Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: 1903

Egyptian Fakir with Dancing Monkey (1903)

This short film from Edison is a good example of the use of cinema to bring exotic locations and sights to the eyes of people who had limited opportunities for travel. Directed by A.C. Abadie, who we saw as an actor in “What Happened on Twenty Third Street,” it also displays the odd effect of putting a musical event onto silent film.

egyptian-fakirThe camera is low to the ground, and gives us a view of a bearded man with a turban squatting on the ground. Near the man is a goat. The man plays a drum, and in front of him is a monkey, attached by a string to his master. The monkey wears a little costume that includes a fez and pants which are covered in little bells. It shimmies and dances in time to the drumming, in order to make the bells ring. It also holds a long stick in its tail. At one point, it stands on its head. At another, it hops across the ground. Finally, the man puts down his drum and picks up a stick like the one the monkey has, and they “duel” with the sticks as he continues to sing, presumably beating out the time by hitting their sticks together rhythmically. There is a jump cut at the end, after which another man in Middle Eastern garb joins the “fakir” and stares into the camera.

I’m not certain whether this movie was shot in Egypt, but the illusion that it may have been is fairly complete – the only foliage we see are palm fronds, and there is no indication that it was shot in a studio or a convenient part of New York. It seems like without the singing, or the sounds of the bells and the sticks, we must be missing a lot of the impact of the performance. However, from a visual standpoint it certainly gives the viewer a look at something that would be out of the ordinary for early-twentieth century Americans, and the monkey’s trained responses to the music are impressive. The monkey has its back to the camera during almost the whole film, but it is still entertaining.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown man and monkey

Run Time: 1 Min, 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is a famous early movie by Edwin S. Porter, released earlier in the same year as “The Great Train Robbery.” It is one of the best-known examples of early editing structure, and gives us an opportunity to discuss the development of cinema beyond the single-shot film to the multi-shot narrative, and how this concept has changed over time.

lifeofanamericanfiremanThe first shot in this movie is an interesting trick shot, or special effect. A fireman is seen dozing at work, and over his shoulder is an image of his dream. He is dreaming about a woman putting a small child to bed (perhaps his own wife and child). The next shot is a close-up on a street-corner fire alarm. An anonymous hand opens the case and pulls the alarm. Then we cut to an image of the bunks inside the firehouse, with all of the firemen sleeping. They wake up to the alarm, and then leap out of bed, put on boots and trousers, and slide down the pole to the stables below. We see each one mount the pole and disappear in turn. Then we cut to the stable, and watch as each man slides down the pole in the center of the screen, and runs over to mount the wagon he will ride. Once they are all aboard, the ropes before the horses are taken down, and they race across the screen. Next we see the exterior of the firehouse, and watch as each wagon bolts out the doors and runs onto the street. We cut to another street corner, and watch the fire trucks race by, while crowds of spectators gather to watch them. There are two such shots in sequence, and each one allows each wagon to rush by, the second panning to follow them. This pan ends at the burning house, where we see the fire fighters preparing their hoses.

lifeofanamericanfireman2Now, the scene cuts to the interior of the house, which looks like the same bedroom in the man’s dream from the opening. Smoke is billowing into the room, and the woman and child sleep on the bed. She gets up and runs to the window, screaming for help, then collapses back on the bed. A fire fighter breaks down the door with his axe and runs in. He tears down the curtains and breaks the window open. A ladder appears at the window, and he picks up the unconscious woman, carrying her to it and climbing out on the ladder. A moment later he (or another fire fighter) reappears on the ladder and runs to pick up the sleeping child, taking her out the same way. Now two fire fighters enter from the ladder, wielding a hose, which they spray liberally around the room. The final shot reproduces this last sequence of events, but does so from outside the house (the same shot as the end of the pan, above). A fire fighter enters the burning house from the first floor at about the same moment as the woman appears in the window above. Others set up the ladder from below, and still more train their hose on the house, spraying water in through the open door and windows. Meanwhile, the first fire fighter carries the woman down the ladder and revives her, then runs back to the ladder to recover the child. Finally, the men with the hose climb the ladder, having put out the fire in other parts of the house.

lifeofanamericanfireman1This film s famous for showing Porter’s developing understanding of editing, being a great example of a narrative created by inter-linking shots sequentially. For many years, it was also controversial, because there were two versions – one which followed the sequence I have just described, and another which cross-cut the scenes outside and inside to create a more “modern” style of storytelling. It is pretty well established now that this version is correct: first we see the rescue played out in entirety from inside the house, then we see the entire sequence again from the other perspective. This lines up with audience expectations of the time. People would quite probably have been confused by parallel editing, not being used to seeing shots inter-cut at the time. This gives us a chance to talk a bit about how this whole idea of stitching shots together came about in the first place. The old narrative was that certain “genius” directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter “invented” it. Actually, this isn’t really true. As we have seen in this project, for many years a “film” equaled a single shot of relatively fixed length, that played out some kind of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But often they had related themes, fire fighting being a classic example. So, what various ingenious exhibitors started doing was to create narratives by showing related films in sequence, with their own narration filling in names of characters, etc. So, perhaps you would see “A Morning Alarm” followed by “The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy” and then “Firemen Rescuing Men and Women” while a narrator told you that this was all footage of the same fire. This is where Porter and Méliès (whose “A Trip to the Moon” was a multi-shot film from the previous year) got the idea to make longer movies out of a series of shots. It also explains why they did not cut within their shots – this would have broken the established logic of narrative at the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with James H. White and/or George S. Fleming)

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughn, James H. White

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)

This short actuality from Edison is a fairly unpleasant film, which will upset some viewers. Fair warning: it does depict the actual death of an animal. It also has been frequently misinterpreted by modern viewers, and therefore is an important part of our study of the history of movies.

electrocuting_an_elephant_edison_film_1903We see an elephant being led from an enclosure in the middle of what seems to be a construction site. Its trunk is bound in a complex harness that almost looks like a bondage garment. The camera pans to follow the elephant and we can see that there are crowds of spectators in the background. After a cut, we see the elephant is strapped in place, apparently roughly in the same place as it was before the edit. Suddenly the elephant stiffens, and you can see a puff of smoke from below its feet. After a few moments, it falls slowly over to the left. It twitches a few times on the ground before the end of the movie.

The story of Topsy the elephant is a tragic one, speaking to why laws regarding elephants in captivity have become increasingly restrictive in recent years. Topsy was a circus elephant who got a reputation for being “bad” after she killed a drunken spectator who deliberately burned her trunk with a lit cigar (classic movie fans will remember “Mighty Joe Young” when reading this story). She apparently became increasingly difficult to handle after this, and was sold by Forpaugh Circus to Luna Park, which was still under construction. There she encountered the abusive animal handler William “Whitey” Alt, who did nothing to improve her temperament. Finally, the owners decided that she would need to be put down, as she was no longer safe to display in a public environment. The original plan was to hang her, but the ASPCA objected, and the idea of electrocution (combined with poison and strangulation) was suggested as more “humane.” This movie depicts that event.



Now, you can find various places on the Internet that blame Thomas Edison for the death of this elephant. These claims are inaccurate, and result from poor historical study. Having heard that Edison waged a war against alternating current that inflated its dangers and suggested that people would be electrocuted by it, they have concluded that this movie was part of that campaign. It is not. The “war of the currents” was over for more than ten years by the time this was produced, and alternating current was already the standard at Edison’s remaining plants at the time. Because of the early date of the War of the Currents, no movies were produced to support it. The movie “Pan-American Exposition at Night” depicts a display of alternating current lights one year before this movie was made. In short, this movie represents a tragic execution of an animal in no way at fault for its inability to get along with human beings after they had systematically mistreated her, and it exploits the pain of that animal for purposes of spectacle, but Thomas Edison did not use it to make an argument regarding alternating current.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Jacob Blair Smith

Starring: Topsy the elephant

Run Time: 10 Min

You can watch it for free: here (viewer discretion advised).

Move On (1903)

This short actuality from Edison Studios shows the street-life of New York at the turn of the century, although some parts of it may have been performed for the camera. It is hard to know what is real and what isn’t, but it obviously was meant to be taken for reality by its audience.

Move OnOn a streetcorner somewhere near an El train track, we see a line of vendors selling fruits and vegetables from wagons. The nearest vendor is a dark man with a beard and a long, crooked nose; he seems to glare at the camera briefly. He matches, almost too perfectly, the stereotypical image of the immigrant merchant, possibly Jewish, definitely non-Anglo in origin. Near his wagon is a young urchin in a cap and shorts, casually tossing an orange in the air, and occasionally watching the camera. We watch the bustle of people on the sidewalk, and someone stops to buy some vegetables from our nearest vendor. Suddenly, a line of carts starts rolling down the street past the camera, pushed by their vendors. We soon see why: there is a policeman with a tall, rounded hat like the Keystone Cops wear walking down the street swinging his nightclub. He does not hit anyone, but just gives a “move along” type motion repetitively with it. The nearest vendors pack up and prepare to move. The cop moves past the vendors, who are now getting ready to roll out, and the boy walks in the opposite direction, still tossing his orange.

I’m not sure I “believe” any of the three major characters in the movie. The vendor, the kid, and the cop all seem just a bit too stereotyped to be taken seriously. And yet, any one of them could be real, I can’t say for sure. What is real is that New York City street, crowded with food carts and busy people, with trains, streetcars, buggies, and other normal (for the time) vehicle passing along. In that sense, this is a fascinating window into the past, however contrived the plot situation may be.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown

Run  Time: 1 Min, 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903)

This is a classic example of voyeurism in early film, but note that the term “gay” had no connection to same-sex eroticism at the time. It fits in with the general run of work that Edwin S. Porter was doing for the Edison Company at the time, but note that it is no “Great Train Robbery.”

Gay Shoe Clerk

Guess the genders and win a cocktail!

The original Edison catalog entry described the action thus: “Scene shows interior of shoe-store. Young lady and chaperone enter. While a fresh young clerk is trying a pair of high-heeled slippers on the young lady, the chaperone seats herself and gets interested in a paper. The scene changes to a very close view, showing only the lady’s foot and the clerk’s hands tying the slipper. As her dress is slightly raised, showing a shapely ankle, the clerk’s hands become very nervous, making it difficult for him to tie the slipper. The picture changes back to former scene. The clerk makes rapid progress with his fair customer, and while he is in the act of kissing her the chaperone looks up from her paper, and proceeds to beat the clerk with an umbrella. He falls backward off the stool. Then she takes the young lady by the arm, and leads her from the store.”

Gay Shoe Clerk1The key to this movie is the cut to the close-up, which allows the audience to see a “forbidden” part of a woman’s anatomy, emphasizing once again the effect which this produces on the male character, as in “What Demoralized the Barber Shop.” He is punished for his transgression, but the audience is encouraged to take pleasure from watching without consequences. The “shoe shop” set is interesting as well – it essentially consists of row after row of identical shoe boxes on the back wall, with no attempt at showing displays or other merchandizing. I believe this to be a somewhat accurate portrayal of stores at the time, based on other images I’ve seen, but it could also reflect the stingingess of Porter’s budget at Edison. Although there probably was no deliberate homoerotic intent behind the movie, I understand that the “girl” in the film is actually played by a man (it’s difficult to tell because of the hat “she” wears and the distance from the camera if this is really true), which makes the title seem all the more subversive to a modern audience.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Edward Boulden

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Faust and Mephistopheles (1903)

Small aside: This is the 500th post I have written on this blog, according to WordPress. I never expected to make 500 in just over two years! Thanks to all my readers for keeping me going. I plan to celebrate with a Guinness after dinner – that’s about all I can get away with on a work night at my age.

Alternate Title: Faust et Mephistopheles

Alice Guy takes a stab at a common theme among early filmmakers. According to the catalog of Georges Méliès, he had tried a version of “Faust and Marguerite” as early as 1897, and first attempted to depict “The Damnation of Faust” in 1898. He would return themes in movies of the same names in 1903 and 1904. Meanwhile, across the pond, Edwin S. Porter made his first “Faust and Marguerite” in 1900. Of course, the entire Faust legend would be borrowed from heavily in the making of “The Student of Prague” much later in 1913.

Faust and MephistophelesTwo bearded men in robes stand before a cauldron. One wears white, the other black. They gesture at one another, and the white-robed one puts his hands over the cauldron, summoning a demon. The demon brings him a sword and sets to bringing up the flame, and the wizard swings the sword and makes the demon disappear, replacing him with a charming man in a cape with a horned helmet (I take this to be Mephistopheles, though I’m not certain). This new man uses the sword to turn the white-robed magician into a younger man, dressed sort of like one of the Three Musketeers. This new man takes the sword and makes the devil disappear, then turns the black robed magician into a more well-dressed young man – identifiable as Faust. Then they are transported together to a new room. The musketeer-fellow waves the sword at a sealed door, and Faust looks through to see a beautiful woman singing and spinning (Marguerite, surely). He pulls her into the room, but she disappears, replaced by Mephistopheles. Then the room is filled with ghosts. The Devil comes back briefly, and then Faust sees the woman with horns on her head. He pleads with the musketeer fellow, but nothing happens until he falls on his knees when he should flee, and suddenly the Virgin Mary appears holding a cross. The ghosts and demons are banished, and Faust is reunited with Marguerite.

Faust and Mephistopheles1

As compared to the other versions of “Faust” I’ve talked about, this version ambitiously tries to tell the whole story in just two minutes. Prior to this, the versions were kept to vignettes. Really, this version is too hurried to be entirely coherent: I’m still not sure whether Mephistopheles is the Musketeer-fellow or the horned and caped man, and who is the sorcerer in white? However, it does work as a pretty advanced trick film with a narrative storyline, even if the characters are obscure. As with “How Monsieur Takes His Bath,” the camera edits are much cleaner than in the case of early Méliès, and there are no serious jump cuts. Still, one must recall that “A Trip to the Moon” came out the previous year, and “The Great Train Robbery” in the same year; Guy was not at the cutting edge here, so far as telling complex stories is concerned.

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possible Alice Guy)

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min 45 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

How Monsieur Takes His Bath (1903)

Alternate Title: Comment Monsieur prend son ban

This is a short trick film from Alice Guy, using techniques pioneered by Georges Méliès to have some fun at the expense of its main character. We’ve seen its like before, but it is very well done.

How Monsieur Takes His BathA man is alone in a room, with a bathtub next to him. He begins to disrobe, but when he puts his pants down, suddenly a new suit appears on his body. He tries again, and the same thing happens. He tries to accelerate, momentarily getting far enough ahead that he can take off his pants and jacket, but soon he has dozens of layers on and the movie ends with him wearing more clothes than he had at the beginning.

How Monsieur Takes His Bath1Given that this sort of movie had been around for 6 years, one might think that audiences would expect something more, but I have to note that, compared to the earlier Méliès films, the edits on this are quite precise and the man doesn’t seem to hop around due to jump cuts. Guy has been in the business for just about as long now, and has obviously learned her craft. Even the clothes he takes off pile up realistically as he throws them aside, not moving around or randomly disappearing due to continuity errors. The movie may not be a breakthrough, but it is a reasonable success. Two observations about the language: First, Guy deliberately uses titillating language in the title, as in “How Bridget Served the Salad undressed.” Second, there really is no English equivalent to the French word “Monsieur” here (“How Sir Takes a Bath” doesn’t work t all!).

Director: Alice Guy

Camera: Unknown (possibly Alice Guy)

Starring: Ferdinand Zecca

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.


Great Train Robbery (1903)


Director: Edwin S. Porter

While this is far from the first Edison film, it seems like the best place to start a discussion of the Studio, as it was undeniably their biggest blockbuster hit. It represents a high-water mark for the studio in terms of innovation and artistic success as well, I’d say. It was directed by Edwin S. Porter, who was in charge of motion picture production at Edison and was its main director from 1899 until 1909. At this point, due to Edison’s patent lawsuits against rivals, Porter had a claim as “the” legitimate American filmmaker. In this movie, he shows himself a master of early film narrative, a rival for Méliès, whose masterpiece “A Trip to the Moon” came out the previous year. “The Great Train Robbery” is in many ways more sophisticated, in its use of moving camera, clever editing, and realistic action sequences, although it lacks the elaborate set pieces and camera trickery of Méliès. There’s an ongoing debate as to whether or not to call this “the first Western” or even if it’s a Western at all, since trains were robbed by men on horseback in the East as late as 1903. To me, it feels like a proto-Western anyway, due to the costumes, the style of action which closely follows “Wild West Shows” of the period and the theme of desperate bandits against a posse of lawful gunmen. If it wasn’t the first, it was surely influential on the Western genre that followed.

Run Time: 12 min

You can watch it for free: here.