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

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.


~ by Jared on April 30, 2023.

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