Repatriating Edison Films

Vanessa Toulmin (National Fairground Archive, University of Sheffield, UK) presents a twelve-minute reel of recently preserved and rediscovered films from the nineteenth century, all from the George Williams Family Collection housed at the NFA in Sheffield. Six of the films were shot for the Edison Manufacturing Company. As director of the National Fairground Archive, Toulmin is officially repatriating these films to the United States, via the Library of Congress.


Six Edison Films in the George Williams Family Collection

W.K.L. Dickson produced and William Heise shot these 35mm films, each of which runs no longer than 20 seconds (at 30 frames per second).

HORNBACKER-MURPHY FIGHT (August 1894) Eugene Hornbacker, [Dan?] Murphy. Only one round of this five-round boxing contest was known to survive. Above, right, is a frame from a new round, probably the final one. 

(November 1, 1894)  
The famous sharpshooter (as seen in the first image of the opening film at the 2010 Orphan Film Symposium -- Gustav Deutsch's a Girl & a Gun).

SANDOW [No. 2]  (March 6, 1894) Numerous prints of Sandow survive, so it is a delight and a surprise to see a print made from one of the other negatives taken on the day that strongman Eugen Sandow visited the Edison Laboratory. 

CARMENCITA [No. 2] (March 10-16, 1894)  Spanish dancer Carmencita was the first female star to appear before Edison’s Kinetograph camera.   

ANNABELLE BUTTERFLY DANCE (August 1894) Annabelle Whitford performs.

NEW BAR ROOM [SCENE] (January 17, 1895) Until the discovery of this print, only a description of New Bar Room survived. 


Notes by Charles Musser  (Thanks to the author for permission to post this text.)

from the catalog for Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2006


Edison Films in the George Williams Family Collection

All six Edison films in the George Williams Family Collection were shot in the Black Maria motion picture studio in Orange, New Jersey, and are from the Kinetoscope era. The earliest, Sandow [No. 2], was shot in March 1894, while the most recent, New Bar Room, was filmed in January 1895. These were brought to England and sold on the open market by the Continental Commerce Company, aka Maguire & Baucus, who then controlled the rights to Edison’s Kinetoscopes and films outside the United States and Canada.

Four of these films are “new,” though only one was in some sense entirely “lost.” These films underscore the complexity of establishing a definitive filmography of early Edison films. Edison’s production team, headed by W. K. L. Dickson in this period, sometimes made a single negative of a subject. When that negative was damaged, or wore out, they might then bring back the performer (e.g., Annabelle Whitford) or restage a popular scene (thus titles such as New Blacksmith Scene and New Bar Room). Sometimes, however, the production crew was known to have shot multiple takes of a particular performer. It is often difficult to determine when they shot multiple takes, or, when this was done, how many separate films were taken. Moreover, it is practically impossible to ascertain how many of these exposed negatives were then developed and used to make positive prints. Edison Motion Pictures, 1890-1900: An Annotated Filmography (Smithsonian Institution Press, 2008) generally did not assign separate numbers to possible variants of a single subject unless actual documentation justified and required it. In addition, some titles – notably fight films and related scenes of combat – involved several rounds, which the Filmography treated as single entries. We may have one complete film of that title, but four of five rounds/films could still be missing.

All this should be kept in mind vis-à-vis the Edison films in this program. Even when prints from the same negative already exist, as with Annabelle Butterfly Dance and Annie Oakley, variations in length, organization, and photographic quality are not without interest.