Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: William Heise

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).

Mess Call (1896)

This early actuality short from Edison shows American soldiers at their mealtime. This is one of the first “location” movies made at Edison – most of what came before this was shot in or near to the Black Maria studio on Edison property.

Mess CallWhat I like about this movie is the very individual personalities of the soldiers that comes through. While some are carrying coffee or trays of food, many seem to be more interested in the camera than in their rations. One fellow is clearly “mugging” and trying to stay in frame as long as possible, and others will wave or make quick movements to get noticed as they pass through. Most of them seem like typical soldiers – good natured, very young and a bit full of themselves, but charming nonetheless. A couple of officers, distinguishable because they are wearing swords, pass through quickly at the beginning, but seem to pay little attention to the men or the camera, but some guys with non-commissioned rank (stripes on their uniforms) join in the fun. By the end of the movie, more people are watching the camera than not.

I wonder how many of the families of these servicemen saw and recognized their loved ones through this movie. This is the sort of homey way that Americans might like to think of “their boys” in uniform – not necessarily as effective fighting men or efficient parade-ground marchers, but as naïve and lovable, perhaps even somewhat undisciplined. This may have been part of the point of making the film, to demonstrate how the motion picture could bring people to life over a distance. For us today, it connects us with ordinary people of the past in a more intimate manner than reading about them or seeing a still image could. The title is also the title of a piece of music that is normally played by bugle to signal meal time in military camps.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Unknown American soldiers

Run Time: 50 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Fatima, Muscle Dancer (1896)

One of the short dance movies produced by the Edison company, this one evidently produced some controversy in the nineteenth century. An odd visual feature raises questions of censorship, but is it just a mistake?

Fatima Muscle DancerWe see a stage with a pastoral backdrop. The dancer is framed somewhat close for the period (we can’t see her feet, but her facial features are fairly clear). Her “muscle” dance appears to be a standard belly dance, but it is often referred to as a “coochie-coochie dance” in contemporary discussions of the movie. About forty seconds into the film, two odd gate-like artifacts appear on the film, blocking our view of the dancer, who continues her dance until the movie ends.

Fatima Muscle Dancer1I can’t figure out if those two “fences” were imposed on the film purposely, by Edison or some other agency, in order to deliberately obstruct our view of the “vulgar” dance. It could be that they are meant to “protect” viewers from seeing too much, though as far as I can tell the dance is no more objectionable after they appear than before. It’s also possible that something is wrong with the existing print, and that they were unintentional, or that something went wrong with the filming, like an obstruction in the gate of the camera.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Fatima

Run Time: 1 Min, 15 secs

You can watch it for free: here (with annoying yellow subtitles. Sorry, it’s the best one I could find).

Feeding the Doves (1896)

Feeding the Doves

I first saw this Edison short back in the late twentieth century, when I was in film school, only it was presented as a woman feeding chickens. This resulted in my belief for some time that, “a hundred years ago, chickens could fly,” because midway through the film, some noise causes all the doves to suddenly take flight. Watching it again today, it all makes more sense. There’s a mixture of doves and chickens on the screen, with the chickens mostly in the foreground. Thus, when the birds suddenly leap into the air, what you notice on the ground are the remaining chickens, giving a sort of optical illusion you have seen chickens fly. This appears not to be the case. This movie is actually historically interesting, because it marks the point (October 23, 1896), where Edison started sending prints on paper to the Library of Congress for copyright. This resulted in the inadvertent preservation of a number of films whose negatives were otherwise lost. The flight of the doves adds a good deal of motion to the image, which is probably why someone offscreen made a loud noise to make a more interesting movie.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 25 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Interrupted Lovers (1896)

Interrupted Lover (1896)

Another quickie Edison comedy from the summer of 1896, this one isn’t as long or quite as successful as “The Lone Fisherman.” Here, a young couple sits on a park bench, only to be assaulted during their necking by two men in gardener’s clothes, one wielding a shovel. The young woman appears to be played by a man in drag, but I don’t think that the audience is meant to notice that, so it isn’t intended to be part of the humor. The funny bit is, I guess, just that slapstick violence suddenly invades what seems to be a peaceful scene. It may even have been a kind of parody of or comment upon “The Kiss,” in that audiences expecting another depiction of a loving interlude would unexpectedly have this expectation thwarted and laugh in spite of themselves. Although the framing makes for a very tight shot, I believe this was also shot on location in a park.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run time: 35 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Lone Fisherman (1896)

Lone Fisherman

Made during the September of 1896, this movie is a simple comedy, displaying the ability to get a laugh in just a short time and without the benefit of sound. It reminds me somewhat of “The Sprinkler Sprinkled,” although I wouldn’t call it a remake. A fellow in a Huck Finn-like costume sits down on a bridge, with a fishing pole and takes a quick swig from a bottle. Then, another man walks up behind him and tips the board he is sitting on, dropping him into the stream below. At that point, a horse and buggy pull up, and the passengers get out to laugh at the fellow in the drink. This is an early example of adding a “laugh track” to a movie to play up the humorous effect by giving the audience someone to laugh along with. At the end, the miscreant voluntarily jumps into the water and approaches the camera, apparently saying something, perhaps to the cameraman or the audience about what he has done. It was shot on location in Fanwood Park, not far from the Edison studio, showing that the Edison Company was beginning to think about taking cameras outside of the Black Maria at this point.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 1 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

Watermelon Eating Contest (1896)

Watermelon Contest

Of all the movies I’ve reviewed for this blog, this one may be the most difficult for modern viewers to accept. Even “The Birth of a Nation” has its defenders who claim it is a “classic” or “great” movie, but no one is likely to say that about the “Watermelon Eating Contest.” It plays right into racist stereotypes which make the watermelon a symbol for African American “inferiority” and simplicity, and it does so unapologetically. Charles Musser tells us in “The Emergence of Cinema” that even at the time, viewers in some areas found it “nasty and vulgar because of the spitting and slobbering,” although they were not apparently alarmed by its racism. Indeed, one suspects that these (presumably white) viewers reacted to it in part for the simple effrontery of depicting African Americans at all. I think it’s important to note, however, because the ways in which blacks have been portrayed on film holds a mirror up to the face of America’s racial politics. This is the earliest example I know of, and it sets a low bar for filmmakers to improve on in the coming century and beyond.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 18 seconds

You can watch it for free: here (fair warning: you may find it offensive or upsetting).

Inventor Edison Sketched by World Artist (1896)

Inventor Edison Drawn

“Lightning sketches” that showed an artist at his work during the short running time of the early motion picture camera were a common format for movies in 1896. This example is noteworthy because it brings the celebrity of Thomas Edison together with the novelty of his newest invention, in this case without his having even been filmed in person. The artist in this case was J. Stuart Blackton, at that time a cartoonist for the New York World newspaper. He later claimed that Edison was present for the sketch, however this is discounted by historians, and seems pretty dubious to the casual viewer, given the fact that he never looks up from his drawing during the run time of the movie. Blackton apparently gained considerable fame from this movie, and became so enthusiastic about cinema that he went on to help found the American Vitagraph Company, going into competition with Edison, and then getting in trouble due to patent infringement, before becoming one of the first “licensed” motion picture exhibitors. This movie suffers a bit from the fact that quality of the print has diminished to where it can be hard to make out the drawing, but it’s still an interesting piece of film history.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Starring: J. Stuart Blackton

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

Shooting the Chutes (1896)

Shooting the Chutes

The Edison company was a bit of a Johnny-come-lately when it comes to making Actuality films. The Lumiére Brothers had gotten in ahead of them in 1895, and when W.K.L. Dickson defected to help form the Biograph Company in 1896, he started making them as well. Edison got into the game in the Summer, with movies such as this one, shot at Coney Island. It’s worth remembering that the Edison motion picture camera was a very bulky, desk-like apparatus, that hadn’t been designed with mobility in mind. Nevertheless, I find it hard to imagine that audiences were especially thrilled with this movie, which shows a ride that would probably be identified as a “water flume” today. At the opening of the picture, a single pod shoots past us – not especially quickly – and for the rest of the running time we watch another slowly ascend. Next to it is another track, which seems to life some sort of hay ride up and lower it at the same ponderous speed. Flags flutter in the wind, so at least there is some movement.

Director: James H. White

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 40 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.

The Kiss (1896)

Alternate Titles: “The May Irwin Kiss,” “The John C. Rice – May Irwin Kiss,” “The Rice – Irwin Kiss,” “The Widow Jones.

May_Irwin_John_C._Rice_Kiss_1896

This is a medium close-up of two people, a man and a woman, kissing. It was one of the first movies shot for the Edison Vitascope projection system, and was released with much ballyhoo. It should be noted that the Vitascope, while it was an important development in motion picture history, was not entirely successful. It apparently ran somewhat jerkily and unreliably, and required a great deal of electrical energy to run (there are reports of rather dangerous arrangements in which it was hooked up to streetcar tracks to siphon power). At the same time, the Lumiere BrothersCinematograph and the new Mutoscope company’s device were in competition, apparently with rather more success, bringing in a profit for distributors, which the Vitascope mostly failed to do.

Vitascope

But, back to “The Kiss.” John C. Rice and May Irwin were the stars of the theatrical hit “The Widow Jones,” which reaches a climax in Act I when the shy male lead kisses the widow. The Edison company brought these two stars to the Black Maria to film the famous scene. In fact, the kiss itself only lasts a few seconds, most of the film has the two of them speaking lines of (unheard) dialogue to one another with their faces pressed intimately together. Only at the end does Rice back off and straighten his mustache, taking her head in his hands and finally moving in for the kiss. It is noteworthy that, while Rice is middling-attractive, Irwin does not seem to be a “beauty” by contemporary standards or modern. The point, I think, is that passion is for anyone, not reserved to only the young or to those who meet certain subjective standards of beauty.

There seem to be conflicting reports as to media reaction to this movie. Wikipedia, citing a source I’m not familiar with, claims that it was seen as “disgusting” and resulted in calls for censorship. However, Charles Musser, in “The Invention of the Movies,” claims that the result was to make John C. Rice into a “kissing star,” able to tour the coast giving men tips on how to kiss effectively. When Irwin tried to take “The Widow Jones” on the road with another male star, audiences wouldn’t have it, insisting she get back together with Rice, the best kisser in town. Either way, this movie seems to have been a big hit for the Edison studios, even if the machine it was produced for never took off.

Director: William Heise

Camera: William Heise

Starring: May Irwin, John C. Rice

Run Time: 34 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.