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

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After decades of searching, 1898 film of New Orleans Mardi Gras is found
A still image from film provided by the Eye Filmmuseum shows a pineapple float in the 1898 Mardi Gras parade whose theme was the harvest. The recently discovered film has stunned local historians. Eye Filmmuseum via The New York Times.

by Alex Traub

NEW YORK, NY.- Arthur Hardy, the publisher of an annual New Orleans Mardi Gras guide, began searching in the 1980s for a film of the parade that old silent film catalogs said 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 resumed trying.

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

Hardy tried reaching out to Wayne Phillips, a curator at the Louisiana State Museum. Phillips tried Will French, a corporate lawyer who works in film financing and who serves as the in-house historian of the Rex Organization, among the most prominent groups that organize Mardi Gras floats. In March, French tried Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, a family friend of his and an archivist who specializes in film and audio.

Beasley scrutinized online databases. In five days, she found the film — a depiction of the fanciful floats of the Rex Organization from the distant world of 1898 New Orleans that somehow had wound up in the archives of the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.

“It hopped,” Phillips said, “from Arthur to me to Will to Mackenzie and finally to Amsterdam, over the course of many, many years.”

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

“This probably, in Louisiana film history, is the most important find,” Ed Poole, the author of several reference books on the subject, said in a phone interview.

The film — considered by experts to be not just the oldest extant footage of New Orleans’ beloved Mardi Gras parade but also the oldest known footage of anything in the city — was screened Wednesday night at the Louisiana State Museum. It will continue being shown in a special exhibit that runs through December commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Rex Organization.

The film was made by American Mutoscope, an early film production company. The only known copy of the film appears to be held by the Eye Filmmuseum, and as of now the museum is not permitting it to be widely distributed, Phillips said. French showed the film to a reporter for The New York Times over a Zoom call.

It lasts for only about two minutes, but using large-format 68-millimeter film, it renders the scene with striking detail: the tufts of costume fake beards, the crenelations in the wings of winged horse sculptures, the ornate canopies and carved columns of little gazebo-like structures installed atop floats.

“We’ve looked at a lot of old footage of the Rex parade since the 1940s and the 1950s, and even into the ’20s — and the quality is nothing like this,” French said.

The theme of the Mardi Gras of Feb. 22, 1898, was Harvest Queens, with each float symbolizing a different crop. The film shows a pineapple float whose riders are costumed in hats shaped like pineapple chunks and vests with cross hatches evoking the texture of pineapple skin.

“We mass produce costumes these days for several hundred riders,” French said. “They can’t have as much detail as these costumes had in 1898. Each one is different and customized.”

The film shows traditions both familiar and obscure. Its background features a wrought iron, Spanish-style balcony that you can still find on many old New Orleans homes. One float displays Rex, the king of Mardi Gras who to this day is anointed each year by the Rex Organization. He waves from a throne five steps up from the float’s base, surrounded on all sides by decorative tasseled globes.

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

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

The film also captures a tradition that would soon disappear from New Orleans Mardi Gras — the “boeuf gras,” or fatted ox, paraded around the city. Viewers can see a placid-looking bovine positioned atop a float not unlike the Mardi Gras king looking magisterially down upon his subjects. In recent decades, the boeuf gras has been included only in a papier-mâché form.

“That was really momentous — to see for the first time the live boeuf gras, the symbol of Carnival for everyone in the actual parade,” French said.

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

“Everyone out there is there to see the art and the spectacle,” French said.

Some seemingly mysterious elements of the parade have been clarified with research — signs in the shape of silver bells signify the 25th anniversary of the Rex Organization, French said — but other aspects of the procession, such as whether the float riders are waving wands or scepters, await further investigation.

Rediscovered early films documenting everyday life are becoming their own genre. “Three Minutes: A Lengthening,” a documentary that analyzes film taken of Polish Jews in 1938, just before the Holocaust, restores “humanity and individuality” to its subjects, The New York Times wrote in January. Other recent examples include films of New York City from 1911 and Ireland in 1925 and 1926.

This latest glimpse of the past also teaches us about our own time — in particular, the success of New Orleanians in maintaining their heritage.

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

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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