Film History Essentials: The Launch of H.M.S. Albion (1898)

•March 18, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Filming from a small boat on the river, Robert Paul captures views of the crowds gathered to see the launch of the H.M.S. Albion. He gets a distant shot of the ship sliding out into the Thames, followed by a confusing scene of smaller boats crowded together to pull people from the water.

Why it’s essential:

21 June 1898 was a bright, clear day at Blackwall, London. Some 30,000 people had gathered for the launch of the battleship HMS Albion, just completed by the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company. The ship, which had been under construction for a year and a half, was the yard’s first project for the Royal Navy since the 1880s. At over 420 feet in length, with a displacement of over 13,000 tons, she would be the largest warship ever launched in the Thames. The atmosphere was festive. The Duke and Duchess of York (the future rulers, and grandparents of Elizabeth II, see right) were in attendance. Local schools were closed, although it was a Tuesday, to allow children to witness the event.

Three film crews were present to capture the scene: Robert Paul and Birt Acres, once partners and now somewhat bitter rivals, were set up close to the action, on boats out in the river. E.P. Prestwich, an associate of William Friese-Greene, had chosen a position high up, across the river, were he could capture a sweeping shot and the crowds choking the banks of the Thames and crammed into boats clogging the waterway to the ship’s starboard side. The size of the crowd far exceeded the available space for the best views, prompting some spectators to look for additional space.

One such spot was a small, rickety bridge crossing a little creek that ran in from the river, separating two different areas of the yard. Described as “flimsy” and “makeshift,” the bridge was certainly not meant to accommodate the 200-300 people who crowded onto it. In fact, the bridge had been marked off as dangerous, but reportedly many of the people who had decided it was a choice vantage point, mostly dock workers and their families, jeered at the few police present when they were warned to get off.

Meanwhile, the Duchess of York at last stepped forward to christen the ship, taking three swings before the champagne bottle broke. As the Albion slid back into the water, a large wave rushed back in its wake and swept over the overloaded bridge, causing it to partially collapse, and washing most of the occupants into the filthy water of the Thames at a depth of 10-12 feet.

This was the moment when the noise of the cheering crowd was the loudest, and all eyes were on the ship itself. As a result, even people standing nearby didn’t immediately notice what had happened. The cries of the people in the water were overwhelmed by all of the other noise. Many of the upper-class people in attendance, including the Duke and Duchess, departed without having heard of the commotion at all.

As those nearest began to take notice and some idea of what was going on rippled outward, a belated rescue effort began. Bystanders who could swim dove in to haul out anyone they could. Small boats that were nearby (including those carrying both Paul and Acres) rushed to help pull people from the water. The scene was horrific and chaotic, and those who dove into the water risked their lives repeatedly to do so. With so many struggling people, most of whom couldn’t swim, some rescuers reported nearly being pulled under, and the water was full of hazardous debris, from the bridge and from other detritus carried along by the wave.

In the end, thirty-eight people were drowned: 12 children (the youngest only three months old), and the rest mostly women, likely due to their heavier and more restrictive clothing. We have a glimpse of what the rescue efforts looked like, thanks to Paul’s camera, which continued running as those on his boat provided aid. Acres had plenty to say about that in the press, indirectly criticizing his rival by noting that he had not been able to film the tragedy because he was too busy helping with the rescue. He also suppressed his footage of the launch, presumably believing it was in poor taste to exhibit it.

Paul seems to have had no such reservations. However, he did claim that his camera had continued to film automatically while he, too, aided in the rescue, and that the earnings from exhibitions of his film were going to charity. The two men had just prompted one of the first debates on the ethics of cinema journalism. No one seems to have taken issue with Prestwich’s footage, but he neither captured any part of the tragedy, nor was he in a position to help. His view of the launch can be seen here.

Finally, although this was a terrible tragedy, meriting a tone of somber gravity, I would be remiss if I did not note that the event was also commemorated in verse by the Scottish poet William McGonagall (see right), the worst poet in British history. His 17-stanza poem is actually full of a lot of specific and detailed description, but . . . Well, it rather defies description, so here’s an excerpt:

’Twas in the year of 1898, and on the 21st of June,
The launching of the Battleship Albion caused a great gloom,
Amongst the relatives of many persons who were drowned in the River Thames,
Which their relatives will remember while life remains.
Oh! little did the Duchess of York think that day
That so many lives would be taken away
At the launching of the good ship Albion,
But when she heard of the catastrophe she felt woebegone.
Part of them were the wives and daughters of the dockyard hands,
And as they gazed upon them they in amazement stands;
And several bodies were hauled up quite dead.
Which filled the onlookers’ hearts with pity and dread.
There’s one brave man in particular I must mention,
And I’m sure he’s worthy of the people’s attention.
His name is Thomas Cooke, of No. 6 Percy Road, Canning Town,
Who’s name ought to be to posterity handed down,
Because he leapt into the River Thames and heroically did behave,
And rescued five persons from a watery grave.
Her Majesty has sent a message of sympathy to the bereaved ones in distress,
And the Duke and Duchess of York have sent 25 guineas I must confess.
And £1000 from the Directors of the Thames Ironworks and Shipbuilding Company.
Which I hope will help to fill the bereaved one’s hearts with glee.

And in conclusion I will venture to say,
That accidents will happen by night and by day;
And I will say without any fear,
Because to me it appears quite clear,
That the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The Albion Battleship Calamity

Why you should see it:

The Launch of H.M.S. Albion is nearly two minutes long, but only about 20 seconds of it shows the actual launch (0:56-1:16), and you almost have to know what you’re looking at to recognize it for what it is. The film begins with what seems to be a traveling shot of the Albion already in the water, presumably taken after all the excitement had died down. The next 35 seconds are views of the crowds lining the banks, and the other boats in the water, as Paul’s boat approached the site of the launch. The woman standing in front of the camera at the beginning of this shot (who moves aside, apparently by direction of the cameraman) is Paul’s wife, Ellen (see left).

There’s something really raw and dynamic about all of this footage, but particularly that of the launch and the rescue efforts. Part of this is just that the camera is constantly in motion. But also, the launch itself is filmed through a crowd of people, giving it a feeling of presence and immediacy, like you’re standing among them. There is a great depth of field to the shot, as well.

Finally, the last shot is just an incredible glimpse of a moment of crisis. The “rescue” portion of the recovery effort seems to be mostly over, and the men are gravely scouring the water for casualties. My eye is drawn to a woman near the center of the frame from about 1:21-1:34. She is sitting down, and she may be soaked, but it’s difficult to tell. She seems to be staring blankly and rocking slowly back and forth. A man seems to comfort her, or perhaps he is steadying them both as he steps around her. Had she just been pulled from the water, or is she mourning some terrible loss? Both? The passage of time lends an emotional distance to accounts of tragedies like this, but the power of a moving image can give it an immediacy that it is hard to ignore.

Film History Essentials: Come Along, Do! (1898)

•March 17, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

An elderly couple sit on a bench eating lunch together. Soon, they notice a few people entering a nearby art exhibit, and decide to enter as well. Once inside, the husband becomes transfixed by a nude statue of Venus, prompting his wife to drag him away by his coattails.

Why it’s essential:

In 1898, British film pioneer Robert Paul bought four acres of land along Sydney Road in Muswell Hill, about seven miles north of the heart of London, and only a mile from Alexandra Palace. On this site, he built his “Animatograph Works,” England’s first film studio (and an adjacent laboratory for processing film). That summer, he reportedly made 80 films at the new studio, though only one of these survives, and that not in its entirety.

The (partially) surviving film is Come Along, Do!, a brief comedic sketch based on a popular song of a few decades before. The central gag that the song is based on may have originated in a humorous painting, but regardless the song, in turn, inspired several additional derivative works, including this film, a stereoscopic slide, and various cartoons. The “joke” of a lecherous husband whose desires are foiled by his dour wife is an old and well-worn cliché, although this is a distinctly Victorian iteration. Here is an excerpt of the lyrics:

To Dr. Kahn’s Museum I took her, one day,
To study the classical nude;
She thought that Venus and Jupiter were
Underdressed and decidedly rude.
The beauties of Venus I tried to point out,
When into a temper she flew,
“She’s worse than Mazeppa, it’s awful, she said,
I’m ashamed, sir, so come along do.”
CHORUS.—Come along do, come along do;
What are you staring at? come along do;
Come along do, come along do,
You ought to know better — so come along do.

attrib. Fred French, excerpted from The Book of Comic Songs and Recitations (1874), p. 43

The reference in the first line is to “Dr.” Kahn’s Anatomical and Pathological Museum, which contained displays focusing on various parts and systems of the human body, as well as a number of more salacious exhibits purporting to educate patrons about venereal disease. The museum was open from 1851 until it was forced to close in 1873, thanks in part to a campaign by the Society for the Suppression of Vice. “Mazeppa” is a reference to an 1819 poem by Lord Byron, dramatizing an apocryphal event from the life of a 16th-century Ukrainian leader in which, as a young man, he was supposedly strapped naked to the back of a wild horse which was then turned loose, as punishment for carrying on an affair with the wife of a nobleman.

The film version of this is somewhat more simplistic. So much so, in fact, that most of the film is devoted to a prelude to the scene from the song. The elaboration of the opening scene, in which the couple sit and eat outside of the art exhibit, was perhaps the only way to pad this one-off gag out to the full minute in length that was standard for a film of the time. This consideration may be responsible for what makes Come Along, Do! so unique: It is the first known instance of a film with multiple scenes edited together in a way that shows that they are sequentially linked. In other words, this is the birth (as far as we know), of film continuity, one of the essential building blocks of film narrative.

Unfortunately, the second scene (believed to be about twenty seconds long) is lost except for a few film stills that survived thanks to a set of images that Paul presented to a museum in 1913. The sequence of events depicted in the scene is simple enough that it’s not hard to get the gist (in fact, other versions of the joke are conveyed in a single image). Nevertheless, this is a sad loss, particularly alongside the other 79 films that Paul is said to have made during his first months of operation in the first British film studio.

Paul’s years at Muswell Hill are sometimes referred to as the era of “Hollywood on the Hill,” though of course this is a bit of an anachronism. No films would be made in Hollywood until years after Paul had closed his studio. He continued making films at the Animatograph Works for just over a decade before finally deciding to leave the film business behind and employ his considerable talents as an engineer in other endeavors. However, he left behind a legacy of helping to popularize British-made films, both at home and abroad, developing accessible filmmaking equipment, and training many of the next generation of British filmmakers to follow in his footsteps.

Why you should see it:

It’s kind of amazing that a 60-second film could feel “padded,” and yet here we are. The opening scene is just such obvious filler that it hardly even counts as set-up. However, the song would likely have been played or sung for contemporary audiences while the film ran, and they would immediately have been in on the joke. Seen from that perspective, the first scene isn’t so much set-up as it is build-up. And there’s a sort of in-joke here as well: The old married couple are played by Robert Paul and his wife Ellen, married for less than a year at this point. Ellen was a dancer, and is known to have performed in at least a few of Paul’s other films, though not as frequently or as recognizably as George Albert Smith’s wife, Laura Bayley, or Georges Méliès’s (second) wife, Jeanne d’Alcy. Ellen did, however, play a significant role in the running of the studio behind the scenes, and has begun to be recognized as one of the women pioneers of early film.

British film scholar Ian Christie has done a great deal of work to unearth details and educate the public about Paul’s years in film. One of his projects has been an attempt to restore Come Along, Do! to, as near as possible, the way audiences would have experienced it in 1898. To that end, he has posted a version here that is accompanied by an original musical score reminiscent of the tone of the original song, is color-tinted as he notes many of Paul’s films of this period were, and features a preliminary restoration of the second scene, “animated” after a fashion using the existing film stills. It is definitely worth a look.

Film History Essentials: “Colored Troops Disembarking” (1898)

•March 16, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A group of African American soldiers, newly-arrived in Tampa, Florida in preparation for deployment to Cuba, carefully make their way to shore.

Why it’s essential:

William C. Paley was an English immigrant to the United States who was making a living exhibiting x-rays until the machine began to cause issues with his health. Naturally, he turned to film as an adjacent endeavor, and by the spring of 1898, he had contracted with Edison’s company to cover the brewing Spanish-American conflict (war would not be declared until late April). The American Mutoscope Company, Edison’s chief competitors, were already on the scene, and it was imperative he not be left behind for the first American war to be captured on film.

Paley traveled to Key West and spent late March and early April filming views, including the funeral for the crew of the Maine, fleet maneuvers, and scenes around Havana Harbor. After completing his trip, he arrived back in New York to find such a demand that he returned to Florida only a few days later. This time, he stayed in Tampa (where ground troops were arriving as the United States prepared to invade) filming scenes of everyday military life while waiting to join the assault on Cuba.

Colored Troops Disembarking was filmed at the beginning of May, and this is how the Edison Catalog described it:

The steamer ‘Mascotte’ has reached her dock at Port Tampa, and the 2nd Battalion of Colored Infantry is going ashore. Tide is very high, and the gang plank is extra steep; and it is laughable to see the extreme caution displayed by the soldiers clambering down. The commanding officer struts on the wharf, urging them to hurry. Two boat stewards in glistening white duck coats, are interested watchers looking for ‘tips’ perhaps. The picture is full of fine light and shadow effects.

The Mascotte (see right) had run a regular route from Tampa to Havana for over 20 years, but was apparently diverted to carry troops in this instance (what with the state of war between the endpoints of its usual run). The “2nd Battalion of Colored Infantry” doesn’t seem to correspond to any available unit listings. It’s possible they were a group from a specific state. The 6th Virginia Volunteer Infantry had two battalions, for example, but they weren’t mustered until later, and were never stationed in Florida.

There were also ten volunteer infantry regiments formed in Southern states. Known as the “Immunes,” these regiments were composed of men who had already had yellow fever, in the hopes that they would be strengthened against the tropical diseases any force invading Cuba could expect to face. Four of the regiments, the 7th through the 10th, were made up of exclusively African Americans. It was widely believed at the time that black people possessed an innate immunity to many of these tropical diseases, as well as a natural affinity for the region’s climate (a holdover, obviously, from the not-too-distant era of slavery).

Buffalo soldiers of the 24th, on the march in Cuba

Because this was filmed soon after the declaration of war, the soldiers that appear in this film were most likely members of the Regular Army. Four black-only regiments, established after the Civil War, served in the US Army at this time (the United States’ military would not be integrated for another half-century). The members of these four regiments were the only African American troops to participate in the fighting in Cuba (and thus the only black troops likely to have been stationed in Florida in early May). Two of the regiments were cavalry (the 9th and 10th), but the other two were the 24th and 25th Infantry. Collectively, these troops were commonly known as “buffalo soldiers,” a nickname that originated during their service in the American Indian Wars of previous decades.

What stands out in the catalog description, though, is the phrase, “it is laughable to see the extreme caution displayed by the soldiers.” The tone of mocking disrespect is surprising at a time when jingoism was particularly prevalent throughout the nation. First of all, it’s difficult to see what’s laughable. The description has already pointed out that the ship is docked at high tide, causing the ramp to be unusually steep. The soldiers are carrying their weapons, along with fully-loaded packs (which are not light). There are multiple points where one of the soldiers slides a few inches as they make their way down, indicating how treacherous their footing is. “Extreme caution” was the only sensible approach.

But of course, it’s not really about what makes sense. It’s about the very rigid constraints that surrounded socially-acceptable ways to include African Americans in cultural products consumed by European Americans. They could conform to a number of pre-existing characters based on broad stereotypes. They could be entertainers (dancers, singers, etc.). Failing anything else, they could be reduced to comic figures, to be ridiculed and laughed at, and definitely not taken seriously.

On a purely-conscious, surface level, any film that strayed outside of prescribed norms in its depiction of African Americans on-screen risked locking itself out of exhibition in an entire region of the country. The restrictions imposed by a need to coddle (white) Southern audiences continued to influence what films got made and where those films could be shown until within the living memory of an average adult. However, on a deeper, perhaps even subconscious level, these constraints existed not only because of regional prejudices, but because of fear—fear of what it would mean to acknowledge African Americans as capable, or intelligent, as contributing members of society, or even as fellow human beings, and above all, as equals.

Members of the 24th at San Juan Hill

In real life, African Americans consistently failed to remain inside of white peoples’ comfort zones or perform down to their low expectations. An Edison copywriter could manufacture any number of reasons to mock black people, but no one was laughing when (to cite just a few noteworthy occurrences) the 10th Cavalry rescued Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders from certain destruction after they recklessly charged into an ambush, or when members of the 10th were the first to reach the crest of San Juan Hill a few days later (the Rough Riders’ famous charge notwithstanding). It wasn’t a joke when the 24th Infantry captured the Spanish positions guarding the approach to Santiago, or when they went to help at an army hospital that was overwhelmed with cases of yellow fever, dysentery, malaria, and typhoid, after eight other units had refused.

Many of their white comrades, having benefited from their bravery, were quick to state their appreciation. Teddy Roosevelt was among those who were effusive in their praise of the black troops’ actions. However, perhaps stung when the story of his unit’s rescue by the 10th Cavalry began to circulate, Roosevelt later tempered his praise with accusations that black troops lacked initiative and were of very little value without white officers to lead them.

This flew in the face of many firsthand accounts of their actions in battle, but they were typical of most white Americans’ dogged refusal to give black Americans their due. While the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th Infantry were charging up San Juan Hill, the 25th Infantry was fighting the lesser-known Battle of El Caney. Leading the charge here, as well, a member of the 25th captured the Spanish flag at the top of the hill, but he was ordered to hand the flag over to an officer of the 12th Infantry, who proceeded to claim credit for the capture. And so it went.

Why you should see it:

One of the great difficulties of navigating film history, particularly from this period, is the need to balance two important objectives that are often in conflict. On the one hand, it is incredibly important that there be real acknowledgement of the tremendous prevalence (in early films) of the overt racism that infected nearly every facet of American culture. To skirt past the most egregious examples is to risk minimizing them, and perhaps even give a false impression that these ideas were less common and less normalized than they actually were. It could even result in people being completely ignorant of the reality of that time, as (in fact) many people already are.

On the other hand, in emphasizing their significance, perhaps by labeling them as “essential” or suggesting that they are films that people “should” see, it is important that we not seem to be celebrating or promoting them. At the same time, the existence of racism in American society is not some long-ago memory, so far back in the past that its causes, effects, and symptoms no longer influence our lives. It is an unhealed wound, and as we draw attention to it, we have to be intentional about avoiding further inflammation. Films have a power to return history to life in a way that few other things can. We must therefore be cautious about what we choose to resurrect, and how.

The reality of black history is that African Americans have never been merely passive victims of prejudice and oppression. There have always been those who fought, in a thousand different ways, for full equality before the law and in society. Although many of these figures are household names, most are totally unknown. Their contributions are visible from the effects they collectively achieved through a long and bitter struggle.

We don’t know the names of the black soldiers who appear in this film. The description makes it clear that they were subject to ridicule, and we know from history that they faced far worse even as they prepared to put their lives on the line. However, like the dancers from “The Passing Show,” their accomplishments transcend their characterization by others. Colored Troops Disembarking shines a light on racism in 19th-century America, and on the prejudice experienced by black troops, while inadvertently highlighting their quiet determination to press onward despite their circumstances.

Film History Essentials: Mardi Gras Carnival (1898)

•March 15, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Several floats from that year’s Rex Parade, a long-standing and famous New Orleans Mardi Gras event, pass by the camera as large crowds enjoy the spectacle.

Why it’s essential:

On 22 February 1898, the American Mutoscope Company had a camera set up at Gallier Hall, directly across from Lafayette Square in the heart of New Orleans. Rolling down St Charles Avenue between these two landmarks was the Rex Parade, part of one of the city’s oldest and most celebrated traditions: Carnival on Mardi Gras. Although Mardi Gras revelry had been a part of New Orleans culture since the city’s founding, Rex was one of several Carnival “Krewes” formed throughout the mid-1800s in an effort to bring some order and planning to the formerly chaotic Carnival celebrations.

The Grand Duke (right) poses with General Custer (left) after a buffalo hunt organized by Buffalo Bill in January 1872

The oldest of these organizations, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, was founded in 1856, but they had typically organized a nighttime parade. Rex was founded in 1872 in order to plan a daytime parade. The direct impetus for this was supposedly an impending visit by Grand Duke Alexei Alexandrovich of Russia (see right), who was nearing the end of a three-month goodwill tour of the United States on behalf of his father, Emperor Alexander II. However, foremost in the minds of the founders, most of whom were local businessmen, was to create an attraction that would fuel tourism and commerce, and help boost the city’s post-Civil War economic recovery.

Many of the Rex traditions were established in 1872, but in 1873 the parade evolved even further to include a guiding theme and a series of elaborate floats supporting that theme. Many of these traditions now have 150 years of history behind them. However, in 1898 it was only the silver anniversary of the Rex Parade (the event had existed for 26 years, but it was the 25th parade, as the 1875 parade was cancelled due to political unrest). The theme that year was “Harvest Queens,” and each float is dedicated to an agricultural product. The floats are preceded by a person holding a sign shaped like a silver bell with the title for each float. Based on the outline of the parade published in the Carnival Edition of The Picayune (see below), the footage seems to have been edited together out of order.

Regarding editing: Notice that there are several points where the footage appears to “jump.” This is not due to anything missing from the film. Rather, early cameras were often operated by manually turning a crank that pulled the film past the shutter. If nothing “film-worthy” was taking place (in this case, the large, empty gaps between the slowly-moving parade floats), the cameraman would simply stop cranking, beginning again when there was something worth capturing. In addition, part of the film was apparently spliced together incorrectly at some point, as it begins near the end of the parade, then about halfway through it jumps back to the parade’s beginning.

The first float that appears is float 14 in the official parade order. It is decorated with birds and red berries that are likely currants. A long gap follows this float, and a time jump brings float 15 to the center of the screen. This float features a boat-like vessel with a team of what appear to be peacocks drawing it, and it is devoted to pineapples. Further back, float 16 is just visible. From the program, we know this is the tomato float, but here the footage skips ahead again.

Floats 17 and 18 are decorated to represent coffee and tea, respectively, and the bell-shaped sign preceding the tea float is the only one that is really legible. These two floats are also clearly meant to represent the specific cultures associated with those exports: Arabian culture for coffee, Chinese culture for tea. Both cultures are represented via very broad stereotypes. These two floats suggests that some of the earlier floats may also have been meant to depict certain cultures as well, though what those are is a bit more obscure. The final float in the parade, featuring strawberries, is just visible behind the “tea” float.

At this point, the film cuts to the very beginning of the parade, which is led by “Le Boeuf Gras” or “the fatted ox” atop a float of its own. Boeuf gras is a very old Mardi Gras tradition, representing the last meat that will be consumed before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday, the following day. This was actually one of the last times that a live ox was featured in the Rex Parade. A proclamation was issued in 1900 declaring that a live ox would no longer be a part of the parade, suggesting that its inclusion was out of step with modern sensibilities and aesthetics. In 1959, le boeuf gras returned to the parade in papier-mâché form, and this tradition has continued through today.

After this comes the first official float of the parade, bearing that year’s Rex, the King of the Carnival. Rex is chosen in secret each year, and then publicly announced the day before Mardi Gras. It is considered an enormous honor, and comes with a variety of ceremonial duties throughout the day, culminating in presiding over a carnival ball that night. In 1898, the chosen Rex was Charles A. Farwell II (see right), owner of one of the wealthiest sugar plantations in the southern United States, and head of one of the largest sugar companies in the state. Just coming into view as the film ends is the parade’s second float, titled “Silver Anniversary of Rex.”

Mardi Gras Carnival was one of the first subjects filmed by Frederick S. Armitage, though he would go on to film hundreds more. Thanks to American Mutoscope Company records, the existence of the film was known, but the footage itself was believed lost for many years by Rex and Carnival historians anxious to locate it. Then, in 2022, a print was discovered in the holdings of the Eye Filmmuseum, a Dutch film archive that is notable for its film preservation and restoration work, and particularly for an ongoing project to make much of its collection freely available online. The film was immediately nominated for the National Film Registry, and was added to the list with that year’s group of inductees a few months later.

Why you should see it:

Audiences familiar with modern-day Mardi Gras festivities will immediately notice how quiet and orderly the watching crowds are. They’re just observing the parade pass by, and no one seems to be moving or even cheering. No police presence is required to hold the crowds back. Most of the people involved in the parade are wearing uniforms or costumes, and many are masked, but the crowds appear to be dressed in ordinary street clothing. It’s both a marked contrast and a fascinating document of what a celebration that still happens annually was like some 125 years ago.

But even more important is how the film stands as a reminder of a stark historical reality that is hidden in plain sight within it. Whatever the appearances of any individuals in the parade might suggest, everyone participating in it is definitely white. Like every other 19th-century New Orleans Carnival Krewe, Rex’s membership was restricted to people of European ancestry. Rex was closely associated with The Boston Club, a segregated gentleman’s club founded in 1841, and the King of Carnival was typically selected from among the club’s members.

The White League clasps hands with the KKK over an image of a terrorized black family (Harper’s Weekly, October 1874)

The Boston Club’s elite private clubhouse was the site of an 1874 meeting by leadership of the White League, a white supremacist organization that emerged in Louisiana after the suppression of the Ku Klux Klan by the federal government. The purpose of the meeting was to plan a takeover of the state and city governments, then led by a democratically-elected coalition of Republicans, both white and black. The White League’s stated goals were as follows:

[H]aving solely in view the maintenance of our hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization, we appeal to men of our race […] to unite with us against that supreme danger. A league of whites is the inevitable result of that formidable, oath-bound, and blindly obedient league of the blacks, which, under the command of the most cunning and unscrupulous negroes in the State, may at any moment plunge us into a war of races. […] It is with some hope that a timely and proclaimed union of the whites as a race, and their efficient preparation for any emergency, may arrest the threatened horrors of social war, and teach the blacks to beware of further insolence and aggression, that we call upon the men of our race to leave in abeyance all lesser considerations; to forget all differences of opinions and all race prejudices of the past, and with no object in view but the common good of both races, to unite with us in an earnest effort to re-establish a white man’s government in the city and the State.

Louisiana White League Platform (1874)

On the afternoon of 14 September, a force of over 8000 white men attacked a much smaller force composed of black members of the state militia and the integrated Metropolitan Police. The militia and police were commanded by ex-Confederate general James Longstreet, and the brief clash came to be known as the Battle of Liberty Place. The larger force soon prevailed and took control of much of the downtown area, including the city hall building that was located directly behind Armitage when he filmed Mardi Gras Carnival a few decades later. If you look to the extreme left of the frame, you can nearly make out where the parade route crosses Poydras Street less than a block down. In 1874, the forces of the White League constructed a barricade there out of streetcars, extending it for the few blocks down to the Mississippi River, and hunkered down to await a response to their appeal for recognition from President Grant.

Columbia, wielding a sword of Constitutional Law, protects a black man from a mob of White League ex-Confederates. (Note the caption at the bottom of the image.)

Grant did not look kindly upon this insurrection, and Federal troops arrived three days later to restore the lawfully-elected government and disperse the rebels, who nevertheless faced no further consequences for their actions. This, incidentally, was the “political unrest” that resulted in the cancellation of the 1875 Rex Parade. This victory of justice and the rule of law was relatively short-lived. The hotly-contested presidential election of 1876 was resolved with the Compromise of 1877, in which Republican Rutherford B. Hayes won the presidency in exchange for his promise to withdraw the last Federal troops from the Southern states, ending Reconstruction.

The white supremacists, in New Orleans and across the South, swept African Americans and their political allies from elected office, marking the beginning of nearly a century of disenfranchisement and worse for the Southern black population and other minorities. In 1891, veterans of the White League uprising led an angry mob in a mass lynching of 11 Italian immigrants who had been acquitted of murdering the New Orleans chief of police. The enthusiasm surrounding this renewed surge of racial fervor boosted long-dormant plans to erect a monument commemorating the Battle of Liberty Place with a 35-foot white obelisk in the median on Canal Street, a quarter of a mile back down St. Charles Avenue from where the parade was filmed in 1898.

Among all of the participants passing by in the parade, as well as the crowds lining both sides of the street, there is one identifiable black face in Mardi Gras Carnival. An African American man is visible from about the chest up in the very bottom left corner of the frame. His hat, stylishly tilted to the left, makes the right side of his face easily visible to the camera. He is there for the entirety of the parade, quietly watching alongside the white spectators. His age isn’t clear, though he could be quite young. Is he a resident, or simply a visitor? What does he think of what he sees? What does he remember, or what has he heard, about the recent history of this city and this state?

Whatever he knows of this past, and of the ongoing racial violence continuing across the region, he could not yet know that less than nine months after this parade, white supremacists would carry out a coup in Wilmington, North Carolina. They would overthrow one of the last bi-racial Republican governments that still existed in the South, murdering perhaps as many as 300 African Americans and chasing out thousands more from the formerly black-majority city. The victims’ appeals to Republican President McKinley for help would fall on deaf ears. He would reply that he could not respond without a request for help from the state’s governor, who of course would make no such request.

Local newspapers reported the event as a race riot caused by the black population. The true message reached the entire region loud and clear: White supremacy could once again stand uncontested as the guiding force of Southern law for generations to come. In 1932, the following inscription was added to the Liberty Place Monument (see left):

McEnery and Penn having been elected governor and lieutenant-governor by the white people, were duly installed by this overthrow of carpetbag government, ousting the usurpers, Governor Kellogg (white) and Lieutenant-Governor Antoine (colored).

United States troops took over the state government and reinstated the usurpers but the national election of November 1876 recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state.

Sociologist and historian James Loewen called it “the most overt monument to white supremacy in the United States,” and although it was briefly removed in 1989, it was put up again in a less prominent location in the city, where it remained for many more years. It was finally removed permanently, amid great controversy, in 2017.

In 1991, New Orleans passed an ordinance requiring Carnival Krewes to prove they were not segregated in order to obtain a license to parade in the city. Of the major “old line” 19th-century Krewes, the Mistick Crewe of Comus, the Knights of Momus, and the Krewe of Proteus all withdrew from parading rather than comply. Only Rex chose to meet the conditions of the ordinance and continue, although it ended many of its traditional associations with The Boston Club in order to do so. The ordnance was later ruled unconstitutional, and Proteus returned to parading in 2000. The other old line Krewes have not paraded since. As of 2023, the Boston Club is still a segregated organization.

Film History Essentials: Visite Sous-Marine du Maine (1898)

•March 14, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Divers at Work on the Wreck of the “Maine”)

What it’s about:

Two men work in and around the wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor as a third man descends a ladder to join them. One removes the dead body of a sailor from the interior of the ship and they send it to the surface attached to a rope. The third man ascends the ladder again as the other two continue working.

Why it’s essential:

The wreck of the Maine

It was late evening on 15 February 1898 when a massive explosion erupted in the middle of Havana Harbor, shattering the stillness that had existed only moments before. The explosion ripped apart the forward section of the USS Maine, an American battleship that had arrived three weeks earlier, and the vessel sank rapidly to the bottom of the harbor. Three-quarters of the ship’s 355-member crew either drowned or died in the explosion, and of the survivors, only 16 were unharmed.

The cause of this tragedy was both mysterious and extremely consequential. The Maine had come to an island consumed by conflict. It was the third year of the Cuban War of Independence, and American sentiment was very much behind the Cubans, and in favor of supporting them in their fight. After Spanish loyalists began rioting in Havana, President McKinley, though resistant to calls for war, sent the Maine, ostensibly to “safeguard” American citizens in Cuba. Was the sinking of the ship the result of hostile action by Spain?

A Naval court of inquiry collected evidence and spoke to witnesses, and a month later returned a report that claimed the ship had been sunk by a mine. There were a number of problems with the Navy’s inquiry, and a contemporary Spanish report found, with a great deal of evidence, that the explosion had been caused by a fire in the coal bunker, which was located next to the ship’s munitions. Several subsequent investigations have been divided as to the cause, and there is still no definitive answer. However, certainly Spain had no reason to want the Americans involved in their conflict with Cuba.

“Yellow journalists” Pulitzer and Hearst, dressed as “The Yellow Kid” from a popular comic they both featured, fight over coverage of the war they helped sell.

In the end, though, the truth behind what happened to the Maine didn’t matter at all. The incident became fodder for a circulation war between William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal and Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World. They turned the incident into a rallying cry, and splashed sensationalized accounts of Spanish atrocities in Cuba across their front pages, whipping anti-Spanish public sentiment into a frenzy. By the end of April, Spain and the United States were at war.

Meanwhile, Georges Méliès recognized that the Maine tragedy would make an excellent subject for his own twist on the Lumière brothers’ “actuality” genre: actualités reconstituées (reconstructed actualities). These were, as the name suggests, staged reenactments of current events. Méliès had first experimented with this idea in 1897, making a series of films based on the events of the brief Greco-Turkish War. For one of these films, Combat Naval en Grèce, he constructed a ship set that actually pitched and rolled back and forth to simulate the motion at sea. He used this same set not long after for another film, as well. That same year, he made two additional reconstructed actualities about revolts against the British in India. Clearly, armed conflict was an excellent source of material for the genre.

Visite Sous-Marine du Maine is the last in what was likely a series of three films (the others are believed lost). These were probably released before war was even declared, and perhaps even before any of the investigations into the cause of the explosion were complete. If that seems a bit ghoulish, irresponsible, and opportunistic by modern standards, it was certainly well within the mainstream at the time. What wasn’t in the mainstream was Méliès’s innovative method for simulating an underwater scene.

Underwater photography was just beginning to be seriously developed, but the first film shot underwater was still many years away. Méliès achieved his effect by putting a strip of gauze over the lens, and then placing a fish tank directly in front of the camera. It’s an ingenious device that, even if it doesn’t quite pass muster, still creates the desired result, and looks great.

Although the effect is quite good, the resulting film likely didn’t deceive most audiences of the time, nor was it intended to. Other filmmakers were known to have staged fake events and then marketed them as the real thing (and it’s possible some less scrupulous exhibitors did the same with Méliès’s film), but Méliès himself did not. However, it would not be at all surprising to learn that many viewers, despite knowing they were not watching actual footage of the wreck of the Maine, did believe that Méliès had somehow divined a way to stage and film his reenactment underwater. Few people would have had any frame of reference for what such a scene might actually look like.

Why you should see it:

Méliès’s method of filming “underwater” drew on existing stagecraft for depicting similar settings. Still, he must have been extremely pleased by how well the effect translated to film. In fact, he employed it several more times throughout his career, with the same success each time. The divers are quite convincing, as well, as are the diving suits. Even if they aren’t the real thing, they certainly look like they are. The hole in the ship’s hull is very small, and also seems to have been made to look like it has blown outward. This is probably due to a lack of information and the constraints of production limitations, rather than any political stance.

The one genuine weakness is the poor quality of the dummy representing a drowned sailor. Knowing that Méliès was absolutely capable of producing a much more life-like prop suggests that this may be at least somewhat deliberate. A more realistic depiction of a drowned body might, at best, be considered to be in very poor taste, and could have been off-putting to audiences. The goal here was to excite interest, not to shock or horrify.

Film History Essentials: La Lune à un Mètre (1898)

•March 13, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: The Astronomer’s Dream)

What it’s about:

An astronomer is alternately tormented by a devil and watched over by a benevolent fairy as he experiences a strange and incredible dream. The moon visits his astronomy tower, appearing in various different forms, but mostly as a ravenous, devouring face that threatens to consume him.

Why it’s essential:

It would be easy to overstate the contrast between the increasing sophistication of Georges Méliès’s fantastical films and almost anything else that was being made at the time. By the beginning of 1898, a few other filmmakers were experimenting with some of the same ideas and techniques, but Méliès had been developing his style and skills for nearly two years. Fundamentally though, no one else was yet attempting the kinds of movies that Méliès was starting to specialize in, and certainly not on the same scale. He had a recognizable artistic vision unlike that of any other 19th century filmmaker.

This may have had something to do with Méliès’s unique role (among other filmmakers of his day) as someone who was primarily an entertainer, rather than primarily an inventor, or an engineer, or a photographer, etc. What’s more he already owned a theater, and had connections with (and even employed) other performers. Presumably he also already had facilities for, and experience in, making sets and props. In addition, as one of the few filmmakers who was also exhibiting his own films (in his own theater), he would have had direct insight into what audiences were responding to.

Given all of that, it should come as no surprise that La Lune à un Mètre is reportedly based on a magic act that he had staged several years earlier, called “Les Farces de la Lune ou les Mésaventures de Nostradamus.” Of course Méliès himself plays the astronomer with his characteristic animation and energy, and Jeanne d’Alcy is “Phoebe,” the good fairy. This adaptation (which may only have been “loosely inspired by” the earlier show) seems short for a magic act, but it was still long for a motion picture. At over three minutes, it was among the longest of the hundreds of films released in 1898, and its stage magic origins are fully visible in the many and varied tricks that it employs.

Why you should see it:

Méliès continues to use the stop trick to great effect throughout this film. The trick is not really possible to disguise. It’s inherently obvious because the point of it is usually to make something visibly appear or disappear on the screen. However, Méliès’s execution of the trick is increasingly seamless. He has eliminated all but the smallest movements between edits, and often shoots the trick in such a way that any slight shifts are rendered invisible. For instance, there is a moment where the astronomer rushes forward to embrace the beautiful moon goddess, only to collide with a statue of a knight that suddenly appears in front of him. Any shifts that happened between one moment and the next are disguised, not only by the fact that the scene picks up with the completion of the astronomer’s motion after the stop, but by fact that an entire section of the set changes behind him as well.

When Méliès made Le Manoir du Diable in 1896, it was little more than a showcase for a whole series of stop tricks. Here, though, the real spectacle is provided by the elaborate sets and costumes, and particularly by the enormous moon puppet, with a mouth that opens and closes (and both consumes and disgorges!), and eyes and eyebrows that move independently. There is also the smaller, and slightly less elaborate, moon puppet that gives the illusion of the moon having moved back from the balcony. And there is what seems to be the smallest puppet of all, near the beginning, when the astronomer’s chalk drawing appears to animate. This is a particularly good illusion, as it does actually at first look like it is an animation effect of some kind.

Of all the tricks the film employs, though, the final one is certainly the most impressive. After the astronomer has been chewed up and spit back out in several pieces by the moon, the good fairy reappears to banish the devil and rescue him. As the fairy throws each piece of the astronomer’s body back into the moon’s mouth, they reappear in the chair on the right side of the frame, reassembling him piece by piece until she walks forward to reattach his right arm herself and return him fully to life. The effect works because the fake pieces of the astronomer’s body are very lifelike (particularly the head), and because each piece appears in the chair with virtually no detectable change to the rest of the scene. It is either an incredibly skillful use of the stop trick, or a double exposure, but either way it is incredibly effective.

Film History Essentials: Danse Serpentine (1897)

•March 12, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Serpentine Dance)

What it’s about:

An unknown dancer, likely in Rome, performs a version of Loie Fuller’s famous Serpentine Dance. She spins and waves her arms, causing her dress to transform into various shapes before our eyes. Her dress, painstakingly hand-tinted, changes colors as she moves.

Why it’s essential:

Loie Fuller began her career on the stage as a child, and by her late teens she had achieved a certain amount of success and recognition as a comedic actress. In her autobiography, Fifteen Years of a Dancer’s Life, she gives a fascinating account of how, while playing a role as the subject of a hypnotist, she happened to stumble into the effect that she would go on to develop into one of the most famous dances of the 1890s. All on her own she carefully practiced the dance, designed the costumes that would emphasize its movements, and planned the lighting effects that helped to distinguish it. Her only problem then was to convince any theatrical manager to take a chance putting her on the stage in a type of act for which she was totally unknown.

The result was a string of bad experiences. Her act, once she secured a venue, was popular with audiences, but she found herself working for a series of managers who exploited her, who ultimately stole her dance and gave it to other performers, and the last of whom left her stranded in Berlin with no work. The first of these men gave her dance the name that it would become famous under. In reality, Fuller’s varied movements simulated a number of things in nature: butterflies, orchids, clouds, and more. Nevertheless her style was to be forever known as the “serpentine dance.”

Fuller now resolved to make her way to Paris in the hopes that she might find more appreciation there. She was disturbed, upon her arrival in October 1892, to find that the serpentine dance had preceded her. In fact, it was already on the program at the Folies Bergère, the very theater she had hoped to dance at. According to her own account, she went in to watch the show, and found the imitation (by an American dancer she claimed to know, and to have loaned money to) so inferior that she was sure she could outshine it. After auditioning her version for the theater manager, he agreed to take her on immediately; although first she performed for a few days under the name of her rival while the program was changed.

Loie Fuller, in costume

This proved to finally be the break she had been looking for, and she went on to achieve great success and acclaim. She lived the rest of her life in Paris, some 35 more years, and was acquainted with, and reportedly beloved by, many of the artistic and social elite of her day. Her life, work, and legacy are quite incredible and worth reading about, though they are beyond the scope of a discussion of film history. For whatever reason, although many, many serpentine dances were filmed, she was never captured on film herself, either performing her signature dance or in any other capacity.

Many online film databases and video uploads claim, erroneously, that she is the featured dancer in a number of “serpentine dance” films. Danse Serpentine, filmed for the Lumière brothers by an unknown camera operator in 1897, is one that frequently misidentifies her as its star. However, the actual Lumière catalog makes no such claim. The dancer’s face is clearly visible, and is clearly not Fuller. Furthermore, the inscription above the stage (though it is cropped out in some available versions), reads “Via Due Macelli” (“Street of Two Slaughterhouses”) which is the name of a street in the heart of Rome.

Although it just one of several examples of serpentine dances on film from these years, it is particularly notable for its use of color, reminiscent of the hand-tinting on Annabelle Serpentine Dance. Here, however, both the coloring and the dance are more sophisticated. It is much more evident here than in the Annabelle Moore version just why this technique so captured audiences’ attention and imaginations.

Why you should see it:

The way the colors of the dancer’s dress shift subtly through an entire rainbow of hues is mesmerizing and beautiful, but it’s the dance itself that truly enchants. There are several points during the dance where only the dancer’s head is visible among the voluminous folds of her costume, and sometimes even that is obscured or blends in with the black background behind her. The effect is almost one of watching a completely alien creature moving independently, flowing and fluttering around the stage.

Fuller herself often performed parts of her dances with only a single light source, which must certainly have heightened the sense of a disembodied swath of animated fabric shifting and changing on its own. Unfortunately, it would have been impossible to film with so little light at the time, so we are forced to do our best to imagine it with the help of approximations like this. Still, it is quite lovely in its own right.

Film History Essentials: Après le Bal (1897)

•March 11, 2023 • 1 Comment

(English: After the Ball)

What it’s about:

A woman returns to her chambers from an evening out. With the help of her maid, she undresses, and then rinses off in a tub before wrapping herself in a towel to get ready for bed.

Why it’s essential:

Films like Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance were certainly targeted primarily at an adult, male audience. Their subjects flirted with the edge of what was acceptable, titillating without entirely crossing the line into open indecency. 1896 saw the first productions (that we know of) that were openly erotic, adult films, though they were, not surprisingly, produced in Europe, not in the United States.

The first of these was A Victorian Lady in Her Boudoir, or simply A Woman Undressing. It was a British production by Esmé Collings, a member of the “Brighton school” of early cinema pioneers alongside men like G. A. Smith. Woman Undressing features a woman alone in a room, disrobing down to her shift before she settles into a chair and takes up a nearby mirror. This is one of the only films by Collings that still survives.

The second was Le Coucher de la Mariée, or Bedtime for the Bride. As the title suggests, this was a French production, produced by Eugène Pirou and directed and filmed by Albert Kirchner under the pseudonym “Léar.” The film was a recreation of a live striptease act of the same title, and featured the stage act’s star, Louise Willy, and her male co-star. The premise centers around a couple on their wedding night. The blushing bride coaxes her new husband to wait behind a screen while she undresses for bed, telling him not to peek. The audience, however, receives no such instructions.

As the woman slowly takes off her clothes, her husband pantomimes his nervous impatience, fanning himself, reading a newspaper upside down, and even occasionally sneaking a peek around the edge of the screen. The act once again ends with the woman down to her shift as she gathers her courage to summon her husband. The stage act, of course, would have been much longer, and it is believed that the film is also a fragment, though how much is missing and what it consisted of is unknown.

Reportedly, this film was quite successful in France, though its exhibition was shut down during an engagement in London. Naturally, success inspired imitation, and it spawned a genre of imitators, known in France as “scènes grivoises d’un caractère piquant” (“ribald scenes of a piquant character”). Neither Pirou nor Kirchner seems to have built a a career in pornographic film out of this success, though both are believed to have been involved in the business of either making or selling pornographic pictures. Strangely, Kirchner went on to make La Passion du Christ in 1897, a 12-scene film that was the first to adapt a Bible story for the cinema. It is now believed lost.

So, Après le Bal is not the first, or even the second, known erotic film. It is believed to be the third. But it has additional significance for a few reasons. After the success of Le Coucher de la Mariée, Georges Méliès himself got in on the trend with this film. The silhouette of a star, for Star Films, appears over the center of the image at the very beginning of the film. Méliès is, of course, best known for his success in the genres of fairy stories and science fiction, and for his pioneering work in special effects, but he truly did experiment with virtually every successful film formula of his day. What’s more, the star of his film (as she often was) is Jeanne d’Alcy (see right), his mistress and future second wife.

Après le Bal goes a step further than the previous known films, and is the earliest surviving film to feature simulated nudity. Unlike in the two earlier films, d’Alcy actually removes her shift, with her back to the camera. She is clearly wearing some sort of leotard covering most of her torso. Less obviously, she is also wearing a bodystocking that at least covers her legs.

Other similar films that are lost were made around the same time, and Méliès himself may even have made others that we do not have. The nature of the subject matter, and how it was viewed at the time, means that there will likely be a great deal that we never learn. As the BFI puts it: “Erotica being what it is, it’s possible that other (and perhaps more explicit) examples exist in private hands.” The films that have survived are quite tame by modern standards, though that would soon change. Still, from these mild beginnings, the erotic film was born. For much of its history, adult film has existed largely outside of the mainstream of film history, but this film shows that that was not always a foregone conclusion.

Why you should see it:

A modern viewer may be more fascinated by just how many layers d’Alcy has on, and how constricting they are, than by their removal. Her relief, in fact the relief of the women in all three of these films, when her corset is loosened is particularly visible. Other than that, this scene was apparently quite uncomfortable to film. As with all of Méliès’s films from this period, it was filmed outdoors in his garden against a painted backdrop. It was late in the year, and quite cold. It was much too cold, in fact, to use real water, so they filled the pitcher with dark sand instead. Overall, it’s quite a strange thing to watch, but the fact that it exists at all is not so strange.

Film History Essentials: Laveuses sur la Rivière (1897)

•March 10, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Washerwomen on the River)

What it’s about:

A group of women wash clothes aboard a bateau-lavoirs (laundry boat), likely on the river Rhône or the Saône, in Lyon. As the women scrub furiously, a few men look on from mid-way up the bank. Meanwhile, traffic passes back and forth on the street above.

Why it’s essential:

The Lumière brothers’ actualities are easy to take at face-value. They are brief, with no manipulation or movement of the camera, and they seem to simply capture a truly authentic slice of life. But we know there are levels of authenticity, and that the Lumières were not above staging elements to get a “more natural” shot. The choice of subject, too, can indicate a point of view, as are choices like how it is framed, from what distance, at what angle, who is included and excluded from the shot, when it begins and ends, etc.

From the beginning, the Lumières showed a consciousness of the significance of some of these choices, along with a particular vision for the scene they wanted to capture. Always very aware of what was happening inside the frame, with more experience they showed an increasing awareness of how to use the placement of the frame itself. Laveuses sur la Rivière has a painter’s eye for image composition. There are four different strata all layered atop each other, and each one clearly divided from the others. The lowest layer (the river itself) is the closest to the camera, and they get successively further back, with the top layer (the street and the houses along it) at the greatest distance. It’s a masterpiece of a shot.

Beginning with the renovations of Paris in the 1850s, free community wash-houses were constructed across the country. However, towns with access to large rivers, such as the Lumières’ hometown of Lyon, might have laundry boats along the riverbanks as well. These communal spaces were the ancestors of the laundromat, and served an equally important function in industrial-era urban life. As this shot’s purpose was not to document the boat itself (the functioning of which would have been well known to the intended audience) much of the boat is outside of the shot.

A fleet of laundry boats on the left bank of the Rhône.

As can be seen in the image at right, there would have been a whole row of similar boats along the water’s edge, serving the nearest of the city’s nearly half-million residents. Beginning in 1860, these boats were also equipped with boilers for steam and hot water, and the space for hanging clothes to dry are clearly visible in both the image and on the right side of the frame within the film.

The cinematograph had no zoom lens, and this shot appears to be too close to the boat to have been taken from the opposite bank. Observing closely, it is evident that there is a very subtle bobbing motion that causes the top of the image to visibly rise and fall slightly. Presumably, then, this scene was filmed from aboard a boat in the middle of the river. As is often the case, a film intended to depict for contemporary audiences sights that were commonplace in their everyday lives has, with the passage of time, become an artifact for modern viewers to experience a window into a past that no longer exists.

Why you should see it:

The laundry boat is an absolute hive of activity as the whole row of women perform what is obviously very physically-rigorous work, without break or pause. A row of women working on the other side of the boat is visible, as well, and there is a third row: The women’s reflections, visible in the river below. The amount and variety of motion made this an excellent subject for filming. Not one of the women so much as glances up for a moment to see that they are being recorded. Their attention is fully absorbed by the work in front of them, unlike some others who are also in the shot.

The Lumières had a great aversion to their subjects staring at the camera while they were being filmed, believing that it distracted from the “naturalism” of the scene. It is likely, then, that they did not intentionally capture the stark contrast seen here, but it is a fascinating one nonetheless. As a few dozen women work furiously in the foreground of the shot, three men stand completely idle on the shore just above, staring fixedly towards the camera, no doubt interested to observe the cinematograph and its operator in action. (A fourth man, who is walking on the road, pauses to watch, then after a few seconds, lounges against a post before continuing on about his business by the end.) The juxtaposition between the working women and the inactive men, likely a difference of class as much as it is one of gender, immediately stands out. Their very stillness draws attention to itself almost as much as the frenzied motion below.

Film History Essentials: Escrime au Sabre Japonais (1897)

•March 9, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Japanese Sword Fencing)

What it’s about:

Several men in bōgu (training armor) engage in a practice session of the martial art of kendo. A boy repeatedly rings a gong behind them while a man next to him plays some sort of instrument. The master sits, fanning himself, and occasionally shouting directions to instruct the combatants.

Why it’s essential:

Born in Kyoto, Inabata Katsutaro was 14 years old when he got a scholarship to attend La Martinière Lyon. Japan had been forced to end its isolationist policy and enter into treaties with the Western nations less than a decade before his birth. As a result, Inabata had grown up in a Japan that was changing rapidly from a feudal to an industrial society, and he would play a role in bringing about that change. Arriving in Lyon in 1877, he studied technologies related to weaving and dyeing for the next eight years. He also befriended a classmate: the young Auguste Lumière, 11 days his senior.

Inabata returned to Japan in 1885, and started a successful business that continues to exist (as Inabata & Co.) to this day. While visiting France in 1896, he learned of the Lumière brothers’ new cinematic enterprise, and soon became the Lumière representative for Japan. Upon his return home near the end of the year, he was either accompanied or soon followed by Lumière technician François-Constant Girel, a cinematograph, and 50 reels of film. Inabata and Girel gave the first exhibition of motion pictures in Japan on 15 February 1897, in Osaka.

An Edison kinetoscope had only arrived in Japan in 1896, around the time Edison was introducing his film projection system in the United States. However, a Vitascope exhibition began in Osaka only one week after Inabata’s exhibition, and he decided that the requirements of being competitive in show business were not to his liking. Inabata handed the cinematograph over to Yokota Einosuke, who had been touring the country putting on shows with an x-ray machine he had brought back from his travels in the United States. Yokota went on to be one of the major figures in Japanese film production and exhibition for the next 35 years, while Inabata returned to continued success in his own textile business.

Meanwhile, Girel stayed in Japan for the next few months shooting additional films for the Lumière catalog, 18 in all. Of these, nearly half are ostensibly of daily life unique to Japan. However, Daisuke Miyao, a professor of Japanese films, suggests that there are many signs that these scenes were staged (for instance, this scene was filmed outdoors, but kendo is traditionally practiced inside), and their subjects were selected in an attempt “to make Orientalist fantasy authentic.” In doing so, Girel used the first motion pictures filmed in Japan to perpetuate stereotypes popularized by the Japonisme trend that was in vogue in Europe and America at the time.

Why you should see it:

Kendo, or “way of the sword,” is the modern name of the martial art seen here, but it does not seem to have been called that until 1920. At the time this was filmed, it was likely known simply as gekiken, or “hitting sword.” Whatever the term, I suppose this could be considered the first-ever martial arts movie.

The use of bamboo swords and protective armor, as seen here, was a practice already centuries-old as a method for Japanese warriors to train their swordsmanship. However, this specific form of gekiken as a martial discipline originated in the 1820s, prior to the fall of the shogunate and the opening of the country. It saw a rise in popularity during this period for a number of reasons.

One of the most significant social changes in Japan during the early years of Emperor Meiji’s reign was an end to the privileged status the samurai had enjoyed during previous centuries, and a consequent decline in their financial fortunes. This led to the Satsuma Rebellion in 1877, and the effective end of the samurai class. (A fictionalized version of this event is featured in 2003’s The Last Samurai.) The government banned the use of swords by samurai, and initiated both a voluntary surrender and a sword hunt to confiscate the remaining weapons.

Of course, there were many who wanted to ensure that the art of swordsmanship would not be lost amidst these upheavals. Such efforts became focused around standardization of sword fighting styles and sword training, particularly for police. It is possible, then, that the combatants seen here are police trainees.

It’s interesting that the melee on display is far more chaotic than might be expected from later filmed depictions of martial arts training. It’s unclear at several points who is supposed to be hitting who or exactly what is happening. But despite what appears to be a great deal of wild flailing, no one seems to hit anyone by accident, and if you watch closely, their movements are more tightly-controlled than they appear at first glance. (It may be particularly difficult to follow because the movements are so fast, likely due to some issue with Girel’s framerate. The movements look much more “normal” if you watch at 0.75 or 0.5 speed.)