Meanwhile a secret race to the screen was taking place. Probably the first to project, outside the Edison laboratories, was the late Major Woodville Latham, a hero of the Confederacy, from Virginia, who opened a flickering show at about 140 Broadway in May of 1895. Meanwhile in France, Louis and Auguste Lumière of Lyons, and Robert W. Paul of London achieved the screen, and in Washington, Thomas Armat brought forth a projector commercially shown in Atlanta in September, 1895. All of these machines were based on Edison’s peep show Kinetoscope and used his films primarily.
Communication was slow then. When the showmen of New York began to demand a screen machine, the Edison agents, Raff & Gammon of New York, investigated Armat’s invention, named it the Vitascope, and made a deal at West Orange to have it manufactured and offered as an Edison device–because the market looked to Edison, who was indeed the father of the motion picture.
The revolution wrought by sound had given rise to a new galaxy of stars and introduced new types of pictures. Many of the familiar figures of the movie world continued in the talkies their success in silent films; a few staged remarkable come-backs after a period of eclipse while they adapted themselves to an unfamiliar technique.
Actors and actresses of the legitimate stage, who had often scorned the pantomime of the silent film, made their hopeful way to California in droves, and a good many of them remained. Singers and dancers, for whom the talkies represented an entirely new opportunity, were suddenly in great demand. In a whirl of expanding energy, Hollywood exploited all the means at its disposal to reach the still broader market for popular entertainment now opening up.
By 1920 the industry had embarked on a second phase of monopoly control. It was organized not around patents but around the economies of scale permitted within large companies involved in production, distribution and exhibition. Under its president, Adolph Zukor, Paramount developed some of the basic mechanisms of monopoly control such as block booking, by which exhibitors could buy films only in groups, whether they wanted all the films or not.
Other companies, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) and Fox, enlisted Wall Street finance in following ZukoI’s example. In 1922 they formed a trade association, the Motion Pichýre Producers and Distributors of America, Inc. (MPPDA). As its president, and “spokesman for the industry”, they hired Will H. Hays, then Postmaster General, and the man who had run Warren Harding’s successful presidential campaign in 1920.
The diversity of pictures that sound made possible was the most characteristic feature of the movies in the 1930’s. They were filling the democratic role that the theatre itself had played a century earlier, and nightly programs often showed a startling resemblance to those of the popular playhouses of that earlier day. As well as straight theatre, the movies offered a modern equivalent for the equestrian melodramas, elaborate burlesques, and variety shows which had once had such wide appeal.
At firstrun houses there might be seen in quick succession a classical play filmed with all the artistry the producers now commanded, an extravagant girl-and-music show, a detective thriller, a bloodand-thunder western melodrama, a sophisticated comedy, and a slap-stick farce. A single show, again like those of mid-century, invariably included one of these main features; one or more specialities, which might well be a singing or dancing act (the news reel was an innovation for which the theatre had had no parallel); and a comedy short, which took the place of the nineteenth-century afterpiece.
While the Hays Office, as the MPPDA was popularly known, was most famous for its involvement in film censorship, it was also much less publidy involved in a wide range of political and legal activities on behalf of its members.
The major companies cooperated with each other on such major issues as censorship, legislation and the introduction of sound. Wamer Bros pioneered sound movies as part of a planned program of expansion which included extensive theater purchases. In August 1926 they assembled their first package of sound films, containing six musical performances and the John Barrymore feature Don Juan, which had recorded musical accompaniment.
Initially uncertain of the long-term profits in sound, the larger companies agreed to spend a year jointly investigating all the available systems.
Meanwhile, Wamers continued to produce short sound films featuring the biggest stars of vaudeville, including Al Jolson. In 1928 the other companies opted for the Vitaphone system used by Wamers. In order to exploit RCA’s rival Photophone system which they had rejected, David Samoff, head of RCA, organized a series of mergers to create the last of the great Hollywood companies, RKO (Radio Keith Orpheum). A year later, RCA took over the Victor Talking Machine Company, making itself the first entertainment media conglomerate, with interests in broadcasting, recording, movies and vaudeville.
The feature films derived from plays of the legitimate stage ranged from Camille to Petticoat Fever, from Pygmalion to Idiot’s Delight. Historical romances were elaborately produced: Disraeli was a favorite picture one year, and in another Cimarron, a story of Oklahoma pioneering. Gone With the Wind was a sensation at the close of 1939. Well-known classics were adapted to the screen, with such notable successes as Captains Courageous and David Copperfield. New possibilities opened up with animated cartoons. The “Silly Symphonies” had a great success, and one of the most popular pictures in 1937-38 was the cartoon fairy-tale (photographed in color) of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
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