Film History Essentials: Nicholas Sisters Split Dance (1895)

•February 8, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

In the fragment that survives, two women wave farewell to the camera-as-audience as they move to depart out of the frame in opposite directions. The woman on the left skips energetically straight out of our line of sight, while the one on the right begins to sidestep a bit more gracefully but does not reach the edge of the frame.

Why it’s essential:

For 20 years after Passage de Vénus captured the first known sequence of images of a body in motion, development of motion picture technology had advanced steadily and inexorably, but not always with an obvious direction. A lot of different people had worked on the problem with equally varying results. Some (like Muybridge and Marey) had solved the particular angle they were working without actually inventing “the movies.” Others had toyed with the idea, even tackled it seriously, but for one reason or another their efforts had come to nothing. Some simply lacked the skill, but others had poor luck, poor timing, or were just . . . poor. Or at least, they were too poor to finance their big idea until they could make it work.

Most importantly, there were two inciting elements missing during these pre-movie years: First, no one had done it yet, so no one really knew for sure that it could be done. Second, even a lot of the people trying to do it didn’t seem to have a solid plan for what they would do with it if they succeeded. What would even be the point of a moving picture? Then, in 1894, Edison lit a fuse when he started manufacturing kinetoscopes and films, simultaneously demonstrating that it could be done, and that if you did it, you could sell it.

In 1895, the fuse reached the powder, and motion pictures exploded worldwide. One thing Edison hadn’t done yet—the last missing piece of the motion picture as we know it—was projection onto a screen for an audience. That was the peak that a lot of people, inspired by the kinetoscope, had set out at once to conquer, and several of them succeeded in 1895. One of the American teams that went to work on projection, as it happened, had already been in on the ground floor of the kinetoscope.

Those enterprising financial visionaries of the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company, who had prevailed upon Edison to build them modified machines that they could use to record and show prize fights like the Leonard-Cushing Fight, had been successfully riding that business model to a whole chain of kinetoscope parlors in major cities across the country, all showing fights they’d arranged. But it was clear to them that Edison’s whole one-viewer-at-a-time arrangement was placing severe limitations on their cash flow potential. They once again went to Edison to prevail upon him to work out a means to project motion pictures onto a screen, but Edison was firmly married to his kinetoscope “peep show” model. So they decided, fine, maybe they’d just do it themselves.

These two go-getters were the Latham brothers, Grey and Otway, and actually they weren’t going to do it themselves, because they were salesmen, not engineers. But they had connections. They went first to their father, Major Woodville Latham (see left), a veteran of the Confederacy who was also a professor of chemistry. Together, the three men formed the Lambda Company (as in the Greek letter “L”) in December of 1894. They also brought on Enoch J. Rector, a former classmate and their partner in the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company, and (most importantly) a man with some technical skill. And, last but not least, they made a play for the man behind the kinetoscope himself, William K.L. Dickson.

Dickson knew better than to join the project openly. His conflict of interest was clear, and Edison would have zero tolerance for it. Nevertheless, he was as interested in the project as anyone, so he agreed to work with them in secret. He also recommended that they hire Eugene Lauste, a former Edison employee who had worked on Dickson’s kinetoscope team until 1892. The engineering team of Latham (the elder), Lauste, and Rector set to work, with some quiet help from Dickson.

Knowing they had very different goals from Edison’s, they started the design process completely over from scratch. They wanted a camera that would be more portable, and of course that could record much longer films than the kinetograph. They were also thinking in terms of projection onto a large screen, not a tiny image viewed inside of a box. One of their first innovations was to use a much wider filmstock, basically the equivalent of a modern widescreen aspect ratio. Within just a few months, they had initial solutions to the other problems as well, and were ready to demonstrate a device they were calling the Panoptikon. They gave a demonstration of it to the press on April 21, 1895, marking the first projected motion picture in America (see right).

Less than 3 weeks earlier, on April 2, Dickson had been confronted by Edison’s bulldog of a vice-president, William Gilmore, over his work with the Lathams. According to Dickson’s account of the exchange, Gilmore accused him, in front of Edison, of conducting himself dishonorably. Edison jumped in to assure Dickson that he didn’t believe that, and Dickson confidently seized the opportunity to present an ultimatum: Either Gilmore should leave the company, or Dickson should. Apparently Edison hesitated in replying until it became awkward, and Dickson resigned on the spot. Multiple historians have suggested that Gilmore’s power plays (both here and in other instances) were a significant contributing factor to the issues with patents that would soon emerge and keep Edison tied up in court for over two decades.

Meanwhile, on May 4, on the roof of Madison Square Garden, the team recorded their first actual film that wasn’t just a test. It was, of course, a boxing match: Young Griffo v. Battling Charles Barnett. And reportedly it was as much as 12 minutes long, a staggering achievement in itself. See, all of these cameras worked by yanking the film strip down so that one frame was exposed, then yanking it again to move onto the next frame, over and over up to dozens of times per second depending on the frame rate. Pulling jerkily against the entire weight of a roll of film would place too much strain on both the film and the mechanism unless the roll was fairly short (i.e. Edison’s 50-150 feet). The solution to this was to design an additional mechanism that would steadily draw out the roll of film and feed it into a small loop (see above) so that the mechanism that yanked each frame into place was only ever pulling against that small loop of film rather than the entire roll.

Major Latham patented this mechanism the following year. It was extremely important to both motion picture cameras and projectors, and it would forever be known as the Latham loop, although the matter was extensively litigated. One thing that every film historian seems to agree on is that Latham probably didn’t deserve the credit for it, though who did is a bit murkier. Lauste, Rector, and Dickson likely all contributed to some extent, but as almost everyone involved eventually ended up with competing business interests, things got contentious. For what it’s worth, Lauste, whose claim was backed by Dickson, seems to have the strongest case. But they were the two who continued working together, so it was also somewhat in Dickson’s interest to support Lauste’s claim.

However, all of that legal wrangling was in the future. For now, things were still going well, except that “Panoptikon” was too similar to “panopticon,” a term that already existed in several different contexts (architecture, philosophy, etc.). So before unveiling their new inventions publicly, they decided to rebrand. They drew their inspiration from a science fiction short story, by a Scottish immigrant named Robert Duncan Milne, about an invention that can visually replay past events. The story was called “The Eidoloscope,” and that was the name the Lambda Company adopted for their projector. The camera was labeled the Eidolograph.

On May 20, 1895, the Lathams premiered Young Griffo v. Battling Charles Barnett projected onto a screen in a little storefront in Manhattan, before an audience who had paid 25 cents a ticket. It was the first-ever commercial presentation of a projected motion picture film, in America and in the world. The Eidoloscope had just made history.

It would be hard to understate the significance of this landmark, except that the achievement was barely noticed and was soon practically forgotten. The Eidoloscope burned brightly, but all too briefly . . . Well, in actuality, the Lathams had the opposite problem. Apparently some technical aspect of the projector’s construction (that I don’t entirely understand) meant that it required a tremendous amount of light to operate effectively. Due to a combination of limitations of the design and of contemporary technology, as exhibitors began to do shows around the country, the availability and brightness of the light source was frequently an issue.

Long before those issues could be resolved, the enterprise had more or less disintegrated. Rector and Samuel Tilden (another partner from the original Kinetoscope Exhibition Company) left to forge their own path making boxing movies. Dickson departed, and took Lauste with him. Within a year, the Eidoloscope was also facing stiff competition from other movie projectors, and a series of legal battles with America’s most litigious inventor was just beginning.

But for the relatively brief period during which it operated, the Lambda Company generated a unique slate of films. The most notable of these was an adaptation of Carmen that incorporated scenes of a real bull fight shot in Mexico by Gray Latham and Lauste. This would have been one of the earliest, and possibly the earliest, multi-scene narrative films ever made. Unfortunately, all of the Lambda films are presumed lost. Every. Single. One.

The one Eidoloscope production you can watch is a segment of about 20 frames of the Nicholas Sisters Split Dance that a filmmaker recently discovered in a women’s magazine and reconstructed. It’s a tantalizing glimpse at a kind of moving image that’s very different from what we’ve seen of the kinetoscope films (even accounting for the print-quality images, which seem to be even more lacking in detail than those used to reconstruct the missing portion of Fred Ott’s Sneeze). It’s almost like a glimpse into an alternate history of motion pictures, similar yet slightly different from our own.

Why you should see it:

This incredibly brief fragment that is almost the sole surviving representative of an entire production company’s output is almost as intriguing for what I don’t know about it as for what I do. I haven’t been able to discover what a “split dance” is, other than that it’s some type of skirt dance and was likely meant to be at least mildly titillating. I also don’t have any additional information on the sisters (or “sisters”?) who starred in this act, including their first names. There’s so little visible detail that I don’t even have a guess as to their ages.

Actually, I’m not even completely sure I have their last name right. The filmmaker who discovered this fragment identifies them as the “Nichols” sisters, and I assume he has a reason for believing that to be correct. I don’t have any primary sources that say one way or another, but their name is given as “Nicholas” in the “Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema,” in Terry Ramsaye’s seminal A Million and One Nights, and in this film’s index listing on “The Progressive Silent Film List,” so that’s what I went with.

But as interesting as it would be to know literally anything more than the basically nothing that I know, I doubt it would add much to the singular experience of seeing this bit of Nicholas Sisters Split Dance. In the briefest of moments, they give off an air of being savvy and charismatic performers who know how to play to a crowd, even one that isn’t present. Whether this was actually true at the time or not (and for the Eidoloscope itself it evidently was not), it’s at least certain that for us, they’ve forever left their audience wanting more.

Acknowledgement: What I do here is meant to be completely factual and historical and I strive for accuracy, but this is not a rigorous, formal academic project, so I generally haven’t cited sources unless I am quoting them directly. I consult primary sources as much as I can, and otherwise I stick to information that I feel I have been able to somewhat confirm myself, or that is more generally-known/corroborated by various reliable secondary sources. However, this particular post would probably not exist at all without the work of Peter Domankiewicz, which gave me a foothold into how I could frame the story of the Eidoloscope in a way that fit my own vision for this project. So I wanted to credit him with that . . . but also I think he deserves a lot more credit for the work he’s done in early film history on his site. You can check that out here.

Film History Essentials: Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895)

•February 7, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Annabelle Moore performs a dance in a flowing dress, twirling and swinging the fabric to create a hypnotic pattern, and then prancing in a circle with the costume spread like wings behind her.

Why it’s essential:

A Chicago native, Annabelle, like several of the earliest Edison kinetoscope performers, made her name in America at the Chicago World’s Fair. However, at barely 15, she was certainly the youngest of that group. Born Annabelle Whitford, she would later go by Annabelle Moore, but she was often billed only as “Peerless Annabelle.” Like Cher, Madonna, or Beyoncé, she was widely-known by her first name alone. She is likely only 16 in this film, shot in the summer of 1895, but she was already a familiar face at the Black Maria studio, and this is her 5th or 6th appearance before the kinetograph.

All of her films include her name and the name of the dance she is performing for the 15-20 second standard kinetoscope runtime. None of them particularly stands out from the others, except (for obvious reasons) this one. The third of her four filmed “serpentine dances” is in glorious, hand-tinted color. Her dress is all yellows and oranges at the beginning and the end, with flashes of crimson appearing here and there, and changes in the middle to a striking lavender. Each print of this film that went out would have been painstakingly colored by hand, one image at a time, for all 45-50 feet of film. There are some indications that this may not have been the first film to apply this process, but as far as we know, it is the oldest surviving example of a live-action film with color.

At first glance, it may seem as though this is also an early example of a film employing a visual effect that could not be reproduced in a live performance. After all, a dress would not change colors on-stage before the audiences’ eyes, right? The serpentine dance, it turns out, was developed in 1891 by actress, dancer, and choreographer Loie Fuller (see right). Fuller developed her own system of multi-colored stage lighting that not only made the billowing fabric seem to change color, it also reportedly produced effects that suggested the appearance of flames, flowers, and other images from nature.

Annabelle was one of many popular imitators of Fuller’s signature dance, and when Fuller failed to get the legal or artistic recognition for her creation that she deserved, she departed to tour in Europe. She eventually settled in Paris, where she continued to develop the serpentine technique as well as many other celebrated dances. Meanwhile, the serpentine dance remained hugely popular, and was featured in a few dozen film throughout the next decade and beyond.

As for Annabelle herself, I’ve seen it suggested that the popularity of her films was due to her involvement in a headline-grabbing sex scandal late in 1896. In brief, one of P. T. Barnum’s grandsons attempted to hire her to dance nude at his brother’s bachelor party, and her scandalized agent (who was also her stepfather) reported the party to the police. The police raided the restaurant where this debauched event was taking place, which led to a highly-publicized court case that pitted the attendees’ right to privacy against moral policing standards of the day. (Curious about the outcome? Recall that the defendants were rich and well-connected.)

So, did Annabelle enjoy a sudden surge in popularity because everyone wanted to get a look at the girl who turned down this notorious proposition? It’s possible. But as I said above, by this time Annabelle had already done multiple versions of both the butterfly dance and serpentine dance films, which implies that they were already among the most popular of the kinetoscope’s early films. In fact, she no longer appeared in any new films after 1897, though she continued to enjoy an illustrious career on the stage until her marriage in 1910.

Why you should see it:

Annabelle’s dances, at least those that appear on film, seem to rely more on her energy and charisma than any real technique or skill. I’m no expert on dance, certainly, and all of these examples are, of course, quite short. The style that is on display here is perfectly well-suited to the novelty of early motion pictures, and clearly audiences loved her. However, the contrast between this and other recorded serpentine dances of the era is striking, as we will see. Still, there is something to being the first (on film), and the addition of color makes this something truly special.

Film History Essentials: Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895)

•February 6, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A device that looks something like a giant ear trumpet hangs from the ceiling to about chest-height on the left side of the frame. A man in the center of the shot plays the violin into the device, and we can hear the tune he is playing. Two more men on the right hold each other and dance in a tight circle in time to the music. As the scene ends, a fourth man enters carefully from the left side, behind the device.

Why it’s essential:

When Edison first went public with the kinetoscope in 1891, he talked extensively about how it was the visual counterpart of the phonograph. His plan was always to marry the two technologies in order to produce moving pictures with sound, and at some point after the kinetoscope had successfully launched in 1894, and film production was well underway, Dickson turned his attention to the task. Sometime in late 1894 or early 1895, he produced this, just about the only artifact we have of his work on the process.

Of course, we know that he didn’t succeed, since talking pictures didn’t fully arrive until over 30 years later, but it’s unclear at what point he and Edison set the project aside definitively. The task that defeated them was the hurdle of synchronizing the sound to the picture. The problem of exactly coordinating recorded audio with recorded film proved too difficult to solve in the mid-1890s. Edison finally succeeded at producing talking pictures nearly 20 years later, long after his association with Dickson had come to an end, but that’s another story.

Meanwhile, back in 1895, here’s what we know: Edison called the invention that combined audio and visual the “kinetophone,” and it went on sale in March of 1895. It was just a kinetoscope with a phonograph also built into the cabinet. A tube fed out of this part of the cabinet and up to where the viewers could put the ends into their ears, like primitive earbuds (see right). Edison also sold kits that owners of kinetoscopes could use to modify them into kinetophones. However, none of the productions created for the kinetophone successfully incorporated anything like synchronized sound. They merely featured films shot without recorded sound, but sold with an appropriate “soundtrack” to accompany them; say, a march to be played along with a film showing a band, for example.

Only 45 kinetophones were ever made, and the endeavor was not financially successful. That, as much as anything, may have been the impetus that led Edison to abandon the project at that time. In any case, what we now refer to as the Dickson Experimental Sound Film was the only film produced with a live recording to accompany it, as far as we know, and it was unseen (and, in fact, unknown) outside of the Edison labs until its re-discovery in the 1940s. It was clear from that footage that this was an experiment in trying to create a film with sound, but the wax cylinder recording that went with it remained lost, and so for decades it was merely an odd little mystery from the earliest days of motion pictures.

In the 1960s, someone found the wax cylinder that was meant to be paired with this film, correctly labeled and everything. But the cylinder was broken, and no one made the connection between the cylinder marked “Violin by W.K.L. Dixon [sic] with Kineto” and the film (by that time archived at the Library of Congress) titled Dickson Violin for almost 40 years. In 1998, a joint restoration effort was undertaken, and the people and methodology involved are a fascinating story unto themselves. A complete, synchronized version was finally played for an audience in 2002, well over a century after its production. It was added to the National Film Registry the following year.

Why you should see it:

This film is a pretty incredible find. Incredible that we have it, and in a form that we can both see and hear, but also incredible to see this almost forgotten chapter of early film history restored to the narrative such a relatively short time ago. Its restoration answer many questions. For instance, we now know what tune Dickson (yes, that’s him) is playing on the violin. It’s from the French opera Les Cloches de Corneville, a massive hit that first premiered in 1877, when Dickson was still living in Europe. You can hear the original French version of the excerpt he is playing here, and the English version here. Dickson was born in France, but emigrated from Britain in 1879, so I’m not sure which version he would have had in mind.

However, many questions remain. One question that is foremost in the minds of viewers is whether the two men who are dancing in this clip could accurately be construed as one of the earliest examples of LGBT representation on screen. As with Muybridge’s The Kiss, I’m not here to declare definitively what does or doesn’t count as queer imagery, but I’ll just point out a few things. There’s a possibility that some might have objected to a film of a man and a woman dancing together, but I find that unlikely for several reasons. And I find it unlikely that Dickson would have been concerned by that for several more reasons, the most prominent of which is that this film was never intended for release, and was never seen by anyone outside of Edison’s employ, probably at any point during the lifetimes of the people appearing in it.

But, therein lies another clue: This was an experimental film, and the dancers are simply there to provide some movement that can be synchronized with the sound. They are almost certainly two members of Dickson’s team who were already present and at hand to step in front of the camera. How many women engineers do you think were employed by Thomas Edison in 1895? Given that you could count all of the women engineers on the planet at that time without running out of fingers, I would guess zero. But, again, these are not mutually exclusive explanations for what we see on-screen. Here, too, all we are left with are the images themselves, and, of course, the sound that goes with them.

Film History Essentials: Autour d’une cabine (1894)

•February 5, 2023 • Leave a Comment

(English: Around a cabin)

What it’s about:

Several people enjoy a day at the beach, including some divers, a couple with a small dog, and a rather rude peeping tom. A man in a boat signals the end of the film with his sails.

Why it’s essential:

By the first few months of 1894, Charles-Émile Reynaud and his Théâtre Optique had been presenting the same three animations five times daily for almost a year and a half. In March, the show closed while he worked on new material, and one of the two new animations he produced was Autour d’une cabine ou Mésaventures d’un copurchic aux bains de mer (or, in English: Around a Cabin or Misadventures of a Couple at the Seaside). This new work was composed of 636 individual, hand-painted images, and although it lasts about 2 minutes when played straight through at regular speed, just as with Pauvre Pierrot, Reynaud turned it into a performance, extending the runtime to 10 minutes or more.

During the months he was closed, Edison’s kinetoscope arrived in Paris. These live-action moving images had the benefit of novelty, but the films that were produced for them still lacked the length and sophistication of Reynaud’s work. Plus, the kinetoscope only allowed one viewer at a time, while the Théâtre Optique was projected for a whole audience. It would be another full year before Reynaud’s animations faced competition from actual projected motion pictures, and he didn’t give his final show until February 28, 1900.

Aside from Pauvre Pierrot, Autour d’une cabine is the only other one of Reynaud’s works to survive his destruction of his own work in a bout of depression after the closing of his show. It’s certainly interesting to see an example of his second group of films for the Théâtre Optique, to observe how his technique has developed, and how the medium hasn’t. There are a lot more characters and events in Autour d’une cabine, and the scenery is more elaborate. In particular he’s got to deal with characters entering and leaving the water, which is tricky as the water is part of the static background scenery, but the characters are not.

The various little devices that make up the whole thing are more clever, and the ship that sails out to declare that the show is over is a particularly nice touch. But it’s still essentially the same thing as his earlier work. The fundamental technology behind it hasn’t advanced in any way that allows for innovations that might compete with what’s coming.

Why you should see it:

It’s strange to watch this in the context of the early kinetoscope films. When Pauvre Pierrot was first exhibited, the handful of people who had access to a motion picture at all might have seen a few seconds of someone waving and bowing. Edison and Dickson were barely past the Monkeyshines days of images blurred beyond recognition into a shapeless blob. But by the time of this release, sure the motion pictures were less than a minute long and in black and white, but you could watch actual moving images of world-famous performers like Annie Oakley, or watch a dance from Spain, or the Native American West, or Japan.

Autour d’une cabine hasn’t lost any of the charm of Pauvre Pierrot. If anything, it’s a better and more engaging film, particularly to a modern audience. But somehow, where its predecessor felt vibrant and alive, this feels like the last rally of something that has lost its relevance and just doesn’t know it yet. The ghostly translucence of Reynaud’s characters in the scene has taken on a different tone entirely, like they are haunting a space that is no longer theirs to inhabit.

Film History Essentials: Imperial Japanese Dance (1894)

•February 4, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Three women in what appears to be Japanese garb stand in a line before the camera. The one in the middle holds out a fan which she twirls on her finger before spinning in a circle, dropping into a crouch, and then standing and continuing to dance. Meanwhile, the two women next to her hold handles in each hand with long streamers of gauzy cloth attached. The left streamer each one holds is light, and the right streamer is dark. The two turn in unison, first facing right, then left, then forward, etc. As they turn, they wave their arms, causing the streamers to create a mesmerizing pattern in the air in front of them.

Why it’s essential:

Filmed late in 1894, this is likely the first film to feature Japanese people, and possibly the first appearance by any Asian in a motion picture. I say “likely,” not just for the usual reason that it’s hard to be certain when so many early films are lost, but because in this case, it’s difficult to be sure of the women’s actual origins. In general, we have to take the claims from the Edison catalog regarding what we see in a particular film on a certain amount of trust. This may or may not be justified, but when the information from the catalog can be corroborated with additional information from outside as to the nature of the act and its participants, then it seems reasonable to accept it.

In this case, I can discover very little about these dancers, except that they were performing on the vaudeville stage as the Sarashe Sisters. This is certainly a stage name, taken (according to art historian Hsuan Tsen) from the Japanese word sarashi, a reference in this case to the streamers being waved by two of the dancers. In another blow to its purported authenticity, the catalog description of the film states that it is: “A charming representation of the Mikado dance by three beautiful Japanese ladies in full costume.” This probably refers to The Mikado, a hugely popular Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera from a decade earlier, rather than to an actual Japanese dance. But at the same time, it’s hard to know whether the word “Mikado” was used here simply to connect the dance to something the audience might recognize, which would not be unprecedented.

All of this suggests that, whatever its level of authenticity, the film was calculated to meet the general demand for all things Japanese that existed throughout this time. After Japan was forced to open itself to Western trade in the 1850s, Japanese style and culture experienced a period of significant popularity as a source of inspiration in the Western visual and performing arts. This trend came to be called Japonisme. Today, of course, we would call it cultural appropriation. However, just as with Native American “Wild Westers,” this demand seems to have created at least some opportunities for actual Asian performers that may not have existed otherwise.

Why you should see it:

There is just something about this film that I find absolutely fascinating. I think at least in part it’s just how well-suited this act is to the constraints of early silent film. It doesn’t feel as though the sound is “missing,” and you can watch it on an loop almost without noticing when it has started over again. My favorite bit comes about 14 seconds in, when the central dancer’s fan catches on the white streamer next to her without either her or the dancer on the left noticing until she has spun around and wrapped it around her body. For a moment, it seems that the dance is about to end in a tangle, but then the central dancer drops into a crouch and flips her fan up with a flourish, and the other dancer, watching carefully, detaches the streamer with a single deft flick, and they continue. This suggests that, as with many of the acts filmed in the Black Maria, the performers were used to considerably more space in which to perform.

Incidentally, the BFI have published a much higher-quality version of this footage that also eliminates the vertical “jogging” that is visible throughout this clip, but their version cuts off before the end of the film. If you’re interested, you can see it here. The Edison catalog listing states that hand-colored prints of this scene were made, but none have been found.

Film History Essentials: The P********* Dance from the “Passing Show” (1894)

•February 3, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Three men engage in a friendly dance competition, with each taking his turn in the center while one plays the harmonica and the others keep rhythm by clapping along.

Why it’s essential:

Shot in mid- to late-fall of 1894, this film is believed to be the earliest appearance by African Americans in a motion picture. The three performers are Joe Rastus (the first dancer, in the light shirt), Denny Tolliver (the second dancer, in the dark shirt), and Walter Wilkins (the final dancer, on the harmonica). Rastus, Tolliver, and Wilkins were three members of an eleven-member dance troupe that performed a number, alongside a white woman in blackface (Lucy Daly), called “The Pickaninny Dance.”

This act was part of a larger program called “The Passing Show,” which was purportedly the first successful musical revue on Broadway. It was a sort of topical variety extravaganza composed of loosely-connected acts. Its success launched a trend that would persist in popularity, on both stage and (eventually) screen, for decades. As to the nature of the act itself:

The general designation for tap dancing at the turn of the century was “buck.” The term can be traced back to the West Indies, where Africans use the words po’ bockorau as a corruption of the French word boucanier to refer to rowdy sailors, and to the Carolinas, where Africans spoke of the “po buck” jig dancing of unruly Irish immigrants.
[…]
While the jig and clog dance of the Irish moved from the knees down, its art being purely auditory, the buck dance of African Americans was more robust and full bodied, allowing the rhythms to move up into the body
[…]
[T]he earliest example of buck dancing on film is […] a trio of professional dancers engaged in the rivalrous camaraderie of a buck challenge dance, alternately performing for and accompanying each other.

Constance Valis Hill, Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History, pp. 22-23

It’s impossible not to notice that, while this film depicts a prominent tradition in American dance, it also illustrates a powerful strain of racism that runs through American entertainment. The title, of course, contains an ugly slur that refers to black children. This may seem particularly confusing, given that the performers in the film are all very clearly full-grown men. The title comes from their stage act, in which the title role was played by Daly, made-up (according to one newspaper reviewer’s description) as a “little mad-cap negro girl.”

To add further insult, a catalog listing for the film describes it as: “A scene representing Southern plantation life before the war. A jig and a breakdown by three colored boys.” On top of its use of the condescending diminutive “boy,” this description posits that the performers are meant to be portraying enslaved people in a way that suggests slaves were contented and carefree. Recall, too, that anyone in their 30s at this time was old enough to have been alive at a time when slavery still existed.

It’s important to understand that, while the Confederacy lost the Civil War, the South and its cornerstone of white supremacy won the ensuing culture war, with consequences that continue to be powerful forces in our society even to the present day. The historical narrative that came to dominate white Americans’ understanding of the Civil War and its aftermath was of an intrafamilial strife that tragically destroyed a courtly and noble way of life. Nostalgic fantasy versions of antebellum culture and society, strongly rooted in a rigid racial hierarchy, came to be both mourned and celebrated as lost ideals in all forms of American art and entertainment, and the movies were fully complicit in that mythmaking process.

Why you should see it:

I think some historical films whose production is marred to a greater or lesser degree by overt racism are important to watch, or at least important not to ignore or forget, because they remind us of how much and for how long white supremacy has existed as a persistent theme running through our culture, and of the long shadow it casts. Although some people don’t need to be reminded, because they exist under that shadow every day. But I think this film is worth watching because its stars transcend the racist framing of the film’s producers, displaying in a very brief period of time an infectious energy and a level of artistic skill that are a genuine pleasure to watch. The title and description given to their performance by others cannot rob them of their ability to impress and to make their own mark on cinema history.

Film History Essentials: Chinese Laundry Scene (1894)

•February 2, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Two men stand facing each other in front of a small building under a sign that reads “Heap Fun Laundry.” The man on the right, “Hop Lee,” smashes something (possibly a wooden bucket) over the head of the policeman on the left, causing his helmet to fly off. As the policemen struggles to regain his balance, Hop Lee turns and dashes through the right-hand door. The policeman recovers and gives chase. There is a series of gags where Hop Lee evades his pursuer by manipulating the building set and displaying a flair for acrobatics. He also pelts the policeman some more from above, and then seems to escape behind a door that locks after him as the film ends.

Why it’s essential:

Filmed in late November of 1894, this is probably the oldest surviving example of slapstick comedy on film. It stars a vaudeville duo who went by the stage names of “Robetta and Doretto,” and I can’t find any additional information about their lives or careers, except that Doretto’s real name may have been Phil Lauter. This was the second of two shorts they filmed that day. The first, apparently concerning a Chinese opium den, is blessedly presumed lost.

It’s unfortunate, and I wish it were more surprising, that this early foray into screen comedy centers around a broad racial stereotype . . . A stereotype of a group who, as far as I know, had not yet even appeared on film. So yes, it would seem that Chinese stereotypes in movies are literally older than any appearance by actual Chinese people in movies. It might be easy for a modern viewer to miss this without the cue of the title, but it’s not difficult to spot if you know to look. There is, of course, the element of a Chinese laundry service (evident from both the title and the sign), and there’s also the “Chinese” character’s costume, and a mask that is somewhat obscured by the quality of the film (probably for the best).

What I haven’t been able to ascertain is whether there is any significance to the act’s choice of the name “Hop Lee” (as stated in the film’s catalog listing). I see that there was at least one (regionally) well-known “Hop Lee Laundry” that had been operated by a fairly successful Chinese immigrant in the city of Salem, Oregon for many years by this point. Perhaps “Robetta” and/or “Doretto” were from that area or had toured there at some point. More likely, though, the name was selected for its “humorous” suggestion of the character’s sprightly agility.

What’s particularly baffling is that there’s nothing evident in what we see that suggests either character’s ethnicity is important to any of the action or the jokes, nor that it matters that the set is meant to represent a Chinese laundry. You could remove the sign and put both characters in their street clothes and it wouldn’t change anything about this film except that it wouldn’t be racist. Obviously this is only a very small excerpt of a much longer stage act that likely developed those elements more. But it seems certain that to the extent that it was important that one of the characters is pretending to be Chinese, it would have been to leverage the character’s exaggerated otherness for laughs.

Why you should see it:

I don’t know if I’d call this set “sophisticated” when it seems so flimsy (and so obviously a set), but it clearly took some engineering and its construction supports the gags well. Notice how the first entrance changes abruptly from a swinging double door that opens in the middle, to a revolving door that spins from the middle, connected where it used to open and opening where it used to connect. The other entrance begins by opening like a regular door, but then its bottom half operates like a separate swinging double door. And the construction is not so flimsy that the mischief-maker can’t swing himself up and perch on top of it.

I can’t say that I was really inspired to laugh at any point while watching this, and I doubt most modern audiences will either. Still, there is a visual inventiveness to the physical comedy here that hints at the link between vaudeville traditions and the development of cinema comedy over the next few decades . . . and perhaps even foreshadows gags that became common in classic animation. As for the racism, well, it’s important to acknowledge that that’s a tradition in American entertainment as well.

Film History Essentials: Annie Oakley (1894)

•February 1, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Annie Oakley, facing away from the targets on the far side of the frame, drops something and then spins and opens fire with her rifle. She quickly hits all 7 targets, cocking the rifle between each shot. As soon as the last target falls, she drops into a crouch and exchanges her rifle for another that is lying ready on the ground. Meanwhile, her assistant (likely her husband, Frank Butler), crosses quickly in front of her and then squats down. He begins tossing small items (possibly glass balls) into the air, and Oakley fires at each one. The film ends as she triggers the 7th shot.

Why it’s essential:

Annie Oakley was born Phoebe Ann Mosey (there are conflicting records regarding the spelling of her surname) in August of 1860. She learned to shoot during a difficult and impoverished upbringing, but famously met her husband, a traveling performer, when she beat him in a shooting competition at the age of 21. They were soon married and performed together for a few years before joining “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” where Annie Oakley (as she now called herself) rapidly became one of the most popular performers.

During her first tour with Buffalo Bill, she became good friends with Chief Sitting Bull, who so admired her prowess with firearms that he nicknamed her “Watanya Cicilla.” This translated to “Little Sure Shot,” which became a title she would advertise and use frequently over the following decades. Through her show business career she became deeply associated with the American West, and was something of a model for the archetypal Western “cowgirl.”

This is ironic given that she was born in Ohio, and never traveled West except as a performer, but she struck an appealing balance between jaw-dropping skill in a male-dominated activity and “proper” Victorian femininity. Even though she could outshoot virtually anyone, and once offered President William McKinley a regiment of women sharpshooters if the United States went to war with Spain, she also sewed her own costumes (which always included skirts, never pants), was by all accounts a consummate hostess, and opposed women’s suffrage. She combined spunk and skill that earned her the respect and admiration of her male peers without threatening their masculinity or appearing interested in upending societal gender roles in any alarming way.

By the time she arrived at the Black Maria to be filmed, she already had over a decade of experience touring and was quite well-known. But she also remains quite well-known to this day, and I would hazard to say that this is the earliest surviving appearance on film of a celebrity who is still something of a household name. Of course, Buffalo Bill himself also appeared in front of the kinetograph at around the same time, but the film featuring him is currently believed to be lost.

Why you should see it:

Oakley is noticeably ill-served by the Black Maria set-up. The stage is so confining that she appears to be about 10 feet from the targets she’s shooting, and most of the targets thrown up into the air end up outside of the camera frame when she fires. However, the quality of the picture also makes it difficult to tell whether she hits even the ones that are on the screen.

And yet, even so, her performance is thrilling. She moves so quickly, but with such precision. It’s not easy to tell, as the film moves a bit slower than real-life, but she is fast. Even at slower than actual speed, she turns, shoulders the rifle, and drops 7 targets in under 10 seconds. 3 seconds later, she’s holding a different rifle and is prepared to fire again. And yet all of this is tame compared to her other reported feats: Shooting from horseback, shooting the end off of a cigar that someone is smoking, shooting backward while looking in a mirror . . . No, the kinetograph doesn’t come close to doing her justice, but I feel lucky that this exists, nonetheless.

Film History Essentials: Bucking Broncho (1894)

•January 31, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

Inside a small corral, a cowboy fights to maintain his seat atop a white horse as it pitches and bucks and spins. A man standing on the fence holds a revolver, which he fires into the ground inside the corral before twirling it jauntily on his finger. The cowboy holds on with one hand, then uses the other to take off his hat and wave it defiantly (and precariously). After about 20 seconds, he dismounts with a twisting leap and sprints out of the frame. Meanwhile, an audience of a dozen or so, arranged behind the corral facing the camera, cheer and clap throughout the performance.

Why it’s essential:

In October of 1894, a few weeks after the first group’s visit, more members of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” arrived at Edison’s studio to be filmed. This one immediately stands out because, for reasons that should be pretty clear, it wasn’t shot inside the Black Maria. Dickson found a way to accommodate almost any act inside of the studio, but there are limits.

On top of the change in venue, this must have been an unusually difficult shot to set up. The camera can’t move if the two go out of frame (which they do a couple of times), and the entire premise of the feat is that the horse is not under the rider’s control. In addition, the other player in the act (wielding the six-shooter) is stationed well above the action, another challenge for framing.

In the version of this footage that we have, his head appears to be cut off. However, you can clearly see in the image above (from The Progressive Silent Film List) that it wasn’t shot that way originally. There have been several instances where I’ve noticed that some version of a film from this period appears slightly cropped around the edges compared to a different version. This could be connected with the process of converting the Library of Congress’s paper collection to film during the 1950s-60s.

Depending on how you define such things, this might be the oldest existing Western film. Certainly we can say that it is one of the earliest films to include classic Western genre elements like cowboys and horse- and gun-related stunts. In doing so, however, it isn’t creating or establishing any film conventions, or using them to tell a story. These elements would eventually develop great significance to American film, but it’s important to remember that 1894 exists (just barely) inside the time period most often associated with the “Wild West.” For audiences of the time, although these were performers with a traveling show, this was a depiction of contemporary life as much as anything (albeit still somewhat novel and exotic to the kinetoscope’s urban audience).

Why you should see it:

There’s a lot of action packed into this short scene. I watched it at least three times to get a sense of everything that’s going on. The focus, of course, is on the rider, and he’s certainly putting on a show. I also like the way the man on the fence idly twirls his gun, almost absently, like that’s not part of the show, it’s just something he does. But notice in particular the audience, definitely a bunch of city slickers, all lined up to watch in their nice hats and coats. Notice the very large man on the left, who waves a cane excitedly throughout, and the man just to the right of center who stops to wave at the camera as everyone else is applauding.

There was a small audience for the earlier boxing match that Dickson filmed, just to lend it that extra sense of being an actual fight. But why is this audience here? They certainly don’t fit the Western theme of the rest of the scene. Is it to give the viewer the feeling of being present for a performance of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West?” Did Dickson somehow sense, even in the days of the single-viewer kinetoscope, that movies are a communal experience that people would want to share with other spectators?

Film History Essentials: Sioux Ghost Dance (1894)

•January 30, 2023 • Leave a Comment

What it’s about:

A group of about 8-9 men stand lined up across the frame facing the camera, with 2 children standing in front of them. After a moment, they all begin to dance together, raising and lowering their feet in unison. The rightmost dancer crosses to the far left, with each adjacent person following until the men are dancing in a small circle. Some of the men spin place, and as the film ends the children seem to have begun weaving in and out of the circle in the opposite direction from the other dancers. In the bottom right corner of the frame, a sign is visible with the words “Buffalo Bill” inscribed on it.

Why it’s essential:

In late September of 1894, a group from “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West,” touring nearby in Brooklyn, paid the first of a series of visits to the Black Maria. This is one of two Native American dances performed for the camera that day. The potential value of the new technology to anthropologists must have been evident immediately, and this is one of several examples of Edison’s early kinetoscope shorts that highlights a diverse range of cultural subjects. But of course it’s much more complicated than that. A lot of these films exoticize their subjects, and you won’t see non-white performers presented in any but stereotypical roles.

It’s significant, for example, that these first appearances by Native Americans in a film establish a mode of portrayal that was rarely if ever broken for many decades. The film’s description claims authenticity in both its subjects and their dance, and that’s likely true as far as it goes. But what is this dance, and who are the people performing it? Records suggest these were Lakota Sioux from the Oglala and Brulé sub-tribes, and they were also, of course, “Wild Westers.”

Sitting Bull, one of the most famous “Wild Westers,” alongside Buffalo Bill

“Wild Westing” was a term referring to Native Americans embarking on tour with traveling shows, most famously alongside Buffalo Bill. At a time when many white Americans believed that Native Americans were a “vanishing race,” Wild Westing exploited a surge of interest in Native American culture. In doing so, it created welcome financial opportunities for members of some tribes who were struggling to survive after decades of punishing warfare and one-sided treaties with the United States. But of course, in exchange, white audiences wanted to see a portrayal that matched their own expectations and preconceptions, and the resulting perpetuation of stereotypes was not looked upon kindly by all native groups.

However, there’s an even more troubling subtext to this film in particular. The “Ghost Dance,” as it had come to be known, was a label applied to two successive 19th-century religious movements among various tribes throughout the western half of the United States. The second was begun by a man named Wovoka (see below), a Paiute religious leader living in northwestern Nevada. In 1889, Wovoka had a supernatural vision of a future where American tribes would be reunited with their resurrected dead, and of an end to the occupation of western lands by white settlers and their influence. To see this vision realized, Wovoka called for virtuous living, an end to inter-tribal conflict, and observance of certain rituals and ceremonies, in particular a traditional circle dance.

This practice, and Wovoka’s message, spread rapidly throughout many tribes of the American West during the next several months, with each tribe incorporating it in different ways into their own already-existing beliefs. The message was quick to find purchase among groups of Lakota Sioux in South Dakota who were in a critical situation after years of encroachment by white settlers backed by the American military had forced them off their lands and into ever-smaller reservations. With once-plentiful herds of bison devastated through overhunting by white settlers, these tribes had been expected to feed themselves by farming the land they had been allotted. However, drought conditions in 1890 failed to produce sufficient crops. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) blamed “laziness” and severely cut the rations they had been providing to the Lakota. Starvation seemed like a real possibility.

Their desperation intensified their observance of the ceremony that was translated as the “Ghost Dance,” and although Wovoka’s message was strictly a non-violent one, the version of it adopted by the Lakota had elements that came across as more apocalyptic and militaristic. Their practice of the ritual alarmed skittish white settlers and BIA agents. Local officials decided to arrest several prominent tribal leaders in an effort to end the practice, and an altercation during one such attempt led to the killing of Chief Sitting Bull on December 15, 1890, which of course only enflamed the situation further.

Photos of the aftermath of the massacre exist, but this image is from a 1913 reenactment.

Cooler heads who counseled a conciliatory approach were ignored. Two weeks after Sitting Bull’s death, around 500 US cavalry surrounded a Lakota encampment of 350, around a third of them women and children. The soldiers moved in to disarm the men of the tribe, but one man, who was deaf and was also in possession of a rifle that was particularly precious to him, briefly resisted. Reportedly, before anyone around could intervene to explain the situation, the soldiers scuffled with him and the gun fired into the air. Immediately, the commander of the cavalry unit ordered his men to open fire on the mostly-disarmed populace. Nearly half of the encampment was killed, including 60 women and children, in an atrocity that became known as the Wounded Knee Massacre.

All of this took place not even four years before members of “Buffalo Bill’s Wild West” arrived in New Jersey to perform a dance for Edison’s kinetograph. I’m not even sure whether it’s known that the dance in this film is actually an excerpt of the Ghost Dance (does it sound like something that would be performed on command for just anyone?), but you can see how it would be marketable to call it that, exciting curiosity among white viewers to see something that had created such a stir as part of recent events. And lest there be any ambiguity about how white people saw this film at the time that it was made, the following day’s New York Herald had this to say:

RED MAN AGAIN CONQUERED

A party of Indians in full war paint invaded the Edison laboratory at West Orange yesterday and faced unflinchingly the unerring rapid fire of the kinetograph. It was indeed a memorable engagement, no less so than the battle of Wounded Knee, still fresh in the minds of the warriors. It was probably more effective in demonstrating to the red men the power and supremacy of the white man, for savagery and the most advanced science stood face to face, and there was an absolute triumph for one without the spilling of a single drop of blood.

quoted by Scott Simmon in The Invention of the Western Film, pp. 6-7

Why you should see it:

I don’t think this history makes Sioux Ghost Dance any less of an important document. If anything, it becomes more important. But I’d argue that an awareness of this film’s context is vital to viewing it. The dancers in this film appear a bit cramped, their movements confined by the small square of space that the camera requires them to occupy for the convenience of the viewer. As a metaphor, that’s perhaps a bit on the nose, and not a particularly cheery note to conclude on. So I’ll just add that, despite contemporary assumptions about Native American tribes as a “vanishing race,” their story does not end with the “Wild West” and the closing of the frontier.