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 new 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 Metro–Goldwyn–Mayer); 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.
Short Films of the Edison Studio (1893-1910)
Most of these short clips were shot by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson. Unlike the Lumière Brothers some of these short clips were likely never shown to the public. They were mostly shot at Edison’s “Black Maria” studio in New Jersey.
Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (1895)
Director: Louis Lumière. Building on the new photography inventions of Thomas Edison, the Lumière Brothers took the Kinetoscope and created their own version of the device called the “Cinématographe” which they used to capture short clips (two minutes or less) like this brief clip of factory workers leaving the Lumière for the day.
L’arroseur arrosé (1895)
Director: Louis Lumière. L’arroseur arrosé is quick gag-film in which a young boy plays a prank on an older man by stepping on a garden hose, only to release it moments later spraying the man’s face with water. It is, perhaps, the earliest example of a narrative and comedy film.
The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots (1895)
Director: Alfred Clark. The film is sometimes called “The Execution of Mary Stuart” (1895) and it is the earliest surviving movie to use a special effect, namely the ‘stop trick.’ It lasts about 18 seconds and it was produced by Thomas Edison. Alfred Clark was the supervising director of Edison’s film division.
Georges Méliès Short Films (1896-1912)
Director: George Méliès. George Méliès is the great French pioneer of early narrative and special effects-based films. These pictures are incredibly ingenious for the time – the cutting room floor plays a key role in the development of each movie as we see Méliès’s chaotic and imaginative world filled with magic and intrigue. His world is often disordered and scrambled with characters frantically searching about as objects and people disappear in and out of frame. Méliès created hundreds of films in his prime, and only a small selection of his corpus survives today, but what has survived is extraordinary.
Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)
Director: George Méliès. Loosely based on novels by H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, “The Trip to the Moon” is Méliès’s masterpiece about a group of scientist who blast their way to the moon in a little bullet. They encounter odd creatures on the surface and escape from the leader by falling back to earth where they are celebrated with a parade. Even today, this short French film is astounding and awe-inspiring.
The Life of an American Fireman (1903)
Director: Edwin Stanton Porter. The Life of An American Fireman is an early silent short film that was one of the first American narrative films. It portrays an American fireman who envisions a woman in peril. Together, he and his fellow firemen go to her home and rescue her.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
Director: Edwin Stanton Porter. The Great Train Robbery is the first American Western film. It tells the short story of two bandits who rob a train while it is docked, only to get chased down and killed by the operators. The closing scene of the film shows the once shocking moment of a bandit firing his gun directly at the audience.
La vie et la passion du Christ (1903)
Director: Ferdinand Zecca. “The Life and Passion of Christ” is a French silent film that tells the familiar Biblical story of the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus. It lasts slightly longer than 40 minutes and has been called one of the first feature-length films. The aesthetic was inspired by Gustave Dorés drawings. It complex and innovative for its time.
The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906)
Director: Charles Tait. Once a massive film, The Story of the Kelly Gang tells the story of Ned Kelly, the famous Australian outlaw, and his escapades. Unfortunately much of the film has been badly damaged or is missing. The Story of the Kelly Gang is sometimes considered the first feature-length narrative film. Today, what survives is a fragmented version of the film.
Short Films of Segundo de Chomón (1901-1916)
Broncho Billy series (1907-1914)
Director: Émile Cohl
Fantasmagorie is a stream-of-consciousness, early French animated film. The film uses stop motion techniques pioneered in America, and it is often referred to as the first ever fully animated film.
Directors: Francesco Bertolini, Adolfo Padovan, and Giuseppe De Liguoro. “The Inferno” is an early silent Italian film portraying the first (and most important) part of Dante’s “Divine Comedy.” As in the epic poem, Dante is led through the many layers of hell by Virgil, as the circles of hell are filled with increasingly fetishized people laying about in torturous misery.
Director: Giovanni Pastrone. Cabiria is the great Italian epic, shot during the years following the Italian War with Libya and released on the heels of the first world war. The story is taken from Livy’s History of Rome, during the events of the Second Punic Wars. Cabiria is the original massive epic narrative film.
Charlie Chaplin’s Keystone Shorts (~1914)
In 1913, while on tour in the United States with a British comedy group, Charlie Chaplin accepted a contract to perform in a series of short silent films for Mark Sennett’s Keystone film company in Los Angeles, California. In total, he performed in 36 short films at Keystone. Perhaps the most memorable is his second film, Kid At The Auto Races released in 1914, in which Chaplin debuts the Tramp character and he performs a number of ad-libbed gags around Venice, California.
The Perils of Pauline Series (1914)
The Squaw Man (1914)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Judith of Bethulia (1914)
Director: D.W. Griffith
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
Director: D.W. Griffith. The Birth of a Nation is one of the most important and controversial films ever to hit the silver screen. It was the first massive blockbuster epic in history, and its despicable portrayal of black Americans as evil and inept has led to numerous controversies that linger to this day. It tells a story of the tragic loss of the Confederacy during the American Civil War, coupled with the lawlessness of southern reconstruction, that ultimately calls a heroic organization called the Ku Klux Klan to defend order and honor. If one can look past the degrading message of the film, much like we would for a Soviet or Nazi propaganda film, we can focus on the more enduring questions of the film -such as its editing, cinematography, and special effects. The story is based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr.
Les Vampires (1915-1916)
Director: Louis Feuillade
Les Vampires is a series of French short serials (10 episodes in total). The episodes are not actually about vampires, but instead they are about a gang of evil people and their mysterious misadventures. Louis Feuillade was the famous French silent serial director who helped define the cinematic language for thriller movies in the future.
The Cheat (1915)
Director: Cecil B. DeMille
Charlie Chaplin’s Essanay Shorts (~1915)
In 1915, Charlie Chaplin struck up a deal with the Essanay Film Company (later absorbed by Warner Bros). Through Essanay, Chaplin directed and starred in 14 films in 1915. The most celebrated of his Essanay shorts is The Tramp (1915). He left Essanay after only one year to find greater creative control elsewhere.
Charlie Chaplin’s Mutual Shorts (1916-1917)
In 1916, Charlie Chaplin moved to the Mutual Film Company for greater control and freedom over his productions. During his happy time at Mutual (1916-1917) he produced 16 short films, built his own team, and perfected his style as a director. Meanwhile, the Little Tramp character only grew in popularity. In particular, the four films Chaplin produced in 1917 are often considered some of his best.
Director: D.W. Griffith. Intolerance is Griffith’s massive response to his previous riot-inducing film, The Birth of a Nation. It was inspired by the Italian epic, Cabiria. Intolerance tells four separate narrative stories, each taking place in different time periods. Griffith once claimed his purpose in making this movie was to showcase the role that intolerance has played throughout history, in response to the public outcry against The Birth of a Nation. As with The Birth of a Nation, Lillian Gish also stars in this Griffith epic.
Charlie Chaplin’s First National Shorts (1918-1923)
In 1917-1918, Charlie Chaplin was seeking more independence and greater creative license over his films, many of which he believed were becoming too stagnant and predictable, so he signed an eight film contract with First National. He and Mary Pickford both received $2M salaries from First National, which Chaplin used to build a villa home in Beverly Hills and a film studio on Sunset Boulevard. Each of these short Chaplin films are a delight to watch. These are the last of his Tramp shorts prior to forming United Artists and making his own feature films in the ’20s.
Broken Blossoms (1919)
Director: D.W. Griffith. In contrast to Griffith’s huge budget epic films, like The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, Broken Blossoms is a more subtle, muted film about a tragic romance between a Chinese man and the girl he loves in London. There is surely room to criticize the film from a sociological perspective, namely for its role in the “Yellow Peril” racist paranoia toward Asians in America, but Broken Blossoms is by far my favorite D.W. Griffith film.
Director: Abel Gance
In allusion to Emile Zola’s controversial publication, J’accuse is Abel Gance’s lengthy and tragic World War I film (an explicitly anti-war film) about two young frenchmen whose lives are caught up in the chaos of war. Some of the scenes were shot on true battlefields in 1918, and the most vivid scenes to my mind are a) the peaceful scenes of pre-war France in small-town Provence, and b) the ghostly, shell-shocked vision of Jean (one of the two main characters) as he watches thousands of dead soldiers arise from the battlefield and return home -a scene which was inspired by a Gustave Doré from the Biblical Book of Isaiah.