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Spot Filming of Windsor Hotel Fire in New York (1899)



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Release Date:

April 1899 (USA)  »

Also Known As:

Reproduction of Windsor Hotel Fire  »

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First movie to use miniatures

The Yorkshire-born showman J. Stuart Blackton was an important figure in the early history of American movies. Most of his early films were newsreel-style records of actual current events ... but their historical value is compromised, because Blackton's films are generally re-enactments of these incidents (often with blatant fakery), filmed days or weeks after they occurred.

'Windsor Hotel Fire' has more historical value than most of Blackton's counterfeit newsreels, because it atypically contains authentic footage of its subject. Built in 1873, the Windsor was a 500-room luxury hotel, taking up an entire city block at Fifth Avenue and 46th Street in Manhattan. In 1899, the hotel burnt to the ground with great loss of life.

Blackton and his cameraman partner Albert E. Smith rushed to the scene and captured footage while the wreckage was still smouldering. Back in their tiny 10'x12' studio in Brooklyn, they consulted photographs of the Windsor in its previous glory, and built a scale model of the Windsor and the surrounding block, including street lamps and horse carriages. They then set fire to this and filmed the results, while stagehands standing out of camera range blew cigarette smoke towards the camera.

The resulting film is a weird hybrid. The first sequence is blatantly faked, with the model out of scale and the normal-sized flames out of proportion to the tiny hotel. The 'horses' at the kerb remain placid and motionless in their carriage-tracings, despite the raging fire close by. The smoke is moving towards the hotel from out of frame, rather than originating in the burning building.

However, after this counterfeit conflagration, the film then cuts to authentic footage of the magnificent Windsor in ruins after the fire. It is this harrowing footage (not the laughable fakery which precedes it) that makes 'Windsor Fire' a significant historic document. And this is almost certainly the very first motion picture to create special-effects footage by using miniatures. I'll rate this early movie 7 out of 10. Pass the marshmallows!

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