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In 1894-95, Dickson attempted his first sound film. In the 17 seconds we have, thanks to a recent restoration by Walter Murch and Rick Schmidlin, Dickson is seen on the left playing a violin into a cone-shaped recording instrument. And because even a talking picture had to be a moving picture, the director fills the frame's center with two male employees of the Edison Co., who dance clumsily to the music. Dickson often brought extra characters into his little dramas to add attitude and nuance. In the 1894 Athlete with Wand, a muscular gent displays his aesthetic athleticism, but your eye is drawn to a spaniel at the right, which gives a bored glance to the performer and turns its head away.
As the great promoter and the gifted tinkerer, Edison and Dickson anticipated a much later pair of bright boys: Edison was, in a way, Steve Jobs to Dickson's Steve Wozniak. The difference is that Edison couldn't see the magic in their new gadget. But then he was, as Charles Musser writes in The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, "the businessman's inventor," making products for plutocrats. As such, he naturally emphasized hardware over the software popular music, movie stories and stars that he couldn't understand. Exasperated by his mentor's refusal to think big, Dickson left the company in 1895 to work with several of Edison's rivals.
The challenge of movie exhibition has always been to create a must-see sensation. As the kinetoscope migrated from the West Orange lab to music halls and arcades, Edison films directed by Dickson, William Heise, Alfred Clark and Edwin S. Porter reveled in sensational sights and effects. The kinetoscope offered more sex and violence than a mass audience had ever seen before. The films ranged from minidocumentaries (firemen at a blazing house) to vaudeville snippets (Annie Oakley shooting at glass balls) and travelogues (Coney Island, Niagara Falls). But the top sellers were R-rated fare. Nubile Annabelle Moore performed a "serpentine" dance, her hair and gown gaudily hand-colored. In the notorious Fatima's Dance, the heavy houri whirls, she shimmies, and when the shaking of bosom and booty reaches its climax, two censorious rows of fence posts obscure the action.
Have a taste for blood sports? The Edison directors staged boxing matches and cockfights. Clark's 1895 The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, using trick photography to portray the monarch's beheading, might qualify as the first splatter film. Even grimmer, the 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant presented exactly what it promised: the spectacle of Topsy, a Coney Island elephant that had killed a man, standing with cables attached to its body, then collapsing as it sizzles with electricity.
In 1896, the Edison Co. released its most popular picture of the decade and one of its first to be viewed on a large screen. A 20-second excerpt from the Broadway play The Widow Jones, it featured two middle-aged stage performers, May Irwin and John C. Rice, embracing, silently chatting and finally smooching. The movie, known as The Kiss, stoked a furor because of its intimacy: two figures in medium closeup engaged in a traditionally private moment. Here was the forerunner of every love story, romantic comedy and, by extension, stag film. "It turned John C. Rice into a kissing star," Musser says on the Kino DVD. "He appeared in vaudeville giving kissing demonstrations." The Edison Co. had thus produced the movies' first celebrity.
And in Porter, Edison found a director with the vision to expand one- and two-minute vignettes into 10-minute melodramas. Porter's 1902 The Life of an American Fireman is a full-fledged action-adventure; it shows the rescue of a woman and her child first from inside her burning building and then from the outside, though both actions would have been simultaneous. Even more daring was The Great Train Robbery (1903), which Musser properly calls the first blockbuster. The 10-minute movie comprises 10 urgent tableaux, including the takeover of the train, the assaulting and reviving of a telegraph operator and the bad guys' escape. It ends with the famous medium closeup of an outlaw aiming his gun straight at the audience and firing away the money shot seen round the world.
For the next decade, Edison ran the largest studio, but his closest involvement with movies was as head of the Motion Picture Patents Co. (MPPC), a cartel of the main American film producers, most of them in New York City. The MPPC insisted that films be rented to exhibitors rather than sold outright, forbade its signatories to make feature-length films and tried to drive independent producers out of business. Edison's rivals were forced to move elsewhere.
In 1917 the MPPC was found guilty of antitrust violations and dissolved; one year later, Edison sold off his film business. But the Wizard's myopic machinations had inadvertently created another industry. By exiling his rivals to Southern California, Edison invented Hollywood.
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