Early Cinema
LA VAGUE
(THE WAVE) 1890
Director: Etienne-Jules Marey

MONKEYSHINES No 1. 1889
MONKEYSHINES No 2. 1889
INDIAN CLUB SWINGER. 1891
MOUNTED POLICE CHARGE. 1896
A MORNING ALARM; or, MORNING FIRE ALARM. 1896
THE MORNING ALARM. 1896
GOING TO THE FIRE. 1896
Directors: William K. L. Dickson & William Heise

EXECUTION OF MARY, QUEEN OF SCOTS. 1895
Director: Alfred Clark

A STORM AT SEA. 1900
Directors: James H. White & Alfred C. Abadie

WRECK OF THE BATTLESHIP "MAINE." 1898
BURIAL OF "MAINE" VICTIMS. 1898
Director: William Daly Paley

BUFFALO BILL'S WILD WEST PARADE. 1902
Directors: Edwin S. Porter & Frederick S. Armitage

THE STAR THEATER. 1902
Fredrick S. Armitage

BOYS DIVING, HONOLULU. 1902
Director: Robert K. Bonine

Reviewed by Paghat the Ratgirl



The Regarded as the first motion picture ever made, The Wave (La Vague 1890) shows under half a minute of breakers pounding on an upright rock in the shallows of a bay.

To make this the very first requires dismissing some other motion picture methods, notably the moving photos of Eadweard Muybridge.

But what the hey; if The Wave was the first movie on Earth, that would mean the world's first cinematographer was the elderly French inventor & physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey (1830-1904).

He would live barely long enough to obtain good glimpses of what he started rolling, in the works of the Lumiere brothers & the world's first great filmmaker, Georges Milies.

In 1882 Etienne-Jules invented a camera that could take serial photographs. This "fusil photographique" or "photographic gun" is shown in the illustration on this page. A photographic "shoot" was never so perfect a discription!

chronophotograph"The bird in flight is a typical example of a chronophotograph made with a photographic gun. To get such a photo, one would stand in a hunter's posture, aim at the subject, & fire.

The illustration at the top of the page showing what looks like a "hunter" is in fact a motion photographer using the photographic gun.

He made continuous improvements with a milestone in 1888 when he was able to replace the photographic glass plate with light-sensitive paper, & that year made films on paper. A key missing ingredient for projectable movies, however, was still the lack of transparent film.

Nevertheless, between 1890 & 1900, Marey made a great many motion analysis "films" on glass then paper, a couple of which became quite famous in their own right, like his motion analysis film of a cat dropped upside down, catching its balance just before it lands; or his unintentionally macabre visual record of a horse's skeleton running, which ought to be cited as an example of early animation.

FusilHis purpose was never cinema, however. For Etienne-Jules, the study of motion had scientific applicability, so his magazine-plate camera was to his thinking a medical instrument.

His thinking & influence is ultimately the reason the pioneering Lumieres started off thinking in terms of medical applicabilities, though that soon changed, thanks to the imagination of Georges Milies.

He also envisioned non-medical practical applications for motion analysis, & his chronophotographs of birds were in great part to understand the nature of flight, which researches had applicability for machine-assisted flight of man.

So his filming of La Vague was for scientific "motion analysis" rather than for pure pictorial value. Even so, he framed the shot nicely, giving it considerable photographic charm, just as his earlier chronophotographs look great framed as art.


Monkeyshines No 1 The earliest of the early films at Thomas Edison's company were not for public viewing but were called "demonstration films." Though La Vague is regarded as the first motional, this will forever be arguable, as these kinds of prouncements sometimes depend on definitions of what constitutes a "film," & what it was used for.

William K. L. Dickson assisted by William Heise experimentally created the half-minute Monkeyshines No 1 (1889) & Monkeyshines No 2 (1889), very short films without much clarity, for in-house testing of equipment Dickson in particular was veritably inventing day by day.

The first monkey shines shows a terribly vague image of a moving person, so foggy he could as easily have stumps as arms. There's no way of telling anything whatsoever about this figure, but history records that it was one of Dickson's lab workers, John Ott, who thus has a little spot in film history.

Monkeyshines No 1It has no real content to speak of but is quite by accident has a spooky avante gard feel to it. Knowing the context of its creation, & how swiftly this new technology was advancing, it is kind of awesome.

The second Monkeyshines is either John Ott (if filmed June 1889 like the first one) but could be G. Sacco Albanese (if filmed November 1890 as is alternatively promulgated by film historians).

The second try improved on the first, though still terribly primitive. The shadowy figure is seemingly doing calisthenics, though all he's really doing is making exaggerated movements to test what can be captured on film.

Because it's a little less unintentionally bizarre than the first Monkeyshines it ends up being less interesting, though fascinating to see the leaps forward Dickson was making with each test film.

These aren't usually cited as the "first films" because unlike La Vague they weren't intended for public viewing but were only tests. But having survived, they have taken on greater meaning among film historians as the first films ever made. And they do turn out to have actual interest as works of accidental art.

IndianAnother of William K. L. Dickson's early experiments, shot through an oval aperture on film sprocketed on one side only, was the three-second film Indian Club Swinger; aka, Newark Athlete With Indian Clubs (1891).

At such a length (or shorth) it could do no more than the title states, a quick glimpse of a young lad juggling Indian clubs. But history was being made.

It's amazing to think that only five years after The Wave & four after such 1891 Dickson films as Newark Athlete, Dickson Greeting, & Indian Club Swinger, there would already be hundreds of short films scattered to the public, some of them surprisingly sophisticated, exhibited in circus tents, vaudeville halls, curio shops, & halls newly established for nothing but movies, the kinetoscope parlors then the nickelodians.


Mary, Queen of ScotsAlfred Clark directed, with William Heise at the camera, The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895), an historical reenactment which went well beyond the more typical films of the time which were comedies, sports, places, peepshow girlie action, or events often reliant on the novelty of pictures moving & nothing else.

Like most kinetoscope films it's only a half minute long, but a whole lot more serious in look, with considerable thought put into staging & costume.

It shows most graphically the beheading of Mary Queen of Scotts, perhaps the first time use of this method of trick photography was intended for shock & grue instead of used for magic or comedy. Mary was played by a male actor, Robert Thomae.

Alfred Clark also made films about the burning of Joan of Arc, a frontier lynching film, an Indian scalping film, so he liked gorey subjects. He might be regarded the first grand guinol film director!


A Storm at Sea A minute & a half begins as a calm sea cruise in A Storm at Sea (1900) by James H. White & Alfred C. Abadie of the Edison Manufacturing Company.

The waves become higher & angrier as the film progresses, but it never really constitutes a storm, & there's no suspense.

It's just supposed to be nice shots of moving water, which would forever remain a favorite subject of filmmakers.

The ship is "Kaiserina Maria Theresa" & it was made while White & Abadie were in transit to the Paris Exhibition, filming A Storm at Sea to fill some time during the voyage & without planning.

WreckWreck of the "Maine" (1898) was filmed in Havana Harbor, showing several boats surrounding the sinking battleship. The shot was obtained from the deck of a passing barge.

Although the tragedy took place during Cuba's war of independence from Spain, the US was not yet in the war, & the "Maine" was not honestly a casuality thereof.

The Heart newspapers reported the loss of the "Maine" as the perfidious fault of Spain, to drum up some hatred for Spain & to sell papers, not because William Randolph Hearst believed the lie.

In reality the ship's boiler had exploded from malfunction, & 260 American navy men were killed in the catastrophe. By promulgating that Spain had done it, however, the United States entered into the Spanish-American War.

BurialIn the two-minute documentation of the Buriel of the "Maine" Victims (1898), more hatred for Spain was drummed up.

A horse & buggy funeral procession is shown, also with mourners on foot, some of them survivors from the lost "Maine," all solomenly in parade to the cemetery. There are nine flag-draped coffins.

This tragic scene was cataloged by Edison's company in a "war extra," together with Wreck of the "Maine," as veritable "newsreels" filmed when these events occurred. Similar funerals were happening elsewhere along the coast, as a great many men had died.

The photographer for these two films, William Daly Paley (1857-1924), specialized in filming military subjects.


Parade Buffalo Bill's parade down Fifth Avenue was recorded for posterity in the two-minute Buffalo Bill's Wild West Parade (1902) featuring cowboys & Indians on hoseback, a huge stagecoach & later a smaller one. Less than a minute in, William Cody himself rides by, raising his hat momentarily.

Though it's a fairly workmanlike wee documentary, it was the work of two of the best filmmakers at the Edison company, Edwin S. Porter & F. S. Armitage.

A huge crowd has turned out to see it, & there are more New York boys in caps marching along than there are members of the wild west show, black kids as well as white.

Star TheaterArmitage also set up & filmed a very early time-lapse film, The Star Theater (1902).

Three minutes of time-lapse photography captures the levelling of famed theater, from the top down. The building was built in 1961, & a new Star Theater built after the demolition, continuing to be a major entertainment venue.

It starts off at regular time to get a feeling for the busy street with pedestrians, trolly, & horse-drawn vehicles.

It then speeds up with vehicles whizzing through the intersection & the shadows of each passing day moving across the frame from left to right, as the time lapse continues each following dawn, & the dismantled building becomes shorter day by day.


Boys Diving Robert K. Bonine made several short-shorts while in Hawaii, including Boys Diving, Honolulu (1902).

Given the nature of kinetoscope "peep show" & male orientation, it's quite possible a film of boys skinny-dipping had more purient interest than the innocence of the boys themselves conveys.

Tall-ships are seen silhouetted in the background. Boys are shown jumping one after another into the warm Pacific, for a mite over two minutes, a motored boat going by toward the end. Bonine would continue his voyagings, to make films in the Philipines, Japan, & China.

Charge Mounted Police Charge (1896) was filmed in New York's Central Park by James H. White & William Heise.

It must've been quite a thrill for film viewing in those days to watch horses galloping at full tilt right at your eyes. The horses stop right in front of the camera.

Another bit of excitement from White & Heise featured the Newark Fire Department in A Morning Alarm; aka, Morning Fire Alarm (1896), showing horse-drawn fire wagons as though rushing to a fire.

A Morning AlarmA reported 2,000 people showed up to watch this event, many of whom found their way into the film.

So it wasn't a real fire department alarm call, but a pre-announced film event which brought out the crowd. And the firechief himself drove the horses in the lead wagon.

Even though they're not off to a real fire, they've got some real speed on them, & this is a thrilling view of fire fighting equipment in motion.

The Morning AlarmWhite & Heise made the nearly identical & similarly titled The Morning Alarm (1896), depicting the horse-drawn fire engines rushing from a fire station in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

It's only distinguishing factor is the time of year, December, with some snow on the ground.

It's otherwise likely that more or less the same film was made in two locations because people wanted to see their own local fire department.

Going to the Fire AlarmHeise & White made more or less the same film again asGoing to the Fire (1896), again portraying the Newark fire department's horse-drawn fire wagons rushing from the station.

The same subject matter would be duplicated again & again not only by Edison but by Lubin, evidence that even as "actuality films" lost their appeal (in favor of films with jokes or stories to tell), the thrill of rushing fire engines just wouldn't wane.

This unwaning interest led eventually to a real classic of this little sub-genre, Edwin S. Porter's Life of an American Fireman (1903) which at least gave the illusion of telling a story merely by asking the viewer to think of the events as the biography of a specific fireman rather than as actuality sequences.


Continue to:
Part V: Early Cinema

copyright by Paghat the Ratgirl



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