Contrary to popular opinion, The Wizard of Oz (1939) wasn’t the first film ever made. Nor for that matter was Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). Although both are epic productions – arguably the former more cinematically impressive than the latter – there’s a portion of movies that were knocking around for almost half a century before their release.
For instance, the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat was made way back in 1896 and is regarded as one of the most enduring images of early cinema. However, some film geeks have questioned the authenticity of the Lumiere siblings’ claim that their ‘actuality’ films were the first, and instead point to French inventor Louis Le Prince’s 2.11-second masterpiece titled Roundhay Garden Scene (1888). Incidentally, Le Prince himself disappeared under suspicious circumstances before filing the patent for his invention.
Conspiracy theories aside, another person also enters the fray, themselves harbouring the notion that they are responsible for creating the world’s first film. Step forward Englishman Eadweard Muybridge, who in 1878 – two decades before the aforementioned events taking place on the continent – produced a moving image titled The Horse in Motion. Frequenting multiple cameras, Muybridge answered the call of a Californian senator and railroad tycoon, who wanted to know if a horse ever had all four hooves off the ground at the same time when in full gallop. A perfectly reasonable question for the time, from a man who went on to establish the world-renowned Stanford University.
But the plot thickens further as another even more famous name crops up when the conversation turns to who made the first ever film, and that person is American inventor Thomas Edison. Perhaps better known as the creator of the incandescent electric light bulb and the phonograph, Edison also crafted a camera device capable of producing a motion picture, which included a peephole viewing assemblage. Edison manufactured the Kinetoscope in 1892, and a year later the results were given their first public airing. In 1894, Edison’s films were exhibited in public screenings in New York City.
Another motion picture, which as far as we can establish also jostles for attention as the first film ever made (and was pieced together back in 1895 by Lumiere sibling, Louis), goes by the title of Sortie de l’usine Lumière de Lyon. Broadly-speaking, many have consigned this to the (web) pages of celluloid history as ‘the first film ever made’. Which is all well and good, save for the underlying fact that Le Prince’s celluloid offering dates to the year 1888 – October, to be exact, where it’s documented that a family gathered in the garden in the Leeds suburb of Roundhay to become part of a moving picture. And that’s because featured prominently among this group was Louis Le Prince himself, who had in his possession that day a curious mahogany box. Comfortable in the company of his son, parents-in-law, and a close friend, an enthusiastic Le Prince instructed those in attendance to stand in front of the box and walk in a circle. As history clearly denotes, the resultant ‘film’ was captured several years before Edison and the Lumiere Brothers came onto the scene. Le Prince also used his single-lens camera to film people and carriages on Leeds Bridge, as well as his son Adolphe playing the accordion.
Theoretically, while Le Prince was responsible for creating what was, for all intents and purpose the world’s first film, he never got the opportunity to bask in the radiance of his invention due to disappearing off the face of the earth after that. And seemingly without a trace. That being said, the circumstances in which he disappeared remain a constant source of speculation to this day, with some (his widow, Lizzie, primarily) pointing the finger at Edison – who she believed had her husband murdered to remove his rival from the equation. Others are under the impression Le Prince took his life due to being on the verge of bankruptcy. Meanwhile, there are those who think he disappeared Lord Lucan-like to start a new life, or that his brother Albert killed him in a row over their mother’s will. What isn’t up for debate is the fact that had Le Prince survived, then he would have undoubtedly delivered the successes that Edison and then the Lumiere’s did, only years before them, of course.