who called it “photoplay” ?

September 3, 2007 § 2 Comments

“[ in 1910] The term “photoplay’ had just been suggested by Mr. Edgar Strakosch as a result of an effort on the part of the Essanay Film Company of Chicago to obtain an appropriate classification for its releases then gradually assuming a plane higher than in previous years.”

(Robert Grau, The theatre of science: a volume of progress and achievement in the motion picture industry (1914) — thank you, yet again, Bioscope)

And indeed Terry Ramsaye in 1926 is of the same opinion (maybe he was using Grau as his source of information) in his essay “Movie Jargon” (published in 1926 in American Speech), but adds a lot more to the verbal history of the movies (a term, he insists, that Hollywood producers disliked as being much too slangy and undignified, even into the 1920s):

Pictureplay first appeared in an effort of Alexander Black to describe his invention of an art form comprising steropticon slide photographs of phases of dramatic action, which, assisted by his spoken obligato, conveyed an illusion of motion. Black’s pictureplay appeared October 9, 1894, a few months after the Edison peepshow went to the public and nearly a half a year before the birth of the projected film picture on the screen. Black’s play in pictures evolved from his experiences as a writer and lecturer on the then new art of making snapshots in the early ’90’s. It had no conscious relation to the film of the motion picture. Black followed the language of the word and became a novelist, while the motion picture film followed a career of novelty which had to be exhausted before it turned to narration. Pictureplay did not come into the motion picturre language until nearly ten years later, springing up then, not from the Black concept, but independently as a synonym for Photoplay.

The motion picture was at considerable pains to arrive at Photoplay. At the birth of the screen in 1895-6 there was some confusion with “living pictures,” a term used to describe the then common stage tableaux or “living statuary” presentations ranging from “Napoleon at Lodi” to “Pygmalion and Galatea” with the limelight accent on Galatea. “Pictures in Life Motion” appeared on the blacktent film theatres of the carnival circuits. “The Great Train Robbery,” the classic parent screen drama, and its immediate successors were discussed as “story pictures” to differentiate them from the mere record and novelty pictures. When Sigmund Lubin of Philadelphia advertised “The Bold Bank Robbery” in 1904, he declared that it was in “30 Motion Tableaux.” When in 1908, Kessel and Baumann, able ex-bookmakers from Sheepshead Bay race tracks, engaged in film production they announced “Bison Life Motion Pictures. Vitagraph boasted contemporaneously of “Life Portrayals.” In 1912 the Essanay concern in Chicago, formed five years earlier by Max Aronson, now G. M. Anderson, star of “The Great Train Robbery” and George K. Spoor, grew militant against the word movie. They offered the wide world a prize of $25 for a new name for the art. Edgar Strakosch, a California musician, coined Photoplay and got the money. Then within a few months Photoplay Magazine was founded in Chicago and spread the word to the industry and the public.” (p. 358-359)

§ 2 Responses to who called it “photoplay” ?

  • Barak says:

    I spent the entire weekend trying to find some evidence for Ramsaye’s comments about the word “movie.” Can’t say I had any success.
    Does anyone know when the phrase “moving pictures” first appeared in a dictionary. Similarly, when did the word “movie” first appeared in a decent dictionary? Is there anything written to elaborate on Ramsay’s comments?



  • flyczba says:

    My latest post (https://flyczba.wordpress.com/2007/09/11/the-word-movie/) may be of interest to you…but this morning I’ve come across another article from the journal American Speech, where Fred R. Shapiro (SHAPIRO Fred R.: “Movie Words: Antedatings of Cinematic Terms.” American Speech vol. 58, no. 3, fall 1983: 216-224) indicates the dates when a cinematic term first appeared in the Supplement to the Oxford Dictionary (that ought to qualify as a “decent dictionary”, right?). There’s no entry for “moving pictures” nor for “movie”, but “movie star” made its entry in the dictionary in 1919, “movie play” in 1917, and “movie theater” as early as 1915.
    Incidentally F. Shapiro also backs up Ramsaye’s story about the origin of the “photoplay” word by quoting the 1910 Oct. 15 Moving Picture World story (p. 858) — but notice that the word referred to the theaters and not the films themselves, as Ramsaye seemed to imply…:

    Photoplay is a name which may be applied as a description to the several thousands of theaters where motion pictures are exhibited, according to the decision obtained by the contest judges in the Essanay Company’s New Name Contest, the purpose of which was to obtain a more suitable appellative for the phrase ‘moving picture show’…The winner…is Edgar Strakosch of Sacramento, Cal., an exhibitor of motion pictures on the Pacific Coast.”

    (“photoplay” was entered in the dictionary for the first time in 1915).

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