Film History Essentials: Seminary Girls (1897)

What it’s about:

Six girls in a dormitory are having a pillow fight, laughing and frolicking around the room as they swing at each other. Suddenly, a teacher bursts in and the girls scatter. One throws a pillow at the teacher and then dives under the bed. The teacher grabs her by the legs and attempts to pull her out as the other girls attempt to hide.

Why it’s essential:

James H. White and William Heise shot this film in the Black Maria in mid-spring of 1897. The use of props to set a scene had been a feature of films shot in the facility from the very beginning, but this scenario also required a wall with a door in it, blocking the view of the studio’s distinctive black backdrop. (It’s still visible behind the door after it is left ajar partway through.)

In case it isn’t evident, film historian Charles Musser describes the shenanigans of this film as a “more oblique [way] of displaying 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 window into a world that was entirely closed to the intended audience. Further, the scene is carefully engineered so that one girl’s legs (stockinged though they may be) are revealed all the way above the knee, kicking from beneath the bed as the furious teacher tries to drag her out.

In addition, what may not be noticeable if you don’t specifically look for it, is that the girl who dives under the bed is clearly smoking a cigarette at the beginning of the film, when she is the leftmost person in the shot. She pulls it out of her mouth with her right hand, blows some smoke, and then replaces it between her lips before turning her back to the camera for several seconds. By the time she turns back, it is gone, likely knocked to the floor.

Although “seminary” today refers to religious education, and specifically training for ministry, in the 19th century, female seminaries were part of a growing trend in formal general education for girls and young women. Over 3000 such institutions flourished around the country, and although their specific missions varied some by region, the movement as a whole was a significant driver of female literacy. Many of these institutions eventually became women’s or co-ed colleges as women continued to pursue the goal of educational equality with men.

All that to say, in this context, Seminary Girls is effectively Girls Gone Wild: 1890s Edition. In addition, there is perhaps an element of skepticism towards women’s education expressed by that choice of title. The girls in this film are not shown fulfilling the seminaries’ promise of preparing them to take up their expected roles in society. They are not displaying the “feminine” virtues of their culture, including respect for authority. One of them is even smoking. What are they teaching them in these schools? Male viewers (at least some of them) could simultaneously enjoy peeping in on a private scene, and have their regressive views on women’s schooling affirmed at the same time.

Whatever the appeal, the idea was popular enough that several more “pillow fight” movies (without the “seminary” context) followed over the next several years, from various studios. In fact, Heise filmed one for Edison only about a month later. Musser claims that this second film was a remake of an American Mutoscope Company film, but doesn’t give a title or production or release date, and doesn’t mention Seminary Girls at all. It may or may not be an earlier film than Seminary Girls, but as virtually all of the later pillow fight movies have “Pillow Fight” in the title, it is distinctly possible that this one began the trend.

Why you should see it:

This is a reasonably well-choreographed scene, and the set is simple but competently arranged for the purpose. The problem is that the Black Maria was increasingly a poorly-suited facility for the scenarios that were being filmed in it. The girls lack space to move around much, and most of the girls in the back are often blocked from view by most of the girls in the front.

Notice also that it’s very clear where sunlight coming in from the roof reaches, and where it doesn’t, and that it isn’t able to directly light the entire set. This is particularly noticeable when the teacher bursts in holding a candle aloft that, in the darkness, is very clearly unlit. Of course, the teacher also then proceeds to wield the candle in a way that would light the bed on fire.

Technical limitations aside, the overall effect of the film has come full circle, and lands precisely as the purely innocent fun that the filmmakers pretended was their intent all along.


~ by Jared on March 4, 2023.

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