Also known as The Kiss, Kiss Scene, The May Irwin Kiss, and The Picture of a Kiss, The John C. Rice–May Irwin Kiss is one of the most familiar of nineteenth-century films. Short and succinct, it shows actress May Irwin and actor John C. Rice enacting the climax to the play The Widow Jones. The actors are shot in medium close-up, against a black background, lit by the sun overhead.
If you didn’t already know the play, the film alone might be a bit baffling. Or inscrutable. Watching it today, it has the starkness, the lack of artifice of a home movie. As with other home movies, you are dropped into an alien setting, with no explanation of the people you are seeing or what they are doing. Filmmaker William Heise doesn’t try to define the performers as characters in a story–through the use of props, for example. Intertitles that could have provided dialogue hadn’t been invented yet. Heise assumes that if you are watching The Kiss, you already know about the plot to The Widow Jones. You also already know who these people are, as well as their histories and relationship together. For viewers at the end of the nineteenth, especially those in New York, this could very well have been true. Largely forgotten today, May Irwin was once one of the most recognizable actresses in the country. Around her name swirl most of the significant theatrical names of the late nineteenth century.
Irwin was born Ada Campbell in Ontario in 1862 and educated in a convent school with her older sister Georgia. They attracted some local attention as singers, enough so that their widowed mother brought them to the United States in search of work. Appearing in Buffalo in 1875, they were named “The Irwin Sisters” by a theater manager. (Georgia by this time was appearing as “Flo.”) Two years later they were performing in New York City, for showman Tony Pastor and others.
In 1883, Irwin signed with Augustin Daly, the most influential playwright and producer in the city. His stable of actors included John Drew, Otis Skinner, and Ada Rehan. Irwin developed as a comedienne, appearing in Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s Girls and Boys at the end of the year, and then in a series of Daly’s own plays. After touring with Daly’s troupe in London, Irwin left to join a Boston theater company, giving up legitimate roles to concentrate on music hall skits. One such farce, Home Rule, was written by former newspaper critic John J. McNally.
In 1893 she was hired by Charles Frohman, one of the primary architects of the “star system,” to appear with the highly respected Henry Miller in His Wedding Day. In a comic afterpiece, she introduced “After the Ball,” the first million-selling song. She would later introduce “A Hot Time in the Old Town.”
Starting in 1893, McNally and others began writing full-length “entertainments” for her. These were essentially light comedies with music, and in a way set a template for musical comedies in the early twentieth century. One was The Widow Jones, in which she played Beatrice Jones, a somewhat stout woman who avoided romantic entanglements by pretending to be a widow. In it she introduced a ragtime song, “I’m Looking for de Bully,” which she sang in an exaggerated black dialect, an unfortunate contribution to the growing trend in “coon songs.” (It appeared in sheet music as “Mary Irwin’s Bully song,” word and music by Charles. E. Trevathan. Trevathan, a sports writer for a Chicago newspaper, claimed that he heard “Mama Lou” sing it in a St. Louis bordello run by Babe Connors.)
Irwin’s appearance may come as a bit of a shock today. Stout, matronly, with strong features, she’s more like the later character actors Marie Dressler or Marjorie Main than a romantic lead. Still, getting Irwin to appear in an Edison film was a real coup at the time. The motion picture division was in financial trouble, with almost no library of titles to exploit. The idea of selling individual kinetoscopes had been replaced with the concept of projecting them onto a screen. Instead of one customer per film viewing, exhibitors could sell many tickets for each screening. In April, 1896, this was still a new experience for everyone involved. Films had only recently been shown to the public at all, at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall earlier that month.
The film was sponsored by the New York World, which publicized both the film and the play in the April 26, 1896 edition of the Sunday World. Kissing on stage had become a growing concern, and in its article the World pretended to discuss the topic seriously by showing as much of it as it could. The article included many illustrations of the actual kiss, as well as descriptions of the film and the play. Publicity and promotion were just as important in the 1890s as today, and the article represented one prong in a three-way campaign to make money for everyone involved. The newspaper, the theater staging the play, and the filmmakers all stood to profit from it and from each other.
While it’s always risky to cite firsts in film history, this is the first of countless kisses ever recorded on film. Edison filmmakers were not shy about exploiting the medium for sex and violence. A film released the previous year was called The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, and it showed just that: an executioner beheading a stuffed dummy representing the English queen. Here’s how the Edison catalogue promoted the Irwin film: “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.” At $7.50 a copy, The Kiss was the company’s most popular title of the year, based on the number of copies sold. (At that time, exhibitors would purchase individual films outright, then assemble their own program of shorts.) By the fall The Kiss was often being used to close a film program.
According to historian Charles Musser, this was the first film that disrupted the lives of its cast. Based on his stage portrayal, Rice became a bona fide star. Irwin, thirty-four at the time, thought that he made her play “old” on stage, and had him replaced with an actor named Dickson. Rice in turn developed a vaudeville act with his wife that was based on the film. In his playlet, called A School for Acting, he taught her how to kiss for the movies. Meanwhile, the public clamored for a reunion between Irwin and Rice. She reluctantly acceded. (Others in the cast of The Widow Jones included Roland Carter, Jacques Krueger, and Grace Vaughn. The play enjoyed brief revival in 1902.)
Irwin’s hits continued after The Widow Jones. By the early twentieth century, she had her own management company, and full control of her career. She starred in another film, Mrs. Black Is Back, based on a 1904 play by George V. Hobart. Plot synopses describe a dizzying whirl of mistaken identities, cross-dressing, blackface, slapstick car crashes, and broad humor, like an exercise program that causes Mrs. Black to gain ten pounds. It was filmed partially at her summer home on the St. Lawrence River in upstate New York. Her last comic stage role was in 1919’s On the Hiring Line. She retired from show business completely in 1922. Her first husband, whom she married in 1878, died in 1886. Her second marriage, to her manager in 1907, lasted until her death. Irwin died of pneumonia following a stroke in 1938.
The Kiss was one of the last films shot at the Black Maria, which had become obsolete in less than a decade. The distance from New York to the West Orange, New Jersey, studio was a factor, as it was difficult to convince performers to travel such a long way to appear in an untested medium. One filmmaker who tried to work there found the trash-filled studio’s ceiling stuck open, so that performers had to work in the cold. Filmmakers were discovering that they could assemble a “studio” almost anywhere there was sunlight–on the roof of a Manhattan office building, for example. And the general trend in films was towards travelogues anyway, not snippets from plays and stories. Nevertheless, Edison released a sequel of sorts, The Kiss, with different actors, in 1900.
So much history surrounds this short film, from the rise of theater as a business to race relations to the growth of a celebrity culture to using public relations as an advertising tool. Movies would grow vastly more complex in the coming years, but they would not stray very far from the strategies and tactics employed in The Kiss.
Cast and credits
Cast: May Irwin (Widow Jones), John C. Rice (stage name for John C. Hilburg, in the role of Billie Bilke).
Credits: Directed and photographed by William Heise.
Edison, 1896. B&W, 1.33, silent. Length: 50 feet (approximately 20 seconds).