By Terry Ramsaye - 1926



While the motion picture was progressing with mincing steps in the peep show Edison Kinetoscope the sheer force of the evolution of expression presented the world with an interesting paradox – the birth of the photoplay upon the screen.

Bear in mind that the motion picture film had not yet reached the screen. Most emphatically the film did not even contemplate the screen.

And yet now came the screen photoplay.

This event of 1894 seems quite as remarkable as though the apple had come into being before the tree.

But if a paleontological botanist came upon a fossil apple in the apparently more ancient strata of the club-mosses he would dig deeper and eventually find the tree, revising the evolutionary time table as he dug. There are no accidents in evolution, no apples before the tree.

So now as pick up our apple of the photoplay of ’94, we must consider the roots and relics of expression discussed in the section devoted to the Pre-history of the screen. We shall find that this paradoxical photoplay which reached the screen before the film came is after all a most material substantiation of our view of the motion picture as an organic growth.

The agent of this curious new expression form, the pre-film photoplay was Alexander Black, the same Alexander Black who is today best known as a novelist.

Black became the inventor, or rather the discoverer, of the photoplay in the years of 1893-4 in precisely the same period in which Edison was building the peep show machines which introduced the film picture to the public in Kinetoscope parlors.

It would have simplified the problem of the narrator and eased the tension of attention for the reader if the Black photoplay had actually antedated the Kinetoscope instead of paralleling it. But in its own complex way the work of Black had its roots far back of the Kinetoscope film and its fruits far ahead of it.

Black’s movement toward the picture story on the screen began with his interest in the ordinary still camera, then a decidedly new and very novel device from the viewpoint of the public. The art of photography was only beginning to emerge from the professional laboratory into a general instrument of expression. Hand cameras, astonishing instruments “without legs,” which could be carried about and used without a tripod, had just came into being in the early Nineties. It was discovered that actual photographs of all manner of everyday events, even to such astonishing things as snapshots of persons on the streets, could be made. The word snapshot was born of that day.

Every invention of wide public application finds its interpreters, just as the screen has created the motion picture critic and as radio has created an army of technical journalists of the broadcasting art. Alexander Black became the authoritative writer and speaker on the new wonders of the camera in the early Nineties.

Black was an enthusiastic amateur photographer, and his photography crept into his writing. He wrote for the newspapers and magazines about the wonders of photography and the delights of the new sport of snapshooting. We can probably with justice indict him as a progenitor of the race which the humor of two decades ago called “Kodak fiends.”

The writing led Black, as the popular photographic authority, to the lecture platform. He addressed marveling audiences of the time from the lyceum stages of the East, under the auspices of Major Pond, with a lecture entitled “Ourselves as Others See Us.” It was, naturally, illustrated with stereopticon lantern slides of snapshots made by Black and other amateurs. He went gunning with his camera up and down the highways and byways of New York and spread the pictorial pelts of his prey upon the limelight screen.

That was so long ago that one could then get a good cigar for five cents, and the milk-shake was the prevailing drink for women and children.

But this business of snapshooting and lecturing on it was, after all, an incident for Black. He was primarily a writer, a teller of tales. Photography was only a subject. It was something that he wrote and talked about. Inevitably he began to see in it the possibility of making it say something for itself.

Many of the Black snapshots which he projected on the screen for his lecture were pictures of action, frozen moments of motion. In other words, they gave glimpses of something in the process of happening. They were therefore, like any other picture, tiny fragments of the event, specks of drama.

This fact began to become apparent to Black as night after night his slides followed each other through the stereopticon and marched across the screen as he spoke. It chanced that in classifying his slides to give his lecture satisfactory order, he found that almost automatically there was a tendency for pictorial story sequences to develop on the screen. He put his pictures of Wall Street magnates together, his Fifth Avenue belles together, and his Bowery bums together. He had plenty of the tramp pictures. A sleeping tramp on a park bench was easy and interesting game for the camera hunter.

In fancy, the lecturer saw glints of plot in those accidental picture sequences among the tramps. Little snatches of dramatic events seemed to be taking place, with the story running along with an entire disregard of the change of the person of the actor in every successive scene. The automatic logic of the plot suggestion prevailed over the continual change of personnel.

There is no evidence that this property of narrative continuity became apparent to Black’s audiences attending Ourselves as Others See Us. It presumably was only apparent to him because of his extreme familiarity with the material. This familiarity made the slides no longer so much pictures of individuals to him as type symbols and phases of action. Therefore the mind of the lecturer was ready to deal with them as dramatic alphabet blocks from which it seemed he might build stories.

In the spring of 1894 Black had the notion clearly in mind and set forth on a most ambitious project. He proposed making a long sequence of photographic slides presenting a sequential story, involving many persons and many scenes of action. He was entirely familiar with what had been accomplished by the attempts at the motion picture on glass plates by such devices as Heyl’s Phasmatrope and the French Praxinoscope used by Muybridge.

Black had followed the work of Muybridge as an obvious matter of technical interest. He was in the audience when Muybridge addressed the Oxford club of Brooklyn in 1889. It was an occasion made painfully memorable by a misunderstanding.

Following his usual exhibition of running horses and sundry scientific studies of motion, Muybridge presented on his “Zoopraxiscope” a picture of a dancing girl in a costume which interfered neither with her movements nor the vision of the audience. The stumbling of an usher or some similar mishap made a noise in the back of the house. Some one hissed for silence. Muybridge hastily assumed that the hiss was for his dancing girl picture. He stopped the show and harangued that staid Oxford club audience on the purity of art and the divinity of the human form. Every hair of hi patriarchal beard was aquiver with righteous and scientific wrath. Muybridge gathered fervor as he progressed. When he had relieved the verbal pressure, the dancing girl flickered on the screen again before an audience which sat in a silence which seemed to eddy about in blizzardy drifts. The occasion was a triumph for science and art, but not for cordiality.

The glass plate pictures presented by Muybridge gave a jerky brief vision which had neither the duration nor quality which Black sought. Also the Edison Kinetoscope pictures were no aid, being locked in a peep show where they might be viewed by but one person at a time.

However much his acquaintance with those two devices may have encouraged Black he was none the less sent pioneering for a new process all his own.

Black aimed at an expression method which should be made up of still pictures projected by the ordinary stereopticon and spoken words or lines delivered from the stage. The totality of effect he sought was simply the telling of a story by a blend of words and pictures. He hoped that between the two components of word and picture he would convey an impression of dramatic action.

Black arrived at a rate of four slides a minute for his presentation. The plan was to make the pictures successively blend into one another in the dissolving stereopticon, avoiding an optical ‘jar’ as much as possible. Each picture represented a step forward in the action. The pictures were carefully registered always to present every still object in the view in precisely the same position, while only the moving actors were shown in altered attitudes. There could, of course, be no hope of depicting rapid motion. Black chose, in such instances, to picture the moments before and after the swift action involved. For example, the villain might stand menacing the hero with an upraised dagger, while the next slide would show the victim of the stab in a heap on the floor. The spoken obligato from the stage had to carry across the imagined stroke of the stabbing.

All of Black’s artist friends assured him that what he proposed was entirely impossible. This made it worth trying.

Black set about preparing an outline of his photographic story. He called it a “picture play,” having to invent a name for something that had never existed before. The term lived then only so long as his project. A dozen years later “picture play” was re-invented and made a part of motion picture parlance.

In outlining in written notes his first picture play idea, Black wrote some fourteen thousand words. The first picture play brought with it, we see, a most considerable first scenario as well. It contemplated a full evening’s entertainment, or full “feature length” in the language of the modern motion picture.

The story of this picture play was built about the adventures of a girl reporter, designated as Miss Jerry, the role which gave title to the piece.

By mid-summer the actual photographic work began, with Black officiating at the camera, being simultaneously author and director as well. In that pioneer endeavor he encountered most of the problems which were to complicate the technique of photoplay production in the films evolved many a year later. The production ran into some hundreds of exposures and the work covered many weeks.

Miss Blanche Bayliss, whose face was then familiar to the admirers of the drawings of A.B. Wenzell, had the role of Miss Jerry. Black was after realism with vast sincerity and having laid down a newspaper story involving notables he insisted on having them. He had written Chauncey M. Depew and his office at Grand Central Station into the play. Extensive explanations were required when the world’s first photoplay director asked Depew to pose for and with Miss Jerry. Depew had never heard of a pictureplay, nor had any one else in all the wide world. Black’s largest difficulty was to tell what he was doing. Depew either understood or surrendered to avoid misunderstandings. At any rate there were no precedents against it, so he posed. These slides undoubtedly became the medium of the only public appearances in which Depew did not make a speech.

Outdoor scenes were pictured with a hand camera, while the indoor scenes, or sets as we know them now, were made at the Carbon Studio at 5 West 16th street, the private studio and gallery of James Lawrence Breese, a patron of the arts and friend of the enterprising black. There was considerable confusion over “props” and costumes, registered in the piece and then, until the last moment, forgotten in the new scenes. There was the ever constant peril that the heroine would appear at the door in one dress and emerge into the room in another, a common oversight of the film drama later.

Problems in illumination akin to those of the motion picture of to-day were worked out with the use of arc lights, reflectors and diffusing screens. The film drama did not arrive at those refinements of photographic technique until it had acquired the experience of years, but the very first photoplay had them.

The locations of the picture ranged from polite Fifth Avenue to the depths of the slums of Cherry Hill. Unforeseen events reshaped the story on the spot, and the photoplay grew by itself under the hand of the maker. Black evolved a directorial method of improvised speeches calculated to make his cast act and react, just as the modern director bullies and cajoles his stars.

The cast included William Courtenay, in the role of hero, and Ernest Hastings, as the polished villain. Both won stage fame later.

Miss Jerry had its first night, or preview showing, at the Carbon Studio on the night of October 9, 1894. It was presented with elaborate musical accompaniment by John Hyatt Brewer, composer. The audience included William Dean Howells, Edmund Clarence Stedman, Frank R. Stockton, Brander Matthews, and many other celebrities in literature and art. The play ran for two hours. Howells commented that it was too long. Black cut it to an hour and a half, and Howells approved.

Dr. Seth Low saw Miss Jerry at the premiere. “How do you move the figures and keep the pictures still?” he asked. Then Black knew that he had indeed created an illusion of motion.

Miss Jerry went to the lyceum stage and appeared for the delectation of the cognoscenti through the East, including presentations from the Emerson platform at Concord, Mass., and in Boston. Edward Everett Hale approached Dr. Black with mock annoyance after the Boston performance.

“It is so inevitable,” remarked Hale, “that I am chagrined that I did not think of it myself.”

As the Kinetoscope parlors were now invading the principal cities in the autumn of ’94 much of the editorial comment of the press anticipated an application of the film to the Black idea, when Edison should achieve the screen.

This might well have influenced Edison, the father of the film. It might also just as well have influenced Black, the father of the photoplay. It did neither. The point is interesting. Nowhere else in the field of human endeavor can we find so clearly defined that thin line between art and science. Edison was science. Black was art. Between them they held in their separated hands the ingredients of the aqua regalis, that universal solvent of expression – the story telling motion picture film. Only time and tedious experience could bring the two elements together into the flowing menstruum of the modern screen.

That process of alchemy which we are tracing in this history perhaps will give the reader a new view of the identity of art and science, twin odalisques in the harem of the Wish. Similar fusions are continually taking place about us. The sum total of them makes up what we are pleased to call the progress of civilization. The deeper we dig the more it seems that this progress consists only of new and better ways to scratch the same old cosmic itches.

Miss Jerry gave Black a new vocation for several seasons. He became known to the lyceum circuits as “the picture-play man.” Imitators sprang up using simulative names, like “picture drama” and “picture comedy.” It appears they feared copyright restrictions, which in fact did not exist.

The success of Miss Jerry impelled Black to an even more pretentious effort for his second season. The new pictureplay was entitled A Capital Courtship, with scenes laid in Washington. Black was rather aware of the box office value of notables. The story included Grover Cleveland, the president, and, afterward, President McKinley, Thomas B. Reed, speaker of the House of Representatives, and Sir Julian Pauncefote, the British ambassador. Black puts his camera under his arm, went to Washington and got them. He had quite a time trying to tell Grover Cleveland what a pictureplay was. When Cleveland at last comprehended that it was proposed to show him signing a bill, he searched his desk for an actual bill which awaited signature. No make-believe paper would do. The president was something of as literalist, too.

On the whole A Capital Courtship was as much of a success as Miss Jerry. But the second picture contained a snow scene which seems to have been unsuccessful. William J. Baer, later a celebrated painter of miniatures, appeared in A Capital Courtship and attended its premiere. When the snow scene reached its crisis Baer remarked :

“The only way Black could have made that snow more original would have been by having it fall upward.”

Black continued his pictureplays on the lyceum stage, but refused to be interested when B.F. Keith, the Boston variety magnate, sought to have the pictureplays presented at his theatres. This may strike the reader of to-day as a blunder, but Black understood the limitations of his device much better than Keith did. In his own words, Black “insisted that his plays were essentially a lyceum rather than a theatrical feature and chose to avoid general audiences that would look for livelier dramatic elements.” That, however, is only Black’s own gentle way of admitting that the illusion of his photoplays, with their four images a minute and interlarded word imagery of spoken lines, depended upon intellectualizations by the audience. It would have been courting failure to have taken a chance before the lowbrow audiences of the variety houses. The Black pictureplay made the audience work, even if unconsciously, to fill the gaps in the motion record. The limitation resulting from this necessity is obvious. The distinction is as sharp as between wit and slapstick. Variety and its successor, vaudeville, evolved for audiences with small power of concentrated attention. The pictureplay had to supply ready made attention before it could reach the millions.

Black has retrospectively named the process “the slow movie.” It was in fact a motion picture in which the eye received the minimum of cues to keep the mind in the desired emotion path. Imagination had to fill the long gaps in the visual record. The film drama of to-day presents four times as many images a second as Black gave in a minute. A total of 960 frames of film images now go on the screen in the same time that the pictureplay of ’94 presented four slides. The modern screen thereby supplies ready-made imagination, and requires relatively almost no imagination or intellectual abilities for its observation.

Black’s pictureplay was really just a somewhat grotesque bud of the tree of expression. Black, the story teller, by coincidence was also a photographer. He was a great deal more of a story teller than an inventor. The result was the application of the camera and photography as it then existed to the best possible approach to the synthetic re-creation of an event. It was obviously identical in its basic character with the prior efforts in graphic and pictorial expression al the way from Leonardo to Daguerre. Had Black been less of a story teller and more of an inventor he would probably have labored toward the evolution of better picture machinery instead of his curious utilization of the stereopticon. But he would probably not have given us Miss Jerry, which was a stupendous piece of pioneering. It is mere incidental misfortune that so far as the motion picture was concerned the pioneering was wasted by a failure to see what Black had done.

It was a full ten years before the motion picture, coming to the screen as we shall see only a year later, tediously evolved out of expensive labored experience a photoplay which appreciated the principles which Black developed in a few weeks. The inventors who gave us the screen as a means of saying had nothing to say. So long as they controlled it, it remained dumb.

Black’s stereopticon pictureplays were unrecognized forecasts of the age of screen sagas to come. He carried the still camera up to the limit of its possibilities of story telling and the recreation of events.

It may appear surprising that when the motion picture film reached the screen Black made no effort to bring it to the service of his idea. That is to be explained by a whole group of reasons. The first screen pictures were, as we shall note at their arrival in ensuing chapters, inadequate vehicles for story telling because of their brief duration and feeble quality. Their audience was a class to which Black had no message. And Black was moving on to more serious effort in other ohases of expression.

It is of significance, in our understanding of the relation between the motion picture and expression, that Black’s major activity of to-day is as the editor of a newspaper syndicate. This editorship in turn concerns itself largely with spirited pictorial art, in which Black is a high authority. This is not bare coincidence, but is rather another evidence of the fundamental identity and pictorial character of all forms of expression, more especially as between the picture and the word in modern newspapering. The syndicate which Black serves is Newspaper Feature Service, a Hearst enterprise and as an accessory to the graphically dynamic journalism of the Hearst school.

The outward form of Black’s effort is apparently changed, but in fact he is still telling stories and purveying emotions with pictures, just as in the days of Miss Jerry in ’94.

The development of the stereopticon slide for the illustration of incidental song numbers for vaudeville and motion picture theatres attained an elaboration approaching in a degree the Black pictureplay. The long slides reached their peak of development about 1908. The production of series of slides often entailed considerable dramatic staging, travel for backgrounds and casting and costuming.

When Charles K. Harris made his slides for “Linda, Can’t You Love Your Joe?” he sent a photographer into Alabama and Tennessee for settings and real southern darkies. As many as sixty persons appeared in the ensemble scenes.

In 1907 Harris’ song The Best Thing in Life was in effect song-and-picture drama in three acts, using twenty-eight slides, with scenes ranging from a club room interior to Madison Square in a snowstorm. Hello Central, Give Me Heaven was illustrated with scenes from a Chicago Telephone exchange. Here was a word-and–hieroglyph art evolving concurrently with the motion picture.