Talking Pictures from 1913!

Ben Model and Undercrank Productions have rocked my world yet again! Last night I watched their jaw-dropping new release, The Kinetophone! A Fact! A Reality! (available to the public today).

Like you, I’m sure, I have been thrilled to watch the frontiers of available sound film expanded backwards, as in recent years we’ve gotten to see so many Vitaphones from 1926 through 1929, and not only that, Lee DeForest Phonofilms from as early as 1923. In this new DVD release,  we get to see talkies released fully a decade before that: 1913! The new DVD features eight films produced by Edison that year through his own patented but imperfect process that combined his two (claimed) inventions, the phonograph and movie technology. The process was clumsy and imperfect: essentially a phonograph and movie projector were kept in sync by a cord that connected the two machines. The pictures and the visuals inevitably and (often) fell out of synchronization and had to be clumsily fixed by the projectionist while the thing was running. But now the films have been restored, digitized, and painstakingly synced by the staff of the Library of Congress. Ironically, today’s technology is serving these 105 year old films better than the technology they were originally designed for, and now they can finally be enjoyed as originally envisioned.

This is an incredible window into another time. It is a chance to see American theatre (and hear American music) in its natural state prior to the advent of jazz, the First World War, or the Little Theatre Movement. To the modern eye, it is so thoroughly Anglo it seems clear from this distance that we were still a cultural colony of the Mother Country, if no longer a political one. Most of the films are enacted by what amounts to an Edison stock company, including a singing group called the Edison Quartet (also to be found on audio records of the day), and thespians like the Flugrath Sisters (soon to become Viola Dana and Shirley Mason), Arthur Housman, Edward Boulden, Cora Williams, Alice Washburn et al.

The proceedings are led off by a gentleman whom the DVDs producers are pretty sure is Alan Ramsay, producer and director of most of the Kinetophones. It’s essentially an infomercial, a fact-filled lecture about the new technique. But watching him speak was an absolutely joy for me as a sample of 19th century elocution, the rolled Rs, the artificial throb in his voice, the hand gestures (watch all the actors in these shorts for their gestural vocabulary). Then: a REAL treat: “The Musical Blacksmiths”, basically a vaudeville act featuring a musical quintet in a blacksmith setting, all charming and funny enough UNTIL they hit what will be a THUNDERBOLT for all Marx Brothers fans. They perform the “Anvil Chorus” from Il Trovatore. Did the Marx Brothers (who fell into this bit more than once on screen) get the idea from these guys? Then: a medley of “Nursery Favorites”, staged as a pantomime or children’s fairy tale musical. I found this one also culturally significant. On the one hand, I felt it was so close you could reach back and touch it. This was children’s entertainment for my grandmother, who was born in 1905. On the other hand, so very different from what kids will sit still for today. Then: a real rarity: a melodramatic one-act play called The Deaf Mute, set in the Civil War, and shot in an EXTERIOR setting. Then, the Edison Minstrels give us a slice of an old time minstrel show (with a laudatory disclaimer preceding). Only a couple of the guys are in blackface; the exercise seems so mechanical, one scarcely knows why they bothered. (If that weren’t white enough, the film takes us even further into Anglo cultural colonialism when the company sings “God Save the Queen” at the end. The American version had presented “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” which of course uses the same tune, but the producers only had the audio from the English version). Then a comedy sketch with singing by the Edison Quartette where they prank a candidate for a lodge initiation. If you’ve seen Harold Lloyd’s Pay Your Dues (1919), the plot will be very familiar. Then a preposterously fast moving one act called The Old Guard, set in post-Napoleonic France. This one gives a real taste of how short plays functioned in vaudeville, cramming an entire novel’s worth event of events and character development into five insane minutes. It’s theoretically a drama, but becomes unintentional comedy. Then: Jack’s Joke, a drawing room comedy sketch in the fashion of Wilde and Coward, in which a society boy tricks his Yale friend into thinking his girlfriend is deaf. They actors bow at the end, which absolutely stole my heart.

Then there are two bonuses. “The Politician”, a comic one act play with beautifully restored picture, but for which no sound exists. A musical soundtrack is played by Ben Model, and it essentially plays like one of those dialogue driven silent comedies (there were all too many of those back in the day). And then, a wonderful half hour documentary for all you film nerds about the technology that undergirds all this — you won’t want to skip over this, I was riveted.

Edison only tried his Kinetophone experiment for a few months. In 1914, World War One broke out, killing foreign markets, and then a major fire destroyed one of his studios. He took the opportunity to shelve this early talkie process, which was a complete headache exhibit and never really worked anyway.

But now it does! And I recommend this enthralling document to so many people whose work it could well revolutionize: historians, critics, dramaturgs, and especially actors in period dramas. Mandatory! And of course movie and theatre buffs! Order it here!