Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)
Director: Louis Lumière. Building on the new photography inventions of Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers took the Kinetoscope and created their own called the “Cinematograph” which they used to shoot short (two minutes or less) clips like this one of factory workers leaving for the day.
Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-1895)
Director: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Unlike the Lumière Brothers this short clip was never publicly displayed. It was shot at Edison’s studio in New Jersey and it shows one man playing the violin into a wax cylinder recorder, while two other men dance. Briefly at the outset we can hear either the muffled voice of Edison or Dickson. The wax sound recording was thought to be lost for many years until it turned up among the Edison archives in the 1960s.
L’arroseur arrosé (1895)
Director: Louis Lumière. L’arroseur arrosé is quick gag-film in which a young boy plays a prank on an older man by stepping on a hose he is using to water his garden, only to release it moments later allowing the water to spray in the man’s face. It is, perhaps, the earliest example of a narrative and comedy film.
The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895)
Director: Director: Alfred Clark. The film is sometimes called “The Execution of Mary Stuart” (1895) and it is the earliest surviving film using special effects, notably the ‘stop trick.’ It lasts about 18 seconds and was produced by Thomas Edison.
Georges Méliès Short Films (1896-1912)
Director: George Méliès. George Méliès is the great pioneer of early narrative and special effects-based films. These pictures are incredibly ingenious for the time – the cutting room floor plays a key role in the development of each of these films as we see Méliès’s chaotic and imaginative world filled with magic and intrigue. His world is often disordered and scrambled with characters frantically searching about as objects and people disappear in and out of frame. He created hundreds of films in his day, of which only a small portion survive.
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
Director: George Méliès. Loosely based on H.G. Wells and Jules Verne novels, “The Trip to the Moon” is Méliès’s masterpiece about a group of scientist who blast their way to the moon in a little bullet. They encounter odd creatures on the surface and escape from the leader by falling back to earth where they are celebrated with a parade. Even today, this short French film is astounding and awe-inspiring.
Life of an American Fireman (1903)
Director: Edwin Stanton Porter. The Life of An American Fireman is an early silent short film that was one of the first American narrative films. It portrays an American fireman who envisions a woman in peril. Together, he and his fellow firemen go to her home and rescue her.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Director: Edwin Stanton Porter. The Great Train Robbery is the first American Western film. It tells the short story of two bandits who rob a train while it is docked, only to get chased down and killed by the operators. The closing scene of the film shows the once shocking scene of the bandit firing his gun directly at the audience.
La vie et la passion du Christ (1903)
Director: Ferdinand Zecca. “The Life and Passion of Christ” is a French silent film that tells the familiar Biblical story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It lasts slightly longer than 40 minutes and has been called one of the first feature length films. The aesthetic was inspired by Gustave Dore’s drawings.
The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
Director: Charles Tait. Once a massive film, The Story of the Kelly Gang tells the story of Ned Kelly, the famous Australian outlaw, and his escapades. Unfortunately much of the film has been badly damaged or is missing.
Director: Émile Cohl. Fantasmagorie is a stream-of-consciousness, early silent French cartoon film. The film uses stop motion techniques pioneered in America, and it is often referred to as the first ever fully animated film.
Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro. “The Inferno” is an early silent Italian film portraying the first (and most important) part of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” As in the epic poem, Dante is led through the many layers of hell by Virgil filled with fetishized people laying in torturous misery.
Director: Giovanni Pastrone. Cabiria is the great Italian epic, shot during the years following the Italian War with Libya and released on the heels of the first world war. The story is taken from Livy’s History of Rome, during the events of the Second Punic Wars. Cabiria is the originator of the massive epic narrative film.
Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone Shorts (~1914)
In 1913, while on tour in the United States with a British comedy group, Charlie Chaplin accepted a contract to perform in a series of short silent films for Mark Sennett’s Keystone film company in Los Angeles, California. In total, he performed in 36 short films at Keystone, and perhaps the most memorable is Kid At The Auto Races in 1914, in which Chaplin debuts the Tramp character and performs a number of ad-libbed gags around Venice, California.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Director: D.W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation is one of the most important and controversial films ever to hit the silver screen. It was the first massive blockbuster epic in history, and its despicable portrayal of black Americans as evil and inept has led to controversies that linger to this day. It tells a story of the tragic loss of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, coupled with the lawlessness of southern reconstruction, that leads a heroic organization called the KKK to rise up and defend honor and virtue. If one can look past the degrading message of the film, much like we would for a Soviet or Nazi propaganda film, it would be better to focus on the more enduring questions of the film such as its editing, cinematography, and special effects.
Les Vampires (1915-1916)
Director: Louis Feuillade. Les Vampires is a series of French short serials (10 episodes in total) The episodes are not actually about vampires, but instead they are about a gang of evil people and their mysterious misadventures.
Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay Shorts (~1915)
In 1915, Charlie Chaplin struck up a deal with the Essanay Film Company (later absorbed by Warner Bros). Through Essanay, Chaplin directed and starred in 14 films in 1915. The most celebrated of his Essanay shorts is The Tramp (1915). He left Essanay after only a year of work to find greater creative control elsewhere.
Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Shorts (1916-1917)
In 1916, Charlie Chaplin moved to the Mutual Film Company for greater control and freedom over his productions. During his happy time at Mutual (1916-1917) he produced 16 short films and built his team and style as a director, as well as his familiar and lovable Tramp character. In particular, the four films Chaplin produced in 1917 are often considered some of his best.
Director: D.W. Griffith. Intolerance is Griffith’s massive response to his previous riot-inducing film, The Birth of a Nation. It was inspired by the Italian epic, Cabiria. Intolerance tells four separate stories in four different time periods to showcase the role intolerance has played throughout history. As with The Birth of a Nation, Lillian Gish also stars in this Griffith epic film.
Charlie Chaplin’s First National Shorts (1918-1923)
In 1917-1918, Charlie Chaplin was seeking more independence and greater creative license over his films, which he believed were becoming too stagnant and predictable, so he signed an eight film contract with First National. He and Mary Pickford both received $2M salaries from First National, which Chaplin used to build a villa home in Beverly Hills and a film studio on Sunset Boulevard. Each of these short Chaplin are a delight to watch. There are the last of his Tramp shorts prior to forming United Artists and making his own feature films.
Broken Blossoms (1919)
Director: D.W. Griffith. In contrast to Griffith’s huge budget epic films, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is a more subtle, muted film about a tragic romance between a Chinese man and the girl he loves in London.
Director: Abel Gance. In allusion to Emile Zola’s controversial publication, J’accuse is Abel Gance’s lengthy and tragic World War I film about two young frenchmen whose lives are caught up in the chaos of war.