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Film History

With the summer blockbuster season in full swing, Fine Books & Collections editor Scott Brown selected this short introduction by Pasco Gasbarro to collecting books related to the beginnings of the movies.

TheFilmSense The Film Sense “Movies have owned the twentieth century,” claimed screenwriter and director Paul Schrader. “It will not be so in the twenty-first century. Cultural and technological forces are at work that will change the concept of ‘movies’ as we have known them.” Historians and film scholars may look back at twentieth-century cinema as a unique art form. It also will be a discrete field for a collector interested in printed film literature.

The history of cinema can be culled from the autobiographies, memoirs, essays, and stories written by and about the people who made the movies: directors, screenwriters, producers, and actors. There’s also a large territory of printed ephemera—such as press books and souvenir programs—which are plentiful, unexplored, and relatively inexpensive. Since this body of work is less than a century old, you still can find literature from the dawn of movies, unlike trying to find books from the dawn of printing.

W. K. L. Dickson was one of those pioneers present at the very beginning. An inventor in Thomas Edison’s laboratories, Dickson was tasked in 1887 with making Edison’s idea of a kinetoscope a reality. Seven years later, Dickson publicly demonstrated the first modern motion-picture projector. Dickson and his wife cowrote The Life and Inventions of Thomas Alva Edison in 1894, the first book to describe and show pictures of the kinetoscope.

Movies were little more than a curiosity before directors like D. W. Griffith made the movies “move.” Griffith is widely credited with using the camera to create drama and with pioneering many techniques that are still used today. When his landmark and still-controversial Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, audiences received a souvenir pamphlet modestly titled The Most Stupendous and Fascinating Motion Picture Drama Created in the United States. Similar souvenir programs, often lavishly illustrated and nicely printed, were handed out at screenings for major movies, and they are not (yet) widely collected and are therefore relatively inexpensive.

Even in Hollywood’s infancy, stars and studios were keenly aware of publicity and its power to attract or repel audiences. Studios regularly published materials to advertise upcoming movies and promote their stars. A case in point: The British vaudeville performer Charles Spencer Chaplin made his first one-reel comedy in 1914. Within a year, Charlie Chaplin was an international film celebrity. Hoping to make a quick buck, American publisher Bobbs-Merrill sent an interviewer to ask Chaplin questions about his life, and then published an “authoritative” biography called Charlie Chaplin’s Own Story: Being the Faithful Recital of a Romantic Career. Chaplin was incensed and had the book suppressed and most copies destroyed.

Published works by early film directors are scarce, and often more valued, than celebrity stories. Few early filmmakers wrote memoirs, but collectors avidly pursue those who did. Printed works in Russian by director Sergei Eisenstein are some of the most sought-after items in the nascent field of film-book collecting. Eisenstein’s innovations, in classics like Battleship Potemkin and Alexander Nevsky, are still used by modern filmmakers. Translations of Eisenstein’s books are still quite affordable. The English translation of his essay collection called The Film Sense (1942) is readily available.

Film books cover a broad area, explained bookseller James Pepper, who grew up in the film industry and has spent the last thirty years dealing in film books. “You can go in so many different directions,” he said. “You just have to decide what turns you on.” Some collectors will focus on a particular movie star or film director, while others concentrate on time periods or nationalities (French, Italian, Japanese). Buyers and sellers in this community are energized by a nexus of enthusiasms—film geek meets book geek.

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