10 Cinematic Milestones That Were Reached Sooner Than You Think
10. The First Found-Footage Movie: Ingagi (1930)
While The Blair Witch Project (1999) certainly popularized the found-footage genre, the first of its kind was Ingagi (1930), an exploitation film about an expedition team who discover a tribe of gorilla-worshipping women in the Congo. The explorers even witness a ritual where the women are presented to gorillas as sex slaves.
Because audiences had never seen a found-footage film before, the filmmakers tried to pass it off as a documentary. That ruse didn’t last long, as it was clear that the natives were actually white actresses in blackface, and much of the footage had been stolen from another film. It was also shot at the Los Angeles Zoo, rather than on location in Africa.
The many lawsuits surrounding this film resulted in the Federal Trade Commission prohibiting further distribution. It’s now considered a lost film, as only posters and a few screenshots remain.
A later film called Son of Ingagi (1940)—which, despite its title, was not a sequel—was the first science-fiction horror film to feature an all-black cast, perhaps as a means of rectifying the blatant racism of the original.
9. The First Film Shown on an Airplane: Howdy Chicago! (1921) / The Lost World (1925)
Chicago’s Pageant of Progress (1921-1922) was a series of industrial and business exhibits that showcased new developments in technology. One impressive display was the screening of a short film called Howdy Chicago! (1921) for eleven airline passengers.
To pull this off, a screen was hung in the fore cabin while a projectionist connected the machine to an electric light socket. The film was an ad for the city of Chicago, produced by Rothacker Film Co. for the Chicago Boosters Club.
The first full-length film to be shown on an airplane was The Lost World (1925), adapted from a novel by Arthur Conan Doyle. It was most successful dinosaur movie of its time and featured groundbreaking special effects done by Willis O’Brien, who later worked on King Kong (1933).
In April of 1925, Imperial Airways screened the film on a flight from London to Paris. This was a great risk, given that film was highly flammable in that era, and the plane was hulled with wood and fabric.
8. The First Instance of Non-Pornographic Full-Frontal Nudity: Hypocrites (1915) / Inspiration (1915) / A Daughter of the Gods (1916)
Lois Weber stirred a great deal of controversy when she directed Hypocrites (1915), a film about a medieval monk who is murdered by a mob for sculpting a statue of a naked woman. The statue was portrayed by Margaret Edwards, who had only two other acting credits to her name.
Because Edwards went uncredited for her role at the time, Audrey Munson is often cited as the first actress to appear nude in a film. The film, Inspiration (1915), was about a sculptor who finds a young woman willing to model for him. Munson acted in two other films and portrayed herself in Heedless Moths (1921), a film she wrote.
The first film to show a major star fully nude was A Daughter of the Gods (1916). The actress was Annette Kellerman, who was shown swimming nude in a lake.
Even before this, Kellerman was no stranger to controversy. Before becoming an actress, she was a professional swimmer. In 1907, she was arrested in Boston for wearing a one-piece bathing suit, instead of the billowy pantaloons that women generally wore. In an act of defiance, Kellerman started her own fashion line of one-piece bathing suits for women.
7. The First Film about the Titanic: Saved From the Titanic (1912)
Films about the RMS Titanic go back much further than James Cameron’s blockbuster, Titanic (1997). For example, there was the Nazi propaganda film Titanic (1943), which argued that British and American capitalism led to the ship sinking. Other films include A Night to Remember (1958) and The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964).
But it turns out filmmakers were even quicker to capitalize on the tragedy. Saved From the Titanic (1912) premiered just 29 days after the ship sank—and it starred a real-life survivor.
Actress Dorothy Gibson, having survived the sinking, was immediately approached by the French film company Éclair, who convinced her to play a fictionalized version of herself in a ten-minute film. The film depicted her arriving at the dock in a rescue boat and being greeted by her parents and fiancé.
Gibson regretted reliving the traumatic event and would often break down crying during filming. She told a reporter, “I will never forget the terrible cry that rang out from people who were thrown into the sea and others who were afraid for their loved ones.”
Despite being the second highest-paid actress at the time, Gibson soon gave up acting and moved to France. She allegedly became a Nazi spy, but then joined the resistance and was arrested by the Italian Gestapo in 1944. She broke out of prison with the help of a double agent and moved back to France, where she died a few months later at age 56.
Somehow, Hollywood has yet to make a film about that part of her life.
6. The First Film Based on a Comic: Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906)
Dream of the Rarebit Fiend was a newspaper comic strip that ran from 1904 to 1925. It had no recurring characters or plots, but rather a recurring theme. A character would eat a cheese-on-toast dish called a Welsh rarebit and then have a bizarre dream. In the end they would wake up and express regret at eating the rarebit.
Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) was a seven-minute adaptation that became the Edison Company’s most popular release that year. Actor Jack Brawn played a man who dreams of his bed flying out the window and through the city. Then he falls off the bed, crash-lands through his bedroom ceiling, and wakes up to realize it was a dream.
Cartoonist Winsor McCay originally published this comic under the pseudonym Silas. At the time he was better known for the children’s comic strip Little Nemo in Slumberland, which was about a boy and his adventures in his dreams. Just like in Rarebit Fiend, the last panel would show Nemo waking up.
McCay also made some of the very first animated films, such as Little Nemo (1911), How a Mosquito Operates (1912), Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), and The Sinking of the Lusitania (1918). His work would go on to influence Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki, Chuck Jones, Tex Avery, Don Bluth, and many more.
5. The First Remake: The Kiss (1900)
The Kiss (1896)—also known as The May Irwin Kiss, The Rice-Irwin Kiss and The Widow Jones—was one of the first films shown commercially to the public. Directed by William Heise for Edison Studios, this eighteen-second film depicts middle-aged actors May Irwin and John Rice sharing a kiss in a reenactment of a scene from the play The Widow Jones.
As this was the first kiss ever shown on film, it was considered shocking and obscene to critics and audiences at the time. The Roman Catholic Church publicly denounced it and called for censorship and moral reform. Some reviews even called for the police to put an end to screenings of the film.
One of many scathing reviews stated, “Neither participant is physically attractive, and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear… Magnified to Gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting… and the performance comes very near being indecent in its emphasized vulgarity.”
Four years later, Edison Studios remade the film with younger and more conventionally attractive actors. Interestingly, The Kiss (1900) was released without any controversy or public outcry, despite being longer and portraying more passion and physicality between the two actors.
4. The First Erotic Film: Le Coucher de la Mariée (1896)
With pornography so readily available today, modern viewers would not find La Coucher de la Mariée (1896)—which translates to Bedtime for the Bride or The Bridegroom's Dilemma—all that racy. But as the first erotic film in recorded history, its portrayal of a woman doing a striptease while smiling and winking to the camera was unprecedented.
Though the original film was seven minutes long, not even half of that running time has survived. The only surviving footage depicts a blushing bride disrobing while her husband eagerly awaits her behind a folding screen. What happens next, viewers will never know.
Soon after La Coucher de la Mariée was released, a short nickelodeon film called Fatima's Coochie-Coochie Dance (1896) was censored for risqué dance moves. The May Irwin Kiss (1896), one of the first films ever shown commercially to the general public, was denounced by the Roman Catholic Church for its "shocking" and "obscene" portrayal of a couple kissing.
Georges Méliès, ever the cinematic pioneer, directed After the Ball (1897), which showed an actress in a nude body suit. The use of body suits and implied nudity rather than full nudity became the norm for erotic films, until the release of El Satario (1907) and A L'Ecu d'Or ou la Bonne Auberge (1908), the earliest-known hardcore pornographic films.
It wasn’t until Andy Warhol’s Blue Movie (1969) that a pornographic film received a wide theatrical release. This marked the beginning of the Golden Age of Porn, which ran from 1969 to 1984.
3. The First Sound Film: The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894)
Though the first full-length talking picture was The Jazz Singer (1927), the earliest known film with live-recorded sound was The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894).
While working for Thomas Edison’s company, Black Maria Studios, in New Jersey, Scottish inventor William Dickson made this 17-second film featuring two men dancing while Dickson himself plays the violin before a large phonograph horn. The song he plays is “Song of the Cabin Boy” from the 1877 opera The Chimes of Normandy.
In 1942, the Museum of Modern Art acquired a nitrate print of the film. In 1964, the wax cylinder containing the music was found broken in the Edison Studios laboratory. Both were later transferred to the Library of Congress.
It wasn’t until 1998 that curators realized the film and the music went together. Film editor Walter Murch was called in to digitally restore the film and synchronize it with the repaired audio. The project was completed in 2000.
The Dickson Experimental Sound Film is now included in the United States National Film Registry. It is possibly the first film ever made for Thomas Edison’s kinetophone, and the only surviving kinetophone film with live-recorded sound.
2. The First Color Film: Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894)
Technically, Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894) wasn’t shot on color film, but rather tinted by hand, one frame at a time, after filming. But it is nonetheless the first union of moving pictures with color, and is made all the more impressive by the way the dancer's garments change colors while she moves.
The dancer was Annabelle Moore, also known as Peerless Annabelle. She made several films for Thomas Edison’s studios and performed in Ziegfeld Follies productions from 1907 to her retirement in 1912.
The first footage ever shot in color was a series of untitled shorts made by Edwardian photographer William Turner. His films featured the streets of London, his pet macaw, and his three children playing in their backyard.
In 1902, he patented his method of capturing color images, then died the next year. Then in 2012, over a century after they were made, curators at the National Media Museum in Britain screened his films in public for the first time.
Turner’s influence led to the development of Kinemacolor, the first successful color film process. The earliest known use of Kinemacolor was an eight-minute film called A Visit to the Seaside (1908). This process fell out of use soon after the development of Technicolor in 1916, followed by the release of The Gulf Between (1917), the first Technicolor film screened for the public.
1. The First Film: Roundhay Garden Scene (1888)
Before Thomas Edison and the Lumiére brothers, there was a French inventor named Louis Le Prince. Though he invented the first camera that recorded moving images, his mysterious disappearance two years later temporarily erased him from the history books.
Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) was shot with a single-lens camera in Roundhay, Leeds in West Yorkshire, England. The film showed Le Prince’s son, Adolphe, walking around with family friends in a neighbor's garden. Le Prince then took his camera to Leeds Bridge to shoot trams, carriages, and pedestrian traffic.
Le Prince experimented with projection techniques and was soon ready for his first public screening in 1890, which was to take place in the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York. Unfortunately, he never made it there. He vanished after boarding a train from Dijon to Paris in September of that year.
One theory surrounding his disappearance is that Edison had Le Prince killed so he could claim his inventions as his own. His widow certainly thought that was the case. Indeed, Edison and the Lumiéres did take credit for Le Prince’s work for many years.
As a means of giving credit where it was long overdue, documentary filmmaker David Nicholas Wilkinson directed The First Film (2015), which presented evidence of Le Prince’s patents and testimony from several historians, as well as Le Prince’s great-great granddaughter.