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Corporate Organization - 1915–1917: World and Triangle

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I n 1915 the “West Coast Number” of the Motion Picture News was filled with information on the new studios sprouting in California. But if an exhibitor leafing through this paper turned instead to the weekly release charts, he or she could find far more subtle evidence of industry turmoil. 1

Available product was being offered in two distinct formats. The industry’s oldest firms, and a few younger rivals, were marketing program releases of short films, one to three reels in length, which were issued like clockwork on a daily schedule. Another page listed the offerings of a half-dozen feature distributors, whose products were generally four to six reels in length and were not necessarily tied to specific release dates. If the birth of a new production system was being chronicled elsewhere in the News, these release charts plotted the end of a distribution scheme that was rapidly approaching irrelevance. Out of the dozens of producers listed, only a handful would survive three years hence, and most of those in significantly changed form. As for the daily change of program releases, its remaining tenure could be measured in months.

At the start of 1915, short-film programs were still being supplied by three major and two minor distributors. The General Film Company, the distribution arm of the old Motion Picture Patents Company, was still handling the product of Biograph, Edison, Essanay, Kalem, Lubin, Mina, Selig, and Vitagraph, with episodes of the Hearst-Selig newsreel available twice weekly. A few years earlier their "unlicensed " competition had offered their films through the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company, but that front had split into two competing programs, Mutual and Universal. Mutual now included the releases of American, Beauty, Broncho, Domino, Kay-Bee, Keystone, Komic, Majestic, Princess, Reliance, Royal, and Thanhouser, with an episode of the Mutual Weekly available each Thursday. Universal’s line included the Big U, “101” Bison, Eclair, Gold Seal, IMP, Joker, Laemmle, L-KO, Nestor, Powers, Rex, Sterling, and Victor brands, with their newsreel available on Wednesday. Two minor services, Kriterion and United, were energetic but ephemeral.

The single page devoted to “Feature Releases—Current and Coming” was remarkably incoherent and incomplete for a journal of record. Nearly one-sixth of the space was devoted to the Pathé Exchange program, which did not even handle long films. Each week they issued an eight-reel program, of which the “feature” was a two-reel serial episode (here, THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE ) supported by various short dramatic, documentary, or cartoon subjects. This use of the word “feature” to describe the main item on a program, not simply a film of four or more reels, dated from the nickelodeon era and was already disappearing by 1915. Five other distributors made up the balance of the page. Alliance Films Corporation was a loosely knit grouping of minor independent producers, among them the Masterpiece Film Company and the Oz Film Company (Frank Baum’s operation, which that week was offering THE NEW WIZARD OF OZ ). Continental Features was the feature arm of the Mutual program, handling the longer product of Reliance-Majestic, Thanhouser, and the rest. Fox Film Corporation offered their own productions, including A FOOL THERE WAS , ANNA KARENINA with Betty Nansen, and THE NIGGER , a miscegenation melo-drama with William Farnum that was currently doing big business at the New York Hippodrome. Paramount Pictures handled the Bosworth, Famous Players, and Lasky Feature Play Company releases, as well as the product of the Blazon Film Company and Oliver Morosco. World Film Corporation distributed its own productions as well as those of a few small independents.

Metro Pictures Corporation is nowhere on this list, although their full-page advertisement appears on page 9. Vitagraph, Lubin, Selig, and Essanay were also releasing and advertising features, but the calendar omits them as well. These four firms were about to combine their distribution operation into the VLSE organization. 2 THE BIRTH OF A NATION was still being road-shown by the producers and was not available on the open market. The Motion Picture News, in trying to adapt its program-release calendar to cover features, as yet had no way to account for much of this product.

Out of this hodgepodge, an industry analyst might have been most attracted by the growth of two new firms quite characteristic of the early feature period: the World Film Corporation and the Triangle Film Corporation (formed that September out of the remnants of Mutual). Janet Wasko, in her study of American film-industry financing, names these two organizations as the first motion-picture companies financed through securities issued by prominent Wall Street investment-banking firms. Prior to this, individual financiers such as Otto Kahn or Crawford Livingston had dabbled in specific projects with their own money, but industry conditions were still too chaotic to interest the banking community at large. Whatever funds could not be generated internally were raised from individual investors, but the motion-picture business was an attractive nuisance for would-be capitalists, trapping many by pointing to the example of a successful few. “Thousands of people are being led to invest in these companies, which will either fail outright or go into the hands of receivers, and will never return a fraction of the money that was paid into the treasury,” wrote one analyst in 1915. “It were best to investigate the picture company that would make love to your money as you would the qualifications of a young man who comes to marry your daughter, for there are no greater returns to be gotten from the film business than shrewd investment may discover in other lines of industry.” 3

The World Film Corporation had originally been organized by Cleveland theater owner Emanuel Mandelbaum, who, with the financial backing of two Wall Street bankers, W. A. Pratt and Van Horn Ely, set it up as a distribution agency for independent features in 1914. Within a few months, Mandelbaum was out and World was involved in production on its own, following a merger with the Equitable Pictures Corporation, recently created to produce films for former Vitagraph star Clara Kimball Young. Equitable’s president, mail-order magnate Arthur Spiegel, had arranged financing through Moritz Rosenthal with the Wall Street firm of Ladenburg, Thalman, and Company. As vice-president and general manager, Lewis J. Selznick, an aggressive jewelry salesman with minor film experience, was in overall charge of operations; it was Selznick who induced theatrical producer Lee Shubert to become a major investor in World. In addition to the Equitable line, World also handled the product of Peerless (owned by Eastman raw-stock agent Jules Brulatour), Daniel Frohman’s Frohman Amusement Company, and Broadway impresario William A. Brady. Most of World’s product was produced at Fort Lee, New Jersey, in either the Peerless or the Paragon studio. Here, Selznick and Brulatour, taking advantage of the collapse of French filmmaking activities in the United States in 1914, assembled an amazing group of French directors, designers, and cameramen. Eclair and Pathé had stopped production in America, and Solax ceased operating as an independent producer-distributor, with the result that many French technicians were thrown onto the U.S. market. Selznick snapped up the best, including directors Maurice Tourneur, George Archainbaud, Émile Chautard, and Albert Capellani, cameramen René Guissart and Lucien Andriot, and the great designer Ben Carré. Technical conversation on the sets was often carried on in French, although World employed a good deal of domestic talent as well. 4

When combined with the acting talent and literary properties available through the Shubert connection, the result could be extremely sophisticated, as Maurice Tourneur’s THE WISHING RING (1914) still demonstrates. The Ballet Russe, then appearing as a Shubert stage attraction, was worked into the plot line of THE DANCER’S PERIL (1917), while Barry O’Neil directed a version of Frank Norris’ novel McTeague in 1915 (called LIFE’S WHIRLPOOL ) that prefigured von Stroheim’s G REED of a decade later. 5

Nonetheless, friction with some of the same bankers he had brought into the company in 1914 forced Selznick out of World in 1916, and he was replaced by William A. Brady. Under Brady’s tenure, the studio seemed to lose its competitive edge by holding too closely to the theatrical line that its more aggressive rivals, especially those on the West Coast, had begun to abandon. The studio’s films were beginning to seem a little old-fashioned, although a picture such as Maurice Tourneur’s lovely A GIRL’S FOLLY (1917) remains extremely valuable today for its view of filmmaking activities in this era.

In 1918 Brady went into independent production, and the following year Selznick was able to purchase the remnants of the company, now a fiscal wreck, and merge it with his own Selznick-Select organization. As Wasko suggests, the collapse of World, and the loss of considerable sums to its investors, acted to intensify Wall Street’s aversion to motion-picture securities. 6 But the disintegration of the Triangle Film Corporation was even more damaging.

Harry Aitken, a Wisconsin insurance man, had been instrumental in forming the Mutual Film Company in 1912, largely by attracting the interest of two Kuhn, Loeb bankers, Felix Kahn and Crawford Livingston. The main independent rival to Laemmle’s Universal, Mutual was in the process of flying apart just at the time the Motion Picture News issued its West Coast survey in April 1915. As president of Mutual, Aitken had been under constant pressure from two of Mutual’s other corporate heads, Samuel Hutchinson and John Freuler, owners of the American Film Manufacturing Company, while Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann, whose New York Motion Picture Company controlled the product of Mack Sennett and Thomas Ince, generally supported Aitken’s policies. Aitken’s major coup was the signing of D. W. Griffith for his own Majestic label in 1913, but he soon came under increasing attack from Freuler and Hutchinson, who felt that he was favoring Griffith’s product over other Mutual releases, namely their own. The final break came when the Mutual board forced Aitken to cover, out of his own pocket, $40,000 that Mutual had invested in the production of THE BIRTH OF A NATION . This personal investment not only made Aitken a fast fortune but convinced him that the future lay in the production of lavish features. Freuler and Hutchinson somehow talked Kahn and Livingston into withdrawing their support from Aitken (despite the ongoing success of THE BIRTH OF A NATION ), and at the May 1915 annual meeting Freuler ousted him as president. 7

Taking Kessel and Baumann with him, Aitken then abandoned Mutual and made a financial agreement with Smithers and Company. He was able to guarantee the continued participation of Griffith, Ince, and Sennett, the industry’s three most noted producers, who would form the nucleus of the new concern, to be called the Triangle Film Corporation. Smithers underwrote a $5 million stock offering, and Triangle, introduced at $5 per share in July 1915, reached $8.75 by September, when the first Triangle program opened at New York’s Knickerbocker Theatre. 8

Aitken’s idea now was to acquire showcase theaters in the major metropolitan areas that could highlight the new Triangle releases; the films would then pass to affiliated theaters that had contracted with Triangle’s exchanges. This bold attempt at vertical integration began to unravel almost immediately, however. Aitken’s importation of expensive Broadway stars proved ill-timed and ill-advised. It appears to have been modeled on Adolph Zukor’s 1912 scheme of “Famous Players in Famous Plays,” but even Zukor had largely abandoned this policy by 1915; audiences had already indicated that they preferred screen stars in their movies. The traditional example here is Aitken’s payment of $100,000 to Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree for just two films, MACBETH (1916) and OLD FOLKS AT HOME (1916), both of which were notable box-office failures. On the other hand, despite an initial salary of $2,000 per week, Douglas Fairbanks proved quite profitable for Triangle from the moment his first film, THE LAMB , anchored the premiere Triangle program on 23 September 1915. 9

Aitken had depended on Griffith’s help in handling these stage imports, but Griffith was so busy with the production of INTOLERANCE that he never directed a single Triangle release and limited himself to nominal supervision of the work of his assistants. While the Sennett and Ince productions were popular, exhibitors resisted the higher advance prices they were expected to pay for them. These costs did not show on the screen. Ince spent only $8,356.12 on William S. Hart’s THE DISCIPLE (1915), a five-reel feature; Hart himself was being paid just $300 per week. But Hart could work only fifty-two weeks a year, and Triangle’s overhead demanded more. Kessel and Baumann so mismanaged their end of the business that Aitken had to buy them out in 1916, by which time Triangle’s stock had already dropped to $2. 10

The following year Triangle’s chronic cash problems were so great that all three of its key producers moved to the Paramount program. Griffith wrote Aitken that Triangle was “conceded to be the worst managed business in Film History.” Ultimately, Aitken was reduced to peddling reissues of Fairbanks and Sennett films and  contemplating ways to squeeze another dollar out of THE BIRTH OF A NATION . Coming on the heels of the World Film fiasco, Aitken’s failure soured Wall Street on motion-picture stocks for some time to come. 11

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