Early Cinema: From Sneeze to Train Robbery

Rosenbush Café Midnight Movie series continues with a retrospective of landmarks of early cinema with Edison Kinetoscope Films (1894-96), and “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Next weekend will conclude with the Lumière Films (1895-97) and a preview of April’s films.

I contacted the American Film Institute for their view on early films and received this reply from their catalog staff:

“Although the AFI does not endorse particular theories about which film was the earliest, we can tell you that many film historians name Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, which was released in early 1894, as the first exhibited film.”

Fred Ott, an Edison employee

An early bit of surreal slapstick comedy; later essential Monty Python’s Flying Circus restaurant parody leitmotifs:

Edison’s early films depicted everyday events like the simple act of kissing, more daring in the 19th Century, and what may be considered mundane rituals by today’s jaded theater goers, that nonetheless fascinated audiences in the 1890s: a woman feeding birds, boxing match, serpentine dances, men in a barber shop and the cute “Seminary Girls” with pillow fighters in nightgowns, again daring for its time, but tame by even Saturday morning television cartoon standards today.

In addition to everyday life the earliest films included nude women in poses with the esthetics of animated French Postcards. These shots are far more risqué than Edison’s or Lumière films and the scantily clad ladies were displayed walking, sitting and generally exposed in a manner that in today’s cinema would probably result in a PG rating!

Tonight’s cartoon comes from Max (Popeye) Fleischer and is called Bimbo’s Initiation (1931). Plenty of the usual toon surrealism with the living candle flames a personal favorite. A story of “membership” for a secret organization (Knights, Masons or whatever) with the gallows humorous Fleischer style; M.C. Escher inspired moving staircases, faux exits, nifty score and cameo by Betty Boop!

Tonight’s feature presentation is the silent western, “The Great Train Robbery” by former Edison Studio cameraman Edwin S. Porter, who directed and photographed the “on-location” story (many early films were shot on sets) and employed many clever techniques including: double exposures, cross cutting, simple editing and camera movements to the mostly linear narrative story. Some prints had hand colored scenes (watch closely at the 7 minute 14 second mark when the daughter of the bound telegraph operator arrives). The final frame is the famous iconic image of a robber shooting at the audience! Could qualify as the first 3-D effect, sans glasses.

This scene has inspired many filmmakers, most notably Alfred Hitchcock, who used it in “Spellbound” (1945), when Leo G. Carroll turned a pistol towards himself, and the audience, to commit suicide. Hitch used one color frame, in the otherwise black and white psychological thriller, as the gun fires towards us and Carroll’s head! Spellbound was famous for artist Salvador Dali’s dream sequence (really more like a nightmare considering the Surrealist’s unnerving imagery) that provides psychiatrist Dr. Constance Petersen (Ingrid Bergman) with information to unlock the troubled mind of colleague Dr. Anthony Edwardes (Gregory Peck).

If you are interested in this era, the AFI suggests:

“American Silent Films” by William K. Everson.
the Library of Congress Motion Picture Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division LOC

The Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Oscars

The final examination of the landmarks of early cinema concludes Saturday, March 27th with Lumière Films and my reposting (from October 15, 2008) of Luis Buñuel’s L’Âge d’Or.