Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

The Kleptomaniac (1905)

This is another social message movie from Edwin S. Porter, which contrasts poverty and riches, and the double standard of justice which existed between them. It also gives us some very interesting images of New York at winter time.

The movie begins by showing a wealthy woman getting into a horse-drawn carriage for a day on the town. She crosses from her front door to the street, which we see is covered in snow. The next shot is of a snow-free street, although the visible breath of the horses indicates that it is still quite cold. The woman gets out of the carriage and crosses the sidewalk to a door marked “Macy’s.” The next scene is the interior of a department store, and we see a number of well-dressed women as they move from counter to counter, asking clerks to display various items for them. The woman from the previous shots is there also, and she takes something from one of the counters when she thinks no one is looking, then moves to the center of the stage to speak to a friend she recognizes. She has been observed by the store detective, however, who comes over and escorts the two women off screen. The next scene is in the manager’s office, where the friend tries to plead for the rich woman, but when the rich woman produces the goods, the manager has her escorted down to the street and into a carriage that takes her to the police station (more snow here than in any other shot).

The story is now interrupted and we see “The House of Poverty,” where a small child sits on the floor screaming while a woman is doubled over at the table. Her older daughter comes home and asks her mother for something to eat, but the cupboard is bare. The poor woman puts on a scarf and goes out to find food. The next scene shows a snowless sidewalk in front of a simple storefront. A delivery boy comes out of the door with a basket, but the shopkeeper calls him back inside, so he puts his basket carelessly on the sidewalk. The poor woman walks up and sees the unguarded basket, looks around to see if anyone is watching and takes a small loaf of bread. The shopkeeper instantly runs out of the store and grabs her by the elbow. He hails a cop, who takes the loaf and the woman back to the same snowy police station. Next, we see the police court, where a series of minor criminals, including a prostitute and a hobo, are quickly processed. Then it is the poor woman’s turn, and the shopkeeper testifies angrily about his stolen goods. The only advocate for the poor woman is her daughter, who runs up and hugs her mother, but the judge orders them separated, and the mother is taken away. Then it is the rich woman’s turn. The manager of the department store is also fervent, but her friend is there to testify and she has a lawyer as well. The judge decides to let her go. The closing shot is an image of blind justice, holding a scale where a bag of money clearly has more weight than a loaf of bread.

This movie has a lot in common with the later movie by D.W. Griffith, “A Corner in Wheat,” which contrasts the rich and the poor and the effect of stock manipulation on hungry people versus the rich who profit from it. Porter’s style is a bit less sophisticated, but the message is still clear: a woman who acts from desperation is punished for something while a rich woman looking for a thrill is let off. Porter does not so much use cross-cutting to get this across as he shows one story almost to the end, then interrupts it and tells another story before giving us the conclusion of the first one. Withholding the end of the first story still serves to build a degree of suspense as we wonder how it will turn out. I made a point of noting the level of snow we see in the various location shots, because I suspect that it demonstrates that these were shot on different days, although it’s also possible that Macy’s just had better street-clearing service than the other locations. We still get to see some great images of New York from another era. The interior of the department store is also illustrative: there is little merchandise on display or accessible to the customers, most of it is kept in drawers behind the counter, and customers have to ask to see it. Interestingly this system is not shown to prevent theft very effectively.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Aline Boyd

Run Time: 11 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Ex-Convict (1904)

Edwin S. Porter adapted a popular vaudeville story to the camera, and made an early “message picture” at the same time. While it may seem a bit melodramatic to our tastes today, it stands out among its contemporaries as an unusually effective drama.

The movie begins by showing us an apparently “normal” nuclear family, of mother, father, and daughter, as the father leaves home in the morning for work. All seems well, but the next Intertitle tells us, “That Man is an Ex-Convict.” We see him working in front of a shop on an urban street, moving some large crates and then painting words onto one of them. As he works, a bearded policeman walks up from behind him, examines him, and goes into the shop. The store owner comes out with the policeman, and the two speak for a moment, and the ex-convict is discharged. Evidently the policeman warned his boss about the man’s criminal past. The next scene is titles “Have You Reference?” and it shows the ex-convict joining a line of hopefuls in front of a warehouse that has a sign reading “Wanted 10 Men.” Each man shows the foreman a piece of paper, which is examined closely before he is admitted, but the ex-convict has no paper and so gets no job. The story suddenly leaves the ex-convict and we see a small girl being escorted by a maid in a wealthy neighborhood. The maid stops to speak with a man on the street corner, but the little girl goes into the street without her, then turns and stamps her foot to show that she is annoyed at the delay. Suddenly, the ex-convict comes running from off screen, grabs the child and dives to the ground. A moment later a car speeds through the spot where the child had been standing. The maid and other bystanders congratulate the ex-convict for his heroism, and he is given a bandage for his head (apparently he wounded himself in the fall).

Despite this act of courage, however, the ex-convict returns home to find his wife and daughter hungry, the girl in bed without any supper (possibly we are meant to understand that she is ill). He feels the desperation of his situation, then goes back out into the night. He walks the streets in the snow without an adequate coat, and tries to tell his story to passersby who have no interest or sympathy. Finally, looking at a low window to a rich house, he makes the desperate decision to attempt burglary. The next scene shows the inside of the house, where a mother, a father, and a child live in bourgeois comfort. The child is the same one that the ex-convict saved earlier. She drowses off, and the mother and father take her up to bed. Then, the ex-convict enters the empty room. The father catches him instantly, and holds him at gunpoint. The ex-convict offers no resistance, and the father leaves the room to call the police. The ex-convict considers flight, but at that moment the child comes back downstairs and recognizes him. The two of them speak to each other, and soon the child is sitting in the ex-convict’s lap, while he tells a story. The father comes back in and observes this, and puts his gun away. Soon, the police arrive and the ex-convict puts out his hands for the cuffs, but the child intervenes and the father sends them away. The ex-convict is grateful to them both for the second chance.

The movie clearly supports a progressive attitude that people should not be stigmatized for their social condition or past actions. If a man can’t get a job after his release from prison, by the logic of the film, he will have no choice but to return to crime, and people should be given the chance to redeem themselves, as the hero does when he saves the child. In contrasting the comforts of the rich home with the simplicity and squalor of the man’s apartment, Porter also makes an argument about class in America. As is often the case with early films, I found the location shots more interesting than those in the studio, particularly the images of the workplaces: the store and the warehouse. These would have been shot in New York or possibly New Jersey, but they could have been anywhere with a reasonably urban appearance. The editing structure is simple but effective. It’s not quite clear whether we’ve “jumped back” a bit in time when we move from the snow-covered (studio) street into the bourgeois home, but this could be an example of early parallel editing, if we assume that the ex-convict is waiting outside for an opportunity to come in when the living room is empty. All of the scenes of this movie are shot in long-shot, so that we never get a clear look at the actors’ faces, but there are some interesting angles. The rescue scene involves the ex-convict running onto screen diagonally from behind the camera, and the car zips past at a different diagonal. The camera also pans slightly to follow the child into the street at the beginning of that scene. It’s not a brilliant movie, but it is an interesting entry in Porter’s portfolio.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Wrong Mr. Fox (1917)

This short is a classic mix-up comedy based on the fact of two very similarly-named towns: Canaan, Vermont, and Canaan, New Hampshire, on the same train line. The thin plot does offer some good opportunities for situational comedy.

An out-of-work actor named Jimmy Fox (Victor Moore) is on the verge of committing suicide by breathing in gas from his light, when he is contacted by his agent and told to go to one of these metropoli in order to join a theater troupe. He boards the train with 3 donuts (one for every 100 miles) and a bottle of milk, stolen from his landlady. At the same time, the reverend John Fox boards the train for the other Canaan, where he is being sent to take over ministerial duties. Of course, they each get off at the wrong station, and, of course, each is mistaken for the other Mr. Fox. Of course, hilarity ensues. The reverend fairly quickly flees his Canaan community (apparently running home to his mother), when an actor in rehearsal pulls out a knife. But our actor figures out his situation fairly quickly and comes up with a plan. He begins his sermon by passing out the collection plates. Then, imitating Billy Sunday, he gives a dramatic series of gestures that cause the congregation to look into the distance while he fills his pockets. Then, he does a kind of strip show, pulling off his jacket, tie, and shirt, finishing with a flourish that makes the crowd look up while he bicycles out the door. However, he’s forgotten that by removing his clothes, he left all the money in his pockets behind.

The now-obscure star of this movie was Victor Moore, who was the principle star of the Jacksonville, Florida-based Klever Komedies studio, a subsidiary of Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company, and therefore part of Paramount. Judging by this film, Moore wasn’t a genius of physical comedy, like Chaplin or Keaton, he seems to be more in the tradition of situational humor like John Bunny or Sidney Drew, with just a hint of Roscoe Arbuckle’s charisma. A lot of this film is shot quite conventionally, but there are some interesting bits. The sequence in which he tries to commit suicide with gas includes several bits where he breathes fire after someone lights a match. There are several dramatic close-ups during his sermon, and I was surprised that his parishioners seem to include at least a few Asian Americans. Honestly, the funniest moment for me didn’t involve Moore at all – I laughed loudest when the preacher runs away from the actor with a knife.

Director:Harry Jackson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victor Moore, William Slade

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Addition and Subtraction (1900)

Alternate Titles: “Whisky Tom ou l’Illusionist Toqué” “Addition and Substraction” (Note: the DVD I have uses this misspelling on both the Menu and the actual film, but the “Star Films Catalog “ online has it spelled right, so I went with that as the correct spelling).

This short film by Georges Méliès is a return to his oft-used theme of a simple magic act, but with the distinction that the magician in this case may be drunk, or crazy.

The movie shows a standard proscenium that makes no effort to hide that it is the stage of a theater. On it is a man with a large beard and top hat, and a generally disheveled appearance, possibly meant to represent a hobo, or other itinerant. He dances around a bit, and takes some pratfalls. He throws his hat in the air and kicks it away. Then he pulls up a stool to sit on, but as he does so a young woman appears in the chair and pushes him away. He repeats the process twice with new stools, but each time a young lady appears and pushes him. Now, the three women get up and move to the front of the stage. The magician stands behind them and pushes them together and suddenly they become one large woman. He hits her on the head with his hat and she becomes a child. The magician stretches the child back into the large woman, and then separates her into the three original women. He retrieves their stools for them, but the surviving film ends before he can make them disappear.

I’m fairly certain that Méliès himself plays the magician in this piece, even though he’s under a fairly thick disguise. Like his other magic-show “trick films,” it plays up his physical skill and moves along at a fast clip, so that it’s hard to keep up with on a first viewing. I imagine it being shown in the Robert-Houdin Theatre with live narration, Méliès commenting humorously on the magician’s antics. For us today, it’s just a quick glimpse at what made his films so special.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès and unknown.

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Strenuous Life, or Anti-Race Suicide (1904)

This is a multi-shot short comedy by Edwin S. Porter for Edison Studios, that tells a story by implication, winking at and nudging the audience without ever being explicit, although it deals with childbirth, one of the more sensitive topics at the time.

The movie opens on a set designed to represent an office, which is shot for some reason at a very low angle, so that the actors only come to about halfway in the frame vertically when standing. A man is sitting at a desk, and his secretary (a woman) sits across from him. He receives a phone call that excites him greatly. He gets up to leave and almost puts on the woman’s hat by mistake as he leaves. She points out his mistake so that he is not arrested for cross-dressing. The next shot is a New York street scene. The streets are covered in snow, and a horse and carriage pulls up to the sidewalk, lurching over large piles of snow. The man from the previous scene gets out and runs up to a door. The camera pans to follow him – but a large older gentleman has gotten into the foreground and seems to be the center of action until he passes out of frame (he looks a little annoyed to be photographed, although I could be imagining this). Once our attention is back on the actor, we see that he is collecting someone from the house he has gone to, and they return together to the horse and carriage and drive off.

The next scene takes place at the man’s house, where he is greeted by female servants. The man he has brought with him carries the black bag of a doctor, and the doctor and servants go upstairs while the man remains below. After he has removed his hat and coat, he proceeds into a lounge, which also has a staircase leading up. He paces back and forth excitedly for a little while and then one of the female servants brings a bundle down to him. They put the bundle on a scale, and then a close-up reveals that it is a baby. They weigh the baby and the servant congratulates the man. He picks up the baby (the camera now returns to long-shot) and coos at the child. The servant runs back upstairs, and soon is back with another bundle. This repeats until there are four bundles being held by the man and his servants, and the man collapses on a chair and faints. The doctor comes downstairs to see to him, and when he wakes up he kicks the doctor for delivering quadruplets!

This is an awfully long walk to get to a simple punchline, but I liked it for a couple of reasons. One is that wonderful location shot of a New York street in winter. There isn’t a lot of early footage of wintry days in New York, and you can really see that the streets are covered in snow here. It appears that the passers-by are not extras, just real New Yorkers going about their day, and it apparently didn’t occur to Porter to make sure the actor would be at the center of the action in the pan. The close-up is effectively a jump-cut, but it’s nice to get a better look at the baby and the actors. I’m not sure that the baby was in any of the long shots, maybe the parents were concerned about someone dropping it with all the running around. The other good part is that you can see the joke about the four babies coming pretty early, but the final joke about the man blaming the doctor comes as a funny surprise that actually works to elicit laughs – or it did for me, at least.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Scarecrow Pump (1904)

This simple comedy short from Edison follows established patterns of early comedy and could easily have been made years earlier. It’s a reminder that not everything director Edwin S. Porter made was another “Great Train Robbery” – a lot of his product was very basic in its appeal.

A set has been decorated to represent the front yard of a rural home, with a large water pump at the center of the screen, and a bucket beneath it. A boy in a Huckleberry Finn outfit comes out in to the year with a large ball or round object, which he place on top of the pump, quickly sketching a face on it. Then he puts a coat over the pump so that the handle goes up one sleeve, making it appear to be an arm outstretched. He adds a few other accoutrements and steps back to admire his work. He then hides in the bucket to see what will happen. A large bearded man in a country bumpkin outfit now walks up to the gate, carrying a jug of liquor. He sees the strange “scarecrow” in his yard, and mistakes it for a man, going up to greet the stranger. He clasps the “hand” of the scarecrow firmly and pumps it up and down in a friendly greeting – which, of course, douses the young miscreant in water as the pump is primed.

This joke is along the simple lines of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” except that this time the adult “victim” doesn’t really suffer for being tricked into believing that the scarecrow is real, and the child is the victim of his own lack of foresight. The “country  yokel” is a standard comic foil at this point in film history, and the movie uses traditional American images (like the Huck Finn straw hat and the liquor jug) to give a sense of place. There is no editing and the camera is stationary throughout, so this was a very simple movie for Porter to make, possibly on the same day he shot several others.

Director Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

March 1917

This is the month that the “February Revolution” kicks off in Russia (they were on a different calendar, so it happened in March, so far as we’re concerned), and things start to change dramatically in Europe and the world as a result. Meanwhile, the USA is drifting closer to war and things are finally stabilizing in Mexico after years of revolution. Here are some of the headlines you’d have been reading 100 years ago:

World War One:

First Battle of Gaza: On March 26,  British Egyptian Expeditionary Force troops virtually encircle the Gaza garrison but are then ordered to withdraw, leaving the city to the Ottoman defenders.

Russian Revolution:

Riots break out as women calling for bread in Petrograd protest on March 8, the unrest  spontaneously spreading throughout the city.

The Duma declares a provisional government on March 12.

Emperor Nicholas II of Russia abdicates his throne and his son’s claims on March 15.

Grand Duke Michael Alexandrovich of Russia refuses the throne on March 17, and power passes to the newly formed Provisional Government under Prince Georgy Lvov.

Mexican Revolution:

Venustiano Carranza is elected president of Mexico on March 11; the United States gives de jure recognition of his government.


The U.S. government releases the text of the Zimmermann Telegram to the public on March 1.

Republic of China terminates diplomatic relations with Germany on March 14.


The United States takes possession of the Danish West Indies on March 31, which become the US Virgin Islands, after paying $25 million to Denmark.


The enactment of the Jones Act on March 2 grants Puerto Ricans United States citizenship.


Jeannette Rankin of Montana becomes the first woman member of the United States House of Representatives, her term beginning on March 4.

Hjalmar Hammarskjöld steps down as Prime Minister of Sweden on March 30. He is replaced by the right-wing businessman and politician Carl Swartz .


The Georgian Orthodox Church restores the autocephaly abolished by Imperial Russia in 1811.


Livery Stable Blues“, recorded with “Dixie Jazz Band One Step” on February 26 by the Original Dixieland Jass Band in the United States, becomes the first jazz recording commercially released on March 8.


Release of “Poor Little Rich Girl” starring Mary Pickford, March 5, reputedly the third-highest grossing film of 1917.

Release of “The Tornado” on March 3, debut film of John Ford.


Desi Arnaz (actor, in “I Love Lucy” and “The Long, Long Trailer”), March 2; Googie Withers (actress, in “The Lady Vanishes” and “Dead of Night”), March 12; Virginia Grey (actress, in “Another Thin Man” and “The Naked Kiss”), March 22.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903)

This early version of the famous novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe is a little hard to accept in the modern world, because of the associations we have with the title and the way it portrays the African American experience. Nonetheless, at the time of its release it was an important attempt to recreate an important work of literature on the screen, and compared to other movies of the time, it demonstrates high production values and a seriousness of tone.

The movie begins with the Intertitle “Eliza pleads with Tom to run away.” We then see some actors in blackface on a proscenium-style set that depicts a cabin in the snow. They talk with each other and pantomime their conversation. “Eliza” is accompanied by a small child, and “Tom” seems to have a wife or other woman living in his cabin. The next scene is “Phinias outwits the slave traders.” Here, on a set built to resemble a tavern or store, Eliza speaks to a white character, who shows her out the back door, then distracts a well-dressed white man with liquor. Other men come in and “Phinias” keeps them in a huddle while Eliza re-enters the stage, then sneaks her child and herself out through the window. When the men turn around, Phinias holds them at bay with pistols. “The Escape of Eliza” involves an elaborate outdoor set that re-creates a river with ice floes floating along it. Eliza and the child run upriver, pursued by dogs and a group of men, then float past the other direction on one of the ice floes. Some men who try to catch them fall into the river and have to be rescued. Next is the “Reunion of Eliza and George Harris,” which takes place in a large room with a spinning wheel. George tries to hide Eliza, and when the pursuers show up he shoots one of them in the  foot from a high vantage point, then shoots another one dead when they don’t leave.

The narrative now shifts away from Eliza with “Race between the Rob’t E. Lee and Natchez.” This river-boat race is shown with very obvious miniatures, and the losing boat explodes and catches fire at the end. I was expecting “Rescue of Eva” to be rescuing someone from the burning boat, but rather it shows a group of slaves dancing in front of the disembarkation of the winner. Eva, a small white child, trips and falls off the gangplank into the river, and Tom leaps in to save her. The next scene is “The Welcome home to St. Clair Eva Aunt Ophelia and Uncle Tom” [sic]. This shows what seems to be the entryway to a plantation home and more slaves dancing. Eva rides in on a pony. Tom is now dressed in a very fine butler’s uniform. “Tom and Eva in the Garden” is an extension of this happy home life sequence, with a cakewalk-style dance. This is then broken by “Death of Eva” in which a double-exposed image of an angel floats down and takes Eva’s soul from her body on the sickbed. Tom pantomimes his profound sorrow at the child’s death. In “St. Clair Defends Uncle Tom,” we see Tom and his owner enter a fancy saloon. Tom stands deferentially to one side while St. Clair drinks and reads the paper, but some white men start trouble with him and St. Clair gets up and fights them. He is killed in the fight.

The next scene, “Auction Sale of St. Clair’s Slaves” is often criticized because it shows the slaves dancing (again) before the auction begins. Even more stereotypically, two of them are playing craps as well (as if they would have anything to gamble). I think what was more significant to audiences at the time is that Tom is no longer in his servant’s finery, he now is clothed as a field hand. In the next scene, “Tom Refuses to Flog Ema’line” and is flogged himself. This takes place before a backdrop of the plantation field. Then, back at the plantation home of Tom’s new owner, “Marks Avenges Death’s of St. Clair and Uncle Tom” [sic] by coming on stage and unceremoniously shooting the white man. The movie concludes with “Tableau: Death of Tom,” which includes superimposed shots from a magic lantern of the eventual emancipation of the slaves over the broken figure of Tom, chained to a wall and dying.

The movie assumes either a live narrator or an intimate familiarity with the story, despite the forward-facing Intertitles that precede each screen, which was itself an innovation in 1903. I was able to follow some of it. It helps to know that Stowe was an abolitionist, and created the character of Tom as a good Christian whose basic decency and humanity was contrasted with the white slave drivers, whose Christianity was often hypocritical. We don’t think of “Uncle Tom” today as a term relating to showing African Americans as human beings, but that was the original intent of the novel. This version undercuts that somewhat by using blackface and portraying stereotypes, but the basic message is still there: Tom rescues a little girl and refuses to whip another slave and dies for it. It doesn’t really seem like the Eliza sub-plot adds much to this in this version, but presumably audiences familiar with the book would have expected to see it, and I was reasonably impressed with the special effects on the ice floe sequence.

Michelle Wallace, who gave the introduction to “Scrap in Black and White,” also introduces this movie on the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, pointing out the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin during the period (the same year, there was a version released by Lubin, a studio dedicated mainly to filmed versions of the classics), and to some degree defending it against its reputation as an agent of racism. I have some problems with the way she expresses this, saying that it is perhaps not “100% racist-fascist” and that it does not support the idea of “extermination” of black people in its interest in showing them at play or dancing. The problem is that these concepts do not apply in 1903. Fascism was still almost twenty years away in Italy and had no roots in American racism, which was never based on a need to exterminate black people. American racism did devalue black lives, and supported killing individual blacks, but the idea was to “keep them in their place,” as second class citizens, not to wipe them out. Of course, Stowe’s novel challenged this by arguing that a black man might be a better Christian than his white owners, but this version of the story preserves only part of that message, which is undercut by the stereotypical portrayals of African Americans on the screen.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 19 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here with music).


Rector’s to Claremont (1903)

This short movie from Edison seems to be a kind of reversal of “How a French Nobleman…” using various locations in Manhattan for a comedic chase sequence. I’m not familiar with either of the names in the title, which may mean I’m not getting the context of the movie.

The opening shot shows a busy downtown sidewalk, with an awning as of a theater or nightclub in the foreground. A large group of well-dressed women come out from the doorway under the awning and pile onto a horse-drawn carriage. Some men climb onto the sides of the carriage as well, then it takes off down the street. The carriage drives down various streets, mostly through parks and wooded areas, and the Midtown entrance to Central Park is recognizable at one point. Along the way, they pick up a pursuer. A man with a top hat and a jacket is running after the carriage. The women wave their parasols at him, but it’s hard to tell if they are encouraging or discouraging him. At one point they drive past Grant’s Tomb, and he stumbles and falls, but the camera is slightly pointed away so we miss the pratfall he does. The camera pans slightly afterward to see him get up and begin his pursuit again. Finally, the carriage arrives at a large well-appointed building like an academy or school of some kind, and the women disembark. There is no sign of the man at this point.

Although I don’t fully understand this movie, it is a good depiction of New York from the period. It’s interesting how it seems to become more suburban and woodsy as the carriage proceeds further North. Today, apart from the parks, most of this drive would be through heavily populated urban areas. Probably the movie would make more sense to an audience that knew what “Rector’s” and “Claremont” were, and I assume that the exhibitor would provide a narrative to explain the mysterious pursuer. As it is, it is of more interest in terms of architecture and fashion than filmmaking. Near the “Rector’s” opening, we see a building with a full-size ad painted on the side: a woman in Victorian dress looming several stories tall over the street. That’s an exciting image right there!

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music).

What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.

We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing  the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.

Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.