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article number 422
article date 02-17-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
The Independent Motion Picture Industry Battles the Patents Trust, 1909
by Terry Ramsaye

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

THEN the members of the Film Service Association filed into their assembly room at the Imperial Hotel in New York for the opening of their convention in January, 1909, they found an announcement from the newly formed Patents Company laid in each chair.

The Film Service Association was made up of the exchange-men who bought films from the makers and rented them out to the theaters. This new combination of the film makers in the Patents Company meant some kind of a new deal.

It was a tense and vital moment. These exchange-men were now on the high road to millions. Haberdashers, cloth spongers, bookmakers, cowpunchers, loan sharks and carnival followers were taking their first glimpse of a real prosperity and more money than they had expected to see in all the world.

Things might have been a bit complicated and speculative under the old catch-as-catch-can régime but they were prospering anyway.

Now came a new order. They feared it.

For the first few minutes of the convention there was only the rustling of papers as the exchange-men read the portentous document from the Patents Company, and reading was a tediously slow art with many of them.

Observers for the Patents Company were judiciously spread about to gather the comment that might arise.

Frank L. Dyer of the Edison Company addressed the gathering and explained in more detail the plans of the Patents Company, placing emphasis on the vast benefits that would accrue from the elimination of litigation over patents, and saying much less about the iron handed control that the new concern would exercise over the business in general and the exchanges in particular. Stenographic records of the session do not seem to have included any parentheses enclosing (laughter) or (applause).

In brief, the Patents Company proposed to license exchanges to deal in the film to be made by the licensed studios, which film was to be rented only to theatres using licensed projection machines. Various rules and fees were provided, including a charge of two dollars a week for each projection machine.

No unlicensed film could be handled and no licensed film could be served to any but licensed theatres. It was all a neat package from studio to exchange to theatre. Everybody had to have a license except the patron and he paid at the box office.

The Film Service Association solemnly acknowledged the arrangement. Meanwhile there were whispered conferences about the Imperial and in secluded corners of the busy bars of Broadway.

The majority were sure that the Patents Company had the best of the situation and they would have to accept its terms. If William Swanson, a Chicago exchange-man, and Carl Laemmle had been so minded, this story would have been considerably different.

Swanson had become a considerable factor in film distribution in the West. He made his first contact with the motion pictures in the remote season of 1897-8, when he was presenting a “lunette show” with a carnival company.

The lunette show used a black tent and deeply darkened interior, in which a girl attired in white went through mysterious eerie movements, apparently defying gravitation, but in reality riding the end of a long lever arm concealed in the dark.

When Swanson joined Percy Mundy’s carnival company in Wisconsin he found that organization already supplied with a lunette show, so he attached himself to Edwin S. Porter’s moving picture tent and learned the film game. Meanwhile, he occupied otherwise idle time instructing the yokelry of the carnival route in the eccentricities of dice and the laws of chance.

Swanson was a person of facility and dexterity. On this day of the Patents ultimatum, he was on the warpath. It was near midnight when George Kleine, George K. Spoor and Colonel W. N. Selig, the Chicago triumvirate of the Patents group, strolled into Jack’s restaurant in Sixth avenue for a snack of supper.

At a table not far away sat Swanson and a group of secretly dissenting exchange-men. Swanson sauntered over to a table occupied by the three Chicago producers. Swanson’s manner was ultra carefree and jovial, but the conversation at the Chicago table lulled. There seemed to be a notion that Swanson came with long ears.

Spoor, Selig and Kleine arose to go. Swanson arose with them and followed them, despite their “good night,” over to the Republican club in Fortieth street.

Swanson persistently insisted on conversation and entertainment. He would not be shaken off. There were orders for drinks now and then, with George Kleine taking Apollinaris.

It was three o’clock in the morning when they gently put Swanson to bed down the hall. They were reasonably satisfied he would have nothing but a headache to remember in the morning.

It was half past three when Swanson arose and tiptoed away. He had made up his mind about what to expect from the Patents Company. By noon he had collected a list of twenty-eight exchange-men pledged to oppose the combine’s terms and licenses.

An insurrection was in the making.

THE CARTOON WAR OF THE INDEPENDENTS AND THE TRUST. The ‘Film Index,’ organ of the Patents Company, lampoons the Independent producers and exchange-men.

But meantime, with the exchange-men outwardly accepting the terms of the patents combine, a maze of plots and counter-plots arose among them. The thread of the story begins in June of 1908, the year before, and is spun out of the irrelevant fact that it was then that Governor Hughes of New York signed the bill which forbade race track gambling in New York.

The law against race track gambling was a triumph for the agitation and campaign by Canon William Sheafe Chase of Christ Church, Brooklyn, who appears in censorship annals. Meanwhile this race track bill, by curious circumstance, became Canon Chase’s largest impress upon the screen.

The other end of the thread will bring us eventually to Charles Chaplin, the Triangle Film Corporation, and many another screen landmark, with sundry knots and kinks on the way.

The race track law resulted in a flurry of raids on the bookmakers. Out at Sheepshead Bay, Adam Kessel was one of the many repeatedly arrested and stripped of betting rolls.

This annoyed Kessel extremely. After it happened a number of times he decided to quit the business. He had prospered and he had been generous with his money. Now, in the words of the cartoonist, “Them days was gone forever.”

“It’s all off for Addy, I’m through,” Kessel told Charles Bauman, a sheet writer in his organization.

Kessel went home to think it over. Some weeks later it occurred to him that in the gala time of easy money he had loaned twenty-five hundred dollars to a friend, one Charles Streimer. Now was a good time to collect.

Down at 106 Fulton street Kessel found Streimer. “Say, Charlie, where’s my twenty-five hundred bones?”

Streimer pointed up to a shelf on which reposed a dozen flat tin cans, a foot in diameter and about two inches thick.

Kessel pulled down one of the cans and opened it, taking out a reel of film. It fell from his unaccustomed fingers and heaped up in a tangle about him.

“What’s these wheels?”

“Moving pictures.”

“What do you do with them?”

“I rent them to theatres—get ten dollars a day for the good ones, sometimes.”

“And then they bring ‘em back to you and give you ten dollars?” Kessel was incredulous.

“Yes—that’s the game.”

“Much obliged, this is my business,” Kessel announced. He sat down at the desk and took charge. Streimer went into his employ and a few days later they started out with a horse and buggy and a willow basket full of film canvassing the theatres for customers.

Kessel’s exchange became, in due course a member of the Film Service Association, pledged to eliminate “duping,” price cutting and all manner of abuses in the trade.

But the price cutting went on, and presently Kessel discovered that the virtuous exchanges of the association were often operating secret sub-exchanges which carried on the old nefarious practices. He was losing customers to them.

FAR FROM THE TRUST WAR. In California, William Selig set up studio independent of the Patents Company trust. He would eventually join it.

Kessel decided to acquire a sub-exchange. He sought out his erstwhile friend and associate of bookmaking days, Charles O. Bauman. He found Bauman operating a racing tip service and doing well selling “selections for today” and “best bets” to the racing fans.

“Charlie, this is the bunk—these moving pictures are the new graft, come on in.”

Bauman was skeptical, but Kessel set a box of films in a side room of Baumann’s establishment and sent a man in to take care of the new business. Bauman & Kessel were in the film business now.

The sub-exchange prospered so mightily that their competitor friends in the Film Service Association retaliated by a move which cut off their supply of licensed film, which now under the combine meant all of the film available in the United States.

Here was another big moment in screen history. Bauman and Kessel insisted on having pictures, so they set out to make them.

Over in Brooklyn they found Fred Balshofer in possession of a motion picture camera, unlicensed and outlawed by the Patents company, to be sure. They employed Balshofer and set out to produce.

On the side streets of Brooklyn they made a picture, building the story as they went along. The principal members of the cast were Adam Kessel and Charles Bauman.

The picture was not as bad as they had expected it to be. It was eight hundred feet long and cost almost $200. The producers titled it ‘Disinherited Son’s Loyalty’ and tried it in their film service. It appeared to be acceptable to their customers.

This effort so encouraged the conspirator-producers that they borrowed a wolfskin rug from a taxidermist and made a more sensational drama of wild life entitled ‘Davy Crockett in Hearts United.’ Kessel in the role of Crockett shot the wolfskin rug with tremendous effect at the climax.

This picture undoubtedly marks the beginning of wild animals in screen drama. This, too, was a box office success.

At Mouquin’s restaurant in Seventh avenue, Kessel, Bauman, Balshofer and Louis Burston, attorney, met to talk things over. They decided to form a corporation to make pictures. It was all settled but the name.

When Kessel got outfumbled for the dinner check and found that he was the host, he produced a new ten dollar bill. The bill bore the figure of a charging bison.

“There’s the trademark,” Kessel announced. “What Uncle Sam puts on his money is good enough for us.”

The new concern was christened “Bison Life Motion Pictures.” It went into production with Charles Inslee, acquired from Biograph as the dramatic expert. Bison’s first effort was ‘A True Indian’s Heart’ made in the wilds of Coytesville, N. J., with Charles French in the leading role.

While it was the original plan of Bauman and Kessel to make the picture for their own exchanges, they offered them experimentally on the open market.

They all sold, rapidly. Even the first feeble effort, costing two hundred dollars made a profit of fifteen hundred dollars.

“Never mind the expense, we’ll spend as high as $350 a picture,” they instructed Inslee.

Independent production had begun and several new wars were brewing.

The opening uprising against “the trust” began on March 20, 1909, when William Swanson announced on behalf of his exchanges that he had gone “independent.” April 12, Carl Laemmle burst forth with a similar announcement and followed it the next week with boldfaced type in the trade journals asserting “I am as Happy as a Sunflower.”

On May 1 he began baiting the Patents Company with an advertisement headed “Good Morrow—Have you Paid $2 license to pick your teeth?” With cartoon and broad innuendo Laemmle’s advertising, written and directed by his friend Robert Cochrane, campaigned against “the trust.”

THE CARTOON WAR OF THE INDEPENDENTS AND THE TRUST. A pictorial thrust from Carl Laemmle’s trade press attacks on the Patents Company’s two-dollar-a-week fee for licensed projectors.

The independent exchanges rapidly created a market for independently made pictures. So again a host of new infringers was to arise. Now came the Actophone Company among the earliest of the new line of invaders. It started with a studio at Eleventh avenue and Fifty-third street in New York’s famous “Hell’s Kitchen” zone.

Al McCoy, the Edison agent, was put on the trail again. The first thing discovered was that William Rising, trained in the making of pictures in the Edison studios by Edwin S. Porter was the Actophone director.

Actophone was slated for marked legal attention.

Behind the Actophone Company’s beginnings was a typically adventurous sequence of events. Back in 1903 Mark M. Dintenfass of Philadelphia, salesman of salt herring, fell out with his father and quit the parental fish business.

Two years later found him the proprietor of “Fairyland,” Philadelphia’s second screen theatre, an impressive establishment of one hundred and thirty seats. He had forgotten the salt herring, but they were still to be a factor in his experience and a bigger factor in screen affairs of years yet to come.

Dintenfass, seeking novelties, installed the Cameraphone, a talking picture made by Bert Whitman in New York. It was a synchronized film and phonograph record device, presenting such numbers as Eva Tanguay in her famously abandoned song “I Don’t Care,” Blanche Ring in her current hit, a dash of “The Merry Widow” and the like.

The Cameraphone, like all similar talking picture efforts, ran a short life and failed. Dintenfass found himself in possession of the remains of the company, including a camera. He changed the name to Actophone and declared himself a producer.

The Actophone studio was always locked and all who entered passed peephole examination by the watchman. In added precaution the camera, an imported Pathé, was enclosed in a sheet iron turret, within which worked Harry Ferrini, an expert hired away from Edison’s studio. Not even the actors were permitted to see the camera.

But the camera went out on location one day. A casual street loafer stood awkwardly by and asked Ferrini foolish questions while he manipulated the machine.

Then the loafer slouched away. His name was Al McCoy—of Edison. The injunction suits began at once.

The stubborn Dintenfass was called to court three times and twice cited for contempt of injunction orders. On his last day of grace, facing a handsome prospect of jail, he made peace by a promise to abandon the making of pictures.

But a few weeks of repentance healed his fears and presently Dintenfass was again making pictures in a tiny shack hidden in the deep woods that crown the Palisades of New Jersey near Coytesville.

Soon the detectives of the Patents Company were on the trail again, suspicious but not certain. Dintenfass was filled with alarm. If he were found this time there would be no chance of clemency.

But he would not quit the motion pictures. Money was there to be had, easy money.

An inspiration came to him. The one safe place for him to work would be in one of the Patents Company’s own studios. They would never find him there. Over at Philadelphia on a roof in Arch street, Sigmund Lubin had a studio no longer in use. Lubin, in his new prosperity with the Patents company, had outgrown the little roof top.

Dintenfass slipped away to Philadelphia and rented the studio from Lubin. It was just a little personal deal, one that Lubin did not feel obligated to report to the Patents Company. On the Arch street roof Dintenfass proceeded with his picture making undisturbed.

“Pop” Lubin was eminently practical in his point of view in this curious transaction. Perhaps too he had a certain sympathy with the plight of Dintenfass. Lubin had himself been considerably pursued by Edison agents in the days before the Patents Company peace.

In that safe hiding place Dintenfass pursued his film activities undisturbed, his whereabouts for that period remaining a mystery.

DEMAND FOR FOREIGN MOTION PICTURES. Independent, non-licensed theatres would often show foreign works. The demand for motion pictures was more than could be accommodated.

Later when the war between the Independents and the Patents group had really joined issue in a big test case, Dintenfass no longer in personal peril, emerged to play an erratic and spectatular part in film history. His most conspicuous project of the modern period was the production of a picturization of Ambassador James W. Gerard’s ‘My Four Years in Germany,’ in conjunction with Warner Brothers.

“Pop” Lubin’s sub-rosa share in this phase of the rise of the Independents recalls an incident of the same period in which is illustrated something of his humor, and which as well indicates how much the motion picture through successive stages had tended to inherit its ancient outlawries. One of the early official acts of the Patents Company was a piece of internal discipline, involving Lubin.

The charge was gravely made that one of the licensed Melies pictures had been “duped” or copied in the Lubin plant. A meeting was held at the company offices at 80 Fifth Avenue.

Lubin listened in silence.

“The fine will be one thousand dollars.”

This stirred “Pop” to protest.

“I didn’t dupe it,” Lubin exclaimed. “Besides I didn’t make any money on it and I won’t pay any fine.”

Another immediate outgrowth of the demand for independent film in the fight against the Patents Company was the formation of the International Film & Projecting Company, an importing concern, by J. J. Murdock, now known to the amusement world in connection with the Keith vaudeville interests, and Hector J. Streyckmans of the ‘Show World,’ a Chicago trade journal.

Murdock went abroad and acquired for America the films of all of the foreign makers not allied with the American patents combine. The foreign film served and prospered for a time, in a stop-gap sort of way.

But the American audiences were not satisfied and their demand gave new encouragement to the early independent producers, Actophone, Rex, Yankee and others.

By midsummer of 1909, Cart Laemmle, with his big system of exchanges demanding film, decided to go into production. In the fall Tom Cochrane, one of the members of the advertising agency which put Laemmle into the film business in Chicago, was sent on to New York to make pictures.

He rented space in the Actophone studio and employed William Ranous of Vitagraph as the first director of the concern, the Independent Motion Picture Company, soon abbreviated for trademark purposes, to the since famous “Imp.” The first production was ‘Hiawatha’ with Gladys Hulette, who later became a star of renown on the screen.

Now also the independent forces gained in strength of personnel by the acquisition of Edwin S. Porter, the Edison director and producer of ‘The Great Train Robbery.’

Porter left the Edison organization when Horace Plimpton, a carpet dealer and New Jersey friend of Frank L. Dyer, was placed in charge of the Edison picture activities.

Porter started picture making, working like the rest at the Actophone studio in Hell’s Kitchen. Shortly, in partnership with Swanson, he formed the Rex concern and evolved for it a trademark with a rim of stars—the same stars which the public sees today on the famous trade mark of Paramount. Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley appeared in the first Rex pictures.

At Mount Vernon, New York, P. A. Powers, a dealer and jobber in talking machines, who had made his contact with the motion picture as an Edison invention along with the phonograph, opened the studio of the Powers Picture Plays, with Joseph Golden as his director, Ludwig Erb the cameraman and technical expert, and Irving Cummings the leading man and head of the casts.

The Powers company introduced several famous names, among them Mildred Holland of stage fame in ‘The Power Behind the Throne.’

On January 27, 1912, Juliet Shelby, now known as Mary Miles Minter, made her first screen appearance in ‘The Nurse,’ a one reel production from the Powers studios. Juliet was then playing with Dustin and William Farnum in ‘The Littlest Rebel,’ at the Liberty theater.

MARY MILES MINTER — she was Juliet Shelby then — when she made her first motion picture appearance under the belligerent banner of P. A. Powers. The picture was “The Nurse.”

This P. A. Powers was about to become a dominant figure in the wars of the Independents which followed. He was and continues today one of the most aggressive, belligerently active men of the industry.

All this was predicated from the beginning. Way back in his boyhood up at Buffalo, Pat Powers, with his husky Irish shoulders, labored over the anvil in a forging shop and hammered out an idea for himself.

He was receiving three dollars a day. There was no more in sight no matter how hard he worked. Therefore forthwith he organized a labor union to get his wages increased.

That was Powers’ way. He can always see a way. The same spirit and daring made him glad to take a chance with the Independents against the Patents Company machine that claimed the screen for its exclusive own.

The efforts of the Motion Picture Patents Company to monopolize the technology of the motion picture right at the source, resulted in many bizarre efforts at the making of a camera which would not infringe the Edison patent. Most of those efforts were dismal failures.

Now after these many years the careers of the phonograph and the motion picture crossed again. Joseph Bianchi, recording expert for the Columbia Phonograph Company, evolved a camera which performed the amazing feat of recording a motion picture on a continuously moving film.

He used an optical system which made the image forming rays follow the moving film. This camera in consequence avoided infringement on the Edison intermittent movement and the Latham loop.

Through Paul Cromelin, one of Columbia’s vice presidents, a new system of licenses, paralleling in pattern the Patents Company scheme, was made available to the Independents, who made it a brave display in their advertising.

Because of the delicate adjustments necessary in the Bianchi camera it did not prove satisfactory in practice and the Independents used it and the “Columbia License” as camouflage for operations with infringing cameras.

The era of the Columbia license system brought in the establishment of the once famous Thanhouser concern. Most of the picture makers blundered into the business.

Edwin Thanhouser, a dramatic producer with a stock company in Milwaukee, came to New York for the deliberate purpose of entering the motion picture business. In an old skating rink, converted into a studio, Thanhouser began operations in New Rochelle in March of 1910, aligned with the Independents under the Columbia license.

But the very word “license” was malodorous in the nostrils of the Independents. It stood for everything that was in their way. It was back of all their troubles. It was the fighting word of 1909-10.

An elegant sample of the literature of the time was issued by Joseph R. Miles, an Independent exchange-man. It was a pamphlet which quoted the Patents Company’s printed statements about its license system.

In the quoted passages, however, Miles revised the orthography to make it appear “LICEnsed manufactures, LICEnsed exchanges, LICEnsed projection machines,” etc. Over it all he printed a title, “A LOUSY STATEMENT from the PATENTS COMPANY.”

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