Early Cinematic Origins and
the Infancy of Film
Film History of the Pre-1920s
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5
Film History by Decade
Index | Pre-1920s | 1920s | 1930s | 1940s | 1950s | 1960s
1970s | 1980s | 1990s | 2000s | 2010s
The Lumiere Brothers and the Cinematographe:
The innovative Lumiere brothers in France, Louis and Auguste (often called "the founding fathers of modern film"), who worked in a Lyons factory that manufactured photographic equipment and supplies, were inspired by Edison's work. They created their own combo movie camera and projector - a more portable, hand-held and lightweight device that could be cranked by hand and could project movie images to several spectators. It was dubbed the Cinematographe and patented in February, 1895. The multi-purpose device (combining camera, printer and projecting capabilities in the same housing) was more profitable because more than a single spectator could watch the film on a large screen. They used a film width of 35mm, and a speed of 16 frames per second - an industry norm until the talkies. By the advent of sound film in the late 1920s, 24 fps became the standard.
The first public test and demonstration of the Lumieres' camera-projector system (the Cinematographe) was made on March 22, 1895, in the Lumieres' basement. During the private screening to a scientific conference - a trial run for their public screening later at the end of the year (see below), they caused a sensation with their first film, Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (La Sortie des Ouviers de L'Usine Lumiere a Lyon), although it only consisted of an everyday outdoor image - factory workers leaving the Lumiere factory gate for home or for a lunch break.
As generally acknowledged, cinema (a word derived from Cinematographe) was born on December 28, 1895, in Paris, France. The Lumieres presented the first commercial and public exhibition of a projected motion picture to a paying public in the world's first movie theatre - in the Salon Indien, at the Grand Cafe on Paris' Boulevard des Capucines. [In 1897, a cinema building was built in Paris, solely for the purpose of showing films.] It has often been considered "the birth of film" or "the First Cinema" since the Cinematographe was the first advanced projector (not experimental) and the first to be offered for sale.
The 20-minute program included ten short films with twenty showings a day. These factual shorts (or mini-documentaries), termed actualities, with the mundane quality of home movies, included the following:
The ten shorts included the famous first comedy (# 6) of a gardener with a watering hose (aka The Sprinkler Sprinkled, Waterer and Watered, or L'Arrouseur Arrose), the factory worker short (# 1, see above), a sequence (# 9) of a horse-drawn carriage approaching toward the camera, and a scene (# 7) of the feeding of a baby. The Lumieres also became known for their 50-second short Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat (1895) (Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), which some sources reported was shocking to its first unsophisticated viewing audience. By 1898, the Lumiere's company had produced a short film catalog with over 1,000 titles.
Other Developments in Projecting Machines:
In 1896, Edison's Company (because it was unable to produce a workable projector on its own) purchased an improved version of Thomas Armat's movie projection machine (the Phantascope, originally invented by C. Francis Jenkins in 1893), and renamed it the Vitascope. It was hailed as Edison's latest invention, although he had only commercialized the Phantascope. The Vitascope was the first commercially-successful celluloid motion picture projector in the US. On April 23, 1896, Thomas Edison presented the first publically-projected Vitascope motion picture (with hand-tinting) in the US to a paying American audience on a screen, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City (at 34th Street and Broadway), with his latest invention - the projecting kinetoscope or Vitascope. Customers watched the Edison Company's Vitascope project a ballet sequence in an amusement arcade during a vaudeville act. At the time, the Vitascope was showing films in only one location, this one in NYC, but that wouldn't last for long.
The "Pathé-Frères" Company was founded in 1896 in Paris by Charles and Emile Pathè. By the next decade, it would become the largest producer of films in the world. Around 1906-7, only one-third of the films released in the US were American-made. Pathé-Frères was responsible for over one-third of the films shown on US screens.
By 1897, the 35 mm film gauge became widely accepted as the standard gauge for motion pictures, although American Mutoscope and other film companies continued to use other gauges. In 1909, the 35 mm width with 4 perforations per frame became accepted as the international standard film gauge.
More Notable Films and Developments:
Films were increasingly being shown as part of vaudeville shows, variety shows, and at fairgrounds or carnivals. Audiences would soon need larger theaters to watch screens with projected images from Vitascopes after the turn of the century, using stage and opera houses and music halls. The earliest 'movie theatres' were converted churches or halls, showing one-reelers (a 10-12 minute reel of film - the projector's reel capacity at the time). The primitive films were usually more actualities and comedies.
After showing films in a lakefront park, William "Pop" Rock and Walter Wainwright transformed a converted vacant store (at 623 Canal St.) in New Orleans, Louisiana into Vitascope Hall. On July 26, 1896, it became the first "storefront theater" in the US dedicated exclusively to showing motion pictures, although it screened films for only two months. The theatre accommodated 400 people, and had two shows per day, with admission 10 cents.
The world's first permanent movie theatre exclusively designed for showing motion pictures was the Edisonia Vitascope Hall, a 72 seat theatre which opened in downtown Buffalo, New York on Monday, October 19, 1896 in the Ellicott Square Building on Main Street. It was created by Buffalo-based entrepreneur Mitchell H. Mark, a supreme visionary of the future of motion picture theaters. It was likely that the opening night's showing including US premieres of the Lumiere films (see above), since Mark had contracted with the Lumieres (and Pathe Freres) in France to exhibit their films in the US. The Vitascope Theater in Buffalo remained open for nearly two years. With his brother Moe, Mitchell Mark would open other theaters in Buffalo, as well as New York City, Boston and elsewhere. They were responsible for one of history's earliest "movie palaces," the 2800-seat Mark Strand Theater in NYC.
Early Jewish film pioneer Sigmund Lubin (aka Siegmund Lubszynski) constructed the first purposely-built movie theater in West Philadelphia, PA for the National Export Exposition, in 1899. Lubin's Cineograph Theatre was a small, modest portable theatre built on the esplanade or midway of the fair. It was possibly the world's first structure erected expressly for the presentation of motion pictures. For ten cents, patrons could view "continuous shows" of the Spanish-American War, reproductions of boxing matches, and several of Lubin's own home-made productions. The film billed as "The Sensation of the Hour" was The Dreyfus Court Martial Scene. It was evidence of Lubin's early work as a motion picture distributor and exhibitor, to showcase his projectors, cameras, and films.
Later on in 1902 in downtown Los Angeles, Thomas L. Talley's storefront, 200-seat Electric Theater was another of the first permanent US theaters to exclusively exhibit movies - it charged patrons a dime, up from a nickel at the nickelodeons.
Alice Guy (Blaché): The First Female Movie Director
French-born Alice Guy (Blaché) started in the film business as a secretary for Léon Gaumont in 1894. In 1896, she joined Gaumont in his new company founded in Paris in 1895, the Gaumont Film Company, and began making primitive sound films when she was promoted to be the head of motion picture production at the studio. She is generally acknowledged as the world's first female director in the motion picture industry (with France's Gaumont Film Company). Her first film made in April of 1896 was the one-minute in length fictional film La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy). Some historians consider it the first ever narrative fiction film. She became one of the key figures in the systematic development of the narrative film.
Georges Melies: French Cinematic Magician
Aside from technological achievements, another Frenchman who was a member of the Lumiere's viewing audience, Georges Melies, expanded development of film cinema with his own imaginative fantasy films. When the Lumiere brothers wouldn't sell him a Cinematographe, he developed his own camera (a version of the Kinetograph), and then set up Europe's first film studio in 1897. It was the first movie studio that used artificial illumination, a greenhouse-like structure that featured both a glazed roof and walls and a series of retractable blinds. It was an influential model on the development of future studios.
Parisian French film-maker Georges Méliès first film based on a trick of substitution (one of the earliest instances of trick photography with stop-action - an early special effect) was Escamotage d'une dame au théâtre Robert Houdin (1896) (aka The Conjuring of a Woman at the House of Robert Houdin). The roots of horror films (and vampire films in particular) may also be traced back to Georges Méliès' two-minute short film Le Manoir du Diable (1896) (aka Manor/House of the Devil, or The Devil's Castle, or The Haunted Castle), although it was meant to be an amusing, entertaining film.
Melies became the film industry's first film-maker to use artificially-arranged scenes to construct and tell a narrative story, with his most popular and influential film to date, Cendrillon (1899) (aka Cinderella). He created about 500 films (one-reelers usually) over the next 15 years (few of which survived), and screened his own productions in his theatre. Melies wrote, designed, directed, and acted in hundreds of his own fairy tales and science fiction films, and developed techniques such as stop-motion photography, double and multiple-exposures, time-lapse photography, "special effects" such as disappearing objects (using stop-trick or substitution photography), and dissolves/fades. In late 1911, he contracted with French film company Pathe to finance and distribute his films, and then went out of business by 1913.
An illusionist and stage magician, and a wizard at special effects, Melies exploited the new medium with a pioneering, 14-minute science fiction work, Le Voyage Dans la Lune - A Trip to the Moon (1902). It was his most popular and best-known work, with about 30 scenes called tableaux. He incorporated surrealistic special effects, including the memorable image of a rocketship landing and gouging out the eye of the 'man in the moon.' Melies also introduced the idea of narrative storylines, plots, character development, illusion, and fantasy into film, including trick photography (early special effects), hand-tinting, dissolves, wipes, 'magical' super-impositions and double exposures, the use of mirrors, trick sets, stop motion, slow-motion and fade-outs/fade-ins. Although his use of the camera was innovative, the camera remained stationary and recorded the staged production from one position only.
Further US Development:
The key years in the development of the cinema in the U.S. were in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Edison Company was competing with a few other burgeoning movie companies. The major pioneering movie production companies, mostly on the East Coast, that controlled most of the industry were these rivals:
Soon, the American Mutoscope Company became the most popular film company in America. They were formally renamed the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1899 (and simply Biograph by 1909). They marketed their own films and their new Biograph projector, thus becoming the foremost motion picture company in the US. The American Mutoscope Company's The Haverstraw Tunnel (1897) became its most popular film - it was the first "phantom ride" film in which a camera was mounted on the front of a train, and recorded its passage into a tunnel.
They were also known for many firsts:
Edison Vs. Mutoscope:
In May of 1898, Edison filed a patent-infringement suit against the American Mutoscope Company, claiming that the studio had infringed on his patent for the Kinetograph movie camera. [Edison’s competitors had developed other motion-picture devices, which became the Biograph and the Mutoscope.] After years of legal battles, in July of 1901, a U.S. Circuit Court in New York ruled that Biograph had infringed on Edison's patent claims. Biograph appealed the ruling, claiming it had a different camera design. The decision was reversed in March 1902 by a U.S. Court of Appeals. It ruled that Edison did not invent the motion-picture camera, but allowed that he had invented the sprocket system that moved perforated film through the camera. The new ruling essentially disallowed Edison from establishing a monopoly on motion picture apparatus - and ultimately on the making of films. By 1903, most studios made films using the 35mm format. (See more about the development of Biograph further below)
"Moving pictures" were increasing in length, taking on fluid narrative forms, and being edited for the first time. Two of the earliest westerns (or cowboy-related) films were both Edison Manufacturing Company films made at Black Maria:
Breakthrough Films of Edwin S. Porter - the "Father of the Story Film":
Inventor and former projectionist Edwin S. Porter (1869-1941), who in 1898 had patented an improved Beadnell projector with a steadier and brighter image, was also using film cameras to record news events. Porter was one of the resident Kinetoscope operators and directors at the Edison Company Studios in the early 1900s, who worked in different film genres. Porter was hired at Edison's Company in late 1900 and began making short narrative films, such as the 10-minute long Jack and the Beanstalk (1902). He was responsible for directing the six-minute long The Life of an American Fireman (1903) - often alleged to be the first American documentary, docudrama, fictionalized biopic or realistic narrative film, with non-linear continuity. It combined re-enacted scenes, the dreamy thoughts of a sleeping fireman seen in a round iris or 'thought balloon', and documentary stock footage of actual fire scenes, and it was dramatically edited with inter-cutting (or jump-cutting) between the exterior and interior of a burning house. Edison was actually uncomfortable with Porter's editing techniques, including his use of close-ups to tell an entertaining story.
The Great Train Robbery (1903)
With the combination of film editing and the telling of narrative stories, Porter produced one of the most important and influential films of the time to reveal the possibility of fictional stories on film. The film was the one-reel, 14-scene, approximately 10-minute long The Great Train Robbery (1903) - it was based on a real-life train heist and was a loose adaptation of a popular stage production. His visual film, made in New Jersey and not particularly artistic by today's standards - set many milestones at the time:
In an effective, scary, full-screen closeup (placed at either the beginning or at the end of the film at the discretion of the exhibitor), a bandit shot his gun directly into the audience. The film also included exterior scenes, chases on horseback, actors that moved toward (and away from) the camera, a camera pan with the escaping bandits, and a camera mounted on a moving train. Porter also developed the process of film editing - a crucial film technique that would further the cinematic art. Most early films were not much more than short, filmed stage productions or records of live events. In the early days of film-making, actors were usually unidentified and not even trained actors. The earliest actors in movies, that were dubbed "flickers," supplemented their stage incomes by acting in moving pictures.
Nickelodeons: Expanded Film Exhibition
In the early 1900s, motion pictures ("flickers") were no longer innovative experiments. They soon became an escapist entertainment medium for the working-class masses, and one could spend an evening at the cinema for a cheap entry fee. Kinetoscope parlors, lecture halls, and storefronts were often converted into nickelodeons, the first real movie theatres. The normal admission charge was a nickel (sometimes a dime). Nickel- was attached to the Greek word for theater -- "odeon." Hence the name nickelodeon. They usually remained open from early morning to midnight.
The first nickelodeon, a small storefront theater or dance hall converted to view films, was opened in Pittsburgh by Harry Davis and John Harris in June of 1905, showing The Great Train Robbery. Urban, foreign-born, working-class, immigrant audiences loved the cheap form of entertainment and were the predominent cinema-goers. One-reel shorts, silent films, melodramas, comedies, or novelty pieces were usually accompanied with piano playing, sing-along songs, illustrated lectures, other kinds of 'magic lantern' slide shows, skits, penny arcades, or vaudeville-type acts. Standing-room only shows lasted between ten minutes and an hour. The demand for more and more films increased the volume of films being produced and raised profits for their producers.
But newspaper critics soon denounced their sensational programs (involving seduction, crime, sex and infidelity) as morally objectionable and as the cause of social unrest and criminal behavior - and they called for censorship. They also criticized the unsanitary and unsafe conditions in the often makeshift nickelodeons. By the early 20th century, nickelodeons were being transformed into more lavish movie palaces (see more below) in metropolitan areas. By 1908, there were approximately 8,000 neighborhood theatres.
The First Feature-Length Films:
In the early years of cinema, film producers were worried that the American public could not last through a film that was an hour long, thereby delaying the advent of feature films (60-90 minutes in length) in the US. According to most sources, the first continuous, full-length narrative feature film (defined as a commercially-made film at least an hour in length) was writer/director Charles Tait's five-reel biopic of a notorious outback folk hero and bushranger, The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906, Australia), with a running time of between 60-70 minutes. Only fragments of the film survive to this day. Australia was the only country set up to regularly produce feature-length films prior to 1911.
[The film was remade many times, notably as director Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly (1970) with rock star Mick Jagger in the lead role, and as Ned Kelly (2003) with Heath Ledger, Orlando Bloom, Geoffrey Rush and Naomi Watts.]
The first US documentary re-creation, Sigmund Lubin's one-reel film The Unwritten Law (1907) (subtitled "A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case/Tragedy") dramatized the true-life murder -- on June 25, 1906 -- of prominent architect Stanford White by mentally unstable and jealous millionaire Harry Kendall Thaw over the affections of model/showgirl Evelyn Nesbit (who appeared as herself), Thaw's wife. The film was considered quite controversial for its sensational and scandalous story of murder and sex. [Alluring chorine Nesbit would become a brief sensation, and the basis for Richard Fleischer's biopic film The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing (1955), portrayed by Joan Collins, and E.L. Doctorow's musical and film Ragtime (1981), portrayed by an Oscar-nominated Elizabeth McGovern.]
The first feature-length film made in Europe was from France - Michel Carre's L'Enfant Prodigue (1907, Fr.), an adaptation of a stage play, that premiered in Paris on June 20, 1907. The first feature-length film produced in the US was Vitagraph's Les Miserables (1909) (each reel of the four-reel production was released separately). A second feature film, Stuart Blackton's Vitagraph five-reel production titled The Life of Moses (1909) was also released in separate installments.
The first feature-length film to be released in its entirety in the US was the 69-minute epic Dante's Inferno (1911, It.) (aka L’Inferno), inspired by Dante's 14th century poem The Divine Comedy. It opened in New York on December 10, 1911 at Gane’s Manhattan Theatre. It was made by three directors Francesco Bertolini, Giuseppe de Liguoro, and Adolfo Padovan, took two years to make, and cost over $180,000.
The first US feature film to be shown in its entirety was H. A. Spanuth's five-reel production of Oliver Twist (1912). The four-reel silent costume drama Queen Elizabeth (1912, Fr.) (aka Les Amours de la Reine Élisabeth) (starring Sarah Bernhardt) was the third film to be shown whole, in its US premiere in July at the Lyceum Theatre in NYC. The five-reel Richard III (1912) is thought to be the earliest surviving complete feature film made in the US. Although US production and exhibition of feature films started slowly in 1912, the next few years demonstrated tremendous growth when foreign competition (with often superior products) encouraged development.
Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5