Posted by Susan Doll on March 1, 2010
This past week a bright and charming grade-schooler interviewed me about Chicago’s place in film history. He was knee deep in producing a documentary for his school’s history fair, and I was one of the people he interviewed on camera. I am always thrilled when young people exhibit an interest in the cinema of the past, let alone an era that predates Hollywood as the hub of the industry. The experience was doubly enjoyable because not only was it fun to help out, but in prepping for the interview, I uncovered and re-discovered some fun facts about my adopted city and its place in the history of film. As a matter of fact, I found so much that I am going to divide the information into two posts, continuing the saga next week. Much of this detail is omitted from standard film texts, which tend to travel the path of history as it threads through the industry centers of Hollywood and New York.
Detouring from that path will lead to Chicago, whose role in film history began in 1895, the same year that the Lumiere Brothers of France held what may have been the first paid exhibition of projected motion pictures. The Lumieres’ public showing of projected movies is considered a milestone because it accelerated the adoption of projection over Thomas Edison’s peep-show boxes as the standard for viewing movies. That year, Colonel William Selig returned to his hometown of Chicago to enter the “optical trade,” which was the manufacture of magic lanterns, projection devices, and motion picture cameras. Selig began making plans for his own projection machine by eliciting the help of Woodville Latham, a former major in the Confederate army. Latham had pioneered the Latham Loop, a threading system for projection that allowed the film to run smoothly through the machine without jerking or stalling. Selig got his hands on Latham’s machine, one of the Lumieres’ cinematographes (a camera and projector apparatus in one machine), and some of the Lumieres’ movies and began showing them in his office in downtown Chicago.
But, Selig wanted to create and manufacture his own projectors, which reflects the pioneering era’s focus on developing technology rather than creating entertainment. Luckily, the Colonel (an “honor” he bestowed on himself during his early days as a minstrel show producer) met machinist Andrew Schustek at the Union Model Works. A mysterious French stranger had requested that Schustek make a perfect copy of the Lumieres’ cinematographe by duplicating it piece by piece. The customer paid for his exact duplication of the cinematographe and then disappeared, but he left behind the plans that Schustek had drawn up to copy the invention. Selig saw the plans and whisked them up along with Schustek, who walked out the door with his new boss and didn’t look back. The pair made some slight alterations in the plans, including separating the recording and projecting mechanisms and modifying the latter to take sprocketed film. The Colonel dubbed their new invention the Multiscope.
So, the paths of a minstrel-show manager, an unreconstructed ex-Confederate, and a mysterious Frenchman cross, and the film industry is born in Chicago. And, that’s why I love history!
The following year, Selig made his first narrative film, The Tramp and His Dog, though most of his minute-long movies were scenes from actual life. When the Spanish-American War began, scenes of troops and war-related material, which were called “wargraphs,” became popular subjects for the flickers. The demand for wargraphs encouraged Selig to focus on production, especially after he shot a series of brief films in Camp Tanner in Springfield, Illinois, including Soldiers at Play, Wash Day in Camp, and First Regiment Marching. These brief snippets of camp life “were cheered to the echo” when they were shown in Chicago, according to the Chicago Inter-Ocean. Later, Selig made a series of films about firemen and fire engines racing down the street—an interesting choice considering that the Great Chicago Fire of 1871 was still in the collective consciousness of most city residents. He also made over 60 films documenting Chicago’s legendary stockyards, from Arrival of Train of Cattle to Stunning Cattle to Sticking Cattle to Koshering Cattle. Customers could buy the entire cattle series for $2500, though some of these titles don’t sound like family viewing. The Selig catalogue bragged that not only were these films shot with a Polyscope camera but also “with the aid of powerful electric lights.”
From the beginning, Selig’s primary competitor was George A. Spoor, who entered the “optical trade” in 1896 with Edwin Hill Amet to develop a film projection system, which he called the Magniscope. The following year, Amet sold his interest in the machine to Spoor, believing the flickers to be little more than a passing fad. Apparently, Spoor was also caught up in the wargraph fad, though his other early films are more difficult to uncover. Both Selig and Spoor made deals with exhibitors to regularly bring their projection systems to vaudeville theaters and show their flickers to the public. Even at this early juncture, having a hand in exhibition gave producers the ready capital to invest in making more films.
Within a decade, both Selig and Spoor had left the optical trade and were fully invested in film production. About 1906-1907, Selig hired Gilbert Anderson to help develop stories about the Wild West for a series of one-reel films. Anderson’s first claim to fame had been his appearance as one of the outlaws in Edwin S. Porter’s groundbreaking The Great Train Robbery, which had been shot in New Jersey in 1903. Anderson got the job because he swore to Porter that he could ride a horse; his “performance” stands out in the film because in one shot he mounts the horse on the wrong side, and in another, he falls off his trusty steed as the bandits are chased by the posse. Anderson can be seen climbing to his feet after the fall, but Porter must have told him to stay down, because the wayward cowboy careens around and falls back onto the side of the road. Anderson would stay with Selig for only a year before competitor Spoor lured him away to be a full partner. Spoor and Anderson embarked on a series of one-reel westerns in which the latter billed himself as Broncho Billy. Apparently, his horsemanship improved, and while you will never see Broncho Billy do any trick riding or embrace his horse, he understood the appeal of the cowboy figure enough to present a credible mythic interpretation. The pair combined the first letter of their last names—“S” and “A”—to come up with the name of their production company, Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.
Whenever local writers tell the story of the film industry in Chicago, they focus most of their attention on Essanay. Dozens of articles can be found on Spoor and Anderson’s eponymous company. Part of the reason could be that Essanay became the studio of stars, and more importantly, stars that went on to bigger careers in Hollywood. Essanay’s first narrative film, An Awful Skate, or the Hobo on Rollers, was directed in 1907 by Anderson who took advantage of the turn-of-the-century vogue for tramp characters. More importantly, it starred a cross-eyed vaudevillian named Ben Turpin. Turpin gamely strapped on a pair of skates for the film and rolled down Wells Street, trying hard not to run over any pedestrians. Turpin went on to costar in dozens of comedies for Essanay until the mid-teens when he moved to Hollywood. There he became a big comic star while working for Chaplin, Mack Sennett, and others. As a publicity stunt, his famous crossed eyes were insured by Lloyd’s of London for a million dollars in the event they should become uncrossed.
Wallace Beery, Gloria Swanson, and Francis X. Bushman also got their starts at Chicago’s Essanay. Beery established himself as a comic actor in a series of one-reelers in which he dressed in drag to play Sweedie, the Swedish Maid. Bushman was the studio’s handsome heroic protagonist while Swanson, who was only 15 when she showed up at the studio’s facilities at 1333 W. Argyle, became one of their stock players. Apparently, Beery couldn’t keep his hands off Swanson, so the studio sent him to their West Coast branch around 1914. Rising star Swanson followed a couple of years later, and though barely 17, she married Beery. Their match made in hell did not last long, but both became major stars in Hollywood as did the masculine-looking Bushman.
Anderson’s series of Broncho Billy westerns stretched from 1910 to 1918. Most of them were shot outside of Chicago, first in Colorado and then at the Essanay Western Company located in Niles Canyon, California, about 20 miles south of Oakland. Broncho Billy wrote, directed, and starred in his films, making him the first western auteur. Anderson had tried to shoot westerns in the fields and woods along the outskirts of Chicago, as had Selig, but even the edge of the city proved unsuitable. Sightseers often hid in the bushes as scenes were filmed, occasionally ending up in the shot; or other urban imagery inadvertently found its way into a scene. A few of Anderson’s films were shot inside the studio on Argyle, but these scenes hardly looked authentically rugged. Though Chicago remained the hub for Essanay, Anderson frequently traveled west to oversee the production of his films.
While in California he became aware of Mack Sennett’s brightest comic player at the Keystone Studio, Charlie Chaplin. Anderson lured Chaplin to Essanay by meeting his asking price of $1250 per week and by promising him a $10,000 signing bonus. As it turned out, the deal secured Essanay’s place in film history because the studio became the home of the world’s first cinema superstar, but it also signaled the beginning of the end. Spoor was incredibly unhappy with Anderson’s pricey Chaplin deal and was not at the train station to meet his newest star when he arrived in Chicago. The promised bonus was delayed repeatedly, putting the comic genius on edge at his new studio.
Chaplin’s one and only film shot in Chicago, His New Job, sounds wonderfully self-reflexive. He plays the new handyman at Lockstone Studio (a play on the word “Keystone”) who causes havoc for his employers as he accidentally spoils several scenes. Chaplin’s character does land a chance to be the star of one of Lockstone’s movies, but he is too easily distracted by a dice game. Chaplin was introduced to Ben Turpin, his costar, during the production of His New Job, and the two quickly discovered they shared a chemistry. The pair went on to make many shorts together in Hollywood. Gloria Swanson was tapped to be Chaplin’s leading lady, but she did not meet Chaplin’s standards for physical comedy. He reduced her participation to a small supporting role. By the time he was finished with His New Job (see clip below, from a German source), Chaplin was fed up with Essanay in Chicago. He thought Spoor controlled the studio too strictly, which limited creativity, and he was shocked at some of the old man’s cost-cutting measures, including the screening of original negatives during the editing process instead of spending the money to strike a work print. Chaplin asked to be transferred to Essanay in California, where he patiently worked until the end of his contract. In 1916, he signed with Mutual Film Corp.
Chaplin’s defection from Essanay, combined with other changes in the industry, quickly sank the studio. In the face of financial difficulties, Essanay closed in 1917. Unlike most of their stars, Spoor and Anderson did not move on to greater success in the Hollywood industry. Spoor invested all his money into a very early 3-D technology, which failed, convincing the businessman that a change was in order. He invested in Texas oil and recouped his money. Due to copyright oddities, Anderson was not allowed to use the Broncho Billy name after the demise of Essanay, and he could not sustain a career in the business. He quickly disappeared into obscurity except for one shining moment when he was awarded an honorary Academy Award in 1958. He died in 1971. The city of Niles, California, hosts a Broncho Billy Film Festival every year; in 1998, his likeness graced a U.S. postal stamp; and in 2002, he was elected to the Western Performers Hall of Fame in Oklahoma. In Chicago, however, Anderson has been largely forgotten. In 1999, a tiny park and kiddie playlot located in the old Essanay neighborhood was named after Broncho Billy. Sadly, his name was misspelled as “Bronco,” though it was later corrected. To me, a tiny kiddie park doesn’t seem enough to honor the first cowboy hero of the big screen or the man who helped establish Chicago’s film industry. . . but then again the city seems to prefer its darker history, embracing its dirty politicians, tarnished sports heroes, and violent gangsters.
Los Angeles likes to claim Colonel William Selig and Selig Polyscope as its own, perhaps because when compared to the Chicago facilities, the California studio was larger, featured bigger stars, and was more famous because of its high-profile zoo. Also, Hollywood is a company town that remembers and appreciates the fact that its existence, economy, and evolution is tied up with the film industry. There are far fewer articles on Selig Polyscope in Chicago than on its West Coast counterpart or its number-one competitor, Essanay. Yet, Selig was the type of “colorful” character that Chicagoans tend to honor in their local history. I was delighted to learn that Colonel Selig established a studio near my neighborhood to shoot his productions. Located at Irving Park and Western on the city’s North Side, Selig Polyscope boasted indoor and outdoor facilities to shoot films, and by 1907, the Colonel liked to claim that it was “the biggest motion picture plant in the country.” However, Chicago’s long, brutal winters soon inspired Selig to establish studios in Jacksonville and in Hollywood so his directors could shoot outdoors more days per year.
Selig preferred sensational material to famous stars, and his films were primarily jungle stories, wild adventures, seafaring escapades, animal tales, or other assorted action stories. In 1908-1909, he tried to make a deal with former President Teddy Roosevelt to film the ex-president’s upcoming safari in Africa. At first, the former President was intrigued by the idea, and Selig made several trips to D.C. to plan the details. Unfortunately, Roosevelt decided against the deal and took off for Africa on his own. Undaunted, Selig constructed his own African jungle in his Chicago studio, complete with wild animals that he purchased from a failing zoo in Milwaukee. As an animal lover, I was appalled that he had a lion shot and killed for a scene in which his faux Roosevelt was hunting dangerous game. Because there were no laws governing the safety of either animals or actors on the set, Selig’s sets weren’t very secure, and during this scene, the animal almost mauled the actor to death when it was wounded by the first shot. Too bad the poor beast didn’t clip a few humans before he came to his less-than-glorious end. Selig patiently waited until he read in the papers that the real Roosevelt bagged a lion on his safari, and then he released his “version” of the event titled Hunting Big Game in Africa. The film was a major financial success for Selig Polyscope.
Selig’s biggest star at the time was Kathlyn Williams, who excelled in popular adventure films and serials in which her character explored exotic locales and encountered dangerous animals. Williams did her own stunts, whether it was communing with wild cats and elephants or doing aerial maneuvers in one of those tiny planes from the WWI era. Her first serial was The Adventures of Kathlyn, which was shot in Chicago. Selig made a deal with the Chicago Tribune to print the serial in story form simultaneously with the release of each new episode . The newspaper stories prompted people to race out to see the serial; and, watching each episode convinced viewers they needed to find and save the print versions.
I liked Selig’s fondness for old-fashioned showmanship and large-scale stunts. In 1911, he bought the replicas of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria that had been part of the 1893 Columbia Exposition. By this time, the boats were in sorry shape, but Selig was determined to bring the story of Columbus to the big screen. He tried to make his small fleet seaworthy and hired crews to sail the ships into the yacht basin at Jackson Park. Bad weather—the bane of every Chicagoan’s existence—held up production as did the floundering of the Santa Maria on a sandbar, not to mention the actors’ seasickness. When they were finally ready to shoot the big scene, small boats filled with gawking sightseers kept drifting into the majestic long shots of the ships in the harbor. Eventually, all the trouble paid off because The Coming of Columbus, as it was titled, became an international success.
In his schemes to brand the name “Selig” as synonymous with movie adventure, the Colonel may have invented the concept of movie tourism. In 1915 he came up with the idea for the Selig Movie Special. For $128, movie fans could take a chartered train to the Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco, and then visit Selig Polyscope California. The Colonel’s cameras were on hand to shoot each mile of the excursion to use as newsreel footage to lure the next group of fans to climb aboard the Selig Movie Special.
Selig closed the Chicago studio at Western and Irving Park in 1918—the year after Essanay shut its doors. It has been said that the wily industry veteran grew bored with the film industry, but I wonder if he took stock of the rapid changes in movie-making after the big shift to Hollywood. Studios grew bigger, more organized, and more systematized, and Selig would not have fit in. He sold the rights to his many literary properties, which he had accumulated to adapt to film, and retired to the small fortune he had amassed as the industry’s first bona fide movie mogul.
Journalists who periodically drag out the Essanay and Selig stories tend to assume—erroneously—that Chicago’s movie heyday lasted little more than the decade those two studios were in their prime. They tend to eliminate both Spoor and Selig’s early days as manufacturers and distributors of projection equipment, and they conclude the story with Selig’s decision to close down his Chicago studio. But, as Essanay and Selig were bailing the City of Big Shoulders, another entrepreneur arrived in town to establish himself as a movie mogul—African American film pioneer Oscar Micheaux. Micheaux was one of several black movie producers and production companies that blew into town during the teens. Unlike Spoor and Selig, who were always part of the mainstream industry despite their inconvenient Chicago location, the African-American companies existed completely independently of the industry—a story I will save for next week.
Bernstein, Arnie. Hollywood on Lake Michigan. Chicago: Lake Claremont Press, 1998.
Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.
Loerzel, Robert. “Reel Chicago,” Chicago magazine, May 2007.
Musser, Charles. The Emergence of Cinema. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.
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