The Lumière film Patineur grotesque

During the 1990s a project to find copies of, catalogue, and document all the Lumière films was undertaken by le Centre national de la Cinématographie (now le Centre national du cinéma et de l'image animée), l'Université Lumière-Lyon 2, and la Bibliothèque du Film in France. The result of this effort was the publication in 1996 of a major reference work, La production cinématographique des frères Lumière.1

One discovery during the research for this book was that the film Patineur grotesque (or The Humorous Roller-Skater), which is number 117 in the Lumière catalogue, had been made in Australia.2 But prior to this time, no reference to the film in any Australian document was known. A copy of the film was subsequently acquired by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia.

This film is the earliest surviving motion picture taken in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia.

An early mention of it was on 4 April 1897 in the French weekly newspaper Le Passe-Temps et le Parterre Réunis.3 It might also have been reviewed in other Lyon newspapers at this time. Presumably this date was not long after the film had arrived at the Lumière offices in Lyon.

View a 10-second portion of the film. (For copyright reasons the whole film is not accessible on the Web.)

Several major questions about the film are addressed below, but currently only one can be answered with certainty.

Where was it filmed?

The film was shot in Prince Alfred Park, Sydney, just south of Central Railway Station (then Redfern Railway Terminus), and the camera was pointing slightly to the west of south.
The image below on the left is of a frame from the film, courtesy of Association frères Lumière. The image4 on the right is a view in almost the same direction taken from a point not far to the left (east) of where the skater in the film performed; it was taken some time after the film was made.
An image of a frame from the film Almost the same view as in the film
Patineur grotesque (Cat. Lumière N°117)
Opérateur : Marius Sestier
Australie, Sydney, 16 septembre 1896 - 22 janvier 1897
© Association frères Lumière
Image courtesy of the City of Sydney Archives
The street that runs across the background of the scene is Cleveland St, and the street that is effectively the continuation of the path up the slope on the left is Pitt St, Redfern.

In the 1892 plan5 on the right, assuming the paths are accurately represented, the skater's position would have been below the "a" in "Park" and the camera on or near the "r" in "Alfred", approximately.


The image6 below, taken in the 1930s, is an oblique view of the group of buildings in the background of the images above; the camera here was pointing roughly eastwards along Cleveland St. All of these buildings are still (2013) standing.7
A later view of the background buildings
Image courtesy of the City of Sydney Archives

1892 plan of Prince Alfred Park
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia

When was it filmed?

Assuming, as in all likelihood, that Marius Sestier shot the film, then there are three ranges of dates during one of which he filmed, these being the times he was in Sydney and before the film was sent to France:

A first guess would be late in October 1896, when Sestier made the first motion pictures in Australia in Sydney and before he went to Melbourne on 28 October. However, because the ends of the shadows of the figures in the film are near their feet, it can be concluded that the date was close to the (southern hemisphere) summer solstice, when shadows are shortest. The latitude of Sydney is nearly 33.9 degrees south; thus at the solstice the nearest the Sun gets to the zenith is approximately 10.4 degrees. The length of a shadow cast by an object during the day will therefore always be longer than 18 % of the height of the object.8

The film might have been made as a test of the second Lumière cinématographe that arrived in Sydney on 11 December 1896,9 or of the third cinématographe that arrived on 8 January 1897,10 both dates being close to the summer solstice.

If the cinématographe that was used to shoot Patineur grotesque was different from the one used to make the Melbourne Cup films, then there should be (possibly microscopic) differences in the physical characteristics of the respective original negatives. Unfortunately, the original negative of Patineur grotesque is not available, and the copy negative has been reframed and has lost portions on the edges. And none of the Melbourne Cup films has distinguishing marks.11

The film was in France on 4 April 1897 so obviously arrived before this date. Assuming it was sent on one of the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes steamers, the latest it could have been was the Armand Béhic, which arrived at Marseille on 29 March 1897, having left Sydney on 24 February and Melbourne on 26 February. Was the undeveloped negative, the developed negative, or a finished print sent to France? At these times Sestier was probably low on film stock12 and might not have had enough to make a print.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to be sure about the lengths of the shadows in the film because of foreshortening. Without knowing the focal length of the lens used to shoot the film, it is not possible to get reasonable estimates of the lengths of the shadows. But late in October, the minimum ratio of shadow length to height is about 34 %, and it is hard to think that the shadows in the film are as long as this. (And at earlier dates the ratio is even larger.)

Ignoring the issue of the lengths of the shadows, one possibility is that the film was taken soon after Sestier arrived in Australia, even before he started exhibiting the cinématographe, and before any consideration was given to processing films there. According to film historian Chris Long, a week after Sestier reached Sydney he received a cable from the Lumières telling him that the films he had shot in India and sent back to France for processing had been ruined because their packaging had been opened by customs officials.13 Sestier would probably have wanted to prove to the Lumières that he could take films, and have shot one as soon as practicable, in late September or early October 1896, and sent the exposed negative to France straight away - this time appropriately packaged. And if this is the case, then Patineur grotesque is the first motion picture filmed in Australia.

The time of day of filming was close to midday: the camera was pointing approximately south and so were the shadows, so the direction of the Sun was roughly north.

Who filmed it?

The cinematographer was almost certainly Marius Sestier, though there is a small possibility that Sestier was instructing someone else in how to film with a cinématographe.

Who was the skater?

In late December and early January, because it was the Christmas and New Year holiday period, there were many shows in town, and the skater might have been associated with one of these. Or he may have been an itinerant street entertainer.

One distinct possibility is that he was a skater named Fred Norris (or an imitator of him). From the end of 1890 he appeared at the Coogee Palace Aquarium, Sydney, where he was billed as "America's champion burlesque skater" or "America's greatest burlesque skater". Late in 1896 he was also appearing at the Bondi Aquarium, Sydney.

Two later reviews of his performances indicate how he acted. From The Mercury (Hobart, Tasmania) of 21 July 1902:

The Temperance-hall was crowded in all parts on Saturday night, when the above-named company gave another entire change of programme, in which Professor Fred. Norris, the "skatorial king," made his first appearance in Hobart. He introduces his act, dressed as a tramp, and imitates a novice on roller skates, and his ludicrous antics created the heartiest laughter. At the conclusion of his act, Professor Norris gave a wonderful exhibition of fancy skating, and performed most difficult feats, despite the limited stage room.
And in the 20 February 1904 edition of The West Australian (Perth, Western Australia):
.. and accordingly Fred. Norris came on, and in his inimitable manner fell off his skates.

And whoever the skater was, did he perform for free or was he given some form of remuneration for being filmed? If the latter, there may be an entry for this in Sestier's accounts (if these exist). (And if he was paid, it wasn't enough, for he moves out of frame for the last 10 % or so of the film!)

When was the film first shown in Australia?

So far no evidence has come to light that the film was shown in Australia during the time that Marius Sestier was in the country (16 September 1896 - 19 May 1897). However, from 1 May 1897, Lumière cinématographes and films became available worldwide on the open market, and any showman could have obtained them to show as he wished. And because Patineur grotesque was listed in the first published catalogue of Lumière films, it was available for screening from before the date on which Sestier departed.

From mid-June 1897, Messrs. Pursehouse and Pettitt took a travelling show around Queensland and New South Wales, featuring a Lumière cinématographe with Lumière films, an Edison phonograph, and musical items. And one of the films that was listed in their advertisements was called Comic skating act. Pursehouse himself, some years earlier, had been a fancy skater, and was likely enough intrigued by the film's title in the catalogue to have obtained a copy. This film was almost certainly Patineur grotesque; the only other possibility for it, as a Lumière film, is Skaters at Central Park [New York], but this isn't "comic". Unfortunately, details of their shows are scant, and there is little given in reviews about the films they exhibited.

Other questions, and some comments

Was the filming of the skater arranged beforehand, or did the cameraman (probably Sestier) simply happen to find him by chance? If the former, why was this particular location chosen? If the latter, why was Sestier in this part of town with his camera and associated equipment?

Why was it filmed where it was? Some factors that were probably influential are:

Who gave the film its title? It appears that the name Patineur grotesque was assigned by the Lumière company in France, rather than by Sestier.

The first catalogue of Lumière films that was published (c. May 1897) is for those numbered 1 through 358, which thus includes Patineur grotesque with number 117. The Melbourne Cup films have numbers 418 through 423 and 652. Why are there these differences in catalogue numbers? Presumably it is because the various films were sent to France separately.

Curiously, a laterally-inverted (i.e. mirror) image of a frame of the film is shown on page 302 of volume 1 of Georges Sadoul's Histoire Générale du Cinéma, misidentified as "Les joueurs de boule[s]". How do we know the copy of the film is correctly oriented laterally? At least one of the men amongst the spectators in the film has a handkerchief in his jacket pocket, and assuming that this was the left pocket, then the film as presented has the correct orientation. And the view above of the place of filming proves that the film is right-way-round.

Much baseless nonsense has been written about this film; for the worst of it see tripe.

References and notes

[1] Michelle Aubert and Jean-Claude Seguin, La production cinématographique des frères Lumière; la Bibliothèque du Film, Paris, 1996.

[2] Exactly how was this determination made?

[3] 4 April 1897, Le Passe-Temps et le Parterre Réunis, Lyon, p.8c, La Photographie Vivante.
This column lists (usually recently-arrived) films shown for the week at the Lumière "cinema" in Lyon.

In the 7 March 1897 edition of this paper there is listed in this column Melbourne: Patineurs comiques. Another Lyon paper, Lyon républicain, reviews this film in its edition of 28 February 1897; this review is quoted in La production cinématographique des frères Lumière. But both the film's title and the review refer to more than one skater, so this film can't be what we know as Patineur grotesque. Was the attribution "Melbourne" added because the film was (thought to have been) sent from Melbourne? And what became of Patineurs comiques? Was it in fact the film Patineurs au Central Park, Lumière catalogue number 327, taken by Alexandre Promio in New York? Other films from the United States were shown at the Lyon "cinema" at about the same time that Patineur grotesque was shown. Or was Patineurs comiques yet another film, also made in Australia, and now lost?

[4] Detail from City of Sydney Archives, NSCA: SRC687 (digitised copy on Web):

[5] Detail from digitised copy of a map held by the National Library of Australia:

[6] Detail from City of Sydney Archives, NSCA: SRC4596 (digitised copy on Web):

[7] In October 2010 the park was still a park but was no longer laid out with fenced paths and lamps and flower-beds, and was mostly covered with grass. The Norfolk Island pines are gone, replaced with other trees along the border of the park. There is an avenue of mature trees running up the slope to Pitt St roughly along the line of the path in the film. Also, most of the houses in the background have trees in their front gardens. The result is, that from where the camera was positioned when the film was taken, little of the background streetscape can be seen. Nonetheless, in Google Street View images taken along Cleveland St and Pitt St it is possible to discern many of the features of the buildings that are visible in the film, in particular the shapes of the roofs and the positions of the chimneys.

[8] On any particular day, the minimum value of the ratio of the length of an object's shadow to the object's height is

| tan ( latitude - arcsin ( sin ( obliquity of the Ecliptic ) * sin ( Sun's position on Ecliptic ) ) ) |
where the Sun's position on the Ecliptic is the angle around the Ecliptic measured from the vernal equinox.

[9] 12 December 1896, The Sydney Morning Herald, p.8a, Shipping, Imports:
"Ville de la Ciotat, French mail steamer, from Marseilles, via ports: ..., 1 case cinematographe, ...."

17 December 1896, The Advertiser, Adelaide, p.5h, Amusements, Theatre Royal:
"Mr. Wybert Reeve has received a letter from Messrs. Barnett & Lester [sic] stating that the new cinematograph sent over from Paris by Monsieur Leumaire [sic] has arrived in perfect order." Wybert Reeve was manager of the Theatre Royal in Adelaide, and later toured a Lumière cinématographe in rural South Australia and Victoria and at Broken Hill, New South Wales.

[10] 9 January 1897, The Sydney Morning Herald, p.8a, Shipping:
The Polynésien arrived on 8 January, but there is no entry for the ship in the Imports list. It did bring new films for Sestier because they are mentioned in newspaper advertisements over the following days, and it is reasonable to assume that a third cinématographe also arrived, because Sestier soon after took one to Perth, Western Australia.

[11] Personal communication from Robert Poupard, CNC.

[12] 19 February 1897, The Barrier Miner, Broken Hill, p.2d, Amusements:
Wybert Reeve (or his representative) notes that Sestier had run out of film stock and had sent to France for more.

[13] Long does not cite a source for this information.

Copyright © 2010 - 2013 Tony Martin-Jones Film history index Edition 2  (2013-11-11)