Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (1897)

This short vignette speaks to the popularity of Thomas Edison as a figure and also to the relationship that his film studio had to him. Not a location film or an actuality, this is a staged performance to confirm the image of Edison in the public mind as a genius and creator.

Mr Edison at Work

We see a set against a black backdrop, with bottles and tubes and various chemical paraphernalia. At the center of it stands Thomas Edison, a large, imposing, and dignified figure in a long white coat. He picks up a bowl and stirs the contents, putting it back down on top of a Bunsen burner. He then picks up a large test tube and begins to pour from it into a series of funnels before the film ends.

Charles Musser, in his commentary from “Edison: The Invention of the Movies,” says that this film was used as a kind of “signature” for screenings of Edison films, often shown at the end of a presentation to make sure the Edison brand was firm in the mind of the audience. He also points out that the attachment of Edison’s name often gave audiences the sense that he was directly responsible for making the films, perhaps even running the camera, which was certainly not the case. As with many of his firm’s projects, his involvement was more administrative and indirect. Musser refers to it as a kind of “paternalistic oversight.” Certainly he was interested enough to come down to the Black Maria and participate in this film shoot. From the studio’s point of view, the Edison name was a big selling point for their products, and they wanted to play up his myth (and maybe even the perception that he was making the movies) as much as possible.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Thomas Edison

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fifth Avenue, New York (1897)

This short film from Edison shows a famous area of the famous city closest to the studio. It is a location shot, but was probably cheap to produce.

Fifth Avenue New YorkThe film we see consists of two shots. The first is a pan across a mostly stationary crowd standing on some steps, possibly to get a view of a parade or other event taking place in the street proper. We don’t see what they are looking at, only the crowd and people walking on the sidewalk. I’m not certain, but it’s possible these are the steps to the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Branch at Fifth Avenue. The second shot is stationary and doesn’t show the steps, but appears to be taken close by. Here we just see crowds of people walking past the camera in both directions.

Apart from the clothing styles, this could be a shot of Fifth Avenue taken today. Most people look well-to-do, they walk in groups, and they seem to be able to navigate crowds comfortably. A few people turn and stare at the camera, but most seem to be concentrating on getting where they are going, or on watching whatever is happening in the street that we can’t see. The existing print is rather over-exposed, but I don’t know if that’s damage after the fact or a problem with the original. Some sources cite this as the “first camera pan,” which is possible, but I’m dubious.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

August 1916

Once again it’s time to round up the major headlines of this month from 100 years ago. While the real Battle of the Somme continued to rage, audiences in Britain went to theaters to experience it on the screen. In the US, several steps were taken to conserve natural resources and even towards future decolonization, and the Cub Scouts got their start this month as well.

The 8th Australian Light Horse Regiment, at a site near Romani.

The 8th Australian Light Horse Regiment, at a site near Romani.

World War I

The Battle of Romani begins August 3 and ends August 5. British Imperial troops secure victory over a joint Ottoman-German force.

 

Diplomacy

Portugal joins the Allies, August 7.

Peru declares neutrality, August 21

The Kingdom of Romania declares war on the Central Powers August 27, entering the war on the side of the Allies.

Germany declares war on Romania, August 28.

Italy declares war on Germany, August 28.

 

Conservation

Lassen Volcanic National Park is established in California on August 9.

Migratory Bird Treaty between Canada and the United States signed, August 16.

U.S. President Woodrow Wilson signs legislation creating the National Park Service on August 25.

 

Colonialism

As a step towards future autonomy, the United States passes the Philippine Autonomy Act on August 29.

 

Education

Robert Baden-Powell publishes The Wolf Cub’s Handbook in the U.K. during August of this year, establishing the basis of the junior section of the Scouting movement, the Wolf Cubs (modern-day Cub Scouts).

Battle of the Somme-film-adBattle of the Somme-filmFilm

One AM” starring Charlie Chaplin is release on August 7.

The premiere of the movie “Battle of the Somme” in London is on August 10. In the first six weeks of general release (from 20 August) 20 million people view it.

The first episode of the series “Homunculus” is released in Germany on August 18.

The movie “The Danger Girl,” starring Gloria Swanson, is released on August 25

 

Births

Van Johnson, actor (in “Thirty Seconds over Tokyo” and “Battleground”), August 25; Martha Raye, actress (in “The Big Broadcast of 1937” and “Monsieur Verdoux”), August 27.

The Voice of Conscience (1912)

This short from Thanhouser features its major star, Florence LaBadie, only in a supporting role, but makes use of locations to free up the cinematography somewhat. It’s the story of a typical love-triangle and the rivalry that it calls into being.

Voice of ConscienceThe movie opens with the death of a loving father, who puts his daughter (Jean Darnell) into the care of his best friend (Henry Benham) upon his death bed. The friend puts the “orphan” (as she’s known throughout the movie) up with his mother, presumably because it would be unseemly for a bachelor to live with a young woman. She nevertheless falls for him, and swoons visibly when he gives her a small flower from the garden. Then, some “friends from the city” come to visit the mother. One of them is Florence LaBadie, who immediately captures Henry’s attentions, resulting in dark sulks from the orphan. The three go out driving together, and the driver manages to hit a tiny rock and come to an immediate halt, which somehow knocks out the two women (perhaps because of their delicate constitutions, cough). They are rushed to the hospital and given a “powerful heart stimulant.” Jean then has the clever idea of pouring an overdose into her rival’s medicine, but the doctor sees her through the window (which he apparently routinely peers through to spy on female patients). He prevents the OD, but allows the orphan to believe she has killed Florence. Now, wracked with guilt, the orphan begins to have visions of the dead girl haunting her. After allowing this to go on for a month, the doctor finally shows her that Florence is fine. Jean is repentant, and all is fine.

Watch out for that HUGE ROCK!!!

Watch out for that HUGE ROCK!!!

I think this movie could have been a lot better if Florence had played the orphan. Jean Darnell overacts painfully, particularly when she’s writhing around in bed over her guilty conscience, but really at pretty much any chance she gets. Florence mostly looks on embarrassed, although she manages to display some real chemistry with Henry on the car ride. Admittedly, the premise was silly and likely to call for overly emotional performances, but I think Florence might have saved it, given the chance. As it is, I spent more time appreciating the outdoor locations, reportedly in New Rochelle, New York, and the occasional tilts of camera to keep the players in frame. The shot through the window was an interesting choice – we just see Darnell’s arms as she puts the poison in, the curtains drawn so that we don’t see her face or body. The special effect of the transparent ghostly Florence was pretty typical for 1912. The copy Thanhouser has put up on vimeo includes a nice organ score by Ben Model.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Jean Darnell, Henry Benham, Florence LaBadie, Edmund J. Hayes

Run Time: 14 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Morning Alarm (1896)

This short from Edison Studios emphasizes motion and the excitement of a fire alarm to provide a thrilling “local view.” Shot in Harrisburg, as was “The First Sleigh Ride,” it is part of the location shooting that Edison engaged in to attract local audiences to screenings.

Morning Alarm_T1We see a street at a forty-five degree angle, on a cold day with snow on the ground. There are warmly-dressed spectators (apparently all men) lining the side of the street we can see. Horse-drawn vehicles charge past the camera, some with ladders or tanks of water, others carrying uniformed firemen. One of the tank-carriages belches smoke or steam as it races by. During a gap in the vehicles, several spectators enter the street to look up and see the next carriage approaching. A policeman ushers them back to the sidewalk before the horses arrive.

Morning Alarm_TThis movie is often confused with the one I’ve labeled as “A Morning Alarm,” and in fact the Library of Congress has this listed as “A Morning Alarm” and claims it was shot in Newark. I’m following the information from the DVD set “Edison: Invention of the Movies,” which tends to confirm information from Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. LoC could be right, however their description of “A Morning Alarm” mentions “the opening of the engine house doors,” which is visible in the other movie, but not this one, so I’m trusting Musser. The spectators in this movie are clearly interested in seeing the spectacle of their local fire department in action – they pay some attention to the camera, but actually endanger themselves to see the fire trucks, so I don’t think they are actors.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

First Sleigh Ride (1896)

This is another example of an Edison studios location shoot, this time in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The movie emphasizes movement and contrast, as much as its location, to capture the attention of audiences.

First Sleigh RideWe see a busy street with light snow cover. A series of horse-drawn vehicles rush across the screen, past a small crowd of gathered onlookers. The second of these is the “sleigh” mentioned in the title, while the other two have wheels. As the sleigh goes by, one of the bystanders waves his hat in encouragement, as if observing a race. In the background you can see a trolley sitting in the street – no horses in evidence, possibly it is electric.

This short film was made while the Edison company was in town to shoot exclusive footage for the Bijou Theater which was exhibiting the “projectoscope” – an advance over the kinetoscope that allowed the projection of movies onto a screen. Charles Musser cites a catalog entry which states it was taken “after the first fall of snow and shows an exciting race along the river road.” The Library of Congress gives a different catalog entry that says “This subject taken just after the recent first fall of snow, shows two enthusiastic horsemen indulging in a ‘brush’. with their respective horses and cutters.” Both descriptions suggest a competitive race, as suggested by the onlooker waving his hat, but to me it just looks like three vehicles driving normally down the street. Perhaps my view is spoiled by years of modern car chases and other high-speed spectacles.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Intolerance (1916)

Probably the most talked about film of 1916, “Intolerance” remains a kind of enigma to film historians. Despite the large amount of ink and computer bytes shed writing about it (see the bibliography at the end of this review for a small sample), it seems no better understood than most of the more typical releases of the year. What is this movie that has inspired so much discussion and debate? Is it one of the most important movies in history or just a giant flop?

Intolerance_(film)

Quick Summary

Regular readers of my blog know I usually begin each review with a recap of the action from the film – I don’t worry too much about “spoiling” 100-year-old movies, but if you want to see it first, you can always scroll down to the link and then come back and read the review. In this case, I’m going to be a bit less specific about the sequence of events and just give a summary of the stories, not accounting for the editing or sequence. In part,  this is because there are several different movies today calling themselves “Intolerance,” and deciding which is the “most authentic” is one of the sources of debate among scholars. It is complicated by the fact that the director, D.W. Griffith, kept making changes for each new re-release of the movie, beginning shortly after the premier on September 5, 1916. Some have argued that the 1917 re-release is more definitive, or even that the version Griffith reconstructed in 1922 after chopping up the print to release one of the storylines as a separate film is the most accurate. In 1990 the Museum of Modern Art attempted to reconstruct the movie based on the score written by Joseph Carl Breil for the opening night, in an attempt to get back to an “original” form, but it needs to be noted that this reconstruction is highly debated, and that it is possible that most viewers in 1916 were seeing a quite different movie. Read the rest of this entry »

American Falls from Above, American Side (1896)

This early location film is perhaps the first “scenic view” provided by the Edison Studios. By traveling to Niagara Falls in upstate New York, they were able to provide a view that would be exotic to viewers even in New York City and certainly in the rest of the world.

American FallsWe see a view that includes the top portion of the falls and looks down upon a group of men near a tripod. Two of the men point at various features of the landscape and another seems to tinker with the camera. Throughout, the falls roll majestically on. The background shows that it is a cold winter day, with snow on the trees and the ground.

I said earlier that audiences may have become somewhat jaded about just seeing movement by 1896, but to our eyes today, this movie might seem to contradict that. Nothing happens, it just demonstrates movement by showing a waterfall. However, it’s important to remember that the opportunity to see a natural wonder in motion was very new at the time, and that many of the viewers of this movie would never, or maybe only once in their lives, have an opportunity to visit Niagara Falls. Movies like this helped to give people a sense of what it was like to be able to travel easily around the nation, and even contributed to a sense of national unity by bringing exotic locations directly to the people, as it were. While a good quality photograph lets you know what a place looks like, seeing it in motion brings it to life in an entirely new way.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

A Morning Alarm (1896)

I mentioned yesterday that firefighters were a popular subject in early film, and this short film, apparently shot the same day at a slightly different time and location, confirms that. Also made by Edison Studios, this movie once again shows off the development of a camera light enough that it could be taken out of the Black Maria and into the streets.

Morning AlarmA crowd of people lines a street, and we see them from the opposite side, at a slight angle. A horse-drawn carriage charges out of one of the buildings, with a long ladder attached to it side. It is followed by a carriage with a water tank, and another carrying several men in firefighters’ gear. The horses are not up to speed yet, just getting started on their run. In a way, this movie could be seen as a “pre-quel” to “Going to the Fire.”

There’s a fair amount of confusion about the titles of these Edison firefighting movies, and that’s understandable, given that they are so nearly identical, so short, and released at the same time. I’m using the titles given by Charles Musser in his “Before the Nickelodeon” book and confirmed on the DVD collection “Edison: The Invention of Movies,” but note that the Library of Congress has them listed differently. It occurred to me as I watched this that it’s possible this was shot almost at the same time as “Going to the Fire,” but that would have required two cameras to be set up on the same Newark street, and I don’t think they could do that, yet. I don’t know whether the crowds gathered every time there was a fire alarm, or if they’re there because of the camera.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Going to the Fire (1896)

This short from Edison studios appears to be an actuality shot on location on a city street. Again, it emphasizes movement and action to hold the attention of an audience that is becoming a little jaded about “moving pictures” already.

Going to the FireWe see a street in Newark shot at a 30-degree angle, so that oncoming vehicles cross the screen as they get closer. A man runs towards us and several horse-drawn carriages follow. One is quite large, and carries tall ladders as well as several men in fire fighter’s outfits. The last one carries a large water tank and hoses. At one point, a policeman begins to walk out into the street, turns and looks at the camera, and then backs out of the shot.

The catalog entry for this movie plays up the action: “This scene shows almost the entire Fire Department led by the Chief, responding to an alarm. The horses, said to be the finest of their kind in the country, present a thrilling spectacle as they dash rapidly by, flecked with foam, and panting from the exertion of their long gallop.” Clearly, it is becoming necessary for movies to stand out from the crowd and for advertisers to find good reason for people to be interested. Fire departments and fire alarms were a very popular topic for film in the late nineteenth century. In this case, it appears that the Edison camera crew may have set up a little way down the street from a fire department and waited for an alarm, although they may have arranged the shot with the fire department. There are large number of spectators gathered on the sidewalks, giving a sense that this was considered a big event in the community at the time.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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