Just Like in the Movies: The Origins of Cinematic Narrative

Micah S. Harris

Welcome to our latest column, Micah S. Harris’ Just Like in the Movies. While Harris is a PulpArk New Pulp Awards winning author, well-known for his historical fantasy, in his day job he’s a film professor and historian. On the fourth Thursday of every month, Micah will stop by to speak about film history, and lessons authors can learn from it.

The Lumière brothers were not the first movie makers to project a film on a screen for an audience. That historical honor goes to those shadowy figures of cinema history, the Latham family. They created the sports event “pay-per-view” in May of 1895 by charging an audience to watch a filmed boxing match. But the Lumière brothers, who followed in December of that same year, were the first to project a fictional story on a screen for an audience to enjoy.

It only ran for forty-nine seconds and was but one of several other shorts on the itinerary that evening. Most likely, the audience did not realize that they were witnessing the birth of a revolutionary form of storytelling. Just seeing moving images of the traffic at this time was overwhelming! The short was not singled out as anything special by the brothers who, ironically enough, never really got what all the fuss over movies was anyway, and got out of the business after only a decade (though one of them returned to the medium to pioneer 3-D in the 1930s).

But it did tell a fictional story. Not that it was Shakespeare or anything. And it’s extremely doubtful there was a script. But it was staged (read: “made up”), and possesses basic story construction.

Little Miss Muffet’s Basic Elements of Storytelling

Former Marvel Comics editor Jim Shooter pointed out that a familiar nursery rhyme encapsulates the elements of a plot: “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her curds and whey. Along came a spider who sat down beside her and frightened Miss Muffet away.”

Here are the basic elements of storytelling. First, “the status quo” as Shooter called it. That is, what is the situation as normal, the state of affairs, the way things are going, when the story begins. This is classically called “exposition.” In this case, it’s Miss Muffet, on tuffet, going a bit heavier on the dairy products than is perhaps proportionate in a well-balanced diet.

Then comes “conflict.” Enter the spider who by frightening her upsets the status quo which our character has expected to continue on as is the norm.

And then we have “resolution:” that arachnophobe little Miss Muffet makes the decision to not stay in this suddenly uncomfortable situation and vamooses, surrendering her tuffet to the triumphant spider.

Exposition, conflict, and resolution in a fictional narrative are all present in the forty-nine seconds of “The Gardner” or “The Sprinkler Sprinkled”). Take a moment to view this little movie at the link below and see if you can identify all three.

Got it? All right, let’s check your answers.

Exposition: our Gardner (or “Sprinkler” if you will) is watering the lawn. Things are proceeding predictably and then –

Conflict: our “spider” here is the pest of a kid who steps on the hose, ceasing the flow of water our Gardner has come to expect. In the first instance of slapstick projected on a movie screen for an audience, he decides to look down the hose. The predictable occurs.

Resolution: our adorable “imp” leads the Gardner on an abbreviated merry chase, he’s captured, corporal punishment administered, and watering resumed: The End.

Out of all the short films that amazed the Lumière Brothers’ audience that night in late December 1895, this was probably the most popular. At least, it was when the “The Gardner” played in London. Charles H. Webster, a representative of rival film pioneer Thomas Edison’s partner Norman Raff, reported the water-in-the-face bit “caught the house by storm.”  But it’s important to note that the success of this moment of slapstick owed much to being in the context of a narrative which heightened the “banana peel moment.”

Just contrast “The Gardner” with “Horse Trick Riders” which the Lumières subsequently screened that evening, in which a guy repeatedly trying to mount a horse keeps hitting the ground instead. It’s simply there, as though you were observing the embarrassing situation on the spot as you were standing around. There is no set-up, no context, no pacing, no structure: just a 120 year old record of one man’s humiliation.

While “The Gardner” was the first movie to place a fictional narrative on screen for an audience, I can’t say it was especially influential. But it quickly became apparent to those involved that the new medium was well-suited for presenting stories.  The movie storytelling that followed “The Gardner” tended to be along the lines of either a filmed play with stage pageantry and the addition of trick photography, or, as screenwriter Marc Norman has noted in his book What Happens Next, a gag comic strip, particularly a mildly risqué gag comic strip.

Take, for example, “How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed” which brought this (and I quote an exhibitor’s catalogue description) “old and always popular story” to the screen. I do not deem it necessary to delve into the reasons for its popularity, but, as to its antiquity, for the pun to work, this bygone classic can neither possibly be older than the English word “dress,” which enters the language with the French invasion of 1066 nor before it was employed in the sense of “decorate” or “adorn” in the late fourteenth century, the same period as the ascension of Henry the Fourth to the throne, for whom salad dressing is a documented delectation. So we have at least something of a terminus a quo for Bridget in her unfortunate state of dishabille, a victim of her own inability to comprehend syntax. But I undress. Uh, digress.

According to Norman, the first original screenplays tended toward this type of lowbrow subject matter. They were written for short films, twenty some feet in length, to move toward a punchline of some sort. Some sort of “punch” indeed. As in “The Pretty Stenographer; or Caught In the Act,” when a wife walks in on her elderly husband giving his secretary a kiss and drags him by the ear to his knees. (Just to make sure you’re keeping up with our lesson: the wife, of course, would be the spider in this scenario, upsetting her husband and the pretty stenographer’s curds and whey in a resolution given away by its own spoiler of a subtitle. How weighty this compromise of dramatic tension, let the reader decide).

In contrast to these films based on original material (discounting “How Bridgette Served the Salad Undressed,” adapted, as it was, from that “old and always popular story”), screenplays or scenarios in these early days based on source material seemed to tend more to be ambitious, sophisticated, and even lofty in their desired effect on the audience. The first movie adapted from source material was based on Salmi Morse’s Passion Play. It was filmed in 1897 atop a New York office building, complete with camels and a heavenly ascension.

Salmi Morse, sans office building

Other early examples are Méliès’ turn of the century adaptations of Cinderella in 1899 and the Verne and Wells inspired A Trip to the Moon in 1902.

It probably comes as a surprise for the modern theater goer to learn that movies were not initially and universally seen as a medium of storytelling with revolutionary potential for presenting a narrative. They were a novelty, often just one more item on a vaudeville bill of entertainment alongside requisite dogs walking on their hindlegs, ventriloquist routines, and soft shoeing. A tendency to make those movies that did have a story a moving gag comic strip and/or dirty joke would not have lifted this reputation. And the novelty, initially so shocking to naïve audiences in its virtual reality, was wearing off.

What saved movies was the discovery and realization of their unique storytelling possibilities.

The Great Train Robbery

The application of modern film techniques for the first time in the service of a narrative by Edwin Porter with Life of an American Fireman and The Great Train Robbery in 1903 created a new vocabulary for the writers as well as technicians of film. Now there were exciting alternatives in storytelling that created a new narrative technique. When these possibilities were actualized, Porter, as someone has said, changed the movies into The Movies.

Subsequent to Porter, in thinking of a screen story, a writer could consider that scenes might be shot out of sequence, different angles could capture the same moment, and cross-cutting in the editing stage could show more than one event happening at the same time. Any constrictions that might have been lingering from transferring the way a visual story was presented on a stage to how it was told on the screen were now completely cast off.

Cinematic storytelling had moved into territory the Lumière Brothers could not have foreseen a mere eight years earlier. Nor, apparently, did they care that they had originated a new narrative genre. Mainly technicians, not storytellers, perhaps they never realized it.

But the rest of the world, leaning forward on its collective nickelodeon bench, had all eyes trained on the screen where our uncompromised heroine was tied to railroad tracks by a man in a black hat, the cross-editing induced tension mounting as to whether the train or the hero would reach her first. Only the remainder of the new century would reveal how far this new form of narrative with its unprecedented storytelling techniques could possibly go.