First Films Scholars debate whether the American Thomas Edison or ....

 A. The First Films
Scholars debate whether the American Thomas Edison or the French brothers
Louis and Auguste Lumière deserve credit for being the first to present motion pictures to
the public. In the last decades of the 19th century many inventors were involved both in
the drive to capture motion in a camera and to display the results. Edison, with his
interest in sound and electricity, built a large electrically driven camera anchored in his
studio in New Jersey;

 to market the resulting images, he devised a peepshow device, the
kinetoscope, which he launched in 1894. The Lumière brothers developed a small,
lightweight apparatus, which they called the Cinématograph. It was easily carried and it
was flexible. It could be used to take pictures, process the negatives, and project the
positive images. In late December 1895, in Paris, it was the Lumières who were the first
to project moving pictures of everyday life onto a screen before a paying audience.
The Cinématograph at once became the market leader. Within a year Lumière
operators were at work in all major cities in the world. Competitors, faced with patent
restrictions, rushed to develop their own cameras and projection systems. But the
showmen waiting to exploit these devices soon realized that the best profits lay not in the
hardware - the cameras and projectors - but in the software, ownership of the moving
images themselves.
The first films ran for less than a minute. They were shown initially as part of
established forms of mass entertainment in music halls and other popular locations.
Consisting of one shot only, taken from a fixed camera position, the film was often
replayed in a loop five or six times while a new item was threaded into a second
projector. After the film show, the program would return to a variety number or
vaudeville act.
The subject matter of early films was extraordinarily varied. Many items simply
duplicated music hall turns - girls dancing, burlesques, and comic pantomimes. But the
movement of real life on the screen was what made motion pictures sensational: workers
leaving a factory, a wave crashing against a promenade at Dover, the arrival of a train.
What the first motion cameras documented was motion itself. That many early
news-related films were staged should make us hesitate to attribute a serious
documentary motive to films that are genuine. Most of the early titles had no greater
purpose beyond enticing the crowd into the tent or entertainment parlor where they were
shown. Their preservation in the United States is due to reels of paper copies that were
sent to the Library of Congress for copyrighting as so many individual photographs.
There was no provision yet for copyrighting films.
In this “paper print” collection, however, some items suggest they may have been
taken from a different motive. For example, Scenes in an Infant Orphan Asylum (1904)
and a series of films about the United States Postal Service (1903) 

do not seem to have
been made for their entertainment value. In the early twentieth century, however, there
were a great many orphans in New York and groups interested in their welfare. Perhaps
Scenes in an Infant Orphan Asylum was taken for a special screening. The film is long for
this time period. It runs for more than eight minutes and there are only five shots in it.
The first, showing nurses serving a long line of children with a meal, runs over four
minutes in itself. Other shots are of activities, with one poor fellow having his head
cropped and three others being scrubbed in tin tubs.
The Postal Service assignment took the American Mutoscope and Biograph
operator several days in the Washington DC area filming different operations. They
illustrate mail collection, its sorting, bagging, despatch, and delivery in rural areas.
Twenty-seven items relating to this assignment were sent for copyrighting to the Library
of Congress, with an average length of 25 seconds each, fairly typical for the time.
There’s no clue as to what lay behind this production. Perhaps they could have been
shown together at a special training or recruiting session. Two items in the series depict
the method whereby mail was set up on posts to be snatched up into a moving train.
Thirty years later this would be the central theme of Night Mail, one of the best known
British documentary films of the 1930s.

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