In 1888, Thomas Edison wrote that "I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion." The system was comprised of the Kinetograph, a motion picture camera, and a Kinetoscope, a motion picture viewer, and was mostly created by Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. (The system was likely inspired by the zoopraxiscope created by photographer—and murderer!—Eadweard Muybridge to show off his motion photographs.) Early films from the Edison Manufacturing Co. showed off "actualities": celebrities, news, disasters, and expositions. But later, the company switched to creating narrative films more in line with what we watch at the movies today. Here are a few of the company's early productions.
1. How a French nobleman got a wife through the New York Herald personal columns, 1904
This film—in which a nobleman places a personal ad and, according to the company's catalog, has so many suitors that he "runs for his life down the Riverside Drive"—was a copy of the Biograph company's 1904 movie Personal. According to the Library of Congress, Edison's version did better than Biograph's, and was the most successful film for the company that year.
2. The Great Train Robbery, 1903
The Edison catalog called this movie, one of the most famous early films, a "sensational and highly tragic subject" that "will certainly make a decided 'hit' whenever shown. In every respect we consider it absolutely the superior of any moving picture ever made." The movie was shot in Edison's studio in New York, at locations in New Jersey, and at the Lackawanna Railway. It starred Justua D. Barnes as the bandit leader and G.M. Anderson—who would later be known as Bronco Billy—in "a variety of roles," according to the Library of Congress. Two years later, Edison parodied this film with The Little Train Robbery, which starred a bunch of kids.
3. The Unappreciated Joke, 1903
Edison's company made a number of humor films early on, including this minute-long short, which could be purchased for $6.60 (about $169 in today's currency). The catalog describes the plot as follows:
Scene, interior of a street-car. A stout man enters and sits down alongside of a friend and proceeds to read a comic paper. He shows a joke in the paper to his friend, and they both laugh heartily. The friend leaves the car, and his absence is not noted by the stout man. An elderly matron takes the seat. Without looking up the stout man shoves the paper in front of the face of the old lady, thinking his friend is still there. He goes into a fit of laughter over the joke, punching her in the ribs with his thumb, and slapping her on the knee. She becomes very much embarrassed and indignant. She shakes him by the shoulder, he looks around, discovers his mistake, and sinks through the floor.
4. Terrible Teddy, The Grizzly King, 1901
This "side splitting" burlesque—which here is used to mean "derisive imitation, grotesque parody," rather than the modern American meaning, circa the 1870s, of a "variety show featuring striptease"—was based on a series of political cartoons from the New York Journal and Advertiser. "Teddy with his large teeth is seen running down the hill with his gun in hand, followed by his photographer and press agent," the catalog reads. "He reconnoitres around a large tree and finally discovers the mountain lion. He kneels on one knee and makes a careful shot. Immediately upon the discharge of his gun a huge black cat falls from the tree and Teddy whips out his bowie knife, leaps on the cat and stabs it several times, then poses while his photographer makes a picture and the press agent writes up the thrilling adventure."
5. The Kleptomaniac, 1905
In this film (directed, like many Edison films, by Edwin S. Porter), two women—one wealthy, one poor—are arrested for shoplifting. The wealthy woman is released to her friends, while the poor woman, who was stealing to feed her children, is convicted and sent to jail.
6. Subub Surprises the Burglar, 1903
According to the Library of Congress, this film was based on a popular comic strip character. It also copied some of the plot points in Biograph's film The Burglar-Proof Bed.
7. Rube and Mandy at Coney Island, 1903
Filmed on location in Coney Island, this film features two actors dressed up as country bumpkins. According to Edison's catalog, the couple "amuse themselves on the steeplechase, rope bridge, riding the bulls and the 'Down and Out.' The scene then changes to a panorama of Luna Park, and we find Rube and Mandy doing stunts on the rattan slide, riding on the miniature railway, shooting the chutes, riding the boats in the old mill, and visiting Professor Wormwood's Monkey theatre. They next appear on the Bowery, where we find them with the fortune tellers, striking the punching machine, and winding up with the frankfurter man. The climax shows a bust view of Rube and Mandy eating frankfurters."
The movie, the catalog claims, is "interesting not only for its humorous features, but also for its excellent views of Coney Island and Luna Park."
8. Love and War, 1899
This film, which depicts the Spanish-American war, cost a whopping $45 in 1899 (about $1241 in 2013 currency). In it, a soldier leaves for war a private, is promoted for bravery, and falls in love with a Red Cross nurse, before "finally return[ing] home triumphantly as an officer to the father and mother to whom he bade good bye as a private," the catalog says. Each of the six scenes has its own song, "making the entire series a complete and effective novelty"; the songs could be "illustrated either by a soloist, quartette or with an orchestra, and with or without stereopticon slides. This series of animated pictures, when properly illustrated or announced by stereopticon reading matter, should make a great success."
9. Jack and the Beanstalk, 1902
"From this very simple and popular fairy tale we have produced a most pleasing, interesting and mirth producing play in motion pictures, introducing therein many surprising new tricks and dissolving effects," the catalog boasts, " ... following as closely as possible the accepted version of JACK AND THE BEANSTALK." Still, the filmmakers have departed slightly in some instances, "for the purpose of producing comedy (which in reality is the life of any animated picture play)," by burlesquing some of the elements:
[F]or instance, where the butcher trades the hatful of beans with Jack for his mother's cow, we have introduced a burlesque animal made up of two men covered over with the head, horns and hide of a cow. This animal goes through many ludicrous antics, such as kicking, jig dancing, sitting down with legs crossed, etc., and finally, after strenuous efforts on the part of the butcher, suffers herself to be led away.
"In this beautiful production," the catalog says in closing, "in changing from one scene to the other, transformations are made by beautiful dissolving and fading effects. There are no sudden jumps whatever, and the entire effect is at once pleasing, gratifying and comprehensive, and the audience finds itself following with ease the thread of this most wonderful of all fairy tales...."
10. Dream of a Rarebit Fiend, 1906
This seven-minute film was based on the comic strip of the same name drawn by Winsor McCay and used a number of "trick" special effects. (The Carport Theatre has added period music and audio effects to this version.)