Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: James H White

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.

Fifth Avenue, New York (1897)

This short film from Edison shows a famous area of the famous city closest to the studio. It is a location shot, but was probably cheap to produce.

Fifth Avenue New YorkThe film we see consists of two shots. The first is a pan across a mostly stationary crowd standing on some steps, possibly to get a view of a parade or other event taking place in the street proper. We don’t see what they are looking at, only the crowd and people walking on the sidewalk. I’m not certain, but it’s possible these are the steps to the New York Public Library’s 42nd Street Branch at Fifth Avenue. The second shot is stationary and doesn’t show the steps, but appears to be taken close by. Here we just see crowds of people walking past the camera in both directions.

Apart from the clothing styles, this could be a shot of Fifth Avenue taken today. Most people look well-to-do, they walk in groups, and they seem to be able to navigate crowds comfortably. A few people turn and stare at the camera, but most seem to be concentrating on getting where they are going, or on watching whatever is happening in the street that we can’t see. The existing print is rather over-exposed, but I don’t know if that’s damage after the fact or a problem with the original. Some sources cite this as the “first camera pan,” which is possible, but I’m dubious.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min

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

The Morning Alarm (1896)

This short from Edison Studios emphasizes motion and the excitement of a fire alarm to provide a thrilling “local view.” Shot in Harrisburg, as was “The First Sleigh Ride,” it is part of the location shooting that Edison engaged in to attract local audiences to screenings.

Morning Alarm_T1We see a street at a forty-five degree angle, on a cold day with snow on the ground. There are warmly-dressed spectators (apparently all men) lining the side of the street we can see. Horse-drawn vehicles charge past the camera, some with ladders or tanks of water, others carrying uniformed firemen. One of the tank-carriages belches smoke or steam as it races by. During a gap in the vehicles, several spectators enter the street to look up and see the next carriage approaching. A policeman ushers them back to the sidewalk before the horses arrive.

Morning Alarm_TThis movie is often confused with the one I’ve labeled as “A Morning Alarm,” and in fact the Library of Congress has this listed as “A Morning Alarm” and claims it was shot in Newark. I’m following the information from the DVD set “Edison: Invention of the Movies,” which tends to confirm information from Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. LoC could be right, however their description of “A Morning Alarm” mentions “the opening of the engine house doors,” which is visible in the other movie, but not this one, so I’m trusting Musser. The spectators in this movie are clearly interested in seeing the spectacle of their local fire department in action – they pay some attention to the camera, but actually endanger themselves to see the fire trucks, so I don’t think they are actors.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 1 Min, 10 secs

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

First Sleigh Ride (1896)

This is another example of an Edison studios location shoot, this time in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The movie emphasizes movement and contrast, as much as its location, to capture the attention of audiences.

First Sleigh RideWe see a busy street with light snow cover. A series of horse-drawn vehicles rush across the screen, past a small crowd of gathered onlookers. The second of these is the “sleigh” mentioned in the title, while the other two have wheels. As the sleigh goes by, one of the bystanders waves his hat in encouragement, as if observing a race. In the background you can see a trolley sitting in the street – no horses in evidence, possibly it is electric.

This short film was made while the Edison company was in town to shoot exclusive footage for the Bijou Theater which was exhibiting the “projectoscope” – an advance over the kinetoscope that allowed the projection of movies onto a screen. Charles Musser cites a catalog entry which states it was taken “after the first fall of snow and shows an exciting race along the river road.” The Library of Congress gives a different catalog entry that says “This subject taken just after the recent first fall of snow, shows two enthusiastic horsemen indulging in a ‘brush’. with their respective horses and cutters.” Both descriptions suggest a competitive race, as suggested by the onlooker waving his hat, but to me it just looks like three vehicles driving normally down the street. Perhaps my view is spoiled by years of modern car chases and other high-speed spectacles.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

American Falls from Above, American Side (1896)

This early location film is perhaps the first “scenic view” provided by the Edison Studios. By traveling to Niagara Falls in upstate New York, they were able to provide a view that would be exotic to viewers even in New York City and certainly in the rest of the world.

American FallsWe see a view that includes the top portion of the falls and looks down upon a group of men near a tripod. Two of the men point at various features of the landscape and another seems to tinker with the camera. Throughout, the falls roll majestically on. The background shows that it is a cold winter day, with snow on the trees and the ground.

I said earlier that audiences may have become somewhat jaded about just seeing movement by 1896, but to our eyes today, this movie might seem to contradict that. Nothing happens, it just demonstrates movement by showing a waterfall. However, it’s important to remember that the opportunity to see a natural wonder in motion was very new at the time, and that many of the viewers of this movie would never, or maybe only once in their lives, have an opportunity to visit Niagara Falls. Movies like this helped to give people a sense of what it was like to be able to travel easily around the nation, and even contributed to a sense of national unity by bringing exotic locations directly to the people, as it were. While a good quality photograph lets you know what a place looks like, seeing it in motion brings it to life in an entirely new way.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

A Morning Alarm (1896)

I mentioned yesterday that firefighters were a popular subject in early film, and this short film, apparently shot the same day at a slightly different time and location, confirms that. Also made by Edison Studios, this movie once again shows off the development of a camera light enough that it could be taken out of the Black Maria and into the streets.

Morning AlarmA crowd of people lines a street, and we see them from the opposite side, at a slight angle. A horse-drawn carriage charges out of one of the buildings, with a long ladder attached to it side. It is followed by a carriage with a water tank, and another carrying several men in firefighters’ gear. The horses are not up to speed yet, just getting started on their run. In a way, this movie could be seen as a “pre-quel” to “Going to the Fire.”

There’s a fair amount of confusion about the titles of these Edison firefighting movies, and that’s understandable, given that they are so nearly identical, so short, and released at the same time. I’m using the titles given by Charles Musser in his “Before the Nickelodeon” book and confirmed on the DVD collection “Edison: The Invention of Movies,” but note that the Library of Congress has them listed differently. It occurred to me as I watched this that it’s possible this was shot almost at the same time as “Going to the Fire,” but that would have required two cameras to be set up on the same Newark street, and I don’t think they could do that, yet. I don’t know whether the crowds gathered every time there was a fire alarm, or if they’re there because of the camera.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Going to the Fire (1896)

This short from Edison studios appears to be an actuality shot on location on a city street. Again, it emphasizes movement and action to hold the attention of an audience that is becoming a little jaded about “moving pictures” already.

Going to the FireWe see a street in Newark shot at a 30-degree angle, so that oncoming vehicles cross the screen as they get closer. A man runs towards us and several horse-drawn carriages follow. One is quite large, and carries tall ladders as well as several men in fire fighter’s outfits. The last one carries a large water tank and hoses. At one point, a policeman begins to walk out into the street, turns and looks at the camera, and then backs out of the shot.

The catalog entry for this movie plays up the action: “This scene shows almost the entire Fire Department led by the Chief, responding to an alarm. The horses, said to be the finest of their kind in the country, present a thrilling spectacle as they dash rapidly by, flecked with foam, and panting from the exertion of their long gallop.” Clearly, it is becoming necessary for movies to stand out from the crowd and for advertisers to find good reason for people to be interested. Fire departments and fire alarms were a very popular topic for film in the late nineteenth century. In this case, it appears that the Edison camera crew may have set up a little way down the street from a fire department and waited for an alarm, although they may have arranged the shot with the fire department. There are large number of spectators gathered on the sidewalks, giving a sense that this was considered a big event in the community at the time.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Mounted Police Charge (1896)

This short film from Edison studios takes advantage of New York location shooting and the cooperation of the Central Park Police Force to create a “dramatic” effect very quickly.

Mounted Police ChargeWe see a road in Central Park, apparently facing south near the bottom of the park. A troop of mounted police gallop from a distance toward the camera, charging past a carriage going in the other direction and then stopping within a few feet of the camera. They halt and look into the camera for a few seconds before the end.

It’s hard to be certain exactly where this was shot, both because the area has changed and because the background is washed out and blurry on this print. That could be a result of damage to the film or just the limitations of the camera and film of that time. It appears to be near Central Park South, but I’m not sure. The policemen all wear Keystone-Cop-style rounded helmets and all seem to have full mustaches. No doubt it was easy enough to get them to spend a couple of minutes making the movie, and they may have been excited to be involved in a technological wonder like moving pictures. This was probably as thrilling to audiences as seeing trains coming at the camera, and the opportunity to see police on parade may have also been an appeal.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown police officers

Run Time: 30 secs

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

The Burning Stable (1896)

This Edison short was shot on location and purports to be an actuality film, although it’s hard to be sure whether it was staged or not. It shows the increasing flexibility of the early cameras used in the United States.

Burning StableWe see a pair of barn doors with smoke billowing out. Men in fire helmets run out of the barn, leading horses, they are followed by men in civilian clothes, also taking out horses, and at last a man drags a large wagon behind him. Each person runs with his charge to one side or the other of the frame and leads them offscreen.

While it is possible that the Edison company camera crew heard a fire engine and followed it to an actual burning building, it also seems possible that they set this up in advance and used a smoke generator of some kind. It’s hard to say which would be easier – certainly given their ability to recreate blacksmithies and barber shops, it would seem possible that they had some fireman suits on hand, but the smoke effect would take some work and might not have been in their capacity. The original catalog entries refer to the action of the scene and the “realistic effect” of the smoke – although this kind of language doesn’t necessarily indicate that the smoke was faked, it is just the way the promotional materials spoke of moving pictures at the time. No doubt the narration that accompanied the film would provide more context, but probably would leave the question muddy.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 30 secs

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

A Morning Bath (1896)

This short film from Edison raises some issues about race in the nineteenth century, even though the content is in no way offensive to us today. It’s a reminder that all films have to be understood in context, and that context doesn’t necessarily excuse anything.

The movie is, simply, a woman bathing a baby in a washbasin, as women throughout the US did at the time. The baby is covered in soap suds (and crying), while the woman is looking off-screen, smiling somewhat nervously, for much of the picture, apparently receiving directions from men off-camera. None of this would be especially remarkable, except that the woman and child are African-American; so far as I can recall this is the earliest image of an African American woman on film.

Morning BathThe first interesting point about this movie is technical: although it seems to have been shot in a studio, presumably the Black Maria, this movie is shot against a white backdrop instead of the black backdrop usually used at the Black Maria. This “technical” issue, however, is probably related to race as well – a dark-skinned person would tend to fade into the background with a dark backdrop, especially with the quality of film available at the time, so they needed to use a lighter one. It wouldn’t surprise me if they had to shoot this a few times before they figured that out. The question this raises is, why use an African American for this role at all (especially given that it was pretty rare)? The answer seems to be indicated in the Maguire & Baucus Catalog, which states that “This is a clear and distinct picture in which the contrast between the complexion of the bather and the white soapsuds is strongly marked.” The contrast was exactly what the movie was filmed to demonstrate. It’s worth noting that the Library of Congress has excised offensive words from both this entry and a description from the Edison catalog – giving a sense of how the advertising for this film was handled, and presumably, the live narration that usually would accompany it. Thus, it is overly simplistic to think of this as a movie about an everyday event which happens to showcase diversity – the reasoning behind the film and its presentation was explicitly racist – although for us today this context is obscure.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 40 secs

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