The first flicker

Who's Who of Victorian Cinema - From Peep Show to Palace
June 28, 1996

The present centenary celebrations of the birth of cinema have proved extremely effective in prompting scholars and scholarly institutions to make available long-hidden caches of materials drawn from cinema history and also to carry out research projects that might (and in some cases should) have been done decades ago. David Robinson (long-time film critic of The Times) provides a finely and intelligently illustrated account of the first 20 years of moving pictures, giving a comprehensive account of the infancy of cinema and taking the story from the squalor of the Victorian magic lantern parlour to the birth of movie glitz. He pulls off something that, so far, none of the other new film histories has managed to achieve - to conjure up a sense of what the cinema was like for those first decades of patrons.

The medium spread with extreme rapidity; thousands of perilously adapted buildings were turned into cinemas in the Edwardian years and some thousands of them also burst into flames, the projectionists working with dangerous nitrate films in hot, oppressive boxes, breathing lethal fumes, carbon and asbestos dust. The trade papers underplayed the dangers and hyped the movie boom onwards. The first Nickelodeon opened in 1905 in Pittsburgh, when the vaudeville theatres which had offered one-, two- and three-minute reels as interval attractions between live acts, found that public interest in films was subsiding. It has been said that 40,000 men were simultaneously engaged at that moment in commercialising cinema in the United States alone, scrambling after a renewed public enthusiasm for this new form of entertainment.

Each of the new cinema entrepreneurs made a fresh claim and offered enticing innovations. The Pittsburgh house announced that every one of its employees was furnished with a neat uniform made by its own tailoring establishment. In New York the Wurlitzer organ ground out its first "sacred composition" at the premiere of Quo Vadis. A simple sound-effect machine enabled standard effects such as horses galloping to be provided. The first 32-sheet film poster was introduced to start screaming the virtues of films across the sidewalks. By the start of the first world war 14,000 nickelodeons were open, at which moment a new generation of altogether grander establishments, charging much more than the now traditional five cents were coming into being.

Ingenious Jewish immigrants such as Carl Laemmle, the brothers Warner and Adolph Zukor made their first fortunes by running nickelodeons - often with less than 100 chairs in the parlour - as the first step towards founding the first great dynasties of moviedom. Soon they added piano music, made louder with the addition of live drums - anything to whoop up the sound and attract customers in from the street. But the filmmakers of the era were not on the whole American - two-thirds of the films were brought in from France, Italy, Scandinavia, England. The American production scene had been thrown into confusion by a torrent of patent litigation launched by Thomas Edison and the new European cameras were more portable while the European films offered more exotic and less morally inhibited scenes - so the American press fulminated against the "gilded obscenity and veiled indecency" of the imported work - until American film-makers were in a position to overtake their competitors.

Robinson's book is subtitled The Birth of American Film and this brings one to the heart of its problem: early cinema history cannot be written from a national point of view without quickly seeming xenophobic. From the first flicker it was (and has always been) an international phenomenon. It is impossible to separate the part played by different countries when the progress of the invention was itself tortuously protracted with at least a dozen crucial turning points in as many years and in as many countries; meanwhile the frenziedly competitive pioneers were themselves constantly swapping countries, between Hungary and Hollywood, England and France, Russia and America. The "inventions" involved engineering, optics, chemistry, publicity, lighting, aesthetics, photography. The medium moreover shifted its whole social base during the 20 years covered by this book, from a device of optical illusion for the diversion of the poorest to a new art form demonstrated in galleries and in the homes of the rich. Between the two a vast new machinery of universal democratic entertainment was brought into being, one that furnished the cultural dimension of the great upheaval in the family and in social structures generally that has worked its way through the century. There has always been a meta-text of chauvinism running through moving image history but it does no more than momentarily conceal the collective nature of the circumstances themselves.

Robinson brings the story through to the last great discovery of the Edwardian era - that of Hollywood itself. Partly to escape the long arm of the patent trust which bedevilled film-making in New York even after the collapse of Edison's efforts to control the entire industry, and partly to benefit from long hours of uninterrupted sunshine, a new movement of independent filmmakers started to drift westwards to California. Carl Laemmle established the Universal Studios in a deserted valley. The Nestor Company constructed the first purpose-built studio on Sunset Boulevard in 1911. California transformed the American film and created for the world a spectacular landscape that has belonged ever since to the movie medium: endless plains, limitless skies, a sunlit sea and uninterrupted mountain tops gave the filmmaker the tangible vision of a new and uncramped realism. Narrative film underwent a liberating transformation.

The humble origins of cinema explain the lack of substantial information on so many of the filmmakers of the Victorian era. The Lumi re family, Eadweard Muybridge, Thomas Edison have all always been well documented, with an unceasing flow of new biographies. But the hundreds of other pioneers who started work in vaudeville or as parlour magicians or at the ends of English piers or drumming up custom at fairground peepshows have passed on without the attention of personal biographers.

It is excellent, therefore, that Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan have rummaged through the available collections of materials to produce a directory of 250 Victorians, people who made their contribution to the moving image in its myriad forms between 1870 and 1901, before anyone could see where the thing was heading. They list their categories as "scientists, entrepreneurs, doctors, sportsmen, artists, politicians, dancers, photographers, reporters, showmen, propagandists and crooks", all of whom, in the course of extending their various interests, played a part in putting together the nexus of skills and connections that established an historical cultural transformation. The nature of their task has inhibited chauvinism, indeed has given them the chance to paint an international canvas of characters - everyone from Christiaan Slieker (a Friesian travelling showman who acquired a pirated kinematograph apparatus in Paris and brought the first moving images to the Netherlands in 1896) to Kaiser Wilhelm II (the first European monarch to appear on film), to Maxim Gorky (the first Russian writer to describe the invention of cinema). This Who's Who? can be used as a reference book or read for pleasure.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford and former director, British Film Institute.

Who's Who of Victorian Cinema: A Worldwide Survey

Editor - Stephen Herbert and Luke McKernan
ISBN - 0 85170 539 1
Publisher - British Film Institute
Price - £40.00
Pages - 178

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