20 November 2001 | wmorrow59
A fascinating glimpse into a long gone theatrical world
Film buffs and theater historians alike will marvel at the virtually prehistoric talkie Nursery Favorites, an experiment produced by the Edison Studios. This nine-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, and a variety of dramatic and comic sketches. Documentation about the production of the films is sketchy.
The performance is akin 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 intriguing 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.
P.S. I'm happy to add, as of 2018, that this film along with several other Edison Kinetophone shorts have been restored by the Library of Congress, and released on DVD from Undercrank Productions, in association with Greenbriar Picture Shows. And they're amazing!