One of the many pre-“Great Train Robbery” narrative films in American cinema, “Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce” (Edison, 1900) is interesting because of how it handles its entire narrative within a single shot; in this case, it’s a proscenium-style wide shot that encompasses all of the characters and action within the frame.
The film takes place in a kitchen, where a maid and a young boy are preparing dinner. The maid is kneading flour into dough, when the husband of the house enters. The boy, hiding behind the wall in the adjoining room, observes the husband and the maid flirting, as the maid embraces him. The husband’s back is turned to the camera just enough so that the viewer sees the maid’s flour-covered hand prints on his back. She goes back to kneading the dough as the boy exits through the front door, calling his mother in, presumably to inform her of what he has observed. The wife scolds the maid, then confronts her husband, who protests her accusations until she points out the hand prints on his back. The husband gets down on his knee to beg forgiveness, but the wife picks up the bowl of flour from the table and proceeds to dump it on her husband’s head! The husband flees, and the wife grabs the maid, ejecting her through the front door and knocking over the kitchen table in the process. The wife exits the scene through the front door as the film comes to an end.
This final action is interesting, because it conforms to the convention of many of these early narrative films that the characters must exit the frame at the end. Having characters forcibly ejected by being thrown, kicked or pushed out of the scene was a common technique. In this case, even though there is no narrative logic for the wife to exit the scene, she does so anyway in order to provide closure to this short sketch. The film itself is a kind of farce comedy, as evidenced by the description in the Edison rental catalog, which describes it as “a very funny picture” (http://memory.loc.gov). It is a domestic comedy, the type of which would later be made especially popular by the Vitagraph company, and the type of which would also serve as a basis for the plots of a number of American slapstick comedies, especially those produced by the Keystone company. In this sense, the film can be seen as influential in its own way, establishing a kind of screen comedy that would go on to have a very long life in the cinema.
Although far from the complex narratives that would appear even just a few years later, especially in the films of Edwin S. Porter, “Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce” is still a good example of early storytelling in the cinema. This film was part of a larger series of films revolving around the “Jones” character. James White served as producer, which at that time was really an all-round description of the film’s maker. This series, which dates back to 1899, is evidence of the popularity for telling stories even in this earliest period.