Arthur Hardy, the editor of an annual New Orleans Mardi Gras guide, began looking in the 1980s for a film of the parade that old silent film catalogs said was produced in the 19th century.
He wrote to every expert he could think of. He tried the Library of Congress, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. He failed and lost interest – then tried again.
He kept getting the same answer, he recalled, “You’ll never find it.”
Hardy tried to contact Wayne Phillips, curator of the Louisiana State Museum. Phillips tried Will French, a corporate lawyer who works in film financing and who serves as the in-house historian for the Rex Organization, one of the most prominent groups that organize Mardi Gras floats. In March, French tried Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, a family friend of his and an archivist specializing in film and audio.
Mrs. Beasley examined online databases. Within five days, she found the film – a depiction of the Rex Organization’s fanciful floats from the distant world of 1898 New Orleans that somehow ended up in the archives of the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.
“He jumped,” Phillips said, “from Arthur to me, from Will to Mackenzie, and finally to Amsterdam, over many, many years.”
The discovery, which was reported by The Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, stunned local historians and the greats who help organize Mardi Gras.
“This is probably the most important discovery in Louisiana film history,” Ed Poole, author of several reference books on the subject, said in a telephone interview.
The film – considered by experts not only to be the oldest extant 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 continue to be displayed in a special exhibition that runs through December celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Rex Organization.
The film was made by American Mutoscope, one of the first film production companies. The only known copy of the film appears to belong to the Eye Filmmuseum, and so far the museum is not allowing it to be widely distributed, Phillips said. Mr. French showed the film to a reporter from The New York Times via a Zoom call.
It only lasts about two minutes, but using large-format 68mm film, it renders the scene in stunning detail: the tufts of costumed fake beards, the crenellations on the wings of carvings of winged horses, the ornate canopies and carved columns of small structures. gazebo type installed on top of floats.
“We’ve seen a lot of old images of the Rex show from the 1940s and 1950s, and even into the ’20s – and the quality is nothing like that,” said French.
The Mardi Gras theme of February 22, 1898 was Harvest Queens, with each float symbolizing a different vintage. The film shows a pineapple float whose riders are dressed in hats shaped like pineapple chunks and vests with hatches that evoke the texture of the pineapple’s skin.
“We mass-produce costumes these days for several hundred pilots,” said French. “They can’t be as detailed as these suits were in 1898. Each one is different and personalized.”
The film shows both family and obscure traditions. Its back features a Spanish-style wrought-iron porch, which you can still find in many old homes in New Orleans. A float shows Rex, the Mardi Gras king who is still anointed every year by the Rex Organization to this day. He beckons from a throne five steps above the float’s base, surrounded on all sides by decorative tasseled globes.
French showed the film to Lynne Farwell White, 78, granddaughter of that year’s Rex, Charles A. Farwell.
“I never met him,” White said. “I’ve never been face to face with him. I never saw him as a person – and there he was as a living person in the movie. As a granddaughter, it was a special moment.”
The film also captures a tradition that would soon disappear from New Orleans Mardi Gras – the “boeuf gras”, or fat ox, paraded through the city. Viewers can see a placid-looking bovine perched atop a float, not unlike the Mardi Gras king gazing masterfully at his subjects. In recent decades, boeuf gras has only been included in papier-mâché form.
“That was really important – seeing for the first time boeuf gras live, the symbol of Carnival for everyone in the royal parade,” said French.
Other differences between the 1898 parade and those of recent years are the formality of the crowd (umbrellas and top hats abound); the casualness of the preparations (no police, no barricades); and the lack of beads or trinkets being thrown at beer revelers.
“Everyone is there to see the art and the spectacle,” said French.
Some seemingly mysterious elements of the parade have been cleared up with research — signs in the form of silver bells signify the 25th anniversary of the Rex Organization, French said — but other aspects of the procession, such as whether the buoy riders are waving wands or scepters, await further investigation. .
The first rediscovered films that document everyday life are becoming their own genre. “Three Minutes: A Alongening,” a documentary looking at films made by Polish Jews in 1938, just before the Holocaust, restores “humanity and individuality” to its subjects, The New York Times wrote in January. Other recent examples include films from New York City from 1911 and from Ireland in 1925 and 1926.
This last glimpse into the past also teaches us about our own time – in particular, the success of New Orleans residents in maintaining their heritage.
“It’s certainly grown and changed a little bit, but at its core, Mardi Gras is the same,” Hardy said. “We paraded; we celebrate. This is who we are.”