Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Ww

The Wizard, the Prince, and the Good Fairy (1900)

Georges Méliès produces a typical fantasy or fairy tale in this short film from the turn of the century. While not as elaborate in special effects as some others of the period, it displays an increasing interest in developing a storyline within movies.

Méliès plays the prince, who enters the wizard’s chamber at the outset of the film and pays him handsomely to perform magic for him. The wizard makes his table disappear and directs the prince’s attention to an alcove where his cauldron sits bubbling. With a wave of his hand, the cauldron disappears and is replaced by a lovely princess. Méliès is overcome and thrilled, and he takes the young lady’s hand. But, she disappears when he goes to embrace her. Feeling cheated, he tries to attack the wizard with his sword, but the wizard uses magic to defend himself. At first he disappears, leaving behind a large wooden simulacrum of himself, which the prince sticks with the sword before turning and seeing the real wizard. When he grabs the wizard’s cloak, he again disappears, leaving Méliès with only the cloak, and he tumbles to the ground with surprise. When he makes another attempt with the sword, the wizard disappears completely in a puff of smoke, but now bars appear in the alcove, signaling that the prince will be unable to leave. When he tries to go out using the door he entered from, a group of witches comes in and surrounds him, turning him into a pauper. Now the prince prays, and his prayers are answered by a woman, who I guess is the “good fairy” of the title. She makes the bars disappear, replacing the alcove with an entry to a sylvan glen. Then she returns the prince to his noble condition. Finally, she brings back the princess, now dressed in a wedding gown. When the wizard appears and tries to object, the fairy gestures and he is now locked in a cage. Thus, the prince and princess may live happily ever after, and a wedding dance commences at the rear of the set.

While this starts out as a typical trick film, with things appearing and disappearing to the plotless annoyance of the main character, the appearance of the fairy changes it to a more story-focused narrative. We come to see the prince as a hero, wronged by the wizard, and his faith and love for the princess allows him to overcome evil. This is, of course, in extreme shorthand given the brief running time. Thus, unlike “The Cabbage Fairy,” sometimes called the “first narrative film,” this movie has a clear beginning, a middle, and an end, and is more successful at presenting a narrative form of a fairy tale. Of course, by 1900, it was hardly alone in this sense, and it remains a relatively “simple” film by the standards of Méliès, with only a few special effects and tumbles to keep the audience’s attention.

Director: Georges Méliès

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Georges Méliès

Run Time: 2 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Water Goddess (1917)

The penultimate episode of “Judex” has what appears to be the final cycle of capture-and-release for the serial, ending on the cusp of a final resolution. An empowered female hero arises, even as our traditional male superhero begins to soften and appear more human.

An oblivious Judex.

The episode begins with Judex (René Cresté) explaining his determination to negotiate for the life of Favraux (Louis Leubas) to his brother (Édouard Mathé). He shows him a big wad of francs he intends to pay as ransom, then goes off to wait at the seashore. Even though he has foolishly gone alone, he is observed by chance by Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque) and his new fiancée, Daisy Torp (I believe she is played by Juliette Clarens). They are able to clearly see the rowboat “sneaking” up to shore behind Judex, but he obstinately stares in another direction, being surprised when Diana Monti (Musidora) reveals herself. He offers to negotiate for Favraux, but Monti makes him come back to the Eaglet with her, and Favraux asks him to write another note to his daughter, telling her that Judex’s life will only be spared if she comes herself. He refuses, giving away his identity and telling Favraux that when he comes back to his senses, he will realize that he does not belong with Monti and Morales (Jean Devalde). They respond by tying him to a post in the cabin. Read the rest of this entry »

When the Child Appeared (1917)

This episode of the serial Judex does contain a kidnapping, trespassing, and a sexy swimsuit, but is mostly pretty staid family fare overall. As the plot develops, we become more concerned with family relations than with crime and revenge.

The movie begins at a Mediterranean estate, where Madame Tremuese (Yvonne Dario) has brought Jacqueline (Yvette Andréyor), Robert (Édouard Mathé), Le Petit Jean (Olinda Mano), and the Licorice Kid (René Poyen). Apparently, they are all relaxing and enjoying themselves, and also feel reasonably secure from the scheming of the villains, since the kids are allowed to play unsupervised, and the adults spend their time at the seashore. Next door, we learn, Judex (René Cresté) has brought Kerjean (Gaston Michel) and Favraux (Louis Leubas), who also needs some time in the sun to recover his sanity after his long imprisonment below ground. Judex reassumes the title Jacques de Tremeuse and arrives at his mother’s estate, announcing that he has only just returned from the colonies, but both Jaqueline and Le Petit Jean feel they have seen him before. It is decided to invite Cocantin (Marcel Lévesque) down to see them as well, and this gives Diana Monti (Musidora) and Morales (Jean Devalde) a chance to tail him in hope of finding Favraux.

Read the rest of this entry »

The Woman in Black (1917)

An origin story at last! “Judex” is a bit past halfway, and with this episode, the serial tells us the reason that he is…Judex.

The movie begins by showing us a woman we have not seen before, living on an estate, who receives a telegram from her son “Jacques” telling her that he is coming. This is the Countess de Tremeuse (Yvonne Dario), and the telegram opens a floodgate of memories, which we see in flashbacks. “At a time when her hair was blonde instead of gray,” the subtitles tell us (actually it looks brunette to me, but whatever), she was happily married and raising two sons of the nobility. But, her husband had dealings with the corrupt banker Favraux (Louis Leubas, here made up to look much younger than in earlier episodes). He became romantically interested in the young Countess, and tried to leverage his financial power to gain her favors. When the Countess objected, he pulled out all of his support and the family was ruined. This results in her husband’s suicide. Moments after the Count’s impetuous act, news comes that an African gold mine has paid off and so the family will not face poverty after all. When the Count is laid to rest, Madame de Tremeuse makes her sons swear that they will avenge their father when they are old enough. They do so with right-handed Roman salutes, in the style that would soon be adopted by fascists and later by Nazis.

Read the rest of this entry »

Watermelon Patch (1905)

This short film from Edison offers the opportunity to think about racial tropes in America and how they have (and haven’t) changed. While certainly not a flattering portrayal of African Americans, it avoids the use of blackface and has real black people portraying themselves at least.

The movie opens on a shot of a watermelon patch with two full-sized scarecrows on poles overlooking it. Two black men cautiously enter the shot and, after comedically bumping heads, signal to off-screen companions, who filter in and each claims a watermelon. While they are distracted, the scarecrows remove their clothes, revealing skeletons underneath (actually, people in black body-suits with skeletons painted on the front). One of the thieves turns and sees them, and the skeletons begin waving. The thieves panic and run, and the skeletons hop down from their poles and chase them off-screen. The chase continues for a few succeeding shots, and many of the watermelon thieves drop their ill-gotten gains as they run through a forest, leap over a fence, and hurry down a country road.

The scene shifts to the interior of a shack, with many African Americans dancing together. The dance has comedic elements – a very large fat woman is featured in one portion, and another section involves two men surreptitiously kicking one another at intervals in the dance. Then, the survivors of the chase come in, some of them still have their watermelons, and this is cause for general celebration. A watermelon is thrown on the ground so that it shatters into pieces, and everyone takes a piece and sits down to eat. We see a close two-shot of two men eating very large pieces of watermelon, occasionally looking up to grin at each other with juice-stained faces. They seem to engage in a kind of “Watermelon Contest,” with the one on the left pulling ahead and then breaking off a chunk of his opponent’s piece to get more watermelon.

The scene returns to the watermelon patch, where some white men with dogs have arrived. The dogs track the scent of the thieves through the forest, the fence, and the road, and the men arrive outside of the shack. One peers in the window, which is closed in his face. The white men board up the door from outside and cover the smokestack with a board. Back inside, we see one of the black men shut the window, then the feeding continues for a while until the place starts to fill up with smoke. Everyone gets up in distress, but they cannot open the door. Someone opens the window, and a woman tries to climb through it, getting stuck so that her undergarments are visible to the audience. Once again, we cut to outside, and again, we go back a bit in time so that we see the window open, and the woman climbs through. This time, she does not get stuck however, because the white men drag her out, and she runs away. Then several more people are brought out that way, and others climb out through a skylight. The white men let all of them go, although apparently they chastise them as they pull them out of the shack.

On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, African American scholar Michele Wallace raises some interesting points about blacks and watermelons, and also black stereotypes generally. Watermelons are a staple Southern food (they will not grow in the North), which can be grown cheaply and with relatively little effort. They have, as we know, become associated with African American culture and with racial epithets. I think she misses the fact that they are generally messy to eat, with juice staining hands and faces, and the necessity of spitting out the seeds, which contributes to their consumption being seen as “uncouth” or infantile. She makes another interesting point that applies well to this movie, which is that most of the stereotypes about black culture from this period reflect poor, rural life in various ways (perhaps today it is poor, urban culture being reflected in black stereotypes). This movie centers around agricultural production, and also the question of ownership (and theft) of the means of living. Wallace points out that poor people often stole food like watermelons and chickens, because these were things that could feed a large group quickly, and could be hard to trace. Other stereotypes include their superstitious reaction to the skeletons, associated with a low level of education and world-experience, and their dancing, which is the only form of free entertainment available to them. The blacks seem to be a mix of “field hands” and “house servants” from their attire, although recall that slavery is now 40 years in the past. The field hands often seem to get the better of their “betters,” as in the kicking contest that takes place during the dance.

Technically, this film is also interesting. When I watched the opening, I thought, “if this movie had been made four years earlier, that opening shot would have been the whole movie, and that would have been just as good.” By 1905, Edwin S. Porter feels the necessity to drag out his thin plot over several shots by adding a chase, which may partly explain why chase films were so common during the Nickelodeon Era. But the really interesting aspect of this movie is the sequential editing, which requires us to see the window being closed from both the inside and the outside of the shack, and for the sequence to “jump backward” in time each time we cut between the two locations. Parallel editing is just a couple of years away, and in fact this is more neatly handled than “Life of an American Fireman” was a few years earlier, where an entire scene is re-played from two angles. I would say that this is a step in the evolution of editing, and suggests that it was not the genius of any one person that “invented” the technique.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Starring: Unknown

Run Time: 11 Min

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

The White Caps (1905)

An important predecessor to “The Birth of a Nation,” this short movie by Edwin S. Porter was nowhere near as successful, but still offers some insights into the themes of early American Cinema. To understand its meaning today, a good deal of context needs to be filled in.

The movie begins by showing two men in awkward white hoods approaching the front of a house and tacking up a sign at the front door. The men are armed with rifles, and one keep a lookout while the other posts the warning sign. They depart, and shortly thereafter we cut to the inside of the house, where a lone woman glumly reads at a table. Soon, her husband comes home, apparently drunk. He is enraged by the sign and tears it down, then goes in and picks a fight with his wife, escalating to violence. A child runs out of the bedroom and distracts him long enough that she can escape his clutches, and we see them run across fields to elude him and ends up at another house, presumably the home of family or friends who give her shelter. The menfolk of this house become agitated, and several of them jump on horses to raise the alarm.

Soon, a group of men with white hoods like those we saw at the start grab the drunken husband and drag him, resisting, away from his house, into the woods. There, they bring him to a torchlit circle of men, all of whom put on their hoods when the man is brought to them (we see that they are ordinary citizens before their hooding). The man breaks and runs, and there is a lengthy chase through the woods. Finally, the man attacks a lone pursuer from behind a tree, possibly hoping to get his hood and escape in disguise, but he loses the fight and the other hooded men soon arrive and take him into custody. Then, his arms are tied and raised by ropes around a tree branch. Now that he is secured, the hooded men rip off his shirt and paint his upper body black, then throw feathers on him from bags. The final image is a grim procession of hooded men, leading the tarred and feathered victim, his hands tied, on the back of a mule.

Before we get into discussing the obvious parallel, it is important to note that there was no active Ku Klux Klan at the time of the release of this movie. The book The Clansman, by Thomas Dixon, would also come out in 1905, and this would fire the imagination of men like William Simmons, who would re-found the Klan ten years later, the same year that “Birth of a Nation” was released.  This movie is, as the title makes clear, about “Whitecapping,” which was a form of vigilantism prevalent in the South and the West in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. White Caps were groups of citizens that took the law into their own hands, operating clandestinely with the help of masks, and enforcing community standards through the threat of terror. This form of vigilantism has roots in the mythos of the “holy Vehm” of Westphalia and other European traditions. None of which is to say that it has nothing to do with the KKK or racism. While race was not a central issue for the White Caps in the same sense as for the Klan, it certainly played a role in the standards the White Caps enforced, particularly in the South, where competition for scarce resources between poor whites and freed slaves and their descendants contributed to a culture of lynching.

For us today, the vision of a lone man being pursued by hooded figures with torches is undeniably horrific, although that may not have been the impression the directors were seeking to convey. The victim in this movie begins as a villain, a drunk and a spousal abuser (we don’t see him hit the child, but child abuse would also be a logical extension of this character). The White Caps are therefore posited as a force for decency, even if what they do is unpleasant. It’s also worth noting that this movie is edited along the lines of other chase movies by Porter, such as “How a French Nobleman Got a Wife…” that are essentially comedic. On the “Invention of the Movies” DVD, scholars Charles Musser and Michelle Wallace offer some of the above context, and also emphasize that the tradition of popular vigilantism in the US led to some of the formative genres of Hollywood, including the Western. I would add that there is also a direct line to comic book superheroes, possibly one of the most profitable genres of the current decade. As we thrill at the current portrayals of extra-legal enforcement on the screen, it may help remember the less-glossy origins of the concept in order to maintain some awareness and critical distance from its more unpleasant implications.

Director: Edwin S. Porter & Wallace McCutcheon

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring:Kate Toncray, John R. Cumpson, Arthur V. Johnson

Run Time: 12 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

The Wrong Mr. Fox (1917)

This short is a classic mix-up comedy based on the fact of two very similarly-named towns: Canaan, Vermont, and Canaan, New Hampshire, on the same train line. The thin plot does offer some good opportunities for situational comedy.

An out-of-work actor named Jimmy Fox (Victor Moore) is on the verge of committing suicide by breathing in gas from his light, when he is contacted by his agent and told to go to one of these metropoli in order to join a theater troupe. He boards the train with 3 donuts (one for every 100 miles) and a bottle of milk, stolen from his landlady. At the same time, the reverend John Fox boards the train for the other Canaan, where he is being sent to take over ministerial duties. Of course, they each get off at the wrong station, and, of course, each is mistaken for the other Mr. Fox. Of course, hilarity ensues. The reverend fairly quickly flees his Canaan community (apparently running home to his mother), when an actor in rehearsal pulls out a knife. But our actor figures out his situation fairly quickly and comes up with a plan. He begins his sermon by passing out the collection plates. Then, imitating Billy Sunday, he gives a dramatic series of gestures that cause the congregation to look into the distance while he fills his pockets. Then, he does a kind of strip show, pulling off his jacket, tie, and shirt, finishing with a flourish that makes the crowd look up while he bicycles out the door. However, he’s forgotten that by removing his clothes, he left all the money in his pockets behind.

The now-obscure star of this movie was Victor Moore, who was the principle star of the Jacksonville, Florida-based Klever Komedies studio, a subsidiary of Jesse Lasky’s Feature Play Company, and therefore part of Paramount. Judging by this film, Moore wasn’t a genius of physical comedy, like Chaplin or Keaton, he seems to be more in the tradition of situational humor like John Bunny or Sidney Drew, with just a hint of Roscoe Arbuckle’s charisma. A lot of this film is shot quite conventionally, but there are some interesting bits. The sequence in which he tries to commit suicide with gas includes several bits where he breathes fire after someone lights a match. There are several dramatic close-ups during his sermon, and I was surprised that his parishioners seem to include at least a few Asian Americans. Honestly, the funniest moment for me didn’t involve Moore at all – I laughed loudest when the preacher runs away from the actor with a knife.

Director:Harry Jackson

Camera: Unknown

Starring: Victor Moore, William Slade

Run Time: 13 Min

You can watch it for free: here.

What Happened in the Tunnel (1903)

This is a short comedy from Edison that exploits racial stereotypes as well as gender relations but isn’t likely to offend modern viewers.

We see the interior of a railroad car from a slight angle and above. In one seat, near a window, sits a young white woman and a large black woman in a maid’s outfit. Behind them is a white man with a large nose. The white woman is reading, but the man behind her strikes up a conversation. We can see by her reactions that he is being somewhat forward, and that she’s embarrassed, but the maid keeps smiling broadly. Suddenly the screen goes black (the train enters a tunnel). When the lights come up again, we see that the white woman and the black woman have changed places, and the masher is now kissing  the black maid! He shows extreme embarrassment and consternation and hides behind his newspaper.

Part of the reason that this movie still “works” in the context of modern sensibilities is that the only person shown as having racist attitudes is the masher, who we already don’t like because he is forcing his attentions on the white girl. In a totally non-racially charged context, the movie can still work: he is attracted to one girl and not the other, and gets tricked into kissing the wrong one in the dark. However, the known racial order makes this more effective: he isn’t just annoyed that he’s kissed the “wrong” woman, he’s worried about the judgment of others on the train who have seen him kissing a black woman. If you analyze it more closely, the racism under the surface becomes clearer. The black woman is in on the joke from the outset – we conclude from her smile that she has a plan to get rid of this obnoxious fellow from the beginning – but doing so requires her to experience the humiliation of being the butt of that joke. She has to accept being seen as undesirable or not entirely human by onlookers in order to effect her punishment on the villain (this would still apply if she were just a fat white woman in the same role, but it has further implications because of her race). It’s notable that they brought in a real African American for this role, instead of a woman or even a man in blackface.

Director:Edwin S. Porter

Camera: Edwin S. Porter

Starring: Gilbert M. Anderson, Bertha Regustus

Run Time: 1 Min, 20 secs

You can watch it for free: here.

Wild and Woolly (1917)

Douglas Fairbanks is back with a parody of the Western genre that takes full advantage of his good-natured American good looks and propensity for athleticism. By this point, the Fairbanks comedy “brand” was clearly established and he was milking it for all it was worth.

wild_and_woolly

Doug stars as Jeff Hillington, the spoiled son of a railroad magnate with an obsession for the Old West. We first meet Jeff having a breakfast of beans at a campfire in front of a tent, decked out in complete “Western”-style clothing, reading an Old West adventure novel. As the camera pulls back, we realize that this cozy scene takes place in his Manhattan apartment: He has set up the campfire and tent in his bedroom. He also does some target practice in his room, which prompts his father to send the butler up to remind him to get ready for the office. Doug is really rough on the old guy, roping him with a lasso, making him watch his trick shots from dangerously close to the line of fire, and finally jumping on his back and “busting” him like a bronco.

wild-and-woolly

Doug goes in to work for his father, but doesn’t get much done because he’s too busy fantasizing about the West. He goes to a Nickelodeon to watch the latest Western movie, and tells a passing woman that “his mate” will have to be just like the girl in the poster. Meanwhile, dad is meeting with a delegation from the town of Bitter Spurs, Arizona, where a prosperous mining facility needs a new spur line added to facilitate transportation of the ore. Hillington Senior likes the idea in theory, but decides to send Jeff to look at the situation at first-hand. He also hopes that a trip to the real West will cure him of his obsession. Jeff thinks this is the most exciting idea he’s heard, and insists on calling all the delegates “pard” and commiserating with them that they have to wear “store clothes” when they visit New York.

wild-and-woolly2

This gives the city fathers of Bitter Creek an idea: They’ll impress this young fool by putting on a Wild West show just for him and pretending that nothing has changed since the 1870s. They cover up all their nicely-printed signs with handwritten boards (the “S” is always backwards) and turn the city assessor’s office into a Western Saloon. They get everyone to dress up like cowboys and plan out a dance, some rowdies for Jeff to confront, and a holdup for the climax. Meanwhile, the local Indian Agent (Sam De Grasse) has been skimming off the government assistance intended for a nearby reservation, and he learns that he will soon be exposed. So, along with his sidekick, he plans a real train robbery, using the Wild West show as a distraction, and plans for some of “his” Indians come into town to simulate an “uprising.”

wild-and-woolly4

Jeff rides into town decked out like a true Urban Cowboy and immediately confronts a man harassing the one available single girl in town (Eileen Percy). The mining men realize that they need to get his guns away from him and put fake bullets in them, because he’s too eager to use them. They manage to do this while he’s washing his face in a basin in the hotel. Everything goes well, with Jeff consistently acting out the clichés of his fantasy, and the townsfolk laughing their heads off behind his back. They convince him that they need the spur in order to put Wild Bill and his Dirty Ditch outfit out of business. Jeff insists on walking the girl everywhere she goes for her own safety.

Alley-oop!

Alley-oop!

Then, the robbery takes place. Sam De Grasse shoots the conductor after he has indicated which strongbox has the real money in it, and takes it. The Indians pour into town and take over the bar, drinking excessively and demonstrating that their guns, at least, have real bullets. Much of the town’s leading citizens are held at bay, and in a nearby room is a collection of infants, brought in by the wives because they had to attend the dance. Jeff discovers that his bullets have been replaced when he tries to save the day, and the city fathers come clean. He leaps up to the ceiling, kicks a hole through so he can climb into his own room, and secures the boxes of ammunition he had packed for his vacation. Now armed, he and the townsmen are able to re-take the bar. Meanwhile, the Indian Agent’s henchman had kidnapped Eileen and taken her out to the range. Jeff jumps on a horse from behind and rushes off to save her. The townsmen also get on horses and herd the Indians like cattle. Jeff saves the girl, and sheepishly admits that all the trouble was his fault for being such a goof about the West. Then he rides off on the next train while Eileen sheds a tear.

wild-and-woolly7

Then an Intertitle tells us that a Western must end with a wedding, so of course the two principles are married. But where should they live? Eileen wants to live n New York and Jeff in Arizona. The final shot is a sort of reversal of our introduction to Jeff: we see the finely-appointed foyer of a mansion, with liveried servants waiting to serve. Jeff and Eileen come down the stairs together and kiss, then they open the doors onto the rough desert terrain, and a group of rowdies on horseback greets them as Jeff mounts his horse to ride the range.

Ouch.

Ouch.

This movie captures a lot of the fun of Douglas Fairbanks in a simple package. It also reminds me of the kind of thing Harold Lloyd would later do: the good-natured nebbish who doesn’t quite live in reality, but makes good and gets the girl in the end. I think it’s actually a bit funnier when skinny Lloyd does this than buff Fairbanks, but Fairbanks did it first. This movie definitely has its funny moments. I particularly enjoy the early sequences in New York with the butler, but Jeff’s efforts to “fit in” to the Western town are also quite good. That said, I wouldn’t call it perfect. In terms of comedy, a lot of the humor is dependent upon funny Intertitles, which I find distracts from the visual action. Most silent movies tried to minimize the use of titles and show as much as possible visually, but, perhaps because they wanted to preserve the witty writing of Anita Loos, they overdid it a bit here. The other “not funny” part of this movie is the stereotypical portrayal of Native Americans. This is mostly a problem in about the last ten minutes of the movie, but it gets really bad when they take over the bar and drink heavily, threatening the white citizenry and their babies. According to Wikipedia, these scenes were frequently censored even at the time.

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

Welcome to New J-I mean Arizona!

It’s interesting to note that this movie was actually shot in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which was still a major filmmaking center in 1917. This would have made the New York scenes easier. In fact, there’s one scene of Jeff riding his horse in Central Park South that couldn’t have been shot anywhere else. But, it must have made the Western town and countryside a bit of a challenge. We don’t get any sweeping panoramas of the desert, but those weren’t common at the time even in Hollywood films, partly because of the limitations of cameras and film stock. The town itself is quite good, and we do get some impressive long shots to establish it that work well.

wild-and-woolly1

The real point of the movie is that it parodies the clichés of an established genre, especially the style of Western favored by Broncho Billy Anderson and other kid-friendly fare. Loos and Fairbanks obviously saw that these tropes were ripe for satire, and they went at it with both barrels. This movie is important historically for what it tells us about the development of that genre.

Director: John Emerson

Camera: Victor Fleming

Writer: Anita Loos

Starring: Douglas Fairbanks, Eileen Percy, Sam De Grasse, Joseph Singleton, Charles Stevens, Tom Wilson

Run Time: 1 hr, 12 min

I have not found this for free on the Internet (please comment if you do). However, it can be rented for download from Flicker Alley on Vimeo.

What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City (1901)

This short comedy is a wonderful location shoot of my home town, allowing a window into the past by showing a city street on an average day at the turn of the century. It also repeats some of the tropes of gender and voyeurism that we’ve grown accustomed to in Edison movies.

what-happened-at-23rdWe see a busy city street, looking directly down the street from the edge of the sidewalk. Crowds of people pass by in all directions. There are electric streetcars and many horse-drawn vehicles in the street, but no motorized vehicles are in evidence. A boy in a cap stands to the left of the frame, staring directly at the camera, and one man, who crosses in front of it suddenly steps back as if he were told to get out of the shot, but for the most part people act naturally, as if the camera were not there. A number of people jaywalk by crossing the street in the middle, not far from the camera’s position. A couple, quite distant at the beginning of the film, approach it slowly through the running time. Finally, when they are just close enough to be centered in the shot, they step over a grate in the sidewalk and the woman’s dress is blown up around her ankles, rising almost to her knees before she grabs it and demurely holds it down and steps off the grate. She looks embarrassed at first, but suddenly bursts into hearty laughter at the end.

New York's Flatiron Building

New York’s Flatiron Building

Before I get into analyzing this film, I want to talk about an odd piece of Americana. A fascinating architectural structure, known as the Flatiron Building, is located at Twenty Third Street and Fifth Avenue in New York. This building, because of its odd shape, famously channels a great deal of wind onto the nearby sidewalks. Supposedly, a certain class of New York male began to congregate there to observe women’s dresses blown up by the wind, because it offered a rare sight of female legs. The story goes that the phrase “23 Skidoo” comes from these men being regularly rousted by policemen on patrol. This may all be more or less legend, but this movie adds some credence to the idea that Twenty Third Street was associated with opportunities for voyeurism and exhibitionism, and offers its audience a safe opportunity to engage in it. What really stands out to us today is the wonderful location shooting, and the chance to see fashions, architecture, and vehicles of a previous century in excellent detail and under more or less documentary conditions. Nearly all of the men are wearing straw hats and neckties, and most of the women do wear long, heavy dresses that conceal their bodies from view. One interesting question it raises is whether the “star” of this movie was played by a woman or a man in drag, as was the case with many Edison pictures. Imdb credits a female actor, but the Library of Congress does not specify. Either way, she definitely breaks character at the end when she bursts into laughter, I think because of some comment a passerby has made. Of course, she would have been in on the joke from the beginning, so her apparent embarrassment is an act, whatever her gender identity may have been.

Director: Edwin S. Porter possibly with George S. Fleming

Camera: Unknown, possible Edwin S. Porter or George S. Fleming

Starring: A.C. Abadie and Florence Georgie

Run Time: 1 Min, 30 secs

You can watch it for free: here.