BOOTLEG FILES 261 “Electrocuting an Elephant” (1903 film that pioneered the use of shameless non-fiction film manipulation).
LAST SEEN: Available at online video sites.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been released in various anthologies of silent films.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A public domain title.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not by itself, but it still turns up in collections of public domain shorts.
One of the most prevalent complaints to arise from non-fiction filmmaking is the concern that the genre actually contains too much fiction. Indeed, the film that is considered to be the foundation of the feature-length documentary movement – Robert Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North – had a surplus of patently bogus sequences and situations (including the climactic race against the elements to build an igloo – that was a complete fraud, fully staged for the camera).
But Flaherty didn’t invent the bogus nature of non-fiction films. From its beginnings, non-fiction film was being used to show a distinctive agenda. By using a camera to present half-told stories, reality could easily be manipulated and audiences would not be the wiser.
The first known manipulation of the genre came in 1903, when Thomas Edison used the planned euthanasia of Topsy, a doomed circus elephant, as a means to promote the DC electric current. Why would Edison use an elephant, of all things, for such a scheme? Well, at the time Edison had rivals in George Westinghouse and Nicola Tesla, who were promoting the rival AC electric current to be adopted as the U.S. standard for electrical installations. Edison needed to show people that AC current was very dangerous – so dangerous, in fact, that it could kill an elephant.
To achieve this goal, Edison schemed with the owners of the elephant to have the animal electrocuted with AC current electricity. This would be staged for a live audience and filmed by Edison’s cameras for viewing by the nation’s moviegoers.
The resulting film, “Electrocuting an Elephant,” only runs 23 seconds. But it is among the cruelest and saddest 23 seconds of film ever created. Sadly, the people who watched the film in its day were unaware of the real story of the animal being killed.
The elephant in question was a female named Topsy. She was believed to have been born in 1875 and spent most of her life confined within the Forepaugh Circus that performed Luna Park in New York’s Coney Island. In her latter years, Topsy experienced repeated abuse by her keepers. This violence, which included an attempt to feed her a lit cigaret, resulted in the elephant lashing out in self-defense. As a result, she killed three men in three years. The circus owners felt Topsy could not be controlled and decided to have her put down.
Being circus owners, of course, Topsy’s demise was originally conceived in a grand melodramatic manner: she would be hanged by the neck. However, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals got wind of this idea and issued a public protest. It is not clear how Edison entered the picture – whether he approached the circus or vice-versa has not been established. Nonetheless, he had an idea that could be more dramatic than a hanging.
Electric chair deaths were introduced in the U.S. in 1890. The idea of doing a modified electric chair death for an elephant seemed like a startling idea. For Edison, the notion that AC current could kill the world’s largest land mammal would offer proof that it was too unsafe for use in domestic and business settings.
Edison sent his cameramen and electrical engineers to Coney Island on January 4, 1903. Since it was impossible to sit Topsy in an electric chair, the Edison team devised a manner in which the elephant would be immobilized to the ground, at which point the electrical voltage would shoot up through wires tied around her body.
However, since no one ever electrocuted an elephant before, there was also the possibility that Topsy would survive the voltage shock. Thus, she was prepared for her death by being fed carrots laced with 460 grams of potassium cyanide. No one watching the electrocution was aware the elephant was already dying from poisoning when she was being led to her electrical death.
“Electrocuting an Elephant” begins abruptly with Topsy being led to an open space. The film does not show the immobilizing wires and ropes being secured to her body or wooden sandals with copper electrodes attached to her feet. The film does not show the electrical engineers sending off the 6,600 volt charge, nor does it show the audience of 1,500 people who braved the winter cold to watch the execution.
What is shown, however, is tragic. For a few seconds, the elephant stands alone, looking weak and confused. Slowly, white smoke begins to rise from the ground beneath her legs. As the smoke billows into a white fog, Topsy shakes violently. She then topples over into a lifeless mass.
The audiences in 1903 had no clue about the circumstances behind the production of “Electrocuting an Elephant.” They assumed they were watching a newsreel – it wasn’t until many years later that the truth of the film’s production emerged. However, the concept of a manipulated non-fiction film became locked into the filmmaking bag of tricks – and even as late as today, non-fiction films are still bending the truth around the good faith of unsuspecting audiences.
“Electrocuting an Elephant” has become one of the most notorious of the Edison shorts, if only for the sheer strangeness of what it presents. As with all of the Edison shorts, it is now a public domain title and is the subject of endless bootlegging. However, finding a decent copy of the film is not easy. If you are looking online, be prepared for eyestrain: the blurry copies that can be found look like they were duped 15 times over.
Yet this awful little movie deserves to be seen, if only to appreciate where dishonest non-fiction filmmaking originated. After electrocuting an abused elephant full of poisoned carrots, who could have imagined things would have gotten worse!
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