West Surrey Area
Museums & Art Galleries
From Magic Lantern to MGM
of the lecture
given by Dr Geri Parlby
on January 27th 2016
This lecture had been put together over the course of
the previous year by an indefatiguable and amusing Dr Parlby who in
2014 had given a lecture on the history of
“Fleet Street” to our group. Her new talk told the story of
the motion picture industry from concept to present day. We
learned of the inventions and methods deployed and also the rivalry
between pioneers in the field.
The forerunner to motion pictures were Peepshows which were first
recorded in the late eighteenth century. In 1801 The Rotunda was
opened in Leicester Square which featured spools of static images being
wound along by hand, creating an illusion of movement. Stamina
was needed to wind the spools as one was known to be approx. four miles
1872, to solve the question whether or not horses’ hooves all left the ground simultaneously
when running, Edward Muybridge positioned 12 cameras along a race track
and took a spool of 24 pictures of a running horse. This spool
when rotated, again by hand, depicted movement on film for the first
time. Subsequently a mechanism by which a spool of film could be
fed was required to replace hand winding and Thomas Eakins came up with
the zoopraixiscope which was erroneously claimed by Thomas Edison.
The race was now on to invent a camera capable of taking pictures on a
spool to run through a zoopraxiscope. William Kennedy and Laurie
Dixon and colleagues worked around the clock in 1888 to be the
first, however seem to have been overtaken by Louis Le Prince who took
the first known “short” film (seconds only) of members of his own
family walking in their garden and subsequently a “short” of traffic on
Leeds Bridge. He had succeeded and was on his way to patent his
camera when he mysteriously disappeared. One wonders whether
Edison had a hand in this?
During the 1890’s the film industry
began to rapidly evolve. The Dixon Kinetograph was created which
used perforated cellulose film; Edison built his first film studio in
New Jersey; professional theatre actors, editors and directors were
first employed for film work; colour was seen on film for the first
time with the invention of the vitascope and the first “risqué” film
was shot. This was entitled “The Kiss” and showed a peck on the
cheek by one actor to a fellow actress and caused public outrage.
Also in Paris, Louis Lumiere produced his first “movie” under the name
of cinematography from which we derive cinema.
early 1900’s saw the industry evolving even more with the first science
fiction film “Le Voyage dans la Lune” by Georges Melies. This
film also is remembered as having a storyline which had not been known
before. A year later Edwin Pointer produced “The Great Train
Robbery” which not only had a storyline, but when edited used cross
cutting (scenes) and also was the first film shot on location. In
1905 Cecil Hepworth set up film studios in Walton on Thames and made
“Rescued by Rover” depicting the first animal (dog) used on film.
1908 saw the departure of small independent film makers from New York
to California (Hollywood). David W Griffiths set up and recruited
some of the better known theatre actors: Lionel Barrymore and Lilian
to name but two. He made 400 short films, but believed that there
was a market for full length feature films which led in 1915 to the
production of an epic entitled “The Birth of a Nation” starring Lilian
Gish. This epic was three hours long and used night photography
for the first time.
After WW1 the film industry flourished. Companies such as
Paramount and United Artists came into existence. During the
1920’s Cecil B de Mille became famous for directing films such as “The
Ten Commandments” the set for which was created by 1600 craftsmen and
which after filming, was buried by tons of sand as de Mille wanted no
one else to use it. This was followed by “The King of Kings”
another of de Mille’s masterpieces. However during the same year
(1927) films changed forever with the first “talkie” – “The Jazz
Singer” starring Al Jolson. In 1925 MGM came into existence to film
“Ben Hur”, using thousands of extras, grossing $9m and establishing MGM
as a major studio.
Other film companies which became household names included Universal
Pictures, Columbia – famous for its comedies and cartoons, RKO –
specialising in musicals starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rodgers, 20th
Century Fox – famous for musicals / light-hearted films and finally
Warner Bros – known for their working class / gangster movies.
The entertainment of watching images had evolved from stills, movies,
talkies to Technicolor epics. The “hole in the wall” peepshow and
unsavoury nickelodeons had been replaced by palatial cinemas and a trip
to the cinema, because of the diversity of the films produced, is
enjoyed by all age groups.
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