‘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.

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Juli, Luther, and Oscar: Chicago’s Role in the History of Race Movies

Last week, I wrote about Chicago’s role in the birth of the mainstream film industry, which is most often treated as a footnote in text books and film histories. Even less known is the city’s importance to the development of an African American cinema in which black entrepreneurs made movies for black audiences. While there are several scholarly studies on the development of an African American cinema, and many of them chronicle the early pioneers, the whole story has yet to creep into coffee-table film histories or filter into the popular consciousness.

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Broncho Billy, Colonel Selig, and an Unreconstructed Confederate: Chicago’s Role in Film History

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.

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