The British Influence on Early American Cinema

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The British Influence on Early American Cinema

Introduction:Cinema's Pre-History

The pioneering period of early film development was marked by rapid technological and artistic innovation. The innovators borrowed heavily upon the ideas of their predecessors and contemporaries in order to elevate the medium to ever more sophisticated levels. Popular film history largely ignores the work of early British pioneers, and instead reads that the nexus of development quickly switched from Thomas Edison’s laboratory in the United States over to the Lumière brothers foundational shorts in France, before returning back to America for further development. Early British innovators influenced the technological development of cinema coinciding with their work creating some the first cohesive narrative devices. Though, the British impact on the origins of film ended ultimately as a footnote within the hegemonic discourse of film history due to the massive success of American cinema in the years following.

The notion of film as a large-scale exhibition medium was not clearly defined in the earliest history of film. Edison’s moving pictures were nothing more than magic lantern shows, and the Lumière brothers were involved solely in still photography. It was not until British inventor William Friese Greene developed celluloid film in 1889, that the path to the projection of moving images became possible [1]. Three years later, a British inventor named William Dickson, under employ of Thomas Edison, invented double sprocketed 35-millimeter film stock to run in Edison’s Kinetoscope machines. By the early 1890s, Kinetoscopes became popularized, allowing for individual viewing of moving film images. Projection in front of an audience though was still years away, relegating viewers to peer down the Kinetoscope’s view holes much like its magic lantern predecessors.

First Moving Images: Imitating the Kinetoscope

Due to the widespread success of the Kinetoscope in the United States, an unlikely electrical engineer named Robert W. Paul was approached in the summer of 1894 by two entrepreneurs wanting him to manufacture duplicates of Edison’s Kinetoscope machine, as the machine was not patented in England at the time. Paul obliged creating several machines for the pair, however they were not able to obtain any films to show on them as Edison kept a tight lock on his film prints (McKernan). So they next employed Paul to fabricate a 35-millimeter film camera and shoot material for their duplicated Kinetoscopes. In February of 1895, photographer Birt Arces was hired by Paul to shoot the first British film ever made entitled Incident at Clovelly Cottage (1895). Paul quickly wrote Edison offering to supply his company with films. “Edison promptly rejected the offer but two of the films that Acres made for Paul in 1895 were shown at the first public showing of Edison’s Vitascope in New York on 23 April 1896”. [2] This little known event became the first time America borrowed a film production from England, as well as the first time multiple people could watch the same film at the same time [3]. Within the next few years, Americans would make their own films often with British influences, alongside continuing to display original British films using the newly invented Vitascope projector technology.

By the turn of the century, a multitudes of filmmakers began experimenting with film production on both sides of the Atlantic, often borrowing successful technical and story ideas from each other. While new information has surfaced in recent years, historiographical discourse of this period continues to gloss over the work of British film pioneers, focusing instead on French and particularly American pioneers notably the Lumière Brothers and Edwin S. Porter. To defy this notion, three particular British films, Grandma's Reading Glass (1900), A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903), and Rescued by Rover (1905), stand as a concrete testament to the influence of the British on early American cinema. Each of these films innovated new aspects of filmmaking, changing the medium slowly from documenting everyday life, towards the development of narrative films, which the United States eventually became the world leader in.

British Directors: Cinema's First Stories

Grandma’s Reading Glass (1900) innovated many aspects of film language due to the ingenuity of its British director G. A. Smith. Smith conceived of a 14 shot story where a girl peers into a magnifying glass, followed by her subjective point of view as she looks upon matted objects. “The film renounced the conventions of a single viewpoint, or theatrical perspective, which had been the dominant model for film production, and replaced it with a shifting point-of-view within a linear narrative” [4]. Smith followed up his initial success with several more short narratives experimenting with close-ups, subjective point-of-view, and shot/reverse shot during the following year. His work became popular internationally in the ensuing months spawning cornucopia of knock offs. Filmmakers in the United States shot their own version, starting in 1902 when the American Biograph Company copied Smith’s storytelling devices in the aptly titled Grandpa’s Reading Glass [5]. Continuity editing became commonplace by the middle of the decade along with increased run times due to technological advances. Dominant film discourse tends to neglect the 100-foot British films by G. A. Smith that paved the way for longer continuity cinema during the middle part of the decade.

Grandma’s Reading Glass spawned several adaptations with varying degrees of temporary success. However, A Daring Daylight Burglary (1903) by Frank S. Mottershaw was directly copied to make Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), which has become arguably the most famous film of the early cinema period. At the time, “A Daring Daylight Burglary was enormously successful both in Britain and abroad: between 500 and 600 copies were sold, including an American order for 100 copies which were extensively pirated in the US” [6]. Porter took Mottershaw’s litany of innovative techniques, and incorporated them into his own work, which would eventually elevate him within historiography circles to the status of the “father of modern cinema”. “According to historian Lewis Jacobs, for instance, in his remarkable work, The Rise of the American Film, Porter’s only outstanding predecessor was Georges Méliès, whose aesthetics and achievements he surpassed” [7]. Sadoul makes a mockery out of this simplistic viewpoint, but Jacobs’ textbook stands as representative of a common summary of early film history.

A Daring Daylight Robbery itself was not conceived in a vacuum and in fact borrowed largely upon William Haggar’s Desperate Poaching Affray (1903). The film’s story motifs and pacing however make it unique. “Compared with other British films of the period, the pacing is unusually rapid and the narrative is surprisingly sophisticated - particularly its use of a revenge motive (the policeman avenging his badly injured comrade), which viewers of just about any current action thriller will immediately recognize as a key ingredient of the genre” [8]. Still, Edwin S. Porter is dominantly credited with creating the first action movie, and is to this day given homage in popular cinema, notably in the climatic end to Martin Scrocese’s epic Goodfellas (1990).

One year after Porter’s success, Cecil Hepworth developed film grammar further by emphasizing continuous action, creating England’s first international blockbuster. The film follows the exploits of a heroic upper class canine that rescues his owner’s baby daughter from a kidnapping gypsy. Rescued by Rover (1905) became not only a runaway success in Britain, but also all around the world, receiving heavy viewership in the British colonies and in the United States. When it comes to a modern historical perspective on this phenomenon, The Oxford History of World Cinema states “Rescued by Rover was a major commercial success, and in order to produce enough prints to meet demand, Hepworth's company remade the film twice. From a narrative perspective all three films are the same, but at the level of film form there are some small yet significant differences” [9]. The History of World Cinema goes a little light on the importance of Rescued by Rover, as the above quotation is the only mention of the Film in the history of world cinema. This is mostly due to Hepworth being quickly upstaged after selling prints his around the world by the increasing dominance of the American filmmaking factory American Biograph.

American Biograph: Changing the Tide of Early Cinema

American Biograph came to prominence mostly by financing the career of D. W. Griffith. Charles Barr states though that Rescued by Rover was “a clear precursor of the short films made by D. W. Griffith” and that it may be no coincidence that his own first film, The Adventures of Dollie, tells of the loss and rescue of a small child” [10]. The Adventures of Dollie started a longstanding trend in Griffith’s work, which used the same structural set up as Rover with different plot lines and settings. Between 1908 and 1913 the filmmaker produced over 400 films of similar length and structure as Rescued by Rover that resonated well with American audiences. “Griffith’s success resulted not just from his own talent, but from a framework unavailable in Britain: a combination of the size of the American market, the security of the investment behind him, and other things about the history, landscape, and culture of the nation” (Barr). Cecil Hepworth along with Frank S. Mottershaw, G. A. Smith, and other pioneering British filmmakers transitioned into the background, as American film companies took charge of their own domestic and then eventually international markets.

American cinema began to take a firm hold of the worldwide film markets by 1910, with Britain’s failure to adequately compete stemming from its lack of capital resources and the passage of censorship laws caused inadvertently though the Cinematograph Act of 1909. The nitrate compounds used in film stock at the time proved highly flammable, leading to hundreds of fire deaths across Britain’s exhibition halls. Thus, the government felt it necessary to intervene as a matter of public safety and spent the next two years drafting and redrafting new legislation making key changes along the way. “In 1909, the Cinematograph Act, the earliest British legislation relating specifically to censorship, entered the statue book. Although not originally framed as a censorship measure, the Cinematograph Act soon came to constitute the legal underpinnings of a variety of film censor practices” (Kuhn). The United States did not succumb to such measures until well over a decade later with the adoption of the Hays Code. In the intervening time, British filmmakers had a new obstacle to over come before they could exhibit their film and hopefully recoup the costs of production.

Meanwhile, American film companies had become experts at recouping their costs and then some, producing thousands of films per year by 1910. The British influence on the stylistic and technical production of cinema had dwindled with several key British pioneers exiting the business around this time. “Despite the innovate work of British producers and the increasing capitalization of the exhibition sector, by 1910, only 15 percent of films released in Britain were of British origin. Box office profits were used to hire American films rather than finance British production” (Street). These lackluster figures suggest that the era of British innovation in the creation of narrative devices and technological advances had quickly come to an end. However, the rise of the Hollywood studios, and the supreme dominance of American cinema was still years away. “From 1911-14 there was a brief revival of the British production industry, fuelled by a spate of longer films, mostly adaptations of plays and novels” (Street). Cecil Hepworth’s later work Hamlet (1913) showed at over an hour runtime, and became a limited success in Britain influencing longer form productions in the United States.

World War I: The Decline of British Innovation

By 1914, the onslaught of World War One had ground the narrative production business in Britain to a halt, with most available film stock devoted to shooting footage of the war. This set the stage for Britain’s final influence on early American cinema as a major collaborator with the United States in gathering war footage. American, French, and British cameramen “were at the heart of this kind of factual filmmaking, but contribution was only part of the total work involved in producing a finished film. Thus, film had to be sent back to England for frequent processing” (Reeves). It was during this processing that Britain had its last push towards influence in the early cinema period. The American films shown about the war were almost universally edited together in London, before being shipped back to the United States.

British censors heavily edited the material that was ultimately shown in Britain and the United States in order to show the war in the most positive light possible. The footage of the Battle of the Somme in particular shows the heavy handed editing of the material by various agents involved in its production, with Britain as arguably the biggest censorship force. After being shot in France during the actual battle, the film reels immediately traveled back to England for processing. “It [Battle of the Somme] was then censored in England, and before it could be sent back to France, the offending material must have been removed. It was then sent back to France, censored again, unacceptable sections removed, and returned to England” (Reeves). After all the cutting, a finished print was finally assembled back in England and shown to the British public starting roughly a month after the actual event, and in America a few weeks after that. With such influential innovations to early cinema’s technical and narrative development, British newsreel censorship stands in stark contrast to how Britain began its foray into cinema.

Tough economic realties settled in after the war, leaving the United States open to take an unrelenting grip on cinema production. The country that most influenced the United States’ early cinema development became relegated to a footnote in the larger historiographical discourse of film history. By the early 1920s, the vast majority of production companies in Britain closed their doors, including Cecil Hepworth’s Production Company who sold all of their negatives in 1924 to a receiver who melted the prints down for their silver content (Hepworth). Most negatives meet a similar fate with over 90% of all pre-1920 negatives being ultimately lost. The British would not see their early history ever truly rise back to prominence. since the beginning of film studies previously forgotten films have resurfaced such as A Daring Daylight Robbery (1904) which remained dormant in an unknown film vault for nearly sixty years.

The influence of the British on early cinema development especially in America shows through clearly upon a close inspection, but has not transferred into the larger historiographical discourse. Evidence has surfaced in recent years celebrating the influence of early British film pioneers. The shear dominance of Hollywood beginning in the 1920s created a disconnect with nearly all earlier film works, however, the advent of film scholarship is beginning to change this paradigm. The work of film scholars is slowly helping to change assumptions about the British influence on cinema, which will hopefully percolate up from academic papers and into general information film textbooks as more light in shed on the subject.


  1. ^ McKernan
  2. ^ McKernan
  3. ^ MacGowan
  4. ^ Gray
  5. ^ Gray
  6. ^ Brooke
  7. ^ Sadoul
  8. ^ Brooke
  9. ^ Nowell-Smith
  10. ^ Barr


  • Barr, Charles. “Before Blackmail: Silent British Cinema” in Murphy (ed.) The British Cinema Book. London: The British Film Institute, 2001. pp. 11-19.
  • Brooke, Michael. "Daring Daylight Burglary, A (1903)." Screen Online. British Film Institute. 7 May 2009 <>.
  • Gray, Frank. "G. A. Smith and the Emergence of the Edited Film in England." The Silent Cinema Reader. London: Routledge, 2003. 51-77.
  • Gunning, Tom. "The Cinema Attractions. Early Film, It’s Spectator, and the Avant-garde." Theater and film: A Comparative Anthology. New Haven: Yale UP, 2005. 117-32.
  • Hepworth, Cecil. Came the Dawn. London: Phoenix House, 1951.
  • Kuhn, Annette. Cinema, censorship, and sexuality, 1909-1925. London: Routledge, 1988.
  • MacGowan, Kenneth. "On the Vitascope." The Quarterly of Film Radio and Television Berkeley: California UP, 2005. Vol. 10 (1955): 64-88.
  • McKernan, Luke. " Friese-Greene, William (1855-1921)." Screen Online. British Film Institute. 7 May 2009 <>.
  • McKernan, Luke. "Paul, R.W. (1869-1943)." Screen Online. British Film Institute. 7 May 2009 <>.
  • Nowell-Smith, Geoffrey. The Oxford History of World Cinema. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 1999.
  • Reeves, Nicholas. Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War. London: Croom Helm, 1986. pp. 107-113.
  • Sadoul, Georges and Yvonne Templin. “English Influences on the Work of Edwin S. Porter.” Hollywood Quarterly Berkeley: California UP, 2005. Vol. 3 (1987):


  • Street, Sarah. British national cinema. London: Routledge, 1997.