After several posts focusing on documentary, crime, and science fiction, we return to the world of silent comedy. This time, we’re looking at 1905’s The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog, directed by Edwin S. Porter. This is the same Edwin S. Porter who brought us the groundbreaking Great Train Robbery in 1903, and here we see a lighter side of the Edison Company darling. The Whole Dam Family is a five minute short exploring the foibles of the titular Dam family. The move begins with a series of close ups that frame the members of the family. The members stare as if posing for a portrait, each typifying a caricature of the American family. Snooty Mr. Dam turns his nose up, before sneezing uncontrollably, bratty daughter Dam twirls her gum with a smug look, and Mrs. Dam blathers on, but with the silent film rendering her conversation impotent. It’s a clever way to characterize our cast in an efficient manner.
The action then shifts to a dinner scene framed at a medium shot. The family is sitting down to eat, when they are suddenly interrupted by their troublesome dog. The dog steals seats, bites chairs, and sends the tranquil scene crashing down after stealing the tablecloth. Again, not too complicated of a premise, but entertaining enough for a quick escape.
This simple premise is the result of the film’s source material. According to film historian Charles Musser, The Whole Dam Family was an attempt to capitalize on an early-twentieth century fad (Musser 318-319). During this period, humorous postcard caricatures were quite popular, so Edison employed Edwin Porter to direct a type of motion picture postcard. In a way, this makes The Whole Dam Family an adaptation, more precisely a picture that builds off a smaller popular premise to make something meaningful for a mass audience. This translated to another hit for the Edison Company, selling 136 copies of the film during the years 1905-06. (Musser 319).
Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. University of California Press, 1991.