Film History Firsts: 10 Milestone Films You Can Watch For Free

1888 – “The Roundhay Garden Scene” – First Ever Film

Yeah, I know, that’s a pretty brazen assertion—as if I can 100% conclusively say “motion pictures started here,” because in some form they existed for centuries! As the great critic André Bazin noted, humans have dreamed of perfectly capturing and preserving the appearance of life since time immemorial. Cinema existed in the mind long before it could be realized. Thaumatropes, zoetropes, and other optical entertainments foreshadowed the birth of movies. Some would argue that the live action motion-capture photographs that naturalists like Muybridge and Marey created really mark the inception of film.

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However, if I have to put my money down on one person as the inventor of film, it’s going to be Louis-Aimé Augustin LePrince. This French-born innovator struggled for years to sell his motion picture camera only to vanish without a trace on the cusp of becoming internationally famous. According to Donald Cook’s History of Narrative Cinema, LePrince projected motion pictures as a demonstration for functionnaires of the French government at the Paris Opera in 1890—five years before the Lumière brothers would exhibit their camera-projector, the Cinematographe.

His uncanny disappearance has sparked your typical range of crackpot theories; some have speculated that ruthless entrepreneur Thomas Edison, whom we remember as a great inventor, a perpetuator of animal cruelty, an occasional idea thief, and an all-round nice guy, had LePrince killed. I wouldn’t be surprised in the least.

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What has come to be known as “The Roundhay Garden Scene” represents the first successful attempt to make motion pictures, not just to record motion through a series of still images. The fact that an ordinary middle class British family serve as the subject of the first ever film also imbues the fragment with a sense of warmth and nostalgia, hinting at the human dimension latent in the technological advance. Unlike the scientific gaze of many early photographic motion studies, the quaint backyard location and lawn game ambiance of the few seconds of film opens a window in time. Travel back to 1888 and witness the grainy power of LePrince’s vision.

1895  – “Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory” – First Film for Commercial Projection

Film historians tend to consider Lumière Brothers the founders of the medium even though Edison’s studio was producing films before them. Why? Because Edison’s ideas about film and how it could be marketed and distributed were comparatively limited. His camera couldn’t easily be transported, so Edison’s films were made indoors in a studio called the Black Maria. His Kinetoscope exhibition method relied on a peep-hole scenario where the viewer had to put his eye up against a tiny screen and watch the movie. By contrast, the Lumières’ highly portable camera-projector enabled them to capture footage outdoors and to share the images with many people at once. They were the first to conceive of film as a form of group entertainment.

lumieres

However, with the proliferation of online video, the dominance of small screens, and the increasing commonness of media enjoyed in isolation, I can’t help but notice that film actually seems to be shifting away from the shared experience of the Lumière model and back towards the individual experience of Edison’s Kinetoscope.

That is an observation, not a judgment. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this turns out.

1895 – “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots” – First Film Edit

The first edit within a movie was a cut in more ways that one! To recreate a bloody historical event, “The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots,” Alfred Clark at Edison Studios used a hidden cut. We see Mary kneel to put her neck on the block, the axe swings upward, and, then, in the blink of an eye, Mary gets swapped out for a pre-chopped mannequin. Off with her head!

Not only does this film remind us that editing itself can constitute one of the most powerful special effects, but it also reveals how editing and violence have always gone hand-in-hand. It’s hard to imagine some of the most masterful, yet violent sequences in film history—the Odessa Stairs massacre from Battleship Potemkin, the shower scene from Psycho, the Ride of the Valkyries sequence from Apocalypse Now—without torrents of rhythmic cuts. And it all started here, even if you’re not supposed to notice that cut. Audiences were appropriately horrified and the relationship between film and extreme violence was born.

1895 – First Film with Synchronous Sound

Long before Al Jolson exulted, “You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in the so-called first talking film, The Jazz Singer (1927), movies had actually been making noise for quite some time. In late 1894 or 1895, William Dickson of Edison Studios actually timed a film recording with synchronous sound captured by a wax cylinder. Long considered lost, the cylinder was found and recently restored so we can hear Dickson himself playing the first piece of synched movie sound, a bit of violin music.

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Incidentally, we might giggle at the sight of two men dancing in a 19th century film, but homosocial dancing was not a particularly unusual thing for that era. Men in the army, on boats, and in isolated locations like prairies often danced with each other in a way that implied camaraderie and friendship, since dancing was one of the most popular ways to pass time.

I know this sounds strange, but I find this film the most poignant of all of the ones I’m featuring. I nearly started crying the first time I heard the clear vibration of a violin that ceased to play over a century ago.

1896 – “The Cabbage Fairy” – First Film by a Female Director

I hate to trivialize Alice Guy-Blaché by referring to her as a “female director,” as though her only claim to fame was doing something that men mostly do. In fact, she possessed an extraordinary imagination on a par with Méliès, a deliciously cheeky sense of humor, and sensitivity to the emotional nuances of narrative that foreshadowed Griffith’s masterpieces. She worked with cutting edge technologies like superimposition and synchronous sound at the turn of the century. She oversaw production at early film giant Gaumont and, after she moved to America, she bought and ran her own studio, Solax.

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Unfortunately, her first film, “The Cabbage Fairy,” a version of a myth about where babies come from might not exactly stoke one’s enthusiasm for her oeuvre. It features a scantily clad lady (Guy herself!) plucking naked live babies out of exaggerated cabbage patches. Nevertheless, the whimsical set design, the fantasy quality, and the sheer surreal weirdness of visually representing a legend all speak for this film’s historical value. But Alice would go on to make much better!

I encourage you watch other films by Mme Guy-Blaché. I recommend “Madame’s Cravings,” about a pregnant woman gone wild, “The Consequences of Feminism,” with its wry gender inversions, and “Falling Leaves,” a heartwarming family movie. Plus, click here for a fascinating behind the scenes peek of Mme Guy arranging a film.

1896 – “The Haunted Castle” – First Ever Horror Movie

Thanks to Scorsese’s Hugo, a much wider audience has come to appreciate Georges Méliès and his contributions to cinema. Set designer, magician, inventor, actor, and much more, diablethis multi-hyphenate also gave the world the first horror film.

And guess what?

The plot sounds frighteningly similar to 90% of the scary movies coming to a theater near you: two travellers happen to wander into a haunted castle and fend off attacks from shape shifting ghosts led by the Devil himself. Savor the zany camera tricks as bats turn into humanoid demons and beautiful damsels transform into ugly old hags. 

1900 – “How It Feels to Be Run Over” – First Use of Intertitles

Intertitles—those text screens that pop up between images in silent films—get a raw deal. Long bewailed as an explanatory enemy to true art, they clarified plot points and added dialogue to silent film and often revealed just how artistically text can be integrated with images. In Cecil Hepworth’s “How It Feels to Be Run Over,” a carriage rushes by the camera, then a car rushes right into it as though we, the viewer were being run over. The closing intertitle combusts with exclamation points and an ironic “Oh! Will be pleased!” The dynamic multiple title cards convey the shock and energy of the collision. Not bad for 1900. The BFI has done a nice write-up on this significance of this film.

intertitle

1900 – “Grandma’s Reading Glass” – First Point-of-View Close-Up

George Albert Smith, a British filmmaker, produced some very interesting, playful films that display a forward-thinking grasp of how the camera itself can be incorporated into films—not just used as a passive recording instrument. In “Grandma’s Reading Glass,” a little boy uses a magnifying glass to examine the world around him—newsprint, a canary, a house cat, and even his Grandmother! Her huge eye filling the screen must’ve come as a shock to viewers accustomed to pretty long shots. What’s more impressive is that the film puts us, the viewers, in the place of the little boy, demonstrating cinema’s magical capacity to encourage identification with characters and their experiences.

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1902 – First Ever Color Film

The silver lining to every lost film, to every forgotten breakthrough is the hope that we will someday share the joy of rediscovering it. This past fall, the Internet buzzed with excitement over the first ever color film, created by Edward Turner. According to the coverage by the UK Telegraph, which I strongly recommend reading and watching, Turner had developed a process that entailed “recording successive frames through red, green and blue filters then projecting and superimposing them on top of one another.”

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So, unlike the stenciled hand-coloring process that made Méliès’ films, Turner’s method was much more closely related to the multi-strip Technicolor that would revolutionize film in the late 1920s and 1930s. The film shows Turner’s children playing with flowers and a goldfish bowl. If you look closely, you can see the yellow goldfish gliding around.

1903 – “The Great Train Robbery” – First Western

I would have preferred to feature an earlier Edwin Porter film, “Life of an American Fireman,” but the influential cross-cut version has not, to my knowledge, been uploaded to YouTube. So, I’ll fall back on this no less extraordinary film which bequeathed one of the most enduring genres, the Western, and a stronger sense of filmic narrative than probably any previous film.

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Bonus Film!

1912 – “The Musketeers of Pig Alley” – First Ever Gangster Movie

I couldn’t in good conscience end this post without including a D.W. Griffith film. In spite of his flaws, and they were many, he made some iconic movies. So, roll with the big boys—1912 style.

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One thought on “Film History Firsts: 10 Milestone Films You Can Watch For Free

  1. Some fabulous footage here. The execution of Mary, Queen of Scots was quite shocking!

    My fave is “How it Feels to be Run Over”. Thanks for including the BFI link to that, too.

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