Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: General Film Company

One Too Many (1916)

Oliver Hardy is often associated only with his sound-era performances with Stanley Laurel, but he had a long silent solo career behind him. This movie, according to the “Slapstick Encyclopedia,” was his 95th film, but it’s the first one I’ve had a chance to review. It shows his talent, but has a number of weaknesses compared to the best of the other comedies I’ve looked at.

One Too ManyOllie is “Plump,” a character often teamed with “Runt” (Billy Ruge), as in this film. The movie begins with a play on its title – Ollie appears to be hungover from over-indulgence from the night before. That’s not the point of the movie, however, this is a bit of comic misdirection. After a few moments of disorientation, Ollie discovers the real plot. He receives a telegram from his rich uncle (probably the one financing his indulgences) that he is coming to visit and looks forward to meeting his wife and baby. Bachelor Ollie is in trouble now, the jig could be up! He rushes across the hall of the boarding house to his (female) neighbor and announces “I need a wife and a baby right away!” Then he runs back to his flat. He summons Runt and pays him $50 (roughly the purchasing power of $1100 today!) to find him some stand-ins. Now the real meaning of the title becomes clear as Runt does his job a little too well, bringing in women and babies by the wagonload. Meanwhile, a prankster neighbor is sneaking in to the apartment and removing them whenever Ollie’s not looking! When the uncle arrives, the house is empty and Runt has to quickly dress up as a baby himself. The uncle is charmed…at first. Things get ever more ridiculous and chaotic up to the end, with women coming and going in their role as “wives” and various men looking for their babies complicate the story Ollie wants to tell.

Review from Moving Picture World.

Review from Moving Picture World.

I was surprised at the amount of wordplay and the large number of Intertitles in this movie. I’ve already mentioned the play of the title itself, and there are several jokes about Runt as a baby, the women who have agreed to be “wives” and the neighbors’ activities during the course of the film. There’s also a running gag about Runt having to haul a large box up the staircase (the elevator is out of order) and a cranky neighbor (Billy Bletcher) who wants to get past. In short, there’s a lot going on in this one-reel movie, and sometimes things get lost in all the chaos. I think Oliver Hardy holds up pretty well, but a lot of the other comics (including Runt) don’t have that much going for them. The camerawork and editing is quite unimaginative for the time, and the surviving print is in less-than-perfect shape. It’s less a genius work of slapstick, and more a representative sample of an “average” work with a few good points.

One Too Many1Director: Will Louis

Camera: Unknown

Cast: Oliver Hardy, Billy Ruge, Billy Bletcher

Run Time: 16 Min

You can watch it for free: here (no music) or here (with music).

Studios in 1915

ESSANAY_studios

One of the great things about this project is how much I learn as I do it. The thing about learning so much is that I’m constantly discovering that I was wrong in my assumptions when I started. Towards the beginning of the blog, I wrote a piece on “Studios in 1914.” I didn’t really say anything that was inaccurate then, but I had based it on a somewhat inaccurate theory. My idea was that since moving pictures were so new, there would only be a fairly limited number of companies involved in making them. This idea was reinforced by familiarity with the later Studio System, in which a small group of big players dominated and made it hard for anyone start a new company, and by the knowledge that the Edison Trust was fighting hard to keep competition to a minimum.

Now, that all makes sense, but it’s just not how things were at all. Turns out that there were dozens of small-to-mid-sized operations at any given time, especially once the Nickelodeons got up and running. In fact, what really created the major studios of the future was the consolidation and selling of these little guys to one another. The studios we know about, like MGM, Paramount, and Universal, are actually conglomerates of several smaller businesses that unified in order to gain distribution opportunities. Keeping track of the buyouts and mergers gets dizzying, but also adds to our understanding of the history of the movies.

With all that in mind, this post makes no claim to give a complete picture of all the studios and production companies in operation in 1915. Instead, I’m going to give a partial snapshot of some of the companies I missed last year, along with an update on some of the more interesting ones I did cover.

Since I already mentioned them, let’s start with an update on the Edison Trust. We could see it as sort of a failed prototype for those mega-conglomerates I talked about above, because it’s not one company, but several, who up to now have claimed to “license” all legitimate motion pictures in America. Well, in the trust-busting environment of the time, it was fighting for its existence in court, and wound up losing in October, when a federal court ruled it an “illegal restraint of trade.” After that point, there was an appeal, but no one took the Trust seriously anymore, and it finally disbanded in 1918. This also led to the end of their distribution network, the General Film Company (which was not a producer, as I wrongly stated last year).

Things aren’t much better at the Biograph Company at this time. They were a part of the trust, so this litigation hurt them, too, but they were already crippled after the departure of D.W. Griffith and his stock company of actors and cameramen in 1913. By 1915, they were reduced to issuing reissues of classic Griffith shorts, along with longer pieces by him they had let sit on the shelf as punishment for trying to force them to release feature films. While these proved more popular than their dwindling new material, it wasn’t enough to keep the company alive, and it closed its doors before the year was out.

 Triangle_Film_Corporation_logo,_1915

You might think that Keystone Studios would have suffered as badly after letting Charlie Chaplin walk out at the end of 1914, but Mack Sennett continued to produce cheap, popular comedies with Fatty Arbuckle, Mabel Normand, and the Keystone Kops. also striking on the idea of the “Sennett Bathing Beauties” this year, who became a hit, even if not as big a hit as Chaplin was. Keystone joined Griffith and Thomas Ince in the new Triangle Film Corporation, which marketed itself as the “upscale” artistic movie distributor.

Meanwhile, Chaplin had moved over to Essanay Studios, who promised him $1000 a week. By the end of the year, this was not enough for the star and he moved again, but not before producing great films like “The Tramp” and “Burlesque on Carmen” which showed his improvement as a director and maturity as a comedian. Essanay’s name was a play on S&A, after its founders George K. Spoor and Gilbert M. Anderson. Anderson was also known as “Broncho Billy,” and was star of hundreds of Western shorts. During 1915, they also signed Francis X. Bushman, a talented actor on his way to stardom.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Jesse L. Lasky in 1915.

Cecil B. DeMille was making a name for himself over at Jesse L. Lasky’s Feature Play Company. This company is one of the (many) tributaries that eventually merged into Paramount Studios, but came from humble beginnings. In 1914, Lasky and DeMille had made “The Squaw Man” from a barn near Los Angeles – which neither had visited before they started working there. In 1915, they brought out great work like “The Cheat” and “The Golden Chance.”

The last American company I want to talk about is the Mutual Film Corporation, which brought out “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915 through one of its subsidiaries, Reliance-Majestic Studios. While “Birth” was a huge hit, Mutual had some problems, including litigation and censorship. Mutual’s name is on the landmark case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” in which the Supreme Court ruled that motion pictures were not subject to First Amendment protections. This, along with the defection of Reliance-Mutual to co-found Triangle later in the year, was a major setback, but they won a major coup in hiring Chaplin when he left Essanay, and today they are associated with most of his most popular shorts.

Again, this blog has a tendency to be more American-centric than I really want (that’s “where the light is better,” in film history, I’m afraid). But, let’s spend a little time catching up on some companies working in other countries.

In Russia we have Khanzhonkov Studios, which I’ve sung the praises of in connection with Evgeni Bauer and his fascinating films. Khanzhonkov also had animation pioneer Ladislav Starevich, who I hope to bring to this blog in coming months. Its owners were Aleksandr Khanzhonkov and Vasily Gonchorov, who had made the nationalist hit “Defense of Sevastopol” in 1911. They seem to have valued directors more than most American concerns, and made Bauer a partner in the concern, rather than argue with him over his pay.

In Germany there’s Messter Film, which later would be absorbed into the German film powerhouse UFA. Unlike France, which largely abandoned film production during the First World War, for Germany this was a time of increased production. At this time, Messter’s employees included Robert Wiene, future director of the “Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”

In Japan, which is regrettably unrepresented on my blog so far, the company Nikkatsu has been in business since 1912, when it was formed from a merger of several smaller studios. I believe Shozo Makino was working there in 1915, although at this time he’s in between remakes of “The Loyal Forty-Seven Ronin,” probably Japan’s most frequently remade film story. Japan’s film industry had an interesting appendage at this time, the benshi, or narrator, who would appear at screenings to explain what was happening on the screen. These men were often bigger stars than the actors in the movies at the time.

Studios in 1914

Keystone

The great “studio system” of Hollywood saw its high-water-mark in the 1930s and 40s, but it’s antecedents could be seen many decades earlier. Due to the enormous hunger of the public for content in the new medium, tiny mom-and-pop filmmaking operations boomed into financial giants with remarkable speed, and then competed with one another for the best markets, often stepping on toes or breaking copyright laws to get there. In this week’s contextual post, I’d like to talk a bit about the companies that created the century films I’ve discussed up to now.

Edison Studios is the logical place to begin any discussion of American film studios. By 1914, it was doing business as “Thomas A. Edison, Inc.” and was a part of Edison’s “Motion Picture Patents Company,” also known as “the Edison Trust.” Edison felt that his company owned the patent on motion picture technology, and controlled who could make films legally. His lawyers went after smaller companies making films with all the aggression of Disney, Apple or Microsoft today. This was one reason for the shift in American filmmaking away from New York (where Edison was headquartered) to the wilds of Southern California (which was close to the Mexican border, if you needed to dodge a subpoena). All that aside, by 1914 the Edison company was lagging behind the others in terms of innovation and productivity. You’ll find a few exceptional Edison films from this period, but they often feel clumsy and old fashioned compared to the product put out by the more dynamic, smaller studios.

General Film Company was a part of the Edison Trust, and was founded in 1909 by the Trust. They were the strongarm wing that tried to use patent law to break the smaller studios or force them to join the Trust. They also produced over 12000 movies in their short span, including the popular serial “The Perils of Pauline.” By 1914, much of their power was spent and the Motion Picture Patents Corporation was fighting for its existence against anti-trust prosecution.

The Biograph Company was another New York outfit, which started out when an Edison technician, William Kennedy Dickson, defected from Edison to start his own company. He avoided patent infringement by inventing a new camera-and-projection system, but this limited their audience until Biograph won an important lawsuit against Edison in 1902. By 1914, they had joined the “Edison Trust” to try to keep new companies out of the market. Biograph produced many artistic and original films, especially when director D.W. Griffith joined the company after a brief stint with Edison. However, their resistance to making feature films created a vacuum the independents were happy to fill, and ultimately drove Griffith, their biggest asset, to seek greener pastures.

Keystone Studios was one of those upstart companies that never joined the Trust. Located in Edendale, California, it was founded by Mack Sennett, who had previously worked for Biograph in New York, and made a name for himself as the “king of comedy.” Keystone is remembered today mainly for slapstick, such as was seen in the many “Keystone Cops” pictures, as well as the work of superstars of comedy like Fatty Arbuckle and Charlie Chaplin. Keystone focused on short movies, cheaply made, but with an eye toward innovation and dynamic motion. Chaplin, who may seem to define the company for us today, actually only worked for Keystone for about a year, beginning in early 1914 and leaving at the end of the year when Sennett refused to pay him $1000 a week.

The United States was only a part of the story of the history of film. In fact, up until the First World War, the real center of film production remained France, and since I’ve talked about some of those movies, it makes sense to devote some space to their studios as well.

Frères Lumiere were arguably the inventors of motion picture technology, no matter what Edison said in the US. They saw it as a technical toy, however, and claimed there was “no future” in it as an art. They were ill-positioned to move from the “Age of Attractions” into the “Nickelodeon Era” and largely stopped making movies after 1905.

Georges Méliès, then, was the French visionary who saw more than the Lumieres. He built his own production studio in his backyard, making a structure out of glass, like a greenhouse to let in the sunlight that early motion picture cameras required. He made short fantasy pieces that demonstrated the possibilities of film as a story-telling medium. His movies were seen all over the world, but unfortunately, he was a poor businessman and a lot of the copies going out were pirated. By 1914, desperate to hold on to what he had, he joined Edison’s Trust, but it was already too late, and audiences were abandoning his fanciful creations for more elaborate, sophisticated movies.

Pathé Frères was a French company that was happy to pick up the slack left by less innovative studios. Today they are mostly known for Newsreels, which they developed and distributed from 1908 to 1970 (!). They also produced fiction films, however, and even had a short-lived deal with Méliès in 1913. Pathé’s American branch did join the Edison Trust as well.

Gaumont Film Company claims to be the oldest continuous film company in the world, and it did get its start right about the time the Lumieres were first demonstrating their system. They managed to attract Louis Feuillade, a truly prolific director who found time to write manifestos about the art of cinema as well as making over 600 films in a relatively short career, including the “Fantômas” serial.

The story in France has a tragic side, however, because after the outbreak of war in August, 1914, the French film industry was literally sacrificed to the war effort. Film stock was melted down to produce armaments, and the French never recovered their dominance afterward, leaving it to the Americans to define the art form of the Twentieth Century.