From the beginning, the cinema’s parade of images features Colorado again and again. As backdrop, production base, and breeding ground, our state has figured more prominently in the history of film than a casual observer might suspect. Since the days of the silents, Colorado-based films and filmmakers have covered territory from classic Westerns to cutting-edge documentaries, including work honored with Academy Awards and spots on the National Film Registry. These films vary from a musical about cannibal Alfred Packer to the seminal and continuing work of Stan Brakhage, the world’s foremost living experimental filmmaker. Today, as in the beginning, tough-minded independent filmmakers continue capturing images of Colorado.
It all began in New York City on April 3, 1896, with the first public screening of inventor Thomas Edison’s movies. From his plant in West Orange, N.J., Edison sent photographers across the country to record snippets of reality in 50-foot, 30-second snatches of film. These “actuality” films recorded people, places, and events of interest to audiences of the day. Early viewers were entranced with titles such as Scene from the Elevator Ascending Eiffel Tower, Annie Oakley, and even the vaudeville oddity Professor Welton’s Boxing Cats. A frenzy of film production followed.
In pursuit of actuality spots, the head of the Edison Co.’s kinetograph department, James H. White, along with photographer Frederick Blechynden, shot the first extant footage of Colorado. The sequences include Procession of Mounted Indians and Cowboys and the kinetic Denver Fire Brigade, in which horse-drawn engines, careening and chuffing smoke, dart obliquely toward and past the camera as an excited throng crowds both sides of a downtown Denver street.