By KRISTIN KNAUTH
One hundred years ago, the crude realism of the first public cinema showings caused shock waves among audiences - sometimes even panic.
"On one occasion," read a contemporary news account, "an old lady in the audience, quite unable to suppress a scream, started up in her seat and tried to scramble out," knocking over others on her way. On the screen a fire engine raced toward the audience.
The Library's new book From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film recounts the early years of film, beginning with the primitive motion of the "magic lantern" in the 17th century and continuing through the upsurge of research and development that occurred from 1893 to 1913, when the modern motion picture - and the multibillion-dollar industry based upon it - was born.
British film historian and critic David Robinson "tells with verve the fascinating story of the transition from pre-cinematic forms . . . to the major world industry that motion pictures became," writes Dr. Billington in his preface to the book.
Ever since 1893, when W.K.L. Dickson, assistant to Thomas Edison, copyrighted the first commercially distributed movie, Dr. Billington notes, "the Library has led the film archive movement in the United States."
The book also features a foreword by film director Martin Scorsese. The men who invented movies - especially Thomas Edison, Louis and Auguste Lumiere and Georges Melies - were "scientists with the spirit of showmen," Mr. Scorsese says. "They were visionaries who attempted to convert science into a magical form of entertainment. . . . For the past 100 years, we have all been the children of their cinema."
Only 211 pages long, From Peep Show to Palace traces a clear path through a complex story. The motion picture as we know it today was never "invented," nor did it evolve in a straightforward progression, writes Mr. Robinson. "Rather it was like the assembling of a puzzle . . . over a very long period of time."
The assembling dates back to 1420, when Giovannie da Fontana, a young Venetian academic, painted demonic shapes on a lampshade to frighten people with the grotesque shadows they threw on the wall.
Following Fontana's simple experiments, nearly two centuries passed before image projection "acquired the magic of precise representation," Mr. Robinson recounts. The true "magic lantern" - combining a light source, a light condenser, an image painted on glass and a lens - is credited to the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, who wrote about such a device in his 1671 tome Arts Magna Lucis et Umbrae (The Great Art of Light and Shadow). But Dutch physicist Christian Huygens may have been using a practical magic lantern as early as 1659.
Most of the book focuses on the turbulent two decades from 1893 to 1913, a period of rapid evolution, when "the future structures of the industry, particularly in the United States, were definitively shaped," Mr. Robinson writes.
In 1893 W.K.L. Dickson, Thomas Edison's talented assistant, sought copyright protection for several "Kinetoscopic records" - motion pictures made for commercial use with the Kinetoscope, the first animation device, which was patented by Edison. According to Mr. Robinson, Dickson's copyright marked the true beginning of the film industry in America and perhaps worldwide, predating by more than two years the projection of a film before a paying audience in Paris on Dec. 24, 1895 - the conventionally accepted date for the birth of public cinema.
Outwardly, Kinetoscopes resem-bled "peep shows," devices into which a spectator could peer at images. Unlike peep shows, however, the Kinetoscope's pictures moved. Its images were recorded on celluloid film in precisely the same format used today. A public craze ensued.
Just one element in the motion picture puzzle was now lacking: projection. Edison, however, spoke out against what he considered the misguided notion of projecting images onto large screens for mass viewing. Meanwhile, his attempts to link the Kinetoscope images to recorded sound failed. By the end of 1894 it was clear the Kinetoscope was out of step with the public's enthusiasms. It faded into obscurity, along with the peep show.
In 1895 Dickson resigned from Edison's company in a bitter dispute over authorship and the direction of the technology. Dickson recruited new partners and, late that year, established the American Mutoscope Co. (later the American Mutoscope Biograph Co.). The company quickly patented the Mutoscope, a device that projected moving pictures. Soon afterward the group perfected a through-the-film projector called the Biograph.
An international race to American screens began, with manufacturers in England, France and America vying heatedly for first place.
Though the Biograph had been first to market, the projection victory went to a device called the Edison Vitascope. The Vitascope was actually invented by C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat, two young students at the Bliss School of Electricity. But its creators ingenuously included "Edison" in its title to win maximum credibility and publicity for the device.
Edison bought the Vitascope patent and, in February 1895, attended a demonstration of "his" device. "To judge from the news reports," recounts Mr. Robinson, "he played the role of its inventor with great aplomb."
The first theatrical exhibition of the Vitascope was on April 23, 1896, at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in Herald Square in Manhattan.
"It is hard today to comprehend the full impact on audiences of 1896 of their first exposure to motion pictures," Mr. Robinson writes. "Their amazement . . . shows what a great jump it was from the mechanically produced moving images in the magic lantern."
The commercial potential of the new technology was obvious. Rival manufacturers sprouted up seemingly overnight. But starting in 1897 - when the last of three Edison motion picture patents was issued - the Edison Manufacturing Co. went on the attack. Using hostile patenting and litigation strategies, the company tried to eliminate its competitors and wrest monopoly of the burgeoning American film industry.
For almost a decade, "the specter of Edison infringement suits remained a critical deterrent to other entrepreneurs," Mr. Robinson reports. Even the Edison company's own associates were subjected to infringement suits for selling films other than Edison's. Competitors' resources were drained by defense costs.
In 1907 the largest manufacturers cried "uncle" and conceded Edison's patent rights. Six of them pooled their patent rights with Edison's in a holding company they called the Motion Picture Patents Co. (MPCC).
The Trust, as the MPCC came to be known, became the leading force in film production for the next five years. It began issuing licenses to its competitors in exchange for royalties. In 1909, when the Eastman Co. agreed to sell its raw film stock only to MPCC licensees, the Trust seemed poised to win monopoly of the entire industry.
Its success was short-lived, however. By refusing to admit smaller companies as members, the Trust provoked the rejected producers into organizing in opposition. By 1908 the so-called "independents" had found other sources of raw film and projection devices, evading the Trust's patents. The Trust's power continued to ebb until World War I, when the loss of European markets marked its demise.
During its brief life, the Trust worked hard to standardize the industry. It regulated film release quotas, schedules, rental prices and other factors. However, strict enforcement of its regulations may have done as much to stunt the industry as to develop it, Mr. Robinson contends. Horror stories began to circulate about the strong-arm tactics the Trust supposedly used to enforce its stipulations and pester opposing companies.
The Trust did achieve long-lasting influence on film content. When a nationwide crusade formed around "moral purification" of the movies, the Trust inserted itself in front of the parade, waving the flag for the establishment of censorship boards. In fact, the content of all but a tiny percentage of pre-1920 films was very bland, even by standards of the day. But nickelodeons and movie houses - dark and thronged with children and young girls - were popularly regarded as dens of prurience. Trust members cannily saw that portraying themselves asthe redeemers of a fallen industry would "appeal to every sector of the industry and of society at large," Mr. Robinson observes.
Increasingly, film was treated as a narrative or educational medium. Content reached new levels of variety, sophistication and sumptuous pro-duction. More and more well-known theater stars deigned to appear in "pictures." Multi-reel films - imported from Europe around 1912 despite an initially resistant American industry - inspired longer, more interesting plots and presentations.
Theater owners joined the campaign for quality. They made movie houses clean and plush and hired ushers to escort patrons in and out. Organ, and sometimes even orchestral, accompaniment to films became commonplace.
Studios were enlarged and technically improved. Migration to the West Coast began: By 1913 every major company, except Edison, had established some sort of base in Southern California, where the sun usually shone and the climate was mild. The California studios of the Universal Co. and the New York Motion Picture Co. "were like small cities, covering acres of inexpensive real estate."
By 1913 film work was becoming increasingly specialized. In contrast to the early days - when films "were made virtually single-handed by cameramen-directors" - writing, direction, acting, photography, editing and design were all separate crafts.
Directors acquired dominance as artistic heads and overseers. In 1908 the great director D.W. Griffith entered the scene with "The Adventures of Dollie." Over the next five years he directed or supervised more than 500 films for Biograph.
"Repetitive and stereotyped as they were, [his films] still surpassed in technique and content anything that had gone before," Mr. Robinson says. Griffith introduced hundreds of camera, lighting, editing and other techniques to intensify dramatic effect. He used closeups to highlight his actors' expressions and taught them to forgo exaggerated pantomime in favor of "interiorized" performances. By the time Griffith left Biograph in 1913, he was the undisputed master of the medium.
The "star system" took hold as the chief way to market films. Producers began to stage sensational stunts to promote their stars. Carl Laemmle of the Independent Moving Picture Co., for example, publicized his "capture" of star Florence Lawrence from another studio by vigorously denying rumors that Lawrence had been killed by a streetcar - rumors planted by Laemmle himself.
As cinema grew in sophistication and prestige, "the democratic base of the audience widened . . . to bring in the intellectuals, the respectable bourgeoisie, the educators and the uplifters," Mr. Robinson notes. Movie plots began to promote the virtues of church, marriage and family while punishing vice and wickedness. Story lines showing that money does not bring happiness "assuaged the sensibilities of poorer patrons. Optimism, redemption, reconciliation and happy endings abounded."
Just 20 years after the perfecting of the Kinetoscope, motion pictures had evolved from a homegrown business into an international industry. The peep show had ascended to the "palace." Movies had become "America's national art and Americans' undisputed favorite pastime. The great new picture palaces symbolized the age of prosperity and splendor upon which the cinema was ready to embark."
Mr. Robinson conducted extensive original research for the book, utilizing the Library's collections as well as those at the Edison historic site in West Orange, N.J. The book contains more than 150 photographs and drawings of cinematic devices, film footage, movie posters and the person-alities behind and in front of the cameras.
The volume was partially funded by the James Madison Council, the Library's private-sector advisory group, "in recognition of the Library's continuing role as a leading world institution in both film preservation and cinema research," Dr. Billington notes in his preface.
From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film can be obtained for $29.95 from Columbia University Press, (212) 666-1000, or from the Library of Congress Sales Shop, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540-4985, (202) 707-0201.
Kristin Knauth is a free-lance writer/editor working in the Public Affairs Office.