Documentary Films

By Beatty, Mary Lou | Humanities, September/October 1998 | Go to article overview

Documentary Films


Beatty, Mary Lou, Humanities


Three days after Christmas in 1895, a fascinating new machine was unveiled in the basement of the Grand Cafe on Boulevard des Capuchins. The Paris crowd, there at a franc a ticket, found itself looking at pictures unlike any seen before-not just pictures, but pictures that moved. On the screen were scenes of workers leaving a factory, of a train roaring into the camera eye, of a youngster kinking a squirting hose.

The machine was the cinematographe of Louis Lumiere. It was a quantum leap from Edison's kinetoscope of the year before, small enough to fit in a suitcase, able to project as well as record, and mobile enough for outdoor use. Erik Barnouw tells us the story in his book, Documentary: A History of the Nonfiction Film. Louis Lumiere, whose family owned a photographic plate factory, had been working in secret for months, showing his cinematographe only to select professional and scientific groups. When he was satisfied with what it could do, he ordered twenty-five more to be made, ready to take his invention worldwide. Louis and his brother Auguste were absent from the Grand Cafe premiere that December day; they had grander plans under way. Barnouw writes that within six months of the Paris opening, the Lumiere organization was operating in England, Belgium, Holland, Austria, Germany, Hungary, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, Serbia, Russia, Sweden, and the United States. By the end of 1897, Lumiere photographers had nearly a thousand screen titles to their credit, from Coronation of Nicholas II to The Baby's First Lesson in Walking. The company had beaten the rest of the world in exploiting the new art form. It sold its machines and films for a handsome price, and Louis returned to his beloved laboratory. …

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