Few staples of cinema have had the long-lasting appeal of the big kiss. Slapstick, the chase, the pie-in-the-face gag, drawn out fistfights, shock tactics, etc., have all come, gone, come back and gone back again. But, the kiss, arguably the most durable action in the history of the movies, has never wavered from our screens. From the nervous pecks of the early cinema to the elaborate and prolonged kisses of Valentino or Garbo, from the moderated lip brushes of the Production Code-era (“no excessive or lustful kissing,” sayeth the Code) to the brusque muzzling of film noir, from the breath-holding extended face sucking of the 70s and 80s right up to those tongue battles we see on-screen today, the kiss has been a nearly constant presence in cinema. And why not? Those embraces make dramatic moments more dramatic, shocking scenes more shocking, sexy moments more sexy, and provide many a weak scene with a climax.
In 1896 the novelty of the motion picture was wearing off in the United States; the Lumiere Brothers’ Cinematographe and Thomas Edison’s Vitascope were competing for paying audiences. Little surprise then that Edison turned to sex as a means to beat the competition. In those days before television or the Internet, with the cinema still in its infancy, one popular attraction for entertainment was the theater. In 1896, one of the sexiest things happening in theater was The Widow Jones, a musical in which May Irwin and her costar John C. Rice shared a prolonged onstage kiss. As the Edison catalog later described it the couple's osculation “brought down the house everytime.” The mouth music was so outrageous that The New York World ran an article about it, complete with line drawings! Edision went a step further and filmed the lip wrestle for his Vitascope in April 1896.
The film simply consists of one shot of the pair getting ready to kiss and then doing the deed. The kiss in The Kiss is shown in a medium close-up (the first?) rather than in the long or medium shots of the Lumiere’s actualities or Edison’s own Kinetoscope films; the resulting feeling of closeness to the subjects gives the scene an intimacy unknown before in motion pictures. Though the action itself is clumsy and all too brief, the film opens up the possibility for intimacy to fuel cinema. All of those steamy onscreen couplings begin right here. Of course, movies have a long way to go before we’ll feel any heat coming off of the screen. I have to agree with those who complained at the time that the actors aren’t attractive enough to make us even want to watch them kissing. Nevertheless, The Kiss was the most popular Edison film of the year, and turned John C. Rice into a kissing star. The film apparently generated a storm of protests from church leaders and newspapers columnists. Why such a big controversy over a little smooching? It may seem quaint to us today that such a furor erupted over 18 seconds of snogging, but kissing in public wasn’t as socially acceptable in 1896 and no one had ever seen anyone kiss on the screen before. Besides, Madonna and Britney Spears swapping spit at the MTV Music Video Awards spurred similar controversy in 2003 and remains one of the most downloaded images on the Internet. It appears that the peck wields a mighty power to grab our attention and provoke a myriad of reactions even in these jaded times. Personally, I wouldn’t have it any other way. Long live the kiss!