When I used to teach film, I was often under the impression that my students thought that film history began with Star Wars. Oh, they knew the cinema had a prehistory of black and white films—which they never watched—but they always seemed vaguely astonished to discover how old the medium is. Actually, we should all be astonished that the cinema isn’t older than 114 years. All of the basic technologies for the cinema were known by 1840, yet it took another 55 years before the first public exhibition of moving pictures. What took so long?
The short answer is that it took most of the nineteenth century to build up a mass audience for big-budget spectacles.
The nineteenth century is generally considered a fallow period for literary drama, primarily because populist melodramas had chased classical dramas off the stages of Europe and America. Classical theater was text based; most action happened off stage and its mise en scene was basically static. Melodrama introduced a much wider variety of sights and sounds. Sets were far more extravagant than in the classical theater, and they changed much more frequently. Costumes became more expressive. Music became an important dramatic element; it’s the melos in melodrama. The nineteenth-century theater covered a lot more ground, emotionally and physically.
Literature was also becoming more visual during this period, a topic to which I will return. If you want a preview of what I will be talking about, quickly compare the level of detail in Jane Austen with Balzac, writing only a couple of decades later.
In 1822 Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre (yes, that Daguerre) and a partner opened the first panorama in the Passage Mirès in Paris. The business was so successful the arcade is now known as the Passage des Panoramas. Customers sat around a large rotating drum displaying scenes such as “The Earthquake at Lima” and “The Goldau Valley Before and After the Catastrophe.” After the images of destruction (the latter was a landslide) spectators were led to “Midnight Mass at St.-Etienne-du-Mont,” complete with organ music. Daguerre’s panoramas were topical, too. After the July Revolution of 1830 Daguerre came up with a scene from the Place de la Bastille.
The panoramas were closer to the stagecraft of the theater than the projected images of the cinema, but the fundamentals of cinematic experience were present: expressive lighting, sound effects, music, multi-plane coordinated movement, and small moving models. There were even dissolves between scenes, accomplished by shifting the lighting from one side of the painted fabric to the other.
The panoramas’ reality effect was powerful. Chateaubriand gushed, “The illusion was complete. I recognized at first glance all the monuments and all the places, down to the little courtyard where I lived in a room at the Convent of the Holy Savior.” The painter Jacques-Louis David sent his students to the panoramas for nature studies.
Daguerre’s panorama burned down the same year (1839) he invented photography. However, panoramas thrived in other arcades (for instance, the Galerie Colbert had a “georama” for a while), and they remained influential throughout the century. For one thing, the panoramas were a reproducible spectacle, which means they were cheaper to produce and, more importantly, to exhibit than stage productions. While the panoramas themselves never became a mass medium, they showed the potential for a mass medium based upon reproduced moving images.
The panoramas also became a genre in literature, journalism, and eventually, the cinema. In my next post I’ll look at a film that is a direct descendant of the panoramas.