The year is 1903. The setting, a Doric temple swiftly erected on Penn’s campus. Cameras are about to roll.

Sophomore and would-be-poet Ezra Pound C1905 G1906 is costumed in flowing dress along with the other Greek maidens in the cast of Iphigenia Among the Taurians. Following the production’s resounding success at the Academy of Music, the play’s business manager and the Gazette’s founding editor, George Nitzsche L1898, has convinced the Lubin film company to shoot it for a moving picture.

Enter Professor William Lamberton, of the Department of Greek. (Looking aghast.)

Lamberton: “Do you mean to take moving pictures of this beautiful production and have it hawked around ‘Nickelodeons’ in all parts of the country?”

Nitzsche: It would be “a splendid opportunity … of perpetuating a most notable  … production.”

Lamberton: “Well you’ll take it over my dead body.”

One can hear the sighs of the Greek chorus as Penn misses its chance to host the first film with a plot made in America—an honor that went instead to The Great Train Robbery.

In some ways the scene above—described by former Penn English professor Emily Mitchell Wallace in Ezra Pound & William Carlos Williams: The University of Pennsylvania Conference Papers, edited by Dr. Daniel Hoffman, the Felix Schelling Professor Emeritus of English—symbolizes Penn’s past reluctance to embrace the medium that it helped to launch.

But the current buzz of film-related activity on campus and the 28 courses cross-listed with cinema studies this semester suggest that the University has come around. According to Nicola Gentili, associate director of the cinema-studies program, that’s nearly double the number offered last spring. Among the selections: “Screenwriting Workshop,” “The Road Movie,” “Copyright and Culture,” “Film and Art of the Russian Revolution,” “Japanese Cinema,” and “Fate and Chance in Literature and Film.”

“I think we all recognized that cinema is the great art of the 21st century and our students are increasingly in need of an education in visual literacy,” says Dr. Rebecca Bushnell, a professor of English who was recently named dean of the School of Arts and Sciences after serving as dean of the College for two years.And we had students passionately interested in this field.”

The program has been “in the making for a long time,” she notes. For years film courses have been scattered across the University—at the Annenberg School for Communication, at the School of Design, and at SAS in English, Romance languages, Asian and Middle Eastern studies, and art history.

“About seven or eight years ago, the faculty came together to lobby for the development of a more coherent program,” Bushnell recounts. “So we spent some time searching to get the right people.”

In addition to Corrigan, two new members of the faculty have core responsibilities in cinema studies:  Dr. Peter Decherney, assistant professor of cinema studies and English, and Dr. Karen Beckman, the Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Assistant Professor in the History of Art department.

Beyond the classroom, the program organizers arranged a full slate of events last fall, from a screening at The Bridge by filmmaker Nathaniel Kahn of My Architect (the documentary about his father, architect Louis Kahn Ar’24 Hon’71) and a panel discussion on “Film after 9/11” at Kelly Writers House to colloquia on “Feminist Film Theory in the 21st Century” and “The Digital Cinema Revolution.”

In March Mary Sweeney, a film producer and writer who works with David Lynch, will present his films Mulholland Drive and The Straight Story in an event cosponsored with The Penn Humanities Forum. Cinema studies is working with the Philadelphia Film Festival to have more of the festival’s films shown in West Philadelphia and to boost faculty and student participation in the annual April event.

“We used to have only three or four film showings [around campus] a month,” says cinema-studies major Wesley Barrow, noting how Penn’s film culture has grown. “Now every week there are probably three or four. It’s getting a lot bigger.”

In the fall the cinema-studies program will host a conference that celebrates Penn’s film pioneers, including Eadweard Muybridge, documentarian Sol Worth, and avant-garde cinema promoter Amos Vogel as well as alumni who currently work in the industry.

With a fishing pole slung over one shoulder, the woman steps gingerly from stone to stone, as if trying to keep her ankles dry while crossing an imaginary stream. She wears only a long braid down her back, but seems unaware of the gaze of three-dozen cameras around her and the fact that her split-second movements will become a part of history.

One of the photographic subjects in Eadweard Muybridge’s animal-locomotion studies at Penn, she joins a kinetic troupe of Philadelphia zoo animals, Penn student athletes, hospital patients, and art models who charge, pole-vault, limp, and waltz from one frame to the next.

We see them now in books and in special collections like those found at the University Archives and Records Center. But if you were in the audience for one of Muybridge’s American and European lectures more than a century ago, you would have been dazzled by a flickering series of images projected by the zoopraxiscope he invented.

“Muybridge’s work is generally considered one of the great watershed moments in terms of the transition from still photography to film as we know it,” Corrigan says.

An English-born photographer with a  white cataract of a beard, a curiously spelled name, and a mixed reputation, Eadweard Muybridge arrived on campus in 1884 at the invitation of Provost William Pepper C1862 M1864 and several Penn benefactors. He was reportedly given a $5,000 advance “for the prosecution of his work on the investigation of animal motion.” (Among those appointed to a commission to supervise him was the American realist painter Thomas Eakins.)

Muybridge had achieved fame in California several years earlier by proving with his instantaneous photography that when a horse gallops, at some point all four hooves leave the ground.  Working on the property of Penn’s veterinary hospital, Muybridge set out to improve his techniques. He created an outdoor photo studio that consisted of a 120-foot-long track laid out along a black-painted shed, with banks of cameras set up to capture a subject’s every movement at three different angles. Their shutters were released automatically with electro-exposing devices.

Though he was known as an entertaining speaker, Muybridge’s colleagues at Penn weren’t always sure what to make of the man, according to Gordon Hendricks, author of Eadweard Muybridge: The Father of the Motion Picture.

For one thing, there was his fondness at lunchtime for maggoty cheeses bought on South Street. Then there was the matter of his unkempt appearance. Pulling Muybridge aside one day, Provost Pepper advised that he dress in a manner befitting his association with the University. “‘Take for example your hat; it has a large hole in it through which your hair is protruding,’” the provost pointed out. “Muybridge then looked at his hat and observed, as if for the first time, ‘Why it does have a hole in it.’”

Edward T. Reichert, a physiologist who helped Muybridge in at least one odd experiment—photographing the exposed, beating heart of a snapping turtle—described him as “the most eccentric man I ever knew intimately” and “very much a recluse.”

A fact that probably didn’t escape people’s attention was Muybridge’s previous legal troubles in California. Ten years earlier, his wife, Flora, was “on terms of criminal intimacy” with one Major Harry Larkyns, in the words of The Calistoga Free Press. Upon learning of her infidelity—as well as the true parentage of his infant son—Muybridge tracked down Larkyns at the Yellow Jacket Mine in Calistoga, permanently ending his rival’s cribbage game with a Smith & Wesson. A jury acquitted him of murder.

The problems Muybridge faced at Penn were mainly of a logistical nature. One was trying to secure permission to photograph “interesting cases” from Blockley Hospital for the Poor to illustrate abnormal locomotion. After initially rejecting his idea, the hospital’s board of guardians eventually consented and provided 23 models for the project, according to Hendricks. Supplementing that body of work was a “normal” model who voluntarily submitted to having artificially induced convulsions for the cameras.

Thousands of photographs and $40,000 in expenses later, there were 781 plates ready for publication. Muybridge presided over his own prospectus and catalogue in a front room at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, helping subscribers choose and order 100-plate sets at a cost of $100.

Though Muybridge’s work made no money for Penn, his images impressed audiences from Turin to Oxford to Munich. “Had Muybridge exhibited his Zoopraxiscope three hundred years ago, he would have been burned as a wizard,” wrote George Augustus Sala in the Illustrated London News.

“So perfect was the synthesis [of Muybridge’s images] that a dog in the lecture room barked and endeavored to chase the phantom horses as they galloped across the screen,” the Berkeley Weekly News reported.

A set of photographs was even sent to the Sultan of Turkey, in the words of The Pennsylvanian student newspaper, “to soften his heart to the University and incline him to give her scholars permission to carry away with them what may be left of Babylon and surrounding country … ” A thank-you note in the Penn archives from the Premier Secretary of the Sultan graciously acknowledges the gift’s receipt.

The pictures were identified in Muybridge’s catalogue according to the level of undress they featured—fully clothed, nude, semi-nude, pelvis cloth, transparent drapery, draped, and bare feet.

“Care is taken that the nude series cannot be bought by those who do not intend to use such work for serious study,” reassured a March 5, 1888, article in The New York Times, headlined, “Wonders of the Camera.” The article went on to emphasize the scientific and artistic contributions of Muybridge’s work, including the fact that “those who study the photographs of men and animals in locomotion see positions in moving bodies which their eyes always refused to register before.”

“In the early days this kind of work in photography and motion studies was considered primarily a scientific pursuit,” Corrigan says. “There were people who tried to turn it into an amusement, and those became in some ways the twin poles that pressured cinema through even its early stages: Is this just a pastime, an amusement? Or is this a powerful tool for scientific and social investigation? If one wants to be schematic about it, you can sort of look at film history as struggling between those poles ever since.”

For a long time cinema studies was looked upon as a “soft” discipline, according to Corrigan, but “a huge explosion of scholarship and theoretical thinking” in the 1970s and 1980s improved its profile. 

Films actually were used very early at some Ivy League universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia, points out Peter Decherney. In his upcoming book, Hollywood and the Culture Elite, Decherney shows that collaborations between higher-education institutions and Hollywood in the 1910s and 1920s promoted an American national identity while conferring legitimacy to the medium of film.

He cites Columbia as one example. “By 1914, a  screen in the the journalism school showed films for a wide range of courses from psychology to history to journalism,” Decherney says. A few years later, the first film courses were offered through its art history department. “Film was taught as art for its own sake rather than as an illustration of other subjects.” Columbia’s education division also used film in two ways: for “teaching values to, or ‘Americanizing,’ the children of immigrants” and teaching screenwriting as a vocation.

Even at Penn (despite Professor Lamberton’s obstructions), film was used as a publicity tool early in the 20th century, University Archives records show.  Alumni groups around the country could request film reels of such momentous events as Penn’s Commencement and “the Annual Smock Fight between the Sophomore and Junior Classes in Architecture.”

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©2005 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 01/05/05

Now Playing on the Big Screen
By Susan Frith

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Photographer Eadweard Muybridge and equipment he is believed to have used at Penn. Source: University Archives and Records Center

Photography by Candace diCarlo