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Moving Pictures: The History of Early Cinema
(Released July 2011)

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  by Brian Manley  


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Interior view of Kinetoscope with peephole viewer at top of cabinet

As soon as the motion picture camera and early versions of the projector were invented and patented in 1891, the film industry exploded with new ideas and leapt forward. Edison worked fast to stay ahead of his competitors, and in April 1894, the first Kinetoscope Parlors were opened in New York City (Burns). The parlors became an immediate sensation. Patrons paid anywhere from five to 25 cents to view peep show snippets that ranged from music hall sequences, comic sketches, historical reconstructions and the most popular footage – boxing matches. By July, the first case of censorship against film was enacted, a persistent cause that would come to follow the industry and art throughout its entire history, as one of Edison’s films is forbidden based on the footage showing a dancer who reveals her undergarments In July, one of Edison’s films was forbidden based on the footage showing a dancer who reveals her undergarments, becoming the first case of censorship against film. This would become a persistent cause that would follow the industry and art throughout its entire history (Cinema Year by Year 14).

The amusement provided in these earliest films was in brief snippets lasting 15 seconds to one minute, shot at Edison’s “Black Maria” studios. They featured mainly vaudeville performers performing their various stage acts, such as Little Egypt’s belly-dancing or Sandow the Strongman posing. Other scenes would include tricks staged by such traveling groups as Buffalo Bill’s troupe of cowboys. These would be considered the first “motion picture actors,” although no storylines were used. The technical marvel of the Kinetoscope received a major boost when popular boxing champion Jim Corbett’s fight against Pete Courtney was captured on film, causing both men and women to form lines to the parlors (Usai 14). Filmmakers quickly realized that comedy, action, sports and provocative images would sell tickets. The film parlors, also known as peep shows, were hardly considered upscale entertainment. Kinetoscopes were often found in trains and bars. (“Peep Show Pioneers”).

Jim Corbett vs. Peter Courtney
"James Corbett vs. Peter Courtney," 1894, by Thomas Edison Company, YouTube

Projection of films onto a larger screen proved difficult. In early attempts at projection, the film often ripped, the images were blurry and the projector itself created too much noise to enjoy the movie. Edison’s decision to focus on individualized showings of his films was as much a business decision as it was an acknowledgement of the difficulties inherent in creating a viable and enjoyable mass viewing system. At one point during the creation of the Kinetograph, Dickson developed a means of projecting the test films onto the screen. The idea was stopped by Edison, supposedly to keep the sales of an individualized system from falling (Fulton 29). However, others began to aim for the idea of projection for a mass audience because audiences had been attending mechanically projected shows since the early days of the magic lantern. It seemed to be the next logical step in the evolution of the art and industry of motion pictures (Mast and Kawin 17-19). Even Edison realized this as the popular trend of the Kinetoscope quickly began to fade by 1896 (Pearson “Early Cinema” 15).

Two blunders in Edison’s business venture were the lack of pursuit given to finding a means of projection, and the lack of desire to patent the Kinetoscope outside of the US, which Edison claimed was not worth the extra money. This spurred a race to not only recreate the Kinetoscope in Europe but also to create a useable projector for the mass audience. Robert W. Paul duplicated and successfully sold his version of the Kinetoscope in England in 1894, and followed it up with the invention of a smaller, portable camera similar to that of Edison and Dickson’s design. He followed this up with the creation of the Bioscope, a projector that took into account persistence of vision, thus effecting intermittent motion. This allowed the eye time to register and “take in” the images better, creating less of a perceived flicker in the viewing persistence of vision and affected intermittent motion. He demonstrated his Bioscope in February of 1896 (Fulton 26).

1895 saw many inventors experimenting with projection and demonstrating it to small crowds. Paul was preceded by other competitors in the field. In Germany, inventors and brothers Emil and Max Skladanowsky projected films with Max’s own projector, also known as a Bioscope, in November 1895. The Sklandowsky Bioscope was never a marketable camera/projector based on its bulkiness and could not compete with what was happening in England, France, and eventually, the US (Burns).

It was France that would earn the credit of showing the first large-screen projected films, led by brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière. The Lumières’ December 28, 1895, debut before a paying audience garnered them with instant fame throughout Europe and the US. The brothers owned a photographic equipment factory and had been experimenting with a camera they called the Cinématographe, which they actually demonstrated in March of 1895. The Lumières continued promoting the item as a scientific instrument, until debuting it at the Grand Café in Paris with ten films at the first commercial public exhibition of film. Although Max Sklandowsky’s screening occurred approximately 27 days before theirs, the Lumière’s combined business acumen and marketing skill cemented their names in film history (Pearson “Early Cinema” 14). With the Cinématographe, the Lumières had created a lightweight, hand-cranked machine that could not only record motion photography, but throw the images onto a large screen using the concept of the magic lantern (Sklar 27).

The most famous film of those shown at that historic debut was “La Sortie de l’Usine Lumière à Lyon” (“Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory”), a fifty-foot reel depicting exactly as its title announces. The early films of the Lumières, as with most early cinema, were known as actualities, films that simply depict regular everyday events as they unfold. Many of these were framed as a still photograph would be, with the camera motionless and the subject directly in front of it (“The European Pioneers”). As the Lumières began opening theaters in New York, Brussels, London and France, early filmgoers flocked, and by early 1896, the short actualities of the Lumière Brothers were a part of popular culture. By 1903, the Lumières had created over two thousand experimental films. The most famous of these in film lore was “L'Arrivée d'un Train en Gare de la Ciotat” (“Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station”).

Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat
"Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station," 1895, by Auguste and Louis Lumière, YouTube

Created in 1895 or 1896, “Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station” is mostly known for its legend more than its actual accomplishment. The footage is a single shot of a train in the distance approaching the station, the camera never moving but allowing the train to hurtle past it. The attached lore is that the train seemed to be hurtling off the screen into the audience, a visual phenomenon never before experienced at the time, especially on such a large, intimidating screen. Viewers allegedly fainted, ducked and screamed (Brownlow 2). The camera angle the filmmakers selected created a sequence of events, varying from distant shot to close-up, and displayed a new way of presenting the unstaged. In essence, the filmmaker directed the camera for the first time, as opposed to simply sitting in front of the action. The Lumières continued to find success and innovation with “L'Arroseur arrosé” (“The Sprinkler Sprinkled”), a dramatization of a well-known newspaper cartoon sequence (Sklar 30). This short film is considered the first fully fictional-style film projected in public and opened new doors in the film industry for creativity as well as comedy (“The European Pioneers”).

The Sprinkler Sprinkled
"The Sprinkler Sprinkled," 1896, Auguste & Louis Lumière, YouTube

The first projection of film in the US would also be washed away from mainstream history. Before both Sklandowsky’s Bioscope and the Lumières Cinématographe, Major Woodville Latham would project a boxing match onto a storefront window in May 1895 in New York City with his Eidolscope, a projector based on the principles of the Kinetescope which was co-invented with William Dickson, Edison’s former employee (Burns). Latham and his sons doubled the width of Dickson and Edison’s original 35mm to 70mm, providing a clearer picture. In order to show longer motion pictures without the film ripping, the Lathams created a small loop of excess film preceding the gate, easing the tension from the feeding reel. The Lathams patented this and the idea is still used in modern 35mm cameras and projectors, known as Latham’s Loop (Mast and Kawin 19).

Now facing direct competition in the US, Edison doubled his efforts to keep pace. In September 1895, Thomas Armat demonstrated his projection machine, the Phantoscope, co-created with Charles Francis Jenkins, at an exposition in Georgia. Informed of Jenkins’s and Armat’s invention, Edison reached an agreement with the two men which allowed Edison to manufacture a projection machine under his name incorporating the other inventors’ devices. The projector was called the Vitascope and premiered on April 23, 1896, in New York City (Fulton 28-30). Edison’s premiere program, although sufficiently promoted and a financial success, did not have the same impact on its spectators as the films of the Lumières. Edison relied on the same films he had used for his Kinetoscopes. The one film that received attention was “A Rough Sea at Dover,” an English film shot by Birt Acres and supplied by Robert W. Paul, that again caused some audience members to react with excitement. From this moment, Edison used his “Black Maria” studio less, sending his filmmakers to shoot actualities similar to those of the Lumières and Acres (Sklar 30-31).

Vitascope poster
1896 poster advertising the Vitascope

The movie industry was born in these years, but the ideas of what the industry could and would become had not yet been completely conceived. Films were still a novelty and an experiment. However, with the advent of the now available Cinématographe and Vitascope, theaters opened across Europe and the US, and filmmakers began to create new forms of what would soon be understood to be not only a new form of art but a profitable one.

Go To 1896-1902

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