The Kiss (also known as The May Irwin Kiss, The Rice-Irwin Kiss and The Widow Jones) is an 1896 film, and was one of the first films ever shown commercially to the public. Around 18 seconds long, it depicts a re-enactment of the kiss between May Irwin and John Rice from the final scene of the stage musical The Widow Jones. The film was directed by William Heise for Thomas Edison. At the time, Edison was working at the Black Maria studios in West Orange, New Jersey.
The film contained the very first kiss on film, with a close-up of a nuzzling couple followed by a short peck on the lips (“the mysteries of the kiss revealed”). The kissing scene was denounced as shocking and obscene to early moviegoers and caused the Roman Catholic Church to call for censorship and moral reform – because kissing in public at the time could lead to prosecution.
The film caused a scandalized uproar and occasioned disapproving newspaper editorials and calls for police action in many places where it was shown. One contemporary critic wrote, “The spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was beastly enough in life size on the stage but magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting.”
The Edison catalogue advertised it this way: “They get ready to kiss, begin to kiss, and kiss and kiss and kiss in a way that brings down the house every time.”
Perhaps in defiance and “to spice up a film”, this was followed by many kiss imitators, including The Kiss in the Tunnel (1899) and The Kiss (1900).
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I teach several classes for the Stephens College Low-Residency MFA in Screenwriting, including History of Screenwriting. In fact, I created the curriculum for that course from scratch and customized it to this particular MFA in that it covers ‘Screenwriting’ (not directors) and even more specifically, the class has a female-centric focus. As part History of Screenwriting I, the first course in the four-class series, we focus on the early women screenwriters of the silent film era who male historians have, for the most part, quietly forgotten in their books. In this series, I share with you some of the screenwriters and films that should be part of any screenwriters education. I believe that in order to become a great screenwriter, you need to understand the deep history of screenwriting and the amazing people who created the career. — Dr. Rosanne Welch