Any attempt to identify ‘firsts’ in a particular field is fraught with problems. Just as there are competing claims for who produced the first moving pictures — including Thomas Edison in the United States, the Skladanowsky brothers in Germany, the Lumière brothers in France and Robert Paul in Britain — so there are various contenders for the first film histories. Allen and Gomery nominate Robert Grau’s The Theatre of Science (1914) and Terry Ramsaye’s A Million and One Nights (1926) as marking the origins of film history in America.2 The preface to a reprint of the latter described it ‘the first complete source book on the motion picture’ and Ramsaye as ‘the first authentic film historian’. The best claimant for the first synoptic history of world cinema is the British critic Paul Rotha’s book The Film Till Now (1930). This was followed by Benjamin Hampton’s A History of the Movies (1931), Lewis Jacobs’s The Rise of the American Film (1939) and Georges Sadoul’s multi-volume Histoire générale du cinéma (1948–54).3 It would be fair to say that none of these early histories would meet the standards of academic rigour expected of the discipline today. They were not meant to be scholarly studies: they were written for general readerships and were as much works of journalism as history. Their value, however, as Ramsaye pointed out, is that they were contemporaneous with the history they described. To that extent these works are the film world’s equivalents of Thomas Carlyle’s history of the French Revolution or Winston Churchill’s history of the Second World War. For all their flaws and limitations, they are the foundational texts of film history. They established a narrative that, albeit with many caveats and modifications, continues to inform popular histories of film to this day.
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