8/20/13

WHAT HAPPENED ON 23rd STREET

Tomorrow, August 21st, will mark the one-hundred and twelfth anniversary of the making of America's first sex comedy, the Edison Company's "What Happened on 23rd Street". On 8/21/01, Edwin S. Porter--the Edison's official "in-house" director--along with cameraman George S. Fleming set up their camera on 23rd sreet, facing west toward 6th Avenue. Without bothering to do a formal "lock-up" of the street traffic, they sent two actors (Alfred C. Abadie and Florence Georgie) down to the end of the block and rolled camera. For close to one full minute, the daily street life of New York City was documented--the horse and carriages, the women in bustles, the men in bowlers and straw hats (it was summertime, remember), the Sixth Avenue El (visible slightly in the background) and two streetcars, one at the very beginning, one toward the end. A true window onto a world now utterly vanished. Perhaps a pre-arranged signal was created in order to cue the actors. Had the term "action" yet come into the filmmaking vocabulary? We'll never know. But eventually the two actors arrived in frame and performed the "story" that was, in fact, the climax of the short film. Stepping onto a grate which sent forced air out from neighboring buildings, the woman's skirt does a Marilyn Monroe (a mere fifty-four years prior), shooting up above her ankles (sort of). She looks embarrassed. They laugh and exit frame. And thus ends our first skin flick. Let's watch this fascinating moment of a vanished world and then analyze the crap out of it.


Nothing changes, really. Girls taking their clothes off for the amusement of the masses has always been a thing. Charming thought the story/climax section of the film is, though, it's the preceding minute that always captures my interest. Standing in the back left of the frame is a young man firmly rooted to the sidewalk, staring right at the camera and not moving. Was he an actual extra? Was he told to stand and stare toward the then-unusual device in case somebody snuck up behind Messrs. Porter and Fleming, prepared to conk them on the head and make haste with the contraption? If not, why didn't they chase him away, as they did with the gentleman who appears 38 seconds into the shot. Though he is immediately intimidated into leaving, the man at 44 seconds and the fat lady at 54 seconds are not. Perhaps they were the actual extras. I love the parked carriage that faces away so that you don't know there's a horse and then--whammo--the damn thing U-turns and there's that horse! Could that have been carefully choreographed? Or, as so often with films, was it just a happy accident that punctuates the scene in an unexpected way? Once again, we'll never know.


A mere year after this film was shot, the "Flatiron" Building was completed and it wasn't long before people discovered that the wind in the area--caused by the unusual shape of the building--whipped up enough of a gust to perform a similar maneuver on woman's skirts as shown above. Horny boys and unemployed duffers made sport of hanging around the corner, waiting for unsuspecting ladies to lose their composure. This lead to the patrolmen on duty to shoo them away, telling them to "skidoo". Hence the term "23 Skidoo." Glad you're reading this? Of course you are. I'm glad you're glad.





Who was Edwin S. Porter? Read this fine Wikipedia entry if you want the full scoop. In short, he was an itinerant electrical worker who stumbled into the movies at the very birth of the medium, traveling around the country (and South Africa, believe it or not) projecting films in open air venues. Edison hired him to supervise his films and thus he became America's first auteur--dreaming up ideas, shooting them, cutting them (once cutting had been invented), and preparing them for exhibition to a very avid public. He directed "The Great Train Robbery", but you probably knew that. He was an inventor more than a storyteller and held numerous patents on things connected with cameras, projectors and the like. More interesting is that he lived until 1941, dying at the age of seventy-one in theTaft Hotel (which is still standing on the corner of 7th Avenue and 50th street) completely forgotton by the film industry. Porter was the inventor of--among other things--cross cutting, dissolves and apparently directed the first 3D movies. Dig the NY Times obit.  I particularly like Porter's contention that he lost interest in movies when they became the work of many different "specialists", all contributing to the finished product. After years of hearing about what a "collaborative medium" filmmaking is, it's weirdly refreshing to hear it lamented that it's no longer the work of one intrepid man with a vision. And this from the forgotten inventor of so much of what we now take for granted in the medium


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  3. "Let's watch this fascinating moment of a vanished world and then analyze the crap out of it." I like this statement and it really put some thoughts on my mind. I have seen this classic but never really its story.

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  4. I just watched a video about WHAT HAPPENED ON 23rd Street

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