Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood

Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood

Andrew A. Erish
Copyright Date: 2012
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/728707
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    Col. William N. Selig, the Man Who Invented Hollywood
    Book Description:

    All histories of Hollywood are wrong. Why? Two words: Colonel Selig. This early pioneer laid the foundation for the movie industry that we know today. Active from 1896 to 1938, William N. Selig was responsible for an amazing series of firsts, including the first two-reel narrative film and the first two-hour narrative feature made in America; the first American movie serial with cliffhanger endings; the first westerns filmed in the West with real cowboys and Indians; the creation of the jungle-adventure genre; the first horror film in America; the first successful American newsreel (made in partnership with William Randolph Hearst); and the first permanent film studio in Los Angeles. Selig was also among the first to cultivate extensive international exhibition of American films, which created a worldwide audience and contributed to American domination of the medium.

    In this book, Andrew Erish delves into the virtually untouched Selig archive at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library to tell the fascinating story of this unjustly forgotten film pioneer. He traces Selig's career from his early work as a traveling magician in the Midwest, to his founding of the first movie studio in Los Angeles in 1909, to his landmark series of innovations that still influence the film industry. As Erish recounts the many accomplishments of the man who first recognized that Southern California is the perfect place for moviemaking, he convincingly demonstrates that while others have been credited with inventing Hollywood, Colonel Selig is actually the one who most deserves that honor.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-73740-2
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Andrew A. Erish
  4. Abbreviations
    (pp. ix-xi)
  5. INTRODUCTION: The Forgotten Pioneer
    (pp. 1-4)

    The academy awards ceremony held on march 20, 1948, honored what were deemed the best films released in 1947. The event also celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the founding of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The occasion inspired Academy president Jean Hersholt to spearhead an effort to formally recognize the founders of the American film industry. Four elderly men were honored with special Oscars: Colonel William N. Selig, Albert E. Smith, George K. Spoor, and Thomas Armat. Selig and Smith were able to attend the ceremony.

    Moments before receiving his Oscar, Col. Selig, squat with wire-rimmed glasses...

  6. CHAPTER 1 The Birth of a Motion Picture Company
    (pp. 5-30)

    William Nicholas Selig (pronounced see-lig) was born on March 14, 1864, at 10 Kramer Street, Chicago, Illinois, to Joseph Franz and Antonia (Linsky) Selig, the fifth of eight children. Selig’s father, a shoemaker, hailed from Bohemia, his mother from Prussia. Not much is known of “Willy” Selig’s early years except that his German-speaking family was poor and staunchly Roman Catholic. Selig attended public school until the age of thirteen and then began serving an apprenticeship as an upholsterer and decorator.

    While still in his teens Selig rebelled against his parents’ wishes and became apprenticed to a master magician. He developed...

  7. CHAPTER 2 Making Westerns in the West
    (pp. 31-56)

    William Selig was among the few pioneering filmmakers to produce actuality (documentary) films in the West at the turn of the twentieth century. The choice of images and the methods for producing these films formed the basis for Selig’s narrative Westerns, for several years distinguishing his production style and content from those ofallother filmmakers. However, just as his Westerns would eventually result in a legacy of influence that extends to the present, so Selig’s own productions were inspired by a variety of sources.

    Late-nineteenth-century literature, painting, and theater reflected a widespread interest in the American West. Authors O....

  8. CHAPTER 3 The Creation of the Movie Cowboy
    (pp. 57-76)

    The western was of primary importance in establishing physical action as a defining characteristic of the American motion picture industry. In contrast with the Western melodramas of competitors such as Essanay and Lubin, which featured relatively sedate protagonists, not to mention Pathé Frères, whose “Westerns” were an object of derision in the United States, the Selig films are a kinetic revelation. The authentic mise-en-scène that characterizes William Selig’s productions found its ideal complement in his most popular and influential Western star: Tom Mix.

    By the time Tom Mix began working for Selig early in 1910, virtually every American producer was...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Selig in Eden: THE GENESIS OF MOVIES IN LOS ANGELES
    (pp. 77-100)

    During November–December 1907, francis boggs directed A thousand-foot version of Alexandre Dumas’ nineteenth-century international best seller,The Count of Monte Cristo. With its title shortened toMonte Cristo, the film was actually a fourteen-minute adaptation of highlights from the popular theatrical version of the novel, which continued to be performed into the early twentieth century.¹ Like Selig’s production ofDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Monte Cristowas clearly a prestige production, intended to expand the nickelodeon’s audience by attracting admirers of the book and play.²

    Boggs’ direction reflects the theatrical roots of the adaptation from the very start of...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Selig’s Cinematic Jungles and Zoo
    (pp. 101-131)

    Whereas William Selig’s engagement with developing the essential properties of the cinematic Western seems to have been deliberate, his development of another motion picture genre, the jungle-adventure film, seems to have been almost accidental. The company frequently referred to these films as “Jungle-Zoo Wild Animal Pictures,” and they would for years vie with the Western as his most popular product.¹ The jungle-adventure was spawned from an unlikely source.

    Shortly before the end of 1908, the public learned that President Theodore Roosevelt planned to go on a yearlong African safari upon leaving the White House. The safari was front-page fodder for...

  11. CHAPTER 6 Leading the World
    (pp. 132-146)

    Selig’s success wasn’t merely the result of cultivating a more dynamic form of cinema; just as important was his establishment of a London-based distribution center that would eventually reach into every corner of the world. Ironically, Selig’s worldwide dominance would ultimately contribute to the demise of his company.

    Perhaps because he was raised by German-speaking parents, William Selig was able to establish business relationships with German film producers and exhibitors, who provided a steady outlet for his productions starting in 1902.¹ By the end of 1908, Selig was producing more than one film per week. At that time pioneer British...

  12. CHAPTER 7 Actualities, Expeditions, and Newsreels
    (pp. 147-162)

    Throughout most of the silent era,actualitieswas the term used for films that would later become more commonly known as “documentaries.” During the first decade of American commercial cinema, actualities were more widely produced than narratives.¹ They were easier and cheaper to make than narrative films, which required a storyline, actors, props, and usually purpose-built sets.

    Alison Griffiths has stated that the first twenty years of commercial cinema were “ethnographic film’s ‘golden years’ in terms of the sheer number of films produced and innovations in style and content.” It was also during this period that William Selig’s boyhood friend...

  13. CHAPTER 8 The Development of the Feature Film
    (pp. 163-194)

    During the first fifteen years of commercial American cinema, most films were no more than fifteen minutes in length—a single, thousand-foot reel.¹ This was partly because projectors could accommodate only one reel at a time. In addition, a full reel’s approximately fifteen-minute running length mimicked the duration of the average small-time vaudeville act. Smalltime vaudeville theaters were one of the primary sites exhibiting films during the period, along with storefront nickelodeons, which attracted the same working-class and immigrant clientele that were patronizing variety entertainment. In addition, many individual films during this period ranged from fifty to five hundred feet...

  14. CHAPTER 9 Exiled from Eden
    (pp. 195-218)

    William Selig reached the pinnacle of his success with the release ofThe Adventures of KathlynandThe Spoilersin 1914. The popularity of his jungle-adventure films, which resulted in the construction of one of the world’s largest private zoos and first movie theme park, as well as the international success of the Tom Mix Westerns, all contributed to Selig’s high standing in the motion picture industry during the prewar era. His preeminence was celebrated in innumerable newspaper and magazine articles from theLos Angeles TimestoElectrical Review and Western Electrician, whose March 1914 issue offered a detailed examination...

  15. Conclusion
    (pp. 219-224)

    More than a century has passed since William Selig led the motion picture industry to Los Angeles. So many of the things he initiated or was instrumental in developing are so intimately woven into the fabric of the movies that a complete accounting of his accomplishments is all but impossible. Thus it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched to suggest that commercial films made after Selig owe something to him, though it’s doubtful if anyone involved in the production of motion pictures over the past eighty years has been aware of that debt. It’s understandable, since few of the thirty-five hundred...

  16. Notes
    (pp. 225-288)
  17. Suggested Reading and Selected Selig Filmography
    (pp. 289-292)
  18. Index
    (pp. 293-303)