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.
- President McKinley Inauguration Footage
Voted to the National Film Registry in 2000, this is actually two films: President McKinley Taking the Oath & President McKinley and Escort Going to the Capitol. These brief scenes from McKinley’s second inauguration (March 4, 1901) were filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Company. This type of “actuality film” was very common in the early days of the movies. The Lumiere Brothers in France released about 1400 actuality films, all 50-second snippets of scenes from everyday life. The American Mutuoscope and Biograph Company (Edison’s main competitor at the time) had filmed a bit of McKinley’s first inauguration in 1897, making that the first presidential inauguration on film, and including a brief shot of Grover Cleveland, the outgoing President (which made Cleveland the earliest President ever captured on film).
Actuality films were the precursors of the newsreels, and ultimately, of documentaries. Many of them are honest depictions of real things, often just everyday normal things, but also some momentous events like the McKinley inauguration footage. At first equipment was cumbersome, and the technology of shooting live on location was in its infancy, so there was often a tendency to re-enact and stage events in the studio. The Lumiere Brothers in France had a lighter camera and were initially more facile than the Americans at capturing outdoor, live images. However, Edison had a newer, more portable camera by 1896. And so, by 1901, Edison was sending crews into the field to record things like the aftermath of the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor (1898), the Alaska gold rush (1899), the Paris Exposition (1900), and the McKinley inauguration. One of my favorite shots from the McKinley footage is a glimpse of vice-president Theodore Roosevelt riding alone in a carriage behind the President’s, made all the more poignant by the later knowledge that he was about to be President only 6 months hence upon McKinley’s assassination.
The peak era for actuality films was about 1903, and they were over and done with as a film genre about 1908. But actuality films never really went away. They are the building blocks of documentary, the raw footage that editors string together and to which they apply a narrative. In 1901, the pasting together of films into a greater show involved a screening in a storefront, or as an adjunct to a vaudeville show, with an exhibitor stringing several of these films together and providing a narrative between the scenes. But one of the great powers of film had yet to be exploited—the power to persuade by spinning the narrative. One does not watch the McKinley inauguration footage and receive any kind of message. It is not edited or commented upon. One just watches it for the fascination of seeing the events recorded by a novel technology. Leni Riefenstahl and Fox News were still decades to come.