Many fans of Bigfoot Cinema believe the genre was born with the 1950s release of the otherwise undistinguished The Snow Creature (1954), directed by Billy Wilder’s brother W. Lee.
In reality, however, Yeti appearances in fictional films arrived with the popularization of narrative cinema itself. In fact, none other than the French pioneer of fantastic cinema himself, George Méliès, originated what can arguably be called the first-ever Abominable Snowman appearance in film history. It equally launched an enduring, vibrant off-shoot genre that endures to this day — Cine du Sasquatch.
That salient film effort was called Conquest of the Pole (1912) aka <<À la conquête du pôle>>. It featured a climatic encounter with a huge man-monster who devours humans alive from the icy pits of its own frozen hell. Although much more human than cryptid, the beast is nevertheless firmly within the genre conventions of all that would follow. Yeti in films was born, albeit in a more human and only nascent form.
You can witness the quaint charm of the production with the below YouTube clip erroneously titled “Conquest of the North (sic) Pole” but quite a nice Super 8mm-to-video capture, all things considered. At approximately 5:30 into the narrative, the monstrous Abominable Snowman-ster rears its ugly head, and upper shoulders, and dangling arms!
Despite its primitive nature, Conquest of the Pole‘s frost giant was a technical marvel for its era of construction. Audiences were astounded by the Abominable and the creature’s lifelike expressions. In many ways, this was one of the true first-ever animatronic constructions for a film, even if the entire contraption was operated by hidden players inside the giant’s head and shoulders, as well as cables and pulleys activated by off-screen helpers. King Kong‘s use of a similar bust for some crucial close-up shots may have been influenced by Méliès’ movie, as well.
Alas, despite the technical innovations, Méliès found a largely indifferent audience for this, one of his last large-scale productions. Popular tastes in cinema were already evolving from sheer novelty “trick films” (as Méliès himself called his efforts) and into more narratively-oriented efforts (read: stage plays that were photographed). Conquest of the Pole would not only create the Cine du Sasquatch genre, in short, but temporarily bury it under the celluloid permafrost, as well.
That ice would later melt, of course. But for many lonely years, Conquest of the Pole was the first — and last — word in Bigfoot Cinema.