So, I’ve been itching to do something research-y. And so here we go! Each week, I’ll look at a specific decade in film history, and it’s going to be EPIC. I’m stoked.
So let’s do this!
The Dawn of Film: Beginnings to 1910
EXT. DAY. A FIELD.
Your charming HOST approaches you, his magnificent black coat flapping heroically in the breeze. You don’t know what to expect…
We have a few people to thank for getting this crazy train going, but I won’t list them all as the orchestra will probably play me off the stage. So let’s keep this simple.
Thank you, George Eastman for inventing celluloid roll film in 1888! You rock!
And thank you, Thomas Edison, for stealing other people’s ideas and taking credit for them. So thank you to Edison’s ASSISTANT, W.K.L Dickson, for developing the Kinetoscope, the first film viewer in 1890. Very clever.
And thank you to the Lumiére brothers, August and Louis, for inventing the first projector and for producing the first film in 1895! I’m sorry the public thought your films were boring…
But then, like fidget spinners and pogs, the novelty caught on! And films went from weird, “Let’s sit/stand in this awkward room and watch short scenes” affairs to a legit entertainment fad! And that brings me to the nickelodeons! Yes, kids, it wasn’t just a TV channel obsessed with slime and Spongebob!
But these films were basically just, “check out this sweet train” or “this is a tree,” or “you ever wanted to see Mary Queen of Scots decapitated? Well here’s your chance…just ignore the fact that it’s obviously a dummy” types of affairs.
Then, a French dude by the name of Georges Méliès came along and injected narrative into these films! And it makes me feel less like a failure in life because he got started at the age of 34, which in those days was like, late middle age. So I’ve got time to invent some sweet world-changing thingamabob yet!
Méliès had a freaky side that I TOTALLY respect and he made such films as L’Escomtage d’um Dame (1896) in which a woman gets gruesomely transmogrified into a skeleton, or Le Chaudron Infernale (1903) which features dancing ghosts! he was also a huge Jules Verne fan (*fist bump*) and made a few shorts inspired by that wacky Frenchman’s awesome brain. One such film, Voyage à Travers l’Impossible (1904) was one of the first (if not THE first) film to use TWO reels instead of just one, which is pretty cool.
This is when people were all, “I freaking love this!” and cinema was a legit thing and not just a goofy sideshow act.
Méliès was also the inventor of the “dramatic televised court case” thing in which a trial is turned into sensationalized entertainment which people at home eat up like candy (think O.J. Simpson or Casey Anthony). His L’Affair Dreyfus (1899) was a reconstruction of a famous court case that dialed the drama up and tweaked reality to make it more exciting.
He also made publicity films for companies, another first. Advertising was obviously already a thing, but you can thank this guy for annoying commercials (“Head on! Apply directly to the forehead!”) since he went and got that ball rolling.
But moving on from Méliès!
Let’s talk about a dude named Charles Pathé (there’s a production company named after him, actually. They helped produce films like Slumdog Millionaire and Selma!). He was the great grandfather of the current studio model. Films were popular, but Pathé created the Film Studio *castle thunder sound effect* and turned film into an industry.
Also, if you think the current trend of remakes is a new thing, think again. They were there from the beginning. Rescued by Rover (1905), a film by a British dude, Cecil Hepworth, about a heroic dog who saves a lost child was so crazy popular that it was remade twice so more people could see it! Dogs are the best, so I totally understand them turn-of-the-century cinema-goers.
And, because I love animation, I’ll have to mention that, too. Animation popped up at the end of the aughts with Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906), The Haunted House (1908) and Gertie the Dinosaur (1914), which was later used in a wonderful vaudeville act in which the live dude, Winsor McKay (great name!) interacts with Gertie on the screen. Here’s a link through the magic of YouTube! It’s super cute. And I love the meta intro in which the animator bets he can make a picture move.
Now, I’m going to pause here to point out a shocking thing. I have discovered a bit of an inconsistency in which Wikipedia (*heaves*) is right and a book–a published authoritative book!–is wrong. I know. It’s horrible. So, one of my sources, David Shipman’s massive tome The Story of Cinema, says that Gertie the Dinosaur was released in 1909. But multiple other online sources, including Wikipedia, state that it was actually released in 1914. Some scholarly article way back when erroneously stated that Gertie came about in 1909 and everyone after that just kept repeating it, assuming it’s true. You’ll see this in scholarly articles written by Very Smart Poeple as well as cheapy sensationalist drivel. So, if you’re a college student and your teacher says that Wikipedia isn’t reliable, they’re still right, BUT you can counter that with, “But what if the information I find on Wikipedia is corroborated elsewhere??” My thanks also to this fantastic article on Gertie for reassuring me that I’m not crazy, and the loveable animated dinosaur did in fact come about in 1914.
Anyways, the end of the aughts.
Film was now a legitimate industry and everyone was experimenting with new stuff. Would you believe that even close ups were considered weird and shocking at one point? Filmmakers didn’t think audiences would be able to accept an image of a person in motion unless all of them were visible, which is fun. But a number of filmmakers tried it anyways and people didn’t panic, so that’s nice.
Before I go, I have to mention L. Frank Baum, creator of The Wizard of Oz. The first book in the series (there were 14 ultimately) was published in 1900, and he had some crazy ideas about building a media empire around his fantasy creation (Walt Disney would make this a reality later on). But Baum is influential in that he explored many experimental means of bringing his story to life. A fun traveling show called the Fairylogue and Radio-Plays (1908) used trick photography, film, and stage actors to create a bunch of neat effects, but the production bankrupted Baum, who was HORRIBLE with money (I hear you, buddy). His earliest surviving silent film adaptation of his first book was released in 1910 as a way to recoup some of his losses, and it did OK, but it wasn’t the breakout hit he intended. It’s a weird one, though, featuring a zany cow and a crazy over-the-top witch. But it was successful enough that a few film sequels were made.
His dream of riding the new film fad to success would not pan out, tragically, but he saw the potential, and was just a little too ahead of his time.
We still love you, Baum.
And with Oz, we make it to the end of this chapter! Whooo!
Next up, we’re gonna check out the 1910’s!
See you then!
Sources (because I assure you I’m not just making this up!)
Canby, Vincent, and Janet Maslin. The New York Times Guide to the Best 1,000 Movies Ever Made.
Shipman, David. The Story of Cinema.
Sklar, Robert. A World History of Film.
and special thanks to the Silent-Ology blog by Lea S. for proving that one must always research and double-research facts!