Essay by Sam Serafy Four Beautiful Pairs of Legs

Sam Serafy

A leggings display at a fashionable department store’s hosiery counter gulls a male shopper (and the audience) into forming a risqué interpretation of the scene. The mannequin legs, adorned with frilly stockings, are so arranged that they appear to belong to the salesladies.

Immersed in their work, the salesladies are initially oblivious that they are implicated in a chance sexualization and, when they catch on, allow themselves only a brief bout of hilarity before duty reasserts itself and they return to business as usual. While implicating the audience by compelling us to admit our own prurient tendencies, the film simultaneously exposes the erotic as a constructed illusion, one that these working women do not take at all seriously.

Four Beautiful Pairs (1904) was produced by the American Mutoscope and Biograph Co., later just the Biograph Company, which is chiefly remembered today for being the studio where motion picture pioneer D. W. Griffith invented much of the grammar of narrative cinema. (1) Essentially a single-sight gag, typical of the company’s early output, the short comedy exploits to full advantage the limitations of the motion picture medium of the period. It is shot in a single take, with no tilts or pans, and the tripod-mounted camera remains fixed in position throughout. This singular perspective dictates the viewer’s sight-line precipitating the mechanics of the visual joke.

The film also presents an early example of the confluence of the artificial and actual woman (2), a theme that, with the proliferation of mass production, would play an increasingly central role in the arts and fashion movements of the twentieth century. Later variations on the motif would explore more literal fusions of woman and doll, culminating with the emergence of the surgically altered, silicone-enhanced supermodel.
(1) Anthony Slide, The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry (Lanham, Md.: The Scarecrow Press, 1998), p. 22.
(2) Lauren Rabinovitz, For the Love of Pleasure (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1998), p. 96.

© Sam Serafy 2006

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