This week, the era of experimental filmmaking continues with another venture from William K.L. Dickson and the Edison labs. I’m beginning to realize that Dickson will be this project’s most productive director, with a total of four of his films exhibited thus far. Some of these films have been included out of necessity, but as we will see, Dickson’s insights were integral for shaping the modern movie industry.
To be perfectly honest, 1893 was a dull year for filmmaking. Sources indicate a meagre 3 films were made, all of which were exhibitory products of the Kinetoscope experiments. But while things were stagnant on the screen, a lot of exciting developments were going on behind the scenes. In this year, Thomas Edison’s Black Maria movie studio was built in New Jersey. Edison correctly understood the public demand for motion pictures, and put his resources to use in securing a monopoly over the industry. The Black Maria would take the Dickson experiments out of Edison’s labs and move them to a specialized studio for filmmaking conception. It wasn’t quite Hollywood, but the Black Maria production house was a necessary first step in establishing commercial movie making.
With their impressive new movie studio completed, the Edison team had to gauge public demand and figure out what product they were selling. If these movie things were to survive past pure novelty, the audience had to be engaged, and willing to come back again and again. Dickson’s Monkeyshines series was a good tech demo, but the team had to step it up if they wanted to survive. Furthermore, should the company carry on with its documentary-style “slices of life”, or was fictional stories more in vogue? The solution was a bit of both. The group decided to produce three shorts that depicted everyday, working-class Americans on the job, but with actors playing the various roles. The intent was to speak to the audience directly, by giving them a glimpse of the ‘real’ America through film. The scenes selected included a barbershop appointment, a man applying a horseshoe, and three blacksmiths working at their forge. The latter film, Blacksmith Scene, was the first Black Maria film to be presented to an audience.
Blacksmith Scene doesn’t look like much, but it actually represents a remarkable innovation in filmmaking style. In another crossroads moment, the Edison team created a new genre with the merging of reality and theatre. The result is a proto-mockumentary that uses actors to generate the illusion of real-life. Interestingly, this was seen as the winning formula by the Edison team; the type of movie that the public would want to see. It’s archaic and rough, but Blacksmith Scene successfully split from the vaudeville appeal of early American movies in favour of a more mature, theatrical approach.