Welcome to the "Questions & Answers" section of our website. Please feel free to submit any question you have concerning the first 70 years of the motion picture industry, and we will do our best to find the answer. Your comments concerning our answers are also welcome.
Ask The Picture Show Man a question by clicking on the following address:
NOTE: We will try to email an answer to every question concerning the history of motion pictures from 1890 to 1960 that we receive, and if we decide that the question is of general interest we will also publish the answer in this section. However, we will not answer questions that we suspect are actually school assignments, classroom quizzes, or part of a trivia contest.
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Q #1: Dear Mr. Picture Show Man
Most commercial movies were, and still are, shot using film that is 35 millimeters wide. When and why did 35mm film become the standard?
A: When Thomas Edison and his team of inventors, headed by William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, finally introduced the Kinetoscope in April 1894, it used a film that was almost identical with the 35mm film used today – the same width and with four perforations on each side of the image. It has been assumed that Dickson arrived at the 35mm width by cutting a 70mm roll of George Eastman’s transparent, celluloid film in half. The evidence that survives, however, shows that 35mm film evolved quite differently. This evolution is meticulously detailed in Paul C. Spehr’s definitive article “Unaltered to Date: Developing 35mm Film” that is included in the book “Moving Images: From Edison to the Webcam” (2000) edited by John Fullerton & Astrid Söderbergh Widding. We will try to summarize Mr. Spehr’s account, but offer in advance our sincerest apologies to Mr. Spehr for the enormous amount of information we are leaving out.
When W.K.L. Dickson was developing a motion picture camera, he found that rolls of the new, flexible, unbreakable, celluloid film (which started to be manufactured in the late 1880s) offered the best means for recording multiple images very quickly. However, the 70mm film being produced by George Eastman for his popular Kodak camera (which took still photographs) proved to be too thin to withstand the severe strain from the continuous intermittent movement to which film in a motion picture camera was subjected, not to mention the wear and tear on the sprocket holes. Because of this, Dickson found that he needed to special order thicker, tougher film that would meet his special needs.
Dickson began his motion picture experiments using film that was 3/4ths of an inch wide. Unfortunately this produced a ½ inch wide image that was blurry and unsatisfactory. So Dickson and his crew experimented with several different image sizes and eventually settled on a picture that was 1 inch wide by ¾ inches high. Since sprocket holes needed to be placed on each side of the film so that it could be advanced and registered accurately, Dickson found that the actual film width needed to be 1 and 3/8ths inches (35mm) to provide enough room for the image and the perforations. (Note that the film width was determined by the image size, not the other way around.) But because Eastman’s company couldn’t consistently cut the film to the exact width needed, it appears that from 1890 to 1894 Dickson had his film trimmed and perforated on a special machine at the Edison laboratories to assure accuracy and consistency. Because of this, the film that Dickson ordered was wider than needed so it could be trimmed to the required size. For instance, by 1892 he was ordering film 1 and 9/16ths inches wide even though by this time the film used in his camera was 1 and 3/8ths inches wide.
Although the Eastman Kodak Company supplied most of Dickson’s film initially, the manufacture of celluloid roll film in the early 1890s was not an exact science and a great deal of the supplied film was rejected because of its poor quality. Eastman’s company actually stopped making transparent roll film during the second half of 1892 and didn’t resume its manufacture until 1894. During the period when the Eastman Kodak Company stopped making their transparent film, the Blair Camera Company of Boston, another manufacturer of celluloid roll film that Dickson had used occasionally, stepped in and began supplying Edison’s Company with all its needed film and, eventually, they were able to supply it pre–cut to Edison’s 35mm specification. But by 1896 the Eastman Kodak Company had perfected its manufacturing processes for celluloid roll film, and when they returned to producing what they called ‘Cine Film’, which was polished on both sides making it clearer than the dark–toned film from Blair, Edison switched back to ordering all of his film, pre–cut, from them.
Despite the many experiments with various film widths by other pioneering companies, the swift acceptance of the 35mm film format by the major motion picture camera and projector manufacturers (Edison in the U.S., and the Lumières in France) was a critical factor in the rapid introduction and spread of motion pictures. It’s interesting to note that prior to 1896 the term “35mm” was not used for what quickly became the ‘standard’ motion picture film. Until the Lumières finally had their own film stock manufactured in France, all ‘cine film' was made in the United States or England. In both of these countries the size of film was measured in feet, inches or fractions of inches. (As late as 1933 W.K.L. Dickson referred to his film as being 1 and 3/8ths inches wide.) The universal acceptance of the metric designation ‘35mm’, as well as George Eastman’s acceptance of the term ‘Cine Film’, reflects the early impact of France on the development of the motion picture industry.
Q #2: Dear Mr. Picture Show Man:
How many brothers originally ran the Warner Bros. Studios?
A: There were four bothers involved with Warner Bros. in the studio’s early years: Harry Warner (born 1881); Albert “Abe” Warner (born 1884); Sam Warner (born 1888); and Jack Warner (born 1892). It was said that Sam got the ideas, Harry financed them, Jack and Abe implemented them. Historically, Warner Bros. is perhaps most famous for producing the motion picture, "The Jazz Singer", in 1927, the first feature film that utilized synchronized sound for dialogue.
Q #3: Dear Mr. Picture Show Man:
Who, in your opinion, was the greatest film actor?
A: Wow! That’s a question that could be argued endlessly. I think I’ll defer to the late Pauline Kael, the great film critic for The New Yorker. She wrote, “Falconetti’s Joan may be the finest performance ever recorded on film.” Ms. Kael was referring to the French stage actress Renée Maria Falconetti (born in 1892), and to her performance in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 silent film, "The Passion of Joan of Arc". The Danish film director “discovered” Mlle Falconetti doing a light comedy on a Paris stage. “There was a soul behind that façade,” he said after watching her performance, and though she had never acted in a film (very few “serious” actors made films in those days) he cast her to play the title role in his new film about the recently canonized Joan of Arc. Making "The Passion of Joan of Arc" turned out to be an arduous ordeal for Mlle Falconetti, and for whatever reason she never made another film. She died in Buenos Aires in 1946.
On the other hand, according to David Thomson, in his book "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film", the “best and most important actor in the history of the cinema” is Cary Grant. Born Archibald Alexander Leach in 1904, Cary Grant could, “be attractive and unattractive simultaneously; there is a light and dark side to him but, whichever is dominant, the other
creeps into view,” according to Mr. Thomson. He adds that Cary Grant had, “a rare willingness to commit himself to the camera without fraud, disguise, or exaggeration, to take part in a fantasy without being deceived by it.”
However, on the other, other hand, my drama teacher in college (many, many, many years ago) insisted that Spencer Tracy was the greatest film actor who had ever lived. As I said, this is a question that could be argued endlessly. What do you think?
(By the way, "Premiere Magazine" published their list of the '100 Greatest Performances of All Time' in their April, 2006, issue,. Their #1 pick was Peter O'Toole for his performance in the 1962 movie "Lawrence of Arabia".)
Q #4: Dear Mr. Picture Show Man:
When did sound first appear in movies?
A: Well, actually you've asked a surprisingly complicted question. Sound didn't just suddenly appear with the production of one film, and the line between the "silent–era" and the "sound–era" is blurry at best. As Donald Crafton points out in his book, "The Talkies", sound did not arrive in Hollywood all at once like an express train. "Metaphorically speaking it came gradually, in little crates 'on approval', and some left the factory but never arrived at their destination."
We know that Thomas Edison, perhaps as early as 1893, experimented with using a phonograph record to synchronize sounds with his kinetoscope films, and during the first 30 years of motion picture history there were a great many other experiments with synchronized sound. For instance, D.W. Griffith's 1921 film "Dream Street" was intended to be screened with a portion of disc–recorded music, but the synchronized sequence was quickly abandoned because of poor synchronization and inferior sound reproduction.
The most successful method for supplying sound–on–disk (where a pre–recorded disk was mechanically synchronized to a film as it was being shown) was the Vitaphone system developed by the Western Electric Company and purchased by Warner Bros. When Warner Bros., who would become the talking–picture pioneers, first thought of utilizing sound they initially saw it as a gimmick to spice up silent film programs, and then as a money–saving (and union–busting) alternative to the pit orchestra in small towns.
On August 6, 1926, Warner Bros. released "Don Juan" starring John Barrymore and Montague Love. "Don Juan" used the Vitaphone sound–on–disk system to synchronize music with the film. The first commercial feature film to have actual synchronized dialogue was the Warner Bros. movie "The Jazz Singer" starring Al Jolson. "The Jazz Singer" was released on October 6, 1927, and it contained both silent scenes and sound sequences (consisting of both synchronized singing and synchronized dialogue). After "The Jazz Singer" proved to be a huge commercial success, it didn't take long for the other Hollywood studios to convert their production facilities so that they could also make "talking pictures". Although the awkward Vitaphone system was rather quickly replaced by optical–soundtrack technology (where the soundtrack was placed directly on the film) most people date Hollywood's official transformation to sound films to that 1927 release of "The Jazz Singer".
By the way, the following year (1928) Warner Bros. released the first movie to use synchronized dialogue throughout the picture. Advertised as "The First All Talking Picture", it was a low–budget gangster film starring Helene Costello and Cullen Landis called "Lights of New York". Costing only $23,000 to make, the movie brought in over $1 million at the box–office.
You can find out more about this period by going to our "Timeline" and clicking on the decade "1920–1929". You may also want to read our article on "Singin' in the Rain". "Singin' in the Rain", a musical made in 1952, is a whimsical but very entertaining look at Hollywood's transition to sound.
Q #5: Dear Mr. Picture Show Man:
What actor has had roles in the most feature–length motion pictures?
A: According to the Internet Movie Database, and the book "Film Facts" by Patrick Robertson (formerly called "The Guinness Book of Movie Facts & Feats"), that record is held by Tom London. Born Leonard Clapham in Louisville, KY, on August 24, 1889, he was a salesman who eventually wound up working for the Selig Polyscope Film Company in Chicago. (Since there is some confusion about his year of birth, we confirmed that it was 1889 through his Social Security records.) Around 1910 Leonard went with the company when it moved to California, and before long he began playing small parts in the westerns being made by the Selig Company. His expertise with horses quickly lead to bigger roles, and by the time he died in North Hollywood, CA, on December 5, 1963, it is estimated that he had played characters in well over 500 features. The Internet Movie Database lists him in 558 movies (silent and sound), while "Film Facts" estimates that he had been in over 2,000 movies. (We'll go with the number 558, since to have made over 2,000 movies would require that he had made 30 to 40 feature films a year each year for his entire career!)
Although Tom London appeared in other types of films, "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) and "Platinum Blonde" (1931) for example, westerns were his true medium. He has been identified in nearly 500 sound films, which includes work in at least 52 serials and 320 westerns. He typically played a sheriff, ranch owner or bad guy, and in non–westerns a policeman. Leonard Clapham adopted the stage name "Tom London" in 1924. It is stated by a number of sources that he was in the 1903 movie "The Great Train Robbery". If that is true, he was only 14 when he was an extra in that film.
With that said, the person who has physically been in the most movies is undoubtedly Bess Flowers (1898–1984). Known to some as "Queen of the Hollywood Extras", Bess was rarely listed in a films' credits and almost never spoke a line. But between 1923 and 1964 it is estimated that she appeared in well over 700 feature films including such classics as "It Happened One Night" (1934), "My Man Godfrey" (1936), "Double Indemnity" (1944), and "All About Eve" (1950). Although she was usually in the background, often playing a wealthy matron, her face is probably familiar to anyone who has seen a lot of vintage movies.
Q #6: Dear Mr. Picture Show Man:
What, and when, was the first movie shown on television?
A: The book "Film Facts" by Patrick Robertson (formerly called "The Guinness Book of Movie Facts and Feats") states:
"The first full–length feature film shown on television was "Police Patrol " (US 1925), transmitted in six daily episodes by W2XCD Passaic, NJ, 6–11 April 1931."
W2XCD was an experimental television station set up by the DeForest Radio Corporation, and "Police Patrol" was a silent movie produced by Gotham Productions that ran for 6 reels (approximately 60 minutes).
In 1931 television was still a laboratory experiment in its early stages of development (commercial TV receivers wouldn't be sold in the U.S. to the general public until 1939). Although there were a few hundred hobbyists who could receive the transmissions that were being produced by a small number of experimental television stations in 1931, the image was often hard to see clearly. In fact, an announcer would sometimes describe the scene so that the audience would know what they were seeing. Although there were people like Francis Jenkins who were broadcasting poetry, singing, skits and even plays for three to six hours a day, when NBC took over RCA's experimental station W2XBS in 1931 the station was only broadcasting test patterns, photographs, and images of objects (like a model of Felix the Cat). By 1932 enthusiasm for this new technology was on the decline, and the Great Depression forced many of the first TV entrepreneurs out of business.
In 1929 Philo Farnsworth, one of the early TV pioneers, did experiment with transmitting motion pictures in his laboratory. He used an excerpt from the new Mary Pickford/Douglas Fairbanks film "The Taming of the Shrew" because the print had sharp contrasts of black and white. The excerpt showed Mary Pickford combing her hair, and it may have made Mary the first movie actress to be shown on TV. (The source for this information is the book "Tube: The Invention of Television" by David Fisher & Marshall Jon Fisher.)
During the 1930s there were other motion pictures transmitted by experimental television stations in the U.S. For instance, we know that W2XBS got into trouble in 1938 when it broadcast "The Scarlet Pimpernel" (1934) and inadvertently played the last reel out of order.
The question stated above, however, would seem to be asking for the first movie to be shown on "commercial" television, not in laboratory experiments. Although we could find no authoritative reference to the "first" film shown on commercial TV, we do know (thanks to the book "Brought to You in Living Color" by Marc Robinson) that the first commercial TV station (WNBT in New York City), which was licensed on July 1, 1941, interrupted its broadcast of the movie "Millionaire Playboy" on December 7th of that year to tell its small audience of the invasion of Pearl Harbor. "Millionaire Playboy" was an RKO Radio Pictures film made in 1940 that starred Joe Penner, Linda Hayes, Russ Brown, Fritz Feld, and Tom Kennedy.
In 1947 KTLA in Los Angeles became the first commercial TV station west of the Mississippi. About that same time William Boyd purchased the television rights to his Hopalong Cassidy films for $350,000. On August 7, 1948, KTLA TV became the first station to broadcast the Hopalong Cassidy films, and the station received a Special Emmy Award in 1949 for these broadcasts. The Hopalong Cassidy films were usually edited to fit, with commercials, into a one hour time slot, and Network television began televising these edited Hopalong films on June 24, 1949. We believe these Hopalong Cassidy films may have been the first series of films shown on TV.
In 1955 the NBC Television Network televised the new British movie "The Constant Husband". This was the first time a feature–length film premiered on TV in the U.S. before reaching theaters.
Although the major Hollywood studios continued to be reluctant to release their movies to television because they felt television would take away a large part of their revenue, by the mid–1950s they finally relented. At that time the Hollywood studios signed an agreement with the Screen Actors Guild concerning TV residuals (actors would receive TV residuals only for movies made after 1948), and on March 5, 1956, the 1933 film "King Kong" premiered on network television. That same year Columbia Pictures, through its TV subsidiary Screen Gems, began releasing its pre–1948 films to TV. Then on November 3, 1956, MGM released "The Wizard of Oz" to the CBS Network for $250,000. This would become the first feature film to be shown in its entirety on network TV (it was not edited to fit into a pre–determined time–slot), and the first to be shown annually on TV. Thus, "The Wizard of Oz" was probably the first really "major" film to be shown on network television.
Gosh! That's quite a long answer to a short question. If anyone has any further information that might either confirm or contradict our answer, we would love to hear from you.
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