Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: September, 2014

Hadj Cheriff (1894)


This kinetoscope short was probably seen as a major breakthrough at Edison Studios. Here, at last, was something that truly demonstrated the system’s ability to capture and reproduce motion. A man leaps and dances wildly, performing his act at the Black Maria studio, and each move is clearly visible. I have run across several modern websites which refer to his performance as “early breakdancing,” but I recognize it as part of the long history of tumblers, or acrobats, who performed their feats before courts and in marketplaces throughout the world. At the beginning of the film, Hadj tosses away a knife, having evidently just finished a juggling act, which may have also been filmed, but so far as I know no one ever saw it. Once again, we see the appeal of the exotic “other” in terms of the “orient;” Hadj is identified as an “Arab juggler,” and to the Victorian audience his gyrations represent a kind of escape from repressive stiffness, but also something intriguingly dangerous and “dark,” which may explain why the knife was left in (or just the fact that no one had invented editing yet).

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 23 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

September, 1914

Pope Benedict XV, elected September 1914.

Pope Benedict XV, elected September 1914.

This month’s news roundup, once again, emphasizes the degree to which World War I was eating up headlines throughout the “civilized” world. Once again, I’m trying to go beyond that.], because it wasn’t the only thing that affected film.

World War I: The German Western advance is halted by the Allied counterattack which becomes the “First Battle of the Marne,” lasting from Sept 5-12. In only a week, 500,000 men are killed or wounded, setting the bar for bloodiness and positional combat.

Geography: Russia changes the name of “St. Petersburg” to “Petrograd,” on Sept 1, ostensibly because “Burg” was a German word and Russia was now at war with Germany.

Animals: The last known passenger pigeon died on September 1 in the Cincinnati Zoo. The species had once been prolific, and flocks would darken the sky when they flew overhead, but became extinct due to habitat loss and overhunting.

Religion: Pope Benedict XV is chosen by the College of Cardinals to succeed the recently deceased Pius X. His term officially begins September 3.

Uprisings: The Maritz Rebellion begins in South Africa on September 15 as disaffected Boers once again demand separation from the British-dominated Union of South Africa. The Boer War had ended only twelve years earlier in Boer defeat, and this rebellion would also be put down after several months.

Trade: the United States Federal Trade Commission is established on September 29th, as a part of President Wilson’s war against trusts and monopolistic practices.

Releases: “The Virginian” starring Dustin Farnum is released September 7, both “Patchwork Girl of Oz” and “Magic Cloak of Oz” are released September 28.

Born: Robert Wise (Sept 10) who would edit “The Magnificent Ambersons” and direct “West Side Story,” Desmond Llewellyn (Sept 12), best known as “Q” from the original “James Bond” films, and Kenneth More (Sept 20), who appeared in “Genevieve” (953) and “Raising a Riot” (1955).

Imperial Japanese Dance (1894)

Imperial JD

Film came early to Japan, but even before that happened, Japan came to film through this Kinetoscope short. Filmed at the Edison Black Maria studio, it shows three young women performing a dance from the Mikado, and the original Edison catalog noted that it was “very effective when colored” suggesting that at some point it was possible to get a hand-painted print (probably not in 1894, though). As we’ve seen in recent posts, many of these Kinetoscopes were made to show performers in movement, and dance is a particularly good genre for that kind of presentation. I’m sure that American audiences found the costumes and formality of this piece intriguingly exotic, and in that sense it is a demonstration of film’s capacities for making the foreign more familiar and also for commoditizing culture. The women in the film are identified as the “Sarashe Sisters” and I was unable to ascertain if they were actually Japanese, Japanese American, or other Asian-Americans made up for the role. The Mikado, of course, was a familiar Gilbert & Sullivan comedy from 1885, which uses Japan as a location in order to disguise its satire of British politics. In that sense, nothing about this film is “authentic” and yet for many Americans of the period, it may have represented as much as they knew about Japan.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Leonard – Cushing Fight (1894)


AKA: “Boxing Bout”

This early Edison Kinetoscope example returns to several of the themes I’ve been discussing lately. As I mentioned in “Men Boxing,” the art of pugilism was of special interest, not least because it was banned in the United States at the time. That is, it was illegal to organize, participate in, or attend a boxing match, not necessarily to photograph one (the law hadn’t thought that far ahead). Since it was legal to look at a still photograph of a boxing match, it must be legal to look at a motion picture as well (again, it was too early for anyone to argue that the movie constituted evidence that someone had organized and participated and that at least the cameraman had attended the match). So, here the filmmakers shrewdly found a way to give part of the public what it wanted, and couldn’t legally get otherwise. However, bear in mind that this is of course a fake. No one took a camera to a fight to make this; instead, the boxers were brought into the Black Maria in order to stage a performance of a fight in front of the camera. The film satisfies the thrill of the forbidden both by pretending to be an actuality of an illegal event, and also through the very skimpy outfits the fighters wear.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Jack Cushing, Mike Leonard

Run Time: 37 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Luis Martinetti (1894)

Luis Martinetti

AKA: “Luis Martinetti, Contortionist”

For this post once again I am returning to an early Edison Kinetoscope shot in the Black Maria studio. Luis Martinetti, as will be very obvious, was a contortionist, and performs a small sample of his act on gymnast’s rings, suspended above the ground. Again, this is only a few seconds worth of movement, but it was probably believed that the lithe movements would demonstrate that motion picture film could capture reality in ways that still photography never could. A still image might catch Martinetti in one or another bizarre position, but it couldn’t show how easily he moved through them. Again, I find myself thinking about the very rigid moral standards of the era and the fact that these circus performers are wearing scanty or form-fitting outfits that would rarely be seen in another context. Unlike Sandow, Martinetti isn’t showing flesh, however, and his one-piece leotard seems to have the effect of nullifying his gender, as it were, by making his crotch appear as smooth as a doll’s. Nevertheless, this is a very sensual display, with the audience more intimately close than they would likely be in an arena or other performance venue, possibly an additional appeal to this film.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Luis Martinetti

Run Time: 16 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.