Samuel Hawley author









Samuel Hawley is a writer. His books are highly eclectic. He has written about 16th-century East Asian history, 19th-century Korean-American relations, Olympic sprinting and land speed racing and a circus elephant named Topsy who was electrocuted in 1903. He lives in Kingston, Ontario.

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Samuel Hawley The Fight That Started the Movies
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THE FIGHT THAT STARTED THE MOVIES: The World Heavyweight Championship, the Birth of Cinema and the First Feature Film

by SAMUEL HAWLEY (Nov. 5, 2016)

On March 17, 1897, in an open-air arena in Carson City, Nevada, “Gentleman” Jim Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons fought for the heavyweight championship of the world. The fourteen-round contest was recorded in its entirety by film pioneer Enoch Rector from inside a huge, human-powered  camera called the “Veriscope.” Rector’s movie premiered in New York City two months later. Known today as The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, it was the world’s first feature-length film.
The making of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was the culmination of three years of rapid evolution in motion picture technology in which boxing played a key role. It began in the summer of 1894, when West Virginian Enoch Rector and his friends Otway and Gray Latham happened upon a shop in New York City where Thomas Edison’s latest invention, the Kinetoscope peephole machine, was introducing the public to moving pictures. As the trio left the shop, Gray Latham had a brainstorm: Why not show prizefights on this wonderful new Edison device, one round per machine? Prizefighting was banned in most states of the Union, but the law said nothing about showing a film of a prizefight. It would be a sure moneymaker.

The trio immediately set to work. The first problem they encountered was the fact that Edison’s Kinetograph movie camera and Kinetoscope viewer could handle only twenty seconds of film. This was not nearly long enough for a prizefight, which was made up of three-minute rounds. Three full minutes of filming was not possible at this time, so the trio settled for one minute. If they could film and exhibit a fight comprised of one-minute rounds, it would convey an approximation of a prizefight, enough to get the public excited and the nickels rolling in.

To accomplish this, Edison technician William K.L. Dickson pushed the Kinetograph camera to its limit and Enoch Rector developed a large-capacity Kinetoscope that could accommodate a longer loop of film. The first Rector-Latham production, filmed under the aegis of the newly formed Kinetoscope Exhibiting Company, was a six-round slugfest between lightweight contender Mike Leonard and local unknown Jack Cushing. The contest was filmed inside a ten-foot ring set up in the “Black Maria” studio at Edison’s Orange, New Jersey lab and ended with a satisfying “knock out”—prearranged but realistic looking. The resulting film, generally known today as The Leonard-Cushing Fight, debuted on August 4, 1894 and enjoyed moderate success.

For their next production, Rector and the Lathams secured the services of heavyweight champion Jim Corbett to take on a freight wagon driver named Peter Courtney, again in the Black Maria for six one-minute rounds. The film of the bout, known as Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph, would go on to become the biggest hit of the Kinetoscope era. But it still wasn’t an actual fight, only a staged representation. To photographically capture a real prizefight, Rector and the associates had to be able to film for three uninterrupted minutes, the length of a round. And that still wasn’t possible with the movie camera as it then existed.

The crux of the problem concerned film tension. In Edison’s Kinetograph camera and machines like it, the strip of celluloid film ran from the feed reel and past the lens to the take-up reel in a straight line. The intermittent mechanism that advanced the film past the lens in a rapid-fire series of starts and stops thus jerked it directly off the feed reel. The result was that the feed reel could hold only a limited amount of film, not much more than a minute’s worth. Any more than that and it would be too heavy, like a dragging anchor. The jerking of the intermittent mechanism, pulling on this weight, would tear the film.

In their quest to get beyond the one-minute barrier, Enoch Rector and the Lathams split up and went in different directions. The Lathams subsequently developed a machine, the Eidoloscope, that incorporated an elegantly simple solution to the film breakage problem in the form of a loop in the film before it passed in front of the lens. The jerking of the intermittent mechanism thus pulled only on this inches-long loop, not on the whole reel. This innovation would become an integral part of the modern movie camera. It is called the “Latham Loop” but was actually invented by Eidoloscope Company employee Eugene Lauste, working for a salary of $21 a week.

Otway Gray Latham Eugene Lauste Eidoloscope 
The Lathams' workshop, 1895, Otway  and Gray Latham at right, Eugene Lauste at center with his elbow on projector.

It would be the Lathams, using their Lauste-built camera, who would push the movies past one minute to eight full minutes. They would do so, once again, with a prizefight, this one featuring Albert “Young Griffo” Griffiths and Charles Barnett, filmed on the roof of Madison Square Garden in early May 1895. The film would be shown to the public vy a projector, which the Lathams were rightly convinced was the way forward, a much more cost-effective way for a film to be viewed by hundreds of people at once. Debuting on May 18, 1895, Young Griffo vs. Battling Barnett would be the first projected film shown to paying customers, predating by seven months the Lumière brothers’ first commercial screening in Paris, and established a new mark for film length. The Lathams, however, were better visionaries than they were men of business. Their Eidoloscope, while hugely important in cinema history, would soon fade from the scene.

Enoch Rector, meanwhile, had come up with an entirely different solution for making longer films. His idea was to operate the camera manually using a team of three men—one to turn the feed reel and thus keep the film slack, a second to crank the intermittent mechanism, and a third to turn the take-up reel. In this way much larger and heavier reels of film could be used. There was just one hitch: Rector and his camera operators had to be inside the camera.

Rector achieved this by building a huge camera called the Veriscope. It was a light-tight wooden structure with red-tinted windows and with three photographing machines installed inside. Because the Veriscope was in effect a darkroom, Rector and his assistants were able to handle the film in the open without it being spoiled, carefully watching it as it was cranked through the machines to make sure there was no tension. They were, after all, inside the camera. (Celluloid film of this era was orthochromatic, meaning that it was not sensitive to the red-tinted light streaming in through the Veriscope’s windows.) The significance of the Veriscope as a giant camera with the operators sealed inside has been entirely overlooked by film historians but it was evident to people in Rector’s day. As one contemporary paper described it, it was “an immense camera, arranged on the principle of the little Kodak machine, which contained within itself miles and miles of prepared photographic film.” (Eau Claire [WI] Daily Leader, Aug. 24, 1897.)
Enoch Rector kinetoscope
Rector first used his apparatus in February 1896 in an attempt to film the Bob Fitzsimmons-Peter Maher fight on a Rio Grande sandbar on the US-Mexico border. His plan was to show the resulting film on a truly gigantic Kinetoscope that could hold a three-minute-long loop of film, a behemoth fifteen feet long and equipped with five peephole ports along its length so that five customers could simultaneously see the film. Had this device been built, it would have pushed the Kinetoscope as far as it could go.

As it turned out, Rector’s monster Kinetoscope never was built, for his attempt to film the Fitz-Maher fight ended in failure. The day was too overcast to get a decent exposure and the fight itself did not last even one round, Fitz decking Maher in under two minutes.

It would take more than a year, but Rector would try again, this time at the heavyweight title bout between Bob Fitzsimmons and Jim Corbett in March 1897. And this time he would succeed, capturing every second of action right up to the stunning “solar plexus blow” that Fitz used to drop Corbett.

The resulting film, including preliminaries, fourteen rounds of action and post-fight scrum as the ring filled with people, was  six reels long—a total of approximately seventy-five minutes of screen time. By the time it premiered in New York City on May 22, 1897, Rector had abandoned his super-Kinetoscope idea in favor of a projector. The machine, like Rector’s Veriscope camera, relied in part on hand operation, assistants manually turning the reels to keep tension off the film and thus prevent it from breaking. With introductory lecture and intermissions for changing the reels, the show lasted just over two hours—what was billed as “a complete evening’s entertainment.”

The feature-length film had arrived.

The Fight That Started the Movies

Enoch Rector Veriscope

copyright © Samuel Hawley 2016