The Edison film company expanded past the Black Maria and went on the road, gathering actuality footage of scenes of interest. In this case, the Sutro Baths in San Francisco and all the delights within.
Home Media Availability: Stream for free courtesy of the Library of Congress.
Eh… It’s a living…
The Edison film company found itself in a pickle in 1897. The phenomenal popularity of projected motion pictures had caused an explosion in demand for new subjects and the company’s tiny Black Maria studio was simply not going to handle the upswing in production. Multiple film units were the answer and, with audiences hungry for scenery as well as celebrities and dancers, it made sense to take the show on the road.
James H. White and cameraman Fred W. Blechynden spent ten months traveling the world—and, by a stunning coincidence, enjoying travel to renowned vacation spots on the dime of the Edison company, as well as shipping and rail companies eager to have their lines featured in the motion pictures. Being paid to travel to San Francisco, Hawaii, Shanghai, Mexico… Well, good for them!
(If you want to read more about White’s exploits, Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon covers them in greater depth. The cameramen for the Lumière company who ended up in Russia did not have nearly as good a time, suffering some of the earliest instances of political film censorship. You can read about this in Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film by Jay Leyda.)
The Edison crew chose their subjects based on where they wanted to play, so it’s not surprising that the Sutro Baths of San Francisco would be one of their destinations. The glass-enclosed attraction was a combination of saltwater bathing and an amusement park. It contained multiple pools, heated to seven different temperatures, and offered swimsuits and towels for rent but if visitors (there was capacity for 10,000 of them) did not want to swim, they could enjoy concerts, view nature and art displays or enjoy meals at restaurants. There were also walkways around the baths, so visitors could enjoy watching the bathers. More on this in a moment.
White and Blechynden took shots of the baths but Cupid and Psyche was one of the performances offered to the bathers as they enjoyed the water. The credited performers are the Leander sisters, with the younger sister dressed as Cupid and the older as Psyche. (Child performers were common during this era but the extreme youth of the sister playing Cupid is quite uncomfortable to modern eyes.)
Despite the names of their characters having top billing, the dance doesn’t attempt to tell the story or any story, really. It’s a pretty standard dance of the time with lots of twirls and kicks. What makes the performance of particular interest is the placement of the camera. Most recorded performances, and certainly previous Edison releases recorded in the cramped Black Maria, were shot from the perspective of the audience. Since the dancers were stationed on a platform nestled among the pools and were surrounded by their aquatic audience, Blechynden likely found that the only dry place to set down his camera was on the platform with the dancers. As a result, the camera takes on the perspective of a third performer in the scene with the dancers in the foreground and the audience in full view.
A second Leander sisters performance was also shot in which the younger sister took on the role of the comic book character Yellow Kid. Again, the dance had little to do with its source material beyond its costuming and it was all an excuse to kick kick twirl. The costuming isn’t even terribly reminiscent of the character and I wouldn’t have guessed if it hadn’t been published in a vintage catalog. This second picture is not as visually interesting to watch because it was shot against the glass window of the baths and only shows a small audience.
The content of Cupid and Psyche and the Yellow Kid dance were no accident. While White was making films at large, William Heise (who directed The Kiss), made What Demoralized the Barbershop in the Black Maria. It was a raucous comedy with the workers and patrons of a basement business losing their minds at the sight of ladies hitching up their skirts to their knees on the street above. This voyeuristic pattern was established with early, pre-projected films like Annabelle’s Serpentine Dance, and continued with later Edison pictures like The Gay Shoe Clerk and What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City. The Edison brand was not unique in its preoccupation with the feminine ankle but it certainly made it a fixture of its early offerings.
While Cupid and Psyche shows women dancing for an all-male audience and an all-male film crew, you can see a reversal in the Sutro Baths, no. 2 footage, which features a much wider shot of the baths and bathers. On the upper level walkways, women stare at the male swimmers as they slide into the water, some openly leaning on the railing for a better view. They are not the focus of the shot and, in fact, their presence is rarely noted but it seems to me that the ladies were enjoying the view, even if it was not expressly intended for them. Come to think of it, that’s a pretty good metaphor for women in early film generally.
(The Edison San Francisco films only survive as paper prints—copies printed on film-shaped reels of photo paper for copyright purposes—and have been subsequently rescanned by the Library of Congress. While we are glad to have them in any form, paper prints are not anywhere near the same quality as film and so many details have been lost. The women in the Sutro Baths scenes, for example, are mainly recognizable due to their large hats.)
These are some of the earliest films shot in California and White sought out other subjects of interest beyond the Sutro Baths. He made a series of films showing the equipment and crew of the Ford Point Lifesaving Station and Blechynden’s early use of a rudimentary panning shot can be seen in Capsize of Lifeboat.
Cupid and Psyche shows us the house style of the Edison company at the time—legs, we got ‘em!—and it also gives us a glimpse of the long-gone Sutro Baths. That’s thirty seconds well-spent in my book!
Where can I see it?
Stream for free courtesy of the Library of Congress. For a general overview of early Edison releases, check out Edison, the Invention of the Movies.
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