The Missing Reel

If Christopher Rawlence had proved his working hypothesis of The Missing Reel, you’d be reading about it on page one of the morning paper, instead of in a book review. A British filmmaker-turned-sleuth, Rawlence set out ”to nail” Thomas A. Edison, not only as a patent thief, but — are you ready for this? — as the cold-blooded murderer of a Frenchman named Augustin Le Prince, inventor (maybe) of the movies.

Le Prince, who lived most of his life in England, was an interior decorator by trade, and a serious dabbler in mechanics, optics, and photography: just the sort of fellow to have gotten caught up in the hectic Age of Invention. In 1885, he became fascinated by the possibility of moving pictures and devoted his last years to the development of a ”receiver” and a ”deliverer” — a camera and a projector.

Though he was granted American patents in 1888, his hardware proved fickle, primarily because — lacking celluloid — he mounted his images first on paper, which burst into flames during projection, and then on glass, which tended to jam and splinter. Undaunted, he pressed on, borrowing heavily to finance his work, and once Edison had announced his intentions to invent a ”moving picture apparatus,” working in secrecy and manic haste.

The camera performed well enough, but the projector continued to shimmy and grind and gobble up glass. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1890, Le Prince informed his wife that his invention was at last ready for a public demonstration. While Lizzie Le Prince laid the necessary groundwork for his arrival in New York, Augustin traveled to France to conclude some family business. But on Sept. 16, 1890, he boarded a train in Dijon and was never seen again. Neither were his most recent patent specs.

Lizzie suspected foul play; one year later, when Edison filed several motion picture patent applications, she had her prime suspect. For the next 40 years, she and her children litigated, pamphleted, and crusaded to have Le Prince recognized as the real father of the movies, to no avail.

By the time Rawlence stumbled on the case in 1976, the vanished Frenchman was not even a footnote to most histories of the cinema. He tracked down Le Prince’s descendants (in Memphis, Tenn.!), and obtained from them Lizzie’s unfinished memoir with its wild (but irresistible) notion of Edison the Assassin.

While Rawlence, playing Archie Goodwin to Lizzie’s Nero Wolfe, admits he has no case against the Wizard of Menlo Park, and even hints, sadly, that Le Prince — burdened with debts and a seriously flawed invention — may have committed suicide, The Missing Reel is still a fascinating blend of social history and popular science. It’s also a deeply moving story of a once-happy family ruined, embittered, and finally made paranoid by a cruel twist of fate in a ruthless, Darwinian era. B

The Missing Reel
  • Book