‘Flickering Empire’ Reveals Chicago’s Role in Film History

flickopenerCan 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 FIRST FILM VERSION OF 'THE WIZARD OF OZ' WAS PRODUCED IN CHICAGO.

THE FIRST FILM VERSION OF ‘THE WIZARD OF OZ’ WAS PRODUCED IN CHICAGO.

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.

EDISON HAD NO QUALMS ABOUT TAKING ALL THE CREDIT FOR HIS ASSISTANTS' WORK.

EDISON HAD NO QUALMS ABOUT TAKING ALL THE CREDIT FOR HIS ASSISTANTS’ WORK.

CHAPLIN'S ONLY FILM MADE AT CHICAGO'S ESSANAY STUDIOS

CHAPLIN’S ONLY FILM MADE AT CHICAGO’S ESSANAY STUDIOS

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.

CHICAGO'S ESSANAY STUDIOS, c. 1914. CAN YOU SPOT WALLACE BEERY AND FRANCIS X. BUSHMAN?

CHICAGO’S ESSANAY STUDIOS, c. 1914. CAN YOU SPOT WALLACE BEERY AND FRANCIS X. BUSHMAN?

flickseligadHaving 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?

COL. WILLIAM SELIG AND A COSTAR, C. 1917

COL. WILLIAM SELIG AND A COSTAR, C. 1917

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.

12 Responses ‘Flickering Empire’ Reveals Chicago’s Role in Film History
Posted By michaelgsmith : February 2, 2015 3:41 pm

Thank you so much for reading so closely and for getting to the heart of our book’s appeal. Our intention really was to fill in those holes when we realized that no single book had ever been devoted to the story of film production in Chicago during the silent era. (Also, I really, really, really hope that your cat enjoyed it too!)

Posted By Lisa W. : February 3, 2015 1:19 am

I’m a little disappointed that I never learned about Chicago’s film history at all in my Film Studies class in high school just outside of Chicago in Skokie. Mr. Duffy was a wonderful teacher, but probably didn’t have such a smart resource as the above book. If I only knew where he was now, I’d send him a copy! Thanks so much for the post and for a great book to put on my list to read.
oh, and I love orange tabbies!

Posted By Susan Doll : February 3, 2015 1:44 am

Even in my film classes at Northwestern I did not get much info about filmmaking in Chicago. I learned about Essanay in the 1980s when my ex-husband worked there as p.a. It was still a working studio at the time, and he knew about it from working there. I have an old Essanay sweatshirt some place.

Posted By swac44 : February 3, 2015 7:05 pm

I’ve got Flickering Empire on my Amazon.ca wishlist, still not available in Canada yet, but I’m told it’s coming. As I’ve mentioned here before, my grandfather was an osteopath on the North Side of Chicago just prior to and following the First World War, and according to family legend had some patients from nearby (and still-standing) Essanay Studios. I’m guessing all those pratfalls would require a bit of back-cracking after the fact, so it may be they kept him quite busy! (Sadly, most of the stories died with my father and uncles, not much was passed along.) Can’t wait to read more about his neighbours, and possibly his patients and/or friends!

I remember hearing the story about Edison’s catnaps while visiting his compound in Florida in 1978, they even had a photo of him curled up on his desk! Still selling the legend…

Posted By michaelgsmith : February 4, 2015 4:43 am

swac44, here’s probably the best evidence in the book that Ben Turpin may have been a patient of your Dad’s (describing the pratfalls he did in his earliest films at Essanay in a 1909 interview): “I had many a good fall, and many a good bump, and I think I have broken about 20 barrels of dishes, upset stoves, and also broken up many sets of beautiful furniture, had my eyes blackened, both ankles sprained and many bruises, and I am still on the go.”

Posted By swac44 : February 4, 2015 12:44 pm

Heh, thanks for the quote, Michael! I’ve seen the evidence on screen with my own eyes, I’m thinking years of slapstick would certainly take their toll on a person’s skeleton!

Sadly, my grandfather died a year before I was born, and the only Essanay name I ever heard pass from my uncle’s lips was Gloria Swanson, but since my uncle was no movie buff, and wouldn’t generally know that she got her start in Chicago, I feel like there had to be some sort of connection there. Next time I get to the Windy City, I hope to do a little more digging to find out about grandad’s practice.

Posted By robbushblog : February 6, 2015 3:56 pm

Edison conceived of the ideas and worked on some of the inventions to follow up on the patents that he filed. He employed people to apply the patents and ideas to practical inventions. They were paid for the work they did willingly, all under the auspices of Edison and his company. And his own wife stated that he rarely spent any time in the house, often sleeping in the lab. This put a great strain on their marriage.

Posted By swac44 : February 6, 2015 6:16 pm

By a weird coincidence, T.A. Edison himself showed up as a character (nay, a suspect!) in an episode of the Canadian period crime drama The Murdoch Mysteries that I watched today. I think you can see the whole thing here:

http://www.cbc.ca/murdochmysteries/episodes/season-7/the-filmed-adventures-of-detective-william-murdoch

Posted By robbushblog : February 6, 2015 6:26 pm

He was also the subject of last week’s American Experience on PBS:

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/edison/

Posted By Steve Rydzewski : February 20, 2015 11:05 pm

Author David Kiehn did a fabulous book on the Essanay Company of Niles, CA several years back. He’s been researching Chicago’s Essanay for probably just as long with a book in the works as far as I know. And if anyone’s interested in a whole book on America’s first movie comedian and Hollywood Superstar, Ben Turpin, I slapped one together: http://www.bearmanormedia.com/index.php?route=product%2Fproduct&product_id=644

I just ordered your book, gentlemen, and am looking forward to reading it. Break a leg! ;-)

Posted By michaelgsmith : February 21, 2015 2:09 am

Thanks a million, Steve. David Kiehn’s BRONCHO BILLY book was invaluable to us. I will order your book as well! Turpin is an important player in FLICKERING EMPIRE. We are having a book release party tomorrow night and will be screening AN AWFUL SKATE (his debut).

Posted By James Whistler : April 11, 2015 9:12 pm

Great review! I am looking forward to meeting the authors next Tuesday at the Cigar Society of Chicago and getting a copy of the book. I live near the old Essanay Studios building on Argyle Street and have wondered about it for a long time.

Here’s a bit of non-movie trivia. I see you have [sic]‘d the title of Selig’s “Washing the Streets of Porto Rico”. The official name of the island was actually “The Commonwealth of Porto Rico” from the Foraker Act of 1900 until the misspelling was corrected by an act of Congress in 1932.

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