Cinema Flourishes Within Its Existing Commercial Framework: 1904–1905
12Biograph Makes Story Films Its Dominant Product
Cinema Flourishes Within Its Existing Commercial Framework: 1904–1905
The Edison Manufacturing Company Reluctantly Makes a Commitment to Story Films
Sigmund Lubin Prospers
Selig's Exhibition Service Fades
Paley Moves into Fiction-Film Production
Vitagraph Becomes an Important Production Company
Pathé and the Europeans
During 1904–1905, the number of exhibition venues increased rapidly and soon reached a saturation point as the industry secured reliable but limited outlets for exhibition. As Views and Film Index later recalled; "Scores of picture companies toured the country with brass bands, lady orchestras, widespread billing and newspaper puffing that threatened to put the circus out of business. Swell advance agents swaggered about the theatre lobbies and hotel corridors, boasting of how their picture shows were 'packing them in.' Managers of theatres were given the alternative of conceding a fat percentage or suffer a dark house while the coin rolled into the opposition theatre.' By September 1905 George Kleine could say that "We know of no vaudeville house in the United States which does not fill one number of its programme with motion pictures."1
Arcades with phonographs, mutoscopes, and other film-showing devices (sometimes including a small room for projection at the rear or on the second floor) steadily gained in popularity. Mitchell Mark of Buffalo and two partners had a small arcade on 125th Street in New York City. The trio wanted to open a bigger arcade on 14th Street, in the heart of the city's entertainment district, but lacked the finances. One partner, Max Goldstein, convinced his cousin, Adolph Zukor, a furrier, and Zukor's partner, Morris Kohn, to invest in the operation. In March 1904, the Automatic Vaudeville Company was formed, with Mitchell H. Mark of Buffalo and Adolph Zukor of New York City acting as president and secretary respectively. When their Automatic One-Cent Vaudeville enterprise opened on Fourteenth Street east of Broadway and proved popular, other arcades followed. In November 1905, Zukor visited Pittsburgh, leased a building, and planned a "sumptuously furnished" arcade where, according to the local press, "attendants will all be uniformed and all attractions will be of the highest order."2 By then the group had more than a dozen arcades in Buffalo, Boston, and the New York area.
Because motion pictures were, in many respects, simply part of a diverse amusement industry, the extensive nature of some types of showings has been obscured.
Films were often screened in cafés, for example, particularly around amusement parks such as Coney Island:
Kansas City Star, 28 May 1905, p. 7B">
Of the hundred [Coney Island] halls of beer and smoke with stage performances half are run this season with motion pictures, yet not so very cheaply either. A boy or a woman with a strong voice to sing ballads for illustration, an operator for the projectoscope, a barker outside to tell folks that it costs nothing to get in, and a force of waiters to convince them that they can't stay in without buying drinks, make up the pay roll (Kansas City Star, 28 May 1905, p. 7B).
Likewise, regular Sunday motion-picture shows were given in many Eastern cities and towns: by late 1905 Archie Shepard was supplying twenty-two regular theaters on Sundays. These houses, including the West End, Third Avenue, and Fourteenth Street theaters in New York, showed motion pictures "to evade any contact with the authorities," who were busy enforcing the Sunday blue laws that prohibited most regular theatrical entertainments.
The proliferation of exhibition outlets further increased the demand for new story films. Although these were generally more difficult and expensive to produce, their popularity encouraged and finally necessitated a further shift in the production practices of major American producers. A statistical analysis of Edison production records for 1904–1905 shows that staged or acted films sold approximately three and a half times as well as actualities, a ratio that remained constant for the following two years of this survey and was probably typical of the wider industry. Furthermore, producers recognized that the quantity of actuality footage that they could sell was limited and tied to important news events. As a result, American producers came to rely on longer fictional narratives for the bulk of their revenues—and the bulk of their production expenses—by the second half of 1904.
The Biograph Company was the first in the United States, if not the world, to make the decisive shift toward fiction "feature" films—headline attractions that filled at least half of a thousand-foot reel. Beginning with Personal (NO. 2934), shot in early June 1904, the company's creative team averaged more than one new story film a month over the next year. The next story film, The Moonshiner (NO. 2939, June-July), was copyrighted with film intertitles, a policy that became standard with subsequent pictures, including The Widow and the Only Man (NO 2964, August), The Hero of Liao-Yang (NO. 2968, September), The Lost Child (NO 2974, October), The Suburbanite (NO. 2975, October), The Chicken Thief (NO. 2977, November), The Gentleman Highwayman (NO. 2980, January 1905), Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son (NO. 2987, February), The Nihilists (NO. 2992, February), and Wanted: A Dog (NO. 2997, March 1905).
By means of complex spatial and temporal constructions, camera movement, and interpolated close-ups, these Biograph films yield accomplished examples of the representational system established in the pre-nickelodeon era. In The Suburbanite, for example, a coherent spatial world is created as different camera angles show overlapping spaces in successive shots (e.g., the front of the house in shots 2 and 3). However, specific temporal continuities are rarely established between scenes: the film is structured by a series of imprecise ellipses, with two exceptions (shots 12 through 14) where overlapping actions are used to show activity moving back and forth between two contiguous rooms. While subservient to a narrative, each shot is still discretely organized.
Similarly, a presentational approach is evident in the use of emblematic shots at the beginning of The Chicken Thief and The Widow and the Only Man. These individual close-ups of principal characters were shot against plain backgrounds as a way of clearly showing their facial features. Interpolated close-ups sometimes freeze the narrative, allowing the spectator to savor the moment or a single action outside of the normal advance of pro-filmic time. In The Widow and the Only Man for example, a close-up simply focuses on the widow smelling a bouquet of flowers, while in The Lost Child, the filmmakers cut-in to a medium shot of the supposed kidnapper and hold a tableau-like moment in which the baby is revealed to be a guinea pig. Chase films such as Personal and The Lost Child, in which the performers run almost directly at the camera, continue a convention of confrontation
that dates back to The Empire State Express. Thus, although Biograph had brought the editorial process firmly under its control in these films, there are residual traces of a still-recent period when the shot, rather than the larger narrative, was the "basic unit" of film production. Even in 1904–1905, the transitions across shots are not completely integrated into a consistent fictional world.
In their content, these Biograph films stand as a remarkable articulation of a self-confident, urban popular culture aligned with the new American middle class. This self-assurance is apparent in a film such as Personal, which lampooned the tendency of American girls from wealthy families to marry impoverished foreign aristocrats, thus refinancing noble titles in exchange for international social standing. For this relatively sophisticated sexual comedy, much is made explicit in the catalog description (a possible source for live narration) or implied through specific cultural references. The French gentleman is named Alphonse and owes something to the comic-strip character who appears in previous Biograph films such as Next! The film takes its title from the fact that the gentleman has placed an ad in the New York Herald's personal column indicating his desire for matrimony and requesting a meeting with interested parties at Grant's Tomb. Since it is summer, the wealthy women he seeks are out of town, and instead, he is greeted at the advertised rendezvous by a rapidly growing crowd of enthusiastic widows, old maids, fat girls, and working-class women. Panicked by the sheer numbers, he runs off, and the women follow. At this point, Personal turns into a chase film: each of the next eight scenes begins with Alphonse entering in the distance and running toward and past the camera pursued by the women, and ends with the last of the women exiting in the foreground. As the women encounter one geographic barrier after another (a stream, an embankment, a rail fence), they expose enticing portions of their anatomy. "A neat little lady with white stockings also attracts attention as she lifts her fluffy skirts and
chases the Frenchman," noted the Biograph catalog. Finally, in the last scene, "one fleet-footed Diana discovers him, and drawing a revolver from her shopping bag she holds him up and claims him as her own."3 Here feminine and masculine are cleverly reversed, with the woman drawing on the phallic power of the gun and thus subverting the usual position of man as aggressor and suitor. This burlesque would have held particular appeal for a male American audience, and all the more so because the Frenchman suffers considerable humiliation. Along with working-class women, upper-class foreigners are parodied and marked as socially déclassé.
Brash self-confidence took another form with The Lost Child, which played on a popular genre originating in Europe—the kidnapping film. Like British Gaumont's The Child Stealers, most films in this genre were simple dramas in which the family's only child is stolen by Gypsies or some other type of ne'er-do-well. After the parents suffer anguish and guilt, the child is finally restored to them through good fortune and police intervention. In The Lost Child, a mother believes her child is kidnapped and dashes after a passerby with a basket, who flees as she approaches. The chase is joined by a policeman and various onlookers. Finally the suspect is caught, but when the contents of his basket are inspected, a guinea pig is discovered, and the man is freed. Society's insecurity and paranoia are gently spoofed when the woman returns home and finds her child hiding in the doghouse.
Those seeking refuge from the dynamism of the city receive similarly good-natured ridicule in The Suburbanite. AS Pat Loughney has pointed out, the film's title derived from a newsletter of that name which was passed out on the New Jersey Central Railroad, a line the Biograph team often took when traveling to more rural locations.4 The handout described suburban life in glowing terms that were similar
to The Suburbanite's first intertitles: "A Sweet Little Home in the Country" and "Such a Nice Place for the Children." These homilies are quickly lampooned by the succeeding images: the home may be "sweet," but the movers destroy every piece of furniture the poor family owns. The children, meanwhile, cover themselves with suburban mud, to the distress of their mother. In subsequent scenes the reality behind this heavily promoted paradise becomes even more unpleasant. The third title reads, "Plenty of Good Help" but then adds, "The Sixth Girl in Three Weeks." This cook, a man dressed as a middle-aged Irish maid, is bigger and tougher than the family head. By the last title, "Mother-in-law Arrives," the idyllic claims are fully exposed. Utter disaster looms as the mother-in-law's taxi wheels down the street, following the path earlier established by the nightmarish moving van. When she challenges the intoxicated cook, only the police can restore order. In the final scene, the father puts out a sign, "To Let Furnished," and leads his (suddenly much larger) family back to their original home, presumably in the city.
Other films offer comedies of manners. The Widow and the Only Man was loosely based on the O. Henry short story "Transients in Arcadia," published three weeks earlier in the New York Sunday World.5 At a summer resort, a horde of women wait impatiently for available men to arrive. When "the only man" finally appears, he has a wide choice from the eager group but settles on an attractive young widow. They go for a canoe ride, the craft capsizes, and he saves her from drowning. He courts the temporary invalid with flowers, which she nuzzles appreciatively. She has been won. The film has an unexpected dénouement, however, as the widow visits the ribbon counter in a fashionable department store, finds herself waited on by her "only man," and faints. The unconventionality of resort life had made possible the meeting of strangers of disparate backgrounds and the man's misrepresentations. But here the dangers of city life are a source of comedy, not of crisis and melodrama, as is the case in Edwin S. Porter's The Ex-Convict (1904) or The Millert's Daughter (1905).
In contrast to the foibles of city living, existence in rural communities is depicted as impoverished and violent. The Moonshiner, though filmed in Scarsdale, New York, portrays the primitive life of mountain folk in Kentucky. The desperate confrontation between moonshiners and revenuers ends in a shootout and tragedy as the head mountaineer is killed. His death is immediately avenged by his wife, who shoots the deputy, thus continuing a cycle of senseless violence. The film treats the story in a realistic, reportorial manner as it seeks to reenact typical incidents of rural life. The characters are never named. The operational aesthetic described by Neil Harris remains evident as the process of exchanging corn for liquor, of readying the concealed still, and of making the whisky are carefully shown for their own sake. Such documentary-like elements were also employed in popular theatrical melodramas of the day such as The Kentucky Feud by James R. Garey and William T. Koegh. Claiming to lift the veil on a way of life that few had seen, it featured "The Haunts of the Moonshiners, an Illicit Distillery in Full Blast, True Pictures of the Blue Grass State."6 Although incorporating melodramatic elements, the film lacks a strong moral message. The last title ("The Law Vindicated") is a sop to moralizing sensibilities that has no place in the logic of the story, which actually builds considerable sympathy for the moonshiner, a good family man with a devoted wife and children. Rural poverty and backwardness appear to be the underlying causes of the meaningless carnage.
Violence is again linked with rural poverty in The Chicken Thief, one of several Biograph "comedies" using racial stereotypes. "From the opening of the picture where the coon with the grinning face is seen devouring fried chicken, to the end where he hangs head down from the ceiling, caught by a bear trap on his leg, the film is one of continuous laughter," the catalog insists.7 In fact, the film elaborates on A Nigger in the Woodpile (NO. 2866), shot less than six months earlier, and in both cases, African Americans are portrayed as lazy, petty thieves stealing wood for their fire or chickens for their dinner. The "comedy" comes after whites retaliate, by either placing a stick of dynamite in a log so that a black parson's home is blown apart or setting a bear trap in a chicken coop so that the thief can be trapped like an animal
and successfully tracked by a group of white farmers. As the enthusiasm of the catalog suggests, the filmmakers' own racism has clearly been displaced onto the rural "Sunny South."
The opposition between city and country life portrayed in this group of Biograph films departs significantly from earlier productions like The Downward Path and, as we shall see, many films made by Edwin Porter at Edison. The country is no longer an idyllic refuge from the corrupting influences of the city; rather, the city becomes the site of leisure, wealth, opportunity, and pleasure. In this respect, such films act as an affirmation of the filmmakers' own life-style as well as of the socio-economic and cultural conditions that made cinema possible.
Biograph's endorsement of modern life can be seen in two films dealing directly and indirectly with the Russo-Japanese War. The Hero of Liao-Yang treats the Japanese in sympathetic terms. A young Japanese army officer is "interrupted from the quiet pleasures of his home life" and soon finds himself at the front, where he is called upon to carry a message.8 Wounded and captured by the Russians, he nonetheless makes his escape and reaches company headquarters with his message in the midst of a decisive battle. Biograph's shift from the expected Eurocentric viewpoint might best be explained by distaste for Russia's backwardness coupled with admiration for the Japanese efforts at industrial and military modernization. The Nihilists, by contrast, focuses on the Russians and strongly condemns the tsarist state. As is often the case in films from this era, the protagonist is shown to be sympathetic because he is surrounded by a loving family. In this instance, a happy family of the
Polish nobility is shattered when the elderly father is accused of revolutionary acts and arrested.
While all these films played on popular stereotypes, many continued to rely on well-known antecedents to provide audiences with a framework to understand—and even more important, to enhance the enjoyment of—the narratives. Tom, Tom, The Piper's Son, which operated within the bad-boy genre even as it was given a historical dimension, took its simple premise from a nursery rhyme:
Tom, Tom, the Pipers Son
Stole a pig and away he run.
Costumes, scenery, and the film's opening scene at the fair were based on a print by William Hogarth, Southwark Fair (1733). This quoting of a work of art is particularly noteworthy because historians have generally seen the initial shot as an extreme if characteristic example of early cinema's compositional naïveté. Inspired by experimental filmmaker Ken Jacobs' TOM, TOM, THE PIPER'S SON (1967), which reworked the Biograph film using an optical printer, they argue that early filmmakers had not yet learned how to organize pro-filmic elements within the frame (as Griffith and others would do) and therefore important action was not clear to the spectator.9 In fact, the reference to the Hogarth print suggests a sophisticated if not totally successful principle of organization, whereby references to the poem and engraving provided some spectators with a basis for deciphering the film's complex, busy opening scene. Admittedly, those unaware of this antecedent were dependent on whatever clarification the exhibitor supplied, but the other shots in this film have clearly "readable" compositions. Although useful for comprehension and appreciation of the preliminary shot, an intertextual framework is unnecessary for the subsequent seven scenes, in which Tom is pursued, caught, and chastised for his transgression.
During 1904–1905, Biograph continued to take numerous actualities. Among the most elaborate were The Slocum Disaster (No. 2932), Fighting the Flames—Dreamland (No. 2950), Launching of the USS Battleship "Connecticut" (No. 2973), and Midwinter Bathing (February 1905, No. 2993). The launching of
the Connecticut is particularly noteworthy. Photographed by the company's full staff of cameramen (McCutcheon, Weed, and Bitzer) on 29 September, the film was featured at Keith's Union Square Theater during the following week. According to manager Hodgdon, it was "a new idea and a good picture" with "five views, each from a different position."10 In fact, the surviving copyrighted version shows the launch from only three positions but still utilizes temporal and narrative repetitions that were consistent with the methods employed for the concluding scene of Life of an American Fireman. This multi-camera approach enabled spectators to see the launching from several vantage points and reflected a preoccupation with sight and point of view that was manifest in many different areas of American culture, including amusements like baseball, where the need for multiple umpires was being strongly felt.11
With its ambitious output of story and news films, Biograph reestablished its position as the leading American film company and soon threatened to create difficulties for rival firms through its policy of retaining key films exclusively for its exhibition service. Percival Waters found that the theaters his Kinetograph Company was supplying desperately wanted Personal. After he tried to acquire a print but failed, Waters suggested that the Edison Manufacturing Company make an imitation and place it on the market, of course allocating the first prints to himself. Porter's remake, How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York "Her ald" Personal Columns, sold seventy-one copies over the next six months, making it the most popular Edison subject of that business year. Although Biograph responded by selling prints of its original version, the Edison Company probably enjoyed the bulk of the sales.
In an effort to recoup its loses, Biograph sued the Edison Company for copyright infringement but failed to gain an injunction and lost its case both in the lower courts and on appeal.12 Biograph had copyrighted the film as photographs, but the judges ruled that this measure only prevented duplication of the actual image and did not protect the subject matter or story. For many months afterward, Biograph copyrighted its story films as both dramatic productions and photographs. In the meantime, the Edison Company remade Biograph's popular The Escaped Lunatic, called it Maniac Chase, and sold it on the open market as well. The systematic employment of this policy forced Biograph to sell its films shortly after they were made rather than keep them as exclusives for its exhibition service.
In the spring of 1905 the Edison Manufacturing Company challenged Biograph's dominance on the level of its production staff as well. Early in the year, Edison hired former Biograph employee Robert K. Bonine; soon after, a talent raid enticed away Wallace McCutcheon and cameraman A. E. Weed. Cinematographer Frederick S. Armitage also left Biograph at this time (his last recorded filming was in April). The creative team that had worked together over the previous years was broken up, leaving only Marion as producer and Bitzer as cameraman, with projectionist F. A. Dobson now assuming responsibility for much of the camerawork. McCutcheon's departure was a particularly severe blow, since neither Marion nor Bitzer had much aptitude for directing actors.13
This talent raid seriously disrupted Biograph production. The Wedding (No. 3005), a 484-foot film released in late May, did little more than reenact the typical wedding day of many middle-class Americans. Using actors in a documentary-like, process-oriented portrayal, it was recommended for "those exhibitors who cater to church entertainments." A month later, Biograph advertisements featured The Deadwood Sleeper (No. 3029), a 230-foot, one-shot subject that shows a plethora of events unfolding inside a Pullman car (the protests of a finicky old maid, the wedding night of a rube couple, a robbery). Like What Happened in the Tunnel, it was well suited for exhibitors looking for comic moments to cut into railway-travel scenes. Reuben in the Subway (No. 3034) was copyrighted in several parts, perhaps because Edison's lawyers were then arguing in court that each shot had to be registered independently if a film was to be properly copyrighted. One brief shot, copyrighted under this release title, shows an entrance to the Fourteenth Street subway and the rube heading underground. This was followed by the first section of a film copyrighted as Interior New York Subway, 14th Street to 42nd Street, for which Biograph mounted its electric lights on an open subway car and filmed another train moving through the tunnel. When the scene reaches the Twenty-third Street stop, the film cuts to another studio scene, copyrighted as A rube in the Subway. The country bumpkin gets out of the car, is pickpocketed, misses the departing train, tries to jump on the back platform, ends up on the electrified third rail, and is finally rescued in "a badly shocked condition."14 The film then concludes with the train arriving at the Forty-second Street station. These films not only were
short but lacked the clever narratives and representational techniques that characterized McCutcheon's efforts.
Biograph was hurt again in July 1905 by its loss of the Keith circuit to Percival Waters' Kinetograph Company, the Edison-associated film exchange—a shift that may have been facilitated by McCutcheon's recent affiliation with Edison. This time Biograph did not regain the lucrative contract. Decimating if not immediately destroying Biograph's distribution/exhibition business, this loss put greater emphasis on the company's ability to sell prints to exchanges and exhibitors. Under Frank Marion's leadership, production returned to some semblance of order in late July with The Firebug (No. 3055), and from this point on, Biograph's rate of production was increased to roughly two story films per month. Many films imitated earlier Biograph successes, while others were based on well-known songs, comic strips, or other antecedents in American popular and mass culture—strategies Biograph had employed since its inception.
In mid 1904, the Edison Company concentrated on producing news and humaninterest films such as Annual Parade, New York Fire Department; Inter-Collegiate Athletic Association Championships, 1904; Opening Ceremo Nies, New York Subway, October 27, 1904; Elephants Shooting the Chutes at Luna Park and Boxing Horses—Luna Park, Coney Island. Edison's peripatetic cameraman Alfred Abadie also shot a series of Western scenes in Bliss, Oklahoma Territory. The absence of new Edison story films may have been due to commercial decisions by company executives as they pursued an effective cost-reducing policy of duping European films and selling them through the Kleine Optical Company and other sales agents. Following The Buster Brown Series (March 1904), Porter did not complete another feature story film until How a French Nobleman Got a Wife Through the New York "Herald" Personal Columns in late August. Since Biograph films were at least partially protected by copyright, Edison's various remakes were the ethical equivalent of duplicating foreign subjects. Capture of "Yegg" Bank Burglars, which Porter made in August and early September, bore a strong resemblance to Lubin's newly advertised The Bold Bank Robbery. It may have been seen as a way of undercutting the Philadelphia producer, but in addition to being first in the field, Lubin offered lower prices.
During the later part of 1904 the Edison Company produced several longer films, but all were made inexpensively. European Rest Cure burlesqued the travel genre as a vacation becomes an ordeal for an American tourist—he has a disastrous fall while leaning over to kiss the Blarney Stone, is robbed, suffers through a mud bath, and so on. Pasteboard sets of the pyramids and Roman ruins are syncretically combined with four previously released actuality films that exhibitors had often used for their travelogues. The actualities helped to specify the genre and hold down costs by reducing the amount of new footage. Parsifal, shot in early October, was based on the Wagner opera, which was enjoying great popularity at the time. Despite its 1,975-foot length, the film was also relatively cheap to produce, since the Edison Company had been approached by theatrical producer Harley Merry, who had already obtained the motion-picture rights to a dramatic production as well as the actors' cooperation in staging the play for the camera. Although extensively advertised, the film sold only a small number of copies, and Merry almost certainly lost a substantial portion of his $1,800 investment.
Edison's failure to create its own original story films, coupled with the growing popularity of its competitors' productions, undercut the company's commercial position. George Kleine, for instance, who had dealt exclusively in Edison films, began to sell Biograph and Pathé pictures to many of his customers. Angered by this move, Edison general manager William Gilmore ended the corporation's close association with Kleine and opened a Chicago office to market its own films in October 1904. Kleine subsequently became a selling agent for several American and European producers, including Biograph, Paley & Steiner, Pathé, and Méliès.15
Pressure from foreign and American competitors finally forced Edison to alter its production policies. While often continuing to rely on established genres and well-known antecedents in popular culture, Porter and his colleagues began to make story films that were no longer strict imitations of competitors' hits. This shift coincided with the hiring of W. J. Gilroy as Porter's full-time assistant and was enhanced by the addition of Wallace McCutcheon to the staff in May 1905.16 Beginning with The Ex-Convict, produced in November 1904, Porter made approximately twenty feature story films over the next year. While he retained responsibility for the making of actualities both in the New York area (Coney Island at Night, June 1905) and elsewhere along the East Coast (Scenes and Incidents, Russo-Japanese Peace Conference, Portsmouth N.H., August 1905), fiction films had become a priority. For these, Porter and his collaborators generally selected the story or subject and shaped the narrative. The shooting ratio (the amount of film shot compared to the length of the final film) varied from approximately 1.2 to 1 (The Miller's Daughter, 1,147 feet reduced to 974 feet) to 2.1 to 1 (The Night Before Christmas, 1,670 feet reduced to 798 feet). Although some of these films were clearly influenced by Wallace McCutcheon's presence and others were clever though straightforward adaptations of hit songs and cultural crazes, many offered an elaborate view of American life that was distinctly different from the one presented in the Biograph films of the same period. While Biograph articulated the attitudes and beliefs of a self-confident new urban middle class that prospered with the rise of large-scale capital, Porter tended to express the outlook of an old middle class that often felt under siege. These two perspectives had many attitudes in common, but they also had significant differences.
The Miller's Daughter (September 1905), made by Porter and McCutcheon in Scarsdale, New York, and New York City, used some of the same locations as The Moonshiner, but this free adaptation of a well-known melodrama, Steele Mackaye's Hazel Kirke (1880), viewed the city/country opposition in terms virtually the reverse of Biograph's. Hazel, the miller's daughter, is courted by two men: Aaron Rodney, an honest country farmer, and Arthur Carringford, a sophisticated city-bred artiste. The miller favors Rodney, but Hazel is fooled by Carringford's worldly ways and elopes with him. As they are about to marry, Carringford's wife appears and stops the ceremony. Hazel returns home but is banished by her angry father. Expelled from the Eden of the countryside, she enters the hell of city life and works on a sewing machine to earn her living. When Hazel's machine is repossessed, she again returns home and once again is rejected by her father. In despair, Hazel jumps into the swirling waters of the mill stream but is rescued by Rodney, the faithful farmer. Rodney and Hazel are reunited and have a child, who becomes the vehicle for reconciliation between Hazel and her father.
Through Porter's camera's eye, the city is anonymous and uncaring. Family values have no chance there. Underneath the suave sophistication and wealth of city life lurk corruption and degradation. Its surface appeal threatens country life, drawing innocent youths into its destructive vortex. Left behind are the elderly—the miller and his wife—and the values of family, decency, and greater economic equality. It is Rodney's courage that saves Hazel and this way of life. These are the angry yet nostalgic themes of much late-nineteenth-century melodrama, themes that Biograph had only sketched briefly and obligatorily in The Downward Path. In fact, they coincided with Porter's own youthful experiences, for he had moved to the city after his small, hometown tailoring business had been forced into bankruptcy by the popularity of ready-to-wear clothing (made in cities like New York) and the 1893 depression.
Porter's view of the city is elaborated in films such as The Ex-Convict, The Kleptomaniac, and Life of an American Policeman. The Ex-Convict was an adaptation of a well-known vaudeville sketch by Robert Hilliard, Number 973, which previewed in March 1903, but once again Porter added many new elements and reshaped the narrative. The ex-convict is a happy family man until a policeman informs his employer of his past and he is discharged from his job. Reduced to poverty, he is forced to return to a life of crime in order to feed his sick child. A wealthy homeowner catches the ex-convict stealing but befriends him after learning that the thief had saved his daughter's life by pulling her from the path of a speeding automobile. Here, family ties become a mechanism for transcending class conflict.
The ex-convict's decision to return to a life of crime is viewed empathetically, while a society that destroys a man's life after he has already paid for past mistakes is condemned. Thus many of the criticisms being raised by Progressive reformers of the period were expressed in motion-picture form.17
Like Biograph's output, Edison films often pitted established society against its outcasts—the tramps, thieves, Gypsies, or other evildoers who threaten the social fabric. In The Burglar's Slide for Life (April 1905), the message takes a comic form. The slide for life was a madcap feat often performed at amusement parks: the daredevil held onto a pulley-like attachment that moved along a descending wire, and at the proper moment, he had to leap from his rapidly moving attachment or risk death. In The Burglar's Slide for Life the tramp flees an urban apartment that he is burglarizing, using the clothes line as a "slide for life." He is hotly pursued by the Edison dog, Mannie, who finally catches up with him and bites into his pants. Here, "man's best friend" punishes a threat to society. The Train Wreckers (December 1905), the most popular Edison film made that year, used melodrama to demonstrate the need for social cohesion. A romance between the engineer and the switchman's daughter is threatened by a group of train wreckers seeking to derail a train. The girl overhears their plans, is captured, escapes, and successfully warns her lover. Ready to try again, the train wreckers knock her out and leave her on the tracks to be run over. After the heroic engineer courageously positions himself on the train's cowcatcher and rescues her from certain death, railroad personnel and passengers chase and kill the desperados: society unites to protect itself.
Among Porter's most successful cinematic innovations of this period were "jumble announcements," animated intertitles whose letters and shapes swirled around the black background, finally forming words and silhouettes.18 These were used extensively in several comedies, starting with How Jones Lost His Roll (March 1905) and continuing with The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog (May 1905) and Everybody Works but Father (November 1905). Many of the most successful Edison films were comedies, and these often adapted popular crazes to the screen. Everybody Works but Father and On a Good Old 5¢ Trolley Ride were based on lyrics from popular songs, while The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog, which sold 136 copies during the next year and a half, adapted images from a picture postcard that was then enjoying wide circulation. Comedies and simple films of violent crime typically commanded much larger sales than more serious films like The Miller's Daughter (thirty-eight copies during 1905–1906) or The Klepto-maniac (forty-three copies during the same period).
During 1904, smaller American producers increasingly emphasized the production of story films as they abandoned fairy tales and moralistic plays to concentrate on comedies and crime. By the fall, Sigmund Lubin was producing approximately one fiction "feature" a month, with a marked emphasis on the two popular genres. Lubin remade Edison's The Great Train Robbery in June 1904; as he had done earlier with Uncle Tom's Cabin, the Philadelphian made his version significantly shorter than the Edison original—600 feet as opposed to 740 feet. Because the number of frames per second was lower, Lubin could add a new scene of the robbery being planned and additional shots of the chase between posse and bandits, and still offer a shorter film. Instead of attempting the complicated matte shots in the station scene à la Porter, Lubin's filmmaker, apparently John J. Frawley, built a set by the railroad tracks and had a train pull in. With Lubin's picture selling for $66—versus $110 for the Edison original—it was bought by small-time traveling showmen whose modest income had precluded purchase of the Edison film.
In early November, Lubin offered The Lost Child and A New Version of "Personal," both remakes of Biograph hits. Scenes in the latter, a 400-foot comedy, were connected by dissolves. While Lubin appropriated Biograph's premise of a desperate French gentleman (Count Hardup) seeking an American bride through the personal columns of a New York newspaper (in this instance, said to be the Journal), his Philadelphia locations created a distinctive flavor. Gilbert Saroni, a female impersonator, played the ultimately successful old maid who goes to great lengths to capture a husband. Two weeks after the film's release, seventy-five feet of new footage were added, including an emblematic shot of the count at the beginning that complemented a kissing scene in close-up of "the victor and the victim" at the end. The longer version of the film was then retitled Meet Me at the Fountain to avoid a legal confrontation with Biograph. (In fact, Edison's remake copied the original subject more closely even though it did not use the same title.) Saroni also played the mother in The Lost Child, which was soon retitled The Kidnapped Child(despite the fact that the child only hid in the doghouse and was never kidnapped).19 Both were attractive buys to exhibitors with limited budgets.
Tramp's Revenge and A Dog Lost, Strayed, or Stolen (June 1905) were both indebted to Biograph's Wanted: A Dog, and though selling them separately, Lubin urged exhibitors to show them together. In Tramp's Revenge, three tramps visit a suburban house in rapid succession, looking for handouts. The first two tramps are successful, but the frustrated homeowner (Mrs. Brown) sics her dog on the third, who captures the canine and takes it away, thus creating a premise for the Wanted: A Dog narrative that was lacking in the Biograph original. A Dog Lost, Strayed, or Stolen, however, simply follows the Biograph story line as Mrs. Brown offers twenty-five dollars for her missing dog but fails to describe it; huge numbers of reward seekers appear and a chase ensues. I. B. Dam and the Whole Dam Family (July) imitated Edison's The Whole Dam Family and the Dam Dog but was shorter (150 feet versus 300 feet), while its $16.50 price tag made it a good buy compared with Edison's $45.
Lubin did more than imitate his rival's successes. In September 1904 he produced Life of an American Soldier, a 600-foot film of approximately eighteen scenes. Like Biograph's The American Soldier in Love and War, the film combined newly shot fictional scenes with actuality footage, but here, the narrative focuses on a family man who answers the president's call for volunteers. His enlistment and farewell to his aged mother, wife, and baby, are followed by scenes of military life, probably shot at the time of the Spanish-American War; these not only provided the film with a sense of spectacle but reduced negative costs. The film then cuts away to the hero's home, where his sick child struggles for life. The soldier receives a letter and later dreams (via a dream balloon) of his wife and child. Eventually he is reunited with his family, and the picture concludes with a medium shot of him saluting the camera/audience, clearly associating spectators (many of whom would have been immigrants) with the nation.
The following month Lubin released The Bold Bank Robbery, a 600-foot, twenty-four-scene picture that opens with an emblematic shot of three well-dressed men who plan and execute a robbery and concludes with a similar portrait of the trio, this time in prison stripes. The film's motifs were drawn from earlier American and European crime films. Among his 1905 offerings were Saved from a Watery Grave(January), made with the cooperation of the U.S. Life Saving Service; The Counterfeiters (February); The Sign of the Cross (April), "a Soul Stirring Drama of the Christian Persecution"; and The Fake Blind Man (May). The few news and actuality films that Lubin was producing by this time included The Liberty Bell on Its Way to the Exposition (July 1904) and Shad Fishing, which detailed the process of catching shad on the Delaware River during the spring of 1905. Crime subjects such as Highway Robbery (July) and comedies Through the Matrimonial Agency (October), a reworking of the Personal narrative, were more typical of Lubin's productions in this period.
Many subjects were taken at Lubin's recently acquired forty-acre farm, located a short distance from Philadelphia, including Fun on the Farm (November 1905), which shows rural folk enjoying themselves at harvest time. Farmers claim free kisses at every opportunity from women (whose reactions vary) in the midst of washing and milking, on hay rides, or at corn huskings. Another source of merriment for these white farmers is provided by chasing the local "chicken thief," a "darky" who is tarred and feathered after being caught stealing chickens and … pumpkins. While appropriating elements from Biograph's The Chicken Thief and Edison's Watermelon Patch, the German-born producer and his staff failed to master the correct cultural references; among other things, the substitution of pumpkins for watermelons implicitly exposes the racist conventions and becomes anarchic. This is the kind of film that the surrealists would later celebrate as unintentionally subversive.20
Lubin's success was based on a combination of elements. While retaining particularly close ties to hit films or genres already established by his competitors, his films consistently offered larger doses of sex, violence, and sensationalism than those of the other American companies. They were designed to appeal to immigrant, working-class, and lower-middle-class audiences and were consonant with his pricing structure, which placed them in venues with lower admission fees. This appeal is apparent in such short comedies as A Policeman's Love Affair (May 1905), in which a policeman is wooed by a cook with free meals and kisses—until the mistress of the wealthy household discovers the couple together. (For the kissing scene, the filmmakers cut-in to a closer view of the lovemaking.) The cop, knowing he has violated the code of social order that he is supposed to defend, tries to escape, but his efforts prove futile when the upper-class woman douses him with a pail of milk as he jumps out the window. Working-class audiences obviously found amusement in seeing the economic elite at odds with law enforcers who were designated to serve their interests. In The Policeman's Pal (120 feet), a policeman chases a purse snatcher, but after the two men jump over a wall they abandon appearances and prepare to divide the spoils, only to discover that the stolen satchel is empty. Lubin films often portray the police as hypocritical and undermine their moral authority. His deep-seated skepticism about the existing social order, formed in part by the anti-Semitism he encountered, is evident in these anarchic constructions.
Lubin's commercial interests remained diverse. Well known for the excellent photographic quality of his films, the Philadelphia producer continued duping Pathé
and other foreign films throughout this period—long after Pathé had opened a branch office in New York and appointed a former Lubin employee as its local agent in Philadelphia. His cineograph continued to be a widely used projector; the Exposition model sold for seventy-five dollars, complete with an electric lamp, adjustable rheostat, and calcium light.21 The company also offered its customers a wide array of song slides, many made by Lubin photographers. During this period, Lubin also helped to introduce at least one technical innovation, "mono-tinting." Hand-tinting individual frames had been a common if expensive practice from the beginning of cinema; in April 1904, however, Lubin announced that he was offering subjects in several tints at no extra charge. Interested parties soon discovered that Lubin was playing on a confusion of words and that each shot was chemically dyed a single color. In fact, even this effect was not entirely novel, since exhibitors had occasionally placed tinted glass over their lenses when projecting black-and-white images, but the shift in responsibility from exhibitor to producer made the use of toned images much more practical. This innovation, which may not have originated with Lubin, gradually became widespread; more than a year later it was still considered "new."22
Lubin experimented not only with color but with sound, and in August 1904 marketed the cinephone, which, his advertisements announced,
is the Combination of Instrumental Music, Song and Speech with Life Motion Pictures. You see the Black Face Comedian in Life-motion Pictures on the screen, and you hear him talk and sing at the same time. You see the Cornet Soloist playing and at the same time you hear the melody he plays (New York Clipper, 27 August 1904, p. 613).
With the exception of one song, the 100-foot films were instrumental solos; they were meant to be projected with Victor Monarch disk records not specifically made for this purpose. The process of synchronization was very primitive: showmen were told to "use your own machine" and had to retain approximate synchronization by increasing or decreasing the projection speed. Extensive utilization was thus impractical.23
Lubin's expansion in many areas of production paralleled his continued success with distribution that had been enhanced by his early adoption of the rental system. Distribution guaranteed an outlet for films and provided an incentive for novelties that might attract new customers.
William Selig, based in Chicago, did not enjoy the same degree of prosperity as Lubin. A key factor was the failure of his atrophied exhibition service to survive the transition to a rental system; as a result, he concentrated more and more on selling the polyscope projector and prints made from his original negatives. By July 1904 Selig had joined other producers in exploiting the popularity of violent crime films by making Tracked by Bloodhounds; or, Alynching at Cripple Creek, a 450-foot subject shot in Colorado with crucial assistance from Selig's western agent, H. H. Buckwalter.24 Promoted as "the most sensational picture ever made," this twelve-scene melodrama depicts the killing of a generous woman by a ruthless tramp, the husband's vow of vengeance, and the pursuit, capture, and lynching of the tramp.
At the beginning of October, Selig and Buckwalter produced The Hold-up of the Leadville Stage, which was photographed near Colorado Springs and directed by Selig. According to promotional literature, the film reenacted incidents that had occurred twenty-five years earlier and used the stagecoach and driver who had actually made these dangerous journeys and been robbed many times. Typically, the film showed the planning and execution of the holdup, the killing of a fleeing child (recalling the shooting of a fleeing passenger in The Great Train Robbery but displaying even greater brutality), and a chase in which all but two of the robbers are captured or killed. The two remaining bandits fight over the loot and one dies. As the survivor is about to escape, he is overpowered by the posse and "the picture ends with the triumph of right over wrong and the supremacy of law over the bandits and their evil ways." Despite this strong narrative, the filmmakers allowed themselves a digression to show Colorado's magnificent countryside:
A dozen different views are given of the stage climbing the mountain trails toward the cloud city of silver and gold. In each case the background includes some famous spot of deep significance or absorbing interest to those who have journeyed over the route. Ute Pass, North Cheyenne canyon, Garden of the gods, Pike's Peak, Cheyenne mountain, Cameron's Cone and a hundred other points are easily recognized (Selig Polyscope Company, The Hold-up of the Leadville Stage).
The display of Colorado's scenery, which had been the prime purpose of earlier Selig travel films taken in the area, remained strong enough to dominate the narrative impulse for part of the film.
The Hold-up of the Leadville Stage generated considerable publicity, and in a local report of the filming, Selig emphasized the indirect advertising benefits for the area: "We are asking no subscriptions or contributions of any sort for this work for the pictures themselves are a strong attraction for our circuits," Selig informed the reporter but added, "The amount of good advertising the state will get can hardly be estimated."25 As if to confirm this statement, a national publicity stunt soon appeared in the Hearst papers. According to the Hearst story, titled "The Joke Was on the Bandits," tourist Mr. Fred C. Aickens (i.e., Fred C. Aikens) stumbled innocently across Selig's crew filming the holdup. Upon witnessing the innocent child being gunned down:
San Francisco Examiner, 30 October 1904, magazine section">
"By gum! This is too much!" exclaimed Mr. Aickens, and blazed away at the bandits.
The driver, equally indignant, let his revolver speak and the cartridges in these revolvers were not blank. Colonel Selig, who had come out of the coach with the other terror stricken passengers, uttered a yell, and his arm dropped to his side, shot through the fleshy part. Another bullet went through a bold bandit's hat, neatly shaving his hair (San Francisco Examiner, 30 October 1904, magazine section).
This story ended with the outraged local citizenry setting fire to the coach. Aikens, however, was not an innocent passerby but co-founder of the Amusement Supply Company, a Chicago-based mail-order house for motion-picture goods (including Selig films) that was started in October 1903 with Alvah C. Roebuck.26
In October 1904, Selig began to sell The Girls in Overalls, a six-minute picture also taken during the Colorado trip. Shot at the Vidal ranch near Gunnison, the film shows seven sisters performing traditionally masculine farming tasks, as they did each summer in order to pay off a loan that threatened to put the family property into the hands of a moneylender. Cavorting for the camera, they defend their father's legacy.27
Selig produced only two longer fiction films in 1905, both of which were comedies. The Serenade was based on a four-scene dramatic composition that Selig wrote and then copyrighted on 1 May 1905, although the film itself, elaborated to twelve scenes, was not offered for sale until September. Freddie, a "Romeo," serenades Fannie, his "Juliet," until the girl's father sets the dog on him. The young man flees but too late, for the dog grabs his pants. A chase follows, with the father and daughter both in pursuit, but for different purposes. Finally the girl rescues Freddie, and the couple leaves the exhausted father behind. The Gay Deceivers, "a somewhat different comedy" of 775 feet, dealt with the delicate issue of marital infidelity. Two husbands concoct a story and leave their unsuspecting wives at home while they rendezvous with two attractive women. The wives discover their plans and, aided by binoculars and a camera, document their activities. When the men return home, they receive a firm thrashing.28 As was the case with other American producers, Selig relied heavily on sex and violence to sell his products.
Nonfiction filmmaking continued to be a significant part of Selig's production efforts. A Selig cameraman visited the South Pacific during the winter of 1904–1905 and returned with more than 700 feet of film depicting Samoa and the Fiji Islands; several scenes held out the exotic and even erotic possibilities of semi-naked native dancers. Exhibitors and exchanges could purchase either individual scenes (to construct their own programs) or a single 600-foot subject, A Trip Through Samoa and the Fiji Islands.29 Overall, Selig made far fewer important subjects than Edison, Biograph, or Lubin.
The expansion of the industry, the increasing emphasis on longer story films, and the more limited responsibilities of exhibition-services-turned-exchanges encouraged two leading firms to move extensively into fiction-film production and sell their products on the open market: William Paley and American Vitagraph. By mid 1904 Paley, whose kalatechnoscope remained in all the Proctor theaters, had formed a partnership, Paley & Steiner, with William F. Steiner. While the origins of this collaboration are unknown, Steiner had probably been working with or for Paley in previous years. Whatever the case, Paley & Steiner copyrighted a group of their Crescent films at the end of October and placed them on the market. Six of the seven films that they advertised were short comedies. Just Like a Girl contained one shot: a man jumps in a pond to escape a woman, and rather than jump after him, she stays at the water's edge desperately waving her hands. Tramp on the Farm lasted less than three minutes but had at least six shots: a farmer leaps off a moving streetcar and is saved from serious injury by landing on a tramp; in gratitude, the rube befriends the vagabond, who happily wallows in a pigsty, sleeps in a doghouse, and finally ends up sharing a drink with the dog. The Trials and Troubles of an Automobilist, a chase film,
was the most ambitious of this group: an auto knocks over an apple cart and is pursued by the vendor and police; the driver is beaten up and escapes but is finally captured.30
The partners continued to release Crescent films at frequent intervals over the following months; by late January 1905 they had more than twenty films for sale. Their most sensational was Avenging a Crime; or, Burned at the (© 19 November 1904), the story of an African American (played by a white in blackface) who loses at gambling, kills a woman, and flees. After a chase, the killer is caught, tied to a stake, and burned alive; as in Edison's later The "White Caps," vigilante justice is portrayed as effective and reliable. Around New York in 15 Minutes (© 31 January 1905), a travelogue showing various street scenes in Manhattan and Brooklyn, was a compilation of shots that Paley & Steiner also offered as short films. The last scene, "Flat Iron Building on a Windy Day," shows women's skirts blowing up to reveal their underwear.31
The production methods that Paley & Steiner used in making these films are not known in any detail. Both individuals, however, were competent cameramen and trained in all phases of filmmaking. As partners they had approximately equal input, an arrangement suggesting that a collaborative method of production was being practiced at their firm. Seemingly on their way to success, they suddenly encountered difficulties and hesitated. The reasons are not fully known, but Thomas Edison sued Paley & Steiner (along with Méliès, Pathé, and Eberhard Schneider) on 23 November 1904. Rather than confront Edison in the courts, the partners may have reached an agreement whereby they ceased producing fiction films, which competed
with Edison's own efforts, but were allowed to continue making local views and actualities, perhaps under some kind of licensing arrangement. In August 1905, Biograph announced its acquisition of the Crescent negatives, including the previously unreleased The Lucky Wishbone (820 feet), and its sale of prints to the trade.32 By this time, the Paley-Steiner partnership was being dissolved.
After Paley & Steiner closed, Paley continued his exchange and exhibition service. When Proctor opened his vaudeville theater in Troy, New York, in the fall of 1905, the veteran cameraman took local views of the police and fire department. The films brought huge crowds to the theater and were held over for a second week.33 Steiner started the Imperial Motion Picture Company, focused much energy on Connecticut, and established his presence as an exhibitor by offering local views. In Meriden, Steiner was called an Edison operator; his visit received front-page coverage:
The first pictures were taken at the corner of Colony and Main streets [this] afternoon, just as the crowds came from the factories, offices and schools. Hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children as they came to the principal crossing of the city stepped in front of the camera, unconscious that they were being photographed, then manager W. D. Reed, of the [Meriden] theatre, threw handfuls of pennies into the air, and the boys and girls scrambled for them in delight, while the picture machine recorded their actions on the films (Meriden Daily Journal, 15 November 1905, p. 1).
Steiner also supplied Connecticut theaters with films for Sunday shows. Seeking to avoid risk, these two men retreated into the backwaters of actuality filmmaking at a time when fiction film was on the ascendant. It was a decision they would soon regret.
The American Vitagraph Company was one of the last old-line exhibition services to begin offering film rentals to its clients. As the company's half-page ad announced in April 1905, "We Don't Rent Films. We Don't Have To! When our subjects become scratched, worn out and passé we sell them to the concerns who do rent films." Despite this boast, Blackton, Smith, and Rock lost some vaudeville customers to renters and assumed a less prominent role in this area than they had in the recent past. By the fall of 1904, however, they also had four exhibition companies touring opera houses in various sections of the United States. A cameraman preceded at least some of these units by approximately ten days and took local views for the forthcoming shows. Films were taken of local fire departments, employees leaving nearby factories, and children at school. Townspeople were informed, "You can see pictures of your very own town, your very own fire department, and what is more, you can see yourself." The entire community was encouraged to participate in the process of making as well as seeing the films. Newspaper announcements urged townspeople to make suggestions for possible subjects or to appear at certain places for the filming.34 The results drew huge crowds to the theaters and assured return dates, when the same local views were shown again but with a full complement of new pictures.
During this period, Blackton and Smith continued to film current events such as the opening ceremonies for the New York subway system on 27 October 1904 and President Roosevelt's inauguration on 4 March 1905. (Their filming of these events provided Edison with some of the evidence he needed to initiate a new suit for patent infringement.)35 If story films were produced, they were used only on Vitagraph's circuit. The changing role of exhibition must have helped to convince Blackton, Smith, and Rock that it was time to inaugurate full-scale commercial production and then sell the films on the open market. In August 1905, construction was begun on a studio on Locust Avenue in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn at the same time that production was started on the rooftop of their Manhattan office building.36 As we shall see in the next chapter, these events coincided with the beginnings of the nickelodeon boom.
After incorporating its production entity as Vitagraph Company of America, Vitagraph formally introduced its new commercial policy in September 1905, by selling the vitagraph projector as well as films. Pictures, however, were first distributed by the company's rental operation several weeks before being sold outright. Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman (© 23 August 1905) was thus exhibited in Washington, D.C., for the week beginning Monday, 10 September, yet it was not advertised for sale until 23 September (at 120 per foot or $126 for 1,050 feet). The film was inspired by E. W. Hornung's stories of a society burglar and the stage adaptation starring Kyrle Bellew (the actor who appeared in Vitagraph's The Great Sword Combat on the Stairs, 1902). By this time, a comic strip based on the Raffles character had also appeared, as had the Edison comedy-drama Raffles—The Dog. Rather than produce a film version without arranging permission from the owner, as most companies then did when making such adaptations, Vitagraph acquired the exclusive picture rights from Bellew and Liebler & Company, a policy it pursued in several other instances, notably with Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; or, Held for a Ransom (McClure, Phillips & Company), Monsieur Beaucaire (Booth Tarkington), and later, A Curious Dream (Mark Twain).37
On the basis of the brief fragments that survive (the paper prints submitted for copyright), Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman appears to have consisted of long establishing shots that retained the distant, frontal spatial relationship typical of theater with a proscenium stage. Familiarity with the play and short stories helped audiences follow the narrative of Raffles' secret life as pickpocket, robber, and gang leader. The picture was notable for its depiction of criminal activities by a respectable member of high society who is not a conventional villain and is never caught. Such portrayals might have been acceptable in books or plays directed at the middle class, but when they were presented to working-class audiences in nickelodeons, many community leaders soon voiced their opposition.
Vitagraph's biweekly releases retained close ties to specific cultural works as well as established genres. Monsieur Beaucaire—The Adventures of a Gentleman of FRANCE (© 13 November 1905) was based on the play and novel by Booth Tarkington. BURGLAR BILL (© 9 November 1905) took its title and main character from a well-known comic strip. Escape from Sing Sing (© 30 September 1905) and The Green Goods Men; or, Josiah and Samanthy's Experiences with the Original "American Confidence Game" (© 4 December 1905) borrowed titles from well-known melodramas but were not indebted to their plots. Both chase films survive, the latter in somewhat truncated form. In The Green Goods Men, scenes
are introduced by intertitles, which, like the main title itself, clarify the action. Country folks, easily fooled by a letter from "Green Goods Men" (i.e., con artists), come to the city with their life savings. The process whereby they are relieved of their money is carefully detailed. Following the title "Setting the Trap," the second scene gives a demonstration of an "original trick table borrowed from the criminal collection at Police Headquarters." The ruse is pulled off, but the police come to the rescue, and a rooftop chase ends as "the Green Goods Men crawl down the wrong chimney and land in a POLICE STATION."38 Throughout the film, the Vitagraph Company used a distant camera without the editorial elaboration of interpolated close-ups or intercutting. Nonetheless, both The Green Goods Men and Escape from Sing Sing convey a manic energy that made them popular with audiences.
At the core of Vitagraph's films is the vital, often humorous, quality of city life: dynamism, not morality, is the issue. The city offers opportunity, as in The News-boy, a Horatio Alger-type story that follows the hero's upward path from poor boy to Supreme Court justice. Moving Day; or, No Children Allowed (© 20 September 1905) applauds ingenuity in skirting the rules: parents pack their numerous offspring into trunks and move into new quarters where children are prohibited. Once again these films were made by men and usually addressed masculine aspirations, fantasies, and fears. The Servant Girl Problem (© 1 September 1905), for example, begins with close-ups of two different women labeled, "His Choice" and "His Wife's Choice." The first is a beautiful woman, the second a vacuous matron played by a man. In the course of the narrative "His Wife's Choice" wins the "servant girl" opening, and the film ends with the husband doing the dishes.
Of all the symbols of urban life, Vitagraph was most enchanted by the automobile, which was still a vehicle for the well-to-do. The Vanderbilt Auto Race, shot on 14 October with as many as ten different cameras, was the only actuality film that Vitagraph offered for sale in 1905.39 Another film, License NO. 13; or, The Hoodoo Automobile, used various camera tricks as well as titles in comic verse before each scene:
Charlie and Molly go out for a spin,
In Charlie's new automobile
But the number's thirteen and as soon will be seen
It bothers them quite a good deal.(New York Clipper, 14 October 1905, p. 880)
Information about Vitagraph's production practices during 1905 and early 1906 is minimal. In later biographical sketches, G. M. Anderson (then known as George, and later as Gilbert, Maxwell Anderson) claimed directing credit for Raffles, the Amateur Cracksman. He directed and acted in many Vitagraph films produced from August 1905 to early 1906. Vitagraph projectionist Max Hollander later recalled, "When we were idle, G. M. Anderson (Broncho Billy) would use us as extras in his pictures. Anderson was directing and acting in Vitagraph pictures which were soon to make his name famous throughout the country." After William Ranous was hired as a second director, two production units were active. One was headed by Blackton and the other by Smith. With the two partners acting as cameramen for their respective units, they adopted the collaborative model of production previously employed when working on a more intimate scale.40
Moving into fiction filmmaking during the later part of 1905, Vitagraph promptly established itself as a major American producer. Its pictures tapped into many of the playful, liberating possibilities of commercial entertainment. As exhibitors, their prolonged exposure to the tastes of urban pleasure seekers as well as their protracted struggles with Edison and other powers within the industry armed these filmmakers with a strong irreverence.41 This sensibility found an eager reception in vaudeville and in the nickelodeon theaters that were just beginning to proliferate. The company's heavy commitment to story films, moreover, underscores the extent to which this type of production had become the mainstay of the American industry. The five major production companies—Edison, Biograph, Lubin, Selig, and Vitagraph—all depended on them for their commercial vitality.
By 1904, Pathé, with a strong commercial base in the French motion-picture and phonograph industries, was rapidly setting up sales offices in countries throughout the world, from Germany and England to Japan and South America. The French concern had an agent in the United States during the first part of that year and finally opened a full-scale branch in late August at 42 East Twenty-third Street.42 Rather than copyright its films as Méliès did, Pathé pursued a commercial solution to the duping problem: it began to market pictures in the United States before selling them in Europe.43 This move undercut Edison and other producers who bought Pathé films in London and then shipped them back to the United States for duping. Yet ultimately, Pathé's output was so popular, and the company had so much difficulty satisfying the American demand, that Edison and Lubin bought popular films from Pathé's New York office and sold duplicate copies to meet the demand.
By the time the New York office opened, Pathé's rate of production at least equaled that of any American production company and was increasing rapidly. Among its many popular films were Annie's Love Story (May 1904), which traces the fall of a young woman in a manner that recalls Biograph's The Downward Path (1900); Cowboys and Indians (August 1904), a Western shot in France; and Barnum's Trunk (1904), one of the company's many popular trick films. By May 1905 Pathé was advertising "Something New Every Week."44
Widely seen on American screens, Pathé films covered a diverse range of subjects. Many, like The Faithless Lover (1905) and A Father's Honor (1905), are melodramas of love, betrayal, and revenge. Sensationalism, combined with a detailing of process similar in style and approach to Biograph's The Moonshiner, is evident in Scenes of a Convict's Life (1905). The film's emotional impact is heightened by the matter-of-fact way in which it traces the fate of a prisoner from his incarceration through his failed escape and death by firing squad to the disposal of his body in the sea. Some films, such as Modern Brigandage (1905), operate within the crime genre; others, such as A Pastry Cook's Practical Jokes (1905), are comedies. In the case of Cinderella (1905?), Pathé was among the few companies still producing fairy-tale films.
Pathé often portrayed working-class life and class conflict, but, more frequently than American films, did so by showing events occurring in the workplace. The Mining District (1905) shows a man and his son toiling in a coal mine when an explosion occurs, killing the son. It concludes with the weeping father standing over the body of his dead child. Location and studio filming are syncretically combined. In The Strike (July 1904), the just demands of the striking factory workers are ignored by the owner, and a confrontation occurs in which several workers are shot dead. A woman then avenges her husband's death by killing the owner, but when she is brought to trial, the owner's son, knowing that his father was wrong, asks that the woman be acquitted, and she is freed. A concluding apotheosis shows labor and capital reconciled. This sympathetic portrayal of striking, even violent, workers occurred within a framework that sustained existing social relations, albeit in a more enlightened form: a liberal and more insightful son takes over from his father.
Méliès pictures, in contrast to Pathé films, faded in popularity as the Parisian filmmaker failed to adopt the crime and comedy-chase genres. Longer films such as An Impossible Voyage (1905) and The Palace of the Arabian Nights (1905), though executed on a grander scale, were fairy-tale films similar to earlier efforts. The Barber of Sevilla (1904) and Rip's Dream (1905) were versions of well-known plays or operas, and recalled previous efforts such as Biograph's Rip Van Winkle. Most Star productions were shorter (100–300 feet) trick films similar to those made in earlier years. Méliès's "artistic integrity," his determination to make films within prestidigitator traditions, may have been admirable, but it cost him his central role in the industry. It was the Pathé approach—a wide range of subject matter, a hierarchical organization with various departments, and international branch offices—that was proving successful.
Moving pictures as a popular form of amusement boomed during 1904–1905. Within the existing framework of possibilities, exhibition outlets proliferated, and the demand for new films was such that print sales per picture increased dramatically. This surge in demand, however, was limited primarily to story films, which became the key product of all the major producers. Profits increased, providing the incentive for further investment as well as the necessary funds. The years of commercial troubles had been left behind. Making an analogy that evokes the Wright brothers' startling 1903 invention, the airplane, we can say that the film industry was taking off and would soon soar upward to unimagined heights.