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Blacksmith Scene (1893)

William K.L. Dickson | United States of America | 1893

What a genuine sense of fun lurks in this picture! Three blacksmiths go about their business, hammering intensely on a metal rod. The job says that the metal should be cooled from time to time, and the blacksmiths believe that the human body needs its own refreshment. As the bottle of beer passes from one to the other, we are unsure whether in the end they drank more than they bothered to work. What we are certain of is that the audience is entertained.

It is intriguing to see that comedy proved so easy for the silent film from the very beginning. The lack of verbal communication made it impossible to use dialogue to construct narrative. Physical language became the only alternative and, in a period dominated by technological experimentation, slapstick emerged as less problematic than dramatic subtlety. The important element was to understand what movement might encourage laughter once it is shot. Film as an art form was able to easily mature its own flavour of physical comedy by building on the traditions sourced from commedia dell'arte and vaudeville. In Dickson’s film we see the first glimpse on how cinema adopts such tools, though the lack of a punch line has driven historians to attribute the honour of the first comedy to Louis Lumière’s The Sprinkler Sprinkled (L'arroseur arrosé | 1895). A strong case can be made in favour of Blacksmith Scene, but this would require a less traditional interpretation of the film, as well as an appreciation that a first attempt may have not been entirely successful.

Blacksmith Scene is the second oldest film included in the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board in USA. Its original popularity is arguably the main reason for its fame. However, in time, what critics mainly saw in the film is the way it managed for the first time to achieve a conclusive action sequence with dramatic possibilities.

This is the first scene in which performance appears as intentional. Despite the fact that Dickson was using his employees to act out the scene, rather than professional actors, the spontaneity of action is surprisingly effective. John Ott is in charge of the pace. His authority dictates the timing for both work and play. The fifteen-year-old Charles Kayser is particularly enjoyable as the cheeky blacksmith who prefers alcohol to work slightly too early for his age (although speculations can still be made about his true age). The image might raise serious censorship issues if it was filmed in our times, yet in its original context child labour and teenage boozing play with a cheerful easiness that make the real world look dirty and sad and the world of motion pictures as the land of magical freedom. And it is precisely this spirit that can help us appreciate the action in this work as having comedic value.

Certain historians, however, aspire to place the film less in the realm of illusion, but in one in which the reproduction of reality is the paramount desire of the film-maker. In his analysis of early documentary making, Jeffrey Geiger looks at the initial frames of the film in which we notice the shadow of a man disappearing out of shot. This accidental image leads him to conclude that: “Juxtaposing the planned and unplanned, the order and disorder of experience, Blacksmith Scene from the start displays the superiority of the cinematic apparatus for the task of ‘capturing’ spontaneous action”[1]. Whereas Geiger is right on the camera’s ability to reproduce an action that can be perceived as ‘natural’ and ‘real’, the best that we can claim in the case of Dickson’s film is that it developed the concept of a scripted documentary or, given its subject matter, even that of a docucomedy. From that perspective, the film’s role in the history of the medium gains importance, but that would significantly undermine the work’s successful attempt at staging a fictional narrative, albeit incomplete.

The one undeniable fact regarding Blacksmith Scene is that this is the “earliest Edison film to have a commercial life”[2]. It is the work that changed the focus from invention to commercial exploitation, thus paving the way for the establishment of the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1894 as the first commercial movie studio. The subject matter is central to the success of the film. The production is not artistic as such; it does not share any key features that would elevate it above the ordinary. On the contrary, as Charles Musser remarks, it is “a distillation of something familiar, a realization of something that had long been sought”[3]. The film captured people’s imagination because of its simplicity. It the early days of movie-making, the common man lived in a world in which only the exceptional were brought to public display. Having the ability to identify with a character, allowed the medium of cinema to expand to a wider spectrum of society, a spectrum that can consume art, even in the absence of specialised education. By calling to the child in us, Blacksmith Scene has invented the definition of ‘entertainment at the movies’.

And this is precisely why Thomas Edison invested so much of his company’s effort in 1893 around this particular film to the detriment of producing other experimental works. At the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on 9th of May 1893, the world witnessed the first demonstration of the Kinetoscope, the device that was to become the first commercial exhibition device for motion pictures. Blacksmith Scene was the first film to be seen by anyone through the device’s peephole viewer window. A few months later, on 14th of April 1894, Edison opened the first Kinetoscope parlour in New York City at 1155 Broadway to paying audiences. Of them, Balio writes: “They were the motion pictures’ first paying customers, a handful of unwitting pioneers destined to be followed by countless millions in America’s long and exciting romance with the movies”[4]. In the subsequent years, the Kinetoscope is to entertain over a million of other curious spectators across the entire United States and beyond. And it was a small little film about three blacksmiths hammering on a metal rod and drinking a bottle of beer that started the business of watching movies.

[1] Geiger, Jeffrey. American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation; p. 34. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011.
[2] Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company; p. 32. Berkeley - Los Angeles - Oxford: University of California Press, 1991.
[3] Musser, Charles. A Cinema of Contemplation, A Cinema of Discernment: Spectatorship, Intertextuality and Attractions in the 1890s. In Strauven, Wanda, (ed.). The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded; p. 172. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
[4] Balio, Tino. A Novelty Spawns Small Businesses, 1894-1908. In Balio, Tino (ed.). The American Film Industry; p. 3. Madison - London: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1895.

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