Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: August, 2014

Robetta and Doretto (1894)

Robetta and Doretto

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.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Sandow (1894)


This early Edison kinetoscope was part of the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures, and represents the efforts of the studio to appeal to audiences, along with Annie Oakley, through the use of celebrities or interesting individuals. Eugen Sandow was a bodybuilder who was promoted by the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, who had him display feats of strength before large audiences in many different countries. Apparently, Ziegfeld found that people were more fascinated by Sandow’s perfectly muscled body than with the amount of weight he lifted, so this film is a kind of ritual dance in which Sandow flexes different muscle groups for the camera. It also shows more flesh (albeit male flesh) than any other movie of the nineteenth century that I can think of. Sandow’s “package” is plainly obvious in his meager shorts, and I have to suspect that audiences of that notoriously repressed era were titillated by this display. Apart from the sexual appeal, which most viewers (especially the men!) would never have admitted to, the film makes no effort to add narrative or elements such as comedy or suspense that might have kept audience interest: the fact that the subject moves is enough in itself.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Sioux Ghost Dance (1894)


This brief Kinetescope movie was almost certainly shot on the same day as “Annie Oakley,” when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to Edison Studios to present their acts for the motion picture camera. In it, a group of Native American dancers demonstrate the “Ghost Dance,” a fairly new concept that was sweeping Native American tribes at the time – a circle dance to bring prosperity and unity to all native peoples of North America through re-connecting with the spirits of the dead. Edison’s catalog tells us that these are “genuine Sioux Indians, in full war paint and war costumes,” which may or may not be accurate, but it is hard to watch this and not wonder how they felt about it. As paid performers in the Wild West show, this performance may have simply represented a paycheck, or it may have been an opportunity to practice a ritual in which they genuinely believed, or it may have been a defilement of that ritual. Surely the cramped quarters of the Black Maria studio limited its size and grandeur. This does appear to be the first representation of Native Americans on motion film, and thus a milestone of sorts, but it has to be seen in the context of the colonialism and cultural appropriation that was accepted at the time.

Director: William K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise.

Run Time: 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

August, 1914

The challenge of the news roundup this month is that most of the news one finds is just a blow-by-blow history of the First World War, and frankly, I’m not interested in going into that level of detail about the war. So, let’s start with a few highlights and then move on to other news.

World War I: On August 2, the German Army, in line with the Schlieffen Plan, occupies Luxembourg. They proceed to attack Belgium on August 4. The plan is to circumvent the bulk of French forces on the German-French border by going through the northern countries. The plan is quite effective at first, and by August 16, the Battle of Liège has ended in German victory over Belgium. On the Eastern Front, the Battle of Tannenberg results in the surrounding and defeat of the Second Russian Army by German forces by August 30.

Race: on August 1 Marcus Garvey founds the Universal Negro Improvement Association, a movement to “uplift people of African ancestry throughout the world” and which also worked to arrange for the migration of African Americans who wished to return to Africa.

Technology: The first traffic light was installed on August 5 between Euclid Avenue and East 105 Street in Cleveland, Ohio.

Exploration: On August 8, the Endurance sets sail for Antarctica from England under Ernest Shackleton. The ship will be crushed by ice after being trapped in the Weddell Sea. Shackleton is able to rescue most of his men using lifeboats.

Transportation: The inauguration of the Panama Canal occurs on August 15 with the passage of the USS Ancon.

Revolution: Mexico City falls on August 15 to the troops of Venustiano Carranza under the leadership of Álavaro Obregón. Obregón will enforce punitive measures against the Catholic Church, foreign businessmen and wealthy citizens of Mexico City.

Releases: The movie “Call of the North” is released August 10, starring Robert Edeson.

Born: August 31, Richard Basehart, star of “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea” television series.

Died: Charles J. Hite, CEO of the Thanhouser Film Corporation died August 21 in a car crash. Hite and Thanhouser had made a star of Florence La Badie, herself to die in a automobile accident three years later.