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Production for the Vitascope

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The Koster & Bial screening in April emphasized a problem that had concerned Raff & Gammon for some time: the need for fresh subjects. Few new negatives had been made because of the declining kinetoscope business, and Raff & Gammon were forced to rely heavily on films of dancing girls and excerpts of plays that had long been available for peephole viewing. The dearth of new films was filled to some extent by importations from abroad. The hit film on opening night at Koster & Bial’s was ROUGH SEA AT DOVER , produced in England by Robert Paul. Two other foreign films were listed in the opening-night program but not shown; one, KAISER WILHELM REVIEWING HIS TROOPS , was undoubtedly THE GERMAN EMPEROR REVIEWING HIS TROOPS , taken by Birt Acres in the summer of 1895. The other, VENICE SHOWING GONDOLAS , was a Lumière film that had been acquired surreptitiously overseas by Albert Bial. Even though the latter was not presented on opening night, duplicate copies were shown in the vitascope at least a month before the Lumière cinématographe had its United States debut. 21

Although the Black Maria had fallen into disrepair and had a poor reputation in the theatrical community, the New York World arranged for two prominent actors, May Irwin and John C. Rice, to visit the West Orange studio in mid April, on the eve of the Music Hall premiere. There, they went before the Edison camera to reenact the climax of the musical comedy The Widow Jones, when the widow and Billie Bikes kiss. William Heise rehearsed the actors several times to get the prelude and the osculatory high point on film, then shot it only once. The results were a success, and THE MAY IRWIN KISS became the most popular Edison film of the year. Under the headline “The Anatomy of a Kiss,” the Sunday World of 26 April 1896 devoted almost a full page of text and illustration to the production.

For many reasons, however, the Black Maria was no longer adequate to meet Raff & Gammon’s needs. Its distance from New York’s theater district was a barrier to regular, inexpensive production. Moreover, as ROUGH SEA AT DOVER dramatically demonstrated, scenes of everyday life were often greeted with much greater enthusiasm than excerpts of plays and vaudeville acts. Anticipating foreign and domestic competition, the Edison Company constructed a portable camera that Heise used to take local pictures around New York City starting on 11 May. 22 The results included HERALD SQUARE , showing streetcars moving along and the elevated train visible at the extreme left, and CENTRAL PARK , with children and elderly people around the fountain. 23 ELEVATED RAILWAY , 23 RD STREET , NEW YORK , a view of a train pulling into the station, wrote the Boston Herald, was “so realistic as to give those in front seats a genuine start.” 24 A head-on collision of two trains was filmed in Canton, Ohio, on 30 May. Views of Niagara Falls were shot in late May or early June. Inspired by the Lumière view of the Venice canals filmed from a gondola, Heise photographed at least one scene of the Falls from a moving train (NIAGARA FALLS GORGE). 25 These films were photographically flawed, however, and most did not have the spectacular effect on audiences that had been intended. As production continued throughout the summer, subjects shot closer to home were usually realized more successfully.

Edison subjects were generally made under Raff & Gammon’s auspices, with James White as producer. Some were taken at the makeshift rooftop studio above the Vitascope Company’s new office at 43 West Twenty-eighth Street. The steady supply of films enabled the vitascope to stay in major urban theaters almost indefinitely. After a two-month run at the same Boston theater, the Boston Herald reported:

If there be any let-up in the interest taken in the vitascope, there are no signs of it in the only place where it is being exhibited in Boston, for the applause that follows every display of a picture at each performance is as hearty and admiring as when Edison’s wonderful invention first came to the city. This is accounted for, of course, by the promptness with which the management has secured new views…. Each new lot seems more admirable than those which preceded them (or at least it appears so), and the applause of last week was equally distributed between the Suburban handicap horse race, shooting the chutes, the surf scene and the “Widow Jones” kiss, the latter having retained its popularity since the outset—just like the laugh creating comedy it is taken from (5 July 1896, p. 11).

Raff & Gammon and the Edison Company were uniquely able to deliver scenes of American life. Among the subjects reported in the newspapers in late June and July were T HE SUBURBAN HANDICAP ; FERRY B AT LEAVING DOCK , NEW YORK ; SHOOT ING THE CHUTES ; PARADE OF BICYCLISTS AT BROOKLYN , NEW YORK ; PARADE OF NEW YORK CITY CROSSING SWEEPERS ; PASSAIC [Paterson] FALLS , NEW JERSEY; several views taken at Atlantic City; RETURN OF THE FISHERMAN ; THE BAD BOY AND THE GARDENER ; STREET SPRINKLING AND TROLLEY CARS ; and two scenes illustrating the movements and drill of a battery of artillery. 26

New Edison films in August included THE HAYMAKERS AT WORK and ARRIVAL OF LI HUNG CHANG . Continuing their friendly association with the New York World, Raff & Gammon also arranged for Edison cameras to film THE N.Y. "WORLD " SICK BABY FUND , “showing children of the poor people enjoying themselves in swings and on hobby-horses.” 27 Undoubtedly this was seen as useful publicity for the newspaper’s charity, which helped poor infants and children survive the summer heat. In late July or early August a young World cartoonist, J. Stuart Blackton, also performed for the Edison camera, almost certainly at Raff & Gammon’s rooftop studio. Three 150-foot films were made:

No. 1 represents him as drawing a large picture of Mr. Thomas A. Edison.

No.2 showing the artist drawing pictures of McKinley and President Cleveland.

No. 3 is a humorous selection, showing the artist drawing a life-size picture of a female figure, in which the expressions of the countenance are rapidly changed ( Phonoscope, November 1896, p. 16).

The first of these films, EDISON DRAWN BY "WORLD " ARTIST , became a hit. One publicist concluded his remarks on a vitascope exhibition by observing that “the most curious and interesting of the new views was that showing the rapid sketching of Wizard Edison’s portrait by a well-known cartoonist.” 28 As a result, Blackton became somewhat of a celebrity and found new opportunities to appear on the vaudeville stage. 29 This success whetted his interest in motion pictures as well and subsequently encouraged him and his partner, Albert E. Smith, to enter the field as exhibitors.

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