I found this short movie, about Coney Island, fascinating. It’s Rube and Mandy at Coney Island. It was released by the Edison Manufacturing Company to theaters in August 1903, although I couldn’t say just when. Probably it doesn’t matter. For the era I would expect prints just threaded their ways through theaters, appearing at any particular location goodness knows when.
I don’t blame you if you skip through the video, though. It hasn’t got much of a story. It’s really most fascinating as a view of what stuff there was to see at Coney Island’s Steeplechase Park and Luna Park in the summer of 1903. Director Edward Porter was surely trying for a comic short about smalltown hicks overwhelmed by the amusements of the big city. Well, look at the first word of the title, and the horse-pushed carriage they use to get there. But after that, up to the final scenes of Rube and Mandy failing at the High Striker and getting befuddled by hot dogs, there’s not much to mark them as particularly out of it.
I can’t tell you anything about Rube or Mandy. I can’t find information about who performed them. The title makes it sound like there should be a series of “Rube and Mandy” shorts. I could imagine a string of shorts of them going to different places, but I don’t see evidence of that. Porter’s filmography does list a Rube and Fender also from 1903, and A Rube Couple At A County Fair for 1904 at least.
Edward Porter may strike you as a faintly familiar name. He was the director for The Great Train Robbery, plus about three hundred other short subjects you never heard of. That The Great Train Robbery also came out in 1903 makes it stand out to me that almost at the same time he directed this basically storyless short.
But maybe an amusement park short, especially a live-action one, is forced to be a bit storyless. In a cartoon the characters can hurtle from one attraction to another in a way that builds the storyline. Filming real people — especially on the low budget and short filming times available — keeps each attraction in its own separate universe. Add to that a lack of dialogue or interstitial title cards, as in this short, and there’s not much way to carry a story through the scenes.
So maybe the short is best appreciated as accidental documentary. (Porter would film an openly documentary short titled Coney Island in 1905. Yes, I am aware of the difficulties in calling anything filmed a documentary.) It shows off parts of the Steeplechase Park of the time, before the 1907 fire obliterated it. Legendarily, the morning after the fire Steeplechase Park owner George Tilyou — you may know him from that grinning Tilly face — put up a sign promising the park would be rebuilt, bigger and better, and charging ten cents admission to the smoldering ruin. The park was rebuilt, and lasted until 1964. Luna Park was newly opened, replacing Sea Lion Park. Luna Park would be destroyed by fire in 1944.
I think most remarkable about the amusements is how few of them are outrageous. They would fit into a modern park almost effortlessly. Well, the Monkey House would be right out — I hate to think what was done to keep the Monkey House performers from ripping the staff’s face off — and the other animal rides would be looked at with more skepticism. But Shoot-the-Chutes are still around. Rope bridges and helter skelters are more aimed at kids these days, but there’s no reason they couldn’t be set up for adults. It’s remarkable, I think, to look at people from a hundred and twelve years ago — literally from before the Wright Brothers’ famous first airplane flew — and see the same small things as we do today.