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Biograph Fails to Expand Production


Francis J. Marion had chief responsibility for Biograph films from the second half of 1905 until his departure at the end of 1906. During this period, the rate of production remained at two major releases per month. For THE CRUISE OF THE "GLADYS " (No. 3217, August 1906) and lesser productions, Marion directed. For more ambitious efforts Marion usually hired a stage director: THE PAYMASTER (No. 3203, June 1906), for example, was directed by a Mr. Harrington. Marion often felt more comfortable working within a modified collaborative framework. 5

From THE FIREBUG (No. 3055, August 1905) to 3268, TRIAL MARRIAGES (No. 3268, December 1906), comedies and melodramas were the core of Biograph’s output, with the former outnumbering the latter by a 3:2 ratio. In addition, there were a smattering of comedy-dramas (A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED , No. 3138, January 1906) and novelty subjects. Among the latter, "LOOKING FOR JOHN SMITH " (No. 3212, July 1906) utilized the cartoon tradition as “the characters are made to speak their lines by means of words that appear to flow mysteriously from their mouths.” 6 Actualities continued to be made, including a few news films (DEPARTURE OF PEARY FOR THE NORTH POLE , No. 3062) and human-interest subjects (SOCIETY BALLOONING , PITTSFIELD , MASS ., No. 3159). A group of Hale’s Tours pictures were also produced in the spring to meet demand for this type of film (IN THE HAUNTS OF RIP VAN WINKLE , No. 3152, April 1906). Through the end of 1906, Biograph also continued to sell films made by Gaumont of London and Paris, including THE OLYMPIAN GAMES , RESCUED IN MIDAIR , THE DOG DETECTIVE , and THE LIFE OF CHRIST . From Biograph’s advertising, it is evident that the company’s energies were focused on fiction films.

Many Biograph comedies reworked ideas underlying the company’s earlier hits. THE SUMMER BOARDERS (No. 3068), in which a city family goes to the country for a week of vacation, bears a marked resemblance to THE SUBURBANITE . WANTED: A NURSE (No. 3230, September 1906) and MARRIED FOR MILLIONS (No. 3260) are indebted to PERSONAL . Other films retained strong ties to American culture. EVERYBODY WORKS BUT FATHER (Nos. 3100-3101, October 1905), acted straight and in blackface, was meant to be accompanied by the singing of Lew Dockstader’s hit song of the same name. M R . BUTT-IN (No. 3139) was based on the well-known cartoon strip of that name then appearing in the New York World. It has an episodic, comic-strip structure as the character interferes in a variety of situations, each time with disastrous results. Dr. Dippy of D R . DIPPY’S SANITARIUM (No. 3237) was also “made famous by the comic supplements.” DREAM OF THE RACE -TRACK FIEND (No. 3091, September 1905) evoked Winsor McCay’s famed cartoon strip Dream of the Rarebit Fiend in its structure and use of dream.

The newspaper, the dominant form of mass communication, continued to provide spectators with a central frame of reference for many Biograph films. TRIAL MARRIAGES (No. 3268, December 1906) evokes a scandal that was widely publicized in the Hearst press when Mrs. Elsie Clews Parsons, wife of Congressman Herbert Parsons, published a book in which she advocated temporary or “trial” marriages. “Mrs. Parson Recommends Marriages ‘On Trial’” was a front-page headline in the New York American, and it was followed by additional coverage on the subject. The Biograph film cites the initial article as a frame of reference when its opening medium shot of a man reading the newspaper is followed by a close-up of the New York American headline. The impressionable young man then tries a series of “trial marriages” with “the crying girl,” “the jealous girl,” etc. Each situation proves unappealing, and he finally gives up on the idea of marriage altogether. 7 THE SUBPOENA SERVER (No. 3160, April 1906) was a chase film in which “the hero” tries to serve a millionaire with a subpoena. It followed “the recent experience of the Standard Oil magnate,” John D. Rockefeller, which had received wide coverage in the newspapers.

Biograph also combined theatrical and newspaper antecedents to generate stories and provide a context for publicity and audience appreciation. Dalan Ale, the main character in THE CRITIC (No. 3140), witnesses several horrendous vaudeville acts, criticizes them in the press, and is later assaulted by those he roasted—a burlesque of the fate of Alan Dale, a caustic theater critic for the New York American. In THE BARNSTORMERS (No. 3109, November 1905), a fourth-rate Uncle Tom’s Cabin theatrical troupe arrives in Rahway, New Jersey, and performs its specialty. The staging burlesques the most famous scenes from the play. With a solitary puppy standing in for a pack of bloodhounds and three white squares representing the ice floe, the actors are bombarded with food and forced to make their escape. The manager absconds with the funds and the film ends with the company walking the tracks back Page 453  to New York. Assuming audience knowledge of the play, the Biograph Bulletin described the film’s story with a news report clipped from the Rahway Times.

The crime genre and melodrama were virtually synonymous during Marion’s reign. Although A KENTUCKY FEUD (No. 3106) took its title and some plot elements from a popular melodrama that had earlier inspired Biograph’s THE MOONSHINER , it depicted the well-publicized feud between the Hatfields and the McCoys. 9 The feud finally destroys the love between Sally McCoy and Jim Hatfield as Sally witnesses a knife fight between her brother and her lover. Paralyzed by indecision, she watches them kill each other. Once again the primitive, violent nature of country life was emphasized. Lengthy intertitles were necessary to assist the audience in following the story line and identifying characters, but much of the film’s commercial value and audience enjoyment came from their prior knowledge of the feud.

Most crime films, at Biograph and elsewhere, show family and society confronted with a group of evil outlaws. THE RIVER PIRATES (No. 3071), shot by Bitzer in September 1905, was loosely based on the robbing of Paul Bonner’s summer residence in Sound Beach, Connecticut, near Frank Marion’s home, the month before. 10 Marion retained key elements, such as the removal of the safe by boat, but superimposed a melodramatic plot. The robbers murder the wealthy landowner after their leader has been jilted by his daughter. Eventually, they are caught and the ringleader is killed. Even though the real thieves escaped undetected, the filmmakers added a “crime-doesn’t-pay” ending. Supposedly based on another unsolved crime in which a strongbox of jewelry mysteriously disappeared in transit, THE GREAT JEWEL MYSTERY (No. 3093) was more indebted to the play The Great Diamond Mystery. Two other 1906 Biograph films were also said to be based on recent events in the New York underworld: THE SILVER WEDDING (No. 3148) and THE BLACK HAND (No. 3150). All four crime pictures end with the capture and/or death of the evildoers, but what is most convincingly detailed is the execution of their plans, while their seizure appears arbitrary and often unbelievable. The lack of credible moral endings and the emphasis on criminal violence were not unusual. In the face of a rapidly growing audience for these cheap amusements, many influential Americans greeted the tawdry nature of such melodramas with mounting concern. 11

During 1906 Marion produced three pictures set in the workplace, an unusual locale for American films of this era. THE PAYMASTER (No. 3203, June), shot at a factory in Mianus (near Greenwich), Connecticut, opens with a scene of a mill girl (Gene Gauntier in her first screen role) working at a power loom—one of the first filmed interiors to rely exclusively on natural light. The paymaster is the girl’s lover, but the superintendent uses his power to force his unwelcome attentions on her. Killing two birds with one stone, the superintendent steals the payroll and frames the paymaster for the deed. When a dog finds the hidden money and the superintendent is confronted by the mill girl, the villain throws her into the pond, thus revealing his true perfidious nature.

Both THE TUNNEL WORKERS (No. 3251, October) and SKYSCRAPERS (No. 3258, November) involve similarly melodramatic confrontations between men from different levels of management, and both were shot on locations that received significant news coverage. In THE TUNNEL WORKERS , the superintendent’s secret relationship with the foreman’s wife is discovered as the film begins. 12 This studio scene is followed by a series of actuality shots showing the building of the tunnel between Manhattan and Long Island, according to one title, “the greatest engineering feat the Page 454  world has ever known.” Next, in the bowels of the earth, the two men enter an air lock and fight over the woman. As the foreman is about to brain the superintendent, there is an explosion. After this fortuitous (or divine) intervention, the foreman comes to his senses and rescues his rival. A tentative reconciliation occurs at the end as the superintendent visits his rescuer’s bedside and asks forgiveness. A film rich with interpretive possibilities, THE TUNNEL WORKERS explores the tensions between the all-male workplace and the domestic life of the family.

SKYSCRAPERS was filmed at a construction site for the tallest office building in New York City. A worker, “Dago Pete,” robs the contractor but pins the blame on the foreman. In a fight on the unfinished skyscraper, the foreman throws the contractor off the platform, but the loser luckily grabs hold of a girder and stops his fall. At the foreman’s trial, however, Dago Pete is exposed by the foreman’s daughter and the two levels of management—contractor and foreman—are reconciled. The plot is inconsistent and sometimes illogical, but the titles preserve a minimal coherence. The film itself reveals an anti-immigrant (particularly anti-Italian) prejudice, with ethnic background providing the sole motivation for reprehensible actions and the immigrant himself fostering misunderstandings between native-born whites. All three workplace films present the lower-level manager (often with a working-class background) as a character who is falsely accused or otherwise betrayed and struggles to redeem himself. On one hand, the focus is on someone with whom many male nickelodeon spectators could comfortably identify, someone a notch or two above them in social or economic standing. On the other hand, the last film was insensitive to the heavily immigrant composition of the new audiences. Italian moviegoers, living only a few blocks from the Biograph studio, were likely to be offended.

The system of representation used for these films, moreover, changed little from Biograph efforts of the previous two years. Narratives were generally made understandable through intertitles used in a title/scene/title/scene format. With A FRIEND IN NEED IS A FRIEND INDEED , the story of a man and his faithful dog (performed by Mannie) is virtually told through titles, with the images carrying little of the narrative burden. By contrast, the intertitles of THE LONE HIGHWAYMAN (No. 3223) are brief, if frequent, naming a scene rather than explaining the story (continuing a convention of theatrical melodrama). Generally, title cards were a way to provide spectators with necessary “special knowledge” just before they saw the relevant scene. This was essential because, for the most part, the narratives were neither clearly nor effectively depicted within the scenes. In this respect, Biograph films regressed in McCutcheon’s absence.

The depiction of temporality had not changed either. In THE TUNNEL WORKERS , for example, there is still overlapping action as the rivals move back and forth between tunnel and air lock. Editing structures were generally simpler compared to previous efforts involving McCutcheon. There were few close-ups. While Biograph continued to use three-dimensional sets (as it had done consistently since 1904-1905), this realistic touch was easily accommodated by a more general syncretic framework. Thus, SKYSCRAPERS juxtaposes actuality material with scenes displaying a wide range of presentational elements (conventionalized acting gestures, melodramatically contrived plots) with the result that an informal, spontaneous, catch-as-catch-can style of filming suddenly shifts to old-style theatrical conventions as quotidian space is transformed turned into a stage. While individual elements of a Page 455  later proto-Hollywood system may be present, they are structured within the system of early cinema.

In May 1906, Biograph opened a Los Angeles office under G. E. Van Guysling, who had previously increased the standing and profitability of its mutoscope business. This Pacific Coast branch briefly served as a second production center as Otis M. Gove shot A DARING HOLD-UP IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA (No. 3209), which depicted the robbery of a trolley car and the ensuing pursuit and capture of the bandits. Other films were taken of such well-known local sites as the mammoth ostrich farm in Pasadena. By October the branch had moved to a larger office at 116 North Broadway, where films were sold and mutoscope reels rented. 13

Biograph suffered another upheaval at the beginning of 1907 as Marion left to form a new production company, Kalem, with fellow Biograph employee Samuel Long, manager of the Hoboken factory where prints and mutoscope reels were made. TRIAL MARRIAGES and M R . HURRY-UP (No. 3262) were among Marion’s last productions; these were already perfunctorily executed and suffered in comparison to those made by rival producers. After seeing M R . HURRY-UP at Pastor’s vaudeville house, Sime Silverman, founder of Variety, complained, “Other than being considerably too long, this picture contains little fun, and that only at long intervals.” Even the parts that were suppose to be funny had “no humorous effect to speak of.” 14

Van Guysling replaced Marion as vice-president and general manager in early 1907. 15 Although attempts were made to continue releasing subjects at the same pace, the company lacked experienced production personnel. Indeed, the search for a new creative head did not fully end until Griffith assumed the role of director in 1908. For THE FENCING MASTER (No. 3279, February 1907), Biograph enlisted the assistance of two Frenchman to tell a story of love and remorse that was supposedly set in Paris. In addition to his camera responsibilities, Billy Bitzer may have been given the chief creative role in such productions as IF YOU HAD A WIFE LIKE THIS (No. 3278), a comedy farce about a Mr. Peck who is henpecked by his wife. If so, the surviving pictures explain why he was not made producer-director on a more permanent basis.

At least from April (HYPNOTIST’S REVENGE , No. 3300) through June (TERRIBLE TED , No. 3320), Joseph A. Golden, an experienced stage director and stock-company manager, wrote and mounted many of the company’s productions. 16 Among them were several clever comedies, including TERRIBLE TED , which gives an unusual twist to the bad-boy genre. A boy reads a dime Western, Terrible Ted, and imagines that he is an invincible gunslinger who sends cops running through the streets, shoots a band of outlaws, and saves an Indian girl from a bear that he kills with a knife. He also eliminates a tribe of Indian warriors and subsequently displays their scalps to the camera and audience. His reveries end, however, when his mother enters and gives him a sharp slap. The evil influence that popular culture was said to have on young minds is spoofed, but the filmmakers displace its supposed immorality from the movies onto cheap literature.

Golden’s production team employed extensive object animation—something already popularized by Vitagraph—for three Biograph films: DOLLS IN DREAMLAND (No. 3294), CRAYONO (No. 3295), and THE TIRED TAILOR’S DREAM (No. 3313). In the last of these, the technique was used for a dream sequence where a tailor, obliged to finish a suit in one hour, falls asleep and dreams that his almost impossible task is accomplished without any human labor. When the customer returns, the new clothes

dress him without his assistance, again through object animation. This reverie of production without anxiety or labor may have had considerable appeal for workingclass audiences, whose experience of the workplace was radically different. The film itself must have been very time-consuming to photograph, although Biograph’s studio lighting made the task much easier than if sunlight had been used. The results, while impressive, are also quite lengthy and slow-moving.

By mid 1907 Biograph had fallen into a state of profound crisis. After Marions departure, its operations were disorganized: films ceased to be copyrighted, and old subjects had to be dusted off for release. When the corporation’s board of directors met on 17 July, Jeremiah J. Kennedy was elected company president. According to Terry Ramsaye, he was assigned the task of liquidating the company, since interest payments on its $200,000 loan/investment from the New York Security and Trust Company were long overdue. Instead, Kennedy decided to restructure the company and began by firing Van Guysling, who departed in a state of nervous prostration. Golden left at the same time. By October, Wallace McCutcheon had rejoined Biograph and was making W IFE W ANTED (No. 3377), another variation on the P ERSONAL idea. His return was not an immediate cure-all, however: the financial panic of October 1907 resulted in the laying off of many Biograph employees. 17 Biograph thus struggled to survive at the very moment that the industry was booming.

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