Seeing Boston By Streetcar stands as one of the first films of the city ever made. It offers today’s viewer a fascinating glimpse of the city’s smoky, busy streets. The streetcar takes the viewer past Jordan Marsh and along Boylston Street to Copley Square and the Boston Public Library. Pedestrians, horses, carriages and carts vie for space in a free-for-all with no traffic lights, no crosswalks and no stop signs.
Viewers who first saw the film during its debut in 1906 probably found it even more fascinating.
Seeing Boston by Streetcar
(Note the brief fistfight at 2:26.)
The motion picture industry, even newer than the str had just started when American Mutoscope and Biograph Company filmed Boston by Streetcar in 1906.
The Early Film Industry
On April 14, 1894, the first kinetoscope parlor opened in New York City. Patrons viewed moving pictures through a peephole, which Thomas Edison’s laboratory invented. In New York two years later came the first commercially successful movie projection, again with an Edison invention – the Vitascope. Weeks later in Boston, Benjamin Franklin Keith showed a film with the Vitascope in his vaudeville theatre on 547 Washington Street.
In 1906, Boston’s first movie theatre, the Theatre Comique, opened on Tremont Row in Scollay Square. It typically showed a series of short films of real life, drama and entertainment. Cameramen traveled the United States filming scenery to product such cinema verite.
New England had dozens of film studios, including the Eastern Film Corporation in Rhode Island, the Commonwealth Photoplay Corporation in Massachusetts and Dirigo Pictures and Pine Tree Pictures in Maine. But then the film industry moved out west, in part due to the efforts of another New Englander — Thomas Ince, born in Newport, R.I.
People considered early movies technical marvels. The Boston Herald gushed over the debut of the Vitascope:
The scenes shown are full of life and action, simply lacking in vocalization. To describe the enthusiasm aroused would be impossible. Worthy professors and scientific men vied with grocery clerks in the warmth of their applause.
A major figure in the early motion picture industry, G.W. ‘Billy’ Bitzer, shot Seeing Boston By Streetcar. Born Gottfried Wilhelm Bitzer in Roxbury, Mass., on April 21, 1872, he entered the family business as a silversmith. But he abandoned his well-paying trade for the infant film industry.
Bitzer developed early cinematic technologies and techniques such as the soft focus, the iris shot and the close-up. He collaborated for many years with D.W. Griffith, most notably filming and investing in Birth of a Nation.
In Bitzer’s autobiography, published posthumously in 1973, he described his early years:
When I started out as a cameraman in 1896 the Biograph camera weighed close to a ton. These were the days before movies were ready to be projected on the screen. They could be seen only when the viewer turned a crank and looked into a peep-show machine at the penny arcades. In 1896 at Hammerstein’s Olympia Music Hall in New York, I was the projectionist of Biograph’s first screening in a theater. We showed pictures of Presidential candidate William McKinley at his Ohio home, which I had taken; of the Empire State Express rounding a bend; of Joseph Jefferson as Rip Van Winkle, and two or three other shorts.
Those “pictures of McKinley” actually amounted to the first presidential documentary. And Bitzer used the first known close-up shot in Rip Van Winkle.
Bitzer died of a heart attack on April 29, 1944 in Hollywood.
Twenty-five years before Bitzer took his camera onto an electric streetcar, Boston greeted the conveyance with similar awe. However, the electric streetcar got no warm applause. An inventor named Benson Bidwell had brought a demonstration model to the city. He hoped for a contract to build and operate a streetcar line. Bidwell described the reaction in the winter of 1884-85:
The cars were nicely upholstered and made a sensation among the Boston Yankees, who, when they came to fully understand that an unseen power was running, lighting and heating the cars, said it was either magic or a fraud; for they could not comprehend though they were afraid of it.
He didn’t get the contract, but other people did. Bostonians quickly got over their fears after the first streetcar line opened to Brookline on Jan. 5, 1889. Within seven years, the city had a network of electric streetcars. As Boston By Streetcar shows, fear of the cars had disappeared.
The electric streetcar had a huge impact on Boston’s growth. They allowed for the development of streetcar suburbs, starting with Dorchester, Roxbury and Mattapan, then moving out to Brookline, Somerville and Arlington, to name a few.
Today, a few streetcar lines remain in Boston. They include the four Green Line branches, and the Ashmont-Mattapan High-Speed Line.
This story about seeing Boston by streetcar was updated in 2023. To read more about the early film industry in New England, click here.