Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1906)
This early short from Edison incorporates several technical advances worthy of Méliès, but employs them in a decidedly different manner, producing a very “American” special effects comedy, despite its being a remake (not to say outright rip-off) of a British original. It’s particularly interesting as one of the first iterations of a persistent early cinema myth.
The classic proscenium-style frame actually does depict a stage in this instance, a stage on which a screen has been set up for projecting motion pictures. There is a box visible to the left of the screen, and a man sits in it, presumably part of a larger, invisible audience. The first movie begins with a title telling us that the program is “The Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.” The actually movie’s title is “Parisian Dance.” We see a young lady in modest attire come on the screen and do a dance, which does involve raising her skirts for a a few kicks. The man in the box gets increasingly excited, eventually jumping down onto the stage to join the filmed lady in the dance. She disappears and a new title tells us we will next see “The Black Diamond Express.” A train track appears and our rube again gets very excited, leaning forward into the screen to see the oncoming train. As the train rushes past the camera, he panics, and dives back into his box for safety. The final film is “The Country Couple,” and it involves a rustic young man and woman having a brief romantic interlude. The man again leaps onto the screen, perhaps jealous or perhaps angry because the girl reminds him of his daughter. He attempts to attack the young man, pulling down the screen as a result and revealing the projectionist behind it. He and the projectionist proceed to get into a scuffle, rolling across the stage in combat.
It was a pretty clever idea, using a series of old Edison pictures to fill in as “movies-within-a-movie” to develop a whole new plotline. It also required some technical understanding of how to handle split screen effects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when “Uncle Josh” gets in front of the screen: he tends to disappear as if he’s gone behind the screen, or to become transparent so we can see the movie projected on top of him. Still, this movie gave us a kind of “Shadowrama” almost ninety years before MST3k. I’m pretty sure that films were not rear-projected at the time, as we see here, and that in a real situation the projectionist would have been situated in front of the screen, not behind it, approximately at the position that the camera is for the purposes of shooting this movie. I suspect that the reason he is moved is so that he can be revealed to the audience when Uncle Josh pulls down the screen, since editing and multiple camera set ups are not within the framework of this movie, and also the reveal works dramatically much better than someone yelling at Uncle Josh from behind would. The “cinema myth” I refer to above is the commonly-recurring trope about people panicking and running from theaters when a train was shown coming at the camera. It appears unlikely that this ever happened, but the story expresses the power of cinema to move people, something that apparently film makers were already aware of in 1902.
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Camera: Edwin S. Porter
Starring: Charles Manley
Run Time: 2 Min
You can watch it for free: here.