Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1894

Buffalo Dance (1894)

BuffaloDance1894

For the last movie of mydancesequence, I’m returning to the Kinetoscope period of Edison Studios, for a movie that was shot on the same day as “Annie Oakley.” Here, we have a group of Sioux men in ostensibly traditional dress, performing a dance in the cramped confines of the “Black Maria” studio, with drummers visible behind them on the stage. It is very similar to the previously-reviewed “Sioux Ghost Dance,” although in this case history has recorded the names of the performers: Hair Coat, Parts His Hair, and Last Horse. All of them were performers for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, so it’s possible that these authentic-sounding names were actually adopted for stage performances. In that sense, of course this is a movie that exploits Native Americans and the fascination of European Americans with them at the time, and these movies were among the first filmed examples of this, although it would soon become an industry in its own right.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 16 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894)

Annabelle Butterfly

In the same year as Max Skladanowski produced his “Serpentinen Tanz,” W.K.L. Dickson did something very similar in the United States. Unlike the German film, however, this was not made to be projected on a screen, but rather run in a Kinetoscope, a kind of box with a peep-hole and a crank, that could be watched by a single viewer at a time. Another difference is that history tells us the name of the dancer, Annabelle Moore, who appeared as a dancer in many later motion pictures. Her costume is a bit less elaborate, but the general theme is the same and clearly the idea was that a dance with a flowing costume would show off the ability of the camera to capture movement.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 34 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Hadj Cheriff (1894)

Hadj_Cheriff

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.

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)

leonard-cushing

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.

Robetta and Doretto (1894)

Robetta and Doretto

AKA: “Chinese Laundry Scene,” “Robetta and Doretto #2.”

When speaking of “firsts,” it’s always important to be aware that nothing, or at least nothing artistic, springs fully-formed from the void. Thus, it is possible to say that this early Kinetoscope from Edison Studios is the “first slapstick” film, but it’s important to understand that the concept of slapstick comedy predates the cinema by many decades. The two clowns we see performing here had done their act many times in front of live audiences, and had perfected their skills in vaudeville and circuses, this was simply the first time anyone had filmed them (or anyone) doing it. What we see is pretty limited, just two figures running through a set of fake doors, hitting one another. The idea that one or both is “Chinese” suggests a degree of ethnic humor, and I guess the appearance of the one clown is an ethnic caricature, but to me this doesn’t really come through in this film clip. What we mostly see is someone in a police uniform and the other fellow, or “little man” giving him his comeuppance, a very common theme in broad comedy. Like many of the movies of the time, this was shot in several “takes,” each of which appears to have been shown as a separate film, thus this version is technically “#2.”

Director: WKL Dickson.

Camera: William Heise.

Starring: Phil Doretto, Robetta.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Sandow (1894)

Sandow

This early Edison kinetoscope was part of the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures, and represents the efforts of the studio to appeal to audiences, along with Annie Oakley, through the use of celebrities or interesting individuals. Eugen Sandow was a bodybuilder who was promoted by the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, who had him display feats of strength before large audiences in many different countries. Apparently, Ziegfeld found that people were more fascinated by Sandow’s perfectly muscled body than with the amount of weight he lifted, so this film is a kind of ritual dance in which Sandow flexes different muscle groups for the camera. It also shows more flesh (albeit male flesh) than any other movie of the nineteenth century that I can think of. Sandow’s “package” is plainly obvious in his meager shorts, and I have to suspect that audiences of that notoriously repressed era were titillated by this display. Apart from the sexual appeal, which most viewers (especially the men!) would never have admitted to, the film makes no effort to add narrative or elements such as comedy or suspense that might have kept audience interest: the fact that the subject moves is enough in itself.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Sioux Ghost Dance (1894)

Sioux_ghost_dance,_1894.ogg

This brief Kinetescope movie was almost certainly shot on the same day as “Annie Oakley,” when Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show came to Edison Studios to present their acts for the motion picture camera. In it, a group of Native American dancers demonstrate the “Ghost Dance,” a fairly new concept that was sweeping Native American tribes at the time – a circle dance to bring prosperity and unity to all native peoples of North America through re-connecting with the spirits of the dead. Edison’s catalog tells us that these are “genuine Sioux Indians, in full war paint and war costumes,” which may or may not be accurate, but it is hard to watch this and not wonder how they felt about it. As paid performers in the Wild West show, this performance may have simply represented a paycheck, or it may have been an opportunity to practice a ritual in which they genuinely believed, or it may have been a defilement of that ritual. Surely the cramped quarters of the Black Maria studio limited its size and grandeur. This does appear to be the first representation of Native Americans on motion film, and thus a milestone of sorts, but it has to be seen in the context of the colonialism and cultural appropriation that was accepted at the time.

Director: William K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise.

Run Time: 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894)

Fred Ott

This early Kinetoscope experiment takes us back to a time when motion pictures were imagined to be just that – still pictures with a bit of movement added – and can be seen as an example of what Edison’s team imagined a portrait might be like in the future. In just a few seconds a man, dressed in 19th-century garb, takes a pinch of snuff, sniffs it, and either sneezes or fakes a sneeze. It’s never looked all that convincing to me. Be that as it may, this film also began Edison Studios’ long-standing tradition of printing out paper images of each frame of a movie and then copyrighting them. There was no law permitting the copyrighting of moving pictures, but still images could be, so this was how the company protected itself in the early days, and the surviving paper stills have proved useful in historical reconstruction of lost nitrate films. Apparently, in this case, the company also allowed Harper’s magazine to print the stills, in order to give some idea what the future of photography would bring, so in addition to being the first copyrighted film, this was the first to be “seen” by a mass audience, albeit not in the motion format.

Also Known as: Edison Kinetoscope Record of a Sneeze.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Fred Ott

Run Time: 5 seconds

You are watching the whole thing free above. If you’d like to see it larger, go: here.

Annie Oakley (1894)

AnnieOakley

In my review of “The Great Train Robbery,” I alluded to the ongoing debate over what is “the first Western.” I include this movie to demonstrate that Western tropes were explicit in American cinema even before narrative film or, for that matter, the film projector, had been introduced. It is a short kinetoscope of the famous Wild West performer doing her rifle act. The mythos of the “Wild West “ developed in a variety of media, including art, literature, and live performances, all of which contributed to what would become one of the most beloved American film genres. This little film is also interesting as one of the first movies made in the “Black Maria” studio, the first purpose-built motion picture studio in the world. From a Women’s History perspective, it’s interesting to note that the first person shown shooting a gun on film was a woman, although I’ve always felt that the nineteenth-century fascination with Oakley was because she was a kind of freak. Like a dog that is taught to “speak” or a horse that can do math, a woman who can shoot is entertaining because it contradicts nature for her to do so.

 

Director: William Heise

Starring: Annie Oakley

Run Time: 21 seconds

You can watch it for free: here