Thomas Edison

Frames from the Lumière brothers’ L’Arrivée d’un train à La Ciotat (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, 1896). Of all the early film pioneers, it was Edison and his associates who most clearly saw the profit potential of the new medium. For the Lumière brothers, the cinema was but a curiosity; Louis had famously declared that the Cinematographe was “an invention without a future.” Edison, however, saw the chance to make real money. Even his early pieces, such as Blacksmith Scene (1893), Horse Shoeing (1893), and Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (better known as Fred Ott’s Sneeze, 1894), were deliberately staged rather than films of real events. In The Barber Shop and Sandow (both 1894), Edison designed hermetically sealed spaces to contain the human body and to draw the viewer’s attention to it. Sandow featured muscleman Eugen Sandow flexing his muscles for the gaze of Edison’s camera. Carmencita (1894) was a brief documentary of a Spanish dancer performing her

sexually charged routine for the presumably male audience.

Anna-belle the Dancer (1895), featuring Anna-belle Whitford Moore performing an energetic dance in a long flowing gown, was shown in the first public display of Edison’s Kinetoscopic films using Thomas Armat’s Vitascope projector. The film was hand-tinted in various colors and shown at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall in New York City on 23 April 1896. Edison had intended his films to be peep-show entertainments, but he soon changed his mind as he saw the commercial potential of projected motion pictures. Now, with the Vitascope apparatus, he recycled his earlier films for public projection.

A filmstrip from Thomas A. Edison’s Sandow (1894).

In the earliest Edison films, there is no attempt to disguise the artificiality of the spectacle being created for and recorded by the camera. In all of Edison’s films, it is the body-at work, at play, or preening for the camera-that is the center of our attention, in contrast to the films of Auguste and Louis Lumière, which photographed life in a direct and unadorned fashion, with minimal staging.

As late as 1898, Edison’s technicians were still using bare or simple black backgrounds to film Serpentine Dance and Sun Dance (both 1897, starring the dancer Annabelle), as well as Ella Lola, a la Trilby and Turkish Dance, Ella Lola (both 1898). This last film became a celebrated censorship case when Ella Lola’s suggestive body display was obscured, in some versions, by the insertion of an optically superimposed grid, which covered the offending portions of her anatomy.

Other early Edison films, including Newark Athlete, Men Boxing (both 1891), Man on Parallel Bars, Fencers (both 1892), Wrestling Match, Athlete with Wand, and Unsuccessful Somersault (all 1894), continued his film factory’s fascination with the human body. As the novelty of captured motion

An Edison Kinetoscope parlor, circa 1894.

Wore off, Edison was pushed by economic need to create more bizarre entertainments, notably Boxing Cats (1898), in which two cats duke it out in a miniature boxing ring in a parody of his “fight” films Leonard-Cushing Fight and Boxing Match (both 1894). Even in works that were devoid of violence, like Highland Dance (1894), Edison was constructing a gallery of films that involved exaggerated masculinity (the boxing films) and stylized sensuality (the Ella Lola and Carmencita films). In addition, Edison’s film The Kiss (1896) created a sensation, and led to some of the earliest examples of censorship in the cinema. In subsequent films, he continued to pursue his interest in the bizarre and unusual, for he knew that by appealing to the basest appetites of his viewers he was simultaneously pursuing the surest avenue to commercial success. Thus he produced Rat Killing (1894), in which a dog leaps upon a group of large rats and kills them, followed by no fewer than three sequels, Rats and Terrier No. 2, Rats and Terrier No. 3, and Rats and Weasel; all four films were shot on the same day in 1894. In this, Edison was foreshadowing the now prevalent practice of shooting several sequels to a successful film simultaneously once a proven market has been established. Ever the master exploitationist, Edison knew what the public would pay to view, even adding the grotesque “novelty” of a weasel to replace the terrier in the last of the series. Seeking additional ways to exploit his new invention, Edison was also responsible for the first filmed advertisement, Dewar’s Scotch Whiskey, shot in 1897, which introduced the slogan “Dewar’s: It’s Scotch.”

Edison’s The Kiss (1896)

Not surprisingly, Edison specialized in such highly commercial films as Buffalo Bill (a record of rifle shooting by the famed western “fighter”), as well as Sioux Ghost Dance, Indian War Council, and Buffalo Dance. All these were shot on the same day in the fall of 1894. The exoticization inherent in these manufactured spectacles continued in such films as Pedro Esquirel and Dionecio Gonzales (Mexican Knife Duel), Vincente One Passo (Lasso Thrower), and Sheik Hadji Taviar, all shot on 6 October 1894 at Edison’s Black Maria. Indeed, as can be seen from this hectic production pace, Edison was already anticipating the studio system of supply and demand, churning out new and highly commercial product on an assembly-line basis.

Edison set down the basic precepts upon which commercial Hollywood movie production, distribution, and exhibition are still based: give the audience spectacle, sex, and violence, yet simultaneously pay lip service to the dominant social order. Early cinema audiences were often an unruly bunch, drawn to nickelodeons and Kinetoscope parlors through the lure of sensation alone. By 1907, roughly two million viewers attended the nickelodeons daily, and by 1908, there were more than 8,000 nickelodeons in existence in the United States. Admission was a nickel, and accompaniment was usually from an upright piano at the front of the hall.

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Thomas Edison