Cinematic Firsts: The First Film Featuring A Robot - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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Cinematic Firsts: The First Film Featuring A Robot

Wind-up Automatons? Dummies? Mechanical Men? What we want are Robots!
When talk turns to the origins of robots in fictional works, Isaac Asimov's name is often quoted. His Robot series of 37 science fiction short stories and six novels certainly defined what we think of today as robots, and his laws of robotics have become the ethical cornerstone of much modern advancements in the field.

Asimov himself was born in 1920, the first of his Robot stories was published when he was just 20; "Robbie" appearing in the September 1940 edition of Super Science Stories (credited then as "Strange Playfellow", which was not Asimov's choice of title). Clearly, even if in nothing but name alone, Asimov's work was influential from that first robotic tale onward, but the first robot to appear within a film did not derive from any of Asimov's work, in fact it pre-dates his birth. Although it wasn't called a "robot" back then.

The first screen 'automaton' was actually presented in French special effects pioneer Georges Méliès’ 1897 short film Gugusse et l’Automate. Also known as The Clown and the Automaton, it featured a clown amazed and confused by the wind-up mechanical movements of an automaton. Quite a few short variations were created around automatons after this early effort, but this Cinematic Firsts article is dedicated to the fully-functioning humanoid-style robot, and that could arguably have first appeared on-screen within a 1917 American comedy film...

A Clever Dummy featured an "all-star cast" billing, among them was Ben Turpin who even if you don't know the name you likely know his face as he was one of the more ubiquitous actors of the silent era...
In A Clever Dummy, Turpin plays a building custodian who is in love with the daughter of an inventor. However, she is engaged to be married to her father's assistant. In an attempt to woe her, Ben takes the place of their "invention", a mechanical man (who already looked suspiciously like Turpin) and ends up on a vaudeville stage.

In this role, Turpin is sometimes credited as portraying the first ever 'robot' on screen. Technically though he's not a robot, as he's just taking the place of a mechanical man who happens to look like him already. Also, although billed as such, it's not really a mecanical man. Whilst clearly supposedly having automaton-like components the dummy was, as the title pretty much suggests, a "dummy". As in a shop mannequin. Just one that was "clever".
Whether Turpin can truly be credited to have portrayed the first humanoid robot on-screen is debatable (he is believed to have been the first filmed "victim" of the pie in the face gag, so he has at least one cinematic first to his name), it's more reasonable to suggest that this happened over a year later during the chapter-play The Master Mystery.
Starring Harry Houdini - yes that Harry Houdini - The Master Mystery is a 1918 American mystery silent serial film told in 15 installments. It features a fully realised mechanical man (obviously played by a costumed actor), and as you can see from the image above it is clearly more like the humanoid robot we may think of from science-fiction works; made of metal rather than the mannequin style from A Clever Dummy.

The Master Mystery premiered its first installment in November 1918, and later across its combined 5+ hour running time an early 1919 'chapter' debuted this 'automaton', as it was still known then. This mechanical man was called Q and portrayed by Floyd Buckly, who is probably most famous for being the voice of Popeye the Sailor Man during the 1930s.

Although supposedly intimidating in presence, Q seems to have been played a little for laughs. In design he seems to have a bucket for a head with large glued-on comic book eyes and a smiling face cut-out. He even does a small victory dance after beating-up 'the good guys'.

It would be hard to deny that Buckly portrayed the first humanoid robot on-screen, and he can quite safely be credited with that title retroactively. And I say retroactively as the word 'robot' didn't actually exist until two years after his turn as automaton Q.

The term 'robot' comes from a Slavic root, robot-, with meanings associated with labor. It was first used to denote a fictional humanoid by Josef Čapek, his brother Karel then included the terminology in his 1920 Czech-language play R.U.R. (Rossumovi Univerzální Roboti – Rossum's Universal Robots), premiering in the same year as Isaac Asimov was born. After this, it wasn't long before humanoid robots as we traditionally think of them became quite ubiquitous on-screen...

1921's The Mechanical Man is an Italian science fiction film directed by André Deed. The story begins with a scientist creating a device shaped like a man that can be remote-controlled by a machine. This mechanical man possesses super-human speed and strength, and is eventually used for nefarious purposes. The film itself is partly missing, with around a third of its 80 minute run-time no longer thought to be in existence. It's certainly the first film to have been produced after the term 'robot' found its way into our language, but although the terminology existed it wasn't commonly used as yet. The first to actually call the character a 'robot', sorta, came in 1927...
Maria/Futura, the Maschinenmensch, a robotic gynoid, played by German actress Brigitte Helm in both her robotic-appearing and human-appearing forms in Fritz Lang's groundbreaking 1927 silent science fiction film Metropolis, was the first cinematic character to be credited and referred to as a 'robot', not so much by Lang but by those critiquing and reviewing the film during the time of its release.

Whether it's Ben Turpin's clever dummy, Floyd Buckly's automaton Q, André Deed's mechanical man or Brigitte Helm's Maria, all four of these early cinematic humanoid robots are worthy of mention, and perhaps they also offered food-for-thought for a young Isaac Asimov and his blossoming interests in robotics?

View all our Cinematic Firsts articles here.

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