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The Film Industry Achieves Modest Stability: 1898–1901 - Biograph at Its Zenith

films company biograph’s shot

I n the years immediately following the Spanish-American War, the motion-picture industry gained a modicum of stability as exhibitors found permanent venues for their services, primarily in vaudeville houses. Since dependable outlets in turn required a larger and more regular supply of films, all aspects of the industry were affected. Biograph, in particular, prospered. By October 1898, Biograph’s service was employed at twenty different locations. After the war, biographs remained at Keith’s four vaudeville theaters on a permanent, year-round basis. Across the country, most other first-class vaudeville managers booked the biograph for at least one extended run per theatrical season, a policy that continued for the next two to three years. At Cook’s Opera House in Rochester, New York, it played for twenty-one consecutive weeks during the 1898–1899 season, fifteen weeks over two runs during 1899–1900, and nine consecutive weeks during 1900–1901. The Orpheum theaters in San Francisco and Los Angeles shared a biograph during the same three seasons. 1

Biograph’s mutoscope business also thrived. The machines were initially placed in saloons, amusement resorts, and railway stations and on steamers, where each earned between 750 and $1.80 per day. At bicycle races, sportsmen’s exhibits, and dog shows, groups of three to fourteen mutoscopes earned as much as $5 per machine per day. Early in 1898, Biograph began to build a network of mutoscope parlors. The first opened at 1193 Broadway, New York City, where seventeen machines brought in $236.05 over seven days—an average of $2.32 per day per machine. Three additional Manhattan parlors soon appeared, with machines averaging between 92¢ and $1.98 per day. A parlor with twenty mutoscopes was established in Boston. When another opened in Philadelphia early the following year, it was received as something “entirely new to this city” but quickly “established itself with the amusement-loving public, including the women and children.” Biograph estimated that mutoscopes would gross approximately $1.00 a day or $300 a year. With expenses (maintenance, commissions, and rental of new subjects) and a 15 percent ($45) royalty, investors could expect to earn $135 per year per machine. Regional subcompanies like the New England Mutoscope Company and the Ohio Mutoscope Company, formed in 1899, not only boosted the parent company’s sales as they acquired mutoscopes and reels of cards but continued to pay substantial royalties. 2

By mid 1899, when it had officially changed its name to the American Mutoscope & Biograph Company, Biograph was part of an international organization that included eight sister companies: the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company (for which Dickson remained chief producer and cameraman), the Biograph and Muto-scope Company for France, Ltd., and the Deutsche Mutoskop and Biograph Gesellschaft in Berlin, as well as companies in the Netherlands, Belgium, South Africa, Italy, and India. 3 The viability of these organizations varied, as did their actual contributions of films to the parent company. Biograph’s “remarkable series of panoramic views of Venice,” for example, were taken by W. K. L. Dickson, not by the Italian organization. In early September 1899, Dickson also went to Gibraltar, at the entrance to the Mediterranean, and took a series of views of Admiral Dewey and his fleet on their way to the United States. 4 These were shot for American company and sent directly to the New York office, where they arrived prior to Dewey. As the war hero’s return stirred the nation, A DMIRAL D EWEY R ECEIVING H IS M AIL (No. 1234), O FFICERS OF THE "O LYMPIA " (No. 1238) and “S AGASTA ,” A DMIRAL D EWEY ‘S P ET P IG (No. 1240) were shown to enthusiastic audiences. Assuring an international selection of films and an added market for the American product, Biograph’s network of sister companies reached its apex at about this time.

The American Mutoscope Company’s production levels remained high:

By mid April 1899, when Biograph records become more detailed, the company had four main cameramen: Frederick S. Armitage, “Billy” Bitzer, Arthur Marvin, and C. Fred Ackerman. In addition, head producer Wallace McCutcheon occasionally acted as cameraman, primarily for studio productions. (Eugène Lauste also made a series of short films in New Haven in May 1899.) These cinematographers periodically shifted assignments, either as individuals rose and fell in the esteem of executives or to ensure that no one was constantly on the road. F. S. Armitage shot the vast majority of studio films from April 1899 to May 1900, when Arthur Marvin took over and Armitage was sent out on location. After a few months, Armitage returned and they shared the duties. Despite what he suggests in his memoirs, Bitzer would not photograph a significant number of studio or acted films until 1903.

Biograph was the only American company to send a cameraman to the Philippines, where the U.S. military was fighting a dirty guerrilla war against the native independence movement. There, from November 1899 until early March 1900, C. Fred Ackerman took scenes of America’s newest territorial acquisition and U.S. troops fighting to secure it: Co. “L” T HIRTY -T HIRD I NFANTRY G OING TO F IRING L INE (No. 1350), R EPELLING THE E NEMY (No. 1383), and M AKING M ANILA R OPE (No. 1384). This ambitious undertaking was matched by Biograph’s English sister company, which sent W. K. L. Dickson to South Africa to film the Boer War. Ackerman returned to the Far East in September 1900 and shot films in China during the Boxer Rebellion (S IXTH C AVALRY A SSAULTING S OUTH G ATE OF P EKIN , No. 1763; I N THE F ORBIDDEN C ITY , No. 1766). Home from his Far East assignment, Ackerman assumed the role of projectionist and teamed up with war correspondent Thomas F. Millard. Together they toured the United States presenting the illustrated lecture “War in China” which included Ackerman’s own lantern slides as well as his biograph films. In Boston their lecture was “classed among the most interesting of the season’s entertainments,” and some of the pictures were said to be “thrilling enough to arouse the patriotism of the most apathetic soul.” 5 Biograph’s propagandistic stance continued.

As Ackerman’s activities suggest, the line between photographer and projector operator was a thin one at Biograph. Bitzer had started out as a projectionist (and Dickson’s camera assistant) before becoming a cinematographer. F. A. Dobson, who ran a biograph at the Lyceum Theater in Memphis, Tennessee, for eight weeks late in 1898, would work as a Biograph cameraman from June 1904 to June 1907. Cameramen often had more than one job. Bitzer not only made films but was a troubleshooter, responsible for keeping projectors in running order. 6 Avoiding narrow specialization, many of Biograph’s personnel thus familiarized themselves with different phases of cinema practice.

Biograph organized production along different lines depending on the choice of subject matter and the circumstances under which it was to be filmed. What has been termed the cameraman system was frequently used for shooting actualities. 7 Here a cameraman, usually part of a team, was responsible for production. Bitzer, for example, headed a three-man unit while taking local views in Boston. As the equipment became easier to handle, a cinematographer (like Ackerman) may have occasionally functioned on his own. Yet cameramen frequently worked closely with Wallace McCutcheon, who, as general manager, assumed the role of producer. He arranged the filming of actualities even when he was not directly responsible for the camera. As the New York Clipper remarked more than once, “Wallace McCutcheon keeps that machine in the front rank of animated picture machines.” When the New York Naval Parade steamed up the Hudson on 20 August 1898, “McCutcheon was on hand with a tug and secured a striking reproduction of the seven battle scarred victors in parade, and the biograph added another link to its chain of success.” 8 Important news events, such as New York’s Dewey celebration in late September 1899 and the America’s Cup races that immediately followed, involved complex logistics and extensive filming with multiple cameras. The results justified the expense: these films became the featured act at Keith’s and other theaters.

In its dual role as production entity and exhibition service, Biograph was in a unique position to meet the demands of amusement managers by making films of particular interest to a specific theater’s patrons. Biograph’s methods for delivering these scenes took two principal forms. In some instances, the cameraman would visit a gathering of fraternal organizations or military units and selectively photograph groups hailing from cities where Biograph was showing or would soon be showing its films. During the Spanish-American War, for example, cameramen filmed pertinent regiments at various army camps. After the war, a Biograph cameraman shot at least a dozen views of the Knights Templar parade in Pittsburgh on 11 October 1898, including S T . B ERNARD C OMMANDERY , C HICAGO (No. 813), B OSTON C OMMANDERY (No. 821), and T HE G RAND C OMMANDERY OF N EW Y ORK S TATE (No. 822). When B OSTON C OMMANDERY was shown at Keith’s Boston vaudeville house, “the new pictures made the biggest hit of the program.” 9

In other instances, a cameraman traveled to a specific city and took various local views for use on the contracting theater’s bill. Thus, in early April 1899, an unknown cameraman (probably Billy Bitzer) went to Providence and shot P ROVIDENCE F IRE D EPARTMENT (No. 917), M ARKET S QUARE , P ROVIDENCE , R HODE I SLAND (No. 920), and other scenes. In late August F. S. Armitage took eight views of Rochester, New York. That fall, during its eleven-week run, Biograph showed a new local view each week except for the first and last weeks (with many of these views reprised for the finale). On occasion, a special trip might yield only a single subject, as when Arthur Marvin photographed H EROES OF L UZON (No. 1199), a scene of President McKinley reviewing troops in Pittsburgh on 28 August 1899. At the other extreme, Bitzer stayed in the Boston area for most of 1899 (since he had grown up in nearby Roxbury, he was a logical choice). By this stage the resulting pictures were intended primarily for Keith’s Boston house.

Meanwhile the Biograph camera itself was undergoing significant modifications. By early 1899, its tripod had a panning head that turned smoothly and quickly, yielding results far superior to any achieved by the Edison group. The new head was employed for I N THE G RIP OF THE B LIZZARD (No. 875) in mid February and then P ANORAMIC V IEW OF N IAGARA F ALLS IN W INTER (No. 878, copyrighted as N IAGARA F ALLS , W INTER ), which contains a sweeping panorama of about ninety degrees moving from left to right and then reversing itself. Biograph employed the same apparatus several times during the next months, but it was not applied to fictional film until September 1900, when Bitzer shot L OVE IN THE S UBURBS (No. 1632), a one-shot comedy. By this time, Bitzer was using an experimental, hand-cranked camera that had been developed and tested by Marvin and Casier earlier that year. Much more portable than earlier models, it also was used by him while he was photographing the Galveston disaster that same month. 10

Studio productions were made by collaborative teams and not, as Bitzer’s memoirs suggest, spontaneously created by individual cameramen. Even simple gags required scenarios, sets, and careful planning, and the potential expense in wasted stock alone was high enough to concern Biograph executives. Most studio comedies consisted of about 132 feet of 70-mm film. Since Biograph’s camera and projectors consumed roughly 4 feet of film per second, a 132-foot subject lasted less than 35 seconds. 11 Although the length was sometimes doubled in 1899 and 1900, Biograph productions developed a reputation for being short and rarely very complex.

A production still from T HE X-R AY M IRROR (No. 1179), taken 17 July 1899, documents the personnel involved in such productions: five men off-camera and three women and a man performing. One man (McCutcheon) is clearly giving directions, since a second (Frank J. Marion?) stands by his right shoulder, timing the scene. Three stagehands also watch the proceedings. In addition, a camera operator may be in the booth with the camera. 12 Carefully rehearsed comic timing is evident in A G OOD S HOT (No. 1024), which Armitage filmed on the rooftop. The set is the backyard of a house, where a girl holds a target attached to a broom while a boy shoots at it with his rifle. The first time everything works well, but then Bridget (the Irish maid, played by a hefty man in drag) comes out and does some laundry. The children, enjoying their activity, repeat it: this time Bridget feels the charge in her behind. The gag is thus set up by the successful trial, allowing the audience to anticipate and enjoy the denouement.

Careful planning was particularly evident in a few multi-shot fiction narratives that Biograph made in 1900, by which time the company was lagging behind many domestic and foreign rivals in this area. 13 That May, Arthur Marvin shot and McCutcheon produced T HE D OWNWARD P ATH (NOS. 1471–1475) with each scene listed separately in the catalog. The series, according to the catalog, was “intended to convey a moral lesson in the career of a young country girl who succumbs to temptations, and becomes involved in the wickedness of a big city.” The country lass is seduced by a book agent who “pictures to her the fascinations of the city” (T HE C HEEKY B OOK A GENT ). She flees from her family and elopes with the book agent (S HE R AN A WAY WITH THE C ITY M AN ). In the city, she becomes a streetwalker, and the book agent prevents her from being rescued by her aged parents (T HE G IRL W HO W ENT A STRAY ). She takes a job in a Bowery concert hall as a dancer and prostitute (T HE N EW S OUBRETTE ). Finally, the fallen woman is deserted by the book agent and despairingly commits suicide with carbolic acid (I N S UICIDE H ALL ). One month later, Marvin photographed the five-part A C AREER OF C RIME , which showed the ruin of a young man. Although he nabs a thief at his new job, the youth is soon on the downward path as well. Losing his hard-earned money at the horse races, he turns to a life of crime. While robbing a safe, the young man kills a banker and afterward indulges his wanton desires in a disreputable saloon, only to be captured by the police. He finally pays for the crime in the electric chair. Here again, the tale recalls a Briggs lantern-slide series, “Story of a Country Boy.”

In both multi-shot subjects, key moments of conflict are represented in a rudimentary fashion; the woman’s seduction by the agent, for example, is stated rather than shown. The characters lack any psychology or individuality: why and how the young man ends up at the racetrack is never explained. Yet these brief scenes, which appropriated situations if not complete narratives from popular melodramas, laid out many themes found in subsequent American dramatic films. T HE D OWNWARD P ATH already emphasizes the central role of the family; the parents’ failed attempts to rescue their daughter and their grief over her death intensify the moral lesson. The family is the principal obstacle to corruption, the key social institution in the struggle against evil. By contrast, the policeman, a representative of the law and the state, is indifferent to the woman’s plight in scene 3 and shrugs off her death at the denouement. The evil of the large, impersonal city is contrasted to the innocence of the countryside. The city slicker corrupts an unsuspecting country girl, and the upright country boy, ruined by the racetrack, eventually turns to murder. At the same time, the countryside is threatened by the city, thus evoking not only an economic reality but the social counterpart of industrialization: the massive migration of rural Americans into urban areas, where they encountered a harsh and impersonal world.

Nonetheless, when these “dramas” (actually listed under “Miscellaneous Views” in Biograph’s 1902 catalog) are compared to Biograph’s many comedies and sexually suggestive scenes, certain contradictions emerge. The gay young women who display their bodies before the camera are meant to be savored and enjoyed. Their “downward path”’ is not emphasized lest it interfere with the pleasure of viewing. The wisdom of authority (the father, who throws out the book agent) is venerated in the dramas but lampooned in the comedies. Tramps and burglars are distanced from the viewer through burlesque. The male spectator does not pause to think that he could enter such a downward spiral. Film comedy and film melodrama both confront urbanization and industrialization, just as both articulate progressive and conservative values—but in inverted relation to each other. In fact, the moralizing dramas were atypical of most Biograph productions, which epitomized the freedom, excitement, and opportunity of city life. They played with and/or appealed to people’s desires—sexual desire; the desire for sophistication; the desire to belong, to succeed, to consume. 14

The Filmmakers - D. W. Griffith, Thomas H. Ince, Mack Sennett, Herbert Brenon, Lois Weber [next] [back] The Feminist and the Fuzz

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