Today in History: December 1

The Great Train Robbery, a film directed by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Studios, was first shown at Huber’s Museum in New York City in 1903 on this date. It is the first Western, the first action movie, the first fictional film to use on-location shooting. Made on a budget of about $150, it earned that back and more for Edison, and it rapidly became an international success: the first action movie blockbuster.

Legend has it that at the last sequence, a frame of which is seen at top, in which actor Justus Barnes takes aim at the camera and fires point blank, audience members dove for cover. Nothing that “real” had yet been seen on screen, and audiences had no training in how to watch a film. As legends go, it makes its point, but it most likely never happened: no contemporary accounts describe audiences in panic.

It was, and still is, a startling screen moment, though, and one which has been visually quoted in many films in the 113 years ever since. (Goodfellas comes to mind.) Barnes firing his gun straight at the camera is film history’s earliest “iconic moment.”

The twelve-minute film:

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Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the colored section of a segregated city bus for a white passenger in Montgomery, Alabama, on this date in 1955. The whites-only section was full that day, and, by law, black passengers were mandated to stand so white passengers could have a seat. Parks refused to move when she was told by bus driver James F. Blake to allow a white passenger to sit. She was tired herself. Blake had her arrested.

Years later he was quoted as saying, “I wasn’t trying to do anything to that Parks woman except do my job. She was in violation of the city codes, so what was I supposed to do? That damn bus was full and she wouldn’t move back. I had my orders. I had police powers—any driver for the city did. So the bus filled up and a white man got on, and she had his seat and I told her to move back, and she wouldn’t do it.” That was what she was faced with.

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The single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over)” by John Lennon and Yoko Ono was released in the United States 45 years ago today. The song had been recorded only a few weeks earlier (on Halloween) and Apple released it as soon as it could. December 1 is rather close to Christmas for a new release to catch on as a Christmas hit, so it did not meet with much success at first: it reached number 36 on the charts in America.

A dispute between Northern Songs and Lennon prevented the single from being released in Great Britain until November 1972. With normal Christmas publicity, it was an enormous hit there, and it remains that: most years it re-joins the current top 10 list of hit songs in the U.K. around Christmastime. Happy Xmas, everyone:

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Stéphane Grappelli died on this date in 1997. “Minor Swing,” Django Reinhardt on guitar and Grappelli on violin:

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Mary Martin was born on this date in 1913. Dick Shawn was born on this date in 1923. Lou Rawls was born on this date in 1933. Richard Pryor was born 76 years ago today. Jaco Pastorius was born on this date in 1951. Matthew Shepard was born on this date in 1976.

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Woody Allen is 81 today. “The Moose”:

Nicholas Negroponte is 73. John Densmore is 72. Bette Midler is 71 today. Treat Williams is 65. Julee Cruise is 60 today. “Falling”:

Charlene Tilton is 58. Carol Alt is 56. Sarah Silverman is 46 today.

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One comment

  1. wscottling · December 1, 2016

    I’ve always wanted to see The Great Train Robbery in its entirety but never got around to it. Thanks for sharing.


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