Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Edison Studios

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.

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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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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).