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  < Back to Table Of Contents  < Back to Topic: Art forms of a New Country

article number 426
article date 03-03-2015
copyright 2015 by Author else SaltOfAmerica
Our Motion Picture Producers Discover California, 1908-1910
by Terry Ramsaye
   

From the 1926 book, A Million and One Nights.

EDITORS NOTE: This article is decorated with pictures and captions of found in other books published in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

WHEN the murky days of the autumn of 1909 settled down on the studios of New York and Chicago the picture makers went hunting sunshine.

The thousands of nickelodeon theatres with their daily changes of program were consuming films at a rising rate and the output of the industry could scarcely keep pace with them.

Despite Biograph’s early use of electric lighted stages the motion picture still largely depended on daylight. Soon after the birth of the motion picture theatre, tentative exploring expeditions to sunnier regions began, including Florida, Cuba and California.

One day late in 1907 the first motion picture invaders detrained in Los Angeles. The party consisted of Francis Boggs, director for Selig, and Thomas Persons, who was cameraman, property man, business manager, assistant director and whatever else conditions required.

The immediate business of Boggs and Persons was the completion of a one reel version of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’ The interior scenes had been made in the Chicago studio. Now, ignoring the little technical matter of an entire change of cast, the rest of the picture was to be made in California.

Persons searched about Los Angeles to find some one sufficiently abandoned to accept work in motion pictures. He at last discovered a hungry hypnotist, starving on his earnings in a dime museum. The hypnotist had never heard of the movies but he was in condition to accept anything. He was cast for the role of the ‘Count of Monte Cristo.’

The big punch of the picture was to portray ‘Monte’ rising from the sea. Persons made up his hypnotist with a white wig and proceeded to the seashore to shoot the scene.

A great wave broke over ‘Monte Cristo’ just as he got the signal to rise. The hero failed to emerge. He went down carrying the title role with him. That was not in the script.

“Hey!” Persons shouted to Boggs, “I put up a ten dollar deposit on that wig.”

The director and the cameraman stood gasping at each other, stunned with horror at the thought. The wig was drifting out toward Honolulu.

Boggs and Persons both leaped into the sea to save the wig. While they were out there they saved the actor, too. It was very little extra trouble, anyway.

January 30, 1908, Selig released ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ in one thousand feet, a full reel, the first big California feature. Meanwhile, Persons and Boggs set up a studio on a roof top in Main street in downtown Los Angeles. California production had begun.

   
Bosworth remained under Selig aegis for many years as director and leading man. Herre he is in the 1909 production of ‘The Count of Monte Cristo.’

The pressure of the Patents Company’s attack on the Independents was a contributing factor to the development of motion picture geography in this period. Independent picture making activities in and about New York were beset by difficulties.

Cameras vanished from under the noses of the guards. Mysterious chemical accidents happened in the laboratories, resulting in the loss of costly negatives. The fight was not confined to the courts.

A climax came with one of the New York Motion Picture’s operations in the making of a big scene at Whitestone Landing, on Long Island. This impressive spectacle called for a total of twenty extra people, a vast army for that time.

Just as the critical drama moment in the scene came, a riot broke out among the extras. Rocks and clubs and fists flew. It was a fight apparently over nothing. Nine of the extras fought together as a clan.

When the dust of battle settled, they were found to be professional gunmen and gangsters. Some mysterious agency had sent them out to make a riot instead of a picture. Five of the actors went to the hospital out of that engagement.

What with the weather and such mishaps, Bauman and Kessel decided to transfer the operations of the N. Y. M. P. into the safe distance and sunshine of California. Fred Balshofer and a stock company, including J. Barney Sherry, Ethel Graham, Fred Gephart and Mona Darkfeather, were sent West to found a new studio.

The first N. Y. M. P. plant was a defunct grocery store on the outskirts of Los Angeles.

Among the licensed film makers in the East, Griffith of Biograph led the way to California. In early January of 1910 the Griffith company went on a California excursion. The company included Henry Walthall, Mary Pickford, Owen Moore, Jack Pickford and Tony O’Sullivan.

In Los Angeles, Griffith rented a loft in which to store properties for his pictures, and engaged a vacant lot at Twelfth and Georgia streets for a studio. Tent dressing rooms were ranged around the edges.

In the course of this first California season, Griffith found something of a lack of the large array of available extra people that the pictures were able to draw upon in New York among the unemployed of Broadway. Casting about for actors, he sent word to the Oliver Morosco stock company that Biograph could offer day-time employment to extras.

This bit of casual broadcasting of opportunity was the agency that brought to the screen the now famous name of Marsh.

In the current Morosco production, Marguerite Marsh, oldest daughter of a family of five, was appearing in a song number, ‘My Gal Irene,’ with Charles Ruggles. Marguerite was helping her mother, Mrs. Mae Marsh, a widow with the growing cares of the family. All of the rest of the children were in school.

She was a plucky and resourceful person. She had suffered the loss of her home in the disaster that San Francisco mentions only as “The Fire,” and now she was in Los Angeles, running a hotel. Marguerite reported on the Biograph lot and was cast for a part in ‘The Mender of Nets,’ a story written for the screen by Edwin August. This was in the season of ‘09.

   
Mary Pickford in the Biograph production of ‘The Mender of Nets.’

The next winter, when Biograph again migrated to California sunshine, Marguerite again played in the pictures. Her, little sister Mae, chafing with the irksomeness of school books, was vastly enamored of the wonders of her big sister’s exploits on stage and screen.

Mae confided to her mother that she had decided that she would be either a great actress or a queen. For a while it looked as if queening would be it. On holidays away from school, Mae upset the household by organizing the children of the neighborhood into a royal court, which bowed and made obeisance at her imperious command.

But, after all, there did not seem to be any very good opening in the queen business in Los Angeles. Mae decided to look into the actress situation. She played hooky from school and ran away to the location where the Biograph was at work, where she surprised and annoyed sister Marguerite considerably by her truancy.

Mae stood about in open-mouthed wonder for a while, watching the mysterious camera, before Marguerite discovered her presence.

“You go back to school this minute—I’ll tell mother.”

Mae made a face and scampered away. This acting thing did not look so very exciting—maybe it would be more fun to catch butterflies.

The little runaway was engaged in turning over rocks looking for interesting bugs, when she caught the eye of Dorothy Bernard, of the Biograph stock company. Miss Bernard called to Griffith.

“See that cute kid—she looks a lot like Billie Burke.”

Mae was oblivious to impending destiny. She was absorbed in the wiggles and kicks of a particularly large and entrancing beetle she had found in the grass. She looked up with her bewitching Irish smile.

“She does, at that,” Griffith replied. “Call her over.”

Mae’s first bit was in a Spanish picture, and then came the now classic ‘Sands of Dee’ and ‘Man’s Genesis.’ Man’s Genesis was a one-reel drama of the cave man age. It is interesting as an early expression of the experimental curiosity about human affairs and social organization which so frequently is the thematic undercurrent of Griffith dramas.

   
MAE MARSH and BOBBY HARRON, in “Man’s Genesis,” made by Griffith in 1912 — the golden age of Biograph. Miss Marsh was just sixteen then.

These California excursions of Biograph and seasonal trips of the various other concerns were without any consciousness of establishing a new seat of industry. All of their California plans and arrangements were temporary and transient.

The motion picture was not yet ready to make an investment in California and its sunshine.

Back of the studio operations and the art of picture-making, the business of the motion picture, officed in New York, was sitting in suspended judgment. It was not at all certain in the mind of any man in the motion picture business that it was a permanent institution.

Newspapers, inspired considerably by jealous theatrical magnates, talked casually of the motion picture craze as one of the passing whims of the public.

Carl Laemmle’s Independent Motion Picture Company, the “Imp,” was struggling under patent prosecutions and injunction orders with a maze of plans for escape. One of these had an incidental result in the founding of an entirely unrelated business.

Watterson R. Rothacker, the Chicago representative of ‘Billboard,’ an amusement journal, in the opportune year of 1910 was struck with the possibilities of a business devoted to the making of motion pictures for industrial and advertising purposes. He looked about for backing and discussed his project with Carl Laemmle and Robert Cochrane, of the Independent Motion Picture Company.

Cochrane and Laemmle were not interested in advertising pictures, but they saw a handsome legal loophole in sight. They agreed to finance Rothacker’s project if he would name it “Industrial Moving Picture Company”—thus giving it those same valuable, trademarked initials, I M P.

In the event the Independent Company was shut down by the courts, the producing activities could, at an instant’s notice, be shifted over to the Industrial Company and the trademark would be saved along with the product—at least until a new injunction should issue.

The trend of the court war shifted over night and it chanced that the “Imp” did not take occasion to avail itself of its newly organized corporate initials. Some two years later when the legal crisis had passed, Rothacker, who had meanwhile built a flourishing business in industrial pictures, purchased the Laemmle interest and the concern took its present name, the Rothacker Film Manufacturing Company.

From the beginning, as early as Haig & Haig’s movie billboard in 1897, there had been efforts at motion pictures for purely business purposes, but Rothacker was first to build such a business. His first release was ‘Farming with Dynamite,’ a one-reeler intended to show that nitro-glycerin is mightier than the plow.

   
William N. Selig, a Chicago producer, was the first man to build a motion-picture set on the West Coast. Needing brighter and more dependable sunshine than Chicago provided, he sent Francis Boggs, Thomas Parsons, and a small company of actors to Los Angeles in 1907. Later, on a roof at Eighth and Olive streets, they built this set — for a one-reel version of Carmen. The bull-fight poster was made from a tobacco carton.

In its squirmings against the Patents Company’s injunctions the “Imp” first weighed plans to produce in California and at last, determined to escape the jurisdiction of the United States courts entirely, by flight to Cuba.

The critical situation leading to this move was an aftermath of a second raid on the Biograph studios. The acquisition of Florence Lawrence, known as “the Biograph Girl,” had proven most profitable.

Now an emissary was sent downtown to see if “Little Mary,” a rising screen favorite, could be lured away from Griffith. She was, of course, Miss Mary Pickford. The name of Pickford was unknown to the screen, but the girl herself, so often designated as ‘Mary’ in Griffith’s sub-titles, was known as “Little Mary” to all the motion picture world.

“Little Mary” was employed to work in “Imp” pictures at the amazing figure of $175 a week. Owen Moore, with whom Miss Pickford had played at Biograph, went along to “Imp.” They were assigned to the stock company working under Thomas H. Ince, a newly appointed director.

Ince chanced into the pictures in the fall of 1910, when he arrived in New York at the end of a road show engagement, broke and “resting,” as they say on Broadway. A street meeting with Joseph Smiley of the “Imp” stock led Ince to a day’s work as a “heavy” at the Laemmle studio.

Ince thereby earned his first five dollars in the films. In less than fifteen years the movies were to give him about a million.

Ince was born of a stage family and grew up in the life. As a youngster he appeared in many of the plays which took the road from New York, most notable among them perhaps being James A. Herne’s production of ‘Shore Acres.’ There was an interlude in his stage career one summer when Thomas H. Ince was a bus boy, carrying the dishes at Pitman Hall, a White Mountain resort.

He took the ups and downs as they came, probably never dreaming of the ups that were to come.

In the cast of ‘Hearts Courageous’ at the Broadway theatre in New York, Ince met William S. Hart and struck up a friendship that was filled with potentialities of the future for both of them.

One of Ince’s smiling reminiscences was of the gloomy Christmas Day of 1905 when he, Hart and Frank Stammer, also an actor, found themselves cheerless and broke, at the Barrington hotel in New York. Just when the day seemed the most dismal, Stammer received a present of a roasted turkey, accompanied by fitting decorations. In the years ahead it was on the cards that Ince and Hart were to share a good deal of “turkey.”

While Ince was working on his first picture at “Imp,” Mrs. Ince, known to the stage as Alice Kershaw, found an engagement playing in Biograph pictures under the direction of Frank Powell. The director suggested that she might bring her husband to the studio.

So Thomas Ince made his one and only Biograph appearance in a comedy, entitled ‘His New Lid,’ the Biograph release of November 24, 1910.

But when Ince next encountered Smiley he was invited back to “Imp.”

“You made a hit,” Smiley informed him. “Go see Tom Cochrane—he likes your work.”

By this time the shrewd young man Mr. Ince had made a discovery for himself. He was rather short and unheroic of proportions. He decided that he was not of the architecture of which stars of the screen would be made. He therefore decided that he would be a director.

Ince argued with Cochrane that, if he returned to “Imp,” he should be given the first opening as a director. This was reluctantly agreed.

Then came the day when, overhearing a telephone conversation, Ince discovered that a director had quit. He marched up to Cochrane.

“That makes me a director,” Ince announced.

Cochrane hesitated. Presumably he had not intended this development at all, but Ince was cocky and insistent.

“Yes, sure.” A smile spread over Cochrane’s face. He had to see it through. “You start now.”

The actors of the “Imp” company had seemingly less enthusiasm for Ince as a director than Cochrane. The cast gave the new director the cold shoulder. Ince was annoyed with the amateurish high school girl scenarios available and resurrected a bit of verse, entitled ‘Little Nell’s Tobacco,’ for his first production. Hayward Mack, later a director, played the lead.

   
THE OLD IMP COMPANY, pictured in the roaring days of the Independent war in the season of 1910—
Left to right:
- Front row: Isabel Rae, Jack Pickford, Lottie Pickford
- 2nd row: Thomas Ince, Owen Moore, Mary Pickford, King Baggot, Joe Smiley
- 3rd row: William Shay, Mrs. David Miles, Joe MacDonald, Hayward Mack, Mrs. Joe MacDonald, John Harvey
- Top row: George Loane Tucker, David Miles, Mrs. Pickford, Robert Daley, Tony Caudio

When the picture was completed, Carl Laemmle, accompanied by Mr. and Mrs. Ince, went down to Fourteenth street to see it in the “Imp” projection room.

Throughout the screening of the picture Ince plied Laemmle with rapid conversation and expounded vigorously on the super-merit of the picture. It seems to have been a masterpiece that needed a good deal of boosting. Then, as it finished on the screen, Ince seized Laemmle by the arm and rushed him out of the room before any adverse comments from the rest of the audience could be overheard.

In this fashion Ince made himself a director.

The first Mary Pickford production at “Imp,” directed by Ince, was a love story entitled ‘Their First Misunderstanding,’ with Owen Moore playing opposite “Little Mary.”

It was boldly advertised with a line “Little Mary is an Imp Now!” This was a challenge to Biograph and the Patents Company, bringing such a sharp response from the legal batteries that the “Imp” prepared to flee.

C. A. Willatowski, a laboratory expert known to the industry then and since as “Doc” Willat, was sent to Cuba to make advance arrangements, while Ince gathered his company and made ready for sailing.

The vessel which carried this fugitive film company had hardly cleared Ambrose channel out of New York when Mrs. Charlotte Pickford, mother of Mary, presented herself to Ince and the captain, demanding in great excitement that they put about and return to port.

She had discovered, not entirely to her pleasure, that Little Mary and Owen Moore had been secretly married shortly before the sailing.

Peace was restored with difficulty and, in due season, the party was landed in Cuba—followed by the sleuths of the Motion Picture Patents Company and J. J. Kennedy’s intelligence service.

   
One of IMP’s important stars was King Baggott, who had started as an actor in a stock company in St. Louis. Here is one of his posters. The man with the rope in his hand is Hayward Mack.

Doc Willat had leased a forbidding stone structure as quarters and studio for the company. There was that about the place which seemed chilling and inhospitable to the actors. They were vastly reassured, however, when it was explained that this was nothing less than the “Palacio del Carneado of Vedado.”

Joseph Smiley and King Baggot, however, did some inquiring on their own account and found that, in spite of its sumptuous name, the Palacio was in fact an abandoned jail. They moved.

The company had been at work but a few days when everyone became mysteriously and desperately ill.

The situation was doubly critical. “Imp” in New York was dependent for its very existence on the uninterrupted output of the company in Cuba.

Ince, recovering, first made a searching investigation. He found that Charlie Weston, the property man, with an eye to business and personal profits, had taken to Cuba with him a very large wholesale tin of cold cream. Weston calculated that there would be no drugstores in Cuba and that he would make a fortune out of selling his cold cream to the actors for the nightly removal of their make-up.

So far so good. But he stored his drum of cold cream in the kitchen ice box. The Cuban cook decided it was just a fancy perfumed American lard and proceeded accordingly.

In Havana, Ince met J. Parker Read, who had been adventuring about Cuba as a salesman. He employed Read as an interpreter for his dealings with the Cubans. Read became a producer in various associations with Ince extending over many years.

* * *

EXTRA PICTURES:

   
There were signs of the coming trek to California. Adam Kessel had formed the Bison Company and in November, 1909, it arrived on the West Coast and established itself in a former grocery store on the outskirts of Los Angeles. Here are the pilgrims at their Thanksgiving dinner.

At the extreme left sits Fred Balshofer, with J. Barney Sherry two places above him. The man with the snappy buttoned shoes opposite him is Frank Montgomery. Lifting his glass at the table on the right is Jack Conway, faced by Buster Edmonds. Looking out from behind Montgomery are Howard Davies and George Gebhardt. The cowboy in the right-hand background is Art Acord.
   
Al Christie began his screen career as actor and director in “Westerns,” as above—shot in the vast prairies around Bayonne, New Jersey, about 1909—indicates. In the fall of 1911 Christie and a group of actors went West, arriving in Hollywood late in October.

The company stopped at Blondeau Tavern, an old roadhouse at the corner of Gower street and Sunset boulevard. Christie was so struck by the beauty of the location that he closed a deal whereby, for thirty dollars a month, he was allowed to set up his cameras in the back yard and shoot his pictures against the semitropical vegetation surrounding the inn.
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