Actualities – A Marilyn Monroe of 1901

Actualities were some of the first films ever made. They were produced to capture a real life scene as it transpired, almost exclusively in a single take. They were usually no longer than a minute or two and were played by exhibitors in conjunction with the fiction film being shown thereafter at the nickelodeon. This was a great way for a Wisconsin corn farmer to see the goings-on of New York when the movies rolled into town. They were popular, a staple of movie-going, and reached their peak popularity in 1903. These slices of life might be mistaken for documentaries, the distinction being that a documentary makes a larger point or argument, or tries to inform the viewer about its subject, etc. An Actuality simply captures a moment as it was, in a “fly on the wall style”. If all has gone according to plan when filming the actuality, no-one seen on camera knew they were being filmed; their lives were simply captured without any artifice or performance. One elegant explanation put it this way; If a documentary can be compared to a newspaper article, Actualities don’t resemble newspaper articles as much as they do the photograph which accompanies them.

Thomas Edison commissioned many, and as with most of his business ventures, he had no scruples about bending the truth when it came to the ‘actual’ part of Actualities. His company would often employ performers to act out everyday scenes so that they could avoid waiting around for something interesting to really happen, and probably to avoid the occasional careless glances from members of the public who would notice the enormous camera filming them in broad daylight. One such Edison produced short from August 21st 1901, WHAT HAPPENED ON 23d STREET, NEW YORK CITY, is particularly interesting.

Here is the description from the original Edison catalogue: This is a winner and sure to please. The scene as suggested by the title is made on 23d Street, New York City. In front of one of the large newspaper offices on that thoroughfare is a hot air shaft through which immense volumes of air is forced by means of a blower. Ladies crossing these shafts often have their clothes slightly disarranged, (it may be said much to their discomfiture). As our picture was being made a young man escorting a young lady, to whom he was talking very earnestly, comes into view and walks slowly along until they stand directly over the air shaft. The young lady’s skirts are suddenly raised to, you might say an almost unreasonable height, greatly to her horror and much to the amusement of the newsboys, bootblacks and passersby. This subject is a winner.

Doesn’t that seem familiar? In short, this is a “vent blows up the lady’s skirt” scene. The company certainly did consider it a winner, charging $6 for the print. If we assume that, like many of Edison’s supposed “candid” films, the short employed actors, this would make it almost certainly the first instance of a filmmaker choreographing such a scene, 54 years before Marilyn Monroe made the same image an indelible part of the movies. That was in The Seven Year Itch, a Billy Wilder comedy powered to classic status on the strength of that single iconographic moment. The Seven Year Itch was made when the Hays code ruled, and its puritanical censorship straightjacketed the filmmakers; as Wilder put it, The Seven Year Itch was “a nothing picture because the picture should be done today without censorship… you couldn’t do that in those days”. And yet, the scene of blessed collaboration between Marilyn, the grate and the dress remained, scandalizing and tantalizing in 1955.

It’s fun to think what audience members must have thought of WHAT HAPPENED ON 23d STREET, NEW YORK CITY. Were they more tickled or titillated? What seems certain is that the Edison company would have conceived of the entire thing well before filming it. We have good reason to assume the man and woman are actors; they walk perfectly in line with the camera’s view, unlike everyone else who darts back and forth across the pavement and sidewalk, then they look directly at the camera but don’t take notice of it (only one other passerby looks in the general direction of the lens, and he darts away upon seeing it), and most damningly: they slow their pace down to a crawl just over the unmissable vent just long enough for it’s gust to take effect. As a descriptor, Actuality is probably a stretch, but it is something to consider that people have been faking “real-life” caught-on-camera moments for as long as it has been possible to do so.

The short (above) has been made available by the Library of Congress, and should be recognised more broadly as the proto-erotic-comedy curio (and harbinger for what was to come) that it is.