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Fred Ott’s ‘Sneeze Face’ + Techno Chaplin: Amazing Archival Tales

Sneeze Face Fred OttFred Ott’s “sneeze face” in the 1894 short film known as Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze.
  • Among the key topics at this year’s edition of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s “Amazing Tales from the Archives” were Fred Ott’s momentous “sneeze face” and a techno version of Charles Chaplin.

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s ‘Amazing Tales from the Archives’ showcased Fred Ott’s historic ‘sneeze face’ + techno Charles Chaplin

Ramon Novarro biography Beyond Paradise

At this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which ran from May 29 to June 1, the program “Amazing Tales from the Archives” focused on three subjects:

  • The filming of Fred Ott’s “sneeze face.”
  • Innovations by motion picture pioneers at the dawn of the 20th century.
  • Actor-filmmaker Charles Chaplin’s use of technology.

Below is a brief commentary about each presentation.

‘A New Look at an Old Sneeze’

“A New Look at an Old Sneeze” nearly bordered on redundancy.

Fred Ott’s sneeze, officially known as Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, was filmed by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1894. One of the oldest surviving “motion pictures,” the approximately one-minute film shows a man – Thomas Edison’s assistant Fred Ott – in the throes of sneezing.

While historically a cinematic event and notable as the first motion picture to be copyrighted in the United States, Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze never does quite demonstrate the potential of what film can do. The thrust of the presentation was the recent discovery of additional frames of film stock in which Mr. Ott’s natural body function can be seen multiple times.

Personally, I prefer the version with fewer frames.

‘The Birds and the Bees’

More interesting was the “Amazing Tales from the Archives” segment “The Birds and the Bees,” which did highlight the potential of motion pictures, focusing on how early pioneers continued to take cinema to new levels.

F. Martin Duncan’s The Cheese Mites (1903), for instance, revealed for all to see what had been otherwise invisible to the naked eye. Likewise, filmmakers/naturalists such as Oliver G. Pike, F. Percy Smith, and J.C. Bee-Mason led the way in the field of wildlife moviemaking, as audiences were able to watch animals in their natural habitat.

The stencil-colored birds in flight and time-lapse photography of blooming flower buds beautifully illustrated what was to come with this new medium.

‘Chaplin’s Use of Technology’

And finally, “Chaplin’s Use of Technology” took a rare look at how this early master of comedy worked as an independent filmmaker, including his use of process shots and rear projection in the United Artists releases City Lights (1931) and Modern Times (1936).

I especially liked the short film of Charles Chaplin arriving at his studio, exchanging pleasantries with his staff, and kissing his butler on the forehead.

A final word

Now a final word about this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

In addition to Karin Swanström’s gender-focused The Girl in Tails (1926), F. Harmon Weight’s romantic adventure Midnight Madness (1928), and Cai Chusheng’s socially conscious drama Song of the Fishermen (1934) – all three reviewed elsewhere at Alt Film Guide – festival presentations included:

Rex Ingram’s blockbuster The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921), with Alice Terry and superstar-in-the-making Rudolph Valentino; Edwin Carewe’s romantic drama Ramona (1928), with Dolores del Rio and Warner Baxter; Yasujiro Ozu’s gangster drama Dragnet Girl (1933), with Kinuyo Tanaka as the title character; and Allan Dwan’s Western The Good Bad Man (1916), with Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Alden.

From my own experience, the event was planned and organized much more efficiently than several previous editions of the festival. The starting times were met with greater precision and the talk before the shows was kept to a minimum. Good job!

“Fred Ott’s ‘Sneeze Face'” endnotes

San Francisco Silent Film Festival website.

Fred Ott’s “sneeze face” in Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze: Courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

“Fred Ott’s ‘Sneeze Face’ + Techno Chaplin: Amazing Archival Tales” last updated in December 2021.

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