Film History Essentials: The Barbershop (1894)

What it’s about:

A man enters the barbershop from the left side of the frame and takes off his coat and hat before sitting down. The barber is busy shaving a customer. On the right side of the frame, a waiting customer is reading a paper. Finding something amusing, he steps across to hand the paper to the man who just came in, pointing something out. The other man reads and then slaps his knee with merriment as the barber finishes the shave and begins the haircut.

Why it’s essential:

This feels like another step up in complexity for Dickson’s early filmmaking. I believe this is the most people we’ve seen occupy the screen at once in a Black Maria scene, and there are two different spheres of action taking place in the frame simultaneously. You might have to watch it more than once to really comprehend both. Plus, the set is more elaborate than the one in Blacksmith Scene. There’s a reclining barber’s chair and the barber is in costume. His workspace has a whole collection of what appear to be hair tonics, creams, a razor, scissors, shaving mugs and brushes, etc. There’s even a barber pole! Given the constraints of an extremely confined space, a camera that can’t move, and no editing, this is about as complex as filmmaking can get.

We know this was filmed sometime during the first few months of 1894, because it was one of the 10 films available to audiences when the first-ever public kinetoscope parlor opened on April 14, 1894, in Manhattan. Each film was available on a different machine and could be seen for a nickel, or 25 cents to watch all 5 in one row, or 50 cents to watch everything in the parlor. That’s about $17 in today’s money, and sure it got you 10 movies, but remember that each one was around 20 seconds long. Suddenly, modern movie tickets don’t seem so overpriced.

Nevertheless, the movies were a hit and the business model was a success. Soon, kinetoscope parlors were opening up across the country from New York to Chicago to San Francisco. Within 6 months, there were kinetoscopes in South America, Europe, and Australia. Now the race was really on to supply them with fresh offerings. Up to this point, most of Dickson’s films had starred amateurs who just happened to be around, but the few exceptions featuring trained performers and name-recognition proved to be among the more popular kinetoscope parlor offerings. Future productions would show that Edison and his team clearly took note.

Why you should see it:

Edison’s 1894 catalog (entitled “Edison’s Latest Wonders”) described The Barbershop as “Very funny.” Mildly amusing seems more apt, given that we aren’t even in on whatever joke the two men with the paper are sharing. However, there is a little inside joke for the viewer hidden in plain sight. The sign above the barber’s station reads:

~THE~
LATEST WONDER
SHAVE AND HAIR CUT
FOR A NICKEL

Even in 1894, a haircut and a shave cost more than 5 cents. But a nickel could buy you that trip to the barbershop through the magic of The Latest Wonder: the Edison kinetoscope.

~ by Jared on January 26, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: The Barbershop (1894)”

  1. […] of the early kinetoscope films were essentially remakes of Anschütz’s work, including both The Barbershop and Record of a Sneeze, and that he may have also inspired films by the likes of the Lumière […]

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