After decades of searching, 1898 New Orleans Mardi Gras film is found

Arthur Hardy, the publisher of an annual guide to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, began searching in the 1980s for a film of the parade which, according to old silent film catalogs, had been produced in the 19th century.

He wrote to every expert he could think of. He tried the Library of Congress, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He failed and lost interest – then started trying again.

He kept getting the same response, he reminded himself, “You’ll never find it.”

Mr. Hardy tried to contact Wayne Phillips, curator at the Louisiana State Museum. Mr Phillips tried Will French, a corporate lawyer who works in film finance and is the internal historian of the Rex Organization, one of the most prominent groups that organize the Mardi Gras floats. In March, Mr French tried out Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, a family friend and archivist specializing in film and audio.

Ms. Beasley reviewed online databases. Within five days, she found the film – a depiction of the whimsical Rex Organization tanks from the distant world of New Orleans in 1898 that had somehow ended up in the archives of the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

“It jumped,” Mr. Phillips said, “from Arthur to me, to Will, to Mackenzie and finally to Amsterdam, over many, many years.”

The discovery, which was reported by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, stunned local historians and the greats who help organize Mardi Gras.

“It’s probably, in the history of Louisiana cinema, the most important discovery,” said Ed Poole, the author of several reference works on the subject, during a telephone interview.

The film – believed by experts to be not only the oldest existing footage of New Orleans’ beloved Mardi Gras parade, but also the oldest known footage of anything happening in the city – was screened on Wednesday evening at the Louisiana State Museum. It will continue to be featured in a special exhibit that will run through December to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Rex organization.

The film was made by American Mutoscope, one of the first film production companies. The only known copy of the film appears to be held by the Eye Filmmuseum, and at this time the museum is not allowing its wide release, Mr Phillips said. Mr. French showed the film to a New York Times reporter during a Zoom call.

It only lasts about two minutes, but using 68 millimeter large format film, he captures the scene in startling detail: the tufts of fake costume beards, the crenellations in the wings of the winged horse sculptures , the ornate canopies and carved columns of small gazebo-like structures set on floats.

“We’ve looked at a lot of old footage of the Rex parade from the 1940s and 1950s, and even into the 1920s – and the quality has nothing to do with it,” Mr. French said.

The theme for Mardi Gras on February 22, 1898 was Harvest Queens, with each float symbolizing a different culture. The film shows a pineapple chariot whose riders are costumed with hats shaped like pieces of pineapple and vests with cross-hatching evoking the texture of pineapple skin.

“We are mass producing suits these days for several hundred riders,” Mr. French said. “They can’t have as much detail as those costumes in 1898. Each one is different and personalized.”

The film shows both familiar and obscure traditions. Its background features a Spanish-style wrought iron balcony that you can still find on many old New Orleans homes. A float displays Rex, the King of Mardi Gras who to this day is anointed annually by the Rex Organization. He salutes from a throne five steps from the base of the chariot, surrounded on all sides by decorative tasselled globes.

Mr. French showed the film to Lynne Farwell White, 78, granddaughter of that year’s Rex, Charles A. Farwell.

“I never knew him,” Ms White said. “I was never face to face with him. I never saw him as a person – and he was there as a living person in the film. As a granddaughter, it was a special moment .

The film also captures a soon-to-be-disappeared New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition – the “boeuf gras,” or fatty beef, paraded through the city. Viewers can see a placid-looking bovine placed atop a float, much like the King of Mardi Gras gazing masterfully at his subjects. In recent decades, fatty beef has only been included in a papier-mâché form.

“It was truly memorable – to see the live fatty ox, the symbol of carnival for everyone in the actual parade for the first time,” Mr French said.

Other differences between the 1898 parade and those of recent years include the formality of the crowd (umbrellas and top hats abound); the casualness of the preparations (no police, no barricades); and the lack of beads or trinkets thrown at beer revelers.

“Everyone is there to see the art and the show,” Mr. French said.

Some seemingly mysterious elements of the parade have been clarified by research — signs in the shape of silver bells signify the 25th anniversary of the Rex organization, Mr. French said — but other aspects of the procession, as if the charioteers waved wands. or sceptres, await further investigation.

The first rediscovered films documenting everyday life become their own genre. “Three minutes: a lengthening”, a documentary which analyzes a film shot on Polish Jews in 1938, just before the Holocaust, restores “humanity and individuality” to its subjects, wrote the New York Times in January. Other recent examples include films from New York in 1911 and from Ireland in 1925 and 1926.

This latest glimpse into the past also tells us something about our own time, especially how successful New Orleans residents have been in maintaining their heritage.

“It’s certainly grown and changed a bit, but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same,” Mr. Hardy said. “We parade; we celebrate. It’s who we are.”

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