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.