The Birth of Film: 11 Firsts in Cinema

Today, we’re rewinding the videotape to the early days of cinema. We’re starting in 1878 and then moving forward, watching eleven cinematic firsts, the moments when entire traditions in film were born. The first horror film. The first western. The first sci-fi film. And all of the rest. Some films we have featured here before, others not. All appear in our collection of 400 Free Movies Online. Sit back and enjoy…

If you’re looking for the first movie ever made, you can look back to The Horse In Motion, created by Eadweard Muybridge in 1878. Muybridge was asked by Leland Stanford (railroad magnate, California senator, race-horse owner, and eventual founder of Stanford University) to answer a popularly debated question: When a horse trots, do all four hooves leave the ground simultaneously? Muybridge’s stop motion film made it clear that they do.

A great film tradition – the Western – started in 1903 with The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter’s 10 minute film that combined western themes with innovative cinematic techniques (narrative storytelling, parallel editing, minor camera movement, location shooting, etc.). The film famously took its inspiration from an event that became the stuff of legend: Butch Cassidy’s 1900 train heist, which ended with Cassidy blowing open a safe and escaping with $5,000 in cash. Starting in the 1920s, John Wayne began shooting the first of many Westerns and took the genre to new heights. You can find 25 Free John Wayne Films right here.

A year before the Wright brothers launched the first airplane flight in 1903, Georges Méliès, a French filmmaker with already 400 films to his credit, directed a film that visualized a much bigger human ambition – landing a spacecraft on the moon. Loosely based on works by Jules Vernes (From the Earth to the Moon) and H. G. Wells (The First Men in the Moon), A Trip to the Moon (Le voyage dans la lune) invented one of our favorite cinematic genres – the science fiction movie. Today, many film critics consider Méliès’ short movie an enduring classic. The Village Voice ranked it #84 on its list of the 100 Best Films of the 20th Century, and you’ll almost certainly recognize the iconic shot at the 4:44 mark.

Chalk another one up for Georges Méliès. Even before he brought sci-fi to motion pictures, Méliès shot Le Manoir du Diable, or The Haunted Castle, in 1896, which many now consider the first horror movie. In this three minute film, a bat flies into a medieval castle, turns into Mephistopheles, then gets chased away by a crucifix. There you have it, the essential ingredients of the vampire film.

100 years ago, J. Searle Dawley wrote and directed Frankenstein. It took him three days to shoot the short, 12-minute movie (when most films were actually shot in just one day). It marked the first time that Mary Shelley’s literary creation was adapted to film. And, somewhat notably, Thomas Edison had a hand (albeit it an indirect one) in making the film. The first Frankenstein was shot at Edison Studios, the production company owned by the famous inventor.

In early 1920, Robert Wiene premiered in Berlin his silent film The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Ever since, critics have lavished praise upon Caligari, calling it a model of German expressionist film, the greatest horror film of early cinema, and an important influence on directors later working in the film noir tradition. And, what’s more (spoiler alert), Wiene’s film introduced the first ‘twist ending’ to cinema. Today, you can watch this groundbreaking film in its entirety above, or by downloading it from the Internet Archive.

Get more cinematic firsts after the jump.

Emile Cohl, otherwise known as “The Father of the Animated Cartoon,” made Fantasmagorie in 1908, a film that stitched together 700 drawings, each double-exposed, creating the first fully animated movie. Cohl made over 250 films between 1908 and 1923, of which 37 survive in archives. And several – Le cauchemar de Fantoche (1908) and The Hasher’s Delirium (1910) – appear right on YouTube.

The artist and cartoon pioneer Winsor McCay (1869?-1934) did not make the world’s first animated film. That distinction, we know, goes to Emile Cohl and his 76-second long Fantasmagorie (1908). But McKay made a contribution to cartoons that is arguably even more important.

Sweet, mischievous Gertie, with her ready tears, excitable nature, and complete inability to miss a chance to get herself in trouble, is widely credited as the first character created specifically for animation, and the first to demonstrate a personality all of her own. Mickey Mouse, Bugs Bunny, Bambi, even Wall-e… they all owe a debt to Gertie, born circa 1914.

A few weeks ago, we posted New York Times critic A.O.Scott’s thoughtful three-minute look back at the surrealist classic Un Chien Andalou. The 1929 Buñuel/Dalí production may well be the world’s most famous bit of early surrealist cinema, but it was not the first. That honor goes to another very strange (and indubitably surreal) short film screened in Paris in 1928. The Seashell and the Clergyman, based on Antonin Artaud’s screenplay about a priest who lusts after a General’s wife, was directed by the cinema theorist, journalist, and critic Germaine Dulac (1882-1942).

The world’s first hand-tinted motion picture was produced by Thomas Edison’s company, Edison Studios, in 1895, more than 115 years ago. The dancer, Annabelle Moore (1878-1961), was just a teenager when this film was released, and her dance caused both a sensation and a scandal. (Note the flashes of undergarment, all the way up to above the knee, about 29 seconds in.) The film is also worth comparing with a similar but much more delicately painted version done just five years later by the Lumiere brothers.

The Jazz Singer (1927) was the first film to “use spoken dialogue as part of the dramatic action.” Starring Al Jolson, the very profitable musical launched the talking-picture revolution and helped Warner Bros become one of the dominant studios. We have included a short clip above, but you can watch the full 89 minute film here, or find it listed in our collection of 400+ Free Movies Online.

A special thanks goes to Sheerly Avni who helped research and author some of the material appearing in this collection.


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  1. Luke McKernan says . . . | September 20, 2011 / 11:53 am

    Unfortunately scarcely a single one of these so-called ‘firsts’ is correct. Aside from the fact that it’s something of an absurdity to look at later genres and then project these back to a supposed first attempt at such a genre, so much of this is just plain wrong. So, Muybridge did not make films, The Great Train Robbery was not the first film on a Western theme, Voyage Dans la Lune was not the first film on a science fiction theme (not even the first by Georges Melies), no Edison film in 1895 was coloured (the films were coloured later), The Seashell and the Clergyman was not the first surrealist film … and so on and so on.

  2. belen says . . . | September 20, 2011 / 2:59 pm

    I enjoyed this post a lot :) Very interesting, thank you

  3. RD Neugebauer says . . . | September 20, 2011 / 6:26 pm

    The horse in the film is not trotting…it is galloping aka cantering. When it trots, two hooves do indeed touch the ground.

  4. Cartoon Intros says . . . | October 15, 2012 / 7:16 am

    Wow. I found your site on Google looking for something else entirely- and now I’m gonna have to go back and go the old material! So long my free time this morning, but this was a truly spectacular find!!!

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