Silents are Golden: What were movies like in the Nickelodeon era? – Part 2!
Last month we started exploring the many genres of 19th Century Nickelodeon films by taking a look at travelogues, military films, the different categories of comic shorts etc. offered in exhibitors’ catalogues became. Let’s dive back in for Part 2 and see what other genres were entertaining theatergoers back in the day – the choice was huge!
Audiences in the 1900s would have seen a mix of “new” movies, which were released by the dozen every day, and “old” offerings, which had been around for a decade (think Georges Melies). The four pesky heads from 1898). Some movies like Life of an American Firefighter (1903) and A trip to the moon (1902) were famous enough to be considered our first classic screens.
Some of the older movies that are still remembered today are in the dance genre – specifically snake dance (1895) with a dancer wearing billowing waves of silk. The eye-catching moves were developed by Loie Fuller, who soon had several imitators. The footage was often beautifully hand-colored. It was also popular butterfly dance (1894) with the original Gibson Girl Annabelle Moore wearing a voluminous skirt which she holds so that it flaps like butterfly wings.
Other films that we would probably recognize were grouped under the Mysterious label—you could almost call it the Georges Melies label. Often magically themed, these showcases were for primitive special effects and still have a lot of charm today. A trip to the moon is of course the most famous (it was so popular it cost around $100 to rent) and you’ve probably seen a picture or two of an astronomer encountering a huge, twinkling moon An astronomer’s dream (1898) or Melies in conversation with a portrait of herself brought to life A mysterious portrait (1899).
There were also beautifully imaginative films inspired by the fairy tale pantomimes of the 19th century stage that many people would have grown up watching around Christmas time. The hand-colored film flower fairy (1905) has a simple but charming premise, as described in a 1907 catalogue: “A beautiful young girl appears at her window, and with a wave of the hand the window sill is decorated with the most beautiful flowers. When she is completely surrounded by the flowers, she disappears, leaving in her place colorful butterflies that suck honey from the flowers. A small pansy begins to grow and develop to enormous proportions until the pretty girl’s face is visible in the center.” Likewise the very short one amphitrite shows “A pretty girl dressed in pantyhose goes through numerous graceful evolutions underwater. The fish swim all around them.”
Other “Mysterious” films are more surreal – or downright bizarre – than magical. The Survival dog factory (1904) shows a factory room hung with sausages labeled with different breeds of dogs. Oddly enough, the sausages are placed in a machine that rotates them back in dogs for paying customers. Wrestling match between fat and skinny (1901), which does exactly what it promises, also had some odd twists and turns: ‘After wrestling wildly for a while, the fat man falls on top of the lean one and squashes him as flat as a pancake. The fat man then rolls it up in a package the size of a rug bag and lays it on the ground and throws it high in the air. The skinny man, coming down, falls on the fat man’s head, throws him to the ground and explodes in a great puff of smoke…”
Of course, many Nickelodeon movies were far more straightforward than machines cranking live dogs. People would have been happy to see footage of parades – especially parades on special occasions such as Christmas Day Dewey Parade (1901) “taken at the time Admiral Dewey was visiting Chicago,” or various army films such as Initiate a new recruit (1898), which “shows a crowd of soldier boys, many holding a blanket by the edges and throwing the victim of their sport high in the air”. Footage of battleships was also popular, especially when it showed torpedo launches or how large defensive guns worked.
And there was also a genre called “seaside” or “bathing,” which features people frolicking in the water in popular vacation spots like Coney Island or Atlantic City. Even this category offered opportunities for surreal fun –midwinter bathing (1905), filmed from the bay in Boston, shows “A number of stout men in swimming trunks…some of them have skates fastened to their bare feet and others are playing handball. After their practice, they run along the shore where the ice mounds are piled high, and throw themselves from the end of the ice-covered pier into the icy waters of the bay… The film is of the very best photographic quality, and the subject in it one of the most remarkable in every respect ever made.”
Of all those early films, whether beautiful, magical, or just downright bizarre, some of the most well-known fell under the “religious” label. Many of these films were a series of scenes from the life of Jesus Christ, carefully hand-colored and each less than a minute long. Played with dignity, these scenes resembled the passion plays that had been popular in Europe for centuries. An exhibitor could order a series of twenty scenes, fifteen, a dozen or choose which ones he wanted to put together. There were also short Bible scenes such as Joseph sold by his brothers (1904) or the Six Scene The Life of Moses (1905) – with an efficient length of five minutes!
Whenever I watch these old Nickelodeon movies, I often get a sense of awe knowing that each one – no matter how scratchy or how crudely made – is a little window into history. And while many films from the 1890s and 1900s don’t survive, we’re fortunate to have those that have made it through the decades, including milestones like The great train robbery (1903). And fortunately, surviving trade journals and catalogs can help us get a sense of what has been lost.
Information about the films in this article (part 2 of 2) was reprinted by historian Darren Nemeth 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 22, a very rare catalog from his collection. It’s a wealth of information for anyone interested in the early days of the film and I highly recommend it! IMDb.com and loc.gov were also consulted to find dates of specific films.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born and raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely credits to Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion on her website, Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.