Early Motion-Picture Companies
5The Eidoloscope: Its Revival and Demise
Early Motion-Picture Companies
The Lumière Cinématographe Reaches America
The American Mutoscope Company: A Different Technology
Initial Exploitation of the Biograph
Although "Edison's vitascope" was the first successful screen machine in the American amusement field, competing projectors and enterprises began to appear within a month of its Koster & Bial's debut. Even before this premiere, F. F. Proctor promised the imminent presentation of a mysterious "kintographe"—a promise he did not keep but one that told amusement-goers that the vitascope was not unique.1 During the spring and summer of 1896, several other companies established themselves as leading enterprises in the field: the Eidoloscope Company, the Lumière firm, and the American Mutoscope Company. While organized somewhat differently, they shared underlying similarities with the Vitascope Company. Each one developed a complete motion-picture system, built its own equipment (cameras as well as projectors), and acted as a self-sufficient entity. All four sought to control the exhibition as well as the production of their films. This was the characteristic structure of film companies in the initial stages of the novelty period.
In May 1896, before a single vitascope states rights owner had received a machine, the Lathams and their eidoloscope reemerged as a significant competitor. Gray Latham, attending one of the early Koster & Bial screenings, saw the vitascope's inner workings and realized it depended on an intermittent mechanism.2 Quickly adding intermittent mechanisms to their own projectors, the Lathams opened at Hammerstein's Olympia Music Hall in Manhattan on 11 May. They also exhibited at the St. James Hotel near Herald Square, in a makeshift theater set up while the hotel was awaiting demolition. Later that summer, an eidoloscope was exhibited in a tent at Coney Island. Others appeared in theaters outside New York City. T. L. Diggens, who acquired eidoloscope rights to Michigan, opened at the Detroit Opera House on 28 May and stayed for four weeks. When the vitascope occupied the Opera House on 1 July, Diggens shifted to a summer park for another week and a half. In Boston, theatrical managers hoping to revive the fortunes of their operetta The Yankee Cruiser added the new attraction in mid June. The musical was abridged to make it more palatable, and the films were shown after the final curtain. Big crowds attended the eidoloscope's first night, but patronage fell off rapidly and the show closed at week's end. In early July, it moved to Providence and occupied the storefront left vacant by the vitascope. Yet another machine opened in Atlantic City in early July and competed with the vitascope.3
Eidoloscope exhibitions were aided by recently filmed subjects. Two were made in Mexico by Gray Latham and Eugène Lauste. Bullfight, shot in Mexico City on 26 March, was the customary headline attraction. Lasting more than ten minutes, it was sometimes billed as a "continuous picture"—one that could play for twenty minutes without having to repeat itself. The Lathams' camera, however, did not pan or tilt on its tripod. As a result, the New York Dramatic Mirror reported, "The bull was out of sight a good deal of the time, but one could tell by the actions of the bullfighters that he was making things very hot for them. When he did come into view it was seen that he was a very fierce animal indeed." Among the other recent films on the first program at the Olympia were Drill of the Engineer Corps, also made in Mexico; Whirlpool Rapids, Niagara Falls; and Fifth Avenue, Easter Sunday Morning. During their five-week New York run, the Lathams shot a new picture, The Sidewalks of New York, borrowing the title from a popular play. "It was taken on Frankfort Street and shows a lot of little urchins dancing to the music of a street organ," according to the Dramatic Mirror.4 All these recent selections were actuality subjects, scenes of daily life that were similar to those being taken by the Lumières but not dependent on them for inspiration.
While Bullfight was sensationalistic enough to pack the theater when the eidoloscope first appeared, the Lathams were hurt by the poor quality of their projection.5 One reviewer who disapproved of the film, however, found that this sometimes worked to its advantage:
The whole ended with the incident of a bull fight, set forth in uninterrupted sequence. Here again there were disappointments and imperfect focussing, but there were thrilling moments when the baiting and torture of the luckless animal came out with perfect clearness. The rushes of the bull at its persecutors were vivid in their truth of life, and nothing could be more deceptive than the clouds of dust that it pawed up in the arena as it darted madly on its foes. Fortunately, the scene in which it gores a wretched horse was confused in outline, and the final slaughter of the creature, its spirit cowed and its energies wearied by the cruelties to which it had been subjected, was similarly dim and uncertain (Boston Herald, 23 June 1896, p. 9).
The Eidoloscope Company suffered still further from internal squabbling. When the Lathams discovered the secret of the "intermittent" (as it came to be known), Woodville, claiming he had invented such a device early in 1895, applied for a patent to cover it on 1 June 1896.6 Over the next two months, Eidoloscope shareholders repeatedly demanded that the patent application become company property. Woodville refused and finally he and his sons were expelled from the corporation. They were no longer paid their stipulated salaries; Otway was removed from the board of directors and replaced as secretary.7 The Eidoloscope Company brought suit against Woodville Latham in the Supreme Court of New York in an unsuccessful attempt to acquire the patent application; a countersuit was also brought though not prosecuted.
With the Lathams' departure, production of new eidoloscope films ceased and exhibitions became less frequent. Finally, in the fall of 1896, the company was sold to Raff & Gammon. One eidoloscope was subsequently attached to a touring theatrical company that performed a dramatic version of Carmen, and the bullfight film was incorporated into the fourth act as a feature. Playing in Atlanta, on 23–24 November 1896, the scene "created a great deal of enthusiasm" and the entire performance was described as "a brilliant production." On 11 December Carmen provided residents of Austin with one of their first opportunities to see projected motion pictures.8
After leaving the Eidoloscope Company, the Lathams did not immediately retire from the motion-picture business. Woodville's patent application, which gave them a chance of controlling important aspects of the industry, attracted E. & H. T. Anthony & Company as an investor. President Richard A. Anthony agreed to manufacture and sell a version of the eidoloscope, renamed the biopticon, which (like the Lumières' cinématographe) was adapted to serve as both a camera and a projector. His company also provided funds to pursue the various patent-interference cases in which Woodville Latham was involved. After the biopticon proved defective and a costly failure, E. & H. T. Anthony & Company eventually gained control of Latham's patents.9 Occasional eidoloscope exhibitions continued until mid 1897, but the projector did not survive cinema's novelty era.10
For slightly less than six months, the Lumière enterprise was the most popular motion-picture service in the United States. Early in 1895 Auguste and Louis Lumière came up with a simple, multipurpose machine that could be used as a camera, projector, and printer. Unhampered by the kinds of technological preconceptions that burdened Edison's kinetograph, the Lumières devised a much simpler instrument that relied on hand-cranking rather than electricity for its power. It was far more versatile and portable than the first cameras built in the United States. (Although the cinématographe used 35-mm film, a width almost identical to the 1½-inch gauge introduced by Edison, each frame had single round perforations on the edge of the film. The Lumière and Edison sprocket holes were thus incompatible.) Unlike Thomas Armat and C. Francis Jenkins, their American counterparts in the invention of projection technology, the Lumières had not only a complete motion-picture system (Armat claimed to have a camera, but it did not work) but the financial resources and skills to exploit the invention themselves.11
The Lumières gave their first public demonstration of the cinématographe on 22 March 1895, at the Society for the Encouragement of National Industry in Paris. They used the following nine months, prior to their first commercial exhibitions, to create a demand for their new product through judicious screenings at conferences and a coordinated publicity campaign. As Alan Williams has pointed out, the Lumières initially addressed a bourgeois, sérieux, technically informed public.12 They used the lecture circuit to explain their experiments not only in cinematography but also in color photography (with lantern slides). Their subjects and the ways in which they were shot were well suited to these occasions, although audience attention was focused less on the subject of these images than on the apparatus that produced their lifelike quality. The operational aesthetic of earlier technological demonstrations continued.
In France and elsewhere in Europe, the Lumières self-financed their motion-picture enterprise, chiefly through profits from their screenings. This setup gave them control over all commercial decisions but meant a slower start in comparison to that of Raff & Gammon, who, via their association with Edison, quickly raised the necessary financing through the sales of states rights. Self-financing was one of the reasons why the cinématographe was not shown in England until 20 February 1896—the same day the Englishman Robert Paul gave the first public demonstration of his theatrograph/animatographe projector. The cinématographe had its first U.S. screening at Keith's Union Square Theater in New York City on 29 June, more than two months after the vitascope's New York premiere.13
In America Benjamin F. Keith not only booked the cinématographe for his vaudeville circuit but acquired U.S. rights to the machine for the first months of its operation. The Frenchmen may have felt ill-prepared to exploit the American market on their own behalf yet recognized the need to act in a timely fashion. Advertised by Keith as "the greatest fashionable and scientific fad of London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and the entire continent," it was immediately hailed as a sensational hit. "The Cinématographe is worked in the same way as the Vitascope and the Eidoloscope," explained one theatrical journal, "but the pictures are clearer and there is less vibration, so that the pictures are not so trying on the eyes as those produced by the other machines." In fact, patrons at Keith's theaters could make the comparison for
themselves, since Raff & Gammon placed a vitascope in a storefront on Fourteenth Street only a few doors away from the Union Square Theater.14
Scenes at the Lumières' American premiere included A Dip in the Sea, showing "several little boys running along a plank on stilts, and diving into the waves, which dashed upon the shore in the most natural manner," The Gardener and the Bad Boy; Washing Day in Switzerland; Hyde Park, London; The Cascade (Geneva Exposition); and The Messers. Lumiere at Cards. "The best picture was The Arrival of the Mail Train," claimed one reviewer. "The train came into the station, passengers alighted, met their friends and walked about, and all the bustle incident to affairs of this kind was shown to perfection." Another, who preferred more militaristic displays, argued that "Nothing more realistic or thrilling than the 'Charge of the Seventh Cuirassiers' has been seen on the local stage in many a month." A lecturer, Lew Shaw, explained the pictures as they were shown, "but he was hardly necessary as the views speak for themselves, eloquently." Theatrical sound effects were also employed to heighten the realism.15
Four weeks after the New York premiere, a second cinématographe reached the United States and replaced the vitascope at Keith's Bijou Theater in Philadelphia. The appearance of vitascopes at various summer parks in Philadelphia's environs undoubtedly annoyed Keith and encouraged this substitution, but in any case, the French machine entertained audiences with unfamiliar pictures and was soon "creating a genuine sensation." When the third cinématographe to reach the United States replaced the vitascopes at Keith's Boston theater on 10 August, manager E. F. Albee wrote vitascope entrepreneur Peter Kiefaber, "I am sorry to be unable to continue longer, but I have done all I possibly could in giving this feature more
attention than any other branch of our business in order to get good results [but] without success the last four (4) weeks." Notwithstanding Albee's assertion that "it is no more value to me and not at all interesting to patrons," however, the vitascope continued to receive positive press notices even after the cinématographe had been announced.16 But Keith's commercial interest in the cinématographe, as well as the enthusiastic public reception given the French machine in Philadelphia and New York, doomed its American rival on the Keith circuit.
The first three Lumière machines played Keith's New York theater for twenty-three weeks, his Philadelphia theater for nineteen weeks, and his Boston theater for twenty-two. By early September, new shipments had begun to arrive, and over the next eight months, the Lumières' New York office accumulated 24 machines and more than 1,400 "views." Cinématographes that left the Lyons factory were usually accompanied by an operator who was instructed to keep the machine with him at all times. According to Félix Mesguich, one of the first operators to reach the United States, the employees brought in the machines as personal property, a ruse that avoided immediate difficulties with American customs but eventually created serious problems for the French concern.17
In Pittsburgh, amusement entrepreneur Harry Davis opened the cinématographe at his vaudeville house on 7 September even as a rival manager gave the local vitascope premiere in conjunction with a play, The Sidewalks of New York. Although both machines were enthusiastically received, the vitascope remained for only three weeks, while the cinématographe lasted three months. On 14 September the French machine opened in Chicago and at New Haven's Wonderland Theater, a vaudeville house run by Sylvester Z. Poli. "Never in all our experience have we seen an attraction draw such crowds as the cinématographe, and never have audiences left a theater with more enthusiasm for the merits of an attraction," remarked the New Haven Evening Register. "The cinématographe is, indeed, the fad at this time, and that New Havener is out of fashion who has not seen it." Over a three-week period, Poli's drew 122,607 people—"an average of nearly 6,000 a day, which undoubtedly surpasses any theatrical attendance record in the history of New Haven."18
Keith's control over the cinématographe lasted only a few months, until approximately 1 November, when the French company opened the Lumière Agency at 13 East 30th Street in New York City and offered to sell states rights or lease its machines. A month later, a Lumière employee, M. Lafont, arrived from France and took charge of the agency. Knowing neither English nor "the American mentality," Lafont failed to maximize business opportunities—at least in the estimation of Félix Mesguich.19
While vaudeville provided an important outlet for the cinématographe, the Lumière machine played other venues as well, especially those with genteel orientations. In Brooklyn, for example, when it opened in a storefront (the old post-office building) on 17 August, publicity appealed to a more sophisticated clientele by emphasizing that the pictures "will be of special interest to those who know something of the artistic side of photography. " On 1 November the operation moved to a larger storefront opposite Association Hall, where lectures appealing to lovers of refined culture were regularly given. After announcing that it had leased the premises for one year, the Lumière Agency ceased advertising, thus obscuring the actual length of the run. Another Lumière storefront opened in Philadelphia at Chestnut and 11th streets in December, a few weeks after its run at Keith's nearby Bijou came to an end.20
In some cities the cinématographe appeared in places where refined cultural events such as musical recitals and lectures were usually held. On 3 December 1896 it opened at Hartford's Unity Hall; the appeal to an elite audience was evident in the admission fees, which began at fifty cents for adults and twenty-five cents for children. The Lumière cinématographe opened in Washington, D.C., around 1 January 1897, but ran for only two or three weeks before being replaced by the biograph. In both cases, the programs were devoted exclusively to motion pictures and lantern slides, with "full explanatory lectures, musical accompaniment and all the possible accessories to add to the realism." (In other cities, among them Toronto and Boston, the cinématographe appeared in department stores as a way to attract shoppers.)21
The Lumière organization offered types of subject matter that had wide appeal but were generally directed at a more elevated audience than were the exhibitions of their American counterparts, who favored dancing girls, boxing matches, bullfights, and vaudeville acts. Of course, these distinctions were not absolute: Vitascope showmen presented scenes of daily life even before the cinématographe arrived, and the first Lumière exhibitions also included subjects like A Friendly Boxing Match. More often, however, as with The Horse Trough, which resembled Rosa Bonheur's famous painting The Horse Fair, they evoked the artistic aspirations of the more refined middle class.22 Many Lumière films were travel views—scenes of life in foreign countries such as France, Italy, Britain, and Russia. In the course of a twenty-minute turn, operators could transport spectators across Europe with generic views of famous places such as London's Hyde Park, the Paris Botanical Gardens, the Bridge of Sighs in Venice, or the Minerva Baths in Milan.
Other films familiarized audiences with the Lumières, their business, and their family pastimes. Keith patrons often saw Employees Leaving the LumiÈre Factory, set in Lyons, France. According to one viewer, "As the whistle blew, the factory doors were thrown open and men, women and children came trooping out. Several of the employes had bicycles which they mounted outside the gate, and rode off. A carryall, which the Lumières keep to transport those who live at a distance from the factory, came dashing out in the most natural manner imaginable." This vignette, in other words, testified to the Lumières' affluence as well as to their
generosity toward their employees—bicycles were still a middle-class luxury item rarely available to the American working class. Almost every program seemed to have at least one film featuring the family, including Feeding the Baby, with Lumière parents and child, and M. LumiÈre Receiving Guests.23 Even the travel views testified to the international nature of the Lumière organization. Many films, therefore, acted as effective publicity for their enterprise.
Genres often overlapped. Some films of the Lumières formed part of a family genre that included Children at Play, The Children's Seaside Frolic, and The Babies' Quarrel, "showing two babies sitting in their high chairs having an infantile battle over their bowl of bread and milk." The latter was also described as a "laughable little comedy." There are several versions of another Lumière subject that was often called The Gardener and the Bad Boy: Le Jardinier et le petit espiÈgle (1895) and Arroseur et arrosÉ (1896). Frames from the latter appear on p. 146. This was another "domestic scene": "A bad boy steps on the hose, causing the water to squirt into the gardener's face. He drops the hose, runs after the boy, and gives him a sound thrashing." This film, or an American remake, had been shown on the vitascope even prior to the cinématographe's American premiere. Considered "the funniest view yet given in any series of this sort," it was frequently imitated by American producers and made a formative contribution to the popular bad-boy genre of early film comedy. Other comic scenes included "a photographer's trouble with a stupid subject"24 and The Sausage Machine, in which dogs were "transformed" into sausages.
Vaudeville managers and the Lumière Agency heavily promoted military scenes, which were enthusiastically received by audiences. In Philadelphia, "a number of pictures are such phenomenal hits that they are demanded week after week. This is
especially true of the military pictures, The March of the 96th Regiment of the French Infantry, The Charge of the Cavalry and the Cavalry Sham Battle." It was certainly effective propaganda for the French military; as one reviewer remarked, "That same impetuous dash that in the days of Napoleon earned fame for these troopers is visible and is reproduced on the screen with all the naturalness of life. One sees them charging down the field, urging their excited chargers to renewed efforts as they fly; in their eyes the fierce fire of battle, in their faces the grim, set determination to do or die, and over all an air that betokens victory."25 At the same time that the army was made heroic, the spectator was placed in the position of the enemy being attacked. Patrons in the forward rows were unnerved by the assault even though the miracle of cinematography allowed them to enjoy the viewpoint and admire the cavalrymen. Indeed, the tension induced by these two conflicting reactions was the secret of these films' appeal. At first, the soldiers were exclusively French, but German, Italian, and Spanish forces were gradually introduced. While the need for variety tempered French nationalism, such scenes introduced a military motif that would continue to play a central role in American cinema.
Lumière films, like their American counterparts, were shot by men and reflected male preoccupations. The military scenes—particularly those of cavalry charging with drawn sabers, threatening to penetrate the spectators' space in the theater—offered a dynamic visual expression of masculinity in the all-male world of the army. This perspective found more complex expression in comedies like The Gardenerand the Bad Boy. On one level, this film functions as what Noël Burch has called a moral tale, warning, "Don't interfere with a person's work or you will be punished." It thus humorously affirms the socialization process of male adolescents in a way that would please Henri Bergson (as would the comic reversal). Yet this comic situation, in which the gardener and the bad boy humiliate each other, reveals a rich latent content from a psychoanalytic perspective. The long nozzle attached to the hose, which practically runs between the gardener's legs, is an allusion to the phallus. The boy's actions in blocking and unblocking the hose suggest masturbatory play with some homosexual references. While the boy's punishment at the end resonates with societal prohibitions against masturbation, it does not fully negate the pleasure involved in the boy's play with the hose. Moreover, an (implicitly assumed) adult male spectator could find nostalgic pleasure in both the transgression and the punishment.
Although every cinématographe could act as a camera and printer, the Lumières did not immediately offer views of the United States to American audiences. Charles Hurd, who ran the concession for Keith, was anxious to have operators film local scenes because "nothing interests Americans as much as Americans," but Lumière films were not shot by just any operator. Keith had to wait for the arrival of one of the Lumières' leading photographers, Alexandre Promio. Disembarking in early September 1896, Promio traveled along the East Coast and as far west as Chicago. On 25 September, after three weeks of shooting, he returned to France with the exposed film. The negatives were developed there and the resulting prints were shipped back to the United States—and the rest of the world. Only in mid November, after failing to fulfill many promises, did the Lumière Agency begin to show American scenes. By then they had resumed control of their machines in U.S. territory.26
Contrary to general historical opinion, locally produced scenes did not usually play a key role in Lumière exhibitions.27 American views appear to have been made with international more than American showings in mind. Scenes taken in New York City
(Skating in Central Park and Brooklyn Bridge), Chicago (Chicago Police Parade), and Boston (ATLANTIC AVENUE, BOSTON), or at Niagara Falls, were similar to those previously taken by American producers. They were, as advertisements claimed, "typical street scenes" and had a generic, nonspecific quality to them.28 The fact that the Lumière films of McKinley's inauguration (March 1897) were not shown until the following month (four weeks after Biograph showed its version of the ceremony) suggests that the American agency may have never established its own laboratory facilities but rather continued to send negatives back to Lyons for developing and printing. In fact, Lumière production in the United States was much more modest than Mesguich and others have led historians to believe, and it was undoubtedly scenes of foreign lands that provided the cinématographe with its chief attraction for American audiences.
By 1897 the American Mutoscope Company, later renamed the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company and frequently called the Biograph Company after its biograph projector, replaced the Lumière enterprise as the foremost motion picture company in the United States and retained that dominance over the next four years.29 It resulted from a collaborative venture that brought together the talents of William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, Herman Casier, Harry Norton Marvin, and Elias Bernard Koopman. In 1893 Marvin, Casier, and Dickson together invented the photoret, a detective camera the size and shape of a watch that was subsequently marketed by Koopman's Magic Introduction Company in New York City.30 The financial rewards from this joint effort were small, but the four felt comfortable working together. Their alliance resumed when they decided to develop and exploit a peephole motion-picture device that would be superior to Edison's then popular and profitable kinetoscope. Dickson, though still working for Edison and surreptitiously helping the Lathams with the eidoloscope, provided the group with the basic idea for the invention. His flip-card device showed a series of photographic images in rapid succession and so created the illusion of movement. Called a mutoscope and designed to run by hand, it would serve the same function as the peephole kinetoscope but work more cheaply and efficiently.
The "K.M.C.D." group, as they called themselves (using the first initials of their last names), set to work. Koopman provided the necessary financing while Casier designed and constructed a mutoscope prototype at the Syracuse, New York, machine shop where he was then employed. The model was completed and a patent application filed in November 1894, when Edison's kinetoscope business was still booming.31 After Koopman approved the invention, Casier began work on a mutograph camera that would make the necessary series of photographic images. Dickson again supplied crucial advice, and the camera was ready for preliminary testing by late February, when paper was run through it "to determine that the various elements of the mechanism were properly performing their respective functions."32 Like the kinetograph, the mutograph camera relied on electricity to power its mechanism, but the principles involved were quite different from those of Edison's device. Instead of using sprockets to guide the film through the camera, the mutograph
relied on a friction feed. In addition, the film stock, 70 mm (2¾ inches) wide, provided more than four times the image surface of a standard 35-mm frame. It was as bulky and complicated as the mutoscope was simple.
In June the camera was successfully tested with actual strips of film, which showed Marvin and Casier sparring. The same month Harry Marvin opened the Marvin Electric Rock Drill Works in Canastoda, New York. Casier joined him as superintendent at ninety dollars a month and brought his motion-picture experiments to this new site. Dickson, who had left Edison's employ in April and distanced himself from the Lathams, stayed with Marvin for part of the summer and fall as work moved forward. On 5 August the first "official" mutoscope film was taken of two more practiced pugilists, Professor Al Leonard and his pupil Bert Hosley—boxing matches were clearly seen as important subject matter in the mutoscope's future. Dickson either was not present or remained discreetly in the background.
While improvements were undoubtedly made between the June test and the August production, the camera probably did not embody all the characteristics detailed in Casler's patent application until shortly before it was filed on 26 February 1896. The mechanism, using a continuously moving friction-feed device, brought the film in front of the aperture, where a pressure plate held it in place while a double punch made holes in it, and the shutter opened and exposed it. Because the resulting frames were not evenly spaced along the negative, the holes provided the necessary registration of images during the printing process.33
By the time that work on the mutograph was well advanced, the peephole motion-picture business had fallen on hard times. People in the field were looking toward projection rather than alternatives to Edison's kinetoscope. On 22 September 1895, the K.M.C.D. group met at Marvin's home in Canastoda, posed for a group portrait, and discussed their future. Dickson, who was still in touch with Raff & Gammon and the Lathams, may well have urged the group to develop a projector. Unaware that others had already discovered the secret of projection, they began work and experimentation afresh. One employee at Koopman's Magic Introduction Company later recalled, "We had made several experiments, in which we threw the two arc lights on the Mutoscope [opaque] bromide-paper pictures as they revolved on the reel. We projected them with this reflected light, panopticon method."34 This approach was not notably successful, and by November 1895 the group had adapted the mutograph camera to work as a projector. Light was directed into the camera and reflected onto a mirror before passing through the film and onto the screen. In a later form, the company's biograph projector dispensed with the mirror, and the light source assumed its now-familiar place behind the film gate and lens. Nonetheless, the projector,
like the camera, used not sprockets and perforated film but rather a constantly moving friction-feed device with a clamp to hold the film steady while light passed through it and onto the screen.35
The K.M.C.D. group formed the American Mutoscope Company as a New Jersey corporation at the end of December 1895. In mid January the rights to Casiers mutoscope patents and applications were assigned to the company and then offered as security for first-mortgage coupon bonds in the amount of $200,000 by the New York Security and Trust Company. By February 1897, $115,000 from this fund had been subscribed. This money plus the sale of stock to various investors provided American Mutoscope with extensive financial backing, which allowed it to avoid some of the funding pitfalls of both the Vitascope Company and the Lumières. Dun & Company reported that "all identified with the business are considered shrewd and capable and are well known in the commercial world." The company president, George R. Blanchard, was commissioner of the Joint Traffic Association and one of the most prominent railroad executives in the country. First vice-president William H. Kimball was national bank examiner; secretary John T. Easton was a prominent lawyer. The board of directors boasted men such as E. J. Berwind, part owner of the Berwind & White Coal Mining Company, "considered a shrewd and capable merchant, and reputed to be very wealthy." Joseph Jefferson, a famous actor, and Abner McKinley, brother of the future president of the United States, also invested in the enterprise. These investors represented large-scale capital; their background and resources differed markedly from those of the small-time businessmen who bought the vitascope rights. With their support, Dickson and Koopman were installing machinery and other appliances at 841 Broadway in New York City by the end of January. A few months later, a developing and manufacturing plant was being constructed in Hoboken, New Jersey.36
The American Mutoscope Company was not prepared to enter the amusement field upon its formation: only six films were available, all of them taken in Canastoda.37 Four of these were labeled Sparring Contest at Canastoda (Nos. 1–4), while two others demonstrated the workings of machinery: Threshing Machine (No. 5) and Engine and Pump (No. 6). Production for commercial amusement did not really commence until the mutograph camera was moved to New York City. In the spring of 1896 Dickson took charge of the camera and photographed two views of Union Square from the rooftop of 841 Broadway. Six other subjects, among them Skirt Dance by Annarelle (No. 9), Tambourine Dance by Annabelle No. 10), and Sandow (Nos. 12 and 13), may have been made on the same rooftop. They were taken against a black background and bear a strong resemblance to the Black Maria films that Dickson had produced two years earlier. Similar scenes continued to be made against black or white backgrounds throughout the summer as Sandow and Annabelle Whitford [Moore] returned for additional sessions before the mutograph. Other posed subjects with actors included trilby and Little Billee (No. 36), an excerpted moment from the popular play Trilby, and vignettes of African Americans in "characteristic poses." A Hard Wash (No. 39) shows a black woman scrubbing her child. Spectators were expected to consider the scene humorous since no matter how hard the mother scrubbed, she would never get him "truly clean" (i.e., white). As with Watermelon Feast (No. 40) and Dancing Darkies (No. 41), the plain backgrounds turned these activities, like the images of Sandow flexing his muscles, into exhibits for curious audiences. Even these first motion pictures of African
Americans conformed to degrading, white-imposed stereotypes characteristic of American filmmaking throughout the period covered by this volume.
Despite its immense bulk, the company's only camera was frequently removed from the rooftop and used to film the everyday world. In these efforts, Dickson was often helped by a young employee of the Magic Introduction Company, Johann Gottlob Wilhelm ("Billy") Bitzer. On 6 June, Dickson shot Bicycle Parade on the Boulevard (Nos. 15 and 16) on Broadway north of Columbus Circle. Another large group of films was taken in July at Atlantic City and on the tracks of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Panoramic View from Trolley (No. 22), like an earlier Edison film of Niagara Falls, was photographed from a moving trolley car. Toward the end of August, Dickson visited his friend Joseph Jefferson at his summer home in Buzzard's Bay. There, against natural backgrounds, the actor performed highlights of his famed role in the play Rip Van Winkle. Eight scenes were shot, including Rip's Toast (No. 45), Rip's Twenty Years' Sleep (No. 50), and rip Leaving Sleepy Hollow (No. 52). Sstable on Fire (No. 44), in which horses are led from a smoking barn, was taken on the same trip. On another expedition, in mid September, Dickson filmed cadets at West Point, took eleven films of Niagara Falls, and shot political demonstrations in Canton, Ohio (McKinley at Home, Canton, O. [No. 72]). From there, Dickson visited Canastoda and took five films of onrushing trains, including Empire State Express (Nos. 77, 78, 81). The camera was placed close to the tracks and pointing toward the train, which came toward and then past the camera. Groups of related films were taken at each location.38
The Biograph Company's exhibition efforts began modestly but expanded steadily. During the summer of 1896 Charles B. Jefferson, Joseph Jefferson's son, was organizing a touring vaudeville company that featured Eugene Sandow. Calling it "Sandow's Olympia," Jefferson arranged for the biograph to be one of the acts. It was the only biograph in operation during September and October. Since the vaudeville troupe only stayed in a city for one week, the American Mutoscope Company did not have to worry about changing subjects, which was a desirable arrangement at this stage in the company's development. When "Sandow's Olympia" opened on 14 September in Pittsburgh, Biograph was only one of three exhibition services in the city's theaters. Shown at the conclusion of the program, its presentation was endorsed for its "clear-cut and distinct" images that were nearly twice as large as those shown in other houses. "Sandow's Olympia" moved to Philadelphia and Brooklyn and then concluded its tour at the Grand Opera House in New York City on 10 October. Among the scenes exhibited on this brief tour were trilby and Little Billee, three scenes from Rip Van Winkle, Stable on Fire, A Hard Wash, views of Sandow, and a timely news subject, Li Hung Chang at Grant's Tomb (No. 55), taken on 30 August.39 These exhibitions generally received favorable notices, although the Brooklyn Eagle called one "pretty fair, but not as life like as the cinématographe." With several costly acts, the vaudeville troupe proved "unprofitable financially" and the tour was shorter than originally expected.40
Immediately after "Sandow's Olympia" closed, the biograph appeared at Hammerstein's Olympia Theater, advertised under its own name and described in the
program as "the 'dernier cri' in the art of producing light and motion." The official opening on Monday evening, 12 October, was a staged event that served as a political rally for the Republican party. Among the many prominent Republicans present was Garret Hobart, candidate for the office of U.S. vice-president. According to one Republican newspaper:
The scene of the McKinley and Hobart parade at Canton called forth great applause, but when a few minutes later the audience caught sight of the next President himself, "in the flesh," pandemonium broke loose for five minutes. Men stood up in their seats and yelled with might and main, and flags were waved by dainty hands that would fain cast a vote on November 3, for the good cause. To satisfy the audience the Major was brought forth again with like result. There he stood on his muchbetrampled lawn at Canton, talking with his son. Leisurely he read a telegram of congratulations, and then turning he came toward the excited audience, until it seemed as though he were about to step down into their very midst. But at that moment came the edge of the curtain, and he vanished round the corner to address a delegation of workingmen (New York Mail and Express, 13 October 1896, p. 5).
The biograph itself was hailed for the absence of flicker and "jump," noticeable in its competitors, and the fortunes of the high-quality machine and the businessman's candidate easily became linked. "No good Republican or upholder of sound money doctrine can afford to miss the lifelike representation of their champion on the lawn of his home at Canton," declared the Mail and Express. For the next two weeks, Republicans poured into Hammerstein's Olympia, wanting a glimpse of their candidate "in the flesh"—a rare opportunity since McKinley's front-porch campaign kept him in Canton. In some cases, local Republican clubs bought entire blocks of box seats.
Biograph left Hammerstein's theater after a two-week run and reopened on election eve at Koster & Bial's Music Hall. (During the hiatus, on Saturday, 31 October, Dickson shot Sound Money Parade [Nos. 89 and 90], showing a huge pro-McKinley rally in New York City.) At the new location, political demonstrations reached a fever pitch. When the biograph showed McKinley at Home, a supporter of Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan booed the image. "Mr. Bryan's friend hissed in his feeble way," reported the Mail and Express, "and then there came a sudden thunderclap of cheering which echoed the applause of Saturday's parade, and continued for several minutes. The picture was shown again to the patriotic audience, and the popocrat was observed to escape hurriedly past the box office, where they do not furnish return checks."41 The following week, after the Republican victory, the biograph showed Sound Money Parade and New York Fire Department (No. 87). Many in the audience may have seen both McKinley and the fire fighters as men coming to the rescue.42 In any case, these exhibitions provided occasions for the political emotions of the spectators to be collectively expressed.
At the same time, Biograph did more than pander to the political sentiments of its audiences. Empire State Express was a phenomenal hit that thrilled—and momentarily terrorized—unsuspecting viewers. In one instance, "two ladies in one of
the boxes on the left-hand side of the horseshoe, which is just where the flyer vanishes from view, screamed and nearly fainted as it came apparently rushing upon them. They recovered in time to laugh at their needless excitement."43 Such films attracted their own constituency. Biograph's first night at Hammerstein's, for example, was attended by a large group of men from the New York Central Railroad; on the following Thursday, the railroad bought a block of two hundred seats in the orchestra. The biograph retained its popularity and continued at Koster & Biais into the new year.
By November, American Mutoscope had additional biographs available for screenings. One machine toured with W. S. Cleveland's Minstrels, opening at Ford's Opera House in Baltimore on 2 November. A third joined Palmer Cox's Brownies, a touring theatrical entertainment also produced by Charles Jefferson, and opened in Chicago on 16 November. Two debuts on 30 November occurred in vaudeville houses: at Poll's Wonderland Theater in New Haven and at Cook's Opera House, in Rochester, New York (the latter may have been a tryout as it lasted a week and only momentarily interrupted a long and successful cinématographe run). The biograph also opened on 14 December in Atlanta in conjunction with plays given by a theatrical stock company. By Christmas week, the biograph was playing in at least six theaters, including J. D. Hopkins' vaudeville houses in Chicago and Pittsburgh.
Biograph's debut at Poli's Wonderland Theater in New Haven was particularly significant because it inaugurated the company's long-standing practice of taking local views. In mid November, Dickson traveled to New Haven and took Fire Department Run, New Haven (No. 91) and Winchester Arms Factory at Noon (No. 92), which showed employees leaving for dinner. Another street scene, An Arrest (No. 93), was staged immediately outside the front entrance of Poli's theater. In another film, Dickson on 18 November caught the Yale football team at practice. Although none of these local scenes was unveiled during the biograph's first week at Poli's, reactions to the initial screenings were highly favorable. The New Haven Evening Register reported that "the wonderful machine at once established its claims to superiority over all other inventions for the display of moving pictures, and the views shown at once won their way into public favor." For the second week, the biograph showed its views of the Yale football team and "made a vivid impression on the spectator" with its heroic portrayal of the players: "So strikingly has the photographer caught the detail in this picture that the face of every man is recognizable as he stands strained for the rush. There is Captain Murphy at tackle, with taut drawn face and determined air; the powerful Chamberlain at center putting the ball into play and watching for an opening against the opposing team." The remaining local views were shown the following week and "caught on immensely."44
Dickson returned to New Haven on 21 and 22 December to make a second group of films, including not only local scenes but three or four comedies acted on a temporary stage behind Poli's theater. Before the end of the year, the new films were being shown at the Wonderland and received hearty praise:
The local views came in for the liveliest manner of commendation, particularly those of a comedy cast. One very funny view, which was appreciated by many who had been there, was one showing a married couple's misery when awakened after midnight by their crying hopeful and their desperate effort to reduce the fractious infant to terms [Why
Papa Can't Sleep, No. 108]. Still another laughing picture shows a prominent club man returning to his home after midnight in a jolly condition and reveals his trouble when he attempts to find his way into bed [The Prodigal's Return, No. 107] (New Haven Evening Register, 29 December 1896, p. 10).
These locally produced comedies became a popular part of the Biograph Company's repertoire even though S. Z. Poli retained the exclusive exhibition rights to Connecticut. The exhibition of local scenes became a specialty service that the Biograph Company offered to theater managers who wanted to enhance the popularity of their bills.
By the end of 1896, the Biograph Company had also established the commercial ties with Benjamin F. Keith that would continue for the next eight and a half years. The biograph opened at Keith's Bijou Theater in Philadelphia on 28 December, at Keith's New Theater in Boston on 11 January, and at Keith's Union Square in New York on 18 January. By then, the American Mutoscope Company was well on its way to supplanting the Lumière cinématographe as the exhibition service favored by first-class theaters.45 While the demand for moving pictures could have easily accommodated three or more major exhibition companies, even allowing for significant variation in the technical quality of their exhibitions and the attractiveness of subject matter, only the Biograph Company had a significant share of the American market by the end of the 1896–1897 theatrical season. The proliferation of independent exhibitors, who simply purchased 35-mm projectors and films, undermined the Vitascope Company and, to a lesser extent, the Lumière Agency and its cinématographe.