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James H. White and Edison Production Activities

camera films film company

The Edison Manufacturing Company, like other 35-mm producers, faced strikingly different circumstances. Edison was not engaged in exhibition but manufactured films and projectors that were marketed to exhibitors. While distribution was nationwide, Thomas Edison did not establish sister companies or branches overseas. His company’s film output was roughly the same as Biograph’s during 1896-1897, and while it increased slightly the following year, this growth did not keep pace with that of the American Mutoscope Company. And while the Edison Company still enjoyed robust film sales, it was increasingly challenged not only by Biograph but by rival 35-mm producers. When its output fell during 1899, Edison’s production was only about 20 percent that of its chief rival:

The Edison Company rarely used the Black Maria studio and, in contrast to Biograph, favored less-expensive actualities. No more than 15 of the 67 Edison films copyrighted in the last six months of 1897 were “acted” (involving fictional narratives or vaudeville performers), and only a handful of these were shot at the West Orange facility. The ratio was even lower during the first six months of 1898, when only 5 of 136 films fitted into this category (all five, however, were shot in the studio). The Edison Company had clearly departed from its earlier, pre-projection and pre-Lumière production practices.

During the summer of 1897, kinetograph department manager James H. White and cameraman William Heise filmed a diversity of outdoor scenes, including WATERFALL IN THE CATSKILLS ; BUFFALO POLICE ON PARADE ; and SHEEP RUN , CHICAGO STOCKYARDS (all © 31 July 1897). Most films showed only a single scene. Some were taken from a single camera position but consisted of more than one “take,” or subshot. PHILADELPHIA EXPRESS , JERSEY CENTRAL RAILWAY first showed a train racing toward and past the camera. The cameraman then turned off his machine and waited until a second train approached on another track to resume filming. These two takes were joined together in an almost invisible fashion. The results undercut the depiction of real time: the time taken for the action to unfold is indicated rather than actually depicted, offering a filmic equivalent to the presentational methods of condensing time through unrealistically rapid exits and entrances.

The Edison crew photographed several horse races, including the Suburban Handicap run at Sheepshead Bay, New York, on 22 June. SUBURBAN HANDICAP the resulting 150-foot film, was an exception to the general practice of equating one film with a single camera setup. It consisted of four shots and showed the horses passing on parade before the race, the start, the finish, and the weighing out. While Biograph would have treated each shot as a separate film (thus retaining maximum flexibility in the arrangement of its programs), the Edison Company found that it made more commercial sense to combine these scenes and sell them as a single unit. The camera frame, however, remained static, since Edison personnel still lacked the technology needed to pan their camera on its tripod.

Later that summer, White departed on an ambitious filming trip that took him halfway around the world. Heise was left behind at the West Orange laboratory, where he supervised the development of negatives, the manufacture of positive prints, and the production of local films. White traveled and collaborated with photographer Frederick W. Blechynden. They reached San Francisco by late August, on a tour that lasted approximately ten months and yielded over 120 copyrighted subjects. Among their resources was a tripod that enabled an operator to pan his camera. While incapable of smooth movement, this rather crude device could keep a moving subject within the camera frame. Filming of RETURN OF THE LIFEBOAT was interrupted at several points as White re-aimed the camera at the boat pulling toward shore. As the boat approached the beach, the camera followed: the rough movement emphasized the intensity of the action and the unpredictable nature of the event.


White’s trip was facilitated and often subsidized by transportation companies interested in promoting tourism, including the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, and the Mexican International Railroad. These commercial arrangements repeated those already established with important railroad companies in the East. Many of the resulting films featured the railroads themselves in their most heroic settings (SOUTHERN PACIFIC OVERLAND MAIL and GOING THROUGH THE TUNNEL ). While some presented hotel accommodations (HOTEL DEL MONTE ), most featured natural beauty or tourist sights (LICK OBSERVATORY , M T . HAMILTON , CAL ). CALIFORNIA ORANGE GROVES , PANORAMIC VIEW was taken from the front end of a train passing through endless expanses of orange trees. With travel expenses paid, White and Blechynden toured the Far West, stopping in Denver and sweeping south into Mexico, where they photographed a bullfight.

Back in San Francisco, the photographers arranged passage with a shipping firm, and in early February 1898 they embarked for Hong Kong via Yokohama on the SS Coptic. On their way, they filmed the ship as it was buffeted by a monsoon (S.S. "COPTIC " RUNNING AGAINST THE STORM ). A group of films were taken in China and Japan, including HONG KONG WHARF SCENE , SHANGHAI POLICE , and THEATRE ROAD , YOKOHAMA . Returning home on 10 May, White and Blechynden stopped in the recently acquired U.S. possession of Hawaii (WHARF SCENE , HONOLULU ). By then, the United States was at war with Spain. A week later White reached the West Coast, took a few scenes relevant to the war (TROOP SHIPS FOR PHILIPPINES ), and headed East, seriously ill from his travels. The trip, which reflected White’s adventurous spirit, found him on the wrong side of the world when war was declared.

During White’s absence, William Heise’s output included scenes of winter sports (HOCKEY MATCH ON THE ICE ) and a baseball game. At the Black Maria he filmed dance scenes such as CHARITY BALL and a handful of one-shot comedies. WHAT DEMORALIZED THE BARBERSHOP , perhaps Heise’s most ambitious studio production, may have been made about this time. 10 In this elaboration on THE BARBERSHOP (1894), the all-male world of a cellar barbershop is disrupted by the unexpected display of the legs of two women. The customer receives a mouthful of shaving cream from the distracted barber. The women, apparently prostitutes, are trying to drum up business. Their legs, centered in the upper part of the frame, invited film spectators to look up the women’s skirts along with the men in the barbershop. Once again, surrogate male spectators were placed in the scene. Remaining in the Newark area, Heise made little effort to take newsworthy, war-related events.

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