Monkeyshines No.1: American Ingenuity (1889)

3Monkeyshines_No1-DicksonOk, so before we get into it, I have to admit that we may have cheated with this one. According to some accounts, Monkeyshines No. 1 was filmed in November 1890, rather than June 1889. As we’ve seen with previous efforts, these primordial pictures were really experiments in filmmaking technology, so their significance as historical documents weren’t considered at the time, and thus an adequate cataloging was neglected. In any case, the film represents an important next step in early filmmaking, and marks the beginning of the American monopoly on the industry

Monkeyshines No.1 was directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise, two technicians for Thomas Edison’s labs. We mentioned Edison in a previous post and his efforts to invent his own means of producing motion pictures, and he accomplished this goal with this film. Likely influenced by the work of Louis Le Prince, Edison and his team began working on a film exhibition device in the late 1880s. Le Prince had demonstrated that moving images were possible, but Edison wanted to perfect the process and – more importantly – sell it to the public. The result was Edison’s Kinetoscope, a type of booth where movies could be observed through a peephole viewer. 

With Monkeyshines, the team sought to test out the new filming technology. As with the previous films by Le Prince, Monkeyshines was essentially a tech demo, used to get an idea of how the device operated, and based on the resulting film, it looks like the techniques needed quite a bit of work. The movie looks like a step backwards from Roundhay Garden Scene of the previous year. Focus is blurry, the frame rate is poor, and its difficult to even understand what’s going on. In fact, the quality is so bad that historians aren’t even sure who the principal actor is in the film (some attest that its technician John Ott, while others claim its G. Sacco Albanese). It was a solid effort, but the Edison technique needed a bit more time before it could be sold to audiences.

More on this next week, when we look at the first sequel in film history: Monkeyshines No.2. 

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