If Georges Méliès, the first truly great director in movie history, were alive today, he'd be celebrating his 150th birthday. Appropriately enough, Méliès is back in the national consciousness thanks to Martin Scorsese's latest film, Hugo, a 3D children's movie for adults, which I plan to see soon, maybe this weekend! In honor of the great Georges Méliès, here's a repost of my essay on the birth of cinema.
Trying to say definitively who invented the movies is a little like trying to say who invented fire—the records are sketchy, everybody who knows for certain is dead, and what evidence that does remain comes largely from the self-serving accounts of Thomas Edison's patent lawyers.
And where do you start, which is to say, what was the first indispensable step toward what we now think of as motion pictures? If I knew his name, I'd say it was the first caveman who thought to entertain his neighbors with shadow puppets and firelight. In fact, two of the key elements of film, movement and representation, have been staples of art and entertainment since at least the ancient Greek stage.
Turner Classic Movie's recent documentary, Moguls and Movie Stars, began with seventeenth century Dutch mathematician Christiaan Huygens who in 1659 invented the magic lantern show—a process of projecting light through a painted slide onto a wall or screen—and in terms of being entertained while sitting in the dark looking at pictures on a wall, the magic lantern is a reasonable place to start a history of the movies. Over the course of the two hundred years that followed, these magic lantern shows became quite sophisticated—by stacking slides one in front of the other and manipulating them, a projectionist could create the illusion of movement—and were one of the most popular forms of entertainment during the 19th century.
And then there was Eadweard Muybridge, who on a bet took a series of photographs in 1872 of a galloping horse to prove that all four of its hooves leave the ground simultaneously when it runs. Strung together on a glass cylinder and spun quickly enough, this "magic lantern show gone mad" created the illusion of a horse in motion. Muybridge also had a fondness for photographing nude models performing mundane tasks and audiences had a fondness for paying to see them, proving once again that pornography often drives the acceptance of new media. (Also check out Étienne-Jules Marey who similarly used a "chronophotographic gun" to capture remarkable images of birds in flight.)
But if we think of movies as something involving a strip of film and a projector, then I think the history of movies starts with Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince who in 1888 used a single-lens camera and paper film produced by George Eastman to film two seconds worth of fashionable men and women walking around a garden in Roundhay, England. Along with equally brief footage of horse and buggy traffic crossing a bridge in Leeds, Le Prince is generally credited with producing the first "films" in movie history.
Alas for Le Prince, while preparing for a cross-Atlantic trip to exhibit his invention in New York, he boarded a train bound for Paris in 1890 and literally vanished without a trace. Although theories abound—suicide, fratricide, assassination—his disappearance has never been explained. In fact, investigators turned up no leads at all and the case went cold until just seven years ago, when, while combing through its nineteenth century archives, Paris police found a photograph dating from 1890 of an unidentified drowning victim who bore a resemblance to Le Prince. But whether it was positively him or how he might have drowned on a moving train, no one can say.
After Le Prince, the story of film picks up with Charles-Émile Reynaud. A French science professor who directed and exhibited what may have been the world's first animated film, Pauvre Pierrot ("Poor Pete"), his most lasting contribution to film history was the invention of a camera that recorded images not on photographic plates but on perforated film advanced by sprockets, resulting in longer filmed sequences than a cylinder or drum would allow.
Reynaud demonstrated his camera-projector, which he called the Praxinoscope Théâtre, at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1889 (the one with the Eiffel Tower). In the audience was the famed American inventor Thomas Alva Edison who had been struggling to come up with his own movie camera without much success. By his own admission, two of Edison's greatest inventions were credit stealing and patent lawyers, deploying armies of the latter to accomplish the former—along with the light bulb, his most lasting and influential contributions—but he later insisted that his epiphany that the future of motion pictures depended on perforated film on sprockets was purely coincidental. The U.S Patent Office agreed.
"Everyone steals in industry and commerce," he said later. "I've stolen a lot myself. The thing is to know how to steal." (An idea he no doubt stole from his attorneys.)
Reynaud died penniless, but Edison—or more precisely his assistant William K.L. Dickson—ran with Reynaud's ideas (and, I don't know, maybe some of his own), and by 1894 created what he called the Kinetoscope, essentially a "peepshow" housed in a bulky cabinet, whereby the bored and the curious could one at a time watch brief films for a nickle. The movies were neither artistic nor adventuresome—just brief scenes of men sneezing, couples dancing, Annie Oakley shooting—but for a time at least the paying public was enthralled.
It was two French brothers, however, Auguste and Louis Lumière, who first thought to exhibit movies not to one person at a time but to a theater full of paying customers. Starting their careers in film as assistants in their father's photographic firm, the brothers—Louis as the inventor, Auguste as the business manager—developed a new and improved camera-projector. Where Edison's Kinetoscope was bulky and hard to maintain, the Lumières' combination camera-projector, the cinématographe, was light and mobile and relatively easy to use. In December 1895, these two brothers rented a hall in Paris and charged the public admission to see their new invention—the first time in history an audience paid money to see a motion picture in a theater.
Here in its entirety is that groundbreaking film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:
I've said it before and I'll say it again, the only proper way to study movie history is to watch movies, and when I sat down and watched a couple of dozen of the Lumière brothers' best-known movies (judging by the number of votes they've received on the Internet Movie Database), it quickly became clear that while the Lumières may have invented the camera, they didn't have a clue what to do with the camera. Their films never progressed beyond fifty-second home movies of whatever they happened to be standing near—trains entering a station, babies eating breakfast, etc.—audiences quickly grew jaded and early in the 20th century, the brothers famously concluded that "the cinema is an invention without any future." Instead, they turned their full attention to photography, finding their lasting success with a color photographic process, the Autochrome Lumière, which they patented in 1903.
It was instead another Frenchman, Georges Méliès, who was the first to grasp the unique potential of the new motion picture technology. A stage magician by trade, Méliès saw movies as a successor to the tradition of fanciful entertainments. Where Edison and the Lumière brothers used their cameras to record reality, Méliès realized that through editing and photographic trickery, film could be used to create a new reality, one that could never exist apart from film. It was perhaps the single greatest insight in movie history.
Among his many movies, one, Le Voyage Dans La Lune (A Trip To The Moon), from 1902, is perhaps the one indispensable film from the first quarter century of film history and gave us the single most famous movie image before Charlie Chaplin first donned his little tramp outfit.
I'll grant you, A Trip To The Moon is a relic by the standards even of the decade that followed it, but it was also wholly original, deriving from nothing before it, inspiring so much of what came after it, and containing images that are still unique and unforgettable despite the passage of a century's worth of filmmaking. Or to put it another way, that The Simpsons could spoof A Trip To The Moon as an Itchy and Scratchy cartoon (in French, no less) without the need to explain it, tells you all you need to know about how much a part of the culture Méliès really is.
Unfortunately, Méliès wasn't much of a businessman, and Edison and his lawyers were able to copy prints of A Voyage To The Moon and exhibit them in the United States without paying royalties. Too, Méliès stopped progressing as a filmmaker. His 1912 movie, The Conquest Of The Pole, for example, could have been made a decade earlier in terms of its sets, acting, storyline and editing, and while D.W. Griffith later said of Méliès "I owe him everything," Griffith and others quickly surpassed him in terms of artistry and technique.
Méliès went bankrupt in 1913 and wound up selling toys in Paris's Gare Montparnasse train station. He was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1932 and died six years later.
Méliès's story is a none-too-subtle reminder that while movies are the greatest art form of the 20th century, they're also a business, and whatever else you can say about Thomas Edison, he did figure out how to make money from the movies and to popularize the medium. While men such as Le Prince and the Lumière brothers were more clever inventors and Méliès was a superior artist, it was Edison who made movies pay, and his realization that nobody was going to buy a film projector if there were no films to project on it may have been the second greatest insight in movie history. Certainly the most practical.
A variety of men made movies at Edison's behest, but the two most important were the aforementioned W.K.L Dickson and Edwin S. Porter. Dickson was primarily an inventor and his contributions as a filmmaker are largely those of a cinematographer recording his own experiments. His first works, the first American films, are simple scenes filmed in his own workshop—men blacksmithing, sneezing or shaking hands.
These snippets of life provided the content of Edison's peepshows and in the beginning were sufficient to satisfy the public's curiosity. But with more interesting films arriving from the Lumière brothers and especially Méliès, Edison realized he needed more substantial fare if his fledgling film company was to survive. Edison put Porter, who had formerly worked as a touring projectionist for a rival company, in charge of motion picture production at his New York studios, and there Porter set to work filming not just workplace scenes, but stories.
Porter directed more than one hundred eighty films between 1898 and 1915, but far away the most important and enduring of them is the 1903 western, The Great Train Robbery.
"In literature and music, as well as movies," Daniel Eagan wrote in America's Film Legacy, his collection of essays about the National Film Registry, "the past can seem slow, obvious and at times filled with odd, unexpected touches too far removed from our experiences to decipher easily—which makes The Great Train Robbery an even more remarkable achievement. The blockbuster of its time, it has lost none of its power to entertain over the past hundred years."
Put simply, The Great Train Robbery was the first great American film. Not only is the shot of Justus Barnes firing a Colt revolver directly at the camera one of the most indelible images in movie history, but Porter grasped that unlike with the stage, the "best seat in the house" was wherever the camera needed to be to show the action. Porter placed his camera on top of a movie train or riding along with the outlaws on horseback, a "conceptual leap" (Eagan again) that puts the film a decade ahead of its time.
Porter's use of jump-cuts, cross-cutting, matte shots and hand-tinted frames was equally cutting-edge, and that the film also established the narrative conventions for decades of westerns to come makes The Great Train Robbery the most important American film before The Birth Of A Nation a dozen years later.
Despite the commercial success of The Great Train Robbery, neither Porter nor his boss were comfortable with the film's technical and storytelling innovations, and thereafter, to the disappointment of the ticket-buying public, the studio's product reverted to more conventional forms. A Trip To The Moon notwithstanding, ultimately the one thing Thomas Edison couldn't steal was quality and within a few years, immigrant entrepreneurs such as Adolph Zukor and Carl Laemmle and directors such as D.W. Griffith equaled then surpassed Edison as a filmmaker. The company lost steam, Porter left Edison's employ in 1909 and an adverse ruling in an anti-monopoly case in 1915 exacerbated the decline. With the coming of World War I and the closing of the European market, Edison sold his studio and abandoned film altogether.
It was an ironic and somehow fitting end to the master inventor-thief's involvement in the history of motion pictures.