One of the world’s oldest films, “Sneeze,” is a gift that keeps on giving. Shot in 1894 and about as long as an achoo, it shows a mustachioed gent emitting a single sneeze, a kerchief clutched in one hand. The film was made by W.K.L. Dickson and the sneeze delivered by Fred Ott. Working in Thomas Edison’s New Jersey studio, they gave us the first celluloid sneeze, an open-mouth exhalation that was meant to be humorous but today seems ominous. Cover your mouth! I yelled when I looked at it again.
“Sneeze” is just one of many films that you can watch for free online courtesy of the Library of Congress, which partly acquires deposits through the United States Copyright Office. The biggest library in the world, it has an extraordinary trove of online offerings — more than 7,000 videos — that includes hundreds of old (and really old) movies. With one click, you can watch Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show parade down Fifth Avenue in 1902; click again to giggle at Krazy Kat and Ignatz Mouse in a 1916 cartoon. And while the library is temporarily closed to the public, its virtual doors remain open. It remains one of my favorite places to get lost in.
The Library of Congress was created in 1800 by the same act of Congress that moved the federal government to Washington, with a $5,000 budget for books approved by John Adams. The library was originally meant for the sole use of Congress and its role was debated over successive administrations and crises, including several catastrophic fires. By the time its first dedicated building opened in 1897, though, its status was settled: It was “the book palace of the American people,” as one librarian of Congress called it, a classification that expanded when it began adding films.
“Sneeze,” a.k.a. “Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze,” is the library’s earliest surviving copyrighted motion picture and was submitted in paper form. Films weren’t protected by copyright until 1912 but photos were, so savvy producers deposited their films as paper contact prints (entire motion pictures were submitted that way). There are more than 3,000 such paper prints in the library (they’ve been turned back into films). Most were produced in the United States and open fascinating, often charming windows to earlier times whether through a Yale-Princeton football game, a New Jersey baby parade or some nuzzling in “Kiss,” the first film to show lips locking.
You can sample this bounty on the Library of Congress website or through its more limited, curated selections on YouTube, where loading times seem faster. On each platform, the films are organized into playlists like the National Screening Room, a catchall that includes everything from educational films to slapstick comedies. Here’s where you can watch “Mabel and Fatty’s Wash Day” (1915), which was co-directed by one of its stars, Mabel Normand, or dive into Pare Larentz’s “The River” (1938), a classic about the Mississippi made for the Farm Security Administration. Here, too, is where to find Edward O. Bland’s “The Cry of Jazz” (1959), a political scorcher about jazz that has bad acting, searing documentary imagery and terrific music (from Sun Ra, among others).
The aesthetic quality of the titles varies, but that’s to the point of the library’s democratic mandate. Not all the films on deposit are exemplars of the art — although greatness abounds here — but they nevertheless have cultural and historical value. Some are flat-out weird and wonderful, while others seem like souvenirs from a distant land. That’s true of “Television,” a 1939 curio that opens with an audience seated in the dark before a tiny glowing screen that abruptly grows larger, a stark encapsulation of TV’s challenge to moviegoing. “Television now takes its place,” the narrator promises (threatens!), “as a new American art and industry.”
One of the library’s best YouTube playlists gathers together a small selection of titles from the National Film Registry. The registry is part of the library and new titles are added to it annually with the help of the National Film Preservation Board, an advisory body. The library also invites the public to nominate titles for the registry, so if you’d like to endorse Robert Aldrich’s 1964 freakout “Hush … Hush, Sweet Charlotte” you have until Sept. 15. To be eligible, a movie must be at least 10 years (so hold off on nominating “The Last Jedi”) and be “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
Some of the registry titles online are in so-so shape, but many look great and the painstakingly refurbished ones probably look better now than when they first played in cinemas. Most are short, which is useful if you’re having a tough time focusing on anything for very long. Mervyn LeRoy’s 10-minute nugget “The House I Live In” (1945) finds Frank Sinatra breaking up a gang of peewee thugs chasing a Jewish boy. Sinatra calls the bullies Nazis and lectures them about being good Americans. (The writer Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten, was soon blacklisted in Hollywood.) The film’s piety feels even more canned when viewed next to “In the Street” (1948), a lyrical slice of New York life from James Agee, Helen Levitt and Janice Loeb.
Among the most beautiful films in the registry playlist is the Fleischer Studios cartoon “Popeye the Sailor Meets Sindbad the Sailor” (1936), a gorgeous example of the work produced by this onetime Disney competitor. The story is simple — it’s the usual smackdown with boasts, quips and a can of spinach — but the film is a Technicolor marvel with liquid animation, vibrant critters and wittily choreographed bits. It’s also predictably antediluvian. “Bring me the woman,” Sindbad says with a leer to a giant purple bird, which snatches Olive Oyl from Popeye’s ship. She gets a few good licks in, which is delightful, and delivers ringside advice (“Give him the twister punch!”). But the victory belongs to the spinach-fortified Popeye.
Clocking in at just over three minutes, “Jam Session” (1942) is badly scratched but is very much worth a watch and listen because it features Duke Ellington and his band — Ben Webster and Ray Nance are among its cool cats — playing “C Jam Blues.” The film set looks like an unused studio storage room, but the music is heavenly. The number ends, soon after Sonny Greer’s drum solo, with Ellington ambling over to join some female visitors. The film was produced as a Soundie, a musical movie that was shown jukebox-style in machines called Panorams, which were found in bars, nightclubs and the like. Patrons could summon up Ellington for a coin and start jitterbugging.
Among the features on the registry playlist are a pair of shoestring classics from very different filmmakers. Written, directed and produced by Oscar Micheaux, “Within Our Gates” (1920) is a melodrama about black sovereignty and white racism that plays like a direct rebuke to D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation.” By turns touching and gravely disturbing, “Gates” is a passionate declaration of independence — political, cinematic, existential — from Micheaux, the first African-American filmmaker. Micheaux found his voice despite Hollywood and became a legend. The same holds true for Ida Lupino, whose taut, tense film noir “The Hitch-Hiker” (1953) is also available. Both movies are essential holdings in America’s greatest library.
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