Seminary Girls (1897) A Silent Film Review

A pillow fight at a boarding school ends in chaos when the teacher finds out what her pupils have gotten up to. And that’s about as much plot as you can possibly expect from a 50 foot film shot in Edison’s tiny Black Maria movie studio.

Home Media Availability: Stream from Library of Congress.

Horsefeathers

The Edison film company didn’t really set out to make silent movies. This fact is sometimes trotted out to diminish silent movies as an art: one of cinema’s creators wanted talkies the whole time. The Black Maria studio where Edison’s crew shot their early films was, in part, designed to make audio and visual recordings simultaneously.

The setup of the Black Maria, with the performers inside a tar-papered tunnel.

The audio part fell by the wayside after initial experiments, though it was never entirely abandoned by Thomas Edison, while silent motion pictures took off like a shot. The controlled conditions of the Black Maria gave early Edison productions their signature look but it was an uncomfortable workplace. The studio was named for a slang term for a police paddy wagon due to its dim and cramped nature, but it was used to showcase some of the brightest lights of Gilded Age entertainment, from Annabelle to Annie Oakley.

The most famous Black Maria films were shot from around 1893 to 1896 and feature performers doing their thing, from serpentine dances to boxing cats. However, a plain tarpaper background wouldn’t work for everything, and both sets and rudimentary fiction were used in films like Chinese Laundry Scene (1894), in which a policeman chases a laundry worker between some painted doors.

Stereotypes were a feature in comedy from the start.

Seminary Girls was shot in 1897 and was part of a series of Edison releases that featured pillow fights and other mischief gotten up to by young women. These types of antics were popular because the “innocent” play of the young ladies (oops, did they just show their legs?) provided cover in the form of plausible deniability. And so, 1897 audiences were treated to Seminary Girls from Edison and What the Girls Did to Willy’s Hat (which involved kicking said hat, presumably showing off ankles and underpinnings) from the American Mutoscope and Biograph company, the latter of which having a profound effect on James Joyce, which was rather the idea.

There were variations on the theme and some films covering the same topic were more innocent than others. The Pillow Fight, another 1897 Edison production, takes a prim approach with its younger cast and delivers exactly what it promises: pillows and feathers. Seminary Girls features older actresses and makes some attempt at a simple story with the young women acting up and then being interrupted by the teacher and one student trying to escape under the bed. She is in the process of being dragged out, the better to show her stockinged legs, presumably, when the film ends.

Legs on display in “Seminary Girls”

While the background scenery is not as elaborate as Chinese Laundry Scene, it does feature a number of props like a bed, a wash basin and a nightstand. Some effort was made by director James H. White and cameraman William Heise to set the mood. (The pair would go their separate ways later in 1897, with White filming leg shows in the wilds of San Francisco and Heise staging leg shows inside the Black Maria. You know, for the sake of variety.)

However, the fact remains that Seminary Girls looks airless in comparison to other films released at the same time, even set-bound pieces like the pictures of Georges Méliès and certainly Edison’s own exterior films like Racing at Sheepshead Bay filmed just weeks after Seminary Girls. Edison abandoned the use of the Black Maria entirely a few years later; it was simply too small and cramped and the sound movie experiments were not ready for prime time. (Edison would try, try again with the Kinetoscope films of the early 1910s.)

More innocent play in “Pillow Fight”

Despite its failings, the film was fondly remembered by at least one pioneer. In an interview with Moving Picture World, New England picture exchange man Frank J. Howard talked about the first pictures he screened. He named all the usual suspects: a train picture, the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, the May Irwin kiss… and then he started waxing poetic about Seminary Girls.

It was described by name as “a 150-foot film, which, to the moving picture managers of the day, was considered the greatest film that could ever be produced. Its production marked a new era they considered in the making of moving pictures. It pictured a dozen or more seminary girls, dressed in pajamas and night gowns, fighting pillow battles, etc., and for action was all to the good.”

“Dozens”

Now, this statement was casually drawn from memory, so don’t take this to mean that I think Howard had any nefarious designs for deception, but this is an example of how old-timey film coverage can be misleading. Seminary Girls was only 50 feet long and the cast was five young women and one teacher, not dozens. Trying to fit dozens of anything bigger than a flea circus into the Black Maria would have ended up in Marx Brothers territory.

It’s clear that the golden glow of the picture was slightly distorting Howard’s memory nearly twenty years later—it happens to all of us, which is why rewatching before writing is essential and that was something even a film distributor was unlikely to manage in those early days.

The exterior of the Black Maria. The studio used natural lighting with portions of the building on wheels to allow it to follow the sunlight.

But how easy it would be, had Seminary Girls been a more famous picture, to take Howard’s happy memories at face value and repeat the tale of a Black Maria production with a cast of dozens that was considered the greatest movie ever made. After all, it’s found in an early source, a 1916 publication. It must be more accurate because it was closer to the time of release, right? (See also: Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights from 1926, source of many a historical headache.)

Now, these are small errors but this sort of thing snowballs. For example, claims that Edison’s hit film, The Kiss, caused a scandal are based in the misreading of a single satirical article and the game of telephone has ended with declarations that the Vatican itself demanded a ban. (The reception was actually quite positive and almost nobody was offended. I have found not a single peep, not one, from a priest, let alone a pope.) A rather staid description of a dispute between newcomer Charlie Chaplin and director Mabel Normand morphed into claims that Normand was in tears. The impulse to make the story just a little bit better is a strong one and Seminary Girls would have ended up with a cast of thousands before it was all over. Sometimes, there is protection in obscurity.

The teacher enters.

Seminary Girls is very much a film that makes you stop and say, “Oh, I get it, this is dirty!” However, it lacks the swashbuckling trickery of White’s Cupid and Psyche, as well as the slapstick creativity of Heise’s What Demoralized the Barber Shop. It also shows that the old ways of filming in the Black Maria were simply not going to be sustainable, especially with competition from the UK and France, not to mention Edison’s own United States.

Where can I see it?

Stream for free courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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