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The Biograph at Home and Abroad

mutoscope company dickson american

Large-scale organization can provide commercial enterprises with many advantages, and the American Mutoscope Company generally maximized these opportunities of scale. By early 1897 the company was paying expenses and making a profit. “Our machine known as the Biograph is meeting with success and we now have about 25 exhibits throughout the country,” Koopman reported on 11 February. “These machines are rented, and we derive a good income therefrom.” In many instances, Biograph rented its services to local theatrical entrepreneurs. Thus, its Washington, D.C., exhibitions were known first as Allen’s Biograph and then Jay Denham’s Biograph. 17 But while most people who hired the Biograph service were amusement professionals, there were also cases like that of the Oneida County Wheelway League, which rented the Biograph service for a week in April and ran it at the Utica Opera House. Not only were free passes given to children from the Utica Orphan Asylum and other groups who could not afford admission but, according to announcements,

every penny of profits will be devoted to the construction and repair of the cinder paths. Inasmuch as every ’cyclist finds pleasure in riding the cinder paths, it is the duty of every ’cyclist to contribute to their maintenance. The officers of the League have provided the Biograph entertainments for the purpose of tempering the stern sense of duty with an alloy of pleasure, for each patron may have entire confidence that the entertainments will be well worth the cost of seeing them ( Utica Observer, 9 April 1897, p. 6).

Once success was assured, the American Mutoscope Company constructed a motion-picture studio on the roof of its building at 841 Broadway. As he had with the Black Maria, Dickson insisted on an elaborate setup that could be rotated to face the sun. This outdoor studio was ready for filmmaking early in 1897. SAUSAGE MACHINE (Nos. 132 and 133), an imitation of the Lumières’ SAUSAGE MACHINE , may well have been taken on the completed stage in late February. A production still of LOVE’S YOUNG DREAM (No. 154), taken soon after McKinley’s March inauguration, indicates that the studio was in full operation by this date. Elaborating on the osculatory motif, the film shows two lovers kissing in the parlor when they are interrupted by the girl’s irate father. Several one-shot comedies were quickly filmed on the new rooftop. In A BUNGLING WAITER (No. 156), the waiter spoils a tête-à-tête between a young couple by spilling food on them. A PILLOW FIGHT (No. 158), showing four young girls hitting each other with pillows until the feathers pour out, was extremely well received—in Boston it was encored until shown again—and the Edison Company promptly responded with an imitation called PILLOW F IGHT (© 24 May 1897). THE MISER (No. 160) was a close view of “the familiar character played by Paul Gilmore,” giving spectators a much more intimate look at the actor than they normally enjoyed in the theater. 18

Dickson remained in charge of the American Mutoscope Company’s single camera throughout this period. One typical filming trip found him in Hartford, Connecticut, on 8 April 1897, ready to photograph local views. Rainy weather delayed filming until four days later, when a clear day provided sufficient light. After a rehearsal in which the city’s horseless fire engine, Jumbo, charged down Wyllys Street, the fire run was repeated twice more for Dickson’s camera (JUMBO , Nos. 170 and 171). He then shot COLUMBIA BICYCLE FACTORY (No. 172), showing workers leaving the Pope Manufacturing Company at noon, and A NEWSBOYS’ SCRAP (No. 173), featuring paperboys for the Hartford Times. 19 After the Hartford filming, Dickson headed north to Fort Ethan Allen near Burlington, Vermont, and took eleven scenes of military drills and maneuvers (MUSICAL DRILL , TROOP A, 3RD CAVALRY , No. 176). Back in New York, he was responsible for ten films of the 27 April parade celebrating the dedication of Grant’s Tomb.

The American Mutoscope Company expanded its operations overseas during the first part of 1897. Biograph’s London premiere came at the Palace Theater on 18 March. The reception was favorable, and on 12 May, Dickson and Koopman left New York for England, bringing with them at least one camera (increasingly referred to as the “biograph camera” rather than a "mutograph "). Their first subjects in England were Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations on 22 June. Lacking facilities for developing and printing the films, Dickson sent back lantern slides of the jubilee to the American office. “The biograph keeps well up with the times,” reported the New York Mail and Express, “and yesterday it showed two good views of the intercollegiate boat races as well as five stationary views of the Queen’s jubilee, the latter being the first in America of that famous celebration.” A royal command performance of the biograph and its jubilee pictures for the Prince of Wales on 20

July forced the Biograph group, notably Eugène Lauste, to work around the clock to set up the developing system of tanks and wooden reels and then to make the necessary films. The screening was a success and was followed by exhibitions in leading music halls throughout the British Isles. In London they constructed a rotating studio similar to the one at 841 Broadway. 20 After setting up the British Mutoscope Company, Biograph was on its way to becoming an international network of sister companies.

Biograph soon took over the market for peephole motion-picture devices. In 1896 the mutoscope had been of marginal importance. “The first pictures we took were of loom-weaving materials which the traveling salesman could use to show merchants what they were buying,” cameraman Billy Bitzer recalled. “We also photographed very large machines, whose working parts could be demonstrated by this method better than they could by chart. All the salesman needed was to carry a lightweight box with a cord to hook into the electric plug. Inside the box was a series of postcard-size flip pictures, which could be stopped at any point for discussion or inspection, and were a great boon to sales.” Such limited use was necessary since producing mutoscope reels in large quantities was difficult at first. According to Bitzer, these “were handassembled, and it was a Chinese puzzle to squeeze and crowd, say, the last pack of cards around the block and have them all—from one to 999—steady.” A solution to this problem was found by punching holes in the cards, running a rubber band through the holes, and tying the ends. These could then be stretched over the large wooden spools and cinched by flanges. 21

The Biograph Company did not start to exploit its mutoscopes extensively until launching them for amusement purposes early in 1897. On 10 February it was said to be “engaged in manufacturing for early introduction before the public, coin-operated Mutoscopes, the introduction of which will be undertaken by local companies, a number of which have already been organized, and others are organizing in various states.” An extensive publicity campaign soon detailed its advantages over the kinetoscope. The mutoscope was attractive to investors, explained the New York Herald, because “it is operated by hand and requires no motor battery or attendant; so simple is it that a child can operate it.” Likewise, the device was attractive to the viewer because “in the operation of the mutoscope the spectator has the performance entirely under his own control by the turning of the crank. He may make the operation as quick or as slow as fancy dictates, or he may maintain the normal speed at which the original performance took place; and if he so elects the entertainment can be stopped by him at any point in the series and each separate picture inspected at leisure.” 22 LITTLE EGYPT (Nos. 136, 140, 141), the first mutoscope hit, showed the famed hoochie-coochie dancer. It was soon followed by subjects such as PARISIENNE GIRLS (No. 165) and A DRESSING ROOM SCENE (No. 228). Subjects like these appealed to male spectators who not only wanted to peep but to control the unfolding of the image, perhaps searching for that frame which most revealed these women’s bodies.

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