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Paley Moves into Fiction-Film Production

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The expansion of the industry, the increasing emphasis on longer story films, and the more limited responsibilities of exhibition-services-turned-exchanges encouraged two leading firms to move extensively into fiction-film production and sell their products on the open market: William Paley and American Vitagraph. By mid 1904 Paley, whose kalatechnoscope remained in all the Proctor theaters, had formed a partnership, Paley & Steiner, with William F. Steiner. While the origins of this collaboration are unknown, Steiner had probably been working with or for Paley in previous years. Whatever the case, Paley & Steiner copyrighted a group of their Crescent films at the end of October and placed them on the market. Six of the seven films that they advertised were short comedies. JUST LIKE A GIRL contained one shot: a man jumps in a pond to escape a woman, and rather than jump after him, she stays at the water’s edge desperately waving her hands. TRAMP ON THE FARM lasted less than three minutes but had at least six shots: a farmer leaps off a moving streetcar and is saved from serious injury by landing on a tramp; in gratitude, the rube befriends the vagabond, who happily wallows in a pigsty, sleeps in a doghouse, and finally ends up sharing a drink with the dog. THE TRIALS AND TROUBLES OF AN AUTOMOBILIST , a chase film,was the most ambitious of this group: an auto knocks over an apple cart and is pursued by the vendor and police; the driver is beaten up and escapes but is finally captured. 30

The partners continued to release Crescent films at frequent intervals over the following months; by late January 1905 they had more than twenty films for sale. Their most sensational was AVENGING A CRIME; OR , BURNED AT THE (© 19 November 1904), the story of an African American (played by a white in blackface) who loses at gambling, kills a woman, and flees. After a chase, the killer is caught, tied to a stake, and burned alive; as in Edison’s later THEWHITE CAPS ,” vigilante justice is portrayed as effective and reliable. AROUND NEW YORK IN 15 MINUTES (© 31 January 1905), a travelogue showing various street scenes in Manhattan and Brooklyn, was a compilation of shots that Paley & Steiner also offered as short films. The last scene, “Flat Iron Building on a Windy Day,” shows women’s skirts blowing up to reveal their underwear. 31

The production methods that Paley & Steiner used in making these films are not known in any detail. Both individuals, however, were competent cameramen and trained in all phases of filmmaking. As partners they had approximately equal input, an arrangement suggesting that a collaborative method of production was being practiced at their firm. Seemingly on their way to success, they suddenly encountered difficulties and hesitated. The reasons are not fully known, but Thomas Edison sued Paley & Steiner (along with Méliès, Pathé, and Eberhard Schneider) on 23 November 1904. Rather than confront Edison in the courts, the partners may have reached an agreement whereby they ceased producing fiction films, which competed with Edison’s own efforts, but were allowed to continue making local views and actualities, perhaps under some kind of licensing arrangement. In August 1905, Biograph announced its acquisition of the Crescent negatives, including the previously unreleased THE LUCKY WISHBONE (820 feet), and its sale of prints to the trade. 32 By this time, the Paley-Steiner partnership was being dissolved.

After Paley & Steiner closed, Paley continued his exchange and exhibition service. When Proctor opened his vaudeville theater in Troy, New York, in the fall of 1905, the veteran cameraman took local views of the police and fire department. The films brought huge crowds to the theater and were held over for a second week. 33 Steiner started the Imperial Motion Picture Company, focused much energy on Connecticut, and established his presence as an exhibitor by offering local views. In Meriden, Steiner was called an Edison operator; his visit received front-page coverage:

The first pictures were taken at the corner of Colony and Main streets [this] afternoon, just as the crowds came from the factories, offices and schools. Hundreds and hundreds of men, women and children as they came to the principal crossing of the city stepped in front of the camera, unconscious that they were being photographed, then manager W. D. Reed, of the [Meriden] theatre, threw handfuls of pennies into the air, and the boys and girls scrambled for them in delight, while the picture machine recorded their actions on the films ( Meriden Daily Journal, 15 November 1905, p. 1).

Steiner also supplied Connecticut theaters with films for Sunday shows. Seeking to avoid risk, these two men retreated into the backwaters of actuality filmmaking at a time when fiction film was on the ascendant. It was a decision they would soon regret.

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