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Flickering Empire

Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industry

Michael Glover Smith
Adam Selzer
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 240
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  • Book Info
    Flickering Empire
    Book Description:

    Flickering Empire: How Chicago Invented the U.S. Film Industrytells the fascinating but too little known story of how Chicago served as the unlikely capital of film production in America in the years prior to the rise of Hollywood (1907-1913). As entertaining as it is informative, the book straddles the worlds of academia and popular non-fiction alike in its vivid illustration of the rise and fall of the major Chicago movie studios in the mid-silent era (principally Essanay and Selig Polyscope). Colorful, larger-than-life historical figures like Thomas Edison, Charlie Chaplin, Oscar Micheaux and Orson Welles are major players in Flickering Empire - in addition to important but forgotten industry giants like 'Colonel' William Selig, George Spoor and Gilbert 'Broncho Billy' Anderson.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-85079-7
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xiv)
    Susan Doll

    I lived in Chicago for 25 years, and, in that time, I discovered it to be a city of contradictions. It is a city that earned fame for the contributions of progressive thinkers in social sciences, education, and religion, but ignominy for its legacy of political corruption. A beacon for clever entrepreneurs such as Cyrus McCormick and Aaron Montgomery Ward, Chicago also attracted con men like Joseph “Yellow Kid” Weil. Righteous Billy Sunday, who preached about the evils of alcohol during Prohibition, is buried in a Chicago suburb called Forest Park, five miles due east from the Hillside grave of...

    (pp. xv-xviii)
  6. Preface: Hollywood Before Hollywood
    (pp. 1-6)

    • CHAPTER ONE Edison’s Kinetoscope and Pre-Motion-Picture Entertainment
      (pp. 9-18)

      The late nineteenth century was an era of astounding innovation. Photography was still relatively new, as were the railroads. Steam and electricity were just beginning to show what they could do. Being able to send messages hundreds of miles instantly via the telegraph was exciting, but in 1876 Alexander Graham Bell eclipsed the telegraph and stunned the world with the introduction of his “electrical speaking telephone.” People had known about electricity for decades, but only now were they starting to see for themselves its awesome possibilities.

      In many ways, motion pictures would be the climax of this flurry of invention....

    • CHAPTER TWO The Columbian Exposition
      (pp. 19-27)

      Even as theExposition Universellewas under way in Paris, Americans were making plans to stage a similar extravaganza in the United States. America was still a new country in those days. The Constitution was barely a century old. For much of its history, America had been seen as a weird, experimental little nation. Although some progressives overseas spoke of it as a veritable wonderland that had corrected the problems of the Old World, far more people saw it as a nation of disgusting slobs and of people with no sense of their place in the world. That the cries...

    • CHAPTER THREE The Dawn of Exhibition
      (pp. 28-38)

      The origins of commercial film exhibition as we now know it can be traced to April 1894, when the first of Edison’s Kinetoscope “parlors” opened in New York City, exhibiting the devices that had originally been planned for Chicago and theColumbian Exposition.A month later, more parlors sprang up in other cities, including Chicago, Atlantic City and San Francisco. An advertisement in theChicago Daily Tribune,probably the first real “movie ad” to appear in a local paper, simply stated:

      One has to love that “at last,” a reference to the device having been long-hyped in the Chicago press,...


    • CHAPTER FOUR Colonel William Selig
      (pp. 41-52)

      William Nicholas Selig (pronounced SEE-lig) was one of the most successful, and colorful, motion-picture pioneers of the 1890s and early 1900s. Selig was a native Chicagoan and traveling magician who conferred the title “Colonel” upon himself while touring the minstrel-show circuit. He was a large man with a bushy mustache and a friendly, ingratiating demeanor; an adjective used to describe the Colonel on more than one occasion was “Falstaffian.”² In 1895, the thirty-year-old Selig was in Dallas, working as a phony “medium” in a stage show advertised as “Prof Selig and his Company of Mediums,” demonstrating table-rapping, slate wiring, table-floating,...

    • CHAPTER FIVE George Spoor, George Kleine, and the Rise of the Nickelodeon
      (pp. 53-66)

      George Kirke Spoor, like William Selig, had a theatrical background that made him a natural for the movie business. Spoor was an enterprising young man who, along with a friend, had leased and successfully managed the Phoenix Opera House in Waukegan, Illinois, beginning in 1892 when he was barely twenty years old. Although his main business was running a newspaper stand in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood on the Near North Side, Spoor was a newly married man, and he had decided to manage the suburban Opera House as a means of making extra income. His experience booking vaudeville and theatrical...

    • CHAPTER SIX Gilbert “Broncho Billy” Anderson
      (pp. 67-76)

      In the silent-film era, trains and movies were a match made in heaven. The early filmmakers knew that movement itself was what most excited movie audiences and nothing symbolized movement in the industrial age like the locomotive. From the Lumiere brothers’Arrival of a Train at La Ciotatin 1896which, according to legend, caused early audiences to flee in terror as a train progressed towards the camera (and therefore, by extension, also towards the viewer*)through the simple panoramic films dubbed “phantom rides” that saw cameras being placed aboard trains to create a “you are there” effect, to the incredible locomotive...

    • CHAPTER SEVEN The Edison Trust
      (pp. 77-86)

      George Spoor and Gilbert Anderson were getting their company underway during a particularly tumultuous time in the motion-picture industry. There were so many lawsuits and countersuits filed during 1907 and 1908 that the entire movie business was plunged into chaos. The American film industry in the northeastern United States was already stunted by the many patent lawsuits Thomas Edison had filed; he had been suing people and companies going back to the 1890s. The most important studio, apart from Edison Manufacturing and Vitagraph, operating in the New York/New Jersey area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, was W.K.L...


    • CHAPTER EIGHT The Golden Age of Essanay
      (pp. 89-102)

      Following its first big success withAn Awful Skatein July 1907Essanay Studios produced more than a dozen additional shorts before the end of that year. Of these films, all of which are now lost, the catalog descriptions and the titles themselves (e.g., Mr. Inquisitive,Where Is My Hair?and the regrettably titledThe Dancing Nig) suggest that most were comedies that were directed by Gilbert M. Anderson. The exceptions were the matter-of-factly named documentaryThe Unveiling Ceremonies of the McKinley Memorial, Canton, Ohio, September 30, 1907which was released less than two weeks after it was shot (and which was...

    • CHAPTER NINE The Golden Age of Selig Polyscope
      (pp. 103-119)

      Even before Colonel Selig had established his enormous new motion-picture plant in Chicago in 1907, he had begun looking at southern California as a place to do location shooting. As Essanay had done, Selig Polyscope immediately upgraded the production values of its films by taking full advantage of its new studio facilities and creating historical epics with impressively designed costumes and sets. One of the most ambitious Selig productions after opening the new Chicago studio was an adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’The Count of Monte Cristo(also known asMonte Cristo), which combined interior scenes shot in Chicago with exteriors...

    • CHAPTER TEN Essanay Signs Charlie Chaplin
      (pp. 120-130)

      In 1914 the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company was poised to become the most powerful movie studio in the world. Despite being financially strapped at the end of the previous calendar year, it still had in its employ many of the top draws in America’s nascent film industry. A series of high-quality, popular movies on the cutting edge of the new medium might have saved the studio.

      George Spoor, however, had lost the power that had brought him this far in the first place: his ability to see the future. Unlike his cross-town rival William Selig Spoor believed that short films...

    • CHAPTER ELEVEN Chaplin in Chicago: His New Job
      (pp. 131-144)

      Despite his best attempts to put on a brave face, Charlie Chaplin was miserable with Essanay by the time he commenced work for the studio on his first picture, fittingly titledHis New Job.When he asked to see the rushes at the end of the day, Essanay screened the original camera negative to save itself the expense of making a print. Chaplin was mortified.

      Chaplin traced most of the studio’s troubles back to one source: Thomas Edison, who had attempted to monopolize the industry through his Motion Picture Patents Company. Essanay was, Chaplin wrote, “smug and self-satisfied. Having been...


    • CHAPTER TWELVE The Decline of the Chicago Studios
      (pp. 147-159)

      As of 1915, Chicago technically remained a hub for filmmaking. There were still certain advantages that the Windy City could provide that the lush celluloid pastures of Los Angeles could not, such as the opportunity of capturing urban street shots. In 1915, Mack Sennett of Keystone hired Michael Figliulo to perform motorcycle stunts in Chicago city streets. Figliulo later remembered filming a scene in which he rode off the roof of a twenty-story building downtown. “They sent me off of the building into a big steel net that was suspended from the window a floor below,” he said. He got...

    • CHAPTER THIRTEEN Major M.L.C. Funkhouser and the Chicago Censorship Code
      (pp. 160-167)

      Besides its pioneering roles in the production, distribution, and exhibition of motion pictures in America, Chicago has the dubious distinction of pioneering movie censorship laws and ratings boards as well. Chicago’s stringent early censorship code almost certainly hurt the local filmmaking industry and probably contributed at least in small part to its decline. Ironically, the censorship laws seemed to hurt local filmmakers the most between 1908 and 1912, when the Chicago studios were at their strongest; after that, the censors laid off the local industry just as it began to decline, and became more vigilant about going after the MPPC’s...

  11. Epilogue
    (pp. 168-176)

    The later fortunes and careers of the major players in Chicago’s original motion-picture scene varied wildly.

    George Kleine, because his business had long depended upon importing European films, went into semi-retirement after the outbreak of World War I; he had already amassed his fortune by that time. Kleine would continue to dabble in production and distribution throughout the 1920s, mostly in the educational film market, but more as a hobby than out of necessity. He died in 1931, three years after officially retiring, at which time he was estimated to be about 67 years old.

    A decade after closing up...

  12. Post-Script: Oscar and Orson
    (pp. 177-184)

    Although William Selig shut down production at his Chicago studio for good in 1918, it would be another two years before he sold the complex of buildings to an automobile manufacturer. In the interim, he rented out his facilities to independent filmmakers looking to break into the market with low-budget productions. It must have seemed ignominious to many of Selig’s army of former employees that the once-mighty studio was being used for cheap productions by inexperienced companies at the same time that all of the real talent was migrating to southern California. During this time, however, the Selig Polyscope lot...

    (pp. 185-188)
    (pp. 189-192)
    (pp. 193-196)
    (pp. 197-207)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 208-214)