1897's Greatest Films

John Philip Sousa’s “The Stars and Stripes Forever” was performed for the first time, Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published, the United Kingdom celebrated Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, Jack London sailed to Alaska in search of gold, and The Sun informed Virginia that yes, there is a Santa Claus. Here are 1897’s Greatest Films.

#1) The Surrender of Tournavos

(dir. Georges Méliès)

In 1897, Méliès tried his hand at war films, making four short movies to illustrate the brief Greco-Turkish War. The only surviving film of the four is this one, depicting an Ottoman victory in Tournavos.

The film is exciting to watch, especially after sitting through 7 years of actualities. The Ottomans storm the wall, climbing over and overtaking the Greek soldiers. The guns fire, the bomb explodes, and Tournavos has fallen. It’s filled with such a frenzied energy that it’s easy to forget the minute-long battle had to have been carefully choreographed. The magic is a consequence of Méliès’s long training on the stage.

#2) The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight

(dir. Enoch J. Rector)

Enoch Rector was a former employee of Edison’s lab, who set out on his own. He teamed up with some partners to arrange a filmed fight for the World Heavyweight Title – with the filmmakers taking half the proceeds.

This wasn’t the first fight on film. Edison’s company had filmed a fight between Gentleman James Corbett and Peter Courtney in 1894. However, that fight was limited to 1-minute rounds. Rector’s boxing film was much more ambitious. The fight was held on St. Patrick’s Day in Carson City. Corbett returned, this time losing his title to Bob Fitzsimmons.

The result was the world’s first feature film, running more than 90 minutes. Copies of the film were distributed across the country that year and even made its way to Britain by the fall.

Fun Fact: One of the journalists covering the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was famous Old West lawman Wyatt Earp. He disputed the referee’s decision not to call a foul when Fitzsimmons hit Corbett in the jaw.

At the time, Earp was more famous for his own behavior as a referee in a match also involving Fitzsimmons just a few months earlier. The fight was supposedly for the World Heavyweight Championship, as Corbett was temporarily retired. Earp claimed Fitzsimmons hit Tom Sharkey when he was down, and gave Sharkey the victory. Police ordered an investigation, and a trial began. The judge threw out the case because boxing was technically illegal in the state and everyone involved should probably have been arrested- including the police officials who attended the match!

When Earp died more than 30 years later, his Associated Press obituary focused primarily on his controversial decision and mentioned Tombstone only in passing.

#3) After the Ball, the Bath

(dir.  Georges Méliès)

Méliès wasn’t all high-brow fantasy. After the Ball is a (very) softcore pornographic movie. It may be the first time simulated nudity was shown on film; 1896’s Le Coucher de la Mariée (dir. Albert Kirchner) is mostly lost and so we don’t know just how nude the actress became. The restoration cuts off her striptease before it can really begin.

Both Le Coucher and After the Ball follow the same convention. A paper-thin “plot” is concocted to keep the film’s nudity within the bounds of good taste. In Le Coucher, a bride undresses while her groom waits on the other side of a folding curtain. In After the Ball, a servant undresses a woman and baths her.

Actress Jehanne d’Alcy wore a body stocking that made her appear nude. Audiences weren’t quite ready to see an actual naked body. Jehanne and Georges married in 1925, and stayed together until Georges’s death.

#4) Joueurs de cartes arrosés

(dir. Louis Lumière)

The Lumières still stuck to mostly short documentary “actuality” films in 1897, and would continue to do so throughout their careers. But, they felt free to experiment with these short comedic movies more as time wore on – perhaps pressured by Méliès’s success.

In this, two men sit across from each other in a garden playing cards. The composition strongly reminds one of Méliès’s very first film: Une partie de cartes, released the year before.

In this rare case, the Lumières outdid Méliès for imagination. In Méliès’s film, the card players’ friend simply watches and laughs. In the Lumières’s version, the two card players begin to argue and fight over the game. Their friend urges the gardener to turn the hose on them to calm them down!

#5) Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory

(dir. William Heise and James White)

Never one to pass up an opportunity at self-promotion, Thomas Edison had his studio create a set to resemble the type of chemical lab Americans might imagine a genius like Edison would use. Edison appears in a full lab coat, moves some equipment around and appears to pour something.

Most of the early “actualities” were staged, in the sense that the filmmaker told actors to exhibit normal behavior rather than film actual people like a modern TV news crew would do. But this seems to take it a bit further and possibly even be considered the world’s first commercial, in a sense.