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Film buffs and theater historians alike will marvel at the virtually
prehistoric talkie Nursery Favorites, an experiment produced by the
Edison Studios. This 9-minute "Kinetophone" reel preserves a brief
stage performance by ten actors and one dog, filmed and recorded--
amazingly --in 1913, some fifteen years before commercial production of
talkies began in earnest. Several of these films were made by Edison
during 1912-3, and the director of most of them, including Nursery
Favorites, was a man named Allen Ramsey. Other Kinetophone subjects
made at the time included scenes from Shakespeare's Julius Caesar and
the opera La Boheme, as well as a minstrel show, but it seems that this
film is the only survivor of the series. Documentation about the
production of the films is sketchy. Aside from Edna Flugrath (older
sister of actress Viola Dana) the identity of the players is unknown as
far as I can determine.
The performance is similar to what the English call a "panto," a traditional holiday show geared for children that features skits, songs, and dancing. The actors appear to be seasoned professionals. Whether they are on a stage or working in a specially constructed set is hard to tell, but I would guess it's the latter; at any rate, the set is fairly spare, consisting mainly of a mantle piece and a couple of stools. There is no camera movement, and no evidence of an audience present.
Nursery Favorites opens with three men dressed like musketeers, later identified as the Fiddlers Three, who enter holding tankards of ale. They sing for a few moments, then drink and hurl their mugs to the floor with a crash. They sing of an evil giant, who then lumbers in chanting Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum, etc. The Queen of the Fairies dances on, saying that she'll cast a spell over the giant to make him peaceful, and she does so. They are joined by King Cole, Mother Goose, a sailor and Miss Muffett (as the set starts getting a little crowded), and more vignettes are enacted. Mother Goose has a shrill singing voice that doesn't record well, but the gent playing King Cole sings in a middle range that sounds considerably better. He also performs a charming little song and dance reminiscent of Gilbert & Sullivan, in which he confesses that he's not really a merry old soul, actually "detests a jest," etc. This performer is quite good, and his dance is the highlight of the film. At the finale the troupe is joined by a trained dog, who dances in on his hind legs, but I'm not sure who or what he's supposed to represent. Dancing dogs, I suppose.
The sound quality is about what you'd find on the gramophone records of the period: rather tinny and hollow. Some portions are difficult to decipher, but when the actors sing still-familiar passages about Little Miss Muffett, Mistress Mary Quite Contrary, etc., or when the giant intones the ever-popular I-smell-the-blood-of-an-Englishman refrain, we can understand the lyrics plainly enough.
Nursery Favorites is a brief but fascinating antique. It's unfortunate that more of these experimental films have not survived, as they provide a fascinating look into a venerable theatrical tradition, but happily this short can still be seen -- and heard -- today.
The 5,5 minute version of this short film is represented on a wonderful double disc Les Premiers Pas du Cinema (The Firsts of the Cinema), dedicated to the earliest experiments in colour and sound. The oldest colour films and surviving soundies are well represented on these discs. Nursery Favourites is a marvel. Even though it's presented as a pre-recorded number (singers miming to a commercial record), I strongly disagree. Having watched this performance many times, it is quite clear that this is a live recording - we see the performers and hear them at the same time. The way the singers sing, breathe, bump against the objects, drop things on the ground and add bits of spoken dialog strongly suggests that somewhere is a hidden orchestra and everything is done live in front of a camera. Which probably makes this the first time ever a live performance is recorded on a sound stock. Which makes this marvel from 1913 one of the most fascinating film-sound documents of all times.
... and it gets a 9/10 from me just for its novelty. It was one of
Edison's experiments in synchronizing speech in motion pictures, and it
turns out Edison far underestimated the difficulty of the task.
I got interested in this one watching the 13 part "Silent Hollywood" documentary with Edna's sister, Viola Dana, talking about this short, with just a small section of the short being shown. It is available for viewing in its entirety on youtube - at least today it is. Edison's sound system would not amplify the sound to the point it could be heard in a theatre, and projected at the wrong speed female voices come out quite deep.
It really has no narrative. It's just a 6 minute musical with the queen of the fairies calling forth characters from nursery rhymes to sing and dance. Old King Cole is particularly entertaining with his nimble dancing. There are just a couple of questions I have. Who was in charge of the art design? The queen of the fairies apparently lives in a very oddly decorated chimney, and dances in and out of the fireplace to cast her spells. The fireplace is decorated with what appears to be a human skull, and the skeletal remains of two dinosaur heads, one on each side. That's pretty scary stuff for children's' fare. Also, why does the queen of the fairies live in a chimney in the first place?
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