Sunday, 29 August 2010

The Top 10 Films of the 1900's

Film’s first full decade was remarkable by any art form’s standards. The one common thread that the thematic kaleidoscope these films share is that they all value exploring new ideas and uncharted artistic territory as much as they did narrative and form. It rivals any decade in film’s history for innovation and unbridled creativity.

For example, the constraints of time (no film on our list runs over eighteen minutes) meant that limitation did indeed breed innovation; this, coupled with the rapidly expanding technology of film itself, meant that film was a fertile breeding ground for a plethora of ideas and genres.

The century began with actuality films and trick films as the two most popular genres. By the end of the decade, these genres popularity’s faded away, as genres such as prestige films (i.e. adapting a Shakespeare or Dickens text), tragedies and romantic comedies began to captivate their audience.

The following list was quite difficult to compile as the decade contains a number of films which deserve greater attention and acclaim (and given that the list has been limited to the films I could find on Youtube and the Silent Shakespeare DVD, I am sure that there are a number of other excellent films form this decade that also deserve to be discussed).

Surprisingly, the two most famous films of the decade, Le Voyage dans la Lune (The Voyage to the Moon) (1902) and The Great Train Robbery (1903) do not make it on to the following list. This decision was not made to raise controversy.

Instead of stating that the films’ technical innovations were the most important criteria for judging the following films, the major criterion in judging these films was the same as would be applied to a film released today: how enjoyable was the film, what interesting ideas/concepts did it tackle, etc.

This in turn makes the films more relevant and more accessible to audiences, as every film on this list makes for compelling viewing, regardless of their historic background. I do not believe that these films only exist to be watched by silent film fans. And thanks to Youtube, these films now have a far greater audience than they have had since they were released over a hundred years ago.

Given the nature of this blog and the chronological approach it is taking towards viewing film, I feel like it would be cheating if I gave any retrospective thoughts on any of the films in isolation. Therefore, under each film you fill find excerpts from the articles I wrote on that particular film (the titles of each film all have hyperlinks which will take you to the main article on each films), as well as the thoughts that certain readers have left in regards to that particular film. As I have said elsewhere, the aim of this blog is not to merely to convey my thoughts, but to start a conversation in regards to these early films. So on that note, please leave your own Top Ten films of the decade in the comments section below.

Corner in Wheat is the first film on the Film: Ab Initio list to tackle a contemporary political issue on film.
The film portrays three different elements of the corn industry: the growers, the speculators and the eventual buyers of wheat. The ease with which Griffith moves between the three different worlds is impressive. In particular, he makes the most of the technique first seen in The Great Train Robbery, crosscutting. This allows him to juxtapose the plight of the working men struggling to afford the bread with the lavish opulence of the successful speculator who attends a dinner with his society friend
Rob: The film as a whole (unlike Milton's superbly tragic verbal characterisation of Satan, say) operates in a purely visual way - the opening juxtaposing the dignified vertical plough lines of the farmers with the buzzing shirt cuffs of the owners; the second sequence mirroring left/right two tables: opulent feast and barren bread. This makes the choice of such a visual 'downfall' perfect, and brilliantly symbolic. 

It is not an over-exaggeration to state that Panorama from the Times Building, New York provides the audience with a new way of seeing. Panorama is similar to some of the Lumiere Brothers’ ‘actualities’, except that it provides us with a breathtaking view of New York from the top of the Times Building. Within the space of a decade, film has gone from a still shot of workers outside the Lumiere Brothers’ factory to a daring aerial shot of a substantial part of New York. 
Christian Hayes: Writers online don't write often about non-fiction but it's a major part of silent film production, there is so much of it, and this is a great example. There is something about the design of New York, the rigid shapes of the buildings, the layers of corners in the background and foreground, and the puncture-holes of windows that dot every building - that is endlessly fascinating, and it's in this period that modern New York we know was born.

The tone of Nerone is different to any film that we have observed so far, it is the first tragedy that we have encountered...
The most imaginative moment of the film comes towards the denouement of the film, as we see Nero lying on a chair, with his imaginative thoughts unfolding in the background; a pastoral scene gives way to what appears to be Rome on fire, causing Nero to collapse in fear of his own thoughts.
It is as powerful a scene as we have witnessed in any film so far, and makes great use of the medium of film to explore the apocalyptic visions the film’s protagonist. 

There is a lot more to Edwin S. Porter’s oeuvre than just The Great Train Robbery. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend may well have been another forerunner for the surrealist movement.
In the latter moments of the film, such as where the protagonist’ bed is flying through the city, it is clear that the protagonist is dreaming. But at the moment where he approaches the lamppost, the two worlds amalgamate with one another, and it is at this moment that the initial defamiliarisation occurs. This is also the film’s most exhilarating moment. The energy of the protagonist combines with the dizzying whirling of his surroundings to draw the audience into his drunken revelry and subsequent dreaming. 

 In Le baromètre de la fidélité, we have the great comic of this era attempting to expand on the slapstick humour he perfected in films such as Début d'un patineur, thus allowing him to take advantage of film’s rapidly increasing length.
Rob: What a sublime opening shot. Taking up a quarter of the screen time of the entire piece with that gliding river scene suggests a deliberate artistic consciousness that was harder to spot in some of the earlier Linder films... Again, it seems that film is entering its first mini-maturity here.
The moment that camera dips under the tree branch, in particular, is stikingly ahead of its time. A similarly mobile camera still takes the viewer by surprise in Murnau's 'Sunrise', 18 years later!

Cohl’s film did manage to lift ‘cartoons out of the realm of trick films and started them on the path toward animated features’. In Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, we are presented with separate vignettes of various characters. In Fantasmagorie, there is a remarkable fluidity throughout the entire film; each scene effortlessly interweaves with the next.
Fantasmagorie confirms the notion which Humorous Phases of Funny Phases suggested: animation is a distinctive branch of film that differs significantly to the moving picture. The films’ rapidity and ability to shape-shift demonstrates that animated film can perform different, and on a certain level, more impressive, visual tricks that those found in Méliès’ or Porter’s films.

Living in an age of twenty four hour news media, we have become somewhat anaesthetised to the impact of the moving image (Of course I do not mean that we are not moved by terrible events such as the recent Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I simply mean that we do not fully appreciate the fact that we have access to such images) in regards to natural disasters. But before this earthquake, all we had to rely on were eyewitness accounts of such terrifying events. Film would allow such events to be captured as they were, rather than how they were experienced by a limited group of people.
Rob - Amazing film...
"The latter half of the post-earthquake film feels as though we are watching the first zombie film. A mass hoard of people walk by the camera and appear listless and lifeless. The moving image not only created a new art, but also managed to alter the eye of history."
That is the most haunting thing I've read on this blog.

There are certain films that only make a notable impression on their audience after the film has concluded. They do not radiate brilliance throughout as many of the great films do, but their appreciation greatly increases when they considered in their entirety: Louis Feuillade’s The Fairy of the Surf is one of these films.
Another reading of the film is that it is an allegory for the battle between reality and the imagination. The Prince represents reality and the fairy represents the imagination.  As the Prince captures the fairy and marries her, it appears that reality is harnessing and taking control of the imagination. Yet as the imagination has a violent reaction against reality and realises that it cannot exist on this plain so must return to her river of imagination, reality secedes its attempt to control the imagination and enters the world of the imagination. It is on this plain that the two are able to happily coexist (see image below); the allegory serves as an excellent lesson for any artist, and may also function as Feuillade’s mission statement for what will be an extremely successful decade for him.
Rob: I'd have never guessed that 7 minutes of such strangeness and beauty were just sitting there on YouTube. Thanks for bringing this one ashore.
The two worlds in this film - the land castle, and the sea - are both handled with visual flair, aren't they? 

The blazing light surrounding their little boat is unnerving, too. The strange 'grain' seems almost prophetic of the Trinity test, 36 years later....


Le Voyage dans la Lune is often considered Méliès most important film; I would argue however, that Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible is of equal importance...
There is a sense that Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible is very much about the second wave of the Industrial Revolution and its limitations. Led by an engineer called Mabouloff (which translates as ‘Scatterbrains'), a group of travellers embark on an ‘impossible’ journey, which manages to entail a trip to the Swiss Alps as well as the sun (see above). You can draw parallels with their trip to the sun and Icarus flying too close to the sun. Perhaps Méliès is suggesting that man’s flirtation with technology will see it share Icarus’ fate.

  1. The Story of the Kelly Gang – 1906 – Charles Tait
The climax of the film is the most thrilling we have witnessed of any film thus far; unfortunately, it also one of the most damaged sections of the film. However, the distortion of the damaged reel seems to enhance the dramatic denouement of the film. In this climactic scene, Ned Kelly makes his last stand, wearing metal armour (see picture below) to protect his face as he is finally captured by the police. The scene can be seen to symbolise the shift from a semi-anarchic, chivalrous period to the more functional, bureaucratic (and sometimes totalitarian) modus operandi of the 20th century. The armoured plating is an outdated, futile yet heroic method for Ned Kelly to make his last stand. His tale will endure, but the ways of the outlaw bushranger ended with him. This aspect of the film may have resonated greatly with the audience, as the film was shown around the country for close to a decade.
By focusing on the sections of the film that have endured, I would argue that even in its current state, The Story of The Kelly Gang is a seminal film which must be brought to the forefront of debate of the early silent era. In terms of both importance and enjoyment, it stands alongside any film we have witnessed so far.
Rob: Well, all hail Charles Tait! 
This is the most impressive find I've come across on this blog so far -- a really powerful film, dating back 104 years, that I have NEVER heard mention of anywhere before. 

The celluloid image has a unique power over reality, and I think that even the (slower) first half of these fragments are worthwhile in 2010, offering the strange sensation of a sepia Civil War photograph hobbling into life... In my opinion, there is always a case to be made for abandoning the Quest for Authenticity, and reveling in the 'weirdness' of an Inauthentic vision of the past such as this. I might even be tempted to speculate that this 15 minutes of distorted footage on YouTube is greater than the c.70 minute film that spawned it.



  1. This is a really interesting list. You have actually mapped out the transitional period that linked the single-shot actualities and trick films of the Nineteenth Century with the emerging narrative cinema that then comes to dominate (to this day). I really agree with your emphasis on the fact that these films were made by innovators rather than primitives, and that these films absolutely have the power to entertain even today. It often feels as though there is little that is antiquated about these century-old films and somehow they still contain the wonder and excitement of their initial viewing. By experiencing these today we are essentially connecting ourselves to the now-invisible audiences of a century ago. This is in many ways quite a difficult period to discuss and as you know has been quite derided or just plain ignored in film histories and in particular in film writing online, but you have worked hard to build up an insightful resource to the films of this period. I am really looking forward to the next decade.

  2. This is a very interesting, well-written and educational project.

    You're bringing into the light so much that is brushed under the carpet - the earliest films of all. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for sharing the nice info...dude...all the movie are all time hit..

  4. 1. Edwin Porter's "Faust" (1909, lost, USA)
    (like a celluloid 'tomb of the unknown soldier'... it seemed fitting to pick a missing film to Top this mini list. As you have pointed out on this very blog, such a frightening amount of early cinema is lost to us... This particular film has all the makings of an absolute Classic: hailing from the annus mirabilis of 1909, it has the greatest early American director taking on the greatest modern epic, a poem that had previously also attracted Méliès (whose 'Damnation of Faust' (1898) is also, of course, lost). Boo)

    2. Story of the Kelly Gang - Charles Tait (1906, Aus)
    (a truly haunting film, particularly in its second half, in which the violence of the subject matter is strangely enhanced by the deterioration of the physical film stock itself)

    3. A Corner in Wheat - D.W. Griffith (1909, USA)
    (awesome satirical work, solely employing visuals to skewer Kapital with a Swiftian ruthlessness: distant ancestor to Kane and There Will Be Blood)

    4. Deux Voyages: à travers l'impossible / dans la Lune - Méliès (1902-4, Fr)
    (since both of these classics contain indispensible effect-sequences - especially colourised! - along with equally extended useless 'dialogue' scenes, I'd splice the two central 'Journeys' together into one 20 minute Méliès-purist-baiting masterpiece)

    5. La fée des grèves - Feuillade (1909, Fr)
    (a glorious film, simultaneously subtle and fantastical; a masterpiece of light)

    6. Fantasmagorie - Cohl (1908, Fr)
    (the best of the early animations: not the first, but certainly the most turbo-charged)

    7. The Great Train Robbery - Porter (1903, USA)
    (presumably an influence on Charles Tait, this film falls a touch short of the Kelly Gang, paradoxically by virtue of being better preserved... lacking the surreal intensity of the decaying Ned staggering towards the camera, this is still an indelible crime masterpiece. The people lining up outside the train is horribly prophetic, and the horses crossing the forest have a real pastoral beauty - reminding the viewer that they are watching a work from 107 years ago, shot in the American wilderness)

    8. Le baromètre de la fidélité - Linder (1909, Fr)
    (THE Linder film, so far... a new subtlety, and visual splendour, adding to his comic genius. With this, the Griffith, and the Feuillade, 1909 sure is one hellofa year)

    9. Stenka Razhin - Romashkov (1908, Rus)
    (a weird and, really, rather primitive film. Still, there is something Malick about all the water and trees... and the idea of basing a film on a folksong is pretty ace. That cut to black as she hits the water at the end, too. ARGHH!!)

    10. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend - Porter (1906, USA)
    (ending where this list began, with Porter. Hinting at the range of his talent, this could be no more removed from the elegiac proto-Western of the Train Robbery... If the latter inspired Scorsese, this seems more likely to have sprung from the head of Terry Gilliam. One of the first comic book adaptations, too!)

    Ah, what a decade....!!

    Bring on the 1910s, I say. What a historic ten years that'll be... WW1, the rise of Chaplin and Griffith, the sinking of that Titanic thing... And at least one more warped Méliès classic:


  5. @Christian Hayes - Many thanks for your kind words.

    I could not agree more with you when you state that there is little that is antiquated with these century-old films. I think YouTube will open some of these films up to a whole new audience and hopefully many of the misconceptions that people have in regards to this era of film.

    If we keep spreading the 'gospel' of early silent films, hopefully these films will get the attention their quality deserves.

  6. @Stephen - Thank you for kind words. The next decade is already shaping up to be a cracker, so stay tuned for more excellent films!

  7. @Porn Videos - Many thanks for your kind words. You are right - all of the films are classics! Lets hope we can get more people to watch these great films.

  8. @Rob - This is a superb list with terrific justifications for each selection.

    The selection of Porter's Faust is tantalising...we can only speculate what this film would add to Porter's rich and diverse canon.

    My favourite selection of yours is Deux Voyages - a perfect solution that allows the viewer to pick both of Melies' masterpieces. It would also be a great way to present the films to a modern audience, and give Melies later film the attention it deserves.

    Thanks a lot for listing your top ten. As I have said before, this blog is intended to be a collaborative effort, and your list provides an excellent alternative to the one I put together.

    The next decade is already shaping to be terrific, and we are only a few films in! I will keep an eye out for the Melies film you mentioned - it sounds fascinating!

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