Wednesday, 13 July 2011

City of Angels: The Studio Era, Part 2

The first film crew to set up shop in the Los Angeles area was the Chicago-based Selig Company. They shot outdoor scenes for their film The Count of Monte Christo (1907). A year later, in 1908, they erected a small film studio on what was then Alessandro Street (now Glendale Boulevard) in Edendale (now called Glendale). Their first film entirely shot in California was called The Heart of a Race
(1908). Selig was joined a year later by the New York Motion Picture Company, who built their own studio on a nearby lot, but eventually relocated to Santa Monica in 1911, after fusing with film pioneer Thomas Ince.The New York Motion Picture Company’s deserted Edendale studio changed hands and was used by Mack Sennett for his Keystone productions, founded in 1912. Keystone’s most famous member of staff would later be Charlie Chaplin, who joined the company in 1913, but left to sign up with Essanay in 1915, before enlisting with Henry Aitken’s Mutual Company the year after.

Thomas Ince

In 1910 the Biograph Company sent their own David Wark Griffith out to California to take some outdoor location shots for The Thread of Destiny. Griffith returned to New York, only to come back for more the next two winters, until, in 1913, he was here to stay, shooting his first feature film(four reels), Judith of Bethulia (1913) in the San Fernando Valley.Having started out as an actor for Biograph in New York, Griffith was also known as somebody who would supply the odd idea for what is now known as a screenplay, but what, back then, were just synopses or summaries of a plot that would serve as a basis for the final film. It quickly became obvious that his true vocation lay elsewhere than acting, and so it happened that little by little Griffith began directing the one and two reelers Biograph specialised in, until he came into his own as the company’s chief director, in charge of Biograph’s entire output.

Without being able to pinpoint what it was, everybody who watched a Griffith film immediately realised that they were seeing something new and altogether different, something out of the ordinary. Over the years, Griffith has been credited with various inventions in movie-making, which we now take for granted, but which substantially revolutionised the film industry, dragging it out from the back yard into the drawing room, by elevating it into an art form. Close-ups, panorama shots, back-lighting, the process of editing a film, aptly called montage by the French, are all attributed to Griffith.

Eventually, Griffith quit Biograph to join Henry Aitken’s Mutual Company.
Mutual eventually took over Charles Urban Kinemacolor studio at 4500 Sunset, which is where Griffith shot his seminal The Birth of a Nation (1915) and a year later, Intolerance (1916). The famous Babylonian set of Intolerance had been standing there for many years, but was torn down eventually, and the site now houses the Vista movie theatre, whose oriental interior décor pays homage to Griffith’s masterpiece.

In 1916, Henry Aitken founded Triangle, joined by Thomas Ince, Mack Sennett and David Wark Griffith. Later they erected a lavish film studio in Culver City, which would eventually be taken over by Samuel Goldwyn, who threw the studio into the package when he merged his company with MGM in 1924, which subsequently turned it into their headquarters. That year, after just having been put in charge of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan Productions, Thomas Ince fell mysteriously ill on board of Hearst’s yacht, and tragically died a few days later in his house in Benedict Canyon.
Legend has it, that Ince was shot over a lovers’ quarrel involving Hearst, his mistress, Marion Davies and Charlie Chaplin. However, in his biography Chaplin claims to have not even been on the yacht. However, speculations about the tragic incident persist to the very day, and gained again momentum when they became the subject of Peter Bogdanovich’s film The Cat’s Meow (2001). Triangle, however, proved to be a short-lived experience, when after a couple of expensive box-office disasters the company was dissolved, and Aitken vanished into oblivion.

Kalem and Essanay, two smaller companies, previously based in New York, both arrived in 1910 and also settled in Edendale, which was on its way to become the first Hollywood. Even though accounts vary, it was the Nestor Company, owned by William and David Horsley, who is said to be the first film troupe to ever set foot on Hollywood proper in 1911, building their modest film studio on the intersection of Sunset & Gower. Following Nestor’s example, an influx of yet more film companies set in, led by Pat Powers, the Éclair Company, and Lux, to name just a few, all flocking to the promised land.

A lot has been written, said, and speculated about Thomas Edison, to whom by 1907 all American producers were under licence, save one, Biograph, which had a patent for a camera of their own. Edison’s attempt to sue Biograph for patent infringement was rejected, and subsequently the two companies negotiated a truce, which in turn resulted in the Motion Picture Patent Company (= MPPC), or Trust, of which ten companies were members (Edison himself, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Pathé, Méliès, Biograph and George Kleine), founded in 1908, and held 16 patents:
one for film, two for cameras, thirteen for projectors. What’s more, the MPPC reached a shrewd agreement with Kodak, at the time the only American manufacturer of raw film stock, limiting sales to licensed producers only, who then in turn could rent their product to licensed exchanges(= distributors) alone. It goes without saying that the exchanges were not supposed to deal with exhibitors, showing unlicensed product.

Thomas Alva Edison

However, there was a cluster of independent companies that grew stronger and more confident over the years. Unlike the MPPC, which largely produced one or two reelers (= films that consist of only one or two reels, which translates into roughly ten, or twenty minutes respectively), the independents began focusing on feature films of three reels and more. Luckily for the independents, the MPPC controlled only around fifty to fifty-five percent of all theatres in the US, which made it easier for them to stand their ground.

Carl Laemmle was the biggest among the independent distributers, and in dire need of (unlicensed) films, which were difficult to obtain, he was supplied by the International Projecting and Producing Company, which specialised in importing films of Trust-excluded European producers. When the French brothers’ Lumière film stock became available in the US, Laemmle founded IMP (= Independent Moving Picture Company) and henceforth started to produce films himself. He lured Mary Pickford away from Biograph by doubling her salary, and she quickly became known as the Imp-Girl.
As a result of Laemmle’s success, other independents sprang up, like the New York Motion Picture Company (founded by Adam Kessel, Charles Baumann, Fred Balshofer in 1909), which cranked out westerns, under their Bison trademark, Defender, founded by Edwin S. Porter (of The Great Train Robbery-fame), who defected from Edison, Nestor, and Pat Powers.

Bison, IMP, and Powers emerged as the biggest among the independents.
Apart from using Lumière film stock, the independents operated with non-infringing European cameras. But, as results were sometimes unsatisfactory, they began using licensed machinery, which got them into trouble with Edison, who went to great lengths in his efforts to track down anybody who didn’t comply with his rules.

To protect their equipment, not to mention themselves, the independents covered their cameras, hired bodyguards, and some of them even fled to places which were out of the Trust’s reach, like Cuba, Florida, or, eventually, California, in order to continue with the shooting of their films. In 1910 Laemmle, Kessel, and Baumann set up the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company, which became the sole exchange for independent films, offering an average of 27 films per week, and by 1912 the independents’ share of the total film production rose to fifty percent. In tandem with the independents ascent, the Trust’s power began to be on the wane, as the valiant Laemmle was poised to beat Edison at his own game by challenging him in court, and it seemed that it was just a matter of having enough staying power to defeat him.

That same year the independents split into two rival camps, the Aitken/ Mutual Corporation which included ten companies, and Universal, which consisted of seven companies, headed by Carl Laemmle, who opened Universal’s West Coast branch in the same year by swallowing the Nestor Company and taking over their studio at the southwest corner of Sunset & Gower. However, in 1915, the year Edison’s hold over the infant film industry swiftly subsided when the Federal Court ruled that the Trust was an illegal conspiracy in restraint of trade, Laemmle moved to the San Fernando Valley, where he purchased a large parcel of land, erected a new studio and called it Universal City. The first to desert Hollywood in favour of the relatively undeveloped hinterland behind the Hollywood Hills, Laemmle allegedly was somewhat uneasy that his adventure might prove to be a failure.

But as we all know, he needn’t have worried!

Film historian Robert Sklar claims, that it wasn’t so much the Trust the film pioneers intended to escape by their exodus to Southern California, rather than the bad weather conditions in both New York and Chicago where the bulk of the film companies were based at the time. On top of that, unlike New York, which would always remain what it is, and could never be mistaken for anything else, Los Angeles had all the makings of a film metropolis, providing the film pioneers with ample space and a variety of sceneries, which were not unlike all the world’s landscapes rolled into one: an ocean with a jagged and cliffy coast-line; lush, subtropical vegetation, resembling anything between Turkey and the south of Spain; nearby lakes; deserts; and even snow-capped mountains could be found in the not too distant vicinity of Los Angeles.

And as if this wasn’t enough, the Los Angeles of those days also was a free-for-all, inasmuch as it was a city where unions were next to nonexistent, thus supplying the filmmakers with cheap labour galore.

To learn more about early Hollywood history, visit FILM-TALK again on Friday, July 22 when this series continues with City of Angels: The Studios - The Studio Era, Part 3, telling you all about Hollywood's first feature film, the birth of the studio system, and how Hollywood became the world's foremost hub for intellectuals during the 1930s!