Silent Movie Capital – Chicago was briefly the silent movie capital of the country.
Essanay Film Company
Selig Polyscope Company
Bell & Howell Model 2709 Motion Picture Camera
Balaban & Katz’s Movie Palaces
The Adventures of Kathlyn
War Films of Edwin Weigle
At Old Fort Dearborn & Pioneer Days
Electrical Show of Chicago
Chicago Movie Film Firsts
Wilding Picture Productions
Burton Holmes Films, Inc.
In Old Chicago
Radio Growth in Chicago
Chicago Sunday Tribune, December 7, 1969
By William F. Grisham
PRESENT filmmaking in Chicago falls into several categories, including: the industrial film, in which every mechanical act is a saintly virtue; the commercial, passively resisted by millions; and the documentary, in its purest form the kind of film in which producers sacrifice money for art and a message. Better, Hollywood says, to send it by Western Union.
But entertainment films, features? Hardly ever, unless a film crew from the west coast needs to shoot Chicago locations, as in “Mickey One.” Chicago is a passing-thru place where a low-budget feature may be tried every 10 years or so by op- souls who then attempt to cover their traces after they see a final print. The entertainment film as well as the money has long since vanished from this area.
But years before Hollywood, Chicago was grinding out motion picture melodramas, comedies, and what the more snooty film actors called “dramas”—high-falutin’, strutting pieces in which loyalty, tenderness , villainy, and heroics wowed audiences all over the world. Chicago was also the home of the early westerns.
Several thousand films were turned out in Chicago from the early years of this century to 1918, when the major Chicago studio, Essanay, closed its doors forever.
It was an exciting period. The early filmmakers were pioneers, some of them barely off the boat. These optimistic immigrants, carnival and vaudeville operators, furriers, and clothing store managers had one thing in common-an uncommon desire to employ the new medium of motion pictures to make money. As much as they could get.
Edison’s peep show, the Kinetoscope, was the inspiration. The young inventor, William Dickson, who bad worked with Edison to develop the Kinetoscope, begged his boss to take the films outside the restrictions of a box with a keyhole viewer and project them for a larger audience. Edison felt that moving pictures were simply a novelty. He apparently thought so little of the invention that he failed to secure a foreign patent.
But others saw clearly the possibility of wail projection, and they developed projectors, some of which were based on the Edison Kinetoscope. Edison entered into patent litigation with anyone who was suspected of building equipment utilizing his and Dickson’s ideas. He even castigated the Lumiere brothers in France, the inventors who are often credited with the first public showing of projected motion pictures (1895).
It is not the purpose of this article to chronicle Edison’s irascibility. Suffice it to say that he did battle with inventors and film producers whose fore- sight and business acumen pushed the new medium ahead, despite litigation and goon tactics.
In France, Melies, Pathe, and Gaumont began making theatrical films. A list of early studios would also have to include England’s Urban Trading company as weil as Denmark’s Great Northern and the Italian Itala and Ambrosio. In addition to the Edison operation, there were a number of American companies: Biograph, Vitagraph, Kalem, Lubin, Edison, Selig, and Essanay. The last two operated in Chicago. Col. William Selig’s studios were located at Western and Irving Park. The Essanay address was 1333 Argyle.
For the last two years, I have been accumulating information on these old Chicago studios, the men who made them possible, and the kinds of films that were produced. Unfortunately, mod of the ol films have vanished. They were on nitrate stock Nitrate, aside from being combustible, has a life. It becomes unstable, congeals, and finally solidifies and disintegrates.
The films I have been able to retrieve iron attics, garages, and basements and those in Euro pean archives whet the appetite for more. The Chaplin films produced at Essanay, both in Chicago anc at the Essanay Western company in Niles, Cal. have been preserved. And some of the old Beverly Bayne and Francis X. Bushman films are still around, including the two-reeler “Under Royal Patronage,” typical of the regal pageants in which Bushman and Bayne appeared.
A partial list of Essanay players would include Chaplin, Bayne, Bushman, Richard Travers, H. B. Walthall, Edward Arnold, Bryant Washburn, Ruth Stonehouse, Harry Norton, Charles Stone, Ben Turpin, Edna Mayo, Lewis Stone, Ernest Maupain, Lillian Drew, Sidney Ainsworth, Neil Craig, Eugene O’Brien, Virginia Valli, Rod La Rocque, and Max Linder.
The Selig studios employed as many as 400 people. In addition to the indoor studio, Selig Polyscope company (the studio’s official name) owned a tract of three acres for outdoor scenes. This lot had a lagoon and anl varieties of semi-natural landscapes such as marshland, pastures, jungle trees, dense forests, and property cliffs.
At the turn of the century, Selig had entered motion pictures with tent shows. His manager, Thomas Persons, pleaded with his employer to make films for himself. Their first dramatic effort was a film called “Tracked by Bloodhounds ” (1904). It was filmed in the suburban district of Rogers Park.
Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek
Selig Polyscope Company
Filmed in Rogers Park and Selig Studio
Released April, 1904
It was Selig who produced some of the early westerns. He often sent his company on location. In Oklahoma, Tom Mix, a United States marshal, became an interested onlooker. He was persuaded by an insistent cameraman to take part in a picture. It was “Ranch Life in the Great Southwest,” and was released in 1910. Mix stayed with the Selig Los Angeles studios until 1916, when he joined Fox.
No one who lived during this early film period can forget the cliff-hanging series produced by Selig, “The Adventures of Kathlyn” Kathlyn Williams was the star. Tom Santschi was Bruce, the hero. Charles Clary was the villainous Prince Umbuilah, whose mission in life thru 27 reels was to make the fair Kathlyn captive or to put an end to her existence
Two years ago, I visited Gertrude Weart, George K. Spoor’s daughter. Her father and G. M. Anderson had founded the Essanay Film Manufacturing company. From Mrs. Weart and her husband, Gen. D. L. Weart, I learned that Spoor was born in Highland Park, moved to Waukegan, and, on completed grammar school, went to work as a combination newspaper vendor, porter, and train caller at the old North Western station on Wells street. eventually became manager of a news tand and restaurant at the station.
He was married to Ada May Thompson in 1892 and felt that in his new role as provider he needed more income. He took on additional duties, managed be old Waukegan Opera house, and learned how to ook stock companies and vaudeville acts. Soon he was signing up road shows for other communities. During the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, Spoor saw for the first time the Edison Kinetoscope machines in an amusement arcade in the old Ashland block on Clark street. He became so watching the peepshows in a box that pickpocket ran off with his money.
After this object lesson, it occurred to Spoor that instead of bending over to watch films, thereby making the backside accessible to robbers, groups of men and women could enjoy films in a comfortable sitting position, much as they enjoyed a play in a theater. From the manager of the arcade, he bought a slightly damaged Kinetoscope film and showed it to a machinist friend, Edward Hill Amet, foreman at a shop manufacturing scales in Waukegan.
It was Spoor’s idea to develop a projector that would enable him to show films on a wall or screen to theater audiences. Amet and Spoor toiled over the design, and eventually they had a primitive projector which they called the Magniscope. Instead of a weak electric light, it used calcium light. In the year 1894, they succeeded in projecting the flickering image from the Kinetoscope strip onto a white plaster wall on the second floor of the scale works.
With Amet, Spoor developed and acquired additional equipment—cameras, perforators, printing machines. In 1895, they supplied traveling exhibitors with this equipment and began to install and operate their own machines in vaudeville theaters across the country. It was thru this activity that Spoor became known as the “Kinodrome Man.” Many of the short films distributed by Spoor came from Pathe, 50 to 100-foot lengths of film.
Films were considered magic shows at first. The illusion of motion was still a novelty. But that novelty began to wear thin when people had seen too many trains rushing at them, self-conscious subjects in indifferent sequences, and films of simple duration. Soon these short film diversions were used as “chasers” in vaudeville houses to signify the ending of one complete series of acts-and literally to chase an audience out of the theater so that others could see the program.
Altho films went into a decline around the turn of the century, Spoor persisted, even filming his sister, Belle, and a friend in a small scene in which the young girls put on boxing gloves and threw a few punches.
In the first few years of the century, the Nickel theaters sprang up all over the nation. According to General Weart, moving pictures still had not earned a good reputation, but some of the films from abroad had attracted notice, especially the works of the Frenchman, Melies. And in the United States, Porter’s “Great Train Robbery” (1903) was a smashing success.
Spoor felt that there were stories to be told on film, and he wanted to produce them and feed the Nickel theaters. Before 1906, he was shooting and processing films at a small studio at 16 N. Clark st. In addition to these, he purchased and rented films from other producing companies in the United States, England, and France.
In 1907, Spoor and G. M. Anderson, one of the players in “Great Train Robbery,” founded the Peerless Film Manufacturing company, but decided a few months later that Essanay Film Manufactur- ing company was a better name, since it represented the initials of their surnames. That out of the way, they began operations immediately, at 501 N. Wells st. One of their first actors was Ben Turpin, who appeared in a series of slapstick films, sometimes improvised on the sidewalks of Chicago.
Ben had come from vaudeville and was to have several tours of duty with Essanay as a comic actor, a propman, and as comic foil for Chaplin at Es- s Western Studios.
Initially, G. M. Anderson did not act in Essanay films. During the first year of Essanay’s operation, he traveled all over the country, opening up new markets for his company s productions. One of his letters from the Hotel Henry in Pittsburgh came into my possession recently. It is addressed to Spoor and dated July 22, 1907.
Arrived in Pittsburgh 0. K., but as you know by this time, without our film, as Hamilton failed to bring it to the hotel before train time. Consdquently, I will be detained in the “Smoky City” another day. Nevertheless, I have visited the Pittsburgh Calcium Light people, and judging from their detri- mental remarks about Edison, Selig, and Vitagraph films, our stuff will find a ready market. I will show our film to various buyers and think we will sell as many to them as any other concern outside of Pathe. I feel absolutely certain that we will get rid of 40 or 50 copies. If there is room on your advertising circular, make a mention of our steady photography and brightness of lighting.
Shooting outdoors at Essoany, one of the Chicago film studios that thrived more than 50 years ago.
Eighteen months ago, I contacted Anderson’s daughter, Maxine, who runs a very successful television acting school and placement agency. She said that her father was in a nursing home and too ill to see anyone but that she and her mother would be glad to meet me.
I flew to Los Angeles, rented a car, and drove to the Anderson home in Beverly Hills. Maxine, a tall and very attractive woman, introduced me to her mother, Molly Anderson, a petite lady of regal bearing. It was not the best time to visit, since Maxine was preparing her income tax return.
Molly and I began to talk about G. M. I had read Chaplin’s autobiography and knew that Anderson had signed up Chaplin for $1,250 a week and that his partner, Spoor, thought G. M. had lost his wits. I wanted to know if Molly had seen Chaplin. Indeed she had. Molly was the reception committee. She had been instructed by her husband to meet the train as it pulled into Chicago. I shall let Molly tell it, just as it happened:
It was December of 1914. The Christmas season. Bitterly cold out. I met G. M. There was the little fellow with him. He had no luggage, no handbag at all. Just a somali roll of clothes. He had no overcoat, and there was a severe wind. You know how vicious Chicago weather can be. Well, we all rode back to my Chicago apartment. When I could get G. M. alone, I asked him, ‘Who is this chap?’ He answered: ‘I find him clever and amusing. I think he could be a great comedian. He’s being wasted in Los Angeles.’
G. M. was a terribly taciturn man and would offer no more explanation. Here was little Charlie with not much else but himself. Since my husband delegated authority by a sort of osmosis, I felt that I was chosen to outfit Charlie.
The day he came in, he walked around the apartment. We had a beautiful Christmas tree, shining with decorations, and my daughter was just a baby. Charlie looked at the tree, then at little Maxine. He walked around the tree with a radiant expression on his face. And he kept exclaiming: ‘A Christmas tree, a baby, a Christmas tree. It’s wonderful!’ He was so happy. He had never been in a home like ours. I was really overjoyed for his sake.
But I still wasn’t prepared for his habits. He slept late. Very late. And when he appeared, it was without a shirt collar. He had curly hair and never ran a comb thru it. The maids kept his food wait- ing. We heard no apology from him. So I simply did what I could. I was a young person, too, and I told him, ‘Charlie, run a comb thru your hair, and make yourself a little more presentable, and we ll have breakfast.’
G. M. took him to the studio and introduced him to the people there. I think George Spoor finally got over his chagrin about the pay demanded by Chaplin and eventually showed up. And it was decided that Charlie would make a picture in Chicago (“His New Job”).
in the meantime, New Year’s eve was approach- ing, and we wanted Charlie to accompany us to the College Inn. I had to find a good shirt for him and cuff links and a suit. We wanted him to be presentable. I did practically all of his shopping. But i I never thought of a muffler. Well, when New Year’s eve came, we all got into the car, and I noticed Charlie wore a muffler. On closer inspection I dis- covered that he was wearing his pajama bottoms around his neck. I suppose that was an indication of his ability to improvise, but it just wouldn’t do at the College Inn. So we fished around and pro duced another muffler.
A nice thing happened that evening. One of the Howard brothers (vaudevillians_ was there. The little one. And he recognized Charlie. I suppose had seen one of Charlie’s Los Angeles films. And he came over to our table. He took Chaplin by the scruff of the neck and made him stand on a chair. Howard waved to the whole audience. When the was silence, he said, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, I want to introduce you to the funniest man in move pictures—Charlie Chaplin!’ Well, a few minutes later, a man strode over to our table. He was bristling, furious. He said: ‘Do you mean to tell me that this boy is the funniest comedian in pictures? Do you know that John Bunny is in the audience tonight? And he has always been considered the funniest man in films.’ Howard asked the indignant man, ‘Did John Bunny say that, or did you say that?’ The man replied, ‘We both said that.’ Howard looked him straight in the eyes ar said, ‘Well, you go right on back to John Bunn and tell him that is the funniest line he ever handed me!”
At this point, Molly gave full voice to a long musical laugh. Maxine joined the chorus after asked a rather stupid question, “What did Charlie do with all that money Essanay was paying him? I hoped they would tell me he repaid them for the wardrobe, among other things. Molly replied, “Well, he didn’t exactly throw it away!” And again th laughter resounded in the Anderson home. “You see, young man, Charlie has the first nickel he ever earned. I’m certain of that.”
Up to this point, I have referred to Anderson only as G. M. As a matter of fact, his real name was Max Aronson. But to film lovers of the early days he was known as Broncho Billy. According to his wife, the role of Broncho Billy was forced on him He had engaged a handsome actor in one of the early Essanay westerns, but the actor kept falling off his horse. In desperation, G. M. donned a rather fancy dude’s version of a cowpoke’s costume and took to the saddle himself. Maxine told me that her father’s only riding experience had been on sleepy mounts in parks.
The challenge that raised G. M. to the saddle was necessity—a need for a sufficient supply of one-reel westerns for studio income, enough of an inducement to stick on the horse, come what may. It was this stone-faced determination that made him a star immediately, and altho the business of running a motion picture company may have been on his mind most of the time, no audience watching Broncho Billy was the wiser. His rugged, countenance, registering little change of two decades ago, was the face of an American hero. (The only comparison I can think of is the John Wayne face of two decades ago, before character lines gave him a wider vocabulary.) Almost overnight, G. M. stepped unsteadily into the saddle, he vas a cowboy star—the first.
Film set for a silent western featuring Gilbert M. Anderson, known as Broncho Billy, at Essanay Film Studios in Chicago circa 1910.
As any Chicagoan knows, it is not easy to find a mountain on the prairies; both Essanay and Selig used the banks of the drainage canal and other mounds as imitation mountains or went on location. G. M. felt that he needed real western settings. With Spoor’s blessing, he moved a company first to Boulder and then to Golden, Colo., where he churned out some of the early one-reel cowboy ilms. The final location for the Essanay Western company was Niles Canyon, Cal., where hundreds of westerns and comedies were shot. Laboratories were also located there for processing negatives.
The Essanay News of Jan. 2, 1915, announced the studio had signed up comedian Charles Chaplin.
Three of the early stars in Chicago (from left): Francis X. Bushman, Charlie Chaplin, and G. M. Anderson.
Meanwhile, back in Chicago at the Essanay studios on Argyle, Spoor had installed one of the most sophisticated lighting systems in the world. The severe cold in winter played havoc with the actors, directors, and cameramen even tho they were a rugged lot who didn’t shrink from outdoor sequences, even when the temperature hovered around zero. The studios on Argyle made it possible to shoot clear pictures indoors. And a great many of the Essanay photoplays were shot side-by-side under the heat of arc lights that could make an actor s eyes ache after a day’s work.
A year ago, I visited Beverly Bayne, one of the earliest of the Essanay stars, at her home in Arizona. I have stills from many of her films. She was a striking beauty, with large brown eyes and expressive hands that gracefully held calia lilies in royal playlets or clutched a dainty handkerchief In melodramas.
I was prepared for the flight of time. It was, after all, some years after the fact. But no little old pink and lavender woman greeted me. My first impression, and a lasting one, was of a lovely lady, completely vital, energetic. Both she and Gloria Swanson are petite, but in both cases you forget how tall you are and remember only grand they are.
A lobby card from “Graustark,” a five-reel photoplay Shot starred Beverly Bayne, Francis X. Bushman, and Helen Dunbar.
Beverly made 400 films in Chicago before 1915. She and Francis X. Bushman were among the earliest and most popular of the screen couples, and they were deluged with mail from admiring fans. She began her career at a tender age. She was just 16, a student at Hyde Park Higb school on the south aide. Hearing that Essanay needed young girls who had long, white gloves and pretty clothes for extra work in ballroom scenes, she and a friend visited Easanay, hoping for some extra work:
We carried some pictures of ourselves to the studio. My chum’s family knew one of the directon at Essanay, a Mr. Harry McRae Webster. So hR was prepared to receive us. After the proper intro. ductions, Mr. Webster showed us the studios and we saw how the films were taken. Maybe the last scene would be shot first because it was more efficient to get all scenes in one location out of the way. It was so exciting to us.
Well, almost a week went by. I heard nothing. Then after school one day, I received a telephone call from Mr. Webster’s secretary. She said that he wanted to see me at the studio the next morning at 10:30. Well, I thought that was rather strange, because he had told us that all the actors began work at 9 o clock in the morning and punched time clocks. So I couldn’t understand why he was asking me to appear at 10:30.
Anyway, I begged my mother for permission to see Mr. Webster. She said I could go if my aunt went with me. The next morning we were at the studio, and Mr. Webster came bustling in, and he said: ‘Here. Here’s a script. You read the part of Ubrian. Go out and have your lunch and come back, and I’ll take you thru a scene.’ O, bow my heart was palpitating.
I went to a little restaurant nearby and bad a bowl of soup. I could only manage four tablespoons, and that was it. I read the script. My heavens, the part of Marian was the lead. So my aunt and I went back to meet the director. He arranged for me to walk thru the scenes with him. In those days, you made up your own lines. The script would only indicate the action. He walked me thru a piece of action. And then be sat out front. He used a megaphone.
As I made up what I thought were appropriate lines, he would command, ‘Now turn a little more to the right, look up, now smile, now go over to the door and wave good-by.’ He seemed to be very satisfied and asked me to sit by him. I can remem- ber his piercing blue eyes as he stared at me. ‘Now, little lady, what do you consider an actress should be paid? You have to be in the studio promptly every morning at 9. You’ll work until late in the afternoon. And we work from 9 until 1 on Saturdays. We never work on Sundays.’
I thought for a while. ‘O, Mr. Webster,’ I said, ‘I’ve never been in the theater or in moving pic- tures. I don’t know what to say.’ I, who was getting an allowance of 25 cents a week, knew that actors got tremendous sums of money. So I tried to think in large numbers. He said: ‘Now go on. Think. What kind of salary do you want? I won t pay what you re not worth.’ So I said very timidly, ‘Thirty . . . 35 . . .or 25 dollars a week?’
Well, the dear man. A twinkle came in his eye, and he said: ‘I’ll tell you, little lady, I’ll start you the first week, and you ll work under my personal direction. And for four weeks you ll get $25 a week. And then you ll go into regular stock and work with the other directors. From then on, it s up to you.’
And I’m here to say that my next jump six months later was $75 and then $250 a week. I’ve always been amused at this incident, simply because I bad the temerity to ask for so much-1, who received the munificent sum of 25 cents a week, my total allowance.
Within a few months, she was the star of the “first company” at Essanay. This was the favored dramatic group, actors and actresses who created fairy tales for an age. Beverly recalls she was always the poor waif who is suddenly found to be the duke s daughter. She not only played royalty in brocaded costumes, she also wore gingham as the heroine in many Essanay melodramas, escaping the clutches of the willful and the wicked. Francis X. Bushman saved her on a few of these occasions; on others, Bryant Washburn and Richard Travers were the gallants.
G. M. Anderson, the “ay” in Essanay, plays Broncho Billy. He was the earliest of the movie cowboy stars and appeared in 350 westerns.
Wallace Beery portrayed a hefty Swedish maid in the Sweedie movies, a slapstick series filmed at Easanay. He wore the red wig and gingham dress in scores of the early comedies.
While Beverly reigned at Essanay, Ben Turpin was a propman as well as a comic. And Wallace Beery was featured in the Sweedie series. He played a Swedish maid, wore a big red wig, a gaudy dress, and large, floppy shoes. Spoor, according to Beverly, had discovered Beery in a circus. From Mrs. Marvin Spoor of Evanston, the widow of one of Essany’s great cameramen, I learned that Wally had been either an elephant keeper or a trainer. At any rate, he was a circus or carnival man, totally uninhibited, a diamond in the rough and good-natured enough to begin his career In movies as a female impersonator.
Beverly related that Beery worked on one or two Sweedie comedies a week, and when he punched out of the at 5 o clock each evening, he turned into a speed demon. The pride of his life was a big yellow Mercer with a cutout. Young Marvin (Major) Spoor and he would tear up and down Sheridan road. A few shocked homeowners wrote to the studios demanding that Beery take his Mercer elsewhere—a cliff, perhaps.
Gloria Swanson tries to operate a Natural Vision camera, a piece of equipment developed by George Spoor (hatless at right). Spoor spent the last part of his fortune on Natural Vision, but the new film process never caught on.
George K. Spoor (right), co-founder of Essanay. with Max Linder, the French comedian hired by Essanay to replace Charlie Chaplin. Linder made three movies, each of them a box office bomb.
I think Chicagoans have been told before that Louella Pirsons was in charge of Essanay’s department. But most people do not know that fros the very beginning, Chicago films were scripted. Film was too costly to waste in random shooting in experimentation. I was informed by an old technician that in the early years, directors were assigned 1,000 feet of film (the “one-reeler” length) and advised that if they botched any footage, they would have to pay for it.
Louela Parsons, writing in the July, 1951, of Theater Arts recalled that Spoor hired her at a splendid salary—$20 a week—to read manuscript and to write scenarios:
I bought movie stories written on pencil tablets torn envelopes, sheets of wallpaper-and I them out indiscriminately to the directors who made them into movies whether they liked them or not And most of the time they didn’t.
She went on to say that the only time she really made a hit was with a story she bought from a woman in Waukegan:
A few days later we all were in a projection room looking at the latest pictures of our rivals, and Vitagraph’s offering flashed on the screen with the same title, the same story, the same every- thing.
Spoor demanded that the authoress come down to the studio as quickly as she could. The lady cheerfully admitted that she had sold the story both to Vitagraph and to Essanay. She informed Spoor that she had found it in a magazine and had lots more of them where that came from.
Motography, Kathlyn Williams, Jan. 10, 1914
Motography, Francis X. Bushman, May 30, 1914
A few months ago I was a panel member of a Loyola film seminar. I remember one of the students asking me why the old Chicago studios closed down. (Both Selig and Essanay ceased operations by 1918.) The answer is not a simple one.
Certainly, the climate in California was more attractive to the players and directors. But weather was not the only reason. Both Selig and Essanay had been members of the Motion Picture Patents company. This organization had been formed mainly to placate the irate Edison, who claimed that film producers everywhere were usurping his patent rights. To keep Edison lawsuits from stopping pro- duction, representatives of nine film companies (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Kalem, Lubin, Selig, Pathe, and Melies) met in 1908. These companies pooled their patents and agreed to pay Edison handsome royalties. Actually, this agree- ment permitted them to operate as a trust that virtually outlawed competition in the United States.
From every motion picture theater, a license fee was extracted. Fines were levied if spies found a “disloyal” exhibitor or a member exchange dis- tributing films from independents. Coon tactics were employed to break the backs of competition.
Equipment and films were destroyed, property wrecked, lves threatened.
These extralegal on for six years. Finally, the intrepid William Fox, his counselor, Samuel Untermeyer, urged the attorney general to bring suit against the patents company on the grounds that it violated the Sberman anti-trust act, In 1915, the Supreme court ruled that the Motion Picture Patents company as well as its subsidiary, General Film, must disband.
Selig’s and Essanay’s positions in motion picture production were now threatened by competition. And competition had not been idle. Universal, Metro, Mutual, Fox, World Film, Paramount, and others beg?an to outdistance the old-timers
Anderson and Spoor shored up their business with Chaplin. When Chaplin defected to Mutual in 1916, Anderson sold his interest in Essanay to Spoor for $900,0O. Spoor went to Europe for Chaplin’s re- placement, little Max Linder, the French comedian. He signed up Max at $5,0O0 a week. Inder made three films for Essanay, each a box office bomb. Further, Linder could not stand the Chicago cold. Both he and Spoor agreed to terminate their con- tract. Two years later the studios on Argyle were closed to any further production.
But Spoor had accepted a new challenge. He had met an inventor, John Berggren. Together, they worked on the development of a new wide-screen film process they called Natural Vision. Spoor spent the last 4 million dollars of his fortune on this venture. It was introduced just before the advent of sound. When sound did come in, theater owners could not afford both innovations. The depressions of 1929 and 1932 killed Natural Vision.
Several years before Spoor’s death in the early ’50s, he, William Selig, and other film pioneers received the accolade they deserved from the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences. On the base of their special awards, these words were engraved:
One of the small group of pioneers whose belief in a new medium and whose contributions to its development blazed the trail along which the motion picture has progressed in their lifetime from ob- scurity to world-wide acclaim.
William Grisham, a Chicago filmmaker, is completing work on a book about the early Chicago film studios. He served as writer, director, and producer of “The Beautiful Lady,” a documentary on Essanay film star Beverly Bayne, and has written a documentary tilled, “When Chicago Was Hollywood.” He is executive director of the Chicago Film institute, a nonprofit ion formed to create interest in Chicago filmmaking and maintain both an archive of Chicago films and a library for use by students of film.
FILMED IN CHICAGO 1896-1919
Auguste & Louis Lumière
Lumière Film Catalog no. 338
Below is a list of movies filmed or made (all or in part) in Chicago and the State of Illinois between 1896 and 1919. The companies who produced them follow in parentheses.
Tramp and the Dog (Selig Polyscope)
Chicago Police Parade (Lumiere Brothers)
Grande Roue (Lumiere Brothers)
Chicago Police Parade (Lumiere Brothers)
As with other Lumiere productions of the period (including the masterpiece Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat), the camera is positioned at an oblique angle so that the policemen appear to walk “diagonally” from the rear of the frame to the front. This perspective puts greater emphasis on the depth of field of the image, with a clear demarcation of background, middle ground and foreground, and also serves as a good example of just how well composed the Lumiere brothers’ films were. However, Chicago Police Parade was not made by either of the brothers themselves but instead by one of their favorite cinematographers, a Frenchman of Italian descent named Alexandre Promio.
The building in the film was the armory of Battery D of the First Brigade/Artillery of the Illinois National Guard. It was located at Michigan and Monroe, north of the Exposition Building, with the main entrance on Michigan. It was 140’ by 200’ in size, and was built by Battery D with funding from locals. Adjoining the building is the armory of the First Calvary, of the same size as the Battery D building. The building was erected in the early 1880’s. It was used for military, religious and political events, as well as public meetings and performances. The Art Institute held classes in the building from 1882-1883 while the Art Institute Building was constructed at Van Buren and Michigan (they only stayed at that building for ten years or so before moving to the current Art Institute building). In 1896, the building was torn down to make way for a temporary Post Office made of brick, which stood until 1905.
Corner Madison and State Streets, Chicago (Edison Mfg).
A Chicago Street (American Muroscope)
Illinois Central Terminal (American Muroscope)
Soldiers at Play (Selig Polyscope)
Lincoln Park (American Muroscope & Biograph)
Chicago Police Parade (Selig Polyscope)
Dewey Parade (Selig Polyscope)
Gans-McGovern Fight (Selig Polyscope)
Chicago Firecats on Parade (Selig Polyscope)
A Hottime on a Bathing Beach (Selig Polyscope)
Business Rivalry (Selig Polyscope)
Chicago Fire Run (Selig Polyscope)
The Girl in Blue (Selig Polyscope)
Trip Around the Union Loop (Selig Polyscope)
View of State Street (Selig Polyscope)
Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, A Lynching at Cripple Creek (Selig Polyscope)
Humpty Dumpty (Selig Polyscope)
The Tramp Dog (Selig Polyscope)
The Tramp and the Dog (Selig Polyscope)
An Awful Skate or The Hobo on Rollers (Essanay)
The Grafter (Selig)
The Dancing Nig (Essanay)
The Confession (Essanay)
The Baseball Fan (Essanay)
Gotch-Hackenschmidt Wrestling Match (W.W. Wittig)
The Count of Monte Cristo (Selig)
Hunting Big Game in Africa (Selig Polyscope)
Ten Nights in a Barroom (Essanay)
The Magic Melody (Essanay)
Levi’s Dilemma (Essanay)
Gotch-Zyyszko World’s Championship Wrestling Match (Essanay)
Henry’s Package (Essanay)
The Wizard of Oz (Selig Polyscope)
Hank and Lack: Lifesavers (Essanay)
World’s Championship Series (Essanay) (Cubs vs. Phil Athletics)
A Voice from the Fireplace (Essanay)
The Squaw and the Man (American Film Mfg.)
C-H-I-C-K-E-N Spells Chicken (Essanay)
The Coming of Columbus (Selig Polyscope)
Winning an Heiress (Essanay)
Nebata the Greek Singer (Essanay)
Brotherhood of Man (Selig Polyscope)
The Starbucks (American Film Mfg.)
Famous Illinois Canyons and Starved Rock (American Film Mfg.)
The Jungle (All Star Feature Co.)
The Pit (Wm. A. Brady Picture Plays, World Film)
Joliet Prison, Joliet, IL (Industrial Moving Picture, Abo Feature Film)
Chicago Herald Movies (Chicago Herald News)
The Adventures of Kathlyn (Serial from Selig Polyscope)
Golf Champion “Chick” Evants Links with Sweede (Essanay)
Many “Dreamy Dud” films were made here during 1915 by Essanay. They included:
A Visit to Uncle Dudley’s Farm
At the Old Swimmin’ Hole
He Goes Bear Hunting
He Sees Charlie Chaplin
He Goes Bear Hunting
In King Koo Koo’s Kingdom
In Lost in the Jungle
In Love in the Swim
Resolves Not to Smoke
Up in the Air
Visits the Zoo
His New Job
Resolves Not to Smoke
Up in the Air
Dud Visits the Zoo
The Crimson Wing (Essanay)
A Black Sheep (Selig Polyscope)
In the Palace of the King (Essanay)
The Whirl of Life (Cort Film Corp.)
The House of a Thousand Candles (Selig Polyscope)
Should a Woman Divorce (Ivan Film Prodns)
The End of the Road (American Film Mfg.)
Dreamy Dud: Has a Laugh on the Boss (Essanay)
Dreamy Dud: In hte African War Zone (Essanay)
Dreamy Dud: Joyriding with Princess Zlim (Essanay)
Dreamy Dud: Lost at Sea (Essanay)
Cousin Jim (Van Dee Producing Co. of Chgo.)
The Misleading Lady (Essanay)
The Right to Live (United Photo Plays)
The Sting of Victory (Essanay)
The Truant Soul (Essanay)
Uncle Sam Awake (Laurence Rubel/Imperial Film Mfg.)
Three Pals (American Film Co./Mutual Films)
The Little Girl Next Door (Essanay/State Rights)
Vernon Howard Bailey’s Sketch Book of Chicago(Essanay)
Two Knights in Vaudeville (Ebony Pictures)
Cracked Ice (Essanay)
The Frozen Warning (Commonwealth Pictures)
The Baseball Revue of 1917 (Athletic Feature Films)
The Penny Philanthropist (Wholesome Films)
The Small Town Guy (Essanay/Perfection Pictures)
Ghosts (Ebony Pictures)
The Porters (Ebony Pictures)
Some Baby (Ebony Pictures)
Wrong All Around (Ebony Pictures)
Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (Ebony Pictures)
And the Children Play (Veritas Photoplay)
The Birth of a Race (Photoplay)
The City of Purple Dreams (Selig Polyscope)
Movie Marionettes (Essanay/General Film)
Are Working Girls Safe? (Ebony Pictures)
A Busted Romance (Ebony Pictures)
Barnacle Bill (Ebony Pictures)
Black Sherlock Holmes (Ebony Pictures)
Billy the Janitor (Ebony Pictures)
The Bully (Ebony Pictures)
The Comeback of Barnacle Bill (Ebony Pictures)
Fixing the Faker (Ebony Pictures)
Good Luck in Old Clothes (Ebony Pictures)
A Milk Fed Hero (Ebony Pictures)
The Painters (Ebony Pictures)
A Reckless Rover (Ebony Pictures)
Spying the Spy (Ebony Pictures)
Spooks (Ebony Pictures)
When You Hit, Hit Hard (Ebony Pictures)
When You’re Scared, Run (Ebony Pictures)
The Challenge of Chance (Continental Pictures)
Where Mary? (Essanay/Syndicate)
Through Hell and Back With the Men of Illinois (U.S. War Dept.)
Breed of Men (Wm. S. Hart Productions/Artcraft)
The Homesteader (Micheaux Film Corp
Highlights of Chicago’s Foray into Filmmaking
10 stops along the timeline of early Chicago film history:
1893: The Edison Kinetoscope fails to arrive as scheduled at the Columbian Exposition.
1896: William Nicholas Selig, native Chicagoan, shoots “The Tramp and the Dog,” first narrative film made in the area.
1907: Gilbert Anderson, born Max Aronson, teams with George K. Spoor to form the Peerless Film Manufacturing Co. By summer it is known as Essanay, headquartered in a building at 501 Wells (1360 N. Wells on the revised city grid).
1907: “An Awful Skate,” Essanay’s premier effort, is exhibited in nickelodeons nationwide to good financial results.
1908: Essanay opens a 72,000-square-foot studio at 1333 W. Argyle St.
1909: Selig, whose studio is located at Irving Park Road and Western Avenue, makes “Hunting Big Game in Africa,” a phony depiction of former president Teddy Roosevelt’s exploits.
1913: The Foster Photoplay Co. produces its first two-reeler, “The Railroad Porter.” Foster is the nation’s first African-American production house.
1915: Charlie Chaplin, who lived and worked in Chicago for all of 23 days, creates “His New Job.” Ben Turpin co-stars with Gloria Swanson playing the bit part of a film studio secretary.
1916: Essanay shuts down its studio in Fremont, Calif.
1918: Essanay closes its doors in Chicago.