BOOTLEG FILES 375: “Admiral Cigarette” (1897 advertising film produced by Thomas Edison’s fun factory).

LAST SEEN: The film can be seen on several online video sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: It has been included in the 2004 DVD “More Treasures from American Film Archives.”

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An expired copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: It did, but you can’t stop the bootleggers!

I rarely seek out the so-called popcorn movies anymore because I don’t feel they are real movies – in my view, they are multimillion-dollar merchandising campaigns shoehorned into a celluloid package. Of course, the corruption of motion pictures with incessant product placement and ancillary marketing campaigns is not a recent development. But I recently wondered just where the worlds of movies and merchandising first overlapped.

The answer, it seems, was at the very start of the U.S. film industry. Way back in 1897, Thomas Edison’s pioneering film production company created the first advertising commercial with a 30-second spot for the Admiral Cigarette brand. This groundbreaking effort was a very unusual endeavor at many levels.

During the 1890s, the National Cigarette and Tobacco Company invested an extraordinary level of time, energy and money into the promotion of its Admiral Cigarettes. The marketing campaign revolved around a series of full-color drawings featuring shapely young women wearing nautically inspired outfits. Actually, that is half-correct: the costumes were half-inspired by Napoleonic naval uniforms and half-inspired by music hall costuming. Thus, the women wore sailor hats and modified sailor tunics (with creative tailoring to highlight a bit of cleavage) while their lower torso provided much less in the way of clothing and much more in the way of stocking-clad legs.

The Admiral Cigarette gals turned up in a series of amusing advertisements, where they were posed on naval vessels in anticipation of an enemy attack. The “admirals” in this campaign attracted a large male following, and National Cigarette and Tobacco obliged their fans by printing up trading cards and posters featuring the all-girl navy.

(In case you are wondering, a pack of 20 Admiral Cigarettes cost five cents in those days.)

In the latter half of the 1890s, Thomas Edison was beginning to reshape the entertainment with the presentation of motion pictures. It is not clear whether Edison approached National Cigarette and Tobacco or vice-versa – most likely, the cigarette makers made the offer as a way to push past the American Tobacco Company, the dominant force that nearly controlled the U.S. market.

Details on the creation of “Admiral Cigarette” (as the film is now known) are scant. Some film scholars attribute the direction and camerawork to William Heise, though no one has been able identify anyone in the film’s cast. The production probably took place in July 1897 at the Edison Black Maria studio in West Orange, New Jersey.

“Admiral Cigarette” opens with four men seated in front of a billboard for the eponymous product. The men are engaged in a highly animated conversation, and each represents a different station of society: an Irishman with thick mutton chops, an American Indian in a war bonnet, an elderly man wearing a beret and some kind of uniform (some sources identify him as either a soldier or a clergyman) and Uncle Sam. Opposite of the men is a giant Admiral Cigarette box.

Without warning, the box opens and out pops a lovely young lady in a mix of nautical and showgirl attire. She is an Admiral Cigarette advertising come to life. The men jump up in surprise, but their agitation quickly turns to joy as she happily hands out cigarettes.  She also showers the floor around them with individual cigarettes.

The men unfurl a banner that reads “We All Smoke.” The men and their lady gallantly point to the Admiral Cigarette billboard while taking dramatic puffs on their cigarettes. And, thus, in a 30-second silent vignette, advertising turned up on the movie screen.

By contemporary standards, “Admiral Cigarette” is interesting for the presence of the American Indian as an equal among the white smokers. This was uncommon for the 1890s, though it is unlikely that audiences of the day put any thought in this casting. (They were just happy to see pictures that moved.) Also, having the cigarette girl puffing away on her tobacco stick alongside the men was also ahead of its time – proper ladies of the late Victorian era were not expected to smoke, let alone in the company of men.

Edison secured a copyright for “Admiral Cigarette,” which makes it the first known advertising film to be protected as intellectual property. Bootlegging of films was rampant in the late 19th and early 20th century period, and Edison’s company sought protection from celluloid pirates by making positive image paper photographic rolls, or “paper prints,” of their work, which was sent for copyright deposit at the Library of Congress. As a result of this, the bulk of Edison’s pioneering work survived intact.

It is not certain how 1897 audiences reacted to a filmed advertisement – the fact that Edison and other early film producers mostly avoided overt commercial product promotion suggests the experiment may have been poorly received. In any event, the film was mostly forgotten over the years. Most contemporary audiences saw it for the first time when a restored version was included in the 2004 three-disc DVD release “More Treasures from American Film Archives (2004),” which was compiled by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

Since the film’s copyright expired years ago, “Admiral Cigarette” can be freely duped. But since prints of the film were never widely available to collectors, today’s online video copies were obviously ripped from the copyright-protected 2004 DVD release. It is kind of funny, though – 114 years after it was made, “Admiral Cigarette” is still being bootlegged!

And speaking of bootlegging, this is the 375th column in The Bootleg Files series. Thank you for stopping by Film Threat every Friday for a trip down duped-film lane. I greatly appreciate the feedback and support that this column receives.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free shits and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg videos and DVDs, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg videos is perfectly legal. Go figure!

Posted on May 13, 2011 in Bootleg Files, Features by

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  1. Ace_ETP on Fri, 13th May 2011 3:12 pm 

    Thanks, Phil, for this consistently entertaining feature. Congratulations on the milestone column.

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  2. Rick Deckard on Fri, 13th May 2011 8:51 pm 

    Congrats Phil. You’re the reason I read this site! You should consider assembling these columns into a book.

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  3. sosgemini on Thu, 19th May 2011 11:59 pm 

    Congrats!! You have been the one constant that keeps me coming back after all these years. Kudos to you!!!

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  4. hinty on Mon, 23rd May 2011 12:02 am 

    Rick is right. Book with DVD. Next stop 750.

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