The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality!

Studio: Undercrank Productions

Sep 25, 2018 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The Kinetoscope is one of the earliest machines used in exhibiting early motion pictures before the turn of the 20th Century. Invented by Thomas Edison, the device was designed for individuals to view a film, one at a time, down through a peephole at the top of a large wooden cabinet housing the machine. Most of these films were loops of actions, sometimes played with interchangeable musical cylinders. However, after the photographer Antoine Lumière was invited to a showing of the Kinetoscope in Paris in 1893, his relaying his impressions to his scientific sons Louis and Auguste inspired them to eventually create the Cinématographe, a movie camera that doubled as the first public film projector.

As the idea of film projection began to sweep through the ranks of the infantile motion picture technicians as the next frontier, Edison bucked at this proposed evolution, claiming that “it will spoil everything.” However, while the sale of Kinetoscopes and the establishment of Kinetoscope parlors across the country had already been highly profitable for their first year of public use, Edison was not completely ignorant to the roughness of these early screen experiments. Most of these films (sold to distributors for $10 a picture) were singular reels (lasting usually less than a minute) mostly showcasing basic movement. With ticket prices at 25 cents per film, the images were ultimately lacking the substance that audiences received in vaudeville and traditional theater for the same price, and Edison soon resigned himself to that fact.

As film projection scorched its way across the world as the new standard in the early 1900s, the film industry sprang up in response. The Kinetoscope parlors quickly gave way to the nickelodeons, and in an attempt to remain ahead on the curve, Edison attempted to introduce synchronous sound into movies in 1913 when he unveiled the Kinetophone. Though these weren’t the first commercial sound films ever made (Leon Gaumont invented the Chronomégaphone in 1902, and reports of an earlier model of a sound-assisted Kinetoscope has existed as early as 1893), these shorts were shown publicly for about a year before being shelved indefinitely, with only 8 of the roughly 200 Kinetophone experiments having actually survived with both film and sound intact. While largely unavailable for the majority of the last century, these select few works have been digitally restored and synchronized by the Library of Congress, and released via Undercrank Productions.

These films were originally marketed at the time of their release as “A Fact! A Reality!” and a solution for all of the synchronous issues of joining images with sound. However they rarely ever played in actual sync, with the sound cylinders and the film projectors playing at variant speeds based on the projectionists’ talents and a convoluted mechanical system involving multiple devices that was always plagued by performance issues. As most moviegoers at the time were just as resistant to sound as Edison was originally to projection, the experiment was short-lived and sound didn’t become a major advancement in (and an essential piece of) film until the mid- to late 1920s, primarily with the 1927 release of The Jazz Singer.

All eight films still equipped with sound are included in this release: The Edison Kinetophone, Musical Blacksmiths, Nursery Favorites, The Deaf Mute, The Edison Minstrels (which is prefaced with a disclaimer on this short’s racist overtones), The Five Bachelors, The Old Guard, and Jack's Joke. While these are all single-shot short films utilizing mostly vaudeville acts and comedy sketches, most are also musical performances, and almost all of them contain the same actors. These, like most of the early “talkies,” were so focused on capturing sound, all other elements were pushed to the wayside, so visually they are poorly presented and janky.

The films are buttressed by the featurette So Amazingly Perfect They Are Really Weird, which traipses the Kinetophone’s history, influence and the process of their restoration (even claiming their novel implementation set filmmaking backwards nearly ten years). This is also supported by The Politician, a Kinetophone film whose sound cylinder remains lost. It is presented as a silent short, scored by producer/accompanist/historian Ben Model, who is responsible for all of Undercrank’s releases, restorations, and original scores.

This collection of shorts and history will intrigue and fascinate silent era aficionados and collectors for their historical significance, though will be found wanting for those looking for compelling silent cinema. Easily appreciated as a collection of early experiments which would fuel the evolution of the filmic world we know now, The Kinetophone: A Fact! A Reality! is a delightful scrapbook of flickering memories.

(www.undercrankproductions.com/DVDs.html)




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Geo. Willeman
September 25th 2018
8:04am

I have reservations with your use of the word “janky,” which seems to be a more computer-era slang term. They are quite primitive, to be sure, but I would not say they are poorly presented. Trust me, I’ve seen a lot worse.