Something Good (1898) A Silent Film Review

A pair of performers dressed to dance instead romance one another and share enthusiastic kisses. One of the more exciting discoveries of recent years, the two versions of this picture showcase the earliest known kiss between Black actors.

Home Media Availability: Stream courtesy of USC.

Very good indeed

Content Warning: In order to contextualize the unique qualities of this film, we will be discussing historical portrayals of race in mainstream American entertainment. These portrayals frequently included slurs, stereotypes and other offensive content. Such material was protested at the time of its release and never should have been made.

The best film we didn’t know we were missing.

There is a small list of lost films that everyone is looking for: London After Midnight, the full cut of Greed, the missing scenes of Metropolis prior to their recovery in Argentina… but for my money, the most fascinating finds are the movies that nobody in particular was looking for but which change our whole perception of the silent era.

Hardly anyone alive today had heard of Something Good—A Negro Kiss from 1898 but when it was rediscovered in 2017 and subsequently unveiled, it caused a sensation among film historians, industry professionals and the general public. The natural manner of the performers as they flirted as kissed was irresistible and seeing African American lovers portrayed with warmth and without stereotypes… what a lovely surprise.

The same words were used to describe the film over and over: chemistry, joy, naturalness, intimacy… and for good reason.

Love in motion.

Gertie Brown and Saint Suttle, the uncredited leads of the picture, gaze adoringly at one another. It’s a silent film but you can practically hear their smitten giggles as they swing one another back and forth, pausing for a kiss and then more gazing and swinging. It’s uncontrived and pure. Either the camera captured some intimate moments of genuine love or Brown and Suttle gave two of the best screen performances of the 1890s. Or perhaps a bit of both. All of these options are compelling.

I would love to be able to tell you that this kind of entertainment was common on the silent screen, but the fact is, Something Good has attracted so much positive attention because it is an outlier. It’s an infuriating fact that stereotypes were often the default in mainstream American film of the time. Blackface minstrel entertainment was extremely popular and since movies relied heavily on the stage for content, they scooped up minstrel performances along with leg shows, strongmen and historical vignettes.

I wish I could lie and say this was the standard.

In fact, echoes of minstrelsy are found all over American pop culture. For example, the beloved 1899 Tin Pan Alley standard Hello, Ma Baby!, popularized by Michigan J. Frog of Looney Tunes, is still recognized and sung today—but only the chorus. The verse of the song (and the sheet music artwork) reveals that it was originally intended as what was then called a “coon song,” complete with exaggerated dialect and slurs.

Any researcher who had heard of Something Good prior to its rediscovery can be forgiven for assuming that the picture contained stereotypes galore. The 1907 Selig catalog describes the film as “a ‘swell’ coon’ and his best girl making love,” which would not exactly fill anyone with confidence. The catalog also advertised films like The Coon and the Watermelon, A Night in Blackville, as well as several pictures with “Coon Town” in their titles and it’s a sad fact that Selig was hardly unique in this regard.

Some real romance.

While the production company seemed to be going out of its way to assure potential film buyers that they didn’t have to worry about Something Good being wholesome or positive, there are, however, some positive hints of the film’s quality in the catalog. In the first place, it shows us that nine years after it was shot, Something Good was still in circulation and commanding the same $6 price (about $200 in modern money) as other 50-foot Selig shorts. Love scenes are very hard to get right and here we are with a nearly perfect example.

Another hint of Something Good’s popularity is that it seems to have been pirated by the infamous Siegmund Lubin. Lubin was nothing if not gutsy and either remade or outright pirated prints from other companies, going so far as to claim his own version of The Great Train Robbery was the original. The 1903 company catalog lists Darkies’ Kiss at 50 feet, with a description almost identical to the one found in the Selig catalog, with some additional racism. Whether Lubin duped or merely remade, we cannot say, but it does speak to the success of Something Good. (And, it’s worth noting, all of the early film companies were involved to some degree in piracy and unauthorized remakes; infringement lawsuits were commonplace. Lubin was just unusually audacious.)

May Irwin and John Rice with a much different kiss.

With early cinema, it can be difficult to pinpoint firsts because of the sheer scale of lost movies, not to mention the pile of counterfeits. However, even if it was not the first onscreen kiss, May Irwin’s 1896 film The Kiss was certainly the most famous and remains so. The film was a scene from Irwin’s play, The Widow Jones, and was meant to portray a comical romance. It was met with near-universal acclaim and daily screenings as audiences laughed with delight at the humorous, mustache-stroking smooch. While many texts claim that the picture was censored for sexiness, there is no evidence that this was the case and in The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser points to 1897 as the year organized film censorship kicked off with saucy movie peepshows as the initial targets.

What The Kiss did do, however, was start a craze for kissing films. The Phonoscope, a periodical covering music, movies and entertainment technology, wrote about Kissing (1897), which featured a Coney Island couple and promised to outdo May Irwin’s Kiss. The journal promised laughs aplenty for the 1898 film Farmer Kissing “the Lean Gal.” May Irwin herself reteamed with kissing partner John Rice for an 1897 Edison sequel, The New Kiss. Edison went to the well again in 1900 with the confusingly-titled Kiss or The New Kiss sans Irwin and Rice, which survives at the Library of Congress.

Nudge nudge, wink wink

This last film is quite illuminating because it is the spiced up, dolled up version of The Kiss with more conventionally attractive leads and it is structured quite similarly to Something Good: the couple kisses, likes what they are feeling, they rock one another in their arms and go back for more. However, the young man consistently breaks the fourth wall and even winks at the camera at one point. This is interesting from a narrative standpoint and funny to see but it does rather spoil the romance. In contrast, Brown and Suttle do break eye contact but they only have eyes for each other and their intimacy is key to Something Good’s appeal. It seems so unrehearsed and honest, in fact, that Dino Everett of the USC HMH Foundation Moving Image Archive, who discovered the film, compared it to a home movie rather than a studio production.

So, Something Good is not only groundbreaking in its representation, but also one of the best surviving kissing films, period.

Dancing and kissing two-for-one.

I am sure most of us are curious about how Something Good came to be made. Film historian Allyson Nadia Field, who identified Something Good after Everett discovered it, points out that the film’s lovers were professional dancers. Dance films were big business and she speculates that they had been hired to perform a cakewalk before the Selig cameras and an impromptu kiss film was shot at the same time. Their clothing would have been quite suitable for a cakewalk performance, which demanded grand attire.

Motion picture supply could not meet demand in the 1890s and shooting both dance pictures and kiss pictures would have made the best use of the studio resources and the talents of the performers. The Selig catalog includes a picture entitled Cake Walk with Black dancers “who have a reputation in this line” and promises that the dance film was “the finest of its kind.”

Biograph photo catalog showcasing shots from the films. (via Rutgers University)

In fact, the American Mutoscope and Biograph company seems to have done exactly the same thing with dancers Kid Foley and Sailor Lil. The pair specialized in “Bowery” characters—New York tough types—and they made The Bowery Kiss and A Tough Dance, as well as Rag Time Dance and Rag Time Dance (Hot). The shorts have the same 1902 copyright date and sequential numbers in the Biograph catalog. Dancing kissers and kissing dancers were good business, apparently. (Both The Bowery Kiss and A Tough Dance survive, and the dance is available to view courtesy of the Library of Congress. It’s quite something as Foley spends much of the performance with his hands on Lil’s derriere and the pair end up rolling on the floor before the footage ends. I have not seen their kiss film but if it’s anything like this… holy moly!)

Something Good had one more surprise for the modern world: a second version emerged in a Norwegian archive.

Pleading his case.

As was typical for films of the day, both versions of Something Good consist of a single, uninterrupted shot but the Norwegian cut is a wider shot, showing Brown and Suttle from head to toe. It’s reasonable to assume, based on other dance films of the period, that this was the same camera position used for any cakewalk footage they might have produced that day.

Further, while the surviving material of the USC version portrays just the kiss with little preamble, the Norwegian version shows us a more conventional love scene of the 1890s: Brown playfully rejects Suttle, he continues to plead his case on bended knee, they kiss jubilantly and then he gives her a twirl. It lacks the intimacy of the USC film, though it is still extremely appealing and the charisma of the leads comes through clearly. The decision to bring the camera a bit closer to Brown and Suttle, which seems to have been the standard for kissing films in general, made all the difference in the world.

Kiss accomplished!

It has been speculated that the second version of Something Good was intended for international release. It is also possible that it would simply be a “part two” offered to the domestic market. In film company catalogs of the period, multiple scenes taken the same day were offered in 50-foot snippets. For example, the Edison film company offered Pacific Coast Life Saving Service series of actualities taken in 1897 that portrayed a lifeboat launching, capsizing, returning. Biograph offered similar materials and longer and closer shots with a series of films about mail sorting. I told you the moviemakers were desperate for material!

(Please note that this almost certainly was not the case of a long shot and closer shot being taken for the purpose of being cut together. The earliest confirmed multishot film, Come Along, Do, was released in 1898 and the earliest confirmed edited close-up, As Seen Through a Telescope, is dated 1900.)

A wonderful love scene any way you stack it.

But all the history, all the context, all the conscious film analysis aside, Something Good is pure magic. Sweet, cute, lovely, putting smiles on the faces of audiences over a century after it was made. It’s the kind of discovery that makes us love film history even more and the picture has deservedly gone from lost to essential in just five years.

Where can I see it?

Stream the original version, restored by Dino Everett, courtesy of USC. Stream the alternative version courtesy of the Norwegian Film Institute.

☙❦❧

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2 Comments

  1. David T Steere Jr

    Fritzi:

    Thank you for this lovely blog entry. This sweet film (and its alternate version at the Norwegian Film Institute) are examples of how silent film can make the viewer feel WONDERFUL. I try, unsystematically, to keep track of such early cinematic pleasures so as to share them with others who pooh-pooh silent cinema as boring and without emotion. I will add this to my armamentarium for convincing the skeptical. Prior to reading your fascinating blog entry, I would always turn first to Alice Guy’s 1907 LE PIANO IRRESISTIBLE (https://archive.org/details/LePianoIrresistible). Now I can add SOMETHING GOOD and its alternate to share with the doubting world and, I hope, provide some cheer. David

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