Film History Essentials: Chinese Laundry Scene (1894)

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.


~ by Jared on February 2, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: Chinese Laundry Scene (1894)”

  1. […] blacksmiths. That’s a sort of fiction, though there isn’t any narrative. 1894’s Chinese Laundry Scene is certainly a comedy, and definitely a fiction, since the actors are pretending to quarrel (and […]


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