During the first decades of the 20th century American movies have become a major industry, a new art growing out of science and the older arts, and a powerful social agency peculiar to modern times. Born in the laboratory, organized as a medium of expression, exploited for the entertainment of the masses, the motion picture has developed through the co-operation of scientist, artist, and business man. Each has contributed to the rise of the film, shaping its character and strengthening its effectiveness.
The years 1896-1903 saw the genesis of the movie. At first a minor commercial commodity, the motion picture groped toward a larger future--a broad business base, a technique of its own, and a mass audience. By 1903 it had achieved in some measure all these aims.
It was on April 23, 1896, that the moving picture as we know it today was seen for the first time in America. On the following day The New York Times described its première at Koster and Bial's Music Hall in New York:
When the hall was darkened last night, a buzzing and roaring were heard in the turret and an unusually bright light fell upon the screen. Then came into view two precious blonde young persons of the variety stage, in pink and blue dresses, doing the umbrella dance with commendable celerity. Their motions were all clearly defined. When they vanished, a view of the angry surf breaking on a sandy beach near a stone pier amazed the spectators. . . . A burlesque boxing match between a tall, thin comedian and a short, fat one, a comic allegory called "The Monroe Doctrine," an instant of motion in Hoyt's farce "The Milk White Flag," repeated over and over again, and a skirt dance by a tall blonde completed the views, which were all wonderfully real and singularly exhilarating.
The wonder aroused by the new invention was general. People regarded its performance as miraculous. Everyone was startled by the lifelike umbrella dance, awed at the sight of waves breaking on the screen, amused by the reproduction of vaudeville comic routines, won by the skirt dancers. "An object of magical wonder," rhapsodized W. K. L. Dickson, an associate of Edison, "the crown and flower of nineteenth century magic."
Moving pictures had, in fact, already existed for some time in another, cruder form. Penny arcades had been featuring peep-show cabinets at which one person at a time, paying his penny, could revolve a drum and give a motion picture effect to fifty feet of tiny pictures that passed before his eyes. A popular form of cheap amusement, this peep show had suggested to its owners that, if many people at one time could watch the moving pictures, greater profits could be made. What was needed was a machine to throw the pictures onto a large screen. The development of the projector made such a feat possible and established motion pictures as a new kind of group entertainment.
When the projected "wonderfully real" motion pictures at Koster and Bial's created an enthusiastic stir, other vaudeville theatres throughout the country rushed to present this latest of novelties. Wherever shown, movies won immediate popularity. Lasting only a minute or two, their movement made them a "marvelous" sight, evoking awe and admiration for their faithfulness to "true-life action." Horses jumping over hurdles, Niagara Falls with its torrents plunging to rocky depths, trains rushing headlong across the screen, cooch-girls dancing, vaudeville acrobats taking their falls with aplomb, parades, boats and people hurrying or scurrying along-any isolated bit of movement became part of the movies' repertory. Before long motion pictures had become an accepted feature on variety programs, and were occasionally gaining notice in print. Tucked away in newspaper vaudeville columns would appear such items as "The Vitagraph surprised its admirers by exhibiting colored pictures which were marvelously true to life."
Toward the end of 1900 a single event sharply revealed the strong popular appeal and commercial value of movies. Vaudeville managers had combined into a trust to keep down the wage scale of actors. To meet the challenge, actors organized into a union, called "The White Rats" after the London actors' organization, and the union called a strike. Caught unawares, many vaudeville theatres closed. Others, determined to keep open at all costs and beat the strike, began to feature moving pictures. For the first time programs consisting solely of movies were offered to the theatrical public. To the theatre managers' great astonishment, people came --and came again. Before long the vaudeville trust declared the motion picture to be its surest weapon against "the dissolution, bankruptcy and humiliation" engendered by the strike.
Its success as a scab for vaudeville was convincing evidence of the movie's own appeal. This first substitution of movies for vaudeville anticipated by a quarter of a century the eventual near-disappearance of vaudeville itself. But the vaudeville managers lacked the imagination to take advantage of their new opportunities; it was the arcade owners who were to develop the money-making possibilities of the new medium.
Most movies had hardly advanced beyond their first attempts and continued to show similar subjects with the same reproductive technique. As the initial fascination and wonder of the audiences waned and the strike ended, managers of the better-class vaudeville theatres either abandoned the novelty entirely or presented it at the end of their programs, so that the people who did not care to see it could leave. Movies became disdained throughout the theatrical world as "chasers."
The penny-arcade owners, who had done good business with the peep-show cabinets, had constantly tried to obtain projectors and films. But in the attempt to keep it exclusive equipment had been sold only to vaudeville theatres; equipment was, besides, scarce and expensive. When the vaudeville managers sought to sell their pro- jectors and stocks of films despite the movies' successful reception by the public during the actors' strike, arcade owners eagerly bought them. In the rear of their amusement parlors they closed off a section, filled it with rented chairs, and set up a screen for their exhibitions. They charged ten cents admission--less than vaudeville prices--and advertised "animated moving pictures."
People were at first suspicious of the darkened, partitioned area of the arcades and doubted that a real movie show would be offered at such a cheap price. Thomas L. Tally, an arcade owner in Los Angeles, thought up a scheme to convince prospective customers that his offering was genuine. He cut a hole through the partition so that people could see for themselves, before paying admission, that movies were actually being shown on a screen. The ruse worked; news of it spread, and the practice was adopted widely. Moving pictures became before long the most popular attraction in the arcades, arousing even greater enthusiasm and proving to have a far more lasting success here than in the vaudeville theatres.
The patrons of the amusement parlors were of a poor class and had little theatrical knowledge or critical judgment. They were spellbound by the jerky shadows that mysteriously evolved into a scene of a foreign land, shouted with genuine fear as the screen showed a train hurtling toward them, and were speechless at the sight of President McKinley's inauguration. The sheer impressiveness of the motion on the screen, the intrinsic eloquence of pictures which even a child could appreciate, captured their imaginations. The simplicity of movies made literacy unnecessary for understanding or enjoyment, and the cheap price put this new entertainment within the means of most wage-earners. The result was that movies became established as a cheap form of amusement for the masses; the ground had been broken for the broad base on which motion pictures were henceforth to be built.