The Sick Kitten (1903) A Silent Film Review

Two children have a sick kitten but they know exactly how to cure what ails it. A very sweet little British short that makes good use of this new-fangled “close-up” thing.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.

I love little kitty…

George Albert Smith is yet another British film pioneer who doesn’t get nearly enough love these days. In addition to being one of the earliest makers of trick films (do check out my review of his 1897 charmer The X-Rays), he was a pioneer in the field of natural film color and the Kinemacolor subjects are quite impressive.

(Here is a Kinemacolor demonstration but be warned, there is a lot of flickering so be cautious if you are sensitive to light patterns.)

THE KITTEN!!!!

The Sick Kitten is not quite as flashy but is nonetheless visually impressive. It is also significant as a very early example of a film cutting to a closeup to show a detail that enhances its narrative. While the film is dated 1903, there is reason to believe that The Sick Kitten is a cut-down version of a 1901 release entitled The Little Doctor. It is specifically described as an abridgement in at least one catalog but some sources list The Sick Kitten as a remake of the 1901 film. It was quite common to abridge films for re-release. For example, the feature The Mayor of Casterbridge was pared down to two reels for re-release.

(You can read more about the abridgement side of the argument in The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960.)

“Excuse me, what are you doing with my kitten?” says the mother cat.

The concept is simple. A little girl holds a kitten while a little boy arrives with a top hat and medical case to try to help the poor patient. (I assume mother cat is also present to make sure everything is well with her baby.) The doctor removes a bottle labeled FISIK and the kitten is spoon fed the contents. Whatever the medicine is, it seems to be quite agreeable to the small patient as it licks it up hungrily.

The whole thing is very sweet and runs less than a minute (or slightly over a minute if you want to start debating projection speeds but I certainly don’t want to touch that particular argument with a plastic fishing rod). I mean, we have kids, a kitten and dress-up, you’d have to be an ogre to find fault with this particular combination. Also, the kitten is at ease and clearly knows the children, so there is none of the discomfort one sometimes experiences when watching animal performers. (Early British films were often charming family affairs. For example, Rescued by Rover co-starred filmmaker Cecil Hepworth’s own dog and baby.)

Kitten takes its medicine.

Closeups are often credited to (sigh) D.W. Griffith but the British were merrily experimenting with them long before he entered pictures. (Disclaimer: Not saying the British invented them either, just saying that 1901 and 1903 happened before 1908, the year Griffith entered pictures. I stay as far away from proclaiming definitive movie “firsts” as I possibly can.) In addition to The Sick Kitten, we have the wonderful comedy short The Big Swallow, which accomplishes its extreme closeup simply by having the actor approach the camera. There is some cutting involved but there is no cutting TO the closeup, so it’s all a question of how many nits you feel like picking. In any case, if you have a spare two minutes, make them a double feature. (I look forward to the three hour gritty reboot next year.)

F-I-S-I-K

By the way, I don’t know if I am particularly dense but I had to do a bit of thinking as to why the medicine bottle is marked FISIK and then I hit upon the answer. This is a childish misspelling of the term physic, which might have referred specifically to purgative medicine. During this time period, British and Americans alike were enamored of castor oil, both as a medicine to lubricate the children’s bowels and as punishment, so children of 1903 would be quite familiar with the notion.

Of course, as stated before, whatever the kitten is being fed is clearly pretty nice because the little critter is lapping it up happily. No kittens were harmed during the making of this picture… (My guess would be some kind of fish oil, another popular physic, but cats can like the darndest things. Little Ronaldo, my kitten, is absolutely mad for all things vanilla and no Nilla Wafer is safe when he is on the hunt.)

Kids and kittens have always been a winning combination.

One thing I really enjoy is looking for patterns in entertainment that mimic events of the silent era. In this case, I couldn’t help but notice a parallel between these charming early films and the freewheeling early days of such video sharing platforms as YouTube. Like early silent film, the first YouTube hits were kittens and cats and children (“Charlie bit my finger!”), simple, easy to communicate concepts that fit well into the short runtime allotted. (YouTube had a ten-minute video limit for years.)

However, as the medium matured, viewers demanded more. There are still viral hits starring pets and kids, of course, but now YouTube is producing content to rival traditional network television. It’s not seen as a step down to have a YouTube show. By the same token, film quickly caught up with stage in popularity and soon began to rival it. Filmmakers bought up plays, lured popular stage stars to the screen and generally signaled they had arrived by appropriating the trappings of the legitimate stage. Kind of puts Cobra Kai in perspective, doesn’t it?

A doctor in the house.

Online videos will likely continue to grow in scope and sophistication (please take that term as relative) and the shaking out of smaller channels has already started in earnest. Nobody can say for certain where this will end, of course, but I’m willing to guess that this trend will only accelerate.

The point of all this is that early silent films are not only fun to watch and charming, they are also a mirror that we can use to examine our own time and our favorite entertainment. Everything has happened before and it will happen again so why not learn from the past?

If The Sick Kitten had been produced in the mid- to late-2000s, it likely would have been a smash. It’s short, it’s cute, it’s easy to describe. Heck, I think it should be a hit again today. It’s also a fun example of a closeup being used to enhance a film’s narrative, so we get history and kitty goodness at the same time.

Where can I see it?

Released on DVD as part of The Movies Begin box set from Kino. Also available to stream courtesy of the BFI.

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18 Replies to “The Sick Kitten (1903) A Silent Film Review”

      1. Yes, that’s the official BFI video I linked to at the end of my review. The 34 second runtime is due to the fact they are are running it at sound speed. For what it’s worth, I prefer the slower runtime on the Movies Begin edition.

      1. Because you will never please everyone, there are people who will throw TANTRUMS about it and in many cases, we don’t actually know what the “right” speed was. Silent films were hand-cranked, for example, in New York City as required by law so much depended on the hand of the projectionist. Some films have suggested speeds but many do not. I was fortunate that when I was working on my release of Kidnapped, I found a runtime and length for another George Kleine release (this is very unusual) so I actually did know the projection speed and some people still got angry with me.

      2. Sorry to hear that’s the reward from some people for all your work on Kidnapped. I’m sure you know as well as nowadays can be known how it should be presented.

        Projection speed is an interesting topic, though, and an important part of restoration work. For example, I was jealous to Americans that you got the Jeanne D’Arc Bluray with Einhorn score, until I realized it’s with sound speed which I think isn’t good for such naturalistic content. And then I became worried that if there will one day be a restoration of The Wind, would it mean losing the wonderful Davis score made for sound speed.

      3. Well, one good thing is that The Wind was actually released with a synchronized score originally (I believe MoMA has a copy) and so that eliminates all issues with speed because we know for sure which speed it played at.

  1. It’s pathetic of me, but old films with cats and kittens always upset me because the kitty will be dead by now.

    I never feel the same about actors who I *know* are dead!

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