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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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Mutoscope at Herne Bay Museum and Gallery, Kent, England

The popularity of the movies was born and exploded across the US and Europe during 1896. Audiences flocked to see the Eidelscope, Kinematographe, Cinématographe, Bioscope, Veriscope, Vitascope and every other new projection machine that seemed to be invented as quickly as new films were being made, all to adjust to the demands of the audiences for this new entertainment. A rivalry existed between inventors and even nations which eventually brought quarrels and legal accusations (Pratt 46). Although New York City became the epicenter for the latest in innovations in the film industry, by 1897, theaters across the US had become extremely popular and film showings began occurring frequently in such European cities as Paris, Brussels and London. Besides inventors, a variety of filmmakers began to originate new techniques and styles of movies, including Emile Reynaud’s animated pictures, Charles and Emil Pathé’s first attempts at color, and the fantasy-science fiction films of Georges Méliès (Cinema Year by Year 20).
In the US, Edison had several rivals that challenged his dominance in the industry. James Stuart Blackton and Albert Smith founded the Vitagraph Company of America to make films depicting their own vaudeville acts. However, with the outbreak of the Spanish-American War filmmakers acted as journalists and were able to bring home images that were precursors of newsreels, although some of these images were re-enactments better described as to propaganda than actual footage. Vitagraph would soon become established as one of the country’s primary film producers. The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company began in 1896 to create flip-cards for Mutoscope machines, competitors with Edison’s Kinetoscope. However, when William Dickson, Edison’s former employee, joined the studio, the company shortened its name to Biograph and began producing films of better quality, replacing the Lumières as Edison’s chief competitor. By entangling them in legal disputes, Edison removed them from the market in 1897 (Pearson “Early Cinema” 16).

With the invention of the Biograph, other competing projectors began appearing. Oddly enough, the Lumières, considered as important a name as Edison’s in association with the advent of cinema, would not outlast the competition. The Lumières remained dominant in the industry in both Europe and North America. However, in 1897, because of inexplicably harsh threats to its American employees based on improper customs documents by US customs officials, Lumière shut down its American operations and curtailed its film output altogether by 1898. By 1903, the Lumières had a catalog of over two thousand titles; by 1905, the company mysteriously abandoned film production to concentrate on still photography (Sklar 31).

As the powers of the industry shifted, the content and direction of films continued to evolve. The newcomer who created one of the biggest excitements in the earliest wave of movies was the French magician Georges Méliès, who was influenced by both Dickson’s earliest works and the films of the Lumières. One of the biggest influences on Méliès was the 1895 Edison film “The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots,” directed by Alfred Clark, who had taken over Dickson’s role at Edison’s company. Clark continued to use the straight fixed-angle style, watching an actor being led into view and placing his head on the chopping block. Clark then stopped the film to allow a dummy to be substituted in order to show the recreation of the beheading. This one difference suddenly opened a new door in filmmaking that would continue to balloon and expand, fanning the imagination of the magician Méliès (Mast and Kawin 25).

The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots
"The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots," 1895, Thomas Edison, YouTube

Méliès began incorporating special effects through his use of editing based on his stage illusions. In such films as “Escamotage d’une dame chez Robert-Houdin” (“The Vanishing Lady”) in 1896, Mèliés stopped the camera and substituted a skeleton for a woman. The magician was the first filmmaker to bring fantasy, science fiction, horror and dark comedy to the cinema, as well as one of the first to begin writing skits with actors, bypassing the idea of shooting actualities (Sklar 31).

It was filmmakers like Méliès that began to lead a new revolution in film style, only a few years after its invention. Quickly the growth of the film machine led to the production of film art. At its earliest beginnings, movies were unstaged, unplanned slices of life; the camera acted as though a spectator might at a play or a street scene. The science and novelty of the movement onscreen was enough to entice audiences and filmmakers. Alfred Clark’s foray into editing influenced Méliès to pursue the idea, incorporating his magic tricks into fantastical storylines sewn with the earliest filmed special effects. The filmmaker began using both splicing and editing consistently to create appearing and disappearing images in a variety of lively and extravagant sets. Méliès would also superimpose multiple shots; layering images overtop one another to create bizarre visions (Pearson “Early Cinema” 18). He was the founder of several innovative techniques that are still used in modern filmmaking, leaping from the documentary-style of the Lumières into a new narrative style. In 1899, Méliès created the first film to consist of more than one scene with “The Dreyfus Affair.” He may have been the first filmmaker to use the first dissolve, time-lapse photography, and the first to light films from the side, as well as from above. His most famous work was the 30-scene 1902 fantasy masterpiece, “Le Voyage dans la lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”), in which he combined fantasy, humor and social criticism with an armful of truly never-before-seen visual tricks (Mast and Kawin 31-33).

A Trip to the Moon
"The Journey to the Moon," 1902, by Georges Méliès, YouTube

Despite his innovations, Méliès still approached filmmaking as a play and his films remain thoroughly theatrical, as if they were performed on a stage. Most films leading up to 1900 reflected the turn-of-the-century fascination with transportation and travel, spawning countless train films. Parades, vaudeville acts, world’s fairs, funerals, theatrical recreations of the life of Christ and boxing matches most often filled the movie theaters. One-shot gag films, the use of humor, special effects and narrative in more complicated forms would slowly be integrated into the movies, but it was over the course of thousands of shorts. (Pearson “Early Cinema” 18). Still, new investments, new companies and new filmmakers challenged the medium. Charles Pathé and his brothers started making better quality films with their studio Pathé Frères, which eventually conquered the French filmmaking industry by manufacturing equipment and film stock, owning theaters and producing films. Léon Gaumont simultaneously created his own film empire, forming what would become the model for the modern studio system, with projects being supervised by studio executives and created by contracted writers, cinematographers and talent. Gaumont also promoted his secretary, Alice Guy Baché, to become the first woman director, as well as the first woman to head a production arm of the studio in 1897. However, despite the excessive activity in filmmaking during this period, films would not change much until around 1902 (Mast and Kawin 27-28).   

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