Silents are Golden: What were movies like in the Nickelodeon era?
We’re all at least a little familiar with nickelodeons, those tiny theaters from the early 1900s where patrons paid a nickel each to see a few movies. And we all know that these quaint little storefronts have become the well-known neighborhood theaters and “movie palaces” of big cities. But not everyone knows exactly what movies from the Nickelodeon era were like, at least apart from the usual Méliès movies, clips of dancing ladies and famous early works like The great train robbery (1903).
Many Nickelodeon films were originally played in traveling picture shows, the humble ancestors of the “movie house” era. Armed with films, slides and projectors, neatly dressed entertainers traveled from town to town, setting up shops in a school, church or even a tent and selling tickets for an entertaining evening. Many of the movies they showed ended up in Nickelodeons as well, mixed in with the newer movies that were being produced like crazy to meet public demand.
So if you could go back in time over a century and visit the next Nickelodeon, which movies would you be likely to see? The topics were as endless then as they are now on YouTube – everything from travelogues to comedy and military films to films with funny animals.
Most of the 19th-century films have disappeared, but fortunately some catalogs of rental films have survived. These include descriptions of the films and their lengths, i.e. the lengths of the physical film strips themselves. (In an era of rampant copyright infringement, dates were rarely recorded.) A minute’s worth of film was about 100 feet long, and a standard roll of film was 1000 feet or for about ten minutes. Many films at the time were under 500 feet or even under 100 feet long. So for every 10 minute single reel production you could find a few dozen little movies like the popular one The whole mother family and the mother dog (1905), that was 300 feet, wasn’t it The four pesky heads (1898), which ran about 75 feet.
The largest group of films fell under the “comic” label. Many of the titles are pretty self-explanatory: How Mike got the soap in his eyes (1903)Fire the chef (1903)Lady Plumpton’s Motor Car (1904)The bull and the picnickers (1902). A number of very short films simply illustrated old jokes, such as How Bridget serves the salad with no dressing (1898), A 28-foot film showing a maid “mixing up the order and bringing in the salad in a state of washing dishes hardly acceptable in polite society.” There were even riffs on popular movies like Something good – Negro kiss (1898), described as “a burlesque about the kiss of John Rice and May Irwin” (this film was only rediscovered a few years ago).
Popular comic situations have included clashes between maids and cooks, encounters with tramps, dignified ladies and gentlemen in undignified situations, romantic rivalries, and sometimes ladies taking revenge on annoying suitors. A popular movie was The Insurance Collector (1903), shows the title character attempting to woo the pretty daughter of a woman who “rejects the collector’s advance and takes him to the [wash] Tub where he wriggles while the two women douse him with water.” Another very popular comic genre revolved around the well-known comic book character “Bad Boy” or “Mischievous Willie”. These mischievous boys used to play pretty violent pranks on their elders. In Tommy’s trick with grandpa (1900), “Tommy has powdered his grandfather’s big Dutch pipe and the old gentleman sits down to enjoy his evening smoke. There will be a terrible explosion.” Similarly, A wrestler joke about his dad (dates unknown) involved the “bad boy” tying a string to his sleeping father’s chair and attaching the other end to a clothes press. When the mother starts wringing out the laundry, the father’s chair tips over. Undoubtedly, these simple films were aimed at the enthusiastic children in the audience.
Many other comic films were uncompromisingly surreal, such as A Jersey Skeeter (1900), which shows a giant mosquito trying to sting a farmer, “and after sharpening its beak on his whetstone, grabs the farmer by the seat of his pants and carries him away.” Others like Michael Casey and the Steamroller (1902), one wonders what those primitive effects were: “The engineer doesn’t see him, and the huge machine, weighing tons, runs over his body and flattens him like a piece of sole leather. Other workers rush to the rescue and discover Casey in his flattened state and about twice his normal length… One of the workers procures a barrel, and standing on it he hits Casey on the head with a large hammer until he’s knocked it down to its proper size and scope.”
Of course, non-comic genres were also common, particularly travel films with locations as diverse as Miles Canyon Panorama (1903), Fiji Fire Walk or Fire Dance (date unknown)Niagara Falls in winter (date unknown) or From Monte Carlo to Monaco (1902). Even everyday scenes were interesting as they showed parts of life in exotic locations such as Street cleaning in Porto Rico (date unknown) or A ferry in the Far East (1904) who showed how “unlike other ferries, the people of the East hung a huge raft by cables across the stream and the raft was hauled across”.
Recordings of naval ships and military exercises were standard on Nickelodeons, as were recreations of various battles. These replicas sound pretty humble today, although they were exciting back then. The popular one Progress of the Kansas Volunteers, Caloocan (1899) showed US troops in the middle of a battle: “This is one of the best battle pictures ever made. The first shot is fired straight ahead of the frame, and the apparent advance of US troops through the screen is very suspenseful; the gradual disappearance of the fighters who keep the interest going to the end.” Advance payment was only 60 feet long!
Of course, there were several other popular genres in the Nickelodeon era, including the religious genre and one intriguingly named “mysterious.” I’ll cover them in more detail over the next month – stay tuned!
Information about the films in this article was reprinted by historian Darren Nemeth 1907 Chicago Projecting Co’s Entertainer’s Supplies Catalog No. 22, a very rare catalog from his collection. It’s a wealth of information for anyone interested in the early days of the film and I highly recommend it! IMDb.com and loc.gov were also consulted to find out the dates of the films. Some films may have been released under different names, making it difficult to determine the year.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
You can read all Lea’s Silents are Golden articles here.
Lea Stans is a born and raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely credits to Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion on her website, Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.