Reflections on Pre-1920s Cinema

The word “cinema” comes down to us from the Greek word kínēma, meaning “movement” or “motion.” When Auguste and Louis Lumière patented their new machine in the 1890s called the Cinématographe, they were quite literally documenting (“graphe”) a record of motion (“cinema”). Like a painting, this new medium allowed an artist to frame and guide an audience’s viewpoint -shaping people’s perspectives, creating new mythologies, and building a coherent language. But unlike a painting the cinema introduced motion -moving pictures, or “movies.” Suddenly, art came to life in a new way that compressed both time and space.

The origins of cinema can be traced to various movable picture inventions in the 19th century which led to brief moving shots by Louis Le Prince in France (such as the “Roundhay Garden Scene”) or Wordsworth Donisthorpe who shot scenes of carriage traffic around Trafalgar Square in London, but no name looms larger than the famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison, and his young British assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Edison was in discussion was English-American photographer, Eadward Muybridge, famous for his “horse in motion” moving pictures. Edison was searching for a way to combine his phonograph invention with Muybridge’s moving pictures, so Edison provided the financing and the research laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey, but it was truly W.L. Dickson who created the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope which captured early experimental, short moving pictures. The Edison Manufacturing Company soon began marketing the Kinetoscope for commercial purposes, spawning new amusement arcades and titillating peep shows, as well as attracting talent from traveling vaudeville and burlesque troupes.

Eventually, the great inventor W.L. Dickson left Edison to form his own New York film company, called the American Mutoscope Company (later called the Biograph Company). He marketed the Biograph projector, which became the chief rival to Edison’s Kinetoscope. As early as 1895 Dickson began writing a book about the early history of cinema at Edison. Across the pond in France, the Lumière brothers created their own version of Edison’s moving picture machine. At the same time, a French engineer named Léon Gaumont founded the Gaumont Film Company, and four French brothers founded the Pathé Brothers Company which would eventually become one of the most prominent film companies in the world. In the midst of this technological innovation, a French magician named George Méliès began creating astounding little motion pictures containing stories and delightful special effects (his most famous short film being The Trip To The Moon).

Edison tried to sue some of his plagiarizers for copyright infringement but he was ultimately unsuccessful, paving the way for new opportunities in the business of cinema. One former Edison employee who operated the Kinetoscope was Edwin S. Porter. He began creating his own independent films, most famously The Life of An American Fireman (1903), and The Great Train Robbery (1903). These two films appeared in little shops with screening rooms across the country. One such shop was run by several Polish-Jewish brothers who bought a projector to showcase both Porter films, and eventually they formed Warner Bros. Pictures. Another was a Hungarian-Jewish theatre owner named William Fox who eventually formed the Fox Film Corporation. In those days nickelodeons usually cost a nickel to enter, and the word “nickel” was coupled with the Greek word for theatre (“odeon”), hence nickelodeons became a popular means of escapist entertainment for the masses. Instead of waiting to see a traveling circus, or a wild west show, or a vaudeville performance, the democratizing force of technology made it easy for anyone to view the exact same performance in multiple places without waiting for a show in their town. Gradually audiences and critics demanded more, and the stuffy, cheap nickelodeons (which were largely populated by poor and working class people) were transformed into vast “movie palaces.” Predictably, nostalgic antiquarians denounced the cinematic escape as dangerous and obscene, while optimistic futurists sought to unfold its technological potential.

A number of small film production studios began popping up around the country with names like Selig, American Vitagraph, Essanay, Mutual, First National, and Biograph. Some nickelodeon owners also became filmmakers, like Carl Laemmle, the German-Jewish Chicago theatre owner who moved to New York and merged several movie companies together to form Universal Pictures in New Jersey. The studio eventually moved to Los Angeles and later became known for its 1930s Lon Chaney horror films during Carl’s reign. He hired Thomas Ince (who later died under mysterious circumstances surrounding William Randolph Hearst’s yacht) because Ince initiated Henry Ford’s assembly line method of mass production in Hollywood. Carl Laemmle created the “star system” and he successfully ran Universal until he and his son were eventually ousted in a hostile takeover of the company.

D.W. Griffith began making immense and controversial epics for Biograph during this period, and a young British vaudeville actor named Charlie Chaplin bounced between studios searching for greater artistic control as his fame and success grew. The Austro-Hungarian theatre owner named Adolph Zukor co-founded the Famous Players (and later merged the company with American vaudeville star, Jesse Lasky) which eventually grew into Paramount Pictures; the Polish-Jewish emigrant named Szmuel Gelbfisz (or “Samuel Goldfish”) joined with his brother-in-law to partner in the new Paramount venture, but he was quickly forced out so he formed his own company with American broadway producers, Edgar and Archibald Selwyn – hence “Gold” “Wyn” (Goldfish later changed his name to “Goldwyn” and the firm was later merged in 1924 to become MetroGoldwynMayer); and a Russian-Jewish immigrant named Louis B. Mayer sold his partnership in Metro Pictures only to be eventually hired back to run the newly merged MGM studio in 1924 through the height of its Golden Age. Lastly, before the end of this epoch in 1919, the stars of First National, Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford, feared a pending merger with a larger studio, Paramount, and in the hopes of protecting their own independence, they joined D.W. Griffith and Douglas Fairbanks to form United Artists, in support of independent filmmaking and distribution.

The stars of this era included: the British vaudevillian, Charlie Chaplin; the charismatic comedy star-turned action adventure heartthrob, Douglas Fairbanks; the American sweetheart, Mary Pickford; Lillian Gish, the star of nearly every major D.W. Griffith epic; Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, who helped spawn the careers of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton; Theda Bara, the exotic “vamp” femme fatale; and William S. Hart, the first great Western cowboy star.

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