New York Times Book Review
Movies and Moneyby David Puttnam
From David Puttnam—producer of such modern film classics as Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Midnight Express, and The Mission, and the only European to have run a major Hollywood studio—an insightful and provocative history that explains the personalities and events which shaped film's transformation from a technological curiosity into one of the world's most powerful cultural and economic forces. From the early rivalry between its inventors to the power-brokering and political influence of today's mega-stars; from Zukor and Laemmle to Ovitz and Eisner; from the serendipitous discovery of Los Angeles ("flagstaff no good," wired Cecil B. De Mille. "want authority to rent barn for $75 a month in place called hollywood") to the exploitation and depredation of Europe's film culture in the name of the marketplace, Puttnam captures the urgency and wonder that swept through a young industry and set it spinning on an axis of money and power. Movies and Money chronicles the unprecedented collision between art and commerce, and incisively analyzes its implications in today's global arena. Puttnam's engaging history is also an impassioned polemic: From the moment Thomas Edison stole the first crude attempt at a movie camera from the French scientist Étienne Jules Marey, Hollywood and Europe have existed, the author claims, in a state of undeclared hostility—hostility that has occasionally erupted into open battle for control of the century's most powerful artistic medium. And this battle, he contends, will ultimately determine the nature of Europe's cultural identity. He also argues forcefully for the intelligent application of the language and techniques of cinema to education, urging filmmakers to make films that challenge and inspire as well as entertain. Ten years after his abrupt departure from Columbia, Puttnam re-enters the debate about cinema with characteristic audacity, with the irreverence of an iconoclast and the canniness of a seasoned player. Movies and Money is a book that will change our understanding of the history—and future—of film.
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Read an Excerpt
"An invention without any
Louis Lumiere, 1896
By the late 1880s, Thomas Alva Edison was universally hailed as the world's most celebrated inventor. In an age of increasing technical specialization he was an engineer in the tradition of the early industrial revolution, a creative and aggressive entrepreneur whose abilities seemed to encompass almost every branch of science and technology. In other respects, too, he resembled some of those early ironmasters, with an ego that more than matched his talent. He claimed sole credit for inventions as diverse as the electric lightbulb and the phonograph. He insisted that he had played a part in the conception of scores of other devices that were beginning to transform the daily lives of millions of people throughout the industrialized world, including the telephone, the typewriter, and the lead-acid battery. Many of these claims were largely the product of his giant ego, and minimized the efforts both of his own collaborators and of other inventors. Throughout his homeland and across the world, he was honored as a self-made prophet of progress, the seer of a new industrial age.
Edison was the supreme representative of a group of gifted Americans who, from the early nineteenth century on, had been responsible for a series of inventions that had come to define the new industrial era. In 1807 Robert Fulton had launched the first commercially successful steamboat; in 1837 Samuel Morse had created the first electric telegraph. For many Americans such technological innovation had become a measure of national stature. As the steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie put it: "The old nations of the earth creep on at a snail's pace; the Republic thunders past with the rush of the express." For a nation founded on something as fragile as ideals rather than a shared language or a deeprooted culture, the notion of progress as epitomized by men like Edison became a means of providing the country with a tangible identity.
Now, as the end of the century loomed, Edison turned to a problem that seemed to have defeated an army of inventors and scientists the world over: he set out to create a machine capable of projecting moving images. Throughout the nineteenth century, an endless array of bizarre contraptions for showing moving pictures--such as the Zoetrope and the Praxinoscope--had been registered with patent offices everywhere. But such devices were little more than toys, and had been quickly tossed aside. The true solution seemed as far away as ever
None of these inventors, however, could lay claim to anything remotely resembling the reputation and influence of Thomas Edison. His life story has been encrusted with myth, much of it carefully nurtured by the man himself, but his remarkable journey from relatively humble beginnings in the backwoods of Ohio to his acknowledged position as the most successful inventor of the age was real enough. Born in 1847, the son of a timber dealer of Dutch descent, Edison was educated almost entirely by his mother and, perhaps, inherited from her that sense of iron resolve and puritanical self-denial so characteristic of the Protestant settlers of the eastern United States. At the age of twelve he took his first job, as a newsboy and candy salesman on local trains. A growing interest in the new science of telegraphy spurred him to set up a laboratory in the corner of one of the baggage cars. In later life he claimed that his partial deafness was the result of having been boxed on the ears by a conductor for having set the carriage alight with one particularly outlandish experiment.
By the age of twenty-one Edison had patented his first invention--the ticker-tape machine, itself destined to become a symbol of the energy of American capitalism. Within ten years he had built a vast laboratory in Menlo Park, New Jersey, with its own electric railway on the grounds, funded with money he had made from the exploitation of his copyrights and patents. As ever more miraculous inventions poured forth from this laboratory, Edison became known as the Wizard of Menlo Park. Soon he built himself an even bigger laboratory in nearby West Orange, equipped with sleeping facilities so that he and his dedicated team could grab a quick nap in the course of their late-night sessions perfecting yet another startling new device.
In public, Edison loved to play the self-deprecating inventor, oblivious to everything but the disinterested pursuit of science, his bad hearing only serving to emphasize his apparent unworldliness. One contemporary recalled Edison materializing from "a maze of wires and gadgets ... the great shock of hair prematurely gray, the boyish look, eyes a baby blue, voice deep and friendly." Behind this public facade, the Wizard was an incorrigible egoist and a somewhat shameless plagiarist, happy to take credit for what were in many cases other people's ideas. His commitment to scientific endeavor, considerable though it was, paled into insignificance beside his dedication to self-promotion and the elimination of competition whether from friends, colleagues, or rivals. It was even improbably speculated that he had mysteriously arranged the murder of a French inventor, Augustin Le Prince, as a means of ridding himself of a dangerous competitor. In fact, the Wizard retained his preeminence not so much by sorcery, murder, or publicity stunts as by a ceaseless stream of lawsuits alleging patent infringement by his rivals. These became the principal instrument with which he set out to seize control of the world of moving pictures.
Until the late 1880s, Thomas Edison had shown little interest in photography or in any of the early attempts to develop motion pictures. Then in 1888 he attended a lecture by the British photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Muybridge, with his shaggy, tobacco-stained beard and his hat pocked with holes, looked like a tramp, but he was a skilled and inventive artist. Fifteen years earlier, he had been hired by Leland Stanford, the governor of California, to undertake what had become a classic series of high-speed photographs demonstrating beyond doubt that a galloping horse lifted all its feet off the ground at once.
After the lecture Edison invited the great photographer back to his laboratory where they discussed the possibility of combining Edison's phonograph with the Zoopraxiscope, a motion picture device that Muybridge had just developed. It was an astonishingly audacious idea, a synthesis of sound and moving pictures that, had it been successful, would have predated the arrival of the first full-length "talkies" by almost forty years. Unfortunately, the collaboration between the two men came to nothing. The Wizard's fertile mind, however, had become fully engaged by the potential of moving pictures. He assigned one of his young assistants, William Dickson, to work on developing a machine that could both record and project moving images.
At first Dickson made little headway. Then, in the summer of 1889, Edison visited the World's Fair in Paris, where he was treated to a demonstration of a new machine designed by a Frenchman, Etienne-Jules Marey. Marey's "Chronophotographe" fired Edison with new enthusiasm; as he sailed back across the Atlantic, he sketched a draft of a machine of his own, based almost entirely on Marey's work.
Two years later, in 1891, Edison unveiled the fruits of his labor, a crude arcade novelty which he named the Kinetoscope. By dropping a coin through a slot in a large, heavy wooden cabinet, the spectator activated a tiny motor that moved spools of celluloid. An electric light flashed onto the film, allowing the spectator to watch moving pictures of humans and animals through a peephole in the side of the box. The "films" themselves were crude--snatches of vaudeville acts, boxing matches, circus performers, and the like, few of which lasted more than twenty seconds.
Material for the Kinetoscope was shot in a studio hastily rigged in the garden of Edison's laboratory. With its "great flapping sail-like roof and ebony complexion," it was nicknamed the Black Maria because of its resemblance to a police patrol wagon. The "stars" of Edison's films, an exotic procession of vaudeville artistes, trapeze artists, performing bears, and even a dancing cat, now trooped through the grounds at West Orange. "No earthly stage has ever gathered within its precincts a more incongruous crew of actors since the days when gods and men and animals were on terms of social intimacy," observed William Dickson, with perhaps just a hint of exasperation.
Edison, his attention distracted by a plethora of other projects, demonstrated surprisingly little interest in the commercial exploitation of his Kinetoscope. Confident of its superior technical qualities, he patented the basic concept and turned to other things. Like so many prolific inventors, he found his interest waning once he felt he had successfully cracked the problem he had set himself. And like engineers a hundred years later, wrestling with the complexities of cyberspace, laser discs, and virtual reality, he focused almost exclusively on the technology of the moving picture business, failing to anticipate that its real significance lay in the images themselves. This may have reflected Edison's cultural roots, since the tradition of Dutch puritanism carried within it a deep mistrust of both entertainment and the idea of representation. He probably found the notion that his ingenious device, the Kinetoscope, was obliged to survive on a diet of clowns and dancing cats extremely dispiriting.
As if to emphasize this, Edison later suggested that what really intrigued him about film was its potential as a teaching tool. "It may seem curious, but the money end of the movies never hit me the hardest. The feature that did appeal to me about the whole thing was the educational possibilities. ... I had some glowing dreams about what the camera could be made to do and ought to do in teaching the world things it needed to know--teaching it in a more vivid, direct way." In this respect at least, Edison was firmly ahead of his time; almost a hundred years would pass before the potential of using moving images as a teaching tool would be fully realized.
In 1894 Edison licensed the commercial rights for the Kinetoscope to a pair of aggressive young entrepreneurs, Norman Raft and Frank Gammon. Within a year they had opened hundreds of Kinetoscope parlors throughout the United States. Two years later the parlors would stand shuttered and abandoned as new, far more sophisticated machine's captured the public's imagination. Far from being the dawn of a new era, Edison's Kinetoscope peep show had seemingly done no more than mark the close of the first chaotic chapter in the evolution of cinema. Actually it had achieved far more than that. By virtue of his illustrious reputation, Edison's efforts galvanized other entrepreneurs in America and Europe into action. With Edison's attention distracted elsewhere, his rivals on both sides of the Atlantic prepared for battle.
In the French city of Lyon, one adversary was already hard at work. Antoine Lumiere had just the mix of pride, flamboyance, and gall required to join battle with Edison. Born in 1840, the son of a winegrower, he had begun his career as a sign painter in Besancon before establishing himself as a photographer. A ferociously impatient character who occasionally smashed furniture in a fit of temper, he quickly grew bored with taking snapshots for provincial family albums. After reading about a new technique for manufacturing photographic dry plates, pioneered by the Belgian chemist Van Monkhoven, he determined to make his own plates in his cramped basement studio in the center of Lyon.
Antoine's attempts in the early 1880s to manufacture the plates were a fiasco. He was simply too impetuous. In desperation he turned to Louis, his teenage son, who excelled at science in school. Louis quickly managed not only to emulate Van Monkhoven but to surpass him. At the age of seventeen, he had created an entirely new form of dry plate, Etiquette Bleue or Blue Label, far more sensitive than anything yet invented. With photographic portraits a fast-growing fashion among all but the very poorest families, the Lumieres quickly grew rich beyond their wildest imaginings. To meet the overwhelming demand for their product, they opened a huge new factory in the Lyon suburb of Monplaisir.
As the money flowed in, so Antoine's tastes grew ever more extravagant. He relished the good life and enjoyed nothing more than throwing banquets for family and friends, which frequently concluded with rousing patriotic songs and the smashing of a great deal of glassware. By 1882 he had all but bankrupted the family firm and his two sons, Louis and Auguste, were eventually obliged to take control.
Antoine's competitive instincts continued to drive the business. A fervent French nationalist, he had already developed a fierce antipathy toward the Americans. He loathed the way the United States had excluded exports of French photographic products by using a punitive series of duties established by the McKinley Tariff of 1890. The bill had been engineered by the future president (and fervent opponent of free trade) William McKinley. It raised duties in the United States to their highest levels ever with the aim of allowing the country to nurture its infant industries and become an industrial giant in the face of established competitors in Europe. In a report on the photographic trade prepared for the French government following his visit to the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, Antoine Lumiere presaged the sentiments, and even the terminology, of the American GATT negotiators a century later "It is not an entrance duty which hits our products," he complained, "it is a form of prohibition, while we have left our own door almost completely open [to the Americans]." He went on to argue that the key to the popularity of U.S. goods in overseas markets was not their intrinsic quality so much as the American talent for boastful publicity, observing in passing that the actual quality of American photographic equipment left a great deal to be desired.
In the autumn of 1894 a friend showed him one of Edison's new Kinetoscopes. Here, Antoine realized with delight, was an opportunity to steal a hugely lucrative business from under the very noses of the Americans. He rushed to Louis's office. "He took out of his pocket a bit of Kinetoscope film that he had got from Edison's agents," recalled Charles Moisson, a Lumiere employee, "and [he] said to Louis, `This is what you should make, since Edison sells it at hugely inflated prices and he wants to start manufacturing it here in France.'" The impresario versus the Wizard; Lumiere versus Edison; France versus America: battle had been joined.
It soon became clear to Antoine and his sons that if they were to win a significant share of this new market they would have to develop a camera and a projector of their own. But like so many of their competitors, they were unable to find any way of moving the strip of film smoothly through a camera. Once again, it was the meticulous Louis who hit upon the solution. It came to him when he was lying in bed, prevented from sleeping by one of his frequent headaches. (He thus provided Auguste with his subsequent boast that his brother had invented the idea of cinema in a single night.) Louis simply adapted the sprocket mechanism of the newly popular sewing machine in such a way as to allow a strip of film to move along intermittently. Housed in a wooden box, the machine he created had the remarkable capacity to serve as both camera and projector. Even more significantly, Louis's new device, instead of being limited to a single viewer, allowed large groups of people to watch the images it projected. Thus was born the idea of communal viewing, which would remain at the heart of the cinemagoing experience.
In the meantime, a fierce family row erupted over the choice of name for the new machine. The ever ebullient Antoine proposed to call it the Domitor, apparently because he believed it would dominate the competition. It was one more symbolic manifestation of Antoine's will to win, his desperate desire always to be the biggest and the best. His more cautious sons remained stoutly opposed, and eventually their choice "Cinematographe"--derived from the Greek word for movement--won the day.
By March 1895, the camera was sufficiently developed to enable the shooting of a rudimentary film, La Sortie des Usines Lumiere ("Workers Leaving the Lumiere Factory"). That same month, the Lumiere family organized a number of screenings for French scientific institutions. To their astonishment, these moving pictures created far more interest than the revolutionary color photographs that the brothers exhibited as part of the same demonstration. Word of the invention quickly spread. A daily flood of inquiries from inventors and showmen poured into the Monplaisir factory. All were anxious to acquire one of the new machines, but Louis and Auguste, wary of piracy, refused to contemplate selling to anybody.
Meanwhile Antoine, ever hungry for public affirmation of victory over his competitors, began agitating for a public demonstration of the Cinematographe in Paris. His sons at first resisted, but by convincing them that a pack of rival inventors would soon offer competing machines to Parisian theater owners, Antoine finally got his way.
The venue he picked for the launch of the Cinematographe was the Salon Indien, an empty basement beneath the Grand Cafe, at 14 boulevard des Capucines, near the place de l'Opera. The Grand Cafe was a meeting point for cultivated Parisians, a place where they gathered to exchange literary and political gossip. Only with hindsight would it become clear just how fitting it was that moving pictures--which would long be regarded as a squalid and altogether immoral amusement, fit only for the ignorant masses--should make their public debut in a shabby basement hidden from the genteel society dining above.
The first exhibition of the films was set for the evening of December 28, 1895. Just hours before this first show, Antoine was still desperately drumming up support for the event, begging everyone he knew to make their way to the Salon Indien. "You who amaze everyone with your tricks, you must come and see something which might well amaze you," he told his friend Georges Melies, a renowned magician. Melies duly appeared, one of only thirty-three spectators who paid the 1 franc admission fee. He recalled:
The other guests and I found ourselves in front of a small screen, similar to those we use for ... projections. After a few minutes, a stationary photograph showing the place Bellecour in Lyons was projected. Somewhat surprised, I whispered to my neighbor, "Have we been brought here just to see projections? I've been doing them for more than ten years." I had hardly finished speaking when a horse pulling a cart started to walk towards us, followed by other vehicles, then passersby--in short, all the bustle of a street. At this sight, we sat with our mouths open, thunderstruck, speechless with amazement. At the end of the screening, all was madness, and everyone wanted to know how they might obtain the same results.
The films projected that evening were simple enough--a few images of Auguste Lumiere and his wife feeding their baby and some shots of a train approaching a station platform, along with a number of similar vignettes taken from daily life. Each lasted barely a minute, and the entire show was over in less than half an hour. What made these clips far more striking than the flickering images glimpsed through the peephole of a Kinetoscope was that they were being amplified and thrown forward onto a screen dearly visible to everyone in the room. Projected in this way, even the simplest moving images acquired power and majesty. Audiences at the early Lumiere screenings jumped aside in terror to avoid being hit by the train as it appeared to steam toward them. Naive as the subjects might now seem, their visceral impact anticipated the attraction that special-effects movies would have decades later
Amid the chaos at the end of this first show, the director of the Folies-Bergere, one of the most powerful figures in the French entertainment world, offered Lumiere 50,000 francs for a single machine. Antoine, fearing piracy, was adamant, insisting that no amount of money would induce him to sell. "We left enchanted on the one hand, but on the other disappointed and unhappy because we immediately understood the immense financial success that could result from this discovery," recalled Melies ruefully, realizing that the rewards were likely to be reaped by the Lumiere family alone.
News of the images that could be viewed at the Salon Indien swept across France. Traditional amusements, like freak shows and waxwork museums, suddenly looked pitifully tame. The owner of the Grand Cafe, a M. Volpini, like generations of cautious European cinema owners yet to come, nervously rejected a deal offering 20 percent of the receipts, opting instead for a flat fee of just thirty francs a day, a decision he would later regret. Before long, 2,500 people a day were queuing along the boulevard des Capucines, waiting for hours for a chance to see the Lumiere show. Fighting broke out and the police were called to keep order.
It was Louis Lumiere who perfected the technology that made the public projection of moving pictures possible. But it was Antoine who, first in exhorting his sons to take on Edison and then in orchestrating the Grand Cafe screening, had really transformed moving pictures into a public spectacle. Like so many successful entrepreneurs of the early cinema, Antoine was a self-made man, someone who relied on instinct rather than intellect in achieving his goals. Unlike his more cerebral sons, he was naturally attracted to moving pictures, fascinated by the dreamlike illusions conjured up in the dark from a tiny roll of celluloid. Auguste and Louis remained in Lyon on the night of the first public screening, thinking it more important to attend to routine business at the factory. "The cinema is an invention without any commercial future," Louis continued to assert, even after the screening. Together with Auguste, he took refuge in the belief that moving images were little more than a scientific curiosity. For all that, the brothers were happy to cash in on the fad for as long as it lasted, perhaps because they saw it as a convenient and relatively painless way to fund their own scientific research.
As if to emphasize his indifference to the medium he had brought to life, Louis soon gave up making films, although he assigned a team of specially trained apprentices, who doubled as cameramen and projectionists, to fan out across the world shooting new material as they went. He still maintained that the cinema was all just a craze which would inevitably die down as quickly as it had started. "You know, Mesguich, we're not offering anything with prospects, it's more of a fairground job," he told one of these itinerant cameramen. "It may last six months, a year, perhaps more, probably less."
Louis's conviction that the crowds would quickly melt away, distracted by some other fad, may have been rooted as much in his bourgeois distaste for commercial spectacle as in any genuine skepticism about the moneymaking potential of the Cinematographe. For the rest of his life he seems to have harbored resentment about the way in which his invention had been undervalued and corrupted by commercial exploitation. "Had I been able to foresee what the cinema would become," he later confessed, "I would never have invented it."
This snobbish unease about a medium that appealed to the masses regardless of birth or fortune found many echoes in the years to come. On both sides of the Atlantic, but particularly in Europe, scientific, artistic, and even commercial interest in the cinema was tempered by a deep suspicion and unease among the cultural elite. Many of them openly despised the cinema, seeing it as dependent on vulgar showmanship and the patronage of the very lowest orders of society. For this reason its development was largely left in the hands of individual mavericks blessed with a combination of colossal energy and a low capacity for embarrassment. With the exception of Edison's firm, no established corporation on either side of the Atlantic showed any interest in the movies whatsoever. So this strange and ghostly new medium, founded on nothing more demonstrable than a few rolls of celluloid film, took shape outside the established social and economic order. Little wonder that as it grew in popularity it should be blamed for all manner of depravities, regardless of the existence of any demonstrable link between the medium and the behavior it was supposed to promote.
Meanwhile, word of this new phenomenon had crossed the Atlantic; the ever watchful Edison was desperate to lay his hands on a Cinematographe. As early as October 1895, one of his subordinates had written to the Lumiere Brothers asking to purchase one of their machines. Auguste stalled, replying that the Cinematographe was still in early development. Within days of the screening at the Grand Cafe, Edison fired off another letter beseeching the Lumieres to sell him the equipment needed to manufacture the Cinematographe. Wary of Edison's reputation, they demurred.
In the months that followed, suspicion turned to enmity. In May 1896 the organizers of a trade show in Geneva suggested to Louis that he might like to put the Cinematographe on display in a pavilion set aside for Thomas Edison. He furiously rejected the offer of sharing a stand. "If there had been a pavilion for Marey," he fulminated, "then we might properly have sheltered under the French flag." What mattered most was to maintain a united front against the Americans.
Whatever the misgivings of its inventor, the Cinematographe established itself as an international marvel with quite remarkable speed. One of the first overseas shows was organized in London by the illusionist Felicien Trewey, a friend of Antoine, at the Marlborough Hall on Regent Street on February 20, 1896. The initial screenings received a rapturous welcome, and after a fortnight or so, the show transferred to a far bigger venue, the Empire Theatre in Leicester Square, where it would play for almost eighteen months. Wherever the Lumiere showmen went, from Bombay to Osaka, from Jerusalem to Rio de Janeiro, the reaction was equally powerful: simple moving images were enough to whip the audience into a frenzy.
The Lumiere Brothers faced fierce competition, especially in America. The Cinematographe made its debut in the United States before a packed house at the Keith's Union Square Theater in New York City on June 29, 1896. It was advertised in The New York Times as "The Sensation of Europe--Exhibited before all the Crowned Heads and hailed universally as the Greatest Marvel of the 19th Century." Within weeks the machine, now billed as "America's greatest sensation," was playing in vaudeville theaters across the country. "Never in all our experience have we seen an attraction draw such crowds as the Cinematographe," wrote one journalist. American-made devices intended to rival the French machine were swept aside, among them the Vitascope, a projection system the rights to which Edison had acquired from an inventor called Thomas Armat.
American firms were furious that an upstart French concern could move into the United States and cream off profits that they felt should be pouring into their own coffers. They fought back desperately to regain control of their own market. The challenge was led by the American Mutoscope Company, formed in 1896 by Edison's former assistant William Dickson, who had teamed up with two enterprising New York businessmen, Herman Casler and Harry Marvin. In October 1896, Dickson's company launched its own projector, the Biograph, which produced larger and far sharper images than those projected by the Cinematographe. "It has the additional advantage of showing entirely American views," added one provincial newspaper. Another device, the Vitagraph, followed. The Cinematographe was yesterday's sensation. By April 1897, the Lumieres' American subsidiary had been broken up and sold.
Although the Lumiere brothers had been the losers in a battle against superior technology, there were also whisperings that they had been victims of political harassment. According to the Lumiere projectionist Felix Mesguich, the Lumieres faced a barrage of lawsuits for supposed breaches of customs regulations. Mesquich claimed to have been arrested for filming in Central Park without a permit and even suggested that Lumiere's head of operations in America had been forced to flee the country, secretly paddling by canoe to board a French liner waiting in the Hudson.
Perhaps Mesguich had been watching too many of his own film shows. But the American Mutoscope Company did have close ties to some of the more fervent protectionists who dominated McKinley's administration; it was certainly possible that they had leaned on the administration in an attempt to squeeze the French out of a market they regarded as their own.
As the leaders in the race to develop moving pictures, inventors from both France and America claimed credit for the invention. Economic rivalry between the two countries was only natural. Such tensions could also be seen in terms of the deeper ideological rivalry between the two nations. Both had been founded through revolutions that aspired to create a set of values--of enlightenment, liberty, and progress--which they wanted to make universal. In France a series of repressive governments had betrayed many of these ideals. Equally, many French intellectuals no longer saw the United States as a democratic utopia but as a nation of rapacious philistines, obsessed with money--a position articulated by the poet Charles Baudelaire when he denounced America as a "Gaslit Barbary." The Statue of Liberty, designed by the French sculptor Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi and unveiled in New York a few years earlier, in October 1886, had been intended to help both sides put aside their suspicions. This gift from France to America, it was hoped, would help rejuvenate the friendship between the two countries and boost trade, while symbolizing the liberal ideals both countries shared. But the bond with France was quickly forgotten, the increase in trade failed to materialize, and the statue soon became an icon of American values alone. Now it must have seemed to the French that moving pictures, too, were about to be appropriated by the Americans. All this was symptomatic of how, in the debate over cinema, notions of cultural integrity would become increasingly confused with arguments about national identity.
Whatever its role in the demise of the Lumiere business in the United States, American Mutoscope was already engaged in an acrimonious domestic battle with Edison. By 1896, alarmed by his competitors' success, Edison had resurrected an old patent application from 1891 and, with suitable amendments, filed it anew with the U.S. Patent Office. He claimed that he had created a device for viewing moving pictures long before anyone else, and that any subsequent machines therefore infringed his patent even though they might be infinitely more sophisticated than his crude contraptions. By 2898 he was confident enough to initiate lawsuits against a host of rival companies. His suit against American Mutoscope sparked a ferocious battle that dragged on for ten years, played out in courtrooms and in vicious confrontations in streets and theaters across the country.
Such acrimony was probably inevitable. With millions of customers flocking to witness the miracle of living pictures, there was clearly big money to be made. No one knew just how long the moving pictures craze would last. Many remained convinced it would all be over in a matter of months, perhaps even weeks. With so much at stake, competitors brutally elbowed each other out of the way in their determination to pile up wealth as quickly as they could. The mood was not so much that of a steadily developing industry as of a frantic and chaotic gold rush.
Lumiere's cameramen and salesmen traveled the world, with Edison's men, and a pack of other rivals, never far behind. Competition was particularly fierce in Great Britain. One early pioneer was William Friese-Greene, who took out a patent for a camera taking ten photographs a second. The inventor had a flair for publicity, but his machines were too clumsy to achieve commercial success. When Friese-Greene collapsed and died at a cinema exhibitors' meeting in 1921, his only asset was the money found in his pocket--allegedly, one shilling and ten pence, equivalent to the price of a cinema seat. By February 1896, a brilliantly inventive British instrument-maker called Robert Paul had developed his own system for projecting moving images. Paul had become intrigued a few years earlier after a friend introduced him to a couple of Greek showmen who had bought some Kinetoscopes from Edison's agents in New York. The Greeks had installed the machines in a shop near London's Liverpool Street station where the public paid twopence each to see thirty-second films like Boxing Cats and A Shoe-black at Work. The showmen now implored Paul to help them acquire additional machines. On discovering that Edison had not bothered to take out a British patent, Paul quickly built six duplicate Kinetoscopes and, with public enthusiasm running higher than ever, decided to go into the moving-picture business for himself. He developed his own camera and teamed up with a photographer, Birt Acres.
In the spring of 1895, Paul and Acres shot their first films. These included scenes from nature such as Rough Sea at Dover, which made the audience cluck to avoid being splashed by the waves, as well as sporting events like the Derby and the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. The partnership soon dissolved. Next Paul created his own projector, the Animatographe, unveiled at Finsbury Technical College in London on February 20, 1896, the same day as Felicien Trewey gave the first British performance of the Lumiere films. Within weeks the Animatographe had been installed at the Olympia, London's largest exhibition hall, where it drew vast crowds.
As news of the Animatographe spread, an army of music-hall proprietors, magicians, and fairground showmen from all over the world converged on the inventor's workshop. Cecil Hepworth, who became a leading British filmmaker, recalled a visit:
His work-room was at the very top of a tall building. I stumbled up the narrow staircase, trying not to tread upon the dozen or more sleeping Polish and Armenian Jews who had been waiting ... clays and nights for delivery of "Animatographs." And there at the top was Paul himself, perspiring freely and cranking away at his big clumsy machines in a hopeless endeavour to [break] them in and make them usable by the weaker folk outside.
Paul's customers ensured that films projected by the Animatographe were soon astounding audiences all over the world. Carl Hertz, an American magician, purchased the equipment just before setting off on an international tour. With Paul's machine as the star attraction, he played to huge crowds wherever he went. In South Africa, "the audience ... thought the pictures great, and we did wonderful business," he recalled. In Australia, "the theatre [was] packed to suffocation ... while hundreds were turned away from the door." He even showed films in India, billing himself as "absolutely the world's greatest conjuror."
Moving pictures were now firmly established as an international attraction. But they had yet to attain a coherent, stable structure that might enable them to develop as an industry. Paul allegedly attempted to sell shares in a company that would have taken over all his film activities. Few investors, though, were ready to risk money on such an apparently marginal business, particularly one stigmatized by its links to the fly-by-night world of fairgrounds and penny arcades.
In one sense, perhaps, this financial caution was understandable. Two years after the first Lumiere screening in Paris, the public's enthusiasm appeared to be on the wane. Although the cameras and projectors had vastly improved, the films themselves were still confined to three basic subject areas: scenics--essentially travelogues featuring "exotic" lands such as Egypt, India, and Japan; topicals--forerunners of the newsreel, covering events such as royal visits and major sporting events; and simple comic skits, comprising scenes of knockabout fun in barbershops and circuses. It seemed as if Louis Lumiere might have been right after all, if not in quite the way he imagined: so long as moving images were treated like mere novelties they were destined to have no real future.
With crowds flocking to see pictures of boxing cats, scenic views, and rough seas there was little incentive to improve the quality of the films. Even if the audiences had been less enthusiastic, it is doubtful the story would have been substantially different. The men who had brought moving images to life--Thomas Edison, Louis Lumiere, Robert Paul, and others--were not artists. They were technicians, problem solvers. They were fascinated by the intellectual challenge of creating a mechanical eye and, insofar as they were anything more than research engineers, they saw themselves as manufacturers of equipment. The film sequences they shot were intended simply as short-lived novelties, designed to demonstrate the convincing qualities of their projectors and cameras. As a result, none of them sensed the real commercial potential of moving pictures. Not one of them could see that, with customers besieging theaters all over the world, they had created a truly international retail business. After all, the only paying customers who mattered to them were those who purchased equipment and films. So the Lumiere brothers went back to their photographic plate factory; Edison delegated the commercial development of his Kinetoscope to a junior assistant; and Robert Paul, dismissing film as a "sideline," eventually destroyed his stock of inflammable negatives and returned to his more reliable business as an instrument maker.
"Animated photography is quite in its infancy," Cecil Hepworth had warned in 1897. "Let us hope it will not suffer the unhappy fate of so many infant prodigies and when the unwanted `boom' subsides, as it inevitably will, find itself entangled in a `slump' from which it has not the strength to extricate itself." This fear would haunt the fragile business of moving images for decades to come, with commentators perpetually poised to read the last rites for Hollywood and national industries around the world. It was true there were signs that the audience was already turning away from moving pictures, but Hepworth's fears of an impending slump turned out to be exaggerated. For the inventors, scientists, and instrument makers who had made moving images possible were about to be pushed aside by a new breed of entrepreneurs and showmen, with very different ideas about what might be the future of this strange new medium of ghostlike images.
Meet the Author
David Puttnam is the Oscar-winning producer of Chariots of Fire, The Killing Fields, Midnight Express, Local Hero,
and The Mission. He was chairman of Columbia Pictures from 1986 to 1988 and now works principally in the field of
education, serving as an adviser to a number of UK government departments; as chancellor of the University of Sunderland;
and as a governor and lecturer at the London School of Economics. In 1995 he received a knighthood for his services to the
British film industry, and in August 1997 he was appointed to the House of Lords. He divides his time between England and
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