1894's Greatest Films

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.

#1) Dickson Experimental Sound Film

(dir. William K.L. Dickson)


This is the world’s first sound film. You can see William K.L. 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.

Thomas Edison had been interested in combining sound with images ever since his first meeting with Eadweard 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.

#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.

#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 here is particularly funny because of the very formal framing given by the Library of Congress.

#4) Falling Cat

(dir. Étienne-Jules Marey)

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.)

#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.

Honorable Mention: La Carmencita

(dir. William K.L. Dickson, William Heise)

La Carmencita

Shortly after I published this list, I visited the exhibition The Art of American Dance at Crystal Bridges, and who did I see but Carmencita! I immediately felt guilty for leaving her on the short list.

The oil painting is by John Singer Sargent, 1889. The subject is Carmen Dauset Moreno, “La Carmencita,” who danced before Dickson & Heise’s camera in Edison’s studio in 1894 – making her the first woman to appear in an American film.