Film History Essentials: The Kiss (1896)

What it’s about:

A man and a woman sit cheek-to-cheek, conversing intimately. Then the man smooths his mustache, leans in, and kisses the woman.

Why it’s essential:

The Chap-Book was a Chicago-based literary magazine published during the mid-1890s. Each issue featured a section entitled “Notes” at the end, apparently consisting of letters from readers and/or marginalia by contributors. This is one such contribution, by American painter John Sloan, from the July 15, 1896 issue:

One’s acerbities of temper are not pleasant things to emphasize, and geniality and indulgence are tempting. But the ever-recurring outrages to decency and good taste which I see in books and on the stage force me constantly into the role of Jack the Giant-killer; in common phrase: “I have my hammer out most of the time.”

Now I want to smash The Vitascope. The name of the thing is in itself a horror, but that may pass. Its manifestations are worse. The Vitascope, be it known, is a sort of magic lantern which reproduces movement. Whole scenes are enacted on its screen. Le Loie dances, elevated trains come and go, and the thing is mechanically ingenious, and a pretty toy for that great child, the public. Its managers were not satisfied with this, however, and they bravely set out to eclipse in vlugarity all previous theatrical attempts.

In a recent play called The Widow Jones you may remember a famous kiss which Miss May Irwin bestowed on a certain John C. Rice, and vice versa. Neither participant is physically attractive, and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life-size it was pronouncedly beastly. But that was nothing to the present sight. Magnified to Gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting. All delicacy or remnant of charm seems gone from Miss Irwin, and the performance comes very near being indecent in its emphasized vulgarity.

Such things call for police interference. Our cities from time to time have spasms of morality, when they arrest people for displaying lithographs of ballet-girls; yet they permit night after night a performance which is infinitely more degrading. The immorality of living pictures and bronze statues is nothing to this. The Irwin kiss is no more than a lyric of the Stock Yards. While we tolerate such things, what avails all the talk of American Puritanism and of the filthiness of imported English and French stage shows?

The Chap-Book, Volumes 5-6, pp. 239-240

This grouch who went to the movies in the summer of 1896 has communicated all of the basic essentials about The Kiss: The film was one of the first to be projected on Edison’s Vitascope. (The device had only debuted at the end of April, and was still new enough that the writer felt it needed explaining.) It was a re-enactment of a famous scene from a Broadway musical that had premiered the previous September, starring the play’s two leads, and its release inspired at least some moral outrage.

The film was recorded in mid-April, just days before the Vitascope’s first show, though it wasn’t included in that premier. It was shot in the Black Maria, though Edison’s film studio had deteriorated somewhat due to neglect from a much-diminished production schedule following Dickson’s departure from the company the previous year. The Black Maria would continue to be used sporadically for the next few years, though never again as it had been in 1894.

There were several reasons for this. It was a truly unpleasant space to film and perform in, cramped and confining, stifling in the summer and freezing in the winter. It was also increasingly difficult to coax people all the way out to New Jersey from the cultural centers in New York City in order to appear on film. Most importantly, though, Edison’s technicians finally completed a portable film camera in early May of 1896 to replace the original kinetograph. With this, it became possible for cameraman William Heise (who had been Edison’s prime camera operator since the Dickson days) to go directly to the action, as the Lumières and others were increasingly doing already, and it made production costs cheaper, besides.

As for The Kiss, it was primarily a deft piece of cross-promotional advertising for the Vitascope, The Widow Jones, and the New York World newspaper, which published a full-page spread covering the “the kiss” on April 26. Exactly how much real controversy surrounded the on-screen kiss is up for debate, but the campaign did at least succeed at making it a widespread topic of conversation, and the film was a major hit. As the Edison catalog described it: “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.” Contemporary accounts suggest that the kiss occasioned more laughter than applause, though again, whether audiences found it genuinely funny or responded with the nervous laughter of discomfort is an open question. In any case, the film got a reaction.

Even some who stood to profit from the publicity were uncertain about it. The play’s producer, Charles Frohman (see below), initially considered recasting his female lead after she appeared in the film, reportedly lamenting, “Why this distinguished actress and pillar of New York society should choose to exhibit herself in this passing fad of moving pictures is beyond my reasoning. She has, undoubtedly, done her career in the legitimate theatre irreparable harm.” He seems to have changed his mind, however, when he saw the crowds who showed up outside the theater each night just to get a look at her in person. Within a week, he was requesting that her role in the play be specifically mentioned in advertisements for the film. May Irwin only appeared in one other film during her career, in 1914. It was produced by Famous Players Film . . . a company co-founded by Charles Frohman.

Famous Players would later merge with another film company to form the studio that eventually became Paramount Pictures, but by then Frohman was dead. He went down on the Lusitania when it was sunk by a German U-boat in 1915, cutting short an extraordinarily successful career that included producing J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan in 1904. (If you’ve seen 2004’s Finding Neverland, Frohman is played by Dustin Hoffman. Another casualty of the sinking was Herbert Stuart Sloan, founding editor of The Chap-Book.)

As for Irwin, she continued on the stage until 1925, and lived until 1938. According to her grandchildren, she loved to read Sloan’s Chap-Book review of The Kiss aloud to anyone who would listen. It seems to have been among her favorites of the reviews written about her. Funnily enough, another entry from the “Notes” section of the same July 1896 issue seems to speak directly to our experience of reading Sloan’s thoughts:

I have often wondered if future generations would find as much that is curious and amusing in our newspapers and magazines of to-day as we now find in the periodicals of a hundred and more years ago. The outlandish phrasing and quaint conceits of the reporters and advertisers of old time are so wonderfully ingenious that it would be immodest in us to claim equality; yet if the things which are now so humorous to our eyes and ears were but natural to them, it is no more than reason to suppose our tritest manners will fill our descendants with surprising merriment.

The Chap-Book, Volumes 5-6, p. 233

No more than reason, indeed. The Kiss was added to the National Film Registry in 1999. I wonder what John Sloan would say about that.

Why you should see it:

Sloan’s snotty prudishness is easy to mock, but not all of his observations are entirely off-base. “Prolonged pasturing” is a particularly apt turn of phrase, as the couple spends nearly two-thirds of the film’s runtime talking to each other while half their mouths are awkwardly pressed together. Rice’s smoothing of his moustache is a nice flourish, and it looks like an actual, genuine cinematic kiss as they come together again and his hand holds the side of her face if you freeze it right at that moment. But the effect is slightly ruined in the final half-second when, mid-kiss, he starts talking again.

It would be interesting to know exactly how this worked in the play. In particular I’m curious to know how, in the age before on-stage sound amplification, they were able to project their voices for the whole audience while murmuring into each other’s faces. Perhaps the scene was slightly reworked with the close-up of the camera in mind. Sloan is right that this isn’t a kiss that’s going to make anyone’s heart race, but it’s certainly a memorable image.


~ by Jared on February 20, 2023.

One Response to “Film History Essentials: The Kiss (1896)”

  1. […] female sexuality,” in contrast with serpentine dances, the coochee-coochee, or even kissing. As tame as it appears now, a scene of girls frolicking in their nightgowns after hours offered a […]


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