Director: Arthur Berthelet
By Marilyn Ferdinand
In past years, the CIFF set aside some of its programming for films from bygone eras of particular interest to film enthusiasts. That practice went a bit into decline in recent years, but happily, this year, filmgoers can see three films in new restorations: William Wyler’s Funny Girl (1968); To Sleep with Anger (1990), in conjunction with the festival’s tribute to its influential director, Charles Burnett; and perhaps most exciting, the newly recovered Sherlock Holmes. The latter film was thought lost for nearly a century, but was found in 2014 at the world-famous Cinémathèque Française in Paris, a happy occurrence of the type that has become more common in recent years.
The significance of the find is immense, as it was the only film in which the great stage actor William Gillette ever appeared, preserving his famous, standard-setting characterization of the super-sleuth in his own highly successful co-adaptation with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle of the writer’s first Holmes story to appear in Strand Magazine, “A Scandal in Bohemia” (1891). Its significance to Chicago film history is even more noteworthy because the film was shot at the Essanay Studios at 1333-45 W. Argyle St. in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, which now serves as the Essanay Center, a division of St. Augustine College.
What? Chicago film history? Yes, indeed. For a short time, from 1898 through 1918, Chicago was the filmmaking capital of the United States. A fascinating history of this era written by my good friend Michael Glover Smith and his coauthor Adam Selzer, Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry offers a look at this crucible time in film history, with engaging profiles of the major players in the Chicago film industry, including Gilbert M. “Bronco Billy” Anderson and George Spoor, founders of Essanay; Selig Polyscope founder “Colonel” William Selig; film distributor and producer George Kleine; and some of the directors and actors who answered the call of Chicago before they found warmer pastures in Hollywood, including Gloria Swanson, Orson Welles, Oscar Micheaux, and Ben Turpin.
Recently, I sat down to talk about the Chicago film industry and Sherlock Holmes with Mike Smith, whose other claims to fame include his charming indie film, Cool Apocalypse, set to screen at the Gene Siskel Film Center on November 21 and 23, and his engaging blog White City Cinema. Our conversation ranged across a number of subjects, from film preservation to CGI.
Marilyn: Even though I knew there was a Chicago film industry, I had no idea how much was going on. What got you interested in doing this history?
Mike: The impetus was discovering how large the film industry was here, which I had no clue about even though I’ve always been really interested in early cinema. As a film history teacher, I always taught that era—the 1890s and early 1900s. But I mostly talked about Europe and the northeastern United States, Thomas Edison, Biograph, because that’s what the history books focused on.
I discovered by chance how large the industry here was when I went to the Chicago History Museum. They have a very small display devoted to film, TV, and radio, and they had an old Essanay camera on display and a little plaque describing Charlie Chaplin making a film here and the address of Essanay. I knew Chaplin had worked here, but I wasn’t sure when it was, where it was, how long he was here, or how many films he made. So I decided to do a bit of research, and I was surprised to learn he was only here for 23 days, and he only made one short film!
I went to Essanay and was amazed to find that it was intact, and when I started to learn more about the studio, I was surprised to learn that there was no book-length study of Essanay or the local film production scene in the silent era. There have been books that devote a chapter or two to the era, and there have been great biographies written of people like “Bronco Billy” Anderson and Col. Selig, but there’s never been a whole book devoted to just that era in Chicago film history. When I learned how crucial Chicago was to the developing film industry in America, I thought it was a worthy subject for an entire book.
I also think that the fact that Columbia University Press put out the book, which I’m still over the moon about, is that I think they realized that there was no other book devoted solely to this subject. Hopefully, Adam and I have helped to fill in a gap in early film history.
How did you and your coauthor get together?
Adam has been a good friend of mine for over a decade. We met by chance in line at a Bob Dylan concert at the Vic Theatre back in 2004. He is an author, historian, and tour guide and has a number of books out, primarily young adult novels. But he has some history books out, too, most notably The Smart Aleck’s Guide to U.S. History. So it was kind of a natural fit, because he knows Chicago history very well and I know film history very well.
You bring out the entrepreneurial spirit of Chicago. You can do anything here in Chicago, nobody will stop you. How did you feel about the characters you encountered?
I was fascinated by all of the major players and that entrepreneurial spirit really made researching this a lot of fun. I grew to really respect them as visionaries. This industry didn’t exist, so they were helping to build it up from nothing and they were coming from different backgrounds. Col. Selig was a phony medium who saw a kinetoscope and thought, ‘I want to get in on this.’ So the line between artist and businessman was totally blurred and also what it meant to be a filmmaker, a distributor, and an exhibitor. That was really interesting because in a few years, everything would become separate and regimented, but in the early days of cinema, they were selling cameras and they needed films that people could project. For George Spoor, certainly, filmmaking was an afterthought; he wanted to sell cameras.
I was really fond of George Kleine. He became my favorite character even though we write about him less that the others because he wasn’t a filmmaker; he was a distributor and he stood up to Edison the most and also, he was the only one who retired a success in the 1920s. He’s the only one who did not lose his fortune at the end of the local industry here.
Thomas Edison is someone I grew to grudgingly respect. Early on, Adam and I joked around about how he was going to be the villain of the book, and in some ways he is, but we also ended up sympathizing with him the more we looked into his point of view. I don’t think he was a super-villain trying to monopolize the industry out of greed. I think he truly thought that he had a case to make for patenting this equipment, and then the other thing to understand is that he didn’t understand how big the film industry was going to become. So when we look at what he did from today’s perspective, he seems really, really greedy, but if he had known how large the industry would become, he would have behaved differently. He was trying to make practical decisions to protect his own business interests by forming the Motion Picture Patents Company (MPPC) and only licensing his patented equipment to nine studios, and he did do some positive things, such as getting fire insurance for all the theatres that showed his films. In the early 20th century, that was very progressive. We tried to be balanced.
It’s hard to predict the future, though some people seem to have a sense of it, like Selig, who was a very innovative individual.
Moreso than Spoor and Anderson.
But he didn’t have the business acumen or didn’t know how to realize his dreams the way that he saw them. That’s often a problem with visionaries—they need somebody else to do the grunt work. I’m curious about Selig, too, because I know him more for his work out west. Can you tell me more about his Chicago versus western work?
I don’t know exactly how many films he produced here versus there, but I would estimate that the majority of the films he made were here because he started in 1896, and he didn’t shoot his first films out west until 1909. They call him the man who invented Hollywood—that’s the name of the biography of him because he was the first filmmaker to use a location in southern California, but that was almost by chance. He shot part of The Count of Monte Cristo (1908) there, and realized it was so ideal for shooting, especially in the wintertime, that he decided to set up a second branch out there.
The mythology is that Hollywood became Hollywood because Chicago was too cold, which is partially true, but not the whole story. Do you think there was any way that Chicago could have maintained, if not the center of film production, some ongoing film concern here?
That’s an excellent question. It’s hard for me to imagine the industry continuing beyond what it initially was. I feel like it’s almost a miracle that it happened at all.
Film production had already begun in the northeastern United States. Thomas Edison was producing films prior to their public exhibition, and I feel like the only reason it sprung up here was because he stunted the growth of the film industry there. I think it was a combination of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, the fact that Chicago was such an important hub for distribution, and a number of other factors that made it conducive to film production at that particular time, but I don’t think it was destined to last.
There was one really curious individual in this book—the censor, Major M.L.C. Funkhouser. What a great name! If anyone put the film scene in a funk, it was him. Obviously, there were a lot of bad business decisions that were sinking the industry, but do you think censorship was a contributing factor?
Definitely! Although we couldn’t get hard evidence against him, we tried to imply that he was in the pocket of Edison’s trust, the MPPC. The evidence comes mostly from the fact that he was a lot stricter about censoring independent films and foreign films than he was the MPPC films, especially as time went by. So I think that if he wasn’t in their pocket at the beginning, he eventually became that way. But he became that way at the wrong time because the ship was already sinking. Early on, when he did censor local films, he probably hurt the industry, and then later on, he was part of the sinking ship. Metaphorically, he was on the Eastland.
Metaphorically, but almost literally as well because the people most affected by that disaster were not allowed to see the films of it. I find that rather irresponsible and considering the history of the newsreel and how it became more codified here in Chicago, it seems like a real crime against Chicago cinema in that sense.
That footage could be seen in the suburbs but not in the city itself, which I agree is a tragedy. There are a few fragments of the film, all of which were found in an archive in Amsterdam, and one of them is unbelievably gruesome.
One of the amazing things about writing this book was witnessing the discovery of a lot of these old films. The Sherlock Holmes film was found just as Flickering Empire was going to press, so we were just able to add a footnote that it was going to be restored and rereleased. And now I’ve seen the film, and I love it. I think it’s wonderful. And there are a couple of other films that were either rediscovered or have been restored and are coming out soon in definitive editions.
I think we’ve hit into an era where film recovery and restoration is on the upswing. A lot of archives are opening and have the tools to finally see what they have, and I think we’ll see a lot more of these recoveries.
I think you’re right, and what I like is that a lot of these films have been discovered in an archive where they know there are films, but they’ve probably been mislabeled or the archive is in another country and the title was translated as something different so they don’t quite know what they have. So it’s an incredibly exciting time to be a cinephile, and it’s great that enough people care that there’s a market out there for this stuff. And that was another reason I wanted to write this book, because I’m always trying to show my students that film history is exciting. It’s not a boring, dry, academic endeavor. Just to watch films that are 100 years old can be a hell of a lot of fun. I think a film like Les Vampires by Louis Feuillade is as entertaining as a movie can be. Hopefully, my enthusiasm for this topic comes through in the book.
Telling this chapter in film history is really important if you’re going to get a true picture of how film developed in this country.
You’re so aware of the fact that this is the first time it was ever done on film. Maybe there are genre elements that come from literature and theatre, but when you see it on film, you realize that this is the beginning.
Like with William Gillette. Having his stage performance preserved for posterity, those opportunities don’t come along very often and it’s really a treasure to see that.
The last thing I want to say in terms of trying to capture this particular era is that I didn’t only want to transfer my enthusiasm for early film history to the reader, I also wanted to capture the excitement of the age, especially in the first chapter. That was the hook we wanted, to show how movies were sort of the climax of this flurry of invention that included other exciting breakthroughs—the lightbulb, the phonograph, and then there were moving pictures.
You really did that. The early nickelodeons, the idea of just being able to put your face down into the viewer and watch these moving pictures is revelatory to people. This wasn’t always here.
It’s hard to impress upon my students what the world was like before people saw moving pictures because today we’re just bombarded with moving images wherever we go. You’re at the gas station pumping gas and there’s a screen with people moving on it. There are screens in front of you all the time.
One of my favorite stories about early cinema is the Lumière Brothers had a film about a couple and their baby. They are in the foreground of the shot, and they’re outdoors. What made the biggest impression on audiences was not what was happening in the foreground, but rather the leaves blowing in the wind in the background. If you read contemporary reports of the screening, they talk about how that caused a sensation in the audience. And in a way, it makes sense if you think that people had looked at so many paintings and still photos of trees, just to see leaves blowing is revelatory.
There is a contemporary version of that with CGI, when you can see individual strands of hair moving, which I found fascinating because I was used to traditional cel animation.
I heard there was a hair physicist in Disney’s Tangled (2010) credited in that film. And that’s the great thing about film history, it’s a never-ending series of breakthroughs.
Sherlock Holmes screens Saturday, October 24 at 3:00 p.m.at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.
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