Film History Essentials: Carmencita (1894)

What it’s about:

A woman wearing an elaborate costume, including a wide, billowing hoop skirt and white dance shoes with high heels, performs an intricate, balletic dance for the camera. She gestures exaggeratedly with her arms and hands, and kicks and twirls in a way that causes her skirt to whirl and flutter.

Why it’s essential:

Carmen Dauset Moreno, better known by the stage name “Carmencita,” was a native of Andalusia, Spain. During the early 1890s, she rose to fame across the United States performing traditional folk dances of her home region, a style known as flamenco. Although she had already performed around Europe for several years, she was induced to come to America by a theatrical agent who saw her perform at the Paris Exposition Universelle in the summer of 1889 . . . The same world’s fair visited by Thomas Edison, where he collected many of the concepts that led to success with the kinetoscope.

Meanwhile, nearly five years later, Carmencita had made a name for herself in America and Edison was looking for film subjects. The kinetoscope was about to become a business, but to attract customers it would need something for them to watch. Dickson filmed a wide variety of different types of motion pictures over the next few years, but one obvious choice was to capture well-known stage performers doing whatever they were best known for.

And that’s how Carmencita ended up in the Black Maria studio in mid-March of 1894, dancing the flamenco for Edison’s kinetograph. In doing so, she likely became the first woman to appear in a film in the United States. You may recall that women were a common subject for Muybridge’s motion photography, and that two women appear in Le Prince’s Roundhay Garden Scene in England. However, after some four years of work on the kinetograph, and even though women were its first outside audience, as far as we know no woman had ever stepped in front of it before

This would prove to be a small source of trouble, actually, when Carmencita also became the first film ever to be censored (that we know of). In mid-July, James A. Bradley, a New Jersey state senator, devout Methodist, and prominent citizen of Asbury Park, was appalled to find that motion pictures revealing a woman’s ankles, along with perhaps some hints of her underthings, was being shown publicly in his hometown. He complained to Asbury Park’s mayor, who ordered the kinetoscope’s operator to cease showings of the film. Carmencita was replaced by a film showing two cats boxing. Carmencita’s popularity on the stage, however, seems to have been unaffected, and if there was truly any widespread controversy surrounding the film, I haven’t found any mention of it.

Why you should see it:

If you’ve ever seen a flamenco dance before, you’ll know that a couple of important elements are absent here. Perhaps most notably is sound. That may seem obvious, but it’s certainly possible to appreciate many dances without their accompanying music. Flamenco, with it’s strong rhythms tapped out by the dancers’ heels and by the castanets they often wield in their hands (Carmencita’s hands seem to be empty), definitely suffers from the absence of sound.

Nevertheless, the dance is still quite engaging, and she makes the most of the movements of her skirt to draw the eye. Well, of course she does. That was part of the problem in Asbury Park, right? One more minor note of (maybe) interesting trivia: With a database number of tt0000001, Carmencita seems to have been the first film ever entered into the Internet Movie Database. For a certain kind of completionist, it might be worth watching just for that!

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~ by Jared on January 28, 2023.

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

  1. […] like Carmencita and Fatima’s Coochee-Coochee Dance were certainly targeted primarily at an adult, male […]

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