by Terry Borton. John Libbey, dist. by Indiana University Press, January 2015. 208 p. ill. ISBN 9780861967117 (cl.), $48.00.
Reviewed March 2015
Liana Morales, M.L.S. candidate, Texas Woman's University, Denton, TX, email@example.com
Apart from the hundreds of books available about cinematic arts and history, rarely has screen art from the era of pre-cinema receive significant notice on its own until now; authors Terry and Deborah Borton have completed a thorough history of magic-lantern entertainment and artistry. The book, Before the Movies, offers readers a hearty glimpse into the craft of creating magic lantern slides - from sketches, to transfer, to distribution.
The book also discusses the life and work of the most prominent magic-lantern slide artist, Joseph Boggs Beale. He was a well-trained painter and illustrator from Philadelphia who, before working as a magic-lantern artist, gained an extensive background in architecture and illustration. Although the artist's life runs parallel to many of the great American artists of the time, including Eakins, Nast, and Homer, Beale's oeuvre as a professional artist has been somewhat obscured. His technique and innovative vision are remarkable, however, and the Bortons do a service to his memory by explaining how and why he is significant to screen entertainment. For example, many of his storytelling slide sets often have a changing "camera angle" view as the slides progress, a technique that could be conceived as cinematic. Also, the wide range of subject matter in his work is most impressive, as his slide illustrations span from mythology, secret society rituals, historical events, biblical stories, American history and popular culture, poems, and novels. Even after the rise of the moving image as we know it, Beale's work continued to live on in teaching sets of 35 mm film slides, song sheets, magazine and encyclopedia articles, and more.
Because of the scale and breadth of Beale's work and the way the book is organized, the book could serve in any type of collection regarding art and artistry, whether about lesser-known artists, watercolors and sketching, late nineteenth-century art, Americana, religious art, or especially pre-cinema history.
The hardcover itself is striking and bold, featuring a dramatic cover picture from Beale's Curfew Will Not Ring Tonight slide set.The high quality photos, figures, and tables within the book are meticulously noted and cross-referenced. The content is thoroughly researched, containing dozens of color photos, detailed notations and footnotes, and enhanced by a sincere writing style. It is complete with an index and eight appendices that can aid in any discerning scholar's research or reader's interest. Before the Movies is highly recommended, not only for the curious and scholarly, but for those who wish to transform their preconception of on-screen entertainment and art.