
Disney would make a major thing of animated dancing skeletons thirty years later, but they weren’t the first – this unusual film for the Lumières experimented with stop-motion very early.
The Four Troublesome Heads
A fairly typical but high-level Méliès trick film, with a magician main character pulling off his head repeatedly and putting it on a table until he has four heads (plus the one still on his body). It’s impressive trickery, and quite funny as well; maybe the best example of what Méliès the Magician envisioned for expanding magic onto the screen.
When Méliès wasn’t doing magician tricks or stranding hapless travelers in haunted inns, he was most likely doing a longer (and often long-winded) costume drama, with lavish sets, costumes, and hand-coloring. These get pretty tedious later on, but this one is kind of amazing – no one else at this time was even attempting narratives at this level.
Now, this is far from all I watched from 1888-1899. Here’s my Flickchart list of the top 30 or so I watched. I picked ones for this recap that I felt were particularly notable, not necessarily the ones I liked the best, so they don’t match the top of this exactly. I ended up having seen 76 films from the 1880s and 1890s.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about the Movie Recommendation Challenge I did last year, surprisingly, was not having to think about what movie to watch next. Apparently indecision is a bigger damper on my spirits than lack of agency. Weird. Anyway, because I enjoyed having such a solid schedule of what to watch, I decided to give myself the longest, most focused project I’ve ever attempted – a full chronological watch through film history starting with its very origins.
I was inspired to do this by a friend of mine, Dan, who I met in the Flickcharters Facebook group (BTW, if you use Flickchart and you’re on Facebook, let me know so I can add you to the group, because it’s the best ever film group I’ve ever been in, and I am not even joking about that). He started doing a chronological viewing project several years ago, and he’s up to 1975 now. His experiences and the insights he’s had based on seeing movies in context with each other, seeing them innovate and borrow and build on each other, has been illuminating and I decided I would give it a try as well.
I thought long and hard (in some ways am still thinking!) about how strict a schedule to keep, and how deep into each year to go. Should I just do a limited number from a year then move on, both to keep the pace brisk and to save some films for a second pass through later on? But no, I decided if the thing was worth doing, it was worth doing completely. So I’ve created a watchlist for each year (on Letterboxd), based on various critics lists, directors filmographies I want to complete, and just stuff I’m interested in. I’ve tried to include a lot of variety, documentaries, experimental films, short films, etc. I’ll include rewatches when I think I should reevaluate something, but for the most part, these are new watches for me. These lists are still in progress, by the way – I’ve only worked extra-hard to complete through 1925 or so. I will still be watching other films as they come up, so my watching is not exclusively chrono project, but whenever I don’t have anything else to watch, I’ll just be watching the next film in the chrono list. No indecision to be had.
For this series, I plan to update the blog periodically, not with every film. Certainly at the end of each “year” that I complete, highlighting my favorite films and thoughts about the year as a whole, and how the chrono project has added to my understanding of that year. I may write about individual films if I feel like it, or directors as I progress. I would love feedback on your favorites each year as well!
If you’d like to follow along more closely than that, I have created a Facebook group and will be posting more regularly in that, and including some polls and fun things like that about my watchlists, films I’ve watched, related books I’ve been reading, etc. The group is private, but just drop a comment here and I’ll add you to it on Facebook.
I actually started this in January, and I’ve spent the last five months on a journey through early cinema – more on that in an upcoming post.