National Film Registry 2021: Ringling Brothers Parade Film (1902)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! Today, we begin our coverage of the 2021 Registry class with a brief actuality from back at the turn of last century! Filmed in Indianapolis and depicting a procession of a circus parade through a black neighborhood, it’s the Ringling Brothers Parade Film! Catchy title, I know! Jump on in for even more!
To begin, we ought commend the Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum for providing the world a copy of today’s picture complete with an overview from film historian David Kiehn on just how he identified the anonymous cannister’s contents and origin point. His notes here and what they represent are worth some discussion all on their own before the main feature. In the course of writing about the National Film Registry, a few friends have occasionally complimented me on the quality of my research, compliments I typically can’t take to heart. These are opinion-driven analytic pieces first and foremost, with my research mostly founded on whatever Wikipedia and a bit of diligent Google scratching can uncover. Compared to Kiehn’s work? It’s nothing. Here’s a man whose lifetime to absorbing entire libraries’ worth of historical registers and training his eye to pick out small background details has paid off immensely, someone who knows just how to pick through business signage and wagon decorations so he can track down quickly-failed businesses or match the wooden carvings to known circus designs. All those necessary mental connections and archival bodies working in harmony to make this discovery possible — to my mind, it’s just short of miraculous. Anyone with the knowhow and resource management skills necessary to peg a broad date by the irregular shape of film perforations, to narrow it down to an exact day and year through cross-referencing, they deserve as much respect as we can spare.
True, Kiehn is enabled to perform such praiseworthy work because it’s his job, and as with the doing of any job the practical matters of the task come down to leveraging experience gained with time, such that even what seems stunning to the untrained observer is in reality a mundanity, if still labor-intensive. When the results gain us context for a historical artefact such as this, though, no amount of celebration seems sufficient. Remember to vote in favor of arts funding and support your local historical societies, y’never know what good they’ll bring into the world.
As to the film itself, I find something remarkable in how it continues to fulfill its original purpose 120 years down the road. When William Selig sent cameramen employed under his Polyscope Company from their native Chicago out east to Indianapolis so they could film the arrival of the Ringling Brothers Circus in town, he produced the picture as an actuality. Back at the medium’s dawn, commercial cinema wasn’t so heavily limited to narrative features as the primary money-earner, and pictures filmed expressly to providing brief moving glimpses of happenings elsewhere in the world could turn a happy profit. One hardly need film the circus itself, though doubtless lion tamers and horseback tricks would make an appreciable item on the ticket — the mere act of the circus rolling into town constituted a public event, which in turn could prove a cinematic attraction all on its own, be it projected in a theater or housed in a one-person kinetoscope. Picture it this way: Step right up, come one come all! This last May, the world-famous Ringling Brothers pulled intoIndianapolis, bringing with them all manner of exotic creatures, daring stuntmen, fabulous wonders all on preview in a parade a mile long! A nickel’s all you need to gaze upon FOUR whole minutes of highlights from this momentous event! The circus may never grace our town, or it may have long since passed and you simply missed it, but an ounce of that wondrous joy can be yours! And while you’re here, we’ve so, so much more to show! Streetcars, kisses, farmers, athletes, actualities galore, all the exotic ordinaries from around America for but five cents each!
Imagine a time when the moving image wasn’t so all-consuming and easily-accessed a presence in our media diet, and you can see the appeal. End of the day it’s simply a few minutes of wagons and horses and people passing by at a few different angles, but it’s wagons and horses and people you’ve never seen, down the streets of someplace you’ve probably never been, and likely never will. To make the world smaller, accessible in this manner is to sell something of rare and precious value in 1902. In 2022, one might feel inclined to say the image has lost its intrinsic magic. After all, we’ve a century and score of similar moving images to draw upon, many in better quality, many in color, many showing the actual circus, many with circuses and parades of far higher grandiosity than what was offered at turn of the last century, and lesser grandiosity to boot. You wouldn’t sit there typing something absurd as, “Fun in Balloon Land serves as a vital document of the American experience for showing a wholly unremarkable parade” as part of a multi-paragraph essay, right Gargus?
First off: yes, I would, bet me ten bucks and see if I don’t. We’ll get that piece of garbage into the Registry before I die, mark my words. Second: while Selig’s footage of the Ringling Brothers parade did hold more inherent value all those years back when movies weren’t so massive, spectacular affairs and the common citizen didn’t have access to a magic metal ’n’ ’glass slab capable of capturing such a parade from a thousand angles a million times over in one day, a good deal of its appeal on release still lay in knowing the whats and wheres and whys of what you saw. It’s one thing to know you’re watching a parade; another to specifically know it is a Ringling Brothers Circus parade held in Indianapolis, Indiana, on May 12th, 1902. One could be anywhere anywhen anything, the other very definitely took place somewhere you could identify and conjure in your mind, or else pin down and visit for real. One mundane, the other magic.
By similar token, looking on the parade film and zeroing in on either those elements gone from our modern world or those rarely documented in the film’s own time goes a long way towards preserving this actuality’s value as a presentation of the ordinary as something wonderful. Take the main subject, for instance: the circus industry is much diminished from what it was in the early 1900s, barely a diversion the majority would consider viable use of leisure time, relegated to a far smaller audience outside special occasions like particularly lavish state fairs. There certainly isn’t enough hype around the big top’s arrival for the company’s entrance to warrant a major day-defining parade, nor many cities or towns centralized enough for such a thing to draw a large crowd if mounted. The world has moved on from the time depicted in these four minutes, to the point the company pictured herein no longer performs, having ceased operations in 2017. While Ringling’s current leadership indicates plans to resume performances sometime in the next few years, these plans do not include live animal entertainment, a wise anti-animal cruelty decision that nonetheless marks a major change from what we see here. So many of these wagons and floats and processions exist to show off the lions, the camels, the horses, the elephants, their purpose now defeated as collective understanding of the practice’s history and continuing trend of abuse takes firmer root. One ought’n’t mourn the death of an inhumane practice, but one can recognize the value in living filmstock proof of what once was and is no longer.
Or the value of what has always been, yet was rarely seen in enduring media of decades past. Noted by the Library of Congress’ announcement post as a primary reason for induction, Selig’s footage of the Ringling parade shows the circus performers marched and rode through a part of Indianapolis either largely populated or frequented by black residents. Hardly a remarkable thing on the face of it (one need prove spectacularly ignorant to not know African-Americans were leading ordinary lives in major cities at this time), until you consider the context. How often do you find a film from the early 1900s with a black face front and center? How long would one have to search through the famous films of thirty, forty years after to find depictions of black people not represented through blackface, or degrading servile supporting roles, or touched in some way by stereotypes perpetrated by the white Protestant majority? How many actualities of this day focused on predominantly black communities as a central subject, or even ancillary participants as here? To this last, even surviving examples like Selig Polyscope’s own Something Good — Negro Kiss (a fellow Registry inductee) was lost to history until 2017, underscoring the fragility of what few examples did and do exist. In finding these lives wholly uncommented upon in a long-forgotten actuality, simply standing at the side of the road outside government buildings and the Cleveland Club as the Ringling performers roll by, occasionally darting across the street or past the camera’s view, we have something truer to the black Indianapolis citizen’s daily experience in 1902 than any number of films which reduced their race and lives to minstrel entertainment. Firm fleshed, warm blooded proof in black-and-white, they stood here and watched and lived.
Frankly, we could use the reminder history isn’t a never-ending spiral of suffering and human misery more often. As we delve further into 2021’s Registry class, we’ll come across a good number of films added because they document and preserve instances of state-backed violence against minority populations. Important historical documents, but also easy temptations into thinking the African-American, Latin American, Asian-American, Native American, any type of American other than white’s history is naught but struggling against the major power structures, mourning over unjust deaths, fighting to gain an ounce of reparation for centuries’ wrongdoing. While we mustn’t ever forget the sins of the past, casting the past as naught save sin leads only into despair. The fight for equality and equity must also be fought to preserve what was already and always has been sacred in vulnerable or oppressed communities, and in considering the Ringling Brothers Parade Film as a work beneficial towards this goal, its value as an actuality shines brighter than ever. Look back well over a century, into the tattered and strangely-perforated cells of an early motion picture, and you’ll find black Americans enjoying the day’s festivities and entertainment on equal standing to their white contemporaries. Whatever else was wrong in their lives, whatever other indignities they faced, they could watch this circus procession, and they were captured on camera watching it, and the efforts of film preservationists have once again enabled us to see and know with our own eyes they did such. I ask you, what makes a better actuality, what transforms the ordinary into the extraordinary more completely, than four minutes of parade footage snatched from obscurity and conjured into a reminder that life can hold treasured, happy moments for all? Unite over the simple, common ties that bind, and know we to the last can find solace in watching the parade, from years gone by or those yet to come.
Just ideally without the whipping ’n’ caging lions and elephants part going forward.
Done already? Well, t’ain’t much you can do with only four minutes of film. I want to hear from you all the same, though, about your thoughts on this actuality, or any favorite actualities from this period, or on the matter of film as inspiration for positive revolutionary action! Hash it out in the comments, and I’ll catch you next week for 2021, round 2! It’s the earliest surviving Will Rogers picture then, a silent comedy staring early 20th century America’s favorite cowboy, vaudevillian, philosopher, columnist, actor, and mock political candidate. From 1919, it’s Jubilo, which you can find through archive.org for free here, or from Silent Gems for $25 dollars here if you feel like supporting their work. Catch you then!