THE SILENT FILM ERA
Museum of the Moving Image’s Collection includes more than 5,000 artifacts dating from 1894 to 1931, comprising posters and other promotional material; costumes; glass slides; technical apparatus including motion picture cameras and projectors, editing and laboratory equipment, and lighting; scrapbooks and correspondence; portraits, scene stills, and behind-the-scenes photographs; and oral histories with actors and filmmakers. This uniquely wide-ranging collection offers an unparalleled opportunity to study how silent and early sound films were made, marketed, and exhibited. By some estimates, 80 percent of American silent films are no longer extant, making such material culture holdings particularly significant.
This essay by film historian (and former MoMI curator) Richard Koszarski traces how the period between 1894 and 1931 became defined as the “silent film era,” explores the emergence of the idea of preserving the history of this period through material culture, and describes several key artifacts from this period in MoMI’s Collection.
It is generally said to have begun in 1894, as the first paying customers lined up at a Kinetoscope Parlor showing films made by Thomas Edison near the corner of Broadway and 27th Street in Manhattan, and was certainly over by 1931, when the last of Hollywood's silent features were released by Paramount and United Artists.
Only later would those years be thought of as "the silent film era," and sectioned off as a sort of prelude to the real movies that would follow. But the idea that their favorite new medium might be lacking in something essential had never occurred to audiences of the time. And the businessmen (and artists) who had created this industry were too busy enjoying their newfound fame and fortune to even dream of that sort of a change. As Harry Warner famously said, "Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?"
That was Warner's response to AT&T's offer to go in with them on a talking picture system. An experienced showman, he knew the sorry history of this concept, which one inventor or another was always touting as the next new thing in motion pictures. He also knew the amount of money that had been wasted on such gadgets. And he was right: there was no demand to hear actors speaking from the screen. But Warner saw something else, and did agree to help develop sound films, whose canned musical accompaniments could save the theater-owning brothers a fortune in weekly musicians' salaries. As with many technological innovations— including the internet—the real benefits only became apparent after the system was already in place. And so the notion of a "silent film era" was born.
The cinema is both an art and an industry, a curious mix of culture and technology that generations of critics and historians have puzzled over. The art part exists only on screen. By the 1930s a few museums and private collectors had already begun to collect prints of individual film titles, assessing their curatorial value through a range of ad hoc criteria. But the first museum to display its own collection of motion picture artifacts was the Smithsonian Institution, whose Graphic Arts Department began exhibiting film projectors and pre-cinema apparatus in 1897. A few others followed suit, sometimes putting their motion picture materials in the "useful arts" wing, sometimes the technology room, and occasionally even giving them a corner in the photography collection.
Henri Langlois, one of the first film archivists, began to collect motion picture prints in the early 1930s, when he realized that silent films, now economically obsolete, were doomed. Langlois devoted his life to saving silent films, but he soon found himself saving every other film, too. Unlike rival archivists in New York or London, Langlois's criteria were not merely aesthetic, but cultural. He realized that cinema was not simply the part of the show that came in a can, but a complex web of economic, cultural, and technological factors which necessarily involved commerce and industry as well as art. Langlois ultimately tried to have it all, operating both an archive of films (cinematheque) and, for interpretive context, a musée du cinema. A radical policy for any film archive, it meant diverting scarce resources away from film prints in order to collect costumes and posters, movie cameras and theater programs.
Although some supporters criticized this broad-based approach, few historians today would write a history of motion pictures without offering a clear understanding of their cultural and industrial context. Motion picture materials can now be found in dozens of collections all over the world, from theater libraries to science museums. Still, very few have the range of resources, from moviolas to fan magazines, to adequately document the complex role such materials have played in the development of moving image media.
An earlier generation of historians, steeped in technological determinism, saw the coming of sound as a watershed, a step in the drive towards "realism" that would make everything that came before it suddenly irrelevant. Talkies did affect one corner of the marketplace, of course, as all those unemployed musicians could testify. But this was evolution, not revolution, and certainly no reason to banish the silent film to some cinematic dark age. As demonstrated by historians from André Bazin to David Bordwell, the introduction of sound was a speed bump, not an apocalypse. The grammar of film—how the camera addresses its subject, and how editors cut shots together—quickly returned to the classic style developed in the 1920s. No Hollywood studios went out of business. The same 35mm film went through the same film projectors (now with added sound heads), while audiences read the same film magazines and attended the same local theaters.
During those few "silent" decades, Edison's invention had developed from a mechanical curiosity to a major international industry, and became—as D. W. Griffith once boasted—the only new art form created since antiquity. No primitive backwater, the years from 1894 to 1931 must have impressed both filmmakers and audiences as an unending stream of innovation and experimentation. Later years may have been dominated by Technicolor and television, but audiences of the 1920s would have wondered just why improvements like these took so long to catch on—since both were already part of the creative mix long before The Jazz Singer (1927).
So while the advertising materials, home movie cameras, film costumes, and licensed merchandise shown here may differ in style from their modern equivalents, the important thing to remember is that their functions remain identical—even in a digital age undreamed of by Harry Warner.
Between 1929 and 1930, the Loew's theater chain asserted its dominance of the local motion picture market by opening a ring of five spectacular "wonder theaters" in and around New York. Planned during the silent film era but opened after the triumph of talkies (and in the teeth of the great depression), the wonder theaters would never be equaled in scale and extravagance.
The Brenkert F7 Master Brenograph was an essential part of late picture palace design, but it was not a motion picture projector. Indeed, its manufacturer boasted that it was capable of projecting "Everything But the Film," thus serving a variety of functions unneeded today, but an absolute requirement for every first class picture house at the end of the 1920s.
Audiences did not attend these theaters only (or even principally) to see the newest and best movies. They were attracted by ambiance, décor, specialized stage presentations, the resident orchestra, even the air-conditioning. Theaters competed to attract a regular clientele which could be expected to turn up at least once a week, regardless of the particular film program.
According to the Brenkert Light Projection Co. of Detroit, which introduced the model F7 in 1928, "With the rapid trend to better entertainment and progress in theatre environment the Master Brenograph thoroughly relieves purely picture entertainments of monotony and greatly enhances any entertainment program with results never before obtained in a theatre." It could do this by projecting drifting clouds across the auditorium ceiling and rippling waterfalls wherever the management might wish to see them. While earlier movie theaters had used still image projectors for song slides, local advertisements, or announcements of upcoming programs, the Master Brenograph was designed as an integral part of any picture palace's live stage productions. Complex multi-image presentations involving anything from projected scenery to abstract color patterns could all be easily managed from the booth.
The five wonder theaters, all of which are still standing today, were the Loew's 175th Street in Manhattan, the Paradise in the Bronx, the Valencia in Queens, the Jersey in Jersey City, and the Kings, at Flatbush and Tilden Avenues in Brooklyn. The Brenograph in the Museum's collection was removed from the Loew's Kings in 1991, where it still occupied its dedicated niche in one corner of the derelict projection booth.
The Kings had opened on September 7, 1929, with the local premiere of Evangeline, a United Artists feature that had already played the Rivoli, on Times Square, back in July. Evangeline was a first class production, but it was not even a full talkie, only a silent movie with two interpolated songs for its star, Dolores del Rio. That very same week, Loew's had opened the Paradise in the Bronx with an all-talking picture. But why did they choose to launch their 3,700 seat Brooklyn showcase with Evangeline?
As Marcus Loew once said, "we sell tickets to theaters, not movies." From his perspective, it made little difference just what film he had on the screen. His audiences came for the added value they had grown to expect from a Loew's presentation, in this case a stage show direct from the Capitol Theatre and a personal appearance by Dolores del Rio herself. After all, who could be sure that the "purely picture entertainment" would really pull in the crowds? That's what the Master Brenograph was for.
When the family of director Frank Tuttle (1892-1963) donated his collection of scripts, photographs, and correspondence to the Museum of the Moving Image in 1986, they knew that much of the material was, in fact, only going home.
Tuttle was a graduate of Yale University, where he studied drama with George Pierce Baker and was president of the Yale University Dramatic Association. He had been working as an assistant to Frank Crowinshield, editor of Vanity Fair, when Paramount Pictures suddenly offered him a job writing for the films at their new studio in Astoria. The job mainly consisted of writing inter-titles for silent movies, but Tuttle met another young film enthusiast, Fred Waller (a film technician who later invented Cinerama), and before long the two of them had formed their own independent production company, The Film Guild.
According to a 1922 article in Photoplay Magazine, this "all college film company" consisted largely of graduates of Princeton and Yale, including a young actor named Glenn Hunter and the writer Townsend Martin, one of Scott Fitzgerald's Princeton cronies. The Film Guild made a series of quirky, low budget features in and around New York, notably one called Grit, which Fitzgerald allowed them to adapt from one of his short stories.
The movie was shot in a small rental studio in Long Island City in 1923, and no longer appears to exist. If historians remember it at all, it is not for the contributions of Frank Tuttle or Scott Fitzgerald, but for the stand-out appearance of an eighteen year old named Clara Bow. Clara Bow had already appeared in one or two earlier films, but Tuttle seems to have been the first to capture the special "'It' Girl" quality that would make her one of Paramount's greatest stars in the late 1920s.
The Film Guild folded in 1924, but most of its personnel were absorbed directly into the Paramount Astoria studio, often working together again both before and behind the camera. Tuttle directed Gloria Swanson and Bebe Daniels, and for a time was one of Paramount's hottest young directors. Moving to their Hollywood studio, he directed Clara again in the Eddie Cantor vehicle, Kid Boots. He also directed four of her talking films, a difficult assignment made even more troublesome by Bow's crisis-a-minute personal life.
But by that time, both Tuttle and Bow had been swallowed up by Hollywood. Bow's career was a skyrocket, over entirely by 1933. Tuttle lasted longer, his career peaking with This Gun for Hire in 1942, before running into political problems during the McCarthy era. Hollywood was hard work, and the excitement and energy that had radiated from these two young talents in the 1920s inevitably dimmed over the years. The enthusiasm of the "all college film company" and its eager young leading lady were now all in the past.
An extensive collection, the Frank Tuttle papers provide a record of the times his own path crossed that of Clara Bow, someone he might even have considered his "discovery." Yet the most revealing object is a single photo, the professional portrait of a strikingly beautiful teenaged movie hopeful. In a simple, almost childish scrawl, Clara "Battling" Bow has inscribed the image to her benefactors, Mr. and Mrs. Tuttle. Frank Tuttle had been able to handle her in 1923; she knew what he had done, and was grateful. Six years later, he was the only director on the lot whom Paramount hoped could do it again.
On April 3, 1921, a remarkable German silent film called The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari opened at the 5,000 seat Capitol Theatre in New York. Imported and distributed by the Goldwyn Company, it dazzled critics and proved a sensation on Broadway, although audiences elsewhere in the country were not quite so enthusiastic.
Caligari was the leading example of cinematic expressionism, the adaptation of a modernist current which had already reached its height before the First World War. Under the influence of German romanticism and psychoanalysis, artists like Ludwig Kirchner had worked to express the unknowable inner qualities of their subjects by stylizing those elements of the real world which actually could be observed. During the war this style had migrated to the Berlin theater, then to the burgeoning German motion picture industry, where it flourished briefly during the chaotic early years of the Weimar government.
Samuel Goldwyn may have considered this exotic thriller somewhat experimental, but the young American film industry was already accustomed to experimentation from top directors like D. W. Griffith or Maurice Tourneur. What Goldwyn did not consider was that Caligari was anything other than a movie, a commercial proposition which should take its chances on Broadway with the latest "Fatty" Arbuckle or Tom Mix picture. There was no art house circuit for a film like Caligari, so Goldwyn opened it in the largest motion picture theater in America.
Like the rest of his audience, Goldwyn would not have recognized the concept of avant garde cinema, or understood the ways in which Caligari was not really playing by the same rules that governed his other pictures. But at least one man in the audience saw it differently. Dr. James Sibley Watson (1894-1982) was the new publisher of The Dial, a modernist literary journal which offered its readers the poetry of Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings, and Marianne Moore. Watson began to feel that cinema might have an avant garde, too, and that he should be part of it.
In 1925 he bought himself a professional motion picture camera and visited D. W. Griffith on the set at the Astoria studio. Watson's hero was F. W. Murnau, director of another German classic, The Last Laugh. He quickly decided that Griffith was no Fred Murnau, and that he would have to make these new films himself. Back home in Rochester he joined forces with a fellow Harvard (and Cambridge) graduate named Melville Webber (1896-1947), then working as assistant to the director of the Memorial Art Gallery. The Germans, the Russians, and the French were all driving the motion picture forward in new and interesting ways. Watson and Webber decided to create an American avant garde cinema, and in 1926 began production on The Fall of the House of Usher.
Watson had the camera and the money (he was an heir to the Western Union fortune; avant garde filmmaking was not cheap). Webber worked on the script and created the costumes and sets. "We had an empty stable, plenty of wallboard, and 12 KW of direct current," Watson recalled later. For two years the men dragooned family and friends to work on their Poe adaptation, a twenty-minute production which finally appeared in 1928. By then an incipient art house movement had already begun to spread across the country–thanks largely to that dependable favorite, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. The Fall of the House of Usher would not have to take its chances at the Capitol, but could run forever in museums, art galleries, and universities.
Watson and Webber made a few more films together, and Watson continued working on his own into the 1950s, creating industrial films for clients like Eastman Kodak that reflected his fascination with visual abstraction. After he died in 1982, new owners felt it was time to clean out the old barn on Sibley Place. In one corner, slightly battered but instantly recognizable, was one of Melville Webber's painted wallboards, an enthusiastic mixture of cubism and expressionism. Other museums wanted his films, his cameras, and his customized printing equipment. Museum of the Moving Image wanted the set from The Fall of the House of Usher — the only surviving artifact of the heroic moment when modern art finally made it to the movies.
Moving image technology does not develop in a straight line. The histories of sound, color, or 3D are filled with false starts, premature innovations, and disinterested customers. In 1927 Warner Bros. electrified Broadway audiences with their Vitaphone talking picture process, linking the motion picture to the electronics industry forever. But even before the cheering for The Jazz Singer had died down, entrepreneurs and inventors were certain that they had found the next new thing: television.
On April 7, 1927, AT&T had demonstrated their own approach to television by opening a picture-telephone link between New York and Washington. Film critics reviewing Fritz Lang's science-fiction epic Metropolis later that same month noted that something very much like the picture-telephone shown in the film was already operating on Bethune Street.
C. Francis Jenkins, who was deeply (and controversially) involved in the development of the motion picture projector thirty years earlier, had also been trying to send images by electricity, but unlike AT&T his model was not the telephone, but the radio.
Jenkins may have been the first person to transmit moving images by electricity. We do know that in 1928 he had already begun regular broadcasts of "radio movies" from a station in Washington. The mechanical television systems that he and other inventors perfected around this time were decidedly low-tech, producing an image about as distinct as an obstetrician's sonogram, and only an inch or so high.
But the simplicity of the system was the whole point, as Jenkins argued before the Federal Radio Commission. Such inexpensive technology would allow garage-level experimenters to work together as a community, eventually refining the system from the ground up. RCA, which felt that it could control all of television if technical standards were set high enough right from the beginning, argued decisively against this open-source philosophy.
By 1931 the Jenkins Televison Corporation was broadcasting several hours of television every day from studios in Passaic, New Jersey. Lacking commercial authorization, the business model depended on the sale of kits and spare parts to radio "hams," tech-savvy wireless experimenters who could add a "picture attachment" to their radio receiver in much the same way they might try out a new speaker.
The Jenkins Model 101 Radiovisor in the Museum's collection was restored to operating condition by the noted television collector Jack Davis, who was honored for his work on the Radiovisor by the Antique Wireless Association in 1994. Many of Davis's other historic television receivers are also in the collection.
Unfortunately, 1931 proved the high water mark for mechanical television, a system which was unable to survive the economic crisis of the great depression. A decade later electronic television was a reality, and the few surviving Radiovisors, icons of a once-promising technology, were left to gather dust in the attics of disappointed radio buffs.
Motion pictures were introduced as a technological novelty, a new sort of electrical fad. Early audiences, once they had seen the pictures move, gradually lost interest in the stunt, and by 1900 the best days of the new industry seemed behind it. But producers gradually discovered ways of turning their audiences into repeat customers, luring them back by building films around intriguing stories and populating them with attractive new personalities: movie stars.
Stage stars always had fans, of course, but Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin had a far greater reach, appearing each night not at a single theater, but at hundreds of picture houses all over the country.
By investing themselves in the lives and careers of these stars, movie fans could form an unprecedented bond with the images on the screen. The smartest producers were well aware of this as early as 1910, not only publicizing the names of their actors, but drawing the fans closer by offering them a remarkable array of promotional products.
Many movie fans kept notebooks and wrote away for autographed pictures. A few, like Englewood, NJ, resident Theodore Huff, would become the first real historians of the new medium. But few of these fans were as obsessive as Richard Hoffman, who from 1913 to 1916 not only assembled an archive of the usual movie fan memorabilia, but documented his life at the movies in remarkable detail.
Hoffman's collection, donated to the Museum in 1984, includes programs, stills, fan magazines and even ticket stubs. But in addition to magazines like Photoplay, Hoffman also subscribed to specialized trade journals like Motion Picture News. At a time when even poster collectors scorned the designs created to advertise motion pictures, Hoffman convinced helpful theater mangers to give him such posters right off the walls.
If Mack Sennett's Keystone Film Company was unable to supply him with the latest photos of Charlie Chaplin — who no longer worked for them — Hoffman carefully saved their response anyway, as well as the envelope it came in.
Hoffman's collection traces his career as a movie fan in Staten Island, NY, Point Pleasant, NJ, and Germantown, Philadelphia. By cross-checking the various materials he collected, historians can reconstruct his filmgoing career almost day-by-day, gaining an important insight into how one especially dedicated movie buff pursued has passion just as picture palaces were supplanting the nickelodeons.
Remarkably, and unlike other great collections of movie memorabilia, the Hoffman collection appears to have come down to us essentially intact. Frozen in time at the end of 1916, nothing was ever added, and little appears to have been removed, resulting in a King-Tut's-Tomb of nickelodeon handbills, movie posters, and weekly program schedules.
The most revealing object in the collection, however, is Hoffman's handwritten database, a small, looseleaf notebook documenting every film he had ever seen (at least as of January 1916). Organized by distributor (Paramount, for example), subdivided by production company (Famous Players) and movie star (Mary Pickford was his favorite), the database functions as one of the earliest industry-wide "filmographies."' But what is even more important, it also reveals that this movie fan identified the corporate trademarks of film manufacturers and distributors—Edison, Biograph, Universal—as the basic way of organizing and understanding his hobby.
Few historians today could clearly describe the differences among the various brands offered on the Mutual program—the fine distinction between a Reliance and a Majestic, for example. But Richard Hoffman, despite his obvious devotion to stars like Mary Pickford, already understood that the heart of this new industry was not the stars, but the studios.
Film posters were not regarded as collectible in the silent movie era. Connoisseurs of poster art revered the work of masters like Will Bradley or Jules Cheret, but scorned the unsigned theatrical "paper" produced to order by printing houses like Strobridge or ABC Litho.
So any film posters that have survived from before 1932 were unlikely to have been acquired and preserved by art museums, poster collectors, or even movie fans (who preferred smaller, more manageable collectibles). Instead, the survival of silent movie posters is almost entirely due to chance. With luck, an unused stack might turn up in the back corner of some distribution warehouse; sometimes a few slightly worn examples may have been left behind in the recesses of an old theater—or the home of someone who used to run an old theater.
Emil T. Rinas opened the Tower Theatre in Roslyn, Long Island, in 1915. He also built a home for himself nearby, efficiently reusing whatever building materials he had handy.
Like most neighborhood theaters of this period, the Tower depended less on newspaper advertising to pull in its customers than on raucous, street-level ballyhoo. The distribution exchanges which supplied Rinas' films also had posters available, and generally offered several sizes and styles for almost any release.
These were produced in stock sizes, the better to fit into ready-made exhibition frames mounted around the theater. Most common were the so-called one-sheets, 27 inches wide by 41 inches tall. For greater impact, a theater might also use a 41 x 81 inch three-sheet (not referred to as such because it consisted of three separate sheets—it didn't—but because it was three times the size of the smaller poster). Six-sheets, 81 x 81, were best suited for pasting up on exterior walls. Rinas may also have invested in a few billboard-sized twenty-four sheets, but no evidence survives one way or the other.
What does survive, however, are traces of the Tower Theatre's use of those smaller posters. Changing his program at least once a week, too quickly to depend on word-of-mouth, Rinas invested his advertising budget in the loudest and most colorful "paper" he could afford. As each film came and went, a new poster would simply be pasted over whatever had come before, until the growing pile of paper, now about an inch thick, became too ugly and unwieldy to manage and had to be discarded.
Most of those posters would have ended up in the local dump. But around 1918 Rinas began working on his house, which is where this story starts to get interesting. He decided to lay down linoleum on the second floor, but before he could do this he had to put some kind of sub-flooring across the exposed joists. In a stroke of inspiration, Rinas gathered up a few stacks of old one-sheets, three-sheets and six-sheets. He realized that the piles of old paper, because they were glued together in multiple layers, could function something like plywood: strong, supple, and easily worked to fit around the building's architecture. He recycled his movie posters into flooring.
The Tower Theatre's movie posters stayed under that linoleum for almost seventy years, until new owners decided on some overdue renovations for the second floor. Discovering something unusual, they contacted the Museum, which agreed to take on responsibility for the posters. What this meant in practice was to attempt a costly, and perhaps impossible, "delamination" of the materials, as well as the removal of various nasty stains and the appropriate handling of odd bits of paper loss.
This restoration, which still continues, was undertaken by the Northeast Document Conservation Center, a specialist in ancient books and manuscripts. Difficult and time-consuming, it was clearly justified by the rarity of the find. Not only did the collection include scarce early examples of oversized movie paper, but it documented the films of major stars like Mary Pickford and "Fatty" Arbuckle. One packet alone yielded Arbuckle three-sheets for both A Reckless Romeo, a Fort Lee production, and The Butcher Boy, famous as the film for which Fatty convinced his friend Buster Keaton to have a try at the movies.
Great posters, and great titles. But because they had been laid down in layers, it is also possible to learn something important about the order in which these films were shown at the Tower. One surprising lesson of this archeological discovery is that audiences in Roslyn were not following the development of the cinema as historians do, carefully awaiting each month's latest release, but were happy to see 1918 shorts mixed in with features that were sometimes three years old. For them, the movies had much less immediacy than a modern audience would expect. New or old, short film or feature picture, they don't seem to have cared very much either way. At least if Mary Pickford or "Fatty" Arbuckle were involved.
Early American film producers, including Edison, Lubin, and the Biograph Company, each developed proprietary motion picture cameras and battled over them in a series of exhausting patent litigations. While the Americans were defending what they had already invented, European manufacturers moved ahead with lighter and more dependable cameras, many of which featured sophisticated optical and mechanical improvements.
Pathé Freres, a global multi-media conglomerate involved in the production of films and sound recordings, was also a leader in motion picture technology. The Pathé Professional camera was introduced in 1908 and widely distributed from 1910. A refined version of the earlier Lumiere Cinematographe, the Pathé Professional (or "Studio") model remained the industry standard until the introduction of all-metal cameras like the Bell & Howell during the first World War. Even then, the rugged Pathé was a favorite of filmmakers like Charlie Chaplin, Cecil B. De Mille and especially D.W. Griffith, who used Pathé cameras to photograph The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Intolerance (1916).
This example, serial number 878, was used by Larry Williams, an East Coast cameraman who entered the film industry with New Rochelle's Thanhouser Film Corporation during the nickelodeon era. By 1916 he was working for Famous Players (Paramount) in New York, assisting his brother Emmett on some of Mary Pickford's films. The Williams collection at Museum of the Moving Image includes not only his camera and related accessories, with extra film magazines, but hundreds of still photographs documenting Williams's career, and even his membership pin in the local Motion Picture Photographers Association. In one photograph Williams can be seen proudly displaying his Pathé to George M. Cohan, then appearing for Paramount in a film version of his stage success, Broadway Jones (1917).
Williams worked on many independent East Coast productions during the 1920s, and when talkies arrived shot a number of films for Paramount at the Astoria studio, working with stars like Ginger Rogers and Tallulah Bankhead. After feature film production in New York declined in the early 1930s, Williams tried unsuccessfully to establish himself in Hollywood. He eventually returned home to specialize in short films, newsreel material, and the New York location inserts required for Hollywood films like Miracle on 34th Street (1947).
Rudolph Valentino was Paramount's hottest star when he came to the Astoria studio in 1924 to appear in an eighteenth century costume romance, Monsieur Beaucaire. The apparent victor in a nasty contract battle, he had finally negotiated the perks his soaring popularity seemed to call for: a sixfold increase in salary and effective control over his own films, which would not be made in Hollywood, but the more congenial artistic atmosphere of New York. Most importantly, all creative decisions would now be in the hands of Madame Valentino, Natacha Rambova, an imaginative designer and decorator whose aesthetic model was the flamboyant Russian theatrical émigré, Alla Nazimova.
Others encouraged the pair to develop Valentino's established screen image — the exotic sexual threat seen in Blood and Sand or The Sheik—but eventually they decided on a much riskier move. Monsieur Beaucaire, a Booth Tarkington novel that had been successfully adapted as a stage operetta in 1919, had already been considered as screen material for Douglas Fairbanks. Like many Fairbanks projects, the story allowed for romance, swordplay, and the opportunity to display a knockout collection of costumes and sets. But where Fairbanks might have emphasized action, the Valentinos were more interested in the look of the film, and left for Paris as soon as the contracts were signed.
Here Natacha is said to have commissioned between 40 and 60 costumes from Parisian designer and illustrator George Barbier, renowned for the fanciful ensembles he and Erté had created for the Folies Bergere. Sources disagree on how many costumes were actually sewn in Europe, and by whom. These costumes, as well as the sets for the film, were intended to recall the opulent images of courtly love, by Fragonard, which Natacha had seen in the Frick mansion on Fifth Avenue. But when Monsieur Beaucaire was released some critics attacked its "pink powder puff" qualities and Valentino never attempted anything like it again.
Among the first items accessioned by the Museum in 1981 was a small collection of film costumes, dating from the 1920s and 1930s, which had been carefully set aside by the Eaves Costume Company. A noted theatrical costume supplier since the nineteenth century, Eaves was also a source for many of New York's more elaborate silent film productions, including those of Marion Davies, D.W. Griffith—and Rudolph Valentino.
The satin and lace jacket seen here was identified by Eaves as one of the Monsieur Beaucaire costumes, and still retains the sewn-in label "Valentino." But Eaves was a rental house, and it is likely that the costume was subsequently reused in other productions, possibly even altered. Although its provenance is good, the costume's actual function is unclear. Was it one of the costumes designed and sewn in France, and later acquired by Eaves? Was it designed in France and sewn by Eaves? Was it entirely a local product, as were most of the costumes used in the film? And does the label refer to Valentino the actor, or to his production unit? As with so much of Valentino's career, the full history of an artifact like this remains elusive, contradictory, and fascinating.
Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope, a 35mm peep-show apparatus, introduced the world to moving pictures in 1894, if only one customer at a time. But well before he was able to project his movies onto a screen, Edison found the motion picture market crowded with rival inventors, most of whom had simply re-engineered his personal viewing system as a theatrical entertainment.
One of these was Edward Hill Amet of Waukegan, Illinois, who claimed to have been experimenting with a moving picture machine as early as 1893. He began demonstrating his Magniscope projector in 1895, and over the next few years manufactured and sold several hundred to traveling showmen eager to be the first to exhibit moving pictures in towns and villages across the country.
The example in the Museum's collection was donated by the family of Myron G. Wood, a mechanically curious Michigan bike-shop owner who had acquired one of the earliest Magniscope projectors, serial number 33. The machine lacks some of the refinements seen on other surviving examples. Its original lens has disappeared, and the surprisingly rough-hewn wooden base appears to have been customized by Wood for unknown purposes. According to family history, Wood toured with this projector throughout the South, offering a performance that combined some of the earliest motion picture films with a slide show of the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
Remarkably, a few of the films shown by Wood also survived, and were donated to the American Film Institute. They included a rare example of Annabelle's Serpentine Dance, the third version of this popular subject, shot by Edison in the summer of 1895. Amet eventually began to make his own films, and in 1898 produced a great many dealing with the Spanish-American War, which he and his staff restaged in Waukegan. By the turn of the century Edison and his attorneys would force most of his rivals out of the motion picture business, including Edward Amet, who moved to California and began experimenting with talkies.
But all of that happened much later. "Grandpa Wood," as his family called him, must have been in the field by 1896, threading his Kinetoscope films onto Amet's projector, and startling small town audiences with their first magical views of an electrical "world in motion."
George Eastman made his photographic fortune not through the sale of professional products, but by creating and exploiting a consumer market for amateur photography. So when theatrical motion pictures swept the world in the mid-1890s, it was only a matter of months before the appearance of the first "home movie" systems.
Unfortunately, it proved very difficult to redesign industrial motion picture technology for consumer budgets, and for twenty years even the most eager amateur photographers had to contend with dumbed-down versions of professional equipment or technological oddities involving glass plates or celluloid discs.
35mm film was expensive, and while narrower gauges could be used, threading the tiny ribbons into cameras and projectors was a nuisance. Even worse, if the film came off its reel, it tended to curl up into a tangle of cinematic spaghetti. If Eastman's success with the Kodak camera was to be duplicated, home movie cameras would have to match the level of consumer efficiency promoted in his famous slogan, "You Press the Button, and We Do the Rest."
The Movette system, introduced in 1917, was the first to solve many of the problems that had crippled the home movie market. The camera was a "point-and-shoot" model with fixed focus and shutter speed, and the film came pre-loaded in cassettes. The user simply inserted a film cartridge, shut the camera, and turned the crank. As with Eastman's Kodak, the exposed film was mailed to Rochester for printing and developing. The package price for both camera and projector in 1919 was around $100 (the equivalent of $1240 in 2009).
The Movette camera in the Museum's collection was donated by the family of Ove Christian Ege, who used it to document his travels between Copenhagen and the United States in 1919. Also included were the projector and 42 rolls of Ege's home movies, which, in the tradition of the genre, recorded family gatherings, shipboard activities, and interesting views of foreign travel. Movette film was printed on a unique 17.5 mm stock, and Ege's home movies were transferred by the Museum to the Library of Congress, whose motion picture laboratory is equipped for the preservation of rare and obsolete motion picture stock.
Despite its simplicity and ease of use, the Movette, perhaps copying the Kodak system too closely, still involved both a negative and a positive, a costly proposition which hindered its commercial success. Less than two minutes of film negative (50 feet) cost $1.50, plus 50 cents to develop and 5 cents per foot for projection prints. When Pathé and Kodak (which had no connection to the small Movette operation) introduced home movie systems utilizing reversal stocks in the 1920s, those costs dropped dramatically and the consumer market exploded.
One of the most successful early motion picture devices, the Mutoscope could not be used to entertain great audiences, and had no need for celluloid film. But in various forms it proved commercially viable for over fifty years, and can still be found as an "old time movie" attraction in the more adventurous theme parks or boardwalk arcades. A problematic device, it has always posed a challenge to any definition of cinema, a label which typically involves the projection of films to paying audiences.
The device was patented by Herman Casler in 1895 as an alternative to Edison's peep-show Kinetoscope viewer. The input of W.K.L. Dickson, who had left the Kinetoscope project to develop motion pictures on his own, was crucial in terms of both technology and marketing. Edison considered him a traitor for this, though Dickson took care to avoid violating any of Edison's valid patents—most of which had been developed by Dickson himself, in any case.
The Mutoscope was a coin-operated flip-card viewer, in which photographic images that had been printed on card stock and mounted along the hub of a reel were hand-cranked by the customer (some models, in which existing light was used for illumination, did not even require electricity). Instead of a lengthy strip of celluloid film, some 850 of these small prints were assembled onto each reel, and flipping through the reel provided the viewer nearly a minute of action. This was about the same length of time as a Kinetoscope performance, but the Mutoscope had the distinct advantage of being more durable and less costly to build and maintain. By 1896 the projection of moving pictures onto theater screens had become the new industry standard, but the rugged Mutoscope continued to flourish in a niche market of its own.
Mutoscope cabinets were originally made of wood, the devices often intended for home use or as a commercial aid to salesmen. Although they were already involved in the marketing of conventional films and projectors, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company launched a chain of Mutoscope arcades in 1898, and continued to service this end of their business until 1909. The cast-iron floor models built for these turn-of-the century arcades, like this "clam-shell" design from the Museum's collection, are still easy to operate and maintain.
Between 1925 and 1949 the reorganized firm operated as the International Mutoscope Company. They introduced a smaller viewer, and provided arcades and amusement parks with an updated supply of Mutoscope subjects, ranging from condensed versions of Charlie Chaplin comedies and Felix the Cat cartoons, to a notorious series of "What the Butler Saw" peep-show subjects.
Although the significance of the Mutoscope was often marginalized by earlier historians, in the post-film era its role as a pioneering example of personal cinema has been recognized as a landmark in the history of moving image media.