What looks like an actuality scene takes an unexpected turn when an air shaft blows the skirts of a pedestrian sky high. Early candid camera or a carefully planned stunt? Whichever it is, it’s an early example of voyeurism as screen entertainment.
Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of the Library of Congress.
And this, my dears, is why women wear jeans
Street scenes were popular in the first decade of projected film but the industry was moving fast and it was only a matter of time before variations began to pop up. What Happened on 23rd Street, New York City is a 1901 Edison production that takes things in a far more scandalous direction.
The film runs a bit over a minute and seems to be a street scene of New York City but then a young couple approaches the camera and walk across a grate on the sidewalk—and an air shaft blows the woman’s skirt up to her knees as she giggles for the camera.
Perhaps influenced by the naturalness of the scene, some writing on the film has suggested that the Edison film crew was shooting an innocent film and a random passerby really did have her skirt randomly blown exactly in-frame.
Charles Musser puts this speculation to rest in Before the Nickelodeon by naming the performers shown on camera: A.C. Abadie as the gent and Florence Georgie as the lady. The pair were also featured in Edison’s Soubrette’s Troubles on a Fifth Avenue Stage Coach, which was also released in 1901 and centered around a similar leg-revealing mishap.
It stands to reason that the skirt flip of What Happened on 23rd Street would have been planned. After all, Edison ran on a tight budget and a camera crew couldn’t expect to stand around all day waiting for the ventilated skirt shot they wanted—and since the average New Yorker likely knew what a movie camera was in 1901, a woman caught on film might react badly to her mishap being recorded. (Those hat pins were sharp!) Much easier and less risky to simply engage the services of an actress who did not mind displaying her gams.
Further, this was very much in keeping with the studio style. After the days of the Black Maria studio filming celebrities of the 1890s, the Edison film company went heavily in for reenacting news events, from the Spanish-American War to skirmishes between Russian and Japanese soldiers in Korea. (New Jersey doubling for both Korea and Cuba.)
The feminine leg was a familiar element in early film and a popular subject for the newfangled insert closeup (closeups themselves were an old hat, closeups edited into the picture were the innovation). One of the earliest known insert closeups, George Albert Smith’s As Seen Through a Telescope (1900), shows a woman lifting her skirt in order to have her shoelace tied. A similar shot was used in Edison’s own The Gay Shoe Clerk (1903). It should be noted that the latter film featured male Edison employees in drag.
Compared to other films of the era What Happened on 23rd Street was a little saucy but hardly enough to send the average audience into hysterics. There is a tendency to assume that any slightly risqué content was universally shocking in its day (see The May Irwin Kiss) and the fact of the matter is, our grandparents had all seen legs before.
Heck, they had even seen simulated frontal nudity-by-body stocking in Birth of a Pearl (Biograph, 1903) and light striptease in Trapeze Disrobing Act (Edison, 1901), if we want to head into wilder early film territory.
The idea of seeing something a bit naughty and illicit was also highly appealing the audiences of early motion pictures. The peepshow movie machines on Coney Island were early targets for censorship and some of the footage they showed was genuinely titillating. A keyhole matte around the scene completed the illusion of voyeurism.
Of course, one of the main reasons What Happened on 23rd Street is so popular today is a certain Billy Wilder picture made half a century later. In The Seven Year Itch, Marilyn Monroe’s far more diaphanous frock blowing upwards is one of her most iconic scenes and here it is being acted out at the turn of the century.
The question of inspiration, imitation and tributes in cinema is an interesting one to me. I cannot count the number of times I have been asked if a relatively mundane and common visual element from a silent film was the direct inspiration for a scene in a modern film. Of course, I am not inside the director or cinematographer’s head but in many cases, the silent films in question were deeply archived or missing and considered lost when the more modern production was made. Again, this doesn’t make the reference impossible but it does make me incredulous.
We live in a world of pop culture references. Filmmakers advertise their films by offering a large number of “easter eggs” or hidden references that will make superfans feel like they are part of the in-joke. A cottage industry has sprouted up with entertainment websites and vloggers just sitting around listing the meaning behind these references. Whether or not this is healthy or just a fact of modern life is a subject for another debate. The problem I am talking about comes when we reverse engineer these practices and assume that everything similar in two films is, in fact, a callback to the older production.
Is it possible that What Happened on 23rd Street made the rounds as a stag reel and Billy Wilder saw it? It’s possible. Anything is possible. Is it equally possible that Billy Wilder saw those air shafts, saw the full skirts of the 1950s and came up with a parallel invention? Quite possible. In fact, more possible, in my opinion.
(One of the funnier arguments in favor of a connection between the films involves stating that Georgie and Monroe were both wearing white dresses. Do we know Georgie’s dress was white? It could have been yellow or light blue.)
In any case, Stan Laurel was also the victim of a burst of hot air when he played a stubborn kilt-wearing Scotsman in Putting Pants on Philip (1927). Irene Dunne weaponized a windy skirt-lift in The Awful Truth (1937). Seeing Paris and France has been a long Hollywood comedy tradition and was gender-flipped and subverted decades before Marilyn Monroe stepped on that grate.
However, even without its Billy Wilder Connection, What Happened on 23rd Street is a prime example of how early 20th century films continued to embrace mild titillation to attract audiences. It represents quite a typical Edison release of the period.
Where can I see it?
Watch it for free courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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