A Look At Six (Very) Early Film Directors
You’ve likely all heard about Thomas Edison’s irreplaceable contributions to the development of cinema — particularly as a business — and are probably familiar with the iconic work of Georges “A Trip to the Moon” Méliès. The Lumière brothers probably ring a bell, too. But who were some other important early directors, who perhaps fly a little under the radar for most non-silent-film-fanatic folks?
6. Siegmund Lubin
One of the earliest directors and producers, Lubin was a native of Germany who moved to the U.S. in the 1870s. Having a background in optometry (he patented two types of spectacles), he was quickly drawn to the novelty of motion picture cameras and projectors. After spending some time as a distributor of Edison films he started his own film company, filming “actualities” (brief documentaries) and brazenly re-making films by fellow directors — he even re-made The Great Train Robbery... (This kind of copying wasn’t uncommon in the early days of cinema.) Not just content with re-makes, he also pirated some films. (Also not uncommon in the early days of cinema.) While not battling lawsuits from rival film studios, he churned out dozens of dramas and comedies and attempted to have his company be its own distributor, exhibitor, and manufacturer of its products. In 1916, at age 65, the headstrong Lubin decided to retire from film production, and would pass away a few years later.
5. Shibata Tsunekichi
Image credit: Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema
One of the very first filmmakers in Japan, Shibata worked for the photography shop Konishi Camera, which had been on the scene since 1873 (a prominent Tokyo pharmacist had started selling photography equipment in his store). When the shop imported Japan’s first motion picture camera, famed benshi and producer of sorts Komada Koyo instructed Shibata to start making films, hoping to incorporate them into stage performances (a benshi was a type of lecturer who delivered running commentary for plays). Shibata obliged by first filming traditional geisha dances at a Kabuki theater in 1899, and then making Inazuma goto Hobaku no Ba (The Lightning Robber is Arrested), which was a hit. He would then film a number of Kabuki plays, featuring some of Japan’s most renowned actors. His last film credits are from 1904, and he apparently passed away in 1929.
4. Segundo de Chomón
The well-mustachioed De Chomón was born in Spain on October 17, 1871. He would marry Julienne Mathieu, an actress at the early film studio Pathé Frères. She was soon encouraging her husband to join Pathé, so he began working there as an agent and then a director. After filming documentaries, in 1903 he made Gulliver en el país de los gigantes (Gulliver in the Land of Giants) and discovered his new specialty: trick films. He was soon so talented at creating special effects that Pathé himself decided he should concentrate on competing with the work of the famed Georges Méliès. De Chomón happily obliged, and as a result his intricate, surreal fairytale-style films are often mistaken for work of Méliès today. He would eventually focus less on directing and more on cinematography, helping create effects for classics like Napoléon (1927). He passed away from a heart attack in 1929.
3. Alice Guy-Blaché
Guy-Blaché was born in Paris in 1873. Her father would pass away in 1891, and she became a stenographer in order to help her widowed mother. She soon became a secretary to Léon Gaumont, who at the time owned a company that sold camera equipment. Guy and Gaumont would attend one of the famous Lumière film showings in 1895, and inspired by this, Gaumont decided to start producing films. Guy-Blaché became one of his first film directors–which made her the world’s first female director. Her lengthy filmography began with La Fée aux Choux (The Cabbage Fairy), which some consider the world’s earliest fiction film. She soon rose to becoming head of production at Gaumont, and after marrying Herbert Blaché in 1907, the two formed their own company, Solax. In 1919, after making literally hundreds of films (including many early sound films), Guy retired from directing. She drifted into obscurity, passing away quietly in 1968, but her pioneering work is gaining interest again today.
2. Edwin S. Porter
You likely know Porter as the man responsible for familiar film milestones like The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Life of an American Fireman (1903). Born in 1870, he was raised in Pennsylvania along with his six siblings and grew up to work a number of odd jobs, eventually settling on working with electrical devices. By 1899 he was a mechanic at the Edison Manufacturing Company and was soon involved in its film production. Working his way up to being a director, he was put in charge of Edison’s New York studio and his work became very popular with the public. He was a pro at both editing and dissolve techniques. After 1909 he left Edison and jumped from film studio to film studio until retiring in 1925. A quiet, humble individual, he would focus on his private film equipment inventions until passing away in 1941.
1. William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson
Otherwise known as William K-L. Dickson, you may know him as the young man holding a hat in the super early short Dickson Greeting (1890). Born in France in 1860, at age 19 he wrote to Thomas Edison asking for a job. While he was turned down, he and his family immigrated to the U.S. later that year and by 1883 he finally managed to be hired to work in Edison’s laboratory. He quickly proved himself, becoming one of the head assistants. Around 1888 he began experimenting with film, which fascinated him, and eventually designed both the earliest “kinetoscope” and the Black Maria — the world’s first film studio. Dickson is credited not only with patenting a practical type of cellulose film and the emulsion needed for it, but deciding that film needed to be 35mm, making him possibly the most important figure in the history of cinema’s development. He founded the American Mutoscope Company in 1895 and left Edison that same year. While he kept working as an engineer and director of documentaries, he became an obscure figure and spent his remaining years in England, passing away in 1935.
These hardworking directors, from all different backgrounds and from all over the world, are just a sampling of the important contributors to the art form that inspires and influences us today. They may not be household names (unless you’re a film historian), but the results of their long-ago experiments can still be seen every time you switch on your TV screen.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.