by Maura Spiegel, Senior Lecturer, Columbia University

The Kid Auto Race in Venice, 1914. U.S.A. Directed by Henry Lehrman. Keystone Film Co.

The Kid Auto Race in Venice, 1914. U.S.A. Directed by Henry Lehrman. Keystone Film Co.

1913 was a big year for the young movie industry. Silent movies had progressed beyond short Nickelodeon diversions sold by the foot to storefront theaters. Narrative films or “photo plays” were leaving stunts, chases and such real-life spectacles as burning buildings behind. Visual innovations such as close-ups were achieved when the actor walked right up and put his face in front of the stationery camera. Initially the close up was reserved for villains, as it was assumed this unfamiliar gesture would unnerve the audience.

Film production companies had originated mostly in New York and New Jersey, but by 1913 the movie business had begun its migration to California where land was cheap, the scenery varied and the climate just right for outdoor filming.  New York became home to its first “movie palace” in 1913, The Regent, located at the corner of West 116th Street and Seventh Avenue, and modeled on the Doge’s Palace in Venice.  Today the theater is home to the First Corinthian Baptist Church.

1913 also saw the early stirrings of the Hollywood star system. Cigarette and other trading card sets were devoted for the first time to “Cinematograph Actors.” Prior collectables had been devoted to fish bait, sportsmen and English Garden flowers. The new celebrity faces included Mary Pickford and “Madcap” Mabel Normand, who was also a writer, producer and director.  But Hollywood’s brightest star was, in 1913, just making his way to California. Charlie Chaplin’s first film, “Making a Living,” was released in 1914, a nine-minute Keystone production where Chaplin depicts a top-hatted swindler. The picture was a disappointment to the studio owner, Mack Sennett, who had brought Chaplin west after seeing him on the New York stage with his London troupe. In his very next film, “Kid Auto Races in Venice,” Chaplin began to develop the pathos and charm of his most beloved character, the little tramp.

Recommended reading:

The Art of the Moving Picture, Vachel Lindsay,

Silent Film, ed. Richard Abel

100 Silent Films, Bryony Dixon

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