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1902–1903 Movies, Stories, and Attractions TOM GUNNING By 1902 and 1903 motion pictures had been shown publicly throughout the United States for more than five years. These two years mark a transitional period in which cinema no longer could be considered a novelty, but had not yet achieved an independent identity in terms of regular production modes, set venues of exhibition, or even stable patterns for films themselves . Cinema was evolving an identity as a new form of entertainment beyond the technical novelty or “canned vaudeville” that marked its origins . Most films made and shown in the United States in these years were brief, often no more than a single shot and lasting less than a minute. Rather than telling stories, these brief films usually presented a visual attraction: a performance, a view of a landscape or city site, a camera trick, or a slapstick gag (see Gunning “Attractions”). However, a few longer multi-shot films with more extended story lines also appeared, and their popularity indicated new pathways for filmmaking. It is the interaction between—and the combination of—cinematic display on the one hand and storytelling on the other that characterizes this slice of film history. ■■■■■■■■■■ New Identities for the United States and for Cinema The United States was transforming into an industrializing international power, a process closely associated with President Theodore Roosevelt. The U.S. government started antitrust suits against railroad and beef interests, and Roosevelt negotiated an end to a five-month coal strike. In the aftermath of the Spanish-American War, Cuba inaugurated its first elected president and leased Guantánamo Bay to the United States; Roosevelt declared the war against Philippine insurgents officially over (although armed resistance to U.S. occupation continued for at least a decade); and arrangements for the Panama Canal were initiated. Congress extended the Chinese Exclusion Act limiting immigration to the United 112 States from Asia. Nearly two hundred African Americans were lynched over these two years, which also saw the publication of W.E.B. Du Bois’s extraordinary book of essays, The Souls of Black Folk. Technology expanded into new horizons. The Wright Brothers completed their first successful (minute-long) flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903; Daniel Burnham’s skyscraper the Flatiron Building was completed in New York City; Scott and Shackleton explored Antarctica; and the American Automobile Association was founded. Films presented a number of these events to audiences, since film often functioned partly as a visual newspaper, projecting images of events and personalities of the day. ■■■■■■■■■■ Competition Although the Mutoscope and Biograph Company continued to make Mutograph flip-cards for their peepshows (a device that displayed brief motion pictures by flipping a series of cards arranged on a wheel), these were a decided sidelight; films were primarily projected on screens. Films had become a regular feature of the typical vaudeville program, ending most programs and occasionally serving as a “chaser” that encouraged audiences to leave the continuous programs rather than retain their seats to watch them a second time. Occasionally, however, films appeared as a featured act, as did Edison’s The Great Train Robbery. Although the famous Electric Theater, which showed films as its main attraction, opened in Los Angeles in 1902 (near South Main and Third Streets) as part of a fairly short-lived West Coast group of film theaters,1 and although there were undoubtedly other theaters that featured films as their primary fare in urban centers across the country, these years preceded the nickelodeon explosion. Vaudeville theaters remained the primary venue for films, but films were shown in a large number of places and situations. Traveling exhibitors offered film shows in opera houses or other local and rural theaters , or in their own tents (sometimes called “blacktops” due to their attempt to darken the interior for daytime showings). While the fairground circuit was never as developed in the United States as in Europe, mobile exhibitors certainly brought films to a broader public. Carnivals, circuses, minstrel shows, amusement parks, travel lecturers, and showboats—indeed, the whole range of popular entertainment included films at one point or another. Since the production companies sold prints of films rather than leasing them, mobile means of exhibition allowed the purchasers of such prints to maximize their investment by offering it to new audiences. Likewise , vaudeville circuits not only changed films frequently but circulated 1902–1903 — MOVIES, STORIES, AND ATTRACTIONS 113 them among chains of interrelated theaters. Vaudeville theaters could also contract for films and projection...


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