#352) Rip Van Winkle (1896/1903)

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#352) Rip Van Winkle (1896/1903)

OR “The Big Sleep”

Directed by William K.L. Dickson

Based on the story by Washington Irving and the play by Joseph Jefferson and Dion Boucicault

Class of 1995

The Plot: The “Rip Van Winkle” film is comprised of eight short scenes from a popular stage version of the Washington Irving classic. The selected moments consist of Rip Van Winkle (Joseph Jefferson) wandering up the Catskill Mountains, meeting a group of dwarfs, consuming a lot of alcohol, and going to sleep. He awakens 20 years later to find himself an old man. And that’s all this version crams into its 4 ½ minute runtime.

Why It Matters: The NFR doesn’t give specific superlatives to “Rip Van Winkle”, just a general overview of the film’s history.

But Does It Really?: The NFR makes the case for “Rip Van Winkle” as the film that put Biograph Studios on the map, which, while completely forgotten today, is an important stepping stone to the movies as we know them. The film’s historical relevance is enough to get a pass from me, while the film’s presentation makes for an entertaining (albeit not intentionally so) viewing experience.

Everybody Gets One: Born to a set designer and an actress, Joseph Jefferson got a taste for the theater after appearing in a few “babe in arms” roles. At the age of 30, Jefferson, by then an established actor, played Rip Van Winkle in a successful 1859 production. While appearing in London, Jefferson met Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, who helped revise and rewrite the show. Jefferson toured with this version of “Rip Van Winkle” for the rest of his life, rarely performing any other play.

Wow, That’s Dated: Mainly the idea that a few static shots of a play was enough to make a hit movie. What a time to be a pioneer filmmaker.

Other notes

  • Although the film of “Rip Van Winkle” is based on the Jefferson/Boucicault play, Jefferson didn’t perform the dialogue, opting to pantomime his actions so Dickson didn’t have to use intertitles.
  • According to surviving records from the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, you can read Jefferson’s lips and figure out Rip’s toast: “Here’s to your health and your family’s, may they live long and prosper.” Is this where “Star Trek” got it?
  • This film has one of the best unintentionally funny moments in any film ever. Rip meets the Dwarf, who is just a regular sized person crouching close to the ground. He’s not even attempting a Dorf maneuver; he’s just crouching. Was film still such a novelty that they thought no one would notice?
  • I dunno, I guess I was expecting the Catskill Mountains to be funnier. And where’s the borscht?
  • How come the dwarfs don’t play ninepins in this version? Also, why are they dwarfs? In the original story they are just old bearded men dressed like Dutch settlers. One of them is described as “short”, but that’s it. Where is this coming from?
  • And we have another unintentionally funny moment involving the dwarfs. Once Rip falls asleep, the dwarfs start to leave, and one of the actors starts taking off his hat and fake beard, assuming the take is over. Little did he realize this one mistake would be preserved for future generations to judge.
  • My first guess was that “Rip Van Winkle” was filmed at some park near the studio, but it turns out shooting happened at Joseph Jefferson’s summer home in Buzzards Bay, Massachusetts. He must have loved that commute.
  • The only appropriate response after a 20-year slumber is “WHAT YEAR IS IT?
  • For those of you who don’t know the rest of “Rip Van Winkle”, Rip’s sleep made him miss the entire American Revolution, and his talk of King George is mistaken for treason. Thankfully, his adult children recognize him, and he moves in with his daughter, continuing his life of sleeping and drinking without actually learning anything or changing as a human.


  • “Rip Van Winkle” was originally sent to distributors as eight individual films, with exhibitors being allowed to show however many of them they chose. They were popular enough that in 1903 Biograph re-released the shorts as one complete film.
  • Dickson’s Biograph film company got off the ground thanks to “Rip Van Winkle”, and was one of the biggest film studios for the next 20 years.
  • Chicago has acknowledged Joseph Jefferson’s contributions to the theater by naming their annual theater award after him. The Joseph Jefferson Award (or “The Jeff Award” for short) has been honoring the best of Chicago theater since 1968 (“Best” unless you read Time Out Chicago). Jefferson became the award’s namesake because he had appeared in Chicago’s first theater troupe as a child.
  • Joseph Jefferson’s son Thomas was also an accomplished actor, playing the role of Rip Van Winkle after his father’s passing, both on stage and in a few silent films.
  • “Rip Van Winkle” has been adapted to film a few more times over the years, though it is getting harder to sell a story about a man who would rather drink with strangers than listen to his shrewish wife. As best I can tell, the most recent version is the 1987 episode of “Faerie Tale Theatre” starring Harry Dean Stanton and directed by…Francis Ford Coppola?
  • The Van Winkle dynasty continues to this day with Robert Van Winkle, aka Vanilla Ice.

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