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The Lumière Cinématographe in Decline

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While the American Mutoscope Company expanded overseas, the Lumières faced increasing difficulties within the United States. Initially, although their cinématographe had lost many of its original venues, it found alternate sites in many instances. Expelled from all of Keith’s theaters by early January 1897, the Lumière service soon reopened in New York at Proctor’s two theaters, and in Boston at the Grand Opera House—with the result that the French enterprise remained reasonably prosperous during the first months of 1897 and grossed an average of ten thousand dollars a month. 23

Despite the availability of alternate venues, the cinématographe ceased to be a powerful force in American cinema during the spring of 1897. According to Félix Mesguich, the Lumière Agency suffered setbacks when the American Mutoscope Company, with its powerful political connections to the Republican Party, was rewarded by the new pro-tariff administration. The French enterprise faced legal actions for customs irregularities because the cinématographes had been brought into the country as personal property rather than as commercial goods. Lumière manager Lafont eventually learned that he faced arrest for his company’s activities and fled the country, reaching a French liner in the Hudson River by canoe. 24

The liquidation of the Lumières’ American holdings of machines and stock, commencing in April 1897, would seem to support Mesguich, except that the company adopted a similar commercial strategy in England at the same time, 25 which suggests that intervention by the U.S. government was not the only and perhaps not even the principal reason for their withdrawal from the American market. By that date, the cinématographe was becoming technologically outmoded. Its single-hole sprocket system was incompatible with English and American projectors that had adopted Edison’s four-sprocket format, which meant that only Lumière films could be shown on Lumière projectors. Since Lumière prints were increasingly available in the four-sprocket format, the French machine was not a wise choice for someone purchasing a projector. Whether the marketing of cinématographes was a desperate attempt to reassert the Lumière format, a retrenchment within the world market, a response to customs problems, or some combination of the three remains unclear. The sale, however, accelerated the decline of the French company on the American market.

The Lumière Agency sold its equipment and films to a variety of small-time exhibitors. Boston’s Grand Opera House purchased a cinématographe and then rented a complete change of films each week to keep its selections fresh and attractive. F. F. Proctor chose not to become an owner, and the cinématographes left his theaters after the first week in May. Maguire & Baucus purchased fifteen hundred films of various subjects and soon became the American (and English) agent for Lumière films. 26 While exhibitions on the cinématographe retained some of their popularity into 1898, the Agency’s large-scale, effectively coordinated organization had ceased to exist.

By the end of the 1896-1897 season, the American industry was proceeding along two somewhat different lines. On one hand, the Edison Manufacturing Company, the International Film Company, Edward Amet, Sigmund Lubin, and the Lumières (via Maguire & Baucus) were principally concerned with selling films and hardware to anyone who wished to purchase them. On the other hand, the Biograph Company featured a special-size film that other exhibitors could not use. It showed only its own productions, and soon those of its sister companies overseas. With its superior image and high fee, the biograph service tended to play in first-class houses as a leading attraction. Thus, film production and exhibition were unified under one enterprise when it came to 70-mm (or other nonstandard formats) but were commonly performed by independent entities in the 35-mm branch of the industry.

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