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14/6/1894: Filming the Fight Game

Grey, Woodville and Otway Latham

Unlike most pre-cinema pioneers Gray and Otway Latham weren’t driven by the desire to further the development of the moving image for the sake of technological advancement; rather they were driven by a more basic desire: the age-old one for cold hard cash – and lots of it.

Hailing from the deep South of America, the brothers were the product of a bygone age of southern gentility and wealth.   Their father, Woodville Latham of Northcliffe, Virginia, was a Major in the Confederate Army during the Civil War, and an executive officer of the Southern arsenal at Columbus.   In the aftermath of the war, Latham, In common with much of the Southern gentry, had found his sizeable family fortune severely depleted, resulting in the need for the Latham boys to earn a living through honest toil.

Major Latham had used much of what remained of his fortune to set his boys up with a drug business in Nashville, Tennessee, while he dabbled in real estate.   Unfortunately, the brothers were no businessmen – they were impoverished playboys, pining for the hedonistic lifestyle their family’s former status would surely have afforded them - and the Major’s real estate ventures proved equally unsuccessful.  

Grey and Otway found employment in New York, Grey with the drug firm of Parke, Davis & Co., and Otway with the Tilden Drug Company, where he became friends with Samuel J. Tilden Jr., nephew of the one-time Governor of New York.   Otway was good at making friends, and it was a talent he would later put to good use.   Their father, in poor health, followed his sons east, and they lived together at the hotel Bartholdi, at the corner of Broadway and twenty-third.

Sometime in 1894, the brothers received a visit from an old friend, Enoch Rector, a former classmate at the university of West Virginia.   The three of them paid a visit to the Holland Brothers' new Kinetoscope Parlour at 1155 Broadway and were enthralled by what greeted them.   Having viewed all the short films on display the three were in agreement: the moving picture industry was a business to get into.   And Grey Latham had an idea: why not combine this latest marvel with another popular pastime?

A proposition was put to Edison: that he grant them a concession to film and exhibit prize-fights on his kinetoscope.   Although Edison already had a contract with Norman Raff and Frank Gammon for the sale of kinetoscopes in the US and Canada, it did not extend to the shooting and display of its films, so he was free to grant such a concession.   However, in order to be able to display an entire prize fight it was clear that the scope of the kinetoscope would have to be extended so that it could show more than fifty feet (approximately thirty seconds) of film, and perhaps, as Rector offered to carry out the work to achieve this, Edison felt obliged to take advantage of an inexpensive way of improving his new invention.

With Edison’s blessing, Rector set to work at the Edison plant, eventually tripling the scope of the Kinetoscope to 150 feet.   The new organisation was now ready to begin filming.

On the 14th June, 1894, the Lathams went to Edison’s Black Maria studio to observe W.K.L. Dickson film a specially staged fight between Michael Leonard (“the Beau Brummel of the prize ring”) and Jack Cushing.   They fought ten rounds in a hastily constructed ten-foot ring, of which six were recorded on the Kinetograph.   Cushing was fooled by a feint in the tenth and was felled by a piledriver to the jaw.   “I generally hit him in the face because I felt sorry for his family and thought I would select the only place that couldn’t be disfigured.” The victorious – but uncharitable - Leonard later claimed.

 Leonard Cushing Fight (1894)

See the fight here.

Dickson and his cameraman William Heise captured over 1,000 feet of film, by far the longest film ever then recorded.

Two months later, in August 1894, the Latham’s Kinetoscope Exhibition Company opened their first parlour at 83 Nassau Street in New York.   Six of the expanded Kinetoscopes, each containing one round of the Leonard-Cushing fight, stood in a row in the converted store.   Each round cost 10 cents to view – a total cost of 60 cents for the entire fight.   The New York public flocked to see the show.

The show’s success, however, gave rise to a new problem that only became obvious as the public’s interest began to wane: a change of programme was required, one that would out-do the new entrepreneur’s inaugural show.   

The biggest name in boxing in the final years of the nineteenth century was world heavyweight champion James “Gentleman Jim” Corbett, a strapping heavyweight who would later be immortalised by Errol Flynn in the 1942 movie Gentleman Jim.   Corbett was signed to an exclusive contract – the first in movie history - which stipulated that he could not be photographed by any other Kinetoscope organisation.   Corbett’s opponent was to be Pete Courtney, a little known boxer from Pennsylvania.   Latham had wanted John L. Sullivan, but the boxer’s payment demand of $25,000 was too steep.

However, there was to be one vital difference between the film of the Corbett/Courtney fight and its predecessor: while the Leonard/Cushing fight had been a faithful recording of an authentic prize-fight staged for the camera, the outcome of the Corbett/Courtney fight was planned in advance.   In order to provide an improved viewing experience, the Latham/Rector/Tilden partnership decided that the fight should comprise of six rounds lasting precisely one minute, (Corbett’s manager, William Brody acted as timekeeper) and that the final round should be concluded – after 59 seconds, presumably – by a knockout delivered by Corbett.   It could be argued, therefore, that Corbett and Courtney Before the Kinetograph is the cinema’s first example of a narrative-based film.

"Corbett started to pull off his gloves, but before the referee had counted five Courtney was making efforts to rise. He fell back to the floor however and was counted out. They set him up in a chair and for a space of fifty seconds the Trenton man did not know whether he had been before the Kinetograph or a thrashing machine. . When he did collect his thoughts, however he put his hands to his face to see if his head was all there and then a grim smile played around his swollen lips."

-The Item. September 8, 1894

See the film here.

The fight was filmed on 7th September 1894.    Corbett received $5,000 and a royalty on films exhibited (the total he eventually received from royalties was more than $20,000), while Courtney received $1,000.   Later that month the Lathams opened a second parlour in New York, followed by more in Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and San Francisco.   And yet, although business was booming, the brothers were unhappy.   The single-viewer Kinetoscopes were too restrictive; the audience could only trickle past, thus restricting the amount of money the parlours could make each day.   The obvious answer was to throw the pictures onto a screen for a larger audience to view together rather then have the picture confined inside a bulky box.   Neither brother had the technical knowledge to set about making this desire a reality, but they knew a man who had.

They turned to their father, Major Woodville Latham, a chemist with only a limited knowledge of optics and photography; he knew enough, however, to ensure his sons that what they envisaged was entirely possible.   Together with Enoch Rector, the Lathams set about making their ambition a reality.   Otway Latham, the practiced friend-maker, visited the Edison plant and befriended William Kennedy Laurie Dickson.   He rented space for a laboratory in the Scott building at 35 Frankfort Street.   Next, he employed a mechanic to construct the experimental projector.   The man he chose was Frenchman Eugene Lauste, former assistant to Dickson at the Edison plant.   A draughtsman, Raphael Netter, was also employed to interpret Latham Sr’s ideas.

Meanwhile, Edison was coming under increasing pressure from Raff and Gammon – who were themselves being badgered by customers - to come up with the very same thing that the Lathams were now working on: a projector to show films on a screen.   Edison was reluctant.   The Kinetoscope was still, in his eyes, a frivolous invention that would fail to interest even children once their initial novelty value had worn off.   However, under the prolonged insistence of Raff and Gammon, Edison agreed to carry out some experimentation.   Curiously, it was not Dickson to whom he turned for this project, but Charles H. Kayser (one of the stars of Blacksmith Scene).  

W. K. L. Dickson

Dickson, unaware at this time that Edison was even investigating the possibility of inventing a film projector, was receiving overtures from Otway Latham to come and work for his organisation.   Latham knew Dickson had more faith in the Kinetoscope, and all that it signified, than his current employer, and that Dickson had been carrying out experiments in his spare time at Columbia University.   Dickson must have been tempted by the offer, but even when he discovered the assignment to invent a projector had been handed to Kayser, and then received an offer from the Lathams of a quarter interest in their project, he remained with Edison.   Nevertheless, Otway Latham handed over stock certificates in the project to Edmund Cougar Brown, a lawyer friend of Dickson’s, for safekeeping.

In December 1894, the Lathams formed a new organisation called the Lambda Company, a separate organisation from the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company, and one which effectively excluded Enoch Rector and Samuel Tilden.

And back at 35 Frankfort Street, Eugene Lauste, the diligent Frenchman, slept in a small cot in the corner of the room in which he was labouring to invent the world’s first motion picture projector[ADD]



Further Reading:





USA: 1894



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