Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Growth of Motion Pictures

Edison's announcement of the Kinetophone prompted this manifesto of technological progress from Robert Grau, who would publish The Theatre of Science, one of the first attempts to write a comprehensive history of the film industry, the following year. In this short essay, Grau sees a bright future for the synchronized sound film, especially as a means of bringing opera (and the symphony) to the masses. In terms of the symphony, one imagines that Grau might have had something like the following in mind as well as filmed (and recorded) concerts:

A remarkable novelty in motion pictures is reported from Vienna. The musical society Urania has arranged to exhibit biographical films of famous composers and have the pauses between the reels filled in with the best known efforts of such composers. The first evening was devoted to the illustration of the life of Haydn. The press of Vienna speaks in terms of high praise of the educational value of such exhibitions (“Foreign Trade Notes,” Moving Picture World 18 January 1913, 271).

Interestingly, Grau almost entirely abandons the dream of the photo-opera and the talking picture by the time he publishes Theatre of Science the next year, where he (rightly) sees prestige, multireel features playing in "palatial temples of science" (i.e, movie theaters) at (relatively) high prices ($1.00) as the immediate future of the industry. (His less optimistic discussion of the Kinetophone begins on p. 349, which you can access in the Google Books window below.)

In 1913, however, though the shift to multireel features was already well advanced, its future dominance was not yet certain—especially when Edison was basically placing a heavy bet against it with the Kinetophone. In this brief 1913 essay, then, Grau imagines a somewhat different future than he will see the next year.

Growth of Motion Pictures.
1913 To Witness Second Stage of Development in the Theater of Science.
By Robert Grau.

The year 1913 as it casts its outlines on the horizon presents every indication that a the third year of the second decade of the twentieth century spends itself, progress and innovation will become rampant in the field of public entertaining.

Vast changes in the mode of catering to the amusement of our 90 millions of people are certain to develop as a result of the amazing conditions that now confront the men who seek to sole the very intricate problem of holding fast the patronage of a public never so inclined as now to bestow its favor where it can obtain the greatest measure of entertainment. The new year should be particularly notable in the efforts made by the various factors in the film industry to maintain the tenability of the position of the moving picture as a prime factor in the lives of the people, and the writer, while not wishing to assume the role of a prophet, is inclined to believe that the photoplay is destined to give way to something more vital—something that the theater of science alone can embrace. Just what this is to be may not be clearly stated, but the year 1913 will record an amazing evolution in what is portrayed on the screen no one can doubt.

Two phases of the year’s development already have reached the positive stage. Firstly, the photo-opera; the writer has always insisted that the Victor Herberts, the De Kovens and the Franz Lehars were due to capitulate to the camera man, and now that Mr. Edison has demonstrated that synchronization of the two greatest simulative devices the world has ever known is possible, the year 1913 should witness the advent of the musician—the greatest force as an entity we have—as an asset of the staff of the modern film studio.

At last the several important musical periodicals of the nation are devoting columns, even pages, to the momentous significance of the photo-opera, but only one of the editorial contingent has as yet realized that the photo-symphony is as great a possibility—nay probability—of the new year and who shall say, that with the masses at last to see and hear the great music dramas of the masters that the camera man is not marching on.

I use the term “camera man” advisedly, for after all no matter what progress may do in other directions, the great vogue of the theater of science to-morrow will be primarily due to the survival of the moving picture which has already made fifty millions of people (to whom the inside of a play-house was an unknown sight) confirmed photoplay patrons, and despite all that may be said by pessimistically inclined persons, the fact remains that the ultimate salvation of the speaking stage will be revealed only when a portion of these 50 millions having formed the photoplay habit are enticed into the play-house to see the players in the flesh; but this will not happen while the said 50 millions are held fast by such progressive procedure as the year 1913 seems likely to reveal in picturedom.

After all, it is only a battle between what was and what is. The laws of science and evolution as we see them in this vital age of enlightenment indicate beyond any shadow of doubt that man is to be utilized only in the original development of simulation of his greatest endeavor, and each year is bringing us nearer to the spectacle of man’s retirement from every line of endeavor that science and invention can duplicate and multiply.

Therefore the photo opera, the photo symphony, and the talking picture are merely indicative of the infancy of the second stage of development in what I hope will soon be called the theater of science, where the workingman will lay down his dime (as the Wizard of Menlo Park predicted) and in return hear and see grand opera, spectacle, drama, and even the circus, all revealed to him the artistic verity and unerring mastery of sound, action, color and constituting as a whole a veritable conquest by science of the arts of music and the drama.

Source: Robert Grau, “Growth of Motion Pictures,” Moving Picture World 25 January 1913, 366.