Top Films – 1894

1894 – Anarchists terrorize western Europe, the Franco-Russian Alliance is formed, workers strike against coal and rail companies in the United States, Alfred Dreyfus is convicted of treason, and the Harvard-Yale and Army-Navy matchups are suspended because of massive amounts of injuries. Here are the best films of the year, the way I see it.

5) Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph (dir. William K.L. Dickson, William Heise)

The second of two boxing matches filmed by Thomas Edison’s team matched the then-current Heavyweight Champion James Corbett against Peter Courtney. They faced off in an exhibition of 6 rounds lasting 1 minute each. Corbett often performed exhibitions on the stage, and made more money from vaudeville than from fighting. He later took on film acting roles and put together a modest career from 1910-1930.

4) Falling Cat (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)


CC BY-SA 3.0 Eyytee

Now billed online as the “World’s First Cat Video,” Marey created the film for reasons similar to why Eadweard Muybridge invented his camera back in 1877 – to settle a debate over how animals move. In Marey’s case, he was examining the “falling cat problem.” A cat seems to always land on its feet, no matter which position it is in when it begins to fall. This should, on its face, violate the law of conservation of angular momentum.


Scientists from the 17th Century onward attempted various methods to solve the problem. Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell used to throw cats out of windows at Cambridge, before switching to tables and beds, in order to determine the precise height needed to toss a cat without it being able to land safely. Marey’s more humane method slowed down the cat’s fall to allow scientists to examine exactly how the cats move. (By the late 20th century, experts figured how to use mathematical language to describe the obvious fact that cats contort their body to spin upright and, presumably, stopped throwing cats.)

3) Fred Ott’s Sneeze (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

By 1894, Dickson had realized films needed to be more than just simple experiments if they were to continue to dazzle audiences. He recruited fellow Edison employee Fred Ott to help him with this short film. Ott was known for his sense of humor and his funny sneezes. The YouTube embed below is particularly funny because of the very formal framing given by the Library of Congress.

2) Annabelle Butterfly Dance (dir. William K.L. Dickson)

This is one of several short films Annabelle Moore made with Edison’s studio. Some of her later dances would be hand-tinted, but this early one was not. Her hypnotic dancing, bizarre costume, and the vintage quality of the film gives it an other-worldly look that is alternatively charming and creepy, depending on the disposition of the viewer.

1) Dickson Experimental Sound Film (dir. William K.L. Dickson)



This is the world’s first sound film. You can see Dickson standing next to a large recording horn and playing the violin while two men dance. The sound was recorded separately from the film, and it’s not clear if they were ever successfully synchronized until 1998.

Edison had been interested in combining sound with images ever since his first meeting with Muybridge in 1888. Although this experiment was successful, the process proved to be more difficult and expensive than anticipated. Until audio-on-film technology was developed in 1919, synchronization was only possible if you started to play a sound recording at precisely the same time as you started to play the visual recording.

In 1895, Edison’s lab manufactured Kinetophones. A spectator who paid to watch a film inside the box would also put in ear buds and listen to background music. Edison was only able to sell 45 of them, and discontinued the product to focus his resources on projection.

Sources on Dickson Experimental Sound Film:

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I hit 500! – My Personal Top 50

I finally made it! I’ve now seen 500 of the 1,000 films on the Greatest Movies compilation list. I hit the milestone with Roman Polanski’s The Tenant.

Here’s what I’ve seen so far:

It’s been a ridiculous amount of fun learning about film through the list so far. I’ve seen so many movies I never would have thought to see otherwise. I’m excited to see at least 500 more!

To celebrate, here is my personal Top 50 Greatest Films List. I broke it up into foreign and domestic, and allowed for only one film per director – just to make it interesting.


1) Lawrence of Arabia


David Lean’s World War I has long been a personal favorite of mine. Legends tell of Lean’s obsession with the smallest details in this grand epic. It can be watched with the sound off as a pure visual treat, but its embrace of the mystery and affected romance of Lawrence’s character gives it a depth few other films have equaled. Often mistaken as a paean to colonialism, I believe it has become more relevant as we move further away from the events it describes and become entrenched in postmodern questions of identity and civilization.

2) 8 1/2


 Fellini’s masterpiece about a director creating his own film is also a man creating his own life and a circus director ranging the clowns. Fellini is the Italian Liz Lemon.

3) Metropolis


Fritz Lang’s Weimar Republic silent sci-fi was the first great dystopia on film. Its scenes have been used as fodder for everything from Frankenstein to Westworld.

4) La passion de Jeanne d’Arc


Renée Falconetti turns one of the greatest performances in history in Carl Th. Dreyer’s religious drama. His dramatic, makeupless closeups creates are legendary.

5) Shoah


The 1985 documentary on the Holocaust doesn’t use a frame of archival footage. Whereas other films of the subject tend to focus on Hitler and present him as a manipulative genius, Shoah examines the people directly involved, making human choices in an environment long stepped in Antisemitism.

6) Rashomon


Many films have explored the way in which we all perceive the world differently, but only Kurosawa is bold enough not to attempt to reconcile the contradictory perspectives of the characters in his film.

7) The Seventh Seal


I gave Ingmar Bergman’s meditation on death and life the slight nod over Persona primarily because of the way some of his scenes have become recognizable icons even for people who have never heard of the movie. This one, with the knight playing chess against death, is my favorite.

8) Stalker


Is Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker sci-fi? Fantasy? It may transcend both. Like dark, lost mythology, it bring us to the haunting otherworld and gives us a near sense of the mystery of the reality that we can never describe.

9) Napoléon

File created with CoreGraphics

Abel Gance’s exciting 5 1/2 hour biopic both tells a compelling fable of Napoleon’s early life and introduces the widescreen triptych this film is most remembered for.

10) The Exterminating Angel


Luis Buñuel’s surrealism took on many forms through his career; here, the upper class gathers for a party but find themselves unable to leave the room. A different sort of storyteller would have given viewers a clue or two to speculate about, but Buñuel doesn’t allow his characters to even really investigate their predicament.



1) Citizen Kane


I’ve been saying for a long time that Citizen Kane ought to be required viewing for high schoolers. Apart from its landmark as a piece of art, it also stands with The Great GatsbyHuckleberry Finn and Moby Dick as iconic explorations of the American character.

Writing in October 2016, I don’t think I have to work too hard to make a case for Kane‘s relevancy. Politico published ‘How Trump’s Favorite Movie Explains Him‘ this June. And below is Mr. Trump’s review of Citizen Kane, filmed by Errol Morris.

2) 2001: A Space Odyssey


Stanley Kubrick’s magnum opus transformed what generations of mass audiences expected from film. His transcendental journey is set in the context of a hard science film, combining the spiritual and the material and seeking a way out of our modern rut. Watching 2001 provokes the type of ethereal awe one only feels from entering a cathedral for the first time, or listening to an 18th Century choral mass.

3) City Lights


Chaplin’s best film, it achieves the perfect balance between comedy and sentimentality he always sought.

4) Taxi Driver


“You talkin’ to me?” Travis Bickle is Scorsese’s greatest Angry White Male. Doses in enough realism to bring the line as close as a dark comedy could possibly get.

5) Some Like It Hot


In the running for the funniest movie ever made. Extraordinarily hilarious, it takes the best elements of the end of the screwball era and mixes them up. Also one of Marilyn Monroe’s best performances.

6) The Birds


I’m in the small minority in naming The Birds Hitchcock’s best. It doesn’t easily give itself over to frame-by-frame formal analysis that some of his other works do. But it has a bizarre quality to it that makes it Hitchcock’s bravest work yet. Very little about the film is conventional. It has no resolution, and no explanation; it’s Hitchcock by way of Buñuel. The mindless, causeless terror leads me to imagine Hitchcock spent decades trying to discover the source of his fears and eventually gave up.

7) Duck Soup


You won’t find any better examples of The Marx Brothers’ fast-paced blend of physical and verbal comedy. Only Dr. Strangelove satirized war as well as Duck Soup.

8) The Sound of Music


My pick for the greatest musical ever made. It’s impossible to watch and not be overwhelmed with joy. Julie Andrews elevated the entire art of cinema by fearlessly embracing the best of our emotions – and having it juxtaposed against our worst historical backdrop.

9) Casablanca


Casablanca has seeped into our collective consciousness to such a degree that it hardly seems like a movie anymore. Rather, it exists as a series of iconic scenes, words, and glances that we all seem to remember whether we’ve actually seen the film or not.

10) Star Wars


Speaking of our collective consciousness… Star Wars and the films around it gave the West its first great mythology of the post-Christian era. Less than 40 years after its release, it has become as difficult to imagine America without Star Wars as it is Greece without Homer.


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Top Films – 1893

1893 – Grover Cleveland takes office for the second time, the World’s Columbian Exposition is held in Chicago, Gandhi arrives in South Africa, Dvořák’s “From the New World” premieres at Carnegie Hall, Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony (“Pathétique”) premieres in St. Petersburg just 9 days before the composer’s mysterious death, the first college basketball game is played, and the first football helmet is worn.

Only 1 film survives from this year.

Blacksmith Scene (dir. William K. L. Dickson)


Edison’s “Black Maria”

1893 marks three important milestones in the history of film. First, Thomas Edison opened up the world’s first proper movie studio. Nicknamed the “Black Maria,” it was little more than a shack covered in black tarpaper to prevent unwanted light from entering. Edison was able to rotate the shack, in order to angle the windows towards the sun as it moved throughout the day.


Second, Edison took a step towards monetizing film. He registered Blacksmith Scene and some of Dickson’s other early work for copyright, and exhibited the movies in Brooklyn that summer. He’d start selling tickets in 1894.

Third, Blacksmith Scene marks the first time actors were paid to play a role on film. Previous films had either been experimental, short snippets of real life called “actualities,” or in the case of Pauvre Pierrot, animated. Blacksmith Scene also shows Dickson beginning to consider the aesthetics of what he was capturing on film. You can see he composed the frame into a symmetrical shape, with the figure of the blacksmith in the vest sometime joining the center of the frame to make a cross.

Cinema was starting to grow up into an art form.



Burns, Paul. 2010. “THOMAS ALVA EDISON (1847 – 1931) .” The History of the Discovery of Cinematography. Accessed October 3, 2016.


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Top Films – 1892

1892 – Grover Cleveland won his rematch, the first public college basketball game was played, and The Nutcracker premiered in St. Petersburg. Here were the top films of the year, as I see them.

3) Handshake (dir. William K. L. Dickson)

2) Fencing (dir. William K. L. Dickson)

In 1892, William K. L. Dickson and Thomas Edison continued to develop the Kinestoscope, and tested on very short experimental films like this one. The surviving Edison/Dickson films from this time period are all similarly unremarkable to modern eyes. The real magic wouldn’t happen until Edison completed construction on the “Black Maria” film studio – he started building in December of this year.

1) Pauvre Pierrot (dir. Charles-Émile Reynaud)

Poor Pete” is the only survivor of Reynaud’s “Patnomimes Luminesuses.” He exhibited it along with several others at the Musée Grevin in Paris, presenting “the first animated pictures shown publicly on a screen by means of long, transparent bands of images.”

Pauvre Pierrot is also the first narrative movie in my list. In the story, a man visits his lover. Pierrot knocks, and the couple hides. Pierrot starts to sing, and the man scares him, so Pierrot leaves.

Pretty simple, but it represents a huge jump in the idea of what a movie is and what it can accomplish. It is the “missing link” in the evolution of cinema from a technological toy to powerful form of expression.

Only a few minutes of Pauvre Pierrot survives today, as Renaud threw most of his work in the Seine. It originally ran about 15 minutes in length – also a huge jump up from other contemporary films, which were only a few seconds, at most.



Burns, Paul T. 2010. “CHARLES-EMILE REYNAUD (1844 – 1918).” The History of the Discovery of Cinematography. Accessed October 2, 2016.

  1. “Edison and Motion Pictures.” Engineering and Technology History Wiki. December 14. Accessed October 2, 2016.

Herbert, Stephen. 2016. “Charles-Émile Reynaud.” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Accessed October 2, 2016.

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Top Films – 1891

1891 – Benjamin Harrison was president, Carnegie Hall held its first performance, and Stanford University was founded by Leland Stanford, patron of film pioneer Eadweard Muybridge. Here were the top films of the year, as I see them.

je vous aime.gif1) Je vous aime (dir. Georges Demeny)
In 1891, there were two centers of filmmaking, an American center and a French center. The French center comprised of Étienne-Jules Marey and his gun-shaped camera, “the Chronophotograph.” Marey trained Georges Demeny to use the machine. The idea behind this film came from the director of the National Deaf-Mute Institute. The idea was to use film to teach deaf students how to speak and lip read. The result was the world’s first medium close-up.


Chronophotograph of a Man Clearing a Hurdle, 1892, by Étienne-Jules Marey

dickson greeting.gif2) Dickson Greeting (dir. William K. L. Dickson)
On May 20, 1891, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope was displayed in public for the first time. Edison showed off short films made at his laboratory by William K. L. Dickson, including this one of Dickson greeting us by holding his hat.

two-fencers3) Two Fencers (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)
This short from Marey’s Chronophotograph shows the promise of motion better than anything else from this time period. The framing and choice of subject shows an artistic competence by Marey that Dickson lacked, at least at first. It compares very favorably to Dickon’s Men Boxing, in which the two pugilists don’t actually make contact.

4newark-athlete) Newark Athlete (dir. William K. L. Dickson)
Newark Athlete also shows the kinetic possibilities of the frame. The athlete swings Indian clubs towards and away from the camera, demonstrating the potential of illusion of three dimensions in a way no one else had before.

la-vague5) La Vague (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)
La Vague was one of Marey’s earliest experiments with motion. He recorded the waves crashing on the bay of Naples. Click here to see some more examples of Marey’s work and modern uses of the Chronophotograph.




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Top Films – 1890

1890 – Benjamin Harrison signed bills that would tank the economy, more than 150 Lakota were killed in the Wounded Knee Massacre, and Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray was published. Here are the most important movies to know:

London’s Trafalgar Square (dir. Wordsworth Donisthorpe & W. C. Crofts)
In 1876, anarchist Wordsworth Donisthrope patented a camera to take rapid photos that could be played back to create a movie picture. Records don’t show how well it worked, but in 1878 Donisthrope brainstormed an idea to synchronize moving pictures with Thomas Edison’s phonograph. He did little to work on the idea however, until 1889. That year, he teamed up with his cousin, W. C. Crofts, to patent and create the Kinesigraph.

The two tried out their invention on a spot overlooking London’s Trafalgar Square. 10 frames survive. The quality of the image is stunning when compared to other films of the time. You can clearly make out one of the square’s famous fountains, and even the individual spokes on a carriage wheel.


London’s Trafalgar Square



Mosquinha (dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)
Étienne-Jules Marey spent the late 1870s and the 1880s developing the “chronophotographic gun.” The gun was an early movie camera that, by 1882, could capture 12 frames a second. Maray was among the first to switch from paper to celluloid.


IMDb’s first listing for Marey is Mosquinha, in 1890. I’ve been unable to verify that date outside of the IMDb page, but for the purposes of this blog series, I’ll accept it. The film shows a fly made enormous through Marey’s lens. 126 years later, it’s a bit terrifying; one wonders what the reaction would have been from an audience unused to film.
Most of the histories I’ve read about the development of film have either overlooked Marey or forgotten about his contributions during this time period. Read this essay from BIU Santé to catch up.

Watch Mosquinha on YouTube



Monkeyshines, No. 1 and Monkeyshines, No. 2 (dir. William K.L. Dickson, William Heise)
In 1888, Eadweard Muybridge met with Thomas Edison in New Jersey and the two talked about ways to unite Muybridge’s experiments with motion pictures and Edison’s invention of the phonograph. Edison began filing patents, saying he wanted to “do for the Eye what the phonograph does for the Ear.” He developed the Kinetograph, a camera, and the Kinetoscope, a device to watch the films through.

Edison put employees William Dickson and William Heise to work in what would soon become the world’s first movie studio. These two Monkeyshines films were experiments, and show an actor (of sorts) moving around in front of the Kinetograph. (There is a third Monkeyshines, but it has been lost to time) The films could then be viewed through a peephole.

Watch Monkeyshines, No. 1 on YouTube

Watch Monkeyshines, No. 2 on YouTube



The Clay Monument on Canal Street in New Orleans, 1890. From the Shorpy Historic Picture Archive.

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The Creation of Cinema

The beginning of cinema is a story of murder, mystery, and miraculous invention. Before starting into a series of blogs exploring film through each year of its existence, I want to take a step back and learn how it came to be.

The Awe of Creation

We will never know what it was like to stand in the first cave where the first human painter thought to press her dirt-covered covered hands to the wall, transforming the cold bare stone into a sacred object. Was it that same evening she discovered the magic she could create if she moved her palms across the stone? Across and upward, she could create a deer. Palms spread out, a buffalo would appear.



Rhinos from Chauvet Cave in France. c. 30,000 BC or earlier

How long did the experimentation continue before the usefulness of ochre was discovered? Who was the first to develop the stencil technique? How did they discover the way animal fat could bind colored minerals to create paint? Was it an accident, or something developed through experimentation? And what did these fingerprints, handprints and creatures mean?


The inventions of literature, drama, and music are easier to imagine. It makes sense to chart a gradual process from the guttural noises of the lower mammals through to chants and stories played out around a Neolithic campfire, being first written in stone and papyrus, and later flowering among the theatres of Athens. Painting though, seems to require a brilliant “monolith” moment, when our species went from scratching randomly in the dirt to creating art.

Film is closest to painting in that regard. It’s difficult to see how you can have many proto-films without suddenly getting straight to the developed product. As the Pettakere and Chauvet caves provoke a sense of wonder at the dawn of a new art, so the early zoopraxiscopes create amazement at the creation of the Seventh Art.

Early Technologies

                During the 19th Century, several moving-picture toys were invented. They featured brief, looping animations that seem closer to a GIF animation than a full-length feature film. However, they operated on the same principles as today’s cinema; when distinct frames are played in rapid succession, they create the illusion of movement.



A Thaumatrope from 1825

In the late years of the Regency era, several scientists observed an optical illusion that takes place while looking at spinning wheels. As Michael Faraday described it in 1831, there is a “persistence of a visual impression for a determinate interval’ after an object has been withdrawn or changed its place. We see the trail of a shooting star and can create a fiery circle by waving a match. A disc with two sides, called a Thaumatrope was invented. Spinning the disc rapidly could create the illusion that there was a single image, instead of two images.


In 1832, animation was born. Belgian physicist Joseph Plateau created the very first moving picture – the image of a spinning doll. Plateau published his invention in the journal Correspondance Mathématique et Physique.


Joseph Plateau’s Phenakistiscope

Those early Phenakistiscopes quickly sold out. Several others expanded and improved upon this concept. Beginning in 1867, the Zoetrope was marketed by Milton Bradley and the following year, English lithographer John Barnes Linnett patented the flip book. And in 1877, Charles-Émile Reynaud improved the Zoetrope by adding mirrors to simplify the viewing process.

Eadweard Muybridge

                The second monolith moment for cinema came just a year after Reynaud’s invention. This step went form simply animating drawings to animating the world.

Photographer Eadweard Muybridge and his patron Leland Stanford worked through the 1870s to create cameras that could take photographs of objects in motion. The earliest film had to be exposed to the light for long periods of time. Moving objects would not show up, or would show up as a blur. In 1877, Muybridge was able to take a picture of the horse Occident with a negative that was exposed to the light for less than 1/1000 of a second, freezing a horse mid-trot.

                Stanford paid $20,000 (about $4.5 million in 2016 dollars) to rig up a new shutter system at a racetrack at Palo Alto, California. The system would allow Muybridge to take 12 of these high-speed photos nearly instantaneously, capturing a horse in motion. Muybridge took photos of several horses, other animals, and later athletes. He published the frames in strips. The results were an international sensation.


Several people printed copies of Muybridge’s photos for use in Zoetropes. In fall 1879, Muybridge started showing off his photos in his own invention, called a “zoopraxiscope,” which projected the images onto a wall.


A galloping horse is a fitting subject for a new art. It is universal, totemic. It hearkens back to those earliest paintings in our caves. And to be created in California is another boon. With Muybridge, the Golden State began to take the baton from Paris (previously held by Florence and Athens) and has dominated as the creative capital of the world for the past century.

(The moment’s drama is heightened further by the past of the two men involved. Muybridge was a murderer who had killed the man his wife was cheating on him with. The jury decided it was justifiable homicide. Stanford drove in the ‘Golden Spike’ that finished the Transcontinental Railroad.)

Movie Cameras



Louis Le Prince

In 1888, Louis Le Prince built a camera with a single lens that could take photos with a short-shutter speed in rapid succession. Many historians consider this the true beginning of film. On October 14th, 1888, Le Prince captured a few seconds of his family walking around a garden in Leeds, England.

Le Prince followed this up with other similarly prosaic scenes of Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Man Walking Around the Corner. At this time, other inventors started to create their own single-lens movie cameras. Those included the German Ottomar Anschütz and the American Thomas Edison.


Louis Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene

Edison features into conspiracy theories surrounding what happened next. In September 1890, Le Prince planned a trip to the UK to patent his camera and then to the U.S. to promote it. He boarded a train and was never seen again. His body, his luggage, and his invention were never found. Le Prince’s family blamed Edison, who they believed wanted to claim invention of the movies for himself.

Edison would soon create the world’s first movie studio – a subject I’ll explore in later posts. But these early years of cinema are an unprecedented look at the creation of a new art form. We have a level of knowledge about the birth of motion pictures that we never can about painting or sculpture. We don’t know who the Eadweard Muybridge of poetry or architecture was. But the way these breakthroughs spread rapidly and were developed in similar ways by different inventors working continents apart, could provide a model.

The next posts will focus on the rest of cinematic history, one year at a time, from 1890 to today. (Whichever year ‘today’ is when I catch up.)



Ball, Edward. 2013. The Inventor and the Tycoon: A Gilded Age Murder and the Birth of Moving Pictures. New York: Doubleday.

  1. “Cave painting.” New World Encyclopedia. Oct 4. Accessed Sept 7, 2016.

Herbert, Stephen. 2000. A History of Pre-Cinema. Taylor & Francis.

Herbert, Stephen, and Luke McKernan. 2016. Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema. Accessed Sept 6, 2016.

Solnit, Rebecca. 2003. River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West. New York: Viking Penguin.

Walters, Jonathan. 2002. EarlyCinema. Accessed Sept 6, 2016.




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