Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edison Studios

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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The Teddy Bears (1907)

This short movie from Edison mixes three kinds of fantasy together to make a somewhat incoherent family-style film. Probably one of the more expensive productions the studio brought out in the dry year of 1907, it remains fascinating from a historical perspective.

The movie begins with a shot of a rustic cottage in the woods, with snow on the ground all around it. A small figure is dancing for the camera in the front yard – it is someone dressed up as a bear. This child-bear holds a Teddy Bear as he dances. Shortly, a Mama bear (with an apron) comes out and calls him into the house, but the cub resists, he wants to go on playing. After a brief chase the Mama bear calls out the Papa bear (he wears pants and glasses). Baby starts throwing snowballs at them, but he is shortly caught and brought in by the ear. Then the family goes inside the house. They quickly return, now dressed in winter clothing for a walk. They walk offstage together, Baby again dragging his Teddy Bear along. Read the rest of this entry »

Getting Evidence (1906)

This short comedy from Edison relies on a predictable formula of repeated foiled attempts and physical violence to get laughs. It has similarities to other comedies of the period, and, yes, even a large-scale chase sequence as well.

The opening title tells us this will show “the trials and tribulations of a private detective.” The first shot shows a stage dressed to be a classic private eye’s office, right down to the door with “Hawkshaw Private Detective” printed on the glass. The detective reclines in a chair with a newspaper. A man comes into the office and paces about, agitated. He gives the detective an envelope, which the detective opens and reads, then the two sit at the desk while the detective gets the particulars. The man gives him money, then leaves.

The next scene takes place in front of a house. The detective “sneaks” quite openly into a hiding position behind a pole, then watches as a lady and a gentleman emerge from the house and get into a car. The detective jumps out to photograph the two of them driving off, but as he does so, a gardener comes up from behind him with a wheelbarrow and knocks him down, wheeling him off. Next we see the detective on a country road. He jumps out as the car approaches, attempting to take his picture, but the driver runs him over. He gets up and hobbles off. The next scene shows the man and the woman at an outdoor café at a club, being waited on by an African American waiter. The detective tries to take their picture again, but this time the man punches him and drives him off. The detective meets the waiter outside and pays him for his jacket, then smears dirt on his face to create blackface and puts on a shaggy wig. He serves the couple, but as he prepares to take the picture, the man grabs a seltzer bottle and sprays him in the face.

In the next scene, the couple is golfing, and the man hides in a sand trap. When he leaps up to take the picture, the woman drives the ball right at him, hitting him and knocking him down. The couple goes to see who’s been hurt, but when they find it is him, the man smashes his camera. Next we see the detective in a sailor suit, getting onto a gondola ahead of the couple. They board and he prepares to take his picture, but the man punches him and knocks him into the water. Then the couple are seen sitting on a hammock together in a park. The detective sets up a tripod to take their picture from behind, but when the flash goes off they are alerted and the man again smashes the camera. Finally, the couple stroll along  the beach, followed by the detective in a white uniform. This time he is able to take their picture unobserved, they are so distracted by one another, but another bather rises the alarm and soon the whole beach is after him! He manages to stash the photograph by hiding out under a levee, but the crowd does find him, beat him, and smash his camera again.

Now we see the client and his wife together at home. He is obviously agitated and the wife denies doing anything wrong. The detective is shown in, with bandages and bruises from all of his fights, and triumphantly shows the man the photograph he took. It’s the wrong woman! The woman and the man in the photo are shown in (apparently it is the mother-in-law), and then the poor man is forcibly shown the door.

This movie has a lot in common with “Mr. Flip,” that came out a few years later. The comedy hinges on a man being a persistent pest, and not taking the hint when he is upbraided for his behavior. The seltzer spritz and wheelbarrow scene are also similar to some of the punishments Ben Turpin suffers in that film. Unlike Turpin, however, this comedian doesn’t really add much to his pratfalls, he just takes the abuse when it comes. He isn’t funny in himself, it’s just that some of the things that happen to him are funny. The car running over him is pretty convincing, although I think it was done with jump cuts and a dummy. I particularly laughed when the entire beach started chasing him after it looked like he would (finally!) get off all right. I mostly felt sorry for him, though. Given that the couple weren’t doing anything wrong, it seems that the violence they mete out in defense of their privacy is a bit extreme.

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Paul Panzer

Run Time: 14 Min

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

Kathleen Mavourneen (1906)

A short melodrama from Edwin S. Porter that draws from Nineteenth Century theater as well as traditional song, and comes off as creaky as any movie of the Nickelodeon Era. While we see some evidence of the editing techniques that made Porter famous, acting and plot don’t show much advancement in this one.

Kathleen is a lovely Irish lass, introduced in a pastoral setting before a waterfall. She is approached by Captain Clearfield, her landlord, who has designs on her affections. Kathleen spurns his advances, but when he persists, the heroic Terence O’More comes onto the scene and fights him off. Clearfield is now shown conspiring with a band of thugs who hold up a carriage on the highway. He meets with them in a very fake-looking cave set, and divvies up the spoils of their heist. Now Clearfield shows up at Kathleen’s father’s home, accompanied by four men in uniform (I think they’re supposed to be bailiffs, but they look like bellboys to me). When his advances on Kathleen are again spurned, he orders the men to turn Kathleen and her father out of their home. When O’More overhears what is happening, he runs off to get the neighbors to band together and drive off the bailiffs. This precipitates a lengthy chase sequence, which ends with all of the bailiffs chased into the river.

There are two “lost scenes” that follow this sequence, which are today replaced with Intertitles. In the first, the gang kidnaps Kathleen with chloroform, rendering her unconscious and dragging her back to the cave. In the second, one of Clearfield’s henchman knocks out her father and sets the house on fire. O’More arrives in time to rescue him and then goes in pursuit of Kathleen. Wearing a hood, he pretends to be a bootlegger, and convinces some of the men to take him back to their hideout to drink whiskey. Once there, he tears off his disguise and engages in fisticuffs with the entire gang, besting them and freeing Kathleen. The final sequence is a wedding dance for Kathleen and O’More.

This movie is based on a play by Dion Boucicault, which was apparently unreleased in America at the time. The play had been based on the song “Kathleen Mavourneen,” which was popular among Irish Americans during the Civil War. “Mavourneen” is derived from the Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning “my beloved.” The lyrics to this song are simply maudlin longing for a lost love, with no mention of all the complications of an evil landlord and robbers, so Americans unfamiliar with the play might have been baffled by the plot of this movie, which lacks Intertitles or other explanatory techniques to reveal the plot and characters. No doubt some exhibitors provided narration to make sense of it. Historian Charles Musser in “Before the Nickelodeon,” suggests that Porter may have “misjudged their audience’s familiarity” with the material or else “failed to achieve the level of self-sufficient clarity” that was needed. In any event, the movie, which was comparably complex to shoot, was not a big success with exhibitors, who bought fewer than half as many copies as was the case for “The Terrible Kids.”

Looking at it today, it’s hard not to see Clearwater as a classic example of the mustache-twirling “you must pay the rent” model of an evil landlord from the silent era. At least he never ties Kathleen to any railroad tracks! I think he would have seemed old-fashioned even to the moviegoers of the time, in fact. His behavior derives from stage conventions of the Victorian age, which movies would often lampoon in coming years. Given that he has the forces of the law on his side, it seems somewhat unrealistic that simply besting him in single combat is enough to remove his threat, but that is also a convention of simplistic melodrama. The more “modern” pieces of the film include the chase sequence, which we’ve been seeing a lot of lately, and the closing dance, which makes me think of “Watermelon Patch” and “The Miller’s Daughter.”

Director: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring:Kitty O’Neil, Walter Griswoll

Run Time: 15 Min

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

The Terrible Kids (1906)

An early “JD’s” (for juvenile delinquents) film, this short from Edison shows the exploits of two naughty boys and their faithful dog, terrorizing the adult world through pranks. The comedy relies on pratfalls and physical stunts for its humor, and on the audience’s enjoyment of seeing the kids get away with their mischief.

Similar to “The Great Train Robbery,” the movie opens with a close-up on our miscreants, who are seen munching on (possibly stolen) pastries, while their dog sits up and begs. When the kid on the right tries to feed him a bit of his pastry, the dog tries to steal the whole thing, giving us a sense of his character right off the bat! The next scene shows a young woman in a summer dress with a small dog of her own. The kids run up to her and seem to try to take the dog away, but she shoos them off. Then, a gentleman comes up and speaks to her. They put the dog in her purse and put it on the ground while they speak. He seems to be giving her directions as the kids’ dog runs up from behind and snatches the purse, running off down the street. The kids run past and the adults notice and give chase.

The next scene is an ethnically insensitive portrayal of a Chinese American, who walks with a funny lope down the street and has a long “queue” or ponytail. The dog runs up from behind him and bites the queue, knocking him down and hanging onto it as the kids run up and laugh. His attempts to get up and chastise them are discouraged by the dog’s persistence in knocking him down. Again, kids and dog end the scene by running off with the adult in pursuit. The next scene involves a poster-hanger, attempting to glue posters on a wall from a ladder. The kids again run up and start putting their hands on the glue, and he shoos them away, flinging glue at them from his brush. Then, once he is five steps up the ladder, the dog jumps up and bites his pants-leg, bringing him crashing to the ground and spilling all of his glue. Now the dog runs up behind two proper Victorian ladies out for a stroll. They ignore him as he runs past with a piece of rope, but then the kids, holding the other end of the rope, position themselves to trip the ladies (incidentally giving the audience occasional glimpses of their petticoats and ankles). Dog and children run around the ladies, effectively tying them together to give them time to escape while the ladies disentangle themselves from the rope.

The next shot shows a wooden fence. The dog runs up and grabs a rope hanging from the top of the fence, suspending itself in the air until the kids lean over and pull it across. It’s not really clear why they do this until the adults, now joined by a policeman, start running up to the fence and start trying to scale it and pursue them. Now we see an opening in the same fence and a large yard behind it. The kids and the dog run across the yard to the opening, then the dog grabs a piece of rope and uses it to trip all of the pursuers. The next shot is of a hillside, and we see the adults rolling up it in what seems to be reversed-action. I guess (?) we are meant to think this is what happens after they are tripped, although we saw them all get up and start running in the previous shot. Again, the undergarments of the women are positioned to be visible during the roll. The next shot is of a trolley, and the kids jump on, luring all of the adults on board before leaping off. The adults climb out of the windows (I guess the kids are supposed to have locked the doors, but I don’t see this as happening). The pursuit continues down a country street, with the dog in the lead. After he runs past, a policeman sees the crowd coming and waits behind a fence in order to catch the kids. The other policeman helps him to drag the kids to a waiting paddy wagon (or “Black Maria”). The camera pans past the dog, sitting innocently on the street corner as the kids are bundled aboard, and once the cops are gone, he leaps up to open the handle. As soon as the wagon starts to roll, the door springs open and the kids and dog make their escape.

Ultimately, this movie is a variation on the chase film, which became so popular in the Nickelodeon Era. Each shot is set up to have one action take place, usually ending with a pratfall or funny physical stunt. No Intertitles are necessary, the movie is shot cheaply, and few effects are seen (assuming that we can count people rolling uphill in reverse as an effect). The only camera movement is the pan at the end, and we only have the one close-up at the beginning. The movie still has the sense of being performed by amateurs. During the opening sequence, we can see the kids responding to directions from off-screen. Occasionally, they look up as if distracted by whatever is being said to them. They are clearly not actors, and neither do the adults attempt to give their characters any real motivation, except anger at the kids.

No one is acting here.

Movies like this were criticized for giving children bad examples of behavior, and it is noteworthy that the children are allowed to escape punishment at the end. Of course, bad boys had been in the movies since “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” and the process of chasing and catching them was typical of the resolution, but usually justice would be seen to prevail, however much the audience may have enjoyed identifying with their acts of mischief up to that point. In subverting this narrative by his ending, director Edwin S. Porter may have been consciously or unconsciously attacking his critics, which surely only made them angrier.

Director:Wallace McCutcheon Edwin S. Porter and

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: “Mannie” the dog, unknown

Run Time: 7 Min

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

Films of the San Francisco Earthquake (1906)

Actuality footage of one of the major natural disasters of the Nickelodeon Era. These early newsreels fed audiences hungry to see what they were reading about in the papers.

On April 18, 1906, an earthquake of an estimated 7.7-7.9 magnitude hit San Francisco. Because of the construction standards of that time, the quake did far more damage than would be expected today, but worse was the fact that fires quickly broke out that could not be contained. Broken water mains and damaged streets prevented the quick response of volunteer fire departments, the fire burned for four days, destroying huge portions of the city. Hundreds of people lost their lives, and tens of thousands their homes, and the entire city was disrupted. Naturally, this was a major news event at the time. While there was likely no camera rolling during the actual quake, nor so far as I can tell during the height of the fires, there were newsreel cameramen on site within days, taking images of the devastation, the refugees, and the rescue efforts.

This particular “movie” is included in the “Invention of the Movies” DVD from Kino, and serves to give us a sample of that footage. I am not certain whether it was ever screened in the form we see here, whether it is stitched together from multiple sources, or whether it is a fragment of a larger film. In comparing what we do have here with “Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies,” it doesn’t appear that documentary techniques have changed much in six years. The camera pans across scenes of devastation, wisely getting human figures into the picture when possible for scale, and stays at a distance from its subjects. There are a few shots of newspaper headlines to give context, but I assume that exhibitors would usually provide a running narration, possibly reading from newspapers, to add to the drama of the images, when these scenes were originally shown. We do see some flaming buildings in relatively close-shot, but the long pans show a city after the fires have passed.

For a modern viewer, the first response is that the ruined cityscapes look like the aftermath of a war, but it’s interesting to note that large-scale artillery attacks on civilian areas were rare at the time, and aerial bombing nonexistent. Thus, when people who lived in 1906 witnessed such things as in the later World Wars, they were more likely to think that they were “like an earthquake.”

Director: Robert K. Bonine

Camera: Unknown, likely Robert K. Bonine

Run Time: 2 Min

You can only see the reviewed version on the “Inventing the Movies” DVD, however some of the same shots are edited into a film: here (no music) and you can see a much longer set of actuality footage of the 1906 earthquake aftermath here (no music).

Police Chasing Scorching Auto (1905)

This short from Edison is a 3-shot movie that depicts a car chase from the point of view of the pursuers. It doesn’t hold up today as an especially effective narrative, but the camerawork may have excited audiences of the day.

A small child stands in the middle of a wide city street, waving her arm. A mounted policeman rides into the shot from in front of her, appearing to be the subject of her waves, but he suddenly dismounts and runs over, grabbing her and pulling her to one side. Then a car comes from behind camera, and leisurely cruises through the spot where she was standing. The policeman signals to others, who pursue the car while he pulls the little girl to the safety of the sidewalk.

The next shot is a tracking shot, apparently done by a camera mounted on a car, which follows two police bikes as they chase the automobile up a parkway to Grant’s Tomb. The police slowly close in on the car, whose occupants occasionally wave back at the cops. One fellow seems to try to beat them off with his top hat as they pass to cut it off. Finally, at the top of the parkway, the car stops with the two policemen in front of it.

The next shot is from a stationary camera at a slight angle, showing the police questioning the driver and passengers, some of whom appear to be a bit drunk or belligerent. A policeman gets into the car and the driver prepare to drive off before the end of the movie – apparently they are coming quietly to the precinct.

This whole chase never exceeds 35 mph, perhaps less, but by the standards of the time, it is still fairly exciting. The key is the sequence shot from the back of a moving vehicle, which allows the viewer to experience the chase as if they were pursuers. For an audience which only occasionally saw pans or tilts, this lengthy tracking shot was probably a pretty big deal (although note that travel films as well as “The Great Train Robbery” had included scenes shot from the top of railroad trains much earlier than this). With a live narrator filling in the gaps about how to read the reactions of the onlookers and the miscreants, this was probably good entertainment for the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter, Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Unknown, possibly Edwin S. Porter or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 3 Min

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

Life of American Policeman (1905)

This famous follow-up to “Life of an American Fireman” by Edwin S. Porter is a longer movie, but oddly less satisfying than its predecessor. Where that movie was an innovation in bringing sequential narrative to film, this one seems to lose its thread and becomes more a series of unconnected vignettes.

The opening scene parallels the original, by showing us a policeman off duty at home, with his wife and small child. The man sits at the table, reading his newspaper and smoking, while the woman tends to the needs of two very small girls. Meanwhile, a slightly larger boy marches around the table in his father’s police helmet, and carrying his belt and nightstick. After a while, father rises to leave and mother brings him his coat. He gives each of the children a kiss in turn, and retrieves his articles from Junior, before going out the door. After he leaves, the woman brings the children to the window to wave, although we can see pretty clearly that there is nothing but a studio wall behind it. Note that this policeman has no mustache. Read the rest of this entry »