A Period of Commercial Crisis: 1900–1903
10Storefront Theaters Struggle
A Period of Commercial Crisis: 1900–1903
Edison and His Licensees
Production at the New Edison Studio
Edison Story Films
Thomas Armat Goes to Court Too
Chicago and the Selig Polyscope Company
American Vitagraph Builds Its Exhibition Circuit
By 1900, producers were assuming occasional though still infrequent control over editing and the construction of multi-shot narratives. This slight shift, however, became much more pronounced over the next several years as the production companies appropriated more of the responsibilities that had previously been shared with or determined by the exhibitor. This was particularly pronounced in fiction filmmaking, where centralization of control allowed producers to explore new representational techniques that proved popular among audiences. Although resistance to such a shift occurred with the illustrated lecture or travelogue, exhibitors were generally more and more restricted to supplying the sound accompaniment and acting as programmers. To be sure, these residual responsibilities still merit close attention, since the aggressive use of innovative sound could strongly shape the spectators' experience of the narrative and of the screening more generally. Nevertheless, during the 1900–1903 period, the production company became the principal site for cinematic creativity. This radical reorganization of cinematic practice had many underlying causes, but the rapidity of such change was clearly sparked by a period of sustained commercial crisis.
The American motion-picture industry experienced severe difficulties in the early 1900s on account of numerous factors: problems with technological standardization, patent and copyright problems, audience boredom with predictable subject matter, stagnant demand, and cutthroat competition. Sometimes old formulas still worked. In many localities film exhibition even enjoyed brief booms, but sustaining interest proved to be more difficult. Vaudeville theaters in cities such as Washington, D.C. (Chase's Theater), Philadelphia (Keith's), and Rochester, New York (Cook's Opera House), dropped motion pictures from their bills.1 During most of the 1902–1903 season, Keith's Bijou was the only theater in Boston advertising motion pictures; similarly, there were many weeks in Philadelphia during both the 1901–1902 and 1902–1903 seasons when either Bradenburgh's or Keith's was the only theater showing films. In Pittsburgh, films were shown for only a few weeks during the course of 1901. Although moving pictures enjoyed a local revival early in 1902, they eventually moved to the bottom of the bill and assumed the role of "chasers."2
"Chaser" was a vaudeville term that referred to the concluding act of a program, during which large portions of the audience left the theater. It sometimes had a more pejorative sense, as when managers purposely put a bad act on the bill to "chase" patrons out of the theater so that new customers could be seated, but generally, it was analogous to the chaser of beer that followed a shot of whiskey (the star act of the show). Thus, "medium" or inexpensive acts were usually placed in this end position. As Keith's Boston manager remarked, "It seems a shame to waste [a good act] down in this part of the bill, for that is practically what it means as people keep going out all through the act. Personally, I believe it would be better to close the show … with a medium act, as not more than half the audience will remain to see a good one, no matter what it is."3 By 1900 a "turn" (ca. fifteen minutes) of 35-mm films had become an inexpensive act. In Cincinnati, one long-standing critic later remarked:
When pictures first came out people said it was only a craze—that it would not last—that the people would soon tire of it and after a few years it did seem that the public was really getting tired of moving pictures. One illustration of this seeming indifference was the habit the people got into of walking out of the vaudeville theatre as soon as the moving pictures, which closed the show, would be put on…. It did seem for a while that moving pictures would go out of fashion (Billboard, 27 June 1908, p. 8).
Many vaudeville houses billed their shows as "continuous," so that inexpensive acts were routinely used at slack times, and films in particular were shown more than once in the course of the day. "Chasers" often signaled the end of the leading acts and the beginning of the "supper show." Such was the case at Harry Davis' Avenue Theater in Pittsburgh when the nitrate films caught fire at the beginning of a screening in November 1903. As one reporter described the incident:
When the film exploded a great portion of the audience was leaving the theater. The cinematographe is used as a sort of interval between the feature acts of the programme and what is termed the "supper show." At the conclusion of the regular acts many of the people in the house leave, and it is the late comers, those who drop in for a few minutes, who stay. The audience was wending its way leisurely to the exits when the explosion occurred (Pittsburgh Dispatch, 26 November 1903, p. 1).
Even during this period motion pictures seem to have had a small band of devotees, which is perhaps one reason they remained on the bill. Retrospective comments from the early nickelodeon era (1906–1908) suggest that the film-chaser phenomenon remained common at least through 1903.4 Verification of this habit is difficult, however, since moving pictures then received very little critical attention. Yet the general indifference to film programs—in reviews, promotional blurbs, and advertising—seems to confirm these retrospective statements.
Other kinds of exhibition also encountered difficulties. Storefront picture shows continued to operate, particularly in the Far West, generally for short periods. The Miles brothers operated in a vacant Seattle storefront for four months, beginning in November 1901. The capacity (seating and standing) was 160 people. Admission was ten cents and receipts were said to be as high as $160 a day. More typically these specialized houses suffered from a shortage of films and often failed in the face of competition from vaudeville. In Washington, D.C., for example, the Armat Moving-Picture Company turned the Halls of the Ancients into a picture house that opened on 10 September 1902. With six shows a day and a twenty-five-cent admission, it soon became a fairly popular entertainment center, showing such subjects as A Trip Through China and Through Switzerland for several weeks at a time. (Many of the films were supplied by Burton Holmes as part of a licensing arrangement.) The city's principal vaudeville house, however, responded to this competition by adding the vitagraph to its bill in late November. Starting with A Trip to the Moon, Vitagraph presented a new head-line attraction each week, and within a month, the Halls of the Ancients had closed.5
Perhaps the best-known storefront from this period is Thomas L. Tally's Electric Theater, which debuted in Los Angeles on 16 April 1902. Open each evening from 7:30 to 10:30 p.m., it featured Capture of the Biddle Brothers, New York City in a Blizzard, and other views that Tally had apparently purchased. After a month, a new headline attraction was presented: The Great Bull Fight. This was followed by films of the Martinique disaster and King Edward's coronation, each of which headed the bill for more than a month. Tally, faced with competition from a growing number of ten-cent vaudeville houses, may have closed his theater for several months (in any event, he stopped advertising) and toured as a traveling exhibitor. When he reopened in January, he had a new selection of films and a new feature—A Trip to the Moon. Nevertheless, six months later Tally turned the Electric Theater into a ten-cent vaudeville house renamed the Lyric. That October, he announced his newest discovery, Méliès's Fairyland; or, The Kingdom of the Fairies, which he billed as "Better Than a Trip to the Moon." In a lengthy column the Los Angeles Times called it "an interesting exhibit of the limits to which moving picture making can be carried in the hands of experts equipped with time and money to carry out their devices." Nonetheless, after playing the picture for two weeks, Tally closed his theater and took to the road. He found that traveling exhibition was more profitable—at least until the nickelodeon era got under way.6
One ambitious effort to make storefront exhibition viable was launched by James MacConahey, who ran a chain of four or five such theaters from his base in Seattle. Besides the flagship house at 1305½ Second Avenue in Seattle, there were houses in Spokane and Tacoma, Washington, as well as Victoria and Vancouver, British Columbia. The most detailed records exist for the storefront in the Donnelly Hotel at 744 Pacific Avenue in Tacoma. It was run by Mrs. Sally C. Sloan, a widow and one of the few women involved in motion-picture exhibition in the pre-nickelodeon era. Her picture house opened in mid November 1900 and ran through 1 June 1902. During the last eight weeks of 1900, gross income varied from $101.10 to $160.00 per week. During the first nine months of 1901, receipts usually fluctuated between $123.00 and $61.30, with $90 being about average. For three atypical weeks (holidays, convention weeks), however, the gross went as high as $299.30. The Searchlight Theater suffered a declining gate from late 1901, when films related to the McKinley assassination were shown, until it closed (see table 1). Not only did attendance decline in general, but repeated programs almost always drew fewer
|13–19 Oct.||McKinley Funeral||$ 99.25|
|20–26 Oct.||McKinley Funeral||99.10|
|27 Oct.–2 Nov.||—||80.85|
|17–23 Nov.||Corbett and Fitzsimmons||89.00|
|1–7 Dec.||War Scenes||70.15|
|8–14 Dec.||McKinley Funeral||83.85|
|15–21 Dec.||Tarrant Fire||82.45|
|22–28 Dec.||Execution of Czolgosz||148.95|
|29 Dec–4 Jan.||Carnival Program||109.80|
|5–11 Jan.||Carnival Program||61.10|
|12–18 Jan.||Bulldog Tramp||73.10|
|19–25 Jan.||Bulldog Tramp||56.40|
|26 Jan.–1 Feb.||Eiffel Tower||30.90|
|2–8 Feb.||Eiffel Tower||57.85|
|9–15 Feb.||McKinley Speech||58.50|
|16–22 Feb.||Czolgosz Execution||80.35|
|23 Feb.–1 Mar.||Red Riding Hood||70.35|
|9–15 Mar.||Trip Through Egypt||62.50|
|16–22 Mar.||Rough Riders||71.90|
|31 Mar.–6 April||[illegible]||86.30|
|14–20 April||Boer War||59.70|
|28 April–4 May||Carnival Program||48.00|
|5–11 May||N.Y. Police Parade||40.40|
|13–18 May||Queen's Funeral||35.80|
|19–25 May||Red Riding Hood||35.70|
|26 May–1 June||—||29.55|
customers the second and third time. Lacking new and exciting films, the Searchlight Theater closed its doors.7 Storefront theaters like this one proved to be an exhibition form of limited viability in the early 1900s.
Traveling exhibition experienced a similar crisis, with the number of full-scale motion-picture exhibitions given by traveling showman in commercial venues reaching unprecedented lows from fall 1900 to fall 1902. The exhibitors who survived, men such as D. W. Robertson and J. P. Dibble, usually played in churches, schools, and YMCA's, where the audience's expectations were different from those of theatrical outlets, and sponsors could deliver patrons. Lyman H. Howe was the only traveling motion-picture showman who regularly played in commercial theaters and prospered.
If this decline is examined from the other end of the industry, namely from the point of view of raw-stock manufacturing, sales figures suggest an industry-wide crisis. Thus, Eastman Kodak's sales of cinematograph films reached a high in 1899 and then began to fall:
The crisis of this period may be best understood by examining the major American producers and exhibition services.
While virtually every American producer and exhibitor encountered serious problems during the early 1900s, none faced greater difficulties than Biograph. Despite its unprecedented number of projectors in vaudeville houses during the White Rats strike of February-March 1901, many established customers either had abandoned the service or were soon to do so. In New Haven, S. Z. Poli stopped using Biograph's service after the 1898–1899 season and subsequently relied on various 35-mm exhibition services, particularly the vitagraph. In Rochester, Cook's Opera House avoided the biograph after a nine-week run from January to March 1901. In Chicago, Kohl & Castle tried the biograph in their vaudeville houses for May and June 1901 but then switched to a 35-mm service; Biograph's presence in that market was supplanted by Selig's polyscope and Spoor's kinodrome.
In part, the decline stemmed from the fact that Biograph's collage of short comedies, news films, and travel scenes had become familiar to audiences and no longer merited the service's high cost. With standard-gauge exhibitors offering similar programs at much lower fees, Biograph had to reduce its fees to remain competitive; by May 1901, the company was renting a biograph and twenty mutoscopes to summer parks for only $135 a week. This made Biograph competitive but devastated company profits. Barely two months after the White Rats strike, Biograph's exhibition service was losing money. Since the company was reluctant to cut expenses by reducing its
rate of production (as the previous chapter showed, its output remained essentially unchanged), profits turned into losses.9
Biograph's deteriorating financial situation was documented in a series of monthly reports, shown in table 2. Soon Keith's vaudeville circuit and the Orpheum houses in San Francisco and Los Angeles were among the company's few remaining customers.
Biograph's downward spiral was exacerbated by developments in the courts. Edison's patent-infringement suit against Biograph was decided in the U.S. Circuit Court for the Southern District of New York on 15 July 1901. Judge Hoyt Henry Wheeler ruled that Biograph "appears to have taken the substance of the invention covered by these claims, and the plaintiff, therefore, appears to be entitled to a decree."10 Although his opinion was expressed in tentative terms, Wheeler was prepared to issue an injunction. Desperate Biograph executives sought a stay while they appealed the ruling to a higher court. In a deposition accompanying the motion for a stay, Harry Marvin declared:
An injunction against us at this time would not only stop the production and reproduction of new films, but would render valueless most of the large stock of films on hand, for even should we ultimately succeed in the suit, those films which are in present demand because of their novelty and public interest, would have become obsolete and uncalled for, because of the distraction of the public mind by intervening events. Besides this, such an injunction would, of course, necessitate the immediate breaking of every contract we have with users of mutoscopes and biographs, for it would mean the withdrawal from the latter of all the films which they now have, and would stop the supply of mutoscope reels to users of the mutoscope.
|Net Earnings||Biograph Earnings||Net Earnings|
|May||14,025.66||May||Loss 926.41||Loss 499.31|
I have every reason to believe that this would result in such a multiplicity of damage suits against us by our licensees as would bankrupt and utterly ruin our Company (23 July 1901, Edison v. American Muto-scope Company).
The stay was granted, subject to certain conditions, including a careful financial accounting. Biograph continued the production of news and actualities but not of studio or acted productions. It was also unable to alter its commercial methods: when Biograph attempted to sell 35-mm films supplied by the British-based Warwick Trading Company, the new enterprise was quickly blocked by the threat, if not the fact, ofjudicial action.12
During the eight-month appeal process, from 17 July 1901 (production No. 1950) to 14 March 1902 (production No. 2120), Biograph entered 171 films into its catalog, all of which were actualities. Robert K. Bonine, a cameraman who had previously worked for Edison, toured the Far East. Leaving San Francisco in June, he took almost seventy films in Hawaii (Cutting Sugar Cane, Honolulu, NO. 1968), the Far East (Street Scene, Tokio, Japan, NO. 2014; Chien-men Gate, Pekin, NO. 2052), and across the United States (Coaching Party, Yosemite Valley, NO. 2063). Other cameramen photographed President McKinley's funeral ceremonies in September (almost twenty films) and the America's Cup race in late September and October (twelve films). Additional subjects included horse races, groundbreaking ceremonies for the forthcoming St. Louis World's Fair, and some local views in Cleveland, where the biograph was being featured. Based on court-mandated monthly financial reports providing the gross income of its biograph service plus the cost of negatives and prints, it is almost certain that the Biograph Company continued to lose money on its exhibition service given other business expenses (table 3).
The American Mutoscope & Biograph Company won a major legal victory on 10 March 1902, when the circuit court of appeals reversed the lower court's decision and dismissed Edison's case. Judge William J. Wallace found the inventor's patent claims to be fatally flawed because "the functional limitations which are inserted in the claims do not restrict the patent to the scope of Mr. Edison's real invention."13 Edison's key motion-picture patents were declared invalid, terminating all of Edison's lawsuits for patent infringement. Biograph was thus free to pursue its motion-picture activities without restriction and immediately sought ways to bolster its faltering finances and revitalize its commercial activities. The company started to sell
|Month||Gross Income||Film Costs|
35-mm "reduction" prints of its earlier large-format films. These were printed optically, usually dropping every other frame to reduce the "proper" projection speed from thirty frames per second to a more typical fifteen.15 It also became the American agent for the Warwick Trading Company. Yet the company's jaunty advertisements, declaring "The Biograph Wins," masked the fact that this shift in policy took time and money to implement. Biograph's first sales catalog was not distributed until November, and copyright records suggest that the process of making its full repertoire of films available in 35-mm may have taken over a year, from mid 1902 to mid 1903. Biograph also continued to push its old-style 70-mm-gauge exhibition service for $105 a week along with the standard 35-mm format (first known as the biographet, then the bioscope) for $65 a week.16 With Robert K. Bonine acting as principal cameraman, production activities were expanded. The first production was When the Cat's Away, the Mice Will Play (NO. 2122), a simple studio film of rats in silhouette, which may have been intended to comment on Edison's defeat. Although feline Edison was at least temporarily incapacitated, the Biograph mice did not resume studio production of acted films until mid May. Meanwhile, Biograph used cameras of two different gauges to complement its different services. In some cases, both types were at the same events. Two films entitled Installation Ceremonies of President Butler, Columbia College (NOS. 2132 and 2133) were photographed on 19 April 1902, one in each gauge.
Of the approximately 110 Biograph films taken between mid May and mid September, about 45 (40 percent) used actors. Most comedies were in 70-mm, including A Poet's Revenge (NO. 2142) and A Pipe Story of the Fourth (NO. 2183, also known as Uncle Pete's Pipe: A Tragedy of the Glorious Fourth). Frederick Burr opper's well-known comic-strip characters Alphonse and Gaston were presented in Alphonse and Gaston Helping Irishman (NO. 2169), The Polite Frenchmen (NO. 2171), and The Smoking Lamp (NO. 2187), all of which were shot on 70-mm stock. Wallace McCutcheon, however, chose 35-mm negative for the eight-part Foxy Grandpa Series (NOS. 2141, 2145–2151), which, according to the catalog, "illustrates scenes and incidents from Wm. A. Brady's musical production Foxy Grandpa." The films used the actors and sets of the musical that was then (mid May) concluding a four-month run at the nearby Fourteenth Street Theater. The musical was based, in turn, on a well-known comic strip created by Carl E. ("Bunny") Schultz. One scene, The Creators of Foxy Grandpa, introduced Schultz and the principal performers—Joseph Hart (Foxy Grandpa), Carrie DeMar (Polly), and the two actors playing mischievous boys. The others were comic vignettes, similar in complexity to a newspaper comic. While the scenes were often shown as individual subjects, exhibitors also grouped them in more elaborate combinations.
Multi-shot acted films were still rare at Biograph. A Pipe Story of the Fourth, filmed by Bitzer, was composed of two shots: the first shows an old gentleman entering a store and buying fireworks; in the second he is walking home and smoking a pipe when the fireworks catch fire and explode. Caught in the Undertow (NO. 2210) begins with a broad establishing shot taken from a pier: a swimmer tires, and the lifeguards launch their boat and rescue the stricken vacationer. The next scene, a much closer view that was taken on the beach, shows the victim being resuscitated. (The subject recalls the two-shot Life Rescue at Atlantic City [© as Life Rescue at Long Branch], taken by the Edison Company a year earlier.) Grandpa's
Reading Glass (NO. 2197) reworked a popular film made by the Englishman G. A. Smith, Grandma's Reading Glass. Biograph's fourteen-shot film intercuts scenes of a little girl looking through a magnifying glass with views of the objects at which she is looking. This second group of shots does not show the objects from her perspective but rather, isolates them against a black background and further concentrates the spectator's attention with a circular matte that is meant to suggest the reading glass. The objects, in other words, are presented to the audience rather than being integrated into a verisimilar spatial world.
Biograph's many problems did not end with its March victory over Edison. On 30 September 1902, the Wizard of Menlo Park obtained two patent reissues based on more refined claims, Nos. 12,037 and 12,038. In November, Edison once again sued the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company for patent infringement.17 Even before the suit, Biograph was making few films for its vaudeville service, which suggests that this area remained unprofitable and that cost cutting was necessary. Instead, the company turned to industrial films for clients such as the National Cash Register Company. Early in 1903, Bonine took approximately thirty standard-gauge films in Dayton, Ohio, including Girls in Physical Culture, N.C.R. CO. (NO. 2270), Testing Jacks (NO. 2280), and many scenes of company executives. These films were used for illustrated lectures promoting innovative company activities. In March, Biograph also acquired some forty 35-mm films made by the Miles brothers in the Klondike and California and was soon marketing their Blasting in Tread-well Gold Mine (NO. 2305) and Dog Baiting and Fighting (NO. 2326) to interested exhibitors.18
Biograph's limited production and its uneasy split between two film gauges adversely affected its exhibition service. Although the price of its 70-mm service was reduced to eighty dollars a week plus transportation (and its 35-mm bioscope service to forty dollars), even Benjamin F. Keith grew unhappy, and when the vaudeville magnate opened his new Philadelphia theater in late November 1902, the biograph was not on the bill. At his other houses, Biograph offered a "very ordinary selection of pictures this week, there not being one of exceptional interest." Dissatisfied patrons often left in large numbers before the program was over. "Personally, it is always attractive for me," reported Boston manager M. J. Keating, "and I cannot see why it does not interest others." Keith's managers tried to revive interest by moving the biograph from its final "chaser" position to one that was earlier on the bill. There, it "seemed to catch a class of people to whom it was comparatively new," but their initial interest faded with greater familiarity.19
A typical Biograph program relied on a variety format of short actualities with a few trick films and comedies thrown in for relief. One "fairly good selection of views" from late March, according to New York manager S. K. Hodgdon, ran thirteen minutes and included the following:
THE AMERICAN BIOGRAPH
The Most Perfect of All Picture-Moving Machines
The Four Madcaps (New)
Acrobatic dance by a famous troupe
from the Winter Garden, Berlin.
An animated reproduction of the famous
painting by Vergillio Tojetti.
A Quiet Hookah (New)
A vivid and characteristic bit of local color from Constantinople.
An Ocean Flyer
SS St. Paul of the American Line, at full speed in the Narrows, New York Harbor, as she appears on her way to Southampton.
An Attack by Torpedo Boat
Splendid work by a German flotilla in their famous wedge formation. Taken at Kiel.
A Little Ray of Sunshine
The Galetea Bridge (New)
The only bridge to Stamboul. A remarkable picture of Turkish life.
The Grand Fountain
Longchamps Palace, Marseilles, France.
In the Redwoods of California(New)
A tourist coaching party on the road to the Yosemite.
The Black Sea (New)
A beautiful panorama.
Bathing scene at Bath Beach, L.I.
A Modern Miracle
The law of gravitation overcome by the expert swimmers at Bath Beach, L.I. Backward leaps from the water to the pier.
All but one new picture came from Biograph's sister companies in Europe. No news films or multi-shot productions were included on the program. The travel scenes of Turkey were scattered throughout rather than consolidated into a single headline attraction as Vitagraph was then doing. The following week, Keith's managers expressed their universal disappointment, and beginning with the week of 6 April, Biograph was supplanted by Vitagraph in Keith's Boston and New York theaters.20
Manager Hodgdon in New York was enthusiastic about the vitagraph:
This is the first day of the new moving picture machine, which is evidently going to be a big success, judging from the way it was received by the audience this afternoon. There is no question that when it comes to steadiness the Biograph is the nearest mechanically perfect of any of the motion picture machines, but so far as interesting subjects are concerned, the people who control this instrument have them badly beaten (Keith Reports, week of 6 April 1903).
Similar relief was expressed throughout the circuit as Vitagraph offered Méliès's Robinson Crusoe and A Trip to the Moon. Biograph's 70-mm service made its last appearance at San Francisco's Orpheum Theater in September 1903, and even during its final year, the Orpheum increasingly "rested" the service (i.e., dropped it from the bill for a week or two at a time). Meanwhile Biograph's 35-mm bioscope service found outlets in a number of second-class theaters, including Grauman's small-time vaudeville house in San Francisco.21 Not until the fall of 1903 did Biograph complete its transition to the 35-mm standard format. Until then, its ability to act as an effective exhibition service was severely limited, thus giving credence to the argument that film exhibition in the 1901–1903 era commonly functioned as "chasers."
Thomas Edison's actions affected the 35-mm sector of the industry as well. By 1900 the inventor's reliance on licensees was a failure, not only curtailing his potential profits but leaving him vulnerable if the courts did not sustain his motion-picture patents. In response to this undesirable situation, the Edison Manufacturing Company inaugurated several important changes. That November, general manager William Gilmore and kinetograph department head James White hired Edwin S. Porter to improve their technical system. Porter had previously built highly regarded cameras, printers, and projectors, but his workshop had suffered a devastating fire. Now he agreed to work on the projecting kinetoscope for fifteen dollars a week. The resulting 1901 model was "a complete revolution in projecting machines" and the first to take up 1,000 feet of film on a single reel.22 The Edison Company also constructed a new motion-picture studio to replace the Black Maria. Located at 41 East Twenty-first Street, it was in the heart of New York's entertainment district, where all the material and personnel needed for production were readily at hand. Although the rooftop studio depended on sunlight for illumination, it was glassenclosed and could operate year-round. Construction began in October, cost $2,800, and was completed by January 1901. A month later, the studio was in operation, outclassing the open-air stages of Biograph, Lubin, and others.
Even as the Twenty-first Street studio was being finished, Edison's relationship with his most important licensee changed drastically. On 10 January, after American Vitagraph failed to pay its 10 percent royalty on exhibition income, Gilmore and White terminated the company's license, forcing Blackton and Smith to stop making films. Although Vitagraph henceforth suffered under Edison's onerous restrictions, the company still managed to extend its exhibition circuit. When a vaudeville theater opened in Utica, New York, on 19 January 1901, a vitagraph was regularly featured on its bill. In Brooklyn, Percy Williams offered Vitagraph steady employment after the White Rats strike. In New Haven, Vitagraph became Poli's exhibition service of choice during the 1901–1902 and 1902–1903 seasons. Though legally required to show only Edison films, Vitagraph increased its reliance on European pictures to fill the void left by its own curtailed production. In fact, this halt in filmmaking may not have been absolute. To retain its newly acquired New Haven outlet, Vitagraph may have filmed President Roosevelt's visit to New Haven for Yale University's two-hundredth anniversary on 23 October 1901.23 If so, such activities were rare and much too risky to undertake in the immediate New York area.
While William Paley with his kalatechnoscope continued as an Edison licensee (apparently paying a substantial royalty), his productions were of only minor importance to the Edison enterprise. Much of Paley's energies went to servicing Proctor's growing chain of theaters with local views. Several were taken for the opening of Proctors Montreal theater in March 1901, but only one of these, Montreal Fire Department on Runners, was copyrighted by Edison and sold to independent exhibitors.24 Another group of Canadian subjects, including Arrival of Governor General, Lord Minto, at Querec, were taken for the Montreal theater in February 1902 and likewise copyrighted by Thomas Edison. The need for new subjects, however, was primarily filled by the kinetograph department's own productions.
Between early 1901 and early 1903 film production at the new Edison studio was clearly the most important in America. There, filmmaking personnel assumed unprecedented (by American standards) control over motion-picture storytelling, and as a result, the production company, rather than the exhibitor, began to create the program. Edison's filmmakers, along with those in other countries, began to elaborate a system of representation, of spatial and temporal relations between shots, that typified the cinema for the remaining years covered by this volume. An understanding of this development requires careful scrutiny of the films because the process took place over the course of many pictures, and with frequent interruptions and digressions.
The collaborative team undertaking this important shift consisted of George S. Fleming, an actor and scenic designer, and Edwin S. Porter. The Edison Company hired Fleming for twenty dollars a week and placed him in charge of its new studio, while Porter was shifted from the Edison laboratory to serve as cameraman. Although Porter was the junior member of this collaborative team, he quickly emerged as its key contributor: his expertise as an electrician and mechanic help to maintain the studio in operating order, and at the same time, his work as a motion-picture operator and exhibitor made him familiar with the kinds of films that pleased audiences.
Working under White's supervision, Fleming and Porter soon established their worth with films like Kansas Saloon Smashers (© 23 February 1901), which reenacted and burlesqued a recent news event—Carrie Nation's saloon-smashing spree in Wichita, Kansas. For the one-shot film, men in drag played many of the female roles, making the women sexually unappealing. The women's invasion of a male refuge is seemingly attributed to sexual frustration and the concomitant need for revenge. With imitation a sure indication of a film's commercial value, it was notable that Lubin was selling Mrs. Nation and Her Hatchet Brigade by early March, and Biograph made Carrie Nation Smashing a Saloon (NO. 1845) for its exhibition service and mutoscopes in early April. Porter and Fleming had quickly produced a hit.
The new studio resulted in a burst of activity; Edison copyrighted sixty films in the six months following its completion, and many more pictures were made. Thirty-five (58 percent) used actors of some kind. Among the vaudeville performers who frequented the studio were the Gordon Sisters with their boxing act, the Lukens brothers, who were novel gymnasts, and the Faust family of acrobats. Laura Corn-stock and her dog, Mannie, appeared in Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog, a two-shot film in which Porter asserted editorial control by following a portrait-like view of the attractive Comstock and her dog with a shot of Mannie punching a suspended bag with his nose. In the late 1890s, as we have seen, exhibitors often showed portraits of prominent persons in their programs using lantern slides. Portraits of admirals were followed by scenes of their ships. Porter, the veteran exhibitor, recognized that the film producer could adeptly appropriate this practice, and thus Laura Comstock's Bag-Punching Dog introduced what Tom Gunning calls the "emblematic close-up." This technique became popular with other American producers and remained in frequent use throughout the period.25
The Edison Manufacturing Company produced an abundance of comedies. Some, such as Happy Hooligan April-Fooled and Happy Hooligan Surprised, consisted of one shot and were quite similar to those made in the 1890s. Often Porter added a brief tag or punch line at the conclusion of a typical one-shot scene. In The Finish of Bridget Mckeen, made that February, the Irish cook has difficulty lighting the stove and adds kerosine. With Porter substituting a dummy for the actor by using stop-action techniques, an explosion sends the cook flying up into the air. After an extended period, pieces of her body fall back to earth. (Here time is stretched rather than condensed, as with most pro-filmic manipulations of time in early films.) The picture then dissolves to the last scene, a painted backdrop of a grave on which is written "Here Lies the Remains of Bridget McKeen, Who Started a Fire with Kerosine." This additional shot did not make any sense when shown on its own and so was sold with the first scene. In this regard, the output of two-shot pictures did not directly challenge the editorial prerogatives of the exhibitor. Yet these films reveal a filmmaking team eager to juxtapose shots to produce a more effective picture.
Beginning with The Finish of Bridget Mckeen, the dissolve from one scene to the next became a common procedure at the Edison Manufacturing Company. Executed during the printing process rather than in the camera, it enabled the producer to exert editorial control in a manner that enhanced exhibition. In most high-class lantern programs, exhibitors dissolved from slide to slide; some exhibitors even dissolved from slides to film or from film to film. To execute such techniques in the projection booth with films was difficult and required extra personnel. Thus Porter and Fleming found ways to give potential purchasers something extra.
Groups of actualities, filmed under White's supervision, complemented Fleming and Porter's comedies. In addition to President McKinley's second inauguration, particular emphasis was placed on the Pan-American Exposition at Buffalo, New York. Opening, Pan-American Exposition was photographed on 20 May 1901, and at least another twenty films followed shortly thereafter.26 One of the most popular of these was A Trip Around the Pan-American Exposition, a 625-foot, ten-minute film taken from the front of a launch that toured the canal winding through the exposition grounds. Exhibitors could purchase the film in shorter lengths of 200, 300, 400, or 500 feet. Pan-American Exposition by Night, photographed by Porter, was a technical tour de force that began with a smooth, sweeping panorama
of the electric tower during the day and continued at night in the same direction and at the same pace, with the lights of the tower providing a decorative image. Only a new and highly sophisticated panning mechanism made this film possible. The time change was modeled on a popular stereopticon convention—day-to-night dissolving views.
In early September, James White and several kinetograph department employees filmed William McKinley's visit to the Pan-American Exposition on President's Day, 5 September (President McKinley's Speech at the Pan-American Exposition and President McKinley Reviewing the Troops at the Pan-American Exposition). On the following day, the camera crew waited outside the Temple of Music while McKinley was inside shaking hands with well-wishers. Suddenly the President was gunned down by the anarchist Leon Czolgosz, and the camera crew filmed the stunned and angry crowd. These scenes were an Edison exclusive. After McKinley's death, Edison cameramen, like their Biograph rivals, filmed the funeral ceremonies. President McKinley's Funeral Cortege at Buffalo, New York; President McKinley's Funeral Cortege at Washington, D.C., and a half-dozen films of the funeral at Canton, Ohio, fulfilled cinema's promise as a visual newspaper. Films such as Funeral Leaving the President's House and Church at Canton, Ohio consisted of many brief shots as the cameramen struggled to capture glimpses of the casket on the way to the cemetery. Camera movement and improvised shooting convey a sense of immediacy and urgency.
The Edison Company assumed greater editorial control than before. President McKinley's Funeral Cortege at Buffalo, New York was a 400-foot "series" consisting of four separate films held together by dissolves introduced in the printing stage. Complete Funeral Cortege at Canton, Ohio was another series, consisting of six different subjects. A similar approach was used for the America's Cup races, which Edison cameramen filmed in early October. In these several instances, editorial responsibility had become a contested arena. If the exhibitor did not like the sequence of subjects or only wanted some of the films and not the whole series, Edison was happy to sell them on an individual basis. Programs and reviews indicate that most prominent exhibitors were not yet willing to relinquish control over this area of practice.
Editorial control remained ambiguous in the four-shot Execution of Czolgosz with Panorama of Auburn Prison, Porter and Fleming's most ambitious undertaking during 1901. Exhibitors could purchase the picture either with or without the opening two shots, which were sweeping panoramas of Auburn State Prison taken on the morning that McKinley's assassin, Czolgosz, was executed. Porter then dissolved to two studio scenes that reenacted the execution. Shot 3 shows Czolgosz in his cell. The wardens enter, open the cell door, and escort him off-camera. Shot 4 shows the testing of the electric chair, Czolgosz's entrance, his being strapped to the chair, and the actual execution. Its strong frontal composition leaves the spectator with a headon view of the assassin's death. Not only is the operational aesthetic at work in this display, but the spectator is turned into a witness (with the reenacted nature of this event suppressed).
Execution of Czolgosz focuses attention on the filmic representation of space and time. In its longer form, at least, the film offers a well-developed spatial world. Its relationship between outside and inside, while just beginning to be utilized by American and European producers, was hardly novel, for it had been commonly used in stereopticon shows. Temporality was more puzzling and complex. Czolgosz's cell was right next to the execution chamber, and in the actual sequence of events, the wardens tested the chair before removing the condemned man from his cell. The film did not present the scenes along a simple, linear time line. First, all actions in Czolgosz's cell are shown, then everything of interest that took place in the execution chamber. Time does not move steadily forward as the scene shifts from scene 3 to scene 4. Portions of the two scenes occur simultaneously as Porter offers two different perspectives on the same event. Film thus allowed the spectator to be in two places simultaneously or see an event from two perspectives. It was this insight that underlay many of the innovations in cinematic representation that followed.
Edison's July 1901 court victory over Biograph, although later overturned, meant that his company was virtually the only American film manufacturer providing exhibitors with films (the setbacks suffered by 35-mm competitors are discussed below). Pressure to reduce prices was eliminated as film sales rose 65 percent (from $49,756.22 in 1900–1901 to $82,107.82 in 1901–1902) and film profits rose 85 percent (from $20,278.26 to $37,433.90). The McKinley films provided the Edison Manufacturing Company with a rare opportunity to derive maximum commercial benefit from its legal monopoly, and it sold more than $45,000 worth of films in the last four months of 1901—practically equal to the whole of the previous business year.
The Edison Manufacturing Company adequately met its new responsibility as sole domestic supplier of films to American exhibitors throughout the summer and early
fall of 1901. However, the absence of competition was soon felt, and by November, studio production had declined and then almost ceased. Only fourteen of the ninety-seven films copyrighted by Edison between mid November 1901 and mid April 1902 relied on actors, and many of these were acquired from Vitagraph. Much energy was devoted to Jeffries And Ruhlin Sparring Contest at San Francisco, Cal., November 15, 1901. Since the disappointing fight had lasted only five rounds (barely twenty minutes), the picture could be shown only as one act in a variety program. New scenes were taken along the West Coast (Panoramic View Near Mt. Golden on the Canadian Pacific R.R. and Ostrich Farms at Pasadena) and in Mexico City, where James White photographed a bullfight on 2 February.
During White's absence, production on the East Coast practically ceased. Porter and Fleming returned to the studio in early 1902 with a few productions, but nothing compared to the first months of 1901. One clever effort was Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show, which lampoons a rube farmer who confuses what he sees on the screen with real life and becomes more and more involved with the images. He climbs on stage and mimics an attractive female dancer in the first film but jumps back into his seat as the onrushing Black Diamond Express approaches in the next. The denouement comes when he tries to break up a kissing scene and stops the show
instead. An imitation of Robert Paul's The Countryman's First Sight of the Animated Pictures (1901), Edison's version was redone to feature its own films and titles, advertising the projecting kinetoscope.
Duping of European fiction films effectively substituted for studio production, although the Edison staff still found it necessary to shoot American news events and scenes of local interest. With White's return from Mexico, the kinetograph department resumed its treatment of cinema as a visual newspaper. Films were taken of
important news events such as the Paterson, New Jersey, fire of 9 February 1902. Multicamera coverage was used for the visit of Prince Henry of Prussia to the United States in late February and early March. A kinetograph record of Theodore Roosevelt's appearance at the Charleston (South Carolina) Exposition on President's Day, 9 April, demonstrated the chief executive's courage in emulating McKinley's fateful visit to the Buffalo Exposition six months earlier (President Roosevelt Reviewing the Troops at Charleston Exposition).
The dismissal of Thomas Edison's patent suit in March 1902 dramatically altered his company's commercial standing. As Biograph and other producers resumed business, the inventor's firm was compelled to undertake more ambitious projects. With Fleming increasingly in the background, Porter began work on a series of story films, including the three-shot Appointment by Telephone (April 1902), the ten-shot Jack and the Beanstalk (June 1902), the three-shot How They Do Things on the Bowery (October 1902), and the nine-shot Life of an American Fireman (November 1902-January 1903). With these works he asserted clear control over the editing process, explored the possibilities of fictional storytelling, and further developed the possibilities of spatial and temporal relations between shots. This small group of films is among the most innovative in American cinema
Appointment by Telephone was a preliminary application of principles that Porter used for Jack and the Beanstalk, a 625-foot fairy-tale film that took six weeks to make and cost almost one thousand dollars. In both cases, the narrative was distributed among the various shots, a marked innovation over previous Edison fiction films. Jack and the Beanstalk was modeled on several Georges Méliès productions, particularly Bluebeard (1901), and followed the well-known, bowdlerized version of the fairy tale, in which a fairy tells Jack that the bags of gold, magical harp, and hen once belonged to his father (the giant took them after killing him) and that Jack must slay the giant and regain his rightful possessions.27 In the course of telling this story, Porter created visions using "object animation" superimposed against black backgrounds. While temporality remains nonspecific, if generally linear, the spatial world is meticulously constructed, often by effective use of entrances and exits. In shot 5, for example, Jack exits by climbing the beanstalk and moving out of the frame. In shot 6 he is still climbing the beanstalk, then looks downward and waves as if to his mother and playmates beneath him. Such glances reinforce the spatial relationships between shots.
Temporality became a central concern in Porter's next two story films. Once again, Méliès provided a picture to emulate—A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune). In one juxtaposition of shots, a scene ends with the rocket hitting the man in the moon in the eye, and the next scene begins with the rocket landing on the moon's surface and its travelers disembarking. The landing of the space vehicle is thus shown twice in rapid succession. Porter applied this brief temporal overlap to a problem that he had previously explored: the depiction of simultaneous actions and the representation of an event from multiple points of view. The results can be seen in How They Do Things on the Bowery. The first shot takes place on a city street as the rube is picked up by a prostitute and they go inside a saloon. In scene 2, they enter the saloon and sit down. The woman drugs the farmer's drink, and when he feels its ill effects, she takes his valuables and leaves. The waiter, discovering that he cannot pay the bill, ejects him and his suitcase. The final scene takes place outside: a paddy wagon comes down the street, parks, and waits for the rube and his suitcase, which are soon thrown in the gutter. Actions unfold in staccato form, with the passage of time manipulated for comic effect. Events that happen simultaneously are shown in successive views. The repeated ejection of the rube and his suitcase at the end of shots 2 and 3 specifies the temporal and spatial relationship between the two shots that would have previously remained imprecise or dependent on extra-textual clarification.
This was also the first Edison fiction film with a panning camera, a technique that not only conveyed the immediacy of actualities but emphasized the existence of a spatial world beyond the confines of the camera frame.
Porter systematically applied these techniques to Life of an American Fireman, which he made with James White. As already noted, almost every producer had a selection of fire films, and several were multi-shot films, such as Selig's Life of a Fireman, Lubin's Going to the fire and Rescue, and James Williamson's Fire! The plethora of such subjects encouraged innovation, however, as James White and Porter emphasized spectacle, introduced novel scenes, and utilized new strategies of representation.
It is hard to give a precise narrative account of Life of an American Fireman. The Edison Manufacturing Company, for example, offered two quite different descriptions. In the often-reprinted catalog version, the opening scene shows a fire chief dreaming of his wife and child, whom he subsequently rescues, while another description, offered in the New York Clipper, emphasizes the film's documentary qualities over the elements of fictional narrative.28 Thus it becomes clear that exhibitors could shape the spectators' understanding of the screen narrative along divergent lines through their live narration and advance publicity (newspaper promotions, posters, etc.).
Life of an American Fireman is one of the most extreme expressions of early cinema's distinctive nonlinear continuity, one that was so unfamiliar to later spectators and scholars that a modernized, reedited version of the film was long accepted as the original, "logical" ordering of shots. In fact, the authenticated version relies on overlapping action and extreme forms of narrative repetition. Overlapping action is evident in shots 3 and 4, where a long line of firemen jump out of their beds and slide
down the fire pole, and then come down the pole again and harness their horses inside the firehouse. At the next cut, the horse-drawn engines dash off twice, in interior and exterior views. The last two shots show the rescue from two different perspectives. Shot 8 shows an interior of the burning bedroom, where the woman struggles to the window, cries for help, and collapses. The fireman enters and breaks the window (at which a ladder promptly appears); he then carries her out through the window and returns via the ladder for the child hidden in the bed covers. In shot 9, the same actions are shown from the exterior, yet these two concluding scenes are complementary rather than redundant. The same event unfurls twice, but time is severally condensed whenever something happens offscreen. In the interior scene, for example, the time allowed for the fireman to go down or up the ladder is very brief. Together, these final shots provide a "complete" idea of what is actually taking place, demonstrating how indicational rather than verisimilar temporality within scenes complements the relationship between scenes. Porter thus offered a concept of continuity (indeed, scenes such as these were often referred to as "continuous") that is radically different from the linear continuity of the classical Hollywood cinema. In early cinema, time rather than space could be easily manipulated both within scenes and in the relation between scenes. These sequences also encouraged spectators to mentally reorder and synthesize the actions depicted in different shots. Such reorganization is not unlike that required of the variety-program spectator, who needed to mentally integrate related scenes that had been separated for purposes of diversity (see programs, pp. 259, 312–313). Variety programs and story films thus demanded surprisingly similar methods of interpretation and reception.
This burst of innovative filmmaking might suggest that the industry was fully capable of supplying exhibitors and spectators with new, attractive films. Yet the output of such subjects was very limited. Edison was the sole American producer of elaborate story films during 1902 and even its ambitious undertakings came to an abrupt end after Life of an American Fireman. A virtual ban on production at Edison lasted for almost four months. Once again, these disruptions were caused by events in the courts. Two quite different types of cases were involved. The first and most important (at least in terms of production) dealt with copyright infringement and was precipitated by Sigmund Lubin, while the second involved Edison's infringement of Thomas Armat's projection patents. To understand these problems, Lubin's activities during this period need to be considered.
Production and exhibition continued at Lubin's company during the first half of 1901. Some of his films were remakes of popular subjects made by competitors, such as An Affair of Honor, which mimicked the popular Biograph film of the same name. Others elaborated on the original: Mrs. Nation and Her Hatchet Brigade, for example, inspired by Porter's one-shot Kansas Saloon Smashers, became a two-shot film billed as "Direct from Kansas."29
Mrs. Nation addressing a large number of her followers after which she leads them into the Senate Saloon and proceeds to demolish the interior. Bottles are seen flying through the air, and beer kegs are rolled into the street and emptied. The picture concludes when a policeman arrests Mrs. Nation followed by hundreds of persons hooting and yelling (New York Clipper, 9 March 1901, p. 44).
This precocious film almost certainly confronted the crucial conceptual problem of depicting spatial and temporal relationships between outside and inside—several months before Execution of Czolgosz—and for this reason, it is particularly unfortunate that a print does not survive. But imitation was not practiced only by Lubin. He produced Photographer's Mishaps and Two Rubes at the Theatre in March 1901 and saw them remade by the Edison Company later in the year.
Although Edison claimed "special photographic concessions" for the Pan-American Exposition, Lubin took many films there, including Panorama of the Exposition, Couche Dance on the Midway, and Wedding Procession in Cairo. He was also granted the only concession on the midway as a moving-picture exhibitor, which Edison lawyers attempted to end by threatening legal action against the Pan-American Exposition Company. The company, however, declined to terminate Lubin's contract, remarking that "no matter what concern we might grant a concession to for the exhibition of moving pictures we would, in all probability, be sued or at least be threatened with suit by a number of other concerns manufacturing similar apparatus. Mr. Lubin happened to offer us the best terms for a concession."30
Edison curtailed Lubin's business with greater success after his court victory against Biograph. One of Lubin's leading cameramen, J. Blair Smith, joined Edison's staff in July 1901 and was in a position to testify to Lubin's infringing activities. The Philadelphia filmmaker then stopped advertising films in the United States (though small ads for his cineograph projector occasionally appeared in the New York Clipper) and fled the country; he continued to sell films, but through offices in Berlin.31 When Bradenburgh's museum reopened that September, Lubin's cineograph was no longer on the bill. Although it returned to the museum in December, Lubin's service was unable to offer the local views that had previously made it such a popular attraction.
Biograph's court victory was also a victory for Lubin. Edison's suit against him was dismissed, and the Philadelphia optician immediately reopened for business. He quickly published advertisements in the New York Clipper, declaring:
Lubin Is Victorious
The United States declares that we are legitimate Manufacturers of "Films" and Moving Picture Machines. There will be no more bluffs made about infringements on patents. The Bluff has been called. Now, buy your Films where you get the most for your money (22 March 1902, p. 88).
Edison's temporary legal victory had left Lubin's business in serious disarray. Claiming to have invested $150,000 to $200,000 in his film enterprise, Lubin conceded that it was no longer worth more than $10,000, while he had liabilities of $2,000 to $3,000. He owned no real estate or other holdings outside the business. It was many months (perhaps years) before the fifty-six-year-old Jewish immigrant fully recovered. Moreover, he was sued again in November 1902 for infringement of Edison's patent reissues.32
Lubin was never someone who passively deflected Edison's legal assaults. He too went on the commercial and legal offensive. Reopening for business, Lubin openly sold films of Prince Henry's well-publicized visit to the United States early in 1902—Edison-copyrighted films that he had duped. Edison, refusing to tolerate this disregard for his ownership, again sued Lubin, this time for copyright infringement.33 Lubin defended himself by claiming that Edison's method of copyrighting films was inadequate. According to Lubin, each frame, rather than each film, had to be submitted separately. In fact, Edison's submitted copyrighting practice had never been tested in court. When, on 25 June, the inventor's lawyers asked Judge George Mifflin Dallas to grant a preliminary injunction against Lubin's activities, their request was denied, and the following January Dallas handed down a decision favoring Lubin. He ruled that each image had to be copyrighted separately in order to be protected and that Congress would have to legislate new copyright methods before Edison could find the kind of protection he envisioned. As a result of this decision, it became imprudent for an American producer to invest substantial sums of money in a film's negative, and the copyright issue disrupted American production for several months, until the court of appeals found in Edison's favor.
As part of his commercial offensive, Lubin challenged Edison's price structure by selling films for eleven cents a foot. Ultimately this move forced the Edison Company to reduce the sale price for its dupes and older or less-expensive subjects from fifteen to twelve cents a foot. Selig and Biograph likewise came down to twelve cents a foot and so reduced their profit margin.34 The duping of European imports, including Pathé's The Prodigal Son, Méliès's Robinson Crusoe, and others, became the principal means for American producers to meet the growing demand for story films.
Lubin and his chief photographer, John J. Frawley, resumed production after Biograph's court victory, but hardly a single film from the 1902–1903 period seems to have survived. In late April, a Lubin cameraman filmed the Forepaugh-Sells Circus on its Philadelphia visit (Cake Walking Horse, Burlesque Cock Fight, Feeding the Rhinocerous, etc.). Fight-film reenactments resumed with Reproduction of the Jeffries-Fitzsimmons Fight in 1902. By September, Lubin's company had taken Rube Waddell and the Champions Playing Ball with the Boston Team and a large number of comedies, including Serving Potatoes, Undressed (a remake of Biograph's How Bridget Served the Salad Undressed). For Who Said Watermelon? the catalog explained that "the demand for a new watermelon picture has induced us to pose two colored women in which they are portrayed, ravenously getting on the outside of a number of melons, much to the amusement of the onlookers."35
Like his contemporaries, Lubin pursued the notion of cinema as a visual newspaper. In the fall, the coal strike in eastern Pennsylvania was front-page news and was covered by one of his photographers, probably Frawley. Films included Train Leaving Philadelphia with Troops for the Coal Mines and Non-Union Miners at Work Under Guard of the Troops. On 29 October, the cameraman took Mitchell Day at Wilkes-Barre, Pa. (100 feet), showing "a parade which took place on the day the great coal strike was settled," and President Mitchell's Speech, showing the union president addressing the miners and their supporters. To exhibitors, Lubin promotional material suggested, "If you want an effective and striking picture, buy the strike parade and join it on the front end of the Mitchell's Speech Film."36 Here, as elsewhere, such editorial recommendations may have already been tested by his own exhibition service.
At the beginning of December 1902, Lubin released The Holy City, a 350-foot subject designed to be accompanied by the singing of that well-known hymn. He advertised it as a three-thousand-dollar production with eighteen scenes. While the first figure was certainly exaggerated and the second one may have been as well, two surviving stills suggest it was of a spectacular nature.37
After his own January 1903 court victory invalidated any viable copyright practice, Lubin virtually ceased making original productions. Thus, a Lubin advertisement in February listed The Royal Levee in India (then also being sold by Edison and Biograph), James Williamson's The Soldier's Return, and other subjects made by foreign manufacturers. Since Lubin and Edison had mutually agreed that the loser of their court case would not be fined and the victor would not use the decision for publicity purposes (the goal being merely to establish a verdict that would have the force of law), the final vindication of Edison's practical methods of copyright may have been as desirable for Lubin as Edison.38 After Lubin's initial victory, the case was brought to the court of appeals and reversed in April 1903. The court declared that the frame-by-frame method of copyrighting was impractical, and so the lower court's ruling violated the intent of Congress. Rather each film could be covered in its entirety by one copyright submission.
Thomas Armat contributed to the disruptive nature of the 1900–1903 period as he sought to establish the commercial value of his projection patents. The Armat Moving-Picture Company, which owned the Armat-Jenkins patents, pursued its suit against the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, seeking a judgment of $150,000 in damages. On 21 October 1902, Armat won a favorable decision from Judge John R. Hazel. With Biograph prepared to appeal, both sides acknowledged the uncertainties continued litigation would involve for them and thus reached an agreement whereby, in exchange for accepting the lower-court ruling, Biograph did not have to pay a penalty and would not have to pay licensing fees until the Edison Company did so. The Armat Moving-Picture Company, therefore, promptly filed suit against the Edison Manufacturing Company for infringement of Patent No. 585, 953, and Edison was enjoined on 8 January, though the injunction was suspended later that month.39 At that point, Armat, still reluctant to test his patent in higher court, ceased to pursue his infringement cases with much vigor.
Throughout this period Armat pressed for a combination of Armat, Biograph, and Edison patents that would withstand any court challenge and remunerate him (and the others) financially. As he wrote to Edison late in 1901:
This combined action would establish a real monopoly, as no infringer would stand against a combination of all these strong elements. The way things are now the woods are full of small infringers who are reaping that which belongs to yourself and ourselves. Prices have sunk in vaudeville until now the top-notch price, I understand, is about $40 a week, while free shows of motion pictures are becoming more and more common. These small incompetent exhibitors are getting the business into such disrepute that it will require great effort to raise it to a really profitable plane. There is big money in all ends of this business if properly conducted and little otherwise. For instance the number of films you sell in Washington is but a small percent of the number that could be used under the close organization of the trust (15 November 1901).
Armat envisioned a centralized office in charge of production and exhibition throughout the United States. In actual practice he tried to intimidate smaller exhibitors into paying a licensing fee. Thus, at the end of 1900, Burton Holmes acquired a license that ran for three years at a cost of twenty-five dollars a week. During the next two years Armat freely distributed flyers and circulars threatening costly patent suits; these informed showmen that they were "liable to summary injunction, to damages (as much as three times the actual damage), and for past profits." He also brought suits against leading exhibitors, including Vitagraph at Chase's Theater in Washington, Sigmund Lubin in Philadelphia and at the Pan-American Exposition, Lyman Howe, and the Eden Musee. The Edison Manufacturing Company was forced to announce its intention "to vigorously resist any and all encroachments upon our rights and to protect all customers using moving picture apparatus and films of our manufacture. "40 These threats and lawsuits merely added to the commercial uncertainties that characterized the "chaser period."
While the East Coast was thrown into turmoil by Edison's court victory over Biograph in 1901, the Chicago area was not so directly affected. The Selig Polyscope Company continued to make films, often relying on local views to maintain interest in its programs. Nonetheless, the company suffered a major setback involving the Chicago-based theatrical manager J. D. Hopkins, who was then using the polyscope service in his several theaters. In late August 1901, Selig's photographer filmed Knights Templars Parade at Louisville, Ky. and several related subjects for presentation at the Hopkins-run Temple Theater in Louisville. Shown between the acts of plays performed by the theater's stock company, these local views were hits. Then, on the afternoon of 22 October, the polyscope exploded and the frightened spectators ran for the exits. Fourteen people were seriously injured in the stampede, and Selig's exhibition service was promptly banished from the Hopkins circuit (Louisville, Chicago, etc.), to be replaced in some instances by the biograph.41 Having lost its largest customer, the Selig Company's receipts and earnings plummeted. Selig enjoyed few exhibition opportunities after the Louisville fire, and the disaster permanently hurt his service.
As soon as Biograph's March 1902 victory over Edison made it safe, Selig advertised his goods in the New York Clipper, thus suggesting that the patent-infringement case also may have limited his opportunities for film sales. The copyright issue hurt as well. Although Selig's fiction-film production at this time is hard to ascertain, the available evidence indicates that those fiction films his company did produce were not offered for sale during the period of copyright uncertainty. Selig's New York Clipper ads from mid 1902 list dupes of European films and then ceased altogether. Otherwise Selig limited himself to producing actualities subsidized by railroad companies. By fall 1902, he was selling two dozen subjects taken in Colorado. Mostly scenery photographed from railway cars, these films were designed for lectures promoting the state as a tourist attraction. A second catalog issued in February of the following year listed more of the same. Selig's "Western representative," H. H. Buckwalter, was based in Denver and involved in organizing the shooting. Since the goal for these films was broad distribution, and since the railroads had absorbed most or all of the costs, sales policy was not affected by the copyright issue. Only after the question of copyright was resolved did the Selig Polyscope Company offer its own original, acted films for sale. Moreover, Selig was among those sued by Thomas Edison for infringement of the inventor's reissued patents in November 1902.42
In contrast to Selig, Spoor's kinodrome service enjoyed relative prosperity as it became a permanent attraction in key Chicago theaters. In July 1901—at the very moment that Edison won his patent victory in Federal Circuit Court—a group of Western vaudeville managers who included Kohl & Castle, J. D. Hopkins, and the Orpheum Theater Company formed a "vaudeville trust" to oppose Eastern vaudeville interests then threatening to enter the Chicago market.43 Preparing for a possible commercial confrontation, Kohl & Castle solidified a relationship with Spoor's exhibition service. The kinodrome was regularly rotated among their Haymarket, Chicago Opera House, and Olympic theaters after 21 July 1901. Starting in October, Kohl & Castle rotated two projectors among the theaters. Perhaps the appearance of films related to McKinley's assassination encouraged this expansion and underscored the value of having a film service. In May 1902, when the Olympic and Haymarket theaters closed for the summer, Spoor's service remained as a permanent feature at the Chicago Opera House. When the two other houses reopened in late August, the kinodrome had a permanent position on all three bills. Selig's misfortunes gave Spoor a clear field. Although his kinodrome lacked production capabilities, it not only won over the three Kohl & Castle vaudeville houses in Chicago but had secured the eastern portion of the Orpheum vaudeville circuit, notably its houses in Denver, Omaha, Kansas City, and New Orleans, by the early part of 1903. It soon achieved a commanding presence throughout the Midwest, the Far West, and much of the South.
In the Eastern United States, American Vitagraph returned to more active production after Biograph's victory. Blackton and Smith took films of local news events such as the trial trip of the yacht Meteor in May 1902. They also filmed an excerpt from the stage play A Gentleman of France, starring Kyrle Bellew; completed in late 1902, The Great Sword Combat on the Stairs ran five minutes and showed the high point of the drama.44 These films were not sold on the open market but were used almost exclusively for Vitagraph's own exhibitions. Nonetheless, the partners placed less emphasis on filmmaking during 1902–1905 than in the 1890s. Vitagraph's ability to acquire European subjects from overseas in a timely fashion and its promotion of "headline attractions"—subjects of either a fictional or documentary nature that lasted between six and twenty minutes—enabled its exhibition circuit to expand without resorting to expenses associated with the making of ambitious story films.
By March 1903 Vitagraph was showing films at Pastor's, Hurtig & Seamon's Music Hall, and Percy Williams' Circle Theater in New York; at the Orpheum in Brooklyn; at Poli's in New Haven; and in Detroit, Toledo, and Washington, D.C. That April, as mentioned above, it took over the Keith circuit from Biograph, losing at least one customer in the process. (S. Z. Poli switched to the electrograph service rather than share the same service with Keith.) Its success was qualified, however. Although A Trip to the Moon and other Méliès story films created an immediate sensation on the Keith circuit, after only a few weeks, Keith managers commented that the films "were not as productive of laughter or applause as those of the first or second week."45 A backlog of popular 35-mm films that had never been shown in Keith theaters assured Vitagraph's success for some time, but local managers occasionally questioned the film selections and complained about the technical quality. In situations where Vitagraph had long runs, the same subjects were often repeated for several weeks or replaced by less-interesting scenes that did not sustain everyone's interest.
To label the early 1900s the "chaser period" is somewhat reductive, and the term can, for that reason, be problematic. The role of motion pictures as "chasers" in vaudeville houses was only symptomatic of the complex crisis that gripped the film industry. It was easily the most severe and extended of the four contractions that the motion-picture industry experienced from its start in 1894.46 This was due in large part to its multiple determinants: patent wars, copyright chaos, technological incompatibility, fee reductions, and too-familiar subject matter that resulted in audience boredom. For many veterans, recurrent commercial instability seemed to be a fact of life in the moving-picture world. Some, like Edwin Porter, contemplated leaving the business.
The crisis—in its immediate and cyclical forms—was gradually overcome as these interlocking causes were resolved. Important problems such as copyright and technological standardization were ultimately worked out, placing the American industry in a stronger position that justified more adequate investment for film production. Likewise, Edison's eventual setback in the courts gave his rivals greater confidence and unleashed their productive and creative energies. When Edison sued them again, they were not so quick to fold. Most important, however, the problem of subject matter was resolved by a new conception of cinema as a storytelling form. With this development came new techniques that made the storytelling itself more compelling. Nevertheless, as we have seen, these solutions were neither obvious nor easily instituted on a wide basis in a period of commercial uncertainty and economic contraction.