Film History Essentials: Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895)

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 answers 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.


~ by Jared on February 6, 2023.

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