Robetta and Doretto (1894)
AKA: “Chinese Laundry Scene,” “Robetta and Doretto #2.”
When speaking of “firsts,” it’s always important to be aware that nothing, or at least nothing artistic, springs fully-formed from the void. Thus, it is possible to say that this early Kinetoscope from Edison Studios is the “first slapstick” film, but it’s important to understand that the concept of slapstick comedy predates the cinema by many decades. The two clowns we see performing here had done their act many times in front of live audiences, and had perfected their skills in vaudeville and circuses, this was simply the first time anyone had filmed them (or anyone) doing it. What we see is pretty limited, just two figures running through a set of fake doors, hitting one another. The idea that one or both is “Chinese” suggests a degree of ethnic humor, and I guess the appearance of the one clown is an ethnic caricature, but to me this doesn’t really come through in this film clip. What we mostly see is someone in a police uniform and the other fellow, or “little man” giving him his comeuppance, a very common theme in broad comedy. Like many of the movies of the time, this was shot in several “takes,” each of which appears to have been shown as a separate film, thus this version is technically “#2.”
Director: WKL Dickson.
Camera: William Heise.
Starring: Phil Doretto, Robetta.