Six essential silent short films

David Jenkins celebrates Martin Scorsese's 'Hugo' with six classic pieces of silent cinema

Martin Scorsese’s new film ‘Hugo’ is his own personal hymn to the wonder of early silent cinema. ‘Hugo’ opened UK cinemas on December 2 – we suggest six essential early silent short films to watch in anticipation of Scorsese’s tribute to the birth of film as we know it

  • 1. The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895)

    Dirs Auguste and Louis Lumière, 50 seconds

    Even those with the most basic knowledge of the pioneers of silent cinema will have heard of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s audience-terrifying lodestone, ‘The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat’. This 50-second documentary comprises a single static take of a steam train pulling in to a station in the southern French coastal town of La Ciotat. Legend has it that when the film was first screened in Paris, the audience darted to the back of the room in an attempt to make way for the oncoming locomotive (a scene that’s been lovingly recreated in Scorsese’s ‘Hugo'). The Lumières had already caused a sensation earlier that year in their hometown of Lyon, where they screened ‘Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory’, another single-shot documentary which delivered on all the promises its curt title offered.

  • 2. The One-Man Band (1900)

    Dir Georges Méliès, 1 min 18 secs

    French pioneer Georges Méliès was the first to latch on to the magical possibilities of the film medium, cramming his eye-popping early shorts with elaborate trick shots, fanciful set-ups and gravity-defying costumes. Martin Scorsese sings a sweet hymn to the director-turned-toyshop owner in ‘Hugo’, including one scene where a film academic (yes, this is a kids’ film with where one of the key characters is a film academic) screens a salvaged print of Méliès’s most iconic fantasy, ‘A Trip to the Moon’. It’s probably best you try and see this film (if you haven’t already) on DVD or, ideally, in the cinema, so here we’ve linked to one of his earlier shorts, a gleeful experiment where the director exposes the negative over and over to give the illusion that there’s more than one of him on the screen. If you liked that, you may even want to take a look at his 1898 film, ‘The Haunted Castle’, which some historians purport to be the first ever horror film.

  • 3. The Big Swallow (1901)

    Dir James Williamson, 50 seconds

    James Williamson was a British innovator who started his career developing film before graduating to the director’s chair. ‘The Big Swallow’ was arguably the first meta-movie, presenting the camera as not just a means of chronicling life, but as a character and a tangible element of a film’s construction. It shows an irate country gentleman standing in front of a plain backdrop urging the cameraman to stop photographing him. The camera keeps filming, and the man gets closer and closer before he opens his mouth and consumes the camera and its operator whole. It may seem like a simple throwaway gag, but then Williamson asks: Who’s filming the man licking his lips in the final seconds of the film?

  • 4. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

    Dir Edwin S Porter, 10 mins 24 secs

    Even before ‘Hugo’, eagle-eyed viewers could probably guess that Martin Scorsese was a fan of silent cinema from some of the subtle visual references in his earlier work. One such moment features in 1990’s ‘Goodfellas’ when, during a montage sequence late in the film, there’s a mid-shot of Joe Pesci firing a gun directly to the camera. Scorsese was making a reference to a shot in Edwin S Porter’s seminal 1903 film, ‘The Great Train Robbery’, in which one of the bandits within the film assumes exactly the same violent stance and unloads his pistol into the lens. Porter was also blazing a trail for narrative cinema, as this film used various sophisticated techniques to envelop the viewer into the action. It may also be interesting to take a look at Frank S Mottershaw’s ‘Daring Daylight Robbery’ from the same year, a film by which Porter is said to have been influenced.

  • 5. Rescued by Rover (1905)

    Dir Cecil Hepworth, 6 mins 25 secs

    When Michel Hazanavicius’s fond silent-film pastiche ‘The Artist’ is released in cinemas at the end of the year, chances are you won’t read a single review that doesn’t lavish praise on the hero’s cute mutt, Uggy. But look back to the medium’s earliest days, and the potential for the lovable pooch had already been exploited by British screenwriter, producer and director, Cecil Hepworth. Casting his own dog, Blair, in the starring role, this perfectly executed short introduces us to a cute little baby who is kidnapped by a mad old pauper while being taken on a walk with her mother. But Rover can smell tragedy in the air and dashes through the streets (and even across a river) to rescue his young playmate. When the master of the house is led to the thief’s room, he quaintly rescues the baby and marches off, leaving the old pauper to her bottle of gin. In reality, that scene would probably have involved bloodied fists, Stanley knives and a seven-week trial at the Old Bailey.

  • 6. The ? Motorist (1906)

    Dir RW Paul, 2 mins 32 secs

    A wonderful short comedy from British innovator Robert Paul that manages to stitch together a whole swathe of neat camera tricks in a manner more visually pristine than the early exponents of the medium had previously achieved. A couple are caught speeding in their motorcar but choose not to pull over when a copper starts to chase them down the road. The policeman's even dragged under the wheels of the couple's car, though he remains unharmed. What follows is a beautifully accomplished flight of fancy, as… well, let’s just say the car ceases to obey the laws of gravity and launches off into the stratosphere. It’s a film that can see the likes of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ and ‘The Love Bug’ through its windscreen, and Méliès’s ‘A Trip to the Moon’ is glimmering in its rear-view mirror.

Read our review of 'Hugo' and 'The Artist'