Edison Film Production 1896-1900
Early films produced by the Edison Company during this period were mostly actuality films. These were motion pictures taken of everyday life and events as they occurred. The Edison Company's actuality films contained scenes of vaudeville performers, notable persons, railway trains, scenic places, foreign views, fire and police workers, military exercises, parades, naval scenes, expositions, parades, and sporting events. A newly-invented mobile camera had made it possible for the Edison Company to film everyday scenes in places outside the studio in a fashion similar to the French Lumière films. Comic skits and films relying on trick effects in the style of French filmmaker Georges Méliès were also popular.
Paper print rolls and fragments of motion pictures deposited for copyright at the Library of Congress
Many film companies at this time frequently copied, or "duped," each other's films to meet exhibitors' demands for a certain product. Edison filmmakers were among those who engaged in this practice, and to protect their own films from being imitated the Edison Company began to copyright films regularly in October 1896. Registrations of films were sent to the Library of Congress for copyright deposit in the form of positive image paper photographic rolls. These "paper prints," along with those received from other companies, accumulated to form the collection known today as the Library of Congress's Paper Print Collection, located in the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division.
This period witnessed expanded filmmaking activities at the Edison Company, aided by the appointment in October 1896 of James White as head of the Kinetograph Department. Sponsored by transportation companies who saw the potential of movies to promote tourism, White traveled to the West and to Mexico in 1897, filming railroads, hotels and tourist sights. In 1898, he filmed sights in Japan, China, and Hong Kong.
The Spanish-American War of 1898 provided another sphere of activity for the Edison Company. Events surrounding the war drew patrons into the theaters to see films of the conflict. Edison hired William Paley as a licensee to film activities in Cuba. This meant that Paley could operate as an independent agent, but would sell his films to the Edison Company which would then copyright them. Paley traveled to Key West to film the Burial of the Maine Victims, then to Cuba to film additional events there. He traveled to Tampa, Florida, in mid-April, where he filmed troop preparations. He then traveled with the troops to Cuba, shooting a few films before he became ill and had to return home. Actual battles were not filmed; instead, reenactments of key engagements were filmed in New Jersey using the National Guard troops for the most part.
Edison used licensees to film a number of subjects for the company at this time. In his book, The Emergence of Cinema, Charles Musser estimates that half the films sold by the Edison Co. in the period between 1898 and 1900 were made by its licensees, while the other half were made by White and William Heise. Musser further states that by 1900 "acted," or fictional, films had grown to become 40 percent of the company's output, and notes that J. Stuart Blackton and Albert E. Smith of the American Vitagraph Company supplied Edison with several popular comedies and trick films as licensees during this time.
Business began to decline by 1900 in the Kinetograph Department. Vaudeville theaters had begun to drop films from their program, or to put them on as "chasers," the closing act that would play while patrons filed out. Competition from Biograph and declining profits made Edison consider selling out to Biograph for a time; however, he eventually decided to restructure and expand his organization.Return Thomas Edison Page
- Origins of Motion Pictures - The Kinetoscope
- Early Edison Motion Picture Production (1892-1895)
- The Shift to Projectors and the Vitascope (1895-1896)
- Edison Film Production 1896-1900
- Fictional Films Dominate as Nickelodeons Emerge (1900-1907)
- Litigation and Licensees
- Decline of the Edison Company (1908-1918)
Photo Library of Congress, Motion
Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division