As part of TCM’s History of Hollywood this month, the recent showing of “The Films of Thomas Edison” gave us an opportunity to see more than 30 films in two hours from the Edison studio beginning in the early 1890’s through 1915. Some of the films run less than one minute showing no more than a simple stationary camera shot consisting of no more than a man getting a haircut (“The Barber Shop” – 1893) or inhaling a bit of snuff and sneezing (“Edison Kinescope of a Sneeze” -1894). In “Blacksmith Scene” (1893) we watch three men pounding on an anvil, they stop for a moment, and each takes a swig from a bottle of beer and then continues hammering. Each of these films were made by W.K.L. Dickson, an inventor/employee of Thomas Edison who acted as producer, director and/or cinematographer of these early works. There is no story in any of these films, like a still photograph they are capturing a moment in time and no more.
Edison realized quickly that film needed to entertain and not just record events. “The Boxing Cats (Prof. Welton’s)” from 1894 is an amusing look at two cats punching it out in a miniature ring. In “Sandow” strongman Eugene Sandow poses in front of the camera flexing his muscles and in “Annie Oakley” (1894) we see the famed female sharpshooter displaying her unique artistry.
During this same period Edison experimented with sound film and we get a sample in 1894’s aptly titled “Dickson Experimental Sound Film” where we see the director in front of the camera playing the violin (a selection from the opera Chimes of Midnight) while two other men are dancing together nearby. In “Fifth Avenue, New York” (1896) and “What Happened on Twenty Third Street, New York City” (1901) we get to see actual location shooting filled with passer bys going about their everyday business, though in the second film there is an obvious deliberate setup when toward the end of the almost one and half minute epic, a couple appear walking right in front of the camera over a grated ventilation shaft that suddenly blows the ladies skirt up a bit. At first shocked the couple quickly laugh it off as they now walk out of frame. They never notice the camera while many other people walking by look straight toward the camera’s lens. On a more serious note, the most devastating of these documentary type films is reserved for the 1906 film, “San Francisco Earthquake” showing the aftermath of the massive destruction the city suffered.
By 1903 Edison’s films were introducing a fictional storyline with multiple scenes and longer running times, seven to ten minutes or more. The most important films came from this period and were directed by a new Edison employee named Edwin S. Porter. In “Life of an American Fireman” (1903). Porter, we leave the one stationary shot behind and move into a narrative storyline with multiple shots edited together to form a sequence. That same year came Edison’s most famous film, “The Great Train Robbery”, starring Bronco Billy Anderson. Other films followed like “The Kleptomaniac” and the 1905 film, “The Little Train Robbery”, a parody of the earlier popular film, notable for scenes where the camera pans to the left and right during the train robbery. The 1906 film, “Dream of a Rarebit Fiend” gives us some early special effects as we watch our addicted hero have nightmarish dreams including miniature images of devils pounding on his head, and in 1907’s “Rescue From an Eagles Nest”, an early thriller directed by J. Searle Dawley, shows an infant picked up and carried away by an eagle before being saved by some heroic men.
Within the short span of a few years we get to see how film progressed from a single stationary shot to the beginnings of a visual language. Edison’s filmmakers would soon be left behind as D.W. Griffith would make his first film in 1908 (The Adventures of Dolly) and by 1915 while Edison’s studio was producing the 15 minute Red Cross public service drama on Tuberculosis, “The Lone Game” , Griffith made his controversial epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Edison’s films lagged behind in style and film language which was growing in complexity; still they remain interesting artifacts, infant steps of a new art form.