Trapeze Disrobing Act (1901)
This suggestive short Edison comedy derives from the vaudeville act of then-popular trapeze artist Charmion, who performed it in live theaters before it was captured on film. It once again confirms the close relationship between sex and cinema in America, but I believe the joke may have been on the audience in this case.
A set has been constructed to replicate the upper part of the vaudeville stage. We see the curtains and the top of the proscenium and over to the right a woman sits on a trapeze in full Victorian street clothing. Behind her a backdrop is visible, but we cannot see the stage floor; it is below the frame. To the left of the picture is a theater box containing two men in false beards. The woman begins undoing her buttons, and removing her outer garments, to the enthusiastic response of the two men. She throws them pieces of her clothing and soon is in very unrevealing Victorian undergarments. In the process, she occasionally does stunts like hanging from the trapeze and twirling, and so forth. She now removes the undergarments, her stockings, etc., again throwing bits of clothing to the applauding and leaping men in the box. When she is finished, she is in leotards and a tutu.
I said above that the joke was on the audience – despite all of Charmion’s stripping, she remains fully clothed to the end of the act, and is wearing what would be today a ridiculously demure outfit for a trapeze performer. Now, if it’s true that men would gather on 23rd street for an occasional glance of an ankle, this is fairly revealing, but I suspect that women in leotards were hardly unknown on the stage, even in 1901. That’s probably part of why the movie wasn’t banned outright. Charles Musser, in Before the Nickelodeon, suggests that while this movie was intended to titillate, the two comedy characters in the box were necessary to mediate the voyeurism of the audience and make it seem acceptable. Otherwise, it would have been too much of a breach of the accepted standards of morality.
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs
You can watch it for free: here (no music).