Monday, July 6, 2015

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema (Ned Thanhouser, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night’s “Silent Sunday Showcase” on TCM was an hour-long documentary called The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema, directed (and crowd-financed via Indiegogo, listed as “Ingiegogo” on the closing credits) by Ned Thanhouser, whose grandparents Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser founded the eponymous studio in 1910 in New Rochelle, New York. Edwin Thanhouser was a young stage-struck Midwest kid who ran away from home, joined a theatre troupe and ultimately got appointed to run a decrepit theatre called the Academy of Music in Milwaukee. A better businessperson than he was an actor, he made a success of it by presenting high-class (as high-class as his budget would allow, anyway) productions and doing a mix of classics and modern fare. He also fell in love with Gertrude Lonergan, an actress in his company, and in order to get close to her he cast himself opposite her in one of his productions. She didn’t like his acting and she was concerned about his financial prospects, enough that she turned down his repeated proposals of marriage and finally agreed to tie the knot with him only after he accumulated $10,000 in savings. With the theatre in Milwaukee doing so well, Thanhouser’s backers gave him control of a similar house in Chicago — only it failed, possibly because Thanhouser was out of his depth in a larger city. Thanhouser himself blamed his failure on the rise in popularity of nickelodeon shows, which offered crudely produced motion pictures for an affordable ticket price of 5¢ — one-tenth what it cost to see a Thanhouser play — so, on the principle that if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em, Thanhouser decided to form a movie studio and enter the motion picture business himself.

His working capital was that $10,000 nest egg he had accumulated as his price for getting Gertrude to marry him, and perhaps because it was effectively her money Gertrude ended up with 98 percent ownership of the Thanhouser Studio, with Edwin and Lloyd Lonergan (Gertrude’s brother, and a New York Herald-Tribune reporter by day who wrote stories and scripts for Thanhouser films by night) each owning 1 percent. As a film company Thanhouser did the same sorts of productions he’d done on stage, relatively sophisticated modern-dress stories interspersed with acknowledged classics — Shakespeare and Dickens particularly (their productions included A Winter’s Tale and King Lear as well as David Copperfield and Little Dorrit) — even though at just one reel of running time (about 12 minutes) his films could hardly do justice to these literary sources. Nonetheless, Thanhouser movies were opulently produced (for the time), they were reasonably well acted — Thanhouser got his actors from people he’d known and worked with on stage, who themselves were suffering from the closing of many summer-stock companies due to competition from the films and needed something to do during the summer months when New York’s infamous heat made being indoors in a theatre pre-air conditioning intolerable — and they were definitely the “cut above” the usual nickelodeon fare Edwin Thanhouser was hoping for. The period during which Thanhouser operated was an unsettled time for American moviemaking because the basic patents on film equipment — cameras and projectors — were all owned by Thomas A. Edison, who had formed the Motion Picture Patents Company, a trust that sought complete dominance over American filmmaking. With one exception — Biograph, and them only when the young, still-unknown D. W. Griffith was directing — the Trust companies’ movies were dull, stodgy, filmed cheaply on patently artificial-looking sets. It would take the leading independent studios, particularly Carl Laemmle’s IMP (Independent Motion Pictures), which later became Universal, to innovate and create faster-moving, better produced, more watchable films that would establish moviemaking as a legitimate art form and not just a novelty. Edwin Thanhouser applied for a Trust license, was turned down, but decided to go ahead and make movies anyway even though that meant having to hire armed guards to prevent the Patent Company’s hired thugs from breaking into his studio and smashing the cameras.

His films established a reputation for quality at a time when the studio brand name was the chief selling point — both the Patent Company and all but one of the independent producers had decided not to credit anybody involved in the actual making of films for fear that they’d have to deal with the same “star system” that had become the bane of stage producers, in which popular actors and actresses would hold up producers for large salaries and perks because their names were proven audience draws. That broke when Carl Laemmle lured an actress known simply as “The Biograph Girl” away from Biograph by offering her not only more money but also the chance to be credited under her real name, Florence Lawrence — and yes, that was her real name, not a concoction of Laemmle’s publicity department. Edwin Thanhouser comes off in this documentary produced by his grandson as the sort of visionary entrepreneur who has a sensational success at first but then falls because he refuses to make the changes demanded by the consumers of a rapidly evolving industry. After three years running Thanhouser, Edwin sold it to Mutual, another early independent studio which assigned Charles Hite to run the place — and Hite was smart enough to keep to Thanhouser’s policies and continue to produce quality films. Then he was killed in a car accident and a management committee took over, running the place into the ground. Meanwhile, Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser were off in Europe doing a grand tour and enjoying their first real vacation after years of hard work first as theatre managers and then as filmmakers — until the board of Mutual summoned Edwin back and asked him to take control of Thanhouser and restore it to its former glory. Alas, in the intervening years between 1912 and 1914 there had been a revolution in American filmmaking; companies like Laemmle’s Universal, Adolph Zukor’s Famous Players and Jesse Lasky’s company (the latter two eventually merged to form Paramount) had started making feature-length films, while Mack Sennett had founded the Keystone studio and revolutionized movie comedy with fast-moving slapstick. Edwin Thanhouser continued to run his studio as he had when he’d still owned it, making movies between one and four reels in length and setting up a separate company, Falstaff, to make short comedies — though since he hated slapstick, they were essentially situation comedies (one was called Cheating at Croquet, which seems today more likely to bore people to death than entertain them) and audiences weren’t interested in them when they could scream with laughter at Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand and the Keystone Kops.

Thanhouser also doggedly refused to give his actors on-screen credit, and though he established a satellite studio in Florida — which came in handy when his main plant at New Rochelle burned to the ground in 1913, a fire fueled by the highly flammable nitrate stock his films (and all others then) were printed on — he refused to join the exodus of other producing companies to southern California, with its sunny skies, abundance of spectacular locations, and (a consideration not mentioned in this documentary but of enormous significance in the days of the Patents Company) proximity to the Mexican border, which filmmakers using contraband cameras could cross if they got a heads-up that the Patents Company’s goon squads were on their way. (Filmmaking in other countries was perfectly legal because Edison, in one of his many business mistakes, had applied for patents on motion picture technology only for the U.S., not worldwide.) In 1916 Mutual spun off the Thanhouser subsidiary and lured Charlie Chaplin away from Essanay as their major attraction, and Thanhouser signed a distribution deal with Pathé but allowed it to expire after one year. He not only closed the Thanhouser studio, he burned all the negatives of his films rather than pay the storage bills to preserve them. Oddly, the documentary makes no mention of what Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser did for the rest of their lives — even though she lived until 1951 and he until 1956. Ned Thanhouser remembered growing up believing in the family legend that all the Thanhouser films had been lost — until 1985, when he discovered that a print of what is probably Thanhouser’s most famous film, a 1912 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring James Cruze (later a major director in the 1920’s who did blockbusters for Paramount like The Covered Wagon and Old Ironsides), was circulating on 16 mm. (The reason this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Thanhouser’s most famous film is that it’s the earliest known movie based on this famous and oft-filmed story.) He set about tracing as many Thanhouser prints as he could find, and to date he’s run down copies of 182 Thanhouser films — still less than one-fifth the studio’s total production of over 1,000 movies. He also crowd-sourced to obtain the funding for this documentary on his grandparents and their plucky movie company, and sought to restore the reputations of some of the Thanhouser actors who had been forgotten over the years because (aside from Cruze) they seemed not to have had movie careers after that and, in the case of Thanhouser’s most important female star, Florence La Badie, she was forgotten because she was killed in a car crash in 1917 just after she finished making her (and Thanhouser’s) last movie, The Man Without a Country.

Immediately after showing the Thanhouser documentary, TCM put on three of Thanhouser’s surviving films, including a quite remarkable movie called The Cry of the Children, released in 1912 and dealing with exploitative capitalists and child labor at a time when those were “live” political issues. The inspiration was a poem by Elizabeth Barrett Browning about the industrial exploitation of children in her own time, but the screenwriter (probably Lloyd Lonergan) moved the setting up to 1912. Set in a New England textile town, the film deals with a proletarian couple (James Cruze and Ethel Wright) who, in order to make ends meet, not only have to work in the big mill themselves but have hired out their two older children, a daughter and a son, for jobs there too. They’re determined to keep their youngest child, Alice (played by Marie Eline, possibly the movies’ first child star even though she was only billed as “The Thanhouser Kid”), out of the mills. The capitalist who owns the mill (William Russell) and his wife (Lila Chester) happen to drive by the home where Alice lives, and the wife is instantly smitten with her and wants to adopt her — but Our Alice virtuously refuses and insists on remaining with her real parents. The capitalist’s wife tries to buy Alice again, but she refuses, so her husband gets her what the titles refer to as “another pet” — a dog. Then the workers at the mill demand higher wages, the capitalist tells them to get lost, and they start a strike — but after several months they lose and return to work. Needless to say, by this time the workers’ family is in such dire straits they have to let Alice go to work to replace her ailing mother, and in one bitter scene she goes back to the owner’s home and offers to be adopted after all — but the owner’s wife is no longer interested in this pathetic and disheveled girl who’s lost all her cuteness from long days in the mill. Eventually Alice collapses on the mill floor and dies from overwork — though she makes one last appearance as a ghost at her family’s home. Outrageously exploitative and highly dependent on coincidence (a common failing of early movies because their running time was so short), The Cry of the Children holds up as social comment today, and it’s also a quite impressive piece of filmmaking — the shot of the line of workers entering the mill for their shifts looks more like a newsreel from the early 1930’s than something we expect to see in 1912 — and its contrast between noble but desperate workers and heartless capitalists who think they can buy anything rings all too true today. The Thanhouser documentary showed an ad for the film with a blurb by Theodore Roosevelt, who in 1912 was trying to regain the Presidency through the Progressive Party and had made curbing the abuses of industrial capitalism one of the central themes of his campaign.

The other two Thanhouser movies TCM offered as samples of the studio’s output were hardly as wrenching as The Cry of the Children, but they certainly had their merits. One was Petticoat Camp, a 1912 comedy in which several married couples decide to spend some summer time outdoors on an island, only while the men are off doing fun things like duck-hunting and fishing the women are stuck keeping the camp clean and gutting, plucking and filleting the proceeds of the men’s hunting and fishing so they can be turned into edible meals. The women rebel and, led by Florence La Badie (again!), they write a manifesto, signed “Your Ex-Slaves,” telling the men they’re on strike and are going to a neighboring island to live and camp for themselves. When the men try to invade the women’s redoubt the women shoot at their feet to scare them away. Later the men come back, waving a white flag of truce, and the women agree to reunite with them under a more equitable arrangement of camp duties. The other was The Evidence of the Film, a 1913 production that probably capitalized on the novelty of the idea that film could be used not merely as entertainment but evidence — in this case, to prove an unjustly framed person innocent of a crime. In this one, a corrupt broker (William Garwood) hatches a scheme to embezzle $20,000 worth of bonds from a woman client. He packages some torn-up newspaper in an envelope, seals it, then gives another envelope containing the actual bonds to his messenger boy (played in drag by Marie Eline), only midway through the messenger’s journey the broker accosts him, switches envelopes on him, and takes the real bonds. The idea is that the messenger will be accused of stealing the bonds and substituting the worthless newspaper, and it looks bad for Our Hero when a number of witnesses come into court to testify to the broker’s character. Only it just so happens that a Thanhouser film crew was shooting a street scene while the broker swapped envelopes with the kid, and it just so happens that the boy’s older sister (Florence La Badie) happens to work as a cutter in Thanhouser’s editing department. She sees the shot of the broker stealing the bonds and setting up her brother and goes to the court where he’s being tried with — you guessed it — The Evidence of the Film. The film is projected for the police investigating the case (given the crudity of 1913 special effects this was obviously done by black-masking part of the image and then adding the film-within-the-film via double exposure), the kid is exonerated and the broker is arrested (and William Garwood’s acting when his scheme is exposed is surprisingly restrained and lacks the scenery-chewing silent-film villains usually engaged in when their jigs were up).

Judging from these three examples, Thanhouser movies were ahead of their time in the relatively subtle acting, the handsomeness of the settings and the use of various points of view to tell a story. What they didn’t do that became an integral part of film grammar later is change angles within a scene; each sequence is shot with a solitary camera that, except for an occasional pan, doesn’t change view until the Thanhouser director is ready to cut to another scene. As good as The Cry of the Children is, it pales by comparison to D. W. Griffith’s Biograph one-reeler A Corner in Wheat (1911), made a year earlier and with a similar workers-good, capitalists-bad point of view but a far superior piece of filmmaking, with faster pacing, more rapid editing and heart-rending close-ups of the starving workers whose privation is directly caused by the capitalists’ determination to monopolize (“corner”) the wheat market. Still, Thanhouser’s output is an interesting byway in American movie history and the Thanhouser films that do exist deserve to be more widely known.