Diary

The Earliest Movies

Back before America’s business leaders relied on government bailouts, there was a time that some relied on innovation. Thomas Edison was one of those leaders. While he invented many things, in this season of Hollywood’s big Christmas push, let’s consider his contribution to the movies and through his work, his contribution to the economy.

There were movies before Edison. The first try was to position a series of cameras along a racetrack with tripwires across the track. Then they ran the horse down the track. The hooves struck the wires, activating the camera. The resulting photos were displayed rapidly creating the first “movie experience”. But a dead-end invention.

Edison came up with the film strip as the medium and invented a camera to photograph scenes directly to the strip. He also invented a machine for viewing the developed film, thus completing the commercial process.

He introduced his new machine to the world at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. People lined up to peer into the machine’s eyepiece one at a time and see the world’s first moving pictures. His invention was a hit. Other inventors could have stopped there but Edison knew that this new process opened both opportunities and challenges

In both Europe and America, other people were jumping into the arena. British inventors Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres developed a machine that projected the film images across the room onto the wall. Now, movies could be showed to groups of people instead of just one person at a time. In France, the Lumiere brothers began showing creative films that were widely received. If Edison wanted his invention to pay, he would have to get creative, too.

See Wikipedia for more on these earliest movie days.

While the quality of these early movies seem pretty lame today, the audiences of the 1890’s were experiencing the first sights ever seen by anyone in history: pictures that moved. The creativity was limited but the technology was, too. Each movie had to be contained in a film strip only 50 feet long! That means that each movie could last only a few seconds.

The quality of the filmstrip, well. Need we say more? The reason we have these very early movies is that the government copyright laws lagged behind this new industry, too. The only way Edison could think of to copyright his films was to reproduce them frame by frame onto a strip of paper. It was these lengthy spools of paper (adding machine tape, anybody?) with each frame printed as an individual picture, that were provided to the Library of Congress to meet the copyright laws of the 1890’s.

When film historians went looking for the earliest films, the filmstrips had long since deteriorated to dust. But the paper prints still existed in the Library of Congress. Technicians reversed Edison’s process, photographing each picture and putting it on modern film. That is what we have today.

For samples of Edison’s movies, I searched YouTube and got this:

First Kiss
This was Edison’s big hit of 1896. The lady was the famous actress May Irwin. In 1896, Irwin had a problem. As you can see from the movie, by 1896 this former sex siren of the stage was very much a FORMER sex siren. She was only 34 years old, yet she looked much older. She was starring in a play “The Widow Jones” and concerned that the leading man, John C. Rice, not so young looking himself, in fact looked old and that helped make her look old. Still, to help publicize the play, she shot the climactic scene, the big kiss, for Edison. But even as this scene was shot, she had plans for Rice.

After shooting, she fired him and hired a much younger man instead. Edison released the movie and it became a huge hit. Rice, a new star but out of work, went to work in vaudeville with an act “teaching people how to kiss for the theatre.” The act was a sensation.

Meanwhile, back on Broadway, “The Widow Jones” returned in the fall of 1896 for the new season. With the fired John C. Rice giving kissing demonstrations all across the country, and Edison’s movie a smash hit, everybody who went to the play focused on that climactic big kiss at the end. Could the new guy perform up to John C. Rice’s standards? Too, bad; uh, uh; nada; zip; it was a flop.

Irwin was in a quandary. She didn’t want Rice back; Rice didn’t want to come back; the public demanded they get back. Guess who won? This was a harbinger of the movies’ future power on public opinion.

Serpentine Dance
These were popular vaudeville acts in this era. This movie exhibits Edison’s experiments with applying color tints to the film.

Annabelle Moore is the dancer in this film from 1894. She was one of Edison’s favorite stars. She starred in Edison’s films throughout the 1890’s. Part of the reason that Edison kept bringing her back was because his master film strips kept wearing out and he needed new shoots to release.

Sandow the Strongman
It is 1894. Edison, under pressure from the competition, was looking for new stars. (The Star System was actually invented by D.W. Griffin about 20 years in the future. I use the term “stars” because even in the 1890’s, Edison had the concept, if not the execution, as this story shows.)

Eugene Sandow was the Arnold Swarzenegger of the 1890’s. He billed himself in vaudeville as “The Strongest Man in the World”. Others disputed his claim. How to solidify his reputation and thus his marketability?

Edison brought Sandow to his studios in a blaze of publicity. On March 6, with cameras flashing and the press looking on, “the world’s greatest strongman shook hands with the world’s greatest inventor.” Thus Edison and Sandow packaged the event. The reporters rushed the photos into print and the Edison/Sandow team went to work.

The movie is the opening of Sandow’s act. (Remember, this is the 1890’s, movies are only a few seconds long.) Sandow immediately followed up his movie debut with a book on physical fitness. Five weeks after this film shot, Edison introduced his new film invention, the kinetoscope.

Thus, the two celebrities used a 15 second film to promote their careers.

The Boxing Match
These two were a comedy team but Edison made movies of real fights in the 1890’s. Boxing was illegal in every state of the Union. Edison filmed the first sports films at these illegal fights.

Being the great celebrity, Edison could get away with it. And he took advantage of the gap between development of technology and the development of law. It was illegal to attend fights; there was nothing in the law making it illegal to show movies of fights. Of course, the movies could be entered into evidence against the fighters, the referee, and such spectators whose faces appeared in the film. Judges were outraged when juries refused to convict. Edison’s boxing movies played a key role in the subsequent legalizing of this sport.

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I came upon these movies in my Netflix subscription (yet another innovative use of new technology). Netflix members can find the exact disk here.

Edison’s contribution did not stop with novelty filming; he conscientiously tried to use the invention for something larger.

For more info on these and other Edison films, see the Edison Movies Website.

Innovation and better products – yes, and a little promotion, too: I think that these are the way back for our nation’s business and we can do well to look at the great leaders of our country’s past.