Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: James H White

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.

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Life of an American Fireman (1903)

This is a famous early movie by Edwin S. Porter, released earlier in the same year as “The Great Train Robbery.” It is one of the best-known examples of early editing structure, and gives us an opportunity to discuss the development of cinema beyond the single-shot film to the multi-shot narrative, and how this concept has changed over time.

lifeofanamericanfiremanThe first shot in this movie is an interesting trick shot, or special effect. A fireman is seen dozing at work, and over his shoulder is an image of his dream. He is dreaming about a woman putting a small child to bed (perhaps his own wife and child). The next shot is a close-up on a street-corner fire alarm. An anonymous hand opens the case and pulls the alarm. Then we cut to an image of the bunks inside the firehouse, with all of the firemen sleeping. They wake up to the alarm, and then leap out of bed, put on boots and trousers, and slide down the pole to the stables below. We see each one mount the pole and disappear in turn. Then we cut to the stable, and watch as each man slides down the pole in the center of the screen, and runs over to mount the wagon he will ride. Once they are all aboard, the ropes before the horses are taken down, and they race across the screen. Next we see the exterior of the firehouse, and watch as each wagon bolts out the doors and runs onto the street. We cut to another street corner, and watch the fire trucks race by, while crowds of spectators gather to watch them. There are two such shots in sequence, and each one allows each wagon to rush by, the second panning to follow them. This pan ends at the burning house, where we see the fire fighters preparing their hoses.

lifeofanamericanfireman2Now, the scene cuts to the interior of the house, which looks like the same bedroom in the man’s dream from the opening. Smoke is billowing into the room, and the woman and child sleep on the bed. She gets up and runs to the window, screaming for help, then collapses back on the bed. A fire fighter breaks down the door with his axe and runs in. He tears down the curtains and breaks the window open. A ladder appears at the window, and he picks up the unconscious woman, carrying her to it and climbing out on the ladder. A moment later he (or another fire fighter) reappears on the ladder and runs to pick up the sleeping child, taking her out the same way. Now two fire fighters enter from the ladder, wielding a hose, which they spray liberally around the room. The final shot reproduces this last sequence of events, but does so from outside the house (the same shot as the end of the pan, above). A fire fighter enters the burning house from the first floor at about the same moment as the woman appears in the window above. Others set up the ladder from below, and still more train their hose on the house, spraying water in through the open door and windows. Meanwhile, the first fire fighter carries the woman down the ladder and revives her, then runs back to the ladder to recover the child. Finally, the men with the hose climb the ladder, having put out the fire in other parts of the house.

lifeofanamericanfireman1This film s famous for showing Porter’s developing understanding of editing, being a great example of a narrative created by inter-linking shots sequentially. For many years, it was also controversial, because there were two versions – one which followed the sequence I have just described, and another which cross-cut the scenes outside and inside to create a more “modern” style of storytelling. It is pretty well established now that this version is correct: first we see the rescue played out in entirety from inside the house, then we see the entire sequence again from the other perspective. This lines up with audience expectations of the time. People would quite probably have been confused by parallel editing, not being used to seeing shots inter-cut at the time. This gives us a chance to talk a bit about how this whole idea of stitching shots together came about in the first place. The old narrative was that certain “genius” directors like Georges Méliès and Edwin S. Porter “invented” it. Actually, this isn’t really true. As we have seen in this project, for many years a “film” equaled a single shot of relatively fixed length, that played out some kind of story, with a beginning, middle, and end. But often they had related themes, fire fighting being a classic example. So, what various ingenious exhibitors started doing was to create narratives by showing related films in sequence, with their own narration filling in names of characters, etc. So, perhaps you would see “A Morning Alarm” followed by “The Burning of Durland’s Riding Academy” and then “Firemen Rescuing Men and Women” while a narrator told you that this was all footage of the same fire. This is where Porter and Méliès (whose “A Trip to the Moon” was a multi-shot film from the previous year) got the idea to make longer movies out of a series of shots. It also explains why they did not cut within their shots – this would have broken the established logic of narrative at the time.

Director: Edwin S. Porter (possibly with James H. White and/or George S. Fleming)

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Arthur White, Vivian Vaughn, James H. White

Run Time: 6 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Pan-American Exposition by Night (1901)

This short actuality from Edison takes advantage of technology to show off the technological advances of the new century. As with many of the documentary films of the day, it gave an audience a chance to see a spectacle most people would otherwise only have read about or seen in still images.

pan-american-exposition-by-nightThe movie consists of two shots, edited together more or less seamlessly to appear as a single movement. As the movie opens, we see a large pavilion and some other exotic buildings in the background in what is clearly daytime. The camera pans to the left, revealing more structures until it reaches a large tower. Suddenly, the image changes to the same tower lit up brilliantly by night, with floodlights moving across the ground. The camera continues its pan after the edit, showing how buildings that seem to mirror those we saw in the first shot look with their electric lights shining during the night.

This movie combines two of Thomas Edison’s inventions – the light bulb and the motion picture – into a single spectacle celebrating the technology of the twentieth century and Edison’s contributions to it. Of course, neither device was really a sole responsibility of the “wizard of Menlo Park,” but the concept of Edison as the inventor of these technologies was part of the branding campaign of the Edison Company. In The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser tells us that in order to accomplish the smooth, lengthy pan we see in this movie it was necessary to develop a new mechanism for the tripod. I wonder if it wasn’t also necessary to develop a new film stock in order to pick up the electric lights, since nearly all films were shot in daylight up to this point. Admittedly, it wouldn’t be possible to shoot actors under these lights with the film stock we see here – everything that isn’t a light bulb appears as a pitch black space, except for the areas directly under the floodlights, which are dimly visible. The other interesting piece is the edit from day into night, with the camera in exactly the same position and continuing the movement, giving the illusion that time itself has been manipulated by the filmmakers. This is an early and creative use of editing at a time when most films consisted of a single shot. The Pan-American Exposition took place in Buffalo, New York, in 1901, and was the subject of a large number of Edison films. It is the event President William McKinley was attending at the time of his assassination.

Director: Edwin S. Porter

Camera: James H. White

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

A Storm at Sea (1900)

This short from Edison illustrates the ongoing challenge of finding new and dramatic subjects for early movies. In this instance, a sea-crossing, probably with the intention of shooting movies for American audiences in Europe, was interrupted by bad weather and the Edison team decided to shoot that, with minimal preparation.

storm-at-seaWe see the railing of a ship, at an angle that suggests the camera is at middle of the deck A rope cuts through the image horizontally, directly in front of the camera. The horizon bobs up and down slowly, but to a considerable degree. We see swollen waves cresting, at least when the ship is low enough to permit it: at other times we see only sky off the deck. Two men stand casually at the railing, occasionally gesturing at the ocean. At one point, one of them reacts as if he had been splashed by a wave, but the water drops are invisible to the camera. At the end of the movie, an image of the rolling sea without the ship or the men in the foreground has been edited on.

The major problem with this film, from a modern perspective, is the two guys standing in front of the camera. They just lean on the railing as if they were watching a flock of seagulls fly by. They don’t hold on, or lean with the rocking ship, or give any sense of peril or drama. I assume they were told to get into the shot to give the scene some perspective and human interest, but their effect is to make the whole thing seem very off-hand. This is contradicted by the claims of the Edison catalog: “While our photographers were crossing the Atlantic Ocean a most wonderful and sensational picture was secured, showing a storm at sea. The picture was secured by lashing the camera to the after bridge of the Kaiserine Maria Theresa [sic], of the North German Lloyd Line, during one of its roughest voyages. The most wonderful storm picture ever photographed. Taken at great risk.” While the “risk” seems dubious, the rigging of the camera may have been somewhat innovative, as very few pictures had been shot in heavy seas at this time. It may also explain the rope we see passing in front of the lens, which may have been part of the arrangement to keep the camera from sliding all over the deck.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

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

Watermelon Contest (1900)

This film is either a deliberate remake of the 1896 movie “Watermelon Eating Contest” or else an unintentional return to a theme seen as “natural” in American cinema. The movie shows that little had changed, so far as the depiction of African Americans was concerned, while cinema progressed.

watermelon-contest1We see a group of four men eagerly consuming watermelons and spitting out seeds. At first things are fairly orderly, although the men occasionally seem to joke or roughhouse with one another. One man finishes his slice of watermelon and reaches for another, but soon the others are fighting with him and the one man sitting in front who seems to have the largest piece. Pieces of watermelon get broken off and everyone gets messy.

As with the original, this is not a film that is likely to agree with modern audiences. Today there is much stronger sensitivity, even among white people, to the degree that watermelon has become a racist trope, confirming the inferiority, innocence and dependency of black people. This movie simply confirms all of this, including the animalistic way in which the “contestants” are shown eating and fighting with one another. It’s all the more noticeable because there have been so few other depictions of African Americans up to this point. They are only brought in for movies like this, which are designed to humiliate them as individuals and as a race. This would lay the groundwork for a century of racism in the American media, which still is felt to this day.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown, possibly James H. White

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Capture of Boer Battery by British (1900)

This is a reenactment of a current event, released by Edison Studios with a strong advertising campaign that suggested exhibitors were getting the real thing. It shows the growing importance of action and dramatic tension in early film.

boer-battery-captured-by-britishWe see a line of soldiers from the rear. There are several men with rifles and two cannon visible The men are not in military uniforms, but seem to be “irregulars” or volunteer combatants. These are the Boers. From our vantage point, we can see past them and down a hill, where several men in dark uniforms are approaching our position. The British are coming! The Boers fire repeatedly at the approaching figures, but they come nearer and nearer, and some cavalrymen on horseback arrive early and put the Boers to flight. Soon, men in British uniforms with kilts (Highlanders) walk over the crest of the hill, marching right up to the camera and past it. By this time all Boers have fled the scene.

Since the Spanish-American War, simulated combat footage had become an established genre of the movies, but by 1900 the US was at (relative) peace, so other wars had to be sought out. The Biograph Company’s English branch actually sent a cameraman to South Africa, but Edison had no such stringer available, so they shot this scene in East Orange, New Jersey. Most “real” war footage at this time consisted of ship launchings and men marching anyway, the technology simply didn’t support actual combat photography. This didn’t hinder the writers for the Edison catalog, however, and the entry for this movie read: “Nothing can exceed the stubborn resistance shown by the Gordon Highlanders, as we see them steadily advancing in the face of a murderous fire of the Boers, who are making their guns speak with rapid volleys. One by one the gunners fall beside their guns, and as the smoke clears for an instant the Highlanders are seen gaining nearer and nearer the disputed ground. Finally, a grand charge is made, the siege is carried, and amid cheers they plant the colors on the spot they have so dearly earned.” It’s hard to say now how many audience members really thought they were seeing war footage and how many were in on the joke.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

A Wringing Good Joke (1899)

This Edison short works on about the same level as the Lumiere film “A Sprinkler Sprinkled,” and delivers the same kind of prankish voyeuristic opportunity to its audience. Humor in early cinema was largely limited to very basic pratfalls and slapstick, as it would take greater length and complexity to set up other kinds of jokes.

wringing-good-jokeWe see a set representing the inside of a working class home or apartment. A man dozes on a chair to the right of the stage, while a woman (possibly a man in drag) works at a laundry tub to the right. When the woman goes to answer the door, a child runs out and ties on end of a string to his father’s chair, and the other to the piece of laundry his mother has left in the tub. When she returns, she begins cranking the wringer and inadvertently pulls over the chair, which itself pulls over the tub when it falls, resulting in both parents falling into a puddle of sudsy water. The boy runs out and laughs riotously at the sight.

I’m not certain if this film was shot at the Black Maria, but if so it is by far the most elaborate set we’ve seen there. By this time Edison cameras were small enough to be portable, so they may have been shooting at another location. I spoke of these kind of movies as “voyeuristic” above, and like all movies they give an audience a chance to fantasize by watching about participating in acts they do not commit themselves. In this case, the audience gets to enjoy the child’s humor at causing an accident, but avoids having to suffer or witness the consequences of this act. Other movies of this type, including “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” also allow the audience to watch as the perpetrator is punished – without being punished themselves, thus allowing them to enjoy both the act of revolt and its suppression in safety. This movie denies us that part of the experience, but leaves it to our imagination what befalls the boy when his parents get off the floor. One final note is that most modern children have probably never even seen a “mangle” or wringer, and would probably need to have the joke explained to them, although children at the time surely knew exactly what was going on.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 25 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Troop Ships for the Philippines (1898)

This short film from Edison documents the rising tide of patriotism associated with the Spanish-American War, the first war to be “covered” by motion pictures in the USA. Here we get a chance to see soldiers from the nineteenth century as they set off for a conflict far from home.

Troop Ships for the PhilippinesWe see a long troop ship sail past the screen from left to right, packed with young men who are cheering and waving in our direction. The camera appears to be on another ship, and it gently bobs up and down with the wake of the passing military boat. It also pans slowly to keep up with the passing ship and allow us a longer view of its occupants. The men are too far away to distinguish features, but appear as silhouettes against the bright background. At one point, some American flags, apparently being waved by onlookers, obscure our view of the ship slightly. At the very end of this ship, we can read that it is the S.S. Australia. There is an edit, and we are facing anew angle. Another ship sails by, this time from left-to-right, at a much greater distance so we can see the entire ship on screen at once, though we really can’t make out anyone on deck. It is flanked by two tugboats, and after a second edit, we see the tugboats from behind, following the ship as it heads out to sea.

War was good business for Edison and other early filmmakers, and gave the movies something to capture the American audience’s imaginations at a time when the movies were beginning to seem less novel. History remembers the Spanish-American war as a product of yellow journalism and the jingoism associated with the Hearst and Pulitzer newspapers, but the new media of cinema jumped eagerly on the same bandwagon. This movie is a kind of “parade” in honor of the troops, always a good way to build up patriotic sentiment. It’s also interesting to me that this movie and the “Return of Lifeboat” were both shot by Frederick Belchynden, who I’m starting to think of as the “nautical” cinematographer at Edison. Maybe William Heise had a fear of the water! This movie was shot in San Francisco, however, so he may have rather been their West Coast stringer.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Frederick Blechynden

Starring: Unknown

Run time: 2 Min, 40 secs

You can watch it for free: here (no music). Note: an edited version, which only shows the S.S. Australia, can be seen on Invention of the Movies.

Return of Lifeboat (1897)

This short from Edison studios is actually an early example of editing, and it also takes advantage of the mythology surrounding rescue and safety activities as well as the drama of the open sea.

Return of LifeboatWe see a stormy ocean, apparently shot from the beach, as breakers are visible coming towards the camera. The scene is dark, and it is difficult to make out details, but eventually a small boat becomes visible amidst the waves. A cut brings the boat closer, and into clearer focus so that we can see oars off the sides, and with another cut we can see men in raincoats sitting on the open deck, rowing against the tide. A final cut shows the boat nearly pulling into shore, with the clearest view of the men aboard, who remain indistinct in the low-exposure.

While many films up to this time had consisted of a single shot, this one stitches together several, although they are all taken from the same angle, resulting in a series of jump cuts. Each piece is only a few seconds long, resulting in much faster cutting that would be normal in the years afterward. The catalog entry for this movie emphasizes the accurate depiction of the “methods” of the Pacific Coast Life Saving Service, although all we really see is a tiny row boat being tossed about by the sea for a brief period. Presumably, it would have been shown with narration emphasizing the bravery of the men who ventured out in such conditions. Certainly, it looks like hard and dangerous work, from what we can see here.

Director: James H. White

Camera: Frederick Blechynden

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (1897)

This short vignette speaks to the popularity of Thomas Edison as a figure and also to the relationship that his film studio had to him. Not a location film or an actuality, this is a staged performance to confirm the image of Edison in the public mind as a genius and creator.

Mr Edison at Work

We see a set against a black backdrop, with bottles and tubes and various chemical paraphernalia. At the center of it stands Thomas Edison, a large, imposing, and dignified figure in a long white coat. He picks up a bowl and stirs the contents, putting it back down on top of a Bunsen burner. He then picks up a large test tube and begins to pour from it into a series of funnels before the film ends.

Charles Musser, in his commentary from “Edison: The Invention of the Movies,” says that this film was used as a kind of “signature” for screenings of Edison films, often shown at the end of a presentation to make sure the Edison brand was firm in the mind of the audience. He also points out that the attachment of Edison’s name often gave audiences the sense that he was directly responsible for making the films, perhaps even running the camera, which was certainly not the case. As with many of his firm’s projects, his involvement was more administrative and indirect. Musser refers to it as a kind of “paternalistic oversight.” Certainly he was interested enough to come down to the Black Maria and participate in this film shoot. From the studio’s point of view, the Edison name was a big selling point for their products, and they wanted to play up his myth (and maybe even the perception that he was making the movies) as much as possible.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Thomas Edison

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.