The very first death scene we can find on record was filmed by Thomas Edison’s production company between May 10–19, 1895.
The scene was from David Henderson’s Burlesque that recreated an episode from “Trilby”, the 1894 novel by George du Maurier.
In the scene, Svengali hypnotizes Trilby and the Laird, and then falls dead across a table. It is described in the Edison catalogue as “very funny”.
Unfortunately, the catalogue entry does not list the cast. It is possible that David Henderson played Svengali.
The 50 foot film was made to be shown in Edison’s Kinetoscope.
Can you Identify the First Film Where the Actor is Known?
The first death scene where we can positively identify the actor was shot by Edison’s production company three months later on August 28, 1895.
The film was called “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots”, and it is described as a “realistic reproduction of this famous historical scene”.
Mary was played by Robert Thomae, and the film may have been the first to use stop–motion substitution to show the decapitation of Mary.
Just before the beheading took place the camera stopped and the actor (Robert Thomae) was replaced by a dummy. Then the filming resumed. When the two takes were spliced together it appeared to be one continuous shot.
See the video from the Library of Congress below:
When Was the First Actual Execution Filmed?
The first real execution that was filmed was “The Hanging of William Carr”.
It was produced and filmed by Frederick Guth on December 17, 1897 and shot in Liberty, Missouri. The film showed the execution of William Carr (a farm laborer convicted of killing his three–year–old daughter) by Sheriff J.H. Hymer.
Are There Any Other Famous Death Scenes From the Early Movies?
The British publication “Total Film Magazine” provided an article on the “50 Greatest Movie Deaths” in their July, 2004, issue. Their list was based on a non–scientific poll taken from interviews with film critics. The earliest film to make the list was Erich Von Stroheim’s 1924 movie “Greed”.
In the climactic death scene between the film’s two main characters, McTeague and Marcus, McTeague finally overpowers Marcus and blindly strikes with a revolver and clubs his one–time friend to death. On the ground, Marcus lies still and bloody beneath the blows, but not before he found the strength to handcuff their wrists together. McTeague feels a tug on his left wrist and realizes that he is now locked to the corpse he just killed, stranded without water in the middle of the desert.
If you enjoy movie trivia, you might enjoy browsing our Motion Picture History Timeline.