The Film 101 series offers a short alternative course in cinema. By the time it’s completed, you’ll have hit film’s floodlit high points and ventured down its dim back alleys. Notebook optional. [For more, see Film 101: Parts Two, Three, Four and Five when they’re ready.]
Boxing Cats (1893)
There is some debate as to which country should be credited with birthing movies, since in the 19th century several inventors experimented with “animating” series of rapidly-displayed still images by various means. Frenchman Louis Le Prince built a single-lens “motion picture” camera while working in 1887 England. The following year he used it to photograph a handful of outdoor scenes that many consider the first true films. But Le Prince’s never-solved disappearance from a Paris-bound train in 1890 made it easy for competitors to steal his thunder. Chief among them was the fabled American inventor Thomas Edison, who began exhibiting films via the peephole “Kinetoscope” viewing device at public arcades in 1891. A zealous guardian (some might say usurper) of both pioneering credit and commercial rights, Edison soon claimed he’d invented cinematography. Related litigation proved successful enough that for many years it was thought the first movie was Fred Ott’s Sneeze (1894). That record of an assistant’s snuff-related hachoo was photographed by Edison employee William K.L. Dickson, who actually devised the first workable celluloid film and other breakthroughs for his famous boss. Technological limitations meant all these earliest motion pictures were mere seconds in length. But their content quickly diversified to encompass glimpses of athletic displays, celebrities (like Wild West shootist Annie Oakley), ethnic dances, and vaudeville novelties like “Professor Welton’s Trained Cat Circus,” seen here. Viral cat videos, it seems, have roots going back as far as motion pictures themselves.
The Kingdom of the Fairies (1903)
Other key innovators in the creation of the medium were the Lumiere brothers, who began projecting their films to a paying audience in 1895. Yet bizarrely they failed to grasp its long-term prospects, figuring (like many at the time) that the fad would soon die out. Nevertheless, movies grew more elaborate. Early cinema’s most remarkable imagination belonged to another Frenchman, Georges Méliès. Originally a stage magician and impresario, he brought extensive knowledge of theatrical illusions to the over 500 movies he created between 1896 and 1913. While some offered straightforward dramatic or historical subjects, the most characteristic among them were impish, sometimes macabre fantasies whose sleight-of-hand involved much use of trick camera effects. His most famous title is 1902’s A Trip to the Moon, a whimsically comedic sci-fi adventure. But perhaps his masterpiece was the next year’s Kingdom of the Fairies, a comparatively epic (at seventeen minutes) spectacle of fantastical nonsense in glorious hand-tinted color. (The filmmaker himself plays the prince pursuing a witch-abducted fiancee.) Unable adapt to a rapidly evolving industry, Méliès found himself out of fashion and out of work a decade later. Nearly a century onward, his story would be playfully fictionalized in Martin Scorsese’s charming homage Hugo.
Rescued by Rover (1905)
While George Méliès initially prospered by offering theatrical tomfoolery full of fantasy effects and dancing girls, other filmmakers were pushing the medium toward more visceral action and propulsive storytelling. Edison Studios’ 1903 The Great Train Robbery famously used a variety of then-novel techniques (including outdoor location shooting, mobile camerawork and cross-cutting) to heighten its thrilling tale of armed banditry. Audiences were duly thrilled, and the film’s great commercial success sparked innumerable imitations. One of the most popular was the 1905 British smash Rescued by Rover, featuring the world’s first canine movie star. Blair the Collie “plays” the faithful family pet who springs into action when a vengeful beggar woman kidnaps a baby to spite a “respectable” family who’d refused her alms. It was indeed a family affair for major early U.K. cinema figure Cecil Hepworth, who cast himself, his wife, baby and dog (along with some professional actors) in the breathless drama. It was such a global hit that he had to remake it whole twice, when all existing prints had worn out from excessive use. Rover was among the films that drove movies’ gradual transition from arcades, vaudeville houses, fairgrounds and other mixed-use venues to “nickelodeons,” modest storefront theaters solely dedicated to motion picture programs.
The “fad” wasn’t going away, as had been widely predicted. Yet movies were still considered a cheap, vulgar entertainment form by many, partly due to the somewhat sketchy venues in which they were screened (upscale “movie palaces” were still a few years off), and partly because their often simple, knockabout content was regarded as unsophisticated, when not downright immoral. The arrival of feature films did much to alter that view. Most famously, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic The Birth of a Nation stirred both admiration (even from President Woodrow Wilson) for its epic narrative ambition and condemnation for the unabashed racism of its revisionist Civil War “history.” Its enormous popularity irrevocably turned the industry’s primary focus from producing shorts to longer-form “flickers.” But it was hardly the first feature. Italy was a particularly prolific creator of lavish full-length screen spectacles from 1911 onward. Particularly impressive was Giovanni Pastrone’s 1914 Cabiria, a sprawling chronicle of ancient warfare, mythology and toga-clad muscle mania whose brawny star Bartolomeo Pagano reprised his Hercules-like character in nearly thirty subsequent adventures.
The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
Doubt persisted as to whether cinema was, or even could be, a true art form as opposed to mere entertainment for the unwashed masses. For a long time, “respectable” theater artists considered it beneath them (or adopted pseudonyms if they accepted film work), while intellectuals and tastemakers regarded the medium with great skepticism. Seemingly out of nowhere, the 1920 German feature The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari forced many to reconsider their prejudices. Advertised as “The Most Amazing Story Ever Screened,” it turned technical and budgetary limitations into a virtue by eschewing realistic sets for abstract ones constructed out of paper. Reflecting avant-garde modernist design trends of the era, this created a nightmare milieu that brilliantly externalized a story which ultimately turns out to be the delusions of an institutionalized madman. Though some initial audiences were bewildered or hostile, wildly unconventional Caligari proved such a long-term sensation that “German Expressionism” entered the mainstream of cinematic language. Its reliance on shadowy visual atmospherics had especially lasting impact in the horror and film noir genres.