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Arts and Entertainment

Video: The Very First Movie Made In L.A., Circa 1897

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Los Angeles, as Norman M. Klein once wrote, is “the most photographed and least remembered city in the world."

"We are all," according to D.J. Waldie, "citizens of Los Angeles because we have seen so many movies." For many, even us natives, the city itself is inextricable from its infinite depictions on film. But what did the film capital of the world look like before we knew it from the big screen?

Public historian Nathan Masters (a civic treasure, and the spiritual descendant of Huell Howser) has tracked down the very first film shot in Los Angeles, a 25-second clip made for the Edison Manufacturing Company. Frederick Blechynden's film—or "animated photograph," as it was hailed at the time—was shot on December 31, 1897 on Spring Street downtown.

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According to the Library of Congress, the clip was created as part of Edison's "Southern Pacific Company Series," by an artist who traveled on the Sunset Route through the southern United States and documented "animated photographs of interesting and novel scenes." Here's how the route was described in Edison's film catalog:

The Southern Pacific Company ("Sunset Route") offers special inducements to winter travelers, by reason of its southern route, thereby avoiding the extreme cold of the winter months. Its course lies through a section of the country that presents a variety of beautiful and picturesque natural scenery. It is also the direct route to the popular resorts of Southern California, thereby making it a favorable route for tourists.

A birds-eye view pictorial map of Los Angeles from 1894, just a few years before the Edison film was shot. (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)
The (very) short film captures the teeming street life of Spring Street in all its Victorian hustle and bustle. There are electric trolleys, horse-drawn carriages, bicycle riders and pedestrians—but no cars. In fact, it was only earlier that same year that the first gas-powered car had taken to the streets of Los Angeles (see photo below). By 1915, with 55,217 cars spread among the area's 750,000 inhabitants, Los Angeles County would lead the world in per capita auto ownership. But all that was still a long way off.

The beginning of car culture: J. Phillip Erie driving Boyle Workman at Hollenbeck Park in a self-built automobile, May, 1897.
According to Masters, the 25-second clip has quite a bit to tell us about the Los Angeles of 1897:

The bustling street scene reveals a city that, despite its deep-seated anxieties about East Coast urbanism, was beginning to embrace the East Coast idea of having a downtown. Spring Street had not yet reached its heyday (that would come in the 1910s-20s when it was the “Wall Street of the West”) but had clearly emerged as a major commercial corridor. How Angelenos use the street itself is interesting, too. The concept of jaywalking had not yet been invented, and in the film pedestrians confidently share the roadway with horse-drawn carriages, electric trolleys, and bicycles. Finally, the film depicts a Los Angeles that appears to value its public realm, a “first Los Angeles,” to use architecture critic Christopher Hawthorne’s formulation.

What else was going on in Los Angeles, circa 1897? These photos help tell the story:

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