Guide to Motion Picture Catalogs:
Motion Picture Catalogs as a Resource

Early motion picture catalogs represent an important resource for a variety of researchers. Ranging in size from a single sheet to hundreds of pages, these commercial publications were prepared primarily to list and promote films and equipment. Besides their promotional purpose, they also served a number of subordinate functions that were specific to the changing needs of the motion picture industry during its initial fifteen years. In addition to providing a list of films and information about how to order them, they might also include a general characterization of each film, a detailed scene-by-scene description, specific text to be read in accompaniment with the film's exhibition, suggestions for creating or altering scene sequences, photographic reproductions of individual frames, or advertising copy for the exhibitor's use in local promotion of a feature. Because of the important information they contain, film catalogs have become objects of increasing interest to archivists, filmmakers, film scholars, and historians. The insights and understandings that such users have already begun to reap from them suggest the immense richness of this previously rare resource.

Users of Film Catalogs

Motion picture scholars have been the principal users of film catalogs. The first film histories, published in the 1910s and 1920s, however, were written by industry personnel who generally ignored these publications. Robert Grau and Terry Ramsaye generally relied on the self-interested memoirs of others, their own experience, and recollections of films they had seen many years before.[1] Not surprisingly, their histories often proved inaccurate. Although Ramsaye quoted a few catalog descriptions to provide colorful detail, he did not approach these resources analytically or systemically.

In the 1930s and 1940s, film historians such as Lewis Jacobs and Georges Sadoul became more concerned with documenting the films.[2] Because they were unable to view most early films, they relied on catalog descriptions, which they often reprinted in their books. Such an approach favored content and sociological analyses. In the 1950s and 1960s, however, the rise of "la politique des auteurs" or "the auteur theory" shifted film historians' preoccupation from content to cinematic form and the director's interpretation of a script. Film scholars increasingly based their histories upon an examination of films rather than upon the catalogs that provided the outlines of a story but little information about how the story was told. Correctly realizing that descriptions could not substitute for the films themselves, historians tended to dismiss catalog information entirely. Gerald Mast and William K. Everson, for example, took this approach.[3] Yet, many of the early films that they examined were either modernized, incomplete, or otherwise corrupted. Moreover, few early films were available for viewing. Consequently, this direction in film scholarship encouraged an impoverished understanding of this formative period in motion picture history. Studies by Gordon Hendricks and George Pratt, which used a combination of manuscripts, films, and film catalog descriptions, were important exceptions to the general approach.[4] These historians, however, limited their areas of interest and preferred detailed empirical work to larger historical and theoretical perspectives.

By the late 1960s, film studies began to emerge as an established academic discipline. Increased funding for film preservation and restoration resulted in the availability of many more early motion pictures. The 1978 FIAF (Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film) conference in Brighton, England, focused on early cinema, exhibiting a large selection of fictional films that were made between 1 900 and 1906. Such screenings at first seemed to epitomize the "film as self-sufficient text" movement, but attitudes were already changing. As archivists and scholars became more concerned with establishing the authenticity of specific film texts, they looked increasingly toward written records, including surviving film catalogs as a critical documentary resource. Frequently, information in film catalogs helped to provide historical frameworks for film analysis. Catalogs were no longer seen merely as an inadequate simulacrum for the films but as documents of a different type with their own historical integrity.[5]

Film archivists have used early catalogs to identify many of the motion pictures that are preserved in their collections. During much of the period from 1894 to 1908, producers did not attach titles to their films, and exhibitors often retitled individual films to their own tastes. The resulting confusion has beset a generation of film archivists. George Pratt, curator emeritus at the George Eastman House, relied on the catalogs in his museum's extensive collection to establish the title, date, and producer of many films. His efforts were frequently limited, however, by the lack of a comprehensive collection of such resources. Employing this microfilm edition of motion picture catalogs, archivists can readily gain access to most extant catalogs and enhance their knowledge of their collections. These catalogs can also aid in the restoration of films. When the Museum of Modern Art restored the early Edison films in their collection, it used catalog descriptions to assemble many of the film negatives in their proper order and to determine each negative's completeness. In the case of THE MILLER'S DAUGHTER, for instance, Edison Form No. 269 provided the only visual record of a missing scene. Easy access to catalog descriptions can also allow verification of previous identifications and evaluations.

The information in catalog descriptions will enable filmmakers and stock footage researchers to use footage with greater specificity. For example, the films listed in the catalog, "War Extra—Edison Films," survive in the paperprint collection at the Library of Congress. From this catalog one learns that BURIAL OF THE "MAINE" VICTIMS was photographed at Key West, Florida, on 27 March 1898. Such catalogs not only indicate the time and place of filming but often suggest the attitudes that were prevalent at the time of their intended use—in this case, the jingoistic mood. As a result, filmmakers can better understand the original material.

Although scholars interested in business and economic history and in the history of technology have not made extensive use of these catalogs, researchers will find them a valuable resource for studying the economic and technological aspects of the motion picture industry. Equipment catalogs offer rich insight into the ways that projection technology adapted to the changing needs of the industry. Projecting machines from this period are rare and many pieces were modified after their initial purchase. While printed patents can provide invaluable information, they do not indicate whether an invention was adopted by the industry or in what form. Catalogs thus can serve as unique documentary resources for historians of technology. They can also be a principal source of information about business enterprises as well as about changes in the scale and commercial methods in the industry.

Motion picture catalogs can also serve as an important source for social and cultural historians. While researchers concerned with American life at the turn of the century have drawn upon motion pictures as a resource, they likely will turn increasingly to film catalogs for verbal and visual documentation of prevailing social and cultural attitudes. For example, the catalogs—like the films themselves—suggest the extent of ethnic, religious, and sexual stereotyping at the turn of the century.

Insights from Film Catalogs

A deeper understanding of early cinema is obtainable by researching both written records and films. With such an approach, film catalogs become a key resource. They not only feature the producers' and distributors' wares but sometimes suggest ways in which exhibitors combined the films into longer sequences and integrated them with magic lantern slides. As late as 1908 the Amusement Supply Company sold lantern slide programs that could incorporate comic motion picture vignettes at the exhibitor's discretion. The exhibitor's prerogatives were also apparent in the way Méliès sold THE BARBER OF SEVILLA. The purchaser could choose between the complete 1350 ft. copy or a shortened version with several scenes eliminated. Furthermore, he was encouraged to create his own version by adding to the short version one or more of the eliminated scenes. From such detailed information the film historian can learn how individual films were incorporated into turn-of-the-century motion picture practices.

Even after 1903, when editorial control was increasingly centralized within the production companies, the exhibitor's live narration remained an important part of many shows. Some catalogs provided text for incorporation into the showman's presentation. The catalog for Lubin's PASSION PLAY includes a model lecture that illustrates this common practice. The Biograph Company used its bulletins to provide nickelodeon managers with similar information. Increasingly, scholars have come to realize that early films were not usually viewed as self-sufficient texts, even when seen without a lecture.[6] Catalogs often indicated an explicit framework within which a film was expected to be understood. The promoters of Lubin's AN AFFAIR OF HONOR claimed that the film was based on a painting that "everybody knows." According to other film supplements, Edison's THE WHOLE DAM FAMILY AND THE DAM DOG was likewise based on a series of well-known picture postcards. Even when presenting an original story, exhibitors during the 1906-08 period frequently posted bulletins outside of theaters or reprinted them in local newspapers in order to acquaint spectators with the story in advance.

Catalog descriptions also underscored important representational strategies. Biograph's THE BURGLAR is described in its accompanying bulletin as being in "two continuous scenes." The action in one scene is continued into the next. A viewing of the film suggests that this concept of continuity, with its overlapping action, was very different from the linear continuity of the Griffith era or of modern cinema. In other instances, catalogs refer to the use of closeups or the introduction of titles at the beginning of each scene. While some techniques—for instance, dissolves—are generally mentioned in these texts, others—for example, camera movements—are not. The historian must approach these descriptions critically and, whenever possible, in conjunction with the films themselves.

Catalogs often provide the only information about films that have not survived. The Biograph photographic catalogs, for example, provide several frame enlargements for every film produced by that company before 1905. These are complemented by detailed descriptions in Biograph's first printed catalog of 1902. Because only a small number of the films cited in these catalogs are still available for viewing, the catalog resources plus the Biograph production records at the Museum of Modern Art are the principal resources for historians interested in this important company. Likewise, although very few Selig films survive, the company's catalogs suggest that the output of this Chicago company deserves more attention than it has received to date.

Catalogs and early films also provide important evidence about the social and cultural attitudes prevalent in American society at the turn of the century. For example, these resources clearly document the dominance of white males. From the beginning, blacks were portrayed in films in stereotypic terms: eating watermelon, stealing chickens, and dancing cake walks. The catalog descriptions for subjects like WATERMELON PATCH or FUN ON THE FARM reveal in verbal form the attitudes behind these films. The films of Sigmund Lubin are particularly interesting in this regard. Undoubtedly Lubin encountered anti-Semitic attitudes as he struggled to survive commercially in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Many of his later films treated Jewish characters in sympathetic terms. Yet, his films often mocked other minorities, particularly women trying to win the vote. His WHEN WOMEN VOTE suggests that the suffrage movement would lead to male enslavement.

While motion pictures profoundly transformed past cultural practices, many aspects of the cinema's subject matter tended to be conservative. Catalog descriptions of early films suggest a nostalgic searching for a lost, male childhood and longing for an earlier, more innocent, and pastoral America before the period of rapid industrialization and social change at the turn of the century. The anti-suffrage, misogynic tendencies of many early films reflect an industry and society that was controlled almost exclusively by men and a film audience that was itself largely male.

Many of the attitudes and assumptions about American life began to change with the advent of the nickelodeon era. By 1908, as women were attending the movies in growing numbers, this male hegemony began to diminish. As the star system emerged, the most popular early stars were women. Moreover, new film personnel came increasingly from the legitimate theater, where women historically were well-paid and held significant power. Actresses such as Mary Pickford, Gene Gauntier, and Helen Gardner achieved a stature in motion pictures similar to that of their counterparts in the theater. Their example and the characters they portrayed surely had a significant impact on the final success of the suffrage movement.

Early motion picture catalogs have already found a place in the work of archivists, filmmakers, students of film, and other historians. Yet, their use has been limited because these valuable materials are rare and widely scattered. Brought together in this microfilm edition, they offer users a wide range of opportunities for increased understanding of the first fifteen years of motion picture practice and of the sociocultural context in which it emerged.


1. Terry Ramsaye, A Million and One Nights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926); Robert Gray, The Theatre of Science (New York: Benjamin Blom, 1914).
2. Lewis Jacobs, The Rise of the American Film (New York: Harcourt, Brace & Company, 1939); Georges Sadoul, Les Pioneers du cinéma (de Méliès a Pathé) 1897–1909 (Paris: DeNoël, 1948).
3. Gerald Mast, A Short History of the Movies (Indianapolis, Ind.: Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1971); William K. Everson, American Silent Film (New York:Oxford University Press, 1978).
4. George Pratt, Spellbound in Darkness (Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973); Gordon Hendricks, The Kinetoscope: America's First Commercially Successful Motion Picture Exhibitor (New York: The Beginnings of the American Film, 1966).
5. Collections of recent essays on cinema before 1908 appear in Roger Holman, ed., Cinema 1900-1906 (London: FIAF, 1982); Andre Gaudreault, ed. (special issue), Iris 2, no. 1 (Winter 1984); and Afterimage, no. 8/9 (Spring 1981).
6. Noel Burch, "Porter or Ambivalence," Screen 19, no. 4 (Winter 1978/9): 91-105.

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