Film History Essentials: Santa Claus (1898)

•April 15, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Two children eagerly wait by the hearth for Santa Claus to arrive before they are shooed into bed. After lights out, Santa appears on the rooftop above, bearing presents and a Christmas tree. He makes his way down the chimney and into the children’s room. He stuffs toys into their stockings at the end of the bed, and then disappears as the children awake excitedly.

Why it’s essential:

In September of 1898, George Albert Smith produced what is likely the first-ever Christmas movie (in plenty of time for exhibitors to have it for the holiday season). There is no record of who played the role of Santa Claus (a character who also makes his film debut here), but perhaps it was Smith himself. Certainly the rest of the film was a decidedly family affair. The maid was played by Laura Bayley, Smith’s wife (and an actress in a number of his films), and the boy and girl were their children, Harold (9) and Dorothy (7). It’s the perfect behind-the-scenes detail for a charming and sentimental holiday movie, but that’s not what makes this film special.

Santa Claus represents an obvious leap forward in the use of special effects and other techniques to tell a uniquely cinematic story. There are several notable innovations on display here, starting with the title. Notice that it actually appears on the screen at the beginning of the movie. It actually isn’t clear whether this title card was originally a part of the film or not, but if so, it would be one of the first. Title cards and intertitles would not become common until the following decade.

Incidentally, it may seem curious to a modern viewer that this British film is called “Santa Claus,” and not “Father Christmas.” The figure of Father Christmas had been a traditional English folk character for centuries by this point, but he was not simply an Anglicized version of St. Nicholas. He also lacked many of the characteristics that have come to be associated with Santa Claus, such as bringing gifts to children. Santa Claus first appeared in England by way of America in the 1850s. (Americans had adapted him out of the traditions of Dutch settlers in New York in the 1820s.) Although Santa Claus and Father Christmas began to slowly merge in the British public consciousness, they were still sometimes depicted as distinct figures in England even into the very early 20th-century.

In any case, the film’s most noteworthy feature is not the name of its personification of Christmas, but its use of the earliest known example of parallel action in cinema. There is a little fun ambiguity to the film’s use of double-exposure. Does the inset of Santa’s arrival at the house show what’s actually happening at that moment, as the children sleep below? Or is this a vision of the children’s Christmas Eve dream? After all, Santa does vanish at the very moment they wake up. The beauty of this simple but effective Christmas vignette is that it works just as well either way.

What to watch for:

The first actual special effect in the film is a use of the stop trick that is so sophisticated, it may not be immediately evident that it’s a stop trick. When the maid reaches up to turn out the light, there is a cut and the entire backdrop is replaced or covered by some black material. The effect is so seamless that at first it just looks like part of the set got darker. The desired visual of a darkened room (where you can still see what’s important) is flawlessly realized here. At the end of the film, there is one additional (more conventional) use of the stop trick employed to make Santa and his Christmas tree disappear. (It’s not entirely clear why he’s carrying that around if he didn’t intend to leave it.)

Regardless, the black backdrop effect is actually the key to the centerpiece of the film: the use of a double-exposure to show Santa up on the roof as an inset within the room itself, before he appears in the room “in person.” Smith used double-exposures in several films around this time, and even patented his process. Although the use of this technique in film may have been pioneered by Georges Méliès the previous year, this is the earliest example that survives. The two filmmakers were correspondents, and the exact origin of this particular innovation isn’t certain. (Besides which, the concept had been well-known to still photographers for decades.)

Meanwhile, the screen that was seen before the hearth earlier in the film makes the perfect barrier so that Santa can appear to emerge from the fireplace without crawling awkwardly out on his hands and knees. The awkwardness comes a few moments later, when one of the toys he places in a stocking immediately and visibly tumbles out onto the floor and he just leaves it. These shots ran on a tight schedule, and second takes were complex and expensive enough (or perhaps it was thought that audiences simply wouldn’t care) that these sorts of small errors are quite common in early films.

Film History Essentials: What Demoralized the Barber Shop (1898)

•April 12, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A man has just entered a basement barber shop and he settles in to have his shoes shined. Another man is about to get a shave, while a third reads a newspaper. Two women pause at the top of the stairs above the doorway, and begin to show off their legs up to the knee, sending the men below into hysterics.

Why it’s essential:

In 1894, William Heise filmed The Barbershop, one of the very first commercially-available films. Four years later, he revisited the same setting for this updated version. What Demoralized the Barber Shop is a snapshot of how cinema had developed in the interim. (The title, incidentally, is an archaic usage of the word “demoralized.” Today, this movie might be retitled What Corrupted the Barber Shop.)

The Barbershop was notably elaborate for 1894, with a cast of four and a full complement of props to set the scene. However, it was very clearly still filmed within the confines of the Black Maria, and looks as though the titular barber and his customers are inhabiting a featureless void. Here, the joke hinges on there being a particular set layout, and the scene is both more elaborate and more fully realized. (In The Barbershop, of course, there was no “joke,” or even a plot, just a brief glimpse, less than half the length of this film, of some men together in a “barbershop.”)

It is a bit ambiguous whether or not the women are aware of the men below. Is the “demoralization” of the title deliberate, or unintentional? Film historian Charles Musser refers to the women as “presumably prostitutes” in Before the Nickelodeon, but perhaps they are simply oblivious. In a way, the point (as far as the men in the film are concerned) is that it doesn’t actually matter whether the women want to be looked at or not. It shouldn’t be lost on anyone that the title implies that the men are “demoralized” by something completely external, so they aren’t really responsible for their reactions. Wittingly or unwittingly, the women are assumed to be at fault for the outcome.

Heise (left) relaxes on the set

This principle extends to the (presumably male) audience of the film, as well. The term “male gaze” was coined in the 1970s, but the concept that it named had existed in art long before the beginnings of film. Certainly also by this point there had already been many, many examples of depictions of women on film from a male perspective for the pleasure of a male audience. Many of these were shot by Heise himself, including any number of “dance” films (i.e., Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance) and films like Seminary Girls, but also plenty of others, such as Après le Bal and Duel to the Death.

What Demoralized the Barber Shop exists at one remove from those films, and is more akin to something like Come Along, Do! Rather than simply allowing the male viewer to be the voyeur, enjoying a view of the female form, these films offer the same experience while making male voyeurism the joke. The audience can laugh at the absurd behavior of the man or men who are trying to get a good look, while enjoying the same view themselves. As Musser puts it, this “suggests the superiority of cinematic voyeurism: film spectators can look from the unhumiliating comfort of their seats. In the darkened theater, they can see but not be seen.”

Why you should see it:

This film is basically a single joke, repeated and drawn out well beyond the point where everyone watching would “get it.” But within that thematic structure, there are several individual gags, probably including a few that are not decipherable without some restoration. The quality of the film as it is available currently makes it impossible to read the two signs that are on the wall flanking the stairs, though we know from The Barbershop that these may have been a source of some additional humor.

The performers in the film definitely do not seem to be on the same page regarding the size of their performances. The shoeshiner and the man reading the paper are giving visible but relatively-restrained reactions, while the man getting his shoes shined, and particularly the barber are far more histrionic. The man in the barber’s chair never seems to be afforded any opportunity to see what’s going on. He is just a passive victim of the barber’s laughable (?) lack of self-control.

Note the way the man in the shoeshine chair randomly kicks the man shining his shoes over for no apparent reason. He makes as though to get up, as if he was trying to quickly get the other man out of the way so that he could see better, but then doesn’t move. Moments later, he deliberately throws himself sideways out of the chair. Again, this is ostensibly accidental as he cranes for a better view, but the performer completely fails to sell it.

The barber, though his performance is outrageously broad, is a bit more successful. He squashes and pulls the head of the poor man in the chair as he tries to keep doing his job while still craning his neck for a better view. But pay particular attention to the razor he pulls out to shave the customer with: It is enormous, hilariously so. The entire thing, blade and handle, is almost the size of his arm when unfolded, and it genuinely looks like he’s going to take the customer’s head off with it. In addition to being funnier, a giant, gag razor was probably easier to employ here than the real thing. It allows the barber to be completely unrestrained as he gives the most unhinged performance in the scene.

Film History Essentials: Panorama pendant l’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel (1898)

•April 9, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Panorama during the Ascent of the Eiffel Tower)

What it’s about:

A camera operator films while ascending in the Eiffel Tower’s elevators, capturing a view of the Seine and the bridge leading across to the Palais du Trocadéro.

Why it’s essential:

The 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris brought together several pioneers of cinema and pre-cinema, and may have been the key event that changed the course of William Dickson’s development of the technology back in New Jersey. Meanwhile, no one in 1889 would have guessed at the lasting and iconic legacy of the Exposition’s centerpiece: the thousand-plus-foot, wrought-iron Eiffel Tower, which stood as the tallest structure in the world for over 40 years and became the globally-recognized symbol of the city of Paris. Although many Parisians initially opposed its construction, decried it as an eyesore, and petitioned for its demolition, the city and the nation ultimately embraced it as the monument to French achievement that it was always intended to be, and it has proved enduringly popular as an international attraction. It was originally set to be torn down after 20 years, but it has endured now for over 130.

While the tower itself, completed in only two years, was obviously an incredible feat of construction and engineering, some other, equally-impressive aspects of its creation are less well-known. One of the most significant challenges in preparing the “Tour de 300 Mètres” (as it was originally called) for the Exposition was the design and construction of an elevator system that would enable visiting crowds to ascend to the top. Passenger elevators were, after all, still a relatively recent innovation.

The first safety features that would prevent the car from plummeting down the shaft if a cable broke were developed in the early-1850s. This led to the gradual introduction of passenger elevators in a few buildings, though the first office building to include elevators wasn’t completed until 1870. Major innovations and developments were happening in elevator design throughout the rest of the century.

Installing elevators in the tower posed two challenges: First, because most buildings that included elevators were only a few stories tall, no one had ever designed an elevator system that could ascend such a height. Second, the shafts to reach the first two levels of the tower, before the four legs converged into a single structure, could not follow a vertical path. They would have to curve with the tower’s legs. Elevators for ascending the tower were divided between three different systems, and the Exposition commission began accepting bids for their design and installation.

The first system was the most straightforward. Lifts were to be installed in the east and west legs of the tower to take passengers only to the first platform, which Eiffel anticipated would handle the most traffic. The legs were large enough, and straight enough (though diagonal), that they could accommodate a track for the large cars that would ferry people up and down. This system, which could carry up to 100 passengers per car, was designed by the French company Roux, Combaluzier & Lepape (see right). The system was functional, but the result was apparently not ideal:

The machinery […] was novel in every respect, but it was a product of misguided ingenuity and set no precedent. The system, never duplicated, was conceived, born, lived a brief and not overly creditable life, and died, entirely within the Tower.
The system’s shortcomings could hardly be more evident. Friction resulting from the more than 320 joints in the flexible pistons, each carrying two rollers, plus that from the pitch chains must have been immense. The noise created by such multiplicity of parts can only be imagined.

Elevator Systems of the Eiffel Tower, 1889, Robert M. Vogel, pp. 28, 30

Likewise the third system, though more daunting, was relatively straightforward: elevators that could carry people up the 525 feet of the tower’s final, vertical rise. This system was supplied by Léon Edoux, who had by that point over 20 years of experience in designing elevators. He divided the distance in half, with one elevator servicing each ~262-foot section, and passengers changing cars at an intermediate platform in the middle (see left).

The second system was by far the most difficult. It would be installed in the north and south legs of the tower, and carry passengers all the way to the second level, passing along the entire curve of the leg until reaching the vertical section. No French company would put forward a bid to attempt the project, even after the deadline was extended. As a result, the committee was finally forced to accept a proposal by the Otis Elevator Company, of Yonkers, New York, even though the charter required that the tower project be 100% domestic.

The story of the Otis company’s development of these special hydraulic elevators is dramatic, but highly technical. Suffice to say that this project alone took as long to complete as the construction of the entire tower itself, but the results were notable:

The installation must have had immense promotional value for Otis Brothers, particularly in its contrast to the somewhat anomalous French system. This contrast evidently was visible to the technically unsophisticated as well as to visiting engineers. Several newspapers reported that the Otis elevators were one of the best American exhibits at the fair.

Vogel, p. 28
Cutaway view of the Otis car

The Otis elevator carried 40-50 passengers, all seated, from the ground to the second platform in a little over a minute. It accomplished its task well and safely (the #1 requirement and concern of the Exposition committee), and it traveled twice as fast as the French system, with significantly less noise. The French elevators on the east and west legs were eventually replaced by a superior French system (extending all the way to the second level) for the 1900 Exposition Universelle, and the Otis elevator in the tower’s south leg was also replaced with a large staircase leading to the first platform. The remaining Otis elevator was finally replaced in 1912, with a much smaller electric elevator that had the advantage of being able to continue running when freezing winter temperatures shut down the hydraulic lifts.

One of the Otis cars “parked” at the second platform

The impressive edifice that is distantly visible in Panorama pendant l’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel is the Palais du Trocadéro, originally built for the 1878 Exposition Universelle. It incorporates elements inspired by Muslim and Byzantine architecture (note especially the minarets that flank the main structure). This building stood for nearly 60 years before it was partially demolished and replaced with the Palais de Chaillot for yet another Exposition Universelle in 1937. This Lumière film thus preserves a view that no longer exists, taken from inside an elevator that has long-since been replaced.

Why you should see it:

View of the lower Edoux elevator car

The first 15 seconds of Panorama pendant l’Ascension de la Tour Eiffel appears to have been filmed from the Otis elevator in the tower’s north leg, between the first and second platforms. This section of the ascent, ending 377 feet above the ground, would have lasted about 30 seconds in all. There is a cut at this point in the film, and it resumes from the lower Edoux car just as the top of the second platform descends out of view below the bottom of the frame. The footage continues for another 30 seconds of the ascent, concluding before the cameraman would have changed cars at a height of about 640 feet to continue the rest of the way to the top.

Horizontal motion was by now reasonably common for a traveling shot, but this film adds another axis to the possible directions a camera could move. The dark silhouette of the complex latticework is sharply defined in the foreground of the shot, forming a stark contrast to the softer, more rounded architecture half a mile away. The traffic moving about below on foot, by carriage, and even on a passing boat, are barely visible, completely dwarfed by the immensity and magnificence of the structures and the landscaping around them.

Film History Essentials: Duel to the Death (1898)

•April 6, 2023 • 2 Comments

What it’s about:

Two women armed with large knives strip off their outer garments and then begin to circle one another, each looking for an opening to stab the other. They grapple fiercely until one manages to plunge her knife into the other. The killer watches, horror-stricken, as the other woman sinks to the ground.

Why it’s essential:

Picturesque landscapes, coronations, and other such decent and high-minded films were not William Dickson’s only work for the new British Mutoscope Company. From the beginning, exploitation formed a not-insubstantial side of the motion picture business. In fact, the Mutoscope itself was uniquely fitted for the exhibition of such films, and was used for that purpose from its inception. Unlike the communal experience of projected motion pictures, the Mutoscope offered a more-voyeuristic, private peep show for the viewer.

Within a few years, these machines, which were often stocked with more titillating fare (at least suggestive, if not outright erotic, see right for some later examples), became widely known in England as “What the Butler Saw” machines. The name came from the immense popularity of a Mutoscope reel in which the viewer was placed in the point-of-view of the titular butler, watching his mistress undress through a keyhole. This title, in turn, came from the huge scandal surrounding a well-known 1886 divorce trial. The husband’s accusation of infidelity depended upon whether the jury agreed that their butler could have seen (as he claimed) the wife in a compromising position with another man through a particular keyhole.

Although Duel to the Death doesn’t seem to have been a Mutoscope reel specifically, clearly both Dickson and British Mutoscope were no strangers to exploitative material. Certainly this film isn’t even pretending to be anything else, beginning (as it does) with two women literally ripping their outer garments off, and then engaging in a vicious struggle that is devoid of even a hint of grace or delicacy (and which causes their looser undergarments to slip and move quite suggestively). It’s like a penny dreadful come to life.

For Dickson, it was a chance to return to his roots, filming a pair of performers in a studio, staging the act for which they were best known. Actually, this wasn’t even the first time Dickson had filmed a similar scene. The year before, while still in America, he made An Affair of Honor, based on the 1884 painting by Emile Antoine Bayard (see left), featuring two women dueling with swords. The women in that film are fully-clothed, although the original painting depicts them stripped to the waist.

Duel to the Death is supposed to have been a reenactment of a climactic scene from a Drury Lane melodrama called Women and Wine. The film stars Beatrice Homer and Edith Blanche, the actresses from the play, reprising their roles. It may also have been released under the title To the Death, or this may have been a second version of the same film (as was commonly done when an especially popular film wore out).

Homer and Blanche did not have particularly distinguished careers, though both enjoyed steady work in London’s West End. After performing at Drury Lane, Homer was at the Adelphi Theatre for the 1899-1900 season, appearing in 21 performances of “Drink,” an adaptation of Emil Zola’s L’Assommoir. Edith seems to have come from a family of actors, which included both her mother and her sister Ada, a far better-known actress with a career that spanned several decades.

The plot of Women and Wine is a fairly typical one. A law student, Dick Seymour, falls in with a bad crowd and turns to gambling, drink, and questionable female companionship, nearly destroying his life in the process. Marcel Rigadout (Homer), the woman who lured Dick down the wrong path, is eventually killed in a knife fight (as seen here) by “La Colombe” (Blanche), a jealous rival for the affections of another man Marcel “stole” from her.

Meanwhile, Dick is nearby, drunk into unconsciousness, and when he wakes up, he believes that he is responsible for the murder. He is arrested and put on trial, but La Colombe finally comes forward with a dramatic, 11th-hour confession in court, and Dick is tearfully reunited with his faithful girlfriend, who stood by him all along. It’s pretty clear from this summary which scene is (without context) the most cinematic (and marketable), though a full, feature-length adaptation (The Model) was eventually produced by Vitagraph in 1915.

Why you should see it:

Dickson had come a long way since his days filming these kinds of scenes in the Black Maria. Instead of a black backdrop, there is painted scenery effectively combined with real plants to create an actual setting. The framing doesn’t feel as confining as it generally did for similar acts in the Black Maria. The women have plenty of room to maneuver without ever looking like they are constrained by the space.

The choreography and costumes are also very effective in conveying the action. It would be easy for such a close struggle to devolve into confusion, but it is always clear which character is which and exactly what each one is doing. (It seems odd but notable that both women fight with the knife in their left hands.) The death scene is a bit much (and inadvertently reveals the total lack of any wound), but it’s brief and not nearly as over-the-top as it could be. Best of all is the rare glimpse of what an actual 19th-century stage production would have looked like in one of its most sensational moments.

Film History Essentials: Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc (1898)

•April 3, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: The Execution of Joan of Arc)

What it’s about:

Several people in period dress and a troop of guards enter and take up position near a large pyre piled around a stake. Joan of Arc follows behind, leaning on a monk for support. She makes a final plea to the Bishop, who points imperiously to the pyre. She climbs to the top and stands, clutching a crucifix given to her by the monk. The monk descends and kneels, either in prayer or to beg mercy from the Bishop. A man lights the pyre and stands back to watch along with the other spectators.

Why it’s essential:

Georges Hatot began directing films for Lumière in 1896, collaborating frequently with actor Gaston Breteau. In addition, some have credited them with several Gaumont films that are also credited to Alice Guy. Though the Lumière brothers are best known for their actualities, obviously their production company made all sorts of motion pictures during its year of operation. Of the couple dozen films credited to Hatot prior to 1900, what stands out are a series of films about executions and assassinations of figures from French history: the Duke of Guise, French revolutionaries Jean-Paul Marat, Jean-Baptiste Kléber, and Maximilien Robespierre, and (naturally) Joan of Arc.

These films mostly seem to have been tableau vivant inspired by famous works of art depicting the events in question. The primary source of inspiration for Exécution de Jeanne d’Arc was apparently Jules-Eugène Lenepveu’s Joan of Arc at the Stake in Rouen. It is a massive, 15-foot canvas that adorns a wall in the Panthéon, one of a series of paintings showing various scenes from Joan’s life. Lenepveu painted this series between 1886 and 1890, so its completion was relatively recent.

This particular film is also, of course, another example of the less common and painstaking hand-tinting process that added color to a few special films. Strangely, an image from the black-and-white version of the film seems to show that the hand-tinted version (at least as it exists online) has had the sides trimmed in slightly. There should be another guard visible standing to the far right of the frame, and the two spectators on the left side should not be partially cut off. Notice, too, the sign above Joan’s head at the stake. The quality of this version renders it illegible, but it is clear from the surviving black-and-white image that it says “Hérétique Relaps,” or “Relapsed Heretic” (the “crime” for which Joan was executed at the age of 19).

Why you should see it:

This seems to be the only film in Hatot’s “deaths of historical figures” series that does not show the actual event of the title. (Actually, Mort de Robespierre shows Robespierre being shot in the face. The film’s description claims that this shot ended his life, though he was in fact guillotined later that day.) However, all of Hatot’s similar films depict deaths that are much more sudden (mostly stabbings), and easier to simulate quickly with basic stagecraft. Still, it would have been possible to at least produce a lot of smoke, and the tinting could even have included some flames to great effect. On the other hand, the original painting doesn’t include any flames, either.

This one missed opportunity aside, the film makes particularly effective use of its colors. The guards and other onlookers are dressed in an array of brilliant hues, with the executioner who lights the fire in an especially vivid red. Bishop Cauchon’s gold-and-silver raiment stands out as well. All of these various bright colors are a stark contrast to the plain white worn by Joan herself, emphasizing her purity and her innocence among her accusers and executioners. The hand-tinting here is not only visually striking, but conveys meaning and symbolism as well. This is perhaps the earliest example of color being used in this way in a film.

Film History Essentials: De Onwillige Trekhond (1898)

•March 31, 2023 • 1 Comment

(English: The Unwilling Draught Dog)

What it’s about:

Three dogs pull carts across a narrow plank bridge over a canal. The first, pulled by two dogs, quickly reaches the other side, and the dogs immediately turn and walk down into the water, nearly drawing the cart in as well. The dog pulling the second cart makes its way much more uncertainly, and ends up dumping the cart’s contents into the water just as it reaches the bank.

Why it’s essential:

In 1897, the American Mutoscope Company expanded across the Atlantic, creating the subsidiary British Mutoscope Company. For William Dickson, this was an opportunity to return home to England with his family, and he became the technical manager for the new operation. Of course, as one of the most experienced cameramen in the world, he continued in that role, as well. He arrived back in Britain just in time to film a number of events surrounding Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

By this time, Dickson had already made the first film of the Pope, Leo XIII (in office 1878-1903), who blessed the Biograph camera, and the first film of a US President. His experience made him the obvious choice to journey to the Netherlands to film the coronation of Queen Wilhelmina in September 1898. Wilhelmina had been queen since the death of her father in 1890, when she was 10, with her mother serving as regent. However, she was officially crowned one week after her 18th birthday. Dickson made several films that day: of the coronation, the Queen’s arrival at the palace, the Queen greeting her people, etc.

Dickson then remained in the Netherlands for some time after, filming other views around the country, including De Onwillige Trekhond. He also helped establish a new Dutch subsidiary of American Mutoscope, the Nederlandsche Biograaf- en Mutoscope Maatschappij. Though short-lived (it went bankrupt in 1902), it was part of the beginnings of the Dutch film industry.

Meanwhile, Queen Wilhelmina ruled for another half century. She spent World War II leading her country’s government-in-exile from England, returning home to the Netherlands after its liberation in 1945, and finally abdicating in 1948. It was during those post-war years that the Dutch Historical Film Archive was established, building a collection that would eventually fall under the administration of the Eye Filmmuseum. Although the Dutch film industry has never been large, this organization’s efforts in collecting, preserving, and making old films available have yielded some of the most significant early-cinema discoveries of recent years.

Why you should see it:

There are two things about this film that immediately stand out. The first is its incredible, pristine quality. Despite being 125 years old, there are almost no blemishes on the image, and every detail is sharp and clear. It is genuinely a pleasure to behold. It’s difficult to overstate the difference it makes in our ability to appreciate a film when it is this well-preserved, knowing that we are seeing it as it was originally seen by audiences of the time.

The second is that it’s difficult to imagine a more obviously stereotypical Dutch image. There is the canal surrounded by flat, grassy fields. The approaching boat is flying the Dutch flag from the top of the mast. Of course there is a windmill in the background. And the boy and the woman guiding the second cart are even wearing wooden clogs. The use of dog-carts for making deliveries was once commonplace in the lowland countries of Europe (though this film makes them seem like kind of a lot of trouble). The composition of the image must certainly have been deliberately selected to showcase these picturesque elements.

What’s less clear is whether any of the events in the film are staged. If so, the people who appear in it are giving an extremely unselfconscious performance, but if not then it was incredibly fortuitous that Dickson happened to be rolling when this happened. Perhaps Dickson had originally intended to film the approaching boat, which is obviously set to arrive at the bridge within a minute or so of the film’s end. The bridge is clearly meant to be easily removed to allow boat traffic to pass, and the man in white points at it before hurrying across, evidently anticipating its imminent arrival and wanting to be sure the way is clear. As the boat continues to bear down on the sudden pile-up on the bridge, and the man who was walking away drops his sack and hurries back, further complications seem inevitable, but the film ends too soon and the situation is left unresolved.

Film History Essentials: “Something Good — Negro Kiss” (1898)

•March 29, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A man and woman embrace and kiss several times, parting briefly to smile and laugh at each other and the camera, flirting affectionately as they clasp hands.

Why it’s essential:

Films in the 1890s that featured black performers often had titles like Chicken Thieves and Watermelon Contest, or even included racial slurs. Depictions of black life did not always include black performers, either, as film drew on the popular American stage traditions of blackface minstrelsy. If there were any African American filmmakers working in the 19th century, their works have so far not been identified. Oscar Micheaux, generally regarded as the earliest black filmmaker, began his career in motion pictures near the end of the 1910s.

Inevitably, then, almost every known American film from the first few decades of cinema was made by a white filmmaker for a predominantly white audience, who largely regarded black citizens with condescension when not with outright contempt or hostility. It is hardly surprising, then, that even ostensibly “benign” depictions of black characters in film were based almost entirely on stereotypes that played to the prejudices of a white audience. And that’s why Something Good — Negro Kiss is such an incredible discovery.

In 2014, Dino Everett, a film archivist at the University of Southern California, purchased some old nitrate films from a Louisiana collector. Nearly three years later, as he looked through them, he discovered one that prompted him to contact Dr. Allyson Nadia Field, a film scholar at the University of Chicago. It was, as he told her, “unlike anything [he’d] seen before.” She concurred, describing how the film was made in a “period when all moving picture images of African Americans were through a white lens and are distortions, misrepresentations, or pseudo anthropological. And this is none of that” (as quoted by Tambay Obenson for IndieWire, 2021).

As Field would later document extensively in an article for Film History, what followed was the painstaking process of identifying the film and the performers who appeared in it. The discovery, believed to be the earliest film of its kind, created something of a sensation when it was announced, even outside of the world of film scholarship. A popular version (that is quite lovely) incorporated the track “Agape” from the soundtrack of If Beale Street Could Talk. The film was nominated to the National Film Registry soon after the discovery was announced, and was added in 2018.

Something Good — Negro Kiss was produced by Chicago-based filmmaker William Selig (see right), and stars Chicago vaudevillians Saint Suttle and Gertie Brown. It was likely intended as a good-natured parody of Edison’s 1896 The Kiss, which was among the most famous and widely-seen films of its time, and would still have been in circulation even two years later. However, in 2021, a longer and somewhat different alternative version, that had been misidentified as a Lumière film, was discovered in Norway. The confusion was a result of the distinctive perforations on the side of the film, which were the same as those found on Lumière films. That particular perforation pattern happened to be used by this American film for an interesting reason.

William Selig, like Georges Méliès, was performing as a magician before he encountered motion pictures for the first time. After seeing a kinetoscope demonstration at the Texas State Fair, he returned to Chicago and, in search of an apparatus that wouldn’t fall afoul of Edison’s patented technology, happened to find someone who had built a spare Lumière cinematographe for one of the brothers’ traveling camera operators. The man was able to use the same plans to make Selig a camera and projector, which he named the “Polyscope.” That was why Selig’s films resembled a European rather than an American product. This was the clue that ultimately led Field to identify the film, as well.

Why you should see it:

The alternative version of Something Good — Negro Kiss is about twice as long as this version, and is shot so that the couple’s full bodies appear in the frame. The negative is also reversed, though whether intentionally or accidentally is unclear. In that version, the woman repeatedly rejects the man’s advances before finally succumbing to his embrace. The result feels much more like a stage performance. In contrast, this version has such a feeling of natural intimacy and chemistry between the two that Everett initially believed it might be a proto-“home movie” rather than something filmed for exhibition.

Saint Sutton and Gertie Brown (born Gilberta Gertrude Chevalier, which is a fantastic name) were two members of “The Rag-Time Four” alongside John and Maud Brewster (see left). Sutton was a composer as well as an entertainer, and the four were a dancing and singing group, best known for their version of the cakewalk. This dance has a fascinating history, originating before the end of slavery. Some accounts suggest that the dance began as an exaggerated parody of the more formal dances that were popular among white slaveholders of the time. Based on old footage of these dances, the theory is at least plausible.

Brown remained in the Chicago theater scene until her marriage in 1915 to comedian Tim Moore. The couple toured extensively for many years before finding some success on Broadway in the late 1920s. Brown died of pneumonia in 1932, aged 54, and Sutton, whose career in the interim is not as well documented, passed away two years later.

Their 1898 film together notwithstanding, of course both frequently participated in the kinds of stereotypical acts and roles that were expected from every black performer who wanted to maintain a career in show business. Moore later went on to national fame playing the immensely popular character of The Kingfish, a scheming, small-time grifter, in the early-1950s television sitcom adaptation of Amos ‘n’ Andy, one of the most successful radio shows of the 1930s and ’40s. (And one which, incidentally, had previously featured an all-white cast voicing the all-black roster of characters.)

In any case, almost nothing seems to be known about the circumstances that led to the making of Something Good — Negro Kiss. Perhaps Sutton and Brown were originally there to film a cakewalk, and that film is now lost, or perhaps a new version of The Kiss was always the plan. However it came to be, white audiences likely viewed it purely as comedy, as with virtually all films that included black people. Nevertheless, the result feels like a tantalizing, all-too-brief glimpse into an alternate world of black entertainment that we are otherwise forced to imagine and reconstruct from less vivid sources.

As with many early filmmakers, nearly 95% of Selig’s 20+ years of films are considered lost. The possibility that more motion pictures like this may have once existed (and certainly could have existed) is a loss that feels all the more keen when all of the other surviving depictions of African Americans appear through such a warped racial lens. Whenever any 19th-century film suddenly surfaces from an unexpected source, it is an incredible find. This, an anomaly that is perhaps the most charming and beautiful pre-1900 American film we have, is a gift.

Film History Essentials: Passage d’un Tunnel en Chemin de Fer (1898)

•March 27, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Passing Through a Railway Tunnel)

What it’s about:

The camera view, filmed from the front of a train, travels across a bridge and then enters a tunnel. Emerging into the light on the other side, the journey continues on to the station.

Why it’s essential:

Passage d’un Tunnel en Chemin de Fer is a sort of hybrid of two of the Lumières’ most iconic and important films: L’arrivée d’un Train à La Ciotat and Panorama du Grand Canal Pris d’un Bateau. The first famously features the arrival of a train at a station, filmed from the perspective of someone standing on the platform. The second helped invent the tracking shot by mounting a camera on a moving boat in the canals of Venice. Panoramas shot from a moving vehicle (boats, trains, carriages, etc.) quickly became a regular feature of the Lumière repertoire. But by the time they placed a camera operator on the front of a locomotive to film Passage d’un Tunnel in 1898, these sorts of shots had already become quite common in America.

Edison released some stationary films of trains passing by in 1896 that were effectively advertisements for particular rail lines, like The Empire State Express. However, purportedly drawing inspiration from Panorama du Grand Canal, William Heise and James White also made some films from a moving train during their trip to Niagara Falls in the summer of 1896. These, particularly their shots of the rushing rapids in Niagara Gorge, proved extremely popular. The company was soon filming similar views, mostly of natural features taken from the rear of a moving train.

Alexandre Promio, who had filmed the Venice canal view, also shot a film from a moving train as he was leaving Jerusalem in 1897 (Départ de Jérusalem en Chemin de Fer), and it was quite successful. That same year, the American Mutoscope Company put a cameraman on the front of the train for The Haverstraw Tunnel. This was the first of what became known as the “phantom ride” genre, so named for the illusion of traveling aboard an invisible transport, as the means of locomotion does not appear within the frame. Although these films began simply, they became increasingly sophisticated during the decade or so of their greatest popularity.

The first “phantom rides” generally consisted of short, single-take shots, filmed locally. Before long, however, cameras were filming journeys in more exotic locations, and were combining multiple shots to create longer sequences. In 1899, a British company filmed a 12-minute train ride from Dalmeny, a few miles west of Edinburgh, north across the Firth of Forth to Dunfermline, a journey noted for its picturesque beauty.

Several years later, the genre reached its logical apotheosis with “Hale’s Tours of the World.” These attractions featured screenings of phantom rides exhibited inside a fake railway car, and included sound effects and benches that moved. Film audiences began to lose interest in the genre by the end of the decade, but as an attraction, it formed the basis of the many 4D rides that exist in amusement parks today.

Why you should see it:

Passage d’un Tunnel, filmed near the Lumière hometown of Lyon, is a fairly typical example of early phantom ride films. It features a stretch of track that is rendered unique by the local geography. The Rhône passes right through Lyon on its 500-mile journey to the Mediterranean. Originating in Lake Geneva in Switzerland, it winds down through the Alps and across southern France. One of its tributaries, the Saône, flows into it in Lyon, as well, and a section of the city lies between the two rivers. The commune of Caluire-et-Cuire is on a hill just to the north of Lyon, also between the Saône and the Rhône, and the track that passes beneath it is a key connection on the Paris-to-Marseilles and Lyon-to-Geneva rail lines.

The film begins with a particularly striking shot crossing a metal truss bridge over the Saône. The way the light and shadow play across the surfaces creates a very unique visual texture that feels almost like the viewer is passing through some sort of portal. The train then immediately curves left to enter another portal: the Caluire Rail Tunnel. The shot is soon shrouded in darkness.

At this point, the camera operator paused filming, as the shot is only in darkness for some five seconds before the tunnel exit appears. There is also a brief flicker about halfway through the darkened portion of the film that likely marks this transition. The Caluire Rail Tunnel, which burrows under the hill on which Caluire-et-Cuire sits, is approximately 1.5 miles (2400 meters) long, and so would have taken well over a minute to traverse.

The light at the end of the tunnel appears suddenly as an indistinct blob that quickly grows to encompass the entire frame, a perfect mirror to how the darkness enveloped it moments before. Only after the train has fully emerged into the light does the scene resolve so that the track and its surroundings are once again visible. The ground slopes upward to either side, and the view passes through one more sort of “portal,” in the form of a bridge over the tracks, to emerge into the flat, open space surrounding the station. This series of naturally-occuring “frames” that each lead to a distinct new environment or “scene” makes this particular phantom ride stand out, showcasing the ways this genre prefigured the birth of temporal and spatial editing.

Film History Essentials: Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour (1898)

•March 25, 2023 • 2 Comments

(English: Surprise Attack on a House at Daybreak)

What it’s about:

A group of soldiers approach a house from behind the enemy sentry and kill him. As other soldiers begin to emerge from the house, they open fire. They retreat as the soldiers in the house take aim with a cannon. The defenders’ officer directs them to bring a wagon over for additional cover, and some soldiers take shelter behind it as they continue to return fire on the attackers.

Why it’s essential:

In March 1895, the Lumière brothers invited Léon Gaumont (see right) and his 21-year old secretary Alice Guy to their first-ever film screening, nine months before they debuted it for the public. At the time, Gaumont was an employee of a camera manufacturing company owned by Max Richards, but within a few months, he was running it. Max lost a court case brought by his brother Jules that forced him out of the business, and Gaumont lined up some partners, bought him out, and formed the new “L. Gaumont & Cie.” The president of the new board of directors was Gustav Eiffel, though his name was kept off the company as he had recently been convicted of misappropriation of funds in connection with his work for a French company that claimed to be building a canal across Panama (before it suddenly folded, with a great deal of money unaccounted for).

Alice Guy continued on in the same role, becoming responsible for much of the day-to-day administration of the business, and point of contact for its most important clients when Gaumont was absent. During this same period, Georges Demenÿ partnered with Gaumont to manufacture his motion picture cameras. After they failed to catch on, Demenÿ left the business in 1896, and Gaumont retained his patents and continued to develop them. Guy described what happened next:

Gaumont, like Lumière, was especially interested in solving mechanical problems. It was one more camera to put at the disposition of his clients. The educational and entertainment values of motion pictures seemed not to have caught his attention. Nevertheless, there had been created, in the ruelle des Sonnieres, a little laboratory for the development and printing of short “shots”: parades, railroad stations, portraits of the laboratory personnel, which served as demonstration films but were both brief and repetitious.

Daughter of an editor, I had read a good deal and retained quite a bit. I had done a little amateur theatricals and I thought that one might do better than these demonstration films. Gathering my courage, I timidly proposed to Gaumont that I might write one or two little scenes and have a few friends perform in them. If the future development of motion pictures had been foreseen at this time, I should never have obtained his consent.

My youth, my inexperience, my sex, all conspired against me.

I did receive permission, however, on the express condition that this would not interfere with my secretarial duties. […] I ended by agreeing. I was already bitten by the demon of the cinema.

The Memoirs of Alice Guy Blaché, pp. 26-27

And that was how Alice Guy (see left) became the first woman film director. Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour is one of the films she is said to have directed. Some important caveats are necessary here. Although Guy worked as a director for nearly 25 years, around 90% of her films are now lost, and her significance went almost entirely unacknowledged by early film historians. Guy herself sought to correct the record during her lifetime. One such effort was the writing of her memoirs during the 1940s. However, the book was not published until 1976, several years after her death. It was first translated into English in 1986.

She was the subject of a short documentary in 1995, and a well-received biography in 2002. But it was not until 2018, with the release of the documentary Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, that her accomplishments began to gain widespread attention outside of academia, which prompted further efforts to restore her surviving films and make them available. Meanwhile, the long gap between her career and much of the scholarship about it has resulted in a number of academic controversies, particularly surrounding whether many films that have been attributed to her are attributed correctly. It doesn’t help that her memoirs (which, after all, were composed half a century after she got her start in the film industry) contain a number of obvious lapses in her memory about specific events.

That said, some of those supposed “lapses” are contested as well. For instance, Guy claims to have directed her very first film, La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage-Patch Fairy), in 1896, and notes that it was one of the first narrative fiction films, and that the Cinémathèque Française holds the negative. Guy’s The Cabbage-Patch Fairy is, in fact, widely available to watch online. The problem is, that film has been dated to no earlier than 1900. This suggests the extent to which some of the details in her recollection may be confused. However, there were at least two different versions of The Cabbage-Patch Fairy (possibly 1900 and 1902), and there is some evidence that there may have been a third, lost version from 1896.

La Fée aux Choux (ca. 1900)

There are several reasonable explanations for the discrepancy. It’s quite possible that Guy simply didn’t know which version of her film was held by the archive, or that she confused the 1900 and 1896 versions. In any case, some scholars claim that no films have been positively identified as having been directed by Guy prior to 1902. For any of the many films from the years 1896 to 1901 that are commonly attributed to her, there is someone pointing to an alternative attribution or piece of evidence indicating that work was made by someone else.

I do not have the resources or the expertise to assess this evidence, but it seems significant to me that, in claiming to expose some of this misattribution, film scholar Maurice Gianati has a lecture titled “Alice Guy a-t-elle existé?” (“Did Alice Guy exist?”). This smacks of a troubling lack of objectivity, and of the sort of attitude that saw her forgotten from film history to begin with. Both sides of this debate are forced to engage in a great deal of guesswork. A lot of the contention seems to come down to whether or not a given person accepts Guy’s recollections as presented in good faith, with inconsistencies that can be logically explained by the imperfections of human memory and other factors. It is important to note that the concept of “directorship” was an extraordinarily fluid one in early cinema, and there is a good chance that Guy had at least some involvement in most or all of these films.

We know this because (as if her other achievements weren’t enough), from 1897 to 1907, she was the first head of film production at Gaumont, the oldest still-existing film company in the world. It’s also worth pointing out that a number of the 19th-century films that she is said to have made are obviously inspired by, if not directly copied from, other films of the time. This was a standard procedure throughout this period. In fact, it was one of the (relatively) more honest practices of the time. Many distributors simply stole films, relabeled them, and exhibited them as their own.

During these years, there were four major film companies operating in France: Gaumont, Lumière, Georges Méliès’s Star Film, and Pathé (which also still exists today). All four of these companies produced films that were virtually identical to films produced by their competitors. This film is a case in point, as a film with the same title and scenario was released by Lumière later that same year. There were also filmmakers who basically worked as independent contractors, making films for various studios. At least one such team seems to have made a film for Lumière, and then made essentially the same film (using the same set) for Gaumont (although the Gaumont version is another film that is often attributed to Alice Guy).

All that to say, whether Surprise d’une Maison au Petit Jour was “directed” by Alice Guy or by the independent team of Gaston Breteau and Georges Hatot (as some suggest), she would have been involved with it at some level. Still, it’s true that, in whatever ways she was developing her knowledge and skills during these years, her greatest achievements in the nascent film industry still lay ahead of her by the turn of the century. With her 150th birthday just a few months away, those achievements are certainly worth revisiting.

Why you should see it:

Many of Gaumont’s (often derivative) early films still show a certain originality of composition, but even among these Surprise is striking, both for its positioning of the camera and the actors, and for the naturalism of its performances. This has none of the stagy artificiality of some Méliès reenactments, for example. There are well over a dozen actors on the screen, and they are choreographed in a way that makes it seem like there are more. All are in full uniforms, and wielding weapons that let out impressive bursts of smoke (as does the cannon!).

The choice of angle seems obvious at first, but after the first 12-15 seconds, the scene becomes confusing because some of the most important action seems to be happening outside of the frame. The attackers stand and fire a volley at the house, but then they disappear to the right. Some defenders seem to be giving chase, but then they reappear with a wagon that is apparently intended for cover (though some of them climb on top of it, which seems counterintuitive). Several of the soldiers aim off to the right, as though the attackers are some distance away, but then a few of the attackers, including the enemy officer, charge suddenly into the frame and are killed. The ambush does not seem to be going well.

Watching the main action taking place in the foreground of the shot, it’s not immediately obvious where all of the defending soldiers come from. Two emerge from the first doorway, and it seems like that is the main exit from the house, but watch closely. No one else comes out that door. A third soldier emerges from a crouch behind the stairs to fire the cannon. Most of the soldiers come pouring out of the doorway in the center of the frame, behind the cannon, but two more climb down from a sort of loft just to the right. Then one of the shutters falls off of the window next to the first doorway, and three more soldiers leap out there.

A few sources suggest this scene is meant to be set during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, (the most recent European war involving France at this time). Nothing about the scene necessitates that it be tied to any particular conflict, and it doesn’t appear to be a reenactment of a significant event. But the flag hanging above the house could be the French flag, though it’s difficult to tell. It certainly isn’t the Prussian flag. That suggests that this is a patriotic film, in which the sneaky, underhanded Prussians (or whomever) stage a cowardly attack, only to be repulsed by brave French troops. Whatever the case, those signifiers would no doubt have been clearer to a contemporary audience.

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

•March 23, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

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

Why it’s essential:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Albion Battleship Calamity

Why you should see it:

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

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

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