Early Cinema

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Early Cinema



Emerging at the tail end of the nineteenth century, cinema owed its existence as a technological invention to key developments in motion study and optics, and, as a visual novelty to traditions of screened entertainment. The medium would soon shed its affiliation with science when its potential for widespread commercial success became more apparent, facilitating its entry into the mainstream of twentieth-century popular culture. Even so, cinema's earliest years were marked by a variety of representational tendencies and viewing contexts whose diversity would diminish once commercial imperatives imposed themselves more fully. Had cinema proved less successful, it might have enjoyed freedom from borrowed aesthetic conventions somewhat longer than it did. But by the first years of the new century, as films became longer and their content incorporated story material with greater regularity, the potential for the cinema to rival stage-based forms and generate greater profit attracted numerous entrepreneurs, leading to sustained growth throughout the early 1900s.

Within ten years of the medium's debut, motion pictures had established themselves as a staple within the cultural landscape of most countries, and the uncertainty of the medium's novelty phase had been replaced by more concerted efforts to standardize the production of films for a growing audience. The increasing popularity of motion pictures meant that for the final ten years of the early cinema period, the medium would enter into a process of institutionalization. With movies readily available in most urban areas and narrative the dominant form that most films assumed, the commercial future of cinema pointed progressively toward industrial models favoring rationalized modes of production and predictable systems of distribution and exhibition. To some degree, the history of cinema's first years is a steady (if uneven) reduction of options, leading to the enshrinement of the feature-length fiction film, shown in theaters designed for movie projection.


Building on the advancements made in series photography by such figures as Étienne-Jules Marey (1830–1904) and Eadweard Muybridge (1830–1904) in the 1870s and 1880s, coupled with the animation principles at the center of motion toys like the zoetrope, numerous inventors in the late nineteenth century attempted to devise an instrument that could produce the illusion of movement through the recording and playback of many photographic images in rapid succession. The process required a flexible base medium, made available with the patenting of celluloid stock by George Eastman (1854–1932) in 1889, and an intermittent mechanism that would allow the film to pass through the camera, pause for recording, and then proceed without tearing. Parallel experimentation resulted in workable motion picture cameras in many countries at virtually the same time: William Kennedy Laurie Dickson (1860–1935), working for Thomas Alva Edison (1847–1931), developed the kinetograph in the United States, while Louis and Auguste Lumière perfected the cinématographe in France, and Robert W. Paul (1869–1943), in collaboration with Birt Acres (1854–1918), and William Friese-Greene (1855–1921), working separately, devised cameras in England.

The kinetograph and the cinématographe proved the most successful of these inventions, the former propelled by the business acumen of Edison and the latter spurred by its incorporation of three functions (camera, printer, and projector) into one machine. In fact, the portability and flexibility of the cinématographe led the Lumière brothers to send camera operators around the globe, and screenings of their films became the inaugural experience of motion picture projection in many countries in 1896, including Russia, India, Brazil, Mexico, and Egypt. The most famous of the Lumière screenings took place iń of Paris on 28 December 1895, often singled out as the first public exhibition of motion pictures for a paying audience, and thus the inauguration of cinema as a commercial enterprise. Though Edison had already been filming subjects with the kinetograph since 1893, these films could only be viewed for the first few years on a private viewing machine called a kinetoscope; projection of Edison films on a screen before an audience did not occur in the United States until 23 April 1896 with the debut of the Vitascope, a projecting device developed by Thomas Armat (1866–1948) but marketed as Edison's own.

The earliest films tended to be brief, often lasting no longer than a minute. Because the first audiences appeared to respond to the visual appeal of oversized, moving images projected before them, subjects were deliberately varied, ranging from the observation of intimate actions (Baby's Breakfast, 1895) to larger-scaled events (Train Arriving at the Station, 1895). The Lumières quickly became known for their recordings of seemingly unstaged events, often labeled actualités, while Edison's first films tended to be brief records of vaudeville performances. Initially restricted to the confines of the Edison studio, called the Black Maria, kinetoscope subjects played up the performative value of their act, be it the flexing of Sandow the Strongman's muscles or the swirling skirts of Annabelle. Though relatively static, these films emphasized cinema's appeal as a permanent record of a moment's movement in time, the camera capturing whatever was placed before it for posterity, in much the same way that still photography had done in previous decades.

The cinématographe had the added advantage of increased mobility, thereby allowing the Lumière camera operators to pursue a wider range of actions in their natural settings. This meant that the Lumière films could trade on the recognition that familiar places possessed for local audiences as well as exploiting the exoticism of faraway locales. Equally important to the success of these early actualités was the way they functioned as visual newspapers, giving imagistic weight to events of the day, such as natural disasters or visits by royal dignitaries.

For the first few years, the vast majority of films were single shots, and it was left to exhibitors to combine these the Grand Cafe shots into longer works if they so desired. The elaboration of films into multi-shot entities occurred with greater regularity after 1900, and with this shift came a concomitant increase in filmed narratives. Nonetheless, early films offered a surprisingly diverse array of formal strategies: while many films employed a fixed camera position that kept filmed subjects at a considerable distance, others exploited the camera's capacity for magnification by employing a series of closely scaled shots (for example, Grandma's Reading Glass, 1900) or featuring a constantly moving camera, either as a panorama or mounted on a mobile vehicle, particularly locomotives, for a cycle of films often labeled "kinesthetic films" or "phantom rides."

One notable feature of many early films is their self-conscious use of features that created visual pleasure: the mobile camera in the kinesthetic films and the masked close-ups in various peephole films stress the capacity of the medium to provide a technologically enhanced view that allows the spectator to see differently. This approach operated in contradistinction to later, more narratively oriented cinema in which style often functioned to underscore the story. The overt nature of aspects of early cinema style has led some commentators, most notably Tom Gunning, to label the first ten years or so of film as constituting a cinema of attractions. The cinema of attractions is not defined so much by its unique attributes as by the distinct relationship it creates between the spectator and the film. In the cinema of attractions, film addresses itself directly to the viewer, often quite literally when vaudeville actors solicit the spectator's attention by looking directly toward the camera. More generally, it is the modus operandi of the films themselves that qualifies them for this designation, as they are designed to provoke an immediate reaction, predicated on shock or surprise, rather than on the cumulative pleasures that narrative films provide. One might think that the move to multi-shot films would have diluted the intensity of attractions, but at least initially, editing became another form of attraction. According to Gunning, in many of the early multi-shot films, editing becomes a kind of surprise in itself, as in the fanciful transitions one observes in films such as Let Me Dream Again (1900) or What Happened in the Tunnel (1903) or the accelerated sensation of displacement and mobility editing helps to promote in chase films, in which large groups of people run from one locale to the next, the cut introducing a new setting while sustaining the sense of frantic movement.

One feature of editing in early multi-shot films in particular that has invited scholarly attention is the propensity toward noncontinuity in such films. Unlike later films, in which editing strives to promote a sense of continuity by disguising the potential disruptiveness of the cut, the editing in many early films draws attention to itself. Moreover, the logic of editing in multi-shot films follows a principle whereby, as André Gaudreault has noted, autonomy of space overrides temporal unity. The clearest demonstration of his observation can be seen in instances of temporal overlap, in which a portion of the time frame from a previous shot is repeated in a subsequent shot, the action in the latter occurring in a different locale or viewed from a changed perspective. The most celebrated case of temporal overlap occurs in Edwin S. Porter's (1870–1941) Life of an American Fireman (1903), when the rescue of the mother and child from the burning building is shown twice, both from within the building and from the outside. Though later practice (and a subsequently re-edited version of the film) would rely on crosscutting to portray the same action from two vantage points, at this stage in early cinema's stylistic development, it apparently made more sense to show the action in its entirety from one perspective

b. Connellsville, Pennsylvania, 21 April 1870, d. New York, 30 April 1941

Often credited with popularizing the story film in the United States, Edwin S. Porter is most notable for embodying the diverse tendencies of early cinema. Commentators have referred to Porter as "Janus-faced," a figure who pointed toward the medium's future at the same time that he epitomized its period-bound qualities. In particular, Porter pioneered certain aspects of narrative filmmaking, such as linear editing and intertitles, while also adhering to many of early cinema's unique traits, such as temporal overlap and direct address of the camera by performers.

Porter entered the motion picture business as a traveling exhibitor, and that experience probably influenced his early experiments as a filmmaker. Hired by Edison to work on the company's projector in 1900, he soon became the firm's chief cameraman and head of production. From the outset, his interest in the types of transitions possible when moving from one shot to another is evident. Yet, for every film that features a fluid set of linked actions, such as The Great Train Robbery (1903), another one depends upon tableau—the story held together only by the audience's knowledge of the source material, as in Porter's adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903). Porter's achievements crystallized that year, which also saw the release of Life of an American Fireman and The Gay Shoe Clerk, two of his best-known works, that demonstrate how point of view functions at this time. In Life of an American Fireman, his insistence on showing the event in its entirety from one perspective and then again from another highlights the importance of retaining an established viewpoint, even at the expense of intimating simultaneity. In The Gay Show Clerk, the famous close-up of a stocking-clad ankle demonstrates how magnification of detail can satisfy the viewer's voyeuristic desire for illicit visual pleasures.

Though Porter continued to find success with such nickelodeon-era shorts as The Kleptomaniac and the Winsor McCay–inspired Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (both 1906), his style of filmmaking did not survive the changes wrought by increased narrational self-sufficiency during the transitional period. By 1908, his approach already seemed antiquated, and he was let go by Edison the following year. He continued to work in the industry, lasting into the feature era to become production head at Famous Players in 1912. But his interests focused on the development of cinematic technology from 1915 onward. Fittingly, given his beginnings in the industry, his final lasting contribution was the shepherding of the Simplex projector to a position of supremacy.


The Finish of Bridget McKeen (1901), Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (1902), Life of an American Fireman (1903), Uncle Tom's Cabin (1903), The Great Train Robbery (1903), European Rest Cure (1904), The Seven Ages (1905), The Dream of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), Kathleen Mavourneen (1906), The "Teddy" Bears (1907)


Burch, Noël. "Porter, or Ambivalence." Screen 14, no. 4 (1978/79): 91–105.

Gaudreault, André. "Detours in Film Narrative: The Development of Cross-Cutting." Cinema Journal 19, no. 1 (1979): 39–59.

Musser, Charles. Before the Nickelodeon: Edwin S. Porter and the Edison Manufacturing Company. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.

Charlie Keil

before shifting to another. Rather than a mistake, temporal overlap should be understood as evidence that the logic underwriting early cinema style traded on distinctive viewing procedures and the influence of other, visually based storytelling forms prevalent at the time.


One of those influential forms was the magic lantern show, which depended on projected images to tell stories visually. Charles Musser, among others, has suggested that film exhibition practice developed within traditions of screen entertainment aligned with such media as magic lanterns and stereopticons. Highly dependent on lecturers, elaborate transitional effects, and a multitude of still images, magic lantern shows may have affected the way early film exhibition developed in a variety of ways. For one, they provided a model for exhibitors to construct programs of single-shot films that had the potential to transform the material into something entirely different. Depending on the will and the creativity of the exhibitor, various short films could be combined into multi-shot assemblages, whose meaning might be further transformed by an accompanying text read by a lecturer. This allowed the exhibitor to function as a proto-editor in the years before multi-shot films became the industry norm. As Musser has also argued, the power of the exhibitor to supply additional narrational force to the films he projected complicates the applicability of the cinema of attractions model, insofar as the films might have been understood quite differently, depending on how they were presented.

Nonetheless, Gunning has found further confirmation of the pervasiveness of attractions by considering the effect of exhibition on early films. Because films often functioned as one act among many on a vaudeville bill, their status as attractions was reinforced by the modular presentational format of vaudeville itself. Much like the variety acts it was sandwiched among, the short film traded on making an immediate impact on its audience before being replaced by some other, disparate piece of entertainment. In other words, the vaudeville program fostered early cinema's tendency toward surprise and novelty by virtue of the interchangeability of elements on any given bill. Even when cinema came to be shown in theaters designed primarily for film exhibition, this variety format persisted, placing film among a host of appealing entertainments, including illustrated songs, lecturers, and vaudeville acts, only now these elements supported the films.

Before films found themselves featured as the main attraction in venues specifically built or reconfigured for the purpose of screening them (these were typically termed nickelodeons in the United States), cinema appeared in a variety of exhibition sites. The diversity of places films were screened points to the broad potential envisioned for film from the outset. Everywhere from outdoor fairs to department stores, opera houses to dime museums, offered films. The venue and context determined the role films would play: films documenting war-related activities might be screened in a community hall to boost morale during wartime, while a church might show a filmed Passion Play to coincide with a religious service. In certain countries, particularly in Europe, itinerant exhibitors played a crucial role in spreading cinema across the countryside, often screening films in the fair-ground circuit. For this reason, films tended to be sold outright, since exhibitors would move from site to site, ideally finding new audiences for their programs at each locale.

Such strategies failed to build a permanent base for cinema's growth, however, and risked alienating audiences who might be exposed to either worn-out prints or collections of titles already viewed. In the United States, the solution to such problems arose in the form of the film exchange, an early type of film distribution in which a middleman bought prints and then rented them out to exhibitors at a fraction of the purchase price. The inauguration of the exchange system facilitated the establishment of permanent movie theaters in America, providing exhibitors with a steady supply of reliable prints at a reduced cost.

How is it that motion pictures had achieved a sufficient level of popularity by 1903–1905 to entice enterprising business people to risk investing in the exchange system and then in permanent exhibition sites? Scholars differ in their explanations, but the increased production of longer story films, most obviously Le voyage dans la lune (AT rip to the Moon [1902]) and The Great Train Robbery (1903), must have played a significant role, as both these films proved to be successes with the moviegoing public.

Still more questions arise concerning just who that moviegoing public might have been. It has frequently been assumed that the audience for early cinema was composed primarily of working-class, immigrant men (at least in the United States), that conclusion reached on the basis of contemporaneous reports and the locations of theaters. Though such a portrait of the American moviegoer might have been accurate in the initial years of the nickelodeon boom, it scarcely does justice to the diversity of audiences viewing cinema during the entirety of the early cinema period and in regions and countries beyond that of the United States' industrialized northeast. Accounts of well-heeled patrons frequenting motion picture programs at private salons in turn-of-the-century France, fairground visitors of all ages and social backgrounds taking in films as part of the presentations by traveling showmen in Great Britain, and rural, middle-class churchgoers viewing films at a Chautauqua in the rural Midwest of the United States indicate that motion pictures attracted different types of audiences, depending on the venue and the mode of presentation.

Nonetheless, much has been made of the anxiety that cinema engendered among those who felt compelled to protect citizens from society's evils. Reformers feared the potentially negative effects of cinema from the outset, and as permanent homes for film exhibition became established, efforts at regulation found an easy target. Nickelodeons were criticized for being dark, dirty sites of social mixing. Ironically, the National Board of Censorship (NBC) came into being in the United States as a defensive strategy on the part of exhibitors reacting to the citywide closing of nickelodeons by New York's mayor in 1908. One can see the establishment of the NBC as the first in a series of self-regulatory moves made by the American film industry to circumvent state-controlled censorship. At the same time, it demonstrates how early—and how closely—exhibition and regulation are tied together, and how principles of regulation are formulated with an eye to "protecting vulnerable" audience members from the excesses of motion picture content, thereby controlling their behavior by shaping the films those audience members will see. In the years after 1908, the film industry would exercise progressively greater control over every aspect of the film experience, from production through to exhibition, in attempts to standardize the product and its entry into a growing marketplace.


Early production in the preeminent film-producing nations of France, Great Britain, and the United States has often been likened to a cottage industry. Firms tended to be fairly small and typically operated in an artisanal fashion, which restricted their ability to respond to increased demand with expanded output. When the equipment permitted it, actualités could be filmed by a single cameraperson, but a collaborative model of film-making usually prevailed for fictional works, indicating that a division of labor was deemed appropriate from the outset in the production of story films. France proved most forward-thinking in this regard, particularly the firms of Gaumont and Pathé: the latter moved to a director-unit system of production by 1906, in which numerous directors (overseen by supervising producer Ferdinand Zecca [1864–1947]) worked with their own small crews to put out a film on a weekly basis, while prints were mass-produced, courtesy of a workforce over 1,000 strong. The growth of these companies allowed them to produce films at a prodigious rate and to move beyond the relatively small market of France to become dominant internationally. Diversification of product further differentiated Pathé and Gaumont from their chief French competitor, Georges Méliès (1861–1938). Whereas Méliès tended to concentrate on trick films and féeries (elaborate story films employing fantasy), the other two companies produced a range of films, eventually incorporating melodramas and chase films into the mix. Pathé, always the most enterprising of the French firms, capitalized on the limited capacity of the major American producers of the mid-1900s (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Selig, and Lubin) and easily dominated the US market once it started distributing its films there in 1904.

England's companies proved far less stable than those of France but still enjoyed periods of prominence, especially in the early years of the twentieth century. There were several notable firms, most of which operated on an artisanal model. These included the company headed by early pioneer Robert W. Paul, whose success in manufacturing equipment led him to film production; those producers belonging to the so-called "Brighton School," chief among them G. A. Smith (1864–1959) and James Williamson (1855–1933), as well as the most successful and durable of the British filmmakers, Cecil Hepworth (1873–1953). The stylistic range of British films was particularly impressive, incorporating the self-consciously inventive trick comedy of two films from 1900, Williamson's The Big Swallow and Hepworth's How It Feels to Be Run Over (both convincing examples of how attractions-era filmmaking could render acknowledgment of the camera's presence a source of uniquely cinematic humor, Hepworth's involving reformulation of the chase film), the enterprising use of cut-ins in Smith's Sick Kitten and transitional devices in his Mary Jane's Mishap (both from 1903), and the multi-shot Rescued by Rover (1905). The latter proved one of England's most popular productions, so much so that Hepworth had to shoot the film several times as each of the negatives wore out. In its fusing of proven plot situations (stolen child saved by heroic dog) with propulsive linear editing, Rescued by Rover points toward the last-minute rescue scenario perfected by D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) a few years later at Biograph.

In the United States, the relatively stagnant production levels before 1908 can be attributed in part to Edison's continued threats of legal reprisals for patent violation. While two firms, Kalem and Essanay, entered into production in 1907, the output of American companies lagged far behind the nickelodeon-fueled demand, allowing Pathé's films and other imports to command 75 percent of the American market. The solution to the patent infringement impasse came in the form of a patent pooling agreement reached in late 1908; after it, productivity by American firms increased significantly.

The company established to implement the conditions of this agreement was known as the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC). All the major American producers became members and complied with its policies. The MPPC aimed to control every aspect of the industry by implementing a system of royalties to be paid for use of equipment and, more importantly, by working to bring distribution practices into line with producers' desires. The MPPC aimed to curb the excesses of distribution that had contributed to industrial instability, primarily the circulation of aging prints and the reliance on duped copies. Moreover, the MPPC exerted control over exchange schedules, introducing regularly timed releases. Exchanges had to be licensed by the MPPC, ensuring that distributors would abide by schedules dictated by producers. (The MPPC extended its control over the distribution sector by taking over the licensed exchanges altogether with the formation of the General Film Company in 1910, bringing it one step closer to becoming an oligopoly.)

Though clearly working for its own monetary gain, the MPPC did effect substantial and positive changes in the American production landscape. Productivity soared from 1909 onward, in part because the MPPC limited the number of imports allowed into the domestic market, but also because its distribution reforms provided security to producers, who could now depend upon predictable delivery schedules. Even so, the MPPC-related firms failed to address all exhibitor needs. In part, these needs arose because certain exhibitors chafed against the royalties imposed upon them; further dissension appeared in the form of exchanges left out of the MPPC fold at the time of the General Film Company's formation. These disenfranchised elements within the distribution and exhibition sector constituted a sufficient percentage of the market to support the emergence of a competing faction of producers, known as the Independents, the first of which appeared in 1909. Their ranks grew over the next few years, leading to a clogged production field of more than twenty manufacturers by 1911, whose production levels were far in excess of pre-MPPC rates. The combined force of MPPC and Independent producers led to the release of over 5,000 films in 1913, the vast majority of them still single reelers.


One of the most important changes to occur at the same time that the MPPC was formed was the adoption of the single reel (a 1,000-foot length) as the industry standard. This move to a standardized format had repercussions not only for industry practice but also for the formal properties defining story films during the next five years. Reliance on a single, interchangeable film length rendered print delivery and rental charges to distributors much more straightforward. Exhibition programs became more predictable, as audiences came to expect films to last a prescribed amount of time. In many ways, the move to a single-reel standard helped push films toward the status of amass consumer good, in sofar as they became acommodity whose value was now regularized.

The changes wrought by the adoption of the single-reel format also registered themselves at the level of production methods and formal features. Now that producers knew exactly how long a film narrative should run, they could fashion stories designed to fit within the specified 1,000 feet. Film narratives began to assume a structural sameness from 1908 onward, hastened in part

b. Paris, France, 8 December 1861, d. 21 January 1938

Famed for his elaborately staged fantasy films and whimsical trick films, Georges Méliès has often been described as the antithesis of the Lumière brothers, his fictional flights of fancy viewed as the inverse of their slice-of-life actualités. Nonetheless, one can overstate Méliès's contribution to the development of film narrative: for example, his famed "substitution splice" operates according to the logic of trickery rather than continuity and demonstrates how his early career as a magician clearly influenced his subsequent filmmaking practice.

First and foremost, Méliès's films are the work of a showman, the tricks proudly displayed while the wizardry is kept under wraps. Usually prized for their intricate miseen-scène, his films are also feats of editing-as-illusion, a fact easily missed by those accustomed to associating cuts with spatial transitions. Instead, many of Méliès's disguised cuts operate to facilitate a transformation; accordingly, all elements of the mise-en-scène must remain in the same place while a single object is removed or repositioned to enable the visual trick to work effectively. Through these substitution splices, Méliès engaged in a form of invisible editing, though not the type associated with later classical storytelling methods.

Equally exacting was Méliès's approach to miseen-scène, and his films are a cornucopia of visual effects, whether they be the reflexive displays of projection and technological reproduction in films such as La Lanterne magique (The Magic Lantern, 1903) and Photographie électrique à distance (Long Distance Wireless Photography, 1908) or the creation of fantasy worlds in longer works like Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902) and Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (The Impossible Voyage, 1904). It is these multi-shot story films that have contributed to Méliès's reputation as an early master of film narrative, but in truth, they are a collection of intricate and distinct tableaux. Méliès's primary interest was the visual capacity of the individual shot, and he excelled at devising ever more elaborate sets, populated by sprites who disappear in a puff of smoke, mermaids surrounded by varieties of exotic sea life, and improbably conceived traveling machines capable of propelling their inhabitants beyond the earth's surface.

Exercising total control over all aspects of the filmmaking process, Méliès created perfectly self-contained worlds, most of them shot within the confines of his glass-walled studio in Montreuil. Yet his artisanal approach to filmmaking would prove his financial undoing as he was dwarfed by the industrially advanced Pathé Frères in his home country and cheated by American competitors who duped his most popular films without asking permission (or providing compensation). Though still making films as late as 1913, Méliès found himself outpaced by an industry increasingly dependent on production methods foreign to his preferred approach and gravitating toward subject matter rooted in a more prosaic realism.


Cendrillon (Cinderella, 1899), Barbe-bleue (Bluebeard, 1901), L'Homme à la tête de caoutchouc (The Man with the India-Rubber Head, 1902), Le Voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902), La Royaume des fées (Kingdom of the Fairies, 1903), La Lanterne magique (The Magic Lantern, 1903), La Sirène (The Mermaid, 1904), Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (The Impossible Voyage, 1904), La Photographie électrique à distance (Long Distance Wireless Photography, 1908), À la Conquête du Pôle (The Conquest of the Pole, 1912)


Ezra, Elizabeth. Georges Méliès. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Gaudreault, André. "Theatricality, Narrativity, and 'Trickality': Reevaluating the Cinema of Georges Méliès." Journal of Popular Film and Television 15, no. 3 (1987): 110–119.

Hammond, Paul. Marvelous Méliès. New York: St. Martin's, 1975.

Charlie Keil

by the adoption of the scenario script. These scripts served as skeletons for finished films and provided producers with blueprints for production schedules. The increased rationalization of production practices followed directly from the introduction of scenario scripts, allowing producers to organize sets, locations, and personnel according to shooting demands. Departmental organization of personnel provided further streamlining of the production process, resulting in writing departments, which further refined the crafting of scenario scripts.

The emerging trade press in the United States also contributed to the standardization of the script writing process from 1907 onward. Existing publications such as New York Daily Mirror and Variety began to devote space to the film industry, and new journals aimed specifically at exhibitors also appeared, most notably Moving Picture World and Nickelodeon. Along with advice to exhibitors on how to enhance the moviegoing experience, film reviews and columns outlined the ideal ways to structure film scenarios. The trade press coached aspiring writers in the nascent craft of screenwriting while pointing out the clichés and overused devices that would mark their scripts as derivative. Though one cannot be certain how seriously such advice was taken by those responsible for the scripts, these primers on crafting film narratives nonetheless indicate which principles of narrative construction were prized at this time.

With films now longer, the stories that filmmakers could tell inevitably grew in complexity as well. While an involving narrative might well produce a satisfied viewer, a muddled set of events would only result in frustration and bafflement. Filmmakers had to ensure that as narratives increased in intricacy, they did not tax viewers' powers of comprehension. As Charles Musser has argued, this resulted in a crisis of representation for the industry around 1907, as filmmakers struggled to find ways to guarantee that audiences would understand the stories presented. Various extratextual aides to comprehension were tested, including the reintroduction of the lecturer and the employment of actors behind the screen to utter dialogue explaining silent scenes. But solutions unique to a single exhibition situation did not address the problem in a systematic way; instead, audience comprehension had to be ensured by internally generated means, and these needed to function the same way for every spectator, regardless of viewing circumstances.

This led to a period of protracted experimentation during which filmmakers devised a series of text-based strategies to provide narratives that would ideally "tell themselves": aspects of the medium were enlisted to ensure comprehension of plot points, provide the look of a believable fictional world, and promote a sense of viewer engagement. The methods filmmakers developed emerged over time and through trial and error. What they came up with was one of the most striking transformations in film style ever undergone within such a short timeframe. In effect, this involved a wholesale change to the narrative approach already entrenched in early cinema. What Kristin Thompson has identified as a "neutral and unobtrusive" manner of providing information in the earliest years shifted gradually to a more directive guiding of the viewer's attention.

Numerous scholars have coined the term "transitional era" to identify the years following 1907 and extending to the introduction of features. What distinguishes this period on a formal level is the ongoing experimentation in storytelling methods and the shifting functions of various stylistic devices, as those devices were enlisted in the service of a developing narrative system. Comparisons to the earlier, pre-1907 mode can help make the distinctions clearer: during the cinema of attractions period, one finds a bias favoring the autonomy of the shot: shots operate as individual units rather than as pieces fitting together to make a whole. Even when editing stitches together numerous shots, it is more like beads on a string rather than integrally interrelated component pieces. This emphasis on discrete shots translates into filmmakers exhausting the narrative potential of a single space before replacing it with another. Even in chase films, defined by the principle of advancing action, all the characters must exit the frame before a shot is deemed complete.

In many films made prior to 1907, style existed as a system only loosely connected to narrative concerns; what the next five or so years witnessed was the gradual but increased bending of style to narrative prerogatives. Conveying temporal continuity offers one striking example of this narrational shift: whereas in the earlier period, depictions of events occurring at the same time had occasioned instances of temporal overlap (even in films that employed sustained versions of linear editing, such as The Great Train Robbery and Rescued by Rover), now actions would be interrupted—literally cut into by edits—to produce the sensation of simultaneity for the viewer.

Nowhere is this more evident than in D. W. Griffith's celebrated last-minute rescues, perfected during his tenure at Biograph (which more or less coincides with the period under examination here, 1908–1913). In numerous films during the transitional period, crosscutting clarified spatial relationships between two physically separated locales while incorporating temporal pressure into the representation of space. Such an approach generates suspense, because of its constant reliance on delay in showing the outcome of one line of action while switching to another. Suspense works to involve the viewer in the narrative, in much the same way other stylistic strategies developed during this period pull the viewer into the narrative world on view: changing approaches to set decoration and arrangement of actors enhance the depth and volume of the spaces depicted; performance style moves toward greater restraint, with fewer grand gestures and a more internalized approach to expressing emotion; shifts in performance style are reinforced by moving the camera closer to the actors, making their faces more legible. Many of these changes make the fictional world on display both more believable and more engaging, placing the characters and their motivations at the center of the drama. For this reason, flashbacks, dreams, visions, and cut-ins to inserts (especially those revealing extracts from letters) become much more prevalent during this period, helping to convey characters' internal states. Overall, the individual elements of style become subordinated to a narrational program that fosters interdependency and integration, as when editing allows for shifts in shot scale, which in turn helps to register changes in performance style.


The significant changes occurring to film form during this period operated in concert with other forces of transformation so that by 1915, numerous developments pointed toward the institutionalization of cinema. By 1915, the MPPC had been dissolved by court order. The move toward increased consolidation inaugurated by the struggle between the Independents and the MPPC (the latter dissolved by court order in 1915) continued apace: corporate entities that would become pivotal in the studio era, such as Universal and Paramount, were founded during this period. The move of the American film industry to Hollywood was already underway, as was the establishment of a star system, with figures such as Mary Pickford (1892–1979) and Charlie Chaplin (1889–1977) acquiring the substantial fame and the power that came with it. Feature-length films had begun to dislodge the primacy of the single reeler, while large-scale picture palaces usurped the role of nickelodeons within the exhibition landscape. Movies had moved noticeably closer to the status of mass entertainment, and the increased social responsibility that attends such a shift produced a new phase in the medium's development, a clear departure from the hallmarks of the period that we label retrospectively the era of early cinema.

SEE ALSO Film History;Narrative;Pre-Cinema;Silent Cinema


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Charlie Keil

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Early Cinema

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Early Cinema