Time for another omnibus post because so many anniversaries associated with movie history collide today. On this date in 1861 Samuel Goodale of Cincinnati patented his moving picture peep show machine. On this date in 1870 Henry Renno Heyl used his phasmatrope to project moving images for an audience, which some historians credit as being the first movie show. On this date in 1919 Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith launched United Artists, and on this date in 1937 Modern Times, starring Charlie Chaplin, was released. Let’s see if I can make sense of all of this in a single post.
Samuel Goodale patented a kind of peep show he called a stereoscope which was later called a mutoscope. The term “stereoscope” is misleading because it was more commonly used to describe a viewer of twin images taken by a special camera that showed the image in 3-D. Goodale’s peep show worked on the same principle as the flip book. The individual image frames were conventional black-and-white, silver-based photographic prints on tough, flexible opaque cards. Rather than being bound into a booklet, the cards were attached to a circular core, rather like a huge Rolodex.
Goodale’s and later peep shows were coin-operated. The patron viewed the cards through a single lens enclosed by a hood. The cards were lit by candles and the reel was driven by means of a geared-down hand crank. Each machine held only a single reel and was dedicated to the presentation of a single short subject, described by a poster affixed to the machine. Because one machine contained only one subject, it made sense to have them transported by circus or carnival side shows from one location to another, rather than fixed in one place where audiences would soon tire of the same show being repeated.
Henry Renno Heyl’s Phasmatrope which was first publicly exhibited on this date in 1870 to a theater audience in Philadelphia was similar in operation to Goodale’s peep show in that it employed sequenced photographs on a reel, like a flip book. The difference was that Heyl’s machine allowed projection of the moving images, so that an entire audience could experience the show, not just one viewer at a time. Some historians have given Heyl the honor of being the first person to project photographic motion pictures, and an early promotional poster makes the same claim. In Popular Science Monthly of July 1898 Heyl wrote:
Among the earliest public exhibitions of photographs taken from living subjects in motion projected by the lantern upon a screen was that given at an entertainment held in the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, on the evening of February 5, 1870, and a repetition of the exhibition was made before the Franklin Institute at its next following monthly meeting, on March 16th, by [Heyl]. The printed programme of this event contains the following allusion to this feature of the entertainment:
“This is a recent invention, designed to give various objects and figures upon the screen the most graceful and lifelike movements. The effects are similar to those produced in the familiar toy called the Zoetrope, where men are seen walking, running, and performing various feats in most perfect imitation of real life. This instrument is destined to become a most valuable auxiliary to the appliances for illustration, and we have the pleasure of having the first opportunity of presenting its merits to an audience.”
The subjects exhibited embraced waltzing figures and acrobats, shown upon the screen in life size, while the photographic images were easily three fourths of an inch in height. At that day flexible films were not known in photography, nor had the art of rapid succession picture-making been developed; therefore, it was necessary to limit the views of subjects to those that could be taken by time exposure upon wet plates, which photos were afterward reproduced as positives on very thin glass plates, in order that they might be light in weight. The waltzing figures, taken in six positions, corresponding to the six steps to complete a turn, were duplicated as often as necessary to fill the eighteen picture spaces of the instrument which was used in connection with the lantern to project the images upon the screen.
The piece of mechanism, then named the ‘phasmatrope,’ consisted of a skeleton wheel having nine radial divisions, into which could be inserted the picture, in such relative position that, as the wheel was intermittently revolved, each picture would register exactly with the position just left by the preceding one. The intermittent movement of the wheel was controlled by a ratchet and pawl mechanism operated by a reciprocating bar moved up and down by the hand. It will be apparent that the figures could be moved in rapid succession or quite slowly, or the wheel could be stopped at any point to complete the evolution.
In the exhibition at the Academy of Music above alluded to, the movement of the figures was made to correspond to the time of the waltz played by an orchestra, and when the acrobat performers were shown, a more rapid motion was given, and a full stop made when a somersault was completed. A shutter was then a necessary part of the apparatus to cut off the light rays during the time the pictures were changing places. This was accomplished by a vibrating shutter placed back of the picture wheel, that was operated by the same draw-bar that moved the wheel, only the shutter movement was so timed that it moved first and covered the picture before the latter moved, and completed the movement after the next picture was in place. This movement reduced to great extent the flickering, and gave very natural and lifelike representations of the moving figures.
Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and DW Griffith incorporated United Artists as a joint venture on this date in 1919. Each held a 25 percent stake in the preferred shares and a 20 percent stake in the common shares of the joint venture, with the remaining 20 percent of common shares held by lawyer and advisor William Gibbs McAdoo. The idea for the venture originated with Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford and cowboy star William S. Hart a year earlier. As Hollywood veterans the four talked of forming their own company to better control their own work. They were spurred on by established Hollywood producers and distributors who were tightening their control over actor salaries and creative decisions, a process that evolved into the studio system. With the addition of Griffith, planning began, but Hart bowed out before anything was formalized.
When he heard about their scheme, Richard A. Rowland, head of Metro Pictures, apparently said, “The inmates are taking over the asylum”. The four partners, with advice from McAdoo (son-in-law and former Treasury Secretary of then-President Woodrow Wilson), formed their distribution company. Hiram Abrams was its first managing director, and the company established its headquarters at 729 Seventh Avenue in New York City. The original terms called for each of the stars to produce five pictures a year. By the time the company was operational in 1921, feature films were becoming more expensive and polished, and running times had settled at around 90 minutes (eight reels). The original goal was thus abandoned.
UA’s first film, His Majesty, the American, written by and starring Fairbanks, was a success. Funding for movies was limited. Without selling stock to the public, following the other studios, all United had for finance was weekly prepayment installments from theater owners for upcoming movies. As a result, production was slow, and the company distributed an average of only five films a year in its first five years. By 1924, Griffith had dropped out, and the company was facing a crisis; the alternatives were to either bring in others to help support a costly distribution system or concede defeat. Veteran producer Joseph Schenck was hired as president. He had been producing pictures for a decade, and he brought commitments for films starring his wife, Norma Talmadge, his sister-in-law, Constance Talmadge, and his brother-in-law, Buster Keaton. Contracts were signed with independent producers, most notably Samuel Goldwyn, and Howard Hughes. In 1933, Schenck organized a new company with Darryl F. Zanuck, called Twentieth Century Pictures, which soon provided four pictures a year, forming half of UA’s schedule. Schenck formed a separate partnership with Pickford and Chaplin to buy and build theaters under the United Artists name. They began international operations, first in Canada, and then in Mexico. By the end of the 1930s, United Artists was represented in over 40 countries.
Modern Times, starring Chaplin, premiered on this date in 1936. Technically it is a talkie because it has a sound track, but Chaplin’s character is silent. It was written and directed by Chaplin; his iconic Little Tramp character struggles to survive in the modern, industrialized world. The film is a comment on the desperate employment and financial conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in Chaplin’s view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization. The movie stars Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford and Chester Conklin.
During a European tour promoting City Lights, Chaplin got the inspiration for Modern Times from both the lamentable conditions of the continent through the Great Depression, along with a conversation with Mahatma Gandhi in which they discussed modern technology. Chaplin did not understand why Gandhi generally opposed it, though he granted that “machinery with only consideration of profit” had put people out of work and ruined lives.
Chaplin began preparing the film in 1934 as his first “talkie”, and went as far as writing a dialogue script and experimenting with some sound scenes. However, he soon abandoned these attempts and reverted to a silent format with synchronized sound effects and sparse dialogue. The dialogue experiments confirmed his long-standing conviction that the universal appeal of his “Little Tramp” character would be lost if the character ever spoke on screen. Most of the film was shot at “silent speed”, 18 frames per second, which when projected at “sound speed”, 24 frames per second, made the slapstick action appear even more frenetic. Available prints of the film now correct this. The duration of filming was long for the time, beginning on October 11, 1934 and ending on August 30, 1935.
Chaplin’s eating habits are well documented, fortunately. His son wrote:
Besides stewed tripe and onions, he likes lamb stew. Those are two of his three favorite dishes. He dislikes seasoning, never uses sauces or violent condiments and doesn’t care for highly spiced dishes. The one exception is curry, the hotter the better. That’s his third favorite dish. He is utterly inconsistent about eating. Sometimes he will go for twenty-four hours or longer without taking a morsel. Then he’ll eat four or five meals within the next day. He goes on diets but never keeps them up. He went rabidly on a raw vegetable diet for several days. “Look at animals,” he said, “they eat raw vegetables and are healthy. The elephant is the biggest and strongest animal; he eats only vegetables.” That night, Charlie ate two beefsteaks, rare.
Very well, I am partial to tripe too, although the English tripe and onions was the bane of my existence as a boy. If you don’t like tripe, make lamb stew or a curry with rice. Here’s Mrs Beeton on tripe followed with her onion sauce recipe. If my mother had cooked it this way I might have liked tripe – but I doubt it.
- INGREDIENTS.—Tripe, onion sauce, No. 484, milk and water.
Mode.—Ascertain that the tripe is quite fresh, and have it cleaned and dressed. Cut away the coarsest fat, and boil it in equal proportions of milk and water for 3/4 hour. Should the tripe be entirely undressed, more than double that time should be allowed for it. Have ready some onion sauce made by recipe No. 4S4, dish the tripe, smother it with the sauce, and the remainder send to table in a tureen.
Time.—1 hour: for undressed tripe, from 2-1/2 to 3 hours.
Average cost, 7d. per lb.
Seasonable at any time.
Note.—Tripe may be dressed in a variety of ways: it may be cut in pieces and fried in batter, stewed in gravy with mushrooms, or cut into collops, sprinkled with minced onion and savoury herbs, and fried a nice brown in clarified butter.
WHITE ONION SAUCE, for Boiled Rabbits, Roast Shoulder of Mutton, &c.
- INGREDIENTS.—9 large onions, or 12 middling-sized ones, 1 pint of melted butter made with milk (No. 380), 1/2 teaspoonful of salt, or rather more.
Mode.—Peel the onions and put them into water to which a little salt has been added, to preserve their whiteness, and let them remain for 1/4 hour. Then put them in a stewpan, cover them with water, and let them boil until tender, and, if the onions should be very strong, change the water after they have been boiling for 1/4 hour. Drain them thoroughly, chop them, and rub them through a tammy or sieve. Make 1 pint of melted butter, by recipe No. 380, and when that boils, put in the onions, with a seasoning of salt; stir it till it simmers, when it will be ready to serve. If these directions are carefully attended to, this onion sauce will be delicious.
Time.—From 3/4 to 1 hour, to boil the onions.
Average cost, 9d. per pint.
Sufficient to serve with a roast shoulder of mutton, or boiled rabbit.
Seasonable from August to March.
Note.—To make this sauce very mild and delicate, use Spanish onions, which can be procured from the beginning of September to Christmas. 2 or 3 tablespoonfuls of cream added just before serving, will be found to improve its appearance very much. Small onions, when very young, may be cooked whole, and served in melted butter. A sieve or tammy should be kept expressly for onions: an old one answers the purpose, as it is liable to retain the flavour and smell, which of course would be excessively disagreeable in delicate preparations.