Friday, June 09, 2006

Edison: The Invention of the Movies (1889-1918) (4-dvd)

Edison: The Invention of the Movies (USA 1889-1918). A four dvd box set curated by Steven Higgins and Charles Musser, produced for video by Bret Wood. The Museum of Modern Art in cooperation with The Library of Congress presents, special contents of the dvd edition © 2005 Kino International. 147 films and two hours of interviews, totalling 14 hours and 52 minutes of moving images, plus 200 documents from MoMA's Edison Collection.

The dvd phenomenon has brought us already the mightiest selection of film historical treasures ever available for home viewing. Amongst the dvd highlights available by now, the four-disk Edison box set published by the Museum of Modern Art, the Library of Congress and Kino International deserves a place of honour. Although many of the Edison films have been accessible in several ways, including from the web, this is the first time that this full a selection is made available for the general audience.

Even for the experts, exhibiting Edison has always been challenging, and even in professional circumstances the performance has not always been quite satisfactory. To start with, the projection speeds vary from 15 to 40 fps. The often very short films often lack any titles, requiring commentary. The Edison films that survive via paper prints have previously circulated in less than enjoyable prints (the new restored prints have a much better quality). In this dvd edition, all films have specially designed titles, they are presented with a full image and proper speed, they are mastered carefully from the best surviving materials, and the original colours are reproduced whenever possible. Incomplete films have been reconstructed by Charles Musser with MoMA.

The dvd interface is stylish. A good approach is to first watch all moving image content continuously, and then return to single films via the film notes, where even bonus tracks can be accessed.

Curated by Steven Higgins and Charles Musser, both the well-known and the little known sides of the Edison story are presented with loving care.

Never before has a viewer had the opportunity to experience in a full range of moving images the Edison story, 30 years of cinema history from 1889 until 1918. The dvd starts with the Monkeyshines experiments of 1889-1890, animated from a sheet of microscopic images. Those fuzzy but already living images have the same kind of fascination as watching Lennart Nilsson's pioneering photographs of the embryo in its mother's womb. We then see the famous early images of the blacksmiths, the barber and the sneeze, and the first filmed stars such as Sandow, Carmencita and Annabelle. Gentleman Jim fights Courtney in his daring pants. From Buffalo Bill's Wild West show we see the Sioux dance and Annie Oakley shoot glass balls. Roberta and Doretto perform the scene that probably gave Josef von Sternberg the title of his autobiography, Fun in a Chinese Laundry. John C. Rice and May Irwin kiss. Year by year we can follow the development of early cinema via one major company. The elaborate art of the fairy-tale film is in evidence in Jack and the Beanstalk (1902). Titles and intertitles are established by Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), the development of the close-up is evident by The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903), cinema's power of storytelling by The Great Train Robbery (1903), and the art of fantasy by The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906). The Edison company lost its position as the creative leader of the film art but continued as a major mainstream player to the end. Included in the box set is probably the last Edison film, the feature-length The Unbeliever (1918), directed by Alan Crosland and co-starring Erich von Stroheim in a prototypical hateful Hun role, crushing a sensitive soldier's violin for starters.

The great artists of the Edison company are properly introduced: W.K.L. Dickson, the first movie director, and Edwin S. Porter, Edison's most important house director. Other major film personalities start their careers with Edison, such as the pioneer of the Western, Gilbert M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, and Wallace McCutcheon, who hired the eagle-nosed actor, D.W. Griffith, from whom we see an early appearance as the lumberjack in Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908).

There are many firsts here: the first movie studio (Black Maria), the first stars, the first commercials, many first instances of film ideas that bloomed into genres and cycles.

The Edison film story covers also 30 years of history and society, including the war in Cuba and the Boer War, the First World War, personalities such as Theodore Roosevelt, and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. There are instances of social consciousness both conservative, in The Public and Private Care of Infants (1912), and critical of social injustice, in The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1904). The drama of vigilante "justice", The White Caps (1905), is highly disturbing because of its ambivalence.

The editors are not hiding embarrassing sides of the Edison legacy, and the most painful is the racist attitude to black Americans in films such as Watermelon Eating Contest (1896) and A Morning Bath (1896). Since Edison also produced Uncle Tom's Cabin, one cannot blame them for an anti-Negro agenda, even though the Harriet Beecher Stowe subject is also patronizing. Cohen's Fire Sale (1907), where fire is "our friend" and the fire brigade "our enemy", is a display of anti-Semitism, although the subject is the same as in a Jewish tradition of self-irony ranging from Max Davidson's Jewish Prudence to Billy Wilder's The Fortune Cookie.

A wonderful feature of the dvd is that a number of films from ca 1894 can be experienced as Kinetophone simulations. Edison was the pioneer of sound recording as well as of cinema, and to me these simulations are the heart of the publication. Included is also the Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1894-1895), which was famously restored by Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin a few years ago. The other films have accompaniment with piano or organ, some also with other instruments, by Philip Carli, Jon C. Mirsalis, Ben Model, Donald Sosin, and Clark Wilson.

The video introductions are by Steven Higgins, Charles Musser, Eileen Bowser, Paul Israel, Richard Koszarski, Patrick Loughney, and Michele Wallace.

The extremely informative film notes by Charles Musser can be accessed on the dvd. At best, the viewer can print out his own programme booklet from the dvd-rom function or from the dvd's website. In the later films, the extras include Kinetograms (with full synopsis and stills) and full script material. The documents include photographs and cartoons that served as inspiration for films. For an even more complete experience, it's a good idea to have Charles Musser's Edison books at hand!

The mosaic of material grows into an epic survey into the foundation era of the cinema. A national treasure for the Americans, equally rewarding for a world audience, the dvd set meets high scientific and archival standards. The films have still great entertainment value for a general public, as well.

Written for The Journal of Film Preservation
9 June 2006 Antti Alanen

CONTENTS - the official text of the box set (Charles Musser, Steven Higgins)


The first commercially successful modern motion picture system was developed by Thomas A. Edison with his laboratory staff, notably his co-inventor William Kennedy Laurie (W. K. L.) Dickson, between 1888 and 1893. On February 27, 1888, Edison met with chrono-photographer Eadweard Muybridge, who had just given a lecture on "Animals in Motion" at the Music Hall in Orange, New Jersey. Together they announced that they would seek to combine the Edison phonograph, which recorded and reproduced sound, with Muybridge's zoopraxiscope, which projected a rapid succession of painted images onto a screen to create the illusion of motion (the painted images were based on his serial photographs). Eight months later, in October, Edison concluded that he could develop his own, much more efficient system for showing motion pictures. At first the inventor imagined a system that used a glass cylinder to hold a spiraling sequence of tiny photographic images. After meeting with Jules-Etienne Marey at the 1889 Paris Exposition, Edison shifted his attention to developing a motion picture system where the images would appear on a photographic filmstrip.

Edison's initial approach to developing a motion picture system that could "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear," was to apply the technology of audio recording to the visual realm in a quite literal fashion. Although these efforts were doomed to failure, they were prescient in many ways, as laser disk, DVD and CD technologies demonstrate. Nonetheless, in the early 1890s, the efforts to record and play back a series of tiny images on a cylindrical surface similar to Edison's phonograph faced insurmountable problems. A few samples of such work were submitted as part of the record for patent interference cases, and we reanimate these selections here.

On May 20, 1891, members of the Federation of Women's Clubs, who were attending a meeting hosted by Mina Edison (Mrs. Thomas A. Edison), visited the Edison Laboratory where her husband showed them a short film, ([Dickson Greeting]) in an experimental peep-hole kinetoscope. This was the first public exhibition of the prototype motion picture system. The word was out, and journalists quickly flocked to the Laboratory and reported on the inventor's latest achievement in the daily press. By June, Edison's motion picture team had taken at least seven short motion pictures on a horizontal-feed filmstrip that was 3/4" wide. The people posing for these films included members of the laboratory staff and local athletes from near-by Newark. Fragments from four of these films survive in the notebooks of Charles Batchelor (one of Edison's collaborators) and several have been copied onto modern motion picture film.

[Monkeyshines, no. 1]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: John Ott or G. Sacco Albanese. Shot: June 1889 or 21-27 November 1890; © no reg. Print: LoC.
A surviving sample of efforts to create a motion picture system using tiny images spiraling around a modest-sized cylinder. Based on fragmentary, conflicting and perhaps irresolvable evidence, two Dickson biographers have pointed to two different possible dates for this film. Paul Spehr believes that it was shot in June 1889 with John Ott. Gordon Hendricks points to Dickson's own statements about using Edison employee G. Sacco Albanese as a subject for cylinder experiments and this, combined with surviving employment records, suggests the November 1890 date. This subject was taken outside Building 4 of the Edison Laboratory, at that time used for iron-ore milling experiments.

[Dickson Greeting]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: May 1891; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Co-inventor of Edison's motion picture system, W.K.L. Dickson, waves--perhaps first to his boss witnessing his employee's handiwork, and then subsequently to Edison Laboratory visitors who were given special access to this Edison-Dickson achievement. Of course, the film expresses a subtle claim to authorship by Dickson as he documents his central presence. Dickson, and not Edison (or some other employee), acknowledges the camera and the audience. This was the first Edison motion picture to be shown to public audiences and the press.

[Newark Athlete (with Indian Clubs)]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: May-June 1891; © no reg. Print: LoC.

[Men Boxing]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: May-June 1891; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Displays of virile masculinity, taken in the male-centered world of the Edison Laboratory. The disciplined, toned bodies of these athletes stand in implicit contrast to those of Edison staff members behind the camera (the fleshy tinkers, brains and insomniacs).


During 1892 and early 1893, Edison and his staff reconfigured their experimental prototype into a more durable and commercially viable motion picture system. They moved to a vertical feed mechanism and the film was made wider‹1 and 9/16". Once the technology was well advanced, Dickson oversaw the building of a specially designed motion picture studio, known as the Black Maria, on the laboratory grounds. It was here that W. K. L. Dickson and his associate William Heise began to take motion pictures for public exhibition. A prototype viewing machine, the peep-hole kinetoscope, was developed and the fruits of this new system were first presented to the public at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893. At least two films were shown on this occasion: Blacksmithing Scene and then Horse Shoeing. These, along with The Barber Shop, also made some time in 1893, were meant for demonstrations purposes.

Blacksmithing Scene
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot prior to early May 1893; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
That the old-fashioned blacksmith shop was the first subject to be shown in Edison's kinetoscope was a quiet kind of joke. The Edison Laboratory was the center of innovative technology in the late nineteenth century, but here the laboratory staff takes some time off to play at blacksmithing and pass around a bottle of beer. Not only humorous, there is a nostalgic element to the film that would recur in many later Edison films. The mixing of work and alcohol had been common in the early nineteenth century, but by the1890s was part of a bygone era.

The Barber Shop
The Barbershop
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot prior to late 1893; © no reg. Print: LoC.
The cost of a shave, a nickel, was the cost of watching the film-and both would appear to take about the same amount of time.


Motion pictures entered the commercial era on April 14, 1894, with the opening of an Edison Kinetoscope Parlor at 1188 Broadway in New York City. The beginning of the year saw preparations for its commercial debut with a very short production for publicity purposes (Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894) and last minute trials ([Athlete with Wand]). By early March, Edison had commenced production with commercial purposes in mind, and on 1 April, motion picture activities were moved from the Edison Laboratory accounts to those of the Edison Manufacturing Company.

The resulting films provide a remarkable record of New York performance culture in 1894-95--vaudeville artists, musicals, and boxing matches. Although some films seemed specifically geared for middle-class family audiences, most films foregrounded what we now recognize as the long-standing staples of American motion picture entertainment: sex and violence. From scenes of women dancing in scanty dress and Sandow in a loin cloth showing off his muscles, to cock fights, gladiatorial contests and boxing cats, Edison films offered marginal and almost-scandalous amusements to spectators willing to part with their nickels (5¢ a look was the standard cost for a peep into the kinetoscope.) The images were often controversial, but the fact that these were representations and not the actual performance provided the showmen who exhibited these films with a certain latitude that did not otherwise exist. No one could have imagined an actual cockfight occurring in mid-town Manhattan, and children were not allowed to dance on the Broadway stage; but by paying a nickel, Americans could see such sights in a Manhattan kinetoscope parlor.

Edison's kinetoscope business declined rapidly after the spring of 1895 and had ceased to be profitable by the end of the year. Other important changes took place as well. In an effort to revive business, Edison marketed the "kinetophone," a kinetoscope with a phonograph attachment. W. K. L. Dickson left Edison's employ in April 1895 to become one of the founding members of The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, Edison's first domestic competitor. Raff & Gammon also took the kinetoscope to the Cotton States Exposition in October 1895 and met Thomas Armat who was projecting Edison films. This would lead to a commercial alliance that would revive Edison's motion picture business during the following year.

Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894
Fred Ott's Sneeze

Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Fred Ott. Shot: 2-7 January 1894; © 9 January 1894. Print: LoC.
This subject was never meant to be shown as a film, but served as a chrono-photographic record of a sneeze for an article in Harper's Weekly. Fred Ott was one of two brothers who worked at the Edison Laboratory and often assisted Dickson and Heise when it came to film production.

[Athlete with Wand]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: February 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
A gymnast for the Newark Turnverein performed for Edison's camera, almost certainly as a test in preparation for the filming of Eugen Sandow, which took place a short time later. Scenes of somersaulting athletes were filmed at about this time as well.

Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Eugen Sandow (stage name for Friedrich Müller). Shot: 6 March 1894; © 18 May 1894. Print: MoMA.
Eugen Sandow was the first star to perform before Edison's kinetograph camera. The film reprises the opening of his stage routine in which, according to the New York Times, he performed "a number of Œtableaux vivants,' to the accompaniment of slow music and much perspiration, with his mighty muscles standing out in bold relief in the white glare of an electric light." Sandow had become a vaudeville star at the Chicago Columbian World Exposition and then settled into a long run as the headline attraction at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in New York City. His visit to the Edison Black Maria studio was widely covered in the press, as Edison and Sandow met and shook hands‹the strongest man in the world meeting the most brilliant inventor of the age. That meeting, combined with the film of Sandow's performance, was used as a promotional tool by both men: it effectively promoted the strongman's book Sandow on Physical Training that appeared shortly thereafter, and it provided valuable publicity for the commercial debut of Edison's kinetoscope, then just five weeks away.

Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Carmencita. Shot: by mid- March 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Carmencita, with her Spanish dances, had become a celebrated stage star in 1889 and remained so until she returned to Europe at the end of 1894. Numerous journalists tried to describe her appeal. According to one New York Times reviewer, she was "impossible and admirable," while possessing an "apparently untaught abandon rarer than grace."

Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton's)
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Prof. Henry Welton. Shot by mid-July 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Professor Welton's Trained Cat Circus boasted cats that rode bicycles, turned somersaults, and walked through fire, but the boxing cats were the most popular of his attractions playing New York vaudeville houses and roof gardens during the summer of 1894.

Caicedo with Pole
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Juan Caicedo. Shot: 25 July 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Juan Caicedo was billed as the "King of the Wire" and was a leading attraction at Koster & Bial's Music Hall for seventeen weeks during the spring and summer of 1894. According to The New York Clipper, a trade journal, "He seems as much at home on the slender thread as the ordinary being is on terra firma, and performs with as much ease without the balancing pole as with it, turning somersaults in rapid succession and landing firmly on his feet." The filmmakers moved their camera outside the Black Maria studio to photograph his performance.

Annabelle Butterfly Dance
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Annabelle Whitford. Shot: by August 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Annabelle Whitford, known as Peerless Annabelle, had her debut at the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Although hardly a stage star on the order of Carmencita, films of her performances proved popular and the negatives wore out quickly, which meant that she appeared frequently before Edison's cameras between 1894 and 1898, executing Butterfly, Serpentine and Sun dances. These films were frequently hand-tinted.

Cockfight, no. 2
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: by August 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
The first version of this subject had been taken in March 1894, but these early negatives wore out quickly. This remake was more elaborate as two men exchange bets in the background. The use of a white backdrop also shows off the action more clearly. Blood sports, including rat baiting, were popular early subjects for Edison's camera.

Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph The Corbett-Courtney Fight
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: James J. Corbett, Peter Courtney. Shot 7 September 1894; © 17 November 1894. Print: MoMA.
Although prize fighting was illegal in every state in the Union, boxing was a national obsession. James J. Corbett, the heavyweight champion who had defeated the great John L. Sullivan, was not only a sports hero but a stage star (and for women, a matinee idol). The Corbett-Courtney Fight was far and away the most profitable film subject of the kinetoscope era. Corbett himself received over $15,000 over the course of its commercial life. Not surprisingly, the arrangements for its production and exhibition were special. The Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company was formed to handle boxing films. They arranged to film six abbreviated rounds, each of which lasted about a minute (three times the length of other films taken for the kinetoscope). These were shown in a bank of six over-sized viewing machines. Spectators would pay a nickel to see each round. Corbett played with Courtney in the early scenes but, apparently on cue, knocked out the challenger in the sixth round.

Sioux Ghost Dance
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: 24 September 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA/CNC.
Buffalo Bill Cody and members of his Wild West traveled from Ambrose Park in Brooklyn to appear before Edison's camera. The Sioux Indians performed "in full war paint and war costumes," according to Edison catalogs. These films were taken for Maguire and Baucus, who controlled the exhibition rights for the kinetoscope in Europe. Cody and his Wild West would leave for a European tour in early October and these films were undoubtedly seen as a way to promote his show.

Buffalo Dance
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Last Horse, Parts His Hair, Hair Coat. Shot: 24 September 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA/CNC.
Sioux Indians from Buffalo Bill's Wild West dance in Edison's Black Maria motion picture studio. The Edison Manufacturing Company took numerous films of dancers from different nations and cultures. These could be shown in a bank of kinetoscopes, creating a miniature ethnographic museum.

The Hornbacker-Murphy Fight
Hornbacker and Murphy
(supplemental film)
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Eugene Hornbacker. Shot: 2 October 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Although the large-sized kinetoscopes that could show a minute of motion pictures were controlled by the Lathams and the Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, fight films were so popular that Raff & Gammon, who possessed the marketing rights to the kinetoscope in the US and Canada, made a five-round boxing match with 20-second rounds. Neither Eugene Hornbacker nor Murphy (indeed, there were many Murphys who could have boxed Hornbacker) was well known. Although it was advertised as a "fight to a finish," only one round survives.

Hadj Cheriff Arab Knife Juggler
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Hadj L. Cheriff. Shot: 6 October 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Hadj Cheriff and his small troupe executed dervish-like dances and feats of strength until his wife's danse du ventre resulted in police interference for indecent performance. After that, he joined Buffalo Bill's Wild West and visited the Black Maria with others associated with Cody's organization.

Glenroy Bros., [no. 2]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: 6 October 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
The Glenroy Brothers were frequent vaudeville performers who offered "The Comic View of Boxing, The Tramp and the Athlete." This particular subject was sponsored by Raff & Gammon (note the boxed R on the lower left).

Louis Martinetti
Luis Martinetti, Contortionist
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: 11 October 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Louis Martinetti, of French Canadian background (born in Montreal), had been part of an acrobatic team with his two brothers before launching out on his own. At about this time, he was associated with Charles E. Blaney's A Baggage Check, for which he did an acrobatic dance.

Bucking Broncho
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Lee Martin, Frank Hammitt. Shot: 16 October 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Cowboy star Lee Martin rides the bronco "Sunfish" in a small corral built outside the Black Maria studio. Martin was a star for Buffalo Bill's Wild West‹as was Frank Hammitt, who encourages his daring by firing a six-shooter. Neither joined Cody on his European sojourn.

Annie Oakley
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Annie Oakley. Shot: 1 November 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Annie Oakley, known as "the Little Sure Shot of the Wild West," gives a rifle exhibition inside the confines of the Black Maria, shooting at glass balls.

Imperial Japanese Dance
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Sarashe Sisters. Shot: mid-October-mid November 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
With the continued popularity of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado (1885), Japanese dancing girls enjoyed a certain cache in New York's theatrical world. This film, which featured the Sarashe Sisters, was shown in Japan as Nippon Maiko Nuno Sarashi (Japanese Dancing Maidens Waving Streamers). Sarashi thus refers to the act of waving cloth banners and was, at most, a stage name.

Robetta and Doretto, [no. 2]
Chinese Laundry Scene
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Phil Doret[t]o (Phil Lauter), Robetta. Shot: 26 November 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Robetta and Doretto were known as "the Chinese comiques" and appeared regularly in vaudeville throughout the 1890s. They appeared in three different scenes for Edison cameras, only one of which survives. In this, one performers plays a Chinaman, the other plays an Irish cop. Certainly the comedy duo were playing with ethnic stereotypes. Their Italian last names were, in fact, stage monikers. Phil Doretto was actually Phil Lauter.

Band Drill
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Frank Baldwin (Steele Ayers, the bandmaster), Fred W. Boardman, William Cushing, Ad. Dorsch, E. P. Brown, J. F. Boardman, George Goddard, E. F. Balch, Paul Pfarr. Shot: late November 1894; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
One of several films made from Charles A. Hoyt's musical burlesque A Milk White Flag, which mocked the state militias that savored their snappy uniforms and male camaraderie (including free drinks at the regimental bar). In fact, their actual courage was questioned for the "milk white flag" (the flag of purity but also surrender) was "the only one the regiment would stand by in battle." Frank Baldwin as Steele Ayers is the bandmaster.

Fire Rescue Scene
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Shot: late November-early December 1894; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Staging a fire rescue inside the Black Maria was no easy feat, and this may have used members of a local fire department. Films of fire departments in action were among the most popular subjects in the 1890s. The R that appears in the frame indicates that the picture was made under the auspices of Raff & Gammon, primarily for domestic distribution.

Billy Edwards and the Unknown
Billy Edwards Boxing.
Billy Edwards and Warwick
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: Billy Edwards, Warwick. Shot: late January to early February 1895; © no reg. Print: LoC.
The only surviving round of a five-round contest (with each round a separate film lasting about 20 seconds). Billy Edwards was a middle-aged boxing instructor in 1895. Because the boxer "Warwick" bears a striking resemblance to Edwards, this film has often been identified (incorrectly) as a Glenroy Brothers subject.

[Dickson Experimental Sound Film]
[Dickson Violin]
Filmmakers: W. K. L. Dickson and William Heise. Cast: W. K. L. Dickson. Shot: between September 1894 and 2 April 1895; © no reg. Print: LoC.
This short film is the world's first known experiment in producing a motion picture with a recorded synchronized sound track. Although the kinetophone combined recorded sound with moving pictures, even approximate synchronization was elusive. Still, Dickson and his crew pursued serious efforts in this direction, in this case simultaneously photographing the image and recording the sound (note the gramophone horn on the left). The R (for Raff and Gammon) that appears in the scene suggests that someone may have felt this film had commercial potential; so far as is known, however, it was never shown publicly. The musical selection, performed by Dickson himself, is from the opera The Chimes at Midnight by Jean Robert Planquette.
The wax cylinder recording of the soundtrack was discovered several years ago at the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey (Maryanne Gerbaukas, Superintendent), and was preserved by the staff there. Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin resynchronized the sound and image.

Princess Ali
Egyptian Dance
Filmmaker: William Heise. Cast: Princess Ali. Shot: 9 May 1895; © no reg. Print: LoC.
Barnum and Bailey's Circus was in Orange, New Jersey, on 9 May, and a number of its performers visited the Edison Laboratory and appeared before the kinetograph camera. The only one of these half dozen subjects to survive is of Princess Ali, who executes a danse du ventre.

Annabelle Serpentine Dance
Serpentine Dance
Annabelle Serpentine
Filmmaker: William Heise. Cast: Annabelle Whitford. Shot: April-August 1895; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Annabelle Whitford returned to the Black Maria studio for another filming session in the spring or summer of 1895, performing her established repertoire of dances, including this Serpentine Dance for Maguire & Baucus and their Continental Commerce Company.

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots

Filmmakers: Alfred Clark and William Heise. Cast: Robert Thomae (Mary). Shot: 28 August 1895; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
As the kinetoscope business declined in the second half of 1895, the Edison group hired Alfred Clark to make some films of original subject matter. He produced a number of historical tableaux, including Burning of Joan of Arc, Frontier Scene (showing a lynching), Indian Scalping Scene, and this recreation of the beheading of Mary Stuart. Several of these, including The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, used the technique of stop-action substitution (in which a human body is replaced by a dummy) that would later be exploited by French filmmaker Georges Mèliés. Robert Thomae played Mary, an early instance of female impersonation in the movies.


Isolated instances of commercial motion picture projection occurred in the United States throughout 1895, primarily through the efforts of the Latham family and Eugène Lauste, but none of these were successful enough to capture the public's imagination. This changed with the debut of "Edison's Vitascope" at Koster & Bial's Music Hall in New York City on April 23, 1896. Edison's Vitascope was actually a projector developed by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat. Armat formed a business arrangement with Raff & Gammon, who had controlled the North American rights to the Edison Kinetoscope. The Edison Manufacturing Company manufactured their projector and supplied the films.

To provide films for the new venture, the Edison resumed production at the Black Maria studio. By May, in response to the efforts of rival companies (notably the Lumières with their cinématographe), the Edison Manufacturing Company had built a portable camera and had begun to take films of New York City streets, Coney Island and Niagara Falls. James White, a Raff & Gammon employee, assumed the role of producer, working with Edison cameraman William Heise.

As film exhibition and viewing expanded exponentially, Edison now faced competition from domestic and overseas producers. When Edison decided to part ways with Raff & Gammon in late October 1896, White stayed on with Edison to become head of his Kinetograph Department. Although many Edison films were innovative in subject matter and technique, others were clearly indebted to the achievements of rivals.

Cinema's novelty period had ended by the close of the 1896-1897 theatrical season. During the second half of this season, the Kinetograph Department took films of President McKinley's inauguration (March 5, 1897), the pageantry surrounding the dedication of Grant's Tomb (April 27, 1897); and the Suburban Handicap (June 22, 1897), which they had filmed the previous year, as well. They also continued to film short scenes in the Black Maria. However, with the novelty value of motion pictures quickly fading into history, White and newly hired cameraman Fred Blechynden went in search of fresh commercial opportunities and film subjects, taking the camera far beyond the confines of New York and New Jersey. In July 1897, they embarked on a grand adventure that took them on a tour of the Western United States, Mexico and the Far East. They would be gone almost a year. William Heise stayed behind to keep the film business operational.

Amy Muller
Filmmaker: William Heise. Shot: 24 March 1896 [?]; © no reg. Print: LoC.
A film shot in the Black Maria and very much in keeping with subject matter and technique of the kinetoscope film. Amy Muller was a novelty dancer in vaudeville who performed on toe. The film was frequently shown hand-tinted. According to one review in the Boston Herald, "Almost every movement of the agile and graceful figure displays some new color, till the whole thing begins to assume a kaleidiscopic aspect."

The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss
The May Irwin Kiss
Kiss Scene
The Kiss
Filmmaker: William Heise. Cast: May Irwin (Widow Jones), John C. Rice (stage name for John C. Hilburg, in the role of Billy Bilke). Shot: April 1896; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
This film featured May Irwin and John C. Rice enacting the final moment from The Widow Jones, a musical comedy then playing on Broadway. Initially, it was to be published as a series of photographs (via line drawings) in the Sunday edition of the New York World. The "risqué" scene had become a center of controversy during the 1895-96 theatrical year, and the World analyzed it (tongue in cheek) through a succession of photographs and in an accompanying article. Some weeks later, it was shown at Koster & Bial's Music Hall and proved a huge hit, becoming the most popular Edison film of 1896.

Shooting the Chutes
Shooting the Chutes at Coney Island
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: mid June 1896; © no reg. Print: LoC.
One of a series of films taken at Bergen Beach, Coney Island. This was shot at Paul Boyton's Water World. The film was offered for sale in two different lengths (either 50 or 150 ft.). This is the shorter version.

Fatima, Muscle Dancer
Fatima's Coochee-Coochee Dance
Fatima's Couchee-Couchee Dance
Couchee Dance
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: by late July 1896; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Fatima was famed for her performances at the Columbia World's Exposition at Chicago in 1893. Her dance was considered scandalous and was often censored.

Mess Call
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: July 1896; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
After the Lumières' military scenes drew enthusiastic responses from US vaudeville audiences, the Edison group quickly filmed this and other scenes featuring the New York State Militia at their training camp in Peekskill, New York.

Inventor Edison Sketched by World Artist
Blackton Sketches, no. 1
Sketching Mr. Edison
Sketch of Thomas A. Edison
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: ca. 5 August 1896; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
When J. Stuart Blackton appeared before Edison's camera (either at a make-shift roof-top studio in New York City or at the Black Maria studio in New Jersey), he performed several lightning sketches in exchange for a donation from the Vitascope Company to the New York World's Sick Babies' Fund. The only one of these to survive was his lightning sketch of Edison. It became such a popular hit that it convinced Blackton and his partner, Albert E. Smith, to enter the motion picture business themselves, resulting in the founding of Vitagraph in 1897.

Watermelon Eating Contest
Watermelon Contest
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: by early September 1896; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Following the move to projection and fostered in part by the increasing diversity of subject matter, Edison and other American production companies put scenes of well-known racial stereotypes on the screen, black chicken thieves and watermelon eaters among them.

The Lone Fisherman
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: by mid September 1896; © no reg. Print: LoC.
"The Lone Fisherman" was a role made popular by the actor James Moffit in the theatrical version of Evangeline, one scene from which apparently served as the model for this film. The character, which appeared at various points throughout the production, does not exist in the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, was performed solely in pantomime, and became such a well-known figure in American culture that even a US Senator of the time was often referred to as "the lone fisherman."

Interrupted Lovers
Interrupted Lover
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: by mid September 1896; © no reg. Print: LoC.
In a scene played out on stage and in real life from time immemorial, a pair of lovers is caught in the midst of a kiss by the girl's father, who "teaches the gallant a lesson." This film was called "a hit," perhaps in more than one way.

Feeding the Doves
Filmmakers: William Heise and James White (for Raff & Gammon). Shot: mid October 1896; © 23 October 1896. Print: MoMA.
Essentially a remake of an earlier Lumière film, Basse-cour (Farmyard; summer 1896), this film was so popular that it was itself remade by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company and the International Film Company.

A Morning Bath
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: mid October 1896; © 31 October 1896. Print: MoMA.
A remake of rival Biograph's popular A Hard Wash, this film's "joke" plays with racist clichés as well as theatrical conventions where blacks, whether impersonated by white actors or played by African Americans, performed using burnt cork as masks. No matter how vigorous the bath, the baby's skin remains dark and corky.

The Burning Stable
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: late October 1896; © 31 October 1896. Print: MoMA.
In the fall of 1896, the Edison Company was busy making their own versions of other company's hits. Since Biograph films were shot on a different (68mm) format, their pictures could not be shown on regular 35mm projectors‹providing the Edison with an attractive commercial opportunity. The Burning Stable closely followed Stable on Fire, which Biograph had made in the summer of 1896. Exhibitors sometimes assembled this film and other scenes into a short narrative to tell the story of a fire and a heroic fire company.

Mounted Police Charge
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: late October 1896; © 2 November 1896. Print: LoC.
One of several films taken of the mounted police performing in Central Park. In this scene, the policemen charge toward the Edison camera in emulation of the cavalry in a popular Lumière film, Charge of the Seventh French Cuirassiers. They are, of course, in full dress uniform.

Going to the Fire
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: 14 November 1896; Print: LoC.
One of three films taken of the Newark Fire Department over the course of a single day. According to the Newark Daily Advertiser, "Photographer J. H. White, with two assistants, had the kinetograph, stationed on a wagon a few feet above the City Hall. Beside the camera, 2,000 curious onlookers witnessed the event: Chief Kiersted, with Driver Cleveland, was in the lead."

A Morning Alarm
Morning Fire Alar
m Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: November 14, 1896; © 27 November 1896. Print: LoC.
The second film taken on this day was of the firemen "coming out of Engine House and Hook and Ladder House No. 1."

Black Diamond Express, no. 1
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: 1 December 1896; © 12 December 1896. Print: MoMA.
In the second half of the nineteenth century, the on-rushing express train was a symbol of American power and technological achievement. The Biograph Company had filmed The Empire State Express in September 1896‹the fastest train of the New York Central Railroad. The Edison Company subsequently teamed up with the rival Lehigh Valley Railroad, which was competing for the same patronage. Its top flyer‹then making new and widely reported speed records at frequent intervals--was the Black Diamond Express. The Lehigh Valley saw such films as essential promotional items and offered James White a special train and every courtesy that might facilitate his filmmaking efforts. This particular picture proved so popular that new negatives were made frequently over the next several years.

American Falls from Above, American Side
American Falls from Top of Canadian Shore
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: early December 1896. © 12 December 1896. Print: LoC.
Niagara Falls was a frequently filmed subject. In May, it had been one of the first places to be visited by the Edison Manufacturing Company's new mobile camera, but the films were not entirely satisfactory. With more experience and better technology, an Edison crew returned to film the falls in early December.

The First Sleigh Ride
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: 24 or 25 December 1896; © 8 January 1897. Print: LoC.
One of several films taken in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, after a snowstorm, this film shows two horse-drawn sleighs engaged in a friendly race.

The Morning Alarm
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: 25 December 1896. © no reg. Print: LoC.
The Edison crew shot a group of films in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; many of these served initially as local views to draw people into the city's theater that was featuring a new, Edison-designed projector. This film of a fire run proved distinctive because of its snowy background.

Fifth Avenue, New York
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: late February 1897. © 5 March 1897. Print: MoMA.
A street scene that showed off New York's "famous parade of fashion" along Fifth Avenue. The film subtly contrasts rich and poor: As one catalog description noted: "A flower fakir in the foreground makes a pleasing foil to the parade of fashion that the picture portrays."

Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory
Filmmakers: James White and William Heise. Shot: May 1897; © 24 May 1897. Print: MoMA.
Thomas Edison displays his talents as a performer, showman and wizard of self-promotion. According to a catalog description, the inventor is "in working dress, engaged in an interesting chemical experiment in his great laboratory." And to the extent that the Black Maria motion picture studio, where this film was made, is on the laboratory grounds, this part of the statement is accurate.

Return of Lifeboat
Filmmakers: James White and Fred Blechynden. Shot: September 1897; © 25 October 1897. Print: LoC.
One of a series of films taken in San Francisco featuring the Pacific Coast Life Saving Service. This picture may be the earliest surviving example of filmmakers reframing a shot during actual filming, as they seek to keep the lifeboat in frame as it comes through the breakers to the shore.


The nascent film industry was unstable and went through a rapid series of booms and busts. The sinking of the Battleship Maine in Havana Harbor on 15 February 1898, and the subsequent events leading up to the Spanish-American War revived business and ultimately compelled a modicum of stability. Both the Edison and Biograph companies sent cameramen into Cuban waters before and after the war began. James White, head of Edison's Kinetograph Department, was caught off guard by these events. In the middle of his Far Eastern sojourn, he was unable to film war-related scenes until he returned to the United States on 16 May, a month after war had been declared. To compensate for his absence, and reflecting his legal campaign against filmmakers that he claimed were patent infringers, Edison worked with several licensed cameramen whose films were subsequently marketed by the Edison Manufacturing Company.

If cinema was demonstrating its success as a "visual newspaper" by putting many of the day's news events on the screen, the leading vaudeville impresarios necessarily developed long-lasting relationships with key exhibition services that had production capabilities. Over the course of 1899 American Vitagraph (J. Stuart Blackton, Albert E. Smith and William T. Rock) joined forces with Tony Pastor, William Paley and his Kalatechnoscope service with F.F. Proctor, and the Percival Waters's Kinetograph Company (with James White as a silent partner) with Huber's 14th Street Museum. Such alliances lasted until the nickelodeon boom of 1905-07 transformed the nature of motion picture exhibition, distribution and production. Many films were made primarily to please the vaudeville houses.

The year 1900 was a significant one for Edison motion pictures. The American Mutoscope & Biograph Company was the dominant force in exhibition, and Edison's motion picture enterprise often seemed to be more trouble than it was worth. In the spring, the inventor came to a tentative agreement to sell his motion picture business to Biograph; but when financing hit a snag, Edison cancelled the deal and renewed his commitment to motion pictures. Late in the year, he hired Edwin S. Porter to improve his Edison Projecting Kinetoscope (this Edison projector generated an important part of his motion picture income) and other equipment (cameras, printers and so forth). At the same time, the Edison company continued to rely--for the moment at least--on licensees to supply many of its film subjects.

Troop Ships for the Philippines
Troop Ships for Philippine Islands
Filmmakers: James White and Fred Blechynden. Shot: 25 May 1898; © 22 June 1898. Print: MoMA.
White and Blechynden filmed a number of scenes related to the departure of U.S. troops for the Philippines, including California Volunteers Marching to Embark on May 23rd. Two days later the troop ships S.S. Australia and S.S. City of Peking left San Francisco Bay for the Philippines, where U.S. soldiers occupied the islands taken from Spain and fought a Philippine insurrection.

U.S. Troops Landing at Daiquiri, Cuba
U.S. Troops Landing at Baiquiri, Cuba
Filmmaker: William Paley. Shot: 22-26 June 1898; © 5 August 1898. Print: MoMA.
X-ray exhibitor turned cinematographer William Paley was hired as an Edison licensed cameraman in March 1898 and was sent to Florida where he took numerous films of U.S. military activities. He was apparently on board the armada of naval ships that stormed Cuban shores and took a number of films on the island before coming down with yellow fever.

Shooting Captured Insurgents
Filmmakers: [James White and William Heise?]. Shot: July 1898; © 5 August 1898. Print: LoC.
This staged scene of Spanish soldiers executing Cuban prisoners was designed to underscore Spanish brutality and support American intervention in the war. According to one catalog description, "The Spanish officer, resplendent in gold lace and buttons, raises his sword. One can imagine his commands by his gestures. ŒAim!' ŒFire!' and four pour fellows have joined the ranks of martyrs for the cause of Cuba Libre."

The Burglar on the Roof
Filmmakers: J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith. Cast: J. Stuart Blackton (tramp); Charles Urban (extra). Shot: August-September 1898; © 12 December 1898. Print: LoC.
Blackton and Smith had emerged as important filmmakers and exhibitors in the spring and summer of 1898. When they were caught duping Edison's copyrighted war films, they seemed to have no choice but to become licensees and acknowledge Edison's patents. With audiences tiring of war films, they used their experience as entertainers and made short comedies and magic films. Burglar on the Roof, which features Blackton as the burglar, was shot on the rooftop of their office building in lower Manhattan.

Firemen Rescuing Men and Women Rescuing Men and Women by Firemen
Filmmakers: [J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith?]. Shot 18-25 March 1899; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
A devastating fire swept the Windsor Hotel in New York City on March 17, 1899, causing numerous deaths. Various New York-based motion picture companies filmed the ruins. J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith also shot Reproduction of Windsor Hotel Fire using miniatures, and they may have made this film as a related item.

A Wringing Good Joke
Filmmakers: James White. Shot: [March to mid-April 1899]; © 22 April 1899. Print: MoMA.
A short "bad boy" comedy, based on the 68mm Biograph film A (W)ringing Good Joke. The Edison Company's remake made the gag available to 35mm exhibitors. As the catalog description explains it, "a small boy ties a string from the tub handle to grandpa's chair," and when the washerwoman turns the ringer on the washtub, the chair "suddenly tips over backward, upsetting the tub, soap suds and clothes all over him. The small boy dances in wicked glee; especially when the woman, in trying to help the old man up, slips on a piece of soap, and herself falls into the mess."

[Gold Rush Scenes in the Klondike]
Filmmakers: Thomas Crahan and Robert K. Bonine. Shot: July-August 1899; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
This brief compilation of scenes from the Klondike Gold Rush were almost certainly taken by Thomas Crahan and Edison-affiliated cameraman Robert K. Bonine in the Yukon, including Dawson City. Crahan planned to use them for exhibition purposes by his Klondike Exposition Company. Facing financially difficulties, he turned some negatives over to the Edison Manufacturing Company, which sold prints on the open market.

Searching Ruins on Broadway for Dead Bodies, Galveston
Searching the Ruins of Galveston for Dead Bodies
Searching Ruins for Dead Bodies on Broadway
Filmmaker: Albert E. Smith. Shot: 11-19 September 1900; © 24 September 1900. Print: LoC.
Smith reveals the devastation of the hurricane that destroyed Galveston, Texas, and left hundreds dead.

The Kiss
The New Kiss
Filmmakers: unknown. Shot: [February to early March 1900]; © 9 March 1900. Print: LoC.
This film reworks The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss (April 1896) in a playful but also romantic way.

Capture of Boer Battery by British
Capture of Boer Battery by the British
Filmmakers: James White and ?. Shot: 11 April 1900; © 14 April 1900. Print: MoMA.
The Edison Manufacturing Company had already staged war scenes of the Spanish-American War and the Filipino Insurgency. By the outbreak of the Boer War, shooting battle re-enactments had become routine. In this one, the Gordon Highlanders prove victorious as they charge a Boer cannon‹and the camera. American sympathies for the Boers were surprisingly strong, and in this film the camera takes their point of view. The accuracy of such films is questionable given that they were staged in the Orange Mountains, not too far from the Edison Laboratory. In fact the mock battle resulted in a serious accident to James White; when the cannon fired, he was hit by the gun wad and badly burned.

A Storm at Sea
Filmmakers: James White and ?. Shot: 19-27 June 1900; © 9 August 1900. Print: LoC.
James White and an unidentified cameraman left New York on the Kaiserin Maria Theresia, to attend the 1900 Paris Exposition. When they encountered a storm, they took this film, which includes a "cut-in" to a closer view of the ocean. It was promoted as "The most wonderful storm picture ever photographed. Taken at great risk."


The Edison Manufacturing Company opened a new, indoor studio on the roof of 41 East 21st Street, New York City in February 1901. It was conveniently located in the city's theatrical district. Edwin S. Porter helped outfit the new studio and stayed on as cameraman. George S. Fleming, an actor and scenic designer, was hired initially to run the studio, but Porter with his mechanical ingenuity was soon found to be better suited as studio chief. Whoever was in charge, the two worked together as collaborators. Their numerous short comedies complemented the various news films and scenes of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo that the Edison Manufacturing Company provided under the supervision of Kinetograph Department head James White.

Edison's film business was enhanced, at least temporarily, when his motion picture patents were upheld in May 1901, thus putting many rival producers out of business; or, in the case of Biograph, restricting their operations. As a result, Edison enjoyed something close to a monopoly in US filmmaking circles until March 1902, when the US courts rejected his motion picture patents as too broad. This allowed former rivals such as Sigmund Lubin of Philadelphia, who had moved abroad, to resume film production in the United States. Licensees such as William Paley and the Vitagraph group could return to independent production. To meet the threats generated by increasingly active domestic and foreign producers, the Edison Manufacturing Company invested more substantial resources in story films such as Jack and the Beanstalk (June 1902) and Life of An American Fireman (1902-03).

Old Maid Having Her Picture Taken
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming. Cast: Gilbert Saroni. Shot February 1901; © 1 March 1901. Print: LoC.
Gilbert Saroni was a well-known vaudeville performer and female impersonator who specialized in playing unattractive old maids in vaudeville sketches like "The Giddy Girl." The old maid's features are so horrific that when confronted with her visage, mirrors crack and cameras explode.

High Diving Scene
Filmmakers are unknown. Shot: [May 1901?]; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
Daredevil acts were a way to draw crowds to amusement resorts, whether looping the loop, slides for life, or high diving into small and shallow pools of water. They required skill and a certain foolhardy courage. But some would rather take the risks than live humdrum lives, working a "normal" 6 days a week, 10-12 hours a day. And as for paying customers who led those more ordinary lives‹perhaps they weren't so bad if one considered the alternatives.
There were many such acts at Coney Island, but this performance may have occurred on Memorial Day 1901, in Providence, Rhode Island.

Photographing a Country Couple
Filmmakers: unknown. Shot: late July-early August 1901; © 14 August 1901. Print: LoC.
A comic intersection of various early stock characters that frequently appear in popular American culture. The photographer is about to take a portrait of the country couple, when the rube wants to look through the camera. They switch places. The photographer demonstrates what he wants the rube to do‹and kisses his girl. Meanwhile a bad boy appears and ties the rube to the camera tripod, rendering him unable to intervene. The end result is chaos.

What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming[?]. Cast: Alfred C. Abadie (the swell), Florence Georgie (the girl). Shot August 1901; © 21 August 1901. Print: LoC.
At first, this film appears to be an ordinary street scene, as a woman and her male companion casually approach the camera. Unexpectedly, her dress is blown up around her legs when she steps over a sidewalk grate (anticipating Marilyn Monroe by more than fifty years).

Pan-American Exposition by Night
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and James Blair Smith. Shot: October 1901; © 17 October 1901. Print: LoC.
"This picture is pronounced by the photographic profession to be a marvel in photography, and by theatrical people to be the greatest winner in panoramic views ever placed before the public," declared the Edison catalog. The panorama as a genre pre-dated the cinema by more than a hundred years and found its way into many forms of popular culture, including lantern shows, for which long slides were slowly moved through the lantern. In 1900 cameramen adapted it to moving pictures with the "circular panorama." The film is remarkable, then, for combining the panorama with an early use of time-lapse photography and a two-shot construction. There is a pan in the first shot taken during the day that is continued from the same point, in the same direction, and at the same pace in the second shot filmed at night. As a result the panorama seems to display a temporal relation that is characteristic of day/night dissolving views: the image of a building during the day gradually dissolved to the identical view at night. Here, however, the scene is apparently done in a single shot. A tour de force, indeed.

Trapeze Disrobing Act
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming. Cast: Charmion. Shot: early November 1901; © 11 November 1901. Print: LoC.
The performer in this studio production was probably Charmion, whose "risque disrobing act on the flying trapeze" was popular at the turn of the century. Although her striptease was performed for the camera and cine-viewers, the two male spectators inside the mise-en-scène authorized the film spectators' voyeurism and provided a certain comic relief.

The Burning of Durland's Riding Academy
Filmmakers: [Edwin S. Porter and James Blair Smith]. Shot: 15 February 1902; © 24 February 1902. Print: MoMA.
Fires reported on the front page of New York newspapers routinely brought filmmakers to the scene. Such films were popular in vaudeville houses and fulfilled the cinema's mandate as a "visual newspaper." The fire at Durland's Riding Academy, on Manhattan's west side, between Sixty-first and Sixty-second streets, certainly met this criterion. The panning camera captured firemen hosing down the still smoldering remains. Since the film was only of local importance, it was renamed Firemen Fighting the Flames at Paterson and sold as footage of a better-known event. Re-labeling films to increase their commercial potential was neither unusual nor "naïve," but consistent with the highly opportunistic business ethics of Edison and other film producers.

Burlesque Suicide, No. 2
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming. Shot: late March 1902; © 7 April 1902. Print: LoC.
Facial expression films continued to be popular in the early 1900s. In one, a man contemplates suicide but takes a drink instead. In a second version, presented here, Burlesque Suicide, No. 2, the same man threatens suicide and then points his finger at the camera (and the audience) and laughs.

Jack and the Beanstalk
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming. Shot May-June 1902; © 20 June 1902. Print: LoC.
Fairy tales constituted one of the earliest and most successful forms of elaborate storytelling on film, notably Georges Méliès's Cinderella (1899) and Blue Beard (1902). Inspired by such European achievements, Porter made this ten-shot fiction film that told its story in a clear, yet elaborate manner. It represented a new level of achievement at the Edison Manufacturing Company's studio. Not only are the sets highly detailed and consistent in their stylization (all were shot in the studio), but the action moves smoothly from one shot to the next. Elegant dissolves link the scenes together in the style of a magic lantern show. An immensely popular bedtime story and popular magic lantern program, the film was pre-sold. This familiarity had the added benefit of making it easier for spectators to follow the unfolding narrative.

Interrupted Bathers
Filmmakers: [Edwin S. Porter and George S. Fleming]. Shot: Summer-fall 1902; © 22 October 1902. Print: LoC.
An early tramp comedy.


Nineteen three was a pivotal year for the Edison Manufacturing Company, as well as for the American motion picture industry overall. It was the year in which the story film came to prominence, beginning with the completion of Life of An American Fireman and culminating with the incredible success of The Great Train Robbery, quite possibly the most successful American film before Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915). It was also a year that saw important personnel changes at Edison: George Fleming departed early in the year, while James White took a new assignment in England. Lacking a regular collaborator, Porter was assisted by--or collaborated with--various people of the theater, such as G. M. Anderson, later known as "Broncho Billy."

By the end of the year, the American film industry was showing signs of renewed vigor. Exhibitors added a three-blade shutter to their projectors, which reduced flicker and made movie watching a far more pleasurable and sensual experience; it was particularly conducive to the enjoyment of fiction films. Moreover, instead of providing vaudeville theaters and other venues with a full exhibition service (projector, projectionist and a selection of films) for a weekly fee, many exhibition companies began to rent a reel of film and let the theater buy the projector and use their electrician as a projectionist. Thus, the reel of film became a commodity.

Electrocuting an Elephant
Filmmaker: Jacob Blair Smith or Edwin S. Porter. Shot: 4 January 1903; © 12 January 1903. Print: LoC.
Topsy, the original "Baby Elephant," had been a featured attraction across the United States for 28 years. She had killed three men in her time, the last one after he gave her a lighted cigarette butt as a treat, and for this last death she had to pay the ultimate price. The event was front-page news in the tabloids, and 1500 people came to Luna Park, Coney Island to see Topsy's execution.

Life of an American Fireman
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter, George S. Fleming and James H. White. Cast: James H. White (The Fire Chief). Shot: November 1902-January 1903; © 21 January 1903. Print: MoMA (LoC/AFI).
The fire rescue was a popular subject across many forms of popular culture (songs, painting, journalistic essays, photography), but particularly in the early cinema. As early as 1896, traveling showman Lyman H. Howe had assembled five short films to tell the story of a fire rescue (some of which are included on Disc One of this set). The genre was so popular that it challenged filmmakers to provided a novel twist--something new that would distinguish their films from those already on the market. Filmmakers began to make multi-shot fire films in which there was continuity of subject matter and action (e.g. James Williamson's Fire! of 1901) and, with Life of An American Fireman, Edwin S. Porter produced the most ambitious fire film to date. The storyline and the action move across a series of nine shots, displaying a system of continuity that involved repeated, overlapping action as well as a malleable temporality. Most remarkable are the final two shots in which the fireman rescues a woman and her child from a burning building. The action is shown twice, first from the inside and then from the outside, with the actions not so much repeated as depicted in a complementary fashion. It reveals a system of cinematic representation that remained dominant until about 1907.

Egyptian Fakir with Dancing Monkey
Filmmaker: Alfred C. Abadie. Shot: 25-27 March 1903; © 8 June 1903. Print: MoMA.
Cameraman Alfred C. Abadie toured the Mediterranean basin for Edison in early 1903. He started out at the Grand Carnival in Nice (Battle of Confetti at the Nice Carnival); traveled to Syria, Palestine (A Jewish Dance at Jerusalem) and Egypt (Excavating Scene at the Pyramids of Sakkarah); then went through Italy, Switzerland, and Paris before reaching England on 10 May. Abadie subsequently returned to the United States, where his films were developed and thirty-four submitted for copyright.

A Scrap in Black and White
Filmmaker: Alfred C. Abadie. Shot: 30 June 1903; © 8 July 1903. Print: MoMA.
Inter-racial boxing was a flashpoint in the worlds of politics and sports, as Jack Johnson would demonstrate just a few years later. One way to make light of these tensions (but also to extend them) was to displace such encounters onto adjacent subject matter, such as a match between two young boys. As the title's play on words suggests, the tone is meant to be playful. Here, as elsewhere (see Turning the Tables), youths have not yet been socialized into the highly constrained social structure of the adult world.

Uncle Tom's Cabin
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter, Arthur White and others. Shot: June-July 1903; © 30 July 1903. Print: LoC.
In May of 1903, Edison's chief American rival, Biograph, assembled a series of scenes featuring famed actor Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle that they had originally filmed and released in 1896, offering them for sale to exhibitors as a special release. The Edison Company responded with a much more ambitious version of filmed theater: Uncle Tom's Cabin, which relied on a traveling Uncle Tom's Cabin theatrical troupe to provide performers and sets. Uncle Tom's Cabin was undoubtedly the most popular American stage show in the second half of the nineteenth century, playing most towns in the northern states a few times every year. The story was so well-known to period spectators that many apparently found it easy to follow, even if today's audiences now find the unfolding of events to be obscure. Porter and the studio staff offered extended excerpts of well-known scenes and introduced each one with its own title card; in fact, this was perhaps the very first film for which Edison provided a head title. Previously, head titles had most often been projected using a lantern slide made by (or especially for) the exhibitor. Here was one more way in which the production company was assuming greater responsibility for providing a more complete show.

The Gay Shoe Clerk
Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: 23 July 1903; © 12 August 1903. Print: MoMA.
This film is often noted as an early example of the interpolated close-up. However, while the action moves smoothly across the shots, attentive viewers will notice a remarkable set of discontinuities. The woman's underskirts are white in the close up, but not in the long shot, and the shot is not really a close up in the conventional sense, for the leg is isolated against a plain white background. This film has numerous antecedents, among them, Biograph's Don't Get Gay with Your Manicure or No Liberties, Please (shot July 10, 1902) and G. A. Smith's As Seen Through a Telescope (1902).

Turning the Tables
Filmmakers: Alfred C. Abadie and N. Dushane Cloward. Shot: 24 August 1903; © 1 September 1903. Print: LoC.
In August, after filming at Coney Island (e.g. Orphans in the Surf and Baby Class at Lunch), A. C. Abadie retreated again to Wilmington, where he filmed outdoor scenes for N. Dushane Cloward. Cloward, a traveling exhibitor who played churches and noncommercial venues during the theatrical season, opened a motion picture show in Brandywine Springs Park for the summer of 1903. He arranged with the Edison Company to take local views that would attract patrons to his theater. Cloward had Abadie photograph a baby review and a Maypole dance on August 21. Together, they organized the filming of Turning the Tables and Tub Race at the local swimming hole. In the former, a policeman tries to chase a group of boys out of a forbidden swimming hole, but finds himself pushed into the water instead. The naughty boys break the law, but the law has to pay rather than the boys.

What Happened in the Tunnel
Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Cast: George M. Anderson (stage name of Max Aronson) (The Masher). Shot 30 and 31 October 1903; © 6 November 1903. Print: LoC.
This one-shot film was designed to be inserted into a railway panorama (a long tracking shot taken from the front of a moving train) for comic relief. G. M. Anderson (later known as "Broncho Billy") plays the "masher" who attempts to kiss a well-to-do white woman when the train they are riding enters a tunnel. She anticipates his move and trades places with her black maid (who is blacked up according to stage conventions), and when he comes out of the tunnel he discovers that the tables have been turned. Although the film employs painful racial stereotypes, the women work together to give the sexually harassing male his comeuppance.

The Great Train Robbery
Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter, J. Blair Smith (with assistance from G. M. Anderson). Cast: Justus D. Barnes (Head Bandit), Walter Cameron (The Sheriff), G. M. Anderson (bits). Shot: November 1903; © 1 December 1903. Print: MoMA.
This, the first blockbuster in American film history, was part of a popular cycle of crime pictures that included the 1903 British releases A Daring Daylight Burglary (Sheffield Photo Co.) and Desperate Poaching Affray (Haggar and Sons). Only some years later would audiences (and eventually historians) see this picture as a western. G. M. "Broncho Billy" Anderson, who was assisting Porter behind the camera as well as in front of it, appeared in a number of small roles (the fleeing passenger shot in the back, one of the bandits, the tenderfoot dancer in the saloon). This print is not only in excellent condition, but it is the only surviving copy to boast selective hand coloring.

Rector's to Claremont
Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: ca. 1903; © no reg. Print: MoMA.
This picture remains one of the mystery films in The Museum of Modern Art's collection of Edison negatives. Though often dated 1903, this film probably made in the summer of 1904 or even the summer of 1905. Never released commercially, it was almost certainly commissioned by a showman, perhaps to be projected as part of a stage play, bridging two acts. Rector's on Broadway was one of New York's most popular restaurants. A man falls off a tally-ho and gives chase all the way uptown, passing by Grant's Tomb.


Between 1904 and 1906, the Edison Manufacturing Company continued to produce both actualities and staged/fiction subjects. Even though there often were many more nonfiction titles in release than fiction‹for example, during the February 1906-February 1907 business year, Edison offered 49 original nonfiction versus 12 fiction films‹when these subjects are analyzed in terms of length, the actual amount of footage in each category is almost identical. Even more importantly, when it comes to sales figures, 85% of the prints made from original Edison negatives were acted films. And this ratio (15% nonfiction, 85% staged/fiction) was remarkably stable throughout the period 1904-06. Many of the actualities sold poorly, if at all, news films of the San Francisco Earthquake being among the few exceptions.

Edwin S. Porter, in his role as studio head and production chief, worked with a number of different collaborators in 1904, including G. M. Anderson and Will S. Rising. In May 1905, Edison hired Wallace McCutcheon away from the Biograph Company. McCutcheon had been a key figure in that's studio's successful output of ribald comedies and engaging melodramas. Undoubtedly, such headhunting was designed not only to strengthen Edison's production capabilities, but to hurt its chief domestic rival, as well.

Porter and McCutcheon worked together for the next two years, but indications are that it may not have been an entirely happy collaboration. In fact, compared to 1905, the pace of filmmaking slackened at Edison in 1906, despite the tremendous demand for new films that resulted from the nickelodeon boom (the proliferation of generally small, specialized motion picture theaters) beginning in late 1905-early 1906. The number of Edison fiction films declined by almost 50% (from 22 to 12) and the amount of negative footage by almost one-third. Even so, print sales, which increased 25% from 1904 to 1905, doubled from 1905 to 1906.

The fiction films made by Edison between 1904 and 1906 offered a complex view of American life. They often criticized the social consequences of the emerging large-scale industrial economy, with its huge gaps between rich and poor. Films such as The Ex-Convict (1904), The Kleptomaniac (1905) and The Miller's Daughter (1905) thus articulated a Progressive view of the American condition. Others offered a certain nostalgia or romanticizing of small town communities. At the same time, many of these films participated exuberantly in the nation's urban commercial popular culture (The Strenuous Life of 1904, or Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog of 1905). Many revealed the racial and ethnic stereotypes that pervaded most aspects of cultural activity. Rather than give a sanitized version of Edison's output, our selections offer the full range and complexity of these representations.

European Rest Cure

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: July-August 1904; © 1 September 1904. Print: MoMA.

This spoof on the popular travelogue genre follows an American tourist across Europe and the Middle East on a "rest cure," in which one physically or emotionally wrenching disaster follows another. Foreign locales were actually pasteboard sets of pyramids, Roman ruins, and a French cafe, while additional scenes were shot on location at Hudson River docks as the tourist leaves and returns. Porter combined this original material with footage of S.S. Coptic Running Against the Storm, taken by James White on his Pacific voyage in 1898, and Pilot Leaving Prinzessen Victoria Luise at Sandy Hook, taken by White in late 1902. Another shot was excerpted from Sky Scrapers of New York from the North River, which James Smith had filmed in May 1903.

How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot August 1904; © 26 August 1904. Print: MoMA.

Edison's principle domestic rival in 1904 was once again the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company. Biograph was then producing a series of popular story films, which it used as exclusives for its exhibition circuits. Edison affiliated renters and exhibitors were deeply frustrated that they could not acquire these films. Taking advantage of this demand and eager to harm its competitor, the Edison Company had Edwin S. Porter remake several of Biograph's hits. This one was a remake of Personal. Ultimately, Biograph had to sell its story films as soon as they were shown in theaters, undermining its exhibition service. Biograph sued Edison for copyright infringement on this film, but lost.

Nervy Nat Kisses the Bride

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: 17-21 September 1904; © 30 September 1904. Print: MoMA.

Sold as "Weary Willie" Kisses the Bride, this three-shot comedy is built around the popular stereotype of the tramp, a character that exists outside of proper society and is comically under socialized. Here, he takes advantage of a spat between a bride and groom to sneak a kiss, only to be thrown off the train for his efforts. This film is set in a train station, inside the train itself, and on the tracks. As in the case of What Happened in the Tunnel, it could either be integrated by the exhibitor into a program of railway scenes or used to fill out a reel of miscellaneous motion pictures for a variety bill. As was often the case, Porter created a film by combining elements from two popular motion picture genres.

Scarecrow Pump

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: 22 November 1904; © 9 December 1904. Print: MoMA.

A single-shot comedy staged against a painted backdrop, in which a boy plans to play a trick on a drunken rube, only to be outwitted by his intended victim.

The Strenuous Life; or, Anti-Race Suicide

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot December 1904; © 19 December 1904. Print: MoMA.

A lighthearted spoof of family life and fatherhood. President Roosevelt, who had just won reelection, believed Americans had to lead "the strenuous life" (it was the title of one of his books) if the United States was to retain its position of world leadership. He also declared that married women of northern European stock had a responsibility to produce at least four children to prevent "race suicide." Porter combined these two elements into a burlesque: the father returns home as his wife gives birth and soon finds himself caring for quadruplets. Using a close up, Porter shows the father's initial expression of pride as he weighs the first baby, but this expression quickly changes to distress as the nurse brings in one infant after another.

The Ex-Convict

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: November 1904; © 19 November 1904. Print: MoMA.

An uncredited but quite obvious adaptation of a well-known vaudeville piece, Number 973, by Robert Hilliard and Edwin Holland. Starting from the Hilliard-Holland one-act playlet, Porter visualized the storyline into a total of eight scenes. Unlike Uncle Tom's Cabin, The Ex-Convict was not filmed theater but an adaptation that took advantage of the filmmaker's ability to place a scene in an appropriate location (outside a store, home, or factory, and on the street) and to move quickly from one setting to the next. The naturalistic locales and the accelerated pace heightened the emotional intensity of the viewer's reaction to the pathetic story, achieving a level of realism impossible on the stage. In the process of adaptation, Porter also added important new elements, notably the ex-convict's family.

The Kleptomaniac

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Cast: Aline Boyd (The Kleptomaniac, Mrs. Banker), Phineas Nairs (Store Detective), Jane Stewart (Female Detective), George Voijere (Superintendent, Department Store), Ann Egleston (The Thief), Will S. Rising (Police Court Judge), Helen Courtney (Justice). Shot late January 1905; © 4 February 1905. Print: MoMA.

This condemnation of the class bias found in the American justice system works within a Progressive political framework. Porter juxtaposes the situations of two women. The impoverished woman is shown at home, in the context of her family. The barren room, the absence of a husband/provider, and the weighty responsibility of children who need care and are still too young to work elicit the viewer's understanding and sympathy. Mrs. Banker is denied the sympathetic context of family life, although the brownstone from which she emerges clearly indicates her social status. She, as the title indicates, has no motivation for shoplifting other than the thrill. Mrs. Banker goes inside a high-class emporium (Macy's) and steals some nonessential baubles under the noses of sales personnel. Her actions are clearly premeditated. In contrast, the poor woman, overwhelmed by temptation, steals food left outside and unattended. Her actions are spontaneous. Once arrested, the wealthy kleptomaniac is treated with a courtesy and leniency denied the more deserving mother. The details given in the Edison catalog are not always evident on screen; for instance, there is no reason to suppose the kleptomaniac is a banker's wife.

The Seven Ages

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot February 1905; © 4 February 1905. Print: LoC.

Here, Porter photographed a series of short vignettes reminiscent of kiss films such as The John C. Rice-May Irwin Kiss (1896), structuring them around a premise provided by Shakespeare's "seven ages of man"--a theme often illustrated in nineteenth-century lantern shows. Beginning with toddlers and concluding with old people, the film shows couples kissing. Each of the first seven scenes contains two shots, the first an establishing shot and the second a medium close-up that gives a better view of each kissing couple. The eighth and final scene is a tableau that shows an old maid alone, introduced with the title "What Age?" To emphasize her solitude, Porter broke with the structure of earlier scenes and refrained from cutting in. The repetition and diversity of age groups undermines the kiss's exclusively sexual dimension. Sexuality is expressed within the context of the recurring life cycle made possible by the family.

The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter, possibly with Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: May 1905; © 31 May 1905. Print: LoC.

One of several Edison films from this period that used animated intertitles. It continued "a popular fad which has been widely advertised by lithographs and souvenir mailing cards." These postcards showed portraits of various members of the Dam family, with their names‹I. B. Dam, U. B. Dam--and so forth. This comedy plays with cinematic form, offering numerous introductory portraits followed by only a short vignette of action.

Coney Island at Night

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: June 1905; © 29 June 1905. Print: LoC.

The camera caresses the lit-up amusement center with long sweeping movements, producing an eerie beauty. The smooth pans and tilts are a remarkable technical accomplishment, given the fact that night scenes required longer exposures.

The Little Train Robbery

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter. Shot: August 1905; © 1 September 1905. Print: MoMA.

In this parody of The Great Train Robbery, Edwin S. Porter burlesqued his own landmark film by substituting children for adults and using a miniature railroad and playhouse as sets. The young robbers don't take money but candy and dolls. Perhaps unintentionally, this film supported the argument made by many reformers, who worried that children had become juvenile delinquents by modeling themselves on the bandits in a film "universally admitted to be the greatest production in MOTION PICTURES." Filmed at Olympia Park while Porter was visiting his hometown of Connellsville, Pennsylvania.

The White Caps

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: August 1905; © 14 September 1905. Print: MoMA.

In 1905 White Cap vigilante groups were particularly active in rural areas of the Border States and the Midwest. Members, generally faced with declining income and political power, acted as agents of social control, punishing offenses that the state and local governments failed to address adequately. The film offers a view of small-town America in which a wayward member is taught a lesson without the formalities of the legal system, the rural community acting as an extension of the family. Owen Davis's play The White Caps appeared in various cities a few months before the Porter film was made, whileThomas Dixon's The Clansman was in much publicized rehearsals.

The Watermelon Patch

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: October 1905; © 20 October 1905. Print: MoMA.

This picture integrates elements found in earlier Edison films depicting blacks, such as The Chicken Thieves (1896), in which "darkies" raid a chicken coop; Watermelon Eating Contest (1896), a one-shot facial expression film of happy blacks eating watermelon; and The Pickaninnies (1894), showing three Negro youths doing a jig and breakdown. The isolated images of blacks presented in these earlier films are here unified and elaborated upon, using a wide range of editorial techniques. Blacks are shown to be superstitious, petty thieves, good dancers, and watermelon lovers. They like to have a good time, but their inherent laziness must be subsidized by pilfering. Watermelon Patch also owes much to Biograph's The Chicken Thief (1904), in which darkies steal chickens and bring them home for a party of eating and dancing. On their next outing, the two thieves are chased and caught by angry rednecks. The many parallels between the two films are partially explained by McCutcheon's involvement in both projects. This Edison film reveals an absurdist playfulness that is lacking in its more vicious and cruder Biograph predecessor.

The Miller's Daughter

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: September-October 1905; © 25 October 1905. MoMA

The sinful, decadent city is contrasted to the simple, honest countryside in this fascinating reworking of Steele MacKaye's ever-popular melodrama Hazel Kirke (1880). Events occurring off-stage are shown in the Porter film, including Hazel's suicidal jump and her rescue. And yet, while Porter and McCutcheon retained the character's names, they reworked crucial narrative elements. Class differences are banished from rural life (Rodney is just an average farmer) and re-located to the city. It is Carringford, the debonair artist from the city, who acts duplicitously and seduces the miller's daughter, Hazel.

The Train Wreckers

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace C. McCutcheon. Shot: October-November 1905; © 25 November 1905. Print: MoMA.

Porter's most violent expression of the conflict between constituted society and its outsiders. The outlaw band, with its apparently irrational desire to destroy all social order, is finally eliminated by a combined force of railroad personnel and select passengers. With order finally restored, a romance between the engineer and the switchman's daughter, introduced at the beginning of the film, resumes. Society is able to return to its proper preoccupations. The Train Wreckers effectively demonstrates the need for social cohesion in a way that could serve as a prototype for future good-guy-versus-bad-guy conflicts. The film was extremely successful, selling 157 prints during 1905-6, and its narrative would be reworked six years later in one of D. W. Griffith's most successful Biograph films, The Girl and Her Trust (released March 28, 1912).

Life of an American Policeman

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace C. McCutcheon. Shot: November 1905; © 6 December 1905. Print: MoMA.

Photographed with the cooperation of the New York City Police Department, this film was first shown at two vaudeville benefits for the Police Relief Fund in early December 1905. The opening scene, which presents a officer at home with his wife and child, identifies the police with the institution of the family. The policeman's role in maintaining community values in the impersonal city is shown when patrolmen help a lost child and rescue a would-be suicide from the river. Their courage is demonstrated as one policeman controls a runaway horse and others risk their lives capturing a desperate burglar. The latter scene reenacts a robbery and the killing of a policeman that took place on Manhattan's Upper East Side on the morning of March 20, 1904.

Police Chasing Scorching Auto

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace C. McCutcheon. Shot: November 1905; © no reg. Print: MoMA.

Because the incidents included in Life of an American Policeman filled a 1,000-foot. reel, there was no room for this scene and so it was sold separately.

The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Cast: John P. Brown. Shot: late December to mid-February 1906; © 24 February 1906. Print: MoMA.

This film was primarily inspired by Winsor McCay's identically titled comic strip, which had appeared in the New York Telegram since 1904. Porter not only borrowed McCay's title, but his dream-based narrative structure. Likewise, McCay's surreal imagery is convincingly realized on the screen using a variety of photographic tricks. Although such visuals had many antecedents, McCay's strip "Little Nemo in Slumberland" may have provided another useful point of departure. The basic story line and some of the film's visuals, however, can also be found in an earlier Pathé film made by Gaston Velle, Rëve à la lune (1905). It took Porter eight weeks to execute the array of special effects in this 470-foot, eight-minute film.

Three American Beauties

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: April 1906; © 1 May 1906. Print: MoMA.

Often hand-tinted, this short film was typically used by exhibitors to conclude their programs. It elaborated on a popular practice among exhibitors of the 1890s. They ended their programs with a film of the American flag waving in the breeze. The flag is the last of the "American Beauties" to appear; the first is the picture of a popular rose named "American Beauty."

Films of The San Francisco Earthquake

Camera: Robert K. Bonine. Shot: April-May 1906; Print: MoMA.

Edison cameraman Bonine traveled to San Francisco to take more than thirteen short films of San Francisco in the aftermath of its devastating earthquake on 18 April 1906, among them Dynamiting Ruins and Rescuing Soldiers Caught in the Fallen Walls and Panorama Russian and Nob Hill from an Automobile. These films were widely seen and often used to raise money for charitable purposes to help those affected. Surviving prints of this material were subsequently recycled, compromising their integrity. This is a selection of highlights.

The Terrible Kids

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: May 1906; © 1 May 1906. Print: MoMA.

Part of the popular bad boy genre that would soon come under heavy criticism for providing young viewers with undesirable role models. Porter's comedy shows two boys disrupting a neighborhood's routine with the help of their dog, played by Mannie. Every scene is a variation on a mischievous prank, as they upset the daily lives of adults. Eventually their victims pursue the two pranksters, capture them and place them in police custody. But with Mannie's help, the kids escape as the film ends. According to an Edison catalog description, their antics "are sure to arouse a strong sympathy for the kids and their dog."

Kathleen Mavourneen

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Cast: Kitty O'Neal (Kathleen), Walter Griswold (Terence O'More, Kathleen's lover), H. L. Bascom (Captain Clearfield, an Irish Landlord), W. R. Floyd (Dugan, Clearfield's willing tool), E. M. Leslie (David O'Connor, Kathleen's father), N. B. Clarke (Father O'Cassidy, the parish priest), J. McDovall (Danny O'Lavey, friend of Terence), Jeannie Clifford (Kitty O'Lavey, an odd Irish character), C. F. Seabert (Black Rody, The Robber Chief), D. R. Allen (Red Barney), D. J. McGinnis (Darby Doyle), W. F. Borroughs (Dennis O'Gaff). Shot: May and June 1906; © 2 August 1906. Print: MoMA.

An adaptation of Dion Boucicault's popular stage play Kathleen Mavourneen; or St. Patrick's Eve, though with significant modifications. Much of Porter and McCutcheon's Irish melodrama was shot as if the audience could understand the absent dialogue. Likewise the collaborators used conventional theatrical blocking in most of their scenes, notably in the opening, for which the expansive landscape was treated as a stage. With nine major characters in the film, audiences would have had difficulty sorting out the narrative unless they already knew the play and/or received assistance from missing intertitles, or a lecture. The Edison Company nonetheless sold more than 70 copies of this film during the first year of release. (The status of the cast list, published in an advertisement in the New York Clipper, is uncertain.)

Getting Evidence

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Cast: Paul Panzer (Detective). Shot: September 1906; © 8 October 1906. Print: MoMA.

A jealous husband visits the Hawkshaw Detective Agency (a redundant naming device in its own right) and asks the detective to obtain evidence of his wife's supposed infidelities. Only a photograph is deemed acceptable evidence and the private eye's attempts to secure it provide a series of comic incidents, in which he is beaten and his cameras destroyed. When the black-eyed, limping detective finally presents his evidence to the husband, his photograph is of the daughter rather than the wife. Rather than providing evidence against the wife, the photograph exposes the detective's incompetence and the husband's unfounded suspicions.


Edwin S. Porter typically worked with a filmmaking partner. Wallace McCutcheon was his collaborator until May 1907, when he was replaced by stage manager and playwright J. Searle Dawley. Dawley and Porter continued to work together until June 1908 when the Edison Manufacturing Company, in an effort to increase its output of film subjects, created two different production units, with Porter heading one and Dawley heading the other. Porter also continued to act as studio manager. The rapidly increasing number of specialized motion picture theaters, commonly known as nickelodeons for their 5¢ admission policy, meant that the motion picture industry had become immensely profitable by 1907. Demand for new films was such that a successful picture could easily sell more than 100 copies. The biggest problem from 1906 into early 1908 was simply that there were not enough films to fill demand. Almost anything that was made could sell and make a good profit. Although films such as The "Teddy" Bears (1907), College Chums (1907) and Cupid's Pranks (1908) were generally popular and sold well, their elaborate production values with their special effects were ill-suited for rapid film production. Meanwhile, other film companies were not only increasing their output, they were introducing important changes in their methods of storytelling. Most studios were telling stories in a much more linear fashion; not so at Edison. The system of representation and methods of editing that Porter had employed since Life of an American Fireman (1902-03) continued. This is evidenced by Rescued from an Eagle's Nest (1908), wherein actions are still shown twice across the cut, a practice that was being eliminated elsewhere and becoming old-fashioned. By spring 1908, the trade press was severely criticizing Edison films as unclear and poorly executed. It is at this very moment that a huge hole in surviving Edison film productions appears. Practically no films from the spring of 1908 through the fall of 1909 survive. Perhaps they were not considered worth keeping.

The "Teddy" Bears

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: February 1907; © 23 February 1907; released 2 March 1907. Print: MoMA.

Starting out as an adaptation of "Goldilocks and the Three Bears," the picture moves outside the confines of the studio, suddenly changing moods and referents. The bears chase Goldilocks across a snowy landscape until "Teddy" Roosevelt intervenes, kills the two full-grown pursuers, and captures the baby bear. The sudden appearance of T. R. was based on a well-known incident when President Roosevelt was on a hunting expedition in November 1902 and refused to shoot a bear cub. Shortly thereafter a New York toy store owner began to make and sell "Teddy's bear"--a stuffed version of the spared cub. The novelty had become a craze by 1906-7, when thousands of toy bears were being sold each week. The combining of these two referents was key to the film's humor.

Cohen's Fire Sale

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and Wallace McCutcheon. Shot: June 1907; © 14 June 1907; released: 29 June 1907. Print: MoMA.

Based on the stereotypical Jewish businessman for whom fire was "our friend" and the fire company was "our enemy"--a view rendered in iconographic form on a comic postcard of the period. The story itself is quite simple and clearly depicted; but character motivation, narrative logic, and audience comprehension of a few key pieces of information--for instance that a piece of paper is an insurance policy--relies on highly specific anti-Semitic stereotyping. Present day critics should not jump to simple conclusions here. Porter had many Jewish collaborators, from G. M. Anderson (Max Aronson) to Adolph Zukor. On the other hand, McCutcheon's films, both at Biograph and Edison, often display racial and ethnic stereotyping that is disconcertingly vicious (e.g. The Chicken Thief; Biograph, 1904).

The Rivals

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Madge West (Tootsie), Richard Thompson, Mr. Shelley, Mrs. William West, Jinnie Frazer (baby), William West (bit). Shot: 5-25 August 1907; © 7 September 1907. Print: MoMA.

This film was based on a comic strip by T. E. Powers that ran in the New York American, in which showed two male rivals continually fight for the attentions of a desirable woman. In one scene Charlie escorts Tootsie, only to have her stolen away by George. In the next scene George escorts the girl, only to have her stolen away by Charlie. This alternation continues until Porter had the desired number of scenes. In the final scene, the woman leaves both rivals for a third.

The Trainer's Daughter; or, A Race for Love

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Miss DeVarney, Edward Boulden, William Sorelle, Mr. Sullivan. Shot: 30 October-3 November 1907; © 15 November 1907; released: 23 November 1907. Print: MoMA.

Has a plot similar to Theodore Kremer's A Race for a Wife, in which the victor of a race between the hero and the unscrupulous villain wins the bride. Unless spectators were familiar with A Race for a Wife or the exhibitor provided them with a plot synopsis in some way, the unlikely story line could easily seem opaque.

College Chums

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Edward Boulden, Miss Acton, Mrs. Kate Griffith, Mr. Kennedy, Miss Antoinette, Mr. Kurtis. Shot: 22 September-18 October 1907; © 25 November 1907. Print: MoMA.

Loosely based on a well-known play, Brandon Thomas's farce-comedy Charley's Aunt. The last two thirds of the film shows one scene in establishing shot. In fact, the film was often screened with live actors behind the screen providing synchronous dialogue for the on-screen characters--a popular movie fad of the period. Porter's filmmaking talent is most evident in "a mechanical trick scene." As a reviewer for Variety remarked, "A young man and his sweet heart are shown in an altercation over the telephone. Both are seen in small circles at the upper corners of the field of vision, the rest of the sheet being occupied by housetops. As each speaks the words marshal themselves letter by letter in the air and travel across the intervening space. When the quarrel waxes hot the words meet in the middle of the scene and fall to the ground in a shower of letters."

Laughing Gas

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Bertha Regustus (Mandy Brown), Edward Boulden, Mr. Sullivan, Mr. La Montte. Shot: 13-19 November 1907; © 6 December 1907. Print: MoMA.

With African-American Bertha Regustus in the principle role, this comedy seems to depart from conventional black stereotypes. Indebted to other comedies of the period (Vitagraph made a film with an identical title less than a year earlier), the film is based on the premise that laughter is contagious.

A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Mr. Lehapman, William Sorrelle, Besie Shrednecky, Gitchner Hartman, Miss Sullivan. Shot: 29 November-9 December 1907; © 16 December 1907. Print: MoMA.

Christmas-themed films had appeared since the 1890s. For Christmas 1906, Edison produced The Night Before Christmas. The following year they reprised this success with A Little Girl Who Did Not Believe in Santa Claus. It was loosely inspired by a well-known incident in 1897 when a little girl wrote the New York Sun and asked if there was a Santa Claus, since some of her friends had asserted he did not exist. The editor famously responded, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist." This film offers a sentimental, politically charged, though still charming reworking of that response. The girl has no coat and no Christmas until a wealthy young boy (who is generous and devoted) kidnaps Santa and brings him to her house on Christmas Eve. This film contrasts rich and poor in ways that recall both The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1907).

The Suburbanite's Ingenious Alarm

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Shot: 13-29 December 1907; © 4 January 1908. Print: MoMA.

Critics lauded this film as "another well constructed comedy," which "has a good, up-to-date application and is very well-presented." Its slapstick humor centers on a commuter's attempts to find a foolproof way to wake up in the morning. He "tries the old dodge of tying a rope to his foot to be awakened by." Again Porter tells a simple story using a widely recognized situation. Overlapping time and action are employed as the scene moves between the interior and exterior of the commuter's home.

Rescued From an Eagle's Nest

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: D. W. Griffith, Miss Earle, Jinnie Frazer (baby). Shot: 2-11 January 1908; © 16 January 1908. Print: MoMA.

This film features D. W. Griffith in his first major screen role, that of a father who battles an eagle while attempting to rescue his child from the bird's nest. The story for this family-centered drama was taken from a famous incident that had been enshrined in waxworks. The film displays all the characteristic qualities of Porter's work. Rather than cut between parallel lines of action, Porter used temporal overlaps. Studio sets for exterior scenes were interwoven with outdoor locations. Despite the obvious abilities of newly hired scenic artist Richard Murphy, a precocious critic found the film "a feeble attempt to secure a trick film of a fine subject." The reviewer demanded a consistently rendered visual world, with an emphasis on credibility that was not always valorized within Porter's representational system.

Fireside Reminiscences

Filmmaker: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Edward Boulden, Miss Acton, Mr. Sullivan, Miss Abbott. Shot 14-17 January 1908; © 23 January 1908. Print: MoMA.

Evokes the story line of the well-known song, "After the Ball," in which a man explains why he is single and has no children. One night when he and his sweetheart were at a ball, he found her in the arms of another man. He abandoned her without waiting for an explanation and, as a result, she died. After learning the man was her brother, he remained faithful to her forever. Porter altered this story by adding new family-centered elements. The husband sees his wife embracing a man (we must assume it is her brother) and he banishes her from their home. Three years later the husband stares into the fire and recalls his past life: his wife, he and his wife embracing, their wedding, his wife and child, the moment he threw her out of the house, and his wife on the cold streets at night. A larger narrative frames this reminiscing. In fact, his wife is outside the house as he conjures up these images. She is brought inside, and their child acts as a catalyst for reconciliation. The family triumphs over the stern, misguided father, who finally sees the error of his ways.

Cupid's Pranks

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Violette Hill, Miss Murray, Mr. Barry, Phineas Nairs (?), Laura Sawyer (bit), D.W. Griffith (bit). Shot 5-10 February 1908; © 19 February 1908. Print: MoMA.

Planned for, but not completed in time for a Valentine's Day 1908 release, this film makes use of the charming iconography of Valentine cards. D. W. Griffith appears as an extra.

Tale the Autumn Leaves Told

Filmmakers: Edwin S. Porter and J. Searle Dawley. Cast: Laura Sawyer, Mr. Barry, Phineas Nairs (?), Miss Sullivan, William Sorrelle. Shot: 26-30 March 1908; © 10 April 1908. Print: MoMA.

This short fragment demonstrates the ways that Porter continued to seek visual novelties favoring a stylistically audacious image over straightforward storytelling. Here he uses different camera mattes (each in the shape of a leaf) for every scene. At a moment when the industry was seeking to increase the rate of production, Porter resisted and sought other outcomes.


Although Thomas A. Edison was once again the dominant force in the American motion picture industry through the formation of the Edison-dominated Motion Picture Patents Company, his production company was in complete disarray, suffering from the twin problems of poor production values and insufficient quantity. From mid 1908 to at least mid 1910, the press consistently panned Edison films and exhibitors complained loudly about their inferior quality. To address these problems, Porter's job was made more limited: he stopped directing in January 1909 but retained his position as studio head; underneath him were created three production units, each headed by a single director. When the situation did not improve quickly enough, Horace G. Plimpton (who had no motion picture experience) replaced Porter, serving as studio head until May 1915. In the spring of 1909 Plimpton added two more production units to the Bronx studio. Although few films survive from this period, those that do suggest that the quality of the studio's releases gradually improved. Our collection includes two fiction films from 1909-1910; both were then considered at the high end of Edison output.

The House of Cards

Filmmaker(s) unknown. Cast: Herbert Prior (Sheriff). © 10 December 1909; released 10 December 1909. Print: MoMA.

Variety was enthusiastic about this picture, finding that "In many particulars the film is better than Edison is in the habit of turning out." This reviewer felt that "The story holds interest, and the novelty of introducing a rattlesnake as an actor must be credited to this firm." The film is designed to culminate in the confrontation between the sheriff ("Rattlesnake Jim") and the man who has gambled away someone else's money. Both love the same woman, and they stage a duel where the victor will be determined by a rattlesnake. The movie critic for the New York Dramatic Mirror found the situation unbelievable and contrived, even though other aspects of the film impressed him. In fact, the duel is ended prematurely, and the girl ultimately changes her affection from the gambler to the lawman.

New York of Today

Filmmaker(s) and cast unknown. © 26 February 1910. Print: MoMA.

During the nickelodeon era, various film companies made short films showing tourist scenes of New York City. When a French company released "Seeing New York" in 1908, Variety found it "rather odd" that such pictures were not made by the "many native manufacturers eager for new subjects." Such films, it felt, would be very popular, at least outside New York City. This print was made for the German market and shows Columbus Circle, Times Square, Coney Island, Wall Street, the Lower East Side, Fifth Avenue, the Plaza Hotel, the new Metropolitan Life Insurance Building, and the Flatiron Building. A happy couple, clearly tourists, is "Seeing New York" and they, or their sightseeing car appears in most (though not all) of these scenes. This film was not part of Edison's regular U.S. release schedule but meant principally for sales overseas. Europe, particularly Great Britain and Germany, had become a crucial market for the Edison Manufacturing Company.

How Bumptious Papered the Parlor

Directed by Ashley Miller. Scenario by W. H. Kitchell. Cast: John R. Cumpson (Bumptious). © 15 July 1910; released 15 July 1910 as a split reel with A Vacation in Havana. Print: MoMA.

The Edison Company offered a cycle of comedies directed by Ashley Miller and featuring John R. Cumpson as Mr. Bumptious. This one was promoted as the best Bumptious comedy yet to appear. Convinced of his own abilities, Mr. Bumptious tries to save money by wallpapering the parlor himself. The humorous results might have been predicted. The movie critic for the New York Dramatic Mirror remarked, "Bumptious perhaps suffers from a desire to overact his part, otherwise the narrative is well told." Certainly the film develops logically and is easy to follow--even though this print lacks its intertitles. The camera is more intimate, and the editing more fluid than previous efforts.


In 1911, Thomas A. Edison, Inc. became the corporate umbrella used for most of Thomas Edison's businesses, including motion pictures. By that time, as well, Edison filmmakers had regained their footing, and their work was enjoying renewed critical favor. The company's filmmaking staff mastered the art of storytelling within the one-reel format (15-18 minutes in length). Edison films were generally safe: light comedies and moralistic dramas, along with a few science and public service films. Thomas A. Edison, Inc. was in many respects the Walt Disney Company of its day. Edison was portrayed as a beloved father figure, and no Edison product could be allowed to offend middle-class Americans who were buying his cement houses, Edison batteries, and phonograph recordings. Although one-reelers reigned supreme at the Edison Company, there were changes in the film industry that are belied by this selection of films. The Edison Company did introduce the serial, with What Happened to Jane, the first chapter of which was released on 26 July 1912, and it did demonstrate the value of working closely with the magazine industry; The Adventure of the Hasty Elopement represents both trends. Yet the Edison Company never fully exploited these innovations. Rather, Edison focused his resources and energies in two new areas: the Home Projecting Kinetoscope, which was designed for showing movies (old commercial subjects, not home movies) in the home, and the Kinetophone, which was an effort to make synchronous sound films that would play in theaters. The Home PK was a financial failure from the beginning and the Kinetophone did little better. American motion picture entrepreneurs were looking for the next big thing. Some were experimenting with longer films of two or more reels. Some were also exploring new methods of distribution. Edison neglected these areas of innovation to his, and his company's regret. The films selected here hint at how the studio system with its stock company of actors was working in the early 1910s. We can see how favorites such as Marc MacDermott, Mary Fuller, George Lessey and Yale Boss assumed new roles from film to film, creating their on-screen personas. The technical quality of Edison films was both high and consistent in these years.

Thirty Days at Hard Labor

Directed by Oscar C. Apfel. Adapted from the story "The Halberdier of the Rheinschloss" by O. Henry (William Sydney Porter), which appeared in the May 1907 issue of Everybody Magazine. Cast: Robert Brower (Mr. Langdon), Mary Fuller (Beatrice, his daughter), Harold Shaw (Jack Deering), William Wadsworth (Proprietor of the restaurant). © 9 January 1912; released 9 January 1912. Print: MoMA.

A faithful adaptation of O. Henry's short story that was presented in "good comedy spirit" according to one enthusiastic reviewer. In order to gain the father's permission to marry his daughter, the spoiled son from a rich family must work to make his own living. By opening up the story, director Apfel lost O. Henry's surprise ending even as he retained its sweetness and mixed messages about hard work. This print was approval by British censors, underscoring the importance of the British market for Edison profitability in this period.

The Passer-by

Directed by Oscar C. Apfel. Scenario by Marion Brooks. Photographed by Henry Crongager and Otto Brautigan. Cast: George Lessey (Hamilton Crawford, the Bridegroom), Miriam Nesbitt (His Mother), Marc MacDermott (The First to Pass). Shot 23-27 April and 7 May 1912. © 21 June 1912; released 21 June 1912. Print: LoC (AFI Collection).

One critic declared this film "an impressive story of a blighted life." Throughout his life, a man is periodically haunted by the woman who deserted him on the eve of their wedding. Moving Picture World applauded this picture for its script, the performance by Marc MacDermott, and its cinematography. "There is some clever camerawork in the dinner scene when the machine is gradually pushed toward the speaker at the head of the table, and then withdraws. The effect, of course, is that of the actor being drawn toward the spectator and then receding." By this time, intertitles have begun to supply the names of the lead actors.

The Totville Eye

Directed by C. Jay Williams. Scenario by Bannister Merwin. Cast: Walter Edwin (Old Scotty), Yale Boss (Young Sammy), Robert Brower (Thomas Adams, the editor), Edward O'Conner (a printer), Bigelow Cooper (The minister), Harry Beaumont (Tom), Bessie Learn (Flossie), Charles Ogle (Squire Jenkins, a hard-hearted landlord), Bliss Milford (his tenant, widow Dugan). © 8 November 1912; released 27 November 1912. Print: MoMA.

A nostalgic comedy set in small town America. While the editor is away, his employees change the style of his newspaper (The Totville Eye) and actually report local news. The results are all to the good. Child star Yale Boss plays the bad boy turned cub reporter. Bigelow Cooper does a fine send up of a minister experiencing his first (unintended) drunk. The New York Dramatic Mirror claimed that the film possesses "just about all that could be desired except that of probability." The film recalls D. W. Griffith's earlier Pippa Passes (1909), but in comic mode.

The Public and Private Care of Infants

Directed by Carlton King & Charles M. Seay. Produced in co-operation with the Russell Sage Foundation, Department of Child-Helping. © 6 December 1912. Print: MoMA.

In a Saturday Evening Post article that appeared as this film was going into production, Thomas Edison called for motion pictures to replace text books in the schools. Meanwhile his company made films meant to educate adults about health-related issues. This one advocates strongly for private childcare and is unexpectedly critical of orphanages. This film also reveals some of the profoundly difficult choices facing working-class women. Underneath its apparently low-key informational message lurks a powerful condemnation of the socio-economic system. The Edison Company made similar kinds of films for other reform organizations. This film was apparently not given a regular release.

The Unsullied Shield

Directed and written by Charles J. Brabin. Cast: Wadsworth Harris (The Duke), Marc MacDermott (His son), Mrs. Wallace Erskine (The Duchess), Harry Eytinge (The money lender), Walter Edwin (The Warrior), Herbert Prior (The Admiral), Augustus Phillips (The Statesman). © 20 December 1912; released 7 January 1913. Print: MoMA.

Ignoring his father's deathbed pleas to improve himself, the Duke's wastrel son continues his dissolute ways, borrowing money that he cannot repay. When he is threatened with scandal and exposure, he forges his mother's signature on a check. In a hallucinatory state, the portraits of three of his illustrious ancestors come to life and lecture him on family honor. The movie screen becomes his mind-screen, which is to say a subjective home movie. This confrontation with his ancestors from the other side of the grave proves a transforming moment.

At Bear Track Gulch

Directed by Harold M. Shaw. Scenario by R. P. Janette. Cast: William West (Old Pete Griffin), Herbert Prior (Big Slim), George Lessey (Jack Turner), Bigelow Cooper (The stage driver), Edna Flugarth (Alice Lorraine), John Sturgeon (Her father). © 27 December 1912; released January 14, 1913. Print: MoMA.

This western, with its simple story set in a gold mining camp, recycles many of the elements found in David Belasco's influential play The Girl of the Golden West (1904).

The Ambassador's Daughter

Directed by Charles J. Brabin. Scenario by Bannister Merwin. Cast: Miriam Nesbitt (Helen, the ambassador's daughter), George Lessey (Richard Farnsworth, an attaché at the embassy), Robert Brower (The ambassador), Marc MacDermott (Charles Dumont, a clerk at the embassy), Bigelow Cooper (Thomas Crompton), Charles Ogle and Mary Fuller (Foreign Conspirators). © 10 January 1913; released 21 January 1913. Print: MoMA.

The innocent attaché, who loves the ambassador's daughter, is framed for espionage, but she successfully exposes the real spy. Although the New York Dramatic Mirror criticized the picture for its "visibly forced or overdrawn situations," it was felt to have strong appeal, "for it has been well directed, staged, and photographed."

A Serenade by Proxy

Directed by C. Jay Williams. Scenario by A. H. Giebler. Cast: Frank A. Lyon (William Jackson), Mrs. Wallace Erskine (Mrs. Jackson), Gertrude McCoy (Muriel, their daughter), Augustus Phillips (Thomas Perkins), Alice Washburn (Romantic Molly, the cook). William Wadsworth (Zeb Hawkins), Edward O'Connor (Mike, the hostler), Bigelow Cooper (The minister). © 16 January 1913; Released 29 January 1913. Print: MoMA.

A quiet celebration of small town America. In this sentimental comedy, there are two parallel romances-one upstairs and one downstairs-and various moments of mis-recognition that complicate the plot. Each couple encounters difficulties, but all ends happily in a double elopement. A critic for the New York Dramatic Mirror raved, "One would not, on witnessing this farcical comedy have to refer to the Edison announcements to discover the Director. To one who is familiar with these comedies of the past the hand of C. Jay Williams is apparent in almost every clever turn in the business or twist of the action. As demonstrated in this and other comedies, the players are as capable and funny, without being cheap or trashy, as any to be found in the motion picture field. The subject matter here is of minor consequence; the treatment is everything."

All on Account of a Transfer

Directed by C. Jay Williams. Scenario by Henry W. Otto. Cast: Frank A. Lyon (Herr Müller), William Bechtel (A German Passer-by), Mrs. C.J. Williams (the woman), Edward O'Connor (the conductor). © 14 February 1913; released 26 February 1913. Print: MoMA.

Life can get complicated when you don't know English, as a German visitor to New York City discovers in this film. One critic declared, "Here we have a little comedy that is out of the ordinary, that is original in its idea and that is wholesomely funny, even though it is barely half a reel." Another C. Jay Williams comedy that is "delightfully acted and as well staged." The director's wife plays the female lead.

One Touch of Nature

Directed by Ashley Miller. Scenario by Courtney Ryley Cooper. Cast: John Sturgeon (Mr. Bradley), Elizabeth Miller (Mrs. Bradley), T. Tamamoto (The butler), Alan Crolius (The chauffeur), Andrew J. Clark (Freckles), Edna Hammel. © 18 July 1914; released 8 August 1914. Print: MoMA.

The film's title comes from Shakespeare: "One touch of nature makes the whole world kin." This is just one of many stories from the period that illustrate this dictum. A well-to-do, middle-aged man with a foul temper regains his humor when he spends some time in the woods with a young boy. Scenarist Courtney Ryley Cooper (1886-1940) was a prolific writer of adventure stories and is today most famous for ghostwriting numerous articles for FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

The Adventure of the Hasty Elopement

Directed by Charles M. Seay. A story of Octavius-Amateur Detective by Frederick Arnold Kummer -Courtesy of Pictorial Review for October 1914. Cast: Barry O'Moore (Octavius), Julian Reed (The butler), Viola Dana (Ruth), Yale Benner (The lover), Harry Linson (The minister), Frank A. Lyon (Ruth's father), Mrs. William Bechtel (Her mother). © 4 September 1914; Released 21 September 1914. Print: MoMA.

The ninth installment in the "Octavius Amateur Detective" series (12 episodes total). Octavius is a bumbler who "never fails" to solve the crime due to an endless array of good luck and coincidence. He goes in search of local car thieves, only to have his own auto carjacked. To pursue the thief, he steals a car in turn. This vehicle eventually turns out to belong to the thieves he is seeking. A film made with a certain slap dash quality, it is still, as one contemporary critic characterized it, "an amusing film."


Edison's motion picture business was besieged by multiple difficulties in its final four years. Sales of its projector fell off rapidly after 1912 and this once profitable part of Edison's business soon disappeared. Although Edison moved into feature film production with some seriousness, it was never very profitable. Many features actually lost money. The war adversely affected Edison's European markets, which were crucial to its profitability. Domestically, its efforts to find effective distribution were scattered and increasingly ineffectual. Meanwhile, its films continued to appeal to a genteel, moralistic sensibility that was out of touch with changing audiences. Throughout the final three years of its existence, the Edison Company ceased to make money. In March 1918, the business was sold at fire sale prices.

The Wonders of Magnetism

Filmmaker(s) unknown. © 6 January 1915; released 20 January 1915 on the same reel with the comedy A Weighty Matter for a Detective. Print: MoMA.

A science film meant for educational use. These carefully staged and often elaborate classroom demonstrations subtly remind us of Edison's own technological achievements. As Moving Picture World remarked, "An educational which is full of interest, illustrating the two kinds of magnets in common use, the electro and the steel magnet and their uses, as an aid to science and industry." The electromagnet is shown to be far more powerful, and the principles of electromagnetic iron ore separation are demonstrated. In fact, Edison had lost much of his fortune through disastrous investments in his large-scale iron ore works. (W.K.L. Dickson had worked alternately on iron-ore separation and the development of Edison's motion picture system in the early 1890s.)

Black Eyes

Direct by Will Louis. Scenario by Lee Arthur. Cast: Raymond McKee (Frank Willard) Jean Dumar (Mrs. Willard), Guido Colucci (Mr. Willard's Law partner-Mr. Foster), Yale Benner (Henry Rossiter), Julian Reed (Prof Scarab), T. Tamamoto (His Assistant). © 17 September 1915; released 6 October 1915. Print: MoMA.

As the feature film was becoming dominant over the course of 1915, Edison (like other American producers) had clearly mastered the one reel format‹as Black Eyes demonstrates. This is an enjoyable domestic comedy about marital discord and reconciliation. Nothing is allowed to get too serious, and all ends happily. The story is structured around parallels and coincidence, as Mr. and Mrs. Willard each seek their own entertainments on the sly but fail miserably in their deceptions. The actors are adept and keep the situations light and charming.

The Lone Game

Directed by Edward C. Taylor. Scenario by Mary Rider. A Red Cross Seal Drama, Produced in cooperation with the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis. Cast: Bessie Learn (Grace Proctor), Robert Walker (Dean Anderson), Wilfred Young (Phil Proctor). © 4 December 1915; released 11 December 1915. Print: MoMA.

The lone game is the battle against consumption. The film's three principal characters all contract tuberculosis and each struggles to overcome it in different ways. One of them makes the wrong choices and dies, while the other two recover. The Edison studio sought to inform and instruct its audiences by combining critical medical information with a conventional romantic story, resulting in an unconventional, if ultimately instructive subject.

The Unbeliever

Directed by Alan Crosland. Based on the novelette The Three Things (1915) by Mary Raymond Shipman Andrews. Camera: Philip Tannura. Produced with the cooperation of the United States Marine Corps. Cast: Marguerite Courtot (Virginie Harbrok), Raymond McKee (Philip Landicutt), Kate Lester (Margaret Landicutt), Frank de Vernon ("Uncle Jemmy" Landicutt), Lew Hart (Hoffman, the German gardener), Darwin Karr ("Lefty"), Sgt. Moss Gill, U.S.M.C. (Albert Mullins), Lieutenant Thomas G. Sterritt, U.S.M.C. (commanding officer), Mortimer Martini (Eugene Harbrok, a Belgium scout), Blanche Davenport (Madam Harbrok), Harold Hallacher (Pierre Harbrok, their son), Erich von Stroheim (Herr Lieutenant Kurt von Schnieditz), Earl Schenck (Emanuel Müller), Major Thos. Holcomb, U.S.M.C. (commanding officer of the Marine Sector), Gertrude Norman (Marianne Marnholm), Lieutenant J. F. Rorke, U.S.M.C. (Lieut. Terence O'Shaughnessey), and the men of the Third Battalion, Sixth Regiment, United States Marine Corps. ©15 February 1918; released February 1918. Print: LoC.

This was perhaps the last Edison film ever to be released, and features Erich von Stroheim as a German army officer who enjoys killing old women and children. He would reprise and modify this role in Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion (1936). Besides the wartime propagandistic clichés, the film offers a set of moralizing beliefs. As the story begins, Philip Lundicutt forcefully expresses his lack of belief in God, as well as his disdain for those of the lower classes. He is the "Unbeliever" of the title. On the battlefields of Europe, however, he finds God and learns to respect his social "inferiors." This well-made film offers the homilies of a genteel culture that is about to fall apart. It was part of a popular genre of propagandistic fiction films that included D. W. Griffith's Hearts and the World (1918), William Nigh's My Four Years in Germany (1918), and Allen Holubar's The Heart of Humanity (1919). Its battle scenes, shot at Camp Quantico, Virginia, were often praised. One critic remarked that, "It is the best of its kind that the present writer has seen, principally because, among the reasons too numerous to mention, it is realistic: the story is reasonable, and the main issue is never lost, there are no cheap heroics, and last but by no means least, it stirs up a healthy patriotism." Its director, Alan Crosland, would later direct The Jazz Singer (1927).

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