CHAPTER 4 / Part 1


Table of Contents

Table of Contents




In the years just after the turn of the century, most motion-picture producers in the United States entered the distribution arena as service providers to exhibitors, especially to local and regional chains of vaudeville theaters.[1] By tracing the paths taken by two production companies that rose to prominence in the years between 1898 and 1905, we can get a glimpse into the conditions under which the American film industry developed during the period. In particular, we’ll get a better understanding of the commercial relationships—among manufacturers, producers, distributors, and exhibitors—that developed during the industry’s formative years.

The Emergence of Vitagraph


               J. Stuart Blackton

In 1895, J[ames] Stuart Blackton (1875-1941) and Albert E[dward] Smith (1875-1958), two young Englishmen, were struggling as a vaudeville team in which Smith did magic tricks and ventriloquism and Blackton improvised rapidly drawn cartoons called “chalk talks” that he accompanied with amusing patter (see Figure 4.1).[2] The act also featured stereopticon slides made by Blackton, who supplemented his show-business income as a journalist-illustrator for the New York World. It was in this capacity that he went in front of the Edison kinetograph to make three short films that were eventually packaged as Blackton, The Evening World Cartoonist in 1896 (Figure 4.2).

The success of these little films suggested to the partners the idea of using motion pictures in their own act. So, in 1897, they bought a brand-new Edison projecting kinetoscope (see Figure 4.3 [3]), dubbed it the “vitagraph,” and formed a partnership with the confusing name of the Edison Vitagraph Company. They rented one room on the top floor of a New York City office building, turned the roof of the building into an open-air studio (Figure 4.4), and were soon making short film subjects to show with stereopticon slides during their stage act. By the end of the year, they’d also opened the Commercial Advertising Bureau to produce projected-image advertisements—both motion pictures and stereopticon views—for local businesses.

The Business of the Spanish-American War
  At the beginning of 1898, only a few vaudeville houses showed moving pictures, and programs often had runs of just a few weeks separated by long hiatuses. In February 1898, however, the U.S. battleship Maine blew up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, a Spanish possession just 90 miles off the Florida coast. Many Americans blamed the Spanish government, and as tensions between Spain and the United States rose, U.S. motion-picture companies seized the opportunity to keep the public informed (and inflamed) with such newsworthy actualities as The Wreck of the “Maine” (Biograph), Burial of the “Maine” Victims (Edison), and Roosevelt’s Rough Riders Embarking for Santiago (Edison).

War was declared in April, and as the action spread from the Caribbean to the Philippines, exhibitors rechristened the cinema the “wargraph” or “warscope.” As vaudeville theaters showed “war films” for weeks and even months continuously, the motion picture became a standard feature in more and more venues. It had discovered its capacity as a visual newspaper, and producers prospered by catering to the expanded demand for up-to-date imagery of distant warfare and related patriotic displays.[4] At the end of April, Smith and Blackton purchased ten Edison war films and within a week had established themselves as exhibitors in the burgeoning vaudeville market.


                      A.E. Smith

Meanwhile, Smith, who was of a mechanical turn of mind, made a significant improvement in the company’s Edison projector: “It not infrequently happens,” he explained in his patent application,

that the rapid motion of the film as it is propelled past the aperture causes the holes of its edges to spring out of engagement with the sprocket on the propelling drum. This immediately causes the picture projected on the screen to be out of register with the field of light . . . and produces the effect . . . where parts of two sections of film are thrown upon the screen instead of the whole of one section.[5]

Smith’s device for reframing disengaged film gave the new exhibition service an important short-term advantage because it solved a persistent problem in early film projection.

Later that spring, Smith adapted an Edison projector for taking and printing as well as projecting motion pictures, and before long, Vitagraph was in the business of making films for its own exclusive use. While Edison and Biograph, however, sent cameramen to the battlefields of the Spanish-American War (Figure 4.5), Vitagraph had to settle for a less expensive approach to presenting images of the conflict: for approximately $32 in props, gunpowder, fireworks, and raw film, Blackton and Smith fabricated a miniaturized re-enactment of the Battle of Manila Bay two weeks after the actual event. Soon they were advertising both their “perfect picture machine” and their own inventory of “exclusive war films” (see Figure 4.5),[6] and in September they reached the first-class vaudeville circuit via Proctor’s Pleasure Palace in New York. Vitagraph was now an exhibition service whose core business was packaging film programs for vaudeville houses: for a stipulated weekly fee, a theater manager typically got a projector, a screen, an operator, a program’s worth of subjects, and, occasionally, a lecturer.

The Life of an American Licensee
  In July 1898, the Edison Company sued Smith and Blackton for copyright and patent infringement, and rather than bear the expense of a legal defense, the partners agreed in August to become Edison licensees. Between October 1898 and January 1900, therefore, Vitagraph was obligated to copyright and distribute its films through Edison. Edison received a wider selection of films to sell with its filmmaking and projection equipment, but Vitagraph benefited from much broader distribution. Reaching a larger audience, Vitagraph films—especially its comedies and trick films (see Figure 4.6)—became quite popular.

Competition and Confrontation
  Privileged by its arrangement with Edison, whose hold on the industry depended on the legal advantage of patents and copyrights, Vitagraph continued to prosper. By early 1899, its only East Coast competitor with an adequate flow of exclusive films was the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which still adhered to its 70mm format (see Chapter 2.1). With an exhibition network that spanned much of North America, Vitagraph was clearly dominant in the realm of 35mm production and exhibition. The enterprise would officially become the American Vitagraph Company in 1900, when the partnership was joined by a former Louisiana kinetoscope licensee named William T. (“Pop”) Rock.

Further conflict with Edison, however, was inevitable. The reason is clear if we remind ourselves of Edison’s twofold strategy for controlling the fledgling U.S. industry:

  1. To centralize production, either at Edison itself or through licensing agreements.
  2. To maximize the number of exhibitors who purchased their inventories, both of equipment and films, from Edison.

Edison envisioned a field of numerous small exhibitors who were dependent on the Edison Company. Obviously, such a plan was frustrated by Vitagraph’s exhibitor network. Moreover, Vitagraph could supply this network not only with its own productions, but with foreign imports and domestic films acquired from other producers. Thus Edison’s strategy to dominate production was also threatened. Finally, as the quality and popularity of the Vitagraph product increased, so did Edison’s dependence on Vitagraph as a supplier.

Thus in January 1900, Edison, having first taken steps to strengthen its position with exhibitors outside the Vitagraph network, revoked Blackton and Smith’s license: Vitagraph—having acknowledged Edison’s claims by failing to contest its suit back in 1898—was out of business. Legal wrangling continued, but in January 1901, production at Vitagraph was forced to shut down completely. Industrywide fortunes, however, reversed dramatically in March 1902, when the courts overturned an earlier decision upholding an Edison suit against Biograph. The ruling terminated all of Edison’s patent-infringement suits, whereby Vitagraph was back in business.


        Nickelodeon, Pittsburgh, 1905

Vitagraph resumed production and, from 1902 until 1905, prospered by producing films for its own exhibition programs. A big new studio complex was begun in Brooklyn in 1904 (Figure 4.7 [7]), and by the end of 1905, the storefront theater known as the nickelodeon had replaced the vaudeville theater as America’s most popular venue for moving-picture exhibition. In September of that year, Vitagraph had already taken the astute step of selling its films directly to distributors who serviced the nickelodeon trade. At the same time, the company increased its output of longer films that could be shared by storefront theaters, whose numbers were growing at a rapid rate. Blackton and Smith opened a California studio in 1911 and flourished into the 1920s, until the company was sold to Warner Brothers in 1925.

For more information on the life, work, and wide-ranging influence of J. Stuart Blackton, see Biographical Sketch 4.1: J. Stuart Blackton. We trace Blackton’s activities from his early cartooning through his role in the development of both popular comic series and Vitagraph’s catalog of “quality” films.

Sigmund Lubin: The Compleat Competitor


                  Sigmund Lubin

In the five months from January to May 1897, a German-born optician named Sigmund Lubin (b. Siegmund Lubszynski, 1851-1923) built and marketed (in conjunction with C. Francis Jenkins, co-inventor of what became the vitascope—see Chapter 1) a projector called the cineograph, became a sales agent for Edison films, formed a cineograph exhibition service, established his own production facilities, and made his first motion picture.[8] Lubin’s operations were based in Philadelphia, but the exhibition service soon gained regional strength by expanding to both New York and Louisville, and by 1899-1900, Lubin’s output as a producer, including actualities, local views, comedies, and prizefight re-enactments, may have equaled that of Edison.

The Advent of Rental Distribution
  Within a few years, Lubin also made an important transition from exhibition service to rental distributor. Prior to 1903-1904, the distribution of films had been merely one function of various exhibition services, which also contracted to handle projection and satisfy the programming needs of theaters. At this time, however, there appeared middlemen who purchased films outright and rented them (at reduced prices) to theaters, who provided their own projection and assembled programs from inventories made available by a growing army of middlemen-distributors. The theater, then, took over the role of the exhibitor while the exhibition service adopted the more limited role of rental distributor, which it shared with intermediary rental services. By mid-1903, however, Lubin and other producers had begun renting their own films directly to theaters. Films became available at lower prices to smaller vaudeville outlets and so found their way onto the programs of many more theaters.

Like many smaller producers, Lubin, as an exhibition service, had been unable to offer exclusive programs on the same scale as Biograph and Vitagraph. But with the separation of exhibition and distribution, observes Charles Musser, a reel of film became “a standard interchangeable commodity”[9] rather than a component of a service package, and as such, it generated a moreefficient flow of revenues. Before long, the separation of the two functions had helped to expand the market, guarantee outlets, and furnish producers like Lubin with revenue for both expansion and innovation. As an early adopter of the distribution system, therefore, Lubin benefited primarily as a producer.


                       The Unwritten Law

                              Lubin, 1907

Sensationalism and Spectatorship
  Battered but unbeaten after a round of court battles with Edison, Lubin increased his output until, by 1904, he was turning out one “feature” film per month. Many of these were remakes of hits already produced by his competitors, but Lubin targeted his product to immigrant, working-class, and lower-middle-class audiences by adding measured doses of sex, violence, and sensationalism. In 1907, for example, he released The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Tragedy, which recounted the well-known story of millionaire Harry K. Thaw, who was judged legally insane after killing renowned architect Stanford White over an affair with Thaw’s wife, a former showgirl named Evelyn Nesbit. Lubin’s film (which was on the market before Thaw’s trial was concluded) depicted White’s drug-induced seduction/rape of Nesbit and reveled in the scandalous corruption of the rich and famous (Figure 4.8). Musser suggests that The Unwritten Law was “the most controversial American film produced prior to the Board of Censorship in 1909.”[10] Its appeal to working-class audiences may be explained, in part, by the fact that it dramatized class conflict as well as headline-making events: the immoral White and insane Thaw were upper class, the ostensible victim in the affair, Nesbit, working class.[11]

Although he specialized in comedy and crime films—the two most popular genres of the day—Lubin’s films were often innovative and even ambitious. Musser, for instance, cites a three-shot film called The Tramp’s Dream from as early as 1899. After a shot of the tramp asleep on the grass, a second shot cuts directly to the dream of the title: graciously received into high society, the tramp charms a pretty young woman and is treated to a tasty lunch. He then awakens to reality in Shot 3 (Figure 4.9). Although the film’s title no doubt helped viewers understand the sequence as intended, the otherwise unannounced shift in levels of represented reality must be regarded as a fairly creative gamble. By 1904, the Lubin studio had graduated to such ambitious undertakings as The Bold Bank Robbery, a 24-scene epic about the planning and execution of a heist, and Life of an American Soldier, an 18-scene combination of fictional and actuality footage about a young man who goes to war.[12]

Vertical Integration and Branding
  Lubin had opened his first theater, in Philadelphia, in October 1899. He made a serious foray into the exhibition business in 1907-1908, opening theaters in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Cincinnati, and other cities, and at the end of 1908, he was the only producer in the American industry who’d built a vertically integrated organization: while continuing to focus on a single product (motion pictures), the scope of Lubin’s operations had expanded into every branch of the industry, from equipment manufacture and film production through distribution to exhibition (see Figure 4.10).

As of 1907, only Vitagraph produced more films per year than Lubin (who had surpassed both Biograph and Edison).[13] In 1909, Lubin sold his chain of theaters and focused his attention on production through the newly formed Lubin Manufacturing Company Inc. Between 1909 and 1913, he continued to upgrade his state-of-the-art facility in Philadelphia (Figure 4.11) and also built studios in Jacksonville, Florida, and Hollywood.

In the years between 1907 and 1914, the Lubin brand name and trademark steadily improved in both reliability and recognition—important factors in an era in which filmmaking companies marketed their products by means of brand recognition. Throughout the channel—from distributor through exhibitor to spectator—films were requested by brand name: the more popular the brand name, the more films the producer sold to the distributor, as products moved through the distribution channel according to the basic process of “pull,” with demand from customers (in this case, exhibitors and audiences) conveyed to distributors and thence to producers.[14]

The outbreak of World War I, in 1914, cut off his European market, and Lubin, like many American producers who had come to depend upon exports as a major source of income, was dealt a fatal blow. He sold his bankrupt company to Vitagraph in 1916.


As of 1906, Sigmund Lubin’s monthly output still included prizefight re-enactments, a dubious genre with which he’d first had success in 1898. A little background will be instructive, particularly as the genre that it bastardizes, the filmed prizefight, first emerged as an important phenomenon during the period 1897-1898.[15] At century’s end, argues Musser, the prizefight film reflected two important trends in the motion-picture industry:

  1. As entertainment that appealed principally to one segment of the cultural and economic arena—lower-middle-class men—prizefight films underscored “the reassertion of social and cultural differences within the realm of reception or spectatorship.”
  2. The popularity of prizefight films reflected the role of exhibitors in influencing the subject matter of films by shaping the programs in which they were shown: prizefights, along with religious subjects and travel-lecture programs, appealed to exhibitors because they lent themselves to “evening-length, single-subject entertainments.”[16]

See the moving Picture


                     Corbett vs. Fitzsimmons,

           Carson City, Nevada, 17 March 1897

The Ladies Go a Round or Two at the Pictures: Corbett-Fitzsimmons
  In January 1897, a production firm called the Veriscope Company persuaded heavyweights James Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons to fight for the championship in front of its cameras, and the match was scheduled for Carson City, Nevada, in March. Predictably, religious and other groups condemned the enterprise, but male sporting fans and other enthusiasts of popular culture won the day. The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight (Figure 4.12) premiered in May and immediately attracted large crowds in both big cities and small towns. Reportedly, it also attracted significant numbers of women: “By attending,” suggests Musser,

women asserted their independence and loosened a code of conduct that narrowly circumscribed their public sphere. Many middle-class women took this opportunity to see a part of the male world from which they were normally excluded. The theaters housing the Veriscope were those that women regularly visited, and many of the “fairer sex” felt free to go on their own, at least to the matinees. Suddenly they had access to the forbidden and could peruse the semi-naked, perfectly trained bodies of the male contestants. For women of the leisure class, the [Boston] Herald noted, it had “become quite the proper thing to drop in and see a round or two of the pictures.” [17]

Commerce, Spectatorship, and the Product

Musser’s insistence upon “sexing” the spectatorship of Corbett-Fitzsimmons may have led him to some imprecise conclusions: even if women contributed significantly to the growth of moving-picture audiences, it doesn’t seem likely that it was because “middle-class” women or women of the “leisure class” seized an unexpected opportunity to enjoy the spectacle of male bodies in a state of athletic undress. For one thing, there was little or nothing in such spectacles that respectable young women couldn’t learn about elsewhere. According to film historian Janet Staiger,

“sporty” films that still exist from the pre-1909 era show nothing about the human body that could not be seen just as well in respectable settings—museum paintings, live vaudeville, art photographs, or the more scandalous popular living pictures in which people dressed in tights reproduced famous paintings on the stage. Perhaps we’ll find it more useful to pursue this issue in terms of class instead of (or at least in addition to) gender.[18]

The Emergence of Mass Entertainment
  As film historian Judith Mayne observes, “the transition of the moving image, from a compartment designed for individual contemplation [i.e., peephole viewer] to a large screen seen by an entire audience, is a key moment in the development of ‘mass audience’ and ‘mass culture.’”[19] The genres into which the movies were beginning to fall drew upon a fund of pop-cultural subject matter whose popularity—that is, its emergence as mass entertainment—is reflected in the expansion of such amusements as vaudeville, burlesque, amusement parks, and professional sports.

See the moving Picture


       Bargain Day, 14th Street, New York,

American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., 1905

“Living Well and Accumulating Goods”: The Role of Consumerist Culture
  The advent of mass entertainment, of “‘mass audience’ and ‘mass culture,’” issues directly from what historian Steven J. Ross identifies as “the growing separation of leisure into ‘respectable’ high culture and ‘suspect’ low culture” in the late 19th century.[20] Moreover, it must be regarded as an outgrowth—perhaps even a function—of consumerist culture in the same era: “We know,” argues Mayne,

that the cinema was successful in appealing to a working-class audience. Consumerism and its primary agent, advertising, also proved successful in appealing to a working-class audience; and most specifically, they created the illusion that certain ideals were shared equally by middle-class and working-class people. The development of movie audiences, with gradual appeal to a middle-class audience, thus suggests that the evolution of moving pictures is shaped by the contours of consumerism (emphasis added).[21]

This paradigm describes the promotion and acceptance of consumption—spending on goods and services—as a means of homogenizing the culture by pulling two distinct social classes in the same direction: namely, toward a point at which people’s public and private lives would both be conducted in the realm of economic activity made possible for them by the productivity of capitalism. The working class was invited to share the goals already acknowledged by the middle class—“‘living well’ and accumulating goods.” The middle class would then be invited to cultivate goals consistent with the changing experiences of its family and work life, including the growing dependence of the family on the sphere of production: along with schools, workplaces, and other institutions, goods consumption would be an appropriate vehicle of socialization in the public sphere. In other words, what you bought would play a role in defining your place in society.

Note that this paradigm assumes a virtually sequential unfolding of these transformations: first the working class and gradually the middle class would be brought into the sphere of public consumption. The order was logical: if popular culture had any power to socialize anyone, it would naturally be the working class, among whom its inducements already exerted some pull. In the case of the movies, the sequential paradigm appears to be valid: as a matter of fact, middle-class audiences began patronizing the movies somewhat later than lower-class audiences—just after World War I.

The movies, claims Mayne, “actively contributed to the cause of consumerist culture” because they helped popular culture to saturate public life in America.[22] In particular, they were appealing as a choice for consumption because they were relatively inexpensive: like vaudeville, amusement parks, and professional sports, says Ross, moving pictures constituted “an alternative world of cheaper amusements aimed largely at blue-collar audiences and the rapidly expanding ranks of low-level white-collar workers.”[23]


       Gordon’s Olympia Theatre (opened 1912),

                    Washington Street, Boston

“The Working Man’s Theater”
  In 1910, for example, a study commissioned to examine “The Amusement Situation in the City of Boston” reported the numbers in Table 4.1 regarding total weekly seating capacity—number of seats multiplied by number of weekly programs—in a city of 625,000. Of the total, vaudeville and motion picture theaters accounted for a whopping 85.4 percent. As indicated by average attendance prices (see Table 4.2), cost was certainly a factor in determining the capacity required by each type of venue: the average working man’s pay was approximately $2 per day.[24] Thus the frequent reference to moving pictures in the media of the day as the “working man’s theater,” the “academy of the working man,” or the “poor man’s amusement.”

By 1910, approximately 26 million Americans went to the movies every week.[25] Throughout the first half of the 1910s, audiences equal to 25 percent of the population of New York City attended the movies every week; in Chicago, the number was 43 percent, and in Detroit, San Francisco, and Cincinnati, weekly attendance was equal to an astounding 86, 90, and 193 percent, respectively.[26] According to Ross, most of these moviegoers came from “working-class households and neighborhoods.”[27] And of course more and more of them lived in cities: the market for mass entertainment coalesced between 1870 and 1920, when American cities experienced a population growth of 447 percent. Much of this urban growth was spurred by an influx of immigrants that rose from 5.6 million in 1870 to 13.9 million in 1920 (see Figure 4.13).[28] Urbanization also fostered the accelerating growth of a new segment of the middle class. In 1870, two-thirds of the American middle class were independent business and professional people; by 1910, two-thirds were salaried technicians, professionals, clerks, and salespeople.[29]

“The Gendered Uses of Public Space”
  As for women, 20 percent of all adult American women belonged to the working class; they accounted for 18 percent of the working population.[30] Moreover, most of them were foreign born or first-generation Americans. In 1900, according to historian Kathy Peiss, 80 percent of the nearly 350,000 working women in New York City were single and 30 percent between the ages of 16 and 20. They were now working in department stores, factories, and offices,[31] and “for the first time,” adds historian Lary May, “females had money to spend and the means to enjoy it.”[32]


       “Empty Baby-Buggies at the Entrance,” ca. 1910

Most urban amusements, however, were separated by gender as well as class (see Figure 4.14 [33]), and Ross agrees with Musser that during this period, movies were clearly a factor “in transforming the gendered uses of public space and expanding the limited range of public amusements available to women.” Women, however, were attracted to movie theaters not because of the exotic spectacle they afforded, but because, especially after 1905, the appearance of movie theaters signaled the transformation of city streets into “bustling recreational thoroughfares” that were relatively safe for everyone, both day and night.[34] Again, too, this transformation benefited working women, who could find recreation within a short distance from home.

For women, who were not free to patronize the saloons, burlesque houses, and other forms of recreation that also lined urban streets, movies were in any case the only permissible form of communal entertainment outside the home. Neighborhood theaters often advertised themselves as day-care centers where mothers could bring their children cheaply and conveniently, and on nights and, especially, weekends, they directed their appeal to families with bargain rates and other special promotions. Even critics of the movie-theater culture approved of this trend: “The working man,” observed one clergyman in 1916, “can afford to take his family to the picture show because it usually costs no more than if he spent the evening in a saloon. And he feels a lot better for it the morning after.”[35]

“The Realities of Work and Tenement Life”: The Sense of an Ethnic Community
  Mayne admits that among the roles played by the movies in the lives of immigrants and other members of the working class, that of “escape from the realities of work and tenement life” can’t be ignored. She suggests, however, that for many of these people, especially the immigrants, “family life,” far from being simply one more thing to “escape,” often served as a means of “resistance to the forces of industrialization.” Both at home and at work, they suffered the stress of “exploitation and alienation,” but in seeking release from these pressures, they typically sought not merely leisure but a sense of community as well.[36]

At the same time, however, the emergence of movie theaters as gathering places for members of ethnic communities was cause for alarm in some circles. The 1910 Boston study, for example, lamented the “overwhelming preponderance of cheaper and less desirable forms of entertainment” and expressed outright concern over the “tremendous and growing tendency toward a lower and less desirable form of recreative amusement.”[37] Before long, this concern would assume explicitly political contours, as local theaters soon became neighborhood civic centers where ethnically homogeneous groups gathered to socialize and vent frustrations. “Neighborhood houses,” reports Ross,

served as political centers that existed outside the control and norms of middle-class life and, unlike other contemporary political institutions, included women as well as men. Local exhibitors catered to the political tastes of their patrons, even when those tastes ran counter to the dominant values of society.[38]

Reading 4.1, “Jump Cut: Ragtime; or, ‘A Cinema of the Submerged,’” examines the ways in which Ragtime—both novel and film—treats the relationships among American society, immigrant aspirations, and the movies at the turn of the century.

Morality and Modality in Play Acting

Veriscope’s Corbett-Fitzsimmons program lasted for nearly 100 minutes and benefited from a controversy over an alleged foul: the name “veriscope”—“truth viewer”—gained in ironic stature when the New York World claimed that in recording a disputed late punch, the camera constituted “a triumph of science over the poor, imperfect instrument, the human eye.”[39] Unfortunately, prizefights proved to be risky ventures—in 1899, for example, when the highly touted Palmer-McGovern fight ended in a first-round knockout, the American Sportograph Company went bankrupt. Among other problems, therefore, the prizefight film couldn’t necessarily guarantee a full evening’s worth of entertainment.

The Sacrilegious Use of Sacred Things
  As Charles Musser points out, another popular genre of the time, the religious subject, particularly the filmed passion play, was more reliable in furnishing full-length nightly entertainment.[40] In 1897, two American theatrical producers arranged to film the annual passion play performed in the Austrian village of Horitz. They had to be careful in distinguishing the nature of their filmed presentation from that of live theatrical performances, which tended to meet resistance from religious leaders, but the gambit worked: when The Horitz Passion Play premiered in Philadelphia in November 1897, the Philadelphia Record noted the number of clergy in the audience and declared the exhibition the “most notable, and certainly the most noble use to which that marvelous invention, the cinematograph, has yet been put.”[41]

The next year, the operators of New York’s Eden Musee, which appealed to well-to-do audiences with a mixture of waxworks, concerts, and moving pictures, produced their own filmed passion play, which they claimed to have based on the celebrated annual production at Oberammergau. The Passion Play of Oberammergau (which was actually a re-enactment featuring paid actors) was highly successful (Figure 4.15).[42]


      The Passion Play of Oberammergau,

           Edison Manufacturing Co., 1898

Two Modes of Conveying Cinematic Material
  Both the Horitz and Oberammergau passion-play films were accompanied by lecturers who stood beside the screen and narrated the events of the film. When the Eden Musee production went on the road in March 1898, traveling units often presented the film in conjunction with slides and illustrated travel lectures on the wonders of the Holy Land. The use of narrators and related extra-filmic elements reveals the dependence of the passion-play films on a mode of presentation grounded in contemporary theatrical conventions. Spectators, for example, were expected to respond to familiar iconography and the prompting of narrators, who also clarified shifts in place and time. Likewise, prizefight films often used narrators to explain details—say, fleeting or pivotal actions—which, today, would probably be communicated by closeups. At the same time, however, prizefight films not only permitted an event to unfold in a credible manner, but also captured events that could be shown over and over again with the same degree of objectivity. To an important extent, the spectator’s response was free from extra-filmic guidance or manipulation. In this respect, the prizefight film demonstrated a certain tension between two modes of conveying material on film. Because they highlight crucial differences in the ways in which early filmmakers presented their material, it’s worth defining and characterizing these two modes.[43]

The Presentational Approach to Cinema
  Grounded in the theater, the presentational approach depended on convention to convey time, space, and story. Pro-filmic elements—those aspects of the presentation that denote aspects of reality—were designed to appeal to the camera rather than to suggest, through some sort of verisimilitude, corresponding realities. Deprived of words, for example, actors would pantomime or gesture broadly. Framed and shot with a frontal camera, flat backdrops stood in for sets rather than simulated real places. The passage of time was indicated by convention rather than by any techniques for evoking it: a character, for instance, might exit and then re-enter immediately even if a great length of time has supposedly passed. The presentational approach, then, calls for some external resource—whether a narrator/lecturer or the audience’s prior familiarity with the story or with conventionalized cues—to assist the spectator in following the flow of events and relationships (see Figure 4.16). In part, presentationalism was prominent in the early cinema because it was the dominant approach on the turn-of-the-century stage.[44]

The Representational Approach to Cinema
  Consider, in contrast, the effect of parallel editing—the use of crosscutting in which shots made of different actions and/or in different locations are edited or interspersed to suggest that events are occurring simultaneously.[45] The technique might be effective in a plot involving a rescue. Let’s say, for example, that a man is out of the house on business while his wife and children, alone at home, are menaced by a gang of burglars. Perhaps events unfold as follows:

See the moving Picture


                       The Lonely Villa,

             D.W. Griffith, Biograph, 1909

Actually, this is a simplified summary of The Lonely Villa (1909), in which D.W. Griffith combines conventions of the theater with parallel editing to integrate three strands of the same story. At the point at which we’ve taken up the story, those three strands are all integral parts of a single climax at Shot M: barricaded in their parlor, a mother and her three daughters (Shots A, C, F, H, L, M) are menaced by villains (Shots E, J, L, M) until a group of men who’ve been summoned to the rescue arrive in the nick of time (Shots B, D, G, I, K, M).

As you can see from Figure 4.17, however, our hypothetical filmmaker has preserved the principle of linear progression with which, in reality, we witness the unfolding of events: each line of action unfolds in a logical, straightforward sequence, and the three strands are organized to construct an equally straightforward sequence in time. Our filmmaker has thus provided a “verisimilar” framework within which the spectator can understand the concurrence of the three events without further prompting from an external resource.

At the same time, of course, because he has interrupted each strand several times, the culmination of each strand at Shot M is delayed. The result is heightened suspense. Along with certain strategies for constructing spatial relations—say, cutting from a shot of a character looking at something to a shot of what the character sees—the strategy of parallel editing characterizes the representational approach to conveying cinematic material. Conveyed with as little obvious intervention as possible, time and space are nevertheless re-presented according to the capacities of the medium of film. By and large, interpretations and judgments are left to the audience. We know, for example, that the man and woman are on the phone with one another (and not with a third party) and that the husband’s car is headed toward his house (and not elsewhere).[46]


parallel editing  Form of crosscutting in which shots made of different actions and/or in different locations are edited to suggest that events are occurring simultaneously

presentational approach  Approach to cinematic material characterized by convention in conveying time, space, and story, nonrealistic pro-filmic elements, and an external source to aid the spectator in following the flow of events and relationships

pro-filmic elements  Those aspects of the presentation of a film that denote aspects of reality

representational approach  Approach to cinematic material characterized by the rearrangement of and imposition of unity on material constituting the linear progression with which we witness the unfolding of events


[1] This section is based mostly on Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 193-293. On the roles of producers and exhibitors in shaping films at the time, see Musser, Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company (Berkeley, Los Angeles, Oxford: Univ. of California Press, 1991), Ch. 5, at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[2] On the Vitagraph company, see esp. Barry Salt, “Vitagraph Films: A Touch of Real Class,” in Screen Culture: History and Textuality, ed. John Fullerton (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2004), pp. 55-74; Musser, “The American Vitagraph, 1897-1901: Survival and Success in a Competitive Industry,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), pp. 22-66; Tino Balio, “Portrait of a Pioneering Studio: The Vitagraph Company of America,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Balio (Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 1976), pp. 80-82; and Ben Brewster, “The Vitagraph Fragments in the Library of Congress Paper Prints Collection,” in Screen Culture: History and Textuality, ed. Fullerton, pp. 73-98.

For more on the story of Vitagraph and its founders, see also Tim Lussier, “Vitagraph: ‘Three Men and Their Baby’” (1999), Silents Are Golden, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Irvin Leigh Matus, “Where the Dream Was Made” (2000), Urbanography, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Bryony Dixon, “Blackton, James Stuart (1875-1941),” Screenonline (British Film Institute, 2003-14), at (accessed June 13, 2016); Denis Gifford, “James Stuart Blackton,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 13, 2016); Luke McKernan, “Albert Edward Smith,” Who’s Who in Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[3] For Figure 4.3, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 166, 314.

[4] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 240-53; Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 126-37, at (accessed June 13, 2016); James Castonguay, “The Spanish American War in U.S. Media Culture,” American Quarterly (May 2, 2006), at (accessed June 13, 2016). See also Patrick Loughney, “Movies and Entrepreneurs,” in American Cinema, 1890-1909: Themes and Variations, ed. André Gaudreault (Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2009), esp. pp. 80-85, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Mike Dash, “The Early History of Faking War on Film,” (November 19, 2012), at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[5] Quoted by Musser, “The American Vitagraph,” pp. 32-33.

[6] Quoted by Musser, “The American Vitagraph,” p. 34. The Library of Congress American Memory Web site entitled “The Spanish American War in Motion Pictures” (1998), at, includes an extensive collection of motion pictures released between 1898 and 1901 (accessed May 28, 2014).

[7] For Figure 4.7, see Balio, “Portrait of a Pioneering Studio,” pp. 81-82.

[8] On Lubin, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 169, 284-87, 329-33, 478-84. See also Joseph P. Eckhard, The King of the Movies: Film Pioneer Siegmund Lubin (Cranbury, NJ: Associated University Presses, 1997); Eckhard, “The King of the Movies” (July 2014), at (accessed June 13, 2016); Eckhardt and Linda Kowall, Peddler of Dreams: Siegmund Lubin and the Creation of the Motion Picture Industry, 1896-1916: An Exhibition (Philadelphia: National Museum of American Jewish History, 1984); Linda Woal, “When a Dime Could Buy a Dream: Siegmund Lubin and the Birth of Motion Picture Exhibition,” Film History 6:2 (Summer 1994), pp. 152-65; Tim Lussier, “The Lubin Film Company” (1999), Silents Are Golden, at (accessed June 13, 2016) Deac Rossell, “Siegmund [sic] Lubin,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[9] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 367.

[10] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 479.

[11] See Lee Grieveson, “The Thaw-White Scandal, The Unwritten Law, and the Scandal of Cinema,” in Headline Hollywood: A Century of Film Scandal, ed. Adrienne McLean and David A. Cook (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 27-51; Grieveson, Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America, Ch. 2, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Janet Staiger, Bad Women: Regulating Sexuality in Early American Cinema (Minneapolis and London: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1995), pp. 20-21; Anne Morra, “The Unwritten Law: Reel Life/Real Life,” Inside/Out (October 10, 2013), at (accessed June 13, 2016). For the Lubin catalogue summary of the film, see “The Unwritten Law: A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case,” AFI Catalog: Silent Films (American Film Institute, 2016), at accessed June 13, 2016).

[12] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 287, 394-96.

[13] Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema 1907–1915 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 23-24.

[14] See Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, pp. 103-05.

[15] See David A. Jack, “Old Boxing Film Database: A List of Filmed Fights and Filmed Fight Impersonations from 1894-1930” (2011), at (accessed June 13, 2016). See also Dan Streible, Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 2008), Ch. 1, at (accessed June 13, 2016); and Streible, “On the Canvas: Boxing, Art, and Cinema,” in Moving Pictures: American Art and Early Film 1880-1910, ed. Nancy Mowll Mathews (Manchester, VT: Hudson Hills Press, 2005), pp. 111-16.

[16] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 193.

[17] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 200. In one of the first histories of the cinema, Terry Ramsaye provides a colorful (though not wholly reliable) account of the making of Corbett-Fitzsimmons: see A Million and Nights: A History of the Motion Picture through 1925 (1926; rev. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1986), pp. 281-89. For more thoroughly researched discussions of Corbett-Fitzsimmons, see Streible, Fight Pictures, Ch. 2; and Streible, “Female Spectators and the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight Film,” in Out of Bounds: Sports, Media, and the Politics of Identity, ed. Aaron Baker and Todd Boyd (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1997), pp. 16-45.

[18] Bad Women, p. 12.

[19] See “Immigrants and Spectators,” Wide Angle 5:2 (1982), pp. 32-41. For discussions of class and early-cinema spectatorship, see also Miriam Hansen, “Early Cinema: Whose Public Shere?” in Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, ed. Thomas Elsaesser with Adam Barker (London: British Film Institute, 1990), pp. 228-46; Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), Chs. 2-3. See also Jan Campbell, “Early Film Spectatorship,” in Film and Cinema Spectatorship: Melodrama and Mimesis (Cambridge, UK: Polity, 2005), Ch. 5; and Tom Gunning, “Who Watched the Film?” Making Sense of Film (Center for Media and Learning, CUNY: History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web), at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[20] See Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 11-33.

[21] “Immigrants and Spectators,” p. 34.

[22] “Immigrants and Spectators,” pp. 36, 34.

[23] Working-Class Hollywood, p. 15.

[24] See Garth S. Jowett, “The First Motion Picture Audiences,” in Film before Griffith, ed. Fell, pp. 196-206. Table 4.1 and Table 4.2 are adapted from Jowett.

[25] Russell Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters 1905-1914: Building an Audience for the Movies,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Balio, p. 63.

[26] Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters,” p. 63; Ross, Working-Class Hollywood, p. 15.

[27] Working-Class Hollywood, pp. 14-15.

[28] Working-Class Hollywood, pp. 13-14.

[29] Staiger, Bad Women, p. 19. On the appeal of early cinema to middle-class patrons, see LeRoy Ashby, “Popular Culture and Middle-Class Respectability in the Early Twentieth Century,” in With Amusement for All: A History of American Popular Culture since 1830 (Lexington: The Univ. Press of Kentucky, 2006), Ch. 6, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Merritt, “Nickelodeon Theaters,” in The American Film Industry, ed. Balio, pp. 59-79. On the effect of middle-class audiences on the development of cinematic technique, see Staiger, “Rethinking ‘Primitive’ Cinema: Intertextuality, the Middle-Class Audience, and Reception Studies,” in Interpreting Films: Studies in the Historical Reception of American Cinema (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1992), pp. 101-23.

[30] Marjorie Rosen, Popcorn Venus (New York: Avon, 1974), p. 16.

[31] Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn of the Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple Univ. Press, 1986), p. 34; cited by Staiger, Bad Women, p. 18.

[32] Screening Out the Past: The Birth of Mass Culture and the Motion Picture Industry (New York and Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1980), p. 30. On the changing roles of women in the audience for newly emergent popular culture, especially early cinema, see Hansen, Babel and Babylon, pp. 121-25; Scott Simmon, “1910: Movies, Reform, and the New Women,” in American Cinema of the 1910s: Themes and Variations, ed. Charlie Keil and Ben Singer (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 2009), pp. 26-47, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Shelley Stamp, “Spare Us One Evening: Cultivating Cinema’s Female Audience,” in Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 2000), Ch. 1; Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998).

[33] For Figure 4.14, see May, Screening Out the Past, pp. 18-19.

[34] Working-Class Hollywood, p. 22. See also Ben Singer, Melodrama and Modernity: Early Sensational Cinema and Its Contexts (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2001), pp. 240-41.

[35] Quoted by Ross, Working-Class Hollywood, p. 23.

[36] “Immigrants and Spectators,” pp. 36, 37. For more on the role of immigrants in the development of mass culture and entertainment, as well as in the composition of early-cinema audiences, see Hansen, Babel and Babylon, Chs. 2 and 3; Sharon S. Kleinman and Daniel G. McDonald, “Silent Film and the Socialization of American Immigrants: Lessons from an Old New Medium,” Journal of American and Comparative Cultures 23:3 (Fall, 2000), pp. 79-87; Judith Thissen, “Jewish Immigrant Audiences in New York City, 1905-14,” in American Movie Audiences: From the Turn of the Century to the Early Sound Era, ed. Melvyn Stokes and Richard Maltby (London: British Film Institute, 1999), pp. 15-28; Thissen, “Charlie Steiner’s Hippodrome: Moviegoing on New York’s Lower East Side, 1909-1913,” in American Silent Film: Discovering Marginalized Voices, ed. Gregg Bachman and Thomas J. Slater (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 27-47.

[37] Quoted by Jowett, “The First Motion Picture Audiences,” p. 202.

[38] Working-Class Hollywood, p. 26.

[39] Quoted by Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 198.

[40] This section is based on Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 208-21.

[41] Both quotes are from Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 211.

[42] On the Horitz and Oberammergau passion-play films, see Musser, “Passions and the Passion Play: Theatre, Film, and Religion in America, 1880-1900,” Film History 5:4 (December 1993), pp. 419-56; Pamela Grace, The Religious Film: Christianity and the Hagiopic (Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 2009), Ch. 2; Musser, Before the Nickelodeon, pp. 120-26, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Loughney, “Moves and Entrepreneurs,” in American Cinema, 1890-1909, ed. Gaudreault, pp. 75-78, at (accessed June 13, 2016); Noël Burch, Life to Those Shadows (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 144-47. Ramsaye devotes a chapter to the making of the Eden Musee passion play: see A Million and One Nights, pp. 366-78. See also Luke McKernan, “Richard G. Hollaman,” Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema (British Film Institute, 2016), at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[43] See esp. Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 2-6.

[44] On the early presentational mode, the “cinema of attraction” (see Chapter 5.1), and sci fi special effects, see Scott Bukatman, “The Historical Infinite: On Special Effects and the Sublime,” in Post-War Cinema and Modernity: A Film Reader, ed. John Orr and Olga Taxidou (New York: New York Univ. Press, 2001), esp. pp. 211-12. On the association of the presentational mode with such influences as the circus and vaudeville and with the appeal to working-class audiences, see Noël Burch, “Porter, or Ambivalence,” Screen 19 (Winter 1978-79), pp. 91-105, and “Film’s Institutional Mode of Representation and the Soviet Response,” October 11 (Winter 1979), pp. 77-96.

[45] On crosscutting and parallel editing—and the fine distinction between them—see David Bordwell, Kristin Thompson, and Janet Staiger, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), esp. pp. 48-49, 210-12. See also André Gaudreault and Philippe Gauthier, “Crosscutting, a Programmed Language,” in The Griffith Project, Vol. 12, ed. Paolo Cherchi Usai (London: British Film Institute, 2008), pp. 30-47, at (accessed June 13, 2016).

[46] On The Lonely Villa, see Tom Gunning, D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film: The Early Years at Biograph (Urbana and Chicago: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1991), pp. 197-204; and Joyce E. Jesionowski, Thinking in Pictures: Dramatic Structure in D.W. Griffith’s Biograph Films (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1987), pp. 65-67.

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