#635) Mardi Gras Carnival (1898)
OR “Film Krewe”
Produced by American Mutoscope
Class of 2022
As a life-long Californian, I have yet to visit New Orleans or witness a Mardi Gras parade. While I had a lot of fun researching New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration, this post can only scratch the surface of my findings. For more information, I recommend the city’s Mardi Gras website, as well as Arthur Hardy’s annual Mardi Gras Guide (more about Mr. Hardy later).
The Plot: As the title suggests, “Mardi Gras Carnival” is footage from New Orleans’ annual Mardi Gras parade on February 22nd 1898, specifically the floats from local parade group (or “krewe”) the Rex Organization. In just under two minutes, the excitement and festivity of Mardi Gras is captured, as well as an appearance by Rex, the King of Carnival (Charles A. Farwell) atop his throne. “Mardi Gras Carnival” is not only the earliest known film of New Orleans’ annual celebration, but the earliest known film of New Orleans period.
Why It Matters: The NFR write-up is mostly an appreciation of the Eye Filmmuseum (who rediscovered the film) and their efforts to preserve silent movie over the years. The only film-specific description in the write-up is the mention of “dazzling floats, paraders and spectators (almost all wearing hats).”
But Does It Really?: No doubt about it, “Mardi Gras Carnival” is on this list because of its “lost-and-found” status (aka its “Belloq film” status, because I refuse to let that go). But in addition to its rediscovery, “Mardi Gras Carnival” is an important and rare document of its time, and a good excuse for people like me to do a deeper dive into this time-honored tradition. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras parade is a world-renowned event, and a registry of American film would be incomplete without it.
Nobody Gets One: “Mardi Gras” joins the elite group of NFR films lacking documentation of who actually filmed it. Someone’s kicking themselves right about now. What we do know is that it was filmed by American Mutoscope, later known as Biograph and makers of such NFR films as “Rip Van Winkle” and “A Corner in Wheat“. “Mardi Gras” was filmed on Mutoscope’s 68-millimeter film stock, which doesn’t have the sprocket holes of your typical film strips, and therefore can record a picture quality equivalent to an IMAX movie.
Wow, That’s Dated: In terms of Mardi Gras traditions, the big difference is the appearance of the Boeuf Gras (“Fatted Ox”). Representing the last meat you can eat before Lent, the Boeuf Gras is presented in this film as an actual bull on one of the parade’s floats (and looking none too happy about it). Although the Boeuf Gras is still a part of the Mardi Gras tradition, it is more humanely represented as a papier-maché.
- First and foremost, a super oversimplified history of Carnival/Mardi Gras. First observed in medieval Europe, Carnival is a period of debauchery through January and February leading up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, the more repentant 40 day observance prior to Easter Sunday. The day before Ash Wednesday -Fat Tuesday (or in French, “Mardi Gras”)- is the apex of the Carnival season, when most of the major parades take place. Mardi Gras came stateside in 1699, when the Le Moyne brothers were sent by King Louis XIV to explore the Louisiana territory (still owned by France at this point). The first organized Mardi Gras celebration in the Louisiana territory was in Mobile, Alabama in 1703 by French settlers, with the celebration spreading throughout French Louisiana. Although the date of the first Mardi Gras celebration in New Orleans (the then-capital of French Louisiana) is unknown, the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was in 1857, organized by the Mistick Krewe of Comus. While there are many Mardi Gras parades across the United States, New Orleans’ is the most famous and most popular.
- The Rex Organization was founded in 1872, initially as a way of honoring visiting royalty Grand Duke Alexei of Russia. To this day, the Rex Krewe continues to play a major role in Mardi Gras celebrations, and has held more parades than any other krewe in New Orleans history.
- The Rex Krewe’s parade theme for 1898 was “Harvest Queens”, which I feel would take on a whole new meaning nowadays. Each float was a different crop, with “Mardi Gras Carnival” prominently featuring the Pineapple float, which includes several riders dressed as pineapples. …I guess you had to be there.
- The silver bells that you see inbetween each float were meant to represent the 25th anniversary of the Rex Krewe (which was actually the year before but who cares?).
- Funnily enough, in all my research I couldn’t find anything that could conclusively tell me which street this was filmed on. If the Rex Krewe took the same route in 1898 that they do today, it’s most likely that “Mardi Gras Carnival” was filmed from a spot on St. Charles Street, where the bulk of their route is. Any locals willing to verify this?
- The climax of both parade and film is the King of the Carnival float, with Rex himself (as played by local Charles A. Farwell) waving his scepter at the crowd. Farwell’s granddaughter, Lynne Farwell White, was shown the film upon its discovery, and called seeing footage of her grandfather for the first time “a special moment”.
- To the best of my knowledge, the only other NFR film that involves Mardi Gras is the last bit of “Easy Rider“. Very different approach, of course.
- One major aspect of Mardi Gras that appears to be missing from the film is bead tossing. The tradition of throwing trinkets from parade floats is almost as old as the parade itself, with different krewes throwing different items from their floats as per their traditions, with beads and medallions being most well known. As for the other thing most outsiders (myself included) know about bead tossing: the official Mardi Gras website has a pretty thorough debunking of the common misconception that a woman needs to, ahem, show herself in order to get beads. That is not, nor has it ever been, a thing.
- After its production in 1898, “Mardi Gras Carnival” seems to have disappeared completely. Cut to the 1980s, when Arthur Hardy, the aforementioned Mardi Gras guide publisher, first learned of the film’s existence from a listing in a silent film catalog. Hardy’s attempts over the years to locate the film, including reaching out to various film archives like AMPAS and the Library of Congress, were unsuccessful. In anticipation of the Rex Krewe’s 150th anniversary in 2022, and its upcoming exhibition in New Orleans’ Louisiana State Museum, Hardy requested the museum try to find the film. The museum contacted lawyer and Rex Organization historian Will French, who in turn reached out to his friend Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, a film archivist at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. In March 2022, “Mardi Gras Carnival” was discovered in the Eye Filmmuseum’s archives (though how it got all the way to Amsterdam is anyone’s guess). “Mardi Gras Carnival” was screened for the first time in June 2022, shortly thereafter becoming a permanent fixture in the Louisiana State Museum, and being inducted into the NFR six months later.
- Mardi Gras is still going strong in New Orleans, as is the Rex Krewe, who will have 26 floats in this year’s parade. Incidentally, their theme for 2023 is “Palio Di Siena”, so I assume there will be lots of horses.
- As for my own annual Mardi Gras traditions, I will be giving up the same thing I give up for Lent every year: Lent.