The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (1905)
Director: Edwin S. Porter
Synopsis: “The Whole Dam Family and The Dam Dog is a popular fad which has been widely advertised by lithographs and souvenir mailing cards, and has recently been made the subject of a sketch…”
Even by 1905, a couple of years after their groundbreaking The Great Train Robbery, Edison studios’ film output was still primarily factual, but The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog provides an early example of the film business cashing in on another pop culture phenomena that captured the public’s imagination. In this case, it’s the eponymous family who became popular through a set of postcards. This perhaps explains why most of this five minute short is comprised of close-ups of each member of the aforementioned clan.
They’re a rum lot, The Dams, it has to be said. Head of the household is I. B. Dam, a man in late middle-age who seems to be afflicted by a bad case of hay fever as we’re introduced to him. His wife, named only as Herself, is a plump and earthy looking lady who doesn’t stop talking (or silently mouthing) for the whole time the camera is on her. Their oldest son is Jimmy Dam, clearly an experienced smoker and possessor of a ski-slope nose. Next is their daughter, U. B. Dam, a vain slip of a girl pre-occupied with the state of her hair, followed by her younger sister, Annie, probably the most demure of the lot. Her little sister Lizzie spends most of her time in the spotlight playing with her chewing gum, while Baby Dam just bawls incessantly.
After this lengthy introduction, the film briefly stirs itself with some lively animated intertitles before calming down once again as we join the Dam family for dinner. Dad has to unseat the Dam dog in order to claim his place at the head of the table, and then has to admonish his chain-smoking son for puffing on a cigarette while everyone is eating. Dinner is brought to an abrupt end when the aggrieved dog rushes back into the dining room and pulls the tablecloth — and the crockery upon it — onto the floor.
There’s something not right with a film when the best thing about it is the titles, but they are actually unusually advanced for the era, with letters moving around the screen before assuming their proper position. They’re sort of reminiscent of the kind of titles you’d find at the beginning of some lame 1960s comedy movie that’s self-consciously attempting to be ‘zany’. Unfortunately, there really isn’t much to recommend the film otherwise. Those introductions seem to go on forever. No doubt they gave audiences familiar with the Dam Family characters time to marvel at how closely the actors resembled those characters, but today they do nothing other than draw attention to the actors’ endless mugging. It would have been nice to know who these actors were, given their prominence in the film, but as was the practice back then, their identities are never revealed.
A curiosity and an oddity, The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog is the kind of film most people will only bother to watch once.
(Reviewed 6th September 2014)