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Investigating the disappearance of a movie luminary

Abby McGanney Nolan

Author Paul Fischer specialises in filmmakers who vanish. His well-crafted first book, A Kim Jong-Il Production, told the bizarre story of two South Korean movie industry veterans – a director and an actress, recently divorced – who were abducted in the late 1970s and strong-armed into making movies glorifying the Hermit Kingdom.

Fischer’s new book also takes place in a foreign realm, late 19th-Century Europe and America, as artists, scientists and engineers raced to figure out how to bring movement to photography. Most of them hoped to make money from this technological advance. Along with American icon Thomas Edison, there were contenders like Eadweard Muybridge and the Lumière brothers, and lesser-known figures like Charles-Émile Reynaud and Louis Le Prince.

Two years after making what is now credited by many experts as the first motion picture, Le Prince disappeared in France, just as he was preparing to unveil his invention in New York City, his family’s new home. His body was never found.

The tantalising subtitle of The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures promises obsession and murder and primes readers for a true-crime thriller. Will it move back and forth, like The Devil in the White City, between man’s creative ingenuity and his homicidal capabilities? The prologue ends with a startling theory – that Edison ordered Le Prince’s kidnapping and death.

But the book’s real strength is not its crime-solving (Fischer concludes with a plausible if not provable suspect); it’s the way Fischer, who is also a film producer, helps us see how revelatory motion pictures were at the time. Le Prince, 49 when he went missing, had studied optics, chemistry, photography and painting, and he made use of them all as he struggled to create a new art form.

Fischer reconstructs Le Prince’s life, the places that meant the most to him and his English wife, Lizzie, and the tussles surrounding inventions and patents. One of Le Prince’s major inspirations came from his work on the then-popular attraction of panoramas, huge 360-degree paintings that were created in a closed circle, enhanced by photography and electricity, and filled with customers gazing at life-size representations of historical events.

Toiling away in Upper Manhattan and in Lizzie’s hometown of Leeds, Louis figured out how his motion-picture camera and projector could capture a “moving panorama” of real life. He foresaw “the movies” as a collective experience, rather than the individual one offered by the peep-show machine Edison announced in 1891.

Le Prince’s disappearance (and possible murder) cast a melancholy shadow over the book, partly because he seems like such a mensch, even while dealing with endless mechanical challenges, money troubles and an American patent process that was both onerous and unfair. He was adored by Lizzie (whose life and concerns play an important role in the narrative), their children and his in-laws, and warmly respected by colleagues and employees.

As one young patent-application clerk later remembered him, Le Prince was “the finest, most charming and interesting man I have ever met.”

Two other inventors come off less well, though neither’s malfeasance is meaningfully connected to Le Prince’s death. Muybridge killed a man in 1874, but he was acquitted because of what the California jury called “the law of human nature”; the dead man had been having an affair with Muybridge’s wife.

Edison, on the other hand, was responsible for murdering many of his competitors’ hopes and prospects. Before addressing Edison’s inflated reputation as the father of motion pictures, Fischer describes how the Wizard of Menlo Park had often been denounced by fellow inventors for “underhanded tactics” and “public dishonesty” as he claimed credit for and ownership of devices that were not his, or not his alone. An already rich and famous Edison is quoted in 1878, “I don’t care so much about making my fortune as I do for getting ahead of the other fellows.”

Fischer shows how Edison and his legal team used caveat petitions filed with the patent office to lay claim to innovations “they hadn’t yet formulated but intended to develop in the near future.” (In 1910, one of his lawyers estimated that Edison had filed “some 120 caveats embracing not less than 1500 inventions” in fields ranging from electricity to mining to motion pictures.) Fischer details how one of Edison’s assistants, WKL Dickson, did more work than Edison on the Kinetograph and the Kinetoscope (a moving-picture camera and a display device, respectively), and the Black Maria, the first film studio in the world.

The expanding leisure class of the late 19th Century was, as Fischer wrote, “driven to consume, eager for diversion and entertainment”. But Le Prince was steadfast in his quest because he saw motion pictures as delivering more than entertainment. His widow remembered her husband’s “almost solemn thoughts… on the effects his invention was destined to bring about… He believed that motion pictures would prove more potent than diplomacy in bringing nations into closer touch, and that as a peace propaganda it was without a rival.” Such thoughts might seem like a distant dream, one that disappeared when Le Prince did, but they are also reminders of how inventiveness can breed fresh hope along with innovation.

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