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Collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

Overview of the Edison Motion Pictures by Genre

Acutalities

"Actuality" is a term used by historians to describe short non-fiction films produced by American and European filmmakers during the first ten years of the motion picture industry. Actuality films typically recorded noteworthy persons, places and events of interest to general audiences and were the most frequently-produced film type in America, until overtaken in popularity by comic and dramatic narrative films after 1902.

The earliest actualities were the experimental films made in the Edison laboratory. The first ones recorded on a strip of celluloid film were [Dickson Greeting], [Newark Athlete], and [Men Boxing], all produced in 1891. These and other early experimental films were followed a few years later by a series of films adapted from vaudeville acts where performers displayed their special talents. Famous strongman Eugene Sandow was the first famous performer to appear in front of the Edison camera in 1894. He waived his usual appearance fee for the opportunity to meet Thomas Edison. Other artists such as Spanish dancer Carmencita, Annabelle Whitford (famous for her Butterfly Dance), and members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show also appeared before the Edison camera during the same year. Two of the earliest recorded Native American dances on film, Sioux Ghost Dance and Buffalo Dance, were performed by Native American dancers in Buffalo Bill's show. Some early actualities were made for male audiences and featured scantily-clad female performers or masculine activities such as boxing. Other early actualities featured renowned pugilists, as in The Leonard-Cushing Fight, Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, and Hornbacker-Murphy Fight.

When the Edison Company's Kinetoscope became popular, a greater variety of subjects was needed. A new portable camera made it possible to film scenes of everyday life more easily; the first was Herald Square, taken in New York City in 1896. Although such films may seem quite ordinary to late twentieth century audiences, they were quite popular with a generation unfamiliar with the concept of realistic moving images. Later films featured places beyond New York, such as Niagara Falls and Passaic Falls. As a result, motion pictures of scenic views and "travelogues" became popular with audiences.

The Edison Company began filming trains and railways with Black Diamond Express, made in December 1896. With the support of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, films were taken of the various train routes to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.

Edison films also recorded important news events, such as McKinley's inauguration in 1897.

Panorama of Eiffel Tower
Panorama of Eiffel Tower

In 1897, the head of the Edison Company's Kinetograph Department, James White, and photographer Frederick Blechynden made a filming expedition to the West of the United States. Their trip was partially subsidized by the railways, so they filmed scenes of various railway lines, hotels, and tourist sites along the way. The routes taken by White and Blechynden included the Northern Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande, and the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads. Some of the scenes White and Blechynden filmed included views of everyday life in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yellowstone National Park, and Native Americans in Colorado and New Mexico. They captured activities relating to the Alaska Gold Rush in Seattle in August 1897. In the same year, they also traveled on the Mexican International Railroad to film selected places in Mexico. They then journeyed to Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Hawaii to record the first Edison-produced films of the Asian Pacific.

When the Battleship Maine sank in Havana harbor in February 1898, the Edison Company rushed to produce films of the event. Licensee William Paley was sent to film the Burial of the "Maine" Victims and the Wreck of the Battleship "Maine".

Tensions between the U.S. and Spain erupted into war in April 1898. Paley photographed troop preparations in Tampa, Florida, and traveled with American troops to Cuba when they landed. Numerous films were also taken of the ships in the U.S. fleet. These war films were extremely popular with audiences, which contributed to motion pictures becoming a permanent part of American entertainment, since the films were exhibited in vaudeville theaters.

In an attempt to find even more varied film subjects, the Edison Company recorded places and events around the world. The Klondike Exposition Company under the management of Thomas Crahan was licensed to film scenes of the Alaska Gold Rush in the Yukon in the summer of 1899. James White traveled to Europe to produce a series of films of the Paris Exposition in 1900.

Large-scale disasters were a favorite subject for the Edison camera. The Galveston Hurricane in 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 were two instances where Edison cameras recorded the destruction for viewers far away from those locales.

The Edison Company produced a series of films of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 at Buffalo, New York. The Edison cameras were there during a huge news event, the assassination of President McKinley, and also recorded events after the assassination, including the funeral processions.

By 1902, actualities began to decline in popularity. Longer fiction films became the production priority, as the novelty of movement was no longer enough to sustain audience interest. Although the Edison Company would continue to occasionally take actualities of various news events and persons, it would never do so again to the extent that the company had in its first decade of filmmaking. Other smaller companies took over this niche by creating newsreels, as the Edison Company, along with other major film producers, concentrated on creating profitable fiction films.

Advertising

Early filmmakers recognized the advertising potential of motion pictures. By 1897, several New York film companies had made advertising films for various products and services. Admiral Cigarette, made in 1897, was one of the earliest Edison advertising films. Although previous Edison films promoted rail travel and were often financed by the railway companies, films like Admiral Cigarette were much more explicit in their endorsements of brand names.

The Stenographer's Friend (1910) and The Voice of the Violin (1915) promoted Edison phonograph technology. Both incorporated a narrative story as a means to demonstrate the product.

Animation

puppet animation
R.F.D., 10,000 B.C.

R.F.D., 10,000 B.C., is an early example of puppet animation. The film is a comedy set in prehistoric times. Animator Willis H. O'Brien fashioned the figures from india rubber applied to flexible metal skeletons.

His first film using these figures was The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, distributed by Edison in 1915. R.F.D., 10,000 B.C. followed in 1917. O'Brien made several other films for Edison before leaving the company in 1917.

Early Documentary-Style

By 1910, the Edison Company, following a trend among American producers, began focusing production on moralistic entertainment and educational films. The marketing of the Home Projecting Kinetoscope in 1911 also created a demand for interesting, informative films that could be viewed by home audiences.

Early documentary-style films demonstrated a level of production development beyond actualities and were the precursors of the modern documentary film. These films showed people, places, events, industrial processes, and other scenes of modern life, but unlike actualities, incorporated a greater number of scenes and used more complex editing to unify the film into a narrative whole.

Two examples of Edison documentary-style films from this period are Gold and Diamond Mines of South Africa (1917) and Down the Old Potomac (1917). The first shows gold and diamond-mining operations near Johannesburg and in Cullinan, South Africa. The work and living conditions of African laborers are shown. The second film travels along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, DC, showing how the canal operates.

A Day With Thomas A. Edison was produced by the General Electric Co. in 1922, four years after the demise of Edison's film concerns. This factual film was made at the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison, New Jersey, on Oct 21, 1921, the anniversary of the invention of Edison's incandescent lamp.

Drama and Adventure

Some of the Edison Company's first attempts at telling stories through film began with a series of story-songs made in 1899, of which Love and War is one example. Such films were an experimental effort to use motion pictures as a replacement technology for song slides, which were popular with audiences. Love and War told the story of an American soldier who left his family to fight in Cuba and fell in love with a Red Cross nurse. He later returned home to his family in triumph. The Edison Company supplied exhibitors with the lyrics and sheet music for each film.

Around 1902, as actualities declined in popularity, longer, narrative films began to be made in the studio. This new trend coincided with the hiring of Edwin S. Porter to produce films, and he filmed some of Edison's best-known dramas, including Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1902-1903), and The Great Train Robbery (1903). These films edited scenes together to produce complex narratives.

The influx of foreign films made the Edison Company concentrate on American topics in its dramas, using famous American literary works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin or American settings such as the West for The Great Train Robbery.

The Great Train Robbery is one of the most famous early films. It was shot in the Edison New York studio and in New Jersey at Essex County Park and at the Lackawanna Railway. The bandit leader was played by Justus D. Barnes, and G. M. Anderson, later better-known as Bronco Billy, played a variety of roles.

In 1905, Edison parodied The Great Train Robbery in The Little Train Robbery, employing a cast of child actors.

Edison produced films dealing with social problems, such as The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905), reflecting some of the Progressive attitudes toward poverty prevalent in America at the time. For example, the latter addressed the difference between how the poor and the rich were treated by the judicial system.

The Great Train Robbery
The Great Train Robbery

By 1909, the Edison Company began a period of decline. Edison dramatic films were no longer competing successfully against those of other companies. There were criticisms about the quality of Edison films, and Edwin Porter lost his job as a result. The reputation of Edison films improved somewhat after 1910 after efforts were taken by the company to obtain better source materials, such as famous literary works, and to organize its own permanent troupe of stock actors.

After 1912, the decline of the Edison Company continued. An attempt was made to recover lost market shares by producing more multi-reel productions and by focusing on wholesome, moralistic tales, but this did little to change the situation. In 1918, Edison's interests in the film business came to an end.

Trick

Edison trick films capitalized on the pioneering work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès who developed special camera effects to achieve "magical" results. These effects included stop motion, dissolves, and multiple exposures. In trick films, ghosts appeared, people or items disappeared, or apparent decapitations took place. The novelty of motion pictures in the early days made these effects extraordinarily entertaining.

Edison acquired through license several trick films made by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith of Vitagraph. These included The Mysterious Cafe (1900) and The Artist's Dilemma (1900). The majority of short trick films appear to have been made from 1900 to 1905. After that, comic and dramatic narrative films rose in popularity, and trick effects were used in support of the story. Examples of later Edison films that made extensive use of trick effects were Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and When Reuben Comes to Town (1908).

Humorous

Humorous films were among some of the earliest Edison films. Items like The Lone Fisherman, Seminary Girls, and What Demoralized the Barbershop depicted humorous situations. By 1900 the number of comic films being made increased as they became popular with audiences.

Some comical Edison films were based on popular comic strip characters. Subub Surprises the Burglar was based on such a character and also imitated the plot of Biograph's The Burglar-Proof Bed. Additionally, a series of films was produced based on the Buster Brown character created by Richard F. Outcault.

The gay shoe clerk
How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns

By 1904, Edison had adopted the practice of imitating popular comedies of competitors, especially Biograph's, in order to meet exhibitors' demands. The Maniac Chase was a remake of Biograph's The Escaped Lunatic. Likewise, Edison's How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns was copied from Biograph's Personal. Ironically, the Edison version did better than the Biograph production and became the most successful headlining Edison film of 1904.

Series of comic films were often developed around characters that generated extraordinary popularity. For example, Why Jones Discharged His Clerks and Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce were created around the character of a businessman who repeatably fell into troublesome situations.

A popular comic theme was that of the country "rube" exposed to city or modern life. Uncle Josh (a character from a popular play and subsequent sound recordings) encountered movies for the first time in Uncle Josh and the Moving Picture Show. Rube and Mandy at Coney Island and Rube Couple at the County Fair portrayed country bumpkins at popular leisure attractions.

Reenactments

When the Edison Company began filming war events, actual battles were not recorded since it was very dangerous for cameramen to be on the battlefield. Cameramen had to stand in a stable position behind a camera on a tripod. It was easier to stage recreations of battles in New Jersey. The Edison Company shot reenactments of battles from the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine campaign using National Guard troops. The use of reenactments allowed the film company to capitalize on news events while they were still of interest to audiences, since it took longer for actuality films of events to arrive at theaters.

In addition, for events that could not be filmed, such as the execution of McKinley assassin Leon F. Czolgosz, actors restaged the action later in the studio.

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