Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edison Studios

Waiting at the Church (1906)

This Nickelodeon release from Edison Studios uses a popular song as the source for its story, which would have cued exhibitors what music to play for accompaniment, and perhaps encouraged audiences to sing along. Director Edwin S. Porter takes the simple premise to develop a comedic “chase film,” similar to others we’ve seen in the course of this project.

The movie begins with a shot of a man, sitting on a public bench, reading a newspaper. He is joined by a young woman who appears interested in making contact, although he tries to ignore her until she drops something from her purse. Then he gallantly recovers it for her and makes his introduction, and soon the two are strolling arm in arm, the camera panning to follow their action. The next scene shows the two of them at another bench before a lake in a park, flirting affectionately, and the man falls to his knee in the traditional pose for proposal. She responds enthusiastically, and several kisses are rapidly exchanged. The next shot is of the woman alone in a hammock, kissing a photograph repeatedly. A fantasy wedding appears in a double-exposure floating above the woman, but it disappears as the hammock unexpectedly collapses, causing her to crash to the ground. The man suddenly runs up to help her at this moment. The next shot is a medium shot of the man getting ready before a mirror. He fixes a collar on his shirt and fixes his hair with brush and comb, before putting on a jacket and top hat.

The next shot shows a group of children, ranging in age from about 3 to 10, standing in a circle tossing a ball. The man in his top hat is seen leaning out of a window of the house, but he withdraws before they see him. When one child throws the ball out of range, all of the children run off camera to chase it, and now the man comes out of the window and climbs out, running out to the street. The kids, seeing him make an escape, pursue him, the elder child running to the house to get her mother first. The next series of shots are out comedy chase. The man is running with a line of kids (and a wife) running after him, first down a suburban street, the across an open field, then through a columned pavilion, and finally up to the edge of some water, into which he splashes, the mother catching him here and dragging him off by the ear. One running gag is that the smallest child is unable to keep up, and so is always seen dawdling at the end of the line of pursuers. The final shot shows the woman from the original narrative, now dressed as a bride and standing on the stairs of a church, when a man in a messenger’s outfit walks up and gives her a note. She pays him by pulling some coins from her stocking and an insert of the note gives the punch line: “Can’t get away to marry you today. My wife won’t let me.”

While the joke may seem a bit lame today, audiences of the time probably appreciated it – the closing line comes from the chorus of the song, so it didn’t surprise so much as verify the humor they had been enjoying since the beginning of the film. The actress playing the jilted bride is Victoria Vesta, the music hall singer who had popularized the song. The camera movement, double-exposure, and mid-shot were all fairly advanced filmmaking techniques at the time, so this wasn’t necessarily a low-value production. It looked to me as if most of the locations used were pretty close together – the bench in the opening shot has columns behind it that look a lot like the pavilion, and the body of water he splashes into at the end could easily be the same lake we saw in the background of the proposal – but there are quite a lot of camera set ups for the period, and it looked to me as if the church was in some very different part of the city from the suburban homes we see when the man makes his escape. Porter had made a number of similar movies, perhaps the classic today being “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns,” but comedy chases were a staple of the time, because they allowed movement and action along with humor, and didn’t require much dialog or explanation once they were underway.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victoria Vesta, Alec B. Francis

Run Time: 9 Min

I have been unable to find this movie for free on the Internet. If you do, please comment.

Life of a Cowboy (1906)

For this Independence Day post, I’m reviewing a quintessentially American film – one which its director, Edwin S. Porter, believed was “the first filmed Western” (evidently “The Great Train Robbery” didn’t count). It makes use of familiar tropes of Western stage plays and Wild West shows to present its story.

It begins in a saloon, the “Big Horn” (named for a steer skull prominently hanging over the bar). An old Indian comes into the saloon, wobbling a bit, and is turned away by the white bartender. Now, an identifiable bad guy with a black hat comes in and orders a drink, taking it over to the Indian, but an Indian squaw runs up and knocks the glass away before he can take a drink. A generic white good guy in a white hat runs in and stops the bad guy from hurting her, then enforces his departure with his six-gun. He leaves, and some rather odd folks come in. One, identifiable by his Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker cap and portly girth, evidently represents an English tourist. There is also a skinnier man and a woman with him. Five cowboys on horseback soon enter and entertain themselves by shooting off guns and making the tourist “dance” ala “The Great Train Robbery.” They ride up to the bar and take some drinks, occasionally firing off a gun for good measure.

The next scene takes place on a dirt-covered street outside the hotel. A stagecoach drives up and disgorges the Englishman and his companions. The skinny Englishman is dragged out of the coach by some cowboys and playfully flogged with a saddle. The good guy from the first scene embraces the woman, pushing the bad guy aside when he shows an interest. Then we cut to a scene on a local ranch, where the local cowboys are showing off their lassoing skills to the newcomers. The portly Englishman gets too close, and is dragged around the yard before the main entertainment begins: a woman rides past the lasso artist and he ropes first her, and then her horse as they pass by. We now cut back to the dirt road and watch as the stage coach departs, and the bad guy jumps on a horse and follows, cutting to a side road at top speed.

The bad guy is soon seen to have rounded up some Indian allies, and they chase the stage, eventually overtaking it and wounding the driver. The woman is put on a horse by the bad guy and Englishmen are forced to walk. The stage driver is able to get to the good guy, who rounds up a posse to go after them. There is another chase and several Indians are shot as the good guy and his team liberate the prisoners. At last, evidently free from peril, the good guy and his girl sit by some trees, but the bad guy sneaks up on them, followed by a lone figure. Just as he is about to shoot the good guy in the back, the figure shoots him from behind and we see that it is the Indian girl from the first scene. The good guy thanks her and kisses his girl.

At 17 minutes, this is a fairly long movie for 1906, and it’s not easy to follow the action. I made use of a synopsis, provided to exhibitors by Edison, to make sense of it, and in the theater an exhibitor would most likely have narrated the action for the audience. That synopsis refers to the bad guy as “a Mexican greaser,” but since there is no racial coding that would be obvious to a modern audience, I avoided that term. I did go ahead and refer to the Native Americans in the movie as “Indians,” because their costumes will be recognized by anyone today. They represent several stereotypes, but at least there is some complexity among them: the old man is a drunk, the young squaw is a tragic hero, and most of the younger men are generic thugs. They do a lot of the better stunts, and my guess is that they worked on Wild West shows in real life, where falling off horses and shooting off guns for an audience paid well. The lassoing sequence also comes straight from the Wild West shows (including the comedy of the “rube” getting dragged around), while the reference to the “Big Horn” saloon is from the stage version of “The Squaw Man,” later to be filmed by Cecil B. DeMille, among others.

The movie, like many from this period, relies heavily and fast moving action and chases, along with bits of slapstick comic relief, to keep the audience engaged. It doesn’t come across as being as exciting or innovative as “The Great Train Robbery,” but Porter is correct in that it more clearly evokes the atmosphere of the Old West, as understood by film audiences then and now. Porter had gotten proficient at shooting a standard chase sequence at this time, and the use of camera pans allows us to follow the action, but the sequential editing limits the suspense of these scenes, and makes for a less exciting experience than later Westerns would provide.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter and/or Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 17 Min, 21 secs

I have not found this movie available for free on the Internet.  If you do, please comment.

Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1906)

This early short from Edison incorporates several technical advances worthy of Méliès, but employs them in a decidedly different manner, producing a very “American” special effects comedy, despite its being a remake (not to say outright rip-off) of a British original. It’s particularly interesting as one of the first iterations of a persistent early cinema myth.

The classic proscenium-style frame actually does depict a stage in this instance, a stage on which a screen has been set up for projecting motion pictures. There is a box visible to the left of the screen, and a man sits in it, presumably part of a larger, invisible audience. The first movie begins with a title telling us that the program is “The Edison Projecting Kinetoscope.”  The actually movie’s title is “Parisian Dance.” We see a young lady in modest attire come on the screen and do a dance, which does involve raising her skirts for a a few kicks. The man in the box gets increasingly excited, eventually jumping down onto the stage to join the filmed lady in the dance. She disappears and a new title tells us we will next see “The Black Diamond Express.” A train track appears and our rube again gets very excited, leaning forward into the screen to see the oncoming train. As the train rushes past the camera, he panics, and dives back into his box for safety. The final film is “The Country Couple,” and it involves a rustic young man and woman having a brief romantic interlude. The man again leaps onto the screen, perhaps jealous or perhaps angry because the girl reminds him of his daughter. He attempts to attack the young man, pulling down the screen as a result and revealing the projectionist behind it. He and the projectionist proceed to get into a scuffle, rolling across the stage in combat.

It was a pretty clever idea, using a series of old Edison pictures to fill in as “movies-within-a-movie” to develop a whole new plotline. It also required some technical understanding of how to handle split screen effects. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work as well when “Uncle Josh” gets in front of the screen: he tends to disappear as if he’s gone behind the screen, or to become transparent so we can see the movie projected on top of him. Still, this movie gave us a kind of “Shadowrama” almost ninety years before MST3k. I’m pretty sure that films were not rear-projected at the time, as we see here, and that in a real situation the projectionist would have been situated in front of the screen, not behind it, approximately at the position that the camera is for the purposes of shooting this movie. I suspect that the reason he is moved is so that he can be revealed to the audience when Uncle Josh pulls down the screen, since editing and multiple camera set ups are not within the framework of this movie, and also the reveal works dramatically much better than someone yelling at Uncle Josh from behind would. The “cinema myth” I refer to above is the commonly-recurring trope about people panicking and running from theaters when a train was shown coming at the camera. It appears unlikely that this ever happened, but the story expresses the power of cinema to move people, something that apparently film makers were already aware of in 1902.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Charles Manley

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

One touch of Nature (1917)

This is an apparently incomplete fragment of a longer story produced as a feature for Edison late in their production career. It tells a familiarly heart-warming story about a baseball player, using real locations and players to give verisimilitude to the melodrama.

The excerpts begin by introducing John J. McGraw, the real-life manager of the New York Giants, who is talking to a recruiter who has seen an amazing player named Bill Cosgrove (John Drew Bennett). McGraw seems skeptical at reports of the boy’s prowess, but agrees to give him a try. We then jump to the “deciding game of a world’s series” in which the Giants are playing against Philadelphia. McGraw looks on stoically as the seats of the Polo Grounds swell with fans. Read the rest of this entry »

How the Office Boy Saw the Ball Game (1906)

This is an incomplete short from Edison that features a baseball game and was tied in to a publicity stunt involving teams from New York and Pittsburgh. What we see leaves a certain amount to be desired, but it does illustrate the transitional period from “Attractions” to “Nickelodeons.”

The movie opens on a very stage-like office set, with a short man pantomiming a baseball game to a woman sitting behind a typewriter. The man, apparently the “office boy” of the title, ceases his antics when another man comes in, who gives the woman, evidently a secretary or stenographer, an affectionate peck. Then an older man with white hair walks in, and the office boy hands him a note. An insert shot shows us that his note says that his grandmother is dead, and he should come home immediately, so the boss dismisses him for the day. When his back is turned, the office boy gives his co-workers a triumphant laugh. The scene lingers for a few extra seconds, as if something more will happen, but it does not in the surviving print. Instead, we cut to our office boy sitting on top of a telephone pole, brandishing a telescope, apparently in order to see the big game. We cut between shots of what he is seeing (framed with an “iris” around the lens to make a circular image as we would expect to see through a telescope) and shots of his reactions, which are often enthusiastic enough to nearly unseat him from his perch. The telescope footage begins with scenes of baseball players being driven onto the field in contemporary automobiles, then images of a marching band on the field, and it moves into what seem to be mostly warm-up plays or plays staged specifically for the camera. We also see the office boy’s co-workers in the stand, and they seem to be getting chewed out by the boss, who is sitting behind them, but no clear logic for this is in the surviving footage, and indeed the shots of the boss arriving and his yelling at them seem to be in the wrong order. The footage ends with a shot of the scoreboard.

The blog “Baseball Researcher” has filled in a lot of the details of this movie, including a lot of factual information about the location and teams that add to our understanding of this footage. First, the plot seems to be obscured here, but we are meant to understand that the secretary and the office worker made an excuse to leave early as well, while the boss decided that if no work was getting done anyway, he might as well go to the game, only to find his idle workers playing hooky at the field! Thus, the sneaky office boy gets the pleasure of watching his rude co-workers take the punishment he also deserves. Next, these observations confirm my suspicion that most of the playing we see is staged; although movie cameras at ball games weren’t exactly new, the Edison photographers had probably learned that with the limited length of film reels in those days, the chances of catching a good play “by chance” were pretty slim. It also describes a screening of the film for the two ball teams in the evening on a rooftop of a “legitimate” theater, which strikes me as a very intentional “attraction”-style stunt to get some press coverage for the film, and maybe as repayment to the players for staging the scenes for them. By 1906 standards, this is a pretty simplistic film, at least to judge from what we can see, so it probably needed all the promotion it could get to be a big seller. One final note, though this is hardly surprising for the era, is that there is no attempt to line up the angle of the camera with that we would expect to see through a telescope looking from above. All of the shots are taken on the same level as the players and we have to “suspend disbelief” to imagine that the office boy would see it this way.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Cast: Unknown

Run Time: 5 Min (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

Casey at the Bat (1899)

This fragment of a short Edison movie is subtitled “Or, the Fate of a (Rotten) Umpire,” setting up a fan’s violent wish-fulfillment right from the start. While we don’t have the whole thing, what we do see conforms to the simple slapstick of the time.

The camera is placed just behind home plate and to the left, allowing a clear view of the action in a small ball park. A man in a baseball uniform with large sideburns steps up to the plate and swings as the ball flies past. The umpire calls two strikes before “Casey” turns on him and begins to punch him. Soon, several other players from both teams are involved in the melee – mostly apparently trying to pull “Casey” off the hapless referee.

The position of the camera was particularly interesting to me, because it seems that this is the standard one-shot image of a baseball game, in spite of the fact that it puts the camera at some risk of being hit by a bad pitch. It may have already been established by still photographers, or possibly by baseball fans’ consensus that right behind home plate is the best place to watch a ball game. Or, it may just be the best way to frame both pitcher and batter so that the action is central to the screen without panning or switching shots. Other than that there isn’t much to say about this movie – it’s yet another example of a fight being used to generate interest and comedy in early cinema.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs (surviving)

You can watch it for free: here.

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.

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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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.