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Story of Film - September 2013
Remind Me

An Edison Album (1893-1912)

Who invented movies?

It seems like a simple enough question, and one that ought to yield an equally simple and straightforward answer. But the devil is in the details.

The prime mover behind motion picture technology had been the legendary inventor Thomas Alva Edison. As early as 1888, Edison's firm filed a patent for a motion picture contraption called the Kinetoscope--and then in 1896, engineer W.K.L. Dickson actually invented a device to go along with the patent. A prototype was unveiled in 1891, and public demonstrations were held in 1893. By 1894, Kinetoscope parlors were opening in New York, where patrons could pay to watch moving pictures--which Dickson had dutifully registered with the Library of Congress to protect their copyrights.

Edison had originally envisioned motion picture technology as an outgrowth from the phonograph--if he could record and reproduce sound, why not images? As a result, the earliest conception of the Kinetoscope was modeled on the phonograph--with a rotating cylinder on which individual frames were scattered, and as it spun, reflected light and shadows would give off the desired illusion. Although this turned out to be a technological dead-end, there is something telling about the inherent metaphor. Edison saw movies as a closed loop, a merry-go-round: you can get off anytime you wish but you won't get anywhere.

It is also notable that Edison thought so little of the promise in film technology that he tasked its development to underlings. But the bigger misstep was the Kinetoscope itself. Individual patrons would stand at these cabinets, plunk a quarter into the slot, press their eyes to a peephole and view a brief scene such as a woman undressing. After a minute or less, once the little tableau played to its end, they could either pay and watch it again or move on and let the next customer have his turn. This was a boardwalk attraction, a minor diversion, and not at all conducive to the evolution of films like Gone With the Wind (1939), Citizen Kane (1941), or The Matrix (1999). It was destined for obsolescence.

Edison's reluctance to adopt a projection-based approach to exhibition cost him Dickson, who left the company to develop projectors for one of Edison's competitors. Eventually the commercial imperative forced Edison's hand, and the company unveiled the Vitascope projection system in 1896.

This then is the inherent problem in assigning credit for the birth of the movies. When we think of what cinema means to us, it is so much more than the specific technology for reproducing the illusion of motion--it is the cultural experience of joining with our fellow citizens, gathered in the dark, to share an experience. And it was Edison's competitors who pioneered the theatrical model, who developed mass media as we know it today. Edison's Kinetoscope was a private peep show, marketed predominantly to men. Hence the emphasis Edison's earliest films placed on certain subjects: women undressing, sexy dancers, boxing matches, cockfights. The Kinetoscope was a personal circus sideshow, and its content followed suit.

In the earliest days of motion pictures, the majority of films were records of actual events. In today's terminology, they could be called documentaries, but most film historians refer to them as actualities. But this reveals the paucity of language. The most famous of Edison's early actualities, The Kiss depicts actors recreating a scene from a play. The same is true of many actualities--these are moments that have been shaped in part by the presence of the camera, or enacted by people who knew they were on film. With a few key tweaks, these things could be transformed into dramatic stories. All that was needed was the right person behind the camera.

Enter Edwin S. Porter, who joined the studio in 1900. And he brought with him the heady whiff of revolution.

Porter's aesthetic sensibilities were aligned with the likes of Alice Guy and Georges Méliès, emphasizing the use of cinema for storytelling over mere actualities. Porter's earliest works are almost Méliès clones--whimsical fantasies expressed with innovative special effects.

Porter found success by returning to the sensationalist roots of Edison's early films. From the company that brought you peep shows of erotic dancers and animal fights came 1902's Life of an American Fireman. It freely mixes actuality-style footage of several different fire departments with studio-shot footage of actors, blended with various special effects, to depict a brave rescue worker rushing to save his own wife and child from a burning building. The basic contours of the thing were familiar enough--most film companies in those days had actualities of burning buildings and firemen racing through streets--but Porter blended reality and fiction to create thrills. And he found the opportunity to pioneer the art of movie bally-hoo: he boasted to the press such absurd exaggerations as the use of "about 300 firemen" in staging the various scenes.

It was with The Great Train Robbery in 1903 that Porter truly conquered the world. Running twice the length of American Fireman, The Great Train Robbery alternates breathlessly between location shooting and studio interiors, with some innovative matte work to combine both at the same time in certain shots. Hand-tinted color effects added pictorial interest, to a film already packed with shocking violence. By the time George E. Barnes fires his gun directly into the camera lens, the Turn-of-the-Century audience was nearly delirious and exhausted from the experience. The Great Train Robbery was the most commercially successful motion picture of the early cinema era.

Who invented movies? That question bears no easy answers, because so many different creators can claim so many different firsts. But of them, Edwin S. Porter invented the blockbuster--and the movies have never been the same since.

Robert Klepper, Silent Films, 1877-1996.
Richard Koszarski, Hollywood Directors 1914-1940.
Nancy Mowll Mathews with Charles Musser, Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910.
Scott Simmon, More Treasures From American Film Archives 1894-1931 film notes.

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