Wednesday, Jun. 23, 2010

Lights, Camera ... Edison!

Toward the end of MGM's 1940 biopic Edison, the Man, starring Spencer Tracy, an honor roll of Thomas Edison's achievements marches onto the screen: Fluoroscope! Mimeograph! Storage battery! And then to the heart of the matter for the film industry: Motion pictures! Projection machine! Talking pictures! In its golden age, Hollywood was paying tribute to the man who, nearly a half-century earlier, possessed the genius and foresight to invent the movies.

It wasn't that simple a story. The movies love a lone hero, and Edison was a natural for Hollywood hagiography. One of his most enduring inventions was the very notion of the inventor as American superman, with himself in the lead role. But the birth of movies had many obstetricians. Etienne-Jules Marey and the Lumière brothers in France, William Friese-Greene in Britain, Eadweard Muybridge in the U.S. — these and others contributed to the "invention" of movies. So did some of Edison's employees, who were obscured by their boss's starlight.

The Wizard of Menlo Park talked a good line. In 1888 he announced that he was working on "an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear." Within a few years, he and his associates had developed a movie camera, known as the kinetograph, and a device for watching films, the kinetoscope. The use of 35-mm film and sprockets to secure it in the camera was also an innovation of his company. Edison's movies include some of the best-known titles in early cinema, among them The Kiss, Fatima's Dance and The Great Train Robbery. Experimenting with sound, color and special effects in a variety of genres, they are the clear ancestors of the next century of films.

Historians still debate the extent of the founder's participation in the process. What's unquestioned is Edison's erroneous belief that the future of movies lay in his peep-show kinetoscope, which allowed only one viewer at a time, rather than in images projected on a screen before a large audience. Edison's 19th century toy, showing short films of watermelon-eating contests and cats with boxing gloves, was really the harbinger of a 21st century novelty: YouTube.

For Edison, the invention of movies was a diversion from his main interest at the time: extracting iron ore from depleted mines, an obsession that would cost him much of his fortune. If that scheme had not so occupied him, he might not have left the bulk of the film-experiment work to his chief assistant, William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.

That proved to be the cinema's good fortune, for Dickson was a scientist with a gift for the theatrical. (The invaluable Kino DVD Edison: The Invention of Movies includes dozens of Dickson's early films.) It was probably he who designed Edison's film studio in West Orange, N.J., the Black Maria, a shack that revolved to catch the sun through a skylight. The world's first film director, Dickson also invested his experiments with odd touches that, seen today, look like infant epiphanies.

In Blacksmith Scene, which on May 9, 1893, became the first kinetoscope production to be shown publicly, Dickson presents three men wrapped in smithy aprons, their sleeves rolled up, rhythmically pounding an anvil with hammers. These first film actors (they were Edison Co. employees) pause to take swigs from a beer bottle, then return to work. Initially, the man on the left is partly obscured by a figure facing the action; he realizes he's in the way and ducks out of frame eight seconds into the 26-second film. So the first movie also had the first blooper.

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.