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100 Years of Movies

CINEMA was less the product of a specific invention than the culmination of some 75 years of international research and experimentation. In 1832 the phenakistoscope, invented by Belgian Joseph Plateau, successfully reconstituted movement from a series of drawings. In France, thanks to Joseph Niepce and Louis Daguerre, a photographic process to convert reality into imagery became possible by 1839. Frenchman Emile Reynaud developed this idea further, projecting animated transparencies that were seen by hundreds of thousands of people between 1892 and 1900.

The significant breakthrough of movies came just over 100 years ago. In 1890, Thomas Edison, the famous American inventor, and his English assistant, William Dickson, designed a camera the size and weight of a small upright piano, and the following year Edison applied for a patent on a one-man viewer called the kinetoscope. The films, recorded on 35-millimeter strips of perforated celluloid, were shot in the world’s first film studio, the Black Maria, in West Orange, New Jersey. These films featured various vaudeville, circus, and wild-West acts as well as scenes from successful New York plays. The first kinetoscope parlor was opened in New York in 1894, and that same year several machines were exported to Europe.

Although not initially interested in projection, Edison was forced to manufacture a projector to stave off competition. It was in April 1896 that his vitascope had its debut in New York. The patent war that he subsequently initiated resulted in the creation of a trust to gain a complete monopoly on the industry.

It was a copy of Edison’s kinetoscope that inspired Auguste and Louis Lumiere, industrialists in Lyons, France, to invent a hand-cranked camera that could both photograph and project films. Their cinematographe (from the Greek kinema, meaning “motion,” and graphein, meaning “to depict”) was patented February 1895, and on December 28 “cinema’s official world premiere took place,” at the Grand Cafe, 14 Boulevard des Capucines, Paris. The following day, 2,000 Parisians flocked to the Grand Cafe to see this latest wonder of science.

The Silent Age

Georges Melies, a magician and the proprietor of a Paris theater, was fascinated by what he saw. He offered to buy the cinematographe. The reply apparently was: “No, the cinematographe is not for sale. And thank me, young man; this invention has no future.” Undaunted, however, Melies began filming with equipment brought from England. With his special effects and scenarios, Melies turned cinematography into an art form. In 1902 his film Le Voyage dans la lune (Journey to the Moon) achieved international success. In his studio in Montreuil, on the outskirts of Paris, he made over 500 films – many of which were hand colored.

By about 1910, 70 percent of the films exported worldwide were of French origin. This was primarily due to the industrialization of cinema by the Pathe brothers, whose goal was that cinema become “tomorrow’s theater, newspaper, and school.”

In 1919, Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, David W. Griffith, and Mary Pickford set up United Artists to break the trust’s commercial hegemony. In 1915, Griffith’s Birth of a Nation was Hollywood’s first blockbuster. This highly controversial film about the American Civil War caused riots and even some deaths at its release because of its racist content. It was, however, a huge success, with over 100 million spectators, making it one of the most profitable movies ever.

 After the first world war, films “introduced the whole of America to the world of night clubs, country clubs, speakeasies and the moral frivolity which went with them.” Foreign films all but disappeared from American screens, while American films made up from 60 to 90 percent of the programs elsewhere in the world. Cinema was used as a means to glorify the American way of life and American products. At the same time, the newly created “star system” turned the likes of Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks into virtual divinities.

Sound and Color

 “Hey, Mum, listen to this!” With these words Al Jolson, in The Jazz Singer, of 1927, ended the golden age of silent movies and introduced talkies to the world. Experiments with synchronized phonograph records had been conducted from the very outset of cinema, but not until the ’20’s, with the advent of electrical recording and valve amplifiers, did sound become viable. Its introduction was not without problems.

Color initially entered cinema through hand-tinted films. Later, stencils began to be used. Films were tinted because of the absence of an efficient color-film process. Various systems were exploited until the success of Technicolor with its three-color process in 1935. However, only after the enormous popularity of Gone With the Wind in 1939 was color viewed as a major box-office attraction.

Wartime Propaganda

During the depression of the ’30’s, cinema served as the “opiate of the masses.”
But as the world edged toward war, the mission of cinema became one of manipulation and propaganda. Mussolini called cinema “l’arma piu forte,” or “the strongest weapon,” while under Hitler, it became the spokesman of national socialism, primarily to indoctrinate the young. Films such as Der Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will) and Olympia effectively deified the Nazi leaders. Jud Suss (Jew Suss), on the other hand, promoted anti-Semitism.  And in Britian, Laurence Olivier’s Henry V served as a morale booster in preparation for D day and the casualties that would ensue.


Following the second world war, as television sets became more widely available, people stayed at home instead of going to the cinema. Attendances in the United States plummeted, halving in just ten years. Thousands of cinemas were forced to close, and film production fell by a third, despite the introduction of wide-screen films and directional stereo sound in the ’50’s. Multimillion-dollar blockbuster productions, such as Cecil B. de Mille’s Ten Commandments (1956), were produced in an attempt to offset this competition. European cinema also experienced a drastic fall in attendance.

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