Arthur Hardy, publisher of the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras Guide, began searching in the 1980s for a movie from the show that silent film catalogs said was made in the 1800s.
He wrote to every expert he could think of. Try the Library of Congress, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He failed and lost interest – then tried again.
He remembers getting the same response: “You’ll never find him.”
Mr. Hardy attempted to contact Wayne Phillips, curator of the Louisiana State Museum. Mr. Phillips Will French, a corporate lawyer who works in film finance and serves as an in-house historian for The Rex, has tried among the most prominent groups organizing Mardi Gras floats. In March, French Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, a family friend and archivist specializing in film and sound, tried it.
Ms. Beasley checked online databases. Within five days, I stumbled upon the film – a depiction of the Rex Organization’s fictional chariots from the distant world of 1898 in New Orleans that somehow ended up in the archives of the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.
“I have jumped, from Arthur to me to Will to Mackenzie and finally to Amsterdam, over many years,” said Mr. Phillips.
This discovery, published by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, stunned the local historians and greats who helped organize Mardi Gras.
“This is probably the most important discovery in the history of Louisiana film,” Ed Ball, author of several reference books on the subject, said in a phone interview.
The film — which experts considered not only the oldest footage of the beloved Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, but also the oldest known footage of anything in the city — was shown Wednesday night at the Louisiana State Museum. It will run in a special exhibition that runs through December in celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Rex organization.
The film was produced by American Mutoscope, an early film production company. The only known copy of the film appears to be held by the Eye Filmmuseum, and so far the museum does not allow it to be widely distributed, Mr. Phillips said. Mr. French showed the film to a reporter for the New York Times over a phone call.
Lasting only two minutes, but using a large format 68mm film, it presents the scene in stunning detail: tufts of fake beards, formations in the pavilions of winged horse sculptures, ornate canopies and carved pillars. Small gazebo-like structures installed above pontoons.
“We looked at a lot of old footage of Rex’s walk from the 1940s and ’50s through the ’20s – and the quality is nothing like that,” said Mr. French.
The Mardi Gras theme for February 22, 1898 was Harvest Queens, with each float symbolizing a different crop. The film shows a pineapple pontoon whose riders wear pineapple-cut hats and cross-vented jackets evoking the feel of pineapple skin.
“We are mass producing costumes these days for several hundred knights,” said Mr. French. “They can’t have as many details as these 1898 costumes. Each one is different and customized.”
The film presents familiar and ambiguous lore. Its backdrop features a Spanish-style iron porch that you can still find in many old New Orleans homes. One float displays Rex, the King of Mardi Gras that is wiped out to this day every year by the Rex Organization. Waving from the throne are five steps from the base of the buoy, surrounded on all sides by ornate globes.
Mr. French showed the film to Lynne Farwell-White, 78, Rex’s granddaughter, Charles A. Farwell that year.
“I never knew him,” said Mrs. White. “I never had him face to face. I never saw him as a person — and there was a live person in the movie. As a granddaughter, it was a special moment.”
The film also depicts a soon-to-be-disappeared New Orleans Mardi Gras tradition – the “boeuf gras,” or fattened bull, that is paraded around town. Onlookers can see a quiet-looking cow perched on a buoy not unlike the King of Mardi Gras looking down on his subjects. In recent decades, boeuf gras has been included only in the form of papier-mâché.
“It was really momentous – to see for the first time live puff gras, the symbol of the carnival for all involved in the actual parade,” said Mr. French.
Other differences between the 1898 Parade and those of later years include the formality of the crowd (umbrellas and hats abound); victim preparations (no police, no barriers); And the lack of beads or trinkets that are thrown at revelers with beer.
“Everyone is there to see the art and the spectacle,” said Mr. French.
Some of the seemingly ambiguous elements of the parade have been illustrated with research — silver bell-shaped markings marking the 25th anniversary of Rex, Mr French said — but other aspects of the procession, such as whether riders of buoys waving sticks or scepters, await further from the investigation.
The early rediscovered films documenting everyday life became a genre of their own. The New York Times wrote last January that Three Minutes: An Elongation, a documentary analyzing a film made of Polish Jews in 1938, just before the Holocaust, brings “humanity and individuality” back into its themes. Other recent examples include films for New York City from 1911 and Ireland in 1925 and 1926.
This last glimpse into the past also teaches us about our time – in particular, New Orleans’ success in preserving their heritage.
“It has certainly grown and changed a little bit, but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same,” said Mr. Hardy. “We are walking; We are celebrating. this is us.”
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