A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1898 – Santa Claus

Yes, Virginia, that really was the Pic of the Day.

1898 is a rough year. Most of the options are less famous examples of things I will be talking about later on. So I pretty much went with the only choice I had. Fortunately, there is stuff to talk about here, so there’s that. Hopefully, some of you already see from the picture itself exactly what I’ll be talking about.

First, let’s start with some history. Santa Claus was something that started seeping into popular culture (as we know it today. I’m talking about both Santa and popular culture there) around… 1820. At least, that’s when it started becoming what we know it today as. 1823 was the “Night Before Christmas” poem, and that set the foundation for the image we still have when we think about Santa Claus.

But also, coincidentally enough, 1897 was the year where the famous editorial was written, where they printed a question from an eight year old girl, asking if there was a Santa Claus, which included the famous reply that I made mention of up at the top.  So this is actually a timely choice for Pic of the Day. Who knew?

That’s the beautiful thing about these articles. I make the choice of image, and then months later, I write up these articles and somehow end up justifying and rationalizing why they’re a good choice, even though I really didn’t have one at the time. This choice was literally made because I had nothing else for 1898, and yet, somehow, this looks like a great choice because of that editorial.

Anyway, the other reason this is significant, in terms of the history of film, anyway, is because it uses a camera trick. It was one thing for early filmmakers to just show stuff. But pretty soon they started experimenting. How else could they show stuff? What way could they make their film stand out? What way could they excite an audience that wasn’t a way that was already done yet? These were all ways to tell a story, essentially. You can show an image, but showing it in color adds a particular depth to it. We’re basically seeing them learn to tell stories with images.

That’s the beautiful thing about early cinema. You actually see people learning how to tell a story visually while on the job. You see everything. And, if you’ve taken a class on early silent cinema, it’s exciting. Because you’ve sat and watched two hours of fifty second short films from Edison and Lumiere that are all the same. But then when you start seeing things like double exposure or close-ups, it’s really exciting. At least, it is to me. Because this is a brand new technology. People barely know how it works and what it can be used for. They haven’t really thought about film as an art form yet. So the idea that they’re playing around with these cameras and are basically creating the language for what we now know as cinema – that’s really exciting.

It’s like when you watch… I don’t know… pick a biopic… that moment something really famous or iconic happens, but you’re seeing it develop “organically” as part of the story of that movie. A really cliché example is Walk the Line. Where she tells him, “You can’t walk no line.” And it’s like, “Oh shit. I get it! That’s where the song came from. That’s the meaning behind it!” And you’re supposed to get all tingly because of that song you know and like, and here you are, seeing how it was made and everything behind it. Now that you understand the context, it’s exciting. That’s how it is with me and early film. I get excited when I see people figuring this stuff out. These are things we now take for granted. But back then, it was huge. Now, people barely even use double exposure. If you use it now, you’re making a choice. You could have done something else, but you chose that. Back then, that was a bold move. In fact, it might have been a move that hadn’t even been done before this.

Think about it – you’re essentially telling “The Night Before Christmas.” Children go to bed, Santa comes, drops off presents, and goes off with his reindeer, to all a good night. But, you have multiple locations. He has to show up on the roof and come down the chimney. So, someone, in planning this, goes, “What if we film them separately and just put that part of the film onto this one?” So in the dead area of the frame, we’re watching Santa show up on the chimney and come down, meanwhile we can also watch the action of the children in bed also still happen. It’s really economical storytelling. This was (or, at least, is) considered a real technical achievement for 1898. It may have been the first time a film showed parallel action happening at once. Is that not exciting to anyone else?


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