Non-fiction Book Review

Innovations & Attractions: Film History Essentials of the 1800s

by Jared Wheeler
Reviewed date: 2023 Aug 29
641 pages
cover art

Did I know I wanted to read a book about the film industry in the 1800s?

Did I enjoy the book?

Did I learn anything?
Yes. The invention of the motion picture camera was not a singular event. Many people, across the United States and Europe, independently invented moving pictures. The birth of the film industry, both technically and artistically, was a complicated and complex process, and much has been obscured by propaganda or lost to history.

Did I watch the films?
Of course! They are nearly all on YouTube. I looked them up myself until it occurred to me to ask the author if he had a YouTube playlist. Here it is: Innovations & Attractions: Film History Essentials of the 1800s [YouTube playlist]

And for good measure, here's a link to the book on Amazon. It's available in print or Kindle: Innovations & Attractions: Film History Essentials of the 1800s by Jared Wheeler.

Were the films rubbish? They were all rubbish, weren't they?
They are early silent films that show the limitations of the technology, but surprisingly the picture quality is better than I expected. That is, most of them are simply awful, but a few of them are well-preserved and the picture quality is astonishing. It turns out that the poor quality of these old films is largely due to their deterioration with age. The few that are preserved well give us a glimpse into what they all must have looked like to contemporary audiences.

And the color! More than a few of these films from the late 1800s were colorized. (By hand. Color photography was a ways off yet.) I wasn't expecting color movies, but there they are. The author points out that a lot more color-tinted films existed, but the color prints wore out and many survive only in their uncolored versions.

Favorite film?
Le Manoir du diable (1896) (The House of the Devil) by Georges Méliès had me genuinely laughing. Well done.

Anything else?
I'm aghast at some of these early pioneers who became disillusioned and deliberately destroyed their own work.

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