Station 4


“I am experimenting upon an instrument which does for the eye what the phonograph does for the ear, which is the recording and reproduction of things in motion.”

– Thomas A. Edison

Thomas Edison’s inventions paved the way for Los Angeles’ booming film industry of the early 1900s. Films often serve as tools for propaganda, reinforcing colonial fantasies of the Wild West alongside patriotic wartime narratives. 

U.S. involvement in World War I, 1917-1918, brought change to the country. Known as “doughboys,” young soldiers serving overseas left jobs vacant, allowing women opportunities to work.

Women worked in munitions factories and an estimated 25,000 women, primarily white and middle class, served abroad as nurses and switchboard operators. With new military technologies and trench warfare, World War I resulted in unprecedented levels of horror and destruction as more than 16 million people died by war’s end.

In a still from the 1918 silent film Shoulder Arms, Charlie Chaplin is pictured as a doughboy. He represents the role of early films in furthering war efforts. 

Women’s patriotic contributions during World War I advanced their efforts to gain the right to vote, building on the legacy of earlier suffragettes. In 1920, the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote; however, for many women of color voting would be denied until the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

With its numerous film studios, Los Angeles emerged as a center for film production.

Inventions by Thomas Alva Edison greatly contributed to the rise of cinema in the early 1920s. Among his 1,000 patents, Edison’s inventions included the phonograph, the kinetograph, and the first long lasting lightbulb that could be mass produced. Whispering the secrets of the ancient builders and inventors into Edison’s right ear is Chicomecoatl, the Mexica corn goddess. A legend persists that Edison may have been born in Zacatecas, Mexico, sustained by a book written in 1909 by Fray Ãngel de los Dolores Tiscareño. Today the legend is largely considered to be untrue. Notwithstanding, the image invites the viewer to consider what it would mean if this legend were true. How might it change what we think of inventors and of Mexican contributions to this country?

Early films not only served as propaganda during World War I but also perpetuated settler fantasies of the morally sound “good cowboy.” One of the first silent Western films, The Great Train Robbery, was shot in New York and New Jersey and produced by the Edison Manufacturing Company in 1903. In a still from the film The Gun Fighter, William S. Hart is pictured alongside his gang of bandits. By the time the film was produced in 1917, the foothills of San Fernando Valley, Santa Clarita Valley, and Simi Valley had become prime places to film Westerns. A silent Western film star, Hart often played the role of a bad guy turned good cowboy. While Hart, a white cowboy, was depicted as redeemable, Native Americans and Mexicans were usually depicted as inferior and expendable in Westerns.

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