1894: 7 movies

posted 2012 June 4

Dickson Experimental Sound Film
Directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise
For the Edison Company. Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey, USA 

   Possibly made in 1895, this is the first known film with live-recorded sound, and that is chiefly why it makes the top of this  year's movie output. It's still amazing that a movie with sound could have been created this early, but besides a few expensive experiments over the ensuing years, it would be 33 years before sound movies became the dominant form. If you ask us, it was a good thing that it took that long, because otherwise we may not have had all the silent masterpieces that were created in the meantime. Dickson and Edison couldn't figure out how to synchronize the aural and visual, but the fact that they recorded them both, and that we now have proof of this, makes it a landmark. 
   Luckily, Dickson had enough spice in him to make this movie in a way that keeps it still enjoyable for us today. He got two male assistants to dance together, while he took on the role of the violin player. A fourth man sneaks in at the the end to steal a little of the fame. He might be the same character who blocks the scene at the beginning. The movie begins with a voice most likely saying: "The rest of you fellows ready? Go ahead!" The melody is allegedly the barcarolle, Song of the Cabin Boy, from the operetta Les Cloches de Corneville.


Imperial Japanese Dance 
Directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise
For the Edison Company. 
Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio
in West Orange, New Jersey, USA

   Starring the Sarashe Sisters, this movie features non-stop commotion, synchronized and highly appealing visually. The entire screen appears to be flickering and popping like an abstract painting come to life. There is one moment when two of the sisters get tangled up for a moment, but this only adds to the humanity of the piece. 
   The black pieces of fabric that the two sisters on the sides flick about provide an excellent contrast to the white ones, and were likely the impetus for the first hand-coloring of film. Some colored prints of this movie still exist but the greatest thing about this movie is that it communicates the essence of color even in its monochrome state. A year later, Edison's company would color all their prints of Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895).

Fire Rescue Scene
Directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise
For the Edison Company. Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio. New Jersey, USA

   Lasting about sixteen seconds, this movie gets more done and more realistically than most movies would for a very long time. We see the chaos of a house on fire. We see the heroism of the men as they prevent the deaths of two children. And we see teamwork. 
   A couple of years later, the Lumiere brothers and others, including Dickson and Heise, would make movies featuring real firefighters and real fire-wagons on the way to real fires. But this movie was filmed all in-studio, for which we give bonus points for the excellent framing of the shot. No clues get in the way of the realism, except for the pasted "R" in the lower lefthand corner, which allegedly stands for Raff & Gammon, the company which funded this and several other Edison productions. If someone weren't to know, they'd assume this was real documentary footage. What's additionally interesting is that we never see the actual house!


Sioux Ghost Dance
Directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise
For the Edison Company. Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio. New Jersey, USA

   Even if this one sounds like it's too much of a study and too grainy to be watchable, the actuality is too delicious to deny. Native Americans dancing in the 1800s? Yes, please! Edison's studio actually filmed other Native American movies in the same year including Buffalo Dance, but this one is simply a more electric dance. According to Edison film historian C. Musser, this film and others shot on the same day featured Native American dancers from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, and represent the American Indian's first appearance before a motion picture camera.
   This was the busiest year for Dickson and Heise movies, as the movie-makers made several dozen documentaries. I haven't been able to view them all as of yet, but of the ones I've seen, these are the three that I consider the most watchable and the most historically important.


Autour d'une cabine
Directed by Charles-Émile Reynaud 
Made in France

   This is the second movie on our list by Reynaud, and it furthers the complexity of his storytelling. The beach setting is light and cheerful because of the many swimmers, and the fact that the sexual conflict is superseded by the comraderie of two girls who just want to have fun. Altogether, the way the characters dip in the ocean, the punishment of the naughty voyeur, and the closing title makes for a watching experience that begs to be repeated.
   The title translates from French as "Around a cabin".

Carmencita

Directed by William K.L. Dickson
Camera by William Heise
Edison's Black Maria studio

   According to Edison film historian C. Musser, Spanish dancer Carmencita was the first woman to appear in front of an Edison motion picture camera. That is one of the reasons why this movie takes precedence over Annabelle Butterfly Dance (1894). Another reason is that the dance is simply better here. Yes, the costuming in Annabelle Butterfly Dance is quite lovely, but it also can be seen as a bit over-the-top, while this dress is suits the dance and the joyous dancer perfectly. 
   It's great to see dancing so early in movie history, though Roundhay Garden Scene (1888) may take the prize for the first instance of that, except that it's not entirely certain whether the actors in that movie are actually dancing or just walking in circles.
   It should be noted that Carmencita is not the first woman to be featured in a movie. The earliest known instances of women in movies were in 1888 with Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge and Roundhay Garden Scene, but we don't include those movies because they are quite grainy, only 3 seconds in length, and more experimental than artistic. This movie, however, is enjoyable even aside from its historical value.

Chinese Laundry Scene
Directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise
For the Edison Company. 
Photographed in Thomas Edison's Black Maria studio

   Also known as Robetta and Doretto (no. 2), actors Robetta and Doretto perform one of their vaudeville skits. It's pretty neat to see how early this kind of humor existed in movie form. After all, Charlie Chaplin wouldn't be in a movie for another twenty years. A balding, bearded man in raggedy clothes is running from a cop, though we only get to see the abuse he returns. Door tricks, acrobatics, throwing objects at a person's head- it's really quite violent, but it shows how indebted we are to the stage arts. We still aren't given a story, adequate emotion, or a full social message. It's just raw physical comedy, greatest for its raw ingredients with which future movie-makers would concoct gourmet meals. But it's also notable for showing just how wonderfully capable the first movie studio was. By the end of this year, Dickson, Heise, and Edison had made it clear to all that movies could show just about anything that you could see from a seat in a vaudeville theatre.

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