Still from The Flying Train. 1902. Germany. Produced by Deutsche Mutoskop und Biograph G.m.b.H.

Welcome to week one of Virtual Views: Film Vault Summer Camp. Every Thursday in August, we’re streaming selections of historic films from the MoMA collection.

The Flying Train and Great Actresses of the Past are more than 100 years old, yet they are still studied and restudied, continuously taking on new meanings and opening new avenues of analysis for subsequent generations of cinema lovers. What were once novel shots of landscapes or skylines may now be evidence of climate change or of neighborhoods destroyed and rebuilt. What would have been a condemnation of loose morals in 1916 can now be interpreted as a woman’s sacrifice to give her child the best possible life.

The Flying Train. 1902
Produced by Deutsche Mutoskop und Biograph G.m.b.H.

The Biograph Collection was acquired by our first film curator, Iris Barry, between 1938 and 1939. A cache of more than 2,000 films, business papers, ledgers, title cards, and other production materials, the collection is the primary source for scholars interested in early cinema production practices. When film history students hear “Biograph Company,” they most likely think of “D. W. Griffith,” who joined the studio in 1908 and became its most prolific director. But Biograph was a wildly successful production company for more than a decade before Griffith signed on, releasing hundreds of shorts every year. Among these offerings were Mutoscopes (named for the images that could be printed on cards to be used in a Mutoscope viewer, or onto celluloid for projection), which presented audiences with spectacles from around the globe, from waterfalls and rollercoasters to elephants in India and the canals of Venice.

The Flying Train depicts a ride on a suspended railway. The footage is almost as impressive as the feat of engineering it captures. For many years our curators believed our Mutoscope rolls were slightly shrunken 70mm film, but they were actually shot on Biograph’s proprietary 68mm stock. Formats like Biograph’s 68mm and Fox’s 70mm Grandeur are of particular interest to researchers visiting the Film Study Center because the large image area affords stunning visual clarity and quality, especially compared to the more standard 35mm or 16mm stocks. (Learn more about Mutoscopes and the “first films” from MoMA curator Dave Kehr in How to See: The First Movies.)

Great Actresses of the Past (1911–16), compiled in 1938

In the 1940s, you could not only rent movies from the Film Library, but you also borrow related music scores, scripts, and other ephemera. We still rent films through the Circulating Film and Video Library, and many of the original program reels continue to circulate today, including compilations scrutinizing German propaganda films, Jay Leyda’s analysis of Sergei Eisenstein’s unfinished ¡Que viva México! project, and Depression-era protest footage from the Workers Film and Photo League.

However, no program is more popular than Great Actresses of the Past, a rare glimpse of the early 20th century’s finest stage performers—Eleonora Duse, Sarah Bernhardt, Minnie Maddern Fiske, and Gabrielle Réjane. Nearly every acting coach and theater professor in New York has brought students to the FSC to see this film. Though the acting styles may be outdated, the raw emotional expression of these consummate performers still resonates today. These are four timeless stories of human experience—of love and loss, poverty, and families torn apart.

Film at MoMA is made possible by CHANEL.

Additional support is provided by the Annual Film Fund. Leadership support for the Annual Film Fund is provided by Steven Tisch, with major contributions from Jo Carole and Ronald S. Lauder, Association of Independent Commercial Producers (AICP), The Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, and The Junior Associates of The Museum of Modern Art.