“The motion picture as we know it was never in the strict sense ‘invented,’” writes David Robinson in From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. Robinson’s concise history of the cinema details the “lengthy and torturous process” of trial and error that led to modern-day phenomena like movie-theater nachos and sellout crowds for Twister.
As anyone who took a grade-school field trip to Monticello knows, the tour guides dutifully point out that Thomas Jefferson was not so much an inventor as an innovator. This distinction is especially pertinent to the evolution of motion pictures; it can be applied to nearly everyone involved in the creation of movies as we know them. As Peep Show to Palace makes clear, modern film owes its existence to tinkering. Profusely illustrated with documents, illustrations, film stills, and photographs, Robinson’s book concentrates on the 20 years between 1893 and 1913, when a new art form was born of the age-old observation that shining light through colored things creates a nifty effect.
Stained-glass windows may have been the earliest precursor of the movies. Robinson opens with a discussion of early optical devices such as the magic lantern, a sort of primitive projector consisting of painted glass slides with a light placed behind them, which was popular in Europe as long ago as the 1400s. Other precursors of the motion picture appeared in the mid-19th century. The zoetrope, introduced in 1843, was the first contraption to use the “persistence of vision” phenomenon to make a sequence of stationary figures appear to move; photographic images were first used in zoetropes in 1852. (Robinson peppers his account with agreeably lurid facts: For instance, the work of pioneer sequence photographer Eadweard Muybridge was interrupted by his arraignment for the murder of his wife’s seducer. He was found guilty, but let off due to the “justifiable” nature of the crime.)
Sequence photography, of course, would later be paired with projection for the fateful combination. But projection was a latecomer to the process. In the interim, Thomas Edison’s Kinetoscope became the first popular means of viewing moving images. The film, illuminated but not yet projected, was viewed through a slot in the bureau-size device. (There were countless variations on the machine: The Choreutoscope, Praxinoscope, Zoopraxiscope, and Phenakistiscope were just a few.) Robinson does not mince words on the still-controversial topic of who did what at the Edison laboratories. It was W.K.L. Dickson, he writes, who conducted “all experiments and practical work on the Kinetoscope.” Dickson also produced, directed, and photographed the first motion pictures and built the first movie studio—a tar-paper structure whose roof opened to admit sunlight. And in what was not yet a grand Hollywood tradition, had a nervous breakdown.
Robinson titles one chapter “From Science to Show Business,” which pretty much sums up what happened next. (The author clearly favors the “science” part; after poring over the minutiae of mechanical experimentation, Robinson hurries through the rest of his chronicle.) The first theatrical exhibition was in 1896, and audience expectations were simply to see pictures move. Early films documented everyday events—Record of a Sneeze was immensely popular—or pre-existing entertainments. Vaudevillians, dancing girls, and in one case, terriers killing rats, were the first film performers. Peep Show is rife with revealing footnotes, such as the fact that, because it was illegal in most states, boxing was by far the most popular of early cinematic subjects.
The latter part of Peep Show examines the growing sophistication of the new medium. Robinson acknowledges cinematic pioneers, including Edwin S. Porter, who is credited with introducing the notion of “causal linkage between the shots.” Like many great innovations, Porter’s sounds deceptively mundane. Yet it took some time for early filmmakers to realize that they didn’t need to shoot motion pictures the same way they shot still photographs. It was D.W. Griffith who transformed the medium, introducing techniques such as cutting back and forth between two actions to create suspense and filming from angles other than front and center. “He discovered the whole potential of an art,” writes Robinson. The movies’ physical environment was becoming more sophisticated as well. Samuel L. “Roxy” Rothapfel, for one, made his reputation building picture palaces so elegant that patrons could check their cigars and get them back after the show.
From Peep Show to Palace documents a period of rapid change, but at least one aspect of the film industry has remained more or less constant: hand-wringing about decency in the movies. In 1908, the mayor of New York, distressed by the length of the tunic worn by Vitagraph’s Julius Caesar, temporarily banned motion pictures in the city. A related anecdote serves as both a commentary on the inflated nature of the outcry and a harbinger of things to come: A Richmond, Va., theater owner responded to a Moving Picture World editorial decrying lewd films by writing to ask where such films could be procured, as his audiences would surely be eager to see them.CP