A Brief History of Film

by Frank Cullen

Installment One

The exhibition of American motion pictures began in the late Nineteenth century where dusty roads crossed to make village junctions. And there sat the grange halls of the Great Plains where, on weekend evenings, some fellows set up a screen and turned on a projector. In cities, those ‘flickers’ first appeared in theatres on the tail end of continuous vaudeville bills. Hard on the eyes, they were called ‘chasers’ because they were used to rid the theatre of one paying audience to make room for the next.

Mostly filmed outdoors, sun and clouds taking turns, shining brightly and casting shadows until clouds masked the sun, rendering scenes into degrees of blurry grey, as weather is wont, but film photographers didn’t want. Those first films were created by enthusiasts, many of whom had yet to graduate from amateurs to craftsmen. Their first equipment was as rudimentary as their skill, yet it was they who improvised some of the refinements that salaried inventors standardized and their employers copyrighted.

Then and still now, there are debates as to who invented the movie camera and the projector. There were many with some rightful claim in France, England, Germany, Poland and the United States, each of whom advanced the utility and flexibility of the camera and/or the projector: Louis Le Prince; William Friese-Greene; erstwhile Edison’s employees William Dickson and Eugene Lauste; the Lumiére Brothers’ employee Charles Moisson; Robert Paul; Birt Acres; Polish inventor Kazimierz Prószyński; and the German Skladanowsky Brothers. Each of them advanced the usefulness of the movie camera, and some of them refined both camera and projector.

Many of the improvements, major and minor, that made the first primitive motion picture cameras more practical, were polished adaptations of original work by the many forgotten enthusiasts who experimented with lenses, shutter speed and film, fiddling with their cameras to improve the feeding mechanisms so the film did not jam inside their cameras or projectors.

Also unrecorded were the chemists who first experimented with plain thin paper as film, then oiled paper, then moved on to flammable nitrous cellulose and then to non-flammable polyester to make safer and ever more receptive motion-picture film. They mixed the light-sensitive emulsions they needed to develop, enhance picture quality and tone of the films, and to print the final product: movies!

Meanwhile, those early filmmakers were capturing movement on the variously improved film stocks. Some subjects were close at hand: holiday parades, the frequent arrivals of railway trains, and the incessant clatter and movement of factory looms—all those celebrations of national progress and pride made, via film, for novel amusement, though it was the locomotive steaming toward the camera that made audiences duck for cover behind chairs. Add to those events, nature’s Old Faithful geyser, Niagara Falls, floods, tornadoes, wildfires. Wherever there was disaster, there was some cameraman quick to the scene to capture it and later screen it for those who experienced only its excitement. And maybe the few who had weathered its misery.

At first raw film stock was sold in sixty-five-foot lengths, then seventy-five, then one hundred and two-hundred before one-thousand-foot coils became the standard. A single thousand-foot reel ran about ten minutes, exact footage varied depending upon how slow or fast the camera was cranked. Whether one hundred feet or one thousand feet, the movie-maker/cameraman who wanted to film and exhibit longer movies needed to cement shorter film lengths together–not the most satisfactory solution, and one that was abandoned when the neater join of splicing replaced it. Splicing made it smoother to compile a series of unrelated events (such as the parade, the locomotive and the geyser into a single reel that made for less complicated projecting and viewing).

Chasing after disasters had required serendipity and spending instead of earning money for the one-man camera operator, producer, director and exhibitor. So the first solution for him became not to find new phenomena to film but new audiences to pay to see what he had already filmed.

The budding entrepreneur mapped out a circuit of towns beyond his home, fired up the Stanley Steamer or cranked up Tin Lizzie, and set out to visit a circular string of villages, one a day for as many days as there were villages within the route that eventually brought him back home.

A stroll up and down the Main Streets determined which retail store could best accommodate a seated audience and located the funeral parlor from which he might rent the folding chairs after business hours. Haberdasheries were favored because, after regular business hours, racks of clothes could be pushed to the sides to make space for the folding chairs—provided the funeral parlor proprietor had agreed to rent them.

That the itinerant filmmaker provided not only film, stitched-together sheeting for a screen, rented chairs plus the offer of a fifty-fifty split on receipts–all after closing hours–was to many shopkeepers an intriguing gamble with nothing to lose.

Plenty of hours intervened until closing time. That allowed the filmmaker time to scrawl on his preprinted placards the hour and place of the screening and the price of tickets. Again walking from drugstore to grocery to barber shop to cobbler to bakery and lawyer’s office, he sought shopkeepers who were willing to trade a placard-placement in their store window in return for a free pass or two. And where a merchant refused, there was nearby usually a tree or a fence where a placard could be tacked.

Installment Two

If enough vagabond filmmakers passed through town often enough, the haberdasher’s share of ticket sales began to turn his thoughts away from suits, shirts and ties to showing movies on a more regular basis. For each suit sold or tailor-made, a new suit or more yard goods needed to be purchased from a wholesaler. Other than his added time in his shop, he might dream that those evening show-time profits might begin to approach his usual daytime net income.

Some village shopkeepers visited big cities where they saw storefronts that advertised as ‘dime museums’ offering ‘wondrous’ exhibits (usually unfortunate, disfigured people ballyhooed as ‘freaks’ or caged animals that had wings or other unnatural parts glued on to them to be passed off to the gullible as a mermaid, Pegasus or a six-legged dog). Equally spurious was the claim of offering the latest in motion pictures ‘one flight up’ in a makeshift auditorium.

Once back in his store, the shopkeeper pondered going fulltime into movie exhibition—as soon as he bought and learned how to run a projector himself and where to buy or rent movies (later to be traded for new ones). For each suit sold or tailor-made, a new suit or more yard goods needed to be purchased from a wholesaler. Minus the profit-sapping expense of paying for more suits or fabric, those added evening ‘flickers’ show-time profits might begin to approach his usual daytime net income.

Thus were the beginnings of professional movie exhibitors and nickelodeons as well as the early moviemakers who transformed their garages into workshops, and their homes and backyards into film studios.  Their families were conscripted into the roles of unpaid film actors. Some took to it with pleasure and intuition, but if they expected to be paid, they found competition from under-employed stage actors and vaudeville and circus performers who were turning to movies.

Those who found they could consistently sell rights to their shoestring productions, began looking for larger quarters, perhaps unused small factories with safety glass paneled roofs that admitted light on sunny days. Once expanded quarters were found, as the newly minted film producer (and man-of-all-chores) dreamt of filming longer photoplays. For outdoor scenes there were city streets and nearby parks with greenery, benches and (if lucky) a duck pond for comedians to push each other into.

Embryonic studios, some better financed and more professionally managed, endured longer than others. The more ambitious itinerant filmmakers/cameramen were determined to make more money than the few dollars they pocketed in an evening of driving from home to an outlying village, setting up the projector and two sewn together white sheets standing in for a movie screen in some clothing store to show short films that had taken two weeks to shoot, develop and print. His share of the admission price barely paid for gasoline, new film stock and any needed replacement parts.

Storefronts became nickelodeons. Druggists transformed into experimental chemists or film-processors. Film exchanges grew into distribution networks. Nickelodeons moved into empty playhouses or unprofitable vaudeville houses and retrofitted them into spacious moviehouses. (It was lot cheaper to rent movies than hire a gaggle of live actors and build scenery.

Even as early as the 1900s geysers and trains had lost the appeal of novelty. What was needed was to wrap stories around bursts of action. That became chapter two of movie-making, as movie-going became a weekly or twice weekly American habit.

The movie business was ever a chancy enterprise, as much so in the beginning as it would become in the late 1920s, when the great expense of converting to sound pictures coincided with The Great Depression, and again in the late 1940s, when television stole the movie’s audience.

Around 1895–96 the novelty of flickering images on a screen had begun to wear off for both the itinerant filmmakers/cameramen and their audiences. More sophisticated and intriguing moviemaking required the wedding of individuals with complementary skills into creating a more evenly polished product that earned audience approval, and, in turn, enhanced the range of film distribution and more ticket sales.

Individual pioneers took various paths. Some were little more than enthusiasts seeking to earn enough money to pay the expense of their hobby. Those with hopes for a career realized that they needed to subordinate individual creativity to the demands in skill of an ever-expanding craft of moviemaking. Audience expectations for greater quality and longer movies with storylines required the specialized participation of individuals and orchestration of teams consisting of producers, directors, scenario writers, actors, editors, suppliers of film and machine parts, film processors, bookkeepers, business managers and salesmen. (to be continued)

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