Recently, a two-minute film clip of the 1898 Rex parade was discovered and screened in New Orleans, and according to this article from Nola.com, it’s believed to be the oldest existing movie footage shot in New Orleans.
The film clip, which was discovered in a Dutch museum in March, was also screened at the Presbytère overlooking Jackson Square in June 2022 and followed by a lively discussion. After the event, the film was incorporated into the Presbytère museum’s show that celebrates the Rex organization’s 150th birthday, an exhibit that will be able to be viewed through December 11th. Wayne Phillips, the Louisiana State Museum’s curator of Carnival collections, revealed that the film might become part of the Presbytère’s permanent Mardi Gras exhibit. Wayne Phillips said, “it’s just too important to lay aside and not share with our visitors.”
The film footage of the 1898 Rex parade included 6 total floats, including one with a live ox, and the reported theme was “Harvest Queens.” The film itself was a project of American Mutoscope Co., an entity that sent crews across America to make movies about working-class people. For the film, Frank Armitage, one of the best cameramen for American Mutoscope, was sent to New Orleans to document the Rex parade, two Navy ships that were docked at the port, a crew loading a steamboat, a project called “Way Down South,” and archival footage of the New Orleans City Hall, then Gallier Hall. Armitage and his film crew left New Orleans to document the aftermath of the sinking of the USS Maine, which had blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba on February 15, 1898, a week before that year’s Mardi Gras.
According to Will French, the Rex organization’s historian and archivist, Frank Armitage was located at Gallier Hall during the filming. He had looked down St. Charles Avenue toward Poydras Street for the footage. The Dutch Museum exported the film into a crisp, digitized, high-definition version, which (according to French) is so rich with detail that it’s like an active hunt for “100 little Easter eggs,” as each new viewing reveals a new aspect of not only the city of New Orleans but Mardi Gras traditions.
Some of these details include that all the attendants and bystanders of the Rex parade are standing still, which is much different from the jubilant, chaotic crowds of present-day Mardi Gras parades. Additionally, there is no visible police presence in the clip as well as no beads, objects, or anything else being thrown from the floats. According to Wayne Phillips, “we think that Rex started throwing in 1920, in the first parade after World War I. We know there were occasional opportunities during parades when trinkets might be tossed from one person to another, but it wasn’t anything that people expected.”
The rumor of the film’s existence had long-plagued Mardi Gras fans and specifically the Rex organization and its historian and archivist Will French. French was the person who formally requested the film’s footage be found by Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, an audiovisual researcher. French is a corporate lawyer who is involved in financing film production, and he revealed that wanted to find the footage so that he could build the krewe’s video holdings. Mackenzie Roberts Beasley was able to track down the film, which was located at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.
Charles A. Farwell had reigned 124 years ago as Rex, the king of Carnival, and he is present in Armitage’s footage of the 1898 parade. Because of the retrieval and screening of the footage, Farwell’s granddaughter, Lynne Farwell White was able to see one-of-a-kind footage of her grandfather, who had passed away 26 years before she was born, in 1917. After donating a sword that had been a part of Farwell’s Rex costume to the krewe’s archive, White commented on the discovery by saying, “I got a chance for the first time in my life to see my grandfather alive and as a real person. That is very special!”
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