Note: This is the fourth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. This premise begins with consideration of the oldest surviving film, ROUNDHAY GARDEN SCENE (1888); however, films made from 1888–1899 are considered as one entry/year. Therefore, I have selected only five films from those 12 years. From 1900 on, each year features five films independently. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my fourth favorite pre-1900 film, ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE (1895), directed by William K.L. Dickson and William Heise.
Thomas Edison was really important. He invented a lot of important things. Well, he really stole the ideas of a lot of important things, made them a bit more accessible, and patented them as his own. But hey, that’s it’s own form of intelligence, albeit a twisted, evil villain kind. One of the many technologies and industries Edison wormed his way into was film. He, and many others, considered him the father of film for a long time, but now we know that’s not really the case. Louis Le Prince and William Friese-Greene’s work pre-dated Edison’s, and even fellow American George Eastman’s popularization of roll film could be seen as a fundamental basis on which motion pictures were based. But sure, you could say Thomas Edison is the father of American film.
Except that’s also a title he didn’t really deserve. I won’t deny he impacted, influenced, and was very important to the very formative American film industry. The first film studio, the Black Maria, was based in West Orange, New Jersey. I don’t think there’s a coincidence the early American film industry was based in New Jersey before it came to Hollywood. Well, sure, Edison had something to do with that, but the fact that New York was just right across the river didn’t hurt. And sure, Edison facilitated a lot of the films made with “his” technology and in his studio. But as usual, his assistants, and one in particular, did a lot of the dirty work. His name was William Kennedy Laurie (K.L.) Dickson.
Dickson was a young English inventor who applied to work for Edison at age 19, in 1879. He was rejected. But eventually, he was hired to work at the Menlo Park laboratory in 1883. Together, he and Edison created the Kinetoscope, a “peep-show” device that did not project images. It utilized a continuous loop of film lit by an Edison bulb, viewed through a small window; this concept would eventually serve as the basis for all projectors to come. Edison worked on the electromechanical components while Dickson, the company’s official photographer, developed the photographic and optical elements. In case you weren’t aware, that’s the really important part. Still, it can’t be claimed Edison had nothing to do with furthering the film technology and industry. The prototype Kinetosope was unveiled in 1891, and the completed version officially debuted in 1893, and in the meantime, incredibly short, simple “actualities” were made in the Black Maria studios. These were films like DICKSON GREETING (1891), which briefly showed Dickson passing a hat from one hand to the other. They were experiments and tests, not much more, although their value has only increased as historical records.
Dickson would eventually leave Edison and form his own company, producing the hand-cranked mutoscope and dealing in what was then very erotic undressing films that became known as “what the butler saw” movies in Britain and Europe. But until then, he established himself as one of the most prolific directors of the 1890s. Granted, directing generally consisted of pointing a camera at a scene for a few seconds (or, impressively, a minute or two), but his work laid a technologically sound base from which later filmmakers could work. He was often joined by William Heise in these early directorial efforts; the nature of their partnership and division of work isn’t quite clear (unlike with Dickson and Edison), but the two helped steer film into the 20th century.
By 1895, film was starting to make its slow, initial explosion. The Lumière brothers were developing their Cinématographe and making their first films, and Kinetoscope viewing parlors were opening in major American cities. Edison was ready to take his invention commercial, a common and somewhat understandable theme throughout all his, er, “adaptations” of other ideas. Dickson and the Black Maria Studios’ output hadn’t changed much in terms of content over the past couple years or so. The films were still incredibly short, and acted as then-unique novelties that demonstrated athletics or otherwise mundane events to viewers whose curiosities weren’t piqued by the content, but the technology, of film. I think this is the case with almost all of the Edison pieces pre-1900, with one notable exception: ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE (1895).
This was all a long-winded way to finally get to what the headline of this piece promised, but I think understanding the environment in which Annabelle Moore became popular is important. There were no film stars. There weren’t even vaguely recognizable people that appeared in multiple moving pictures. Films were novelty pieces of technology to check out a few times, and nothing more for the most part. But Annabelle Moore’s popularity skyrocketed because of the most interesting thing in history: a sex scandal.
Let me back up a second. ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE is a title that actually encompasses a series of films released from 1894 to 1897, but it’s much easier to address them as one cohesive unit, and place it in 1895, since that’s when two of the films came out. Those were the ones people probably saw the most as well. But what are the films? Well, like other Dickson/Edison actualities, they are just short bits of activity with no narrative or action unique to film. But the difference with ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE is that it is, quite simply, beautiful and entrancing. The film is hand-tinted to accent the flowing dress of Moore, who performs the serpentine dance. It’s simple. A lot of people probably did the dance better. But there’s something about the film. Perhaps it’s the color, perhaps it’s the otherworldly look of Moore, perhaps I’m crazy and no one else sees any value in it. If that’s the case, maybe I’d be more at home in 1897 with this particular opinion; perhaps with a more artistically based reason, however.
You see, Moore (who was probably known as Annabelle Whitford at the time) became known as the young woman who was approached to appear naked at a private dinner party. She turned down the proposition! But I don’t know if it mattered to anyone in 1897. Regardless, the sales of her films increased, and you would imagine that meant a greater number of people came by to take a look at the girl who just might have appeared naked at a dinner party they had no connection to, in spite of the fact that she’s not naked in the films and her movement isn’t incredibly sexual or suggestive. Isn’t it crazy how sexually repressed people were in the Victorian era?
Moore would go on to lead a pretty successful Broadway career and become the original Gibson Girl in the first Ziegfield Follies, but otherwise, she died relatively unknown and without funds in 1961. But her ability to draw an audience based on her name, likeness, and/or story was a landmark movement in film, one that would serve as the commercial backbone for all films to come. The capitalism of film was starting to flourish, and the world would soon take note of the power of celebrity to sell a film. It was only a matter of time, as this strategy had been used in theater for some time, but Annabelle Moore brought a legitimacy to film in this way. I hope this little piece on a truly riveting few seconds of film can pay tribute not only to her, but also Dickson and other unknowns that found ways to elevate the actuality, and really film in general, into something that can retain its value over 120 years later.
Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.