Like actualities, observes British critic Michael Chanan, early “made-up” films seem to have spun out the action

until the piece of film in the camera came to an end. . . . You might expect a qualitative jump to have been achieved when the practice of joining scenes together was initiated, but this wasn’t so, since it did not yet advance the sense of internal rhythm. It was a matter of simple succession and not of structural synthesis. It extended the range of early cinematic storytelling, but . . . the dominant codes of narrative ending, whether those of the play, the novel, or the short story, were simply unavailable to early film.[1]

Causes without Effects

This sense of an ending—or rather lack of it—apparently derives from the debt owed by early films to music-hall and vaudeville skits, which were often combination verbal and sight gags—jokes performed in static situations. The skit, however, typically offered a “pay off” or a punch line, while the brief single-shot film, limited both in length and by silence, often presented nothing but a dead-end situation—what one historian characterizes as “a potential cause which never leads to an effect.”[2]

See the moving picture


       The Chimney Sweep and the Miller,

American Mutoscope & Biograph Co., 1902

G.A. Smith’s The Baker and the Sweep (1898) and Biograph’s The Chimney Sweep and the Miller (1902—Figure R5.4), for example, reprise the gag (known to audiences of both the English music hall and American vaudeville) in which a white-covered miller with a bag of white flour engages in a sack fight with a black-covered chimney sweep with a bag of soot. The “joke,” which consists in the exchange of different-colored particles—the miller turns black, the sweep turns white—is utterly a function of its own setup. In other cases, it’s perhaps more accurate to say that cause and effect are telescoped in events whose “climaxes” are so predictable that they’re virtually embedded in their “crises.” In Biograph’s Bad Boy and Poor Old Granpa (1897), a naughty boy upsets an old man who’s reading a newspaper by setting the paper on fire; in A Time and a Place for Everything (Biograph 1898), a maid drops a load of dishes because a young man kisses her.

Shots as Episodes

Nor was the multishot film any guarantee that an action would receive a narratively satisfactory ending. In the first shot of Biograph’s two-shot A Discordant Note (1903), a bad singer crashes a pleasant party. The host ejects him through the window, and Shot 2 uses a simple temporal overlap to repeat the climax from another perspective: we cut to an exterior view as the singer comes hurtling through the glass and onto the street.

Granted, by 1903, most producers were making longer films in which self-contained action scenes were incorporated into causally linked series of events. Biograph’s The Divorce (1903), for instance, was a three-part narrative. In part one, “Detected,” a wife reads a compromising letter dropped by her husband as he leaves for a business trip. Part two, “On the Trail,” takes the wife to a detective agency, and in part three, “Evidence Secured,” the detective finds the husband and his mistress in a hotel room, summons the wife, and smashes through the hotel room door. Interestingly, Biograph sold the three parts separately so that exhibitors could introduce each episode with a lantern-slide title card.[3] In fact, the construction of such a film suggests that of another vaudeville form from which the early motion picture derived its rudimentary narrative principles: the vaudeville playlet, which began as a condensed, highly episodic version of a longer legitimate theater piece.[4]

[1] The Dream That Kicks: The Prehistory and Early Years of Cinema in Britain (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980), pp. 288-89.

[2] David Bordwell, Janet Staiger, and Kristin Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1985), p. 159.

[3] See Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), p. 342.

[4] See Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson, The Classical Hollywood Cinema, p. 160. For a feminist perspective on The Divorce and Biograph’s subsequent A Search for Evidence (also 1903), see Lauren Rabinowitz, For the Love of Pleasure: Women, Movies, and Culture in Turn-of-the-Century Chicago (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Univ. Press, 1998), pp. 82-85, at (accessed June 22, 2016).

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