Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: July, 2014

Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894)

Fred Ott

This early Kinetoscope experiment takes us back to a time when motion pictures were imagined to be just that – still pictures with a bit of movement added – and can be seen as an example of what Edison’s team imagined a portrait might be like in the future. In just a few seconds a man, dressed in 19th-century garb, takes a pinch of snuff, sniffs it, and either sneezes or fakes a sneeze. It’s never looked all that convincing to me. Be that as it may, this film also began Edison Studios’ long-standing tradition of printing out paper images of each frame of a movie and then copyrighting them. There was no law permitting the copyrighting of moving pictures, but still images could be, so this was how the company protected itself in the early days, and the surviving paper stills have proved useful in historical reconstruction of lost nitrate films. Apparently, in this case, the company also allowed Harper’s magazine to print the stills, in order to give some idea what the future of photography would bring, so in addition to being the first copyrighted film, this was the first to be “seen” by a mass audience, albeit not in the motion format.

Also Known as: Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Fred Ott

Run Time: 5 seconds

You are watching the whole thing free above. If you’d like to see it larger, go: here.

Troublesome Secretaries (1911)

John Bunny

This is another example of John Bunny’s “situational” style of silent comedy, as opposed to the more familiar “slapstick” comedy of later years. In this case, he pairs up with later Chaplin co-star Mabel Normand rather than his more typical opposite, Flora Finch. Normand, still in her teens at this time, plays Bunny’s daughter, who is secretly in love with a young man played by Ralph Ince (who also directed this, as well as “Fatty’s Affair of Honor” and “The Lucky Elopement”). Bunny wants to hire a secretary, and Ralph and Mabel conspire to make sure he hires Ralph. However, Bunny is concerned about his young charge’s interest in the new employee, so he tries hiring a female secretary. She’s in on the game, of course, so pretends to fall in love with Bunny, who has to discharge her from embarrassment. Finally, he tries advertising for old men, so Ralph puts on a white beard and dodders about, showing himself to be more feeble than any other candidate. Bunny hires him, no work gets done, and Mabel and Ralph can smooch in peace. Again, this may not work as well as a classic Chaplin short if shown to a modern audience, but it is an interesting example of the kind of thing audiences went for during the Nickelodeon period.

AKA: The Troublesome Secretaries; or, How Betty Outwitted Her Father

Director: Ralph Ince

Starring: John Bunny, Mabel Normand, Ralph Ince

Run Time: 8 Min 42 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Cure for Pokeritis (1912)

Cure for Pokeritis

Although he’s largely forgotten today, John Bunny was once a major silent star and comedian. He pre-dated the careers of the better-remembered slapstick specialists Chaplin, Keaton, and Lloyd, and was, in his day, one of the most recognizable faces in cinema. Unlike those other men, he wasn’t young and attractive when he got his start in film, but portly, middle aged, and cragged, with heavy jowls and white hair. He had been a successful actor on stage, but chose to make the move to film because of his enthusiasm for the possibilities of the new medium. His frequent co-star was Flora Finch (also in “Those Awful Hats“), and movies such as this, with the both of them as stars, were known as “Bunnyfinches.” In this one, they play a married couple. Bunny has a weekly poker game, at which he loses badly, and Finch makes him swear to stop. His friends come up with an out, pretending to have started a fraternal organization which meets once a week. She then employs her cousin, and his friends in a local bible study group, to follow him and discover his doings. When they catch the poker game, they disguise themselves as policemen, and stage a phony raid, agreeing to place the men in custody of their wives. The humor in this piece is not at all slapstick, and is based rather on period tropes and stereotypes, although Bunny’s performance and Finch’s are worth seeing as exemplars of the period.

Director: Laurence Trimble

Studio: Vitagraph

Starring: John Bunny, Flora Finch, Harry T. Morey.

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Fandom of 1914


Movies were still new in 1914, and they didn’t have credits, but audiences were becoming obsessed with their favorite stories, players, and directors. Some alert journalists and gossip columnists were catching on to the existence of a new nobility of actors and stars that could be exploited for public interest, hence the rise of fan magazines. I ran across this example of a century fanzine a few months ago, and have taken some time to peruse its contents before reporting back. My impression is that this was intended for a comfortably middle-class white audience, and it’s infused with a number of efforts to suggest ways that the motion pictures are (or could be) socially beneficial. A lot of what you’ll find here are depictions, caricatures, and drawings of the named stars themselves. John Bunny (we’ll see some of his movies later this week) is still big, even though Chaplin and Arbuckle seem like the important comedians of that year to us now. Mabel Normand is another recognizable face, and we also see Lillian Gish and Henry B. Walthall, but a lot of the names and faces have since faded, making this an interesting document for historical study. A number of the “articles” are in fact plot summaries of films in release – sort of the first novelizations, I suppose. In that vein, we get “The Ethics of the Profession,” “The Hand of Horror,” “The House of Darkness,” “Cast Adrift in the South Seas,” “Neptune’s Daughter,” “Captain Alvarez,” and “The Song in the Dark.” I also found interesting the articles on the different “types” of moving picture audiences “good and bad” motion picture theaters and the suggestions for what the next improvement for films should be. Here’s a hint: no one says “sound,” but one commenter does call for the addition of credits!

Motion Picture Magazine’s July 1914 issue is available for free: here.

Barber Shop (1893)

Barber Shop

A simple vignette of a men’s society from the nineteenth century, this was another of the experiments with the early Kinetoscope. Four men, a chair and a sign stand in for a typical barber shop. One man sits and is shaved by another, while the other two wait, look at the paper of talk to one another. The whole thing was set up in Edison’s “Black Maria” studio (so called because it was said to resemble a police van, and “black maria” was the slang term for these before “paddy wagon” became popular), just as the Blacksmith Scene had been in the same year. Barber shops were familiar and comfortable locations, where men escaped from their workaday duties and also the scrutiny of their wives for short periods – sort of like bars or taverns, only less disreputable. In the all-male environment of the Edison Studio at this time, it no doubt seemed a natural subject for an experimental film. Today, the idea of being shaved by someone else is fairly alien, and sets the period apart as distant to us, something that would be reproduced on film to establish the past, although to the filmmakers on this project, it was as natural a part of life as ATMs or traffic lights are to us.

Director: WKL Dickson & William Heise

Run Time: 26 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

Men Boxing (1891)


This early film experiment is a window into the nature of illusion in another age. It’s not, as it at might appear to be, a recording of a boxing match, but rather a simulation of such a match, on a rather minimal set, involving two non-boxers and non-actors who sort of vaguely wave their gloves at one another for a few seconds. Why fake such a subject? It so happens that boxing for money was both illegal and wildly popular in America at this time, and it’s likely that the Edison team wanted to demonstrate their ability to make imagery of this sport available to an eager public. This particular film was never publicly displayed, but that may not have been the point anyway – this could have been along the lines of an “elevator pitch,” a short presentation intended to convince corporate higher-ups that there was commercial potential in the new technology of film. Technically, this is a noted improvement over the “Monkeyshines” experiments of just two years earlier. The figures are human and identifiable as individuals, while the motion is natural and properly paced. Further evidence of the speed of film’s advancement.

Director: W.K.L Dickson, William Heise

Run Time: 26 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here.

July, 1914

Babe Ruth pitching. He began his career as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in July 1914.

Babe Ruth pitching. He began his career as a left-handed pitcher for the Boston Red Sox in July 1914.

It’s time again for one of my monthly news roundups, in which I discuss what was going on 100 years ago, when the movies I review were being produced. This is a special month: July 1914 is generally known as the “July Crisis” which led up to the declaration of World War One and the “Guns of August.” It would be possible to dedicate an entire blog just to these events. In fact, my friends over at “The July Crisis, 100 Years On, 1914-2014” are doing exactly that, with daily updates on the events of 100 years ago. They’re doing it so well, I don’t see any need to replicate their efforts.

That said, I’m just going to hit a couple of World War highlights, and focus mainly on other things in the news at the time:

Funeral: the funeral for Archduke Franz Ferdinand is held July 4. Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany does not attend.

Anarchism: On July 4, an explosion in Harlem kills several members of the Anarchist Black Cross and one of the IWW, along with one un-affiliated woman, and injures twenty others. The anarchists has been involved, along with Alexander Berkman and Louise Berger, in a plot to bomb John D. Rockefeller in retaliation for the Ludlow Massacre, but the dynamite went off unexpectedly in Berger’s home.

Sports: Babe Ruth debuts as a major league ball player with the Boston Red Sox, July 11.

Legal: Supreme Court Justice Horace H. Lurton dies on July 12, at the age of seventy. He had been appointed just four years earlier, as the oldest member of the Court, by then-President Taft. He would be succeeded by the conservative James Clark McReynolds, appointed by Woodrow Wilson.

Ireland: On July 14, the House of Lords passes a bill for Irish Home Rule, but the World War prevents its enactment. Ireland continues to struggle for independence throughout the War and until another Home Rule Act (the fourth) is finally passed in 1920.

Mexico: On July 15, President Huerta resigns from office, under pressure from the United States and rebels within Mexico, including Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Huerta will go into exile and attempt to raise a new army with German support, but winds up imprisoned in the US until his death.

Ultimatum: on July 23, Austria-Hungary presents its ultimatum to Serbia. It includes demands that Serbia remove from office anyone the Austro-Hungarian government requests and the censorship of the press and removal of school text books critical of Austria-Hungary. It is calculated to be nearly impossible to comply with, as Germany and Austria have now made their plans for war.

Mobilization: On July 28, Austria-Hungary orders mobilization and begins hostilities against Serbia. Russia orders partial mobilization in response that day, and full mobilization on the 31st. A state of war now exists among belligerents in Europe, and mobilization will continue through August.

Movies released in July, 1914: “My Official Wife” starring Clara Kimball Young, “The Man on the Box” co-directed by Cecil B. DeMille, “The Stain” with Theda Bara, and “By the Sun’s Rays” featuring Lon Chaney, Sr.

Births: July 29, Irwin Corey, American comedian and mentor to Lenny Bruce; July 31, Louis de Funès, French comedian of Spanish origin.

Deaths: on July 1, both actress Grace McHugh and cinematographer Owen Carter die in an on-set accident during the filming of “Across the Border.”

William McKinley at Home, Canton, Ohio (1896)

McKinley Home, circa 1901.

McKinley Home, circa 1901.

For today’s Independence Day post, I’m talking about the first known film footage of an American President, although this was taken shortly after his nomination as the candidate for the Republican Party. In his book, Billy Bitzer lists this as one of the first movies he worked on, more than a decade before his famous collaboration with D.W. Griffith. He would have been only twenty two years old at the time, and was working as an assistant to WKL Dickson. I’m not actually certain which one shot the footage, quite possibly it was Dickson, but I’m listing Dickson as director and Bitzer as cameraman for clarity. Like much “documentary” footage of the time, this was actually a re-creation of McKinley receiving the news of his nomination. He portrays himself as calm and self-possessed, rather than emotional or excited. which was probably the image he wanted to give American voters. In that sense, this may be the first example of a political advertisement on film, although Dickson may not have  intended it as an endorsement. The man who gives him the news is McKinley’s secretary, George Courtelyou, and his wife Ida can be seen as a shadowy figure in a rocking chair, in the background.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: Billy Bitzer

Starring: William McKinley, George Courtelyou, Ida MicKinley

Run Time: 46 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.