Film History Essentials: New Brooklyn to New York via Brooklyn Bridge, No. 1 (1899)

•May 20, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A trolley-mounted camera takes the audience on a phantom ride on the new rail line across the Brooklyn Bridge from Manhattan to Brooklyn.

The essentials:

For most of the 19th century, travel between Brooklyn and New York City (now the borough of Manhattan) was limited to the various ferry lines that crossed the East River. The proposal for the first bridge between the two was approved shortly after the Civil War, but it was not completed and opened to the public for 16 years. For 20 years after its completion, the Brooklyn Bridge was the largest suspension bridge in the world, with a length of over 6,000 feet (and 1595 feet for its longest span).

The structure was a marvel of engineering, but all the more so considering the circumstances of its construction. The company responsible for building the bridge was actually overseen by the notoriously-corrupt Tammany Hall political machine. At least one contractor, for the all-important cables, enriched themselves by using inferior materials.

By the end, the bridge cost the modern equivalent of over $400 million (though notorious conman George C. Parker “sold” it a number of times for a fraction of that cost). However, it proved even costlier to some of those who worked on it. Some 27 people died during the bridge’s construction, and many more suffered debilitating injuries, including some of those in charge of the project.

John Roebling (see right), a German immigrant who had experience designing and constructing suspension bridges, was appointed as the project’s chief engineer in 1867. Two years later, he was working on-site, standing at the edge of a dock, when his foot was crushed by an arriving ferry. He had to have his toes amputated, and then he contracted tetanus and died only a few weeks later. He was replaced by his 32-year old son, Washington.

Washington had worked with his father since the 1850s, and had also aided with the construction of suspension bridges as an officer in the Union artillery during the Civil War. He attained the rank of brevet colonel by war’s end, having served with some distinction. Among other things, he performed reconnaissance from a hot-air balloon, and saw action at several major battles, including Gettysburg.

After taking over the Brooklyn Bridge project, Washington designed two pneumatic caissons (see left) that would allow the foundations for the bridge’s two main towers to be built underwater. These large, bottomless boxes were sunk down into the river mud and filled with pressurized air so workers could descend, clear the debris, and pour concrete. The use of these caissons was still a relatively recent innovation, and with them came a new danger that was not yet well-understood: decompression sickness, or (as it was originally known to bridge-builders) caisson disease.

Frank Harris, an Irish immigrant who worked on the bridge as a teenager, gives this first-hand account of the conditions:

In the bare shed where we got ready, the men told me no one could do the work for long without getting the ‘bends’; the ‘bends’ were a sort of convulsive fit that twisted one’s body like a knot and often made you an invalid for life. […] ‘If they’d pump in good air, it would be O.K; but that would cost a little time and trouble, and men’s lives are cheaper.’ […]

When we went into the ‘air-lock’ and they turned on one air-lock after another of compressed air, the men put their hands to their ears and I soon imitated them, for the pain was very acute. Indeed, the drums of the ears are often driven in and burst if the compressed air is brought in too quickly.
When the air was fully compressed, the door of the air-lock opened at a touch and we all went down to work with pick and shovel on the gravelly bottom. My headache soon became acute. The six of us were working naked to the waist in a small iron chamber with a temperature of about 80 degrees Fahrenheit: in five minutes the sweat was pouring from us, and all the while we were standing in icy water that was only kept from rising by the terrific air pressure.
After two hours’ work down below we went up into the air-lock room to get gradually ‘decompressed,’ […] I was soon as cold as wet rat and felt depressed and weak to boot […] I took a cupful of hot cocoa with Anderson, which stopped the shivering, and I was soon able to face the afternoon’s ordeal.

For three or four days things went fairly well with me, but on the fifth day or sixth we came on a spring of water, or ‘gusher,’ and were wet to the waist before the air pressure could be increased to cope with it. As a consequence, a dreadful pain shot through both my ears: I put my hands to them tight and sat still for little while.
One day, just as the ‘decompression’ of an hour and a half was ending, an Italian named Manfredi fell down and writhed about, knocking his face on the floor till the blood spurted from his nose and mouth. When we got him into the shed, his legs were twisted like plaited hair. The surgeon had him taken to the hospital. I made up my mind that a month would be enough for me.

Washington and Emily

In 1872, Washington Roebling came back up too quickly after several hours working in the caisson and immediately fell unconscious. Lucky to survive, his mistake reportedly destroyed his health and left him bedridden for life. From that point forward, he supervised the construction of the bridge from home, observing the progress of the construction via telescope. His wife, Emily Warren Roebling, then 29, carried messages from Washington to the on-site engineers, but she did so much more than that.

Emily taught herself the necessary mathematics, specifications, knowledge of materials, and a dozen other intricacies necessary to take on the in-person, day-to-day duties of supervising the project as its chief engineer for the next 11 years. When the bridge was officially opened, on 24 May 1883, Emily was the first to cross it. She had been indispensable to the design and completion of one of the great feats of 19th century engineering at a time when women were largely barred from formal education and employment in engineering fields.

During her years working on the Brooklyn Bridge, the first engineering degrees were awarded to American women from a few institutions. Still, most universities would not award degrees to women who met the requirements, even when they excelled, providing them instead with a certificate of proficiency or completion. Edith Clarke, the first American woman to be employed as an engineer (in 1922) was born three months before the bridge was completed.

Bridge construction in progress, 1876

The ride seen in New Brooklyn to New York via Brooklyn Bridge, No. 1 was filmed on 22 September 1899, 16 years after the bridge was completed. It was also a year and a half after Brooklyn became a part of New York City through the consolidation that created the five boroughs that exist today. The film was produced for Edison’s company by James White. As the title implies, this was one of a pair of films. In fact, these were just a few of a number of Brooklyn Bridge films from around this time, which include a fantastic panorama taken from the bridge’s tower by American Mutoscope.

The title implies a few significant things about the film. First, “New” at the front of the title suggests that there was a previous version, and this is an updated remake. This was usually done when an earlier print wore out, but may have also been a showcase for recent changes to the bridge crossing. The trolley tracks were a fairly recent addition to the bridge, built in 1898. Trolley service across the bridge continued until 1950.

The title also seems to indicate that this is a crossing from Brooklyn over to Manhattan, but in fact it is the reverse. The ride begins in Manhattan and ends in Brooklyn (as can be seen in the photo below, taken from the Brooklyn side). The film New Brooklyn to New York via Brooklyn Bridge, no. 2, presumably taken immediately after, depicts the return trip.

What to watch for:

After a few badly-deteriorated frames and a sudden cut, the film begins with a very cool shot from within the covered station, which frames a view of the nearest bridge tower. More and more of the outside comes into view as the camera emerges into the daylight to include the surrounding city in the shot, as well. What immediately stands out is the amount and variety of traffic crossing the bridge alongside the trolley.

Curve at Brooklyn Terminal, New York & Brooklyn Bridge

The pedestrian lane of the bridge seems quite crowded, particularly considering that it’s a weekday and the bridge is over a mile long. Nevertheless, tens of thousands of people were crossing the bridge on foot each week, and it may be worth noting that at this time, walking across the bridge was free, whereas passengers and carriages had to pay a toll. A roughly equal-sized crowd visible on the bridge’s other side suggests that there are at least several hundred pedestrians crossing at this time.

There are also some people visible on the tracks, though it isn’t clear why. A man strides across in front of the approaching car at just under a minute in. A few seconds later, there are three men visible pressing themselves against the right-hand side as the trolley passes by. Just before the car reaches the section of track where people can be seen looking down and crossing over above, another man is approaching along the narrow walkway. He, too, presses himself against the side as the trolley goes by.

Two lanes of traffic are visible on the outer edge to each side of the bridge. The outermost is for wagons and carriages, while the lane adjacent to the trolley tracks is for cable cars. There are a surprising number of cable cars in operation at the same time. At least six are visible coming towards the near end of the bridge on the left side before the view from the trolley no longer includes that lane.

Only two are visible going the other way alongside the trolley at first, but it is possible to see the shadow of each cable car running alongside (cast onto the tracks) the whole way across. The trolley, which is clearly the fastest way to cross, passes about 10 cable cars (about one every 10 seconds), and they seem to be roughly evenly-spaced. The few that are actually visible are full of passengers, as well.

Quaker Oats ad, 1899

Finally, a number of billboards are visible along the way. The first, which adorns a building immediately after the trolley comes out of the station, is for Franco-American Soups. This brand, founded in Jersey City by a French immigrant, was bought out by the Campbell Soup Company in 1915, but still exists on a few Campbell products today. There are also billboards for Quaker Oats, a company that was only about 20 years old in 1899, on opposite sides of the far end of the bridge.

There are several other signs that can be partially read, but are harder to identify definitively. Some of these are more clearly visible in the photograph above. However, there is one more that is legible in the film, right at the final bend: “TAKE BROOKLYN ELEVATED R.R./SHORTEST & QUICKEST ROUTE TO/CONEY ISLAND/EXCURSION TICKETS 20¢.” 20 cents in 1899 is the equivalent of over $7 today.

The trolley pulls into the other station after about two minutes, suggesting an average speed of around 30 miles per hour. As it comes to a stop, a train departs from the opposite side of the platform for a destination further down the line in Brooklyn. This film provides a fascinating and visually-arresting glimpse into life in turn-of-the-century New York, when much that is now very old was still quite new.

Film History Essentials: Kidnapping by Indians (1899)

•May 16, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Somewhere on the American frontier, a woman visits her friend’s home. The women are attacked by a group of raiders, and one is killed while fighting back. As the house burns, things look bleak for the other woman, but then two cowboys arrive and fight off the attackers.

The essentials:

At the dawn of film as an industry, virtually anyone with some capital and technical know-how could jump into the film business and potentially become quite successful relatively quickly. Most of these small startups vanished just as rapidly, whether after a few years or several, sometimes for reasons that aren’t very clear, and often with little or no trace of their output left behind. One notable exception is the firm of Mitchell & Kenyon, and their film company, Norden.

Sagar Mitchell (see right) and his father owned a business that manufactured and sold cameras and other photographic apparatus. James Kenyon ran a furniture dealership, but also supplied penny-in-the-slot machines (like the Mutoscope) to traveling showmen. The two men were located just a few blocks from each other in the heart of Blackburn, Lancashire, in the north of England. They became partners in a motion picture enterprise at the end of 1897, and at first specialized almost entirely in local films for the entertainment of local people.

That changed in the spring of 1899, thanks to Kenyon’s connections with traveling shows. They were commissioned to make a film for one of Kenyon’s itinerant clients, and within a few months, their films were being seen all over the country. Later that year, they began producing popular dramatizations of battles in the ongoing Boer War, and later of the Boxer Rebellion. After a few years, they established a studio on property owned by Kenyon a few miles to the northeast, and for much of the first decade of the 1900s, they were among the country’s leading film producers.

James Kenyon (wearing a hat, just to the left of the sign)

Near the end of the decade, however, they seem to have simply stopped producing films for distribution outside of their hometown. By 1913, they had stopped producing films entirely. In 1915, Kenyon (16 years Mitchell’s senior) retired to the seaside. Mitchell had already returned to running his original business, now joined by his son, even before he and Kenyon had entirely stopped making films together. Mitchell died in 1952, his son retired several years later, and the shop passed out of family hands.

For decades, only a few of the Mitchell & Kenyon films were known to have survived. Then, in the mid-1990s, workers demolishing the building that once housed Mitchell’s old shop found a treasure trove of film canisters carefully stored in the basement, where they had lain, safe and forgotten, for some 80 years. In all, there were around 800 films preserved down there, presenting film historians and archivists with the monumental task of salvaging and transferring them from the volatile nitrate film they were printed on, so they could be seen by audiences once again.

One of Mitchell & Kenyon’s first nationally-successful films was Kidnapping by Indians, released in September of 1899. With the English countryside standing in for the American West, the film certainly has a distinctive look. Even more notable, though, is that this is the earliest-known Western narrative film. Dickson had made films of performers from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West a few years before, but none of them were fiction, or even told a story. Kidnapping by Indians pre-dates The Great Train Robbery by four years.

It may seem strange that the subject of the Wild West would suggest itself to filmmakers in an industrial town in Britain. There was a thriving textile industry in Blackburn for several hundred years, but during the industrial revolution, the town became one of the largest producers of woven fabric in the world, supplied by American cotton. As a result of that economic connection, James Kenyon met some visiting Americans when he was young, and local people who traveled to the United States for business also returned with stories that ignited his imagination and inspired a local fascination with the Wild West.

What to watch for:

Kidnapping by Indians seems to actually refer to two different Mitchell & Kenyon films. One is brief, straightforward, and delivers more or less exactly what that title suggests. The other is deeply bizarre and almost incoherent, and it is the latter that is (currently) widely available for viewing. The British Film Institute calls it “baffling” and suggests that it is “abortive material” from the other film, and/or “may be a scene from a well-known show” of the time. Below is the only available version of the original film that I have been able to locate:

Click the picture to see the originally-released film

Because it is edited together under an interview, and is playing variously in the background and the foreground, it doesn’t run uninterrupted from start to finish. However, virtually the entire film does seem to be there. A woman comes out and sits to dandle a baby on her lap. Two men dressed as Indians approach stealthily, and one clubs the woman with his fist and snatches the child. The woman falls to the ground, and the man motions to his companion and hoists the baby above his head. The other man takes aim at the baby with his rifle, and seems about to shoot when a cowboy appears and shoots him instead.

The mother is able to recover the baby as the cowboy and the remaining Indian engage in a highly-choreographed knife fight. The fight includes some eye-catching acrobatics, though their execution clearly requires that the two combatants be cooperating rather than actually fighting. Soon, the Indian falls dead of a knife wound, and the cowboy rushes over to kneel behind the woman. He stretches a hand heavenward in an ostentatious Victorian stage pose.

The film is chiefly interesting because of the early date of its production, though it does make effective and exciting use of its brief runtime. The alternate version or “abortive material,” though, is extremely unique for its time. From a period when even actual completed films were often cast aside or destroyed, it is incredibly rare to see footage of a production that was apparently never released (if that is indeed accurate).

The first thing that stands out are the costumes. No one would guess that the woman at the beginning of the film is in a Western. She looks like a refugee from a Renaissance fair. Her visitor is clearly a woman, but she is also wearing much of the same costume that the cowboy was wearing in the other film. Likewise, the first man who creeps into the scene through the underbrush seems to be wearing the same costume as the main Indian in the other film, but his companions are a motley crew indeed.

The other man who approaches is dressed as a frontiersman, complete with a fur hat. Also among the raiders are two women. The first is wearing what appears to be some kind of traditional European folk dress. She is also outfitted with a feathered headdress and lots of different extra bits presumably intended to disguise that fact. The other woman looks like nothing so much as a wood sprite from a Shakespearean play. She is wearing tights and pantaloons and some kind of leafy crown on her head. She spends most of the film doing what is presumably meant to be a war dance while brandishing a knife.

The action that follows their arrival is equally weird. There is an exchange of gunfire, and then the two men begin beating on the house (?) with the butts of their rifles. It’s not clear whether they’re pretending to hit the women inside, or trying to gain entry, but the woman in cowboy clothes is clearly visible firing out of some sort of opening the whole time. And somehow not hitting the two men directly adjacent to her.

After the raiders set fire to the structure, she runs out and continues firing. There are two armed women standing directly next to her, but they all ignore each other. She doesn’t appear to hit anyone before she suddenly throws up her arms and falls over. (It’s also not clear why this happens, as there is no shot visible, and three of the four raiders are on-screen and not wielding any guns at that moment.)

Again, when the cowboys arrive, there’s a lot of gunfire exchanged, but to very little effect. They completely ignore the two women right next to them, who run away. The surviving woman in the house runs out, and the two remaining raiders grab her. The response of the two cowboys is to start firing wildly into the midst of the three. One of the raiders goes down. The other draws a knife and grapples with one of the cowboys, who finally throws him off and fires that gun at him (off-screen) just as the film ends.

That pair of cowboys who arrive at the end are the only solid indication (aside from the first Indian) as to the actual genre or setting of this film. It is also not typical to see women in most of the roles that they take in this film. The explanation may be as simple as what performers happened to be available at the time. And, of course, as perhaps the earliest narrative Western film, there are no pre-existing tropes for this film to ignore. Also, the filmmakers clearly have very little awareness of details like the actual appearance of Western-style or Native American dress, or what the motivation or composition of a Native American raid on settlers might be.

In other words, it’s not a lack of adherence to genre conventions that lends some interest (and unintentional humor) to the production. It’s the lack of authenticity that borders on the fantastical. Some of those constraints, like the location that doesn’t bear any resemblance to a traditional Western setting, can’t be helped. Others, like what resources were available for the costumes, may have also been outside their control. Still, even being as generous as possible, at least some of what makes this feel silly is the sense that this is an interpretation of cowboys and Indians by a group of people who know very little about either.

Film History Essentials: Man Overboard! (1899)

•May 12, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

British sailors leap into action to rescue a man who has fallen overboard. One man immediately dives in to help the other stay afloat while a boat is quickly lowered over the side, and several additional swimmers line up to leap in and lend assistance if needed.

The essentials:

Between 1892 and 1894, the British Royal Navy launched eight new battleships that were designated as Royal Sovereign-class. They saw service in the Mediterranean, Home, and Channel Fleets until they became obsolete after the launch of the first dreadnought (the eponymous HMS Dreadnought) in 1906. In 1899, one of these eight, the HMS Repulse (tenth ship of that name), was serving as the flagship of the Channel Fleet when it joined a group for annual manoeuvres in the Atlantic, along with its sister ship the HMS Resolution.

Also along for at least part of the ride was William Dickson, filming subjects aboard the Repulse (see right) for the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company. Just a few months later, Dickson would depart for South Africa to take films of the Boer War. He must have made at least some strong connections within the military during this time, because throughout the next few years (until he left Biograph in 1903), he filmed a number of naval-themed films. These include demonstrations of naval guns, arrivals and departures from port, and a series of films that seem to have been taken of the Mediterranean Fleet at sea.

Britain had been the premier naval power in the world for 2-3 generations, and was virtually uncontested on the world’s oceans. The Naval Defence Act 1889 adopted a “two-power standard,” dictating that the British Navy be as strong as the world’s next two strongest navies combined. The Royal Sovereign-class ships, commissioned that year, were the first of a generation of battleships (later termed “pre-dreadnoughts”) that bridged the gap between the ironclads of previous decades and the dreadnoughts that would follow.

In the early 1870s, the Devastation-class battleships became the first in the British Navy to dispense with sails, and to mount their main guns up on deck rather than inside the hull. The pre-dreadnoughts of 20 years later followed the same template, but were larger and faster, and sat higher in the water, which made them fit for combat in heavy seas as well as calmer waters.

Man Overboard! provides an up-close view of one of the new ships’ ten “smaller” 6-inch guns (see left). Weighing over six and a half tons, its 20-foot barrel could launch a 100-pound shell with an effective firing distance of eight and a half miles. The ships’ two twin 13.5-inch guns fired a shell nearly 13 times heavier. And these were only the largest of the Repulse‘s more than 40 guns.

Despite these formidable armaments, by the turn of the century, there had been no major naval engagements involving the British Navy in over 70 years (although British ships had engaged in numerous shore bombardments). While the fleet certainly participated in conflicts, and sailors were occasionally deployed to fight on land, as a fighting force they had also had decades to hone an already-legendary efficiency.

There was also a strong tradition of generational military service, particularly among officers. For example, in 1899, the commander of the Repulse was future-admiral Randolph Foote, the son of a captain and grandson of a vice-admiral. He represented a family history of 120 years of naval service.

The rank-and-file, too, were very different from a century before. The British Navy of the late-18th and early-19th centuries is best-known for the use of press gangs to force landsmen and civilian sailors into military service. By the late-1890s, these practices were far in the past. Naval conscription had not been necessary since the Napoleonic Wars, and would not reappear until the First World War.

Better conditions aboard-ship and improved wages, among other factors, meant that the Navy’s personnel requirements could be met by volunteers alone during this time. Man Overboard! features a glimpse of the strongest fighting force in the world (of its time) during the height of their power. These are members of a modern military skillfully manning a thoroughly-modern vessel of war.

What to watch for:

Presumably the events of this film are, in fact, only a rescue drill, not an actual rescue. Of course, nothing in the catalog listing indicates that this is the case. It’s more exciting, and therefore more marketable, if the rescue is genuine. It’s possible that it is, but there are a few indications that point towards a practice exercise.

At the beginning of the film, the only sailor in view is standing out above the water, painting the armor housing of the gun as it swivels to the right. Just as it seems about to sweep him aside, he leaps into the ocean to avoid it. From the moment he lands in the water, less than a second and a half goes by before another sailor dives after him, simultaneously with a life-preserver being thrown over the side.

It seems curious that, if the sailor were not meant to end up in the water, he didn’t make any attempt to duck under the slowly-turning gun, clamber rapidly out of the way, or even grab onto the barrel before leaping directly off of the ship. (We can tell the barrel isn’t too hot to touch, because there are sailors touching it while they watch the rescue below.) At the same time, the only reason why the gun would be moving in such a way as to knock him off is if no one noticed that he was there, either to warn him or the crew moving the gun. But if no one was looking right at him, they react awfully quickly once he has gone overboard.

It also seems odd that the pair in the water don’t seem to be making any attempt to reach the life preserver. Presumably they are also practicing having a swimmer keep a non-swimmer afloat. Really, though, the biggest “tell” that this is a planned drill and not a spontaneous occurrence is that there was a camera already aimed directly at the spot where the man would land in the water before he ever went overboard.

Still, even as a practice run this is an impressive display of speed and skill. From the moment the man falls in, it takes under 40 seconds for a lifeboat with a dozen sailors aboard to be manually lowered into the water and begin to maneuver after him. Meanwhile, another four sailors go running out over the water, albeit with the help of some kind of guide-rope overhead. They look as though they were on a sidewalk, rather than on a narrow beam of wood rocking back and forth ten feet or so above the surface of the ocean.

Another figure is visible performing the same feat way back in the distance on the ship behind, which has several boats in the water for a different exercise. The ability to discern that figure highlights the incredible depth of focus that keeps everything, from the gun in the foreground to the ship behind the Repulse, sharply in view. It even clearly shows another ship steaming past far, far in the distance along with (perhaps?) the faintest, hazy outline of land beyond that. Man Overboard! is so well preserved that it is able to really showcase the capabilities of the Biograph camera, filming under what seem to be perfect conditions.

Film History Essentials: L’Affaire Dreyfus (1899)

•May 8, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: The Dreyfus Affair)

What it’s about:

A series of 11 scenes depicts key events in the development of the infamous 1890s French political scandal known as the Dreyfus affair.

The essentials:

In 1859, Alfred Dreyfus (see below) was born to a successful Jewish textile merchant in Alsace, a region on the far eastern edge of France. Bordering Germanic states to the north and west and Switzerland to the south, Alsace was also historically Germanic, but had been conquered by France in the 1600s. Because of its history and geographic position, it developed a unique blend of French and Germanic culture.

In 1871, when Dreyfus was 11 years old, the Franco-Prussian War ended with the fall of Paris, and the new German Empire annexed the territory of Alsace-Lorraine from France. Given the choice between becoming German citizens and leaving their homes, Dreyfus and his family left and eventually settled in Paris. Just after his 18th birthday, Dreyfus enrolled in a military academy.

During the next 15 years, he advanced rapidly as an artillery officer. He was promoted, first to lieutenant, and then to captain, and was admitted into the French military’s most elite war college. Upon graduation, he was assigned to the French Army’s General Staff Headquarters. By now he was also married and was the father of two children. But not everything was going smoothly.

La Tache Noire (The Black Stain) by Albert Bettannier (1887): A French teacher showing students the region they are honor-bound to regain.

In the fall of 1894, public life in France was extremely volatile, rife with deep divisions. A series of crises involving warring factions and corruption scandals resulted in tremendous government instability, with no one party definitively holding power, which remained tenuously balanced and was subject to dramatic shifts. In addition, the French President, Sadi Carnot, was assassinated that June, stabbed to death by an Italian anarchist in an act of revenge for the execution of two anarchist bombers.

Further, just a few years before, the Republic narrowly avoided a coup by the supporters of the revanchist, proto-fascist General Boulanger. Although Boulanger committed suicide in exile in 1891, the vengeful, ultra-nationalist spirit he represented remained popular, especially in the French military. The sting of defeat in 1871, and particularly of the lost territory, still lingered (see above). France was caught in an expensive arms race with Germany over the development of new artillery, and paranoia regarding potential espionage was rampant.

In the midst of all this, three months after the assassination, a French housekeeper, working as a spy in the German Embassy, found several torn scraps of paper (see right) that referred to the imminent transfer of classified information about a newly-developed artillery piece. This was proof of a leak that many had already suspected. and almost immediately, suspicion fell on Alfred Dreyfus. He spoke fluent German due to his Alsatian origins, he was an artillery officer, and, as the only Jewish officer on the General Staff, he was regarded as a bit of an outsider.

There was never any real evidence, or even any strong reason to believe that Dreyfus was a spy. However, these and a dozen other pieces of nonsensical reasoning that amounted to nothing were all aligned against him. The note, the only piece of physical evidence connected with the case at all, was not found to match Dreyfus’s handwriting, but the authorities simply claimed that he had deliberately disguised his writing.

The Minister of War, General Auguste Mercier (see left), eager for a high-profile success after recent embarrassments, was utterly convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt. He and the head of his investigation, a Major Armand du Paty de Clam, tried to trick Dreyfus into confessing, and when that failed, du Paty de Clam suggested that Dreyfus take the “honorable” way out and commit suicide. When neither tactic succeeded, Mercier was forced to take the complete lack of a case to trial. Even the indictment was a sham, pointing to the lack of physical evidence in the case as further proof of Dreyfus’s guilt, showing his cleverness at covering his tracks.

Military leaders engaged in significant manipulation of public opinion before the trial through the anti-Semitic press. When acquittal still seemed possible after the complete emptiness of their case was revealed, officials compiled a “secret dossier” of fabricated evidence, and, by order of Mercier, illegally submitted it to the judges during deliberations in order to sway their ruling. Throughout the affair, various authorities seem to have been motivated by both unwavering certainty of Dreyfus’s guilt in the face of any and all evidence to the contrary, and the total refusal to acknowledge or redress any wrong when doing so would indicate publicly that the military was fallible.

Ultimately, Dreyfus was found guilty and sentenced to permanent imprisonment in exile. He was subjected to military degradation (see right), and then deported to Devil’s Island, off the coast of French Guiana, in the spring of 1895. He was the only prisoner on the tiny, 35-acre island. He was housed in a small stone hut where he would spend the next four years. Beginning in 1896, he was forced to remain in the hut’s bed with his ankles shackled together.

(Incidentally, the guards began chaining Dreyfus after a false story claimed that he had escaped. The story was actually planted in a British newspaper by Alfred’s older brother Mathieu, a fervent champion of his cause who was looking for ways to keep his brother’s story alive in the public eye. The ploy worked, but obviously it also had an unintended consequence.)

Dreyfus believed himself to be doomed and forgotten. He had no idea that, back in France, his conviction was slowly developing into a massive scandal that would consume the nation. That summer (1895), Major Georges Picquart (see left) became the new head of military counter-intelligence. Discovering that the leaks had continued despite Dreyfus’s absence, Picquart investigated further.

Within several months, he had uncovered the real culprit, a Major Ferdinand Esterhazy, as well as evidence of the conspiracy against Dreyfus. However, Picquart underestimated his superiors’ commitment to maintaining the façade they had created. He was also unaware that his own deputy, Major Hubert-Joseph Henry, was actively working against him, continuing to fabricate evidence against Dreyfus and tipping off Esterhazy (who was Henry’s friend).

The result was that Picquart was transferred out of the country. When that didn’t silence him, he was eventually imprisoned. But by now there was enough public scrutiny that Esterhazy was put on trial at the beginning of 1898. The proceedings were every bit as farcical as the Dreyfus trial, and Esterhazy was soon acquitted in a further effort to protect the conviction of Dreyfus. To be clear: The French military actively protected a known spy and traitor in order to avoid publicly admitting that they had falsely imprisoned a loyal soldier.

Two days after Esterhazy’s acquittal, the newspaper L’Aurore published an open letter by the celebrated novelist Émile Zola under the famous headline “J’Accuse…!” (see right). Zola’s outpouring of outrage at the ongoing miscarriages of justice were a rallying cry for supporters of Dreyfus and of the rule of law in France, and his words drew international attention. Still, the battle was far from over.

Zola was put on trial for libel, and once again the outcome was a foregone conclusion. He was convicted and sentenced to a year in prison, but fled to England, where he continued to write about “The Affair.” Meanwhile, things were beginning to unravel for the conspirators. The public was inflamed, on both sides, and anti-Semitic riots broke out with each new development and revelation.

Godefroy Cavaignac, the new Minister of War, undertook to definitively establish Dreyfus’s guilt, and ended up discovering that key pieces of evidence had been forged by Major (now Colonel) Henry (see left). This didn’t change Cavaignac’s mind about Dreyfus, but Henry was imprisoned. He committed suicide the next day.

The day after Henry’s suicide, 1 September 1898, Major Esterhazy (see below), who had been quietly collecting a military pension after his acquittal, fled to England. (He would remain there until his death in 1923.) An ex-lover published letters in which Esterhazy declared his hatred for France and the army, and Esterhazy himself confessed in an interview with a British paper that he had written the original note that had been found in the German Embassy.

Incredibly, the absolute intransigence of the ultra-nationalist “anti-Dreyfusards” was such that even all this would not have been enough to force a retrial. However, there had also been a significant shift in the political landscape that led to the Supreme Court overturning Dreyfus’s conviction in June 1899. Dreyfus was returned to France within a few weeks, still treated as a prisoner even though he was no longer guilty in the eyes of the law. He was held in a military prison for over a month awaiting retrial before the military court at Rennes, in Brittany. The trial began on 7 August 1899, with General Mercier and other military leaders still stubbornly testifying to Dreyfus’s guilt, ignoring the exonerating confessions by Henry and Esterhazy.

One of Dreyfus’s lawyers was Fernand Labori. He had previously defended both Émile Zola and one of the bombers whose execution had prompted the assassination of President Carnot in 1894. A week into the proceedings, Labori was shot in the back while on his way to court (see left) and missed a crucial eight days of the trial. The would-be assassin was never caught.

On 9 September, Dreyfus was convicted of treason again, by a margin of one vote, and was returned to prison. This is the final event depicted in Georges Méliès’s L’Affaire Dreyfus, which was released sometime the following week. The film series, which was in production throughout the second trial, is the most famous of Méliès’s “actualités reconstituées.” It was the longest and most ambitious of his film projects to that point, and was actively engaged in contemporary politics in a way that no film before had been. Although Méliès later claimed that his intentions were nonpartisan, the film’s point of view is unmistakably sympathetic to the Dreyfusard cause. This is also among the earliest examples of a courtroom drama in film.

Ten days after his re-conviction, Dreyfus was issued a presidential pardon on the condition that he admit guilt, which he accepted. Two months later, a bill was passed granting amnesty for any and all criminal acts related to the Dreyfus affair. This included Zola and Major Picquart, but also covered the many actually guilty parties within the military, like Mercier. The Dreyfusards, who had fought so long and sacrificed so much to see true justice done, were outraged, but after years of exhausting political and social upheaval, many simply wanted it all to be over. This was particularly true given the many self-inflicted international embarrassments suffered by the French government, and the upcoming Exposition Universelle of 1900.

Still, “The Affair” lived on. A few years later, the election of a left-leaning government allowed the case to be re-opened once more, and a massive report began to reveal the full extent of the injustice suffered by Dreyfus. In 1906 he was fully exonerated and reinstated into the army with the rank of major.

Gregori, under arrest

Zola had died of asphyxiation from fumes from his chimney in 1902. In the 1950s, a French newspaper published a death-bed confession made by a roofer in the 1920s who claimed to have blocked the chimney deliberately. A few years later, during the ceremonial transfer of Zola’s ashes to the Pantheon, Dreyfus was shot in the arm by Louis Gregori, a right-wing journalist who wished to spark a retrial that would once again establish Dreyfus’s guilt. Gregori was later acquitted and hailed as a hero by his fellow French nationalists.

Despite everything, Dreyfus continued to faithfully serve his country. He fought in World War I, along with his son Pierre, and both served with distinction. He retired as a decorated colonel and Officier in the Légion d’Honneur, and died in 1935 (see left).

The Dreyfus affair remained a sore subject long after his death. The secret file on Dreyfus created by the military was finally released to the public in 2013, but some members of the far right in France continue to cast doubt on Dreyfus’s innocence to this day. Films about the Dreyfus affair were banned in France from 1915 to 1950. It has, nevertheless, been the subject of a number of films, including the 1937 Best Picture winner The Life of Emile Zola and, most recently, the 2019 Roman Polanski film J’Accuse.

What to watch for:

L’Affaire Dreyfus consists of the following scenes:

#French TitleEnglish Title
1Dictée du Bordereau (Arrestation de Dreyfus)Dreyfus Court Martial—Arrest of Dreyfus
2La DégradationThe Degradation of Dreyfus
3La Case de Dreyfus à l’île du DiableDevil’s Island—Within the Palisade
4Dreyfus mis aux Fers (la Double Boucle)Dreyfus Put in Irons
5Suicide du Colonel HenrySuicide of Colonel Henry
6Débarquement de Dreyfus à QuiberonLanding of Dreyfus at Quiberon
7Entrevue de Dreyfus et de sa Femme (Prison de Rennes)Dreyfus Meets His Wife at Rennes
8Attentat Contre Me LaboriThe Attempt Against the Life of Maitre Labori
9Suspension d’Audience (Bagarre entre Journalistes)The Fight of Reporters at the Lycée
10Le Conseil de Guerre en Séance à RennesThe Court Martial at Rennes
11Dreyfus Allant du Lycée de Rennes à la PrisonDreyfus Leaving the Lycée for Jail

All 11 segments of the series are said to survive. However, the second part (featuring Dreyfus’s military degradation) and the final part (in which he is returned to prison) are apparently unavailable for viewing. Each of the remaining segments is almost exactly a minute long, with the exception of the final court martial, which is a double-length scene.

While these are obviously key moments, the series does not fully function as a traditional narrative. The scenes aren’t necessarily all part of a connected dramatic arc. Rather, they are meant to be recognized and contextualized by people who are already at least somewhat familiar with the events being portrayed. (They may also have been accompanied by live narration in some instances.)

There is quite an extensive cast, with some scenes featuring a few dozen people on-screen. It’s impossible to know how many people are playing multiple roles, and (as is typical of the era) there is no cast list that we can refer to. Méliès himself plays the role of Dreyfus’s lawyer, Labori. This is interesting because Méliès frequently performed the key role in his productions, and his choice of Labori is suggestive of his advocacy for the Dreyfusard cause.

It’s also possible that he did not play the role of Dreyfus, as might have been expected, due to a desire for realism. Méliès is said to have hired an ironworker for the role who bore a striking resemblance to Alfred Dreyfus himself. The casting choice pays off with a notably good performance, whether thanks to good direction or natural talent. In this and numerous other ways, Méliès shows a commitment to verisimilitude that is sometimes lacking even in his other reconstructed actualities. Several scenes clearly used visual references of the events they depict.

Even with no context, the film should not be difficult to follow during the first four scenes, as Dreyfus is shown confronted, arrested, humiliated, imprisoned, and finally shackled. The film doesn’t explain why these things are happening, but the basic narrative is clear. The sympathies of the film seem equally clear in portraying Dreyfus as victim rather than villain.

Scene five is where the film’s story first becomes incoherent without context. Suddenly, there is a totally new character (Colonel Henry), also a prisoner (but a prisoner elsewhere), and he cuts his own throat with a razor. The next scene returns to Dreyfus again. A viewer with no outside knowledge might guess that Henry committed the crime that Dreyfus has been imprisoned for, and kills himself out of remorse.

The cover of a satirical weekly the day after Zola’s conviction

Given everything that was going on in France during Dreyfus’s imprisonment, the suicide of Colonel Henry seems like an odd choice to connect the scene of Dreyfus shackled and despairing with the scene of his return to France. There is nothing of Picquart’s investigation, the exposure of Esterhazy, or the Zola trial inserted here. Perhaps those all seemed like too much to convey, even for Méliès, in a single minute of silent film.

Henry’s suicide, though, is nothing if not visually dramatic. It is a shocking moment, and one of the more sensational events in the whole history of the case. Certainly it must have made the audience sit up and take notice, and that’s likely why it was included here.

The scene of Dreyfus’s landing is the one concession to Méliès the technical wizard. Dreyfus arrives in France as a storm approaches (or perhaps Méliès is suggesting that he is bringing the storm with him). The use of double exposure adds lightning to the scene (imperfectly but effectively), and stage machinery Méliès had used before to similar effect causes the boats to rock in the background. Finally, as the group prepares to depart, rain begins sheeting down from above.

In the next scene, Dreyfus meets with his lawyers, Labori and Edgar Demange. Méliès (as Labori, the younger of the two) is the second to enter. Then, Dreyfus’s wife, Lucie, arrives and, as the catalog description says, “The meeting of the husband and wife is most pathetic and emotional.”

Lucie and Pierre Dreyfus

Here, again, is a scene that seems to exist only to inspire sympathy for Dreyfus. Most of the film deliberately keeps Dreyfus himself firmly in view, as though to remind the audience not to lose sight of his individual plight amidst the sweeping drama that had taken place across several years of espionage and legal wrangling. This, too, feels like a choice with clear motivations.

This scene is followed by two of the three scenes in the series from which Dreyfus is absent, and like the other scene in this category, both depict highly-dramatic, violent events. The first, Méliès’s big scene, shows the assassination attempt against Labori. This scene looks like it is visually referencing the front-cover illustration of the event from La Petit Journal above, albeit from a different angle. After the assailant runs off, Labori’s two companions give chase.

Note that multiple people walk by the fallen Labori as he struggles on the ground and completely ignore him. Méliès may have been suggesting the complicity of the local people, and perhaps of the anti-Dreyfusards at large, in the violence that was directed at Dreyfus and his defenders. This certainly both implies the indifference of many bystanders, and indicts them for it. Even people who refuse to get involved have chosen a side by doing so.

The next scene emphasizes the deep division that existed over this issue, and the volatility of public debate. As reporters gather in the courtroom during a break (Méliès as Labori is clearly visible at the front of the room), an older man stands up and begins haranguing the crowd. In the back left of the group, a woman angrily leaps up to respond. Within moments, the entire room erupts in a fight, as canes and umbrellas are brandished and chairs overturned. Soon, soldiers begin clearing the room, with some wounded limping out last and a few belligerents continuing to struggle.

According to the catalog listing, the older man who stands up at first is Arthur Meyer (see left), of Le Gaulois. Meyer was Jewish, the grandson of a rabbi, but he was a strident anti-Dreyfusard, and had been a supporter of General Boulanger’s ultra-nationalist attempt to grab power in the late-1880s. He converted to Catholicism a few years later, but would continue to be the target of anti-Semitic attacks from people who were otherwise his political allies. He fought a duel with Édouard Drumont, founder of the Antisemitic League of France, although his objection was apparently not to Drumont’s bigotry, but to being lumped in with other Jews. Both men survived the duel, and Meyer later attended Drumont’s funeral.

The woman is Caroline Rémy (see right), an anarchist and Dreyfusard best known by her pen name Mme. Séverine, of La Fronde, a radical feminist publication. Notice that Séverine is the only woman to appear in the scene. La Fronde was particularly notable for being staffed entirely by women, who often had to fight for access to traditionally male spaces so that they could cover topics that only men had written about in the past.

This scene is choreographed very skillfully to convey a chaotic brawl, and the way the mob surges out past both sides of the camera is unusual and dynamic for a shot from this era. The result is one of the highlights of the series, though it is slightly marred by the evident amateurishness of the performers. Note the way the actress playing Séverine very suddenly stops her angry retort and abruptly walks out of frame just as the fight breaks out. There seem to be a few men waving chairs over their heads just off-screen, and perhaps they were meant to move in and obscure her sudden, obviously-rehearsed exit. Note, too, how many of the “combatants” are grinning widely as they hurry past the camera, their faces illuminated sharply in close-up for a brief moment.

Everyone here is having a great time.

Finally, there is the courtroom scene, which would be the proper climax of this drama even if the actual final scene were available to watch. It is the last of several trials that took place as a result of the Dreyfus affair, but in choosing only to depict this one, Méliès retains the gravity of this moment. This is also the scene where the lack of sound or narration is the most keenly felt. At twice the length of all of the previous scenes, it is clearly intended to carry the most weight, but because so much of it is people talking, and we can’t hear them, some of that power may be lost without additional context.

The catalog listing gives an extremely detailed breakdown of the scene, including the names of the key people in it and what they are doing and saying. It also claims that this scene depicts “over thirty” of the key people involved with the trial. The main witness who comes forward to accuse Dreyfus in this scene is General Mercier himself. In all of the positions of power he subsequently held, Mercier never stopped leveraging them to proclaim Dreyfus’s guilt and to oppose his rehabilitation. Here, he takes the stand as Dreyfus’s chief accuser. He is the symbol of all of the Dreyfus affair’s prejudice and injustice represented in one person.

The opening session of the trial at Rennes. Dreyfus stands in front of the chair on the right.

Even without the added context, though, the scene still has powerful moments. We see the full force of the military and the state in opposition to Dreyfus, cloaked in officialdom’s ceremonies and uniforms. Dreyfus’s lawyer (Labori is not present in this scene, as he was recovering from his wounds during most of the witness testimonies, despite his presence in the previous scene) is barely visible, confined to the extreme edge of the frame. Dreyfus is escorted in under guard, and the guard interposes himself between the accused and his advocate.

Without closeups or camera movements of any kind, Méliès successfully conveys Dreyfus’s isolation and his smallness in the face of the forces arrayed against him. And yet, in the scene’s final seconds, we see him stand tall and defend himself publicly with the same sense of urgency, assurance, and dignity that he showed when he was accused privately in the very first scene. Méliès’s point of view is unmistakable here. The Dreyfus affair remains a potent reminder that bigotry and jingoism go hand-in-hand with violence and injustice, and that a free society cannot exist for anyone unless it exists for everyone. Méliès cannot give Dreyfus a voice through the cinema of his time, but L’Affaire Dreyfus puts a human face on his ordeal and forces the audience to see it.

Film History Essentials: Enfants Annamites Ramassant des Sapèques devant la Pagode des Dames (1899)

•May 4, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Children Gathering Coins Scattered by Western Women)

What it’s about:

Two French women stand in the courtyard of a pagoda, scattering handfuls of coins onto the ground in front of them. They smile and laugh as a group of around 20 children scramble to collect the coins.

The essentials:

Lumière operator Gabriel Veyre returned to France from his travels through Latin America in October 1897. However, he soon set out again, this time for Asia. He visited Japan, China, and finally, in April 1899, the territory known as French Indochina. At the time, the colonized area consisted of Cambodia, Laos, the Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan, and Vietnam.

The French had been a presence in the region for over 250 years, beginning with the arrival of the first missionaries in the 1620s, and growing with the establishment of valuable trade throughout the 1700s. The 1780s saw the first French military intervention in Vietnam. In the 1850s, the French invaded the south Vietnamese region of Cochinchina under the guise of halting persecution of Catholic missionaries in the country. This conflict eventually led to the French acquiring direct control over a portion of Vietnamese territory. During the following decades, the size of that territory continued to increase until it encompassed an area of southeast Asia larger than the state of Texas.

When Veyre arrived in Hanoi in 1899, the governor-general of French Indochina was Paul Doumer (see right). At that time, the territorial capital was still in Saigon, but with the addition of new territory, Doumer had undertaken the modernization and “beautification” of the northern city. Doumer was likely also interested in moving the seat of French power in order to facilitate his ambitions of expanding French holdings further north into southern China. Doumer was appointed to govern the colony in 1897, when he was just shy of 40 years old. By the time he returned to France in 1902, Hanoi had become the new capital.

As the French Minister of Finance, Doumer had attempted unsuccessfully to implement an income tax in his home country. As the leader of a colonial territory, however, he had greater latitude to impose taxation on the populace. During his tenure, he set about ensuring that French Indochina turned a profit for France using what can only be described as a program of systematic exploitation, by then typical of colonial models for centuries.

He accomplished this in part by heavily taxing alcohol, opium, and salt, and confiscating the property of anyone who couldn’t pay. These people, in turn, were often forced to become low-wage laborers. Through his banking connections back home, he also attracted French investments and imports to enliven trade and further enrich his countrymen.

What the French called “la Pagode des Dames,” or “Ladies’ Pagoda,” (as seen in the film’s title) was known locally as “Chùa Láng” or “Chiêu Thiền tự” (see left). It isn’t clear why the French called it something else. Perhaps there was something about the pronunciation of “Láng” that was reminiscent of the French “Dames.” Regardless of the reason, the casual renaming of an important religious shrine also suggests a disregard for the colonized people and their culture by the colonizers.

The pagoda marks the birthplace of legendary Zen master Duc Thanh Lang. After he died in 1116, he was believed to have been reincarnated as the nephew of a ruler who later died with no heir, and so the reincarnated monk became the next to ascend the throne. The pagoda was built in his honor by that ruler’s son, Emperor Lý Anh Tông, sometime in the mid-12th century. In 1899, the pagoda was located in a rural area a few miles from Hanoi. The city has long-since expanded to encompass the surrounding area.

Doumer’s own expansionist ambitions ultimately led to his being recalled to France. Paris had looked the other way after Doumer’s previous unauthorized (and unsuccessful) attempts to make a move on Yunnan, but after the Boxer Rebellion, the French government feared that his continued aggression could lead to territory lost rather than gained. Nevertheless, Doumer’s political star continued to rise and in 1906 he narrowly lost election to the presidency. He eventually became the president of France in 1931. After less than a year in office, he was assassinated by a deranged veteran of the Russian White Army who believed he was taking revenge against France for failing to help sufficiently in the fight against Bolshevism several years earlier.

What to watch for:

This incredibly well-preserved film is a vivid, succinct illustration of colonialism in action. A pair of European colonizers, enriched by the exploitation of a people whose country they occupy, condescendingly amuse themselves by tossing back near-worthless scraps for the colonized to scrabble for on the ground. It’s a grotesque spectacle that would feel too on the nose if this were a fictional film that was critical of colonialism. And yet, critique was certainly not the intent when it was filmed, and would not have been the perception of contemporary European audiences. They, too, would have been entertained and amused by the children and their scramble for coins, and appreciated the novelty of glimpsing an exotic location that they perhaps felt a sense of ownership over.

The women are throwing Vietnamese văns, which the French called sapeks (or sapèques). These were round coins with a square hole in the center so that they could be easily carried on a string (see right), with usually around a hundred coins per string. According to the exchange rate described by a contemporary traveler, 1000 sapeks would convert to about one and a half francs, so in all they’re handing out the equivalent of maybe 30-50 French centimes. It’s possible to see that someone else is also throwing coins from behind or to the left of the camera, out of view. Notice how the younger woman carelessly throws down the empty string at the end, as well.

(Clockwise from bottom right: Paul, Blanche, Hélène, and Germaine Doumer, shortly before Paul’s death)

The two women are Paul Doumer’s wife, Blanche, who was almost 40, and his oldest daughter, Hélène, who was then 18. Hélène had an older brother and six younger siblings, four boys and two girls, the youngest of whom (Germaine) was not quite two years old. Blanche would ultimately pass away in 1933, less than a year after her husband was assassinated. Only three of Blanche and Paul’s children survived them: the two eldest and the youngest.

Four of their sons were killed in World War I. The first, an artillery officer, was killed less than two months after the war began. Another, a flying ace, was shot down and killed in 1917. The third, also a pilot, was killed in combat less than four months before the armistice. The last died five years after the war ended, due to complications from having been gassed. Their middle daughter also died in 1917, reportedly of grief at the loss of two of her brothers.

As for Hélène, she lived to see the French defeated in 1954 by the Vietnamese and their allies, ceding all claims to the territories that had been French Indochina. This marked the beginning of major US involvement in Vietnam, and of the proxy war between the US-backed South and the Soviet-backed North that would consume the region for another two decades. Hélène died in 1968, just a few months after the Tet Offensive marked a turning point in the Vietnam War that would ultimately lead to a final US withdrawal in 1975. Western colonialism cast a very long shadow across every area it touched.

Film History Essentials: In the Grip of the Blizzard (1899)

•April 30, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A view of Union Square in New York City shows people going about their business amid near-record snowfall. Streetcars and carriages mingle with foot traffic, and a man pacing back and forth with a shovel attests to the tremendous amount of work required to create the large piles of snow that have been cleared out of the road.

The essentials:

The Great Arctic Outbreak of 1899 brought on weeks of cold temperatures that culminated in blizzard conditions across much of the southern, central, and eastern United States during the week of Valentine’s Day. 12 states experienced record cold temperatures, and snow fell all along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Florida. Ice flowed out of the Missisippi River into the Gulf, and river traffic was disrupted by freeze conditions all along its length. The Rex parade was delayed in New Orleans in the face of the coldest-ever temperatures on Mardi Gras.

Several East Coast cities, including Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Baltimore, also experienced a record snowfall during the Great Blizzard of 1899, at levels that would not be rivaled for nearly a century. Many of these areas saw 2-3 feet of snow. New York City received 1-2 feet of snowfall, which (while not an all-time record) was enough to bring the city briefly to a halt while municipal workers cleared roadways and de-iced streetcar lines.

As regular traffic began to resume, the American Mutoscope Company sent a cameraman out to the corner of 14th and Broadway. This was the notorious “Dead Man’s Curve,” which had been (and would continue to be) “New York’s Most Dangerous Crossing.” It was the site of many grisly accidents between streetcars and pedestrians during these years. Eventually, the intersection’s deadly reputation seems to have accomplished what other efforts hadn’t, and the number of accidents began to diminish in the 1910s.

This Lincoln statue, visible in the background of the film at 0:27, was also relocated in 1930.

In 1930, the area was redesigned to accommodate subway construction, and the prime shopping district had migrated several blocks north, leading to a significant reduction of traffic in the area. However, in 1899 it was still a significant hub, and the cameraman captured a view that no longer exists today (and, in fact, hasn’t existed for nearly 100 years). The American Mutoscope film catalog attests that this shot was recorded “during the busiest time of the day.”

During the less than two minutes of footage seen here, no less than 10 streetcars are seen coming and going, and most appear full of passengers. Around two dozen horse-drawn vehicles are also visible, heading in all directions. Most appear to be hauling goods rather than people, though there are certainly several carriages as well. And, of course, there are several dozen people visible in and along the streets, as well as disappearing into the background of Union Square Park across the way.

Incidentally, the catalog listing (which is from 1902) states that this footage was taken “during the great March blizzard of 1899,” which would seem to be off by at least a couple of weeks. Had temperatures remained cold enough, it’s possible that this could have been taken later while there was still a great deal of snow on the ground, but weather records show a string of days with temperatures in the 40s and even 50s during late February, and no days in March had a high that was below freezing in the city. It seems, then, that this must simply be a catalog error.

Things to watch for:

It’s not immediately obvious because there’s a great deal of lateral movement happening within the frame, but eventually it’s impossible to ignore that the camera is panning. Based on the jerky, halting motion of the pan, the camera probably was not designed to rotate. Likely the cameraman was holding it as he turned, which would have been difficult to do while also turning the handle to draw the film past the lens.

It may be impossible to say for certain whether this is the first pan in cinema history (it most likely isn’t). Still, it must certainly be among the first, as evidenced by the primitive method. (The first rotating camera wasn’t patented until 1904.) First or not, it’s hard to overstate the significance of the evolution from entirely static shots to shots where the camera is maneuvered to capture the action.

Traveling shots had been a popular novelty for a few years already, but cinema hadn’t really made the leap from putting the camera on a moving vehicle to simply rotating it. It would be several more years before films really began to move beyond the norm of relying almost entirely on static, medium shots. Any film that deviates from that standard, as this one does, always stands out as unique.

It isn’t obvious, but In the Grip of the Blizzard also has a main character. Partway through, there is a man holding a snow shovel who is pacing and swinging it in front of the large pile of snow in the middle of the triangle of traffic passing by all around. It’s easy to miss, but this man has actually been in the film the whole time. He first appears at the far left side of the frame after the first street car goes by, standing on the corner waiting for an opportunity to cross. Someone passes him, walking their dog, and another dog that is following along behind bumps into him on its way by. He reaches down and either pets it or gently moves it out of the way.

The man with the shovel then seems to back out of the way to let a cart pass, but he suddenly slips across the street in front of it instead and continues to the left. From this point on, he almost seems to be deliberately staying within the camera’s view. The quality of the film makes it difficult to tell whether he is looking at the camera or not, but he definitely seems to pause frequently for no obvious reason. At the one minute mark, a streetcar has just passed in front and he is walking back to the right, but at the last moment he suddenly changes directions again and continues to the left where he is easiest to spot by that pile of snow. He does not, however, seem to appear in the next shot.

Film History Essentials: La Danse du Feu (1899)

•April 27, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: The Pillar of Fire)

What it’s about:

A devil dances around a large pan on a pile of wood, waving a smoking torch. He lights the fire and then fans the flames with a large bellows until a woman dressed in a flowing white dress rises amidst the smoke. The woman begins to perform a serpentine dance, and as it reaches a crescendo, the dance changes and the flame effects intensify. Finally, the woman transforms entirely and flutters up out of sight with the rising smoke.

Why it’s essential:

The oldest surviving film with color was produced in 1895. In the years following, the process of coloring films became a thriving sub-industry to the burgeoning film industry. The practice of coloring photographs had already existed for decades, but even short films required an unprecedented amount of work to hand-color in comparison. Color played a major role in motion pictures almost from the beginning, but colored prints are more susceptible to degradation from improper storage and poor preservation. As a result, many colorized films survive only in their black-and-white form, and silent films are often thought of as having been without color as well as without sound.

La Danse du Feu was colored in the workshop of Élisabeth and Berthe Thuillier, a mother-daughter operation that did all of the coloring for Méliès for 15 years, until he began to have financial difficulties in 1912-13. The Thuilliers also colored films for Pathé, though those commissions diminished after Pathé developed a more efficient, in-house coloring process involving stenciling in 1903.

By the time they began coloring films for Méliès, Berthe was 30 years old, and Élisabeth had been a colorist for over 20 years. Élisabeth was a widowed single mother in the mid-1870s, with Berthe her third and only surviving child, when she first began applying color to photographs. She must have been quite good at it. By the time she and Berthe were overseeing the tinting of Méliès’s films, they employed 220 women. Élisabeth (and later Berthe, after her mother’s death in 1907) would select and sample the colors, and then give instructions for the colorists to follow.

Each person working on a film would apply only one color, using brushes as fine as a single hair, and some films used up to 20 different colors. And, of course, the process would need to be repeated for each additional print that the producer wanted colorized. Berthe later reported that they made an average of 60 copies of each colorized film. A one-minute film like this could have cost anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand francs per copy, so the process could cost a production the equivalent of tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money. Colorized films must have played very well with audiences to be worth the additional cost.

Although there were a few women like Alice Guy who were pioneers in roles like directing, writing scenarios, etc., applying color was an area dominated almost entirely by women. It was regarded as a very gender-specific job at that time, requiring a level of precision and an attunement to colors that were thought to be primarily feminine skills. The work, like many industrial-era jobs, was exacting and tedious, as the women bent over a workstation, peering carefully through a large magnifying glass for many hours a day.

Pathé’s coloring workshop, circa 1912

However, there was much to recommend it in comparison with other jobs available to working-class women, and it seems to have created real economic opportunities for some. Although no one working at the time would have suspected it, their efforts left an incredible and glorious legacy within early cinema that audiences still enjoy and appreciate today. They opened up an entire world of colors in silent film that would develop into a cinematic language of its own during the rest of the silent era.

What to watch for:

La Danse du Feu is a film that makes it clear why Georges Méliès emerged as the definitive filmmaker of his time. His films are so distinctly and recognizably his own. In many cases he is playing with special effects and narrative ideas that few others are attempting, except in imitation of him. He also often tells types of stories that most other 19th- and early 20th-century filmmakers aren’t, inventing entire genres of cinema in the process.

Here, though, he is filming what is effectively a serpentine dance. There is nothing new or original about that idea at all. Many other filmmakers and production companies had filmed their own versions (and sometimes multiple versions) of this popular dance. Colorizing a serpentine dance was not a new idea, either. But virtually nothing sets those other dance films apart from each other. They are, for the most part, effectively indistinguishable.

And yet, it’s difficult to imagine anyone familiar with Méliès watching La Danse du Feu and mistaking it for the work of any other filmmaker. He takes all of the signature moves of the serpentine, along with the shifting color palette that had been done before, and gives them a narrative framework. There are a few potential interpretations of these visuals. It’s possible, for example, to see the dancer as an angelic figure, whose arrival banishes the devil from the scene. Although the devil doesn’t seem particularly surprised or upset by her arrival, and she seems to proceed with the work of stoking the flames that he began. But in the US and Britain, this film was originally released as Haggard’s “She”—The Pillar of Fire.

She, first published in 1887, is one of H. Rider Haggard’s most popular novels. The title character is the novel’s main antagonist, a powerful, immortal sorceress known as “She-who-must-be-obeyed,” or simply “She.” In the book’s climax, “She” leads the main character, Leo, whom she believes to be her reincarnated lover, into the center of a volcano, and commands him to bathe in the lava in order to become immortal. However, when She demonstrates this process, the fires consume her own magical immortality, and then her as well.

This is the first of many adaptations of She, and the only one to predate Haggard’s sequel novels. Obviously, its connection to the plot of the novel is tenuous at best. This scene is clearly not inside a volcano, and there is no counterpart to the dancing devil character in Haggard’s story. Probably the title was conceived retroactively in order to help market the film to an English-speaking audience familiar with the novel. The dancer seems more to represent a sort of “spirit of fire” who has been ritualistically summoned by a standard Méliès devil-figure. (The dancer and the devil are played, as usual, by Jeanne d’Alcy and Méliès himself, respectively.) She acts out each phase of the rising flame, and then is finally consumed by it.

Film History Essentials: Le Rêveil de Chrysis (1899)

•April 24, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Chrysis Waking)

What it’s about:

A nude woman reclines on an animal skin rug. Another woman, who is topless, kneels on a stack of cushions, fanning her. After a moment, the reclining woman rolls over and stands, stretching luxuriantly with her back towards the camera. The other woman retrieves a sarong and wraps it around her waist before the two walk out together.

Why it’s essential:

The first erotic films featured only implied or simulated nudity. The first genuine nudity on screen appeared later, under the guise of art and respectability. The first Jesus films claimed legitimacy by explicitly referencing (or even filming) established stage productions, and thus placed the responsibility for any potential sacrilege outside of the film and its producers. In much the same way, the first films to feature nudity did so in direct imitation of other established art forms. Although many films from this period were inspired by art, the catalog listings for these films were particularly careful to list their sources:

The catalog summaries make constant reference to art, literature, mythology, and famous iconic nude figures in a lyrical literary style, with sophisticated adjectives, elaborated grammar, and a touch of poetry quelling any suspicion of vulgarity. [… C]atalogs seldom cited the pictorial sources of the pictures they described—except for films displaying naked figures. In this risqué realm, reference goes hand in hand with prudence. Framing the film as a copy of a work of art shifts the responsibility for its undressed staging to the artist, and at the same time it justifies nudity as part of an artistic tradition, far from gratuitous and reprehensible exhibitionism.

Valentine Robert, “Nudity in Early Cinema; or, the Pictorial Transgression” from Corporeality in Early Cinema, pp. 158-159

However, the live re-enactment of sculpted or painted works of art was actually a stage tradition first. The popular tableaux vivants (or “living pictures”) of the 19th century were staged for decades before cinema first appeared. This, as Robert explains, was “the means by which, historically, the naked body got on stage. And the same story occurred on screen […] Motion pictures became the direct heir of living pictures.” Both on the stage and the screen, these living pictures benefited by offering a certain eroticism under the guise of more legitimate art.

Censorship standards allowed nude or semi-nude performers on stage as long as they didn’t move, granting a deferment to art that resulted in an obvious loophole for purveyors of sex. Nevertheless, the intended audience (at least in the case of films) was never in question, regardless of how genuine the artistic merits may have been. Pathé’s French catalog, for example, included a warning that these films were not suitable for children. In England, the series was specifically advertised as “Scenes for Smoking Concerts,” these being performances attended exclusively by a male audience. Many of Biograph’s “living picture” scenes were produced specifically for solitary viewing on the Mutoscope, and at least one business in Wales chose to locate its Mutoscopes in the men’s bathroom in 1899!

Many living pictures based on artistic works that included nudity depicted only simulated or partial nudity. Biograph, in particular, generally clothed their “nude” models entirely in a flesh-colored bodysuit. Some French productions did this as well, though the material was sometimes too sheer to really obscure the body anywhere except around the pelvic region, in the front (if it even covered anywhere else).

Examples of this include 1899’s La Naissance de Vénus (see above), based on the famous painting by Botticelli. Notice that the actress’s nudity is partially obscured by an oversaturation of light (possibly deliberate), as well as by a flesh-colored garment at her waist. Le Jugement de Phryné (1899), likely based on Jean-Léon Gérôme’s 1861 painting Phryne Before the Areopagus, is probably another example, though it is believed lost. There are only a few surviving 19th-century films where the performer appears fully nude.

One such film is Flagrant Délit d’Adultère (Flagrant Adultery), based on Jules Arsène Garnier’s 1876 painting Le Constat d’Adultère (The Exposure of Adultery). Another is Le Rêveil de Chrysis, believed to have been partially inspired by Ferdinand Roybet’s Odalisque (La Sultane) (see left). (“Odalisque,” a French term, from the Turkish odalık, refers to a harem slave or concubine. Among the many subjects common to the 19th-century Orientalism trend in Western art, harems and their occupants held a particular fascination for artists and art lovers alike.) Both of these films were produced by Pathé in 1899, and they seem to be the oldest extant examples of full nudity in cinema.

Le Rêveil de Chrysis stands out among these few examples because its main source seems to have been a popular and somewhat lascivious novel, rather than a painting. While there are obviously visual elements that could have been drawn from Roybet’s painting, the film’s title makes it clear that some of the inspiration comes from a different reference entirely: Aphrodite: Mœurs Antiques (Aphrodite: Ancient Morals) by Pierre Louÿs, first published in 1896. Louÿs was friends with Oscar Wilde, and like Wilde, he was a part of the late-19th-century Aesthetic movement. The style and ideas in this, his first novel, are typical of aestheticism.

Le Miroir by Joseph Carlier (1900), depicts Chrysis and Djala

The story follows Chrysis (after “Chryse,” a name associated with Aphrodite), a beautiful courtesan, and Démétrios, a handsome aesthete, pursuing and pursued by each other in Greek-controlled Alexandria during some vaguely-defined ancient period. Chrysis also has a “Hindu slave” named “Djalantachtchandratchapalâ,” a made-up mish-mash of syllables that Louÿs “translates” as “shimmers-like-the-image-of-the-moon-on-the-water.” (Chrysis, “too lazy” to say her full name, calls her merely “Djala.”) It’s particularly interesting that a book that was itself somewhat scandalous would have been adapted into a film featuring nude performers, seemingly abandoning the fig leaf of legitimacy that a more “respectable” work of art would have offered.

What to watch for:

Aphrodite: Mœurs Antiques opens with a scene that is at least suggestive of what we see in Le Rêveil de Chrysis:

Lying on her chest, elbows forward, legs apart and cheek in hand, she poked little symmetrical holes in a green linen pillow with a long gold pin.

Ever since she had woken up, two hours after midday, and tired of having overslept, she had remained alone on the messy bed, covered only on one side by a vast flood of hair.

This hair was radiant and deep, soft as fur, longer than a wing, supple, innumerable, lively, full of warmth. It covered half her back, extended below her bare stomach, still shone near her knees, in a thick, rounded curl. The young woman was wrapped in this precious fleece, whose bronze reflections were almost metallic and had caused her to be named Chrysis by the courtesans of Alexandria.

[…She lived] in a little white house with a terrace and small columns […] with her bronze mirror, carpets, new cushions, and a beautiful Hindu slave who knew how to do courtesans’ hair.
She rolled onto her back and twisted her fingers over each other. […] She dropped one leg to the mat and stretched until she stood up. Djala had gently left.

She walked very slowly through the room, her hands crossed around her neck, feeling the pleasure of her bare feet on the flagstones where the sweat was freezing. Then she went into her bath.

from Project Gutenberg, via Google Translate
Illustrations from the first chapter in a 1926 edition of Aphrodite

Between an extended account of her backstory and some dialogue with Djala, it takes about half of the first chapter for her to get up and walk away, corresponding with the end of the film. Incidentally, the first chapter alone references lesbian sex, interracial sex, oral sex, masturbation, and describes Chrysis as having been sexually-active from the age of 12. (She is 19 as the story begins.) It’s quite a range of topics to find in a 19th-century novel, and underlines how surprising it is that this film adaptation exists, and by one of the major French studios of the time, no less.

Essentially everything that happens in the film, and every element of the scenery, feels like it could have been drawn from either Aphrodite or Odalisque, except for one element. At the beginning of the scene, Djala picks up a cigarette from the table and lights it in the brazier. She hands it to Chrysis, who puffs on it a few times before handing it back. (Djala disposes of it just out of frame, while glancing hesitantly at the camera.) This is a notable anachronism, as there would have been no cigarettes prior to the 1800s, and no tobacco outside of the Americas prior to European colonization.

Note, too, that Chrysis walks out “very slowly” and with “her hands crossed around her neck,” precisely as described in the novel (though on the page, she is alone in the room by that point). By contrast, the film’s one nod to a certain restraint is to carefully cover her so that at no point is she fully facing the camera while bottomless. Similarly, in Flagrant Délit d’Adultère, the woman is never fully facing the camera while standing up, even though she is in the original painting. These two examples, plus the way the “Venus” is shot and covered in Pathé’s La Naissance de Vénus suggests exactly where the line of decency (or, at least, acceptability) was for a film that was being exhibited publicly, even for an exclusively adult, male audience.

Film History Essentials: Panorama of Calcutta (1899)

•April 21, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A traveling shot aboard a boat captures a view of life along the Ganges River in India. People bathe, wash clothes, and engage in other activities in boats and on the shore.

Why it’s essential:

Panorama of Calcutta is the oldest surviving film of India currently known to exist, but there is a great deal of uncertainty about who filmed it. It has frequently been credited to John “Mad Jack” Benett-Stanford (see right), whose official description in the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema is: “Rogue, fox-hunter, war cameraman and archetypal English squire.” Benett-Stanford only made films from about 1898 to 1900. He captured the only images of British forces at the Battle of Omdurman in Sudan in September 1898. (This battle was famously depicted in the climax of the 1939 film The Four Feathers.) He was also the first person to arrive in South Africa with a movie camera after the outbreak of the Second Boer War in October 1899, and he shot a number of films there in the following months.

If Benett-Sanford was responsible for this film, his journey to India would have had to take place between his time in Sudan and South Africa, but there doesn’t seem to be any evidence that he made such a trip in 1899. He did spend time in India, beginning his military career there a decade earlier, and he was a well-known cameraman for the Warwick Trading Company (the distributors of this film). Those two facts may have led to his being credited, seemingly incorrectly. According to Colonial Film, some sources credit an “unknown foreign cameraman” instead. This suggests that the film could be the work of Hiralal Sen, one of the first Indian filmmakers.

Sen (see left) made his first film in 1898, with a camera borrowed from a traveling film show. He then bought a camera from the Warwick Trading Company, and formed the Royal Bioscope Company with his brother (likely the first film production company in India). The company existed for about 15 years, and Sen made newsreels, actualities, filmed stage performances, and created some of India’s first filmed advertisements. His 1903 film Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves was the first Indian feature film. Tragically, shortly before his death in 1917, a fire destroyed all of his films, and no films definitively attributed to him are known to have survived.

However, he did have a business connection with the Warwick Trading Company during this time. Sen also operated out of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), where he grew up, making it seem plausible that he could have filmed Panorama of Calcutta. There’s just one problem: This film was not shot in Kolkata at all. It was actually filmed in Varanasi (formerly Benares), the “spiritual capital of India,” over 400 miles to the northwest.

The mislabeling of the film dates to its original catalogue listing by Warwick, though whether this was accidental (due to the film’s inclusion in a batch of films depicting Kolkata), or deliberate (to provide the film’s British audience with a more familiar frame of reference) is unknown. As for the identity of the cameraman, perhaps it was filmed by an associate of Sen’s from the Royal Bioscope Company. It may also have been filmed using the camera Sen borrowed in 1898 (owned by a “Professor” Stevenson), as the traveling film show continued on through India.

In any case, despite not being as well-known to Western audiences of the time, Varanasi is actually an appropriate location to appear in India’s oldest film. It is the oldest continually-inhabited city in India, with a history dating back over 3000 years. Sometimes called the “City of Temples” due to the thousands of temples located there, it is a destination for tens of thousands of pilgrims every year.

The true heart of the city’s spiritual practice lies along the ghats that line the shores of the Ganges as it flows past the city’s eastern edge. These ghats, the steps leading down to the water’s edge, are clearly visible throughout Panorama of Calcutta. These distinctive structures facilitate activities that can be either mundane (bathing and laundry) or religious (ritual ablutions, cremations, etc.).

What to watch for:

This film is a constant experience of tantalizing glimpses that are gone from the frame too soon. There is so much going on in every moment of the shot that it would be difficult to take it all in even if the camera were stationary. Because the image is in constant motion, no one person is visible for more than about five seconds, which is barely long enough to form even the simplest impression of what they may be doing. Several people seem to pause and take notice of the camera, as well.

The architecture of the ghats along this section of the river are the true highlight of the film. They are beautiful and ornate, but also functional, and there’s an incredible variety of form and purpose in evidence. Note, too, the ubiquity of the large umbrella-like shades that are set up all around. Between those and the various boats that come between the camera and the shore, there’s a great deal blocking the camera’s view of the people on shore. Overall, the effect is of a scene teeming with life and activity.

Finally, just past the halfway point, the boat (getting out of the way of an oncoming craft) turns away from the shore and then turns back parallel in a way that makes the camera seem to pan right and then left. This creates a very unique effect for its time (cameras did not yet “pan” by themselves), particularly as the camera is turned back to the left. It seems to follow the passing boat, creating a momentary illusion that the boat the camera is on has reversed directions. These maneuvers also provide a much wider shot of the shoreline, showing the ghats continuing on out of sight far ahead.

Films like this, whether from India or other locations around the world, frequently advertised the extreme contrast they showed between scenes of far-off places and the familiarity of more domestic scenes. It’s interesting to consider how a British, Colonial-Era audience would have viewed this as an exotic glimpse of a subject state that most of them would never have a chance to see firsthand. Meanwhile, for a modern audience, a film of ordinary life in 19th-century England is equally exotic. The past is no less foreign to us than the other side of the world was to early cinema audiences.

Film History Essentials: La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ (1898)

•April 18, 2023 • 1 Comment

(English: The Life and Passion of Jesus Christ)

What it’s about:

The life of Christ is depicted from infancy to resurrection in 13 brief scenes, focused mainly on the events commemorated during the Christian Holy Week.

Why it’s essential:

In 1633, central Europe was right in the midst of the long conflict that would eventually be known as the Thirty Years’ War. One of the war’s costliest aspects was the famine and disease that followed in its wake. As Swedish forces fought a campaign across Bavaria, the bubonic plague came to the small town of Oberammergau, 50 miles south of Munich, and about 10 miles from the present-day Austrian border. As the plague ravaged the town, its desperate citizens made a vow: If God would spare them from further suffering, they would show their gratitude by dedicating one year out of every decade to the production of a passion play.

According to local lore, no more of the townspeople died of plague, and the people of Oberammergau have put on a passion play once every ten years since, beginning in 1634. Starting in 1680, they began staging their performances at the dawn of each decade (with the exception of the 300th anniversary in 1934, and the 350th in 1984). They have only rarely cancelled or postponed the show (for example, during the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, World War II in 1940, and the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020). Beginning in the mid-19th century, with a revived interest in medieval passion plays, Oberammergau began attracting the attention of the rest of Christendom with its production.

It’s important to acknowledge that, historically, passion plays have an association with blood libel and other acts of violent antisemitism. In the case of the Oberammergau play, which has its roots in medieval European traditions, and which celebrated its 300th anniversary with a visit from Adolf Hitler amidst the rise of the Nazi Party, that reputation of overt antisemitism is justified. Only in its most recent performances has the Passion Play of Oberammergau taken real steps to address decades of criticism and centuries of prejudice in its depiction of Jews.

Strangely enough, it was a Jewish entrepeneur, Salmi Morse (see right), who set off a chain of events that would lead the Oberammergau show to intersect with early film history. Accounts of Morse’s life are rife with conflicting details, thanks in part to the fantastical stories he constructed of his own exploits as a supposed war hero, learned scholar, and globetrotting adventurer. Even though many of the experiences he claimed to have had seem never to have happened, he was an outsized figure who lived an unusually colorful and varied life.

He was born “Samuel Moss” to German-Jewish parents in 1826 (possibly in England, or possibly in Germany, moving to England soon after). He achieved financial success managing a hotel in the midst of the Australian gold rush of 1851. Eventually, he ended up in San Francisco in the mid-1870s, where he had an idea, perhaps inspired by his conversion to Christianity, that would ultimately lead to his downfall. He wrote “The Passion: A Miracle Play in Ten Acts,” and set out to realize what was apparently the first-ever depiction of Jesus by an actor on an American stage.

Morse had a vision of producing a true work of art that could be performed regularly, in the tradition of Oberammergau. He presented his script to the Archbishop of San Francisco, revised it based on the critiques he received, then marketed the play as approved by the Catholic church. Morse and his partners prepared a large and elaborate production, starring James O’Neill (father of playwright Eugene) as Jesus, and featuring a cast of hundreds. It was to premiere on 3 March 1879.

Local Protestant leaders (somewhat predictably) believed that staging the story in a secular theater, and turning a profit no less, was profane. And the approval of the Archdiocese didn’t help at all. They got the city to propose an ordinance (not repealed until 1938) banning all commercial, theatrical depictions of Christ. However, it wasn’t enacted in time to stop the opening performances, and the production was regarded as extremely successful, both in quality and reverential treatment of its subject, by those who went to see it. Local rabbis opposed the ordinance, and the closing of the play, as acts of censorship.

Nevertheless, after the ordinance was passed, the play closed down voluntarily for a few weeks, but then reopened two days after Easter. At the end of that performance, an officer of the San Francisco police went backstage and arrested O’Neill for impersonating Jesus Christ. All legal efforts to continue the play’s run went nowhere, and Morse had no choice but to close the show at a tremendous financial loss.

But Morse was not beaten yet. He decided to try again on the opposite side of the country. He found a new backer for “The Passion” in New York City, the center of American theater, and prepared to open on 7 December 1880. In response, seemingly the entire city united against him. Not only political and religious leaders, but also the media and many in the theatrical world. His backer was forced to withdraw the play before even one performance.

Morse spent the next three years unsuccessfully fighting the legal injunctions against the opening of his play. He tried to pass off performances of the play as “private dress rehearsals,” attempted to open in other cities, and converted a church into the “Temple Theater” in an effort to stage it himself, all to no avail. In 1884, he was found floating in the Hudson River, dead of an apparent suicide. According to Charles Musser: “The fiasco was indelibly imprinted on the memory of every amusement entrepreneur.”

The audience at Oberammergau, 1880

Curiously, only four days after Morse’s cancelled premiere, famed photographer and lecturer John L. Stoddard gave a presentation in New York entitled “Ober-Ammergau’s Passion Play.” He included several dozen stereopticon slides that he had taken of the village’s 1880 show. Reportedly attended by many of the same people who had condemned Morse’s play, Stoddard’s lecture received rave reviews. Ten years later, when the Passion Play of Oberammergau was again performed, a number of traveling lecturers successfully followed Stoddard’s lead. Again, Musser: “The possibilities of using motion pictures to present a similar program were obvious to everyone.”

The first filmmaker to adapt a story from the Bible was the sometimes-pornographer Albert Kirchner (pseudonym “Léar”). Commissioned by the French Catholic church, he filmed a 12-scene Passion du Christ in early 1897. Soon, filmmakers in America began to consider the possibilities of Bible films. Still, no one had forgotten Salmi Morse and his ill-fated passion play. The first American productions decided it would be safest to follow in the footsteps of Stoddard, as well. Or, at least, to appear to do so:

Catalogues published at the turn of the twentieth century by film production companies show that references to Oberammergau are practically constant in the marketing materials for Passion Play films, particularly in the case of American films. […] What better way for a film producer to play Pontius Pilate and wash his hands of this problem of the representation of Christ using animated pictures than to film, or to pretend to have filmed (the situation is the same either way), a Passion Play performance? […] What better way for the agent responsible for the production of a filmic Passion Play to be cleared of all responsibility than to take on only the framing of the event, something that is the work of the camera operator […], thereby leaving the responsibility for staging the show to another agent external to the film and not part of the world of film production […]?

André Gaudreault, “The Passion of Christ: A Form, a Genre, a Discourse,” translated by Timothy Barnard in The Silents of Jesus in the Cinema (1897-1927)

The Oberammergau play was already well-known and accepted by the American public, but there was a timing problem: The last performance, in 1890, happened while motion picture technology was still being developed, and the next was still a few years away. One possible solution presented itself when Charles Smith Hurd, the Lumière brothers’ American representative, discovered a passion play in Bohemia that had been put on since 1816 by the villagers of Horitz, a community 65 miles northeast of Prague (present-day Hořice, Czechia).

Scene from the 1908 performance in Horitz

Charmed by the “simplicity” and “sincerity” of the local production, Hurd made a deal with the Horitz players, and got financial backing from New York producers Marc Klaw and Abraham Lincoln Erlanger. (Although Hurd had an association with the Lumières, and footage was filmed with a cinematograph, they had no involvement with the production or exhibition.) The Horitz Passion Play premiered in Philadelphia on 22 November 1897.

Although the project included over 20 minutes of footage, the show was far more than simply a motion-picture. The Horitz Passion Play was a 90-minute multimedia extravaganza that also featured lantern-slides, an accompanying lecture, and live religious music, both played and sung. The choice of a Philadelphia premiere by the show’s New York backers was deliberate, as well. After a little more than a month, the show moved to Boston, then opened in Baltimore, and finally appeared in Rochester before arriving in New York City in the midst of Lent.

The idea, obviously, was to sail the program in on a wave of positive press, but in the meantime, someone else had landed an even bolder stroke. Richard Hollaman, president of the Eden Musee in New York City, had wanted the film rights to the Horitz production, but had lost out to Klaw and Erlanger. After visiting the show’s Philadelphia premiere, he decided to one-up the competition. By February, a full month before The Horitz Passion Play was due in New York City, the Eden Musee was screening their own production: The Passion Play of Oberammergau.

Hollaman was intentionally vague about the connection between his production and the real Oberammergau. As Musser points out: “Just as putting on a boxing match was illegal but showing films of such a match was fine, the discovery that an actor was playing Christ for money might have created a public outcry even though the exhibition of such films would not.” Hollaman had the film shot in secret on the roof of the Grand Central Palace in New York, but anyone who didn’t know better could certainly have gotten the impression that it was filmed in Bavaria.

Scene from the 1898 Hollaman film

To those who did know better, Hollaman implied that his film was effectively a re-enactment of the actual Oberammergau passion play. In reality, he used Salmi Morse’s “The Passion” script, and even acquired the old costumes from Morse’s play that had sat in storage for over a decade. Not everyone was fooled, but it didn’t matter. The show was such a success that Hollaman sent it out on tour. Much like The Horitz Passion Play, these shows featured about 20 minutes of film footage supplemented by an hour or more of spoken lecture and slides.

Around this time, Kirchner’s Passion du Christ also made its way to America as part of a lecture by the Reverend Thomas Dixon (author of The Clansman, which would later be adapted into The Birth of a Nation). In addition, Philadelphia-based Sigmund Lubin, notorious for producing knock-offs of (or flat-out pirating) his competitors’ films, started circulating his own version of The Passion Play of Oberammergau, shot in his backyard. Into the midst of this sudden ubiquity of passion films came Thomas Edison, wielding the results of a legal victory he had been after for over six years.

On 31 August 1897, Edison was finally issued the broad patent for the kinetograph that he had sought ever since he first filed on 24 August 1891. This potentially granted him significant proprietary rights over motion pictures in the United States, or at least a basis on which to file legal action. Anyone who wished to contest his claims would face years of complex court proceedings against an opponent with deep pockets and widespread fame and credibility. Among Edison’s first targets were Hollaman, Klaw, and Erlanger, though Lubin seems to have temporarily escaped by virtue of being located outside of the immediate area of New York.

Hollaman folded almost immediately and became one of Edison’s licensees, and the others surrendered soon after. This meant, among other things, that none of the men retained exclusive exhibition rights to their films:

Although the Horitz and Eden Musee passion-play films were initially offered to exhibitors only in complete sets, they were soon sold on a scene-by-scene basis so that exhibitors could purchase and then organize individual scenes into any combination that they desired. In some cases, an exhibitor used films made by more than one producer, purchasing the scenes he liked best or adding to his collection when finances permitted. Many exhibitors showed passion-play films, but no two programs were exactly alike.

Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, p. 219

Sadly, none of the films mentioned above are known to have survived outside of a few fragments. The oldest existing Bible film is the Lumières’ La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ, which premiered in Lyon on Christmas Day, 1898. It was directed by Louis Lumière and Georges Hatot, and starred Hatot’s frequent collaborator, Gaston Breteau. Alexandre Promio, who had returned permanently to Lyon after two years of traveling the globe with a cinematograph, operated the camera.

The Lumière scenes seem very much in the same style as descriptions of the earlier films. Specifically, this has the feel of a filmed play. Just like similar films in America, the scenes from Passion de Jésus-Christ were sold as individual titles, from which exhibitors could choose to buy all or only some, and then show them in whatever order they felt best suited their audience and program. Religious films like this one played a significant role in expanding the audiences for motion pictures, but they also offered another important commercial benefit: Theaters could show Bible films on Sundays, a day on which many venues would otherwise have been forced to remain closed.

What to watch for:

The “stage play” aesthetic of La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ is particularly noticeable from the sets, which are not only visibly unrealistic, but are also frequently rearranged and repurposed for different scenes. The final four scenes (showing the crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection) all take place in exactly the same place. There are a few minor changes between the death and burial scenes, but it is clearly the same set. (This is also a set that appears in at least one other Lumière film, Combat sur la Voie Ferrée, from 1897, which depicts a battle from the Franco-Prussian War.)

The tree in the center of the frame is reused in several locations

In addition, one of the “buildings” where Jesus enters Jerusalem is clearly used again as part of the background when Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead. After Jesus is arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane, he is tried, and then returns to the exact same garden set to receive the crown of thorns and the cross (the scene is lit differently, probably due to being shot at a different time of day, but is obviously identical otherwise). Actually, the distinctive large “tree” that is the centerpiece of the garden set appears in five different scenes, only two of which seem intended to represent the same location.

The film consists of the following scenes:

#French TitleEnglish TitleLength
IL’Adoration des MagesThe Adoration of the Magi0:54
IILa Fuite en ÉgypteThe Flight into Egypt0:53
IIIL’Arrivée à JérusalemArrival in Jerusalem???
IVTrahison de JudasJudas’s Betrayal0:54
VRésurrection de LazareResurrection of Lazarus0:54
VILa CèneThe Last Supper0:53
VIIL’Arrestation de Jésus ChristThe Arrest of Jesus Christ0:53
VIIILa FlagellationThe Flogging0:53
IXLe Couronnement d’ÉpinesThe Crowning with Thorns0:49
XLa Mise en CroixThe Cross0:52
XILe CalvaireCalvary0:54
XIILa Mise au TombeauThe Burial0:53
XIIILa RésurrectionThe Resurrection0:49

All of these sound like very familiar scenes, although the choices of which to include (and the order of some of them) raises questions. For example, the film depicts the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt, and then jumps all the way to Jesus’s triumphal entry into Jerusalem (a scene which, incidentally, is missing from all of the online versions of the film that are available). It’s also a bit odd to insert the resurrection of Lazarus between that scene and the Last Supper.

Upon watching individual scenes, though, some of these questions only grow. It’s important to remember that a 19th-century French Catholic filmmaker might have a very different take on a lot of things than, say, a 21st-century American evangelical audience. Also, modern audiences likely aren’t even aware how much their expectations of cinematic depictions of Jesus are informed at least as much by how those depictions have evolved over the past 125 years as they are by anything in the biblical text.

Lumière and Hatot are operating without any of that history. They’re drawing on an entirely different body of cultural texts. It’s clear, for example, that some visual and storytelling elements are inspired by medieval and/or artistic traditions that are not as widely-known as they once were. However, even accounting for all of that, some of the choices here seem to show an interesting, almost casual disregard for the details of the Gospel accounts.

One scene that is obviously drawn from extra-Biblical sources is La Fuite en Égypte. This scene features the most visually-arresting of the various sets, dominated by a large reproduction of the Sphinx. The top half is clearly painted onto the back wall, but the bottom half extends out, creating a space for Mary to climb up and settle in with the baby while Joseph tends to the donkey. There is an element of the backdrop that seems meant to simulate a halo-like glow surrounding mother and child once they’ve taken up their position, but of course it’s painted on and already visible as they enter the frame. The look of the scene seems to have come from Luc Olivier Merson’s 1879 painting, Rest on the Flight into Egypt (see left).

As the family prepares to rest, a group of Roman soldiers race up. Joseph places himself between them and his family, but the soldiers immediately fall to the ground. The source of this episode, if there is one, is unclear. However, it does resemble some accounts from the apocryphal infancy gospels. For instance, in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, the Holy Family takes refuge in an Egyptian temple, and all of the false gods fall on their faces before the baby Jesus and are shattered. The local ruler gathers an army and comes to the temple, but when they arrive, they all fall down and worship Jesus, as well.

Résurrection de Lazare is a scene that hews very closely to the biblical account, but a different biblical account. When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead (as described in the Gospel of John, Chapter 11), he accompanied a group, including Lazarus’s sisters, to the tomb where Lazarus had already been laid to rest for four days. He tells them to move the stone away, which they reluctantly do, and then he commands Lazarus to come out, and he walks out, still wrapped for burial. That is nothing like what happens in this scene.

Consider instead this account from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 7: Jesus is approaching the town of Nain, and he arrives at the gate just as a funeral procession is coming out. The deceased is the only son of a widowed woman, and Jesus takes pity on her. He approaches the bier on which the body is laid and commands the dead man to arise. The man sits up and begins talking. This is almost exactly how the scene is acted out in the film, even though the title of the scene identifies the dead man as Lazarus. Further, what seems to be the original catalogue description of the scene bafflingly describes the woman mourning as his wife (which is not accurate to either story, but could perhaps have resulted from some confusion about the woman in the latter story being a widow).

This sort of deviation is fairly typical of the film, which is full of details that are rearranged or recontextualized for reasons that aren’t always clear. In La Cène, the disciples have gathered at the table when Jesus appears suddenly in their midst, to their great surprise. Of course, this was how Jesus appeared to the disciples after his resurrection in the biblical account. Judas also kisses Jesus during the Last Supper scene, which leads him to announce that someone will betray him. This prompts another disciple, to his left, to kiss him as well. When Judas betrays Jesus in the garden in the next scene, he just points him out to the guards.

A particularly notable aspect of this adaptation, though, is the absence of any Jewish religious leaders from the film. King Herod is the primary antagonist throughout. He watches jealously as Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem. Judas comes to him to betray Jesus and receive his payment. Jesus is tried and flogged before him, and he is identified repeatedly as the person sending soldiers to arrest Jesus and to carry out the sentence. This has the effect of considerably simplifying a story that is being told in vignettes less than a minute long with no sound or intertitles. That may have been the primary purpose of these changes, but another consequence is that the forces responsible for Jesus’s torture and death are not visibly Jewish. King Herod and his Roman troops are behind everything.

It is not clear how many people would have seen this film in its entirety, with every scene in the order the producers apparently intended. Likely most would not have experienced it this way, and may even have watched scenes from this film mixed in with scenes from other Jesus films of the time. In fact, immediately after completing this film, Georges Hatot and Gaston Breteau are said to have made La Vie du Christ (also 1898) for Gaumont. (Some have claimed this film was made by Alice Guy, who also made a film entitled La Vie du Christ in 1906.) Though the 1898 Gaumont film seems to be lost now as well, its scenes could certainly have joined the pool available from the six Jesus films made in 1897-98.

However, for any audience that did experience all of La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ in this order, the structure is clear and straightforward. The first two scenes show Christ as someone who inspires worship by both the high-born and the low, and who is protected by divine favor from birth. We then see his growing influence among the people of Jerusalem, which sows the seeds of hatred and distrust with the king. We see him display his power in a foreshadowing of his ultimate resurrection, followed by the most familiar scenes commemorated on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. Its departures from a strict depiction of the biblical text do not seem to have been controversial, and raise tantalizing questions about how the five lost films may have handled the same material.