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The Open Letter on Screen Pictures - The History of Motion Pictures

What a story of progress in screen pictures the past quarter century tells! I wonder if any of the older Mentor readers remember the picture shows and panoramas of the days, or, rather, the nights of the seventies and early eighties! Does anyone recall Professor Cromwell and his picture lectures?

For years Professor Cromwell exercised the spell of the "magic lantern"—we came to know it later as the "stereopticon"—and he enhanced the charm of his entertainment with a piano at one side of the stage and a melodion at the other, on which he discoursed sweet musical strains, while he revealed the melting beauty of "dissolving views,"—a new thing then in picture shows.

In days before Professor Cromwell's innovations there were screen pictures that replaced each other abruptly, one after another, and panoramapictures that moved on rollers. How vivid and gaudy were the pictures of that time!

How bold and brave were the colors—colors that proclaimed in uncompromising tones, the courage and determination of the artisan that painted them on. And the audiences of those simple days were delighted with the riot of color on the panorama screens—whether the colors were true or not. A purple cow was pleasing just because it was purple.

And, in those wonderful old panoramas, the greatest illusion of all was "night-lighting." Never will I forget the effect on my youthful mind of the panorama of "St. Peters and the Vatican, Rome," first by day, and then—by a simple trick of lighting from the back—the same scene illuminated at night.

The twinkling of lights in a thousand little windows held us young people spellbound. What thrilled us most was the thought that the spectacle of the superb Cathedral and the Papal palace should be all lit up just for us. I have often wondered since whether St. Peters and the Vatican ever actually looked as gorgeous at night as our youthful eyes saw it on the screen of Professor Cromwell.

The day of Professor Cromwell, and all the other "Professors," passed and then came the treat of a perfected stereopticon. Progressive, intelligent, enterprising men like Stoddard, Burton Holmes, Elmendorf, and Newman traveled the world over and brought their treasures of splendid photography back to us.

As soon as the vita-scope entered the field they took that on—and also the "kinemacolor" process that gives us colors that closely reproduce nature's own.

These men have become our chief travel-picture benefactors. Through the winter evenings they have taken us nearly everywhere and shown us nearly everything. The Elmendorf and Newman pictures are well known to Mentor readers for they are published in our pages; so, we enjoy the rich benefits of the experience of both of these distinguished camera artists.

* * *

And now we have the crowning achievement of modern photography, the Motion Picture Play—perhaps we might better say the picture plays have us, for they are about us everywhere. They are well named "movies," for, in the final analysis, that is their commanding appeal. They move.

Some might contend that the film pictures hold us because they show us great life-dramas. But, if any of those very same life-dramas were presented in a series of "still" pictures, the essential appeal would be lacking. It is because theymove. Throw some bits of crumpled paper on a table in a crowded room, and they will attract little attention.

Tighten those bits of paper with twisted elastic so that they jump around in a lively fashion, and everybody will crowd about the table and watch them with interest. What is the answer? Motion. Motion means life—and life is the supreme interest of human beings.

It was a great day for us mortals when Galileo said of the earth, "It moves." Everything on the earth has been more interesting since then.

Source: THE MENTOR, Volume 9, Number 6, July 1, 1921, Page 40

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