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Collection The Life of a City: Early Films of New York, 1898 to 1906

The Actuality Film

The earliest popular venues for motion pictures were nickelodeons -- peep show parlors where machines played short film loops, or films on flip cards called mutoscopes, for individual viewers on demand. By the turn of the century, films were being shown in store-front theaters and traveling carnivals. Significantly, movies also began to be projected in vaudeville and burlesque theaters, sharing the bill with a variety of "entertainments" which often included live dramas, singers, and comedians. This development coincides with the gradual rise in popularity of the fiction film and the decline of the actuality.

By 1903, the actuality film had reached its peak; in 1903, the Edison and Biograph companies, combined, registered three hundred fifty one actuality films for copyright protection. By 1908 that number had dropped to two.

By 1911, movie theaters had proliferated, spreading out from the cities to small-town America. The first full-length documentaries and newsreels were being produced. Directors such as D.W. Griffith and Edwin S. Porter were making tremendously popular dramatic movies and the actuality film had all but disappeared from the American motion picture scene.

The American Memory films include a number of actualities. Included are subjects that were popular not only in the peep show parlors of the 1890s but much earlier, in nineteenth century postcards, slides, stereographs, and magic lantern shows: panoramic views, civic events, parades, new buildings, new inventions, policemen and firemen in action, risque novelties, and exotic looking immigrants. Without question, early movie-makers borrowed many of their themes and conventions from nineteenth century commercial photography and early audiences, while amazed by the moving images, were very familiar with the subject matter.