The more I look at the very early history of film, the more difficult it is to pin down to a single event. The story of it’s birth is full of people, now little known, who came up with different devices and methods for shooting and projecting a moving image. A few of them disappeared into obscurity because they ended up selling their patents to others. Some just wound up in a dead end, could develop their ideas no further and were forgotten. There seems to have been a lot of squabbling and a lot of legal cases. Probably the strangest story I’ve come across is that of Louis le Prince, who simply disappeared.
Le Prince filmed what is considered to be the oldest surviving piece of motion footage on this day in 1888. It was shot at the home of his in-laws in Roundhay, Leeds. The restored footage lasts slightly over two seconds and features his mother-in-law, Sarah Whitley, Joseph Whitely, his son, Adolphe le Prince and a lady called Harriet Hartley. They are walking around in a sunny garden. It was shot on a camera of le Prince’s own design on film that was backed with paper rather than celluloid which was made by Eastmann of Eastmann Kodak. His mother-in-law died ten days after this film was shot so viewing it must have been a really weird experience for everybody.
Louis had learned about photography as a boy from a friend of his father’s, Louis Daguerre. He moved to Leeds in 1861 to work in the Whitley’s factory, a brass foundry. It was work that also took him to the United States in 1881. This was where he first began to experiment with moving photographs.
The film ‘Roundhay Garden Scene’, along with another short film, ‘Traffic on Leeds Bridge’ and fragments of two others are all that remains of le Prince’s work. This is because Louis and his personal effects disappeared during a train journey in France in 1890. No one knows what happened. Louis was just about to patent his combined camera and projector in the UK and after that, he planned a trip to America to promote it. His brother saw him off at the station in Dijon but when the train arrived in Paris, he just wasn’t there. Neither was his luggage. No one but his brother saw him at the station. No one remembered seeing him on the train. No one noticed anything odd during the journey at all. Le Prince had just vanished. He was declared dead in 1897. In 2003 someone turned up a photograph of a drowning victim from the Paris police archives dated 1890 which looks a bit like le Prince.
There are several theories about what happened. Some suggest suicide, others fratricide. His family suspected that it had something to do with Edison who later tried to claim sole rights for the invention of the moving picture camera. Louis’s son Adolphe actually appeared as a witness in a court case brought by Mutoscope against Edison in 1898, to prove he was not the sole inventor. Adolphe wanted to show his father’s cameras as evidence, but in the end he was not allowed to do so.
As I frequently look at achievements in early cinema I often find things that Edison has tried to swoop in and take the credit for. It is beginning to feel as though, if this blog has a villain, it’s Edison. He was a pretty driven guy with a lot of money behind him, but I certainly hope he wasn’t capable of murder.