First films

Patineur Grotesque, from australianscreen

I once had the privilege of attending a film show given in Paris, organised to mark the centenary of cinema in 1995, which brought together the various ‘first’ films from countries around the world. They made an interesting selection, for what survived, for how the national contributors interpreted the brief to find the earliest film in their collections, and for the sense of national competition. I was at the National Film Archive in those days, and we decided that we would defeat all comers by choosing Louis Augustin Aimé Le Prince‘s Traffic on Leeds Bridge, ‘filmed’ (on sensitised paper) in late 1888. France’s contribution was a selection of chronophotographic Phonoscope images by Georges Demenÿ from 1892-93, Germany’s the 1895 works of Max Skladanowsky. At this distance in time I forget most of the others, though I do remember vividly the Romanian choice, the 1898-1901 medical films of Gheorge Marinescu. The American choice would have been an Edison title filmed by W.K-L. Dickson – whether it was the ‘monkeyshines’ experiments from 1899 with microphotographs on a cylinder, or Dickson Greeting of 1891 (taken with horizontal feed camera) or A Hand Shake of 1892, where Dickson and his assistant William Heise shake hands to congratulate themselves on having finally cracked the problem of taking motion picture films, I can no longer recall.

There is – usually – something hauntingly special about such films, beyond their firstness. The ghostly hand-waving figure of the monkeyshines experiments, Dickson making to bow to the camera, the distant figures crossing Leeds bridge wholly unaware of their immortality, all contain something mysterious, something appropriate, that says that here is something new in the world. The variety acts captured by the Skaldanowsky camera (wrestlers, dancers, a boxing kangaroo) perhaps less so.

I don’t remember if Australia was included in the Paris show, but in any case time has marched on and what was previously considered the oldest surviving Australian film, a record of the Melbourne Cup horse race filmed by Marius Sestier on 3 November 1896, has now been replaced by a marginally earlier work by the same man. Discovered in 2005 (in France) and now restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA), Patineur Grotesque (Humorous Rollerskater) shows a man in exaggerated comic dress rollerskating in a Melbourne park before a small crowd [the location is now known to be Sydney – see comments]. A 10-second clip is available on the australianscreen site (why so short? the full film can only last 40-50 seconds), with the full action described thus:

A man in costume and on rollerskates performs for a gathering crowd. As part of the act the skater trips and falls, then drops his hat. As he attempts to retrieve the hat he continues to fall about. When finally the hat is restored to his head the act comes to a halt.

It is indeed grotesque, particularly when the skater lifts his coat-tails to reveal a hand printed on the seat of his pants. You do wonder whether Australia’s delight at having discovered this earlier film (which they estimate was filmed between 29 and 31 October 1896) might be tempered by some disappointment. It is a silly film, and the Melbourne Cup film that now comes second (and which you can also seen on australianscreen) is a more distinguished work and iconically Australian.

Sestier, the man who filmed both films, was French. He was a Lumière cameraman, one of a team sent around the world to spread the good word of the Lumière Cinématographe. Sestier was sent to Australia to work with the local Lumière concessionary, photographer Henry Walter Barnett. The first film he shot in Australia, Passengers Alighting from Ferry ‘Brighton’ at Manly, was filmed on 27 October, but no longer exists. Patineur Grotesque itself was shot soon after, but the NFSA has found no record of it being shown in Australia – instead it is first recorded being shown in Lyons, France on 28 February 1897.

So Australia has its earliest surviving film, but not its earliest film. The search for Passengers Alighting from Ferry ‘Brighton’ at Manly has to go on, not least to save Australia from the undignified embarrassment that, to be frank, is Patineur Grotesque. First films should be mysterious, or iconic, or in some way fitting that they are first. Otherwise they are just impostors.

More information on the discovery, and on Marius Sestier himself, is on the NFSA’s Marius Sestier Project, which includes fascinating biographical material and evidence of the detailed research undertaken by curator Sally Jackson using family history sources.