From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. – Review

From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. – Review – book reviews

Steven J. Ross

From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film. By David Robinson. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996. Pp. xiv, 213. $29.50.)

The history of silent films has undergone an academic renaissance in the past decade. David Robinson’s From Peep Show to Palace: The Birth of American Film is a welcome addition for readers interested in a general overview of current scholarship on the early roots and evolution of film and the film industry. The book is written in a highly accessible style and contains neither jargon nor scholarly notes.

Robinson tells a familiar story of the rise of the movie industry from the 1890s to 1913. What distinguishes this from most studies and constitutes the book’s most important contribution is its focus on the prehistory of projected images and on the early history of primitive motion picture machinery. Opening chapters take the readers from the magic lanterns–machines that cast images on an external surface–first used by Venetians in 1420 to the stereopticon machines popular in mid-nineteenth-century America to Edison’s perfection of the Kinetoscope in 1891. Robinson follows this by describing the technological evolution of early cinematographic equipment and recounting the intense battles among American and European inventors to create a machine that could project moving images across a large screen. Robinson delights in describing battles among proponents of the French Cinematographe, the British Kineopticon, and the American Vitascope, Eidoloscope, and Biograph projectors.

Scholars will be most interested in the opening four chapters, which deal with the technological origins of the medium. The subsequent eight chapters cover more familiar ground. Robinson describes the evolution of early film form and content from simple moving images “of crashing waves or of trains and fire engines rushing at the audience” to films of actual events, such as the 1900 Paris Exposition or the Galveston flood, to narrative-story films that “transformed motion pictures from yesterday’s dated novelty to the nation’s universal pastime.” Relying on recent works in the field, the author goes on to chart the rise of the nickelodeon; the emergence of the Motion Picture Patents Company (the “Trust” as it was popularly known); the relocation of film production to Los Angeles; the development of the multireel story film that would slowly come to characterize American filmmaking; the internationalization of film production and early struggles between American and European film-makers for control of the world market; and the rise of elegant movie palaces and exhibitor efforts to attract a middle-class audience. Robinson ends the book with a final chapter entitled “The Year 1913.” These twelve months, he argues, marked “a watershed in the story of American cinema” (151).

From Peep Show to Palace is most useful for undergraduates and those interested in a brief overview of American film up to 1913. In addition to being well written, the book contains several dozen wonderful illustrations (including a marvelous sixteen-page color spread) that give life to Robinson’s story. Those wishing to follow this book with more in-depth studies of this period would do well to consult Charles Musser’s The Emergence of Cinema and Eileen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema.

Steven J. Ross

University of Southern California

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