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From Magic Lantern to MGM

Report 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 long!

Muybridge race horse motionIn 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.

The 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 Gish 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.

Irene Akroyd

Related Links (open in new windows):

Geri Parlby's website
Wikipedia article