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1896–1897 Movies and the Beginnings of Cinema CHARLES MUSSER The “cinema,” defined here as projected motion pictures in a theatrical setting , was one of the major technological and cultural innovations of 1896–1897. But it shared this distinction with the X-ray, discovered by Wilhelm Röntgen in late 1895, which gained public attention during the same period. While the cinema captured and re-presented images of life in motion, by early 1896 the X-ray was used to produce photographs of what could not be seen (the invisible). In March 1896 Thomas A. Edison used X-rays to develop the fluoroscope, which had medical applications. As cinema and the X-ray entered the public realm, they were in some sense complementary and did much to change the ways people experienced and imagined the visible world. Perhaps it was fitting, then, that Soviet filmmaker Dziga Vertov was born in 1896, the same year that saw the birth of Howard Hawks, F. Scott Fitzgerald, John Dos Passos, and Ethel Waters. In February, Giacomo Puccini’s opera La Bohème was first performed in Turin, Italy, and Oscar Wilde’s play Salomé, though published in 1893, was first performed onstage in Paris. At the time Wilde was locked up in a British prison for his homosexuality and not released until May 1897. The month following his release, Queen Victoria celebrated her Diamond Jubilee, marking the sixtieth anniversary of her reign. The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens, Greece, during April 1896—with the United States winning the equivalent of eleven gold medals, more than any other country. The Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska began little more than a year later. The cinema made its first commercially successful appearance in the United States on 23 April 1896, with the premiere of Edison’s Vitascope at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall, located on Herald Square in New York City. Within a few weeks, local premieres were beginning to occur all over the country; by the end of 1897, traveling showmen had screened films in even the nation’s smallest towns. As this broad diffusion proceeded, projected 45 moving pictures began to transform many aspects of American life and culture —and to have an impact on photographic practices, screen practices (the illustrated lecture, the magic lantern, and so forth), theatrical culture, the newspaper, politics, art, religion, sports, and the nature of representation itself. Film companies and exhibitors also presented views of the world with different aesthetic and ideological perspectives. Until 1896, the combination of technological accomplishment, commercial skill, and good fortune necessary for the successful diffusion of cinema was absent. C. Francis Jenkins and Thomas Armat’s motion picture projector, which they called the Phantoscope, had an intermittent mechanism —which held the film frame momentarily stationary in front of the light source—but its first use, late the previous year, was ended by fire. Nonetheless, an agent for Norman C. Raff and Frank R. Gammon (heads of the Kinetoscope Company, which had a contract with Edison to distribute his machines) saw the impressive results and met with Armat. This resulted in a contract on 15 January 1896, whereby Armat assigned the Raff & Gammon partnership sole rights to exploit the projector. As Raff & Gammon were agents for Edison’s peephole Kinetoscope, this provided an unexpected opportunity to revive Edison’s flagging motion picture business. This commercial arrangement relied on the good-faith efforts and coordination of three groups—Armat, Raff & Gammon, and the Edison Manufacturing Company—this latter, solely owned by Thomas A. Edison, would not only build the needed projectors but also supply the films. For commercial purposes, the Phantoscope was soon renamed Edison’s Vitascope (emphasizing “showing life” rather than “showing phantoms”). The renowned inventor’s name was used to promote the invention while his associate Armat—occasionally mentioned as a promising young inventor from Washington, D.C.—was kept in the background. An exhibition was staged for the press, with Edison in attendance, on 9 April at the Edison Laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. By this time, Raff & Gammon were facing an array of challenges. First, they learned that their contractee Armat had a co-inventor, Jenkins, who was threatening to undermine the exclusive nature of this arrangement. They wanted Armat to pay him off (something that did not materialize). Second, they learned of rival screen machines overseas: the Lumière Cinématographe and Robert Paul’s Theatrograph were showing in London during February and were certain to reach...

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Additional Information

ISBN
9780813546445
Related ISBN
9780813544427
MARC Record
OCLC
318240465
Pages
288
Launched on MUSE
2012-01-01
Language
English
Open Access
No
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