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6 The Production Company Assumes Greater Control: 1900-1902
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Edison's Conservative Business Strategy

From mid July 1901 to mid March 1902, a period of eight months, the Edison Manufacturing Company had a virtual monopoly in film production and sales within the United States. Rather than anticipating a possible reversal in the higher courts and parlaying this potentially short-term legal windfall into a long-term business advantage, Gilmore and White pursued a conservative, shortsighted business policy. Rather than investing in expensive productions that might yield lasting benefits, they produced inexpensive actualities and duped European spectacles to avoid high negative costs. Thomas Edison needed money for his other business schemes and was clearly unwilling to allocate funds for the Kinetograph Department. As he wrote in mid December 1901, "I am putting all my ducats in the storage battery."[91] Underfinanced, the Edison Company directed revenues toward attorney fees rather than into uncertain production ventures.

While producing McKinley films, Porter paused to photograph the America's Cup races off Sandy Hook in late September and early October, including "Columbia" and "Shamrock II," Start of Second Race , and Panoramic View of the Fleet After Yacht Race . This group of eight short films was also offered to exhibitors as a complete set, with dissolving effects melding them into a single program totaling 775 feet.[92]

During this period, filling special orders was an important part of the Kinetograph Department's business. James White later explained that the Edison Company "took pictures for people at special prices per foot for the negative and a special price per foot for the positive printed therefrom. These negative films remained in possession of the Edison Manufacturing Company but were the property of the people for whom they were exposed. The positive films were issued from them only on written order and in accordance with the price agreed upon at the time the negatives were taken."[93] Since the resulting pictures were neither copyrighted nor entered into Edison catalogs, the full dimensions of these activities remain unknown. However, in early November, White took a


moving picture from the rear end of a train "to be used by 'Dare Devil' Schreyer in his sensational 'mile-a-minute ride behind a train' on the stage of Keith's Theatre, New York."[94] Many orders were made by or executed through the rapidly growing Kinetograph Company with the help of silent partners White and Schermerhorn. In October 1901 "the largest contract ever known in the moving picture business" had the Kinetograph Company exhibiting special films for Mayor Richard Crocker's reelection campaign. Projected images played prominent roles on both sides as Seth Low's Fusion ticket fought Crocker's Tammany Hall gang.[95] A typical Kinetograph Company exhibition occurred on a large canvas covering the front of a saloon run by James J. Dowling, brother of the local Democratic district leader. One selection was "a cartoon representing Seth Low standing in a waste[basket] and showered with Tammany votes."[96] As several hundred people watched, the machine burst into flames, terminating the exhibition—an appropriate denouement, for Low was soon victorious. Afterwards Waters offered to sell fifty projecting machines "which have been used less than one month; complete and guaranteed in every part."[97]

Soon after the Crocker contract, the Kinetograph Company engaged White to film The Jeffries and Ruhlin Sparring Contest at San Francisco, Cal., November 15, 1901 and undoubtedly hoped the results could be toured like The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight or The Jeffries-Sharkey Fight . White's expenses for taking the pictures totaled $457.[98] Although the Edison manager later claimed to have traveled across the country alone, the inactivity of the Edison studio during November and December suggests that Porter may have accompanied him. Certainly Porter's experience as an electrician would have been valuable in lighting the indoor event, a difficult task, at which the Vitagraph and Edison companies had failed two years earlier.[99] Immediately before the fight,

The attendants began to stretch new canvas on the ring and a dozen men with ladders and a whole tool shop began to pull and haul at a great square of boards and canvas that hung over the squared circle. It was the kinetoscope apparatus, eighty powerful arc lights and four Navy searchlights. For ten minutes the electricians swung through the rafters getting everything in readiness. On the Grove street side of the Pavillion a temporary booth with glaring red peep holes held the business part of the machine.[100]

These powerful lights produced extreme heat, which the combatants felt from the very beginning.[101] The fight only lasted five rounds, limiting the film's commercial usefulness. As White later recalled, "the pictures were not long enough in themselves to form a complete exhibition, and therefore they had to be put in vaudeville as a short act. A bull fight would be, I think, fifteen or twenty rounds. The film I took would take about twenty minutes to exhibit at the usual rate of speed."[102] After selling a copy of the fight film to someone on the West Coast, the Edison Company assumed ownership of the subject and credited Waters' account. The sales price on this subject was raised to 25¢ a foot, with


the added fee serving as a royalty and presumably going to the fighters.[103] The Kinetograph Company still showed the fight film at Miner's Eighth Avenue Theater during the first two weeks of December; it was then copyrighted and offered for sale to the general public.[104]

The West Coast expedition turned into a reprise of White's 1897-98 tour of the West and Mexico. Soon after the fight, he was in British Columbia taking films for the Canadian Pacific Railroad (Panoramic View, Kicking Horse Canyon ). These later views of dramatic scenery were taken from the front of a moving train near Golden and Leanchoil. Back in the Bay Area, White produced numerous films for travel lectures (Fishing at Faralone Island, Chinese Shaving Scene ). He then visited Southern California (Ostrich Farms at Pasadena ) before heading south to Mexico City, where he filmed The Great Bull Fight on February 2, 1902.[105] This 1,000-foot film was sold in whatever lengths the exhibitor might desire.

During White's three-month absence, East Coast production was slight. On November 16th, an Edison cameraman shot Automobile Parade on the Coney Island Boulevard with "perhaps 100 machines in line, big and little, old and new, steam, electric and gasoline."[106] The parade, sponsored by the Long Island Automobile Club, was part of the preliminaries to a series of races in which Frenchman Henri Fourier, "the King of Chauffeurs," drove a "lightning mile" in 51 4/5 seconds. These races, which made the front page of New York papers, were delayed, and lack of light probably prevented them from being successfully kinetographed. The new year began with the filming of the Mummers Parade in Philadelphia. James Smith may have been responsible for both productions.

With few new studio productions to sell, the Edison Company used its legal position to acquire original negatives from former competitors. A group of Vitagraph subjects from 1900 were acquired and copyrighted in Edison's name in mid December. These included The Mysterious Care, Harry Tompson's Imitations of Sousa, Roeher Wrestling Match, The Artist's Dilemma , and The Fat and Lean Wrestling Match . Edison's sales listings were also enhanced by "dupes." Méliès' Little Red Riding Hood and other Houdin trick films were added to the Edison catalog in the later part of 1901.

Production at the Edison studio resumed in January 1902, coinciding with Porter's increase in salary to $20 a week. From this point forward, the former exhibitor turned cameraman assumed firmer control over studio production. While collaborations with George Fleming and others continued, Porter was at the center of these activities. This new situation began with a series of trick films, some of which were remakes of foreign subjects.[107] In Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show , a rube confuses the projected image with real life and, trying to interfere with events shown on the screen, disrupts the show. Though this gag was as old as projected moving pictures, Porter's comedy was indebted to an earlier film by Robert Paul, The Countryman's First Sight of the Animated Pictures .[108] Porter's remake substituted Edison scenes and titles for the films


within the film. Since the comedy's production required mattes and optical reduction, it posed a technical challenge Porter must have found intriguing. The Twentieth Century Tramp; or, Happy Hooligan and His Airship was indebted to Ferdinand Zecca's A la conquête de l'air .[109] It used a split screen image: the top half showed a tramp on a bicycle pedaling his balloon-airship against a plain background, while the bottom half is a "circular panorama" of the city. In the pre-cinema lantern world, such images had been achieved by the use of multiple projections, allowing each slide—each part of the image on the screen—to unfold independently in time. It is easy to conceive of a lantern show similar to The Twentieth Century Tramp , in which a mechanical slide of a tramp was projected onto the top half of the screen and a moving panorama on the bottom. Practically, the new technology of moving pictures required that such composites be executed on the film rather than on the screen, and they were one element in the gradual consolidation of creativity within the production company.

Upon his return to New York, manager James White spurred East Coast production, revitalizing the concept of cinema as a visual newspaper. Edison personnel photographed Paterson, New Jersey, shortly after its devastating fire on February 9th (Panorama of the Paterson Fire ). Cameramen had arrived too late to shoot any actual firefighting. As a result, the films emphasized spectacle and landscape, displaying the devastation with sweeping panoramas. No effort was made to show how the fire affected people's lives. On February 15th The Burning of Durland's Riding Academy was taken at Central Park West between Sixty-first and Sixty-second streets in New York City. The panning camera captured firemen hosing down the still smoldering remains. Since the film was only of local importance, it was renamed Firemen Fighting the Flames at Paterson and sold as footage of the better-known event. Relabeling films to increase their commercial potential was neither unusual nor "naive" but consistent with the highly opportunistic business ethics of Edison and other film producers.

On February 17th, the Kinetograph Department photographed New York City in a Blizzard .[110] Immediately after the snowfall, Porter and his associates made Capture of the Biddle Brothers , reenacting the sensational shoot-out between the Biddle brothers and law officers. This one-shot film of a newsworthy event was executed in the cool, controlled style of Execution of Czolgosz . The Edison catalog informed potential purchasers:


The public throughout the world is acquainted with the sensational capture of the Biddle Brothers and Mrs. Soffel, who, through the aid of Mrs. Soffel, escaped from the Pittsburg jail on January 30th, 1902. Our picture, which is a perfect reproduction of the capture, is realistic and exciting. It shows the sheriffs in two sleighs coming down the hill on the snow covered road. Mrs. Soffel and the Biddle Brothers appear in the foreground going toward the sheriffs. Immediately the sheriffs are seen by Ed. Biddle, he stops the sleigh, and rising, begins firing at the sheriffs with a shotgun. He is the first to be shot and falls to the ground in a snow bank, but, game to the last, he rises


on one elbow and fires shot after shot with his revolver. Mrs. Soffel and the second Biddle then begin firing. When Mrs. Soffel sees that their capture is certain, she attempts to take her own life by shooting herself with the pistol. The sheriffs are finally victorious and the two convicts with the unfortunate woman are loaded into the sheriffs' double sleigh. Class A. 125 ft.[111]

In late February and early March, the Kinetograph Department filmed Prince Henry of Prussia's visit to the United States. Edison cameramen photographed the royal visitor's arrival in New York City and followed him to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the prince met the German-American psychologist and philosopher Hugo Münsterberg at Harvard. Porter was even sent to Chicago to photograph Prince Henry at Lincoln's Monument, Chicago, Illinois .[112] The most noteworthy films were of the christening of Kaiser Wilhelm's yacht Meteor at Shooter's Island, taken on February 25, 1902. In this last situation, Edwin Porter and Jacob Smith filmed the Meteor entering the water simultaneously from their two different camera positions. When these two films, Christening and Launching Kaiser Wilhelm's Yacht "Meteor " and Kaiser Wilhelm's Yacht "Meteor" Entering the Water were shown together, what had been filmed simultaneously was shown successively. Exhibitors could present the same event from two different points of view, offering their patrons a double perspective that might be described as a novelty.

Edison films taken in the winter of 1901-2 were principally actuality subjects. Like Cutting and Canaling Ice , taken in Groton, Massachusetts, most consisted of several shots taken at approximately the same time and place. These single, but elaborated, scenes were still small enough for showmen to incorporate into larger sequences, but allowed the producer to perform an editorial function as well. The few studio films made in early 1902 included Facial Expression , which showed "one of the most talented lady facial expression artists in the world, executing the most amusing facial gyrations."[113] Two others of the same genre followed. Burlesque Suicide, No. 1 and Burlesque Suicide, No. 2 were medium shots of a despairing man putting a gun to his head. In one version he takes a drink instead of pulling the trigger; in the other he points his finger at the camera and laughs.[114]

While comedies and fairy-tale films were popular with audiences, the lack of competition meant that the Kinetograph Department did not have to cater extensively to this demand. Many could be imported and duped. Edison's New York studio was used less during the winter of 1901-2 than when it first opened. Unnecessary expenses (actors' salaries, sets, etc.) could thus be avoided. The shift toward story films then taking place in Europe was delayed in the United States by legal and business factors.

William Paley, who remained an Edison licensee into 1902, continued to take actualities that ended up in the Edison catalog. Montreal Fire Department on Runners , taken in March 1901 for the opening of a Proctor theater in that city, showed a fire run that demonstrated the Canadians' use of sleighs for


firefighting purposes. Two months later, Paley took local views of the trolley car strike in Albany, New York. These, too, were shown in the local Proctor theater. "Paley's kalatechnoscope will blossom out this week by displaying several moving pictures incidental to the big trolley car strike of last week," reported the Albany Evening Journal . "A picture of the Third Signal Corps escorting the repair wagon down State street will be shown, also the first car that was run down State street with militiamen as passengers, besides other interesting incidents."[115] These were greeted by loud rounds of applause from the predominantly anti-union audience at Proctor's and then offered for sale as The Great Albany Car Strike .[116] Paley took more films in or near Montreal during 1902. These included Skiing in Montreal (© February 10, 1902), Coasting Scene at Montmorency Falls, Canada , and Arrival of the Governor General, Lord Minto, at Quebec (© February 17, 1902).[117] These served as a modest supplement to Edison's own output.

Histories of early cinema often refer to a decline in the popularity of moving pictures around the turn of the century, particularly in vaudeville theaters, where motion pictures were the last act on the bill and large portions of the audience left when the films were shown. These programs were often known as "chasers," and for this reason these years have often been called "the chaser period." Disfavor has generally been attributed to a jaded audience tiring of actuality scenes and news footage. Although at least one recent historian has dismissed this as a myth perpetuated by gullible scholars, data from different branches of the film industry indicate that cinema did experience a period of retrenchment and even contraction early in the twentieth century.[118] The Edison Company's near monopoly contributed to these difficulties. The Kinetograph Department would have had to expand its production levels rapidly if other branches of the industry were to have remained unaffected by the court decision. Instead, as the preceding section has shown, the Edison corporation pursued a self-serving business policy. As one might expect, Edison film sales (and profits) increased significantly during the 1901-2 business year-roughly 68 percent, from $49,756 to $82,108. This increase, however, was not equivalent to the sales lost by the inventor's competitors. Sales of projecting kinetoscopes, moreover, remained the same as the year before the Edison monopoly.

While Edison's legal actions contributed to difficulties in the motion picture industry, evidence also suggests that the concept of cinema as a visual newspaper needed to be rethought. Actuality subjects were losing much of their appeal. As long as the Edison Manufacturing Company was the only American business selling news films, this decline was not an immediate problem, since it controlled the entire market. Only when Edison's competitors reentered the moving picture field in the spring of 1902 did the Kinetograph Department have to rethink its production patterns.


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6 The Production Company Assumes Greater Control: 1900-1902
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