April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
Three Americans created the art of the motion picture, and made it the universal language of the twentieth century
The older arts, all seven of them—architecture, dance, drama, literature, music, painting, and sculpture—had their origins in the Mediterranean basin several thousands of years ago. The only new art, and the most universal, was born near the mouth of the Hudson River, and within the memory of living men. Three American geniuses—Thomas Alva Edison, Edwin Stanton Porter, and David Wark Griffith—individually and with others, created here a new means of depicting life.
This is the Moving Image, the eighth art, and today it is seen in living rooms, theaters, drive-ins, museums, classrooms. It is colored and black-and-white, wide and narrow, and often accompanied by voices, sounds, or music. It is free, subsidized, and charged for, preserved on celluloid and tape, transported in cans, over cables, through the air. It is projected on screens, shot from tubes, sometimes instantaneous, and always alive. It is the art of the twentieth century, and in the verbal confusion of our times it is also called cinema, film, motion picture, talkie, and television.
It is no archaeological accident that the oldest record of man’s creative impulse (25,000 B.C. in the Pyrenees) is his effort to capture motion. The Cro-Magnon artist huntsmen in their Lascaux cave paintings sought to hold life in motion by giving their wild bison the illusion of movement. The more modern art of literature, according to William Faulkner, “is really on its way back to the picture writing in the Neanderthal cave.”
The first man to relate photography to the illusion of motion was an American, Coleman Sellers, a descendant of that notable family of artists and tinkerers, the Peales. In 1860 Colonel Sellers, a mechanical engineer in Philadelphia, posed his sons in six photographs, showing them in the process of pounding a nail into a box—a parental impulse that has subsequently enriched the Eastman Kodak Company. Sellers mounted the photographs on the blades of a revolving paddle wheel, thus revealing his sons through a fixed peephole, in continuous, if jerky, motion.
Previously, a variety of Europeans—English, Belgian, Austrian—had experimented with hand-drawn applications of the theory that Peter Mark Roget (the Thesaurus man) had presented in a paper before the Royal Society in 1824. In a sense, no picture ever moves. All moving images are series of still pictures, flashed before the eyes at a speed faster than the eye can catch. This visual phenomenon (sixteen frames to the second for silent pictures, twenty-four for sound, thirty in television) permits a trick on the optic nerve, giving the illusion of constant motion. This trick Roget called “the persistence of vision.”
The crucial question was how to photograph motion.
A wager of $25,000 by a California railway magnate and sportsman, Leland Stanford, started motion photography on its way. A battery of twenty-four cameras was set up at the Stanford stock farm in Palo Alto, to prove that a horse had all four feet off the ground at a given moment. The horse’s hoofs were to trip a wire—an electrical device worked better—that clicked each camera. The photographer in charge, the eccentric but accomplished Edweard Muybridge, later used the system to record the first strip tease, the first fat lady dance, the first muscle man exercising, all printed in a fascinating book, Animal Locomotion.
In February, 1886, Muybridge had the brilliant idea of interesting the most practical and prolific inventor of the time, Thomas Alva Edison, in motion photography. Then thirty-nine years old, Edison had already improved the telegraph, invented the carbon telephone transmitter (and sold it to Bell), and introduced the improvements that made possible the commercial production of the incandescent lamp.
About the time of Muybridge’s visit, Edison had developed a motor-driven phonograph and cylindrical wax records, both of which were instantly popular. His original model cost him eighteen dollars; its cylinder was covered with tin foil and turned by a hand crank. But he felt that the voices, coming from a tin horn, still seemed a bit ghostly. Customers might like the sound better if they could see the talkers and singers; the camera could be a sales-booster for his phonograph.
Among his talents, Edison had a genius for hiring imaginative assistants. In 1888 they produced a cylinder that revolved behind a peephole, its figures in a photographic groove scarcely half an inch high. “Everything should come out of one hole,” Edison had told his staff, and he was right—but wrong in trying to imitate his phonographic cylinder. Not until George Eastman of Rochester, New York, began in August, 1889, to manufacture a photographic emulsion on a nitro-cellulose base did Edison have a supple and strong recorder of motion. For $2.50 he purchased a strip of film fifty feet long—an unprecedented length. “That’s it!” cried the Wizard of Orange on September second, in the famous Room Five in the new West Orange plant. “We’ve got it! Now work like hell!”
Edison had already invented the rapid-fire shutter. It was his assistant William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, however, who solved the mechanical problem of moving “roller photography” through the camera by punching holes along the edges of the celluloid so that a sprocket could synchronize each frame with the lens shutter. The first films imitated books, in that the strips ran horizontally through the camera.
On October 6, 1889, when Edison and his wife returned from the International Exposition in Paris, Dickson made one of the most dramatic demonstrations in the history of invention. He appeared on a screen, he bowed, his mouth moved, he talked and he was heard! “Good morning, Mr. Edison,” said Dickson. “Glad to see you back. I hope you are satisfied with the Kinetophonograph [Dickson’s name for the camera].”
Though movies and talkies had a joint debut that day, Edison decided the twins should grow separately. His phonograph business had become immensely lucrative. Metropolitan Opera stars, singers and musicians of international fame, and Broadway monologuists gladly ferried the Hudson to immortalize their voices and music on the top door of Edison’s barnlike, heavily-draped studio. He was in no hurry to exploit his camera and projector, which had already cost $24,118.04, a huge sum to him. He waited almost two years before he applied for a patent, and then refused to spend an additional $150 for an international copyright, “ft’s not worth it,” he said. They were the most expensive four words he ever uttered.
It was not until a southern promoter of the phonograph—Thomas R. Lombard of Cornelia, Georgia—wandered into the Orange works and saw the idle and dusty Kinetoscope machine that Edison’s interest revived. Lombard sought to purchase one, though there were as yet no films for it, to display at the forthcoming Columbian Exposition in Chicago; whereupon Edison decided to go into production of peephole machines and movies, in the hope of recouping his lost investment. He had already decided against Dickson’s screen, which he remembered as five feet square (Dickson in later years thought it was eight by ten feet), because it was too-large for profitable exploitation and was not yet perfected. His peepshow box, the Kinetoscope, ran fifty-foot films over a series of small rollers, driven by a battery-impelled motor. One spectator at a time watched through a viewing lens.
Since the first motion-picture camera resembled an upright piano and weighed nearly a ton, the subjects that could be photographed were rather limited. But Edison was a bit of an impresario. Recalling his success with vocal and instrumental performers from Manhattan, he summoned jugglers, acrobats, wrestlers, prize fighters, dancers. Sandow the Strong Man was among the first to be photographed. Annie Oakley shot clay pigeons, Buffalo Bill fired his rifle, Sioux Indians performed their Ghost Dance.
To increase production, Edison designed and built a tiny studio—it was completed in February, 1893—on his back lot behind the laboratory. It cost $637.67 (he kept the books!). An ugly, oblong box covered with tar paper and nicknamed the “Black Maria” after the police wagons of the day, it could be revolved on tracks to keep its stage in sunlight. A replica is now exhibited on the front grounds in West Orange.
The first public demonstration of motion pictures (though only for one person at a time and only as a novelty) took place on April 14, 1894, in a penny arcade at 1155 Broadway in New York City. Broadway had its first movies, and their commercial history—with all its chicanery and allure—began.
The first motion-picture re-enactment of a historical event, The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots, by William Heise, an Edison employee, was shot in August, 1895. More important, it also used the first trick shot. (The shot—a single camera operation covering an action, idea, or emotion—is the fundamental unit of this new language.) In the first shot of The Execution a young actress in a long black dress stands before the chopping block. She kneels, places her head on the block. The executioner raises the axe over his head, and swings. The shot ends. The second shot discloses the axe continuing its swing and chopping off the head of a sawdust dummy. End of shot. End of first classic.
By 1895, owners of penny arcades and exhibitions were demanding a machine similar to Henry Renno Heyl’s version of the magic lantern, which had packed 1,600 customers into Philadelphia’s Academy of Music a quarter of a century earlier. Edison was reluctant to return to the screen, in view of the popularity of his peep-show boxes. The steady flow of pennies from the arcades was convincing evidence for him. “The throwing of the pictures on a screen was the very first thing I did with the Kinetoscope,” he told the New York Sun, April 22, 1895, on the occasion of a demonstration by Woodville Latham, who had infringed his patent. “I didn’t think much of that, because the pictures were crude, and there seemed to me to be no commercial value in that feature of the machine.”
However, the handwriting (and the screen) was on the wall. Others were experimenting with projection machines, and it was Thomas Armat of Washington who produced the mechanism that made possible the modern projector. Dickson had used the red-cross gear of the Swiss watchmakers to turn the sprockets and the film in intermittent motion, permitting each successive image an instant of rest and illumination. Armat chose the Maltese cross, whose flared ends would permit a steadier and clearer flow of image frames. He ordered a “mutilated” gear from the Boston Gear Works, in Boston, Massachusetts, and it worked beautifully, but with a roar. On the night of April 23, 1896, Armat’s Vitascope, acquired by Edison, had its Broadway debut at Koster and Bial’s Music Hall, approximately on the spot where R. H. Macy today sells lingerie. Thomas Alva Edison was an honored guest in a box; Armat was discreetly quiet in the noisy projection booth.
The distinguished theatrical magnate Charles Frohman was in the audience. “That settles scenery!” he cried to a reporter. “Painted trees that do not move, waves that get up a few feet and stay there, everything in scenery we simulate on our stages will have to go. Now that art can make us believe that we see actual, living nature, the dead things of the stage must go.” The New York Herald reporter was eloquently matter-of fact: “Mr. Edison calls his latest invention the Vitascope which he says means a machine showing life, and that is exactly what the new apparatus does.”
Thus the Moving Image was born. What the inventors Edison, Dickson, and Armat did was nothing less than create a new and universal language, a way of recording people, places, and things in motion. To appreciate how this language developed into an art, it is essential to understand its unique characteristics, the three basic types of visual motion, as separate and interrelated as words, phrases, sentences.
For a start we might think of recorded movement as the nouns and pronouns of the new language. A face smiles, a wind moves the trees, a fire engine races up the street. In Edison’s time, recorded movement was mainly vaudeville, news, staged scenes—as it still is today. Not until Edwin Stanton Porter, an employee of Edison, added his own contribution did the Moving image reveal its full potential.
Porter added mounted movement, or editing, which might be thought of as the verbs of the visual language. He took the novelties of his European contemporaries—the close-up shot, the panoramic shot, the tracking shot, the multiple sets, the inserted and edited shots, the chase—and lifted them to the level of cinematic drama. Porter, more than anyone, translated the novelty of the Kinetoscope into the craft of the motion picture. He remains, unfortunately, its unsung genius; his first masterpiece is not even mentioned in the latest history of the art.
Edwin Stanton Porter was born in 1870 in the small Pennsylvania town of Connellsville on the Youghiogheny River. He had a quiet face, sad eyes, and sandy, drooping mustaches. One brother, Harry, became a gold miner in California; two other brothers and an unmarried sister settled in New York City. Edwin joined the Navy. On his discharge, he remembered two Connellsville men who had invested in the Vitascope with high hopes of making a fortune, it was a time when almost everybody seemed to be making, or talking about making, fortunes. Porter thought of trying his luck with the new horseless carriages. Instead, in New York that spring of 1896, he walked into 43 West Twenty-eighth Street, in the area around Broadway, which was fast becoming the world’s motion picture center. He called on Raff and Gammon, Edison’s agents for the Vitascope, and was put to work operating projectors.
The humid air around Broadway that summer was hot with competition and patent infringement. At about the time he became aware that Raff and Gammon could not hold their monopoly, Porter met a fellow adventurer, an itinerant medicine man who had been cleaning up in the Caribbean on Indian Miracle Oil. They bought an interest in the International Projectorscope, an imitation of the Vitascope, and the rights for the West Indies. Porter had graduated from projectionist to promoter, and set sail for Jamaica and Costa Rica to make his fortune. Years later he confessed to Terry Ramsaye, the screen’s first historian, that he billed himself there as “Mr. Thomas A. Edison, Jr.,” his nom de plume “for use in foreign parts only.” Filmdom was a lawless frontier in those days.
By this time Edison was starting suits for patent infringement, and Porter shrewdly decided to go to work for the Wizard as a cameraman. An early assignment was to photograph Sir Thomas Lipton’s famous sailboat Shamrock I, and he succeeded beautifully, catching her with her sails against the sun, her hull gliding through the sparkling sea. Edison had reduced the size and weight of the Kinetograph, so that the camera could take to the open road, shooting fire engines, horse and car traffic, trains pounding around curves, as well as set pieces inside Black Maria. Recorded (or subject) movement had been augmented by manipulated (or camera) movement. Promio, a cameraman of Louis Lumière of France, had shot the Grand Canal of Venice from a gondola in 1896; that same year Dickson, who had left Edison for the Biograph Company, had shot a Panorama of the American and Canadian Falls. What hadn’t as yet been accomplished was mounted, or edited, movement. This was to be Porter’s unique contribution, and it earned him the title of “father of the story film.”
To appreciate Porter’s revolutionary approach, one might compare his work with productions of the same period in France and England. In the fall of 1894 Edison had exported several Kinetoscopes to help him realize part of his investment—a most curious move, inasmuch as the Wizard had neglected to protect himself with an international patent. Two enterprising Greeks, George Georgiades and George Trajedis, who had been greengrocers in England, returned to London with Kinetoscopes purchased from Edison’s eastern agents. One Lionel Werner did the same, and opened a Kinetoscope parlor in Paris at 20 Boulevard Poissonnière in October, 1894. In a letter to Terry Ramsaye, Louis and Auguste Lumière, photographic manufacturers in Lyons, admitted that they got into the business when they strolled down the Champs-Élysées one day, spied a Kinetoscope in a shop, and promptly bought it.
The master magician of the Lumière camera was Georges Méliès, a theatrical prestidigitator who discovered that camera tricks could be achieved by manipulating the crank—for example: reverse motion, slow motion, superimposition (double exposure), fadeins and fade-outs. However, the trick shot in The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots by Heise preceded by at least a year Méliès’ accidental discovery of stop-motion when his camera jammed. In his country place in Montreuil, Méliès built a studio stage equipped with trap doors, overhead pulleys, and machines to produce sea waves, wind, and clouds. Méliès proudly claimed, and rightly so, that he was the first to “push the cinema toward the theatrical way.” But for all his fertile imagination and audacity, his shots remained stage tableaux.
Porter was impressed by the number of sets Méliès employed to tell a tale of magical adventure, as he had been impressed by the twenty-four scenes in the Passion play, but he was unimpressed by the rigid perspective, as of a spectator seated in the orchestra. Porter found what he was looking for in the work of the British photographers, James Williamson and G. A. Smith of Brighton, who used cameras manufactured by Robert William Paul of London. In 1899 Williamson took six shots of a Royal Henley Regatta, from the beginning to the end of the race. The remarkable feature in what might otherwise have been an ordinary news film was Williamson’s use of inserted shots, taken from a boat, of the crowd cheering on shore. This seems to have been the very first expression of the camera’s power, through cutting and splicing the film, to give an audience two points of view concurrently: in this instance, the race as seen from the shore, the crowd as observed from a boat.
In December, 1901, Williamson produced an enacted newsreel, Fire!, in which a man was rescued from a burning building. It was undramatic, but Porter, remembering some news shots he had made of fire engines, decided to edit these and add others to tell a story. In doing so he added plot to reality, and it was like adding life to facts.
That Porter’s impetus came from Williamson’s Fire!, imported by the rival Biograph Company, shows how early the stage adage—“one hit deserves another”—was practiced by the new industry. Nothing was sacred. Williamson faked the Boer War and Boxer Rebellion in his backyard garden; the Spanish-American War was enacted in the Jersey hills, and so on. But Porter’s Life of an American Fireman (June, 1903) was not only Edison’s answer to Biograph’s Fire! It was the first drama to be photographed free from stage perspective. Porter released movies from their theatrical picture frame. His simple story of a fire chief, the trapped wife and child, and their rescue was primitive but genuine art.
Porter became the first in the new art to let content determine form. Thus, with the fire engines arriving before the burning building, a fireman hopping off with hose in hand, Porter makes us feel the excitement by pivoting his camera with the action from the road to the house. This is probably the first dramatic-narrative panoramic shot in history. At its very climax, Porter tilts his camera upward to reveal the mother in her nightgown waving in an upstairs window. Also, his use of the close-up (the fire box), though not new, has a dynamic effect of narrative surprise.
In this early masterpiece of twenty-six shots (Pathé version) Porter directs our attention to the action as he wishes to describe it. Starting with a shot in which the mother jumps out of bed and amid thick smoke rushes to the window, he begins to alternate interior and exterior shots in perfect counterpoint and in faster tempo until his climax. Some are mere flashes on the screen—a little over two feet of film—the mother frantic on the street, the fireman in the burning room reaching for the baby. Two decades later, Eisenstein and Pudovkin, the renowned Russian director-editors, won international acclaim for refining what Porter had inaugurated. Fireman has a rightful claim to be considered the single most important film in the history of the Moving Image.
Porter’s next revolutionary step was the juggling of narrative time. The trapped mother and child and the ride to the rescue in Fireman had suggested parallel action. What Porter now did in his second masterpiece, The Great Train Robbery, shot in the fall of the same year, was to relate parallel action with shifts in time. He had undoubtedly seen an English film, produced in May or June of 1903, called Robbery of a Mail Coach, which also had parallel story development. But in his new film Porter juggled time by having scenes start before previous scenes had ended, such as the cowboys dancing in the saloon, who are then interrupted by the arrival of the railroad clerk, the latter freed by his daughter from the bandits’ gag and ropes during an earlier shot.
Porter saved the film medium from being an extension of the stage. He went on to do social-content films, The Ex-Convict and The Kleptomaniac, and to outdo Méliès in fantasy with The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend . He founded his own company, Rex, and joined with Adolph Zukor in the Famous Players Company. He directed Pauline Frederick, John Barrymore, and Mary Pickford (in Tess of the Storm Country, which grossed a million dollars from a $13,000 budget—the best record in the business). But it is for The Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery that his fame is most secure. He was the first creative artist of the Moving Image. At forty-three he retired with his fortune, then lost it in the crash of 1929. He lived out his years in the Hotel Taft, near Broadway, virtually unknown and shamefully unhonored.
At this point, the motion picture having become independent as an art, it might appear that there were no new or basic contributions to be made. But Porter can be said to have charted only the iceberg above the surface. D. W. Griffith discovered how vast a bulk lay below.
Toward the end of 1907 Griffith, a young playwright from Kentucky who had already toured on the road and suffered his first flop, rode the Third Avenue “El” to the Edison studio in the Bronx. He offered Porter a script based on the opera Tosca, but Porter thought it too pretentious. Instead of a sale, the hungry author got an acting role. He was thirty-two.
All his life David Wark Griffith—a tall, lean man with an arresting face—remained in love with the theater. During his early successes at the Biograph studios in New York he confided to his wife, the stage actress Linda Arvidson, “They [motion pictures] can’t last, I give them a few years. … Nobody’s going to know I ever did this sort of thing when I’m a famous playwright.” In his twenty-three-year career he made 484 films, spent over twenty million dollars and earned sixty million. He died dodging lawsuits (he was actually unable to appear publicly in New York City), having made no pictures at all during the last seventeen years of his life. He was a man disappointed, but unbowed: shortly before his death in Hollywood on July 23, 1948, I lunched with this proud, lonely personage, and he had a play script under his arm!
The irony of Griffith is that in bringing the Moving Image to the form it is in today, he relegated his true love, the theater, to the status of a less popular art. Griffith never valued his eminent position as first master of the art of motion pictures. His typical remark after a projection-room screening was, “Well, it’s a helluva way to earn a living.”
What was the essence of Griffith’s genius? His contribution came precisely from being a poet (frustrated in print) who saw in terms of images, and an actor (frustrated on the boards) who made the camera a participant. His improvements on the work of Porter and others, and his own innovations or rediscoveries, sprang from this double advantage.
A stage director is oriented to the audience, but an actor is oriented to his fellow actors. Griffith’s viewpoint tended to be, whenever possible, in the midst of the action. He first broke with stage direction while directing For Love of Gold, which he adapted in 1908 from Jack London’s Just Meat. In a scene in which two men seated at a table become distrustful of each other, Griffith asked himself, “How can I show what they are thinking?” His answer: Bring the camera closer to the actors. So, figuratively speaking, he took the audience from their seats and moved them onto the stage. This had been done before, but not—as Griffith did it—in the very middle of a scene.
He was to elaborate on this technique throughout his career, so much so that his name became associated with short, rapid editing in an exciting style, leading to a last-minute rescue. Griffith was called a “dangerous influence” by a number of critics simply because, as an artist, he evoked the passions of audiences to a degree previously unknown. He did so primarily by taking his intimate shots and editing them, not only in the narrative progression of Porter, but also for their emotional, descriptive, and ideological values.
Griffith’s first editing for emotion appears to have been his adaptation of Tennyson’s Enoch Arden, called After Many Years (October, 1908). To show Annie Lee lonely, as she waits for her husband’s appearance, he moved the camera from an establishing shot of Annie Lee to a close-up of her brooding face. But how could anyone tell what she was brooding about? So the third shot showed the subject of her concern, her husband cast away on a desert island.
During the next year the poet in Griffith came forward, and he added descriptive editing—the cutting from one shot to another purely for visual or aesthetic effect. In Edgar Allan Poe, produced in January, 1909, and based on The Raven, he used light and shade, a klieg light striking the brow of Poe as he declaimed. In that film Henry “Walt” Walthall, later to become famous as the Little Colonel in The Birth of a Nation, recited a line from “To One In Paradise”—“And all my days are trances.” All his days, Griffith had an affinity for Poe. His own poems, nakedly sentimental, make his title inserts embarrassing to read, and explain in part why he failed to keep abreast of postWorld War I sophistication.
Lighting to convey mood was further advanced in The Drunkard’s Reformation (March, 1909), when Griffith illuminated his actors’ faces by the glow of firelight from simulated flames. The cameramen, Bitzer and Marvin, protested: the players would scarcely be seen in the flickering shadows; but Griffith had a proud and vocal disdain for obstacles. Controlled lighting was extended to narrative as well as description in Pippa Passes (October, 1909, adapted from Browning): the sun’s first rays awaken Pippa as she sleeps; then soft lights usher in the morning, and full, the bright day. In his later work Griffith often employed descriptive editing to indicate the setting—the carefully composed long shots lend atmosphere in Ramona (May, 1910); and to depict characters—in Intolerance (1916) he juxtaposed people with symbolic birds: the close-up of a pair of doves drawing a toy chariot and its flowers between Belshazzar and the Princess Beloved, the close-ups of Dear One and baby chicks, of Tesus and the doves, and so on.
By taking one final step forward, Griffith brought the motion-picture art to maturity. He added touches of editorial comment or symbolism for social or political emphasis, a technique subsequently imitated by Eisenstein and Pudovkin. His two greatest masterpieces, The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, bristle with such juxtapositions of argument and plot, fact and fiction. Both films carry the quality of epics because their creator had a burning passion to rewrite history in his own image. In Intolerance, Christ, Belshazzar (Babylon’s betrayed king), the massacred Huguenots, and Modern Man (victimized by strikes, poverty, crime, charity, and the courts)—all are portrayed as sacrifices to “despotism and injustice.” The four historical stories unfold first separately and then together, linked by Griffith’s ideological editing. It is a picture ahead of its time, and our time.
Within an eight-year period (1908–16) Griffith brought the Moving Image to its peak, and today we are coasting on his achievement. Looking back, it is clear that Edison regarded the Kinetoscope and Kinetograph as machines for novel entertainment; Porter considered the craft unique as a storyteller and a money-maker; and Griffith became the master of an art form he unwittingly brought to maturity. Since then, sound and color have arrived, and the television camera and receiver—also perfected near the Hudson River—have added long-distance transmission to the medium’s capabilities. When the future passes judgment on this era, it will not be surprising if the art of the Moving Image ranks high among our creative accomplishments.