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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Comments (10)
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  • 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.

  • belen says:

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

  • RD Neugebauer says:

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

  • 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!!!

  • Ric says:

    What a poor­ly researched arti­cle!
    First I’d chal­lenge whether Muy­bridge’s “Horse in Motion ” pho­to­graph­ic exper­i­ment is actu­al­ly cin­e­ma. The zooprax­is­cope is a pre­cur­sor to cin­e­ma.

    There’s no men­tion of “Sol­diers of the Cross”, a slide and motion film pre­sen­ta­tion, dura­tion 2 hours, which pre­miered at the Mel­bourne Town Hall (Aus­tralia) on 13 Sep­tem­ber 1900 to a crowd of approx­i­mate­ly 2,000 peo­ple.

    Nor the first dra­mat­ic nar­ra­tive to run over 60 min­utes and thus the first fea­ture film, “The Sto­ry of the Kel­ly Gang” which opened in Mel­bourne Town Hall on 26 Decem­ber 1906. This was an impor­tant mile­stone because at that time most films gen­er­al­ly ran around 10 min­utes.

    It is under­stood “The Sto­ry of the Kel­ly Gang” was ini­tial­ly screened with­out inter-titles but with a lec­tur­er to explain the action, often accom­pa­nied by sounds from behind the screen, includ­ing dia­logue from actors and sound effects such as gun­shots and hoof­beats.

    The arti­cle above states “Start­ing in the 1920s, John Wayne began shoot­ing the first of many West­erns and took the genre to new heights.”
    Real­ly? Wayne appeared as an extra or foot­ball play­er in a few movies in that peri­od, but what west­ern did he “shoot” or fea­ture in dur­ing the 1920’s?

    Amer­i­cans may think of “The Sto­ry of the Kel­ly Gang” as a ‘west­ern themed’ but the sto­ry is based on the true sto­ry of Aus­tralian bushrangers (out­laws), well before any ‘west­ern’ fea­tures such as ‘Bil­ly The Kid’ (1930) were pro­duced.

  • Mya says:

    For some rea­son I could not watch most of the videos because they were not appro­pri­ate. :(

  • Kristina Koehler says:


  • Christ Cypher says:

    You left out the first major motion pic­ture and first movie viewed in the White House. “Birth of a Nation” 1915

  • Susan Mans says:

    much of the mate­r­i­al was review of what was pre­sent­ed in lec­ture

  • Noelle Pietsch says:

    For being the first movie ever made, “The horse in motion” was quite well done. In all hon­est­ly, I was not expect­ing the videog­ra­phy to be that good. The pro­duc­er con­veyed his mes­sage bril­liant­ly with the tech­nol­o­gy he had. Obvi­ous­ly there are many prob­lems with the film but over all the film was quite well done.

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