Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: WKL Dickson

Boxing Cats (1894)

Boxing Cats

This may well be the original funny Internet cat video – made 100 years before the World Wide Web even existed! This is a short video of two cats in odd harnesses and miniature boxing gloves, being made to fight on a stage at the Black Maria studio. It will remind regular readers of the “Boxing Kangaroo,” made a year later in Germany. This film is unusual for the Kinetoscope period, in that the camera has been moved much closer to the action, probably because our subjects are so small. Behind them sits their trainer, Professor Henry Welton, who seems to have specialized in animal acts. He holds the cats upright and keeps them from flying out of the miniature boxing ring, smiling through his mustache all the while. Note that we only see his head and his hands, making this an early close up. Later critics would argue that audiences found close ups disturbing, because they presented only “parts” of a human body in an “unnatural” way, but so far as I know, no one ever objected to it in “The Boxing Cats.”

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Buffalo Dance (1894)

BuffaloDance1894

For the last movie of mydancesequence, I’m returning to the Kinetoscope period of Edison Studios, for a movie that was shot on the same day as “Annie Oakley.” Here, we have a group of Sioux men in ostensibly traditional dress, performing a dance in the cramped confines of the “Black Maria” studio, with drummers visible behind them on the stage. It is very similar to the previously-reviewed “Sioux Ghost Dance,” although in this case history has recorded the names of the performers: Hair Coat, Parts His Hair, and Last Horse. All of them were performers for Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, so it’s possible that these authentic-sounding names were actually adopted for stage performances. In that sense, of course this is a movie that exploits Native Americans and the fascination of European Americans with them at the time, and these movies were among the first filmed examples of this, although it would soon become an industry in its own right.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 16 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)

Annabelle Serpentine

Continuing with my theme of 19th-Century dance videos for this week (not what I had planned, but sometimes you follow a lead where it takes you), here is a movie of the same Annabelle Moore I talked about yesterday, taken one year later and formally identified as a “serpentine” dance, as in the case of the German film reviewed on Monday. In this case, we are fortunate to have a hand-tinted color copy preserved, often shown as one of the first examples of color motion picture film. The color adds to the ethereal and unreal qualities of the dance, which again emphasizes the flowing robes of the dancer. The commentator on “Edison: The Invention of the Movies” makes the interesting point that these types of dances were popular film subjects because you could start from anywhere and end anywhere, looping it several times without really interrupting the action or making it seem to jump. This differs it to more linear films like “A Train Coming into a Station” or early narratives like “A Sprinkler Sprinkled.”

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Annabelle Moore

Run Time: 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894)

Annabelle Butterfly

In the same year as Max Skladanowski produced his “Serpentinen Tanz,” W.K.L. Dickson did something very similar in the United States. Unlike the German film, however, this was not made to be projected on a screen, but rather run in a Kinetoscope, a kind of box with a peep-hole and a crank, that could be watched by a single viewer at a time. Another difference is that history tells us the name of the dancer, Annabelle Moore, who appeared as a dancer in many later motion pictures. Her costume is a bit less elaborate, but the general theme is the same and clearly the idea was that a dance with a flowing costume would show off the ability of the camera to capture movement.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 34 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Hadj Cheriff (1894)

Hadj_Cheriff

This kinetoscope short was probably seen as a major breakthrough at Edison Studios. Here, at last, was something that truly demonstrated the system’s ability to capture and reproduce motion. A man leaps and dances wildly, performing his act at the Black Maria studio, and each move is clearly visible. I have run across several modern websites which refer to his performance as “early breakdancing,” but I recognize it as part of the long history of tumblers, or acrobats, who performed their feats before courts and in marketplaces throughout the world. At the beginning of the film, Hadj tosses away a knife, having evidently just finished a juggling act, which may have also been filmed, but so far as I know no one ever saw it. Once again, we see the appeal of the exotic “other” in terms of the “orient;” Hadj is identified as an “Arab juggler,” and to the Victorian audience his gyrations represent a kind of escape from repressive stiffness, but also something intriguingly dangerous and “dark,” which may explain why the knife was left in (or just the fact that no one had invented editing yet).

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 23 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Imperial Japanese Dance (1894)

Imperial JD

Film came early to Japan, but even before that happened, Japan came to film through this Kinetoscope short. Filmed at the Edison Black Maria studio, it shows three young women performing a dance from the Mikado, and the original Edison catalog noted that it was “very effective when colored” suggesting that at some point it was possible to get a hand-painted print (probably not in 1894, though). As we’ve seen in recent posts, many of these Kinetoscopes were made to show performers in movement, and dance is a particularly good genre for that kind of presentation. I’m sure that American audiences found the costumes and formality of this piece intriguingly exotic, and in that sense it is a demonstration of film’s capacities for making the foreign more familiar and also for commoditizing culture. The women in the film are identified as the “Sarashe Sisters” and I was unable to ascertain if they were actually Japanese, Japanese American, or other Asian-Americans made up for the role. The Mikado, of course, was a familiar Gilbert & Sullivan comedy from 1885, which uses Japan as a location in order to disguise its satire of British politics. In that sense, nothing about this film is “authentic” and yet for many Americans of the period, it may have represented as much as they knew about Japan.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 20 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Leonard – Cushing Fight (1894)

leonard-cushing

AKA: “Boxing Bout”

This early Edison Kinetoscope example returns to several of the themes I’ve been discussing lately. As I mentioned in “Men Boxing,” the art of pugilism was of special interest, not least because it was banned in the United States at the time. That is, it was illegal to organize, participate in, or attend a boxing match, not necessarily to photograph one (the law hadn’t thought that far ahead). Since it was legal to look at a still photograph of a boxing match, it must be legal to look at a motion picture as well (again, it was too early for anyone to argue that the movie constituted evidence that someone had organized and participated and that at least the cameraman had attended the match). So, here the filmmakers shrewdly found a way to give part of the public what it wanted, and couldn’t legally get otherwise. However, bear in mind that this is of course a fake. No one took a camera to a fight to make this; instead, the boxers were brought into the Black Maria in order to stage a performance of a fight in front of the camera. The film satisfies the thrill of the forbidden both by pretending to be an actuality of an illegal event, and also through the very skimpy outfits the fighters wear.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Jack Cushing, Mike Leonard

Run Time: 37 seconds.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Luis Martinetti (1894)

Luis Martinetti

AKA: “Luis Martinetti, Contortionist”

For this post once again I am returning to an early Edison Kinetoscope shot in the Black Maria studio. Luis Martinetti, as will be very obvious, was a contortionist, and performs a small sample of his act on gymnast’s rings, suspended above the ground. Again, this is only a few seconds worth of movement, but it was probably believed that the lithe movements would demonstrate that motion picture film could capture reality in ways that still photography never could. A still image might catch Martinetti in one or another bizarre position, but it couldn’t show how easily he moved through them. Again, I find myself thinking about the very rigid moral standards of the era and the fact that these circus performers are wearing scanty or form-fitting outfits that would rarely be seen in another context. Unlike Sandow, Martinetti isn’t showing flesh, however, and his one-piece leotard seems to have the effect of nullifying his gender, as it were, by making his crotch appear as smooth as a doll’s. Nevertheless, this is a very sensual display, with the audience more intimately close than they would likely be in an arena or other performance venue, possibly an additional appeal to this film.

Director: WKL Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Starring: Luis Martinetti

Run Time: 16 seconds

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Robetta and Doretto (1894)

Robetta and Doretto

AKA: “Chinese Laundry Scene,” “Robetta and Doretto #2.”

When speaking of “firsts,” it’s always important to be aware that nothing, or at least nothing artistic, springs fully-formed from the void. Thus, it is possible to say that this early Kinetoscope from Edison Studios is the “first slapstick” film, but it’s important to understand that the concept of slapstick comedy predates the cinema by many decades. The two clowns we see performing here had done their act many times in front of live audiences, and had perfected their skills in vaudeville and circuses, this was simply the first time anyone had filmed them (or anyone) doing it. What we see is pretty limited, just two figures running through a set of fake doors, hitting one another. The idea that one or both is “Chinese” suggests a degree of ethnic humor, and I guess the appearance of the one clown is an ethnic caricature, but to me this doesn’t really come through in this film clip. What we mostly see is someone in a police uniform and the other fellow, or “little man” giving him his comeuppance, a very common theme in broad comedy. Like many of the movies of the time, this was shot in several “takes,” each of which appears to have been shown as a separate film, thus this version is technically “#2.”

Director: WKL Dickson.

Camera: William Heise.

Starring: Phil Doretto, Robetta.

You can watch it for free: here or here.

Sandow (1894)

Sandow

This early Edison kinetoscope was part of the first commercial exhibition of motion pictures, and represents the efforts of the studio to appeal to audiences, along with Annie Oakley, through the use of celebrities or interesting individuals. Eugen Sandow was a bodybuilder who was promoted by the famous Florenz Ziegfeld, who had him display feats of strength before large audiences in many different countries. Apparently, Ziegfeld found that people were more fascinated by Sandow’s perfectly muscled body than with the amount of weight he lifted, so this film is a kind of ritual dance in which Sandow flexes different muscle groups for the camera. It also shows more flesh (albeit male flesh) than any other movie of the nineteenth century that I can think of. Sandow’s “package” is plainly obvious in his meager shorts, and I have to suspect that audiences of that notoriously repressed era were titillated by this display. Apart from the sexual appeal, which most viewers (especially the men!) would never have admitted to, the film makes no effort to add narrative or elements such as comedy or suspense that might have kept audience interest: the fact that the subject moves is enough in itself.

Director: W.K.L. Dickson

Camera: William Heise

Run Time: 45 seconds

You can watch it for free: here.