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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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Although filmmaking was becoming more complicated and experimental, the majority of the popular cinema retold scenes and stories or copied itself. Filmmakers duplicated what was successful, creating more train films (a genre unto itself) and more one-joke gag reels. Filmmakers such as Méliès, Baché and James Williamson began to find creative ways to use the camera and incorporate a narrative into the movie forum. After viewing Méliès’ “Le Voyage dans la lune” (“A Trip to the Moon”), projectionist Edwin S. Porter learned that a film could continue from one scene to the next, telling a story with continuity.

Based on his experience as a projectionist, Porter was hired by Edison as a cameraman. Eventually he became director of production for the company, and would go on to employ his ideas of making actions appear continuous from one shot to the next and depicting events taking place in different locations simultaneously. Porter would be called by many the most important filmmaker of the first decade of the movies. As the success of Méliès’ “A Trip to the Moon” held audiences captive in 1902, Porter released his two most important films in 1903 (Mast and Kawin 36-37). “The Life of an American Fireman” is considered the first film to exhibit a different form of temporal continuity. It is a mixture of actuality and fiction footage that depicts a fire station as a wagon answers the call for a rescue. The rescue scene has become controversial. The found footage of this film features thirteen cross-cuts depicting the firemen outside the building and the tenants waiting to be rescued within the building. Hailed as a breakthrough in primitive cinema for its use of allowing multiple perspectives, it was later discovered that the print owned by the Library of Congress was not the original edit by Porter. Porter originally cut the scene much like other filmmakers of the day, showing the full rescue operation as one scene and then the full interior scene from start to finish (Sklar 36). This two-cut version was similar to an over-lapping of action used by several other filmmakers of the time, including Méliès and James Williamson’s “Fire!” (1901). It is important in heralding what was to come.

As of 1902, the Lumère Brothers had declared that “cinema was an invention without a future” (Burns). In later 1903, Porter released “The Great Train Robbery.” This film is often credited for establishing the Western genre, the “story” film, and for the commercial success of motion pictures in general. “The Great Train Robbery” confirmed the medium’s ability to place the viewer directly into the scene and into the middle of the action. Porter created his narrative by editing multiple shots together of the same scenes and using a variety of different and creative camera angles. Characters run at and fight around the camera. The camera moves with the action, offering a visual immediacy that was unknown to film-going audiences. The film was fast and filled with crime and violence, which was proving increasingly popular with filmgoers. It also represented the changing tastes of audiences, who now preferred storyline films over actualities (Sklar 39-40).

The Great Train Robbery
"The Great Train Robbery," 1903, by Edwin S. Porter, YouTube

“The Great Train Robbery” is considered the world’s first blockbuster film. It changed how movies were made, and its success made it possible for theaters to continue opening in large numbers across the US (“Peep Show Pioneers”). Porter and other filmmakers began to make more comedies, Westerns, crime and chase films as well as to continue experimenting with camera and narrative techniques. Cecil Hepworth’s “Rescued by Rover” (1904) shows an energetic advancement over Porter’s multiple shot techniques, bringing more emotional connections with the characters for the audiences. The filmmakers of Brighton, England, known as the Brighton School, also laid a foundation for cinema to transition from a primitive to more advanced stage. Williamson and George Albert Smith experimented with such techniques as point-of-view shots, close-ups and moving camera shots, and the idea of color film, all of which laid a foundation that would be used and improved upon by a later filmmaker named David Wark Griffith (Mast and Kawin 41-45).

From its earliest days, the business of the film industry immediately was a cutthroat business. The late 1890s and early 1900s saw Edison pose legal challenges against his rivals during the first decade of cinema in the US. Because of Edison’s ongoing litigation against filmmakers, corporate theft perpetrated by cameramen and exhibitors, and film piracy, studios such as Biograph, studios such as Biograph, the Vitograph Company of America and Méliès’ Star Film Company found trouble raising capital or making profits. The Patent Wars threatened to decapitate the infant industry (Sklar 43-44). A treaty was eventually developed among the nine leading film companies of the day. In 1908, Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Lubin, Selig, Kalem, Méliès, and Pathé, along with inventor Thomas Armat and distributor George Klein, formed the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC), agreeing to share the legal rights to their various patents (Mast and Kawin 45-47).

The founding of the MPPC coincided with the explosion of the nickelodeon theater and eventually began to regulate its operation. By 1908, over 5,000 nickelodeons were opened across the US (“Peep Show Pioneers”). The MPPC was eventually declared illegal under the Sherman Anti-Trust Act in 1915. Its members, the founders of the film industry, were quickly regarded as the “old guard,” and they would soon be replaced by the rise of Hollywood and its infamous moguls, many of whom began their careers as newly arrived immigrants with stakes in the expanding nickelodeon sensation (Pearson “Transitional Cinema” 26-27). The MPPC’s existence created a conglomerate of independent filmmakers that fought against its monopolizing policies. The most important of these were William Fox, the Independent Motion Picture Company, Keystone, Thanhouser and Rex. By 1914, hundreds of new firms had entered the business (Balio 103).

1910 nickelodeon theater
A nickelodeon theater in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, circa 1910

Cinema continued expanding as both a business and an art form. By 1907, entrepreneurs began to move west, leaving behind the old studios in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania for the wide open spaces in California. The wave of immigration that occurred in the eastern US in the first decade of the 20th century saw new ideas and innovation enter the business. Names such as Fox, Adolph Zukor, Carl Laemmle, Louis B. Mayer, Marcus Loew, William Selig, Samuel Goldfish, Jesse Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille laid the foundations for the birth of a city of filmmaking in a suburb outside of Los Angeles called Hollywood. Such companies as Paramount, Fox, Keystone, Warner Brothers, Universal and MGM would soon become household names and producers of the majority of US films. Longer films were being produced on a much more commercial level, and for the first time, audiences were starting to attend movies based on the actors in the films. Suddenly, “picture personalities,” later known as “stars,” were the main attraction for filmgoers. The star system was founded with such actors as Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks (who would form United Artists and helped shape the business of the industry, as well) (“The Birth of Hollywood”).

In 1908, an actor-screenwriter named David Wark Griffith began making one-reel films for Biograph. The move to narrative styles of filmmaking also brought the push for longer films. By 1912, one-reel cinema was dying. The success of the French film “Les Amours de la Reine Elisabeth” (“Queen Elizabeth”) and the Italian three-hour epic “Cabiria” inspired a new generation of filmmakers to attempt movies that were several reels in length (Sklar 52-56). Griffith left Biograph for the independent company Mutual/Reliance-Majestic, which gave him creative control of his projects. The project Griffith selected was the Thomas Dixon novel “The Clansmen.” His film adaptation, “The Birth of a Nation,” opened March 3, 1915. The film is as important for cinema on an economic, technical and artistic level as it is socially controversial. With “The Birth of a Nation,” Griffith advanced not only the notions of narrative brought forth by directors such as Porter but used and progressed camera techniques and the art of cinematography. Griffith heralded what would become a modern age of filmmaking, and the success of his film would guarantee the continued success of movies (Mast and Kawin 65-71).   

© 2011, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

  1. Balio, Tino, ed. “Part II: Struggles for Control: 1908-1930.” The American Film Industry. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1976. 103-118. Print.

  2. “The Birth of Hollywood (1907-1920).” Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood. Prod. Jon Wilkman. Turner Classic Movies, 2010. DVD.

  3. Brownlow, Kevin. The Parade’s Gone By… Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. 1-15. Print.

  4. Burns, Paul. The History of the Discovery of Cinematography. n.p. n.d. Web. 31 May 2011.

  5. Cinema Year by Year:1894-2004. Ed. Robyn Karney. London: DK, 2004. 14-27. Print.

  6. “The European Pioneers.” The Movies Begin: A Treasure of Early Cinema: Volume Two: 1894-1913. Kino, 2002. DVD.

  7. Fulton, A. R. “The Machine.” The American Film Industry. Ed. Tino Balio. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1976. 19-32. Print.

  8. Herbert, Stephen. “Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince.” Who's Who of Victorian Cinema. n.p. n.d. Web. 31 May 2011.

  9. Mast, Gerald and Bruce F. Kawin. A Short History of the Movies, 7th ed. Needham Heights, Massachusetts: Allyn and Bacon, 2000. 1-71. Print.

  10. Pearson, Roberta. “Early Cinema.” The Oxford History of World Cinema.Ed. Geoffery Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 13-23. Print.

  11. Pearson, Roberta. “Transitional Cinema.”The Oxford History of World Cinema.Ed. Geoffery Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 13-23. Print.

  12. “Peep Show Pioneers (1889-1907).” Moguls and Movie Stars: A History of Hollywood.Prod. Jon Wilkman. Turner Classic Movies, 2010. DVD.

  13. Pratt, George.“Motion Pictures on the Road: 'No Magic, No Mystery, No Sleight of Hand'.” The American Film Industry. Ed. Tino Balio. Madison, Wisconsin: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1976. 46-58. Print.

  14. Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002. 14-61. Print.

  15. Usai, Paolo Cherchi. “The Early Years: Origins and Survival.” The Oxford History of World Cinema. Ed. Geoffery Nowell-Smith. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. 6-12. Print.