#78) Newark Athlete (1891)

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#78) Newark Athlete (1891)

OR “Somebody Didn’t Skip Arm Day”

Directed by William K.L. Dickson

Class of 2010

This is the revised and expanded version of my original “Newark Athlete” post, which you can read…you know what? Screw it. I’m not linking to the original post. It sucked. 

The Plot: Trucker Lincoln Hawk (Sylvester Stallone) has a strained relationship with his 10-year-old son Michael (David Mendenhall). In an attempt to prove to his son that he can be supportive, Hawk enters the World Armwrestling Championship in Las Vegas, where he must…oh, never mind; that’s the plot of “Over the Top”. Which one is “Newark Athlete”? A 20 second silent clip of a kid swinging Indian clubs? You sure you don’t wanna watch “Over the Top” instead?

Why It Matters: The NFR write up is a brief description of the film’s historical significance, and a shoutout to Dickson and cameraman William Heise.

But Does It Really?: Once again, we have a film that is on here for what it represents rather than for what it is. By itself, “Newark Athlete” is a brief, confusing snippet of seemingly nothing, but in a historical sense, it’s a single piece to the larger puzzle of early American film. It’s a puzzle we will never fully complete, but films such as “Newark Athlete” add more detail to the picture. “Newark Athlete” is nowhere near the untouchable essentials on this list, but its inclusion (and the subsequent research the inclusion inspires) helps us further understand what the likes of Edison, Dickson, and Heise were trying to accomplish with this new technology.

Everybody Gets One: Both Dickson and Heise are represented elsewhere on this list for their contributions to early film, including “The Kiss” and “The Dickson Experimental Sound Film”. This is, however, the only NFR appearance for the Newark athlete himself. There are no records of who this kid was or how he was selected to be filmed, but I’m gonna go ahead and assume that Edison paid him in experience. I can just imagine Edison telling him, “We can’t pay you, but you can use this in your demo reel, a concept which I patented earlier this morning.”

Wow, That’s Dated: Indian clubs were all the rage in the Victorian era; back when exercising meant donning a striped singlet and lifting comically large barbells. Club swinging was even an Olympic sport in 1904 and 1932! Their popularity waned in by the 1920s, but apparently Indian clubs are making a comeback as a martial art?

Other notes

  • The Library of Congress states that “Newark Athlete” was filmed in either May or June of 1891, making it the oldest film on the National Film Registry.
  • Filming occurred at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey (just a few miles from Newark).
  • No shockers here; Indian clubs originated in India as early as the 1600s. Also not surprisingly, they became popular once British soldiers started using them for military exercises and brought them back to England.
  • Apparently the point of Indian clubs is to help increase mobility in the upper body, as well as to strengthen your hands. But what do I know; I spend my free time lounging about watching movies by people who died decades ago.
  • “Newark Athlete” was intended to be viewed on Edison’s Kinetoscope, which in terms of film technology was somewhere between an advanced zoetrope and a primitive projector. Unlike the later industry-standard film stock, Kinetoscope film was developed on a horizontal strip rather than a vertical one.
  • As far as film quality, this one definitely shows its age. Sure, it’s been preserved, but the permanent distortion on the actual film makes “Newark Athlete” look like an acid trip.

Further Viewing: It’s nearly impossible to detail the legacy of a film with purely historical significance and no direct homages or references in future films, so instead please enjoy the trailer to Sylvester Stallone’s “Over the Top”! Winner takes it all!

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