The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905): Greetings from Edison Studios


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.


The Biter Bit (1899): The Remake Model

13biter_bit-bamforthIf you’re anything like me, you’ve grown a little weary of the glut of remakes, spinoffs and sequels currently saturating the movie industry. As I write this, the latest Star Wars sequel-prequel-spinoff has clasped the zeitgeist and is making all kinds of money worldwide. Within the last 10 years, 8 of the 10 highest grossing movies were sequels, spinoffs or additions to an extended cinematic universe. The current appetite is for familiarity over originality, and it doesn’t seem to be going anywhere yet.

And it seems like this has persisted for longer than we thought. This week we looked at our first remake; James Bamforth’s The Biter Bit from 1899. Bamforth’s film is a British take on the 1895 French comedy The Sprinkler SprinkledYou may remember that Sprinkler was something of a hit when it was released, and made tremendous progress towards advancing narrative film. The success of the movie attracted the attentions of fellow filmmakers, who exploited lax copyright laws to develop their own versions of the picture. The result was an avalanche of remakes, which were steadily pumped out over the next five years.

Bamforth’s iteration of Sprinkler Sprinkled isn’t a great movie. It doesn’t improve upon the original premise, nor does it advance the filmmaking medium in any significant way. Yet the movie deserves recognition as a successful remake. Imitation is the currency of filmmaking, and the artform is perhaps more susceptible to copying than any other. On the contrary, movie production encourages replication, not only as a money-making endeavour, but as a means to maintaining the status quo. Filmmaking is built upon a very specific grammar, and audiences subconsciously recognize and rely on this grammar to lead them through a story. Every once in a while an innovator will tamper with movie conventions and create something extraordinary, but movies remain stagnant for the most part. Even within the latest blockbuster smash, you find the DNA of filmmaking’s earliest productions.

Perhaps reproductionists like Bamforth recognized the stagnation of moviemaking before their contemporaries. Whether or not you agree with the remake ethos, you have to admit that Bamforth had the business-savy to survive in the early days of motion pictures.

Come Along, Do! (1898): Lost and Forgotten


Right off the bat, I have to apologize. Posting has been sparse as of late, as I quietly leave the ‘post-a-week’ format behind. I would love to be writing a weekly blog, but certain developments have prevented me from keeping the original schedule (laziness being the prime culprit). But have no fear, this blog project will continue, and I hope to get back on the intended schedule soon.

Part of the reason for the hiatus is the film we’re looking at in this blog post. Come Along, Do! (1898) is just -kind of boring. The movie is 1 minute and 38 seconds (too) long, and there just isn’t a lot to it. The film is essentially one shot of a couple talking (flirting?) outside of an art gallery, followed by a few shots of the gentleman admiring a nude statue while is wife looks away in shame. Melissa and I glanced at this thing a few weeks ago, and were equally confused. We immediately forgot about it, and moved on with our day.

It’s dull, even by 19th-century-film standards. But I think that I should offer a few words in defence of Robert W. Paul’s short. Come Along, Do! is considered a ‘lost film’, a movie that, for whatever reason, is no longer available for viewing. Reasons could include technological constraints, insufficient production numbers, or improper handling of the original edition. Lost films were common amongst the growing pains of film’s early years (1896 lists 20 lost films alone on the “Lost Films” Wikipedia page). Besides this, there are a large number of movies that are considered “partially lost”, such as Come Along, Do!. With this case, the first half of the movie is available for viewing in all its grainy glory, but the second half has been reduced to a series of still images. I couldn’t quite determine why this movie was partially lost, I guess these things tended to happen. Either way, not a terrible loss, right?

Well, actually, it is rather unfortunate. It may not look like much, but Come Along, Do! was rather significant for the development of cinema. Robert W. Paul’s movie is today considered one of the premier examples of a multi-scene structure in a narrative film (it may even be the first). As we’ve seen from previous examples, the early days of film consisted of a strict one scene rule (the Coronatation of Csar Nicholas was an exception, but I’m assuming the multi-shot depiction was a series of individual movies). Of course, the multi-scene structure seems kind of inevitable in hind-sight, but I think we need to give Paul a little more credit. After all, early filmmakers often based their work on the continuous nature of theatre performances, so suddenly ‘cutting’ to an entirely new setting is rather revolutionary. It’s quite an achievement, too bad the movie was a bit of a dud.


The X-Rays (1897): Another Piece of the Puzzle

11the_x-rays-smithWe’re back at it this week after more than a month off. With just three years left in the 19th century oeuvre, we’re seeing film exit its embryonic stage as directors experiment with the storytelling mechanisms of the medium. This week’s movie, The X-Rays, is another example of the artistic innovation sweeping across the moviemaking world.

Every art form benefits from certain aesthetic “tricks” that can only be established by that avenue. A novelist might rely on wordplay, a visual artist will return to reliable brushstroke patterns, and a musician understands which harmonies rile which emotions. Filmmaking is no different, it just took a bit of time to figure out. Some call this the “visual grammar” of a movie, others call it “special effects” (often pejoratively) and some prefer the even broader “style.” Whatever the term, there exists a reliable toolkit of visual techniques that, when deployed, stir our emotions and create magic on the screen. George Albert Smith’s 1897 short The X-Rays showcases one of the earliest of these techniques: the jump cut. This technique involves an abrupt change in visual information, either through editing technique or physical camera movement. The move is most often associated with the fantastical work of magician Georges Méliès (who we’ll be seeing soon) and the artsy New Wave movies of the 1960s.

The jump cut was a particular favorite of  primitive filmmakers because it was easy to execute and dazzled the eye. This tactic was really the first visual effect, and helped add a bit of zest to movie projects. In an era where directors were torn between documentary realism or simply filming stage plays, the jump cut injected an essence of magic for the viewer to behold. We have seen the magic of unreality before (specifically in Pauvre Pierrot) but that required painstaking hours of labour to create the effect. With the jump cut, any live action scene could be spliced with a disparate shot, opening the floodgates for all sorts of narrative tricks. Suddenly, directors started to consider what they could accomplish during the editing process, and set about staging their films entirely with editing in mind.

The X-Rays is focused around a single jump cut gag. A couple, sitting alone is subjected to an “X-Ray” camera that instantly exposes their skeletons to the viewer. Is it a metaphor for the necessary transparency of love? Is the director exploring the underlying human similarities despite gender roles? Are we shocked into disbelief at the thought of out eventual mortality? No, probably not. The movie is a simple comedy, likely composed to show off the nifty new jump cut more than anything else. But its important to note where special effects began, and movies like this are a good place to start. I hope that by now you are understanding the complex jigsaw puzzle that makes up the history of film. We start with one piece; camera technology. Then we add ideas like fictional filmmaking, documentary, or animation. Next we add in visual techniques, like lighting, staging and camera angle. In 1897, special effects got thrown into the mix, and now we see a cavalcade of possibilities opening up for the next century.


The Sprinkler Sprinkled (1895): What’s So Funny?

9sprinkler_sprinlked-lumiereA few years ago, the always-enlightening Cracked podcast discussed the changing landscape of American comedy. The hosts talked about “pop culture expiration dates,” and concluded that we decide what’s funny based on a myriad array of contextual features. The 1980s have a very specific “comedy agenda”, as do the 70s, 90s and ever era before or after. Even what we find funny today will go stale eventually, with future generations finding little joy in the comedy superstars of today. See for yourself. Go ahead and check out an episode of The Honeymooners, and then compare that to something more recent, like Seinfeld. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find more to laugh at with the latter. It’s more modern, relevant and engaging, whereas The Honeymooners may seem dated, or some of the jokes may not even apply to a contemporary audience. Both shows have their merits, and different people will have different interpretations, but I personally find the more recent Seinfeld to be funnier.

Moving even farther back from the Honeymooners, we find the 1895 Lumière film “L’Arroseur Arrosé” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled.” Here we have a farce that is almost infantile in its comedic portrayal. A man waters his garden, only to be interrupted when a prankster steps on the hose. The man is sprayed by the hose, a chase ensues, and the prankster is spanked (weird). That’s it. The movie is 45 seconds and the actual joke is, for lack of a better word, stupid. But this was the first comedy film ever. Out of this one joke erupted an endless possibility of humour. Moreover, this was regarded as the first narrative live-action film as well. The influence is vast; from the smallest indie flick to the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

The filmmakers responsible for L’Arroseur Arrosé , Louis and Auguste Lumière, understood what Edison didn’t. While the American moviemaking crowd was busying themselves filming mundane, everyday events, the French Lumières devised a novel genre of stories to entertain their customers. They relied on classic vaudeville theatre to devise a simple bit of slapstick bliss, all while presenting a clear plot, character and theme. Audiences loved it, and the general moviemaking trend speedily shifted towards adapting theatre or fictional works.

It’s dumb by 2016 standards,  but this is the well from which The Honeymooners, Seinfeld, and all of our other favourite comedies sprung.