In 1895, May Irwin and John C. Rice starred in a Broadway show called, “The Widow Jones”. In the play, they exchanged a kiss at the end. May, though blonde haired and blue eyed, fit the appearance of a leading lady‘s mother rather than the romantic lead herself. John was a fitting costar, with sparse hair in the front and a prominent mustache.
It was a pivotal time for motion pictures. That year the Phantoscope, a motion picture projector, was demonstrated in Atlanta, Georgia at the Cotton States Exposition. Prior to this projector, motion pictures were limited to individual viewing using the Kinetoscope. One would look through a small peep hole to view the moving loop of film in the Kinetoscope.
Norman Raff and Frank Gammon marketed and produced films for the Kinetoscope, which was the invention of Thomas Edison and his employee, William Dickson. When the Phantoscope was demonstrated, Raff and Gammon immediately saw the potential and consulted with Edison to manufacture the machine. Mr. Edison had conditions for this agreement. The Phantoscope was renamed The Vitascope and advertised as Edison’s Greatest Marvel.
On April 23, 1896 the Vitascope was introduced to the public at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall in New York City. That day, the Vitascope played its part in the debut of romantic movies in the first motion picture featuring a kiss, and thus titled, “The Kiss”. May Irwin and John C. Rice were hired to reenact the kiss from “The Widow Jones” for Thomas Edison’s production in the Black Maria Studio in West Orange, New Jersey. The 30 second film was made and it was the most popular film produced that year by Edison Manufacturing Company.
The silent film shows a couple from a distance to include head and bust. They talk with their lips touching for a few seconds, then part, ready themselves, and smooch it up. It was a scandal to see people kiss in a close up fashion at the time this was filmed. Kissing was a private act, and even kissing on stage had been controversial in the 1890‘s.
Herbert S. Stone offered this review of “The Kiss”, “… neither participant is physically attractive and the spectacle of their prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to beat when only life size. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over is absolutely disgusting!”
Aside from her part in this first romantic movie, May Irwin had a successful career as a stage actress, songstress and comedienne. She was said to be the one distinctively funny woman on American stage. She made investments in music rights, including the purchase of rights to My Wife Bridget, composed by Irving Berlin for a price of $1,000. When she retired to an island she owned on the St. Lawrence River, she was a millionaire.
John Rice appeared in the Broadway productions of "Courted Into Court", "Are You A Mason" and "Vivian's Papas". He died in Philadelphia in 1915 of Bright's Disease.
You can view this first romantic movie on the internet. It is easily found by the title of "May Irwin Kiss".