Close-up, fade-out clinch; the world’s greatest kiss!

23 January 2015

Cultural Studies | History

When American innovator, Thomas Alva Edison, and his British predecessor, Eadweard Muybridge, set themselves the grand task of inventing a device that could capture movement on film, they surely could not have predicted the social, ethical and moral repercussions that would surface and surround moving pictures from that point onwards.

Whilst collating the images for part IV of Victorian Popular Culture, ‘Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema’ (to be re-released later this year), I came across this highly entertaining (and rare) publication enigmatically titled: A Million and One Nights (1926), signed by both the author and Thomas Edison himself! At face value, this “history of the motion picture,” does little to inspire but it is the satirical panache of the author, Terry Ramsay, that I found amusing, in particular with regards to The May Irwin-John C. Rice Kiss.

Image © Bowling Green State University. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

May Irwin and John C. Rice were Broadway celebrities starring in the stage hit The Widow Jones in 1896. Their characters’ climactic embrace at the end of the play caused such a sensation with audiences on-stage that Thomas Edison commissioned its re-enactment for his Kinetograph. According to Ramsay, The Kiss, as it came to be known, “was a roaring hit” and even critics announced that this “glory of the Vitascope [was] worth the price of admission for the entire show on any bill”. However, not everyone was so enthralled. The Kiss was also the catalyst for, as Ramsey terms them, “that persistent race of people who make a career of writing letters to the newspapers” (yes, they have been in action that long!) and, more officially, the screen censorship movement.

One letter, written to The Chap Book (“periodical for the cognoscenti, the intelligentsia and the literati”) on June 15, 1896 and presumably selected by Ramsay for its priceless comedic value declares the picture “disgusting” for the reasons that “neither participant is physically attractive, and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear”. The author also laments that these persistent “outrages to decency… force me constantly into the role of Jack-the-Giant-Killer;…‘I have my hammer out most of the time’… Now I want to smash the Vitascope.”

Luckily for us avid film-goers, the film industry has not been stunted by the author of this letter and others of his prudish kind. Imagine what world we would live in without Hollywood’s most memorable kisses! Here are just a few of my favourite on-screen smooches: James Stewart and Donna Reed in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Audrey Hepburn and George Peppard (and the poor rain-sodden cat squashed in the middle) at the end of Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and, perhaps the cutest (and most difficult to recreate!) between the cocker-spaniel and the handsome mutt in Walt Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp (1955). All these were made possible because of the (in)famous Kiss between May Irwin and John C. Rice which happily “continued to flourish until the negative was worn to tatters”.

A Million and One Nights and many other texts on the history of the motion picture can be found in our soon-to-be re-released Moving Pictures, Optical Entertainments and the Advent of Cinema resource courtesy of the Bill Douglas Centre at Exeter University.

About the Author

Lauren Jones

Originally from South Wales, I am a Publishing Manager at Adam Matthew with a personal interest in C18th women's literature, sexuality and gender studies.