by Prof. Jonathan AuerbachDepartment of EnglishUniversity of Maryland
Newswise — In the spring of 1896, Thomas Alva Edison introduced projected moving images to American audiences. Among the first movies to be shown was an eighteen second sensation titled "The May Irwin Kiss" that became the most popular film of the year, paving the way for hundreds and hundreds of Hollywood embraces for a century to come.
Equally astute in publicity as in invention, Edison invited the two stars of a hit Broadway musical comedy to come to his Black Maria studio in New Jersey to perform their climactic stage kiss in front of his latest technological wonder, a motion picture camera he called a kinetograph. He also invited a female reporter from the "New York World" to witness the event, thereby assuring that the film would build enormous excitement in advance of its debut. As the Sunday newspaper headlines declared:
The Anatomy of a Kiss
At the Request of the Sunday World May Irwin and John Rice PosedBefore Edison 's Kinetoscope - Result: 42 Feet of Kiss in 600 Pictures
WIDOW JONES'S KISS FORTY-TWO FEET LONG
It was of Fifteen Seconds Duration, but the Kinetoscope Caught 600 Views of It.
THE FIRST KISS EVER PUBLISHED IN A NEWSPAPER
The pseudo-scientific curiosity provoked by the newspaper's lengthy description and reproduction of forty miniature photographic stills was nothing compared to the thrill generated by the movie version shown in a local music hall soon after. The exhibition must have surpassed Edison 's wildest expectations. Over and over again, New Yorkers watched in astonishment and delight as the pair of actors exchanged a few lines from the comedy while awkwardly cuddling, trying to face the camera and each other simultaneously.
Projected onto a gigantic screen, this (silent) recitation was followed by Mr. Rice elaborately twirling his handsome mustache, and then the kissing begins, more affectionate than passionate, in keeping with late Victorian codes of conduct.
Yet despite the relative tameness of the bussing, for the first time in film history (but certainly not the last), viewers found themselves participating in a collective, vicarious act of voyeurism. As one contemporaneous account put it, "Their [Rice's and Irwin's] smiles and glances and expressive gestures, and the final joyous, overpowering, luscious osculation was repeated again and again, while the audience fairly shrieked and howled approval."
Public Reaction: From Alarm to Rapture
What might have appeared in print or stage as quaint or charming produced astounding effects when blown up in these earliest public motion pictures. But not all spectators were so amused; a few, including painter John Sloan, morally objected to the cinematic kiss as a disgusting display of physical vulgarity "magnified to Gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over." Triggering a range of responses from alarm to rapture, The May Irwin Kiss established the emotive power of a new medium that would continue to entertain and outrage audiences for the next hundred years. Happy Valentine's English Professor John AuerbachDay.
Jonathan Auerbach is a Professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of "Body Shots: Early Cinema's Incarnations" (California , 2007).