The 10 best films of the 1890s

The 10 best films of the 1890s

Last week, The A.V. Club took a look at the best films of the 1990s (a look that proved unexpectedly controversial). As a lark, we started talking about a companion list covering the best films of the 1890s. But the more we talked about it, the more it seemed like a good idea to turn back the clock to the very beginnings of film. We selected 10 films we found artistically compelling and historically significant. And because they’re all in the public domain, available on YouTube, and short, you can easily watch them in their entirety as you read along.

1. “Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory In Lyon” (1895)
Moving pictures of various sorts predate the efforts of Auguste and Louis Lumìere, but what we call movies—motion pictures that could be projected before an audience—effectively begins with their Cinématographe Lumière. The Lumìeres premièred their invention privately. Then, on December 28, 1895, they showed a program of films that kicked off with “Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory In Lyon.” It showed just what its title promised. It’s a simple film with profound, immediately felt implications, opening a window on a moment of existence its viewers wouldn’t otherwise have experienced. Its single, unmoving shot captures a documentary moment, but it’s also a mystery. We know where these people come from, but what’s it like inside? Where do they go from here? What do they want in life, and will they ever get it? It’s all conjecture the moment they vanish from the frame. From the beginning, going to the movies required viewers to make meaning of what they saw.

2. “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film” (1894)
Film-camera pioneer William K.L. Dickson shot well over a hundred shorts throughout the 1890s, first developing and testing a film camera called the Kinetoscope in Thomas Edison’s laboratory, then leaving to work with a pair of Kinetoscope-film exhibitors in 1896. Having moved on, he helped further improve film-camera and exhibition technology with a series of technological breakthroughs. But while still in Edison’s lab, he directed what’s become one of the best-remembered and most-reproduced of the early experimental shorts: a piece variously known as the “Dickson Sound Test” or “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film.” The 17-second piece features Dickson sawing at a raspy violin in front of a recording cylinder, while two men dance together in front of him. What it lacks in plot, it makes up for in novelty: It was the first known use of synchronized sound, a test of the Kinetophone system meant to allow simultaneously recorded image and sound to be played back to an individual viewer. Dickson’s work on projected film rapidly made the Kinetophone personal playback system obsolete, temporarily dead-ending the idea of simultaneous sound recording, so his “Experimental Sound Film” stands on its own as the only known surviving Kinetophone short. It also boasts a charming calmness about men touching each other, with approximately 187 fewer gay-panic gags than the average Happy Madison feature.

3. “The Haunted Castle(1896)
Can horror and comedy co-exist without one taking away from the other? That rhetorical question (the answer is “yes”) dates back to Georges Méliès’ “The Haunted Castle,” an action-packed three minutes of spooks and gags that shows off Méliès’ yen for visual magic. The entire film takes place in a castle room, where a giant bat transforms in a puff of smoke into Mephistopheles (played by Méliès himself), who then summons a cauldron and all manner of white-sheeted apparitions, witches, demons, skeletons, and other pitchfork-wielders. When a cavalier arrives to fend off these supernatural beasties, he mostly whiffs at them haplessly as the Devil keeps banishing one and summoning others. The solution is disappointingly simple—try the cross, not the sword—but getting there yields an inspired frenzy of ghostly hordes. 

4. “Arrival Of A Train At La Ciotat Station” (1896)
Legend, almost certainly apocryphal, has is that spectators fled from the theater the first time the Lumières showed their landmark film, so real was the locomotive hurtling toward the lens. But the tale survives because it captures what was, no doubt, the world-altering shock those spectators must have had seeing a still image suddenly come to life. Where Thomas Edison brought subjects into his own black-box studio and Georges Méliès manufactured spectacle, the Lumières captured what they called “actualité”—fleeting, plotless snatches of life that now serve as invaluable historical documents while doubling as brief stretches of found poetry. While it’s true that the Lumières effectively founded the documentary tradition, even that titanic claim to fame sells them short.

5. “The Four Troublesome Heads” (1898)
Georges Méliès possessed an inventive mind, a playful spirit, and the heart of a showman, all of which are evident in his short “The Four Troublesome Heads,” for which Méliès repeatedly pops his own tête off until he has enough for a quartet, at which point he bashes two heads with a banjo, ditches the one on his body, and throws the fourth up in the air so it lands on his neck. Throughout, Méliès plays to the audience, crawling around the table to show he isn’t doing any of this with mirrors or wires (just multiple exposures, which audiences of 1898 might not be savvy enough to know about yet). As always with Méliès’ shorts, what’s striking is how much fun Méliès seems to have with his trickery. He not only reproduces his head three times over, he engages his other selves in joyous horseplay, such that even though the special effects are crude by today’s standards, and even though the film runs less than a minute, “The Four Troublesome Heads” is still a delight.

6. “Cinderella” (1899)
The actual staging of Méliès’ adaptation of the Charles Perrault fairytale is relatively straightforward, a five-minute compression of a story that had been done many times onstage before. But Méliès’ magic comes through in his innovative in-camera special effects, his use of color tinting, and his striking emphases on certain aspects of the story over others. Wasting no time establishing Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and stepsisters—context he rightly assumes isn’t necessary—Méliès opens with the fairy godmother emerging from a fireplace to comfort the despondent maiden and turn mice into footmen, convert a pumpkin into a carriage, and change her desultory rags into a resplendent ballroom gown, while using jump cuts as a sleight of hand. He also bridges sections of the story with dissolves, something that hadn’t been done before and has been a common transitional device ever since. Yet the most extraordinary sequence comes when the clock strikes midnight and the film whips up a fantastically abstract vision of Father Time appearing out of thin air and disappearing just as quickly, leading to a room full of giant clock faces and dancers tormenting the panicked heroine. Here and elsewhere, Méliès is less interested in the abridged story than the flourishes he can add to it. 

7.The Kiss” (1896)
Actors May Irwin and John Rice had smooched onstage in the Broadway musical The Widow Jones, but recreating their love scene for the Edison Manufacturing Company caused a strikingly intense reaction. That typical act of affection, blown up on the big screen, was declared by some who saw it as scandalous, shocking, and disgusting—because a landmark in showing sex on camera, even in this mildest form, simply couldn’t go unaccompanied by outrage. The years to follow saw the arrival of the National Legion of Decency, the MPAA, and “2 Girls 1 Cup,” in the escalating competition between content and those who would curtail it, but even in these early days, it was clear that audiences were interested—“The Kiss” was the most popular Edison actuality of its year.

8. “La Fée Aux Choux” (1896) 
Originally hired at Gaumont in France as a secretary when the company was doing still photography, Alice Guy-Blanché stayed on when Gaumont transformed into a film company in 1895. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Guy-Blanché had a huge impact on the development of narrative cinema, and it started with 1896’s “La Fée Aux Choux” (“The Cabbage Fairy”), a minute-long treatment of a fairy presenting a series of cabbage-patch kids. (There’s probably a line connecting this film to the work of Anne Geddes a century later, but please don’t draw it.) Though Guy-Blanché probably didn’t intend it as such, there’s something disturbing about this smiling, gesticulating woman scooping infants out of giant cabbages and laying them side-by-side. Are they being birthed, or ritually sacrificed? 

9. “The Execution Of Mary, Queen Of Scots” (1895)
Cultural critics like to moan about how jaded and bloodthirsty we’ve become lately, pointing to movies like Hostel and the Saw franchise as evidence that we’re sinking into depravity, reveling in violence for its own sake. But, hey, at least those movies have plots, characters, emotions. Edison Laboratories, on the other hand, cheerfully supplied the 19th-century public with context-free gore, which must have been genuinely shocking at the time. Most film students have at least heard of “Electrocuting An Elephant,” which is un-simulated, but that seems to fall more under the heading of intellectual curiosity; for pure carny-level sensation, look no further than “The Execution Of Mary, Queen Of Scots,” which is less than 20 seconds of precisely what it promises. Modern-day viewers can easily see the cut that allowed a swap between actress and dummy, but it’s deft enough to have been invisible to audiences of the era—to them, that’s a woman getting decapitated in real time, presented without even the vaguest pretext of artistic merit. Step right up, here’s the axe, whoosh, here’s her head, thanks so much for coming, get home safely. Viewed from today’s perspective, there’s something refreshing about that.

10. “The X-Ray Fiend” (1897)
X-rays were discovered in 1895, and became a source of public fascination in editorial cartoons and scientific exhibitions. (Scientific American ran an article in 1896 inviting people to make their X-rays at home with a simple device, which apparently saved money over visiting a public X-ray show.) So when pioneering British filmmaker George Albert Smith created his short “The X-Ray Fiend,” he was capitalizing on a minor public obsession, and turning it into what qualified as a mildly smutty joke. In the 45-second piece, a man romances a reluctant woman, until a second man with an X-ray machine enters to turn them into canoodling skeletons. Méliès had recently discovered, through a camera malfunction, that jump cuts could be used to enable abrupt physical transformations onscreen, and the era’s film pioneers used the technique for shorts like this one, where something familiar turns into something unlikely. It’s cute and eye-catching, and a lot more comprehensible than Méliès’ contemporary experiments with jump cuts in baffling films like “The Astronomer’s Dream.”

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