Film History Essentials: Sandow (1894)

What it’s about:

Bodybuilder and professional strongman Eugen Sandow, framed from the knees up, stands before the camera in only a small pair of white shorts and demonstrates his prodigious musculature through a series of several poses.

Why it’s essential:

Born in Prussia in 1867, Friedrich Wilhelm Müller became interested in bodybuilding at an early age. After fleeing his home country at the age of 18 to avoid military service, he became a circus performer under the name Eugen Sandow (modifying his Russian mother’s maiden name, Sandov). After working with a celebrated personal trainer, Sandow won a strongman competition in London in 1889, and leveraged the publicity of his win to bolster his career in entertainment.

Having toured all over Europe, in 1893 his fame spread to the United States when he was enticed by future Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. to perform at the Chicago World’s Fair. Purportedly, it was Ziegfeld who suggested Sandow incorporate “muscle display performances” as a regular part of his strongman routine. After the fair ended, Ziegfeld put Sandow on the vaudeville stage.

However, he was more than just a performer. He also opened gymnasiums, put out a magazine, and published books. His programs of exercise, diet, and weight training had a significant influence on fitness culture, and he organized the first major bodybuilding competition in 1901, establishing a tradition which helped cement his legacy as the father of bodybuilding.

In the midst of all that, he performed for Edison’s kinetograph on a few different occasions during the mid-1890s, beginning with this one, on March 6, 1894. Sandow was one of the first batch of films to premier when kinetoscope parlors began opening that April, and it was an immediate sensation with audiences. Sandow was probably the first “star” to appear on camera, as a performer whose established celebrity was a selling-point for the film in which he appeared, but which also reciprocally bolstered that celebrity through its popularity.

Bizarrely, the film was apparently never given a title during its initial kinetoscope run, and though it has variously been known as Sandow: The Strong Man, Sandow, the Modern Hercules, and Sandow, No. 1, images from it were copyrighted in late May of 1894 under the title Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope. This suggests that prints of images from the film were popular enough to be their own commodity (see right), and indeed people (notably young women) are apparently known to have purchased and displayed pictures of Sandow. Edison must have been quick to recognize that the pictures he had were worth something even when they weren’t moving.

Why you should see it:

It’s quite interesting to see someone do what Sandow is doing and know that, in 1894, this was a performance that people would pay money to see in a theater, and that it was a complete novelty for someone to pose in such a way as to display the muscles. Generations later, Sandow’s ritual is practiced at some point by practically every adolescent male with access to a mirror, and to engage in it in public may make an impression but is just as likely to invite ridicule. At least, bodybuilding and bodybuilders have often been the subjects of parody and even outright mockery, even as it continues to enjoy a certain popularity among its adherents. In any case, watch it. It may not do for you what it apparently did for its 19th century audience, but it’s . . . well, it’s certainly something.


~ by Jared on January 27, 2023.

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