Early German Film

The history of German cinema can be traced back to the late 19th century to the years shortly after the medium’s birth.

On November 1st, 1895 Max Skladanowsky and his brother Emil demonstrated their self-invented film projector the Bioscop at the Wintergarten music hall in Berlin. A 15-minute series of eight short films, it was the first screening of films to a paying audience in Europe. This performance pre-dated the first paying public display of the Lumière brothers’ Cinematographe in Paris on December 28th of the same year, a performance that Max Skladanowsky attended and at which he was able to ascertain that the Cinematographe was technically superior to his Bioscop.

Other German film pioneers included the Berliners Oskar Messter (1866-1943) and Max Gliewe, two of several individuals who independently in 1896 first used a Geneva drive (which allows the film to be advanced intermittently one frame at a time) in a projector, and the cinematographer Guido Seeber. Oskar Messter’s firm Messter Film was one of the dominant German producers before the rise of UFA, into which it was ultimately merged.

In its earliest days, the cinematograph was perceived as an attraction for upper class audiences, but the novelty of moving pictures did not last long. Soon, trivial short films were being shown as fairground attractions aimed at the working class and lower-middle class. The booths in which these films were shown were known in Germany somewhat disparagingly as Kintopps. Film-makers with an artistic bent attempted to counter this view of cinema with longer movies based on literary models, and the first German “artistic” films began to be produced from around 1910.


French Film Pioneers

Some consider France to be the birthplace of cinema and certainly its industry in the late 19th century and early 20th century was the world’s most important, responsible for many of the significant contributions to the art form and the film-making process itself.

The Lumière brothers, Auguste Marie Louis Nicolas (1862 – 1954) and Louis Jean (1864 – 1948), were among the first filmmakers in history. They patented an improved cinematograph, which in contrast to Thomas Edison’s “peepshow” kinetoscope allowed simultaneous viewing by multiple parties. The Lumiere Brothers realised the first projection with the Cinematograph, at the Salon Indien, Grand Café, 14 Boulevard des Capuchins, in Paris on the 28th December 1895. This was the first commercial presentation and for many historians is seen as the official birth of cinematography.

Among the ten shorts shown were Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon and La Mer that were both made earlier in 1895. Workers Leaving The Lumière Factory in Lyon is often referred to as the first real motion picture ever made, although Louis Le Prince’s 1888 Roundhay Garden Scene pre-dated it by seven years. Also shown was L’Arroseur Arrosé a comedy starring François Clerc and Benoît Duval. It was first screened privately on June 10, 1895 and has the distinction of being the earliest known instance of film comedy, as well as the first use of film to portray a fictional story. The film was originally known as Le Jardinier (“The Gardener”).

In 1896 Auguste and Louis produced and directed L’arrivée d’un train en gare de La Ciotat. Contrary to myth, it was not shown at the Lumières’ first public film screening in Paris, as the programme of films shown that day makes no mention of it. Its first public showing actually took place in January 1896.

The early days of the industry, from 1896 to 1902, saw the dominance of four firms, Pathé Frères, the Gaumont Film Company, the Georges Méliès company, and the Lumières.

While the Lumiere’s Cinematographe, and its showing of what was primarily documentary material, established French primacy, it was Georges Melies (1861-1938), a French illusionist, who became the world’s leading producer of fiction films in the earliest days of cinema.

Méliès led the field in many technical and narrative developments. He was well-known for the use of special effects, popularising such techniques as substitution splices, multiple exposures, time-lapse photography, dissolves, and hand-painted colour. He was also one of the first filmmakers to use storyboards. His films include A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Impossible Voyage (1904), both involving strange, surreal journeys somewhat in the style of Jules Verne, and are considered among the most important early science fiction films, though their approach is closer to fantasy.

In 1899 Melies directed Cinderella. Based on the fairy tale by Charles Perrault, it is advertised in Méliès’s Star Film Company catalogues as a grande féerie extraordinaire en 20 tableaux. The following year he directed Joan of Arc.

Melies’s A Trip to the Moon (1902), perhaps the most famous film of the decade, was loosely based on Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon and H. G. Wells’ The First Men in the Moon. Méliès stars as Professor Barbenfouillis, the President of the Astronomer’s Club who proposes an expedition to the Moon. A space vehicle in the form of a large artillery shell is built in his laboratory, and he uses it to launch six men (including himself) on a voyage to the Moon. The vehicle is shot out of a large cannon into space and hits the Man in the Moon in the eye (the moment remains one of the most iconic and frequently referenced images in the history of cinema). Having landed, the intrepid French explorers encounter unfriendly extraterrestrials. The explorers flee to their spaceship and hurry back to the safety of Earth. While the use of overlapping action may confuse and even disconcert the modern viewer, A Trip to the Moon is still seen as important to view thanks to, what was then, an unusual length, lavish production values, innovative special effects, and an emphasis on storytelling that was markedly influential on other film-makers and ultimately on the development of narrative film as a whole.

Widely regarded as the earliest example of the science fiction genre, it was filmed in the overtly theatrical style for which Méliès became famous. The film was an internationally popular success on its release, and was extensively pirated by other studios, especially in the United States. Scholars have commented upon the film’s extensive use of pataphysical and anti-imperialist satire and its artistic significance within the French theatrical féerie tradition. Though the film disappeared into obscurity after Méliès’s retirement from the film industry, it was rediscovered around 1930, when Méliès’s importance to the history of cinema was beginning to be recognised by film devotees. An original hand-coloured print was discovered in 1993 and restored in 2011. The film remains the best-known of the hundreds of films made by Méliès and was named one of the 100 greatest films of the 20th century by The Village Voice, ranked 84th.

In 1902 the Lumières abandoned everything but the production of film stock, leaving Méliès as the weakest player of the remaining three firms.

In 1904 Melies made The Impossible Voyage that was based in part on Jules Verne’s play Journey Through the Impossible and modelled in style and format on A Trip to the Moon. The film is a satire of scientific exploration in which a group of geographers attempt a journey into the interior of the sun.

After this critical analysis of Melies work became more negative and when financial problems followed, he retired from filmmaking in 1914.

Chief among Melies competitors in the first decade of the century, the Pathé Frères company was founded by the Pathé Brothers of France starting in 1896. In the early 1900s, Pathé became the world’s largest film equipment, distribution and production company, and in 1908, Pathé invented the newsreel that was shown in cinemas prior to a feature film. It is the second oldest operating film company in the world, predating Universal and Paramount Pictures.

Pathe distributed The Assassination of the Duke of Guise in 1908, a historical film directed by Charles le Bargy (who also directed La Tosca 1909) and André Calmettes. It was adapted by Henri Lavedan, and featured actors of the Comédie-Française and prominent set designers. It is one of the first films to feature both an original film score, composed by Camille Saint-Saëns, and a screenplay by an eminent screenwriter.

At Gaumont, pioneer Alice Guy-Blaché (1873 – 1968) (M. Gaumont’s former secretary) was made head of production and oversaw about 400 films, from her first, La Fée aux Choux, in 1896, through 1906. Guy one of the early cinema’s most important figures, and had a long career as a director, producer and studio owner.

She was one of the first to make a narrative fiction film and during her period at Gaumont she was probably the only female filmmaker in the world. She experimented with Gaumont’s Chronophone sound syncing system, colour tinting, interracial casting, and special effects.

Her 1896 version of La Fée aux Choux (The Fairy of the Cabbages) is a lost film that featured a honeymoon couple, a farmer, pictures of babies glued to cardboard, and one live baby. Alice Guy Blaché reported that she had to remake the film at least twice and this accounts for the two films dated 1900 and 1902 that are available to view online. Alice’s 1900 version employed one actress (the fairy), two live babies, and a number of dolls. Her 1902 version, later retitled Sage-femme de première classe, employed a honeymoon couple and a female baby merchant along with numerous babies and dolls. In a still photograph from the 1902 version called Sage-femme de première classe (Midwife First Class) Alice appears, dressed as a man. She does not play the husband in the film, but said that she “for fun pulled on the peasant clothes” for the photograph.

Alice’s 1896 film was the first to bring a story to an audience and the first to have a written scenario which Alice wrote. The 1896 version was filmed on 60-millimeter film and was about 30 meters (about 90 feet) long. The 1900 version of La Fée aux Choux is on 35-millimeter film and is about sixty seconds long. The 1902 version is on 35-millimeter film and is about four minutes long.

All three versions refer to an old and popular French (and actually, European) fairy tale in which baby boys are born in cabbages, and baby girls are born in roses.

Along with director and screenwriter Maurice Tourneur and Léonce Perret, Alice Guy continued her career in the United States after World War I. She was a founder and artistic director of the Solax Studios in Flushing, New York, in 1908. In 1912 Solax invested $100,000 for a new studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey, the centre of American filmmaking prior to the establishment of Hollywood. That same year Alice made the film A Fool and his Money, with a cast comprised of only African-American actors.

In 1907 Gaumont owned and operated the biggest movie studio in the world, and along with the boom in construction of “luxury cinemas” like the Gaumont-Palace and the Pathé-Palace (both 1911), cinema became an economic challenger to legitimate theatre by 1914.

It was at Gaumont in May 1907 where the first feature length motion picture was produced in Europe. L’Enfant prodigue ran for 90 minutes and was directed by Michel Carré, from his own three-act stage pantomime, The Prodigal Son. The film was basically an unmodified filmed record of his play. The movie premiered at the Théâtre des Variétés on the Boulevard Montmartre, in Paris, on June 20th, 1907. Carré directed another film version of L’Enfant prodigue in 1916.

In 1908 Gaumont  distributed one of the earliest examples of traditional (hand-drawn) animation Fantasmagorie, which is considered by film historians to be the first animated cartoon. It was made by Émile Cohl (1857 – 1938), a French caricaturist of the largely forgotten Incoherent Movement, cartoonist, and animator, called “The Father of the Animated Cartoon” and “The Oldest Parisian”.

Also working at Gaumont during this period was prominent and prolific film director Louis Feuillade (1873 – 1925) who between 1906 and 1924 directed over 630 films. He is primarily known for the serials Fantômas, Les Vampires and Judex.

Fantômas was a crime film based on the novel of the same name. The five episodes, initially released throughout 1913-14, were restored under the direction of Jacques Champreaux and released in this new form in 2006.

Fresh from the success of Fantômas, and facing competition from Pathé, Feuillade quickly and inexpensively wrote and directed the celebrated underworld crime series, Les Vampires (1915). The serial was made up of ten feature length episodes released monthly. It follows a journalist and his friend who become involved in trying to uncover and stop a bizarre underground Apache gang, known as The Vampires (although they are not the mythological beings their name suggests). Elegantly beautiful and exhilarating, the film was despised by many critics when first released but is now revered, particularly the performance of Musidora as Irma Vep.

The film was a massive success with its wartime audience, making Musidora a star of French cinema. Set in Paris it also stars Édouard Mathé and Marcel Lévesque and due to its stylistic similarities with Fantômas and Judex, the three are often considered a trilogy. Les Vampires is recognised for developing thriller techniques, adopted by Alfred Hitchcock and Fritz Lang, and avant-garde cinema, inspiring Luis Buñuel and others. It is included in the book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die.

Origins of British Film

Possibly the first moving picture was shot in Leeds, England by French artist Louis Le Prince in 1888 and the first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park, London in 1889 by British inventor William Friese Greene, who patented the process in 1890.

Le Prince (1841 – 1890) shot the moving picture sequence using a single lens camera and a strip of (paper) film. Although some have credited him as the “Father of Cinematography,”, his work did not influence the commercial development of cinema, owing at least in part to the great secrecy surrounding it.

The Leeds sequences of October 1888 were the culmination of a series of motion-picture experiments by Le Prince during that year. They were shot at Roundhay Garden, Leeds Bridge and showed Le Prince’s brother playing the accordion. As well as his single-lens camera Le Prince used Eastman’s paper negative film. This work is thought to have been slightly in advance of the inventions of contemporaneous moving-picture pioneers such as Friese-Greene and Wordsworth Donisthorpe, and years in advance of that of Auguste and Louis Lumière, and William Kennedy Dickson.

Le Prince was never able to perform a planned public demonstration in the US because he mysteriously vanished from a train on the 16th September 1890. His body and luggage were never found, but, over a century later, a police archive was found to contain a photograph of a drowned man who could have been him. The reason for his disappearance varies. The theories include a murder set up by Thomas Edison, suicide, secret homosexuality, intentional disappearing in order to start a new life, and a murder by his brother over their mother’s will.

At the start of 1890, the Edison workers had begun experimenting with using a strip of celluloid film to capture moving images. The first public results of these experiments were shown in May 1891. But Le Prince’s widow and son, Adolphe, were keen to advance Louis’ cause as the inventor of cinematography. In 1898 Adolphe appeared as a witness for the defence in a court case brought by Edison against the American Mutoscope Company. This suit claimed that Edison was the first and sole inventor of cinematography, and thus entitled to royalties for the use of the process. Adolphe Le Prince was not allowed to present his father’s two cameras as evidence (and so establish Le Prince’s prior claim as inventor) and eventually the court ruled in favour of Edison. While the ruling was overturned a year later, Le Prince’s part in the history of film is often overlooked.

The first people to build and run a working 35 mm camera in Britain were Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres. Paul was an English electrician and scientific instrument maker and he and Acres made the first British film Incident at Clovelly Cottage in February 1895, shortly before falling out over the camera’s patent.

Soon several British film companies had opened to meet the demand for new films, such as Mitchell and Kenyon in Blackburn, Lancashire. The Mitchell & Kenyon film company were originally best known for minor contributions to early fictional narrative film and Boer War dramatisation films, but the discovery in 1994 of a hoard of film negatives led to restoration of the Mitchell & Kenyon Collection, the largest surviving collection of early non-fiction actuality films in the world. This collection provides a fresh view of Edwardian era Britain and is an important resource for historians.

Although the earliest British films were of everyday events, the early 20th century saw the appearance of narrative shorts, mainly comedies and melodramas. The early films were often melodramatic in tone, and there was a distinct preference for story lines already known to the audience, in particular, adaptations of Shakespeare plays and Dickens novels.

The Lumière brothers first brought their show to London in 1896. Early exhibition in Britain, as in most European countries, followed a similar pattern to the United States, with primary exhibition venues being fairgrounds, music halls, and disused shops.

In 1898 American producer Charles Urban (1867-1942) expanded the London-based Warwick Trading Company to produce British films, mostly documentary and news. Seen as one of the most significant figures in British cinema before the First World War, Urban struck out on his own after five years and formed the Charles Urban Trading Company. The company, who used the slogan ‘We Put the World Before You’, produced early colour films using his patented colour system which would be known as Kinemacolor from 1909 onward and was the world’s first successful motion picture colour system.

The Kinemacolor was launched by Urban Trading Co. in 1908 and used commercially until 1914. It was invented by George Albert Smith of Brighton in 1906, who was influenced by the work of William Norman Lascelles Davidson and, more directly, Edward Raymond Turner. It was a two-colour additive colour process, photographing and projecting a black-and-white film behind alternating red and green filters. Kinemacolor later influenced and was replaced by Technicolor, which was used from 1916 to 1952.

Smith (1864 – 1959) was a key member of the loose association of early film pioneers dubbed the Brighton School by French film historian Georges Sadoul. His short films from 1897 to 1903 pioneered film editing and close-ups.

A Visit to the Seaside (1908), directed by Smith, was the first successful motion picture filmed in Kinemacolor. It is an 8-minute short film showing people doing everyday activities and is ranked of high historical importance.

The Urban Trading Co. actually made its name prior to the Kinemacolor process with coverage of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5 from Joseph Rosenthal (with the Japanese) and George Rogers (with the Russians). Other notable cameramen working for Urban were Charles Rider Noble (filming in the Balkans), H.M. Lomas (Malaya, Borneo, hunting films), John Mackenzie (the Balkans), mountaineer F. Ormiston-Smith (Switzerland, Sweden), and the naturalists F. Martin Duncan and F. Percy Smith. The CUTC also made fiction films, including several science fiction and trick films made by Walter R. Booth. Charles Urban ceased to have any connection with the company (beyond his name being used) after 1910. It ceased production during the First World War when William Friese-Greene challenged the patent of Kinemacolor process in court.

Before working with Charles Urban, magician Walter R. Booth (1869 – 1938) worked for Robert W. Paul mostly on “trick” films, where he pioneered techniques that led to what has been described as the first British animated film, The Hand of the Artist (1906).

In 1901 Booth directed Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost a drama short featuring the miserly Ebenezer Scrooge confronted by Marley’s ghost and given visions of Christmas past, present, and future. The earliest known adaptation of Charles Dickens’s 1843 novel A Christmas Carol, the film, “although somewhat flat and stage-bound to modern eyes,” according to Ewan Davidson of BFI Screenonline, “was an ambitious undertaking at the time,” as, “not only did it attempt to tell an 80 page story in five minutes, but it featured impressive trick effects, superimposing Marley’s face over the door knocker and the scenes from his youth over a black curtain in Scrooge’s bedroom.”

In 1898 Gaumont-British Picture Corp. was founded as a subsidiary of the French Gaumont Film Company, constructing Lime Grove Studios in West London in 1915 in the first building built in Britain solely for film production. Also in 1898 Hepworth Studios was founded in Lambeth, South London by Cecil Hepworth, the Bamforths began producing films in Yorkshire, and William Haggar began producing films in Wales.

In 1902 Ealing Studios was founded by Will Barker, becoming the oldest continuously-operating film studio in the world. Barker bought the White Lodge on Ealing Green in 1902 as a base for film making, and films have been made on the site ever since.

In 1902 the earliest colour film in the world was made. Like other films made at the time, it is of everyday events. In 2012 it was found by the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford after lying forgotten in an old tin for 110 years. The previous title for earliest colour film, using Urban’s inferior Kinemacolor process, was thought to date from 1909. The re-discovered films were made by pioneer Edward Raymond Turner from London who patented his process on the 22nd of March 1899.

In 1903 Frank Mottershaw of Sheffield produced the film A Daring Daylight Robbery, which launched the chase genre. The film was produced by the Sheffield Photo Company, and features members from the Sheffield Fire Brigade as part of the cast. Mottershaw also employed actors from local music halls and paid them ten shillings for a day’s work. Techniques used in Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (considered to be the first American Western film), released later the same year, were inspired by those used in Mottershaw’s film.

In 1911 the Ideal Film Company was founded in Soho, London, distributing almost 400 films by 1934, and producing 80.

In 1913 stage director Maurice Elvey began directing British films, becoming Britain’s most prolific film director, with almost 200 by 1957. During the silent film era he directed as many as twenty films per year, also producing more than fifty films, his own as well as films directed by others.

In 1914 Elstree Studios was founded, and acquired in 1928 by German-born Ludwig Blattner, who invented a magnetic steel tape recording system that was adopted by the BBC in 1930.

In 1920 Gaumont opened Islington Studios, where Alfred Hitchcock got his start, selling-out to Gainsborough Pictures in 1927. The studios were located on the south bank of the Regent’s Canal, in Poole Street, Hoxton in the former Metropolitan Borough of Shoreditch, London up until 1949. During its existence Islington worked closely with its sister Lime Grove Studios in Shepherd’s Bush and many films were made partly at one studio and partly at the other. As well as Hitchcock thrillers, Will Hay comedies and Gainsborough Melodramas were also made at the studios.

Also in 1920 Cricklewood Studios was founded by Sir Oswald Stoll, becoming Britain’s largest film studio, known for Fu Manchu and Sherlock Holmes film series. The Studios, also known as the Stoll Film Studios, were located in Cricklewood, London and operated until 1938. The principal base for the newly formed Stoll Pictures, which also operated Surbiton Studios, the studio was the largest in the British Isles at that time. It was later used for the production of quota quickies.

In 1920 the short-lived company Minerva Films was founded in London by the actor Leslie Howard (also producer and director) and his friend and story editor Adrian Brunel. Some of their early films include four written by A. A. Milne including The Bump (starring C. Aubrey Smith), Twice Two, Five Pound Reward and Bookworms.

By the mid-1920s the British film industry was losing out to heavy competition from the United States, which was helped by its much larger home market. In 1914 25% of films shown in the UK were British, but by 1926 this had fallen to 5%. The Slump of 1924 caused many British film studios to close, resulting in the passage of the Cinematograph Films Act 1927 to boost local production, requiring that cinemas show a certain percentage of British films. The act of the United Kingdom Parliament was technically a success, with audiences for British films becoming larger than the quota required, but it had the effect of creating a market for poor quality, low cost films, made to satisfy the quota. The “quota quickies”, as they became known, are often blamed by historians for holding back the development of the industry. However, some British film makers, such as Michael Powell, learnt their craft making such films.

Ironically, the biggest star of the silent era, English comedian Charlie Chaplin, was Hollywood-based. Chaplin’s childhood in London was one of poverty and hardship. As his father was absent and his mother struggled financially, he was sent to a workhouse twice before the age of nine. When he was 14, his mother was committed to a mental asylum. Chaplin began performing at an early age, touring music halls and later working as a stage actor and comedian. At 19, he was signed to the prestigious Fred Karno company, which took him to America.


American Film Pre-Hollywood

While Frenchmen Auguste and Louis Lumière are often credited with the birth of modern cinema, American cinema quickly came to be the most dominant force in the industry as it emerged.

The early period, from the mid-1890s to the mid-1910s, is sometimes referred to as ‘pre-Hollywood’ cinema, attesting to the growing hegemony of the California based American industry after the First World War.

The first recorded instance of photographs capturing and reproducing motion goes back even further to the 1870s. In 1872, Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904) began a series of famous experiments that culminated with a sequence of images of a running horse, which he took in Palo Alto, California using a set of still cameras placed in a row along a racetrack. Muybridge’s experiment of June 15th 1878 is now known as Sallie Gardner at a Gallop. Sometimes cited as an early silent film, the series and later experiments like it were precursors to the development of motion pictures. The series consists of 24 photographs shot in rapid succession that were shown on a zoopraxiscope. The work was released throughout 1878–1880 and was commissioned by Leland Stanford, the industrialist and horseman, who was interested in gait analysis. The purpose of the shoot was to determine whether a galloping horse ever lifts all four feet completely off the ground during the gait as at this speed, the human eye cannot break down the action. The photographs showed that all four feet are indeed sometimes simultaneously off the ground, though this occurs only when the feet are “gathered” beneath the body, not when the fore and hindlimbs are “extended” as sometimes depicted in older paintings.

Muybridge’s accomplishment led inventors everywhere to attempt to make similar devices. In the United States, the renowned inventor and entrepreneur Thomas Edison was among the first to produce such a device, the kinetoscope.

The Kinetoscope was designed for films to be viewed by one individual at a time through a peephole viewer window at the top of the device. It was not a movie projector, but introduced the basic approach that would become the standard for all cinematic projection before the advent of video, by creating the illusion of movement by conveying a strip of perforated film bearing sequential images over a light source with a high-speed shutter. It was a process using roll film first described in a patent application submitted in France and the U.S. by French inventor Louis Le Prince. The concept was first used by Edison in 1889 and subsequently developed by a team of technicians working at his laboratories in West Orange, New Jersey, supervised by the Scottish inventor William Kennedy Dickson between 1889 and 1892.

Dickson and his colleague cinematographer William Heise directed a series of experimental short silent films for Edison labs, Monkeyshines (1889-1890), made to test the original cylinder format of the Kinetoscope, that are believed to be the first films shot in the United States.

Scholars have differing opinions on whether Monkeyshines, No. 1 was shot in June 1889 starring John Ott or sometime between November 21–27, 1890 starring G. Sacco Albanese. Both men were fellow lab workers at the company and contradictory evidence exists for each claim. Monkeyshines, No. 2 and Monkeyshines, No. 3 quickly followed to test further conditions.

These films were intended to be internal tests of the new camera system, and were not created for commercial use; their rise to prominence resulted much later due to work by film historians. All three films show a blurry figure in white standing in one place making large gestures and are only a few seconds long. It will never be known what “Monkeyshines No. 3” exactly looked like as it has disappeared from the public making it the 3rd lost film that is known to exist.

Dickson and his team at the Edison lab also devised the Kinetograph, an innovative motion picture camera with rapid intermittent, or stop-and-go, film movement, to photograph movies for in-house experiments and, eventually, commercial Kinetoscope presentations.

A prototype for the Kinetoscope was shown to a convention of the National Federation of Women’s Clubs on May 20, 1891. For use with the Kinetscope, Edison was the first to adopt the 35 mm. width for cellulose in 1892. The first public demonstration of the Kinetoscope was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893. Blacksmith Scene, directed by William K.L. Dickson, was the first Kinetoscope film shown at the exhibition and is the earliest known example of actors performing a role in a film.

Instrumental to the birth of American movie culture, the Kinetoscope also had a major impact in Europe and its influence abroad was magnified by Edison’s decision not to seek international patents on the device, facilitating numerous imitations of and improvements on the technology.

In 1894 Dickson shot Fred Ott’s Sneeze. The oldest surviving copyrighted motion picture, the five-second film features one of Thomas Edison’s assistants, Fred Ott, taking a pinch of snuff and sneezing. According to the Library of Congress, the film was “made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper’s Weekly.”

In 1895, Edison introduced the Kinetophone, which joined the Kinetoscope with a cylinder phonograph (it was not a true sound-film system, for there was no attempt to synchronise picture and sound throughout playback). Film projection, which Edison initially disdained as financially nonviable, soon superseded the Kinetoscope’s individual exhibition model. Many of the projection systems developed by Edison’s firm in later years would use the Kinetoscope name.

The history of cinema in the United States can trace its roots to the East Coast where, at one time, Fort Lee, New Jersey was the motion-picture capital of America. The industry got its start with the construction of Edison’s “Black Maria”, the first motion-picture studio in West Orange, New Jersey.

One of the most notable films made at Black Maria Studios and the first motion picture made for the Kinetophone is The Dickson Experimental Sound Film (1895). Perhaps the most notable example of the Heise-Dickson collaboration, it holds the position in cinema history as the first known film with live-recorded sound. There is no evidence that it was ever exhibited in its original format. Newly digitised and restored in 2000, it is the only surviving Kinetophone film with live-recorded sound.

The film features Dickson playing a violin into a recording horn for an off-camera wax cylinder. The melody is from a barcarolle, “Song of the Cabin Boy”, from Les Cloches de Corneville (literally The Bells of Corneville; presented in English-speaking countries as The Chimes of Normandy), a light opera composed by Robert Planquette in 1877. In front of Dickson, two men dance to the music. In the final seconds, a fourth man briefly crosses from left to right behind the horn. The running time of the restored film is seventeen seconds and the accompanying cylinder contains approximately two minutes of sound, including twenty-three seconds of violin music, encompassing the film’s soundtrack.

As with the Lumieres, Edison’s key position in the film industry stems more from marketing skill than technical ingenuity. He made a business of selling Kinetograph and Kinetoscope equipment, which laid the foundation for widespread film production.

William Heise’s  best known work for Edison was “directing” The Kiss, an 1896 short film that depicted a kiss between May Irwin and John Rice. Direction, at this early stage in cinema, consisted mainly of pointing a stationary camera in one direction and capturing whatever action transpired within the frame.

The Kiss was one of the first films ever shown commercially to the public. Around 18 seconds, the re-enactment of the kiss between Irwin and Rice was from the final scene of the stage musical The Widow Jones.

Along with Dickson, Heise was one of the most prolific filmmakers of the nascent days of cinema. He worked with Dickson on many of the early shorts, capturing numerous scenes of everyday life as well as different aspects of performance and sport such as 1894’s Bucking Broncho.

J. Stuart Blackton was another of the pioneers of motion pictures who owed his start to Edison, but was to become one of his chief domestic rivals. Blackton founded Vitagraph Studios in 1897 and with The Enchanted Drawing (1900) was one of the first filmmakers to use the techniques of stop-motion and drawn animation, recorded on standard picture film, which has led Blackton to be considered the father of American animation.

In 1900 Arthur Marvin shot what is considered the first recorded detective film, Sherlock Holmes Baffled for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company. It is also the earliest known film to feature Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective character Sherlock Holmes, albeit in a form unlike that of later screen incarnations. In the film, a thief who can appear and disappear at will steals a sack of items from Sherlock Holmes. At each point, Holmes’s attempts to thwart the intruder end in failure.

Originally shown in Mutoscope machines in arcades, Sherlock Holmes Baffled has a running time of 30 seconds. Although produced in 1900, it was only registered in 1903, and a copyright notice stating this is seen on some prints. The identities of the actors playing the first screen Holmes and his assailant are not recorded. Assumed to be lost for many years, the film was rediscovered in 1968 as a paper print in the Library of Congress.

Arthur Marvin shot 418 films between 1897 and 1911, including The Adventures of Dollie (1908), the directorial debut of D. W. Griffith, as well as other early Griffith shorts such as Pippa Passes in 1909.  His brother Henry ‘Harry’ Marvin was one of the four founders of the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company (the others being Herman Casler, William Kennedy Dickson and Elias Koopman).

Frederick S. Armitage was another early American motion picture cinematographer and director who worked primarily for the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.  Armitage had a hand in creating more than 400 often very short subjects for AM&B in the days where its films were made as much for the hand-crank operated Mutoscope device as for projection. Several of Armitage’s subjects stand out from the company’s regular routine of actualities and comic skits in their innovative use of camerawork, superimpositions, time-lapse photography and other effects then new to the art of film-making. One of these was Star Theatre a 1901 documentary short in which time-lapse photography is used to show the dismantling and demolition of New York City’s Star Theatre over a period of about a month.

Edwin S. Porter (1870 – 1941) was Edison’s most important filmmaker of the first decade of the 20th century and went on to work for the Famous Players Film Company. Of over 250 films created by Porter, his most important include Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903), The Kleptomaniac (1905), Life of a Cowboy (1906), Rescued from an Eagle’s Nest (1908), and The Prisoner of Zenda (1913).

Life of an American Fireman was shot late in 1902 and distributed early in 1903. One of the earliest American narrative films, it depicts the rescue of a woman and child from a burning building. It bears notable similarities to the 1901 English short Fire!, directed by James Williamson.

Now largely considered to be the first American action film and the first Western with a “recognisable form”, The Great Train Robbery was written, produced, and directed by Porter. At twelve minutes long, it is considered a milestone in film making, expanding on Life of an American Fireman. The film used a number of then-unconventional techniques, including composite editing, on-location shooting, and frequent camera movement and is one of the earliest to use the technique of cross cutting, in which two scenes are shown to be occurring simultaneously but in different locations. The techniques used were inspired by those in Frank Mottershaw’s British film A Daring Daylight Burglary, released earlier in the year.

Though a Western, The Great Train Robbery was filmed in Milltown, New Jersey. It was inspired by Scott Marble’s 1896 stage play, and may also have been inspired by a 1900 train robbery perpetrated by Butch Cassidy. Actors in the movie included Alfred C. Abadie, Broncho Billy Anderson and Justus D. Barnes, although there were no credits. Some prints were also hand coloured in certain scenes.

Porter directed Dream of a Rarebit Fiend in 1906. The film is a seven-minute live-action adaptation of the comic strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend by American cartoonist Winsor McCay. It was marketed as using several special effects in which “some of the photographic ‘stunts’ have never been seen or attempted before.”

In 1905 J. Stuart Blackton had turned briefly away from animation and directed the second film based on Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for Ransom for Vitagraph Studios. The scenario was by Theodore Liebler based on elements of Conan Doyle’s novel The Sign of the Four and the film is usually regarded as the first attempt to film a “serious” Holmes adaptation.

Robert Pohle notes that “Deprived of his voice in those early silent films, Holmes was also transformed from an intellectual, armchair detective into a more kinetic action figure, almost a sort of cowboy-in-deerstalker.”

The film was shot on 35mm black-and-white film, running to one reel of 725 feet in length. Although sometimes considered a lost film, fragments are still extant in the Library of Congress paper print collection.

In 1906 Blackton directed Humorous Phases of Funny Faces an animated cartoon that is generally regarded by film historians as the first fully animated film recorded on standard picture film. In 1908, Blackton directed The Thieving Hand which is considered notable for its astounding trick photography and effects for its age. The film was shot on location in Flatbush, Brooklyn, New York City and released on February the 1st, 1908 in the United States.

In 1909 Blackton directed Les Misérables a historical proto-feature film (four short films that can be seen separately, but when combined appear as a short film series resembling that of a full-length feature film). The movie is based on the 1862 French novel of the same name by Victor Hugo, and stars Maurice Costello and William V. Ranous. Distributed by the Vitagraph Company of America, the four reels were released over the course of three months, from September the 4th to November 27th, 1909.

Also that year, Blackton directed Princess Nicotine; or, The Smoke Fairy a five-minute film in which a smoker (Paul Panzer) falls asleep and is visited by two fairies (one of which is played by Gladys Hulette). Audiences marvelled at the special effects featuring the fairies interacting with objects much larger than themselves. The film was also the first instance of tobacco product placement (for Sweet Corporal cigarettes and cigars) in the movies.

One the great directors of the early period was the Canadian born Sidney Olcott. In 1907 he made Ben Hur a 15-minute-long drama that was the first film version of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, one of the best-selling books at that time.

The industry began attracting both capital and an innovative workforce, and when the Kalem Company began using Fort Lee in 1907 as a location for filming in the area, other filmmakers quickly followed. Founded in New York City earlier that year, Kalem was one of the first companies to make films abroad, and to set up winter production facilities, first in Florida, and then in California. Kalem was sold to Vitagraph Studios in 1917.

In late 1908, led by the Edison and Biograph companies, the producers attempted to stabilise the industry and protect their own interests by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company, or, as it was popularly known, the Trust. The members of the MPPC agreed to a standard price per foot for their films, each studio issuing from one to three reels a week on a well-established schedule.

In 1910 the MPPC began practices that presaged those of the Hollywood Studios, establishing a separate distribution arm, the General Film Company. The MPPC survived as a legal entity until 1915, when it was declared illegal under the provisions of the Sherman antitrust Act, but even as early 1912, several years before its de jure decline, the Trust had de facto ceased to exert any significant control of the industry. The MPPC’s short sighted plan to drive non-affiliated distributors and exhibitors out of business ironically sowed the seeds of its own destruction, for it gave rise to a vigorous group of so-called ‘independent’ producers who supplied product to the many unlicensed exchanges and Nickelodeons.

In 1909, a forerunner of Universal Studios, the Champion Film Company, built the first studio. They were quickly followed by others who either built new studios or who leased facilities in Fort Lee. In the 1910s and 1920s, film companies such as the Independent Moving Pictures Company, Peerless Studios, The Solax Company, Éclair Studios, Goldwyn Picture Corporation, American Méliès (Star Films), World Film Company, Biograph Studios, Fox Film Corporation, Pathé Frères, Metro Pictures Corporation, Victor Film Company, and Selznick Pictures Corporation were all making pictures in Fort Lee.

The Biograph Studios and laboratory complex was built in 1912 by the Biograph Company at 807 East 175th Street, in The Bronx, New York City. Such notables as Mary Pickford got their start at Biograph Studios where initially the company had depended upon transient actors. This was until they installed a new director who developed his own stock company, integral to the period’s ensemble style of filmmaking and presaging the Hollywood studios’ practise of keeping actors under exclusive contract.

D. W. Griffith (1875 – 1948), also a writer and producer, was a pioneer of modern cinematic techniques. Between 1908 and 1913 Griffith personally directed over 400 Biograph films, the first being the Arthur Marvin shot, The Adventures of Dollie. Among his other early notable films were The Taming of the Shrew (1908), based on Shakespeare’s play of the same name, and The Country Doctor a 1909 drama that he wrote as well as directed. The promotional description for The Taming of the Shrew stated “if we could see ourselves as others see us what models we would become.”

In 1909 Griffith also directed A Corner in Wheat which tells of a greedy tycoon who tries to corner the world market on wheat, destroying the lives of the people who can no longer afford to buy bread. It was adapted by Griffith and Frank E. Woods from a novel and a short story by Frank Norris, titled The Pit and A Deal in Wheat. Intercutting (cross-cutting) between still tableaux of the poor in the bread line and the lavish, active parties of the wealthy speculator somewhat anticipates the collision montage which became a hallmark of the politically charged Soviet cinema a decade or so later.

The film patents wars of the early 20th century led to the spread of film companies across the US. Many worked with equipment for which they did not own the rights and thus filming in New York could be dangerous. It was close to Edison’s Company headquarters, and to agents the company set out to seize cameras. By 1912, most major film companies had set up production facilities in Southern California near or in Los Angeles because of the region’s favourable year-round weather.


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