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Cinema Flourishes Within Its Existing Commercial Framework: 1904–1905 - Sigmund Lubin Prospers

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D uring 1904–1905, the number of exhibition venues increased rapidly and soon reached a saturation point as the industry secured reliable but limited outlets for exhibition. As Views and Film Index later recalled; "Scores of picture companies toured the country with brass bands, lady orchestras, widespread billing and newspaper puffing that threatened to put the circus out of business. Swell advance agents swaggered about the theatre lobbies and hotel corridors, boasting of how their picture shows were ‘packing them in.’ Managers of theatres were given the alternative of conceding a fat percentage or suffer a dark house while the coin rolled into the opposition theatre.’ By September 1905 George Kleine could say that “We know of no vaudeville house in the United States which does not fill one number of its programme with motion pictures.” 1

Arcades with phonographs, mutoscopes, and other film-showing devices (sometimes including a small room for projection at the rear or on the second floor) steadily gained in popularity. Mitchell Mark of Buffalo and two partners had a small arcade on 125th Street in New York City. The trio wanted to open a bigger arcade on 14th Street, in the heart of the city’s entertainment district, but lacked the finances. One partner, Max Goldstein, convinced his cousin, Adolph Zukor, a furrier, and Zukor’s partner, Morris Kohn, to invest in the operation. In March 1904, the Automatic Vaudeville Company was formed, with Mitchell H. Mark of Buffalo and Adolph Zukor of New York City acting as president and secretary respectively. When their Automatic One-Cent Vaudeville enterprise opened on Fourteenth Street east of Broadway and proved popular, other arcades followed. In November 1905, Zukor visited Pittsburgh, leased a building, and planned a “sumptuously furnished” arcade where, according to the local press, “attendants will all be uniformed and all attractions will be of the highest order.” 2 By then the group had more than a dozen arcades in Buffalo, Boston, and the New York area.

Because motion pictures were, in many respects, simply part of a diverse amusement industry, the extensive nature of some types of showings has been obscured.

Films were often screened in cafés, for example, particularly around amusement parks such as Coney Island:

Of the hundred [Coney Island] halls of beer and smoke with stage performances half are run this season with motion pictures, yet not so very cheaply either. A boy or a woman with a strong voice to sing ballads for illustration, an operator for the projectoscope, a barker outside to tell folks that it costs nothing to get in, and a force of waiters to convince them that they can’t stay in without buying drinks, make up the pay roll ( Kansas City Star, 28 May 1905, p. 7B).

Likewise, regular Sunday motion-picture shows were given in many Eastern cities and towns: by late 1905 Archie Shepard was supplying twenty-two regular theaters on Sundays. These houses, including the West End, Third Avenue, and Fourteenth Street theaters in New York, showed motion pictures “to evade any contact with the authorities,” who were busy enforcing the Sunday blue laws that prohibited most regular theatrical entertainments.

The proliferation of exhibition outlets further increased the demand for new story films. Although these were generally more difficult and expensive to produce, their popularity encouraged and finally necessitated a further shift in the production practices of major American producers. A statistical analysis of Edison production records for 1904–1905 shows that staged or acted films sold approximately three and a half times as well as actualities, a ratio that remained constant for the following two years of this survey and was probably typical of the wider industry. Furthermore, producers recognized that the quantity of actuality footage that they could sell was limited and tied to important news events. As a result, American producers came to rely on longer fictional narratives for the bulk of their revenues—and the bulk of their production expenses—by the second half of 1904.

Sigmund Lubin Prospers

During 1904, smaller American producers increasingly emphasized the production of story films as they abandoned fairy tales and moralistic plays to concentrate on comedies and crime. By the fall, Sigmund Lubin was producing approximately one fiction “feature” a month, with a marked emphasis on the two popular genres. Lubin remade Edison’s T HE G REAT T RAIN R OBBERY in June 1904; as he had done earlier with U NCLE T OM’S C ABIN , the Philadelphian made his version significantly shorter than the Edison original—600 feet as opposed to 740 feet. Because the number of frames per second was lower, Lubin could add a new scene of the robbery being planned and additional shots of the chase between posse and bandits, and still offer a shorter film. Instead of attempting the complicated matte shots in the station scene à la Porter, Lubin’s filmmaker, apparently John J. Frawley, built a set by the railroad tracks and had a train pull in. With Lubin’s picture selling for $66—versus $110 for the Edison original—it was bought by small-time traveling showmen whose modest income had precluded purchase of the Edison film.

In early November, Lubin offered T HE L OST C HILD and A N EW V ERSION OF “P ERSONAL,” both remakes of Biograph hits. Scenes in the latter, a 400-foot comedy, were connected by dissolves. While Lubin appropriated Biograph’s premise of a desperate French gentleman (Count Hardup) seeking an American bride through the personal columns of a New York newspaper (in this instance, said to be the Journal ), his Philadelphia locations created a distinctive flavor. Gilbert Saroni, a female impersonator, played the ultimately successful old maid who goes to great lengths to capture a husband. Two weeks after the film’s release, seventy-five feet of new footage were added, including an emblematic shot of the count at the beginning that complemented a kissing scene in close-up of “the victor and the victim” at the end. The longer version of the film was then retitled M EET M E AT THE F OUNTAIN to avoid a legal confrontation with Biograph. (In fact, Edison’s remake copied the original subject more closely even though it did not use the same title.) Saroni also played the mother in T HE L OST C HILD , which was soon retitled T HE K IDNAPPED C HILD (despite the fact that the child only hid in the doghouse and was never kidnapped). 19 Both were attractive buys to exhibitors with limited budgets.

T RAMP’S R EVENGE and A D OG L OST , S TRAYED, OR S TOLEN (June 1905) were both indebted to Biograph’s W ANTED: A D OG , and though selling them separately, Lubin urged exhibitors to show them together. In T RAMP’S R EVENGE , three tramps visit a suburban house in rapid succession, looking for handouts. The first two tramps are successful, but the frustrated homeowner (Mrs. Brown) sics her dog on the third, who captures the canine and takes it away, thus creating a premise for the W ANTED: A D OG narrative that was lacking in the Biograph original. A D OG L OST , S TRAYED, OR S TOLEN , however, simply follows the Biograph story line as Mrs. Brown offers twenty-five dollars for her missing dog but fails to describe it; huge numbers of reward seekers appear and a chase ensues. I. B. D AM AND THE W HOLE D AM F AMILY (July) imitated Edison’s T HE W HOLE D AM F AMILY AND THE D AM D OG but was shorter (150 feet versus 300 feet), while its $16.50 price tag made it a good buy compared with Edison’s $45.

Lubin did more than imitate his rival’s successes. In September 1904 he produced L IFE OF AN A MERICAN S OLDIER , a 600-foot film of approximately eighteen scenes. Like Biograph’s T HE A MERICAN S OLDIER IN L OVE AND W AR , the film combined newly shot fictional scenes with actuality footage, but here, the narrative focuses on a family man who answers the president’s call for volunteers. His enlistment and farewell to his aged mother, wife, and baby, are followed by scenes of military life, probably shot at the time of the Spanish-American War; these not only provided the film with a sense of spectacle but reduced negative costs. The film then cuts away to the hero’s home, where his sick child struggles for life. The soldier receives a letter and later dreams (via a dream balloon) of his wife and child. Eventually he is reunited with his family, and the picture concludes with a medium shot of him saluting the camera/audience, clearly associating spectators (many of whom would have been immigrants) with the nation.

The following month Lubin released T HE B OLD B ANK R OBBERY , a 600-foot, twenty-four-scene picture that opens with an emblematic shot of three well-dressed men who plan and execute a robbery and concludes with a similar portrait of the trio, this time in prison stripes. The film’s motifs were drawn from earlier American and European crime films. Among his 1905 offerings were S AVED FROM A W ATERY G RAVE (January), made with the cooperation of the U.S. Life Saving Service; T HE C OUNTERFEITERS (February); T HE S IGN OF THE C ROSS (April), “a Soul Stirring Drama of the Christian Persecution”; and T HE F AKE B LIND M AN (May). The few news and actuality films that Lubin was producing by this time included T HE L IBERTY B ELL ON I TS W AY TO THE E XPOSITION (July 1904) and S HAD F ISHING , which detailed the process of catching shad on the Delaware River during the spring of 1905. Crime subjects such as H IGHWAY R OBBERY (July) and comedies T HROUGH THE M ATRIMONIAL A GENCY (October), a reworking of the P ERSONAL narrative, were more typical of Lubin’s productions in this period.

Many subjects were taken at Lubin’s recently acquired forty-acre farm, located a short distance from Philadelphia, including F UN ON THE F ARM (November 1905), which shows rural folk enjoying themselves at harvest time. Farmers claim free kisses at every opportunity from women (whose reactions vary) in the midst of washing and milking, on hay rides, or at corn huskings. Another source of merriment for these white farmers is provided by chasing the local “chicken thief,” a “darky” who is tarred and feathered after being caught stealing chickens and … pumpkins. While appropriating elements from Biograph’s T HE C HICKEN T HIEF and Edison’s W ATERMELON P ATCH , the German-born producer and his staff failed to master the correct cultural references; among other things, the substitution of pumpkins for watermelons implicitly exposes the racist conventions and becomes anarchic. This is the kind of film that the surrealists would later celebrate as unintentionally subversive. 20

Lubin’s success was based on a combination of elements. While retaining particularly close ties to hit films or genres already established by his competitors, his films consistently offered larger doses of sex, violence, and sensationalism than those of the other American companies. They were designed to appeal to immigrant, working-class, and lower-middle-class audiences and were consonant with his pricing structure, which placed them in venues with lower admission fees. This appeal is apparent in such short comedies as A P OLICEMAN’S L OVE A FFAIR (May 1905), in which a policeman is wooed by a cook with free meals and kisses—until the mistress of the wealthy household discovers the couple together. (For the kissing scene, the filmmakers cut-in to a closer view of the lovemaking.) The cop, knowing he has violated the code of social order that he is supposed to defend, tries to escape, but his efforts prove futile when the upper-class woman douses him with a pail of milk as he jumps out the window. Working-class audiences obviously found amusement in seeing the economic elite at odds with law enforcers who were designated to serve their interests. In T HE P OLICEMAN’S P AL (120 feet), a policeman chases a purse snatcher, but after the two men jump over a wall they abandon appearances and prepare to divide the spoils, only to discover that the stolen satchel is empty. Lubin films often portray the police as hypocritical and undermine their moral authority. His deep-seated skepticism about the existing social order, formed in part by the anti-Semitism he encountered, is evident in these anarchic constructions.

Lubin’s commercial interests remained diverse. Well known for the excellent photographic quality of his films, the Philadelphia producer continued duping Pathé and other foreign films throughout this period—long after Pathé had opened a branch office in New York and appointed a former Lubin employee as its local agent in Philadelphia. His cineograph continued to be a widely used projector; the Exposition model sold for seventy-five dollars, complete with an electric lamp, adjustable rheostat, and calcium light. 21 The company also offered its customers a wide array of song slides, many made by Lubin photographers. During this period, Lubin also helped to introduce at least one technical innovation, “mono-tinting.” Hand-tinting individual frames had been a common if expensive practice from the beginning of cinema; in April 1904, however, Lubin announced that he was offering subjects in several tints at no extra charge. Interested parties soon discovered that Lubin was playing on a confusion of words and that each shot was chemically dyed a single color. In fact, even this effect was not entirely novel, since exhibitors had occasionally placed tinted glass over their lenses when projecting black-and-white images, but the shift in responsibility from exhibitor to producer made the use of toned images much more practical. This innovation, which may not have originated with Lubin, gradually became widespread; more than a year later it was still considered “new.” 22

Lubin experimented not only with color but with sound, and in August 1904 marketed the cinephone, which, his advertisements announced,

is the Combination of Instrumental Music, Song and Speech with Life Motion Pictures. You see the Black Face Comedian in Life-motion Pictures on the screen, and you hear him talk and sing at the same time. You see the Cornet Soloist playing and at the same time you hear the melody he plays ( New York Clipper, 27 August 1904, p. 613).

With the exception of one song, the 100-foot films were instrumental solos; they were meant to be projected with Victor Monarch disk records not specifically made for this purpose. The process of synchronization was very primitive: showmen were told to “use your own machine” and had to retain approximate synchronization by increasing or decreasing the projection speed. Extensive utilization was thus impractical. 23

Lubin’s expansion in many areas of production paralleled his continued success with distribution that had been enhanced by his early adoption of the rental system. Distribution guaranteed an outlet for films and provided an incentive for novelties that might attract new customers.

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