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A book review: "Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry"

It's a great title, Flickering Empire, evoking not only celluloid running through a projector but a flame, capturing the evanescent nature of Chicago's early film industry.  It burned for a brief, bright moment, then was snuffed out. (Not to say there's not a fine film industry in Chicago today, but that's another story: this book tells the story of how the center of the film industry came to shift, once and forever, from Chicago to Hollywood.) The subject of this fascinating book is what historian Susan Doll, who also wrote the book's foreword, reckons is "Chicago's best-kept secret": the city's history as "the original Hollywood." As the subtitle indicates, the book promises to explicate how Chicago "invented" the U.S. film industry. Penned cleanly and with dry wit by two Chicago locals, film teacher/filmmaker Michael Glover Smith and historian/tour guide Adam Selzer, the book successfully prosecutes its case for Chicago's "pioneering roles in the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures in the United States." In one swoop it intertwines two of yours truly's main interests: Chicago history and film history.
In fact it was at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago that Thomas Edison had hoped to give movies their great roll-out. However, he couldn't get "his" invention, the "Kinetoscope," an individual peep-show machine, on-line in time for the fair. It seems his right-hand man (and the Kinetoscope's real inventor) W.K.L. Dickson, had suffered a mental breakdown under the whip of taskmaster Edison. (Dickson would soon defect to form what became the Biograph Company.) Thus, Glover Smith and Selzer disabuse us of a scene in Erik Larson's Devil in the White City where the murderer Holmes watches a movie on the Kinetoscope. This was apparently one of the novelistic flourishes that brought Larson's Chicago classic to life. Glover Smith and Selzer speculate that the scene was likely inspired by Edison's pre-Exposition publicity posters, which did in fact promise the machines would be there.
Nonetheless, the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago still played a major role in movie history. It featured what the authors reckon "probably deserves to be called the first commercial movie theater in the world": Eadweard Muybridge's Zoopraxigraphical Hall. Muybridge, utilizing his invention, the Zoopraxiscope, "a sort of primitive movie projector," did in fact make images appear to move on a screen. (Prior devices like the Kinetoscope had only allowed for individual peeping). Unfortunately, as the authors wryly note, Muybridge's imagination was limited to using the Zoopraxiscope to illustrate principles of animal locomotion, and the Hall was "a total flop" with fairgoers: "Given the choice between watching Little Egypt dance the hootchie coo and seeing Professor Muybridge present a lecture on animal locomotion, nearly everyone went with Little Egypt." A much bigger hit elsewhere at the fair was Otto Anschutz' "Tachyscope," a device similar to the Zoopraxiscope.
Many of the men who would go on to found the Chicago film industry were first turned on to the possibilities of film at the Columbian Exposition. One man mightily inspired by seeing the Tachyscope was a young George Spoor, who would go on to team with an inventor from Waukegan named Edward Amet to pioneer the film exhibition business in the 1890s and, in 1907, to found, with partner Gilbert M. Anderson, what will always be Chicago's most famous contribution to film history: the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. (Spoor was the "S" in "Essanay," Anderson the "A".) 
Co-founder Anderson was a multi-millionaire cowboy, better known by his stage name "Broncho Billy," "cinema's first true cowboy star." Broncho Billy's fame was soon eclipsed by Tom Mix, the biggest discovery of Colonel William Selig, Essanay's chief Chicago rival. There's a fun photograph in the book of Mix, one of the few movie cowboys with real cowboy experience, entertaining children with a lasso during a performance at Soldier Field. (The book is well illustrated throughout, with a fine collection of images from the Chicago History Museum and other archives.) Anderson would live a good long life anyway, staging many comebacks before dying in 1971 at the age of 90.
Even the film pioneers who weren't at the World's Fair in person had links to it. This brings us back to Colonel Selig, the man who some historians, including his biographer Andrew Erish (as cited by Glover Smith and Selzer), have called "the man who invented Hollywood." Selig founded the first-ever Chicago motion-picture studio (and one of the first in the world) when he set up what would eventually come to be called the Selig Polyscope Company in 1897 in Chicago's 'brothel-strewn 'tenderloin district'" down on East 8th in between State and Wabash.  
The authors note that Selig used the money he made from Selig Polyscope to buy one of the original automobiles: these "horseless carriages" had been rolled out at the 1893 World's Fair. "The Colonel would use the carriage as a prop for chimpanzees in his popular animal pictures." In another link to the Columbian Exposition, Selig "would also use the replicas of Christopher Columbus's ships that had been built for the fair in a 1912 movie, The Coming of Columbus, which was among the first feature-length motion pictures." 
By 1894 there were 10 Kinetoscope parlors down on State State in Chicago's Loop, which is where Amet and Spoor first saw the machines. "Chicago was a central destination for many European immigrants who were constantly arriving and contributing disproportionately to the city's population growth. The movies, with their purely visual and universal language, were the best form of cheap entertainment for newly arrived immigrants who did not speak English."
Also knocking around in Chicago at the time was another key player in the tale, George Kleine, the "undisputed king of film distribution in the United States."
In 1895 Amet built a laboratory in Waukegan. The authors call this "the world's first film studio." (Unfortunately it was demolished in 1965). In fact in later years, Spoor and Amet would claim they were experimenting with projecting film in the Chicago suburbs as early as 1894, a full year before the Lumiere brothers' "invention" of the movies. This occurred on December 26, 1895, "the birth of the movies" in many histories. The Lumiere brothers in Paris unveiled their "Cinematographe," an event that is "believed to be the first time 35mm film projection occurred before a paying public."  
Back in the states, Selig can take credit for shooting the first narrative film ever made in Chicago. Made in Rogers Park (maybe in 1896, maybe not until 1899), The Tramp and The Dog, now lost, told the story of a tramp just barely making it over a fence before a bulldog got a big hunk of his pants. A massive hit, the film established both "pants humor" and tramp-themed films. Future Essanay star Charles Chaplin would take these forms to transcendent glory.
Meanwhile, Edison bought up the patent to a projector invented by others and called it the Vitascope, then patented that, "ostensibly forcing anyone who wanted to show motion pictures projected onto a screen to pay him a royalty...Almost all of the motion-picture production and distribution companies in New York and New Jersey, because of their close proximity to Edison and his patent-enforcing 'Goon Squad,' agreed to pay licensing fees to use and/or sell equipment that resembled any of the devices Edison had patented...That stagnation [in the northeastern U.S. film industry, thanks to Edison's monopolistic practices], in turn, allowed the Chicago companies, by virtue of being farther away from Edison geographically, to gradually build themselves up over the next several years."
The very first film review to appear in a Chicago newspaper, published in the July 7, 1896 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, reviewed movies presented by "Edison's" Vitascope projection system. (You can almost see those "air quotes" around the possessive case of Edisons's name on behalf of Glover Smith and Selzer.)
In 1896, Alexandre Promio came to Chicago to make Chicago Police Parade for the Lumiere brothers. This film still exists. Reviewing it, the authors note wryly that all but three of the Chicago policemen in the parade sport big bushy mustaches.  
(The authors note that in that same year Promio "would become a major footnote in motion-picture history by effectively inventing camera movement when he took his Cinematographe to Venice and placed it on board of a gondola.")  
Smash hits with audiences of the age were the films Amet/Spoor made about the 1898 Spanish-American War. Denied permission to go to Cuba to film the actual battles, Amet recreated them. Thus, he "single-handedly invented the pseudo-documentary genre."   
A fascinating side-note: in 1903 Selig recycled war movie footage made in 1898 and passed it off as footage of the Philippine War, which, as the authors point out, "did not actually break out until a year after the movie was shot. To paraphrase Charles Foster Kane, Selig was providing the actualities and was content to let the United States government provide the war."
Almost every page of Flickering Empire contains a fascinating nugget or an amusing anecdote like that, such as the time Selig Polyscope was shooting a bank robbery scene in Oak Park in 1907 and the police turned up and arrested everyone.
Then there are nuggets like this, which somehow speaks to something in the very nature of film itself, something about communing with the dead: 
"To many believers, the phenomenon of mediums talking to the dead, a spectacle that emerged around the same time as the early motion-picture experiments of Eadweard Muybridge and Etienne-Jules Marey, was the wonder of the modern age. It was while in Dallas that Selig first saw a true wonder of the age: Edison's Kinetoscope." 
Edison held the patents and the copyrights. In self-defense, his former employee, now foe, W.K.L. Dickson snatched up the patent to the Latham loop. When Edison and Biograph finally came together they founded the Motion Picture Patents Company (the MPPC) in 1908, consolidating all patents and establishing a licensing system. The MPPC now controlled not only the production of motion pictures (studios had to have a license from Edison to work), but even the stock with which movies were made (Eastman Kodak would sell film only to licensed filmmakers.) 
Selig and Edison had been foes, but a legal arrangement worked out with Edison on behalf of Selig by a legal team brought in by Armour and Company established a truce. (Selig had produced what amounted to very early commercials for the meatpackers, who'd recently been scandalized by Upton Sinclair's The Jungle). By 1907 both Selig and Essanay had joined up, and the Edison Trust was in place, ushering in the short-lived "golden age" of film production in Chicago. 
"It is hard to overstate how phenomenally popular motion pictures were in 1914," the authors note. This was the golden age of Selig and Essanay. Selig's brightest star, Kathlyn Williams, was as popular as any movie star of her time. Williams was "the Selig Girl," Chicago's answer to "the Biograph Girl," Florence Lawrence, who by 1909 had become what some historians have called "the first screen star." The Adventures of Kathlyn, for its part, was the first American cliffhanger serial. "Moving Picture World wrote of fans waiting in line for hours, even in the notoriously bad Chicago winter weather, to attend the latest Kathlyn serial." 
Selig also triumphed with its "landmark newsreel," the Hearst-Selig News Pictorial.   
Essanay had its own triumphs: "The most important surviving Chicago-shot Essanay film of [the golden age], and arguably the masterpiece of all of its extant movies, is From the Submerged, a drama released in November 1912 that was written and directed by Theodore Wharton and starred the beautiful Ruth Stonehouse."
Which brings us to our town's claim to cinematic fame that not even doubters can dispute: we are the city where Charles Chaplin's career was born, when Essanay signed him in 1914. The fact is, though, that while he liked hanging out at the Green Mill, Chaplin was miserable in Chicago almost immediately. He made one film here, His New Job, then promptly decamped for Essanay's Western studio in Niles, California. As the authors note, "Chaplin's entire Chicago residency lasted 23 days." We glean interesting details about Chaplin from his brief sojourn in Chicago that flesh out our view of one of cinema's greatest artists, such as that he was a truly cheap bastard, and that he went to see Birth of a Nation, which "forever codified the 'language' of movies," at least once a week. 
The authors are careful to ensure that Edison comes out of their book as a mixed bag. For all its repressive practices, the Edison Trust "regulated and stabilized the nascent film industry and provided the model for the Hollywood 'studio system' by merging its production and distribution companies." Also on the "plus" side of the ledger: Edison Studios produced 1896's The Kiss, a massive hit, as well as 1903's The Great Train Robbery, starring Gilbert M. Anderson, the future "Broncho Billy" and co-founder of Essanay, and directed by Edwin S. Porter, whom historian Lewis Jacobs credits with having invented film editing, "the basis of motion picture artistry." 
Edison's gravest mistake may have been not to understand that movies were to be, as the authors put it, "a business driven by creativity and talent." If anything, a man like Edward Amet emerges as the true inventor/visionary of the era.  
Flickering Empire provides a twin service in that it provides at once a more detailed history of Chicago film history than has ever been attempted, while at the same time providing a concise history of the birth of the movies. While general readers may tire of the details of the business machinations and legal wranglings in Flickering Empire--even as a student of film history, my eyes glaze over a bit at that side of things--the authors delineate developments in the film business of the late 19th/early 20th century, particularly in distribution, in a clear, linear way, unraveling a tangled tale, so you understand how the founding of, say, 'film exchanges,' led to the next step. (Klein's distribution of real French films from Pathé Frères in the United States, as opposed to Edison's duped versions, enraged Edison and might have spurred on his founding of the MPPC). The early Chicago film figures were entrepeneurs as well as inventors and scientists, so this is necessarily a business story as well. 
At the same time they give us a concise version of the birth of film. It's a story that film buffs will have encountered in sometimes unwieldly detail in other books. I'm thinking especially of Lewis Jacobs' The Rise of the American Film: A Critical History, as well as the first three volumes of the University of California Press' mammoth History of American Cinema series (Charles Musser's The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907, Eileen Bowser's The Transformation of Cinema, 1907-1915 and Richard Koszarski's An Evening's Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928).
The book brings half-forgotten comedians and directors back to life. We meet Hobart Bosworth (The Count of Monte Cristo, 1908): he was the "Dean of Hollywood." Beverly Bayne was the "Queen of the Movies," and Francis X. Bushman was the "King of the Movies." They would go on to marry: the "first superstar screen couple."
Ben Turpin and Wallace Beery were Essanay comedians. Turpin, a former janitor, was the star of An Awful Skate, directed by Anderson, who simply strapped a pair of skates on Turpin and pushed him down a crowded downtown Chicago street, where he proceeded to wreak havoc and crash into pedestrians. (Turpin wasn't acting: he really couldn't skate.) The film was a massive hit, and after leaving Essanay Turpin would go on to achieve superstardom in 1917. 
These people are alive, so long as we read. 
Along with the little-remembered figures, we also encounter legends such as Gloria Swanson. Discovered by George Spoor, she left Essanay by 1915 and was ready to abandon the movie business altogether to travel the world. She was intending to just pass through Hollywood on her way abroad, but she stopped to say hello to old friend Wallace Beery and he showed her around. She became entranced by the "absurd" "freaks," the colorful characters in the brand-new movie town. (She and Beery were unhappily married for a few years, 1916-19). She got snapped up by Keystone, and by 1925 Gloria Swanson was a huge, huge star. Modern audiences remember her most for her unforgettable comeback performance as a former silent screen star, in 1950's Sunset Boulevard.
I love encountering the palimpsest of the past just under the surface of everyday life. Glover Smith went out and snapped photos for this book of both the "Diamond S" logo carved into the door over the sole remaining Selig Polyscope building in Chicago, abandoned only recently, and the exterior of the original Essanay Studios over at 1300 N. Wells, where the word "Essanay" is still proudly emblazoned on the flagstone over the door. I was chuffed to read that at the height of the Selig studio's expansion in 1908, Selig had several blocks over by Irving Park Road and Western, which is only a short jump from our home. "These new facilities included outdoor stages, artificial hills, a giant man-made lagoon, 'jungle trees' and an interior studio with a glass roof." Today Essanay Studio is part of St. Augustine College, and restoration efforts are underway. The old interior Essanay stage where Chaplin made "His New Job" is still there: today it is the Charlie Chaplin Auditorium.
As someone interested in the history of censorship, I found an unexpected late turn in Flickering Empire a treat: its history of Chicago censorship. In 1912 Chicago put its censorship board in place, with the post of chief censor going to one Major Metullus Lucullus Cicero Funkhouser, a former Chicago cop and veteran of the Spanish-American War. Within Our Gates by Oscar Micheaux deconstructed the racism of Birth of a Nation; in the wake of the Chicago race riots of 1919, the board banned it. In fact, they censored everything from footage of the 1915 capsizing of the SS Eastland in the Chicago River to an instructional film on how to do the 'hesitation waltz, the turkey trot and the tango." "Funkhouser's meddling repeatedly halted the regular flow of local distribution and exhibition."
We get two interesting post-scripts:
"One of the best-kept secrets of Chicago's secret film history is that the Second City was in fact first when it came to producing 'race movies.'" Selig Polyscope studio is where Oscar Micheaux, the great pioneering African-American filmmaker, shot his first film, in 1918. Based on his own 1917 novel The Homesteader, the film is lost today, sadly. Micheaux also made Within Our Gates (1918), the earliest surviving feature film made by a black director. Like Griffith, Micheaux's film "cuts back and forth between action occurring in separate locations in order to generate a suspenseful climax." As the authors note, "The Oscar Micheaux story deserves to be much more widely known, and his films deserve to be more widely seen."
The second postscript has to do with the Chicago origins of a titan: Orson Welles was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago when he made The Hearts of Age in Woodstock, a Chicago suburb. Though in later years Welles would claim his student film was meant as a parody of the avant-garde, the authors raise the possibility that it might have been an earnest attempt to work in that genre, with only defensive hindsight on the mature Welles' part. It's fascinating either way. "Like the early sketches of a master painter, the film in many ways points the way towards the greatness that was to come." I had seen this truly weird film before without fully registering that it was a Chicago production. As I recall, Criterion included it as an extra on its edition of 'F' for Fake (thus bringing together Welles' very first film with his last).
Of course it all fell apart. We're talking about Chicago, after all! As the Edison Trust felt the blows from independent producers and exchanges, and was simultaneously buffeted by lawsuits, the Chicago film industry began to decline. In part this was due to Edison's recalcitrance and myopia: for one thing, he refused to produce or release feature-length films. By 1920 Chicago was a "veritable cinematic ghost town." 
Ironically, the former independents the MPPC had tried to squeeze out--mavericks like William Fox, Carl Laemmle and Adolph Zucker--went on to establish the new Hollywood order. In 1906 Laemmle opened up one of the new storefront theaters called Nickelodeons in Chicago; thus, his Universal Picture empire had its roots in our great city. 
You could claim, I suppose, that the real story of the movies begins where this book leaves off. Certainly most prior film histories have proceeded as if this were the case. After Flickering Empire, though, it won't be as easy for historians to be so dismissive of Chicago's major role in film history. Glover and Smith's book amasses enough evidence and accumulates enough detail to make the case that, as the authors say, "so much came together in Chicago." 
*As a fun footnote, a film this book calls one of the "most significant Chicago-shot Essanay films of its era," Arthur Berthelet's 1916 Sherlock Holmes starring William Gillette (who had already spent a decade touring as Holmes with the theatrical production he co-wrote with Arthur Conan Doyle himself in 1899), is showing this month at the 51st Annual Chicago International Film Festival after being lost for almost a century! The authors write that it was "the first feature-length Sherlock Holmes movie as well as the first film in which the famed detective was portrayed wearing his soon-to-be-iconic deerstalker cap." As the Fest's program notes, the film "miraculously emerged last year from a French cinema archive." 

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Reader Comments (2)

This is the kind of review every author dreams will appear about his work!

October 22, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

Thanks so much for reading, Michael. It pleases me if I was able to do justice to your work!

October 23, 2015 | Registered CommenterScott Pfeiffer

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