Posted by Susan Doll on February 2, 2015
Can you guess where the first film version of The Wizard of Oz was produced? Hollywood, 1939? What about the first newsreel? New York, maybe? Or, the initial screen adaptation of A Christmas Carol? Would London be a reasonable guess? What about the first movie to chronicle the story of Jesse James? The original film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? Or, the first biopic of Lincoln? The answer to all of these questions is not Hollywood, or New York, or London—all represented in the history books as places where film pioneers established a new medium. The answer is Chicago—the so-called Second City—which barely rates a mention in most of those books.
Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry (Wallflower Press, 2015) by Michael Smith and Adam Selzer offers a well-researched, in-depth chronicle of the Windy City’s role in cinema history. From the early 1890s to World War I, the city was a major player in the motion picture business, giving the likes of Carl Laemmle, Gloria Swanson, Wallace Beery, Charlie Chaplin, and Francis X. Bushman a leg up in their careers.
The value of Flickering Empire to film scholarship is obvious: It fills in the holes, or the missing info, that the history books have left out. However, I highly recommend this book to movie buffs, pop culture lovers, and Chicagoans for other reasons. If you want to really want to know what the beginning of the film industry was like, this book will place you into the thick of it. Flickering Empire takes ample advantage of primary sources such as newspaper articles and interviews from the era to paint a vibrant portrait of the times. The articles and interviews provide a kind of raw, vital history that the authors then put into a perspective–as though we are participants in an unfolding chronicle of another era. And, sometimes these primary documents contradict standard assumptions about the contributions of the famous.
A good example is the chapter on Thomas Edison. In grade school, we all learned that kindly Edison invented the phonograph and the electric light bulb—inventions that changed the course of the 20th century. In this myth spun for school kids, he is the avuncular, white-haired genius who takes little catnaps in his lab so he can continue working into the night. However, Flickering Empire reveals that Edison was no sweet eccentric: He habitually took credit for his assistants’ work, overworked and underpaid his employees, and tirelessly promoted himself as the genius inventor. Edison began work on an invention to record moving pictures, but he was obsessed with matching the images to sound. When he grew restless with the lack of progress, he handed over the photographic and optical aspects of the invention to W.K.L. Dickson, who was eventually successful with creating the kinetograph—a machine that recorded movement or motion. Dickson and his crew also developed the kinetoscope, a peepshow device used to view the bits of film produced by the kinetograph. In an 1891 article, a reporter for the Chicago Daily Tribune raved about the latest gadgetry from the genius’s lab, assuming it was Thomas Alva’s doing: “From the laboratory in Menlo Park there is coming an invention which out-Edisons Edison . . . ,” he wrote. Playing the role of the insightful inventor, Edison let the starstruck reporter believe he was solely responsible for the kinetograph and kintetoscope when he claimed, “I wrote an article some years ago hinting at this invention. The papers made fun of me—said I had better stop talking. This made me mad, and I determined to carry the conception to a successful issue . . . this I have done . . . . Do I expect to make money out of it? Well, I have never thought of that.” Yeah, right! Well, I never bought the catnap story anyway.
Having lived in Chicago for over a third of my life, I know that the city’s history is absorbed and understood by lifelong residents as a series of stories. This is a city with a great history because it consists of great stories—the Chicago Fire, the Haymarket Riots, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, the Curse on the Cubs. Reading through Flickering Empire with its colorful characters and outrageous experiences reminds me that the film industry and Chicago was a match made in heaven because of the stories. Have you heard the one about Colonel William Selig who was working as a medium on the vaudeville circuit, complete with table floating and automatic writing, when he decided to get into manufacturing moving picture equipment? He opened one of the earliest movie studios in existence (after W.K.L. Dickson’s Black Maria) in one of Chicago’s redlight districts. In my film history classes, I always begin the semester by showing the short films of the Lumiere Brothers. Called actualities, they consist of snippets of everyday life and scenes of tourist attractions from major cities all over the world. Seeking to capitalize on viewer interest in far away places and on the Spanish-American War, Selig decided to produce his own actualities of distant locales—without ever leaving Illinois. Selig’s films of the war in Cuba as well as such titles as Washing the Streets of Porto Rico [sic] were all shot in Chicago’s suburbs. Now, who ultimately was a better fit for the film industry—the earnest Lumieres who did it for real, or the shrewd Selig who did it, well, the Chicago way?
Given how chaotic “the flickers” were at inception, brash approaches to establishing production practices and business norms are not surprising. Part of the appeal of Flickering Empire is reading about the moxie, the cheek, the very nerve of Selig, George Spoor, Gilbert Anderson, and the others who turned a novelty into an industry.
In Flickering Empire, Chicago’s role in the development of the film industry is lovingly detailed and then interwoven into the larger stories of American film history and of the Windy City’s checkered past. Written in an accessible style, the book does not drain the life and color out of events and experiences like so many other history books do. I can’t recommend it enough.
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