More than a century ago, the invention and early development of motion pictures heralded the beginnings of an innovation that was about to transfigure humankind’s view of the world and of itself. Movies would come to generate other new and unprecedented elements of artistic creation as well. Cinematography rapidly became perhaps the most significant technical and artistic phenomenon of the twentieth century, assimilating and embodying many other art forms, yet never really imitating any of them. Specifically, it was cinematography’s special rapport with theater in particular, but also painting, literature, and many other performing/lyrical arts, that made it the “seventh art” of the new century. In the 1900s, however, the new medium, soon to become a major form of entertainment, would evolve closely within contemporary artistic currents and with respect to the preoccupations of popular audiences. This in turn would guarantee its commercial viability and, consequently, its destiny. Whether labeled “motion pictures” or “cinematography,” not unlike any of the other lyrical or performing arts no matter what discipline, genre, or current, audiences assimilating the films of the silent era were, as always, affected by contemporary culture and fashion, sharing many passions and events of the turn of the century.
The introduction of motion pictures in France occurred during a new prolific cultural era that promoted many important artistic currents in such fields as architecture, interior design, furniture, sculpture, and fashion. The new modern style of film backgrounds, directly influenced by the Art Nouveau movement (1890s–1910s), and later the Art Déco vogue (1900s–20s), which was consecrated at the 1925 Paris Exposition des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes, became one of the major visual trademarks of Impressionist artists. At the beginning of the century, Paris was the Avant-garde capital of the world in art, music, and literature. It was the residence of Pablo Picasso, Salvatore Dali, Igor Stravinsky, and Jean Cocteau, among many others. The yearning to explore the fields of music, painting, and poetry had now caught up with the seventh art under a quest for forms and visual images rather than meaning. In the field of poetry, the beginning of the century was characterized by a certain permanence, with the preceding current of poets such as Stéphane Mallarmé and Arthur Rimbaud, who deeply influenced newer poets such as Paul Valéry, Paul Claudel, and Saint-John Perse (pseudonym of Alexis Léger). As for the Surrealists, André Breton, Louis Aragon, and Paul Eluard, whose inspiration came in part from Guillaume Apollinaire’s The Poems of Alcools (Alcools, 1913), Cubist art, and the emerging Dadaist movement, their works created a serious gap with the rest of French cultural life, isolating themselves into an artistic domain by emphasizing the subconscious aspect of the imagination against all social structures and traditional forms of expression. In the field of the novel, two of the most spectacular popular successes were Alain-Fournier’s Le grand Meaulnes (The Wanderer, 1913) and Marcel Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu (Remembrance of Things Past, 1913–27). Literary reviews (La Nouvelle Revue Française, created by André Gide in 1908) and publishing houses (Gallimard) emerged to promote and disseminate these novelists and others of the pre–World War I era.
Following the Lumière brothers’ first screening at the Salon Indien du Grand Café in Paris in December 1895, French cinema, at first a novelty, quickly progressed from popular entertainment to an art form, and eventually to a form of literature itself, as silent films reached greater complexity and length in the early 1900s and 1910s. The exceptionally profitable financial revenues that the silent movies generated permitted the French film industry to establish a sound network of distribution that gradually challenged other forms of public
entertainment. At first, French cinema dominated world markets with significant inventors (Louis and Auguste Lumière), inspired artists (Georges Méliès, Max Linder, Abel Gance, and René Clair), technicians (Ferdinand Zecca), and pragmatic entrepreneurs (Charles Pathé and Léon Gaumont). However, with both the coming of World War I (1914–18) and the demands placed on all industries for the war effort, plus the rise of Hollywood’s immense influence, the French film industry slowly began to recede. The war rapidly changed the direction of the burgeoning film industry, ending the period of silent pictures with a double crisis: economic, with the financial panic of 1929; and technical/aesthetic, with the development of talking pictures, which forever redefined the original concept of motion pictures.
The last fifteen years of the nineteenth century were characterized by extraordinarily intense activity around the worldwide development of “animated photography” and mechanized entertainment. With an assortment of scientists, artists, technicians, and other innovators separately assembling their inventions at the same time in history, thus creating an unprecedented accumulation of contributions, the difficult task of attributing the exact paternity of motion pictures (for Americans) or cinema (for Europeans) remains somewhat arguable in its objectivity. In 1889, British scientist William Greene (1855–1921) invented a “chronophotographic camera” that combined animated pictures. One year later, in 1890, Herman Casler presented the Mutoscope. In France, Georges Demenÿ (1850–1917), who worked alongside Etienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904), invented the Photophone for photographing animated images in cinematographic form in 1893. That same year, Eadweard James Muybridge (1830–1904) invented the Zoopraxiscope, and in 1894, Birt Acres (1854–1918) and Robert William Paul (1869–1943) invented the Kineopticon. The same year in Germany, Maximillian Skladanowsky (1863–1939) built the Bioskop (Bioscope) and presented his achievement in Berlin in November 1895. In 1896, C. Francis Jenkins, then Thomas Armat (1866–1948), invented the Vitascope (originally named Phantoscope before being sold to Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931).
Therefore, in light of this overwhelmingly abundant series of technical inventions, attributing the invention of motion pictures to one or two individuals, whether Edison alone or the Lumière brothers, would be rather questionable in
view of the fact that cinema, by its very essence, constituted, and still does today, a multifaceted event and medium. Such an assertion would simply require overlooking the technological and scientific endeavors achieved all over the Western world (mainly the United States, France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, however) throughout the last two decades of the nineteenth century. For all these inventors, the ultimate goal was the same: the public projection of animated pictures. The question regarding the projection of animated photographs was a difficult one to solve, causing it to become the center of research and experimentations. Establishing the perfect projection device became the next challenge, as it appeared evident after numerous defective attempts (blurriness and ripped film-strip) that the projection of the image onto the screen was actually the mandatory toll for success.
The definitive beginnings of cinema, therefore, remain highly arguable; if anything, the genesis and early evolution of cinema underscore the seemingly universal origins of the invention, which was to give the visual element a major boom during the following century.1
The Kinetoscope, 1893–95
In 1889, in West Orange, New Jersey, Thomas Edison and British engineer and collaborator William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860–1935) developed the Kinetograph, a new system that utilized rolls of coated celluloid film to visualize animated images. The Kinetograph camera, weighing approximately 500 pounds, was built inside the Black Maria Studio, a tar paper–sealed structure with a large skylight that was adjacent to Edison’s laboratory. To control light, the studio was painted in black, and the camera, mounted on a trolley, was built so that it could turn to follow the movement of the sun, allowing the right amount of luminosity for each desired subject (although never changing position during shootings). In May 1889, Edison purchased a Kodak camera from the Eastman Company that required a 2⅜-inch film stock, modified its size to 1⅜ inches (34.8 mm), and made double perforations on each side. Edison utilized the Eastman nitrate-base celluloid film stock for his commercial productions. More than a century later, the celluloid film support (35 mm) is still the standard in use, a rare example of nonobsolescence. When compared to video formats, for instance, or even international sound recording standards, Edison’s film (forty-six frames per second) never experienced a continuing change of systems, and thus avoided delays in its international development.2
Dickson, who had assembled the new
camera, filmed his first motion picture of associate assistant Fred Ott, calling it “Fred Ott’s Sneeze” (the film lasted several seconds). The sequence was displayed to Edison, who decided to commercialize the idea. Edison’s kinetoscopic record of a sneeze, January 7, 1894, starring Fred Ott as the sneezer and photographed by Dickson, became the first copyrighted film in history. Other sequences, characterized by unedited scenery and posed actions followed, such as “Fun in a Chinese Laundry,” “The Gaiety Girls Dancing,” “Trained Bear,” “Dentist Scene,” and “Bucking Broncos.” Paradoxical as it may seem, Edison was more captivated by the possible application of soundtrack to the image3
than image development itself. Dickson tried to persuade Edison to develop a projection device, but much to his dismay, the latter had a different agenda; Edison did not deem it necessary to multiply the number of spectators within the same projection. Therefore, all experiments were temporarily canceled.
In 1893, the patent was ready (but never entirely completed for the British market), and that same year the demo was finalized. Edison’s first showing of the Kinetoscope viewer, as a continuous-film motion picture projector, occurred only on May 9, 1893, at the Brooklyn Institute. Rather than projecting films for large audiences, the individual viewer would put his or her eyes to the hole of a mechanism and enjoy a single strip film inside. Commercialized a couple of years before the Cinématographe, the inventor rapidly presented his “peep-show Kinetoscopes” in the United States, England, and France. Edison’s invention corresponded to a peep-show motion picture that could be visualized by only one viewer at a time. In 1893, the Kinetoscope gained popularity in New York City, and in April 1894, Andrew Holland, on behalf of the Raff & Gammon Company, opened the first peep-show parlor on Broadway. For 25 cents, New Yorkers were able to share the cinematographic dream by individually viewing a series of sixteen-second films. Because Edison had underestimated the potential of motion pictures as a future industry, he failed to patent his Kinetoscope completely. Consequently, in England alone (this despite holding over 1,200 patents), Robert William Paul,4
a British manufacturer of photographic equipment, rapidly replicated Edison’s Kinetoscope in October 1894. In addition, he added the projector component that was crucially missing to the kinetograph.5
As noted, the new apparatus was named Kineopticon. The demonstration by the Lumière brothers at the Keith’s Music Hall in Union Square, New York, on June 18, 1896, as well as the emergence of the Pantopticon and the Vitascope, overshadowed the Kinetoscope whose cumbersome set could not project for public shows or entertain large audiences. Dickson created
the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, which later encouraged the directing careers of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) and Mary Pickford (1893–1979). Along with Dickson, Edwin S. Porter (1869–1941), a cinematographer and future filmmaker, was one of the first artist/technicians to initiate the practice of close-ups and dissolves (fade in/out). Edison’s film company survived the competition and produced films such as Vanity Fair
(1915), The Cossack Whip
(1916), and Chris and His Wonderful Lamp
(1917). At the beginning of the next decade, however, the company shut down.6
The Lumière’s Cinématographe, 1895
Louis (1864–1948) and Auguste (1862–1954) Lumière, sons of Antoine Lumière, owner of a modern-style photography factory (200 workers), specialized in manufacturing a product set up in 1881 called plaque étiquette bleue
(photographic plates for instantaneous shots). Having assembled the different elements for printing, shooting, and projecting nineteen to twenty-four frames per second, they decided to film their very first vue
(view) entitled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory
(La sortie des usines Lumière à Lyon
) on March 19, 1895, as the well-dressed workers of the film factory came out onto the street (at the time Chemin Saint Victor, today renamed Rue du premier film).7
Conceived and assembled by Jules Carpentier of the Lumière factory, the Cinématographe possessed a clawlike device that supplied the necessary alternating passage of the 35 mm perforated-celluloid film. The Lumières’ band of film, ...