Review: ‘The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures,’ by Paul Fischer

THE MAN WHO INVENTED MOTION PICTURES: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies, by Paul Fischer

The moving image may have many fathers, but full custody of the credit, more or less, has always gone to Thomas Edison. And why not? He held the patents, and fit the myth: a rumpled American genius whose phonograph and incandescent light bulb had already fundamentally altered the course of history. Paul Fischer is hardly the first to call that presumption a lie, but he does mount a passionate, detailed defense of Louis Le Prince, the mutton-chopped Frenchman at the heart of “The Man Who Invented Motion Pictures: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies,” as the true progenitor of film. And as the subtitle breathlessly infers, there will be blood — “a ghost story, a family saga and an unsolved mystery” — unfurled with all the cliffhangers and red herrings of a scripted melodrama.

As in most things, the reality is both messier and more academic, and ultimately sadder. But “Man” begins cinematically enough with a single striking image: a still taken from what is generally called “Roundhay Garden Scene,” on the sparse autumn lawn of a private home in Leeds, England, on Oct. 14, 1888. Several figures in Victorian dress stand scattered, their faces blurred by motion; one smeary participant is caught in the act of turning away, his coattails flaring behind him. All four were friends or relatives of the man behind the camera, Le Prince, and the surviving clip, a scant artifact lasting less than two seconds, is now widely acknowledged to be the first known motion picture.

“A tall, soft-spoken gentleman” with a fine-boned face and florid facial hair, Le Prince trained as a chemist in his native France and would work peripatetically throughout his life as a teacher, potter, painter and industrial draftsman. His raison d’être of him, though, was invention — specifically the creation of a device he called a “taker” or “receiver” of animated photographs. The mechanics were rudimentary (one early apparatus alone, made of Honduras mahogany, weighed nearly 40 pounds) but the limitless potential of it loomed thrillingly, Fischer writes: “Events that could previously only be witnessed once would be available to be replayed as many times as desired. Something that had happened on one side of the planet would be viewable, with just a few days’ delay, by an audience at the opposite end of the world. The past would become available to the future. The dead would move, and walk, and dance, and laugh, anytime you wished to see them do all these things again. … No human experience, from the most benign to the most momentous, would again need to be lost to history.”

And how, of course. But Le Prince would not be there to witness it, or even earn a cent from the breakthrough that cost him nearly everything he had in sweat equity, materials he could ill afford and long, painful absences from his family. Less than two years later, at the age of 56, he boarded a train from Dijon to Paris and was never seen again. His disappearance from him remains officially unsolved, though his English-born wife, Lizzie Whitley, had one working theory: He had cracked the mystery of a machine Edison wanted for himself, and was killed for it.

In the 300-plus pages that follow, Fischer, a UK-based producer and film scholar whose last book, 2015’s “A Kim Jong-il Production: The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, and a Young Dictator’s Rise to Power,” landed on several year-end nonfiction best lists, lays out his case meticulously and with many footnotes, though he takes pains to entertain. Those two aims don’t always jibe, particularly when his more poetic flights of prose come up against the granular realities of R&D. (Whatever you may not know about silver halides and activating photons, you’ll learn.) Unsurprisingly, it’s the human elements, not the halides, that register most vividly. Like the love story between the Le Princes, which seemed like a true romance and a surprisingly equitable marriage for the times: Lizzie was a pretty, intellectually curious engineer’s daughter from Yorkshire who came to Paris at 20 to study under the famed sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse, a mentor of Rodin’s; Louis was a sophisticated friend of her brother’s.

They married and settled in Leeds, where Louis joined the Whitley family foundry as a draftsman and foreign sales agent, though trade was never his forte. (“Commerce held no fascination for him — in fact he would prove time and again in life that he was a rather poor businessman when forced to try his hand at it.”) The first several of six children followed, and a harrowing interlude in the Franco-Prussian War, but the prospect of a comfortable if unremarkable Continental life would be diverted, naturally, by the siren song of America.

It was after the couple’s migration to New York City in 1881 that Le Prince started experimenting in earnest, a progression that did not go unnoticed by his peers. Edison, increasingly stymied, made it his business to know what the more successful amateurs like Le Prince were up to, and his Goliath-style villainy makes for easy mustache-twirling here — with his lawyers, fame and vast resources, he was effectively able to carpet-bomb the US patent office with pre-emptive claims, and had no small pull within the justice system — though his passion for the actual product proved remarkably limited. His real interests of him, it seemed, lay in his own inflated sense of eminent domain; if it qualified as American innovation, Edison reasoned, it should by rights be his.

At point of fact, several men (if women ever entered the equation, it’s not recorded here) contributed far more to the cause than the so-called Wizard of Menlo Park, and Fischer gives fair due to the many small-fish prospectors laboring away in DIY laboratories, their strivings a sort of hive mind of Industrial Age hope and innovation. Those players join a tapestry of boldfaced names, some of whom — the photography pioneer Louis Daguerre, the mendacious California mogul Leland Stanford — directly encountered Le Prince in his lifetime, Zelig-like. Others run parallel or pass through on mere coincidence, from the Lumière brothers and George Eastman to Aaron Burr, who once briefly lived in the same 18th-century mansion in Washington Heights where the Le Princes settled for several years. (It’s also where Lin-Manuel Miranda penned portions of “Hamilton,” though the book’s long lens doesn’t extend quite that far.)

Thanks to historical records, Fischer can say with assurance whether a particular day in 1883 was cold and clear or mild with an easterly wind. But when the Le Princes lose one son as a toddler and another child later under murkier circumstances, the page, as it were, goes blank. Who can know how deeply that affected the pair’s psyches, their work habits, their marriage? Barring some improbably rich paper trail, no conscientious biographer can presume to know for sure, and that’s a hazard Fischer has to navigate: the editorial line between strictly available truths and making a dead man come alive. His eloquent, sometimes excitable writing style goes a long way when he does n’t wander off into the celluloid weeds. And the final pages offer, if not hard conclusions, a bittersweet postscript and even real catharsis — too late for Le Prince, maybe, but some kind of justice nonetheless.

THE MAN WHO INVENTED MOTION PICTURES: A True Tale of Obsession, Murder, and the Movies, by Paul Fischer | 392 pages | Simon & Schuster |$28

Leah Greenblatt is a critic at large at Entertainment Weekly.

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