Film History Before 1920


The Box-Office Top 10 Films of the Pre-Sound Era

1902 | 1903 | 1914 | 1915 | 1916 | 1919


The History of Motion Pictures


Innovations Necessary for the Advent of Cinema:

Optical toys, shadow shows, 'magic lanterns,' and visual tricks have existed for thousands of years.

Many inventors, scientists, manufacturers and scientists have observed the visual phenomenon that a series of individual still pictures set into motion created the illusion of movement - a concept termed persistence of vision.

This illusion of motion was first described by British physician Peter Mark Roget in 1824, and was a first step in the development of the Cinema.

A number of technologies and inventions related to motion and vision were developed in the early to late 19th century that were precursors to the birth of the motion picture industry:

[A very early version of a "magic lantern" was invented in the 17th century by Athanasius Kircher in Rome.

It was a device with a lens that projected images from transparencies onto a screen, with a simple light source (such as a candle).]

1824 - the invention of the Thaumatrope (the earliest version of an optical illusion toy that exploited the concept of "persistence of vision") by Dr. John Ayrton Paris

1831 - the discovery of the law of electromagnetic induction by English scientist Michael Faraday, a principle used in generating electricity and powering motors and other machines (including film equipment)

1832 - the invention of the Fantascope (also called Phenakistiscope or "spindle viewer") by Belgian inventor Joseph Plateau, a device that simulated motion. A series or sequence of separate pictures depicting stages of an activity, such as juggling or dancing, were arranged around the perimeter or edges of a slotted disk. When the disk was placed before a mirror and spun or rotated, a spectator looking through the slots 'perceived' a moving picture.

1834 - the invention and patenting of another stroboscopic device adaptation, the Daedalum (renamed the Zoetrope in 1867 by American William Lincoln) by British inventor William George Horner.

It was a hollow, rotating drum/cylinder with a crank, with a strip of photographs or illustrations on the interior surface and regularly spaced slits through which a spectator observed the 'moving' drawings.

1839 - the birth of photography with the development of the first commercially-viable daguerreotype (a method of capturing still images on silvered, copper-metal plates) by French painter and inventor Louis-Jacques-Mande Daguerre

1841 - the patenting of calotype (or Talbotype, a process for printing negative photographs on high-quality paper) by British inventor William Henry Fox Talbot

1869 - the development of celluloid by John Wesley Hyatt, patented in 1870 and trademarked in 1873 - later used as the base for photographic film

1877 - the invention of the Praxinoscope by French inventor Charles Emile Reynaud - it was a 'projector' device with a mirrored drum that created the illusion of movement with picture strips, a refined version of the Zoetrope with mirrors at the center of the drum instead of slots; public demonstrations of the Praxinoscope were made by the early 1890s with screenings of 15 minute 'movies' at his Parisian Theatre Optique

1879 - Thomas Alva Edison's first public exhibition of an efficient incandescent light bulb, later used for film projectors

Late 19th Century Inventions and Experiments: Muybridge, Marey, Le Prince and Eastman


Pioneering Britisher Eadweard Muybridge (1830-1904), an early photographer and inventor, was famous for his photographic loco-motion studies (of animals and humans) at the end of the 19th century (such as "The Horse in Motion").

In 1870 at a Sacramento (California) racecourse, he first used a row of 12 cameras, equally spaced along the racetrack, to record the movement of a galloping horse, to prove that all four of the horse's feet were off the ground at the same time.

In 1877-1878, he repeated the experiment for his wealthy San Francisco benefactor, Leland Stanford, using 24 cameras to record another horse's gallops.

Muybridge's pictures, published widely in the late 1800s, were often cut into strips and used in a Praxinoscope, a descendant of the zoetrope device, invented by Charles Emile Reynaud in 1877.

The Praxinoscope was the first 'movie machine' that could project a series of images onto a screen.

Muybridge's stop-action series of photographs helped lead to his own 1879 invention of the Zoopraxiscope (or "zoogyroscope"), a primitive motion-picture projector machine that also recreated the illusion of movement (or animation) by projecting images - rapidly displayed in succession - onto a screen from photos printed on a rotating glass disc.

True motion pictures, rather than eye-fooling 'animations', could only occur after the development of film (flexible and transparent celluloid) that could record split-second pictures.

Some of the first experiments in this regard were conducted by Parisian innovator and physiologist Etienne-Jules Marey in the 1880s.

He was also studying, experimenting, and recording bodies (animals) in motion using photographic means (and astronomer Pierre-Jules-Cesar Janssen's "photographic revolver" idea).

In 1882, Marey, often claimed to be the 'inventor of cinema,' constructed a camera (or "photographic gun") that could take multiple (12) photographs per second of moving animals or humans - called chronophotography.

[The term shooting a film was possibly derived from Marey's invention.] He was able to record multiple images of a subject's movement on the same camera plate, rather than the individual images Muybridge had produced.

Marey's chronophotographs (multiple exposures on single glass plates and on strips of sensitized paper - celluloid film - that passed automatically through a camera of his own design) were revolutionary.

He was soon able to achieve a frame rate of 30 images. Further experimentation was conducted by French-born Louis Aime Augustin Le Prince in 1888.

Le Prince used long rolls of paper covered with photographic emulsion for a camera that he devised and patented.

Two short fragments survive of his early motion picture film (one of which was titled Traffic Crossing Leeds Bridge).

The work of Muybridge, Marey and Le Prince laid the groundwork for the development of motion picture cameras, projectors and transparent celluloid film - hence the development of cinema.

American inventor George Eastman provided a more stable type of celluloid film with his concurrent developments in 1888 of sensitized paper roll film (instead of glass plates) and a convenient "Kodak" small box camera (a still camera) that used the roll film.

He improved upon the paper roll film with another invention in 1889 - perforated celluloid (synthetic plastic material coated with gelatin) roll-film with photographic emulsion.


The Birth of Cinema:

In the late 1880s, famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) (and his young British assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860-1935)) in his laboratories in West , New Jersey, borrowed from the earlier work of Muyb, Ma, Le Prince and Eastman.

Their goal was to construct a device for recording movement on film, and another device for viewing the film.

Dickson must be credited with most of the creative and innovative developments - Edison only provided the research program and his laboratories for the revolutionary work.

They first developed the Kinetophonograph (or Kinetophone), a precursor of the 1891 Kinetoscope (see below), that synfilm projection with sound from a phonogrecord.

The projector was connecto the phonograph with a pulley system, but it didn't work very well and was difficult to synchronize.

Although Edison is often credited with the development of early motion picture cameras and projectors, it was Dickson, in November 1890, who devised a crude camera that could photograph motion pictures - called a Kinetograph.

This was one of the major reasons for the emergence of motion pictures in the 1890s.

The motor-driven camera was designed to capture movement with a synchronized shutter and sprocket system (Dickson's unique invention) that could move the film through the camera by an electric motor.

The Kinetograph used film which was 35mm wide and had sprocket holes to advance the film.

The sprocket system would momentarily pause the film roll before the camera's shutter to create a photographic frame (a still or photographic image).

The formal introduction of the Kinetograph in October of 1892 set the standard for theatrical motion picture cameras still used today.

However, moveable hand-cranked cameras soon became more popular, because the motor-driven cameras were heavy and bulky.

In 1891, Dickson also designed an early version of a movie-picture projector (an optical lantern viewing machine) based on the Zoetrope - called the Kinetoscope.

Dickson filmed his first trial, Monkeyshines, the only surviving film from the cylinder Kinetoscope, that featured the movement of laboratory assistant Sacco Albanese.

The first public demonstration of motion pictures using the Kinetoscope occurred at the Edison Laboratories in mid-1891.

The floor-standing, box-like viewing device was basically a bulky, coin-operated, movie "peep show" cabinet for a single customer (in which the images on a continuous film loop-belt were viewed in motion as they were rotated in front of a shutter and an electric lamp-light).

The Kinetoscope, the forerunner of the motion picture film projector (without sound), was finally patented on August 31, 1897 (Edison applied for the patent in 1891).

The viewing device quickly became popular in carnivals, Kinetoscope parlors, amusement arcades, and sideshows.

[By the 1897 patent date, however, both the camera (kinetograph) and the method of viewing films (Kinetoscope) were on the decline with the advent of more modern screen projectors for larger audiences.]

In 1893, the world's first film production studio, the Black Maria, or the Kinetographic Theater, was built on the grounds of Edison's laboratories at West Orange, New Jersey, for the purpose of making film strips for the Kinetoscope.

In early May of 1893 at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences, Edison conducted the world's first public demonstration of films shot using the Kinetograph in the Black Maria, with a Kinetoscope viewer.

The exhibited film showed three people pretending to be blacksmiths.

The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by Dickson at the Library of Congress in August, 1893.

In early January 1894, The Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze (aka Fred Ott's Sneeze) was one of the first series of short films made by Dickson for the Kinetoscope in Edison's Black Maria studio with fellow assistant Fred Ott.

The short film was made for publicity purposes, as a series of still photographs to accompany an article in Harper's Weekly.

It was the earliest surviving, copyrighted motion picture (or "flicker") - composed of an optical record of Fred Ott, an Edison employee, sneezing comically for the camera.

The first films shot at the Black Maria, a tar-paper-covered, dark studio room with a retractable roof, included segments of magic shows, plays, vaudeville performances (with dancers and strongmen), acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, various boxing matches and cockfights, and scantily-clad women.

Most of the earliest moving images, however, were non-fictional, unedited, crude documentary, "home movie" views of ordinary slices of life - street scenes, the activities of police or firemen, or shots of a passing train.

[Footnote: the 'Black Maria' studio appeared in Universal's comedy Abbott and Costello Meet the Keystone Cops (1955).]

On Saturday, April 14, 1894, Edison's Kinetoscope began commercial operation.

The Holland Brothers opened the first Kinetoscope Parlor at 1155 Broadway in New York City and for the first time, they commercially exhibited movies, as we know them today, in their amusement arcade.

Patrons paid 25 cents as the admission charge to view films in five Kinetoscope machines placed in two rows.

Nearly 500 people became cinema's first major audience during the showings of films with titles such as Barber Shop, Blacksmiths, Cock Fight, Wrestling, and Trapeze. Edison's film studio was used to supply films for this sensational new form of entertainment.

More Kinetoscope parlors soon opened in other cities (San Francisco, Atlantic City, and Chicago).

Early spectators in Kinetoscope parlors were amazed by even the most mundane moving images in very short films (between 30 and 60 seconds) - an approaching train or a parade, women dancing, dogs terrorizing rats, and twisting contortionists.

In 1895, Edison exhibited hand-colored movies, including Annabelle, the Dancer, in Atlanta, Georgia at the Cotton States Exhibition.

In one of Edison's 1896 films entitled The Kiss (1896), May Irwin and John C. Rice re-enacted the final scene from the Broadway play musical The Widow Jones - it was a close-up of a kiss. Disgruntled, Dickson left Edison to form his own company in 1895, called the American Mutoscope Company (see below).

The Lumiere Brothers:

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 35, and a speed of 16 frames per sec- 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 projection of a motion picture) was made in March of 1895. They caused a sensation with the film Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory (La Sortie des Ouviers de L'Usine Lumiere a Lyon), although it only consisted of everyday outdoor images - such as 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 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.

The 20-minute program of ten short films (with the mundane quality of home movies), with twenty showings a day.

These factual shorts (or mini-documentaries), termed actualities, included the famous first comedy of a gardener with a watering hose (aka The Sprinkler Sprinkled, Waterer and Watered, or L'Arrouseur Arrose), the factory worker short (see above), a sequence of a horse-drawn carriage galloping toward the camera, and the arrival of a train at a station (Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat).

Other Developments in Projecting Machines:

Two brothers in Berlin, Germany - inventors Emil and Max Skladanowsky - created their own film device for projecting films in November, 1895.

Also in 1895, American inventor Major Woodville Latham developed an unpopular projector called an Eidoloscope (or Panoptikon projector).

What was most innovative was its Latham Loop, the addiof a slack-forming loop to the film path to restrathe inertia of the take-up reel, and the tearing of sprocket holes. It also allowed for the use of films longer than three minutes.

(The loop is still used in virtually all film cameras and projectors to this day.) And American inventors Thomas Armat and Charles Francis Jenkins developed the Phantascope in 1895, an improved device (with intermittent-motion mechanisms) for projecting films on a screen.

In September, 1895, they debuted their projection device at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition and patented it.

In London in January of 1896, Birt Acres and Robert W. Paul also developed a machine to project films.

Paul became the first manufacturer of projectors and a pioneering film producer in Britain. In 1896, Edison's Company (because it was unable to produce a workable projector on its own) purchased an improved version of Armat's movie projection machine (the Phantascope), and renamed it the Vitascope.

On April 23, 1896 in New York City at Koster and Bial's Music Hall, the date of the first Vitascope projection for a paying American audience, customers watched the Edison Company's Vitascope project a ballet sequence in an amusement arcade during a vaudeville act.

The First Permanent Movie Theatres:

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.

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.

In 1897, the first real cinema building was built in Paris, solely for the purpose of showing films.

The same did not occur until 1902 in downtown Los Angeles where Thomas L. Talley's storefront, 200-seat Electric Theater became the first permanent US theater to exclusively exhibit movies - it charged patrons a dime, up from a nickel at the nickelodeons.

By 1898, the Lumiere's company had produced a short film catalog with over 1,000 titles.

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.

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. 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:

the Edison Company - began producing films for the Kinetoscope in 1891, with its headquarters in West Orange, NJ (see above); afterwards, Edison intensely fought for control of 'his' movie industry by harrassin, sue-ing, or buying patents from anyone he thought was threatening his company

American Mutoscope Company, founded in 1895 in New York by William K. L. Dickson, Herman Caster, Harry Marvin and Elias Koopman; their first motion picture machine was the Mutoscope - a peephole, flip-card device similar in size to a Kinetoscope. Instead of using film, a spinning set of photographs mounted on a drum inside the cabinet gave the impression of motion. This was followed by a projector - the Biograph, that was demonstrated in New York City in 1896.

They devised a camera called the Mutograph (originally called the Biograph) that didn't use sprocket holes or perforations in the motion-picture film.

Soon, they became the most popular film company in America, causing Edison to file a patent-infringement lawsuit against them in 1898.

They were formally renamed the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1899; in 1903, they began making films in the 35mm format (rather than 70mm); they employed D. W. Griffith in 1908 (who became one of the pioneers of silent film), and were re-named the Biograph Company in 1909 - (see below)

American Vitagraph Company (1896), formed by British-born Americans J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith; its first fictional film was The Burglar on the Roof, filmed and released in 1897

the Selig Polyscope Company (originally called the Mutuscope & Film Company), was founded in 1896, in Chicago by William Selig. Initially, the company specialized in slapstick comedies and travel films

Breakthrough films of Edwin S. Porter - the "Father of the Story Film":

"Moving pictures" were increasing in length, taking on fluid narrative forms, and being edited for the first time. 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. At Edison's Company, he experimented with longer films, and was responsible for directing the first American documentary or realistic narrative film, The Life of an American Fireman (1903). The six-minute narrative film combined re-enacted scenes and documentary footage, and was dramatically edited with inter-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.

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:

it was the first narrative Western film with a storyline, and included various western cliches (a shoot-out, a robbery, a chase, etc.) that would be used by all future westerns [Note: the same claim was made for the earlier 21-minute Kit Carson (1903)]

it was a ground-breaking film - and one of the earliest films to be shot out of chronological sequence, using revolutionary parallel cross-cutting (or parallel action) between two simultaneous events or scenes; it did not use fades or dissolves between scenes or shots

it effectively used rear projection in an early sce(the image of a train seen through a window), atwo impressive panning shots

it was the first 'true' western, but not the first actual western [Note: Edison's Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene (1899) may actube the first western.]

it was the first real motion picture smash hit, establishing the notion that film could be a commercially-viable medium

it featured a future western film hero/star, Gilbert M. Ander(aka "Broncho Billy")

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.