Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edison Film Studios

Interrupted Lovers (1896)

Interrupted Lover (1896)

Another quickie Edison comedy from the summer of 1896, this one isn’t as long or quite as successful as “The Lone Fisherman.” Here, a young couple sits on a park bench, only to be assaulted during their necking by two men in gardener’s clothes, one wielding a shovel. The young woman appears to be played by a man in drag, but I don’t think that the audience is meant to notice that, so it isn’t intended to be part of the humor. The funny bit is, I guess, just that slapstick violence suddenly invades what seems to be a peaceful scene. It may even have been a kind of parody of or comment upon “The Kiss,” in that audiences expecting another depiction of a loving interlude would unexpectedly have this expectation thwarted and laugh in spite of themselves. Although the framing makes for a very tight shot, I believe this was also shot on location in a park.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run time: 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lone Fisherman (1896)

Lone Fisherman

Made during the September of 1896, this movie is a simple comedy, displaying the ability to get a laugh in just a short time and without the benefit of sound. It reminds me somewhat of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” although I wouldn’t call it a remake. A fellow in a Huck Finn-like costume sits down on a bridge, with a fishing pole and takes a quick swig from a bottle. Then, another man walks up behind him and tips the board he is sitting on, dropping him into the stream below. At that point, a horse and buggy pull up, and the passengers get out to laugh at the fellow in the drink. This is an early example of adding a “laugh track” to a movie to play up the humorous effect by giving the audience someone to laugh along with. At the end, the miscreant voluntarily jumps into the water and approaches the camera, apparently saying something, perhaps to the cameraman or the audience about what he has done. It was shot on location in Fanwood Park, not far from the Edison studio, showing that the Edison Company was beginning to think about taking cameras outside of the Black Maria at this point.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Watermelon Eating Contest (1896)

Watermelon Contest

Of all the movies I’ve reviewed for this blog, this one may be the most difficult for modern viewers to accept. Even “The Birth of a Nation” has its defenders who claim it is a “classic” or “great” movie, but no one is likely to say that about the “Watermelon Eating Contest.” It plays right into racist stereotypes which make the watermelon a symbol for African American “inferiority” and simplicity, and it does so unapologetically. Charles Musser tells us in “The Emergence of Cinema” that even at the time, viewers in some areas found it “nasty and vulgar because of the spitting and slobbering,” although they were not apparently alarmed by its racism. Indeed, one suspects that these (presumably white) viewers reacted to it in part for the simple effrontery of depicting African Americans at all. I think it’s important to note, however, because the ways in which blacks have been portrayed on film holds a mirror up to the face of America’s racial politics. This is the earliest example I know of, and it sets a low bar for filmmakers to improve on in the coming century and beyond.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here (fair warning: you may find it offensive or upsetting).

Inventor Edison Sketched by World Artist (1896)

Inventor Edison Drawn

“Lightning sketches” that showed an artist at his work during the short running time of the early motion picture camera were a common format for movies in 1896. This example is noteworthy because it brings the celebrity of Thomas Edison together with the novelty of his newest invention, in this case without his having even been filmed in person. The artist in this case was J. Stuart Blackton, at that time a cartoonist for the New York World newspaper. He later claimed that Edison was present for the sketch, however this is discounted by historians, and seems pretty dubious to the casual viewer, given the fact that he never looks up from his drawing during the run time of the movie. Blackton apparently gained considerable fame from this movie, and became so enthusiastic about cinema that he went on to help found the American Vitagraph Company, going into competition with Edison, and then getting in trouble due to patent infringement, before becoming one of the first “licensed” motion picture exhibitors. This movie suffers a bit from the fact that quality of the print has diminished to where it can be hard to make out the drawing, but it’s still an interesting piece of film history.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Shooting the Chutes (1896)

Shooting the Chutes

The Edison company was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to making Actuality films. The Lumiére Brothers had gotten in ahead of them in 1895, and when W.K.L. Dickson defected to help form the Biograph Company in 1896, he started making them as well. Edison got into the game in the Summer, with movies such as this one, shot at Coney Island. It’s worth remembering that the Edison motion picture camera was a very bulky, desk-like apparatus, that hadn’t been designed with mobility in mind. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine that audiences were especially thrilled with this movie, which shows a ride that would probably be identified as a “water flume” today. At the opening of the picture, a single pod shoots past us – not especially quickly – and for the rest of the running time we watch another slowly ascend. Next to it is another track, which seems to life some sort of hay ride up and lower it at the same ponderous speed. Flags flutter in the wind, so at least there is some movement.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 40 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Kiss (1896)

Alternate Titles: “The May Irwin Kiss,” “The John C. Rice – May Irwin Kiss,” “The Rice – Irwin Kiss,” “The Widow Jones.

May_Irwin_John_C._Rice_Kiss_1896

This is a medium close-up of two people, a man and a woman, kissing. It was one of the first movies shot for the Edison Vitascope projection system, and was released with much ballyhoo. It should be noted that the Vitascope, while it was an important development in motion picture history, was not entirely successful. It apparently ran somewhat jerkily and unreliably, and required a great deal of electrical energy to run (there are reports of rather dangerous arrangements in which it was hooked up to streetcar tracks to siphon power). At the same time, the Lumiere BrothersCinematograph and the new Mutoscope company’s device were in competition, apparently with rather more success, bringing in a profit for distributors, which the Vitascope mostly failed to do.

Vitascope

But, back to “The Kiss.” John C. Rice and May Irwin were the stars of the theatrical hit “The Widow Jones,” which reaches a climax in Act I when the shy male lead kisses the widow. The Edison company brought these two stars to the Black Maria to film the famous scene. In fact, the kiss itself only lasts a few seconds, most of the film has the two of them speaking lines of (unheard) dialogue to one another with their faces pressed intimately together. Only at the end does Rice back off and straighten his mustache, taking her head in his hands and finally moving in for the kiss. It is noteworthy that, while Rice is middling-attractive, Irwin does not seem to be a “beauty” by contemporary standards or modern. The point, I think, is that passion is for anyone, not reserved to only the young or to those who meet certain subjective standards of beauty.

There seem to be conflicting reports as to media reaction to this movie. Wikipedia, citing a source I’m not familiar with, claims that it was seen as “disgusting” and resulted in calls for censorship. However, Charles Musser, in “The Invention of the Movies,” claims that the result was to make John C. Rice into a “kissing star,” able to tour the coast giving men tips on how to kiss effectively. When Irwin tried to take “The Widow Jones” on the road with another male star, audiences wouldn’t have it, insisting she get back together with Rice, the best kisser in town. Either way, this movie seems to have been a big hit for the Edison studios, even if the machine it was produced for never took off.

Director: William Heise

Camera: William Heise

Starring: May Irwin, John C. Rice

Run Time: 34 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Amy Muller (1896)

Amy Muller

I can find out very little about this Edison short; I’m not even certain whether it was originally shot for the peep-hole viewing of the kinetoscope, or whether it was originally meant for the vitascope projector – Edison’s first device for projecting motion pictures on the screen. It is another brief dance clip, this time of a “toe dance,” as it was called in the catalog at the time, or ballet. Ms. Muller actually works a cartwheel into her act, and quite a bit of petticoat material becomes visible, between that and her twirls. Possibly quite racy for the time, Ms Muller is apparently forgotten while Annabelle Moore is still remembered by historians, at least.

Director: William Heise

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Amy Muller

Run Time: 30 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895)

Execution of Mary

Alternate Title: The Execution of Mary Stuart

The debate rages boringly on about which movie is the “first narrative film.” I don’t really think knowing which is “first” is all that important (though I’d submit “The Sprinkler Sprinkled” as a good candidate for having a beginning, a middle, and an end); what’s interesting is the way that early filmmakers seem to have constantly edged towards telling stories, even when their technology was frankly inadequate to the task. This movie probably has a good claim on being the first to recreate a historical event, and also is certainly one of the first “trick films,” which uses an edit to achieve a special effect (sorry, Méliès fans, this came before he even had a camera). What we see is a group of people surrounding a chopping block, with one dressed as Mary, who kneels and puts her head on the block as the executioner raises his axe. Then, a quick edit and he lowers the axe to chop off a doll’s head, holding the head up high for all to see. Again, interest in the kinetoscope was already waning in 1895, so the thrilling and gory subject matter may have been an effort to drum up business.

Director: Alfred Clark

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 28 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Princess Ali (1895)

Princess Ali

Alternate Title: Egyptian Dance

I don’t know much about this movie, but it is clearly a Kinetoscope short made in the Black Maria, and was shot in the Spring of 1895, when interest in Kinetoscopes was already starting to flag. It shows a woman in Middle Eastern dress dancing, and may be the first “belly dance video.” There are three musicians behind her, also in what looks to me like Arab costume (one has a turban, they all are in robes). Two of them, at least, are men, while the third is mostly offscreen, so it’s hard to say. According to Charles Musser in The Emergence of Cinema, these were performers brought in from Barnum & Bailey’s Circus. He also makes an allusion, in an interview for “The Invention of Movies,” to belly dancing as a “forbidden” spectacle, something that was shocking at the time. No doubt this was intended to drum up interest even as the novelty of the technology began to wear off.

Director: William Heise

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 27 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Billy Edwards and the Unknown (1895)

Billy Edwards Fight

This is another quick round of a boxing match, which I assume would have been released along with other rounds, for viewing on a Kinetoscope in sequence. The fighters in this match are short – both noticeably shorter than the referee in the ring, and seem to be quick and determined to get as many hits in as possible before the camera times out. We see the end of the round and one of the fighters returns to his corner and gets fanned by a towel. There are a number of spectators in the background, and one gets the impression that this fight was quite an event, although we are still dealing with the small area of the Black Maria. The fashions are interesting: both fighters sport long mustaches and the ref is in an elaborate evening coat, with a style that reminds me of Severus Snape. Many of the spectators wear stove-pipe hats.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 31 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.