LOOKING BACK upon the past eighteen years in the motion picture business—back to the day when no one knew what a motion picture was—and realizing the wonderful strides the industry has taken since then, I am more than impressed. I am thrilled. Artistically and mechanically the motion picture has forged its way forward until today it is recognized as the greatest amusement factor in the world and the greatest educational force in the history of civilization.
Today the motion picture does even more than entertain and instruct; it has already gone beyond the present needs and desires of men, and will exert a tremendous influence upon posterity. It will record the histrionic achievements of the dramatic geniuses of the contemporary stage; it will chronicle and reproduce history as no other medium ever could or possibly will. As an illustration, the present Mexican conflict, through the motion picture, can be exhibited to future generations with such realism and exactitude as the spoken or written word could never convey.
In its artistic development alone, the motion picture has progressed within ten years to a stage reached by the oral drama only after thousands of years of development and evolution. In passing, however, we must record the assertion that the development of the stage greatly assisted the advancement of the film, because even at an early date in the history of the industry it was commonly recognized that the introduction of general dramatic principies in the production of motion pictures was desirable and necessary. The problem, however, remained as to the best means of utilizing the science of the drama so as to conform with the mechanical limitations of the film, and later, with the vast possibilities that these same mechanical factors presented.
What does the development of the motion picture first suggest?
Natural evolution, an evolution assisted and enhanced by the demands of the millions who sought, and long sought in vain, clean entertainment at a minimum cost. Step by step, obstacles were overcome, difficulties surmounted, growth and development realized, not because there was money to be made through such development, but rather because the public demanded and made necessary the advancement that has been attained in the motion picture art. To the public, more even than to those who labored and struggled to give artistic presentations of the popular drama on the screen, is due the credit for the measure of improvement that has already rewarded the efforts of film producers.
My contention is this: if the public were content to receive and support the mediocre films that marked the inauguration of the business, this standard would still be acceptable. The public owes thanks only to itself for its ability today to see the beautiful, refined and artistic presentations of the screen. As for the producers, they should be content to know that public encouragement proved the inspiration that it did, and should be thankful that they were given the strength and the light to accomplish the great things which that public encouragement suggested.
I see as in a vision on the screen itself the days of 1899, the embryonic age of the motion picture. Today we hear that the picture is still in its infancy; if this general statement is true, at that time it was only a germ. There was no guide toward the right methods nor the pitfalls to avoid. The making of a picture depended most upon guesswork. Incidentally, the pictures at that time proved it.
At just about this time, when fortyor fifty-foot lengths was the vogue, I often wondered why it was not possible to produce a dramatic story in motion pictures. At this period I was chief producer of the Edison Company and it seemed peculiarly proper to me for the Edison Company to inaugurate this innovation. Accordingly, I conceived and prepared a story called “The Life of An American Fireman,” a complete 800-foot story based on a fairly good dramatic element and introducing the fireman’s life in the engine house and in his home. The subject became instantly popular, and continued to run for a longer time consecutively than any film production previously. Encouraged by the success of this experiment, we devoted all our resources to the production of stories, instead of disconnected and unrelated scenes.
My mind jumps from this time to the early part of 1912, when the Famous Players Film Company was organized to present famous plays and celebrated stars in motion pictures. Between 1899 and this latter date the work of development and systematic formulation had been proceeding steadily, until at last it was possible not only to present short dramatic stories in motion pictures, but the great dramatic successes of the stage. These two dates must always represent decisive epochs in the history of the film. I am more proud than perhaps I should be to have been responsible for the first connected story in film and later to be associated with the first concern to undertake the presentation of celebrated dramas for the photoplay public.
What the future holds in store none can say. But its possibilities are as unlimited and incalculable as the difficulties and dilemmas that beset the producer in the early days of the art. That the men who have been largely responsible for this present excellence of motion pictures will reach out for better things seems certain.
Originally published in The Moving Picture World, July 11, 1914, p. 206.