Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs:
The Emergence of Biograph and its Rivalry with Edison
Competition between the Edison Company and the Biograph Company (as the Edison Manufacturing Company and the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company were generally called) did much to shape the American film industry between 1898 and 1909. By 1898 Biograph's mutoscopes were replacing Edison's peephole kinetoscopes, providing the company with significant income for many subsequent years. At the same time its large-format biograph projectors were used in the leading vaudeville theaters across the country. This strong exhibition base supported ambitious production undertakings. The Biograph Company employed several cameramen to take pictures and obtained additional subjects from sister companies operating overseas. In 1898 a Biograph cameraman went to Cuba, where he filmed events that led to the Spanish American War. Dickson traveled to Rome where he filmed the Pope, and then he went to South Africa where he filmed the Boer War.
Edison's film production depended not only on company employees but also on individuals and companies working under license. After William Paley, Albert Smith, and J. Stuart Blackton had been prosecuted for patent infringement and had acknowledged the inventor's claims, Edison allowed them to continue their operations as licensees. The Edison Company sent Paley, a licensed freelance photographer, to Cuba in March 1898 to prevent Biograph from acquiring an exclusive supply of "war films." It later acquired films from Smith and Blackton, who had formed the American Vitagraph Company in New York City to make films and provide exhibition services. Their original subjects usually consisted of short comedies or local news events. The Edison Company generally acquired Blackton and Smith's negatives after Vitagraph had exhibited their film subjects exclusively for several months.
Edison used licenses as a stick as well as a carrot. With the encouragement of American Vitagraph, he sued Eberhard Schneider, a New York exhibitor and film producer. Despite Schneider's repeated efforts to ingratiate himself with Edison Company executives, he failed to obtain a license, and Vitagraph acquired many of his exhibition outlets. Soon Blackton, Smith, and their new partner William Rock found themselves in a similar situation. After they disputed the accounting of their royalties in 1900, their license was revoked. As Edison's lawyers tried to put them out of business, the partners defiantly sold their films directly to exhibitors and published a small catalog to aid their efforts. While a brief rapprochement occurred late in 1900, Vitagraph's license was again withdrawn in January 1901 because it had failed to pay a required royalty. Subsequent legal restrictions prevented the company from making its own films.
After cinema's initial novelty period, moving pictures were reintegrated into the tradition of screen entertainment. Exhibitors frequently combined colored lantern slides and black-and-white motion pictures to form a complex program that included narration, music, and sound effects. Several companies that had sold magic lantern equipment and slides in the early 1890s enlarged their catalogs with advertising for motion picture equipment and films. Many of these companies were based in Chicago and benefited from that city's important role as a distribution center for the Midwest. The Kleine Optical Company, specializing in magic lantern goods, became an Edison selling agent in 1899 and featured that company's films and equipment exclusively in early catalogs. Although the Stereopticon and Film Exchange at first sold only equipment and films made by Edward Amet, it soon offered the projectors of several other manufacturers as well. Sears, Roebuck & Company, also based in Chicago, operated a large mail-order business that included films and equipment manufactured by a variety of companies. The company directed its 1900 catalog to small-town and semi-professional exhibitors.
In 1899 New York-based providers of 35mm exhibition services began to make long-term arrangements with vaudeville houses. These commitments guaranteed them steady business and resulted in an increased demand for new subjects. The Edison Company responded to this demand by building in New York City an indoor film studio that could operate all year. It thereby gained an advantage over the Biograph Company, which had only an open-air, rooftop studio. The new Edison studio opened in February 1901 under the management of Edwin S. Porter. He not only made many of the new films appearing in the 1901 Edison film catalog but also improved the company's projecting kinetoscope.
23. Several Biograph catalogs promoted the mutoscope (see H-557, H-566,
24. G. W. Bitzer, Billy Bitzer. His Story (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973).
25. William Kennedy Laurie Dickson, The Biograph in Battle (London: Unwin, 1901).
26. The activities of Edison licensees are examined in Charles Musser, "The Eden Musee in 1898: Exhibitor as Co-Creator," Film and History 11, no. 4 (December 1981): 7383+; and Charles Musser, "American Vitagraph: 18971901," Cinema Journal 22, no. 3 (Spring 1983): 446. Paley continued to be an Edison-licensed producer into the early 1900s. During 19045 he and William Steiner produced and marketed "Crescent Films" through the firm Paley and Steiner. The only surviving catalog material for this company is an excerpt in Ramsaye's A Million and One Nights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926), 423424.
27. When Blackton and Smith duped Paley's films in the spring of 1898, Edison sued for copyright infringement and submitted a catalog (see G-013) listing Paley's war films as evidence; Thomas A. Edison v. J. Stuart Blackton and Albert Smith, U.S. Circuit Court, Southern District of New York (12 July 1898), Equity No. 6989, NjBaFAR.
28. A Schneider company brochure (see R-002) is an exhibit in Thomas A. Edison v. Eberhard Schneider, U.S. Circuit Court, Southern District of New York (21 Dec. 1898), Equity No. 7125, NjBaFAR.
29. Edison's lawyers submitted this Vitagraph catalog (K-002) as evidence to prove that Blackton and Smith were continuing their independent film activities. Thomas A. Edison v. J. Stuart Blackton and Albert Smith, U.S. Circuit Court, Southern District of New York (12 July 1898), Equity No. 6990 & 6991, NjBaFAR.
30. The Kleine family had been involved in the magic lantern business for many years. When the Kleine Optical Company was incorporated, it was owned principally by Charles Kleine. His son George became general manager sometime before 1900. Edison films did not figure prominently in the company's earliest catalogs (see Y-002). Extensive records of the Kleine Optical Company exist in the Kleine Collection, Manuscript Division, DLC.
31. See the catalogs beginning on W-002 and W-006.
32. See the catalog beginning on AA-001. Some motion picture equipment was sold in regular Sears, Roebuck & Company catalogs.
33. See the catalogs beginning on G-082 and G-132. The activities of Edwin Porter and the Edison Company during 190103 are examined in Charles Musser, "The Early Cinema of Edwin S. Porter," Cinema Journal 19, no. 1 (Fall 1979); 138.