Part of the Series The Silent Artists
Disguised as a 3D kid’s flick, Martin Scorsese’s Hugo is a loving and delightful lesson in the history and magic of early moviemaking. In one memorable sequence, movie pioneer Georges Méliès (Ben Kingsley) recalls the wonder of seeing his first movie in a carnival tent dubbed “Cinematheque”. These first films were only a minute long, with several constituting a screening. In the spirit of those first film exhibitions, here’s a selection of some of the finest works of early cinema available on Fandor. You can watch the first minute of each clip without even logging in – if you want to see more, sign up for a Fandor Free Pass.
In Hugo, Méliès’ begins his fateful journey into filmmaking when he watches his first movie, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) by Auguste and Louis Lumière. Hugo’s fictional film scholar Rene Tabard recalls the legend of how the first screenings of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat sent audiences ducking in terror as they expected the screen’s oncoming train to actually hit them, proving that cinema possessed 3D powers from the very beginning. A lesser known factoid is that Arrival of a Train may also have led to the first remake in film history, as proven by this alternate version made two years later. Here the train crosses the screen in the opposite direction, and the sense of motion is more constant with a rush of passengers disembarking past the camera:
Being among the first filmmakers, the Lumières could be credited for making the first films to fit in genres. Made 115 years ahead of Hugo, Childish Quarrel (1896) could very well be the first kid’s movie (or at least the first film with child protagonists). It’s also reminiscent of one of the first viral videos on YouTube, “Charlie Bit My Finger!” showing that in the era of the online cinematheque, everything old can be made new again.
In his wonderful review of Hugo, The New Yorker’s Richard Brody cites a quote by Jean-Luc Godard comparing the Lumières and Méliès: “People say: Lumière is documentary, and Mèliès, fantasy…. Let’s say, more precisely, that what interested Mèliès was the ordinary in the extraordinary, and Lumière, the extraordinary in the ordinary.” A magician by trade, Mèliès exploited the potential of film to expand his universe of illusion and wonder, preserving it for generations to marvel.
While Lumières and Méliès are considered founding fathers of cinema, it wasn’t all a boy’s club. With a career spanning 25 years and over 700 films to her name, Alice Guy registered a profound impact on early cinema not just as the first female director, but also as one of the first developers of storytelling in film. In The Burglars (1898) she innovates with the use of screen space, using a layered set with a painted backdrop to create a scene of remarkable spatial depth for its time, as well as an amusing prototype to Keystone Cops comedy.
One of the first Spanish filmmakers, Segundo de Chomón was a worthy challenger to Melies as cinema’s reigning magician. Chomón’s films make particularly good use of early special effects and color (each frame painted by hand), as seen in one of his finest works, The Golden Beetle.
A pioneer of animation (and selected as one of our 100 Important Directors of Short Animation), Ladislas Starevitch was Director of Lithuania’s National History Museum when he set out to make movies about animal life; ultimately he found it more interesting to use stop-motion animation with dead animals than to work with live ones. With films like The Cameraman’s Revenge, a fascinating short about infidelity among insects, Starevitch suggests a psychic forebear to Franz Kafka and David Lynch.
Méliès reigned supreme throughout the first decade of the 20th century, but, as told in Hugo, the dark realities of wartime Europe made his fantasies seem unfashionably quaint. Louis Feuillade carried French cinema into the Teens with sinister serials like Fantômas and Les Vampires, where the seeming appearance of normal life gives way to surreal anarchy at once thrilling, comic, and disturbing. His subversive technique, which inspired the Surrealists in the 20s, could be traced to as early as this 1907 short The Colonel’s Account, where an old man’s telling of war stories at a dinner party becomes hell for the other guests. Unlike Méliès, Feuillade didn’t need camera tricks to create a scene of utter strangeness.
Watch Early Silent Fantasy Films on Fandor with a One Week Pass