Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edison Studios

Emigrants Landing at Ellis Island (1903)

This actuality short from Edison depicts part of the wave of immigration that hit US shores in the early Twentieth Century, forever changing the face of the country. It’s a bit longer – and involves more shots – than earlier Lumiére documents of people disembarking boats and trains, but doesn’t really surpass them in narrative.

The first shot shows a ferry carrying people to Ellis Island from the docks where their ships put in at New York harbor. The ferry is clearly full of many people, but it looks comfortable and clean, possibly better than the conditions many had sailed over with. As it draws past, we read the name of the company, “Wm Myers.” The second shot is taken directly in front of the gangplank, so that we see the first departures off the boat coming right at the camera. They are carrying their bags, and seem intent on getting where they are going. This shot is rapidly replaced by a shot at a 30-45 degree angle, allowing the passengers to pass in front of the camera over more time. This lets us get a look at their clothes and condition. The first to pass appear to be wearing middle-class Western clothes, but they are soon followed by a number of girls with scarves over their hair, looking more like Eastern European Jews (possibly Hasidic). We see a lot of women, in varying clothing, some carrying babies or accompanied by children. Although most are carrying bags or luggage of some kind, none appears to have a lot of possessions, and we rarely see a family with both an identifiable mother and father together, although both men and women pass by individually.

Ellis Island was a port of entry for a tremendous number of immigrants from various parts of Europe from 1892 until the late 1920s, when restrictions on immigration reduced the influx, and it remained in operation until 1954. It appears to me that the cameraman chose groups of “exotic”-looking immigrants for his subject, although each ferry would have brought over people from a variety of ships and locations, so this probably wasn’t difficult. There doesn’t seem to have been a political motivation for this movie – the passengers are not depicted as particularly threatening or as especially noble, they’re just people. The Edison cameraman was probably aware that Ellis Island was a “famous” location in New York and was taking advantage of its familiarity to produce a film with some potential for sales. In that sense, it becomes a valuable document of the country as “a nation of immigrants,” and a simple connection with history. Many of the people reading this blog probably had ancestors who passed through Ellis Island, and this allows us to see a part of what they experienced. It’s interesting that, compared to other movies taken in public places at the time, there seems to be less interest in the camera, although a few of the passengers do stare very hard at this contraption of their New World as they walk past.

Director: Alfred C. Abadie

Camera: Alfred C. Abadie

Starring: Unknown aspiring immigrants

Run Time: 2 Min, 5 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

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The Crime of Carelessness (1912)

Released by Edison three years before “Children of Eve,” this movie also exploits public interest in industrial accidents generated by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. Unlike that movie, it also attempts to shift the blame for such accidents away from the owners and managers, and to the workers themselves.

The movie begins by showing an on-site inspector who discovers a pile of materials blocking an emergency exit door. He points this out to the owner (Bigelow Cooper), and begins to write up a citation, but the owner apparently talks him out of it. No money changes hands, and there is plenty of open space visible on a nearby wall, so maybe he has simply promised to move the offending objects. The next scene introduces the “lovers,” Hilda (Mabel Trunnelle) and Tom (Barry O’Moore), who are workers in the plant. When they kiss, the owner and inspector discreetly turn their backs for a moment. A shot follows showing “the day’s work over,” which appears to have been inspired by the famous Lumière shortWorkers Leaving the Factory,” and then we see Hilda and Tom celebrating their engagement with Hilda’s family. The family also discreetly leaves them alone after Hilda has a chance to show off her ring.

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A Suffragette in Spite of Himself (1912)

This short film from Edison was actually shot in England and used local locations to create a comedy that was “ripped from the headlines” of the United Kingdom. It manages to address a thorny topic while walking a fine line in terms of not offending viewers of different perspectives, but it may undermine its own humor by walking on eggshells.

The movie begins by introducing our protagonist – a man who is strongly opposed to votes for women. His day begins at the breakfast table with a newspaper, and that paper informs him of the recent activism of suffragettes who have smashed windows, attacked a member of Parliament, and chained themselves to fences to make their case. He gestures broadly to demonstrate his displeasure in this situation and in the process upends a tea tray carried in by his young and pretty maid. He blames her for the accident, but his wife smooths things over a bit. As he gets ready to go, we see how absent-minded and dependent upon his wife he is. She gently helps him remember to take off the napkin tucked into his shirt, find the monocle that has fallen behind his back, and discover the gloves tucked into his hat before leaving the house. Appropriately prepared, he now goes out into the London streets.

The scene shifts to show a woman tacking up a “votes for women” sign to a tree. As soon as she leaves, two boys come up and remove it, then wait for a victim, who is of course our hapless protagonist. The smaller boy distracts him while the older one tacks the sign to his back. He walks off with a sign proclaiming the opposite of his beliefs visible to everyone behind him. His first encounter is in fact an anti-suffrage meeting. A group of men who are just as enraged about recent events as he is are spilling out onto the street, and he tries to engage them in discussion, but the ones behind him see the sign and attack him, he runs off pursued by these erstwhile allies, and then stops to remonstrate with them in front of a news shop. Finally, he picks up his cane to defend himself, but he misses his attackers and inadvertently smashes the windows of the shop. He then runs away, now pursued by the men as well as the police.

He manages to evade pursuit somewhere near the Houses of Parliament, and leans over a railing to rest. But, when he gets up, it turns out that the chain of his stopwatch has caught and he is now “chained to the palings.” Of course, two passing policemen see his sign and take him for a protestor. They extract him in an effort to secure his arrest. At this moment, a group of marching women approaches, and sees what they take to be an ally in distress. They rush over and assault the policemen, freeing our hero and removing him from the scene. They try to convince him to join in, but he is still flustered and confused about the whole affair. Finally, one of them removes the sign from his back and shows it to him. He rushes off, humiliated.

Now he returns to his happy home. But the maid has seen him while he was with the mob of suffragettes, and takes him to be sympathetic to their cause. She puts a large sign, rolled up, just below his bar. He goes to fix a much-needed drink to calm his nerves, but the sign comes unrolled just as his wife walks in. She sees the sign and takes his drink away – evidently he’s had too much already!

Since this movie is shot in England, it makes sense that the term “suffragette” is used instead of “suffragist,” but it’s worth noting that the producers intended it for an American audience, who would have read in the papers about the much more strident activism of women’s advocates in that country. Women really were smashing windows and chaining themselves to buildings in protest there, but this movie makes fun of their opposition more than the women themselves. The hero of the movie is the ridiculous one, and the suffragettes appear as comparably sympathetic, especially the maid, who is young and pretty as opposed to mannish or old. This is emphasized by the very broad acting our hero displays as well, although for 1912, even in comedy, this has to be read as a bit too strong. I tend to see it as further evidence of the degree to which Edison directors failed to keep up with the changing standards of cinema, although there’s a nice insert shot of the watch chain when the man gets trapped. The film does avoid stereotyping feminists, but it also steers clear of endorsing them, seeming to be trying  to walk a kind of middle-line that leaves it with fairly little to do but laugh at the Mr. Magoo-ish foolishness of its star. Absent-minded people are funny enough, I suppose, but they don’t offer a lot of originality in comedy, even in 1912.

Director: Ashley Miller

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Marc McDermott, Miriam Nesbitt, Ethel Browning

Run Time: 8 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Why Mr. Nation Wants a Divorce (1901)

Similar to “Kansas Saloon Smashers,” this is another comedy short from Edison about the militant prohibitionist, Carrie Nation, this movie uses gender-role reversal to lampoon her efforts. Here, we get a peek into what critics thought of her home life – and it turned out to have more truth than they may have realized.

A wide-angle shot of a proscenium-style set shows a domestic middle-class bedroom, decorated with a needlepoint proclaiming “What Is a Home without a Mother?” and two rather creepy-looking portraits of the husband and wife. The husband, a man with a long beard, jumps out of bed in his nightshirt, and picks up a baby from a crib. Evidently, the baby is crying and its mother is nowhere to be seen. The man checks the baby’s diaper, then begins strolling about the room rocking the child to sleep. In the process, he steps on a tack. Just as he puts the baby back in  its crib, an older boy crawls out of the bed, also crying. This child the father disciplines with a quick spanking, turning him over his knee for a couple of quick pats, then rudely pushing him back into the bed. Now the hapless husband paces about the room, bemoaning the absence of his wife. He picks up a newspaper and grows even more angry – presumably it is filled with tales of Mrs. Nation’s exploits. He throws it into the fire. The baby is still not asleep, so now he gives it its bottle, and this reminds him of his own bottle: a bottle of whiskey secreted under a pillow. He retrieves it and starts to drink with pleasure, when suddenly Mrs. Nation arrives unexpectedly. She grabs the bottle and throws it out the door, then turns Mr. Nation over her knee and spanks him, just as he had done to their son only moments earlier.

The humor of this movie is mostly based on the idea that a politically active woman is by definition neglecting her wifely duties, and that a weak man will be dominated by a strong woman, creating an unnatural and thereby funny situation (Mr. Nation is smaller than his wife). It’s all the more ironic in that Carrie Nation only returns from her “manly” political work in order to assert her dominance over her tippling husband. None of this is likely to get a lot of laughs today, but what is somewhat funny is that the real Mr. Nation, a retired minister, did in fact sue his wife for divorce on similar grounds only a few months after this film. He wasn’t taking care of children (Carrie’s only daughter, from a previous marriage, was a grown woman), but he did complain that she neglected the housework and wouldn’t let him drink! I thought that the depiction of child-rearing in the film was interesting: apparently the best way to get a child to sleep was to give him a couple of smacks on the bottom. I doubt if Dr. Spock would endorse this.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 40 secs.

You can watch it for free: here.

Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901)

This short film from Edison gives a comic reproduction of then-recent prohibitionist activity in the Mid-West.  Although her name is not mentioned in the title, it is clearly a film about Carrie Nation.

We see a proscenium-style wide-shot of the front of a bar, with various characters approaching the bartender to purchase drinks. There is a working-class woman, who buys a “growler” in a bucket, a friendly policeman, who buys and drinks a whiskey, and an Irish caricature, who carries a sod shovel and smokes a pipe. Suddenly, a group of women in black dresses and bonnets rush in with hatchets, smashing bottles of liquor. One of them grabs the “growler” the Irishman was buying and throws it on him, then she runs behind the bar and smashes the mirror. She is then sprayed by the bartender with his seltzer bottle, and the tide of the battle turns as the policeman returns to escort the women out of the bar. They leave, but the policeman slips on the beer and falls. The bartender also slips right as the film ends.

The Real Carrie Nation with a hatchet.

Carrie Nation was able to carry out her attacks on Kansas saloons in part because State law stated that they should not exist. She would be arrested for disturbing the peace, but released after a day because of the difficulty associated with prosecuting her for doing what the police were supposed to do already. The eastern Edison crew that worked on this movie don’t seem to have been terribly sympathetic, the cop we see drinking seems to be a nice fellow, and the prohibitionists are out of control and ultimately defeated with a seltzer spritzer. Still, it was a smart move, dramatizing events that were widely spoken about among the classes of people that were watching movies at the time. This movie was likely adapted both for individual kinetoscope viewing and for screening at venues that had projectors. It’s a pretty simple shoot, but note that the smashing of the mirror is accomplished with a jump cut, similar to the effects that Georges Méliès was now famous for. The narrator on the “Treasures” disc this is included with suggests that the women are played by men: if so, I couldn’t tell, but it’s true that women were pretty scarce at the early Edison shoots.

Director: George S. Fleming and Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Pack Train at Chilkoot Pass (1898)

This short film from Edison depicts a piece of an important historical event – the Klondike Gold Rush – as it was seen by news consumers at the time. By 1898, location shooting made it possible to see bits of news events in motion, rather than just as still images in the paper.

What we see is a winding trail from the point of view of a camera placed behind a bush, just off the trail. The pack train approaches us, led by a man on a horse, with several heavily-laden mules following. The train continues for some time, alternating a series of mules with a man on a horse every few seconds. The pack train does not finish passing the camera before the film runs out; it seems to continue forever. Towards the end, a man appears atop a rock to the left side of the trail, looking down at the train, and seems to interact with the men on horseback.

The Chilkoot Pass was a critical artery connecting people to the Klondike, and at times it was filled with streams of gold-seeking migrants. Some very famous images of this event were used or reproduced in later movies, such as “The Gold Rush” (1924) starring Charlie Chaplin. However, this image is fairly dark and blurry (possibly it just hasn’t aged well) and is otherwise unfamiliar. Perhaps it inspired gold fever in some viewers, who decided to try their luck in the Klondike, but it really shows how much competition there already was there by the time the movie was released.

Director: Unknown

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Seminary Girls (1897)

This was not the first or last time that the Edison Studio would produce a movie about girls in their nightclothes having a pillow fight. Presumably such titillating releases had an appeal for Kinetoscope audiences at the end of the nineteenth century.

The very short film shows a group of young women in a simple set with two beds, a dresser, and a door. They are already engaged in their “frolic” when the movie begins. They pick up pillows and begin hitting each other. One of them, devoid of a pillow, seems to be trying to defend herself with a sheet. Another tries to hide behind the dresser. Soon, a taller women (or possibly a man in drag) comes in through the door carrying a candle. She scolds them and is pummeled with pillows for her efforts, but soon has one of the miscreants by her toe as she tries to hide under the bed.

There’s not much to this film, but it’s pretty typical of the short film strips viewers could see in Kinetoscope parlors before projected film became standard. Presumably, most people dropping a nickel into a machine marked “Seminary Girls” were hoping for something a bit racier than what they got, but after all, it was still very much the Victorian Era. I note that the set, while still very simple, is a bit more advanced than in the earlier movie “Pillow Fight,” which didn’t even bother with walls or a door, just the usual black background of the Black Maria.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

The Cost of Carelessness (1913)

This early educational short was aimed at children in Brooklyn, and produced by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company. It depicts a variety of unsafe activities to try to caution children to be careful in traffic, and, incidentally, to exculpate the streetcar company from responsibility for accidents.

The movie begins by showing us the educational work that the company is engaging in, including setting up Safety Patrols (student crossing guards) and showing films in a classroom. Reversals are used during a lecture to show the reactions of some students to the presented material, and a double exposure allows us to see both the students watching the film and the film in progress at the same time.  After showing a parade of schoolchildren marching out of their school to take up positions on the Safety Patrol, the real meat of the movie gets going: depictions of unsafe behavior and the accidents that result.

The first behavior we are warned about is “hitching” by jumping onto the fenders of moving vehicles to catch a ride. We see two children do this on a streetcar, ignoring a warning from a conductor. When one leaps off, he runs in front of an automobile and is run over. Next, we see a group of children playing a game in the street that seems to involve hitting a piece of wood into the air and catching it. The kids pay little heed to the traffic in the street, focusing on their game and one another, then moving aside at the last minute as cars or streetcars go by. One waits too long and is run over, but he’s OK because of the “wheelguard” the company uses. The conductor fills in a report on the incident, but the child grins sheepishly throughout. When the streetcar moves on, the group gets ready to start up the game again, but the recent victim suggests moving to a nearby vacant lot, where no traffic is likely to come by. He gives a brief speech (via Intertitles) about looking both ways and not playing in the street.

Now the subject switches to adults who also need to be cautious. We are shown the right and wrong ways to disembark from a streetcar, with a pratfall as the result of the latter. We also see a man trying to leap onto a moving streetcar, which is prevented by the new “safety doors” that close when the streetcar is in motion. This is displayed by a series of reversals from inside and outside of the streetcar, in rather advanced editing for 1913. They also demonstrate the new “no-step” entryway to modern streetcars, which reduces the likelihood of tripping. Finally, we see some “bad drivers” who fail to give right-of-way, ignore traffic cops, and veer all over the road. One of these winds up side-swiping a streetcar and crashing. We then see the wreck, and the bodies of the driver and his passenger being pulled from it.

The urban environment was becoming more dangerous in the early twentieth-century, in part due to the introduction of the automobile, but also because of crowding and a lack of outdoor spaces for children to play in. I was surprised that the streetcar company would openly advocate trespassing on a vacant lot as a safer alternative to playing in the street, but presumably Brooklyn neighborhoods had few parks at the time. That shot, by the way, is fascinating, because behind the lot we can see a row of tightly-packed townhouses with laundry lines, something rarely caught on film at the time. In fact, despite all the production going on in New York, this is a rare look at Brooklyn residential areas (we’ve had some Coney Island movies in this project, so it isn’t our first trip to Brooklyn, but it’s very different from that).

Fans of the later era of “scare films” for driving safety, like “Red Asphalt” and “Mechanized Death,” will be interested to know that there was such an early precursor to these movies. While the accident-victim-footage shown here is comparably tame, it does appear that the actors were put at risk to make convincingly frightening reenactments. Directors showing car accidents in narrative films at the time were relatively cautious by comparison, sometimes to the point of undercutting the illusion, as in the case of “The Ex-Convict” and “Police Chasing Scorching Auto” where the “rescued” children appear to have been at no risk whatsoever. I was also impressed by the advanced use of editing in this movie, which made it livelier than such a plotless movie would normally be. The commentary from the “Treasures III” disc notes the very naturalistic acting of the performers, this is especially true compared to the wooden line-reading of educational films from the sound era, but catching naturalistic performances from children was always easier when they didn’t have to memorize lines.

Director: Unknown, possibly Eugene C. Clarke

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Hope – A Red Cross Seal Story (1912)

Similar to “The Usurer’s Grip,” this is another educational short from Edison that was made in collaboration with a nonprofit, in this case the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis (which has since become the American Lung Association). The thin plot serves as a framework for educating the public about the disease, although depictions of medical procedures or symptoms are avoided.

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The Usurer’s Grip (1912)

This educational film from Edison was made in collaboration with a Progressive-Era nonprofit that was fighting for equitable credit for working people. It has a clear message about the “right way to get a loan,” but is rather basic in terms of film technique.

The movie begins by introducing our protagonists: The “Jenks,” a middle class family with a sick daughter (Edna May Weick) on a set that appears to be a crowded urban apartment. The Intertitles inform us that they are having financial concerns due to the unexpected expense of her malady, and there is concern that they will lose their rented furniture. Then, Mr. Jenks (Water Edwin) spots an ad in the paper for a loan company that promises low rates and easy payments. The next scene shows the office of the loan company. Here, a poor woman on one side of a counter pleads for assistance, but is turned away by the female clerk on the other side. Then, our couple enters. The wife (Gertrude McCoy) takes a seat while the man goes up to the same counter the poor woman was turned away from. He is chastised when he steps a bit too far into the workspace of the clerk. She takes his information, however, and in the next scene we see the loan agent (played by Charles Ogle, who was the Frankenstein monster in the 1910 “Frankenstein”) visiting their home to make certain they have adequate collateral. He offers them a $25 loan, to be paid back in six “easy” payments of $7.50 per month – totalling $45! Mr. Jenks at first refuses, but the loan shark won’t negotiate and he needs the money, so he reluctantly signs the papers. The loan shark gives him the money, then takes a bill off the top to cover “drawing up the paperwork.”

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