The earliest extant sound film. William K.L. Dickson stands in the background next to a huge sound pickup horn connected to a Thomas Edison phonograph recorder. As he plays a violin, two men dance in the foreground. This film was made to demonstrate a new Thomas Edison machine, the Kinetophone. These machines were Kinetoscope peepshow viewers mated with Thomas Edison wax cylinder phonographs.
The Dickson Experimental Sound Film is a film made by William Dickson in late 1894 or early 1895. It is the first known film with live-recorded sound and appears to be the first motion picture made for the Kinetophone, the proto-sound-film system developed by Dickson and Thomas Edison.
The film was produced at the “Black Maria“, Edison’s New Jersey film studio. There is no evidence that it was ever exhibited in its original format.
In 2003, The Dickson Experimental Sound Film was included in the annual selection of 25 motion pictures added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress. being deemed “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” and recommended for preservation.
The sound was found in the form of an old Edisonian recording cylinder. The cylinder was repaired, then Walter Murch ACE MPSE synced the film to the correct music in 2002. Total running time is approximately 17 seconds.
The Kinetophone, consisting of a Kinetoscope accompanied by a cylinder-playing phonograph, was not a true sound-film system, for there was no attempt to synchronize picture and sound throughout playback. The Kinetoscope is an early motion-picture exhibition device. The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. The Kinetoscope was not a movie projector, but it introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video. It created the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. A process using roll film was first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince. The concept was also used by U.S. inventor Thomas Edison and his employee William Kennedy Laurie Dickson between 1889 and 1892. Dickson and his team at the Edison lab also devised the Kinetograph, an innovative motion picture camera with rapid intermittent, or stop-and-go, film movement, to photograph movies for in-house experiments and, eventually, commercial Kinetoscope presentations.
In his book The Celluloid Closet (1981), film historian Vito Russo discusses the film, claiming, without attribution, that it was titled The Gay Brothers. Russo’s unsupported naming of the film has been adopted widely online and in at least three books, and his unsubstantiated assertions that the film’s content is homosexual are frequently echoed. In addition to there being no evidence for the title Russo gives the film, in fact, the word “gay” was not generally used as a synonym for “homosexual” at the time the film was made. There is also no evidence that Dickson intended to present the men—presumably employees of the Edison studio—as a romantic couple. Given the lyrics of the song Dickson plays, which describes life at sea without women, it is more plausible that he intended a joke about the virtually all-male environment of the Black Maria. Also, in some areas of life it was acceptable in the 19th century for men to dance with men without homosexual overtones being perceived; all-male “stag dances,” for instance, were a standard part of life in the 19th century U.S. Army and were even part of the curriculum at West Point. Still, this may be seen as one of the earliest examples of same-sex imagery in the cinema. An excerpt of the film is included in the documentary based on Russo’s book, also titled The Celluloid Closet (1995).