Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Age of Attractions

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.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

THIS IS NOT TRUE.

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).

Interrupted Bathers (1902)

This short comedy from Edison by Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming uses several tropes that will be familiar to comedy fans from any era. It is a very simple movie, with a quick punchline at the end, that plays on the viewer’s expectations and desires.

interrupted-bathersWe see the bank of a stream or possibly a small lake, shot from the water, with a line of shrubbery in the back. There is a woman reclining there, amid various scraps of clothing. Three other women frolic in the water, splashing one another and themselves with water. Two men dressed as hobos come out of a hole in the bushes, and approach the reclining woman. She screams and runs off and the women in the water splash at the men. They gather up the clothes and wave at the women as they leave. The women swim toward the left side of the screen and disappear. After a jump cut, we see a woman cross the screen left to right, wearing a barrel to cover her lack of clothing.

The thing that stands out about this movie is that all of the women in the water appear to be fully clothed. I suppose that they might be wearing demure bathing suits of the period, but to me it looks like they are just swimming in their street clothes. That makes the entire conflict of the film, and its punch line, seem a bit silly. However, in all likelihood, an audience at the time understood that a woman could not just climb out of the water in a bathing suit or whatever it was she wore and allow herself to be seen in public. It’s also possible that Porter assumed that the audience would understand that the women were “really” nude, even though they could see clothing. At any rate, wearing a barrel (which may have already been established on the vaudeville stage) would continue to be a comedic symbol of modesty and nudity in movies and cartoons for decades.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 46 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

 

Burlesque Suicide No.2 (1902)

This short film from Edison challenges certain truisms about early movies and their techniques and subject matter. It also demonstrates the ways in which narrative fiction could establish suspense without using editing.

burlesque-suicideThe film consists of a mid-shot of a man sitting in front of a table. On the table in front of him is a decanter with a dark liquid, a glass, half full of the same liquid, and a revolver. He alternates between reaching for the glass and the gun, never quite taking a drink or putting his finger on the trigger. He pantomimes his despondency and sense of loss. At the end, he picks up the gun and begins to point it at his head, when suddenly he bursts into laughter and points at the camera.

Every now and again you’ll come across an over-simplified history of film that claims that all movies were shot full-figure prior to Griffith or until 1914 or some such nonsense. While it’s true that close-ups were fairly rare in the early days, you can find examples of films showing people in mid-shot and other close ranges going back to the very beginning. In this case, Porter and Fleming have taken advantage of the closer view in order to allow the actor to convey his emotions using his face, rather than overly large, theatrical body language. Another interesting aspect of this movie is the actor’s breaking of the fourth wall in order to convey the “burlesque” (meaning parody at this point in history). He laughs at the audience for believing in his determination to kill himself, reminding them that what they see on the screen is not real but illusion, and also making the dark subject matter less threatening. Still, we spend most of the movie anticipating the possibility of this grim act, wondering whether he will pull the trigger, and waiting to see how it can be resolved. The suspense of this film relies entirely on his performance, and on the intimacy of the camera to the actor.

Directors: Edwin S. Porter, George S. Fleming

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy (1902)

Actuality footage of firefighters in action is spliced together in this topical Edison short from the early years of cinema.

burning-of-durlandsThe film was taken on location at a fire in an urban area. The first shot is a pan through the streets which stops at the firefighters spraying their hose into a gigantic cloud of smoke. Some spectators stand and watch, but as the movie proceeds, we see a lot of pedestrians pass by without apparent interest. A few stare at the camera. The second shot is taken from much closer to the group of firefighters and their hose, and seems to be later, as we see ruined walls and piles of rubble, but far less smoke. The camera pans away from them to show a half-collapsed wall and another hose further down the street. It then pans back to the main group of firefighter, training their hose into the midst of the smoke and passes them to find a man with a shovel digging through rubble. A final edit shows us a crowd watching a wall collapse, apparently from quite nearby. Once the dust clears a bit, a few of the men strike at the rubble with picks.

As I’ve noted before, firefighters were popular figures at the time, and we’ve seen them in a number of films, but this is the earliest example so far of them actually fighting a fire. It’s pretty much newsreel footage, nothing seems to have been faked, and the camera shows us what it can of the situation. We’ve moved into an era when Edison camera operators are comfortable with pans, and do them without much planning or preparation, to get as broad a view of the scene as possible. Durland’s Riding Academy was in Manhattan, where the Edison Studios were now headquartered, and the camera was mobile enough to get to the scene in time to get footage of the fire in progress. No doubt this fire was still in the news when this movie was being shown, and people were excited to be able to “see” the news as well as read about it.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: J.B. Smith

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

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.

trapeze-disrobing-actA 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.

Director: George S. Fleming, Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charmion

Run Time: 2 Min, 40 secs

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

Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901)

This short actuality from Edison takes advantage of technology to show off the technological advances of the new century. As with many of the documentary films of the day, it gave an audience a chance to see a spectacle most people would otherwise only have read about or seen in still images.

pan-american-exposition-by-nightThe movie consists of two shots, edited together more or less seamlessly to appear as a single movement. As the movie opens, we see a large pavilion and some other exotic buildings in the background in what is clearly daytime. The camera pans to the left, revealing more structures until it reaches a large tower. Suddenly, the image changes to the same tower lit up brilliantly by night, with floodlights moving across the ground. The camera continues its pan after the edit, showing how buildings that seem to mirror those we saw in the first shot look with their electric lights shining during the night.

This movie combines two of Thomas Edison’s inventions – the light bulb and the motion picture – into a single spectacle celebrating the technology of the twentieth century and Edison’s contributions to it. Of course, neither device was really a sole responsibility of the “wizard of Menlo Park,” but the concept of Edison as the inventor of these technologies was part of the branding campaign of the Edison Company. In The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser tells us that in order to accomplish the smooth, lengthy pan we see in this movie it was necessary to develop a new mechanism for the tripod. I wonder if it wasn’t also necessary to develop a new film stock in order to pick up the electric lights, since nearly all films were shot in daylight up to this point. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be possible to shoot actors under these lights with the film stock we see here – everything that isn’t a light bulb appears as a pitch black space, except for the areas directly under the floodlights, which are dimly visible. The other interesting piece is the edit from day into night, with the camera in exactly the same position and continuing the movement, giving the illusion that time itself has been manipulated by the filmmakers. This is an early and creative use of editing at a time when most films consisted of a single shot. The Pan-American Exposition took place in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, and was the subject of a large number of Edison films. It is the event President William McKinley was attending at the time of his assassination.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: James H. White

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Sherlock Baffled (1900)

Alternate Title: Sherlock Holmes Baffled

This is a short trick film from Biograph that closely follows the formula created for such comedies by Georges Méliès. It is notable for being the first known instance of the character of Sherlock Holmes portrayed in film, and has even been suggested as the “first detective film.”

sherlock_holmes_baffledA man in the black clothing of a conventional burglar is putting objects into a bag in a small room with a table. Another man in a dressing gown enters (presumably this is Holmes) and puts his hand on the burglar’s shoulder. The burglar disappears. Holmes seems to lose interest in the mystery and sits down to light a cigar. The cigar gives off a large puff of smoke, and at the same moment, the burglar reappears in front of Holmes. Holmes pursues him and even fires a revolver at him, but the burglar disappears and reappears in different parts of the room, evading capture or injury. When he seems to have disappeared for good, Holmes picks up the sack and begins to leave the room, but suddenly the sack disappears and appears in the hands of the burglar, crouched in the open window. The burglar waves goodbye and departs with the loot, and Holmes throws up his hands in defeat.

This movie won’t do much for most fans of Sherlock Holmes, and the name was probably used for simple name-recognition purposes (the William Gillette play had recently opened in New York), rather than as an intentional homage. Holmes is essentially a clown and a victim here, not the brilliant detective of the stories. This movie was actually not shown in theaters, but released in the “peep show” coin-operated Mutoscope format for arcades in May of 1900. It closely follows the formula of such Méliès films as “The Magician,” wherein the protagonist is plagued by an appearing and disappearing nuisance. Director Arthur Marvin handles this reasonably competently, but without the agility and style of Méliès, unfortunately.

Director: Arthur Marvin

Camera: Arthur Marvin

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Cinderella (1899)

Alternate Title: Cendrillon

Georges Méliès provides this version of the classic fairy tale in one of his most ambitious nineteenth-century productions. It includes five different camera set-ups and, according to the Star Films Catalog, “thirty five” extras, all on a typically small stage.

cinderella-1899The movie starts a little abruptly, with Cinderella in the kitchen begging to be allowed to go to the ball, but her step-sisters leave and slam the door in her face. She mopes around a bit and then her fairy godmother appears and turns various household pests into servants for her and a pumpkin into a coach. Then she gives her a gown to wear, and Cinderella climbs into the coach (right there in the kitchen!) and drives off, though the godmother stops her to warn her to be back before midnight. She disappears through a trap door in the floor. The next scene shows the ballroom, with lots of nobles dancing elegantly together. The Prince sits to one side on his throne and takes little interest until Cinderella arrives. Then he steps onto the floor with her and they dance while the other guests watch. Suddenly a clock appears on the floor and shows that it is midnight, and Cinderella tries to leave, but the Prince detains her. Then a funny gnome-like creature hops out of the clock, holding up another clock-face, and Cinderella tries again to leave, but before she can make it, the fairy godmother appears and causes her dress to become rags again. She flees in humiliation while the nobles laugh, but the prince picks up one of her shoes that has been left behind. The next scene is in her bedroom, and she has a nightmare involving clocks and the gnome, all dancing about to taunt her. Then she is with her sisters again, and they are apparently ordering her to get to work, when the Prince comes in to try the shoe on everyone. Of course, he tries the sisters first, and it won’t fit, then Cinderella, and it does and the fairy godmother restores her dress and the Prince and Cinderella leave together. Now the scene shifts to outside the palace, and a crowd of people gathers to watch the wedding procession as it passes. There are soldiers, peasants, nobles, a priest, and the King and Queen as well as the happy couple. The onlookers give a dance in their honor and they are joined by a ballerina who performs. At the end, the backdrop is lifted to show the Prince, Cinderella, and the rest of the wedding party on their thrones.

cinderella1-1899In the early years of cinema, certain stories were made and remade ad infinitum. This is now the third version of this story to be reviewed on the Century Film Project (the others starred Florence LaBadie and Mary Pickford). It is a somewhat unusual take on the tale, especially since the ball is over before half of the movie’s run time has completed! Actually, a lot of what follows struck me as padding, especially the dance at the end. It seems like more time could have been spent at the beginning establishing Cinderella’s life of drudgery, and less time celebrating her wedding, though the clock nightmare was interesting. I’m not 100% certain whether the surviving copy is complete, either – perhaps there was more of the cruel step-sisters in the original. One interesting thing about the Flicker Alley print is that we get about 30 seconds of hand-painted color at the beginning, which is truly lovely, although it goes away all too quickly. I really wanted to see the ball in color, and the final dance might have been more interesting with it as well. For Méliès, this was a fairly mature production: he uses special effects in showing the magic and telling the story, but they are not the point of the film, and he links the several different scenes well with basic editing. It was probably one of the most expensive movies he had made at the time as well – just in terms of all the sets he had to build alone. For once, we have some reasonably reliable cast information. Jeanne d’Alcy, who played the queen mother, was later to be Méliès’s wife, and has appeared uncredited in a number of his other movies.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Mlle Barral, Georges Méliès, Jeanne d’Alcy, Bleuette Bernon

Run Time: 5 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.