The Ranks of the Auteurs: William K.L. Dickson

Note: “The Ranks of the Auteurs” is a written series that traces notable people, studios, and series throughout film history and ranks their work. This is the second installment, featuring William K.L. Dickson, who was born on August 3, 1860 in Le Minihic-sur-Rance, France and died on September 28, 1935 in Twickenham, England.

As with the subject of the first installment of this series, Louis Le Prince, William K.L. Dickson is much more of an inventor than an “auteur” in the way we understand it today. Born in France to a (possibly) American mother and Scottish father, Dickson first entered the orbit of Thomas Edison in 1879. Well, he tried; his application to become an inventor with Edison was turned down. But once he was actually living in the States, Dickson was able to secure work in Edison’s lab, in 1883. After Edison patented his Kinetoscope in 1889, Dickson was assigned to the project since he was Edison’s official photographer. Dickson could probably more accurately be described as the father of American film, in spite of the fact that he wasn’t American. He invented celluloid film and the 70 and 35 millimeter formats that became the standard. Most of Dickson’s films were, of course, made for the Kinetoscope, a peep show device that did not outwardly project. Even still, its method of illumination inside the machine was still essentially the same process that would be created later (or contemporaneously in the case of Charles-Émile Reynaud).

As a “director,” Dickson’s role was essentially to point the camera at the subjects in Edison’s “Black Maria” studio, often vaudeville acts. And oftentimes, this role was likely offloaded on someone else anyways, like William Heise. The creation of movies wasn’t standardized yet, of course, and the nature of the extremely short shorts don’t really imply the sense of artistry a director now gives off. But this was the birth of the actualities, non-narrative displays of the sheer magic of movement that would really dominate the film “industry” until just a bit after the turn of the 20th century. Dickson left Edison in 1895. He also co-founded the American Mutoscope and Biograph Comany the same year, later simply known as Biograph Company, one of the most dominant studios until the advent of features in the mid-1910s. Dickson directed films through the early 1900s, but left Biograph in 1911, and lived out his life in England. He was an incredibly important figure in early cinematic development (clearly, one of the most important in my book), and the movement he documented is still novel and has aesthetic value today. I’ve ranked the 42 most accessible of his over 300 directing/cinematography credits (again, often the same thing in this period of film history), because frankly even that is a wide scope of many incidental films.

#42 — COCK FIGHT, NO. 2 (1894)

Pure animal cruelty. Pretty hard to watch.

#41 — A HANDSHAKE (1892)

An incredibly early, gritty experiment, this 3-second test is a ghostly historical relic, but it doesn’t carry the sheer weirdness and magic of the MONKEYSHINES trials.

#40 — ATHLETE WITH WAND (1894)

ATHLETE WITH WAND is a typical exhibition of movement from the earliest days of film. Unlike many of those other exhibitions, and from Dickson himself, it’s simply boring. There’s not really an act here.

#39 — FRED OTT’S SNEEZE (1894)

Fred Ott was a fellow Edison lab worker and his sneeze is pretty funny, but as you might expect, there’s not a whole lot going on here. It is cool to see a close up though.

#38 — MONKEYSHINES, NO. 2 (1890)

So I love the first MONKEYSHINES test, as you’ll see, but I place the second experiment so low because it’s a little more…pedestrian? Jeez why am I trying to artistically assess these incredibly old exhibitions of an invention…Anyways, it’s just more of an unclear image of a moving person rather than an unintentionally alien and striking image.

#37 — NEWARK ATHLETE (1891)

This is kind of like ATHLETE WITH WAND. Just a dude moving around with some things in his hands. Little bit of rhythm here, though. I should note here that all of these minute relics fascinate me, as windows into the appearance and movement of people living so long ago.

#36 — THE BOXING CATS (PROF. WELTON’S) [1894]

THE BOXING CATS gives me a lot of the unease COCK FIGHT, NO. 2 gave me but…it’s actually a bit funny and way less potentially lethal.

#35 — THE PICKANINNY DANCE, FROM THE ‘PASSING SHOW’ (1894)

THE PICKANINNY DANCE heralded the first appearance of African Americans before a motion picture camera. The show on which this scene is based is almost certainly racist, but the dance of the trio of performers is, in this self-contained form, entertaining.

#34 — BUFFALO DANCE (1894)

Speaking of racist dances. But actually, BUFFALO DANCE was significant in a manner similar to THE PICKANINNY DANCE, being at least one of the earliest appearances of Native Americans on film. The quintet in the movie were apparently “genuine Sioux Indians,” as Edison’s catalog goes. Really, though, the dance in itself is clearly not racist, if indeed genuine, and quite interesting. I feel, though, that this pair of films was made to ogle and take advantage of its subjects rather than celebrate them. But then, that was the nature of entertainment, whether it be in road shows, circuses, vaudeville, or yes, motion pictures. At least there was some insight into a group of people that did not receive whatever media attention existed at the time, filtered through a white lens as it was.

#33 — HADJ CHERIFF (1894)

This is a cool, frantic exhibition of the dances of the titular acrobat. The pure attraction of movement.

#32 — FIRE RESCUE SCENE (1894)

FIRE RESCUE SCENE is the first example of narrative on this list, and one of the few. The amount of action contained within the Black Maria is actually kind of impressive, and the smokiness adds a depth to the short.

#31 — FENCING (1892)

FENCING, a very shaky early experiment that brought a relatively “high concept” to Dickson and the Edison lab’s tests, is a fun display of blurry swordplay. I just think fencing is fascinating, so that helps my appreciation of this film.

#30 — SIOUX GHOST DANCE (1894)

Clearly, SIOUX GHOST DANCE is quite similar to BUFFALO DANCE. The difference is the sheer amount of people on screen and the power that holds, in addition to the more distinct sheen of the dancers’ skin. The Black Maria was supposed to be stiflingly hot. SIOUX GHOST DANCE is more immediately impressive and, maybe just because of the larger group, meditative.

#29 — BAND DRILL (1894)

The costumes of the band and ceremony of marching is evocative of a specific kind of sound that plays in my head in spite of the film’s silence. It’s definitely silly.

#28 — RIP’S TOAST (1896)

The first entry on this list from Dickson’s time at Biograph (films from which time survive in a considerably fewer number), RIP’S TOAST is part of a serial adapting Washington Irving’s well-known 1819 story RIP VAN WINKLE. Eight films comprised a story told just over four minutes, and they were compiled into the full RIP VAN WINKLE in 1903. RIP’S TOAST, the first installment, is the weakest. Rip is just drinking on a big rock. The outdoor shoot is refreshing, though!

#27 — DICKSON GREETING (1891)

Dickson himself “starred” in one of the earliest, distinctly shot tests from the Edison studio. He simply passes a hat from one hand to another, but Dickson’s distinct, Victorian look and the context of the film’s creation make this a memorable little relic.

#26 — MEN BOXING (1891)

Good old-fashioned fisticuffs. It’s funny to see 1891 boxing.

#25 — EXIT OF RIP AND THE DWARF (1896)

The surprisingly tall, hunchbacked dwarf introduced in the RIP VAN WINKLE serial’s previous installment hops over the back of the rock seen throughout the whole series, showing some depth in the canon of someone who primarily worked within a black box. I like the dwarf’s silly costume too.

#24 — AWAKENING OF RIP (1896)

Rip wakes up, his clothes in rags and his hair white and grown out. There’s actually some gravity in this scene as he slowly bends down to pick up a stick, but actor Joseph Jefferson (who adapted the story for a play on which the film is nominally based and who was a friend of Dickson) breaks the cardinal rule of stage acting (which this essentially was) by facing away from the audience…er, camera. I just wanted to see his face!

#23 — RIP PASSING OVER THE MOUNTAIN (1896)

This final installment abruptly ends the serial, and it’s actually kind of hilarious to see Jefferson climb the rock that represents the titular mountain.

#22 — BLACKSMITHING SCENE (1893)

BLACKSMITHING SCENE is notable as the first publicly exhibited Kinetoscope film, in May 1893, and the first movie for which actors played a role. It’s also the second oldest film in the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, behind NEWARK ATHLETE. It’s cool to see the banging of hammers and a swig of beer. The historical context gives the movie a bit of power too.

#21 — THE BARBERSHOP (1894)

This little recreation of everyday life is significant, to me, because of the illusion of depth created by a little sign and set of shelves behind the barber and his…barbee? I’m going to make that a word.

#20 — MCKINLEY AT HOME, CANTON, OHIO (1896)

William McKinley was the first president on film in addition to being the first to ride in an automobile. This Biograph short is a reenactment of McKinley (playing himself, to be clear) receiving a letter informing him of his nomination for the Republican presidential candidate. Interesting little piece of history.

#19 — RIP LEAVING SLEEPY HOLLOW (1896)

We return to the RIP VAN WINKLE serial with Rip’s encounter with the weird hill people who look like wizards, presumably on the other side of the rock featured throughout the whole film. The rock is the true star of the film. I guess it might be more accurate to call it a boulder.

#18 — RIP’S TOAST TO HUDSON (1896)

Don’t drink it! Jefferson’s protracted swoon is real good fun.

#17 — RIP’S TWENTY YEARS’ SLEEP (1896)

Rip’s swoon is so long that it basically takes up the whole next film. I like the hill people peeking out from behind the rocks then slowly disappearing.

#16 — RIP MEETING THE DWARF (1896)

The best installment in Dickson’s RIP VAN WINKLE serial, RIP MEETING THE DWARF is a brief and limited sight into the near future of narrative filmmaking. The creation of fantasy stories with limited resources (costumes, space, effects, etc.) actually resulted in a lot of charming, school play-like efforts. The whole RIP VAN WINKLE project is a nice breath of fresh air, literally, with its outdoor setting and commitment to a published fantasy story.

#15 — BILLY EDWARDS AND THE UNKNOWN (1894)

I feel like I’m witnessing a seedy little club fight due to the nature of the Black Maria and the well-dressed crowd surrounding the somewhat surprisingly aggressive fight.

#14 — THE HORNBACKER-MURPHY FIGHT (1894)

I am not a combat sport guy (or any kind of sport guy), but it’s really fascinating to see Victorian era sportsmanship. This is one of the more visceral boxing films from Dickson; for some reason, the slower frame rate on the versions I’ve seen lend more weight to each punch.

#13 — LUIS MARTINETTI, CONTORTIONIST (1894)

This is probably the first act on this list so far that is genuinely impressive and somewhat shocking. Luis Martinetti contorts his body to sensational effect. I’m fascinated by flexible people because I’m basically a wooden board in human form.

#12 — IMPERIAL JAPANESE DANCE (1894)

I’m a sucker for dances involving weaving cloth, and costumes of the women in IMPERIAL JAPANESE DANCE are really striking. I just imagine people who had absolutely zero knowledge of Japan seeing this through a tiny little peephole. It’s kind of mind-blowing.

#11 — CORBETT AND COURTNEY BEFORE THE KINETOGRAPH (1894)

This is the most “visceral” of Dickson’s boxing films. The short segment of fight plays out pretty convincingly (I mean, they were all fighting in the other films), but the actual progression is more interesting. I found myself actually starting to wonder who would win.

#10 — BUCKING BRONCHO (1894)

Dude gets thrown from his horse. I hope he was OK. But horse on film. C’mon.

#9 — MONKEYSHINES, NO. 1 (1889)

I probably have an irrational attachment to MONKEYSHINES, NO. 1. This film, the earliest test for the Kinetoscope, is just that: a test, an experiment. It was never meant for public consumption and certainly wasn’t meant to be imbued with artistic intent. And yet the otherwordly, blurry, bright white figure in the midst of darkness is striking. It is purely visual. Its limited movements take what could be an abstract photo to a place of momentous invention. Really a fascinating piece of human ingenuity and the unintended meaning of creation.

#8 — CARMENCITA (1894)

Beautiful dance in a poofy dress (I’m sure that’s the technical term). I’m in.

#7 — SANDOW (1894)

Come on, are you serious? Sandow was the first film sex symbol. Crazy ripped. Film had not yet seen charisma until he appeared on screen.

#6 — ANNABELLE BUTTERFLY DANCE (1894)

Starring Anabelle Moore, the original Gibson Girl of the Ziegfield Follies, ANNABELLE BUTTERFLY DANCE was an oft-repeated format through the early days of film actualities. It’s hard to resist the appeal of a woman whirling her dress around, I guess. But truly, Moore’s movements are hypnotic, even more so in another film coming up…

#5 — CAICEDO (WITH POLE) [1894]

This exhibition of a tightrope walking act is satisfying. It’s just really comforting to see the titular performer bounce up and down on the tightrope. Comforting may be a strange word, but the airiness of the performance is as soothing as it is impressive.

#4 — KING JOHN (1899)

Dickson’s KING JOHN was actually three very short films compiled into one, not unlike his RIP VAN WINKLE serial. Unlike RIP VAN WINKLE, KING JOHN does not fully survive today. Even still, as the earliest known film adaptation of a Shakespeare play, KING JOHN is incredibly historically significant. Even better, it offers tremendous insight into the London and Shakespearean stage acting style of the era. It starred actors from a soon-to-be-staged production, and while they are of course outdated today, the performances were the best Dickson had ever captured.

#3 — ANNIE OAKLEY (1894)

Of the many acts from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show that made their way to New Jersey and Edison’s Black Maria studio, Annie Oakley is without a doubt the most impressive. Seeing the legendary sharpshooter on screen is a reminder of the nature of the United States at the time. I consider the propagation of film and the Wild West as disparate eras. And of course, they took place on opposite ends of the country, but the fact of the matter is that much of the action Western films would capture in the future was nearly contemporaneous to the birth of the art form itself. It’s striking to see Oakley on film at all (at least for my admittedly uneducated mind), and even more striking to see her incredible talent exhibited.

#2 — DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM (1894)

DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM is the first example of a sound film, even though there was no actual synchronization. The Kinetophone, a new invention from Dickson and Edison, was essentially a combination Kinetoscope and phonograph. The cylinder on which the sound was captured (from a violin played by Dickson) still survives and retains about two minutes of sound, about 20 seconds of which are music. The film is 17 seconds long. The disparity in the length of both is just the earliest example of the difficulty of marrying sight and sound; film and audio technology just diverged too much too soon. This is a special film, a bizarre, literal echo of another time. The tube into which Dickson plays, the dancing pair of gentlemen, and a fourth man who crosses in front of the camera suddenly create another world. It feels like I walked into a dream already in progress when I watch DICKSON EXPERIMENTAL SOUND FILM, and the tinny, audible connection to the world 124 years ago solidifies that feeling.

#1 — ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE (1895)

There was sound, and there was color. The hand-tinting of ANNABELLE SERPENTINE DANCE, also starring Annabelle Moore, gives it much of its hypnotic power. As the colors change through the weaving of Moore’s outfit, I am transported once again to the world 124 years ago. As I wrote in a spotlight of the film in an early installment of my “Best Films of Every Year Ever” project: “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.” But I think it’s an ultimate culmination of Dickson’s work, a man whose very goal was to bring movement to pictures, then to make good on that promise by finding interesting pictures to make move.

Check out the list in a condensed, more visual form in my list on Mubi.

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