Collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison CompaniesShow Featured Items
"I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion ...."
--Thomas A. Edison, 1888
Edison's laboratory was responsible for the invention of the Kinetograph (a motion picture camera) and the Kinetoscope (a peep-hole motion picture viewer). Most of this work was performed by Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, beginning in 1888. Motion pictures became a successful entertainment industry in less than a decade, with single-viewer Kinetoscopes giving way to films projected for mass audiences. The Edison Manufacturing Co. (later known as Thomas A. Edison, Inc.) not only built the apparatus for filming and projecting motion pictures, but also produced films for public consumption. Most early examples were actualities showing famous people, news events, disasters, people at work, new modes of travel and technology, scenic views, expositions, and other leisure activities. As actualities declined in popularity, the company's production emphasis shifted to comedies and dramas.
This collection features 341 Edison films, including 127 titles also available in other American Memory motion picture groupings. The earliest example is a camera test made in 1891, followed by other tests and a wide variety of actualities and dramas through the year 1918, when Edison's company ceased film production. The presentation also offers a brief history of Edison's work with motion pictures as well as an overview of the different film genres produced by the Edison company.
Overview of the Edison Motion Pictures by Genre
"Actuality" is a term used by historians to describe short non-fiction films produced by American and European filmmakers during the first ten years of the motion picture industry. Actuality films typically recorded noteworthy persons, places and events of interest to general audiences and were the most frequently-produced film type in America, until overtaken in popularity by comic and dramatic narrative films after 1902.
The earliest actualities were the experimental films made in the Edison laboratory. The first ones recorded on a strip of celluloid film were [Dickson Greeting], [Newark Athlete], and [Men Boxing], all produced in 1891. These and other early experimental films were followed a few years later by a series of films adapted from vaudeville acts where performers displayed their special talents. Famous strongman Eugene Sandow was the first famous performer to appear in front of the Edison camera in 1894. He waived his usual appearance fee for the opportunity to meet Thomas Edison. Other artists such as Spanish dancer Carmencita, Annabelle Whitford (famous for her Butterfly Dance), and members of Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show also appeared before the Edison camera during the same year. Two of the earliest recorded Native American dances on film, Sioux Ghost Dance and Buffalo Dance, were performed by Native American dancers in Buffalo Bill's show. Some early actualities were made for male audiences and featured scantily-clad female performers or masculine activities such as boxing. Other early actualities featured renowned pugilists, as in The Leonard-Cushing Fight, Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, and Hornbacker-Murphy Fight.
When the Edison Company's Kinetoscope became popular, a greater variety of subjects was needed. A new portable camera made it possible to film scenes of everyday life more easily; the first was Herald Square, taken in New York City in 1896. Although such films may seem quite ordinary to late twentieth century audiences, they were quite popular with a generation unfamiliar with the concept of realistic moving images. Later films featured places beyond New York, such as Niagara Falls and Passaic Falls. As a result, motion pictures of scenic views and "travelogues" became popular with audiences.
The Edison Company began filming trains and railways with Black Diamond Express, made in December 1896. With the support of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, films were taken of the various train routes to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.
Edison films also recorded important news events, such as McKinley's inauguration in 1897.
In 1897, the head of the Edison Company's Kinetograph Department, James White, and photographer Frederick Blechynden made a filming expedition to the West of the United States. Their trip was partially subsidized by the railways, so they filmed scenes of various railway lines, hotels, and tourist sites along the way. The routes taken by White and Blechynden included the Northern Pacific, the Southern Pacific, the Denver and Rio Grande, and the Atchinson, Topeka and Santa Fe railroads. Some of the scenes White and Blechynden filmed included views of everyday life in San Francisco, San Diego, Los Angeles, Yellowstone National Park, and Native Americans in Colorado and New Mexico. They captured activities relating to the Alaska Gold Rush in Seattle in August 1897. In the same year, they also traveled on the Mexican International Railroad to film selected places in Mexico. They then journeyed to Japan, Hong Kong, China, and Hawaii to record the first Edison-produced films of the Asian Pacific.
When the Battleship Maine sank in Havana harbor in February 1898, the Edison Company rushed to produce films of the event. Licensee William Paley was sent to film the Burial of the "Maine" Victims and the Wreck of the Battleship "Maine".
Tensions between the U.S. and Spain erupted into war in April 1898. Paley photographed troop preparations in Tampa, Florida, and traveled with American troops to Cuba when they landed. Numerous films were also taken of the ships in the U.S. fleet. These war films were extremely popular with audiences, which contributed to motion pictures becoming a permanent part of American entertainment, since the films were exhibited in vaudeville theaters.
In an attempt to find even more varied film subjects, the Edison Company recorded places and events around the world. The Klondike Exposition Company under the management of Thomas Crahan was licensed to film scenes of the Alaska Gold Rush in the Yukon in the summer of 1899. James White traveled to Europe to produce a series of films of the Paris Exposition in 1900.
Large-scale disasters were a favorite subject for the Edison camera. The Galveston Hurricane in 1900 and the San Francisco earthquake and fire in 1906 were two instances where Edison cameras recorded the destruction for viewers far away from those locales.
The Edison Company produced a series of films of the Pan-American Exposition in 1901 at Buffalo, New York. The Edison cameras were there during a huge news event, the assassination of President McKinley, and also recorded events after the assassination, including the funeral processions.
By 1902, actualities began to decline in popularity. Longer fiction films became the production priority, as the novelty of movement was no longer enough to sustain audience interest. Although the Edison Company would continue to occasionally take actualities of various news events and persons, it would never do so again to the extent that the company had in its first decade of filmmaking. Other smaller companies took over this niche by creating newsreels, as the Edison Company, along with other major film producers, concentrated on creating profitable fiction films.
Early filmmakers recognized the advertising potential of motion pictures. By 1897, several New York film companies had made advertising films for various products and services. Admiral Cigarette, made in 1897, was one of the earliest Edison advertising films. Although previous Edison films promoted rail travel and were often financed by the railway companies, films like Admiral Cigarette were much more explicit in their endorsements of brand names.
The Stenographer's Friend (1910) and The Voice of the Violin (1915) promoted Edison phonograph technology. Both incorporated a narrative story as a means to demonstrate the product.
R.F.D., 10,000 B.C., is an early example of puppet animation. The film is a comedy set in prehistoric times. Animator Willis H. O'Brien fashioned the figures from india rubber applied to flexible metal skeletons.
His first film using these figures was The Dinosaur and the Missing Link, distributed by Edison in 1915. R.F.D., 10,000 B.C. followed in 1917. O'Brien made several other films for Edison before leaving the company in 1917.
By 1910, the Edison Company, following a trend among American producers, began focusing production on moralistic entertainment and educational films. The marketing of the Home Projecting Kinetoscope in 1911 also created a demand for interesting, informative films that could be viewed by home audiences.
Early documentary-style films demonstrated a level of production development beyond actualities and were the precursors of the modern documentary film. These films showed people, places, events, industrial processes, and other scenes of modern life, but unlike actualities, incorporated a greater number of scenes and used more complex editing to unify the film into a narrative whole.
Two examples of Edison documentary-style films from this period are Gold and Diamond Mines of South Africa (1917) and Down the Old Potomac (1917). The first shows gold and diamond-mining operations near Johannesburg and in Cullinan, South Africa. The work and living conditions of African laborers are shown. The second film travels along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal from Cumberland, Maryland, to Washington, DC, showing how the canal operates.
A Day With Thomas A. Edison was produced by the General Electric Co. in 1922, four years after the demise of Edison's film concerns. This factual film was made at the Edison Lamp Works in Harrison, New Jersey, on Oct 21, 1921, the anniversary of the invention of Edison's incandescent lamp.
Drama and Adventure
Some of the Edison Company's first attempts at telling stories through film began with a series of story-songs made in 1899, of which Love and War is one example. Such films were an experimental effort to use motion pictures as a replacement technology for song slides, which were popular with audiences. Love and War told the story of an American soldier who left his family to fight in Cuba and fell in love with a Red Cross nurse. He later returned home to his family in triumph. The Edison Company supplied exhibitors with the lyrics and sheet music for each film.
Around 1902, as actualities declined in popularity, longer, narrative films began to be made in the studio. This new trend coincided with the hiring of Edwin S. Porter to produce films, and he filmed some of Edison's best-known dramas, including Jack and the Beanstalk (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1902-1903), and The Great Train Robbery (1903). These films edited scenes together to produce complex narratives.
The influx of foreign films made the Edison Company concentrate on American topics in its dramas, using famous American literary works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin or American settings such as the West for The Great Train Robbery.
The Great Train Robbery is one of the most famous early films. It was shot in the Edison New York studio and in New Jersey at Essex County Park and at the Lackawanna Railway. The bandit leader was played by Justus D. Barnes, and G. M. Anderson, later better-known as Bronco Billy, played a variety of roles.
In 1905, Edison parodied The Great Train Robbery in The Little Train Robbery, employing a cast of child actors.
Edison produced films dealing with social problems, such as The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905), reflecting some of the Progressive attitudes toward poverty prevalent in America at the time. For example, the latter addressed the difference between how the poor and the rich were treated by the judicial system.
By 1909, the Edison Company began a period of decline. Edison dramatic films were no longer competing successfully against those of other companies. There were criticisms about the quality of Edison films, and Edwin Porter lost his job as a result. The reputation of Edison films improved somewhat after 1910 after efforts were taken by the company to obtain better source materials, such as famous literary works, and to organize its own permanent troupe of stock actors.
After 1912, the decline of the Edison Company continued. An attempt was made to recover lost market shares by producing more multi-reel productions and by focusing on wholesome, moralistic tales, but this did little to change the situation. In 1918, Edison's interests in the film business came to an end.
Edison trick films capitalized on the pioneering work of French filmmaker Georges Méliès who developed special camera effects to achieve "magical" results. These effects included stop motion, dissolves, and multiple exposures. In trick films, ghosts appeared, people or items disappeared, or apparent decapitations took place. The novelty of motion pictures in the early days made these effects extraordinarily entertaining.
Edison acquired through license several trick films made by J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith of Vitagraph. These included The Mysterious Cafe (1900) and The Artist's Dilemma (1900). The majority of short trick films appear to have been made from 1900 to 1905. After that, comic and dramatic narrative films rose in popularity, and trick effects were used in support of the story. Examples of later Edison films that made extensive use of trick effects were Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906) and When Reuben Comes to Town (1908).
Humorous films were among some of the earliest Edison films. Items like The Lone Fisherman, Seminary Girls, and What Demoralized the Barbershop depicted humorous situations. By 1900 the number of comic films being made increased as they became popular with audiences.
Some comical Edison films were based on popular comic strip characters. Subub Surprises the Burglar was based on such a character and also imitated the plot of Biograph's The Burglar-Proof Bed. Additionally, a series of films was produced based on the Buster Brown character created by Richard F. Outcault.
By 1904, Edison had adopted the practice of imitating popular comedies of competitors, especially Biograph's, in order to meet exhibitors' demands. The Maniac Chase was a remake of Biograph's The Escaped Lunatic. Likewise, Edison's How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Personal Columns was copied from Biograph's Personal. Ironically, the Edison version did better than the Biograph production and became the most successful headlining Edison film of 1904.
Series of comic films were often developed around characters that generated extraordinary popularity. For example, Why Jones Discharged His Clerks and Why Mrs. Jones Got a Divorce were created around the character of a businessman who repeatably fell into troublesome situations.
A popular comic theme was that of the country "rube" exposed to city or modern life. Uncle Josh (a character from a popular play and subsequent sound recordings) encountered movies for the first time in Uncle Josh and the Moving Picture Show. Rube and Mandy at Coney Island and Rube Couple at the County Fair portrayed country bumpkins at popular leisure attractions.
When the Edison Company began filming war events, actual battles were not recorded since it was very dangerous for cameramen to be on the battlefield. Cameramen had to stand in a stable position behind a camera on a tripod. It was easier to stage recreations of battles in New Jersey. The Edison Company shot reenactments of battles from the Boer War, the Spanish-American War, and the Philippine campaign using National Guard troops. The use of reenactments allowed the film company to capitalize on news events while they were still of interest to audiences, since it took longer for actuality films of events to arrive at theaters.
In addition, for events that could not be filmed, such as the execution of McKinley assassin Leon F. Czolgosz, actors restaged the action later in the studio.
Origins of Motion Pictures
An overview of Thomas A. Edison's involvement in motion pictures detailing the development of the Kinetoscope, the films of the Edison Manufacturing Company, and the company's ultimate decline is given here. This essay relies heavily on the research and writings of film historians Charles Musser, David Robinson, and Eileen Bowser. More detailed information can be found in their books listed in the Bibliography, as well as in additional source materials.
The concept of moving images as entertainment was not a new one by the latter part of the 19th century. Magic lanterns and other devices had been employed in popular entertainment for generations. Magic lanterns used glass slides with images which were projected. The use of levers and other contrivances made these images "move". Another mechanism called a Phenakistiscope consisted of a disc with images of successive phases of movement on it which could be spun to simulate movement. Additionally, there was the Zoopraxiscope, developed by photographer Eadweard Muybridge in 1879, which projected a series of images in successive phases of movement. These images were obtained through the use of multiple cameras. The invention of a camera in the Edison laboratories capable of recording successive images in a single camera was a more practical, cost-effective breakthrough that influenced all subsequent motion picture devices.
While there has been speculation that Edison's interest in motion pictures began before 1888, the visit of Eadweard Muybridge to the inventor's laboratory in West Orange in February of that year certainly stimulated Edison's resolve to invent a motion picture camera. Muybridge proposed that they collaborate and combine the Zoopraxiscope with the Edison phonograph. Although apparently intrigued, Edison decided not to participate in such a partnership, perhaps realizing that the Zoopraxiscope was not a very practical or efficient way of recording motion. In an attempt to protect his future inventions, Edison filed a caveat with the Patents Office on October 17, 1888, describing his ideas for a device which would "do for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear" -- record and reproduce objects in motion. Edison called the invention a "Kinetoscope," using the Greek words "kineto" meaning "movement" and "scopos" meaning "to watch."
Edison's assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, was given the task of inventing the device in June 1889, possibly because of his background as a photographer. Charles A. Brown was made Dickson's assistant. There has been some argument about how much Edison himself contributed to the invention of the motion picture camera. While Edison seems to have conceived the idea and initiated the experiments, Dickson apparently performed the bulk of the experimentation, leading most modern scholars to assign Dickson with the major credit for turning the concept into a practical reality. The Edison laboratory, though, worked as a collaborative organization. Laboratory assistants were assigned to work on many projects while Edison supervised and involved himself and participated to varying degrees. Ultimately, Edison made the important decisions, and, as the "Wizard of West Orange," took sole credit for the products of his laboratory.
The initial experiments on the Kinetograph were based on Edison's conception of the phonograph cylinder. Tiny photographic images were affixed in sequence to a cylinder, with the idea that when the cylinder was rotated the illusion of motion would be reproduced via reflected light. This ultimately proved to be impractical.
The work of others in the field soon prompted Edison and his staff to move in a different direction. In Europe Edison had met French physiologist Étienne-Jules Marey who used a continuous roll of film in his Chronophotographe to produce a sequence of still images, but the lack of film rolls of sufficient length and durability for use in a motion picture device delayed the inventive process. This dilemma was aided when John Carbutt developed emulsion-coated celluloid film sheets, which began to be used in the Edison experiments. The Eastman Company later produced its own celluloid film which Dickson soon bought in large quantities. By 1890, Dickson was joined by a new assistant, William Heise, and the two began to develop a machine that exposed a strip of film in a horizontal-feed mechanism.
A prototype for the Kinetoscope was finally shown to a convention of the National Federation of Women's Clubs on May 20, 1891. The device was both a camera and a peep-hole viewer, and the film used was 18mm wide. According to David Robinson who describes the Kinetoscope in his book, From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film, the film "ran horizontally between two spools, at continuous speed. A rapidly moving shutter gave intermittent exposures when the apparatus was used as a camera, and intermittent glimpses of the positive print when it was used as a viewer--when the spectator looked through the same aperture that housed the camera lens."
A patent for the Kinetograph (the camera) and the Kinetoscope (the viewer) was filed on August 24, 1891.
The Kinetoscope was apparently completed by 1892. David Robinson writes:
It consisted of an upright wooden cabinet, 18 in. x 27 in. x 4 ft. high, with a peephole with magnifying lenses in the top...Inside the box the film, in a continuous band of approximately 50 feet, was arranged around a series of spools. A large, electrically driven sprocket wheel at the top of the box engaged corresponding sprocket holes punched in the edges of the film, which was thus drawn under the lens at a continuous rate. Beneath the film was an electric lamp, and between the lamp and the film a revolving shutter with a narrow slit. As each frame passed under the lens, the shutter permitted a flash of light so brief that the frame appeared to be frozen. This rapid series of apparently still frames appeared, thanks to the persistence of vision phenomenon, as a moving image. (From Peep Show to Palace, p. 34)
At this point, the horizontal-feed system had been changed to one in which the film was fed vertically. The viewer would look into a peep-hole at the top of the cabinet in order to see the image move. The first public demonstration of the Kinetoscope was held at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences on May 9, 1893.
Early Motion Picture Productions
A constant flow of new film subjects was needed to keep the new invention popular, so a motion picture production studio was built at West Orange in December 1892. It was dubbed the Black Maria on account of its resemblance to a police patrol wagon. The studio had a roof that could be opened to admit sunlight for illumination, and the building itself was mounted on a revolving pivot so that the structure could be constantly repositioned to keep it aligned with the sun.
(The Black Maria's era came to an end in January 1901 when Edison inaugurated a new glass-enclosed studio on a rooftop in New York.)
The first motion pictures made in the Black Maria were deposited for copyright by W. K. L. Dickson at the Library of Congress in August 1893. The earliest copyrighted film that still survives is Edison Kinetoscopic Record of a Sneeze, January 7, 1894, also known as Fred Ott's Sneeze, which records Fred Ott, an Edison employee, sneezing comically for the camera. This motion picture was not submitted to the Copyright Office on celluloid film, but rather as a series of positive photographic prints.
A series of vaudeville performers became some of the first subjects to appear before the Kinetograph at the Black Maria. These included such well-known acts as the strongman Eugene Sandow, the Spanish dancer Carmencita, and Annabelle Whitford performing her famous Butterfly Dance. Acts from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show were filmed, including Annie Oakley and a troop of Native American dancers who performed in the show. Many of the films were expected to appeal to male audiences, and some even featured scantily-clad women. Other masculine activities, such as boxing and cockfights, were also filmed. Dickson and Heise filmed over 75 motion pictures during 1894.
On April 1, 1894, the manufacture and sale of Kinetoscopes and films were assigned to the Edison Manufacturing Company, thus moving them out of the experimental laboratory. The Kinetograph Department, a new division in the Edison Company, was launched.
The first Kinetoscope parlor, owned by the Holland Brothers, opened on April 14, 1894, in New York. Five machines were placed in a row, and a customer could view the films in each for a total of 25 cents. Kinetoscope parlors soon opened around the United States.
As he had done with the phonograph, Edison marketed his Kinetoscope and films through independently-financed entrepreneurs who formed the Kinetoscope Company. These included Alfred O. Tate, Thomas Lombard, Erastus Benson, Norman C. Raff, Frank R. Gammon, and Andrew Holland. Raff and Gammon in due course became the principal agents of the Kinetoscope Company.
Sales of Kinetoscopes slowed as projected motion pictures began to overtake the peep show machines in 1895. Competitors also emerged who sold their own machines for less, which cut into Edison's profits. Partly to compensate for this and partly to counter the declining popularity of the Kinetograph, the Kinetophone was introduced in April 1895. It represented Edison's dream to unite the motion picture with the phonograph and make talking pictures a reality. To operate the new invention, a patron looked through the peep-hole viewer of a Kinetoscope while listening to a soundtrack piped through ear tubes attached to a Phonograph in the cabinet. The device did not offer exact synchronization and ultimately failed to find a market. The film known today as Dickson Experimental Sound Film is one of the few examples still existing of this early foray into sound.
Shift to Projectors and the Vitoscope
Edison was slow to develop a projection system at this time, since the single-user Kinetoscopes were very profitable. However, films projected for large audiences could generate more profits because fewer machines were needed in proportion to the number of viewers. Thus, others sought to develop their own projection systems.
One inventor who led the way was Woodville Latham who, with his sons, created the Eidoloscope projector which was presented publicly in April 1895. Dickson apparently advised the Lathams on their machine, offering technical knowledge, a situation which led to Dickson leaving Edison's employment on April 2, 1895.
Dickson formed the American Mutoscope Company in December of 1895 with partners Herman Casler, Henry Norton Marvin and Elias Koopman. The company, which eventually came to be known as the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, soon became a major competitor to the Edison Company.
During the same period, C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat developed a motion picture projection device which they called the Phantoscope. It was publicly demonstrated in Atlanta in September 1895 at the Cotton States Exposition. Soon after, the two parted ways, with each claiming sole credit for the invention.
Armat showed the Phantoscope to Raff and Gammon, owners of the Kinetoscope Company, who recognized its potential to secure profits in the face of declining kinetoscope business. They negotiated with Armat to purchase rights to the Phantoscope and approached Edison for his approval. The Edison Manufacturing Company agreed to manufacture the machine and to produce films for it, but on the condition it be advertised as a new Edison invention named the Vitascope.
The Vitascope's first theatrical exhibition was on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York City. Other competitors soon displayed their own projection systems in American theaters, including the re-engineered Eidoloscope, which copied Vitascope innovations; the Lumière Cinématographe, which had already debuted in Europe in 1895; Birt Acres' Kineopticon; and the Biograph which was marketed by the American Mutoscope Company. The Vitascope, along with many of the competing projectors, became a popular attraction in variety and vaudeville theaters in major cities across the United States. Motion pictures soon became starring attractions on the vaudeville bill. Exhibitors could choose the films they wanted from the Edison inventory and sequence them in whatever order they wished.
The Edison Company developed its own projector known as the Projectoscope or Projecting Kinetoscope in November 1896, and abandoned marketing the Vitascope.
Edison Film Production 1896-1900
Early films produced by the Edison Company during this period were mostly actuality films. These were motion pictures taken of everyday life and events as they occurred. The Edison Company's actuality films contained scenes of vaudeville performers, notable persons, railway trains, scenic places, foreign views, fire and police workers, military exercises, parades, naval scenes, expositions, parades, and sporting events. A newly-invented mobile camera had made it possible for the Edison Company to film everyday scenes in places outside the studio in a fashion similar to the French Lumière films. Comic skits and films relying on trick effects in the style of French filmmaker Georges Méliès were also popular.
Many film companies at this time frequently copied, or "duped," each other's films to meet exhibitors' demands for a certain product. Edison filmmakers were among those who engaged in this practice, and to protect their own films from being imitated the Edison Company began to copyright films regularly in October 1896. Registrations of films were sent to the Library of Congress for copyright deposit in the form of positive image paper photographic rolls. These "paper prints," along with those received from other companies, accumulated to form the collection known today as the Library of Congress's Paper Print Collection, located in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
This period witnessed expanded filmmaking activities at the Edison Company, aided by the appointment in October 1896 of James White as head of the Kinetograph Department. Sponsored by transportation companies who saw the potential of movies to promote tourism, White travelled to the West and to Mexico in 1897, filming railroads, hotels and tourist sights. In 1898, he filmed sights in Japan, China, and Hong Kong.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 provided another sphere of activity for the Edison Company. Events surrounding the war drew patrons into the theaters to see films of the conflict. Edison hired William Paley as a licensee to film activities in Cuba. This meant that Paley could operate as an independent agent, but would sell his films to the Edison Company which would then copyright them. Paley traveled to Key West to film the Burial of the Maine Victims, then to Cuba to film additional events there. He traveled to Tampa, Florida, in mid-April, where he filmed troop preparations. He then traveled with the troops to Cuba, shooting a few films before he became ill and had to return home. Actual battles were not filmed; instead, reenactments of key engagements were filmed in New Jersey using the National Guard troops for the most part.
Edison used licensees to film a number of subjects for the company at this time. In his book, The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser estimates that half the films sold by the Edison Co. in the period between 1898 and 1900 were made by its licensees, while the other half were made by White and William Heise. Musser further states that by 1900 "acted," or fictional, films had grown to become 40 percent of the company's output, and notes that J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith of the American Vitagraph Company supplied Edison with several popular comedies and trick films as licensees during this time.
Business began to decline by 1900 in the Kinetograph Department. Vaudeville theaters had begun to drop films from their program, or to put them on as "chasers," the closing act that would play while patrons filed out. Competition from Biograph and declining profits made Edison consider selling out to Biograph for a time; however, he eventually decided to restructure and expand his organization.
Fictional Films Dominate
Edwin S. Porter, later to become Edison's most famous filmmaker, was hired in November 1900. He was made chief camera operator for the new studio and soon started filming narrative stories such as Jack and the Beanstalk (1902) and The Life of an American Fireman (1902).
Other films made during this period consisted of vaudeville acts, comedies, and actualities. A special series of films was made in 1901 of the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, and of events surrounding President McKinley's assassination which occurred there, and the subsequent funeral ceremonies.
The Great Train Robbery, one of the Edison Company's most famous films, was produced in 1903. It was very successful and soon remade by motion picture manufacturer Sigmund Lubin who released his version in June 1904. The film included a famous close-up shot of Justus D. Barnes in the role of the outlaw, shooting straight at the camera, a scene that could be shown at the beginning or end of the film. The film cast also included G. M. Anderson, who later became better known as the first Western star, Bronco Billy.
In 1904, the Edison Company remade several films of its competitors. For example, the Edison film How the French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York Herald Columns was a re-make of Biograph's Personal (1904) and was the company's most successful film of 1904.
The early film industry adapted rapidly to new tastes and demands. By 1904, fiction films, or acted films, as opposed to actualities, were becoming the production priority. Comedies proved to be the most popular with audiences. The Edison Company also focused on contemporary social issues in fictional films such as The Ex-Convict (1904) and The Kleptomaniac (1905), which reflected the Progressive attitudes of the time.
New storefront theaters, dubbed nickelodeons, were a wildly successful innovation. Appearing first in 1905, nickelodeons featured movie shows all day long, and in contrast to the vaudeville theaters which had showed many actuality films, the nickelodeons featured more fictional films. The first nickelodeon was built in Pittsburgh in June 1905 by Harry Davis, a vaudeville magnate. Soon nickelodeons began to appear in cities around the country. In her book,
The Transformation of Cinema, Eileen Bowser writes that by 1908, there were approximately 8,000 nickelodeons in the U.S. The theaters attracted a wide clientele, including women and children, and the frequent showings allowed people to stop in almost anytime, unlike variety theaters. By the end of 1907, however, the nickelodeon boom began to decline, and entrepreneurs began to build movie theaters with greater seating capacities where larger audiences could see longer film programs.
In July 1907, the Edison Company moved its production operations from New York City to a new indoor studio then being built in the Bronx. The studio was completed the following year.
Litigation and Licensees
Commercial success brought complications, however; throughout the history of his motion picture company, Thomas Edison was frequently involved in litigation over patent claims. Suing the competition for patent infringement was a way of protecting his inventions and profits and a way to eliminate competition. Companies such as Lubin, Selig, Vitagraph, and Essanay all found themselves in court over Edison's claims. One of Edison's biggest wins came in July 1901 when a U.S. Circuit Court in New York ruled that Biograph, one of Edison's biggest competitors, had infringed on Edison patent claims. The decision was reversed in March 1902 by an appeals court.
As a result of this continuing litigation, the Edison Company formed the Association of Edison Licensees on March 1, 1908. The association was an attempt to bring order to the unruly competition among film companies and to marginalize nonmember companies. It also sought to resolve the costly legal squabbles related to the many Edison Company lawsuits by granting licenses to producers, exchanges, and exhibitors for the member companies. A formal release system for films was set down, along with rules of operation for the member companies. Biograph, however, refused to join and in retaliation formed an opposition group of licensees. When these arrangements did not eliminate competition, an agreement was made between Biograph and Edison to join their licensee organizations into the Motion Picture Patents Company on December 18, 1908. This organization, which became known as "the Trust," established interlocking agreements between the film exchanges, theaters, and the Eastman Kodak Company, which amounted to a monopoly on the American film market.
Decline of the Edison Company
Despite its arrangement with the Motion Picture Patents Company, however, Edison films could not keep pace with the quality of competitors' films in terms of the advances made in narration. As a result Porter was taken away from his position of cameraman and made studio head, and later a consultant. Growing increasingly dissatisfied with his role, he was eventually let go from the company in November 1909. Few Edison films from this period survive today.
The Edison Company tried to improve its image through several initiatives. Imitating its competitors, Edison developed a stock company of actors in 1910. The company also tried to cultivate an image of respectability by making films for public service organizations like the American Red Cross or the New York Milk Committee. Famous literary works or historical events became the inspiration for film plots.
At this time, the Edison Company also attempted to improve its operations and products. In 1911, Thomas Edison again reorganized his businesses, combining various ventures, including the motion picture interests, into Thomas A. Edison, Inc. The same year also brought the first Edison multireel films (all previous Edison films had not been longer than 1,000 feet or 18 minutes in duration). The Home Projecting Kinetoscope was also launched in late 1911, using 21mm film. The following year saw its first serial film, What Happened to Jane.
But from 1912 onwards Edison's company was in sharp decline. It could not stay on the cutting edge of film production, and did not keep pace with competitors' innovations in film narration, partly because film production was not the main focus of Edison's industrial empire. An antimonopoly ruling delivered against the Trust in October 1915 was another blow to Edison's film business.
Edison continued to introduce new products in an effort to improve the situation. The Kinetophone, which was designed to merge the motion picture camera with the phonograph, was introduced in 1913. While this Kinetophone was an improvement on the earlier model, it ultimately proved unsuccessful due to the difficulty of achieving synchronization and to the lackluster reception of the film subjects by viewers. Falling sales for motion picture projectors by 1915 led to the end of the manufacture of Edison motion picture equipment, in spite of the introduction of a Super-Kinetoscope.
By 1915, Edison began using outside distributors for features, including Paramount and George Kleine, but the coming of World War I meant the loss of European markets. Efforts to diminish expenditures at the Edison Company were unsuccessful. Attempts to provide more wholesome films through a series known as the "Conquest Pictures" (Gold and Diamond Mines of South Africa) failed to rescue the company's flagging financial situation. On March 30, 1918, Thomas A. Edison, Inc., sold the studio and plant to the Lincoln & Parker Film Company, thus ending Thomas Edison's involvement in film production.
Sources used in this essay:
Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915. History of the American Cinema, Vol. 2. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.
Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. History of the American Cinema, Vol. 1. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1990.
Musser, Charles. Thomas A. Edison and His Kinetographic Motion Pictures. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Robinson, David. From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. New York: Columbia University Press, 1996.