The development of the magic lantern suggests from the beginning three tendencies in the art and science of image projection: exhibition in lower-class venues, collective versus private viewing, and an impulse to tell stories by means of visual scenes.

Exhibition in Lower-Class Venues

Soon after the novelty of the thaumaturgic lantern had begun to wear off among upper-class audiences, copies of Thomas Walgensten’s machine were acquired by itinerant showmen who gave performances at fairs, coffee houses, and other commercial venues. In the 17th century, too, peepshow exhibitions were given primarily by traveling showmen on urban street corners (Figure R1.2 [1]). By the end of the 19th century, when both the types of devices and the number of independent exhibitors had proliferated in almost every country in Europe, the fledgling “moving-picture” business was largely in the hands of entertainers who worked such venues as fairgrounds, circuses, penny arcades, and vaudeville and music-hall theaters. By the second decade of the 20th century, such attractions had already become, in the movies themselves, a metaphor for the cinema in its hereditary capacity as a mass-audience, lower-class attraction.

Charlie Chaplin

             Charlie Chaplin

“Nine Tenths of the People in the World Are Poor”  

The best example is probably Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus (1928), which situates his famous “Little Tramp” character in the lower-class entertainment venue of the title. We must remember, however, that although Chaplin’s Tramp is perpetually itinerant and impoverished, both his dress and demeanor suggest that he is perhaps a dandy who’s fallen on shabby times.[2] Indeed, Chaplin originally sought to fashion a singular comic character for himself as a burlesque scion of the upper class: as a member of an English music-hall troupe from 1908 to 1913, he first gained attention as a slumming fop whose inebriated antics wreak havoc at a music-hall performance staged within a music-hall performance. In 1915, he reworked the scenario in One Night at the Show, in which he plays a tipsy dandy who disrupts a variety show with such antics as trying to romance a belly dancer and engaging in fisticuffs with the outraged theater manager (see Figure R1.3 [3]). The Tramp, he recalls, eventually grew out of this sort of character: “I thought of all the little Englishmen I had seen with small black moustaches, tight-fitting clothes, and bamboo canes, and I decided to model my make-up after these men.”[4]

By the time that the obnoxious upper-class buffoon had become the mischievous but charming Tramp, the character is much more clearly the inheritor of his real lineage: that of a clown—indeed, “virtually the last of the true clowns,” as one commentator puts it.[5] His adventures in The Circus begin in earnest when the Tramp is chased by the police into the Big Top, where his antics (particularly with his bamboo cane and pocket watch) make a shambles of the performance—much to the delight of the audience, which was becoming bored with the would-be entertainment in the ring. For the rest of the movie, the circus world fuses with the motion picture world, which had by 1928 been Chaplin’s medium of choice for clowning for 15 years.

In other words, as one analyst of The Circus points out, the “comic enterprise” depicted in the film, a circus, is “a metaphor” for the “comic enterprise” that's made a circus the setting in a movie—“the movie studio concerned with making Chaplinesque comedies.”[6] If so, the audience for The Circus—both the fictional audience for the spectacle depicted on the screen and the real audience for the spectacle produced for the screen—is one with the audience on stage in A Night in an English Music Hall and (to a lesser extent) the audience on screen in One Night at the Show: namely, lower- and working-class people who’ve gathered to seek amusement in a venue where they can expect to have their social desires fulfilled and their social frustrations relieved. Chaplin understood that this audience found the Tramp amusing because his dapper affectations, such as the formal wear in which he attempts a climactic walk on the tightrope (see Figure R1.4 [7]), invariably result in or enhance a jolly burlesque of the class whose rarefied forms of entertainment are inaccessible to the common amusement seeker. “One of the things most quickly learned in theatrical work,” wrote Chaplin in 1918,

is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine tenths of the people in the world are poor and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth.[8]

Chaplin may have been on to something. According to the show-business newspaper Variety, The Circus is the seventh-highest-grossing silent film of all time, with receipts of $3.8 million. Chaplin’s previous film, The Gold Rush (1925), ranks fourth, with gross receipts of $4.25 million. Adjusting for ticket-price inflation, The Circus grossed just short of $100 million and The Gold Rush over $133 million.[9]

Collective vs. Private Viewing

The peepshow format has a long if not terribly distinguished role in the history of moving-image exhibition. In the 18th century, magic-lantern shows were typically given for small groups, and because enlarged images could be projected on walls or drop cloths, the magic lantern naturally encouraged collective viewing. The peepshow format, on the other hand, tended to foster what American film historian Charles Musser calls “private spectatorship and voyeuristic satisfaction” (see Figure R1.5).[10] These two patterns of exhibition coexisted until about the middle of the first decade of the 20th century. (Not until the mid-1890s did Thomas Edison conclude that there was greater profit in the practice of showing motion pictures to more than one person at a time.)

See the moving picture


                 Fatima, Censored

The peepshow, of course, was more suspect as an inducement to voyeuristic indulgence than projected exhibitions. Stationed in amusement parks, railway stations, and saloons, peepshow cabinets seemed to many conservative groups specifically designed to promote unsavory solitary delights. Films of the belly dancer Fatima, who had been a hit at the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, attracted even bigger crowds at New York peepshow parlors until they were shut down by the police; films of Carmencita, another “exotic” dancer, suffered a similar fate on the boardwalk at Asbury Park, New Jersey (see Figure R1.6). Before the triumph of the screen-projected format for viewing, peepshow parlors often promoted such double-entendre titles as How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed, and in 1897, a religious group raided Coney Island peepshows running such titles as Girls’ Boarding School and What the Girls Did with Willie’s Hat. In reality, titles subsequently produced for screen-projection venues—In the Dressing Room, In My Lady’s Boudoir, In a Massage Parlor, and even Seminary Girls (see Figure R1.7)—were equally titillating (and equally tame).[11]

Ironically, however, the movies first invited police interference and other forms of censorship because they fostered collective activity in dark places. “Even in the early days when their chief outlet was the peepshow machine,” argues one legal historian,

viewing was a public activity. When they graduated completely to the theater, their social character became pronounced. There in a darkened balcony or orchestra, even the solitary moviegoer could enjoy a sense of vicarious companionship and the comfortable feeling of sharing in a social enterprise. . . .

With the screen now achieving a steady audience drawn largely from the working classes and immigrants in the cities, its potential for molding the thoughts and actions of the masses became disturbingly apparent to many persons. . . . In many quarters, the movies were increasingly viewed as a disreputable and possibly subversive enterprise. With convention thus offended, if not outraged, it was certain that this injury would be followed not far behind by the law.[12]

The Storytelling Impulse

As early as 1671, in the second edition of his treatise on magic-lantern technology, Ars magna lucis et umbræ, the German scholar Athanasius Kircher (1601-1680) extolled the suitability of magic-lantern exhibition to storytelling: “It is most worthwhile seeing, for with its aid, whole satiric scenes, theatrical tragedies, and the like can be shown in a lifelike way.”[13] Using visual images to tell “stories” was a means of structuring visually oriented presentations from almost the very beginning, as was educating audiences about exotic locales through documentary programs narrated as lectures or travelogues. Illustrated travel lectures flourished as soon as documentary photographs replaced painted images in slide-show presentations, especially in the second half of the 19th century, and multiple photographic images, which could be made smaller and in greater detail, also facilitated the effort to present more elaborate shows requiring the kind of structure provided by narrative. Slide-show lecturers gave greater “dramatic” impact to their presentations by carefully selecting and juxtaposing images to create a narratively satisfying sense of “continuity.”


      Joseph Boggs Beale

Working in the slide-production industry that grew up immediately following the American Civil War, illustrators produced multiple-image slides that took a strong representational approach to the depiction of both historical events and literary scenes, such as Joseph Boggs Beale’s twelve-slide rendering of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven” in 1890 (Figure R1.8 [14]). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Beale’s “Raven” is its use of mobile perspective. Although the whole story transpires on one “set” which is viewed as though through the proscenium arch of a theater, the spectator’s viewpoint is made to shift. The first three images, for instance, gradually “pan” left across the room, while the fourth, in which the raven appears, suddenly "cuts” to a more distant perspective presented from the right; the resulting sense of disorientation creates the proper mood for the next eight slides, which feature specters conjured up from the protagonist’s haunted conscience.

Alexander Black’s 1894 Miss Jerry, in which a full-length “picture play” was presented by means of still-photograph slides projected at the rate of three or four per minute, used different shots of a character taken from the same perspective: with the subject re-posed for each shot, Black managed to suggest both the changing movements and attitudes of his characters. Clearly, the strategies of both Beale and Black were designed to exploit the appropriateness of movement, whether physical, mental, or both, to the telling of stories about people.[15]

“Access to the Dangerous, the Fantastic, the Grotesque, the Impossible”  

A similar pattern evolved when the onscreen projection of moving images first became popular in about 1896. According to historian Robert Sklar, “what excited audiences of the earliest large-screen projections was not films of vaudeville acts but scenes never before seen inside a theater—crashing sea waves, onrushing locomotives, the wonders of nature and machines, far-off places, rare and unusual sights.” Sklar goes on to credit Alfred Clark of the Edison Company with having taken the next logical step at a quite early date:

In the fall of 1895, Clark took his camera out of doors and made several costume films, including one about Joan of Arc . . . and three on American Indian and frontier themes. . . .

Clark had hit upon perhaps the most profound and complex resource of the cinema—its ability to give viewers access to events that happened when they were not there, to the dangerous, the fantastic, the grotesque, the impossible, at a close but safe remove. . . .[16]


                           Ingmar Bergman

Sticking Films Together with Glue

   Technique, of course, had to evolve as well if moving-picture stories were to be told effectively. Recall from Chapter 1.1 Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s recollection of his first magic lantern. Bergman remarks that, even at the age of eleven, he was dissatisfied with his first projection device because it produced movement which merely “repeated itself as long as you went on turning the handle. And that’s all there was in the film” (see Figure R1.9 [17]). Soon, however, he found that he could buy other short films in a local toy store, and thus he simultaneously discovered the principle of editing—the joining together of strips of film—and a means of satisfying his impulse toward narrative: “By and by,” he recalls,

I discovered I could stick films together with glue. . . .

Then I made up a plot for the scraps of film I’d gradually collected, and as I wound off the reels, I would narrate what was going on. . . .

After a while, I bought myself a box camera. . . . I made, or rather arranged, films for my box camera, then made a cinema out of cardboard with a screen. . . . I made a whole series of feature films and ran them through . . . and made believe it was a cinema.[18]

The only available raw material, reports Bergman, consisted of “scraps of newsreels, old feature films, and suchlike—all disjointed,” and his juvenile “feature films” were thus compilations of filmic fragments depicting scenes transpiring in different times and places. Obviously, they were thus quite “farcical,” but in constructing them, Bergman seems to have sensed an inherent relationship not only between editing and narrative form, but among editing, narrative, and length: in effect, he was transforming fragments from different films into shots composing a single larger, film, and the process of creating action—whether continuous or, as in Bergman’s case, wildly discontinuous—through a series of separate shots entails a qualitatively different approach to storytelling coherence.

As Bergman also discovered, it commits the storyteller to longer modes of presentation than the limited mode inherent in looped sequences of images. This pattern of discovery and practice would play an extremely important role in the development of the cinema in the years 1903 to 1908, when the demands of such genres as the chase film forced filmmakers to reconstruct a larger world of cinematic space that could be presented only by edited sequences of partial views.

[1] See The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 22; Henc R.A. de Roo, “History [of the Magic Lantern],” De Luikerwaal (2014), at (accessed May 25, 2016).

[2] See esp. Parker Tyler, Chaplin: Last of the Clowns (1947; rpt. New York: Horizon Press, 1972), passim.

[3] For Figure R1.3, see David Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1985), pp. 71-100.

[4] See Robinson, Chaplin: His Life and Art, p. 147; Joyce Milton, Tramp: The Life of Charlie Chaplin (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), p. 97; Charlie Chaplin, “What People Laugh At,” American Magazine 86 (November 1918), pp. 34, 134-37; rpt. in Focus on Chaplin, ed. Donald W. McCaffrey (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1971), pp. 48-54.

[5] Tyler, Chaplin: The Last of the Clowns, p. 37.

[6] Charles J. Maland, Chaplin and American Culture: The Evolution of a Star Image (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1989), p. 109.

[7] For Figure R1.4, see Maland, Chaplin and American Culture, p. 105; The Silent Clowns (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979), p. 339.

[8] Chaplin, “What People Laugh At,” Focus on Chaplin, p. 49.

[9] “Biggest Money Pictures,” Variety (June 21, 1932), p. 1; ed. David Pierce (1997), Cinemaweb (1997), at (accessed May 25, 2016).

[10] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 22.

[11] Arthur Knight and Hollis Alpert, “The History of Sex in Cinema,” Playboy (April 1965), pp. 130, 133. See also Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 187; and Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus (1973; rpt. New York: Avon, 1974), pp. 22-23.

[12] Richard S. Randall, Censorship of the Movies: The Social and Political Control of a Mass Medium (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1968), pp. 9-11.

[13] Quoted by Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 20.

[14] For Figure R1.8, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 34-36; Terry Borton, “Film History Began with the Magic-Lantern” (1998), The American Magic-Lantern Theater (2008), at (accessed May 25, 2016).

[15] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 32-42.

[16] Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (1975; rpt. New York: Vintage, 1976), pp. 20-21.

[17] For Figure R1.9, see Ingmar Bergman, The Magic Lantern: An Autobiography, trans. Joan Tate (New York: Viking, 1988), pp. 13-16; Bergman, Images: My Life in Film, trans. Marianne Ruuth (New York: Arcade, 1994), pp. 360-81.

[18] Stig Björkman, Torsten Manns, and Jonas Sima, Bergman on Bergman, trans. Paul Britten Austin (New York: Touchstone, 1973), p. 8.

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