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A Remembrance of Early Movies
Oh yes, I remember seeing the first pictures that moved. In fact, I can remember back before there were any moving pictures at all. My name is Henry Daniels, and I’ll be 72 this year of 1932. I loved motion pictures, I saw every one I could, and I read everything I could find about them. My only difficulty was that I was born in a small town in the Midwest.
When I was a little boy, most of what there was in the way of entertainment was the stage—vaudeville, legitimate stage like Broadway, and opera and so-forth. And you couldn’t go see those unless you had a lot of money. We didn’t, so I had to be content with the traveling magic lantern shows that showed pictures or photographs up on a screen with a light behind them. These were great for a while, but it wasn’t long before they became boring. We also had several toys which showed off something they called “persistence of vision”: they were known as stroboscopic toys, and they were made on the principle that if still images pass quickly enough in front of the eye with black spaces in between, the human eye will see only one picture. If each picture is a little bit different the one before it, the eye sees it as movement.
We had a Thaumatrope at home. This was a little round disc with a picture of a cage on one side, a picture of a bird on the other, and a string attached to each side. When you spun the disc really fast on the strings, it looked like the bird was in the cage. Another toy, the Zoetrope, was a round drum with slits all around and pictures inside. This one was better, because you could get different sets of pictures to go in it. We didn’t have one, but the Thompsons down the road did, and I went down to play with it nearly every day.
Now all this was invented back in the 1820s-1850s. It wasn’t until the 1870s that the first step to moving photographs came about. That step was series photographs. British photographer Eadweard Muybridge (I remember he spelled it funny) was hired in 1872 to prove a $25,000 bet for Mister Leland Stanford, who was the governor of California. Mister Stanford had bet a friend that at one point in a horse’s gallop, all four feet were off the ground at one time. It wasn’t until 1877 that Mister Muybridge was able to set up cameras along a track with wires that would trip the shutters when the horse hit the wires. When these photographs were developed, they showed every part of the horse’s stride. By the way, Mister Stanford won his bet—but spent over $40,000 to do it!
Mister Muybridge kept working on these series photographs, and we got to see some of them in our magic lantern shows. Soon, a guy named Marey, a Frenchman, put lots of photographic plates in one camera; that way, he could take lots of pictures in a row with one camera. When these pictures were moved quickly in sequence, it looked like the picture was moving! Of course, there still weren’t more than about twelve pictures per series—a pretty short movie. Meanwhile, George Eastman of Kodak fame was working on making film out of celluloid to allow thousands of frames to be shot in sequence.
But to get to the real inventor of the motion picture camera, we have to look to the most famous inventor ever. Mister Thomas Edison was a legend even in his own time. Mister Edison didn’t invent the moving picture camera, though. He thought he had more important things to work on himself, so he put one of his assistants, W.K. Laurie Dickson, on the project. Dickson made his first movies around 1890. None of these was shown publicly, but the earliest whole film in the Library of Congress is called Fred Ott’s Sneeze. I guess you could say that Fred Ott, an Edison Company mechanic, was the first movie star!
Mister Edison didn’t think that projecting movies was the way to go, so he invented a thing called a Kinetoscope. You looked through a little eye-piece at the top of the Kinetoscope, and could see the film strip going through. Most of these movies were less than twenty seconds long—but when we got Kinetoscopes put into our Phonograph Parlor, we were amazed at those twenty seconds! It was so amazing to see actual photographs move, just like real life! And you could see each Kinetoscope film for only a nickel. It didn’t matter that they had no story, only a short scene of everyday life—chickens being fed, a girl dancing, or some men tearing down a wall—it was enough that they moved.
I read articles about two brothers in France, the Lumières, who got one of Edison’s movie cameras and modeled one of their own after it. They called it the Cinématographe (every one of these things had some Greek name), and started making their own films.
The Lumières also invented the first projector that worked. Before this, the film might get caught in the projector and get ripped, or it might stay too long in front of the light and burn up. But, building on the work of Major Woodville Latham and his two sons in Virginia, Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince in France, and William Friese-Greene in England, the Lumières were able to make a projector that worked.
I read of several films that the Lumières made and showed on screens, while we were still looking through our Kinetoscopes. They had one of workers leaving their father’s factory, one of a baby eating, and one a train coming into a station. This last one apparently scared the moviegoers to death! They were so surprised by the train coming straight toward them that many of them jumped out of the way! It’s hard to imagine now that people couldn’t tell that it wasn’t real, but back then, it looked so real, it was hard to tell the difference. Then there was one called The Sprayer Sprayed, which I was able to see years later. This was the first movie with a story, despite what everybody says about The Great Train Robbery. A man is watering the lawn with a hose when a young boy comes up and stands on the hose, stopping the water. The man looks into the hose, only to have the boy step off the hose, spraying the man in the face. The man then runs and grabs the boy and sprays him. It didn’t seem like anything at the time, I’m sure, but looking back at the movie now, it’s funny how the camera never moved—the man chased the boy outside of the frame, and the camera never moved to follow them. But at that time (I believe it was first shown in about 1895), nobody had thought yet of moving the camera—the camera wasn’t supposed to do anything, just capture whatever was there in its line of vision.
Soon, Mister Edison realized that he had to project films over here. A young man named Thomas Armat had come up with a projector, and Mister Edison bought it from him to market it under the Edison Company name. Mister Edison called it the Vitascope. I remember seeing one of the earliest Vitascope films when a traveling vaudeville show came through town. This was before the nickelodeons started springing up all over, letting anyone with a nickel see projected films. It was called The Kiss, and it showed two popular stage performers of the time kissing. There was a huge outcry over the picture, which some considered pornographic. It seems silly now, what with the developments of the past several years—but it didn’t take long for censorship talk to start, did it?
But before long it seemed that the Lumières and the Edison Company wanted to make different kinds of films. The Lumière brothers were the fathers of the documentary, filming whatever happened to be near the camera, while Mister Edison’s films kept tending more and more toward fiction and staged scenes.
Another type of film being developed, decidedly in the fiction category, was the trick film. J. Stuart Blackton, a cartoonist and columnist for the New York World, met Mister Edison and got so enamored with the movie business that he wanted to get into it himself. The Edison Company didn’t sell cameras, only projectors. This kept production in their own hands, but let others do the exhibiting. Mister Blackton bought a projector and his partner, Albert Smith, modified it to be a camera as well. Mister Blackton made some films supposedly of the Spanish-American War, but it later turned out that he had made them in New York on his own rooftop! This was the first hint that the camera could lie. Mister Blackton also did a film about the burning of the Windsor Hotel in 1899 by photographing the remains of the burned hotel, and then building a model of it in his studio and burning it on film! These were probably the first special effects to be put on film.
But Mister Blackton didn’t carry trick films to their limit. It took a French magician named Georges Méliès to do that. He found out that he could stop the camera, add or take away something on screen, and restart the camera, and it would look like the something had just magically appeared or disappeared. Méliès also was one of the first to have several different scenes in his movies. Before this, movies had usually had only one scene, with only one camera set-up. He combined these two discoveries to fantastic effect in his best-known picture, A Trip to the Moon, which was even shown over here! Made in 1903, A Trip to the Moon showed a group of astronomers deciding to go to the moon. They board a rocket ship, shoot up to the moon (landing in the eye of the man in the moon!) and meet up with some moon creatures that burst into smoke when they are hit by the astronomers. I tell you, when we thought that pictures that moved were the most amazing thing we’d ever see, we hadn’t seen nothing yet, to misquote from a recent talking movie.
But realistic narrative fiction films, and also basic film editing, are the legacy of Edwin S. Porter, who made motion pictures for the Edison Company. Mister Porter, who had been an exhibitor, realized that the single-scene films being produced weren’t going to keep the people coming to see them forever. In fact, he was right. Motion pictures entered its first commercial slump in the late 1890s. Mister Porter saw narrative pictures, pictures that told a story, as the next logical step to keep the audiences happy. So he made a picture about a fireman rescuing a family from a burning building. But this wasn’t just a narrative film: The Life of an American Fireman made two great leaps forward in technique. It was the first movie that had different shots in the same scene. I don’t know whether the movie producers simply hadn’t thought of doing this yet, or if they didn’t think we would understand it—but in this movie, there’s a shot of a fireman waking up in the firehouse, then a close-up of a hand ringing the alarm, then a shot of all the firemen getting out of their beds. It was all very logical and natural, but it hadn’t been done before. I have to admit that I had never thought of it before myself, but I can tell you that the audience had no trouble figuring out what was going on—it was so obvious. The rest of the movie was like that, too, with logical cuts easily linked by the viewer’s mind.
Another thing of interest about The Life of an American Fireman was that Mister Porter, I read later, had interspersed old newsreel shots of firemen running down the street in a long shot in with his new shots of his actors. We in the theatre couldn’t begin to guess that they weren’t the same firemen. Mister Porter had figured out that if we were told what we were seeing, we wouldn’t question it—much as had Mister Blackton with his Spanish-American War movies.
Here’s where Mister Porter’s much-touted film The Great Train Robbery comes in. No, it wasn’t the first narrative film (The Sprayer Sprayed), or the first edited film (The Life of an American Fireman). What it was, was the first film to use what they call a “cross-cut.” This means, cutting from one thing that is happening to something else that is happening at the same time. Before, every film, even Mister Porter’s, had happened in sequential order. The Great Train Robbery cut back and forth between the robbers and their capturers. After we saw the robbers knock out the train operator and rob the train, we had to know how the robbers would be caught—the necessary end, of course. Mister Porter cut back to the train operator being found and his sounding the general alarm. He also used a little bit of cross-cutting between the escaping robbers and the pursuing posse, but not to the extent and impact that D.W. Griffith would later.
Speaking of Mister Griffith, he started in on films around 1908, I believe. He made many one-reelers (about 15 minutes long, the normal length then) for the Biograph Company, and built on many of Mister Porter’s findings. Mister Griffith soon became one of the only directors that we knew by name. His pictures always seemed a cut above the rest, and that was because they were: Although Mister Porter had invented modern film editing, Mister Griffith perfected it.
Mister Griffith used the cross-cut to build suspense and tension during chase scenes. Almost all of his pictures included a climactic rescue. I remember one of his early films called The Lonely Villa, in which a family is in danger from intruders to the house, and the father is away. Mister Griffith cut back and forth between the family, forced further and further into the house by the incoming intruders, and the father rushing to the rescue. Each shot was shorter and shorter, building the tension brilliantly.
Mister Griffith practically invented the shot, from the camera’s point of view, using long, medium, and close-up shots in a certain sequence to produce a certain reaction. He also realized the power of the pan shot and the traveling shot—no one had substantially moved the camera around within a shot before.
Perhaps most importantly, Mister Griffith made his movies Say Something. He didn’t want to just entertain, he also wanted to uplift and moralize. You could call his movies the first Message Pictures. He used his cross-cutting in A Corner in Wheat in 1909 to draw a parallel between the starving poor who wait in vain at a soup kitchen and the vulgar rich who disdain the feast laid out for them. He would go on to make the first great moral dramas on screen.
Mister Griffith reached his personal climax in 1915 with Birth of a Nation. Now, that was a movie! They don’t make them like that anymore. It was the longest movie that had ever been made—12 reels when released! That’s more than two hours! Now by this time, there were many movies that were at least three or four reels long, but Birth of a Nation tripled that. Yet despite the belief held by many movie executives that fifteen minutes was as long as an audience could sit still, the picture was the most successful ever made—and still is, in fact.
Birth of a Nation was controversial in 1915, and is controversial now in 1932. I expect it will be controversial for many years to come. The hero of it is the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, a vigilante group which sprang up during the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War. Mister Griffith’s view, as near as I could tell, was that the “darkies” should’ve known their place, which was not equal with whites—he glorified the servants who stayed to help their masters after the war, and criticized those who strove for equality. All I knew was that the battle scenes were amazing, of epic scale, and yet Mister Griffith never lost sight of each individual character.
Despite his simplistic and often misguided moral views, Mister David Wark Griffith was the greatest filmmaker the silent screen ever knew. Probably the greatest that the cinema will ever know. His contributions to filmmaking have made him, and I say deservedly, the Father of Modern Filmmaking.
Well, I guess that’s all the time I have. Thanks for giving me the chance to share some of the things I saw and read about from the very first days of motion pictures. I watched the movies with great awe from the first days of the Kinetoscope Parlors, and I intend to keep watching them for a good many more years. I hope motion picture producers can make these new-fangled sound pictures into something worth watching. Interestingly enough, when sound came in, oh, about five years ago, the movies went dead back to where they were in 1900 artistically. The cameras don’t move (I guess it would mess up the sound equipment), the acting hasn’t adapted to the new medium, and movies have again become stage-bound. Oh, well. In 1900 people didn’t think movies would amount to much either. All we need is another brilliant filmmaker to teach the camera how to move again.
Mast, Gerald & Kwan, Bruce F. A Short History of the Movies. Boston, London, Toronto, Sydney, Tokyo and Singapore: Allyn and Bacon, 2000
Koszarski, Richard. Hollywood Directors 1914-1940. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976
Ebert, Roger. Roger Ebert’s Book of Film: From Tolstoy to Tarantino, the finest writing from a century of film. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997
Edited by Kearney, Robin. Chronicle of the Cinema: 100 Years of the Movies. London, New York, Stuttgart and Moscow: Dorling Kindersley, 1995
Hampton, Benjamin B. History of the American Film Industry from its beginnings to 1931. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1970
MacDonald, Dwight. On Movies. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1969
Landmarks of Early Film. DVD; Kino, 2000
Birth of a Nation. Video; Barr Entertainment, 1933 cut
This paper originated as a term paper for Introduction to Mass Media, Missouri Baptist College, Spring, 2001.
©2001 by Jandy Stone