After reigning 124 years ago as Rex, king of Carnival, Charles A. Farwell rides again — in a bit of film discovered in March in a Dutch museum.
This two-minute snippet, believed to be the oldest existing movie footage shot in New Orleans, will be shown Wednesday at 6 pm at the Presbytère overlooking Jackson Square. The screening, which will be followed by a discussion, will be free and open to the public.
The video of the 1898 parade shows six floats, including one bearing a live ox. The parade’s theme was “Harvest Queens.”
After Wednesday’s event, the film will be incorporated into the museum’s show celebrating the Rex organization’s 150th birthday, which will be on view through Dec. 11. The film may then become part of the Presbytère’s permanent Mardi Gras exhibit, said Wayne Phillips, the Louisiana State Museum’s curator of Carnival collections. “It’s just too important to lay aside and not share with our visitors.”
The quest for this film had been a longtime obsession of Carnival insiders, who were bedeviled for years by rumors that it existed. They were stymied until Mackenzie Roberts Beasley, an audiovisual researcher who knows how to track down even the most obscure movies, went online and found it at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam.
The request to find the film came from Will French, the Rex organization’s historian and archivist, who happens to be a longtime friend of Beasley. French, a corporate lawyer involved in financing film production, said he joined the hunt because he wants to build the krewe’s video holdings.
For Farwell’s granddaughter, Lynne Farwell White, the discovery was personal and joyful because her grandfather died in 1917, 26 years before she was born.
“I got a chance for the first time in my life to see my grandfather alive and as a real person,” she said in an email. “That is very special!”
White donated a sword that had been part of Farwell’s Rex costume to the krewe’s archive.
The film was a project of American Mutoscope Co., which sent crews everywhere to make movies. They were aimed at working-class people, Beasley said, because the brief movies represented the type of low-cost entertainment they could afford.
Frank Armitage, one of American Mutoscope’s best cameramen, was sent to New Orleans to photograph not only the Rex parade but also two Navy ships docked at the port; Gallier Hall, which was then New Orleans’ City Hall; a crew loading a steamboat; and a project called “Way Down South,” said Ed Poole, a Gretna-based film-accessory researcher with hollywoodonthebayou.com.
Armitage and his crew didn’t stay long in New Orleans, Poole said, because they were sent to Cuba to document the aftermath of the sinking of the USS Maine, which had blown up in Havana’s harbor on Feb. 15, 1898, a week before Fat Tuesday. The sinking inflamed anti-Spanish passions and was one of the factors leading to the United States’ declaration of war against Spain, even though an investigation showed the explosion that sank the ship was the result of a fire that ignited ammunition, not Spanish sabotage.
To shoot the Mardi Gras footage, French said, Armitage was at Gallier Hall and was looking down St. Charles Avenue toward Poydras Street. The result, which the Dutch museum put into a crisp, digitized, high-definition version, is rich with detail, said French, who likened viewing it to a hunt for “100 little Easter eggs” because each viewing reveals something new.
For instance, everyone along the parade route is standing still, and there is no visible police presence to hold back the crowds. Some riders are dancing atop their floats. There aren’t many costumed revelers, although one child on the street is wearing a devil costume.
And no one is throwing anything. “We think that Rex started throwing in 1920, in the first parade after World War I,” Phillips said. “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.”
Preceding each float was a placard shaped like a silver bell bearing the float’s theme. That detail was added because the parade was the krewe’s 25th. Even though the Rex organization had been founded in 1872, political unrest forced the cancellation of all the 1875 parades; consequently, the 1898 procession was the silver anniversary parade.
And then there’s that ox — the Boeuf Gras, which represents the last meat to be eaten before Lent. There is no indication of how difficult it was to get the animal atop the float, or how it managed to remain document during the ride.
But in the early years of the 20th century, the live ox was dropped from the parade because officials decided it was “no longer tasteful,” Phillips said. In 1959, the Boeuf Gras returned in a papier-mâché version and has been part of the Rex parade ever since.
Dr. Stephen Hales, the Rex organization’s historian and archivist emeritus, said that finding this video proves one thing: “You can’t give up on finding things. It’s nice to know that these bits of evidence of past Carnivals are out there.”
The film’s clarity “is so incredible,” Beasley said. “It’s a time capsule.”