It would be impossible to tell the entire story of film in 100 films—1000 films would be better, and 10,000 would probably be necessary—but this is a stab at making an introduction to the history of film.
The Dalenberg Library continues its Sunday film series with a look at 100 films over the next 100 weeks intended to exemplify 100 years of film heritage, 1901-2000. These are not necessarily the best or most popular films from each year, but each film is intended to be somehow representational of some facet of the history of the medium. The entire list is not set in stone here at the outset. It will no doubt evolve over the next 100 weeks. There is no preference toward U.S. or foreign films, fictions or documentaries, comedies or dramas–just a desire to pick a film to represent each year that somehow says something about film in general, something about the year it was released, or maybe just to screen a film we have always wanted to see and never got around to.
One of the first things that emerges from a viewing of 20th Century film starting in 1901 is how rapidly and profoundly the medium evolved in its early days. At the dawn of the 20th Century, film had barely graduated from a novelty watched by one viewer looking into a Kinetoscope machine circa 1894 to an attraction viewed by a paying audience projected on a screen. The first public film screening was December 28, 1895. By 1901, the first permanent movie theater in America was still 4 years in the future, and the first feature length film was still 5 years away.
- A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune). Directed by Georges Méliès. France.
Georges Méliès (1861-1938) was a French magician who owned his own theater, designed his own stage magic, and jumped at the first chance to incorporate film into his shows. He witnessed a Lumiere Brothers projected film display in 1895, was inspired enough to try to buy one of their camera/projection machines (which they refused to sell), but by 1896 was making movies, flying by the seat of his pants to create the techniques and tricks he needed to work his magic on the screen. Méliès was at his peak as a film-maker in 1902 and created his single most memorable work that year, A Trip to the Moon, inspired by Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, and his own comic vision. The rocket ship landing in the eye of the Man in the Moon is one of early cinema’s most enduring iconic images.
While A Trip to the Moon is on everyone’s list of historical science fiction films, it is more of a comic fantasy than science fiction. Not specifically a parody of the Verne and Wells novels that inspired it, Méliès’s film is nonetheless a tongue-in-cheek fantasia on themes presented in the leading moon exploration novels of its day. Méliès is more about visual trickery than scientific explanations. His moon inhabitants (Selenites) explode in a puff of smoke at a mere touch; his rocket ship pulled by a rope to a precipice on the edge of the Moon falls back to Earth and lands in the ocean. All that whimsy makes it clearly something apart from hard science fiction, but it is nonetheless a visual spectacle, and as such was kind of a Star Wars for its day.
Méliès is often regarded as the first storyteller of cinema. After he got underway with his experimentations, he started stringing scenes together into narratives while the Lumières and Edison’s film-makers were still shooting 50-second actuality films. Innovations came fast and furious in the first 10 years of film, and there was much copying and cross-pollination of ideas between film-makers, so by 1902 there were already a plethora of narrative films from a variety of sources—but Méliés had been there first. A Trip to the Moon was his most complex film yet, with scenes on Earth, followed by scenes above ground on the moon, below ground on the moon, and back on Earth again, first in the ocean, then on land. These were silent films, but Méliès wrote a text for a narrator to read to the audience, commenting upon the action on the screen. He also took a tremendous interest in music scores, although he did not mandate an exhibitor to use a particular score.
About 200 of Méliès’s 520 films survive. He made a wide variety of films, from historical dramas to documentaries to comedes, even “stag” films, but his best remembered are the fantasies like A Trip to the Moon. Despite his vital importance at the dawn of film history, he became bankrupt and forced out of the industry by 1913. His most successful early films were victims of rampant pirating, and he only realized a fraction of the profits he could have collected. He was forced into contracts with Edison and Pathé that required more productivity than he could meet. There were bad financial decisions, and also the run-up to World War I had an impact.
Méliès is chiefly remembered today as an innovator in special effects. But that view understates his true importance in film history. Méliès should be remembered first and foremost as cinema’s first storyteller. After his earliest experimental efforts, his special effects were in the service of the story. That is why the original Star Wars works and is so much better than all the copy-cat efforts of its era—special effects, not for their own sake, but in the service of the story.
Next week, 1903’s film entry will be more about the developing art of film narration: Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery.