Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Month: September, 2016

What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City (1901)

This short comedy is a wonderful location shoot of my home town, allowing a window into the past by showing a city street on an average day at the turn of the century. It also repeats some of the tropes of gender and voyeurism that we’ve grown accustomed to in Edison movies.

what-happened-at-23rdWe see a busy city street, looking directly down the street from the edge of the sidewalk. Crowds of people pass by in all directions. There are electric streetcars and many horse-drawn vehicles in the street, but no motorized vehicles are in evidence. A boy in a cap stands to the left of the frame, staring directly at the camera, and one man, who crosses in front of it suddenly steps back as if he were told to get out of the shot, but for the most part people act naturally, as if the camera were not there. A number of people jaywalk by crossing the street in the middle, not far from the camera’s position. A couple, quite distant at the beginning of the film, approach it slowly through the running time. Finally, when they are just close enough to be centered in the shot, they step over a grate in the sidewalk and the woman’s dress is blown up around her ankles, rising almost to her knees before she grabs it and demurely holds it down and steps off the grate. She looks embarrassed at first, but suddenly bursts into hearty laughter at the end.

New York's Flatiron Building

New York’s Flatiron Building

Before I get into analyzing this film, I want to talk about an odd piece of Americana. A fascinating architectural structure, known as the Flatiron Building, is located at Twenty Third Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. This building, because of its odd shape, famously channels a great deal of wind onto the nearby sidewalks. Supposedly, a certain class of New York male began to congregate there to observe women’s dresses blown up by the wind, because it offered a rare sight of female legs. The story goes that the phrase “23 Skidoo” comes from these men being regularly rousted by policemen on patrol. This may all be more or less legend, but this movie adds some credence to the idea that Twenty Third Street was associated with opportunities for voyeurism and exhibitionism, and offers its audience a safe opportunity to engage in it. What really stands out to us today is the wonderful location shooting, and the chance to see fashions, architecture, and vehicles of a previous century in excellent detail and under more or less documentary conditions. Nearly all of the men are wearing straw hats and neckties, and most of the women do wear long, heavy dresses that conceal their bodies from view. One interesting question it raises is whether the “star” of this movie was played by a woman or a man in drag, as was the case with many Edison pictures. Imdb credits a female actor, but the Library of Congress does not specify. Either way, she definitely breaks character at the end when she bursts into laughter, I think because of some comment a passerby has made. Of course, she would have been in on the joke from the beginning, so her apparent embarrassment is an act, whatever her gender identity may have been.

Director: Edwin S. Porter possibly with George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possible Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: A.C. Abadie and Florence Georgie

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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Photographing a Country Couple (1901)

This is another short comedy from Edison that uses still photography as the set up for a simple joke. In doing so, it seems to comment on the nature of “looking” and voyeurism.

photographing-a-country-coupleWe see an outdoor location, apparently in a park. There is a bench to the right side of the screen. A man carrying a camera and wearing a straw hat walks toward the camera, and the “couple” enters from the left. They are an unkempt man in overalls and a young girl in a summer dress.  The cameraman convinces them to pose for a photograph, and they arrange themselves on the bench while he sets up his tripod to the left. While he is preparing, the man gets up and peers into the lens of the camera. The photographer tells him to sit down, he’s ready now, but the man insists on looking through the viewfinder himself. The cameraman goes to the bench, and sits next to the girl while he looks. A boy runs up and ties the man’s legs to the tripod legs, and while he is doing this, the cameraman becomes increasingly affectionate with the girl, who protests at first, but then seems to acquiesce to his attentions. Now, the man tries to approach the bench, but the camera “walks” with him, and the scene ends after a few steps.

Judging from imdb’s report of the original Edison catalog entry for this movie, the punchline is missing from the surviving print. According to it, the man behind the camera “makes a wild dash for the photographer, but falls to the ground on top of the camera, smashing it to pieces. The scene ends with the lovers and Reuben all mixed up in a confused mess upon the ground.” Reuben, incidentally, is the generic name for the “rube” character in many early Edison comedies, despite the fact that he was played by different actors in each one. Quite honestly, until I read that description, I wasn’t sure what was supposed to be going on with the kid and “Reuben” walking toward the bench with the tripod. Possibly seeing the ending would have helped. The way I read it, however, was also interesting. It seemed to me as if “Reuben” became so fascinated with looking at the scene through the camera that he lost interest in participating in the dalliance with the girl, and that his approach was meant to signal his desire for a better view as the cameraman kissed his girl. There is still an element of this, since the film audience is also invited in to voyeuristically enjoy the cuckolding of our rube character before his eyes, and to enjoy the transgressive sexuality of the cameraman, without experiencing the consequences of that act. This may not have been the intention, but it is an interesting effect of the film today.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

High Diving Scene (1901)

This short from Edison is no big deal today, but it’s interesting because of its use of a simple technical advance that was pretty rare at the time. Unfortunately, we have no information about the crew on this film.

high-diving-sceneWe see a tall ramp, positioned to the right of the frame. A nearby telephone pole gives us a sense of scale – this is a very high ramp (at least two stories tall). After a bit of anticipation, we see a male figure at the top of the screen, and suddenly the camera tilts slightly downward, so we can see the large tub of water he will land in. He swooshes down the ramp on a bicycle, flying off the bike at the bottom of the ramp and soaring through the air to splash down into the tub. The camera now pans left, so that we can see the platform where he climbs out to give a bow.

The really exciting part of this movie is the camera movement. I’m not certain that this is the earliest example we’ve seen of a combined tilt and pan, but it’s definitely been pretty rare up to now. In fact, most of the early Lumière “panoramas” (from which we get the word “pan”) are actually tracking shots, taken from railroad cars, wagons, or elevators. Actually being able to pivot the camera on its tripod while shooting was a pretty major innovation; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that it happened before 1901, but we do have a very early use of it here. What’s especially interesting is how the anonymous camera operator has carefully anticipated the subject’s movement and kept him in frame. Presumably there was no rehearsal, so this is a good example of documentary or newsreel technique.  My final observation is that the daredevil in this movie made me think of Douglas Fairbanks, not in terms of his facial appearance (the camera is too far back to see his face), but in terms of his body language. Particularly the flourish he gives at the end when he bows came across to me as very Fairbanks-ian.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 45 secs

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

Another Job for the Undertaker (1901)

This early short from Edison Studios is another early comedy from Edwin S. Porter, but it draws heavily from another of the icons of early film: Georges Méliès. It’s something of a remake, or maybe a parody, of his movie, “The Bewitched Inn,” only with a surprise punchline at the end.

another-job-for-the-undertakerWe see a set dressed as a hotel room with a sign reading “Don’t Blow Out the Gas.” A man is shown into the room by a boy in a bellhop’s uniform, but instead of caging for a tip, the boy does a somersault. Partway through the stunt, he vanishes! The man looks confused, but he begins arranging his hat and coat and umbrella, each of which disappears when he puts it down. He takes off his boots and they proceed to walk away from him, disappearing when he tries to grab them. He finishes preparing for bed and climbs in. Suddenly the film cuts to an image of a hearse in a funeral procession.

In traditional film histories, Porter is often given credit for “inventing” parallel editing. Whether that’s strictly true or not, he definitely was among the early experimenters in creating meaning by juxtaposing film of different scenes, and the ending of this film appears to be one of the earliest examples. If the imdb version of the Edison Catalog entry for this film is accurate, the audience is to understand that he has blown out the gas and thereby caused his death. It’s a fairly clunky edit, and ending, but that’s to be expected in an early experiment. Otherwise, the movie closely parallels its apparent source, “The Bewitched Inn,” except that the effects aren’t as good and the physical performance is less amusing. I still think it might be a kind of spoof, in that Porter seems to be using the audience’s expectations that it will follow the same storyline as a deliberate misdirection to make the ending more effective. It’s worth noting that Méliès himself remade this movie repeatedly, including in the 1903 film “The Inn Where No Man Rests,” and that many of his trick films dealt with much the same theme of a person in a room having objects suddenly disappear or appear. In the early days of cinema everyone remade each other’s successful movies, so it’s not really fair to accuse Edison or Porter of being unoriginal, but this doesn’t quite stand up to Méliès’s version.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with George S. Fleming)

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

Old Maid Having Her Picture Taken (1901)

This is an early comedy short from Edwin S. Porter, who would become the chief director for Edison Studios in the early twentieth century and the creator of the famous “Great Train Robbery” just a few years later. While this is a far less sophisticated film, it remains interesting as a stage in the development of American film and its celebrated director.

old-maid-having-her-picture-takenWe see a proscenium-style view of the interior of a photographer’s studio, with photo samples on the wall, a full-length mirror, a chair for portraits, and a camera to one side. A woman with a pinched face speaks to the photographer, who leaves her alone after a few seconds. She turns to look at the samples, and the display suddenly crashes to the floor. She then looks and the clock, and its hands suddenly spin crazily before it also comes crashing down. Then she checks her look in the mirror, which seems fine until she holds her fan up to her chin, and then it shatters. The photographer returns to see the destruction, and hastens the woman into the chair, perhaps hoping to avoid further chaos. He poses her, and she once again raises the fan to her chin. Suddenly she is flung back and a moment later a puff of smoke emerges from the camera, which has exploded because of her ugliness.

There are a number of interesting points about this movie. In “The Emergence of Cinema,” Charles Musser reveals that the old maid is actually Gilbert Saroni, a “professional female impersonator,” apparently a vaudeville actor who specialized in ugly women. It’s a reminder of both the fact that early film was largely a male-dominated world and also that camp humor is older than Gay Liberation, though arguably its meaning is different in such a world. On the subject of both gender and sexuality, the Edison catalog ends its description with the line, “The picture finishes up with the old maid tipping back in her chair and losing her balance, displaying a large quantity of fancy lace goods. A sure winner.” This once again emphasizes the degree to which Edison was comfortable appealing to “vulgar” interests in its movies and ad campaigns. The movie is shot in a very typical style for the period, with a single shot from a single angle, with exits and entrances (by the photographer, at least), and a series of effects occurring for real in front of the camera. No camera trickery here: this could have been performed on a stage just as it appears. A final observation is the problematic timing of the explosion: the old maid observably reacts before the camera has exploded, but it never occurred to Porter to do a re-take.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: Gilbert Saroni (or “Sarony”)

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

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

A Storm at Sea (1900)

This short from Edison illustrates the ongoing challenge of finding new and dramatic subjects for early movies. In this instance, a sea-crossing, probably with the intention of shooting movies for American audiences in Europe, was interrupted by bad weather and the Edison team decided to shoot that, with minimal preparation.

storm-at-seaWe see the railing of a ship, at an angle that suggests the camera is at middle of the deck A rope cuts through the image horizontally, directly in front of the camera. The horizon bobs up and down slowly, but to a considerable degree. We see swollen waves cresting, at least when the ship is low enough to permit it: at other times we see only sky off the deck. Two men stand casually at the railing, occasionally gesturing at the ocean. At one point, one of them reacts as if he had been splashed by a wave, but the water drops are invisible to the camera. At the end of the movie, an image of the rolling sea without the ship or the men in the foreground has been edited on.

The major problem with this film, from a modern perspective, is the two guys standing in front of the camera. They just lean on the railing as if they were watching a flock of seagulls fly by. They don’t hold on, or lean with the rocking ship, or give any sense of peril or drama. I assume they were told to get into the shot to give the scene some perspective and human interest, but their effect is to make the whole thing seem very off-hand. This is contradicted by the claims of the Edison catalog: “While our photographers were crossing the Atlantic Ocean a most wonderful and sensational picture was secured, showing a storm at sea. The picture was secured by lashing the camera to the after bridge of the Kaiserine Maria Theresa [sic], of the North German Lloyd Line, during one of its roughest voyages. The most wonderful storm picture ever photographed. Taken at great risk.” While the “risk” seems dubious, the rigging of the camera may have been somewhat innovative, as very few pictures had been shot in heavy seas at this time. It may also explain the rope we see passing in front of the lens, which may have been part of the arrangement to keep the camera from sliding all over the deck.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

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

Watermelon Contest (1900)

This film is either a deliberate remake of the 1896 movie “Watermelon Eating Contest” or else an unintentional return to a theme seen as “natural” in American cinema. The movie shows that little had changed, so far as the depiction of African Americans was concerned, while cinema progressed.

watermelon-contest1We see a group of four men eagerly consuming watermelons and spitting out seeds. At first things are fairly orderly, although the men occasionally seem to joke or roughhouse with one another. One man finishes his slice of watermelon and reaches for another, but soon the others are fighting with him and the one man sitting in front who seems to have the largest piece. Pieces of watermelon get broken off and everyone gets messy.

As with the original, this is not a film that is likely to agree with modern audiences. Today there is much stronger sensitivity, even among white people, to the degree that watermelon has become a racist trope, confirming the inferiority, innocence and dependency of black people. This movie simply confirms all of this, including the animalistic way in which the “contestants” are shown eating and fighting with one another. It’s all the more noticeable because there have been so few other depictions of African Americans up to this point. They are only brought in for movies like this, which are designed to humiliate them as individuals and as a race. This would lay the groundwork for a century of racism in the American media, which still is felt to this day.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Capture of Boer Battery by British (1900)

This is a reenactment of a current event, released by Edison Studios with a strong advertising campaign that suggested exhibitors were getting the real thing. It shows the growing importance of action and dramatic tension in early film.

boer-battery-captured-by-britishWe see a line of soldiers from the rear. There are several men with rifles and two cannon visible The men are not in military uniforms, but seem to be “irregulars” or volunteer combatants. These are the Boers. From our vantage point, we can see past them and down a hill, where several men in dark uniforms are approaching our position. The British are coming! The Boers fire repeatedly at the approaching figures, but they come nearer and nearer, and some cavalrymen on horseback arrive early and put the Boers to flight. Soon, men in British uniforms with kilts (Highlanders) walk over the crest of the hill, marching right up to the camera and past it. By this time all Boers have fled the scene.

Since the Spanish-American War, simulated combat footage had become an established genre of the movies, but by 1900 the US was at (relative) peace, so other wars had to be sought out. The Biograph Company’s English branch actually sent a cameraman to South Africa, but Edison had no such stringer available, so they shot this scene in East Orange, New Jersey. Most “real” war footage at this time consisted of ship launchings and men marching anyway, the technology simply didn’t support actual combat photography. This didn’t hinder the writers for the Edison catalog, however, and the entry for this movie read: “Nothing can exceed the stubborn resistance shown by the Gordon Highlanders, as we see them steadily advancing in the face of a murderous fire of the Boers, who are making their guns speak with rapid volleys. One by one the gunners fall beside their guns, and as the smoke clears for an instant the Highlanders are seen gaining nearer and nearer the disputed ground. Finally, a grand charge is made, the siege is carried, and amid cheers they plant the colors on the spot they have so dearly earned.” It’s hard to say now how many audience members really thought they were seeing war footage and how many were in on the joke.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

The Kiss (1900)

This was released as an admitted remake of the original “The Kiss,” starring May Irwin and John C. Rice. It was far less controversial in its time, but Edison Studios did everything they could to make it as profitable.

kiss-1900We see a mid-shot of two people, a man and a woman sitting close together, in front of a backdrop that suggests a cozy setting. The woman has her hair up and wears a frilly dress, the man has a mustache. They hug one another and peck at each other’s lips, although the kisses generally only last for a second or two. There is no really scandalous deep kissing, and they spend more time smiling at one another than actually kissing.

As a student of early cinema, I’m always amused when someone today complains about there being too many remakes. Remakes are literally as old as cinema, and they were far more common and frequent in the first years of experimentation than they are today. The Edison catalog was entirely up front about this remake: “Nothing new, but an old thing done over again and done well. Some one has attempted to describe a kiss as ‘something made of nothing,’ but this is not one of that kind, but one of those old fashioned ‘home made’ kind that sets the whole audience into merriment and motion, and has always proven a popular subject. It is very fine photographically and an exhibit is not complete without it.” It’s interesting to wonder why it was necessary to remake this film only four years after its release at the same studio – possibly the original was now too worn out to make further copies, or possibly they hoped that by using a new camera and modern film, they could improve the picture and the impact. The actors are noticeably younger than John Rice and May Irwin, and it may be that as their fame waned, the image of two middle-aged people kissing was less appealing than it had been.

Director: Unknown (imdb claims Edwin S. Porter, but Library of Congress does not confirm this).

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown (imdb claims Fred Ott, but this is almost certainly wrong).

Run Time: 45 secs

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

Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike (1899)

This is a series of footage presented on the DVD “Invention of the Movies,” but I’m not entirely sure that these scenes were presented to audiences stitched together as they are here. As it is, it appears as a kind of 1-minute documentary about the gold rush, giving modern viewers a chance to see Alaska as it appeared over a century ago.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondike1The first shot is a newspaper headline that emphasizes the harsh conditions and large numbers of unskilled people emigrating to Alaska in search of gold. After that we see a tracking shot down the street of an Alaskan boom town, with largely empty streets and many signs for new businesses. Spectators in the street stare directly up at the camera, which seems to be on a wagon or other conveyance. The next shot shows a much busier street from sidewalk-level, and here crowds line the streets. There are banners over the street and a man carries a sign advertising a local business, giving the whole scene the sense of a parade or fairgrounds. Next we see a raging river, and a large boat speeds into view, carrying a handful of men through the rapids. The last shot shows men working at sluices, with a camp visible in the background. There is a woman at the lower part of the screen (distinguishable in her heavy 19th-century dress), and at one point she picks up a rock and shows it to her escort. I get the impression that she is being given a tour of the mining facility.

gold-rush-scenes-in-the-klondikeAs I said above, I don’t know (and somewhat doubt) that these strips of film were ever shown to audiences in exactly this way. The editing structure of the current presentation seems too close to modern documentary technique to have been used at the time. What is more likely is that each of these shots was a part of a longer film, sold separately or in a bundle to exhibitors, who showed them with live narration or reading from newspapers about events in Alaska. Possibly these snippets are all that has survived, and editing them into a single film made sense from a video distribution standpoint. We do get some nice contemporary images of the Klondike, however. The ramshackle buildings and simple tents that make up the city and mining area speak to the primitive conditions people embraced, and the crowded street scene gives a sense of the population-problems the area was facing. Also the fact that we see only one woman among all these shots is telling in terms of the skewed gender-situation at this time and place. On the whole, while they are discouragingly short, these clips do transport us to a time which has been romanticized by cinema at least since the first version of “The Spoilers” hit the screen.

Director: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Camera: Robert K. Bonine, Thomas Crahan

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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