- New Beginnings in Early American Film
The year 1996 marks the centennial of the birth of American cinema. Or does it? Certainly we know that Edison’s Vitascope debuted at Koster & Bial’s Music Hall on 23 April 1896, bringing the commercial projection of motion pictures to the foreground of a burgeoning American mass culture. However, current scholarship in early film studies is shifting the emphasis away from such “first” or “original” defining moments and towards an archaeology of cinematic practices that acknowledges the variety of motion picture technologies developed and implemented prior to the unveiling of Edison’s Vitascope. The most recent addition to this revisionist practice is David Robinson’s lavishly illustrated From Peepshow to Palace: The Birth of American Film, which (despite its somewhat misleading subtitle) interrogates the notion of the “invention” and “origin” of cinema. Robinson returns to the archives to present his readers with a wealth of new evidence, drawn from both written and visual sources, which enables him to reconceptualize the development of early cinema as “the assembling of a puzzle” (3).
Following an introduction by James Billington of the Library of Congress and a foreword in which Martin Scorsese briefly reveals an apocryphal story of his childhood introduction to the persistence of vision phenomenon, Robinson’s own text begins with the first in a series of reproductions of a turn-of-the-century lantern slide. The slide shows a [End Page 888] Thumbellina-styled nymph emerging from a tulip bulb, arms spread hospitably, beneath the marquee caption, “welcome.” These lantern slides, originally used to directly address and instruct early commercial audiences in proper theater etiquette—as in “Ladies Kindly Remove Your Hats”—are used to introduce each subsequent chapter of Robinson’s book. As Robinson (re)assembles the pieces of the early cinema puzzle for his readers, he also elaborates a puzzle of his own design, a montage of visual effects and written information which he seems to have gathered as much for affect as for instruction. Robinson’s book is not the first to undertake a revision of cinematic history by a return to its earliest archival roots, although it certainly ranks among the prettiest.
Robinson’s style in no way distracts from his scholarship, however. His book does not make particularly new assertions or advance new arguments about the early years of cinema. But it does draw new archival evidence into the existing body of early cinema scholarship in ways which effectively reinforce current trends in the field. This book also renders early cinema history—a notoriously esoteric field—accessible to a wide audience.
The current revival of interest in early films probably took root when the Federation International des Archives du Film (FIAF) screened over six hundred pre-1907 films at its annual conference in 1978. The event, known as “The Brighton Project,” included scholars who have since become luminaries of early American film studies, such as Eileen Bowser, Tom Gunning, and Charles Musser. Interest in the technologies of early film, however, did not approach its recent zenith until after the publication of Jonathan Crary’s Techniques of the Observer, a re-evaluation of the role played by pre-cinematic apparatus—including the camera obscura, stereopticon, phenakisticope, thaumatrope, and others—in the development of the modern spectator. 1 The convergence of interest in these two kinds of artifacts, early films and even earlier pre-cinematic apparatuses, met in Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, the first volume in the impressive “History of the American Cinema” series published by University of California Press. Musser’s book traces what he calls a “history of screen practice,” which conceptualizes image projection as an ongoing cultural practice—rather than as a series of technological “firsts”—from which cinema gradually emerged rather than being “born.” 2
Musser also revisits Gordon Hendricks’s thesis in The Edison Motion Picture Myth, which argues that Edison’s assistant W. L. Dickson, rather than Edison himself, was the true inventor of motion pictures. In both this book and...