The Birth of Film Screening in Thailand
01/01/04 (By: Anchalee Chaiworaporn)

Anchalee Chaiworaporn traces the history of film-making from its birth in France while wondering just who the mystery man was that brought it here.

Despite the sarcastically 'hit and run' of present Thai movies, it might be a surprise to find that the Thai film culture possessed such a long history since the very beginning of world's cinema culture. From the first cinema screening in France in 1895, when brothers Auguste and Louis Lumiere first demonstrated the cinematograph, cheers have been echoing from Europe to America to China.

It took just a swift to be Thailand's turn, although not the first Thai film. Like most countries, the first-generation of films were from the Parisian Cinematograph, on a global tour from France that included Thailand.

"The oldest historical records we could find were in the Bangkok Times of June 9, 1897," said Dome, archivist at the National Film Archives. "There were advertisements in both Thai and English announcing that a 'play' entitled Parisian Cinematograph would be shown here."

Some question remains, however, over whether this was actually the first showing of a film in Thailand. The advertisement said that the performances, presented by an S G Machovsky, would be held for the last time and that they were being held at the public's request. This would seem to imply that there was a previous show.

"Those phrases also forced me to go back, reading over every column and page in the Bangkok Times prior to that date," said Dome. "As a matter of fact, I looked as far back as Lumiere's first showing in Paris.

Dome found nothing, which made him more comfortable with his initial assumption that the show on June 9, 1897, was the first paid screening in the country. The previous ones were likely only private demonstration screenings and needed no advertisement.

"Bangkok Times was the most popular newspaper at that time," said Dome. "If there had been a public screening before June 9, 1897, there would have been some advertising. Also, with any kind of performance at that time, there would normally be some private screenings."

Dome also discovered that the screening were not actually the last ones, as advertised. So the word 'last' might have been a commercial gimmick to prompt the public to rush to the show. There were five more screenings after those advertised. On June 21, the Parisian Cinematograph was invited to the palace by Prince Damrong Rajah Nuphab. It was for a report, rather than entertainment, as Prince Damrong was the Royal librarian.

Three days later, yet another three-day performance was advertised in the Bangkok Times, from June 24 to 26.

On June 28, another show was held at Chakri Palace for Phranangchao Saowapa Phongsri, the proxy of King Rama V (who was visiting Europe at the time).

The report in the June 29 Bangkok Times said, "Last night, foreign movies were shown at the Chakri Palace. The Queen and her relatives as well as some other court officials watched the show. The Queen also gave Bt150 to the exhibitor."

This had some significance for Dome. He cross-referenced it to another document that he had found proving that 1897 was the first year a film had been shown in Thailand.

In a diary that belonged to one of Prince Damrong's daughters, there was an entry telling of her seeing films that year. If we compare this with the arrival of Lumiere's Cinematograph in Asia after 1895, Dome's theory sounds plausible. According to Emmanuelle Toulet, in her book Cinema Is 100 Years Old, Lumiere cameraman Gabriel Veyre travelled across Latin America and Japan before coming to film in China.

This same person was also mentioned in Chronicle of Cinema, edited by Robyn Karney, as making the first moving pictures of Cuba on Feb 7, 1897, after coming to Havana to demonstrate the Lumiere Cinematograph.

Thus, many of the Lumieres' agents were flocking around the world during 1896 to 1897. And 1897 is a likely possibility for the first film shown here - though it wouldn't have been Veyre who came to Thailand

But the question arises as to the exact identity of S G Machovsky, as there is simply no information about this man at all. He appears to have come from nowhere.

Dome wrote a letter to France's National Film Archives about this man. The French archivist couldn't find his name in the list of the Lumieres' agents or staff.

"I think Machovsky might not have been a Lumiere employee," said the Thai film archivist. "He might be an independent film operator who bought Lumiere's machine and films and travelled from place to place showing them. So how do we know if these films were genuine Lumiere productions?"

Dome couldn't find a complete movie listing of Machovsky's show in Thailand, except for two films: Pradanam (Diving) and Sri Toi Muay (Boxing), which the Bangkok Times reported as the most popular ones on June 110, 1897.

Again, the film archivist checked them against the Lumieres' film listings and found two relate titles - Boxer and Scaphandrier (French for diver) in the 1896 to 1897 category Vues Diverse. "The advertisement also mentioned Parisian Cinematograph show was rather expensive - from two saleungs to Bt10, about the same as a ticket for the Grand Cafe, which cost one franc. But unlike the Grand Cafe's premiere, which had an audience of only 33, in Thailand the Bangkk Times reported about 600 people.

"The cheapest seat was just a wooden bench," said Dome, "but it was a full house with more Thais than foreigners."

After this show, there were more screenings in Thailand, but they were still vending movies, including a film entitled Vitascope from Edison Kinetograph.But Machovsky remains the man from nowhere for Thai cinema, leaving us with only a dark room like at the end of his picture show.

As with so many other attempts to write history in this country, there is only darkness and more darkness.

Birth of movie around the world
1889: As with many other historic discoveries, early cinema was primarily a scientific research competition among scientists. The most closely related machines to the technology that followed was the Kinetograph, produced in 1889 by American inventor Thomas Alva Edison. The Kinetoscope was a wooden case fitted with an eyepiece and a crank. Viewers turned the crank and the machine flicked through a sequence of pictures that created the illusion of movement - most often of a woman dancing in her underwear. Dec.28, 1895: Cinema in projected form was first shown by two French brothers, Auguste and Louis Lumiere, owners of a photographic studio in Lyons.

They came to Paris to open a new show called The Cinematograph, shot using a small hand-cranked camera. At the Grand Cafe at 14 Boulevard des Capucines, a man stood outside the building all day handing out programmes to passersby. Unfortunately the cold weather prevented people from stopping and, as a result, only 33 tickets were sold for the first show. When the lights went down, a white screen was lit up with a photographic projection showing the doors of the Lumiere factory in Lyon. Without warning, the picture started to move. The factory doors were flung open, releasing a stream of workers ... and everything moved. This first film was entitled La Sortie de l'Usine Lumiere a Lyon (Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory). Ten more short scenes followed, each reel roughtly 17 metres in length, including Baby's Dinner and The Waterer Watering - a comical one involving a man and his garden hose. Audiences rushed to catch a glimpse of the machine, full of questions. By passing this milestone, the Lumieres had won the race: Their rivals had been crushed.

After a few days, with no advertising but word of mouth, more than 2,000 spectators went to the Grand Cafe each day. Tickets cost one franc. Mobs formed and the police had to move in to maintain order.

The cinematograph was requested for public showings both in France and worldwide after that. The Lumieres sent their agents and staff all over the world to both screen and produce more movies.
  • Feb 20, 1896: The cinematograph had its first public screening in London at the Marlborough Hall, organized by French magician Felicien Treway, who was a friend of Antoine, the Lumiere brothers' father.
  • March 1, 1896: The first public showing of the Lumiere brothers' invention was held at 7 Galerie due Roi, Brussels. Tickets cost one franc.
  • April/May 1896: The cinematograph was shown in Vienna, Madrid, Berlin and Geneva.
  • June 7, 1896: A screening was held in Bombay, India.
  • May 14, 1896: Seven films were shot in Russia to record the Czar Nicholas II's coronation before a public screening on May 17, 1896, at the Aquarium, St Petersburg's summer theatre with the frightening Arrival of a Train.
  • June 29, 1896: The first American demonstration of the cinematograph took place in New York. The arrival of the Lumiere brothers had dealt kinetoscope producer Thomas Edison a hard blow. For the first time the American public saw Arrival of a Train and The Waterer Watering.
  • Aug.3, 1896: King Rama V visited Singapore and was invited to see a short series of animated pictures at the Hurricane Palace in Singapore, afterwards saying, "I could not remember the titles. They are a long roll of pictures put into a machine and the pictures were moving."
  • Aug.11, 1896: The cinematograph was shown in Shanghai, China.
  • May 25, 1897: King Rama V visited Bern in Switzerland and was recorded by a Lumiere cameraman. Dome claims it was the first film concerning Thailand.
  • June 9, 1897: The first advertisement appeared in Thailand's Bangkok Times for the Parisian Cinematograph by S G Machovsky.
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