The Birth of Film
Poster for Vitascope
Thomas Edison invented the first machine that was able to project
motion pictures on a screen. This poster advertises the invention,
which made movie theaters popular instead of the nickelodeons.
Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-1102.
The invention of motion pictures came at the end of the 19th century. Although the American film industry eventually became the leading film industry in the world, the technology necessary to project moving images was developed simultaneously in various places. In 1894, Thomas Edison unveiled the kinetoscope, a “peephole device” that displayed moving pictures. In France the next year, the Lumiere Brothers went a step further by projecting moving images on a screen, which would later transform the act of viewing films from an individual to a shared social experience.1

The first films were short “travelogues, documentaries, and ‘trick’ films.”2 The films initially did not tell a linear story; early filmmakers simply recorded either real or brief staged events and presented them to a viewer on film. Films from this period have been called the “cinema of attractions” by film scholar Tom Gunning, in part, because they privilege spectacle over narrative.3 When they were first shown publicly, the films themselves were often incorporated into vaudeville shows. By 1905, however, businesses called Nickelodeons began to appear, whose sole purpose was to show films to paying customers.4 These Nickelodeons were small storefronts, comprised of little more than a projector and seats, and were the primary place where working class audiences viewed films. Costing only a nickel, these shows, which usually ran 15 to 20 minutes and were shown continuously throughout the day, were widely accessible and affordable. It was not until around 1910, as the popularity of movie-going as a recreational activity increased, that Nickelodeons began to be replaced by larger, more traditional movie theaters. This transformation went hand in hand with the development of longer two and four-reel films that, for the first time, told linear, fictional stories, all of which was in part about appealing to a more middle class audience.5

Poster for Birth of a Nation
Poster for D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, 1915.

The popularity of film in its first decade was for some, a cause for concern. Some Progressive reformers, for example, worried that cinema, precisely because of its appeal to immigrants and the working class, would promote vice. The move to longer films, not only increased their profitability, but also required narrative, which in turn enabled films to carry moral messages.  In other words, economic motives, along with a desire to make films “respectable,” together pushed the development of films in a particular direction, the effects of which we still see today. No one was more important in the transition from early cinema, to what film scholars call “classical Hollywood cinema” than D. W. Griffith. He believed that film could be used for “moral uplift” and crafted his films accordingly with good triumphing over evil. He was a prolific filmmaker even before making his most well-known feature-length film, Birth of a Nation (1915). While Birth of a Nation was the longest, and arguably the most impressive piece of filmmaking to date, it was a blatantly racist depiction of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras:  in the film, good vs. evil was depicted as whites vs. blacks. After Birth of a Nation, five-reel films became more popular and widely distributed. The demand for longer films with more intricate plots required new techniques in storytelling, filming, and editing and D.W. Griffith was at the forefront of this effort.