By Phil Hall | April 11, 2008

BOOTLEG FILES 228: “Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (Sandow, the Modern Hercules)” (1894 short starring bodybuilding icon Eugen Sandow).

LAST SEEN: Available online at several sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: No official release, due its very short running time, but it has been included in collections of silent shorts.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: No copyright protection.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely, for obvious reasons.

Did you ever stop and say to yourself: “Hey, who was the very first movie star?” You never did? That’s funny, because I did. In researching the answer, I found myself going all the way back to the dawn of motion pictures, where a scantily clad muscleman flexing his biceps was the unlikely pioneer in the realm of celluloid stardom.

The year was 1894, and the American motion picture industry consisted solely of Thomas Edison and his team of inventors. Edison’s approach to movies was curious – he didn’t see the value in projecting filmed images for a mass audience to share. Instead, he believed the future rested in the kinetoscope, a cabinet-like device that allowed individual viewers to drop a coin and watch a film loop.

Edison had the technology in place, but he was missing one key element: the film contents. After all, what could induce people to give up their hard-earned coinage for a minute or two of peep show entertainment? But Edison faced problems: the film format did not allow for sound or color, and the primitive nature of the early movie cameras required a single, stationary shot. This ruled out a great many possible choices for film subjects. However, there was one man who had no problem filling that void.

That man was a German immigrant named Frederick Muller. He came to America under a new name, Eugen Sandow, and under the direction and promotion of an ambitious showman named Florenz Ziegfeld, he updated the hoary old circus strongman act into something very unusual and different. In between the expected presentations for feats of strength, there were posing sequences where Sandow arched and twisted his body in a manner that detailed the excesses of his musculature. Sandow called it “muscular exhibition.” Today we call that bodybuilding and no one thinks twice about it, but in the 1890s it was a startling and exciting physical display. Reportedly, Sandow made a nice side business by accepting money from women who wanted to feel his mighty muscles!

Sandow’s fame in the United States grew fairly quickly and he became a major headliner on the vaudeville circuit. Edison realized he could also cash in on Sandow’s fame, and in early 1894 he sent word to Ziegfeld about having Sandow appear in a kinetoscope film.

To his credit, Sandow’s brawn was equaled by his brains. Edison’s inquiry coincided with plans to release a book called “Sandow on Physical Training,” and the strongman saw an opportunity to leverage publicity for that effort via a quickie association with the celebrated inventor.

Thus, on March 6, 1894, the first meeting between a movie producer and a movie star took place in West Orange, N.J. Sandow, accompanied by a small brigade of reporters and photographer, traveled to Edison’s Black Maria studio. Sandow and Edison posed for photographs, and that photo op was a publicist’s dream: the world’s strongest man and the world’s smartest man sharing a vigorous handshake.

Edison then handed Sandow over to William K.L. Dickson, who was in charge of the film production at Edison’s studio. Sandow stripped off his clothing, donned his tighty-whitey posing trunks, and stood before the hand-cranked kinetoscope camera. And, to employ the ultimate cliché, history was made.

The film began with Sandow holding his hands behind his head, enabling a conspicuous bit of bicep flexing and abs display. (Speaking of display, Sandow’s posing shorts left very, very little to the imagination.) Sandow then folded his arms across his meaty chest, followed by a modified version of the crab pose that enabled another view of his abs while showing off his forearms. After a quick single bicep pose, Sandow turned around for a lat spread, showing off a ridiculously well-developed back. After a few stretching exercises, Sandow turned back to the camera and repeated his poses.

And that, in less than 45 seconds, was Sandow’s movie debut. On April 14, 1894, barely a month after it was shot, the film premiered at the Holland Bros.’ Kinetoscope Parlor on Broadway in New York City.

Strangely, no one thought of giving the film a title. It played in kinescopes without an official name – signs around the kinescope identified the contents for potential viewers. Even more curious, given the nature of piracy and bootlegging in 19th century intellectual property, the film didn’t receive copyright protection until a month after it was first shown. In filing the movie with the Library of Congress, it was given the seriously awkward title “Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (Sandow, the Modern Hercules).”

But even with those hiccups, this little film became a celluloid gold mine. Edison was bombarded with inquiries from the leading vaudeville performers of the day, and many of them trekked to his New Jersey studio to capture their dancing, acrobatics and assorted mayhem for the kinetoscope camera (sharpshooter Annie Oakley turned up at the Edison studio in November of that year). Within 12 months of Sandow’s flexing routine, Edison reaped a financial harvest from kinetoscope sales.

However, two years later the kinetoscope was on a one-way trip to oblivion. Projecting films on a screen, as opposed to running them through a peep show device, became the standard format of exhibition. Simultaneously, it was decided for film content to offer a bit more than severely abbreviated versions of vaudeville routines. The modern film industry was now beginning to evolve.

Sandow touched based with Edison again in 1903 for another filmed record of his “muscular exhibition,” but by that time there was little interest from the public. Another Edison-produced effort that same year, a Western called “The Great Train Robbery,” caught the attention of audiences. Narrative films became the rage, and guest appearance mini-films such as Sandow’s routine were out of date.

Strangely, Sandow made no further effort to pursue film work (he died in 1925). Perhaps his success on stage, in publishing and, later, in business gave him enough wealth and activity that he didn’t need the movies.

So what happened to “Souvenir Strip of the Edison Kinetoscope (Sandow, the Modern Hercules)”? There is no record of its being theatrically screened in Edison’s day. As with the other surviving kinetoscope films, they remained unseen for many years until they were gathered together for archival preservation. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has the original print of the Sandow film, and copies were made for preservation at the Library of Congress.

Since the film’s copyright is long expired, the Sandow film has been widely copied. Many web sites include it for viewing, and it’s turned up in a wide variety of documentaries.

So that’s where movie stardom all began. Now that’s something I bet you didn’t expect to learn when you started the day!

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure

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