On September 8 and 9, 2016, at 7 pm, the Morris-Jumel Mansion will host the U.S. premiere of “The First Film,” the acclaimed documentary by director David Nicholas Wilkinson presenting the case that Louis Le Prince (1841-90) was the first person to capture continuous movement from a single point of view, making him the world’s first cameraman, director, and producer of motion pictures.
According to The Financial Times: “The detective work in David Nicholas Wilkinson’s ‘The First Film’ is amateur in the best, most shining sense. He loves his obsession; he can’t afford to hire a Sherlock Holmes; but by the end of this hunt for the man alleged to have made literally ‘the first film’—Leeds-dwelling expatriate Frenchman Louis Le Prince—we are gripping the seat arms, saying ‘Oh let it be so!’”
A native of Leeds himself and a 45-year film industry veteran as a distributor, producer, and actor, Wilkinson had long been baffled that Le Prince and his legacy were little-known outside of Yorkshire where, arriving in 1866, he lived and worked as an engineer, chemist, inventor, and what would become known as a cinematographer. Wilkinson’s film documents his decades-long quest to prove that Le Prince’s films created in Leeds, England, in October 1888, with his camera patented that year, predate those of Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers.
After perfecting his projection machine, Le Prince arranged to demonstrate his discovery for the first time to the American public and thus the world in New York City. He planned to present the first screening in 1890, at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Washington Heights, where his family was renting rooms. Before he could, however, just weeks before he was to return to New York from France, he disappeared after boarding the Dijon to Paris train and neither he nor his personal effects were ever found.
Carol S. Ward, executive director of the Mansion, said, “A true detective story, Louis Le Prince’s association with Morris-Jumel Mansion and mysterious disappearance add another important chapter to the Mansion’s storied history. Had he realized his plan, Manhattan’s oldest house would have been the world’s first movie theater. We are delighted that David Nicholas Wilkinson pursued this fascinating and essential piece of film history and, in so doing, helped shine the light on Le Prince’s contributions to cinema and deepen our understanding of one of our distinguished residents.”
While he did patent his camera—a technological marvel with 16 lenses—no one could support the claim that Le Prince created the first film. Because his body was never recovered, his family had to wait seven years to have him declared legally dead. As a result, Edison and the Lumières completed their inventions in the 1890s, claimed the glory and profits, and Le Prince’s name and his pioneering work were largely forgotten.
Wilkinson’s detective partner and co-writer is Irfan Shah, a Leeds-based researcher. Shah discovered an original pamphlet written by E. Kilburn Scott after Le Prince’s disappearance. Scott had worked with Le Prince and was outraged that Edison was taking the credit and benefiting from advances Le Prince had made. It was a privately printed publication, however, and was not widely distributed at the time. It is one example of the many discoveries made during the creation of “The First Film.”
Ms. Ward added, “David and his team’s thorough research and examination of the evidence including documents in our archive, interviews with film historians and experts in patent law and criminal investigations, and, after an 18-month search, meetings with Le Prince’s descendants in Memphis, TN, combine to reveal a compelling story of innovation, an unsung hero of cinema, and the ruthless international competition to create the first moving pictures.”
The screenings take place outdoors on the Morris-Jumel Mansion grounds, at 65 Jumel Terrace, New York City. Screenings will be followed by a program with Mr. Wilkinson and Ms. Ward, and refreshments will be served. Admission is $40 per person; $30 for students, seniors, and Mansion members. Visitors are welcome to bring blankets and tour the Mansion. After the screenings, “The First Film” will be available on iTunes and Vimeo.
About the Morris-Jumel Mansion
At 250 years old, Morris-Jumel Mansion is Manhattan’s oldest house. Built in 1765, by British Army Colonel Roger Morris, the Mansion served as headquarters to General George Washington during the 1776 battle of New York and, for fifty years, was the residence of Eliza Jumel, one of America’s richest women and second wife to Vice President Aaron Burr. Today, Morris-Jumel Mansion is a not-for-profit museum, welcoming tens of thousands of international and local visitors annually, including elementary- and high school-aged children. Committed to preserving, interpreting, and making relevant to diverse audiences the Mansion’s illustrious past and varied collection of period art and furnishings, Morris-Jumel is a member of the Historic House Trust of New York City and the American Alliance of Museums.
The Mansion is located in upper Manhattan at 65 Jumel Terrace, and is open to the public Tuesdays to Fridays from 10 am to 4 pm, and Saturdays and Sundays from 10 am to 5 pm. Accessible by subway on the 1, A, and C lines. For more information, visit www.morrisjumel.org.