class=”intro”>A dancer with hand-colored skirts swirling about her enchanted audiences, who can blame them, and remained an iconic symbol of early film for many decades. Meet Annabelle.
Home Media Availability: Released on DVD.
The Immortal Serpentine
The American silent era lasted for well over three decades but you wouldn’t know that from much of the coverage of the era. Silent film is lumped into one huge category, telescoped into a single, digestible chunk when it actually takes up a full 25% of film history as we know it.
This leads to an obvious question: People who were alive to see the very first projected motion picture shows would have been entering middle age in the later silent era. How did they look back on the past? Later silent era stars like Clara Bow had never known a world without dedicated movie theaters, what did her contemporaries think about the very earliest icons of silent film?
A Trip to the Moon’s iconic rocket-in-the-eye shot is an obvious symbol for early movies but when American magazines of the 1920s looked back at the beginning of film, one name kept appearing: the Peerless Annabelle.
These retrospectives must be taken with a grain of salt, they play fast and loose with the facts but what we’re concerned about here is perception and in the eyes of 1920s Americans, Annabelle (Whitford or Moore, she was mononymous) was the first queen of the screen. In fact, she was a queen before there was a screen, a popular stage performer who specialized in graceful and artistic dances, as well as an in-demand model.
In 1894, Annabelle had been filmed by the Edison film company in their cramped Black Maria studio—you can see the walls of the tiny thing on the sides of the frame. Her dance was initially intended for peepshow distribution, which was the way movies were commercially distributed at the time.
However, 1895 changed everything with rival projectors being launched and commercial screenings fast eclipsing peepshows in popularity and profitability. In April of 1896, Annabelle joined the exclusive club of pioneers who were the first stars of projected film. (She’s sometimes called the first movie star but if we want to argue that, I think Auguste, Marguerite and Andrée Lumière have a stronger claim to the title for the 1895 film Le Repas de Bébé.)
Like any good star, Annabelle’s fame went beyond her stage performances. You weren’t really a star in Gilded Age America if you weren’t the “Something Girl” and Annabelle was the “She Wouldn’t Girl” due to the fact that she refused to dance in the nude at a posh 1896 bachelor party, told her step-father about the insulting proposition and he reported the event to the police. The subsequent raid and complaints of overreach by the revelers led to a hearing with posh bachelors and showgirls (including Little Egypt) sharing their testimony and the public obviously ate it up with a spoon.
The scandal didn’t hurt Annabelle’s standing as a movie queen, she appeared steadily in pictures for Edison before and after the Sherry’s party (filming her Serpentine dance in 1894, twice in 1895, again in 1897) and for the rival American Mutoscope (later Biograph) with Tambourine Dance (1895), Serpentine Dance (1896), Flag Dance, Butterfly Dance (1896), and A Mermaid Dance (1902).
The Serpentine dance was devised by Loïe Fuller and involved a performer wearing a light, voluminous costume with two sticks attached. The dancer would swish and twirl their costume using the sticks, creating a fluid and graceful swirl of fabric.
The dance was naturally given its own spin by the various dancers who specialized in performing it. The most obvious difference visible to this non-dancer is the varying degrees of sexiness with some performer primly clad in giant circles of fabric that barely rise above their ankles during the performance and some wearing gauzy gowns that fly upward to reveal knees and thighs. A few danced in corseted evening gowns while others wore skintight catsuits. Obviously, this variety would be advantageous as the dance choreography and costume could be modified depending on how conservative or lusty the audience was.
True to her newspaper moniker, Annabelle keeps things strictly PG-rated for the Edison company, wearing a high-waisted, filmy fairy tale gown and showing some ankle, a bit of knee but generally demonstrating a Serpentine on the more innocent side. Tease all, reveal little. (I’ve seen some pretty overtly sexy French Serpentines but that’s another story for another review.)
One of the aspects of Annabelle’s film that particularly charmed audiences was the hand-applied color. Hand-colored films were present from the very beginning and dancers were a particularly popular subject because the flowing costumes and movement would help to distract from any flaws in the color. As an added treat, Annabelle’s gown changed color from pink to yellow as she danced. (Sleeping Beauty, eat your heart out.)
This color was particularly noted when the film was first released and the audience was taken by the lifelike appearance of the popular dancer. The presence of hand-coloring was also noted in the 1926 retrospectives of that Koster & Bial show.
So, let’s head back to our original questions about how the dawn of cinema was viewed by people of the later silent era.
While it wasn’t an extravaganza or anything, movie magazines noted the thirtieth anniversary of projected cinema… sort of. Everything non-Edison was blotted out of the history books, replaced by the April 23, 1896 Koster & Bial presentation with Annabelle as a feature attraction.
(Without getting too far into the weeds of firsts, which is always dangerous with early film, here are a few notable events: The Lumière brothers had a non-commercial projected screening in March of 1895 and American inventor Woodville Latham and his sons demonstrated their projector in April of that year. C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat demonstrated their projector at an expo in September of 1895 but whether you count that as commercial is a question. German inventor Max Skladanowsky presented his Bioskop before a paying audience in the Wintergarten Theater in November of 1895 and the Lumières hosted their own commercial screening in December.)
The Edison film company had, of course, been pursuing the peepshow market but rival machines, particularly the Lumière brand, were taking Europe by storm. Licensing the Jenkins and Armat machine allowed them to stake a claim on the American market before European projectors could gain traction. As the Library of Congress’s coverage of the event puts it, “The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture the machine and to produce films for it, but on the condition it be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope.”
Long story short, the Koster & Bial screening was significant but the movies were already heading toward projection at a thunderous pace. Still, it is valuable to see how the history of early cinema was already muddied and how Edison was credited with everything under the sun, which is quite similar to D.W. Griffith’s appropriation of credit for every aspect of later silent film.
On a less serious note, the Serpentine dance was still so iconic in the 1920s that Lupino Lane made it part of his one-man vaudeville show in the 1929 comedy Only Me. And I have to say, he did a pretty credible job of performing the Serpentine.
A timeless performance borne out of a business decision, Annabelle’s dancing had already been a popular attraction in the peepshow market, so it made sense to feature a big hit on the big screen. And that’s how a cinema icon’s legend was born.
Where can I see it?
Released both in Kino’s The Movies Begin box and the Edison: The Invention of the Movies set. The latter has 140 Edison films, including the studio’s final 1918 release. If you’re interested in the Edison company’s later years, I spearheaded the released of the 1917 film Kidnapped and you can read my coverage of it here.
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