Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Category: Reviews

Police Chasing Scorching Auto (1905)

This short from Edison is a 3-shot movie that depicts a car chase from the point of view of the pursuers. It doesn’t hold up today as an especially effective narrative, but the camerawork may have excited audiences of the day.

A small child stands in the middle of a wide city street, waving her arm. A mounted policeman rides into the shot from in front of her, appearing to be the subject of her waves, but he suddenly dismounts and runs over, grabbing her and pulling her to one side. Then a car comes from behind camera, and leisurely cruises through the spot where she was standing. The policeman signals to others, who pursue the car while he pulls the little girl to the safety of the sidewalk.

The next shot is a tracking shot, apparently done by a camera mounted on a car, which follows two police bikes as they chase the automobile up a parkway to Grant’s Tomb. The police slowly close in on the car, whose occupants occasionally wave back at the cops. One fellow seems to try to beat them off with his top hat as they pass to cut it off. Finally, at the top of the parkway, the car stops with the two policemen in front of it.

The next shot is from a stationary camera at a slight angle, showing the police questioning the driver and passengers, some of whom appear to be a bit drunk or belligerent. A policeman gets into the car and the driver prepare to drive off before the end of the movie – apparently they are coming quietly to the precinct.

This whole chase never exceeds 35 mph, perhaps less, but by the standards of the time, it is still fairly exciting. The key is the sequence shot from the back of a moving vehicle, which allows the viewer to experience the chase as if they were pursuers. For an audience which only occasionally saw pans or tilts, this lengthy tracking shot was probably a pretty big deal (although note that travel films as well as “The Great Train Robbery” had included scenes shot from the top of railroad trains much earlier than this). With a live narrator filling in the gaps about how to read the reactions of the onlookers and the miscreants, this was probably good entertainment for the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter, Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Life of American Policeman (1905)

This famous follow-up to “Life of an American Fireman” by Edwin S. Porter is a longer movie, but oddly less satisfying than its predecessor. Where that movie was an innovation in bringing sequential narrative to film, this one seems to lose its thread and becomes more a series of unconnected vignettes.

The opening scene parallels the original, by showing us a policeman off duty at home, with his wife and small child. The man sits at the table, reading his newspaper and smoking, while the woman tends to the needs of two very small girls. Meanwhile, a slightly larger boy marches around the table in his father’s police helmet, and carrying his belt and nightstick. After a while, father rises to leave and mother brings him his coat. He gives each of the children a kiss in turn, and retrieves his articles from Junior, before going out the door. After he leaves, the woman brings the children to the window to wave, although we can see pretty clearly that there is nothing but a studio wall behind it. Note that this policeman has no mustache. Read the rest of this entry »

The Train Wreckers (1905)

Edwin S. Porter returns to the familiar subject matter of trains and crime, perhaps hoping for another hit on the scale of “The Great Train Robbery.” While it may not have succeeded on the same level, this was one of the bigger releases for the Edison Studios in 1905, and it presents us with an interesting study of early cinema tropes.

A woman walks out onto her porch and greets a man dressed in a railroad uniform and carrying a metal lunchbox. She waves as he walks away. Then, in a very interesting shot, we see the woman at work in an office with an overview of the tracks. After a train rushes by, she pulls one of the switches, seemingly a very un-feminine job for the time. The she says goodbye to her boss and his dog and picks up an identical metal lunchbox and walks down the tracks and into the woods. After a brief walk, she comes across a circle of men dressed like hoboes and sitting in the road, vigorously discussing a plan. One of them carries a rope. She hides behind a tree, but another hobo comes up from behind her and grabs her and the others come over and use the rope to tie her to a tree. The dog from the office now runs up and frees her by biting through the ropes. She collects her lunchbox and goes after the men.

We now see the group of hoboes piling large logs onto the train tracks to cause a wreck. They leave the logs and the woman runs up. She tries to move a log, but can’t make enough progress to clear the tracks before the train arrives, so she runs towards it, waving her handkerchief to get the engineer’s attention. The train continues past her, but finally stops just in time and the man she greeted earlier thanks her for her help while others clear the tracks. Then everyone gets back on board the train and it continues without her. She walks alone down the tracks and is jumped again by the train wreckers, who knock her out and leave her on the tracks. They raid a nearby shed and take a hand-powered rail cart, all six of them working together to get away quickly. Now the train comes toward the woman lying on the tracks, and it looks like she will be crushed, but the man from the beginning is sitting on the cow-catcher, and he picks her up and saves her at the last moment.

Now, the engine is detached from the train and pursues the wreckers, with a man firing a rifle from the cow catcher. They try to return fire with pistols, but it has to be hard to shoot and pump at the same time. Eventually, the train catches up and after a brief gun battle all of the wreckers are killed. The end.

This movie is much more artistically satisfying than “The Miller’s Daughter” and more effective, I would say, than “The Kleptomaniac” and other progressive statements about society from Porter. Porter’s strong point seems to have been the action movie, and while this might not satisfy current mega-budget action fans, it works nicely as a basic crime-suspense thriller. Of course, the villains have no obvious motivation (it’s not clear what they’ll get from either wrecking the train or killing the girl), but they work as adversaries to our more plainly-motivated heroes, and it is satisfying to see them overcome. According to Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema, it was one of the bigger-selling movies of the year.

No ropes, but pretty close.

This movie also raises a bit of a quandary for silent movie fans. Folks who haven’t seen a lot of silent movies often have the idea that one common trope was “the girl tied to the train tracks.” In reality, this is far from a common theme in silent films, and in most of the better-known cases, it is used comedically, in the spirit of parodying nineteenth-century stage melodrama clichés. But, this is one movie that seems to deliberately draw on the cliché. It certainly doesn’t appear to be ironic or humorous, as in the cases of ‘Teddy at the Throttle” or “Barney Oldfield’s Race for a Life.” It is there to heighten the tension, and does so pretty well. Now, obviously our heroine is not actually tied to the track (otherwise the last-minute rescue wouldn’t work), but she is left unconscious and immobile on the tracks to be hit by a moving train, so the distinction is pretty minor. Porter was a pretty nineteenth-century kind of guy, and it makes sense that as he’s moving more into the realm of melodrama, he would pick up something so visual that had worked on the stage. So, I would say that this is one rare example of the concept in silent film – one which is probably unknown to the vast majority of those who claim it was all over the place.

Nineteenth-Century or not, it’s worth noting that the heroine here is not a completely helpless damsel, although she is rescued twice (once by the dog, once by the engineer). She pulls a heavy switch at work, and she makes a valiant effort to move the logs, and does manage to save the train on her own even when she can’t move them. She takes some degree of agency in the movie, and makes a difference to its outcome, which may be more than most of the “girl on the tracks” crowd would ever expect.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson

Run Time: 11 Min, 45 secs

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

The Miller’s Daughter (1905)

This early attempt at melodrama from Edwin S. Porter lacks sophistication, but manages to tell a story effectively through sequential editing. While not one of the bigger hits the Edison Studios had in 1905, it does show an attempt at increased sophistication and heightened drama from the studio, as well as a larger budget than many early films.

The movie tells the story of a girl who is seduced by an artist and loses the respect of her father when the man turns out to be married. As it begins, we see her picking flowers by the riverside when a tramp attacks her. A man (the artist, as we learn later), rushes up and pushes the tramp into the water, rescuing her. In the next scene, she sits in a field of cows and another man proposes to her, but she refuses. Then we see her sitting before a waterfall while the artist paints her. He comes over and flirts with her and she laughs and smiles happily. Then we see a barn dance where she and the artist attend and speak with the local pastor. The dance is similar in some ways to the one in “Watermelon Patch,” but without the racial undertones. An oddly dressed “spinster” is the source of some humor as she attempts to imitate the dance steps others are managing – finally falling when she tries a backflip. The next scene shows the artist and the woman riding horseback together.

Then an Intertitle announces the tragedy by introducing “Wife & Child of the Artist.” These characters emerge from a house and go over some of the same ground we saw the couple riding horses through. They go to the woman’s father and tell him who they are. He pantomimes his outrage at his daughter’s folly. Then we see the artist and the daughter speaking to the preacher, when the family rides up and confronts the artist. The daughter runs back to her father’s house, but he rejects her. She waves her arms about to express her sorrow and despair.

The “third act” begins with a title card that tells us that the daughter has attempted to earn her keep by taking in sewing, but the company repossesses the sewing machine when she cannot make payments. We then see her reduced to poverty, in a very nice shot of New York (around 23rd street, I think), with her wandering the streets in rags. Another scene shows her haunted by double-images of her father while she walks alone and friendless. A title card describes a missing scene in which she tries to reconcile with him, but he again refuses to have anything  to do with her. Finally, she walks across a bridge over a freezing river in the snow and makes the decision to jump. The man who had proposed to her in the beginning of the film sees her fall in and jumps in after her to save her. An Intertitle tells us there is “A Lapse of Two Years” after which she and the rescuer are happily married with a child. The father comes to visit his grandchild, and the movie end with him embracing his daughter.

According to Charles Musser in “The Emergence of Cinema,” this movie was based on a popular melodrama called “Hazel Kirke,” which shares some elements that classical music fans will know from Schubert’s “Die Schöne Müllerin.” The story was therefore probably familiar enough to audiences that they could follow it even with only these few Intertitles, and perhaps some live narration from the exhibitor. I found it harder going, not least because I didn’t get that the fellow who rescues her at the end is the same one that proposed at the beginning, nor was there any indication that he was the man her father wanted her to marry in the first place. Without that, the resolution is difficult to understand, but with it, it becomes clear that the daughter has redeemed herself by re-submitting to paternal authority.

I made a point of emphasizing the over-acting in this movie. This is the kind of acting modern people think of when they hear “silent melodrama.” The daughter clutches her breast to show her sorrow, the father waves his arms wildly to demonstrate rage. Most silent acting is much better than this, but this was a very early attempt to draw an audience in to the emotional state of the characters without dialogue (as one would have on stage) and it is rather awkward. The lack of any close-ups or other cinematic devices to increase empathy doesn’t help. The casting choice for the title character seems a bit odd to me as well. I’m sure she was meant to be somewhat “plain” and simple, but she actually seems rather old for the part and is at least as broad-shouldered as the male characters, making her seem somewhat large and matronly. Her face, from what we can see at the distance the camera maintains, is heavy and stern. In short, she’s not the sort of demure, pretty actress we would expect from later Hollywood, which is part of what makes this movie seem strangely distant to a modern viewer.

These factors may have turned off viewers at the time as well. This was actually one of the less successful releases Porter made for the studio that year, far less so than the more action-oriented films he is remembered for.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 13 Min

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

The Fantastic Dog Pack (1917)

Alternate Title: La Meute Fantastique

This episode of “Judex” is longer than the previous one, but to me it seems like less actually happens. We do get the pay-off of the cliff-hanger from the last story, and also several new entanglements are established, but the story overall feels a bit off-track to me here.

As the story begins, Musidora and her criminal companion Morales (Jean Devalde) bring the chloroformed Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor) to a villa where they keep her unconscious while they await payment. This soon comes in the form of Cesar de Birargues, the overly-amorous employer who contracted with the pair to kidnap her in “The Mysterious Shadow.” But when he offers his payment, Morales demands an additional 10,000 francs hazard pay. Cesar goes home depressed and confesses what he has done to his sister and father; the father tells him to go to their country home while he takes care of the problem. Read the rest of this entry »

Watermelon Patch (1905)

This short film from Edison offers the opportunity to think about racial tropes in America and how they have (and haven’t) changed. While certainly not a flattering portrayal of African Americans, it avoids the use of blackface and has real black people portraying themselves at least.

The movie opens on a shot of a watermelon patch with two full-sized scarecrows on poles overlooking it. Two black men cautiously enter the shot and, after comedically bumping heads, signal to off-screen companions, who filter in and each claims a watermelon. While they are distracted, the scarecrows remove their clothes, revealing skeletons underneath (actually, people in black body-suits with skeletons painted on the front). One of the thieves turns and sees them, and the skeletons begin waving. The thieves panic and run, and the skeletons hop down from their poles and chase them off-screen. The chase continues for a few succeeding shots, and many of the watermelon thieves drop their ill-gotten gains as they run through a forest, leap over a fence, and hurry down a country road.

The scene shifts to the interior of a shack, with many African Americans dancing together. The dance has comedic elements – a very large fat woman is featured in one portion, and another section involves two men surreptitiously kicking one another at intervals in the dance. Then, the survivors of the chase come in, some of them still have their watermelons, and this is cause for general celebration. A watermelon is thrown on the ground so that it shatters into pieces, and everyone takes a piece and sits down to eat. We see a close two-shot of two men eating very large pieces of watermelon, occasionally looking up to grin at each other with juice-stained faces. They seem to engage in a kind of “Watermelon Contest,” with the one on the left pulling ahead and then breaking off a chunk of his opponent’s piece to get more watermelon.

The scene returns to the watermelon patch, where some white men with dogs have arrived. The dogs track the scent of the thieves through the forest, the fence, and the road, and the men arrive outside of the shack. One peers in the window, which is closed in his face. The white men board up the door from outside and cover the smokestack with a board. Back inside, we see one of the black men shut the window, then the feeding continues for a while until the place starts to fill up with smoke. Everyone gets up in distress, but they cannot open the door. Someone opens the window, and a woman tries to climb through it, getting stuck so that her undergarments are visible to the audience. Once again, we cut to outside, and again, we go back a bit in time so that we see the window open, and the woman climbs through. This time, she does not get stuck however, because the white men drag her out, and she runs away. Then several more people are brought out that way, and others climb out through a skylight. The white men let all of them go, although apparently they chastise them as they pull them out of the shack.

On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, African American scholar Michele Wallace raises some interesting points about blacks and watermelons, and also black stereotypes generally. Watermelons are a staple Southern food (they will not grow in the North), which can be grown cheaply and with relatively little effort. They have, as we know, become associated with African American culture and with racial epithets. I think she misses the fact that they are generally messy to eat, with juice staining hands and faces, and the necessity of spitting out the seeds, which contributes to their consumption being seen as “uncouth” or infantile. She makes another interesting point that applies well to this movie, which is that most of the stereotypes about black culture from this period reflect poor, rural life in various ways (perhaps today it is poor, urban culture being reflected in black stereotypes). This movie centers around agricultural production, and also the question of ownership (and theft) of the means of living. Wallace points out that poor people often stole food like watermelons and chickens, because these were things that could feed a large group quickly, and could be hard to trace. Other stereotypes include their superstitious reaction to the skeletons, associated with a low level of education and world-experience, and their dancing, which is the only form of free entertainment available to them. The blacks seem to be a mix of “field hands” and “house servants” from their attire, although recall that slavery is now 40 years in the past. The field hands often seem to get the better of their “betters,” as in the kicking contest that takes place during the dance.

Technically, this film is also interesting. When I watched the opening, I thought, “if this movie had been made four years earlier, that opening shot would have been the whole movie, and that would have been just as good.” By 1905, Edwin S. Porter feels the necessity to drag out his thin plot over several shots by adding a chase, which may partly explain why chase films were so common during the Nickelodeon Era. But the really interesting aspect of this movie is the sequential editing, which requires us to see the window being closed from both the inside and the outside of the shack, and for the sequence to “jump backward” in time each time we cut between the two locations. Parallel editing is just a couple of years away, and in fact this is more neatly handled than “Life of an American Fireman” was a few years earlier, where an entire scene is re-played from two angles. I would say that this is a step in the evolution of editing, and suggests that it was not the genius of any one person that “invented” the technique.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

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

The White Caps (1905)

An important predecessor to “The Birth of a Nation,” this short movie by Edwin S. Porter was nowhere near as successful, but still offers some insights into the themes of early American Cinema. To understand its meaning today, a good deal of context needs to be filled in.

The movie begins by showing two men in awkward white hoods approaching the front of a house and tacking up a sign at the front door. The men are armed with rifles, and one keep a lookout while the other posts the warning sign. They depart, and shortly thereafter we cut to the inside of the house, where a lone woman glumly reads at a table. Soon, her husband comes home, apparently drunk. He is enraged by the sign and tears it down, then goes in and picks a fight with his wife, escalating to violence. A child runs out of the bedroom and distracts him long enough that she can escape his clutches, and we see them run across fields to elude him and ends up at another house, presumably the home of family or friends who give her shelter. The menfolk of this house become agitated, and several of them jump on horses to raise the alarm.

Soon, a group of men with white hoods like those we saw at the start grab the drunken husband and drag him, resisting, away from his house, into the woods. There, they bring him to a torchlit circle of men, all of whom put on their hoods when the man is brought to them (we see that they are ordinary citizens before their hooding). The man breaks and runs, and there is a lengthy chase through the woods. Finally, the man attacks a lone pursuer from behind a tree, possibly hoping to get his hood and escape in disguise, but he loses the fight and the other hooded men soon arrive and take him into custody. Then, his arms are tied and raised by ropes around a tree branch. Now that he is secured, the hooded men rip off his shirt and paint his upper body black, then throw feathers on him from bags. The final image is a grim procession of hooded men, leading the tarred and feathered victim, his hands tied, on the back of a mule.

Before we get into discussing the obvious parallel, it is important to note that there was no active Ku Klux Klan at the time of the release of this movie. The book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, would also come out in 1905, and this would fire the imagination of men like William Simmons, who would re-found the Klan ten years later, the same year that “Birth of a Nation” was released.  This movie is, as the title makes clear, about “Whitecapping,” which was a form of vigilantism prevalent in the South and the West in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. White Caps were groups of citizens that took the law into their own hands, operating clandestinely with the help of masks, and enforcing community standards through the threat of terror. This form of vigilantism has roots in the mythos of the “holy Vehm” of Westphalia and other European traditions. None of which is to say that it has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. While race was not a central issue for the White Caps in the same sense as for the Klan, it certainly played a role in the standards the White Caps enforced, particularly in the South, where competition for scarce resources between poor whites and freed slaves and their descendants contributed to a culture of lynching.

For us today, the vision of a lone man being pursued by hooded figures with torches is undeniably horrific, although that may not have been the impression the directors were seeking to convey. The victim in this movie begins as a villain, a drunk and a spousal abuser (we don’t see him hit the child, but child abuse would also be a logical extension of this character). The White Caps are therefore posited as a force for decency, even if what they do is unpleasant. It’s also worth noting that this movie is edited along the lines of other chase movies by Porter, such as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife…” that are essentially comedic. On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, scholars Charles Musser and Michelle Wallace offer some of the above context, and also emphasize that the tradition of popular vigilantism in the US led to some of the formative genres of Hollywood, including the Western. I would add that there is also a direct line to comic book superheroes, possibly one of the most profitable genres of the current decade. As we thrill at the current portrayals of extra-legal enforcement on the screen, it may help remember the less-glossy origins of the concept in order to maintain some awareness and critical distance from its more unpleasant implications.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring:Kate Toncray, John R. Cumpson, Arthur V. Johnson

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Atonement (1917)

In this third chapter of the “Judex” serial, things finally start moving, as the villains put their plans into action, an important cameo is seen, and the hero discovers that he actually has a mystery to unravel. Great tinting and moody lighting and makeup add to the effectiveness of the film.

This chapter begins by establishing the revived banker, Favraux (Louis Leubas), as the captive of Judex (René Cresté) in his underground lair. The mirror in his cell follows him as he moves, and we learn that Judex and his brother can observe the prisoner through a hidden camera. When Favraux tries to disable it by putting his towel over the mirror, the towel bursts into flame! Judex uses a “flame device” to transmit a message to him: he has been spared from his death sentence by his daughter’s acts of decency, but now he faces lifetime imprisonment for his crimes. Meanwhile, that daughter’s estranged son Le Petite Jean (Olinda Mano) is plotting how he can see her. He sneaks out of his bedroom and onto the back of a truck covered in cabbages. The truck drives to a shop to sell its wares, but before the driver can begin to unload it, Bout-de-Zan sneaks up to steal a cabbage, inadvertently finding the stowaway and quickly referencing the first big hit of Louis Feuillade’s mentor, Alice Guy. He and Jean sneak away before being caught, and Jean shows him the letter from his mother, and Bout-de-Zan agrees to help him get to her. The two kids sneak onto the back of a fancy car bound for the right neighborhood, and manage to hang on without attracting attention all the way there!

Meanwhile, Musidora has gotten to Jean’s mother (Yvette Andréyor) first. Although Yvette is under an assumed name, she advertised her services in the papers and Musidora has come in answer to that ad. Even though she should know better than to accept employment with a governess she previously discharged, Yvette gets into the car with her and her accomplice who, we remember, are still hoping to get the money that Yvette has donated to charity. They quickly capture her. But, Jean has arrived at the apartment, and is taken in by the maid, who shoos Bout-de-Zan away as an undesirable. Jean is sympathetic with the two pigeons who are caged in the apartment, and, when his mother does not come home promptly, he releases them. This was exactly the right thing to do, fortunately, because these are homing pigeons that return to Judex and inform him that all is not as it should be. He investigates, putting on a great black cape and bring a large mastiff with him. The dog is charmed by Jean, and Judex realizes that Yvette has been detained for some unknown purpose. But how? And how can he find her now? These answers will perhaps be addressed in the next installment.

This episode was short and worked well for me, not least because it ended on a kind of cliff-hanger, where we don’t know how the hero will manage to help the apparently helpless heroine. Bout-de-Zan is also a great treat to watch. He plays off the saccharine innocence of Jean by appearing to be the worldly-wise street kid (who still thinks children are born in the cabbage patch), and his outfit makes me think of a French Huckleberry Finn. When he and Jean are finally run off the car by the chauffeur, he refuses to leave until he’s had a chance to kick the man in the backside! I also really like the way Judex comes across in this movie. Finally, an interesting hero from Feuillade! His underground lair is marvelously shot and the mirror watching the prisoner is still creepy, even in an era where such surveillance is common. He also has a great look going with the hat, the cape, and the dog.

Director: Louis Feuillade

Camera:André Glatti, Léon Klausse

Starring: René Cresté, Louis Leubas, Olinda Mano, Yvette Andréyor, Musidora, René Poyen, Édouard Mathé, Jean Devalde

Run Time: 15 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Coney Island at Night (1905)

This later-era actuality film by Edwin S. Porter should be of interest to people interested in the history of New York and especially Coney Island’s Luna Park. Essentially composed of a few edited pans, it is a testament to two of the “inventions” of Thomas Edison: the light bulb and the motion picture.

The movie begins with a long, slow panorama of the park from a high angle. The nightfall is complete, and the only visible sources of light are the many electric bulbs on the attractions, rides, and signs. Large signs designating “Luna Park” are visible, as are merry-go-rounds, Ferris wheels, and various towers of light. An Intertitle announces a closer shot of “Dreamland” and then another takes us through the causeways of “Thompson & Dundy’s Luna Park.” The starkness of the black background provides a powerful contrast with the bright electric lights, but no human images or narrative is provided.

It’s natural enough that the Edison company would produce movies like this, but were audiences still interested in them as late as 1905? The Edison catalog claimed, this was “An excellent panoramic view of the illumination of the numerous pleasure parks at this famous seaside resort. Starting at Luna Park a panoramic sweep of the western section of the island is made. It brings into view the enormous See-Saw at Steeplechase Park and ends at the great tower in Dreamland. When the tower was reached, the camera was slowly raised and a complete view of the illumination of the tower was made. A most novel and interesting subject perfect photographically.” That’s nice, but were audiences who had thrilled to “The Great Train Robbery” and “A Trip to the Moon” really excited about perfect photography? Certainly this sort of thing didn’t have too many more years coming.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Run Time: 4 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905)

This short from Edwin S. Porter is actually his interpretation of what Charles Musser calls a “comic picture postcard” that was popular at the time. The racy title and humorous portrayal of a family made it one of the bigger hits Edison had.

The movie begins with a series of close-ups on each character, each with a card bearing their name at the bottom of the screen, like the number on a mug shot. There is “Mr. I.B. Dam,” a fat-faced fellow with a somewhat heavy brow. Then, “Herself,” which I assume is his wife, a large woman who never ceases talking. Next is “Miss U.B. Dam,” who I take to be the maiden aunt. She fixes her hair into an improbably large bun. Next up is “Jimmy Dam,” a greasy-haired, slick looking fellow with an upturned nose. He smokes a cigarette with considerable relish, blowing the smoke out his nostrils. Then comes “Annie Dam,” whose face is largely lost under an enormous lampshade of a hat. I assume her odd head movements and finger-chewing is meant to be coquettish (or, meant to appear as if she wants to be coquettish, but is too dumb to pull it off). “Lizzie Dam” is a child who likes to chew gum, pulling it out of her mouth in a long string, then chewing it back in again. The last character is “Baby Dam,” who wails and cries at the camera.

After the gallery of close-ups, we see the family in a group shot. Then the Intertitles announce the arrival of “the Dam dog,” but the dog does not get a close-up. Instead, we see the family seated at the dinner table, arguing and gesturing, while the dog sits at the head of the table. I.B. Dam shoos him out of his place, and the dinner continues in its raucous manner, father apparently admonishing Jimmy to put out his cigarette, and the baby crying the whole time, until the dog runs up and grabs the tablecloth with his teeth, pulling it down and sending the entire dinner to the floor. The family stands up in distress, uncertain what etiquette says about this situation.

The movie is very simple, but retains some of its humorous appeal. “Stupid” families are certainly familiar to modern viewers of “The Simpsons,” and some of the origins of Homer and Bart can be seen here, in the ineffective authority of the father, and the precocious grandstanding of Lizzie, for example. Most of the characters are made up to emphasize their backwardness, and they all act as if they had no sense of propriety or manners. There were apparently a number of different series of “Dam family” postcards, as well as dolls, tobacco pipes, and other memorabilia. I somehow imagine that it was the sort of thing kids liked to “shock” their parents with – “but look, ma, it really does say ‘Dam’” – but that parents were wisest to ignore, lest they encourage through disapproval.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.