Truth or Blarney: Terrifying train film of 1896

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I was reminded of L’Arrivée D’un Train En Gare De La Ciotat yesterday and was startled to see the famous story of its premiere cited as a “myth about the film.” The audience ran from their theater seats at the spectacle of the on-rushing train, didn’t they?

I’m not going to do exhaustive research in French for this one, but I will tackle it for you logically, and that’s much better, n’est-ce pas?

So what do you think? Do you imagine that Victorians would be so overwhelmed and confused about the gigantic, speckled train seeming to rush toward them that they would scream and duck for cover?

I’m embarrassed to admit that I accepted the story the first time I heard it. But, upon further reading and reflection, I must admit if a panic happened, it was a publicity stunt. I’m pretty sure.

These Victorians weren’t innocent of innovation, after all. An adult in France of 1895 had witnessed remarkable inventions transform into everyday objects throughout their  lives. They had experience of actual locomotives charging toward them, complete with steam and scary whistles. This grainy film image would have been accompanied by dramatic music, at the very scariest. Not even the most sheltered French person would shit their pants about a train that sounded like a piano.

By 1896, regular folks were beginning to get a little jaded about the marvels around them. There was a race underway to build more spectacular attractions for worlds fairs, bigger circus acts, more fabulous shopping castles. City people wouldn’t go any distance to ride a balloon to get a better view of the sewers–that was so 1895.

After the world’s fair in Paris in 1900, they didn’t even bother to put another fair on for thirty-seven years. Not only is having a big war discouraging for fairgoers, painting the Eiffel Tower yellow wasn’t enough to make it new.

Trains were exciting. They brought the mail, they killed lots of people routinely and they were the best way to get around if you couldn’t use a waterway. Exciting, yes, but not scary. The people of 1896 had much more frightening things to worry about: poisonous canned food, unreliable bridges, a cough or–heaven forbid–letting women vote.

finis ~

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3 Replies to “Truth or Blarney: Terrifying train film of 1896”

  1. Not entirely an analog perhaps, but around the same time people would listen to an Edison cylinder player behind a curtain and be certain it was a real person singing. I suspect movie goers in the infant days of cinema were equally naive about the experience of reproduced events.

    Liked by 1 person

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