motion pictures


motion pictures
   Thomas A. Edison's 1887 invention of the kinetoscope drew upon ideas and inventions from numerous sources, and other inventors rapidly explored the creative possibilities of the new medium of moving pictures. Many actors in the legitimate theatre and vaudeville at first remained aloof from the "flicks," which they viewed as a passing novelty or beneath their status. Others braved it, as did two stage actors moonlighting from the Broadway musical The Widow Jones (1905) in one of the earliest short films to gain notoriety (and controversy), The Kiss Between May Irwin and John C. Rice (1896). Mary Pickford, Lillian Gish, and Dorothy Gish were child performers on the stage who easily made the transition to the 12-minute features that followed in the wake of The Great Train Robbery (1906).
   Between 1905 and 1930, the motion picture became live theatre's greatest competitor. Before World War I, most storytelling films were shot in New York and New Jersey, thus allowing stage actors to work in the movies during the day while also appearing on stage at night. Minnie Maddern Fiske, James O'Neill, George M. Cohan, James K. Hackett, and many others appeared in condensed film adaptations of their stage vehicles. In April 1912, theatrical producer Daniel Frohman, in partnership with Adolph Zukor and Edwin Porter, founded Famous Players Film Company with a goal of bringing noted stage stars to the screen in their iconic roles. That summer they arranged a gala showing of their first product, Queen Elizabeth starring Sarah Bernhardt. During the 1920s, John Barrymore became a particular cinematic favorite and retained his popularity as an early star of sound films. The new era in cinema was introduced by musical star Al Jolson in the partial "talkie," The Jazz Singer (1927), based on Samson Raphaelson's popular stage drama from 1925.
   The early sound era was a financial boon for stage actors. Some silent stars had little experience with dialogue or were hampered by inadequate voices or foreign accents. Stage workers went to Hollywood in droves, to act, to provide vocal coaching, and to write and direct. Not surprisingly, many of the most popular films of both the silent and sound eras were adaptations of plays. Once sound films became popular, both major theatres and the "road" diminished. Many cinema houses combined films and live performances of tab plays and vaudeville, but the rise of film was the death knell for vaudeville, which virtually expired in the early 1930s. Live theatre began to make use of cinematic elements in plays, a trend that continues into the 21st century. Although films harmed live theatre, they also provide tangible evidence of the talents of stage actors. Many theatre stars appeared in early sound films, including Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Jeanne Eagels, Walter Huston, Mae West, Helen Hayes, Tallulah Bankhead, Alice Brady, Billie Burke, Ruth Chatterton, Paul Muni, George Arliss, and all three Barrymores, John, Ethel, and Lionel. Others, like Katharine Cornell, Alfred Lunt, and Lynn Fontanne, avoided the screen.

The Historical Dictionary of the American Theater. .

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