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Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema during the 1920s

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Part of the Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History book series (PSTPH)

Abstract

Historically, magicians were most prevalent as film characters during the first decade of film history (1895–1905), a period in which a number of practicing theatrical magicians, including Georges Méliès, Gaston Velle, Walter Booth, J. Stuart Blackton, Albert E. Smith, and others, were active in international film production. This was the heyday of the trick film, a popular film genre made up of short films depicting magical occurrences created in large part through early cinematic special effects (Solomon 595–615). Many trick films were made by professional magicians and many more—though not all—trick films center on a magician whose onscreen “performance” provides the framework for the film’s presentation of cinematic tricks. Media historian Erik Barnouw claims that “the history of magic and the history of cinema intersected” for only a “brief period” around the turn of the twentieth century (9), but in fact one finds a more complex and sustained historical relationship between magic and cinema if films about magic and magicians’ subsequent interest in film are considered. During the 1920s, the histories of magic and cinema intersected once again, as several professional magicians launched film careers and magician characters were prominently featured in a number of Hollywood films. Magicians have proven to be compelling characters up to the present day because their work with illusions foregrounds the visual deceptions so central for the operations of the cinematic medium itself.

Keywords

  • Film Industry
  • Orange Tree
  • Editorial Note
  • Movie Star
  • Hollywood Film

These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.

Matthew Solomon is Assistant Professor of Cinema Studies in the Department of Media Culture at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York. A film historian, Solomon has published extensively on the relationship between magic and silent film. A common narrative of American entertainment history suggests that early in the twentieth century film supplanted vaudeville as the dominant form of popular culture, and thus contributed to the decline of magic. Solomon challenges this received wisdom. He demonstrates that magic and film were deeply interwoven into the 1920s, looking to a number of films about magicians made during this period. In this detailed historical account, Solomon uncovers numerous interactions between magicians and filmmakers during this period of technological transformation in film history (i.e., the coming of sound). The chapter investigates the following question: How have the practices of theatrical magic helped to shape understanding of the “magic” of movies during the silent period and beyond?

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© 2008 Francesca Coppa, Lawrence Hass, and James Peck

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Solomon, M. (2008). Magicians and the Magic of Hollywood Cinema during the 1920s. In: Coppa, F., Hass, L., Peck, J. (eds) Performing Magic on the Western Stage. Palgrave Studies in Theatre and Performance History. Palgrave Macmillan, New York. https://doi.org/10.1057/9780230617124_4

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