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Collection Inventing Entertainment: The Early Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies

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.

Interior of a nickelodeon theater in Pittsburg. It was claimed to be the first nickelodeon in the United States. The Moving Picture World, November 30, 1907, p. 629.

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,

Advertisement for Edison Films and Projecting Kinetoscopes. The Moving Picture World, June 15, 1907, p. 242.

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.

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