25 Best Films of the 1900s (1900-1909)

by Cineanalyst | created - 02 Jul 2013 | updated - 6 months ago | Public

The nineteen-aughts continued to feature films of the "cinema of attractions" mode seen in the past century, but also witnessed the emergence of the narrative story film and the pioneering of continuity editing. Modes of exhibition also changed from screenings at fairgrounds and opera houses to the growth of storefront movie theatres, or nickelodeons. By the end of the decade, the major American film companies (some of them French subsidiaries, more or less) formed the Motion Picture Patents Company trust. Read my IMDb reviews for more information on the 25 films listed here. Links are posted at the bottom of the films' summaries in this list.

Also check out my list of the 25 Best Films of the 19th Century

And of the 25 Best Films of the 1910s

List now also at and open to comments at letterboxd: https://boxd.it/40Ojk

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1. A Trip to the Moon (1902)

TV-G | 13 min | Short, Action, Adventure

A group of astronomers go on an expedition to the Moon.

Director: Georges Méliès | Stars: Georges Méliès, Victor André, Bleuette Bernon, Brunnet

Votes: 45,344

Georges Méliès was the most imaginative and enthusiastic filmmaker of early cinema, so it's appropriate that his masterpiece tops this list. "A Trip to the Moon" contains one of the most amusing and fantastic narratives of the early history of story films to showcase the many special-effect "trick shots" cinema-magician Méliès had been perfecting since, at least, 1896. Justly, this was one of the most popular films of its time and remains the favorite film from early cinema to this day.

My Full Review

2. The Great Train Robbery (1903)

TV-G | 11 min | Short, Action, Crime

A group of bandits stage a brazen train hold-up, only to find a determined posse hot on their heels.

Director: Edwin S. Porter | Stars: Gilbert M. 'Broncho Billy' Anderson, A.C. Abadie, George Barnes, Justus D. Barnes

Votes: 17,773

Probably the second most popular film from early cinema to this day and which was also very popular in its own time, this early story film took that staple of American fiction, the Western, to create a dramatic action picture. "The Great Train Robbery" also built upon an early film genre of crime chase flicks.

My Full Review

3. Mary Jane's Mishap (1903)

4 min | Short, Comedy

Smith casts his wife as a sluttish housewife who is mutilated by lighting her oven with paraffin.

Director: George Albert Smith | Star: Laura Bayley

Votes: 803

This film lacks the narrative entertainment value of the first two selections on this list (as well as of many of those listed below). The comedy is actually rather stupid and racist. But, it's, perhaps, the most technically cutting-edge film from early cinema. No other picture from so early in film history features such extensive editing within scenes, including match cuts between establishing shots and close-ups.

My Full Review

4. The Countryman's First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901)

Not Rated | 1 min | Short, Comedy

A satire on the way that audiences unaccustomed to the cinema didn't know how to react to the moving images on a screen - in this film, an unsophisticated (and stereotypical) country yokel ... See full summary »

Director: Robert W. Paul

Votes: 649

This is the first of one of my favorite types of films, which are those about movies themselves. In this primitive original, a countryman overreacts to images he views on the screen, including of his own doppelgänger. The Edison Company remade it as Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902).

My Full Review

5. The Little Match Seller (1902)

3 min | Drama, Short

In front of a windowless, soot-blackened brick wall on a snowy evening, a young girl wearing one shoe, a dress, and apron, tries to sell matches. She has no buyers. A cheeky lad comes by ... See full summary »

Director: James Williamson

Votes: 356

This is only a single-shot scene lasting a couple minutes, but it's the most emotionally affecting piece of early cinema. Most of these early films are interesting for their history and don't engage us in the way this tear-jerker does. The visions the little match seller projects are also a profound metaphor on the power of cinema.

My Full Review

6. As Seen Through the Telescope (1900)

1 min | Short, Comedy

An elderly gentleman in a silk hat sits on a stool in front of a store on the main street of town. He has a telescope that he focuses on the ankle of a young woman who is a short distance ... See full summary »

Director: George Albert Smith

Votes: 717

Anyone who claims that D.W. Griffith invented the close-up obviously hasn't seen the films of George Albert Smith. If anyone can claim authorship of the cinematic close-up, it's Smith. Earlier films featured medium or medium close-up shots, but Smith's films, such as this one and Grandma's Reading Glass, undoubtedly showcased bonafide point-of-view close-ups. In other films, such as the above-listed "Mary Jane's Mishap," he also introduced the more common insert close-up shot.

My Full Review

7. Fairyland; or, the Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)

Not Rated | 16 min | Short, Adventure, Fantasy

In this spectacular free adaptation of the popular theatre play "La Biche au Bois", the valiant Prince Bel-Azor pursues a baleful old witch to her impregnable castle, to save the beautiful young Princess Azurine.

Director: Georges Méliès | Stars: Georges Méliès, Marguerite Thévenard, Bleuette Bernon, André Deed

Votes: 1,312

"The Kingdom of the Fairies" is one of Georges Méliès's best féeries, or fairy films, where fairies and witches try to guide and thwart the hero in his fantastical adventures. In this one, a prince ventures the depths of the sea to discover an entire kingdom of fairies. These films are best viewed in hand-colored prints.

My Full Review

8. A Drunkard's Reformation (1909)

13 min | Drama, Short

A drinking man arrives home, late and sozzled as usual. His wife reminds him that he promised to take their child to a play. The play proves to be a morality tale about the evils of drink; ... See full summary »

Director: D.W. Griffith | Stars: Arthur V. Johnson, Linda Arvidson, Adele DeGarde, Charles Avery

Votes: 176

D.W. Griffith's "A Drunkard's Reformation" is, indeed, an overly-preachy melodrama on the ills of alcoholism. Yet, it's also quite interesting for its play-within-the-play that mirrors the outer narrative, the cutting between reverse-angle shots of the play and the spectators, and an especially well-lit final tableau.

9. A Corner in Wheat (1909)

G | 14 min | Short, Crime, Drama

An unscrupulous and greedy capitalist speculator decides to corner the wheat market for his own profit, establishing complete control over the markets.

Director: D.W. Griffith | Stars: Frank Powell, Grace Henderson, James Kirkwood, Linda Arvidson

Votes: 2,225

At the turn of the decade, D.W. Griffith at Biograph was changing the way movies were made forever. And he was doing this largely by the use of editing to tell exciting or dramatic narratives. Here, he used parallel-action crosscutting for social commentary on the contrasts between the rich and poor. In other films, he used rapid crosscutting to enhance the tension and excitement of last-minute rescues.

My Full Review

10. A Narrow Escape (1908)

Not Rated | 6 min | Short, Drama

Two criminals lure a doctor away from his home with a phony note about a child's illness. After the doctor rushes off, the criminals break into his house and menace his wife and child. By ... See full summary »

Votes: 295

In lieu of placing an example of D.W. Griffith's last-minute-rescue films on this list (e.g. "The Lonely Villa" (1909)), I may as well, instead, include what appears to be the original last-minute-rescue film, for which Griffith was obviously influenced. The Pathé film "The Physician of the Castle" features what became the formula for this sub-genre: damsels in distress as criminals attack and men racing from afar to the rescue of said damsels. This race usually requires modern means of transportation--a car in this instance--a train in other incarnations--as well as the telephone (or, at least, telegraph) for communication between the damsels and heroes. The importance in film history of these films was their rapid crosscutting.

11. Madame's Cravings (1907)

4 min | Comedy, Short

A heavily pregnant woman has a series of irrepressible cravings while walking with her family.

Director: Alice Guy

Votes: 246

12. Bluebeard (1901)

12 min | Short, Horror

A young woman becomes the eighth wife of the wealthy Bluebeard, whose first seven wives have died under mysterious circumstances.

Director: Georges Méliès | Stars: Georges Méliès, Jehanne d'Alcy, Bleuette Bernon, Thomas White

Votes: 1,567

"Bluebeard" is another féerie, or fairy film, from cinemagician Georges Méliès. The fairy godmother, a dream sequence and Méliès's usual theatrical style are present. This one is a bit more macabre in parts due to the source material than other féeries, and the film contains some continuity editing that is somewhat unusual for a Méliès film.

My Full Review

13. The Poachers (1903)

3 min | Short, Action, Crime

Three hunters surprise two poachers in the act. The hunters take umbrage and give chase over fences and through fields. The hunters fire away, but the poachers have guns as well, and a ... See full summary »

Director: William Haggar | Stars: Sid Griffiths, Will Haggar Jr., Walter Haggar

Votes: 369

This is an otherwise typical example of the early-cinema chase genre, as well as the crime genre, except for its introduction of extended use of reverse-angle shots and some other innovative techniques, such as non-traditional camera placement and staging.

My Full Review

14. Attack on a China Mission (1900)

4 min | Short, Action, Crime

The titles tell us this film is based on an incident in the Boxer Rebellion. A man tries to defend a woman and a large house against Chinese attackers. They attack with swords, guns, and ... See full summary »

Director: James Williamson | Stars: Mr. James, Mr. Lepard, Florence Williamson

Votes: 514

People who've seen this film on the "Movies Begin" DVDs and other sources haven't seen the entire film. In its entirety (most of which does exist), it's a four-shot picture, which was rare enough in 1900, where there are, perhaps, the first instances ever of crosscutting and reverse-angle shots.

My Full Review

15. Rescued by Rover (1905)

Not Rated | 7 min | Short, Crime, Drama

A dog leads its master to his kidnapped baby.

Directors: Lewin Fitzhamon, Cecil M. Hepworth | Stars: Blair, May Clark, Barbara Hepworth, Cecil M. Hepworth

Votes: 1,094

"Rescued by Rover" was a popular reworking of the chase genre format. Here, the filmmakers achieved smooth transitions and a good continuity in following a dog as it rescues a child from a kidnapper.

My Full Review

16. Fire! (1901)

5 min | Short, Action, Drama

Firefighters ring for help, and here comes the ladder cart; they hitch a horse to it. A second horse-drawn truck joins the first, and they head down the street to a house fire. Inside a man... See full summary »

Director: James Williamson

Votes: 611

This early multi-shot story film by James Williamson (who also made "The Little Match Seller" (1902) and "Attack on a China Mission," both of which appear above on this list) is outstanding for its continuity across shots. It's also one of the many early films about firefighting, which was a popular subject in fiction and nonfiction films. This film in particular was surely of great influence on Edwin S. Porter's 1903 film Life of an American Fireman.

My Full Review

17. Personal (1904)

6 min | Comedy, Short

A man who has placed a personal advertisement for a prospective wife goes to wait at the meeting place that he designated. Soon a woman comes in response to the advertisement. Before the ... See full summary »

Director: Wallace McCutcheon

Votes: 96

Frequently credited in early-film history texts as one of the first chase films, "Personal" was a popular subject that is also interesting for the legal history of the film in copyright lawsuits between Biograph, the company that made it, and the Edison Company, which (among other companies to do so) made their own plagiarized version of the film. The chase genre is important in film history for their continuity of action across multiple shots, which influenced the emergence of the story, or narrative, film.

My Full Review

18. A Visit to Peek Frean and Co.'s Biscuit Works (1906)

Not Rated | 12 min | Short, Documentary

A look at typical activities taking place in the Peek Frean factory: First, the workers get up steam, as supplies of milk and flour arrive. Sheets of dough are rolled, then cut, shaped, and... See full summary »

Votes: 234

This early nonfiction film, or proto-documentary, is one of the most technically competent productions of its kind from this early in film history. This includes the adoption of editing techniques used in fiction films of the era, as well as using special lighting for the production of the film. It's also an example of what Tom Gunning calls a "process" film, as it's about the industrial manufacture process of making biscuits (a.k.a. cookies).

19. New York Subway (1905)

Unrated | 6 min | Short, Documentary

Starting at Union Square, we are taken for an underground excursion, following the path of a subway train as it makes its way through New York City subway tunnels on its journey to the old ... See full summary »

Director: G.W. Bitzer

Votes: 676

The other subgenre of early nonfiction film outlined by Tom Gunning is the "place" film, or "scenic." This interior view of a New York subway is also a phantom-ride film, as the camera's view is from the perspective of the front of a subway car. The film is only a one-shot, but the resulting lighting and optical effects are remarkable. It was filmed by G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, who later in this decade became D.W. Griffith's cinematographer.

20. Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)

3 min | Animation, Short, Comedy

A cartoonist draws faces and figures on a blackboard - and they come to life.

Director: J. Stuart Blackton | Star: J. Stuart Blackton

Votes: 1,153

This film is usually credited as the first photographed animation film. It begins with J. Stuart Blackton exhibiting his "lightning sketches," which then become animate. Reportedly, the chalkboard animation was accomplished via stop-motion, cutouts and some frame-to-frame hand-drawn alterations. Blackton further pioneered trick photography and animation in such films as "The Haunted Hotel" (1907) and "Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy" (1909), as well as having been a co-founder of the Vitagraph studio.

21. A Fantasy (1908)

2 min | Animation, Short, Fantasy

The first all-animated film in history, a series of scenes without much narrative structure, but morphing into each other.

Director: Émile Cohl

Votes: 2,295

And this film by Émile Cohl is generally credited as the first traditionally animated film--photographing slightly altered drawings made on paper. By photographing on negative film, however, the animation appears similar to the chalkboard style used by Blackton (mentioned above) and also likewise features the artist's hand in live-action parts. Morphing figures, as seen here, have continued to be a staple of animation film.

22. The Birth, the Life and the Death of Christ (1906)

Not Rated | 33 min | Short, Biography, Drama

The life of Jesus Christ in 25 scenes.

Director: Alice Guy

Votes: 438

For a different and female perspective of the Passion of Christ, this film by Gaumont's Alice Guy, the first female filmmaker ever, is interesting.

23. The Passion Play (1903)

44 min | Short, Biography, Drama

The story of Jesus Christ from the proclamation of his Nativity to his crucifixion. Impressive scenes and dynamism of the actors prelude to the Italian colossal movies of the silent period.

Directors: Lucien Nonguet, Ferdinand Zecca | Stars: Madame Moreau, Monsieur Moreau

Votes: 453

One of the earliest feature-length films, this passion play from Pathé adopts as much from the trick shots and style of the films of cinemagician Georges Méliès as it does from the New Testament.

My Full Review

24. The '?' Motorist (1906)

3 min | Fantasy, Short, Comedy

A British trick film in which a motorist ends up driving around the rings of Saturn.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Votes: 1,024

This trick film by R.W. Paul and Walter R. Booth has the benefit over the trick films of Georges Méliès in that it isn't confined to the stage and Méliès's insistence on always using dissolves to transition between shot-scenes. The result here is a smoother, more continuous and cinematic picture that's a lot of fun.

My Full Review

25. The Battle in the Clouds (1909)

20 min | Short, Fantasy, Sci-Fi

An inventor uses a wireless controlled flying torpedo to destroy enemy airships.

Director: Walter R. Booth

Votes: 300

Walter R. Booth made this film after leaving the employ of R.W. Paul. This narrative trick film features an imaginative Zeppelin invasion of England, which proved to be quite prescient since about five years later Germany tried exactly that during WWI. The film also features a primitive tank and fighter biplanes, as well as a funky-looking surface-to-air missile. In retrospect, the film seems more remarkable not for its unoriginal trick photography but for its science fiction turning out to be eerily accurate.

My Full Review

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