John C. Rice: The Man Who Kissed May Irwin in “The Kiss”

Just a few of the known fragments on actor John C. Rice (John C. Hillburg, 1857-1915), who, in addition to being a stage star, is one of history’s first identifiable screen actors.

A child of Swedish immigrants, Rice grew up in rural Beaver Kill, Sullivan County, New York. According to the Will Rogers Papers (edited by Frank Wertheim) Rice started out as a contortionist. By 1873 however he was teamed in minstrelsy** and variety with Rochester native James Griffin (1852-1904). They made their debut in Pittsburgh, and performed with such minstrel shows** as Carnrcross and Dixey’s, Neil Bryant’s, George Thatcher’s, et al. According to Edward Le Roy Rice, author of Monarchs of Minstrelsy, he was a “neat dancer” and a “light comedian who left nothing to be desired.” (These Rice men weren’t related; I’m assuming that in both instances their assumed surname is in homage to minstrel founder T.D. “Daddy” Rice).

At any rate, in 1883, John Rice dropped the blackface** and played a “Dutch” (German) character in a show called Over the Garden Wall, with which he toured for a couple of years. Next he teamed with George Monroe circa 1885 in My Aunt Bridget.

In 1895 he appeared on Broadway with May Irwin in The Widow Jones, resulting in his few fleeting seconds of immortality for a brief scene from the play between the two of them became the basis of the 1896 Edison film The Kiss, containing the cinema’s first onscreen smooch. It’s one of the most-frequently seen of very early films.

In 1897 Rice returned to Broadway with Marie Dressler and Sally Cohen in a show called Courted into Court. By the following year, Rice had teamed up in vaudeville with Cohen in a sketch called “Our Honeymoon. Around this time they were married. It would be logical to assume that the wedding occurred prior to the sketch, but that awaits confirmation. In 1900 the pair co-starred in the film short The Kleptomaniacs. Then came the Broadway show Are You a Mason? (1901) with the Rices, May Robson, Arnold Daly, and a young Cecil B. De Mille. This was followed by Vivian’s Papa (1903). The Rices continued to tour vaudeville as a team in the years after that. They were among the first of the “legit” stage stars to succumb to the siren call of vaudeville and its high salaries, pulling in $600 a week by 1909 (a lot of money back then).

Rice was slated to appear opposite Dressler in a new silent comedy film for Sig Lubin in 1915, when he was fatally felled by a combination of Bright’s Disease (a kidney complaint) and neurasthenia. These are both sort of vague, catch-all, antiquated medical terms, however. They suggest something like booze, fatigue, overwork, the usual. He was 58 at the time of his passing, again, not so unusual at the time. But his few seconds of screen time have proven to be immortal.

For more on vaudeville, where John C. Rice throve with various partners, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on early screen history read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.  

**Obligatory Disclaimer: It is the official position of this blog that Caucasians-in-Blackface is NEVER okay. It was bad then, and it’s bad now. We occasionally show images depicting the practice, or refer to it in our writing, because it is necessary to tell the story of American show business, which like the history of humanity, is a mix of good and bad.