Spare a thought for the most famous inventor in the world, as today we celebrate 125 years since his first public film show.
Thomas Edison had put together a team that, after several years, had perfected a camera that could take a rapid series of pictures on a strip of new material – celluloid roll film – cut to 35mm wide and perforated with guide holes down the edge. They’d built a peepshow viewing machine to watch these 17-second mini-movies, the Kinetoscope, which had proved popular but ultimately not that profitable, or actually loss-making, for those involved. Everybody was telling him that they wanted to be able to project the films big, not view them tiny, but by late 1895, despite copious wild boasts to the press of his success, he had singularly failed to achieve this and had now sacked William Dickson, the person who’d done most of the work and was keenest on projecting films.
It had been Dickson’s connection with a group of people who had formerly collaborated with Edison, the Lambda Company, that provoked the schism. They had had been projecting their widescreen 50mm films, up to eight minutes long, with their ‘Eidoloscope’ to audiences around the USA since May (see these blog posts). But they didn’t have the drawing power of the Edison name nor the industrial firepower of his organisation. They could be beaten, but he needed an alternative product.
Norman Raff & Frank Gammon had the rights to the Kinetoscope in the USA and Canada, but they could see business nosediving, so were delighted when they encountered a device called the ‘Phantoscope’ from the inventor Thomas Armat, which could project the Edison films. Somewhat nervously, they approached the Big Man and proposed he take on the Phantoscope. In January they had a deal: the Edison Manufacturing Company would build the projectors and supply films. Delighted, they informed Armat of their success, at which point the alleged inventor had a teensy-weensy confession to make. He had somehow omitted to mention that the projector was a co-invention between himself and C. Francis Jenkins – who had been working on moving pictures for some time before the two met – and they were taking out a joint patent. However, the pair of them had had a massive falling out, months before, and now weren’t even speaking to each other. It would also emerge that Jenkins was exercising his right to market the Phantoscope himself.
That had to be tackled with lawyers and threats, but more pressing was getting the whole thing into shape for public presentation ASAP. There was much to be done to improve the quality of the machine for mass manufacture and make the films suitable for projection. Another thing: the name. Raff and Gammon didn’t like ‘Phantoscope’ or Armat’s favoured ‘Zoescope’: they decided it would be called ‘The Vitascope’. And yet another thing: Armat’s name. That wouldn’t sell anything, but Edison’s sure as hell would. Everybody had been waiting for an Edison machine. So, “Edison’s Vitascope” it would be.
There was a further important change they wanted. The theatre owners had made plain that they thought the Kinetoscope pictures were too square in format – presumably some of them had seen the Eidoloscope films. The Edison company had, in fact, already done some work on widescreen cameras. But the response from Armat wasn’t favourable, arguing, “Notwithstanding the fact that I think it is a very simple matter to use the wide films, difficulties may arise that it will take experiments to overcome, and experiments take time, and time is the most important factor, so I would certainly rush the machines just as they stand, and they can be modified afterward if desired, for the wide films, with very little expense.”
And thus, cinema’s fate was sealed. The modifications were never carried out, of course, the Lumières copied the Edison film format and the Eidoloscope faded away, leaving us with boxy Kinetoscope-shaped films for decades, followed by boxy TV.
Mind you, Armat had a point about getting a move on. Noises had been reaching them about the success of films being projected in Europe. There were the Lumières in France and Birt Acres and Robert Paul in Britain, who seemed to be enjoying enormous success. It wouldn’t be long before they crossed the Atlantic and undermined Edison’s opportunity. But the European issue wasn’t just about the fact that other people had projectors, it was what they were projecting.
The Edison Kinetoscope films were shot in a cramped black studio in the grounds of the company’s works. They were profoundly restricted by the fact that their camera had to be connected to mains electricity and was so bulky and heavy that it had to be moved on rails set into the floor of the studio. The Europeans were getting out in the street and into the home, shooting family life, public events, royalty, foreign lands, whilst all Edison had were novelty acts, comedy skits and miniaturised boxing. The year before, at the request of their European agents, the Edison team had built a portable camera and sent it to Paris and London. It returned with absolutely nothing. It seems the camera had failed completely.
Not only that, but the Kinetoscope films had been shot at around forty frames per second, a speed that would pretty much trash a projector, much faster than the sixteen frames per second used on the other side of the Atlantic. And they were very short. What to do? Well, first of all, choose films that would look OK slowed down – dance films would work well, slowing them down would make the dancers look more graceful. Then, make a loop system like in the Kinetoscope so you could show the films over and over whilst you got the next one ready on the second projector. And you could take something old and make it new by colouring a film in by hand, which both Robert Paul and Birt Acres had independently experimented with. But that still didn’t get you out of the studio, that still didn’t get you that big, international feeling. There was only one thing to do: buy it in, just like they bought in the projector.
Acres and Paul had worked together briefly then gone their own ways, angrily. One of the main places that Acres had gone was Germany where he had filmed in several locations, including capturing footage of Kaiser Wilhelm. Somehow the Edison people seem to have made contact with Acres, who sent his photographic assistant, Henry Short, over to the United States in March 1896 to capture footage of Niagara Falls and New York City for his venue in London. It seems likely therefore that Short was carrying with him various films for potential inclusion in the Vitascope’s opening shows[i].
With a major theatre booked and Edison’s sign-off on the work that had been done with the Vitascope, a preview was staged with the man himself at his West Orange works on April 3rd 1896 for the press and invited guests. Edison talked of the “seven or eight months” he’d worked on the projector – which he had, of course, first seen three months previously – and then showed two films. The first was a well-known Kinetoscope view of Annabelle doing a skirt dance, now hand-coloured. The second was from the other side of the Atlantic: the English Derby of 1895 which had been filmed by Birt Acres and screened by both Acres and Paul.
In the Viatascope’s opening week at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, kicking off on April 23rd 1896, the Derby wasn’t on the bill, but three other films were, which had nothing to do with Edison. One was “Kaiser Wilhelm Reviewing His Troops”, which had been seen widely in Britain and was the first film of royalty or a national leader to ever be shown publicly. Even more intriguingly, they promised “Venice, showing Gondolas”. This too was from Acres and, as with the Kaiser, shot after his partnership with Paul ended. But Acres had never been to Italy[ii].
Whilst in Hamburg filming the emperor, Acres decided to take in another major spectacle, which was entitled “Italien in Hamburg”. This was nothing less than a recreation of La Serenissima along the side of the canal, complete with Doge’s Palace, Saint Mark’s Square and the Bridge of Sighs. The publicity said that the gondoliers had been imported directly from Venice. As you can see from this headed notepaper, it was pretty damn convincing.
The film is lost (possibly films). All that remains is a handful of tiny frames illustrating a magazine article, which I have turned into this GIF. There’s just enough detail to make out the Rialto Bridge and a gondolier dipping his oar.
But amongst the six films that were selected for the Vitascope’s public premiere was another Acres subject which had attracted much attention in Britain, as documented in my mini chronology of the beginnings of cinema. Here titled “Sea Waves”, it became known as “Rough Sea at Dover” and was the film that journalists most excitedly discussed after the event. The Dramatic Mirror declaimed, “The effect was simply marvellous. Wave after wave came tumbling on the sand and as they struck broke into tiny floods just like the real thing. Some of the people in the front rows seemed to be afraid they were going to get wet and looked about to see where they could run to in case the waves came too close.”
This film survives in the BFI National Archive, albeit in a worse-for-wear, incomplete, copy of a copy, which makes it hard to understand the visceral impact it originally had. But with a bit of imagination, you could be at Koster and Bial’s…
So, with the help of a machine that two other people invented, lawsuits, some coloured-in Kinetoscope films, a couple of new ones and some foreign sights courtesy of Birt Acres, Edison made ‘his’ Broadway movie debut. Despite what one might imagine, or sketch artists for that matter, the New York Times said the figures were only “about half life size”. It goes on to recount, “There were loud calls for Mr Edison, but he made no response.” In the circumstances, it seems appropriate that he didn’t show his face.
IF YOU WANT TO KNOW MORE… Tonight (23rd April) at 7.30pm, New York time or half past midnight, UK time, Columbia University are hosting a special event to commemorate the anniversary. You can register for free HERE
[i] More information about Henry Short’s foreign travels can be found in The Kinetoscope: A British History by Richard Brown and Barry Anthony (John Libbey, 2017)
[ii] The smartypants who figured this out is Deac Rossell. You can download his short paper “A Small Italian Mystery Solved: Birt Acres in Hamburg” here: https://www.academia.edu/1078610/A_Small_Mystery_Solved_Birt_Acres_in_Venice
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