In This Article American Cinema, 1895-1915

  • Introduction
  • Formative Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Studies of Film Form
  • D. W. Griffith
  • Early Film Sound and Sound Accompaniment
  • Reception and Spectatorship
  • Gender and Feminist Studies
  • The Cinema of Attractions and the Modernity Debate
  • Social and Political Dimensions
  • Race
  • Intertextual and Intermedial Considerations

Cinema and Media Studies American Cinema, 1895-1915
by
Charlie Keil
  • LAST REVIEWED: 14 June 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791286-0074

Introduction

The study of early American cinema was both the beneficiary and the instigator of a wave of revisionist historiography that gained momentum from the mid-1970s onward. While previous accounts of American cinema prior to the advent of features had concentrated on those artistic achievements that led “inevitably” to the mature work of the Hollywood studio system, isolating the contributions of Porter, Ince, and Griffith, the first wave of revisionist efforts, ushered in largely by the findings of scholars still in graduate school, redefined the early cinema landscape. Aided by archivists, who provided them access to large swaths of previously unwatched or underregarded films, and prepared to wade through untold issues of contemporaneous trade journals recorded on microfilm, these young scholars reclaimed the terrain of early American cinema with a historiographically sophisticated fervor. Much of this work did not always distinguish American filmmaking from that of other nations, acknowledging perhaps the porous boundaries of global film exchange, particularly prior to World War I; more often than not, however, emphasis gravitated toward the United States. Most significantly, scholarship in this burgeoning subfield marked off the years prior to 1915 as important in their own right, distinctive for their formal features, audience address, patterns of industrial development, and intertextual references. As the study of early American cinema developed over the next several decades, attention shifted from insightful studies of the films’ formal patterns and groundbreaking examinations of early exhibition and production to consideration of how early American cinema engaged with a host of issues: the dynamics of race and gender, the concurrent emergence of the culture of modernity, audiences in a variety of settings and locales, and the institutional and intermedial contexts for cinema’s emergence during the crucial years before features took hold.

Formative Overviews

In terms of overviews, The History of the America Cinema project kicked off its series in 1990 with two excellent volumes in the form of Musser 1990, which is a monumental account of the formative period, and Bowser 1990, which is an equally valuable take on a smaller number of years for the subsequent installment. Gunning 1998 provides a much more concise overview of this period. Abel 2005 is an encyclopedia covering extensive terrain but features many entries devoted to the United States. Finally, the recent Screen Decades volumes offer year-by-year overviews of two distinct time periods, 1890–1909 (Gaudreault 2009) and 1910–1919 (Keil and Singer 2009), with a concentration on film analysis.

  • Abel, Richard, ed. Encyclopedia of Early Cinema. New York: Routledge, 2005.

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    An impressive undertaking, this encyclopedia features nearly a thousand entries, each written by an expert in the field. Many of the entries focus on the United States, including sections on all facets of the American film industry.

  • Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema, 1907–1915. New York: Scribner’s, 1990.

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    One of the first considerations of the post-1906 era of early American cinema, later labeled the “transitional” period. Bowser’s encyclopedic knowledge of the trade press informs her study.

  • Gaudreault, André, ed. American Cinema, 1890–1909: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

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    Like all Screen Decades volumes, this begins with a historical overview and then offers individual chapters devoted to each of the years under consideration. Because of the larger scope covered by this volume, years from the earlier period are grouped together, typically two years at a time.

  • Gunning, Tom. “Early American Film.” In The Oxford Guide to Film Studies. Edited by John Hill and Pamela Church Gibson, 255–271. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

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    A historiographically sensitive and perceptive account of the manner in which early American film has been studied and reconceptualized in the process.

  • Keil, Charlie, and Ben Singer, eds. American Cinema of the 1910s: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

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    The last half of the volume does not fall under the early cinema rubric, but the attentiveness to individual films means that many relatively little-known titles receive extensive analytical treatment.

  • Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907. New York: Scribner’s, 1990.

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    Containing nearly 500 pages before end matter, this monumental work serves as a seemingly comprehensive introduction to the early landscape of American cinema. Musser charts the changing roles of the exhibitor and production company as cinema passes from novelty to a medium devoted to storytelling. He anchors this impressive volume with his influential argument about cinema perpetuating a tradition of screen practices.

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