Further US Development



The key years in the development of the cinema in the U.S. were in the late 1800s and early 1900s, when the Edison Company was competing with a few other burgeoning movie companies. The major pioneering movie production companies, mostly on the East Coast, that controlled most of the industry were these rivals:

The Edison Company - began producing films for the Kinetoscope in 1891, with its headquarters in West Orange, NJ (see above); afterwards, Edison intensely fought for control of 'his' movie industry by harrassing, sue-ing, or buying patents from anyone he thought was threatening his company.

American Mutoscope Company, founded in 1895 in New York by William K. L. Dickson, Herman Caster, Harry Marvin and Elias Koopman; their first motion picture machine was the Mutoscope - a peephole, flip-card device similar in size to a Kinetoscope. Instead of using film, a spinning set of photographs mounted on a drum inside the cabinet gave the impression of motion. This was followed by a projector - the Biograph, that was demonstrated in New York City in 1896. They devised a camera called the Mutograph (originally called the Biograph) that didn't use sprocket holes or perforations in the motion-picture film. Soon, they became the most popular film company in America, causing Edison to file a patent-infringement lawsuit against them in 1898. They were formally renamed the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company in 1899; in 1903, they began making films in the 35mm format (rather than 70mm); they employed D. W. Griffith in 1908 (who became one of the pioneers of silent film), and were re-named the Biograph Company in 1909.

American Vitagraph Company (1896), formed by British-born Americans J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith; its first fictional film was The Burglar on the Roof, filmed and released in 1897.

The Selig Polyscope Company (originally called the Mutuscope & Film Company), was founded in 1896, in Chicago by William Selig. Initially, the company specialized in slapstick comedies and travel films.

Edwin S. Porter - the "Father of the Story Film":
"Moving pictures" were increasing in length, taking on fluid narrative forms, and being edited for the first time. Inventor and former projectionist Edwin S. Porter (1869-1941), who in 1898 had patented an improved Beadnell projector with a steadier and brighter image, was also using film cameras to record news events. Porter was one of the resident Kinetoscope operators and directors at the Edison Company Studios in the early 1900s, who worked in different film genres. At Edison's Company, he experimented with longer films, and was responsible for directing the first American documentary or realistic narrative film, The Life of an American Fireman (1903). The six-minute narrative film combined re-enacted scenes and documentary footage, and was dramatically edited with inter-cutting between the exterior and interior of a burning house. Edison was actually uncomfortable with Porter's editing techniques, including his use of close-ups to tell an entertaining story.

With the combination of film editing and the telling of narrative stories, Porter produced one of the most important and influential films of the time to reveal the possibility of fictional stories on film. The film was the one-reel, 14-scene, approximately 10-minute long The Great Train Robbery (1903) - it was based on a real-life train heist and was a loose adaptation of a popular stage production. His visual film, made in New Jersey and not particularly artistic by today's standards - set many milestones at the time:

it was the first narrative Western film with a storyline, and included various western cliches (a shoot-out, a robbery, a chase, etc.) that would be used by all future westerns [Note: the same claim was made for the earlier 21-minute Kit Carson (1903)]

it was a ground-breaking film - and one of the earliest films to be shot out of chronological sequence, using revolutionary parallel cross-cutting (or parallel action) between two simultaneous events or scenes; it did not use fades or dissolves between scenes or shots

it effectively used rear projection in an early scene (the image of a train seen through a window), and two impressive panning shots

it was the first 'true' western, but not the first actual western [Note: Edison's Cripple Creek Bar-Room Scene (1899) may actually be the first western.]

it was the first real motion picture smash hit, establishing the notion that film could be a commercially-viable medium

it featured a future western film hero/star, Gilbert M. Anderson (aka "Broncho Billy")

In an effective, scary, full-screen closeup (placed at either the beginning or at the end of the film at the discretion of the exhibitor), a bandit shot his gun directly into the audience. The film also included exterior scenes, chases on horseback, actors that moved toward (and away from) the camera, a camera pan with the escaping bandits, and a camera mounted on a moving train.

Porter also developed the process of film editing - a crucial film technique that would further the cinematic art. Most early films were not much more than short, filmed stage productions or records of live events. In the early days of film-making, actors were usually unidentified and not even trained actors. The earliest actors in movies, that were dubbed "flickers," supplemented their stage incomes by acting in moving pictures.